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Features STUFF Made in Western Mass

Introducing a new publication aimed at the workforce of tomorrow

Manufacturing jobs have been hard to fill and qualified employees difficult to find –

While the manufacturing sector represents a robust 160,000 jobs in the state, the industry has a PR problem, especially with younger workers. The message of GOOD JOBS AT GOOD WAGES and a future career offering advancement in a growing company is just not getting through. And even with the state’s unemployment rate at 4.4% the industry struggles with recruiting, and needs potential workers to take a fresh look at manufacturing. >> Go to the FLIPbook HERE

Introducing a new publication aimed at the workforce of tomorrow – A Guide to Cool STUFF Made in Western Massachusetts. STUFF is a cool, interactive publication and website profiling area manufacturers, showcasing what they make, who uses it, and what kinds of jobs/careers there are in each company. This special publication is an awareness and recruitment tool for western Mass. manufacturers like no other before it.

If you are manufacturing in Western Mass. and have workforce development as a top priority, make sure your company has a profile in STUFF! Read about how this publication will become part of the efforts to expand the manufacturing workforce and area supporters. 

Print Distribution:

Students:
Copies will go to all trade and technical high schools, with additional distribution to all area
high schools through career fairs, guidance counselors.
Community Colleges, as well as career counseling offices in all the state’s colleges.
Through regional workforce groups, employment offices and other targeted workforce
development programs

Manufacturers & MA Business Leaders:
STUFF will be direct mailed to top manufacturers – CEO’s and Sr. executives at the top firms across Western Mass.
Mailed to non-manufacturing employers in Western Mass.
To BusinessWest subscribers
Through manufacturing industry partners and at key manufacturing events throughout the year

Click for Publication Specifics & Pricing
Click for Order Form
Click for Manufacturing Questionnaire

SPACE DEADLINE FOR 2019: TBA.

For more information contact:
Kate Campiti 413.781.8600 (ext. 104) [email protected]
Kathleen Plante 413.781.8600 (ext. 108) [email protected]

This specialty publication is presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), MassDevelopment, MassMEP, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and The Western Massachusetts Chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association (WMNTMA)

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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz say Amherst benefits in many ways from its reputation as an academic hub.

Amherst is a community in transition, Paul Bockelman says — in some positive ways.

The most notable change, obviously, was the seating of Amherst’s first Town Council last month; 13 members were elected following a change in the town charter last March that included a move away from the town-meeting form of government.

“Some people who advocated for the charter change felt the representative town meeting wasn’t fully representative of the town and wasn’t nimble enough to address the issues that were facing the town on a daily basis,” said Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. Other people, he added, were angry after the town meeting failed to fund a new school building.

Either way, he went on, “they’re building a government from scratch. Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting. A lot of issues were put on hold during the transition period. Now that the council’s in place, there’s this backlog of things people want them to do, so those will start pouring through the system during the course of the year.”

But that’s not the only way Amherst is changing, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s Economic Development director. He cited activity in the restaurant scene, which has welcomed a number of new names, including Asian eateries Chuan Jiao and Kaiju, Jake’s at the Mill in North Amherst, Share Amherst, and Shiru Café, an intriguing coffee shop and study space that offers free coffee to area students in exchange for their personal information, which is sold to job recruiters and advertisers.

“Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting.”

“For college students, it’s an interesting model where they get a cup of coffee every hour,” Bockelman said. “It’s really designed for college students to hang out and do their homework, and the only requirement is that you give them some data that you otherwise would give to Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s not just for marketing,” Kravitz added, “but for recruiting for jobs out of college. Recruiting is really the model.”

Other restaurants are on their way as well, he added, and vacant properties, especially downtown, don’t remain unfilled for long.

“It’s not a stagnant town; it’s a town of transitions, and not just because we have a new form of government,” Bockelman added. “It seems that every time a restaurant moves out, a new restaurant comes in.”

Building on Progress

There’s plenty more activity on the development front as well. In September, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst opened One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

“That whole complex rented up very quickly and is full,” Bockelman said, noting that Archipelago has developed a handful of other properties in Amherst, and is planning another mixed-use project at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are moving forward with North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use development under construction in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space.

Amherst is also among the Western Mass. communities enthusiastically exploring the marijuana industry as an economic driver. That’s not surprising, considering the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana by a 3-to-1 margin. RISE Amherst, a medical-marijuana dispensary, is currently in operation, with three other businesses working their way through the local and state licensing process.

With 33,000 students attending UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town has also worked on educational efforts around adult-use marijuana, and has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.

From a municipal perspective, the town has long been studying the potential renovation of the North Common/Main Street parking lot, Kravitz noted.

“There’s been a parking lot in front of Town Hall since at least the ’70s, if not earlier, and we’re trying to redesign it from both a drainage and ecological perspective,” he explained. “It’s sort of sloped oddly, so when it rains, all the rain coming off the streets washes it out; that was the primary purpose of looking at it.”

What to do with the space will be one of the Town Council’s issues to tackle in 2019, Bockelman added. “The biggest question coming up relatively soon to the Town Council will be, do you want to work on this project or leave it as is?”

Meanwhile, the overall vision for Amherst has long involved arts and culture. The Amherst Central Cultural District aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions, and some of those efforts bleed into the downtown area as events, such as ArtWeek, a statewide effort taking place from April 26 to May 5.

Amherst at a Glance:

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“We want to create more excitement about being downtown,” Bockelman said. “Downtowns today are less about retail, brick-and-mortar shops and more about entertainment and cultural events. Some of them can be sponsored by the town, but a lot of them come from individuals.”

Many of Amherst’s museums and cultural institutions have statewide, even national reputations, and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are two of fewer than two dozen ‘living buildings’ worldwide — structures that meet strict standards for hyper-sustainability and net-zero energy use.

All these factors, plus the colleges and UMass, create a buzz and energy that attracts both new businesses and families to Amherst, Kravitz said.

“From a business perspective, there are very few communities of our size that boast three institutions of higher education,” he told BusinessWest. “I think that we have an incredibly educated population. People want to be around other people who have big ideas, so I think that’s part of the draw for some of the businesses — to be around other smart people. You saw that happening in Boston and Cambridge, you saw it happen in Silicon Valley, and I think that all starts with the academic institutions, whether it’s Stanford or MIT or UMass here.”

It’s Academic

The recent mixed-use developments are a welcome start to meeting housing needs in a growing town, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple of decades. In fact, a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units.

Still, Bockelman said, “I think it really is a place where people want to come to raise their family, for lots of different reasons.”

Last week, he met with a man who teaches two days a week in Washington, D.C. “He says he can leave his house at 6:15 in the morning, be in Washington by 10, and stays overnight. When he comes back, he takes the 5:00 and is back home at 8 to put his kid to bed. He chose to live in Amherst because he wanted a multi-cultural community with people who care about education, with excellent schools and an academic environment, and he found all that, plus easy access to open space. So he’s willing to make that weekly commute from Bradley. That’s kind of amazing to hear.”

That’s why it’s heartening, he added, to see how UMass Amherst has raised its profile in recent years as an internationally recognized research institution.

