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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Alex McGill says his company considered other options, but decided it wanted to be in East Longmeadow

Roughly 60 years ago, McGill Hose and Coupling opened on Benton Drive in East Longmeadow. About six months ago, it moved into a new building around the corner on Industrial Drive that is more than double the size of its old location.

McGill is a custom fabricator of hoses and tubes for a wide variety of industries, everything from fuel delivery to food and beverage to pharmaceuticals. In short, any industry that requires hoses and tubing can be served by the company. Alex McGill, vice president at McGill, said the pandemic and supply chain challenges have caused some hiccups, but at the same time brought more business from pharmaceutical companies, especially in the Northeast.

“The opportunity came about because of the level of service we offer and because we are accessible to our customers,” McGill noted. “Our willingness to work around the clock to make sure customers get what they need has won us quite a lot of business over the years.”

While the company could be located anywhere, and could have moved anywhere when expansion became necessary, McGill has chosen to remain in East Longmeadow.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors,” he said adding, “we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

Secure Energy Systems has a story that is similar in many ways. The company was located on Somers Road until 2016 when a fire destroyed the company’s building. Nearby Cartamundi provided temporary space for Secure Energy while it sought out a new location.

“We’ve grown to love the neighborhood and our neighbors, we rely on our retail business where people can come in for their supplies. It’s also a friendly location for our employees.”

“The owners of the company had purchased a property in Enfield, but it just didn’t feel right to them,” said Erin Bissonnette, senior energy sales representative for Secure Energy. “They wanted to stay in East Longmeadow because they felt this was their home and they didn’t want to leave.”

So, in 2018 Secure Energy found the right space a few doors down from the manufacturer Cartamundi on Shaker Road and bought the building that formerly housed the laser company Biolitec.

These stories are among many others that relate how East Longmeadow has become an increasingly popular home for families and businesses alike. As for the ‘why’ this is happening — there are many reasons for that, including quality of life, a still-favorable commercial tax rate, available land and property, and, overall, a pro-business approach that is prompting new businesses to settle there, existing businesses to stay, and entrepreneurs to find space there to get started, as we’ll see.

And while businesses owners are choosing to invest in the community, East Longmeadow is making investments in itself.

The East Longmeadow Town Council recently passed the Fiscal 2023 budget, which includes funding for 19 capital projects in town. One prominent project involves a major redevelopment of Heritage Park. According to Town Manager Mary McNally, the initial design and permitting phase of the redevelopment will come from Community Preservation monies. Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) will cover the other 18 projects.

“They range from investing in the town’s IT needs to police cruisers, a fire engine and DPW trucks,” McNally said. “There are enough projects to stimulate lots of economic activity in town, providing we can get the contractors and the materials to get it all done.” 

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how all these many kinds of investments are paying off for East Longmeadow.

 

Right Place, Right Time

After a renovation that Bissonnette described as “down to the steel beams” Secure Energy, which specializes in the procurement of natural gas and electricity for its commercial and industrial clients, now has a modern, airy office with amenities for employees such as a kitchen, large gym, and an outdoor gathering space. And there is plenty of room for growth.

“We negotiate with the same suppliers the utilities use and lock in the price and a term for the energy commodity, whether it’s for 6 months or 60 months,” Bissonnette said.

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out. They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

As a result, a business can know what their energy will cost for the length of the term, a service more valuable these days than ever before.

“Some clients will forget they extended their term beyond 2022 and will call us in a panic,” Bissonnette said. “Then we reassure them that our energy advisors grabbed the lowest prices months ago and locked in that rate. As a result, customers who were concerned are now very happy.” 

Secure Energy is part of a growing, very diverse business community in East Longmeadow, one that takes full advantage of many amenities, including a favorable location near population centers and the border with Connecticut, as well as land on which to build and grow.

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

Erin Bissonnette says Secure Energy wanted to stay in East Longmeadow, because it “felt like home.”

As McGill employees settle into its new location, Alex McGill said the company’s next goal involves growing the business and the team working in East Longmeadow.

“We’re putting more of an emphasis on our employees,” McGill said. “We’re building a team atmosphere that has become a real catalyst for our recent growth.”

Using the strategy “if you treat your employees right, they will treat your customers right” is already paying off.

“We are poised for a nice shot of growth,” McGill continued. “We are paying attention to the future and investing in our employee culture serves as the guiding light for our growth.”

The same sentiments apply to the town and many of the investments it is making.

Indeed, as part of the budget, the town council also approved hiring for 13 positions in various town departments. McNally said Town Hall is scheduled to get 5 full time and one part time position out of the total.

“The staff at Town Hall work very hard to get things done,” McNally said. “Life would be easier if we had more staff, so I’m very pleased the council saw fit to fund these positions.” The extra staff presents a challenge of finding room where the new hires can work. The town is currently trying to find a balance between locating a department or two to another building without spreading municipal offices all over the town.

