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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Thomas Bernard

Mayor Thomas Bernard is gratified to see events like the FreshGrass Festival and the Fall Foliage Parade return to North Adams.

While North Adams tries to return to familiar norms, many are prepared to adjust if new pandemic concerns arise.

That’s the perspective of Mayor Thomas Bernard, anyway, who said his community has slowly and cautiously taken steps to bring back the positive routines of daily life.

“The moment that stands out for me is our first concert at Windsor Lake in early to mid-June,” Bernard said. “There were people who hadn’t seen neighbors and friends for more than a year. The sound of kids laughing and playing, great music, the spirit was unbelievable.”

More recently, he pointed to MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in September as an example of holding a popular event and exercising caution, as attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering.

“Returning to these events is the fulfillment of the promise we made to each other when things were shutting down — that we would be back,” Bernard said.

Though no one can predict what the future holds, Nico Dery said North Adams businesses are prepared to make a quick pivot if necessary.

“Businesses now have COVID plans in place that were developed from an entire season of figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” said Dery, business development coordinator for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce.

The city was the site for a robust vaccination effort that began in January and ran through June, during which time volunteers at the Northern Berkshire regional vaccination center held 40 clinics and administered nearly 25,000 vaccines to residents.

Right now, the vaccination rate in North Adams is around 65%, but that percentage does not reflect a fair number of residents who received their vaccine in Vermont or New York, the mayor pointed out. With North Adams located in the northwest corner of the state, the borders to both adjacent states are easily accessible.

“However you figure it, I’m not going to be happy until the numbers get above 80%,” he added.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season. Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

Members of the regional emergency-planning committee who ran the COVID-19 operations center were honored at the 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade on Oct. 3.

“Everyone who was involved in the public-health response and the vaccination efforts are the folks who will be celebrated and honored as a sign of how far we have come,” Bernard said the week before the event — and a year after the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus.

“The theme of this year’s parade was “Games, Movies, Takeout” — “everything that kept many of us going during the darkest times of the pandemic,” the mayor added.

 

No Summertime Blues

Businesses in North Adams experienced what Dery called a “great summer,” with lots of visitors exploring the Berkshires.

“In the past, we had seen many people come here from New York City, but because of COVID, we’ve seen a big increase of people from the Boston metro area,” she noted, crediting the increased visitor traffic to people choosing to forgo a European or cross-country vacation and instead stay closer to home.

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector, recently shared this photo on social media depicting their opening day last fall.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season,” she added. “Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

North Adams has also seen a number of businesses open during the pandemic. Bernard pointed to the Clear Sky Cannabis dispensary, which opened in March, and the Bear and Bee Bookshop in June.

The Plant Connector opened in September 2020 before vaccines were available. Emilee Yawn, a co-owner of the shop, heard from naysayers who said North Adams was a tourist destination and, since there were no tourists during the pandemic, no one would come in.

However, “from the moment we opened, we’ve been bustling,” she said. “I had been growing plants in my one-bedroom apartment, and in no time, we had sold 120 plants. We had to quickly find a wholesaler and become a real business.”

Yawn and co-owner Bonnie Marks met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Yawn was office manager and Marks was a bookkeeper. When Yawn was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a store to promote their mutual passion for plants became more real.

Recently celebrating the first anniversary of the Plant Connector, Yawn noted that, since the opening, more than 6,700 people have walked through the door, and they’ve been averaging around 800 people a month — not bad for a 400-square-foot space.

While they have a website and have recently sold plants to customers in New Jersey, nearly 90% of their sales are from local people in the Berkshires.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

“We feel very supported by the community,” Yawn said. “North Adams is a special place; I’ve never felt connected to so many awesome people.”

As the weather starts getting cooler, business is picking up, and Yawn is looking forward to leaf peepers drawn to the Mohawk Trail and surrounding areas. “We’re excited for them to come peep around our shop,” she added.

Businesses in North Adams are also gearing up for the holiday season and what’s known as Plaid Friday. The North Adams Chamber promotes this annual effort with posters and through social media to businesses throughout the Northern Berkshires.

“We started this initiative to encourage people to spend money in their communities on the day after Thanksgiving instead of going to the big-box stores,” Dery said. “Many retailers will run Plaid Friday all that weekend.”

Similar to most communities, hiring in North Adams, particularly in restaurants, remains a challenge. So far, many restaurants are operating at reduced hours to retain staff and prevent burnout.

“This upcoming winter will be interesting because many people are thinking outside the box on how to best manage this,” Dery said.

 

The Next Phase

Bernard will also have an interesting winter after deciding not to run again for mayor. On the job since 2018, he called his time in office a “privilege of a lifetime, to serve North Adams, the community where I grew up.”

He looks forward to an historic election as voters will choose the first woman mayor in the city’s history. The two candidates who emerged from the runoff election, Jennifer Macksey and Lynette Bond, will face each other in the mayor’s race in November.

Bernard said he is still exploring the next move in his career. “I’m asked so often about my future plans, I feel like a senior in college,” he said with a laugh.

As she reflected on the success of the Plant Connector, Yawn admitted she thought the store would flop and she would have to sell plants on eBay and Etsy to survive. Shortly after opening, however, she saw they had something special there.

“I always say this about North Adams,” Yawn said. “This city chooses its people, and people don’t choose it. That’s why there’s a high concentration of awesome people here.”

Features Special Coverage

Putting the Pieces Together

It’s called a ‘hyper-scale data center.’ That’s the name attached to a $2.7 billion proposal planned for a 155-acre parcel in Westfield. The complicated project, now entering the local-approval phase, has cleared perhaps the biggest hurdle — the aggregation of a site that can check a unique set of boxes, including accessibility to huge amounts of power and data. If it comes to fruition — and there are still many challenges to overcome — the project could make the region a player in the emerging sector known as Big Data.

Demetrios Panteleakis

Demetrios Panteleakis

 

Demetrios Panteleakis says he spent a good part of the winter, spring, and some of the summer walking through all 150 acres of mostly raw land in the northwest corner of Westfield.

“I probably know every inch of it by now,” Panteleakis, the principal commercial broker with Springfield-based Macmillan Group, who was charged with assembling the parcel, told BusinessWest, adding that he’s been through it in every type of weather imaginable. “I think my family thought I had gotten into hiking and the outdoors.”

These walks in the woods — and wetlands — were a necessary part of a complicated process to aggregate land for what could be the largest private development the region has ever seen and one of the largest initiatives of its kind anywhere — a $2.7 billion proposal to build a massive data center (a ‘hyper-scale data center,’ as it’s called) that will attract the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Plans call for constructing 10 buildings totaling 2.7 million square feet over the next 12 to 18 years, said Erik Bartone, CEO of Servistar Realty, the project’s developer. He told BusinessWest he hopes to obtain local approvals by the end of the year and state approvals by mid-2022, and break ground in 2023.

It’s a daring project, one that comes complete with all kinds of large numbers and adjectives (like hyper-scale) that connote size and scope affixed to everything from acreage to the projected cost of the initiative to the number of landowners with which Panteleakis and the Servistar had to negotiate.

That last number would be 11, just one indicator of the level of complexity involved with getting just this far, said Panteleakis, adding that finding a location and assembling the land are perhaps the biggest hurdle for a project that will face many of them — everything from required approvals for a tax-incentive plan to steps to protect endangered species, such as the eastern box turtle.

As for securing a site … a project of this nature and scope requires that a number of unique boxes be checked, said Panteleakis. These include the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, straight from the grid — two recently upgraded 115 kV high-transmission lines run through the center of the site — as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult.”

When all is said and done, it certainly isn’t easy to find a parcel — or parcels that can be aggregated — that can check all those boxes.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult,” Bartone said. “Access to the electric transmission grid, robust fiber communication network, sufficient land, and the ability to develop the project in an environmentally responsible manner are all very important issues that must be fully evaluated before proceeding with a particular location.”

As noted, the proposal still has many hurdles to clear, but it’s not too early to speculate on what this could mean for the city and the region.

Rick Sullivan, who can speak about the project from a number of perspectives — he’s president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, but also former mayor of Westfield and a current city councilor — said it represents an opportunity to show what the region can do for the emerging sector known as Big Data — and perhaps do more of.

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project, if it becomes reality, could open the door to new opportunities in the realm known as Big Data.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention,” he explained. “Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

Jeff Daley, president and CEO of WestMass Area Development Corp., which has been hired as a consultant on the Westfield project, agreed.

“It’s an exciting project — this is a game changer,” he said. “If we get this project across the goal line, it opens up an entire industry; we would have the potential to bring other data centers here.”

As for Panteleakis, the data-center project represents another bullet point on a résumé complete with a number of big projects with complicated logistics, something he’s becoming known for within the development industry.

Indeed, when he was not walking the Westfield property and negotiating with all those owners, he was flying to Miami to put the final touches on a massive, $1 billion project that combines residential living with transportation, retail, and office space.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention. Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

The two projects offered a number of different challenges, with COVID presenting new and different issues to contend with, he said, adding that they epitomize what has come to be one of his trademark talents — putting the many pieces together on complicated real-estate puzzles.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how this complicated Westfield project came together and how this initiative could change the landscape — in all kinds of ways.

 

Big Bytes

Panteleakis told BusinessWest that, on many of his flights to and from Florida, he didn’t have much company on the airplane.

“I was on a 747 out of Boston — because you couldn’t fly out of Bradley to Florida — that had two other people on it,” he said. “It was weird. Logan was a ghost town, Miami International was a ghost town; it was very strange.”

That was how things were as he was working on two massive projects on opposite ends of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Miami initiative was a complicated matter of putting the pieces together for a project called Virgin MiamiCentral, a nine-acre living center in the heart of the city that includes 3 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail space, capped with twin residential towers, each more than 40 stories high, sitting atop a train station and retail hub.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Meanwhile, what is now known as the Westfield data-center campus became a very complicated matter of aggregating property that could meet all those unique requirements listed earlier.

In most all cases, the land required for such projects doesn’t come in one parcel, but several of them, which means negotiations on acquiring options — as in quiet negotiations — have to take place with a number of parties simultaneously.

Panteleakis, who compared it to cutting the Gordian knot, tried to put it in perspective for BusinessWest.

“We worked with about four or five different brokers in Western Mass. who represented some of the 11 owners, which at times made things easier, but a predominance of the owners self-represented,” he explained. “And that included people who had ongoing businesses, and it was very arduous and long and, of course, highly confidential.

“It was heavy lifting,” he went on, “and to see it at this stage is very gratifying.”

Overall, it took roughly 14 months to put the parcel in place to the point where the developer could move forward, he said, adding that the site, while challenged by wetlands and environmental issues, provides the size, location, and direct access to the grid needed by Servistar and its eventual clients.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges.”

The company has a considerable amount of experience with such projects, said Bartone, adding that Servistar has been in the electricity-procurement and energy- management business for 30 years, supporting large-scale commercial and industrial clients, including data and IT service clients.

“Our firm has provided advisory services to several data-center clients, including the management and procurement of their wholesale electricity requirements,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company currently represents a hyper-scale data-center client that is looking to enter the New England market once local approvals are obtained for the Westfield project.

Elaborating, he said there are several smaller-edge data centers in New England, including in the Boston area, but there are currently no hyper-scale data centers in New England, and for several reasons.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges,” he explained. “Our firm specializes in the wholesale electricity-procurement markets along with the integration of innovative load-management strategies to proactively reduce the electricity costs for data centers and large power users. 

“This is a key cost driver for the industry and critical to making the hyper-scale data-center project feasible,” he went on. “Electricity expenditures typically represent 50% to 60% of the operating costs of a data center. Property taxes typically represent 10% to 15% of operating expenses. These two operating cost components, along with local regulatory approvals, are the primary drivers to locate hyper-scale data centers to New England.”

Bartone said Servistar reviewed numerous sites in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts before focusing on Westfield, a community that emerged in this search roughly 18 months ago.  

“We identified various parcels in the city’s industrial zones that met the requirements for the site, but the area is challenging to develop due to wetlands and endangered species, including the eastern box turtle,” he noted. “So we needed a substantial amount of land that would support the 10 data-center building development while also allowing us to minimize environmental impacts.”

Beyond meeting the energy, fiber, and property-tax requirements, the site is also centrally located between Boston, New York City, Providence, Albany, and Hartford, said Bartone, thus providing access to more than 34 million people in the Greater New York metropolitan area and New England. It is also in close proximity to the Westfield-Barnes regional airport with corporate service, only 20 miles from Bradley International Airport, and approximately 100 miles from Logan International Airport.

“Boston also has a high-tech, information-based economy that is an attractive market for corporate offices of companies locating to Westfield for their IT services,” he said, adding that this concentration of trained tech workers was still another selling point.

 

Powerful Statement

As he talked about the project and its prospects for becoming reality, Sullivan turned to the often-used analogy of getting over the goal line.

He said this project isn’t in the proverbial red zone yet, but it is certainly past midfield and making steady progress.

“There’s still a long way to go, but once they have options on the property and they’re doing work around wetlands and having discussions with the electricity suppliers, you’re past midfield, but you’re not home yet,” he explained. “I don’t think you can have a higher, better use of that property.”