“It’s a big economic engine; thousands of people come in every day to work there,” he said. “Amherst is the largest community in Hampshire County, but it doesn’t read that way because it doesn’t look like Northampton, like a city. And in terms of our population, some people say the students are inflating that, but they’re here eight to nine months a year. And what that number does not count is the number of people who come into town every day because they’re employed by the two colleges or the university.”

In short, he concluded, “it’s a very vibrant community, even though it retains a certain college-town atmosphere that so many people love about it.”

That characteristic is one he and Kravitz both expect to remain steady, no matter what other transitions Amherst has in store.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

High Stakes

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

It’s been an eventful six years since voters first approved marijuana sales to treat medical conditions back in 2012. From that vote sprang New England Treatment Access (NETA) three years ago, and last month, the dispensary became one of just two stores in Massachusetts selling cannabis products for adult recreational use as well. NETA’s co-founder says the company has proven itself to be a good neighbor and an economic driver — and promises to be even more so in what is certainly a bold new era for marijuana in the Bay State.

When Kevin Fisher came to Massachusetts to help launch a medical-marijuana dispensary, he was already a veteran of the industry in Colorado, with plenty of passion to boot.

Fisher’s family, like so many others, has been struck by cancer, he said, and the idea — first as owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado and then, starting in 2015, as co-founder of New England Treatment Access (NETA) — was always to draw in people with chronic and even terminal illness who may consider cannabis a viable therapy.

By the time NETA opened its doors in Northampton and Brookline, the anecdotal evidence for the drug’s effectiveness had been well-established elsewhere, he noted.

“We knew patients were using these therapies for a broad range of conditions,” Fisher told BusinessWest, before praising the law crafted after voters approved legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“In Massachusetts, they got it right. Instead of legislators playing physician, the law granted physicians the freedom to make recommendations as they saw fit. It was important to maintain the sanctity of that patient-physician relationship. And we wanted to make sure we would provide quality products for patients to meet that broad range of conversations with physicians.”

Now, another law has significantly altered NETA’s business model. On Nov. 20, the company’s Northampton site, as well as Cultivate Holdings, LLC in Leicester, became the first facilities in the Northeast to sell marijuana to the public for adult recreational use.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘customer service associates.’ We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

At a press event after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission gave the go-ahead, Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, said the shop is “beyond thrilled to be a part of this historic moment when NETA Northampton finally gets to open its doors to adults over 21 to provide safe, legal, and regulated cannabis to the people of Massachusetts.”

It’s certainly a welcome shift for many in the Valley, but it comes with challenges — concerning consumer safety, public perceptions, even traffic on Conz Street, which backed up significantly at certain times in the days following Nov. 20. But Fisher said NETA has long been preparing to meet them.

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates, with some of the ‘flower’ available for purchase.

Early on, for example, the organization brought in Leslie Laurie, former head of Tapestry Health and a long-time expert in public health in Western Mass., as its regional director. “She had expertise we could benefit from, a perspective on patients’ needs in Western Mass.,” Fisher said.

The founders also assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that the progressive culture in Northampton would prove welcoming to a dispensary that first sold cannabis products to a patients with prescriptions, and, now, to any adult with an ID.

“We felt [Northampton] was the place to go, and the process was pretty smooth,” he added. “I’m thankful for Leslie; she brought a credibility to our organization and the relationships we built with government and law enforcement. And we’ve only continued to build those relationships during the adult-use licensing, because they could appreciate the solid community partners we have been.”

Opening a medical-marijuana dispensary in Brookline, however, was a “whole different beast,” Fisher noted. “There were about 100 meetings required — some open to the media and the public, many with public officials … just meeting after meeting, a lot of hand-holding and reassurance. It was a very rigorous process.”

Despite that tougher road than the Northampton one, NETA felt affirmed when its license with Brookline came up for renewal after the first year. “The town said we didn’t even need to show up for the hearing; it was guaranteed. It made us feel like we had operated in the way we had promised.”

By contrast, Northampton was always a smoother fit, and is currently the only NETA site approved for recreational sales, as the licensing process continues in Brookline.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use,” Fisher said of the Paradise City, adding that NETA has never taken that goodwill for granted. “We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

Time will tell if issues arise, of course, but for now, Fisher is pleased with the business — customers are still waiting in line most days — and NETA’s continued growth as what he calls a true community partner.

The Ayes Have It

In 2016, four years after the similar vote on medical marijuana, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational sales to adults age 21 years and older. If they present a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license, ID card, or passport) for verification, customers may purchase up to 1 ounce of ‘flower’ or 5 grams of concentrate. Certain potency restrictions, including a 5 mg serving-size limit for ‘edibles,’ apply to non-medical products.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use. We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

However, Fisher was quick to note that, with the introduction of recreational sales, NETA’s medical-marijuana patients will remain the shop’s priority. Patients with prescriptions have their own lines, and at least 35% of each day’s inventory is reserved for patients. In short, the customer experience has not changed for people seeking to fill scripts.

As for those waiting in line for recreational sales, Fisher said it typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to get through, but technology is available to shorten the wait NETA uses a reserve-ahead app to view the daily menu, reserve an order online, and have it ready for pickup at a certain time later that day. In addition, for people looking to gauge the wait at any given time, NETA offers continuous live wait-time updates on its website.

It has also doubled customer service staff and remodeled the stores to offer nearly twice as many service stations.

Also ramped up are efforts to educate customers about cannabis products — a key factor, considering that many users are likely to be inexperienced.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘patient service associates,’” Fisher said, noting that he prefers that over the flip industry term ‘budtenders.’ “We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

That training — about two months worth — includes everything from understanding the core components of cannabis products to encouraging new users to ‘start low and go slow.’

“That’s a message we drive home again and again to our PSAs and our customers. There will always be more cannabis. So find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and start easy so you don’t have negative outcomes.”

In addition to the ‘low and slow’ guidance, NETA’s consumer-education materials emphasize elements like a ‘what product is right for me’ guide; advice against driving or using heavy machinery under the influence, public consumption, and traveling across state lines; a potency and tolerance tutorial, safe storage; and recognizing substance-abuse signs and identifying resources for additional help.

Recognizing that some of the opposition to legalized marijuana came from individuals concerned about products getting into children’s hands, all NETA product packaging is child-resistant and labeled with revised warnings and clear information to ensure that people can identify edible products as marijuana-infused and not safe for children.

In addition to training staff to emphasize responsible consumption when interacting with consumers, NETA has retained a full-time training coordinator to continuously develop and manage retail-staff training.

Understanding dosage levels is is important, Fisher said, as are reminders that the effects differ between smoking marijuana and ingesting edibles. In the latter case, “you could see a delayed onset, so don’t eat that whole bag if you don’t feel it’s working. That sounds like simple advice, but it’s a big deal for us.”

As it is for the Cannabis Control Commission, which encourages prospective customers to know the law and consume responsibly.

“This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state,” Chairman Steven Hoffman said last month. “To get  here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections, and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets  up and running. As patrons look forward to visiting Massachusetts stores, we hope they will do their part by first familiarizing themselves with the law and understanding what is required of responsible consumers.”

Growing Concerns

Beyond Northampton and Brookline, Fisher said, NETA’s cultivation facility in Franklin — which has nearly doubled its capacity in anticipation of adult use — continues to invest heavily in research and is developing a pipeline of products designed to improve customers’ experiences and address specific medical conditions and symptoms.