Meanwhwhile, a new high school represents a longer-term investment that is moving through town and state approval processes. The town will host three visioning sessions to show residents what a new school could look like and to solicit ideas from the public on what they would like to see for a new high school.

“These will be hybrid meetings so the public can take part in person or virtually,” McNally said. “I hope we get a good turnout and that people will participate.”

One of those 18 ARPA projects includes roof repairs to the current high school.

“This is a fix that can’t wait for the years-long process of building a new school,” said McNally.

Another investment trend in East Longmeadow involves people investing in themselves.

Grace Barone, executive director of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said recent networking events she has held are attracting many young entrepreneurs. Barone said new pop-up shops are beginning to appear and most of them are women-owned businesses.

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

“These are women who have had certain passions and interests and now they are trying them out,” said Barone. “They are exploring their ideas to see where it will all lead. It’s exciting to see.”

One of those entrepreneurs recently leased space in the Reminder Building, where the Chamber office is also located. Chris Buendo, owner of the building, said he has welcomed startups to the Reminder Building and now has an eclectic mix of tenants. In fact, he allows tenants to provide a 60-day notice to break their lease instead of holding them to a typical one year or longer term.

“The shorter notice takes a little pressure off a start-up company,” said Buendo. “Rather than signing a long-term lease that they may later regret, I have faith that what they are doing is going to work so I want to relieve some of that pressure so they can succeed.”

The height of the pandemic was a scary time for commercial real estate, and Buendo said he lost many tenants who abandoned their office space to work from home. As the world slowly emerges from COVID concerns, he said business has come back.

“The good news is I’m getting calls again,” Buendo said. “Working from home is nice but it’s not a perfect scenario, so people are calling me to say it’s time to return to the office.” And return they have, as Buendo noted he has only one available space in the Reminder building.

Chris Buendo

Chris Buendo says growing interest in office space in the town is a sign of progress.

At the town level, in addition to the new jobs approved by the council, several key positions have turned over because of retirements and career changes. McNally explained that over the last year the town has brought on a new planning director and a new library director. McNally herself plans to retire when her contract ends on June 30.

At press time the town had chosen a new town manager and was in the process of negotiating the final contract before announcing the new person.

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

“I’ll be on the golf course, at the ocean, or with my family, not necessarily in that order,” McNally said. “I’m a lawyer by training so I could re-new my license if I get bored, but for now I’m ready to call it a day.”

As she prepares for retirement, McNally is pleased that thanks to investments from the private sector and the town, East Longmeadow is in solid financial shape going forward and in a position to continue the remarkable pattern of growth it has seen in recent years. u

Features

A Changing Dynamic

By Amy Roberts

It is no secret that the workplace has changed significantly over the past several years, requiring employers to adjust their operating principles to keep pace with what employees need and want. While many have labeled this time as the Great Resignation, this movement might better be explained by the term…the Great Re-evaluation!

For whatever the reason, and there have been plenty in these last few years, people are re-looking at how they work, what they do for work, and the impact their work has on the world around them. Employees expect that their job brings purpose to their lives and expect an employer to help them meet this need. If they review their current job and don’t find the connection with their own purpose, they are leaving for a role in an organization that they feel can provide them with this crucial requirement.

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts

When attracting candidates and holding on to talent, Employers are being challenged to improve their impact on just about everything. The people they employ, the people they serve and the value they bring to the greater good. This challenge has led many employers to look at their impact on the world and revamp their entire value system in order to compete.

Attractive benefit programs and competitive pay will only get an organization so far in an evolution of their value. Organizations have to consider more broadly their impact on the lives of people. All the people! Not just the people who buy their products or services or their shareholders or the people that work for them. This means caring about the communities in which they are a part and also caring about the world beyond their headquarters, subsidiaries, and offices.

While there are many ways to create an employer value proposition that helps an organization stand out and compete for talent, perhaps the most impactful is to establish a corporate purpose that considers the company’s role and contribution to society. In the development and communication of this purpose an organization can articulate their value to an employee and in turn attract people who see value in being a part of the work being done by the organization.

Once established it is critical to provide employees with meaningful ways to reflect on the company’s efforts and their impact as well as ways to participate in these efforts. In other words, employees want to be a part of a company that strives to make the world a better place and they want to do the work that helps to make it so.

Another aspect for employers to consider is how work gets done within the organization and the systems and structure around work. While more a practical component of an employer value proposition than a corporate purpose, this area of work has become increasingly scrutinized by the workforce. People want to be challenged in their work, excited by the mission of an organization, and contribute to the outcomes of the organization in a way that makes sense for them.

In order to do this, an employer has to consider the person doing the work as an important aspect of how the work will be done. This represents a huge paradigm shift in workforce planning and it requires an organization to examine its policies and procedures of work to determine how to go about this in a consistent and sustainable way.