Daley said the next important step is approval of what’s known as a 121A, or PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) property-tax agreement that locks in the assessed value of the property, with built-in annual increases in property-tax payments. Westfield officials have said the project would bring in $1.2 million in tax payments within three years, making the campus the largest taxpayer in the city.

A joint public hearing between the Planning Board and City Council on the proposed agreement is slated for early October, said Daley, adding that there are other approvals, on both the local and state levels, that must be secured in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to have all local permits in hand by the end of the year,” he explained. “Shortly thereafter, we’d begin work on designs and infrastructure; it would be about 18 to 24 months from go date to being operational.”

Meanwhile, speculation continues about what this project could mean for Westfield and the region. That discussion takes place on many levels, starting with immediate, tangible benefits.

That list includes 1,800 construction jobs, 1,200 indirect jobs that will result from creation of the center, and what is projected to be 400 jobs that will pay between $85,000 to $100,000 at the entry level.

“When people in economic development talk about job creation, these are the kinds of jobs that you’re looking to create,” Sullivan said. “These employees will live in our communities, they’ll invest in our communities, they’ll shop in our communities, and they’ll support the charities in our communities, as will the companies.”

There’s also the tax revenue; Servistar has negotiated a 40-year property-tax agreement with the city that is expected to produce more than $350 million in direct property-tax payments over the term of that agreement. 

Beyond these direct benefits, though, is that opportunity Sullivan and Daley mentioned for the region to not only get in the game when it comes to Big Data, but become a player in that sector, which would appear to have almost unlimited potential.

“If you look in the crystal ball, this is a sector that’s only going to grow,” Sullivan said. “And of you overlay data storage and data transmission and all the issues that are somewhat related, such as cybersecurity and other Big Data, I think there’s a real opportunity for us in Western Massachusetts to grow and in some ways lead, if you will, in this sector.

“We have out colleges, especially Bay Path and the University of Massachusetts, that are doing a lot of cutting-edge work in cybersecurity and Big Data, and others will certainly follow,” he went on. “And this will help train a workforce, which is always significant as these companies look to grow.”

As for some of those other boxes that need to be checked, Sullivan acknowledged that the cost of doing business in this state is not as low as in some other areas of the Northeast, but Western Mass. is certainly more cost-friendly that Boston and other metropolitan areas. “Developing in New England may not be the cheapest, but we’re still competitive.”

 

Bottom Line

Panteleakis — who, as noted, has been involved in large development projects in many areas of the country — said the Westfield data-center campus project represents the type of development that all regions are striving for.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Florida and Texas, and this is how they drive economic development for the 21st century in their areas; they’re focusing on new sectors and technologies,” he explained. “This project will have a tremendous impact on quality of life in Westfield and across the region. It will have a very broad impact.”

As those we spoke with noted, there are still many hurdles to overcome before this proposal becomes reality. If it can clear those obstacles, it could be transformative in many different ways.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, but staffing remains a problem for businesses.

As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.

Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”

Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.

“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”

That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.

And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.

“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”

“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”

The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.

“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”

In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.

“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic” despite 18 months of pivoting and persistent staffing challenges.

Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.

“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”

 

Workforce Crunch

While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.

“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”

Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.

“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.

“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.

The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.

“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”

The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”

The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”

Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.

“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.

This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.

“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”

For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”

 

Keep Moving Forward

Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”

Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”

Features

Doing More with Less

 

At a recent virtual seminar, Delcie Bean asked attendees to think back 20 years and ask themselves, did they foresee a time when phone books and yellow pages would not be a thing?

After all, he asked, every home had one, and they were the primary way small businesses advertised and shared their contact information with the public.

Now, “look at what’s happened to that world,” said Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT. “That’s the pace at which technology is changing. These things we took for granted, that we felt were never going to change, that were part of the fabric of our ecosystem, have changed. And it’s not just phone books. Think of all the landfills that are chock full of technology that, at one point in time, we didn’t think we could live without.”

And it’s not just tools, but the way we do business, he said, pointing out the short jumps between dominant communication methods over the past century. That idea was one jumping-off point for Bean’s virtual seminar on Sept. 15, titled “Automation: the Time Is Now,” and subtitled “How Automation Can Streamline Your Business and Offset the Labor Shortage.”

At this event, presented by BusinessWest and Comcast Business, he said everyone should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?

“What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?”

For example, he went on, “do I have employees entering data into a system that could easily be automated? Am I still doing things on paper forms that then need to be scanned into a system or, God forbid, typed in manually into another system? Do I have antiquated processes that require people to get manual approval and shuffle things around and put things in inboxes and outboxes, and do I still have tasks being done manually that are just ripe to automate?”

The 60-minute presentation focused on the benefits of automation and the ways it can be utilized to save businesses time, trouble, and expense — anything from onboarding a new employee or client to gathering information when someone signs up for something on a website, to the steps involved in the approval process when employees want to request a new computer. All of this, and more, can be automated, Bean said.

One common tool helping businesses do that today is the Microsoft 365 platform, an evolution of the Microsoft Office suite that offers subscription tiers and features including secure cloud storage, business e-mail, advanced cyberthreat protection, and the popular Microsoft Teams program.

“Microsoft has made a very deliberate, very intelligent decision to be the leader in small-business workforce automation, and they have invested infinite money in trying to do that,” Bean said. “And it’s actually paid off.”

 

Perfect Storm

The need to streamline processes through automation impacts most businesses and, as such, is a timely topic of discussion, Bean said — “maybe more than we’d want it to be.” And that’s partly because of the unique set of economic stressors that have emerged over the past 18 months.

“We’re probably all feeling busier right now than we’ve ever felt,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on that’s causing us to have a lot more on our plates, a lot more challenges to solve, a lot more obstacles to overcome than we’ve had to in the past. So why are we taking time out of our day to have this conversation?”

Well, first of all, businesses are being forced to do more with less. Roughly 3.5 million Americans are not in the workforce but used to be — largely because of the pandemic, but not totally. Population growth has slowed, and the massive exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce has accelerated somewhat.

“That has a huge impact on the ecomomy, one we cannot minimize,” Bean noted — and one that will continue to ripple throughout organizations of all sizes at a time when everyone seems to be wearing more hats than before, juggling more tasks, and trying to keep up with less help. And that leads to more stress in the workforce.

“We’re seeing more employees comment that they feel overwhelmed, people are leaving their jobs, looking for new jobs, changing industries,” he said. “Or they’re managing the working-remote, working-in-the-office challenges, healthcare challenges … it’s a lot of stress and pressure on the workforce that’s still working.”

On the other hand, the workforce crunch has also created a talent shortage and one of the best-ever markets for job seekers, who have more leverage than before, Bean said, making it harder to hire and retain employees.

Wage growth has accelerated, and so have employee demands regarding everything from remote work to more autonomy to relaxed dress codes, he noted. “Employers are working really hard to try to manage and keep up with those demands while also managing the business.”

It’s an incredibly difficult economy, he added, and just for small employers; the situation is really trickling up to larger and higher-paying employers as well. “It’s not ignoring anybody.”

And it comes, Bean explained, in the midst of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the third (which began in the mid-20th century and was known as the digital revolution, marked by the rise of computerization). This fourth revolution is melding technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, augmented reality, smart sensors, 3D printing, and many other advances, and promises to transform the way people live and work.

“There’s a lot going on right now that is digitizing and changing the way we interact with pretty much every aspect of our life,” he said. “And it’s happening at a rate we are very unaccustomed to handle.”

As noted, businesses trying to adapt to this fast-changing world are doing so amid all the recent challenges stemming from the pandemic and the labor situation. Small businesses also lament the growing culture of acquisition, and find it difficult to compete with larger companies with more resources, more innovation, and the ability to pay more for talent.

“All in all, it makes you feel like, if you’re a small firm, you’re in a race that’s a losing battle,” Bean said. “Exhausted? I don’t blame you.”

 

No Standing Still

But exhaustion is no excuse for inaction, he argued, before refuting the common myths around automation: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and takes too long to implement. All are untrue, he explained during the virtual seminar, and again during a sit-down with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien during a recent edition of the magazine’s podcast, Business Talk (businesswest.com/blog/businesstalk-with-delcie-bean-ceo-of-paragus-strategic-it).

In other words, there’s no excuse for any business to avoid this conversation any longer.

“We don’t want to be the next Blockbuster,” Bean told the seminar attendees. “We don’t want to be the company that could see that things were changing, stuck to our guns, hung on, and ultimately worked their way into oblivion.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Features

2021 Women of Impact Judges

Soon, BusinessWest will unveil its Women of Impact for 2021, our fourth annual celebration of area women who are accomplishing great things, standing out in their field, and doing impactful work in the community. As in past years, we’ve asked a panel of three independent judges to read and review dozens of nominations to determine the class of 2021. They are:

Michele Cabral is interim executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at Holyoke Community College and director of Training & Workforce Options. She started her career as a CPA for KPMG Peat Marwick, graduated from the Leadership Development Program at CIGNA Insurance Companies, and joined Farm Credit Financial Partners Inc. as CFO and COO. At HCC, Cabral has held positions as an Accounting professor, then dean of the Business and Technology Division, and she currently leads the HCC Women’s Leadership Series.

Dawn Fleury is the first senior vice president of Corporate Risk at Country Bank in Ware. In her current role, she oversees the bank’s comprehensive risk-management programs. Before joining Country Bank, she had a 21-year career with the FDIC as a commissioned senior bank examiner in the Division of Supervision. Fleury serves on the board of Christina’s House in Springfield, which provides transitional housing for women and their children, as well as educational programming as families transition from homelessness to permanent, stable living environments.

Ellen Freyman is a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. in Springfield. Her practice is concentrated in all aspects of commercial real estate: acquisitions and sales, development, leasing, permitting, environmental, and financing. She has been recognized for her community work and was named to Difference Makers and Women of Impact by BusinessWest, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Excellence in Law, and the Professional Women’s Chamber Women of the Year. She also earned a Pynchon Award from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts.

Features Special Coverage

Hire Ground?

 

For months now, business owners and elected officials have pinned the region’s mounting labor woes and all those ‘help wanted’ signs on too-generous federal unemployment assistance. Now that those benefits have expired for more than 3 million Americans, we’ll soon find out just how much of a factor those benefits were. Many involved in economic development and workforce matters say the problem has much deeper roots and that it might be some time before there is a return to anything approaching normal — whatever that is.

 

Dave Gadaire says considerable thought went into the timing of the massive, statewide job fair he helped coordinate last month.

Indeed, he said the week-long virtual gathering, said to be the largest such event ever staged, was scheduled for a time when employers across every sector of the economy were struggling to fill vacancies, often to the point where it was impacting productivity, if not profits — and when large numbers of individuals would be staring down the loss of federal unemployment benefits (specifically those weekly $300 bonus checks) in less than a month.

The thinking was that the convergence of these factors would create a sense of urgency and that the foundation would be laid for some good matches between employers and job seekers at this job fair.

And while that happened, and all those involved with the job fair, from the governor on down, have declared it a success, there are certainly question marks as to just how many matches will be made and whether this event will put a dent in a labor shortage that is, by all accounts, without precedent.

In many ways, the job fair, and the uncertainty concerning the bottom-line results from it, are a microcosm of what’s happening with the job market here and elsewhere, said Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center. The ongoing plight of employers seeking help and the end of those federal benefits would, logically, seem to indicate that jobs are going to be filled — probably sooner than later.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation. But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

But more evidence is indicating this is not going to be the easy fix that some employers and many elected officials — people who have been pinning the ‘workforce crisis,’ as it’s called, on an over-generous federal government — thought it would be.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), told BusinessWest that data and anecdotal evidence from states that did away with the federal bonus checks months ago indicate this has not been the cure most thought it would be.

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation,” he noted. “But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

He was quick to note, however, that he has heard from some of his members that, through smaller, more-targeted job fairs and other recruiting efforts, they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of applications and hirings. Still, he said far more evidence is needed to get a real grasp of what’s happening with the labor market, let alone project what will happen over the next few quarters and beyond.

Kevin Lynn, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center, agreed. “Murky” was the word he used repeatedly to describe the future of the jobs market in this region.

“This whole thing is not new. We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.”

“It’s an incredibly murky time, because it’s all unprecedented,” he explained. “And there are so any variables. This is not a recession, it’s a healthcare crisis, and it’s been like a rollercoaster; we seem to be on a rollercoaster going down again, and that does not play well psychologically.”

Lynn went further and said that, while the problems and frustrations currently being experienced by area employers may be heightened by the pandemic and factors related to it — childcare shortages, fear of returning to the office, mass retirements, and an unwillingness to work for low wages (he and others would get into all those) — in many ways, it’s all simply a continuation of what was happening before the pandemic.

“This whole thing is not new,” he said. “We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.

“Companies were having major recruiting problems prior to COVID,” he went on. “What we’re seeing is nothing new.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several area economic-development leaders about the workforce crisis and the murkiness that surrounds just what will come next.

 

Food for Thought

Lynn told BusinessWest he was in Boston over Labor Day weekend. During his time there, he had an experience at a restaurant that was eye-opening if not frightening — a hard look at how things are for employers, especially in hospitality, and how they might — that’s might — continue to be.