And, make no mistake, even though adults can buy cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription, he added, it still makes sense to receive and renew certification as a patient — not just because of the lessened wait to be served, but because patients also avoid the 20% tax on adult-use sales, and can access a yearly voucher program to help offset the cost of being certified.

He’s also excited about the potential in Massachusetts, considering the scientific and medical resources available locally, to continue researching the benefits of marijuana from a medical perspective. “Clearly, we’re going to get more research; we have some of the brightest minds in the world of healthcare here in Western Mass.”

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

Overall, Fisher is a believer in the benefits of this industry, in terms of healthcare, quality of life, and economic benefits, like taxes paid and workers hired. The company employs close to 600 people, more than 100 in Western Mass. alone.

“Billions of dollars are spent yearly in this country [on marijuana], so by regulating it, there’s economic impact that can be realized, taxes to be paid, safety measures put in place … you’re not in someone’s car in an alley.”

And for adults who have no particular health condition but simply want to partake as an escape from life’s stresses, well, he believes there are far worse alternatives for that.

“That’s not to encourage broader consumption of cannabis, but let’s normalize it so parents can talk to their kids about it,” he told BusinessWest. “In Colorado, where it’s a mature industry, the youth rates have gone down. It’s just less cool for kids. There’s more open dialogue. Parents are having more discussions about it.”

And, he was quick to add, that guy selling pot on the corner, in states where it remains illegal, doesn’t check an ID like a responsible dispensary does.

“We’re bringing it from the darkness into the light and realizing a lot of positive outcomes,” he said. “On balance, this is a good thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Expanding His Horizons

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen has plans to dramatically expand his Delaney’s Market concept, and he will start in downtown Springfield.

When asked about the long-awaited opening of MGM Springfield last August, Peter Rosskothen, whose various businesses compete against the resort casino on a number of levels, said, among other things, that he was “excited about the excitement” permeating the city’s downtown.

And he hinted broadly that he might soon be part of it.

In a few more months, he will be, opening the second location of his Delaney’s Market concept in a soon-to-be-vacated coffee shop at 1365 Main St., just a few hundred feet from the casino. He plans to open more of these facilities, which offer a variety of prepared meals to go, in Wilbraham and Westfield sometime in 2019, but for now, his time and energies are focused on getting the doors open in Springfield.

Indeed, the serial entrepreneur, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, the adjacent D. Hotel & Suites, and more, believes his concept, launched in Longmeadow 18 months ago, is the right product at the right time, and that downtown Springfield is the next right place.

“I wanted to be part of what was happening in downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “I believe this concept will work at that location. I think there is a need for this, and it will be a nice addition to the landscape there.”

Rosskothen said he’s long been thinking about expansion into Springfield — and other locations — and narrowed his search to 1365 Main St. late last summer, just as the casino was opening its doors.

That location is within a few hundred feet of several office towers, he noted, adding that the thousands of people working in those buildings fall within the broad constituency he’s targeting with this concept.

“I wanted to be part of what was happening in downtown Springfield.”

Specifically, he’s focused on busy people — and that’s just about everyone these days — both young and old who want to eat healthy, restaurant-quality food (but not at restaurant prices), but are challenged to find the time and inclination to prepare it themselves.

But he expects that those working in Springfield will become just part of his customer base. Indeed, like other close observers, he senses that the already-sizable population of people living in the downtown area will be growing in the years to come as the city becomes a more popular settling place.

“We’re going to be where people work, but also where some people live and where more people will be living in the years to come,” he noted. “There’s a lot happening in Springfield; the pieces are coming together. There is more to do, and soon there will be more places to live. And as more people come to live here, there will be more support businesses and more things to do. We’re starting to see it.”

As for the Delaney’s Market concept, Rosskothen said he did a good amount of due diligence before opening the location in Longmeadow. That research, and his own instincts, told him it was a business model with merit, one that would meet a sizable need that was not being met.

Roughly 18 months after opening, the facility is selling about 150-200 meals a day on average, verifying that need for such a service, he went on.

“The Longmeadow store is doing quite well — I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t,” he told BusinessWest. “But we had to teach a lot of people the concept — you have to explain to people that we have freshly prepared meals for takeout, and we have about 80 different choices.”

The success of the Longmeadow location may mitigate the need for a similar learning process at the downtown site, he went on, adding that he will be aggressive in efforts to get the word out about Delaney’s Market and all that goes into the concept.

That includes patrons being able to pick up a bottle of wine or some microbrews as they make their dinner selection, doing some one-stop shopping.

And he believes this same model will succeed in downtown Springfield as well, and he’s adding another wrinkle — delivery, which he believes will be a popular option for those working in nearby office towers or living downtown.

Indeed, delivery is a becoming a trend among restaurants, and there are new ventures such as Uber delivers that bring meals right to one’s home or office, said Rosskothen, adding that those initiatives, and his, are simply response to what consumers are demanding.

As for expansion beyond Longmeadow, Rosskothen said he expects to move forward with locations in Westfield and Wilbraham and have four sites operating by the end of 2019.

For now, though, he is focused on Springfield — and not just being excited about the excitement, but being a big part of it.

— George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

On the heels of one home run for recreation and tourism, Hartford, Conn. is hoping for another — well, not a home run, exactly. More like a goal, which is appropriate in a city that has set plenty of them in recent years.

On the heels of the Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A baseball team that’s been selling out games for two years at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, Connecticut’s capital city will soon welcome the Hartford Athletic, a professional soccer team that plays in the United Soccer League.

But it’s not just the team itself causing excitement, but the development projects surrounding it. The state invested $10 million in Dillon Stadium in the Coltsville section of the city, while an entity known as Hartford Sports Group put up $7 million toward the renovation and the team’s startup.

Mayor Luke Bronin points out that, along with the restoration of the Colt Armory complex for commercial and residential use, the Hooker Brewery tasting room, planned upgrades to Colt Park, and the designation of the Coltsville National Historic Park, refurbishing Dillon Stadium and bringing in a soccer team is yet another feather in the cap of a venerable neighborhood on the rebound.

Then there’s Front Street, the downtown entertainment and restaurant district that began to see significant development a decade ago, and is now adding even more apartments and retail. A $23 million project will add 53 apartments and nearly 11,000 square feet of shop and restaurant space. That comes on the heels of Front Street Lofts, a 121-apartment development that is largely leased, and the 2017 opening of the University of Connecticut’s new downtown campus across Arch Street.

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years. In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem.”

In fact, a recent wave of apartment construction downtown has added almost 900 units since 2013, with hundreds more to come.

“We want to make sure we have a lovely, vibrant downtown, and the core of that strategy is getting a critical mass of residential housing downtown,” Bronin told BusinessWest. “The other piece is the targeted neighborhbood redevelopment projects, especially in the three areas of Upper Albany, Blue Hills, and Coltsville.”

Hartford at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1784
Population: 123,243
Area: 18.1 square miles
COUNTY: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $74.29
Commercial Tax Rate: $74.29
MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $20,820
Family Household Income: $22,051
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Hartford Hospital; Hartford Financial Services Group; St. Francis Hospital & Medical Center; Aetna
* Latest information available

And Parkville, for that matter, one of Hartford’s more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, a mixed-use community on the west side that boasts a thriving artistic community, and has seen recent additions like Hog River Brewing, a brewery and taproom, among other activity.

Bronin is justifiably excited about all of that, but he’s even more intrigued by a big picture in Hartford that has been marrying economic and real-estate development to some cutting-edge workforce development — all of which has Hartford well-positioned to become a model of innovation and a true 21st-century city.

Start Me Up

“Besides the real-estate development and continuing progress and momentum here, an innovation ecosystem that has been growing in Hartford over the past 18 months,” Bronin said. “We put together a strategy that really focused on building on the strength of our core industries: insurance, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare.”

For example, Hartford InsurTech Hub is an initiative created by a group of executives from the Hartford area, including insurance carriers and other related firms, municipal officials, and community stakeholders. It was established to attract new talent and technology to Hartford and provide entrepreneurs with the support, resources, and industry and investor connections they need to help grow their business.

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years,” Bronin said. “In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem here.”

In addition, Stanley Black and Decker moved its innovation center to downtown Hartford, partnering with Techstars on a mentorship-driven accelerator that attracts promising additive-manufacturing startups to the city.

“If you told people two years ago that Hartford would be home to both Techstars and the [InsurTech] accelerator, they would have doubted it,” the mayor added. “But those are two significant developments — and they don’t stand alone.”

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years. In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem here.”

Launched in 2017, Upward Hartford transformed 34,000 square feet in Hartford’s iconic Stilts Building into a co-working space which soon became a community hub, home to entrepreneurs who connect and collaborate with fellow innovators and startups.

“Upward Hartford, a homegrown incubator and co-working space, has grown rapidly. They’ve brought dozens of startups through the doors in a very short time,” Bronin said. That’s impressive in itself, he said, but moreso in the potential for these young enterprises to partner with larger, more established companies, making it more likely they’ll set down roots in Hartford.

Meanwhile, Infosys, a global leader in consulting, technology, and next-generation services, will open its Connecticut Technology and Innovation Hub in Hartford and hire 1,000 workers in the state by 2022. The facility will have a special focus on insurance, healthcare, and manufacturing.

“I’ve always believed, with the strong corporate community we have and the corporate leaders in those three sectors, there’s a lot of potential,” Bronin said. “But the pace of progress has exceeded even my expectations.”

Time to Score

In short, Hartford is a city on the rise, the mayor noted, and not in a haphazard way; the developments happening in both real estate and the innovation economy spring from a carefully considered vision.

He said economic development will continue to focus increasing the number of residential units downtown, growing the number of medical and educational facilities, and adding new transportation options. The latter has been boosted by expanded commuter rail service this year between New Haven and Springfield, with Hartford one of the key stops — a boon for people who choose to live or work downtown.

One might say that’s another home run in a city that’s seen many of them lately — whether or not the Yard Goats are in town.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

At the Quarter Pole

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon stands by the ice skating rink opened late last month at MGM Springfield, one of many amenities expected to draw visitors to the resort casino over the holiday season.

MGM Springfield recently wrapped up its first business quarter, as well as that 100-day milestone. This was described by GM Alex Dixon as a time of listening, watching, learning, and tweaking, and this pattern will continue — through the holidays and the months and quarters to follow — as the facility strives for continuous improvement and growth through new business and repeat customers.

100 days.

That’s a chosen milestone and time for reflection when it comes to presidents and governors. And for other individuals and institutions as well, including the $960 million MGM Springfield resort casino.

The facility passed the 100-day threshold earlier this month, and at the urging of BusinessWest, General Manager Alex Dixon used the occasion to spotlight not only how well the resort operation is doing against early projections — it’s been averaging roughly 15,000 visitors a day, and the occupancy rate at the hotel has been at or above 90%, according to the casino’s spokesperson — but to talk about how this is still very much a new business, one that is watching, listening, and, most importantly, learning.

There have been some well-documented changes — inspired by the casino’s ‘You Said, We Did’ campaign — made over the first three months of operation, Dixon noted, listing everything from a reduction on the price of a scooter rental to a doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor to the addition of a popular carnival table game called ‘Let It Ride,’ a poker derivative, as Dixon described it.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees,” he explained. “I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

But the learning process comes on many different levels, he noted, using the Friday after Thanksgiving, when there was a tree-lighting ceremony and other festivities, to get his point across.

“Along the way, on those first 100 days, you start to get feedback from both customers and employees. I think of it [‘You Said, We Did’] as a brand of continuous improvement, both internally and externally.”

Casino operators knew it was the day after a holiday and also a day off for most people, but they didn’t quite anticipate what these factors, coupled with the Big Balloon Parade and other events, would mean for visitation to their facility.

“That Friday … absolutely did not look like any other Friday, where it’s a much-later-arriving crowd and an older crowd,” said Dixon, adding that what (and who) they encountered certainly caught the management team off guard. “We needed to manage a much younger crowd, and one that had many people who were here for the first time.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their business, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which bought naming rights to the skating rink, has a lot on common with the casino in that they are both relatively new ventures working to establish themselves.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy,” he went on. “And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

And the team at MGM is now in the midst of another comprehensive, multi-faceted learning experience — the facility’s first holiday season.

The casino has been decorated for the occasion, and it has opened an ice-skating rink — Olympic silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan was on hand for the opening ceremonies.

The holiday season is one when many people will be visiting this region to spend time with friends and family here, Dixon noted, and also a time when families are off from work and school and looking for things to do. And, naturally, MGM will be aggressive in its efforts to seize some of their time.

But while extraordinary in some ways, the holiday season will be like others since late August, when the casino opened its doors amid considerable fanfare, and those to come, he said. It’s merely another opportunity that must be seized.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the casino’s first 100 days and how they are reflective of a pattern of continuous improvement that management says will define the operation in the months and years to come.

Straight Shooters

They call them VIP Roundtables.

That’s the name attached to what amount to large, well-organized feedback-gathering sessions, said Dixon, adding that the first one was staged in late October.

“We bring in our best guests, provide them with a nice meal, and all of our executives sit at tables with these guests so that we’re able to get that direct feedback,” he explained, adding that time at his table yielded several pages of notes on his legal pad. Among the suggestions upon which the casino took action — from the VIP Roundtables and other vehicles for conveying feedback — were the addition of electronic roulette, Let It Ride,’ more waitresses serving cocktails, extended hours for some of the South End Market dining options, improved traffic flow in the parking garage, and the addition of ‘top-dollar’ (high-limit) slot machines.

Management even made some adjustments in the store of the hotel, specifically with ‘MGM’ branded items and apparel.

“People wanted more logoed gear,” he explained. “We rolled out some swag — different polos, hats, sweatshirts — but as people earn loyalty points with us and as they frequent the property, you can only buy the same T-shirt, hat, or polo so many times, so we quickly added a new and wider variety.

“Our business is a series of small, minor tweaks to the customer experience,” he went on. “And for our customers who come two, three, four times a week, these small changes are big; if you’re favorite thing in the world is playing Let it Ride, us having Let it Ride is a very big deal.”

Elaborating, Dixon noted that those operating in this sphere, as in most other business sectors, tend to break things down, revenue-wise and otherwise, by quarter.