“There were 15 tables there, and one woman was waiting on all 15 tables — I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using exasperation in his voice to add an exclamation point. “She was hustling, and I mean hustling. They had one woman on the tables, they had one person busing, and they had a bartender — I don’t know how many they had in the kitchen. The food was coming out, and she was hustling.”

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you. And there is no employee loyalty.”

While that situation represents an extreme, it encapsulates what many employers are facing these days — an inability to staff up in the manner they want and need, often in ways that impact service, the customer experience, and, in many cases, the bottom line.

In Western Mass. and many other regions, print shops have been working overtime filling orders for ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘We’re Hiring,’ and ‘Join Our Team’ signs. Meanwhile, other signs get far more specific, listing benefits as well as as wage scales and sign-on bonuses. Meanwhile, most restaurants in the region have cut back days of operation and closed portions of their establishments, school systems struggle to hire bus drivers, and healthcare providers tussle with one another to find nurses and other professionals.

And the fight certainly doesn’t end when the person is hired, said Nancy Creed, executive director the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that loyalty among employees is a thing of the past, and retention is every bit as challenging as hiring.

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you,” she noted. “And there is no employee loyalty.”

The questions on the minds of everyone in business and economic development concern just when, and to what extent, the pendulum will swing back in the direction of an employers’ labor market.

And the answer is a universal ‘I don’t know … we’ll have to wait and see,’ or words to that effect.

While the massive virtual job fair didn’t provide any hard answers to what’s ahead, neither did the most recent jobs report, which was a headscratcher to most analysts; only 235,000 jobs were added in August, the lowest number since January, following expectations for three times that number.

Getting back to the job fair, it was large in every respect, said Gadaire, who broke down the numbers. The event drew more than 1,700 employers from across the state and across all sectors of the economy, and 17,264 job seekers. Over the course of week, 21,046 résumés were exchanged, and there were nearly 1.4 million virtual visits to the companies’ booths.

While those totals are all impressive, they will not ultimately define how successful this event was, he went on, because the numbers that really count concern the number of jobs to be added in the weeks and months to come.

“We felt we at least got some mass when it comes to what we were trying to do,” said Gadaire. “What we’re doing now is doing all the follow-up to find out how much of that turned into job offers and hires; we’re getting that information back from the companies now as we speak, and it looks like a pretty successful event.”

Time will tell, obviously, and there are a number of factors that will ultimately determine how much of a dent will be put in the state’s labor crisis.

Indeed, those we spoke with said the federal unemployment benefits were certainly a contributor to the deepening of the labor shortage that’s been witnessed over the past year and especially the past nine months. But it appears it’s not as big a factor as many thought, and in the meantime, there are many other factors.

Childcare, or a lack thereof, is a huge issue, said Creed, noting that many working parents — or parents who were working, especially single mothers — cannot return to the workplace without childcare, which is suffering from its own workforce crisis and other issues. Fear of COVID is another factor, she added, noting that the recent surge in cases spawned by the Delta variant will, in all likelihood, slow any kind of return to something approaching normalcy when it comes to the labor market.

“There are three large contributors — the federal stimulus, childcare, and the virus itself,” Creed said. “They all play a role to some degree within specific demographics and populations, and we just need to give it some time to play out and see what happens.”

 

Money Talks

Which leads to another question: just what constitutes normal these days?

Is normal what was seen in 2019, as described by Lynn and others? Is normal what existed a decade or more ago when unemployment was low, yet candidates were far more plentiful?

More to the point, what will be … wait for it … the new normal? And what do employers have to be thinking about as they try to navigate that new normal?

That’s a lot of questions, many of them without easy answers.

Indeed, as a result of the labor shortage of the past several months, wage inflation has become a matter to contend with, and it is one of many factors keeping matches from being made.

“Job seekers have realized that they’re in a bit of a buyer’s market right now,” Gadaire said. “They are in high demand, so they’re asking for higher wages than what most companies are offering or can offer, and that’s certainly a problem.”

Creed agreed. “Not every business can afford to pay $40 an hour,” she noted. “So when you hire someone, and they get pennies more at another company, they’re going to switch; it creates a wage competition that small businesses just can’t afford.

“A lot of these businesses already have very thin margins — so there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she went on, adding that budget concerns are further compounded by unemployment-insurance issues, paid family leave, hiring incentives and bonuses, and more.

Also, the surge in the pandemic has brought a whole new level of concern, as some people are afraid to enter the workforce, Gadaire noted. “A few months ago, I thought that problem was going away, but now, here we are again.

“And that has the ripple effects attached to it, like childcare and transportation,” he went on. “And then there’s the very real onset of people realizing, and businesses realizing, that remote work is now not just a luxury, it’s a reality, and people are redefining how they do work.”

For some companies, he explained, especially those in hospitality or the broad service sector where workers are face to face with customers, remote work is simply not an option. But for those where it is an option … those companies should look long and hard at creating such remote-work opportunities because doing so will greatly increase the amount of talent available to them.

Creed said the companies may also need to rethink how they hire and whom they hire moving forward.

“Does that position really need a four-year degree? Can it be a two-year degree, or a certificate, or just a GED?” she asked rhetorically, while noting just one way companies may be able to widen the pool of applicants for a job. “We need to rethink our recruitment practices, which is something we’ve always talked about, but now, I think you have to start digging deep into your workforce and saying, ‘how can I adjust?’”

While companies have to be creative and innovative, so too does the region, said Sullivan, adding that a new ‘job trail,’ created by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and supported by the EDC, is one such example.

On Sept. 8 and 15, participating businesses throughout this region put out signage and orange and blue balloons to identify the ‘trail.’ Interested applicants could visit those businesses, fill out an application, and perhaps schedule an interview (participating companies were required to have people on site to handle inquiries during designated hours).

“There’s a focus on restaurant and hospitality jobs, but we have Yankee Candle, United Personnel, Big Y, Monson Savings Bank … we’ve had a really good response,” he said. “It’s a good cross-section of jobs, and the timing of it is not incidental — we appreciate the fact that the unemployment benefits are running out.”

 

The Job at Hand

As with so much else with this evolving story, time will tell regarding how effective outreaches like the job trail have been when it comes to easing what has become a historically challenging labor market for employers.

For months, experts have speculated about why so many jobs have gone unfilled when so many people are out of work and supposedly looking for work. The federal unemployment benefits were presumed to be the main culprit, but as the weeks and months go by, it’s becoming clear that there is far more to this story. And, as Lynn and others noted, what’s going on is really a continuation, and perhaps an escalation, of what was already happening before the pandemic.

Answers to this crisis have been slow to emerge, and the hope is that, in the weeks and months to come, matters will become more clear and the pendulum will finally begin to swing back.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities, but needs commercial and industrial development as well.

When they talk about managing their town into the future, officials in Southwick emphasize the word “balance.”

In order for the town to remain a desirable place to live, said Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer, there needs to be a combination of housing and recreation areas as well as commercial and industrial development.

“We like to point out that Southwick is a recreational community,” he noted. “We also want to make sure our zoning allows for commercial and industrial developments because the taxes they contribute will keep our town an affordable place to live.”

Russell Fox, vice chair of the Southwick Select Board, reinforced the recreational community description by pointing to the Congamond Lakes, which make up nearly 500 acres of recreational space in town. “Also, the Southwick Rail Trail has become a gem in our community, running 6.5 miles through town.”

Another big recreation activity happens at the Wick 338, the popular motocross track that hosted a national event in July and drew more than 30,000 people to Southwick.

In recent years, living at the lakes has become more desirable, and, as a result, prices for houses and lots are skyrocketing. As lake property increases in value, it also drives up the tax bill for residents there.

“I’m concerned about the retirees who have lived on the lake for years who may now have trouble staying in their homes because of the tax increases,” Fox said. “If we can attract more business to Southwick, we can help offset that tax burden.”

One company, Carvana, proposed to build a 200,000-square-foot facility off Route 10 and 202 in Southwick. Carvana is a website that allows consumers to buy used cars completely online and have them delivered to their home. The $100 million facility would have stored, repaired, and cleaned cars for delivery across the Northeast. Carvana projected the Southwick site would have employed 400 people and paid $900,000 each year in property taxes to the town.

The project was initially approved by the town’s Planning Board and Select Board, but hit a snag when a local group called Save Southwick strongly opposed the facility. In a series of public meetings, the group cited concerns about safety, traffic, and burdens on the town’s infrastructure. As the project became more controversial, Carvana withdrew its proposal this summer.

To kill the project that late in the process was frustrating for some, but Fox looks at the Carvana situation as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“It became clear from a vocal group that if a project is too big, they won’t support it,” Fox said. “Even those opposed to Carvana learned how government works, so if that encourages more civic engagement, then we’re all for it.”

Stinehart said the town is currently developing a new master plan that includes a process to allow earlier citizen input on zoning decisions to avoid episodes like Carvana in the future.

“The idea is to have these discussions sooner rather than later when we are considering a project,” he explained. “This also gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the laws and the process of getting things done.”

 

Responding to a Crisis

When the pandemic struck last year, Southwick was still able to keep the town’s services running.

“All our departments in town continued to provide services and got us through the height of the pandemic by being flexible and adaptive,” Stinehart said.

The Town Hall building where many municipal functions are located remained open for most of the pandemic. Like towns everywhere, Southwick relied on remote online platforms like Zoom for meetings when necessary.

In March 2020, Southwick was one of the first communities to hold a town meeting outside. Because Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, Fox explained, a town meeting was held in the Southwick High School parking lot.

The west side of the Greens of Southwick

The west side of the Greens of Southwick is almost full, while homes on the east side have yet to be constructed.

“It was a special meeting with one agenda item, the decision to treat the lakes with alum,” he noted. Alum — or aluminum sulfate — is commonly used to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. “The timing was important because we had to treat the lakes by the first week of April, otherwise the alum would not be effective.”

In 2020, Stinehart noted, it was especially important to make the lakes usable. “People couldn’t wait to get outside and do something recreational, so we made sure the lakes were ready for the summer.”

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

People also spent more time in their yards, which benefited Southwick farmers. Fox said area farms sold more plants for flower beds than ever before in 2020. “Most plants sold out early because people were stuck at home and wanted to get outside to do things in their yard.”

The pandemic also delayed the full celebration of Southwick’s 250th anniversary from happening in 2020. After a kickoff event on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that brought out hundreds of residents and featured fireworks, an outdoor event in February 2020 followed, featuring ice sculptures. Then the pandemic kicked in and put further events on hold.

On Nov. 7, the actual 250th anniversary of the town’s founding, officials in Southwick arranged a call with officials in Southwick, England. That was followed by a parade that traveled through all the neighborhoods in town.

“It was a rolling parade that was well-received because people could go out their door or to the end of their street to see it,” Stinehart said. “The people in town really appreciated it.”

The 250th celebration still has one event remaining, a full parade for people to attend on Oct. 16 with fireworks later that evening at Whalley Park. Fox called the October events a “belated birthday celebration.”

Both Stinehart and Fox have been impressed with the interest in the anniversary, as more than 50 residents joined the organizing committee for the 250th celebration.

“We had a good mix of people on the committee, some who had just moved to town and others who have lived here their entire lives,” Fox said.

Stinehart quickly added, “no other committee in town has that kind of turnout.”

As the town gradually makes its way out of the pandemic, Stinehart mentioned a regional grant program undertaken with the town of Agawam to provide microlending for small businesses.

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020 to improve water quality for people clamoring to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

“We are encouraging small businesses that need help to apply for these grants,” he said, adding that Agawam is the lead community on the grant.

Looking forward, Stinehart hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address water and sewer projects in Southwick. Fox spoke in particular about a water-pressure situation town leaders are hoping to address with the ARPA funds. He said projects like this sound like mundane details but can have real and lasting impacts on the town.

“If we address the water-pressure problem, it improves our fire-protection ability and ultimately affects homeowners’ insurance rates for residents,” Fox added.

 

Places to Call Home

The town has more new homes in the works, most notably the Greens of Southwick, where new, homes are being custom-built on each side of College Highway on the property of the former Southwick Country Club. The west side of the Greens development is nearly full, while construction on the east side has not yet begun.

Stinehart said he would like to leverage ARPA funding to increase broadband infrastructure in Southwick. In a separate effort, the town has met with Westfield Gas + Electric’s Whip City Fiber division to explore the feasibility of fiber-optic internet service for Southwick.

To address future energy savings for the town, Southwick has applied for a Massachusetts Green Community designation which would make it eligible for grant funding on a number of energy-efficient projects.

The tax rate for Southwick is scheduled to be released in the fall, and Stinehart said the goal is for a single uniform rate that will be competitive with other communities “because that’s good for business.”

Despite the issues around Carvana, Fox added, Southwick has welcomed plenty of new businesses and has seen expansion for some already there.

“By letting everyone know Southwick is open for business, we can keep this beautiful place where people want to live,” he said. “It’s all about that balance.”

Features

Moving Up to the Show

 

documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein

For the documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein visited the actual ‘field of dreams’ stadium in Iowa, a visit he said was inspirational on many levels.

Charlie Epstein joked that he has more people working for him on his one-man show — Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience — than he does at the financial-services company he founded, now part of Hub International.