And in this case, obviously, it was MGM Springfield’s first quarter.

It’s been a busy one, marked by everything from the announcement of a Wahlburgers restaurant coming to the site to the launch of a comedy club; from ceremonies in the casino’s Armory Square to mark Theodor Geisel’s birthplace to a vote of the facility’s security personnel not to unionize.

There were some new partnerships as well, such as one with Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, which is sponsoring the ice rink and a car-giveaway program (more on that later).

But mostly, it’s been a time of watching, listening, learning, and tweaking, Dixon said, adding that while some feedback comes directly from customers at VIP Roundtables and formal surveys, most of it comes from employees — who are passing on what they see and hear.

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor

A doubling of the number of video poker games on the casino floor is one of several tweaks Alex Dixon’s team has made in response to guest feedback.

“The best place that we get direct customer feedback is our front-line employees,” he explained. “It’s important that we talk and develop a deep relationship with those front-line employees because they will tell us what the customers are telling them.”

Over the first quarter, some patterns have emerged in terms of traffic volume and the origination points for visitors, said Dixon. In general, guests have come from a radius of 150 to 250 miles, meaning all of New England and New York. But the lion’s share (pun intended) of the guests (to both the casino and the hotel) are coming from the 413.

He noted that bus service to the casino has been fairly steady and that more routes may be added in the near future.

Meanwhile, bookings for the meeting and event spaces have been solid as well, he noted, adding that a number of large-scale events, including the Bright Nights Ball in November, have been staged on the property, and several area companies, from Florence Bank to Whalley Computer, have already rented spaces for sales meetings, product showcases, and other purposes.

Playing Their Cards Right

Moving forward, the team at MGM will go on listening and tweaking, said Dixon, adding that the goals in this business are the same as they are in any other — to create repeat business, drive new business, and continually look for new opportunities to grow.

Which brings him to a development known as the ‘study hall.’

That’s a play on words involving the casino’s hotel lobby, which boasts a number of shelved books and thus looks like a library, said Dixon.

“A quarter seems like a while, but we’re really still a new business in our infancy. And while there are some patterns that have emerged, we’ve really only been open 14 weekends; we learn something new every peak weekend.”

However, on Friday nights starting at 6, it looks more like an entertainment venue, with a one- or two-piece band playing before an audience of business people and others just looking to unwind and get the weekend started.

“This is catered toward the after-work business crowd,” said Dixon, adding that, rather than being a response to given feedback (like more video roulette), this was a proactive step.

“Marketing is a little bit of reacting or meeting customer demand,” he said. “But in other cases, it’s creating demand for things for people didn’t even know they wanted. We’re mixing a great, literary-themed space and a cocktail and beverage program with entertainment, and hoping that we can create some magic.”

As for repeat business, MGM wants to drive as much as it can, obviously, said Dixon, adding that this will be achieved through a host of factors, including solid customer service, a number of amenities beyond the casino floor, and entertainment options outside the MGM complex.

“We hear from our customers … they stay for a two- or two-and-half-day stay, and they experience all of the amenities within a day or a day and a half — max,” he explained. “And then they say, ‘what else can we go do?’”

There is a good list of other things to do, he went on, adding that MGM is partnering with the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and individual attractions like the Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield Museums, and the Springfield Armory to promote all there is to do.

“We’ve engaged all these entities to help promote Springfield as a destination,” he went on. “And we want more bars, more restaurants, more vibrancy, because that is going to get a return trip.”

As for the holidays, well, it’s an intriguing, potential-laden time for the casino, but it’s also somewhat uncharted territory, at least for a resort operation in this market.

“I wish I had a crystal ball as to understanding just when people will be coming and visiting,” he said, adding that, while days when schools have been closed this fall and that Friday after Thanksgiving have provided some clues, there are still some unknowns. “What we’ve begun to think about is how to change our meal periods, our hours of operation, to be more nimble when there are different events occurring in the city, because we still don’t quite know how things will impact us.”

Overall, the casino has worked to create a list of reasons why individuals, groups, and families should make the casino part of their holiday plans, said Dixon, adding that the decorations, an expanded Kringle Candle shop (it now occupies space in the old armory as well as the former church in Armory Square), and the skating rink are all parts of this equation.

“There was a Rockefeller Plaza-like feel to the lighting ceremony,” Dixon said of the events just after Thanksgiving and the ongoing atmosphere in the plaza. “It creates an energy and vibe.”

A vibe that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield wanted to become attached to.

Indeed, the company not only brought the naming rights to the rink, but it staged a “Choose Your Ride” promotion whereby a lucky individual won a new Mercedes-Benz in a drawing staged on Dec. 1.

Peter Wirth, co-owner of the dealership with his wife, Michelle, said a solid partnership between the two entities has emerged over the past few years (before the dealership opened and long before the casino opened) in part because they are both new businesses trying to establish themselves and share similar approaches to customer service — as well as geographic service area, if you will.

“MGM is known for providing unparalleled customer service in their world, and that’s exactly what we’re trying to provide in our world,” he explained. “The brands’ missions complement each other nicely.

“At the same time, their geographic reach is very similar to ours,” he went on. “They see the vast majority of their customers come from 50 miles away, and that’s how far our reach is as well.”

Still, such a partnership with a casino and an ice-rink sponsorship would be considered an ambitious marketing step for a single dealership, said Michelle Wirth, adding quickly that Mercedes-Benz of Springfield considers this a calculated roll of the dice, to use casino-industry language, and, more importantly, something positive for the community.

“It makes good business sense to partner with MGM, but it’s also part of our strategy to give back,” she said. “This creates a lot of positive energy.”

Odds Are

As in the political realm, the 100-day milestone is merely a time for businesses to stop and reflect. Or another time, to be more precise.

Indeed, the process of reflecting, and learning, is ongoing for those at MGM Springfield, who will add a holiday season’s worth of observations and feedback to what has been gathered already in efforts to continuously improve.

“Throughout the course of the year, we’re still learning and still growing our database,” said Dixon, adding that tweaks will continue to come.

Like Let it Ride games and more items in the store with the MGM logo on them. As he said, they seem like small changes, but for the customer, they’re big.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams is a small, post-industrial New England city

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams is a small, post-industrial New England city with economic challenges, but has generated plenty of momentum in addressing them.

As a long-time resident of North Adams, Mayor Thomas Bernard understands the city’s reputation as a tourist destination. It’s a good reputation to have, as it puts more cars on the streets and feet in local establishments.

But North Adams — the least-populated community in the Commonwealth classified as a city — is much more than that.

“I think the untold story about North Adams — and the Berkshires in general — is that we have a robust manufacturing sector here,” said Bernard, who began serving his first term as mayor at the start of this year. “We talk about the role of culture and tourism, but we have manufacturing, too.”

And the sector is a bustling one, he added, citing Tog Manufacturing Co., which makes precision-machined parts, and is looking to expand both its space and workforce over the next few years. The company is also a good example of the workforce-development partnerships being forged in the industry locally.

“They have a really good connection with McCann Technical School, while MCLA [Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts], our great public university, has an engineering partnership with General Dynamics to meet their workforce needs. And then Crane Paper, which was bought recently by Mohawk, is talking expansion as well in the next couple years, adding a shift and adding workers,” he said. “Take those things together, and it’s a significant engine that often gets overlooked in conversations about the economy and economic development in the Berkshires, and North Adams in particular.”

That’s not to say the cultural sector isn’t important, anchored, of course, by MASS MoCA, which recently underwent a $65 million expansion, adding 130,000 square feet of gallery space and enhancing the outdoor courtyard space. The work took place on the south end of the campus of the former Sprague Electric factory, whose 16 acres of grounds and 26 buildings with an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passages was transformed into the museum in 1999. The facility has a regional economic impact of more than $25 million annually.

Then there are newer projects like Greylock WORKS, an ongoing transformation of the former Greylock Mill along Route 2. Salvatore Perry and Karla Rothstein of Latent Productions in New York City saw potential in the site four years ago and purchased the 240,000-square-foot property for $750,000.

“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case.”

The first goal was to create a large event space, and further developments have included a commercial kitchen and a specialty food marketplace; a rum distiller is the first tenant. Each business will have a small area for retail operations and also have room to conduct wholesale operations to help sustain a flow of year-round revenue. The Greylock WORKS development will eventually include a residential component as well.

Meanwhile, Thomas Krens, who was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Mass MoCA two decades ago, proposed another project for North Adams a few years ago: a $20 million model-railroading and architecture museum in Western Gateway Heritage State Park that has a footpath directly across from MASS MoCA’s south gate.

Once completed, that project is expected to bring another 200,000 to 300,000 visitors to North Adams each year.

Those projects — far from the only ones creating energy in North Adams — are an intriguing sample of what the city has to offer. But Bernard thinks there is far more potential, and hopes to see it come to fruition.

Down on Main Street

Bernard is cheered by recent high-profile developments, but knows overall progress in any city is not an overnight proposition.

“There are persistent challenges,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m looking out my window at Main Street, 20 years after MASS MoCA happened, and we still haven’t totally cracked the code on a booming, bustling downtown.”

He compared North Adams to Shelburne Falls, which has a “really lovely, compact, interesting downtown” that people flock to, for the Bridge of Flowers and other attractions. “But you have to know Shelburne is there … you have to be intentional to go there and find it.”

And if an out-of-the-way town like that can have a thriving downtown, he went on, why shouldn’t North Adams — with a museum in MASS MoCA that draws some 250,000 visitors each year, many of them from outside town — be able to create a more vibrant downtown of its own?

“After 20 years of good intentions, and investments by the museum, the city, and the chamber, we’re still trying to figure that one out,” he said, adding that one thing that could provide a spark is more market-rate housing and mixed-use development downtown to put more feet on the streets.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.85
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
*Latest information available

That would in turn create demand for more eclectic food options, specialized retail, and galleries — “the kinds of things that are equally attractive to locals who have lived here their whole lives, people who transplanted here because they love the idea of this small New England city, and tourists who are here for the day or the weekend.”

Speaking of tourists, that’s actually the name of North Adams’ newest hotel, a 48-room retreat inspired by the classic American roadside motor lodge, set on the banks of the Hoosic River.

Tourists was the brainchild of Ben Svenson, a Boston-based developer, and a team of partners. They stripped a crumbling roadside lodge down to the studs and turned it into something both retro and decked out in modern amenities.

A wooden boardwalk leads to the river, while a saltwater pool was added, and an event space was fashioned from a neighboring farmhouse. Wooded walking paths lead to a yoga pavilion, open fields, a sculpture installation, and an old textile mill. A deconsecrated church in the woods will become Loom, where Cortney Burns, a James Beard Award-winning chef, will begin creating dishes in 2019.

Manufacturing Progress

No matter what happens in the realms of tourism, dining, retail, or any number of other high-profile elements of an attractive city, Bernard understands North Adams has a strong foundation of other businesses that may not receive the same attention.

“The narrative has been that, when big companies left in that wave of industrial migration in the mid-’80s and beyond, manufacturing stopped. That’s just not the case,” he said. “I mentioned Tog — they’ve been at it for 20-30 years in the same location, employing 25-30 people. For them to be talking about facility expansion and workforce expansion that would effectively double their workforce in North Adams and the Berkshires, that’s significant. That’s a big win.”

To meet that workforce need, however, he recognizes the importance of partnerships between industry and education to provide training, retraining, and professional development to help people access career opportunities.

“To be honest and realistic, we’re still a small, post-industrial New England city, and we have our economic challenges,” he said. “While we’re paying attention to all the great development that’s happening — it’s what drives growth and progress in the future — we can’t lose sight of people who have been here all their lives and are struggling because of fixed incomes and low incomes, seniors worried about taxes, or people who don’t have the education and skills to compete for the jobs that are here.”

Bernard believes North Adams is in a good spot to meet those needs and keep growing.

“I take a lot of pride in being the mayor of the smallest city in the Commonwealth — in population, but not by stature,” he said. “We’re a world-class destination for the arts, for culture, for outdoor recreation, for tourism, and we’ve got great educational resources in the city.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

It’s That Time of Year

By Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST

Year-end planning for 2018 takes place against the backdrop of a new tax law — the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — that makes major changes in the tax rules for individuals and businesses.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

For individuals, there are new, lower-income tax rates, a substantially increased standard deduction, severely limited itemized deductions and no personal exemptions, an increased child-tax credit, and a watered-down alternative minimum tax (AMT), among many other changes. For businesses, the corporate tax rate is cut to 21%, the corporate AMT is gone, there are new limits on business interest deductions, and significantly liberalized expensing and depreciation rules. And there’s a new deduction for non-corporate taxpayers with qualified business income from pass-through entities. The following is a brief synopsis of these and other changes.

Businesses and Business Owners

• For tax years beginning after 2017, taxpayers other than corporations may be entitled to a deduction of up to 20% of their qualified business income. For 2018, if taxable income exceeds $315,000 for a married couple filing jointly, or $157,500 for all other taxpayers, the deduction may be limited based on whether the taxpayer is engaged in a service-type trade or business (such as healthcare), the amount of W-2 wages paid by the trade or business, and/or the unadjusted basis of qualified property (such as machinery and equipment) held by the trade or business.

The limitations are phased in for joint filers with taxable income between $315,000 and $415,000 and for all other taxpayers with taxable income between $157,500 and $207,500.

• Deferring income to the next taxable year is a time-honored year-end planning tool. If you expect your taxable income to be higher in 2018 than in 2019, or if you operate as anything except a C corporation and you anticipate being in the same or a higher tax bracket in 2018 than in 2019, you may benefit by deferring income into 2019. With the passage of tax reform largely going into effect in 2018, new considerations may need to be made for the end of 2018. Of course, if an individual is subject to the alternative minimum tax, standard tax planning may not be warranted. The rules are quite complex, so don’t make a move in this area without consulting your tax adviser.

• Businesses should consider making expenditures that qualify for the liberalized business property expensing option. For tax years beginning in 2018, the expensing limit is $1,000,000, and the investment ceiling limit is $2,500,000. Expensing is generally available for most depreciable property (other than buildings), and off-the-shelf computer software.