Only … it’s no joke.

Indeed, over the past 21 months or so, Epstein, known to many as the 401k Coach, has hired comedians, directors, stage managers, animators, and more (the cast of supporters keeps growing) as he prepares to bring his show to the stage — in this case, the Northampton Arts Center — on Aug. 26 and 27.

That show, which has been delayed in some respects by COVID-19, will indulge both of Epstein’s passions — acting and financial advising, both of which he’s been doing for decades now.

The acting? That’s been a passion since childhood, and a diversion that was a big part of his life for more than a dozen years. He’s done everything from standup comedy in New York to another one-man show at the former CityStage called Solitary Confinement, in which he played seven roles.

The financial advising? That, too, has been a passion that has taken a number of forms, from books — Paychecks for Life and Save America, Save! — to a podcast to a video series.

Bringing the two worlds together has become yet another passion for Epstein, one that will put him on a live stage for the first time since he did an off-off-Broadway show just before 9/11.

After the final production of that show, he said a voice inside him told him it was time to leave the stage and move onto other things, including the books and the 401k Coach entrepreneurial endeavor.

“I’d pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to,” he recalled of his acting career. “I was done.”

Turns out, he was only done for a while. OK, a long while.

What brought him back was a desire to present his message in a new, different, and more entertaining way, and in the process, spread the message and attract new customers.

“We’re calling this a financially entertaining experience,” he said, “because the show asks the question: ‘what did you want to be when you grew up? And what happened to that promise?’ Everyone made a promise to themself growing up, only how many people kept the promise? My promise to myself was I always wanted to be an entertainer, and I kept the promise and figured out to successfully navigate living in both worlds.

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of.”

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of,” he went on. “In this show, I’ll bust your myths about money that hold you back from living the life you have always dreamed of.”

To do so, he’ll draw on some of his own real-life experiences, specifically with his acting career.

“I had basically taken three to five months off a year from 1988 to 2001,” he told BusinessWest. “And I discovered that the more time I took off from my financial business to pursue my acting and entertainment career, the more money I made every year.”

As noted, this show has been in the works for more than two years now and was inspired by a desire to return to the stage. Epstein said he met with Mike Koenig, serial entrepreneur, author, podcaster, and founder of the Superpower Accelerator, in the early fall of 2019 to discuss his plans.

“He told me that I should be like Leno and Letterman and all the great comics who have shows and hire my own comedy team to help me write these ideas that I had,” Epstein recalled, adding that, in exchange for being named producer of the show, Koenig said he would find the comedians — which he did.

“I flew out to La Jolla, California, and holed up for two days in a condo he [Koenig] has overlooking the Pacific,” Epstein went on. “I was there with three comedians, and I basically acted out all the ideas I had in my head. And with those three comedians, we crafted the outline of the one-man show. Then I went home and wrote 168 pages from October to Thanksgiving, then went back out to California in January for another two days of going over things. Then COVID hit, and we spent the next three or four months on Zoom, editing, writing, and acting things out.”

Subsequently, he has hired a director, a stage manager, a lighting designer, animators, and more to bring the show to life. He also traveled across the country for the filming of a documentary on the making of the show, created by Emmy Award winner Nick Nanton. There were location shoots in a variety of settings, including a mountaintop in California, New England, and the actual ‘field of dreams’ in Iowa, the one made famous in the movie starring Kevin Costner, a visit that Epstein said was inspirational on a number of levels.

“It’s like a shrine — it was fantastic being there,” he said, noting that he rented out for the field for two days so he and his crew could film at dusk. “I finally got to do what I always wanted to do, like James Earl Jones — walk into that cornfield like a ghost.”

Epstein, who is now spending several hours a day rehearsing, will perform Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience twice at the Northampton Arts Center, on Aug. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. There is no cost to attend those shows; seats can be reserved, and that aforementioned documentary can be viewed, by downloading the app at yieldof dreams.live.

After those shows … the plan is to take the show on the road, as they say.

“The goal is to go city to city, tour the country, and teach people that they, too, can achieve their dreams,” he said, adding that the timing for such a show is ideal because many people have been cooped up during COVID, thinking about the present — and the future.

“They’re thinking, ‘I’m working in a job I can’t stand for a paycheck, and I’m miserable. Why don’t I just go for my dream?” Epstein said. “That’s what this show is. It’s me living my passion and trying to be an inspiration to other people.”

 

—George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

 

Robert Boilard credits people in town working together as the reason Wilbraham has come through the pandemic so far with minimal impact on the community.

“We incorporated our protocols early and have been very fortunate that most people have remained safe from COVID,” said Boilard, who chairs the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen.

Officials from the Police and Fire departments, as well as the town’s public-health nurse, provide weekly updates to the selectmen of the number of positive cases, illnesses, and hospitalizations so they can continue to closely monitor the community’s health.

Boilard pointed to a new DPW garage and a storage facility for the Parks and Recreation department as two projects the town was able to complete during the pandemic. As a community that has received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the board is hoping to use the money on water-infrastructure projects and expanding broadband internet.

“We have a master plan to install broadband throughout Wilbraham,” Boilard said. “This is a project that will be ongoing for the next few years.”

Another big project on the horizon involves a new senior center. On Oct. 18, Wilbraham will hold a special town meeting to discuss building the facility behind Town Hall. Paula Dubord, the town’s director of Elder Affairs, said she and others have led a 10-year effort for a senior center that can better accommodate the community’s growing senior population.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet,” Dubord said. “With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

The drive for a new senior center began in 2012 with a study committee, which concluded the existing senior center did not meet the town’s needs, even at that time. Next, a feasibility committee was formed and brought in an architect to do a deep dive on what made sense for a new facility. After seven years and consideration of nearly 40 different sites in Wilbraham, the feasibility study recommended building a new structure on municipally owned land behind Town Hall. October’s town meeting will give residents a chance to vote on that recommendation.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet. With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

There were some in town who pushed for locating the new senior center in an available former school. Dubord said the senior center has been located in old schools twice before, and it’s an approach that just doesn’t work.

“The experts who took part in the feasibility study told us a new building was a more practical way to meet the current and future needs for Wilbraham residents,” he said.

 

Booming Population

When the study committee began its work in 2012, members looked at the potential growth in the over-60 population in Wilbraham.

“We projected that, by 2025, nearly 40% of our town — with a population of nearly 15,000 — will be considered a senior,” Dubord said. “We are very close to that projection right now.”

As Wilbraham residents age, she added, many of them say they prefer to stay in their own home or move to one of the 55+ communities in town.

In its current location, more than 100 residents visit the senior center every day. Dubord emphasized that the real goal of the center is to keep people socially connected. Last March, when the pandemic forced the center to shut down, she and her staff quickly found new ways to stay connected with local seniors.

“We immediately started grocery shopping for people and picking up essential items like masks and toilet paper — both of which were hard to get in the beginning — as well as their prescription medicines,” she said.

The staff at the center put their full focus on meeting the needs of Wilbraham seniors, she added. “Because everyone was isolated, we did lots of phone check-ins with people to keep them engaged.”

In the spring, when vaccines first became available for people 65 and older, Dubord and her staff helped seniors sign up online to receive their shots when the state made them available at the nearby Eastfield Mall in Springfield.

“The registration process was not easy for seniors to complete, so we became like vaccination headquarters,” she said. “Because we had done a number of them, our staff was able to quickly get people registered for their shot.”

Dubord estimates they helped nearly 400 residents sign up for the initial vaccine offering. Later, the senior center hosted its own vaccine clinic run by staff from the Public Health and Fire departments.

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.

“Through all those efforts, we are confident that everyone who wanted to get a shot was able to get one,” she said.

Like many senior centers in the area, Wilbraham also offed a grab-and-go lunch program when it could not open the center for meals. “The real plus to the grab-and-go was it introduced us to people we’ve never seen before at the senior center,” Dubord said.

Happy to open the doors at the senior center almost three months ago, she said having someplace to go gives people a purpose and plays a key role in our health as we age.

“Many of our seniors live alone, so the center is important because it gives them access to vital community services and for the social connections they make,” she noted. Indeed, according to a Harvard Health study, the negative health risks of social isolation are comparable to smoking and obesity, increasing mortality risk by up to 30%.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.96
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.96
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

While a new senior center can address the needs of Wilbraham’s growing elder population, Dubord said the plan is for the new building to also house services for veterans in town.

“There are benefits for the new center beyond seniors,” she explained. “The larger space can be used by Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as women’s groups or other organizations in town.”

 

Moving Forward

Gradual easing of COVID-19 mandates is also good news for Wilbraham businesses. Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, noted that, like everyone else, Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to something resembling business as usual once again.

She pointed to a recent annual meeting of the chamber which more than 130 members attended in person while others joined remotely as an example of gradually getting back to attending events while still staying safe.

“The chamber’s golf tournament at the end of September is another way to get back to networking and taking advantage of the outdoors while we can,” she added.

New to her role at the chamber, Barone has been in the job since late June after working with the Keystone Commons retirement community in Ludlow for the last five years.

“I’m hoping to take what we’ve learned from the past 18 months to help our businesses succeed going forward,” she said. “It’s going to take some time, but we can get there together.”

Boilard shares Barone’s optimism about the future.

“It’s awesome to see how well everyone works together,” he said. “From boards to community groups, they are all focused on making Wilbraham a better place to live.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Forward Momentum

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

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

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

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

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

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

South Hadley at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

This Berkshires Staple Has Exhibited Patience and Flexibility

The Clark, which now features exhibits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

The Basketball Hall of Fame

 

John Doleva

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

And then … it all went away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Reopening Timeline Prompts Excitement, but Also Trepidation

Greathorse GM Bryan Smithwick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

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

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

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

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

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

And it won’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

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

And for different reasons.

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

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

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

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

Meredith Wise

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

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

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

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

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

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

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

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

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

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Back to Normal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Positive Shifts

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

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

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

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

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

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back to School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

Generating Results

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mount Tom Solar facility

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

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

 

Scaling Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lavelle agreed.

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

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam

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

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

 

Watt’s Happening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.

By George O’Brien

The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.

Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”

These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”

Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.

The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.

 

Space Exploration

Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.

What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.

“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.

“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.

Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.

As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.

Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.

The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.

And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.

The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.

“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.

Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.

The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.

The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.

As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.

“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.

“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”

And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.

“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”

 

Bottom Line

These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.

This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.

Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.

 

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

Features

NFTs and Cryptocurrency

By Bart Galvin

 

Digital assets such as Bitcoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are transforming global capital markets and the art world, with market capitalization reaching $2 trillion and digital artworks packaged through NFTs regularly selling for millions of dollars. As these assets gain prominence in the marketplace, it is increasingly important to understand why these assets appeal to investors, how they represent value, and how they function under the hood.

 

NFTs and Digital Art

NFTs have exploded in popularity in the past year, with notable examples like CryptoPunks, which are collectible, algorithmically generated pixel artworks, as well as the works of Mike Winkelmann (known professionally as Beeple), who recently sold a piece of NFT art at a Christie’s auction for $69 million.

Bart Galvin

An NFT is a unique digital token representing an interest in something else, which could be a piece of art, a share of stock, a stream of royalties, or even, in the case of Unisocks, entitlement to a physical pair of socks. NFTs are ‘non-fungible’ because, unlike cryptocurrencies, they aren’t interchangeable — your NFT corresponds to the specific entitlement or right to the underlying thing.

The eye-popping price tags of many digital-art NFTs poses the question: what exactly are you buying when you purchase an NFT? In its most basic form, an NFT is simply verifiable proof that you are the purchaser of whatever the NFT represents. But the devil is in the details. The rights granted by an NFT are entirely up its creator, so some NFTs have strict terms and conditions that prohibit exhibitions or commercial use of the art, while others might grant you the copyright in the work.

 

Cryptocurrency and the Rise of Bitcoin

Bitcoin has been the most prominent cryptocurrency since its introduction in 2008, but many other cryptocurrencies exist, such as Ethereum, an important part of many ‘smart contracts,’ and Tether, which is pegged to the value of the U.S. dollar. Bitcoin accounts for about half of global cryptocurrency market capitalization.

At the end of March, the price of one Bitcoin was approximately $60,000. Unlike a cryptocurrency like Tether, the value of Bitcoin can fluctuate wildly. Indeed, it has increased tenfold in the past year, dwarfing its previous peak of $17,000 in December 2017. The value of Bitcoin is determined almost entirely by what purchasers believe it is worth, and investors speculate on that value, driving price fluctuations. These price fluctuations can have a snowball effect, whereby widespread speculation in Bitcoin that drives the price upward can lead investors to believe Bitcoin will be adopted more widely, leading to further speculation that its value will increase.

 

Why Do People Care?

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs represent a fundamentally new way of transacting. The reason is in the revolutionary qualities of their underlying technology: the ‘blockchain.’ A blockchain can be thought of as a tamper-resistant digital store of data, constructed using computer cryptography and distributed among participants over the internet. Here’s what makes the blockchain special, and why people are jumping on board.

First, the blockchain allows parties to transact without intermediaries. No banks or clearinghouses are needed to execute or verify transactions since the underlying technology ensures that transfers are reliable, practically irreversible, and publicly verifiable.