For property placed in service in tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, expensing also is available for qualified improvement property (generally, any interior improvement to a building’s interior, but not for enlargement of a building, elevators or escalators, or the internal structural framework), for roofs, and for HVAC, fire protection, alarm, and security systems. The generous dollar ceilings that apply this year mean that many small and medium-sized businesses that make timely purchases will be able to currently deduct most if not all their outlays for machinery and equipment.

What’s more, the expensing deduction is not prorated for the time that the asset is in service during the year. The fact that the expensing deduction may be claimed in full (if you are otherwise eligible to take it) regardless of how long the property is held during the year can be a potent tool for year-end tax planning. Thus, property acquired and placed in service in the last days of 2018, rather than at the beginning of 2019, can result in a full expensing deduction for 2018.

• Businesses can also claim a 100% bonus first-year depreciation deduction for machinery and equipment bought used (with some exceptions) or new, if purchased and placed in service this year. The 100% write-off is permitted without any proration based on the length of time that an asset is in service during the tax year. As a result, the 100% bonus first-year write-off is available even if qualifying assets are in service for only a few days in 2018.

• A charitable-donation deduction is available to businesses, but the actual deductibility depends on the business form. A corporation is allowed a deduction of up to 10% of its taxable income, whereas a pass-through entity is subject to an individual’s limitations. Specific types of assets may also have limited deductibility or may need to meet certain requirements. In addition, the substantiation and reporting regulations for charitable donations were recently updated. While most of the changes were relatively minor, qualified appraisals and qualified appraisers must now meet particular requirements. You should contact your tax advisor before making charitable donations, particularly inventory items, to ensure you meet the deduction requirements.

• Beginning in 2018 and until 2025, taxpayers other than C corporations are limited in their ability to deduct business loss. The excess business loss that is disallowed is instead carried forward as part of the taxpayer’s net operating loss in succeeding years.

Individuals

• As a general reminder, there are several ways in which you can file an income-tax return: married filing jointly, head of household, single, and married filing separately. A married couple, which includes same-sex marriages, may elect to file one return reporting their combined income, computing the tax liability using the tax tables or rate schedules for ‘Married Persons Filing Jointly.’

If a married couple files separate returns, in certain situations they can amend and file jointly, but they cannot amend a jointly filed return to file separately once the due date has passed. A joint return may be filed even though one spouse has neither gross income nor deductions. If one spouse dies during the year, the surviving spouse may file a joint return for the year in which his or her spouse died.

Certain married persons who do not elect to file a joint return may be entitled to use the lower head-of-household tax rates. Generally, in order to qualify as a head of household, you must not be a resident alien, you must satisfy certain marital status requirements, and you must maintain a household for a qualifying child or any other person who is your dependent.

• Higher-income earners must be wary of the 3.8% surtax on certain unearned income. The surtax is 3.8% of the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the excess of modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a threshold amount. As year-end nears, a taxpayer’s approach to minimizing or eliminating the 3.8% surtax will depend on his estimated MAGI and NII for the year. Some taxpayers should consider ways to minimize (e.g., through deferral) additional NII for the balance of the year, others should try to see if they can reduce MAGI other than NII, and still other individuals will need to consider ways to minimize both NII and other types of MAGI.

• The 0.9% additional Medicare tax also may require higher-income earners to take year-end actions. It applies to individuals for whom the sum of their wages received with respect to employment and whose self-employment income is in excess of an unindexed threshold amount ($250,000 for joint filers, $125,000 for married couples filing separately, and $200,000 in any other case). Employers must withhold the additional Medicare tax from wages in excess of $200,000 regardless of filing status or other income. Self-employed persons must take it into account in figuring estimated tax.

• Long-term capital gain from sales of assets held for over one year is taxed at 0%, 15%, or 20%, depending on the taxpayer’s taxable income. The 0% rate generally applies to the excess of long-term capital gain over any short-term capital loss to the extent that it, when added to regular taxable income, is not more than the ‘maximum zero-rate amount’ (e.g., $77,200 for a married couple). If the 0% rate applies to long-term capital gains you took earlier this year — for example, you are a joint filer who made a profit of $5,000 on the sale of stock bought in 2009, and other taxable income for 2018 is $70,000 — then before year-end, try not to sell assets yielding a capital loss because the first $5,000 of such losses won’t yield a benefit this year. And if you hold long-term appreciated-in-value assets, consider selling enough of them to generate long-term capital gains sheltered by the 0% rate.

• Postpone income until 2019 and accelerate deductions into 2018 if doing so will enable you to claim larger deductions, credits, and other tax breaks for 2018 that are phased out over varying levels of adjusted gross income. These include deductible IRA contributions, child tax credits, higher-education tax credits, and deductions for student-loan interest.

Postponing income is also desirable for those taxpayers who anticipate being in a lower tax bracket next year due to changed financial circumstances. Note, however, that in some cases, it may pay to actually accelerate income into 2018. For example, that may be the case where a person will have a more favorable filing status this year than next (e.g., head of household versus individual filing status), or expects to be in a higher tax bracket next year.

• Beginning in 2018, many taxpayers who claimed itemized deductions year after year will no longer be able to do so. That’s because the basic standard deduction has been increased (to $24,000 for joint filers, $12,000 for singles, $18,000 for heads of household, and $12,000 for marrieds filing separately), and many itemized deductions have been cut back or abolished. No more than $10,000 of state and local taxes may be deducted, miscellaneous itemized deductions (e.g., tax-preparation fees, moving expenses, and investment expenses) and unreimbursed employee expenses are no longer deductible, and personal casualty and theft losses are deductible only if they’re attributable to a federally declared disaster.

You can still itemize medical expenses to the extent they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, state and local taxes up to $10,000, your charitable contributions, plus interest deductions on a restricted amount of qualifying residence debt, but payments of those items won’t save taxes if they don’t cumulatively exceed the new, higher standard deduction.

• Some taxpayers may be able to work around the new reality by applying a ‘bunching strategy’ to pull or push discretionary medical expenses and charitable contributions into the year where they will do some tax good. For example, if a taxpayer knows he or she will be able to itemize deductions this year but not next year, the taxpayer may be able to make two years’ worth of charitable contributions this year, instead of spreading out donations over 2018 and 2019.

• If you’re age 70½ or older by the end of 2018, have traditional IRAs, and particularly if you can’t itemize your deductions, consider making 2018 charitable donations via qualified charitable distributions from your IRAs. Such distributions are made directly to charities from your IRAs, and the amount of the contribution is neither included in your gross income nor deductible on Schedule A, Form 1040. But the amount of the qualified charitable distribution reduces the amount of your required minimum distribution, resulting in tax savings.

• Make gifts sheltered by the annual gift-tax exclusion before the end of the year and thereby save gift and estate taxes. The exclusion applies to gifts of up to $15,000 made in 2018 to each of an unlimited number of individuals. You can’t carry over unused exclusions from one year to the next. Such transfers may save family income taxes where income-earning property is given to family members in lower income-tax brackets who are not subject to the kiddie tax.