“In the world of blockchain technology, Bitcoin and digital-art NFTs are the tip of the iceberg. There are already countless blockchain-based technologies, and new ones are invented every day.”

Second, blockchain transactions are not limited by jurisdictional or national boundaries. The transaction’s terms are dictated by computer code, not local law. Perhaps more importantly, the code is self-enforcing, which limits opportunistic behavior. Parties do not need to appeal to the judicial system to enforce an agreement because it happens automatically.

Third, blockchains are not subject to a central point of control or a central point of failure. Blockchains work by interconnecting users running the same software over a peer-to-peer network on the internet. No one party controls the blockchain. All new transactions are shared over the network, and they become final only when a majority of users determines that the transaction is valid. If a user doesn’t own the digital asset they’re trying to transfer, or tries to transfer it twice, the transaction will be rejected.

Fourth, blockchain transactions are publicly visible and verifiable. A blockchain serves as a ledger of transactions and all the transactions that came before them, allowing anyone to view and verify the trail of activity occurring over the network.

Fifth, blockchains allow parties to transact pseudonymously (not quite anonymously), without needing to trust or even know each other. All you need to know is your counterparty’s digital address or ‘wallet.’ And because transactions are practically irreversible and verified by the consensus of the network, the opportunities for fraud are heavily curtailed.

 

The Future of Blockchain Technologies

In the world of blockchain technology, Bitcoin and digital-art NFTs are the tip of the iceberg. There are already countless blockchain-based technologies, and new ones are invented every day. The blockchain is highly flexible and has tremendous untapped potential for consumer transactions, private contracts, corporate structuring, securities and derivatives, and even public administration. If your business is not using the blockchain yet, it’s only a matter of time.

 

Bart Galvin is an attorney at Bulkley Richardson, where he is a member of the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency practice group; (413) 272-6200.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop

Palmer has a long history as a key train stop, making it an oft-discussed part of conversations about expanded east-west rail.

As the nation recovers from a year of dealing with COVID-19, Palmer Town Manger Ryan McNutt looks to the future with optimism.

While larger cities had to contend with high COVID infection numbers and revenue losses from business taxes, Palmer maintained low infection numbers and relies more on residential taxes, which remained stable.

These days, as many people in the larger metropolitan areas work from home, there is no certainty they will return to five days a week in the office. That dynamic, McNutt believes, gives Palmer a real opportunity. With the average home price in Palmer at $191,000 compared to the Greater Boston area average of more than a half-million dollars, he wants to take advantage of this moment.

“The ability to start a family and work toward the American dream is much more difficult to afford in the Greater Boston area and much easier in our area,” he told BusinessWest. “We may see a change in working conditions where office workers spend up to four days a week at home, which would allow them to live in Western Mass. and take advantage of our affordability.”

McNutt is creating a marketing plan to reach out to the Boston area as well as other densely populated urban areas to promote the value and quality of life available in Palmer and surrounding areas.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario.”

One huge boon for Palmer in this regard would be the proposed east-west rail project. The plan to offer passenger rail service from Pittsfield to Boston has been included in the federal infrastructure plan about to go to Congress. McNutt said east-west rail would be transformative for his town.

“Right now, there are three alternative plans for how the east-west rail will be configured, and Palmer has a stop in each scenario,” he said. Though many steps remain before the plan wins approval and comes to fruition, town planners are looking to identify the right location, and they want to make sure it’s shovel-ready.

“I want to be so ready that, if we were told they could helicopter in a train station and drop it where a site was selected, we want to be ready for that helicopter,” he said.

 

Engine of Opportunity

The economic potential of a train stop in Palmer is not lost on Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce. On the job since January, Surprise looks to help chamber members increase their engagement with state and local officials, as well as identify economic programs to benefit the area.

He has already begun working on a grant for downtown Palmer through the Transformative Development Initiative, a MassDevelopment program. The grant provides incentives for businesses to locate in condensed areas, like downtown settings, that are walkable.

“That’s a positive for us because Palmer’s downtown is very walkable,” Surprise said.

He is also applying to the Massachusetts Cultural Council to have downtown Palmer designated as a cultural district. In addition to being a walkable area, a community must show it hosts arts and cultural events on a regular basis.

Surprise admits these projects will take several years to be successful, but the effort would be worth it. “A well-developed and vibrant downtown will help us bring in other businesses.”

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise

“Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

As part of his outreach to local officials, he reminds them of Palmer’s tradition and continued relevance as a manufacturing town.

“There has been a lot of talk on the national level about restoring manufacturing jobs,” he said, adding that communities like Palmer that have plenty of available land could be attractive to Boston-area high-tech companies looking for manufacturing space. “Palmer is well-placed for manufacturing facilities; its access to major highways makes it easy to get products to Boston, Hartford, Albany, and New York City.”

The chamber recently conducted a survey among its members to find out how they weathered the pandemic. Results so far show that two-thirds of businesses have been able to avoid employee layoffs. By finding alternatives such as reducing hours, many avoided having to reduce their staffs.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.63; Three Rivers, $23.28; Bondsville, $23.67; Thorndike, $23.62
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

“We conducted the survey to learn what types of services the chamber could offer to help businesses find success going forward,” Surprise said, noting that these are only preliminary results, as all surveys have not yet been returned.

As a first step, the chamber is planning a number of seminars for small businesses to help them increase foot traffic and bring in new customers through approaches such as digital marketing.

“Many small businesses are not familiar with digital or social media marketing, and it’s really a necessary tool in the 21st century,” he noted.

 

On the Right Track

McNutt is hopeful some kind of infrastructure package passes Congress because, like municipal leaders all over the country, he faces big projects that need attention.

“There are 47,000 deficient bridges in the U.S., including the nine that are in Palmer,” he said.

But for a small community, he added, taking on a big infrastructure project is a heavy lift, and Palmer has been working with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal to secure funding for at least two bridges, on Main Street and Church Street, which need the most attention.

One project that could add significantly to the town tax revenues involves building 300 seasonal cottages on Forest Lake. McNutt is excited about the potential for this project.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

“Right now the cottages are planned for warm-weather use and would bring plenty of folks in to stay in town,” he said. “They will most likely go to local restaurants and make other purchases, so we could see a real economic multiplier effect from this project.”

Palmer has also agreed to be a host community for the cannabis industry. Two retail sites and two cultivation businesses have run into delays to start their enterprises, but McNutt blames COVID for the slowdown.

“The Cannabis Control Commission held fewer meetings than they normally would, and site visits were more difficult to do,” he explained. “In short, everything in the regulatory environment was just harder to do during the pandemic.” He feels confident at least one site will be up and running this year or early in 2022.

As the number of people vaccinated increases and COVID concerns decrease, he believes the opportunity is now for Palmer and surrounding towns.

“Folks are coming up from New York to buy our homes because they recognize that living space, fresh air, and not being stuck in small square footage are luxuries that we have here.”

McNutt noted that people can still pursue the American dream by locating to Palmer because, in addition to its natural surroundings, the town has easy access to metropolitan areas. In short, he said, “we have the best of both worlds.”

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Community Spotlight

East Longmeadow Focuses on Improvements

By Mark Morris

From left, Michael Meunier, owner Kendall Knapik, and Orpheus Barrows from Pioneer Valley Arms.

From left, Michael Meunier, owner Kendall Knapik, and Orpheus Barrows from Pioneer Valley Arms.


When Mary McNally reflects on 2020, it’s with no small amount of gratitude for how well her town has weathered the pandemic up to this point.

“To state the obvious,” she said, “it’s been one heck of a year.”

As East Longmeadow’s town manager, she credits all the municipal staff, in particular the Health Department, for its efforts to advise and inform the public on COVID-19 matters, as well as the town’s emergency manager, Fire Chief Paul Morrissette.

“The pandemic gave people the chance to see how dedicated and committed municipal public workers are to the mission that is their vocation,” McNally said. “Their willingness to do what has to be done and go wherever they are needed is something people are aware of and appreciate. I certainly do.”

Though Town Hall has been closed since March 16 of last year, staffers have been able to meet the community’s demand for services through online meetings, e-mails, and phone calls.

“We had staff, including department heads, who met people in the parking lot of Town Hall if they needed access to a particular department for a document or other item,” she said. “It was like they were carhops at the old A&W.” Without committing to any specific timeline, she is hopeful Town Hall will reopen to the public in the next 90 to 120 days.

Though she has been the full-time town manager for only 16 months, McNally has been working on a master plan for East Longmeadow to better prioritize important projects. The town recently received a grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to hire a consultant to develop the plan. McNally said a recent Zoom session to plot out the vision of the master plan drew great participation from residents. Part of the grant requires the master plan to be completed by June, and she is confident about meeting that deadline.

“To state the obvious, it’s been one heck of a year.”

Back in December, the town council changed a zoning bylaw that has a direct impact on the site of the former Package Machinery. Once zoned only as industrial, the change allows for mixed use, which would allow residential as well as commercial buildings to locate there. McNally said the new zoning bylaw applies townwide.

“Previously, mixed-use zoning didn’t exist in East Longmeadow,” McNally said. “Because this zoning change applies to more than just the Package Machinery site, it opens the door for developments all over town.”

At this time, there are no formal proposals to develop the Package Machinery site, but past discussions have suggested construction of single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, and light-use business entities, she noted. “The idea would be to have a new walkable neighborhood near the bike trail and the center of town.”

 

Business Perspectives

While several businesses in East Longmeadow suffered from the pandemic, others experienced more demand for what they sell. Bobbi Hill is the fourth generation to work for W.B. Hill, a custom builder of oil trucks that has been incorporated since 1910 and located in East Longmeadow since 1965.

Hill’s title is manager, which she defines as running sales, marketing, parts, and human resources. The company primarily builds and maintains tank trucks, the kind that carry home heating oil and trailer tanks (known as ‘trailers’ or ‘tankers’) that connect to a truck cab, most often associated with hauling gasoline. Despite the world burning less petroleum during the pandemic, Hill said she saw only minor impact in a couple areas of business.

“The pandemic had a little impact on service work for tankers that needed repair,” she noted, quickly adding that COVID has not affected sales of new tank trucks, which have a backlog of orders. “If a customer walked in today to order a tank truck, I probably wouldn’t be able to deliver it until September.”

In the only consumer-facing part of the business, W.B. Hill is an official vehicle-inspection station. At the beginning of the pandemic, it shut down the consumer-vehicle business but continued with tanker inspections. “Pandemic or not, tankers need to be inspected,” she said. “They go through a lot of rigorous testing every year and cannot travel with an expired sticker.”

Though business is brisk right now and there is still plenty of demand to transport heating oil and gasoline, Hill has begun looking to the future.

“With electricity being pushed all over the country, I’m looking for us to become more of a parts business,” she said. By purchasing a building next door from Northeast Wholesale Lumber, she conceded that her “big dreams” of increasing the parts business is not happening right away because of high startup costs. Until then, Northeast continues to lease half the building.

“We are experiencing a bit of a boom in housing due in large part to the low interest rates.”

“We sell parts now, but I’d like to do more online and on a much larger scale,” she said. “There really isn’t anyone in New England who sells parts for these vehicles.”

Though a relatively new business in East Longmeadow, Pioneer Valley Arms (PVA) is another business that remained active during the pandemic. Owner Kendall Knapik, who opened the shop two years ago, had to shut down in the early days of the pandemic. A lawsuit by other gun stores claiming infringement of Second Amendment rights forced Gov. Charlie Baker to deem gun stores an essential business. When she reopened, Knapik’s already-successful shop saw a jump in sales.

“After the pandemic hit, our customer volume tripled,” she said. “We’ve increased our clientele tremendously, and we’re teaching many more safety classes.”

The combination of COVID-19, protests that took place in different parts of the country, and the presidential election all played a role in driving sales, she added. “Uncertainty and election years tend to drive sales more than a typical year.”

Knapik talked about a new wave of people coming in to protect themselves, their homes, and their loved ones. After 10 years in an industry she described as most often serving middle-aged male clients, Knapik opened her business to counter what she called the “usual gun-shop attitude.”

“It’s an attitude where shop owners and employees tend to be closed off to new clientele such as females,” she explained. “I wanted to have a shop where women and men would feel welcome and not afraid to come in.”

E. Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.06
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.06
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation
* Latest information available

Her strategy seems to be working, as female customers to the store have increased 30%. “I’ve done more background checks on gun sales for women in the past few weeks than ever before.”

Knapik made it clear that proper training and gun safety are the top priorities for PVA. She and her staff now hold safety classes every night of the week and, since the pandemic, have increased the number of classes during the day on Sunday.

“Our store draws many who are first-time buyers, so we get a lot of new people who just want to come in to learn about getting their gun license and what’s involved,” she said. “It’s something we definitely encourage.”

A potential gun owner must take a safety course in order to apply for a license-to-carry permit in Massachusetts.

“Some people are ready to pursue the process right away, while others need to mentally prepare themselves for it,” Knapik explained. “We’re just happy to be there to help them, whether they decide to pursue a license or not.”

 

Community Focus

Knapik credits her involvement in the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce for helping to establish her business in town, and called joining the chamber “the best marketing decision we made.”

“Customers have really responded to the small shop and family-owned feel of PVA,” she said, adding that she and her staff are on a first-name basis with many of their customers.

While Knapik praised East Longmeadow as a welcoming place to do business, increasing numbers of people are finding it a good place to call home as well. McNally said 28 new houses and condominiums were completed in 2020, and an additional 19 homes and condos are currently under construction.

“We are experiencing a bit of a boom in housing due in large part to the low interest rates,” she said. Three developments — Bella Vista, Hidden Pond, and Fairway Lanes — have added 45 new building lots to the town.

Looking ahead, East Longmeadow continues to work with the Massachusetts School Building Assoc. to study whether the town needs to replace the 60-year-old high school with a new building or if the existing facility can be renovated to suit educational needs for the future. McNally sees the potential for a new high school as a key to keeping the community vital.

“If people have confidence in the educational system, it inspires them to be happy citizens who want to contribute to the betterment of the town.”

McNally concluded that, while many of the projects in town have not been completed, all are progressing. “We have several big projects that all require lots of time, attention, and planning. I’m pleased because we have a dedicated staff working on them full-time.”

Clearly, despite enduring “one heck of a year” marked by a worldwide pandemic, East Longmeadow is staying on track with important projects that promise to add economic vibrancy and quality of life.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tyler Saremi

Tyler Saremi sees potential in West Springfield’s downtown, and is taking steps to inject some economic vibrancy.

When Tyler Saremi looks at what is considered downtown West Springfield — the Elm Street/Park Street area — he doesn’t see Northampton or West Hartford.

But he can easily imagine a day when that section of this city that still calls itself a town can attain something approaching a level of vibrancy and an eclectic mix of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, that define those communities.

And he’s doing his best to bring that day closer. Indeed, the multi-faceted business run by his family that he serves as vice president, Saremi LLP, acquired 95 Elm St. — known to most as the United Bank building because it was the main tenant for many years — with the goal of … well, turning back the clock in many respects.

The century-old building has, over the decades, been home to cafés, restaurants, a grocery store, banks, and other types of retail, said Saremi, adding that it has always been a destination, and the broad goal with this project is to make it one again. Thus, it has been rebranded as Town Common.

Already, Tandem Bagel, the Hadley-based company with locations there and also in Easthampton and Northampton, will soon occupy space where bank-teller windows have stood on the first floor; the target date for opening is July. Meanwhile, at the other end of the first floor, Saremi pointed to the place where intends to put a restaurant. He said two other leases have been signed, and several more are pending.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back,” he said. “Our main intention is a café and a restaurant on the first floor; whether we have to open a restaurant ourselves or partner with someone, we don’t care. That’s part of our commitment to West Springfield — it needs a café, and it needs a restaurant, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up.”

The redevelopment of 95 Elm St. is just one of the intriguing stories unfolding in West Springfield, a community that is, like many others, trying to rebound from a pandemic that has taken a huge toll on hospitality-related businesses. And West Side, as it’s called, has many of them, said Mayor Will Reichelt, who counted 20 hotels and motels and a number of restaurants in his community.

But the biggest business in that sector, obviously, is the Big E, which is responsible for filling many those hotels, motels, and restaurants, not just during the 17 days of the annual fair, but almost year-round, as that venue hosts a number of shows centered on everything from horses to toy railroads; dogs to guns and knives.

The Big E has been mostly empty and silent since the pandemic arrived a year ago, and while the outlook for 2021 is more promising, there remains a huge number of unknows, especially with regard to the fair, a situation that Big E President and CEO Gene Cassidy summed up this way:

“It’s like you’re navigating your way down a dark alleyway; you don’t know what’s in front of you — if there’s suddenly going to be a crack in the pavement or if you’re going to walk into a dumpster,” he said, using that phrase to indicate how difficult it is to plan when the rules keep changing, often without much, if any, notice. “Our goal, simply, is to plan to produce a product that people are going to enjoy.”

Cassidy is quite confident there will be a Big E this September — he just doesn’t how many people will be allowed to attend. He doesn’t think it will be full capacity, as in 100,000 people on a weekend day, as in fairs past. Instead, he’s expecting some percentage of that number, which won’t be ideal, but certainly better than last year.

And while most of his energy and attention is still focused on this year’s fair, he said he’s spending a good amount of time lobbying officials to understand the importance of fairs and live events in general, and to help ensure the long-term survival of such institutions, something he believes is now imperiled.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the rest of 2021.

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all, and he’s moving forward with planning after having to cancel the 2020 fair.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up,” he said, noting that various expert projections of herd immunity by fall or even sooner are encouraging, even as innumerable challenges and question marks loom.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a hard look at West Side and its efforts to become even more of a destination, even as its business community continues to battle COVID-19 and all the challenges it has brought.

 

Road to Progress

Reichelt, now wrapping up his second term in office, with plans to seek a third, said he can’t find too many silver linings from the pandemic and all the havoc it caused in 2020.

But he can find at least one — acceleration of the process to replace the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects his city with Agawam. The bridge project, which commenced two years ago, has to pause during the 17-day run of the Big E, he explained, adding that work actually comes to a halt for three weeks or more because of logistical concerns.

Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020, he went on, adding that a project that was due to be completed this summer will now be done by spring.

“The work is way ahead of schedule,” he said. “Without the Big E, they probably gained a month of working time, and that will certainly help out on the back end.”

The broad mission moving forward is to get more people to travel over that bridge and other thoroughfares into West Side, said Reichelt, adding that the city has always considered itself at the crossroads of this region — I-91 and the turnpike connect there, and Route 5 runs through it as well. This location has long been a huge asset, one that paved the way, if you will, for major retailers and car dealers alike to populate Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue. It has also brought visitors to the community not only for the Big E and shows on its grounds, but for myriad other tourism- and business-related functions, from leaf peeping to the semiannual EASTEC trade show.

The ongoing goal is to continually take advantage of this asset, build on the foundation that’s been laid, and try to spread the vibrancy to other areas of the city.

Which brings us back to Elm Street, Town Common, and the huge ‘Under New Management’ banner now adorning it.

As he gave BusinessWest a tour, Saremi pointed out the spot where Tandem Bagel would go, then did the same with the restaurant. Venturing to the second floor, much of which is now occupied by Saremi LLP, he showed where a number of smaller spaces, individual offices, and even co-working space might be carved out.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

Later, he pointed out one of the huge windows to the traffic — specifically, the juncture of Route 20 and Elm Street.

“This intersection has so much traffic … we need to get people to stop here in downtown West Side, get out, walk around, go to some shops, get something to eat — that’s how I see it,” he noted, adding that there are already some attractions there, including the Celery Stalk restaurant, a legendary luncheon stop; as well as bNapoli restaurant and the Majestic Theater. The broad goal is to build on that critical mass, he said, noting that clusters of eateries and entertainment venues have been the formula for success in Northampton, West Hartford, and other communities.

Reichelt concurred, and told BusinessWest the city is always striving to build on its already-impressive portfolio of retail- and hospitality-related businesses — and also fill in some spots that are less vibrant than others.

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says initiatives like a new economic recovery director and a series of infrastructure plans will help keep West Springfield on the right track.

As an example, he pointed to Riverdale Street, which actually has two distinct sections, if you will. There’s the one south of I-91, which is thriving and always has, said the mayor, who worked at the Donut Dip on that throughfare in his youth and thus speaks from experience. Then there’s the stretch north of the highway, which, while still vibrant by most measures, has some vacancies and, in general, is underperforming.

Reichelt said the city will look to help address this situation, and other business and economic-development issues in the city, through the hiring, at least on a temporary basis, of what’s being called an ‘economic recovery director.’

“The goal with this new position is to build better business relationships in the community, help with business retention, and focus on some of the underutilized areas, like the north-of-91 section of Riverdale,” he explained.

Already, there are signs of progress, he said, noting the reopened White Hut, the expansion of Calabrese Market on Park Street, and the sale of the former Hofbrahaus property to the owner of the Hangar Pub and Grill and growing ‘Wings Over’ stable of restaurants, among other positive developments.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Meanwhile, a number of infrastructure plans now in place are designed to improve traffic flow and, ultimately, promote more vibrancy in the city. First up is Park Street, he said, adding that it is being repaved and steps are being taken to taken to make the commons more accessible and safer to use. Those plans include what the mayor called a mile-long loop or walking and biking trail around the green space.

Elm Street will follow, he went on, adding that this will be a multi-faceted initiative designed to beautify the area, add more parking, redesign the intersection of Elm Street and Route 20, and allow people to make more and better use of the green space there.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this project is in the design phase and should commence in 2022. Likewise, a huge, $25 million project to improve traffic flow on Memorial Avenue will take place that same year.

 

Fair Assessment

Sitting in the large conference room in the Big E’s administration building, Cassidy reflected on what has been an ultra-challenging 12 months for this regional institution — and what lies ahead, to the extent that he could, obviously.

He said every aspect of this enterprise — from the annual fall fair to the year-round shows that draw visitors from across the Northeast, to the restaurant on the grounds, Storrowton Tavern — have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

And the hurt is still being felt. The shows slated for weekends in January and February were all canceled, he said, with some, including the huge Western Mass. Home & Garden Show, moved back on the calendar, in this case to August.

The Big E has received some support — nearly $1 million in the first round of PPP, with an application in for the second round of funding. There have been some cutbacks — the workforce has been trimmed from 30 full-time employees to 25 — and those who are left have found themselves with … let’s call them broadened job descriptions.

“Those of us who are still here have had to do jobs we’ve never had to before,” he noted, adding that such tasks include everything from directing traffic for the few events that have been staged to making sure the buildings on the grounds are secure. “Everyone has had to pitch in.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.90
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.49
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

As for the last three quarters of 2021, Cassidy said there are certainly some signs of optimism with his industry. For example, the Canadian government recently gave the green light for the popular Calgary Stampede to take place in June. Meanwhile, the Pasco County Fair in Florida was recently staged, albeit with a number of restrictions and safety precautions in place.

Cassidy took it in while on a trip to Tampa for ‘Florida Week’ and a number of trade association meetings that were staged in-person, which is significant in and of itself, he noted, adding that the main topic of conversation, obviously, was how to stage events safely.

“Interestingly, at the Pasco County Fair, we were there on a Tuesday night, it was chilly, but the fair manager indicated that attendance actually exceeded what it was last year, and he attributed that to the fact that people want to get out,” he recalled. “They want to resume ‘normal,’ and that’s in a state where businesses have been open and Main Street is open.”

But while he can look ahead and try to plan, there are too many question marks to do the latter with any amount of efficacy. These question marks surround everything from what the attendance restrictions will be to whether — and under what conditions — the state buildings can open, to whether individuals and families will be willing to come back out and be part of a mass gathering on the midway or one of the concert venues.

The major consideration is what will be permitted for attendance, said Cassidy, adding that it’s a simple but troubling fact that the costs of operating the fair will be roughly the same whether it’s at full capacity, 50%, or some other number. But the bottom line is that a smaller fair, attendance-wise, is certainly preferable to no fair at all.

“It costs the same to produce the fair for 1.6 million people as it does to produce the fair for one,” he said. “Our staff is preparing a conventional Big E and will try to deliver the product we’re known for.”

Cassidy believes that, as he saw in Florida, there will a significant amount of pent-up demand and that people will want to return to the fairgrounds.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Reichelt agreed, and said the return of the fair this fall, even a smaller fair, will help the region’s economy and, specifically, many of those hospitality-related businesses that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“Having it happen will be good, not only for the Big E, but for the region to bring back that sense of normalcy,” he noted. “And it will be helpful for businesses in the area as they start to recover from all this.”

 

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

Features

Work After the Pandemic

By John Graham

It’s been a year now since we came under the relentless domination of the coronavirus. After all this time, the picture isn’t pleasant. The end is uncertain, and the implications for the future are far from clear.

McKinsey reports that “75% of employees in the United States and close to a third in the Asia-Pacific region report symptoms of burnout. European nations are reporting increasing levels of pandemic fatigue in their populations. The number of those who rate their mental health as ‘very poor’ is more than three times higher than before the crisis, and mental-health issues are still likely to rise.” In spite of their severity, such figures should get our attention, but do they?

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the coronavirus is its divisiveness. More often than not, outside attacks — wars, famines, and natural disasters — bring us together to slay the dragon. But the pandemic has driven us further apart. Who would have thought life could take such a painful turn?

Overnight, workers were told to leave their jobs and work from home. Not only did they do it, they liked it. Now, many are ready to refuse to go back to claustrophobic cubicles or vacuous open spaces where they lacked privacy. To express their pleasure at working from home, they remodeled their bedrooms, kitchens, and basements; upgraded their internet connection; purchased all sorts of digital devices and office equipment; and didn’t miss a beat.

They’re choosy, too. “You want me in the office? I don’t think so.” Some moved to Boise or some other place in the middle of nowhere that welcomed them with open arms and lower living costs. They donned their sweats, popped open a laptop, jumped on virtual meetings, adjusted the lighting, turned on a monitor or two, and went to work in their new, $999 office chair, or decided to stay in bed and make it their office that day. To the utter surprise to everyone, productivity went up.