• For tax years beginning after Dec. 31, 2017, the unearned income of a child is subject to ordinary and capital-gains rates applicable to trusts and estates. The earned income of a child is taxed according to an unmarried taxpayer’s brackets and rates. The kiddie tax is not affected by the tax situation of the child’s parents or unearned income of any siblings. The kiddie tax applies to: (1) children under 18 who do not file a joint return; (2) 18-year-old children who have unearned income in excess of the threshold amount, do not file a joint return, and who have earned income, if any, that does not exceed one-half of the amount of the child’s support; and (3) children between the ages of 19 and 23 if, in addition to the above rules, they are full-time students. Investment earnings in excess of $2,100 will be taxed at the rates that apply to trusts and estates.

These are just some of the year-end steps that can be taken to save taxes. Again, by contacting your tax advisor, he or she can tailor a particular plan that will work best for you.

Kristina Drzal-Houghton, CPA, MST is the partner in charge of Taxation at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says recent projects have created considerable momentum in Belchertown, “like a snowball rolling down a hill.”

Nicholas O’Connor says there’s a generational split in Belchertown when it comes to new amenities and development in general — but that line has become increasingly blurry.

“There’s the old guard who don’t want anything to change; they want it to be a bedroom community, and they still lament the fact that we have a Stop & Shop and a Family Dollar. There’s no changing their minds, and I get that,” said O’Connor, who chairs the town’s Board of Selectmen.

“But by the same token,” he went on, “we can’t sustain the services that we provide in a town this size, with the great schools we have, without revenue, and 93% of our revenue comes through taxation. We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

And ‘more’ is a good word to describe economic activity in town, particularly along the section of Route 202 running from the town common past the Route 21 intersection to the Eastern Hampshire District Courthouse, a mile-long stretch that has become a hub of development, from a 4,500-square-foot Pride station currently under construction to a 4,000-square-foot financial center for Alden Credit Union; from Christopher Heights, an assisted-living complex that recently opened on the former grounds of the Belchertown State School, to a planned disc-golf course.

These projects, balancing town officials’ desire for more business and recreation, have been well-received, O’Connor said.

“Even among the old guard, I sense a split. There’s a large community of longtime Belchertown residents who are yearning for these things that are finally happening. I think it’s a minority of people who wish Belchertown would be like it was in 1970. That dynamic has shifted a bit.”

That said, it takes plenty of planning to build momentum for projects — not to mention state and town funding and approvals at town meetings — but he sees the dominos falling.

“We don’t have a big business base — so, in order to have more, you need to generate more.”

“With a lot of the ideas we’ve had over the past few years, shovels are finally hitting the ground. We’re really in a year when things are starting to progress.”

The 83-unit Christopher Heights has been a notable success, growing its resident list every month and exceeding its forecasts, O’Connor noted. Nearby, Belchertown Day School and Arcpoint Brewing, a veteran-owned business run by a couple of Belchertown locals, both plan to break ground on new facilities in the spring.

At the same time, Chapter 90 money came through for the renovation of that key stretch of Route 202, a project that will include new road signaling, crosswalks, sidewalks, and bike lanes, making the area more pedestian- and bicycle-friendly. Meanwhile, Pride owner Bob Bolduc will put in a sidewalk and a pull-in as part of his new building, which will accommodate a new PVTA stop.

“People will be getting out in front of his store, and that’s a win-win for everybody,” O’Connor said. “That whole road project will certainly change things from the common down the hill, all the way to the courthouse.”

The Great Outdoors

Belchertown has plenty of potential to expand its recreational offerings, O’Connor told BusinessWest. For example, a town meeting recently appropriated funds to create an 18-hole disc-golf course in the Piper Farm Recreation Area.

Belchertown at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 14,838
Area: 52.64 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.19
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.19
Median Household Income: $52,467
Median Family Income: $60,830
Type of government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Hulmes Transportation Services; Town of Belchertown/School Department; Super Stop & Shop

O’Connor said disc golf has been rapidly gaining in popularity. “We’ll be clearing in the spring, breaking ground, and hoping to be throwing discs by the fall. There’s been interest growing in town, which is good because we’re going to need public effort for the clearing. I think a lot of that’s going to be done by community members and volunteers.”

He envisions the course as another piece in a day-long outing families could have in that area of Belchertown, with attractions ranging from baseball at the town’s mini-Fenway Park to Jessica’s Boundless Playground, to a 1.3-mile walking trail behind the police station that circles Lake Wallace. Meanwhile, state Sen. Eric Lesser was instrumental in securing money to tear down some tennis courts and build a splash park.

O’Connor would also like to see ValleyBike Share make inroads into Belchertown, and he wants to revisit discussion around expansion of a regional rail trail through town.

“A lot of people in town have tried these things before. The rail trail got voted down years ago,” he said. “Belchertown hasn’t always been ready for this type of progress, but we’ve had a large influx of younger families over the past 10 years or so, and different people standing up in positions of leadership. Just in the last four years, we have a new chief of police, a new Recreation director, a new Conservation administrator, a new senior-center coordinator. Not that the leadership before wasn’t doing the job, but I see new folks stepping up, and new ideas and new interests coming to the fore. That’s not a comment on the past, but it’s progress.”

And progress takes time, O’Connor said, noting that roadwork plans for 202 have been in flux for years, while Bolduc owned the future Pride site for a long time with no shovels in the ground until the assisted-living complex and other developments began to come online.

“It takes one project, and everybody starts going, ‘oh, there might be something there,’” he said. “The governor has been out here, and we’ve seen a lot of the lieutenant governor the last couple of years. Once you start brick and mortaring, now you get money for roads, you’re awarded more money for cleanup, and people really get on board. The momentum becomes attractive, like a snowball rolling down a hill. Nobody wants to go it alone, but then they see all these ancillary businesses, and it really starts to come together.”

What’s the Attraction?

To O’Connor, it’s not hard to see why businesses would want to set up shop in Belchertown. There’s the single, low property-tax rate, for starters, the well-regarded schools, and a widening flow of road projects aimed at making the town easier to navigate.

But not simply pass through, he added.

“I grew up in Amherst, and my dad lived in Wales while I was growing up, so I drove through his stretch every weekend. Then I went to UMass, and I saw them build all the hotels on Route 9,” he recalled.

“Now, I certainly don’t want to be Hadley — we want to keep our business within the character of the town; no one’s interested in a dynamic change to the town. But I thought to myself, a lot of these parents are driving home to Boston after parents’ weekend — maybe they don’t have to stay on Route 9; maybe they can stay here and take a walk on the Quabbin and hit an antique store and whatever else gets developed. I think there’s a lot to be said for us being a main thoroughfare between Boston and Western Massachusetts. Everybody gets off exit 7 and 8 to drive through here. We see a lot of cars, and it would be nice to get them to stop.”

Of course, for business owners, a lot of cars is a good thing, and the impending development of sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes will continue to drive traffic into what has really become the heart of activity in Belchertown.

“We love our town common, but in terms of a business center, an economic center, that’s moving down the hill. And a lot of the businesses there will benefit from the infrastructure upgrades.”

O’Connor told BusinessWest he can envision a future where Belchertown can be both the scenic, classic New England town of the past and a bustling destination. Illustrating that picture for other people can be a challenge, but he keeps trying.

“We need patience to get these things moving,” he said. “There’s definitely investment that needs to be made by business owners — not just in money, but in belief.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Venturing Forth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch

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

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

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

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

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

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

Growing an Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]