That’s just the first chapter. The McKinsey report also notes that “there is a veritable flood of new small businesses. In the third quarter of 2020 alone, there were more than 1.5 million new-business applications in the United States — almost double the figure for the same period in 2019.” That’s not all. The fourth quarter found Apple ripe for success with the highest revenue in its history — and the company wasn’t alone.

 

Four Lessons

All this adds up to an amazing, but totally counter-intuitive, story. But what does it mean to all of us who must live it? Literally, what in the world is going on? Even more to the point, what’s the message about the future — our future? Here are four thoughts about that.

“Overnight, workers were told to leave their jobs and work from home. Not only did they do it, they liked it. Now, many are ready to refuse to go back to claustrophobic cubicles or vacuous open spaces where they lacked privacy.”

The genie is out of the bottle. It’s finally happened. To put it another way, like no other phenomenon in modern history (perhaps in all of history), the pandemic released a level of momentum sufficient to turn the world and everything in it upside down in an instant. It may also be the catalyst that changes everything, from politics, government, and public policy to health and medicine, education, work-life balance, business, entertainment, culture, industry, and science. When Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, steps back, we can be sure profound change is in the air.

 

Far more people have seats at the table. We talked for so long, but nothing changed. Then, suddenly, we became keenly aware of those who had long been invisible to us. We raised our hands and called them ‘heroes’ but never raised their wages. Now, all of a sudden, we’ve finally figured out that when everyone has a seat, we have better healthcare, better jobs, stronger families, and happier communities. Could it possibly be that it took a painful pandemic to make more room at the table?

 

Everything is under a microscope. Again, counter-intuitive but nevertheless true: the number of applications for fall 2021 at the University of California are breaking all records. It’s happening at the same moment when millions of young Americans are questioning the value of a college education, particularly if it will take decades to free themselves from the sobering shackles of student debt. Those who went before them, the Millennials, are dogged in determining their own way in the world. Don’t be surprised. The lens of the microscope may never rest.

 

Don’t drink the Kool-Aid. There are dangers in the tension-filled, stressful times in which we find ourselves. Someone has aptly described it as “hitting the pandemic wall,” and it’s felt at home and at work. It’s when we reach out for relief so we can get our lives on a better path. Simple, quick, and easy answers are what sell in turbulent times: “buy this or do that, and your problems vanish, and your dreams come true.” We’re too resilient to do that to ourselves.

 

Bottom Line

Now, go back to where we started, the original question: “Who will have the upper hand after the pandemic: employers or employees?

All this leads to the final question. Through the pandemic frenzy, who will come out ahead, the workers or employers? The way it looks at the moment, it just may be the workers. But, as we all know, things can change. u

 

John Graham of GrahamComm is a marketing and sales strategy consultant and business writer. He is the creator of Magnet Marketing and publishes a free monthly e-bulletin, “No Nonsense Marketing & Sales Ideas”; [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says Holyoke lost considerable momentum to the pandemic, but it has a solid foundation on which to mount its recovery.

When he made up his mind roughly a year ago not to seek re-election to the state House seat he had held for four terms, Aaron Vega had an informal list of things he would like to do next when it came to his career.

Working in Holyoke City Hall certainly wasn’t one of them. But … things changed, in many ways, and in a profound way.

For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic limited some of the other options he was thinking about professionally, especially those in higher education, economic development, and workforce development. More importantly, though, Marcos Marrero, the long-time director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, decided that he, too, wanted a change. And as he went about looking for someone to fill his rather large shoes, he started talking to Vega, someone who obviously knew the city, was heavily invested in its future, and was looking for work.

“Working for the city wasn’t really on my shortlist — and not in a negative way,” said Vega, the former Holyoke city councilor who started his five-year appointment just a few weeks ago. “Marcos reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in taking the position; it came out of the clear blue sky. I was honored that he saw me as someone who could take the reins and keep going.”

He takes the helm in economic development when Holyoke, like most communities, and especially the urban centers, are looking to regain momentum lost due to the pandemic.

And, in the case of the Paper City, it’s a large amount of momentum.

Indeed, over the past several years, Holyoke had made great strides in a number of areas — downtown revitalization, with its cultural economy, with entrepreneurship and new business development, and, most recently, with cultivation (pun intended) of a new and potential-laden industry sector: cannabis. Indeed, with Mayor Alex Morse — who will not be seeking re-election in November and has been offered the the job of town manager of Provincetown — putting out the red carpet for the cannabis sector and the city blessed with millions of square feet of vacant mill space that is in some ways ideal for cannabis growing and other aspects of this business, Holyoke has become a destination for companies looking for a home.

The pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress in most of these areas, though. It has certainly impacted the cultural economy, most notably with the news that Gateway City Arts, the multi-purpose arts venue, has closed, and its owners are looking for a buyer. But signs of lost momentum are everywhere. The Cubit Building, once a symbol of downtown revitalization, is still humming on its residential floors, but the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center has been all but shut down by the pandemic. Meanwhile, there are still a number of vacancies on High Street and other downtown throughfares. And the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a significant economic engine for Holyoke and the region as a whole, has been canceled for the second year in a row.

“A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

“That’s been a huge financial hit to the restaurants and many other kinds of businesses,” Vega said of the parade. “The trickle-down impact is severe.”

Even the cannabis sector has been slowed a little by the pandemic, but in most all respects, it remains a powerful force in Holyoke, with more than 30 ventures currently at some stage of progression and perhaps 300 new jobs coming to the city with the slated opening in the next few months of Florida-based Truelieve’s facility on Canal Street.

The company, which has more than 2 million square feet of cultivation facilities and more than 70 dispensaries across several states, will operate a multi-faceted, vertically integrated operation that will include cultivation, production, and office operations in a 145,000-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Conklin Office.

“We understand scale, we understand supply chain, and we’re going to be bringing that experience to Massachusetts as we build out our cultivation here,” said Lynn Ricci, director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for the company, adding that the company expects to begin operations by the third quarter this year and employ between 250 and 300 people from the Holyoke area when fully operational.

For this, the latest in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Holyoke, an historic city that has bounced back from its decline in the ’60s and ’70s, and must now, in some ways, bounce back again.

 

Growth Opportunities

Vega is certainly no stranger to the large office he now occupies on the third floor of the City Hall annex building.

When he was a state representative, he would meet with Marrero there every month so he could keep pace with what was happening in the city where he grew up, spent most of his childhood life, and still lives.

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses in the arts and hospitality sectors to be devastated by the pandemic.

“We had a standing meeting with him in this office to keep up to date on all the projects that were going on, particularly around cannabis, because I was on the Committee on Cannabis Policy,” he explained. “So I was familiar with most of what was going on in this office, and I knew everyone in this office.”

Today, he’s having those same meetings with Patricia Duffy, his former legislative aide who successfully ran for his House seat last year.

“We just met a few days ago,” he said with a laugh. “We have a standing monthly meeting. It’s interesting being on the other side of the table — I spent the last eight years fighting for funding for all these programs, and now I’m actually utilizing them, and that’s kind of fun.”

Offering a similar update of sorts for BusinessWest, Vega focused on the momentum that has been lost in the city and the need to turn the clock back, in some respects, and put Holyoke back on the intriguing path it was on before March 2020.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face.”

Before getting to that, though, he was asked to elaborate on the circumstances that brought him to his current post.

“I wanted to focus more,” he said simply when asked why he wanted to move from his House seat. “One of the great things about being a state rep is all the different topics and issues that come across your desk. But, that said, you don’t really get to focus on anything; the best description of my job as state rep was that I was in a permanent liberal-arts education — and there were certain topics that I just wasn’t passionate about.”

He is certainly passionate about Holyoke, and his goal now is built on what had been achieved in the years before the pandemic.

“What Alex and Marcos did was change the conversation about Holyoke, they changed the direction of a lot of the development, and they helped usher in a plan — the urban-renewal plan,” he explained. “A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

The story the city can tell is a good one, although, as noted, it was better before the pandemic.

“Things were happening in this city; the momentum was happening,” Vega said. “It took a while to build that momentum, and hopefully we can get it back soon.”

The loss of Gateway City Arts, however, is a serious setback for the community.

“It was firing on all cylinders,” he said, referring to everything from its event venue to its popular restaurant. “And it’s ironic because we’re six or seven months away from having 200 to 400 more people working in downtown Holyoke in the cannabis industry — people who will be looking for a place to go eat or have a beer or listen to music after work. The irony is that we don’t have that right now.

“The biggest hit has been with momentum,” he went on. “Our restaurants took a hit, just like Northampton and Springfield; the housing developments, especially if they were dealing with state incentives, have been pushed out — everything’s taking longer now.”

Overall, Vega said, the pandemic has made it difficult for some small businesses to survive, and it’s made it more difficult for all of them to operate as they would like.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face,” he said, adding quickly that there is interest in some of the components of that business, and, likewise, the phone is starting to ring, and more interest is being shown in Holyoke within the development community.

“There’s a couple of key projects where, if we can get them online, we can regain some of that momentum,” he told BusinessWest, noting that one such project is a large housing initiative downtown, a 92-unit project being undertaken by WinnDevelopment at the former Farr Alpaca mills that has been slowed by the always-complicated process of applying for and receiving historic tax credits.

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street is ramping up for opening, and is projected to employ between 250 and 300 people when fully operational.

Meanwhile, some projects that were “percolating,” as Vega put it, before the pandemic and back-burnered to one extent or another are perhaps poised to be revisited and moved off the drawing board. These include some indoor agriculture that is not cannabis-related.

“The biggest price-point stuff that they’re talking about right now is lettuce and herbs,” he noted, “because there’s a quick-growing cycle; you can turn lettuce around in 30 days. So many restaurants want locally grown, hormone-free lettuce … there’s real potential there, and they can grow other vegetables, too. The price point is not as good as cannabis, but we’ve been talking about urban farming for a while, and we’re trying to create opportunities.”

 

On a Roll

Speaking of cannabis, while the pandemic has slowed some aspects of that sector, the industry is poised for additional growth, especially in the Paper City. The next important chapter looks to be written by Truelieve, which just received its occupancy permit. But there are many companies with plans in various stages of development.

Indeed, Vega said, there are two growing facilities now online and three dispensaries, but, overall, there are 40 host agreements and 40 provisional licenses at the state level.

As for Truelieve, its story touches on many of the opportunities and challenges that Holyoke and its old mills present, said Ricci, who started by noting that the company was mostly in Florida before last year, when it started expanding aggressively into other states, including a cultivation facility in Pennsylvania (added through acquisition) and dispensaries in Connecticut and other states.

“We really see 2021 as a big year for national expansion and being a true multi-state operator,” she explained, adding that, when looking for places in which to broaden the portfolio with new facilities, Truelieve focuses on cities and towns with large minority populations, communities that clearly need the jobs and everything else these ventures bring to the fore.

“Investing in a majority minority community was important to us,” she said. And upon concluding that the Bay State would be a good market to enter, Holyoke soon came onto its radar.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1850
Population: 40,135
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.74
Median Household Income: $33,030
Family Household Income: $36,262
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center; Holyoke Community College; ISO New England; Hazen Paper
* Latest information available

“We wanted to make sure, going in, that we were revitalizing and adding to the community and providing jobs; those kinds of things are important to us as a core value of the company,” she noted. “When we found this location in Holyoke, an area that had certainly seen better times, we thought, ‘we could invest here and provide the jobs.’”

As for the site in Holyoke, renovating the historic mill has been “a huge undertaking,” Ricci said, adding that the company entered into a sale/lease-back arrangement in order to secure the nearly $40 million required for this project (cannabis operations cannot obtain traditional bank financing, because the product is illegal on a federal level).

The actual buildout was an involved process that began more than a year ago and was slowed by state mandates that shut down many types of construction during the early months of the pandemic.

“The property is beautiful in its own way — there’s big, wide staircases and beautiful brickwork, but … it needed a lot of work,” she told BusinessWest. “It has been a challenge, and not just to set up different rooms, but to make sure everything was set up properly.”

Staffing is the next challenge to be overcome, Ricci said, adding that final inspections of the facility are expected sometime this quarter, with growing due to begin, as noted, in the second quarter.

Other facilities are in various stages of the pipeline, said Vega, who told BusinessWest that, while the city is welcoming all types of cannabis businesses, the larger cultivation facilities hold the most promise for jobs and overall impact on the city and the region, and he can envision the day when perhaps eight to 12 such ventures are operating in the city.

And, like his predecessor, he sees opportunities not merely for the growing and selling of cannabis, but also encouraging businesses that can provide needed products to those ventures.

“A lot of the products used by these businesses are made in Texas and Florida, the simple things like the planters — we should be making those here in Holyoke,” he noted. “I equate it to the ‘green’ industries. It’s great seeing solar fields — we have some in Holyoke — but we should be building solar panels in Western Mass., not just installing them.”

 

Bottom Line

Making progress in that area is just one of the ways Holyoke will be looking to regain the considerable amount of momentum it lost to the pandemic.

The city that had come so far in the past decade has the foundation that Vega mentioned in place. It has the building blocks, and it has a cannabis industry hungry for the open spaces, low energy prices, and other amenities that this city can provide.

The pandemic certainly slowed the pace of progress, but Vega and other officials are confident that the Paper City can soon regain its stride.

 

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

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders to address the urgent needs of the business community during the pandemic.

 

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, first made the observation, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

While Epictetus did not live in Amherst, town officials and business leaders there have certainly adopted the philosopher’s adage in their robust efforts to return the town to vitality in the face of a pandemic.

Last March, when COVID-19 began to affect life in communities everywhere, Amherst took a broader hit than most because UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College all shut down earlier than other area institutions.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said the suddenly empty campuses posed a shock to the system.

“We lost 40,000 people in a 48-hour period,” she recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

With college closings and retail activity coming to a screeching halt, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said his town lost its two major industries because of the pandemic. Still, he noted, “despite all that, the town has been resilient, and we are prepared to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong way.”

Early on, Amherst quickly mobilized a COVID-19 response team as Bockelman and the department heads of the Police, Fire, Public Works, and other departments met daily to strategize, he explained. “We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

The next priority was to maintain continuity of government functions. Amherst migrated town staff to remote work and incorporated Zoom meetings to assure key bodies such as the Town Council and the School Committee could keep moving forward. Permit-granting committees soon followed.

“We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

As plans were coming together to allow outdoor dining, the Town Council passed a special bylaw to delegate simple zoning decisions to the building commissioner. This move sped up the permitting process and cut down on much of the bureaucratic red tape.

“For example, permits for serving alcohol outdoors or expanding the footprint of a restaurant could be done through one person instead of going through an often-lengthy permitting process,” Bockelman said.

To address the urgent needs of the local business community, he also met weekly with Gould and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The BID and chamber share office space on Pleasant Street, so Pazmany and Gould worked together to learn about the many grants available to local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The main goal was to help owners stay in business.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says one of her most important roles has been helping business owners navigate the grant system.

“We knew that closing their doors would mean closing their doors forever,” Pazmany said. “That’s what we were trying to avoid.”

 

Granting a Reprieve

Before the pandemic, the chamber would host 56 events in a typical year. Pazmany said she quickly moved to digital events to keep everyone together. “We went from 56 events to 56,000 connections on Facebook and other social media.”

More importantly, in addition to helping local businesses apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Gould and Pazmany have successfully secured grant programs at the state and federal level.

A number of Amherst businesses received grants through the state COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, which provided a total of $668 million for Massachusetts businesses. Amherst also secured $140,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for local businesses.

State Sen. Joan Comerford helped the Chamber and BID to fund the recently formed Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program. Originally designed to provide $500 microgrants, Pazmany said they were able to secure matching dollars, so $1,000 grants will soon be awarded to 18 of Amherst’s small-business owners in the first round of the program.

“The microgrant money will help defray some costs and allow people to keep going,” she said. “Many of these business owners are not even paying themselves; they just want to pay their bills.”

One of the more important roles Pazmany and Gould have taken on involves helping business owners navigate the grant system. Whether it’s identifying eligible funding, helping to fill out forms, or solving technical issues, Pazmany said they are not limiting their support to just chamber members. “Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

While outdoor dining and takeout have enabled restaurants to keep their doors open, the BID launched an effort to do more, buying meals from local restaurants and giving them to families in need. The effort began two months ago with the moniker December Dinner Delights and recently received funding to continue through April. Gould sees this as a win-win.

“We pay the restaurants $1,500 twice a week to help them sustain business, and we provide meals for families in our community,” she noted.

Another effort to support local business involves a gift-card program run by the chamber. Launched at the beginning of the holiday season, the gift cards can be redeemed at more than two dozen local businesses, from restaurants to a cat groomer. Pazmany said she has had to reorder cards to keep up with demand. “It works because you are able to give someone a gift and, at the same time, support a small business; it’s the best type of reinvestment in our community.”

As for town-run programs, last spring, municipal leaders had to figure out what to do about the farmers’ market it runs every Saturday from April through November. In the past, it was held in a cramped parking lot that would not conform to social-distancing protocols. Because the town common had no activities scheduled, the farmers’ market set up there — and had its most successful year ever.

“Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

“Our town common is a bucolic setting, and people who were cooped up all week could safely come and buy things,” Bockelman said. The manager of the farmers’ market reported the average sales week in 2020 equaled the best sales week in 2019, and the booths sold out of their products every week.

The farmers’ market was a highly visible way to revitalize interest in Amherst, as are continuing “quality-of-life developments,” as Bockelman called them, such as the newly opened Groff Park and the building of a new playground at Kendrick Park.

But smaller acts, like making picnic tables available in parks and other public places, were popular as well, he added. “As soon as we put out the tables, people were immediately using them. It was awesome.”

 

Forward Thinking

Looking to the future, Amherst is making decisions on four major capital projects slated for construction in 2022. On the drawing board are a new elementary school, a new library, a new Public Works facility, and a new fire station.

“We are trying to incorporate these projects into our ongoing budget so the taxpayer does not have to take on too much of a burden,” Bockelman said.

The desirability of Amherst as a place to live keeps housing prices high, which he calls a two-edged sword because it hurts the town’s ability to build a diverse socioeconomic community.

“People value diversity in Amherst,” he said. Still, he added, “it’s much more diverse than most people realize, especially our school district.”

To deepen that diverse profile, Amherst is looking to invest in property to develop more affordable housing. Bockelman pointed to a recently approved development on Northampton Road and a potential land purchase on Belchertown Road as additional projects in the works. “The town is willing to make the investment to develop and retain affordable-housing units in Amherst.”

To better address diversity in business, the chamber makes available an open-source document for proprietors who want to identify their business as being run by a woman, minority, or LGBTQ individual.

Pazmany said it’s simply good for business, noting that “we are getting steady requests from people who want to do business with various self-identifying businesses.”

Amherst at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

One element in the town’s strategy emphasizes Amherst’s potential as a tourist destination. Several national news articles have suggested that this decade may become a second “roaring 20s” with a renewed emphasis on cultural attractions. If that’s so, Pazmany pointed out, Amherst has plenty to offer, such as Museums10, a collaborative of 10 area museums, of which seven are located in town. Together, the museums cover various aspects of history, art, literature, and the natural world.

“In a normal year, Museums10 will bring more than a half-million people to the area,” she said. “The Emily Dickinson Poetry Festival itself is a global event.”

For the more immediate future, the plan is to have outdoor dining up and running by April 1. The BID was able to supply enough table umbrellas and heaters during the summer to boost last year’s effort. Because there are so many barriers in place to ensure safe outdoor dining, the BID also paid 35 artists to turn the plain concrete into a medium to express themselves.

“The barriers became nice displays of public art, and they give downtown a bit of an art-walk feel,” Gould said.

Simple touches like the artwork and adding planters around town generated positive comments from visitors and business owners alike. Pazmany appreciated the boost of confidence. “In this next phase, we just want our businesses to be up and running so they can take a paycheck and start to rehire people.”

Most Amherst leaders, in fact, look to the coming year with great anticipation. Bockelman noted that the town has several fundamental strengths, including the university and colleges. Pazmany added that UMass has already reported an increase in enrollment for the coming fall.

Gould admits that pushing forward on grants and other relief efforts helped Amherst through the worst of the pandemic. “Despite how hard everyone was hit, we’ve created a resiliency that kept our businesses here.”

Bockelman agreed. “Everyone’s efforts worked because they were sequential and were patiently done. We just kept moving forward.”

Epictetus would be proud.

Features Special Coverage

Entering a Partnership?

 By Brenden Cawley and Gabriel Jacobson 

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused several partnerships local to Western Mass. to either consider or actually effect a change in ownership. When navigating the complexities of these changes in ownership, partnership basis is a vital component.

For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.

 

Understanding the Basics of Basis

It stands to reason that the cash spent or provided to acquire an asset would be the cost (basis) of that asset. However, when analyzing partnerships, understand the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ basis. The difference is a shift in perspective. The outside basis is established when the partner joins or forms the partnership through the contribution of cash (or property, which adds additional complexity). The partnership then uses that cash to purchase assets.

The cash outlay to acquire those assets establishes the total inside basis of the partnership. Based on each partner’s ownership, a share of the inside basis of the individual assets is assigned accordingly. This inside basis does not fluctuate with changes in market value of the assets. When a tax year closes, the partners each receive a Schedule K-1 and adjust their outside basis by the income, expense, gain, or loss disclosed on the Schedule K-1.

Brenden Cawley

Brenden Cawley

“For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.”

Over the life of the partnership, cash or property will be distributed to the partners, which will decrease their outside basis. The inside basis of the partnership will similarly be reduced as the cost of assets is removed from the books through sale or distribution. When the partnership is in need, the partners may contribute additional cash or property. Additional contributions have the same positive impact on outside basis as the initial contribution that formed the partnership or acquired an interest.

As time goes by, differences can arise between the inside and outside basis of the partner(s). As the inside and outside basis of the partnership fall out of alignment, the partners can experience negative tax consequences. Each taxpayer is responsible for maintaining their own outside basis, so consult your tax advisor if questions arise. Through a Section 754 election, the partnership has an opportunity to avoid these consequences.

Like anything worthwhile, this election takes work. It is perhaps especially laborious if the partner or partnership have not been actively tracking the inside and outside basis disparity. The partners’ Schedule K-1s could offer a lifeline. Prior to 2020, each partner’s capital account in item L could be prepared on a book, GAAP, Section 704(b), or tax basis. It is possible that the partner’s capital account prepared using book, GAAP, or Section 704(b) is a reasonable approximation for the inside basis of the partner.

This is a highly simplified approach that needs to be vetted with the partnership’s tax advisor. Starting in 2020, the IRS has mandated that Item L of Schedule K-1 must be prepared on a tax basis. The partner’s tax capital account is a good starting point for both outside and inside tax basis. Again, this simplified assumption needs to be discussed with a tax advisor. Please note that tax capital reported on the Schedule K-1 is not equivalent to outside tax basis. Instead, outside tax basis considers liabilities of the partnership for which the partner is individually responsible and partner-specific adjustments.

 

Everyday Example

In year one, Ann and Bob purchase a building for $200,000 and split the cost evenly, giving them each 50% ownership in ABC Partnership. Initially, they each had outside basis equal to their inside basis of $100,000. In year two, as a result of COVID-19, Bob wants to exit the partnership. The building has appreciated in value to $300,000, so he sells his interest in ABC Partnership to Carl for $150,000. Bob will recognize a $50,000 gain in year two as a result of the excess cash received compared to his cost basis.

First, let’s imagine the partnership does not make a 754 election at this point. Carl steps into Bob’s inside basis of $100,000. However, his outside basis equals the total amount he paid, or $150,000. In year three, Ann and Carl decide to sell the building (for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume no depreciation has been expensed), which is still valued at $300,000 and therefore results in a gain of $100,000. Both Ann and Carl receive Schedule K-1s with a $50,000 gain for the year because they both had an inside basis of $100,000 prior to the sale.

Gabriel Jacobson

Gabriel Jacobson

“Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex.”

After recording the gain, their inside basis increases to $150,000. Ann’s inside and outside basis remain aligned, but Carl’s basis disparity persists as the $50,000 of gain impacts his inside and outside basis in the same manner. In year four, Carl and Ann decide to dissolve the partnership. At this point, the $300,000 cash they received from the sale of the building is distributed to both partners evenly. Ann receives $150,000 in cash, which equals her outside basis. For this reason, she recognizes no gain or loss on the dissolution of the partnership.

Alternatively, Carl recognizes a $50,000 loss outside of the partnership since his total outside basis is $200,000. At this point Carl is kicking himself because he paid taxes on a $50,000 gain in year three only to recognize a loss of $50,000 one year later. If Carl does not have any capital gains in year four, he can only utilize $3,000 of the capital losses on his tax return. The remaining losses are carried forward indefinitely.

Now let’s imagine the partnership made the 754 election when Carl purchased his 50% interest in year two. At that time, his inside basis would have been increased by $50,000 to match his outside basis. The partnership would have adjusted Carl’s inside basis in the building to $150,000, matching his outside basis. Then in year three, when Ann and Carl sell the building, Carl would not recognize any gain because his inside basis matches his share of the sales proceeds ($150,0000).

In year four, when the partnership dissolved, Carl would not recognize a loss on the distribution of cash from the partnership because his portion of the partnership’s cash balance ($150,000) equals his outside basis ($150,000). Carl avoided the timing issue regarding any taxable gain on the building sale and any loss on dissolution by making the 754 election.

 

On an Income-tax Return

If Carl and Ann decided to hold onto the building instead of selling in year three, Carl could deduct from his Schedule K-1 the basis adjustments related to the Section 754 election. The total Section 754 adjustment of $50,000 is reduced to zero over time using the same mechanics as the depreciation on the building. The 754 adjustment reduces both Carl’s inside and outside basis equally. The benefit is that he will receive deductions on line 13 of his K-1 against income on his tax return each year until the $50,000 is fully deducted.

Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex. Section 754 is important for a partner purchasing an interest and for existing partners looking to secure a new partner to help their business. Accurate tracking of inside and outside basis is of the utmost importance to reduce negative tax consequences down the line.

 

Brenden Cawley is a senior associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka P.C., and Gabriel Jacobson is an associate with the firm; (413) 536-8510.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

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Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

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

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

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

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

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Journey to Wellness

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

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