We all know it would be impossible for an organization to design its work structure to handle all of the elements of a person, so one approach an employer can take is to set some basic tenets of how work gets done, usually in the form of establishing goals and outcomes required of each role in the organization and then be flexible enough to meet people where they are when it comes to how that work gets done. This can look different depending on the organization type and can vary even within an organization depending on the position. Flexibility in the workplace isn’t new, but the fact that it is a requirement for many people in the workplace has caused many organizations to rethink work hours, days of work, and the location of work.

In different times companies were doing great things to provide an inviting and calm workspace with nice desks, décor that complimented the values of the organization and convenience amenities like a café, gym or dry cleaner. Now an employer is seriously considering four-day work weeks, 35-hour schedules, remote work, hybrid work, work from anywhere, and unlimited time off, just to name a few.

The stakes are higher than ever to implement programs that provide an organization with the desired outcomes to be successful in a way that allows employees to live a meaningful and well-balanced life. u

 

Amy Roberts is executive vice president and chief human resources officer at PeoplesBank.

Features Special Coverage

Uplifting Spirits

For most in this region, the war in Ukraine is something to read about or see on the nightly news. For Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, who operates a distillery in Poland just a few hours from the border with Ukraine, the war hits much closer to home — figuratively, if not literally. He made a trip to Poland and then the border in March, and he’ll be going back in July, bringing cash for refugees and other types of support.

Paul Kozub says he’d like to forget some of the things he saw and heard while on his trip to Poland and its border with Ukraine in March, just days after the fighting began there. After all, he was seeing people in extreme distress — women and children, mostly, who were leaving their home country, sometimes with just on their clothes on their back, not knowing if they would ever be returning.

But these words and images, and there are many of them, are burned into his memory, he said, and they make him even more committed to doing what he can to help refugees who have made their way to Poland, where Kozub, founder and owner of V-One Vodka, owns a distillery.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022,” he recalled, adding that he wound up making three trips to the border in March, with each visit lasting seven or eight hours. “We saw the buses on the highway filled with women and children — martial law was declared in Ukraine, so no men under the age of 60 were allowed to leave the country. So you just saw women and children leaving, fleeing in buses on the highway — bus after bus after bus full of people.

“On the border, there were tents set up for food and a kind of transition spot,” he went on. “But you’d see women 70-or 80-years-old crossing with bags, and young women with strollers and children just walking over the border.”

Kozub told BusinessWest that he felt compelled to travel to Poland in March. He wanted to visit the distillery, located in the town of Lublin, something he’s done every few months over the past several years, although far less frequently since 2020 due to COVID, but also to support refugees if he could.

He left with several thousand dollars in cash, most of it in $100 bills, that he distributed to several different individuals and families knowing that the way exchange rates were moving, U.S. currency would buy much more than the Polish dollar. He made a few trips to the border, which is about a 90-minute drive from the distillery, and in doing helped bring the war to this country through a few interviews with a Boston television station that picked up his story and talked with him from his hotel room and at the border.

“I never thought I’d be a war correspondent, but there I was talking about what I saw and what I experienced,” he said. “To me there’s no more clear example of good versus evil, a country that’s invaded for no clear reason.”

Today, Kozub is planning a return visit to Poland and his distillery with his family — his wife and four children. He’s not sure if he will make it to the border, but does plan to visit some refugee centers and try to reconnect with several of the people he met three months ago.

He plans to visit the Help the Ukranian Children Foundation in Zyrzyn, Poland, which he is supporting through a special label for his vodka, one with the blue and yellow of the Ukranian flag; $2 from the sale of each bottle going to support refugees.

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag. He is donating $2 from each bottle to help refugees.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Kozub about how the war in Ukraine — and the plight of those who have fled that country for Poland — have become personal for him, and how he continues to find ways to not only support those individuals and families, but also shed needed light on their situation.

 

Proof Positive

As noted earlier, Kozub has many indelible memories from his March visit, one that brought the war in Ukraine and its profound impact on its people, home in ways that can’t be appreciated by simply tuning into CNN.

He used the word ‘surreal’ more than a few times to describe what he saw, especially during those visits to the border.
“Poland was normal for the most part — there were a lot of Ukrainain flags,” he recalled, “But as we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022.”

“That was the first time we got a little anxious,” he went on. “Once we got to the border, we befriended a few Polish police men and women who started telling us the stories they were hearing.”

One memory stands out for him. It involves giving a ride to a young girl and her parents to the city in Poland where he was staying.

“We didn’t notice until they got out that they had nothing,” he recalled. “No bags, no nothing, just the clothes on their backs. The way the man was dressed — he had a nice watch, nice clothes on, nice shoes — you could see that they just left so quickly they didn’t have time to pack a bag. Seeing stuff that like really hit home.

Kozub said he left for Poland with the expectation that he would bring a few thousand dollars to the border, maybe visit once and try to help people as they were coming into Poland during the first days of the war. But those expectations were altered by what he encountered, and also by contributions sent to him in advance of his trip, including $4,000 from his commercial lender, PeoplesBank — the most that can be sent via VENMO.

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border, will be returning to Poland next month.

“That contribution really helped — while I was there, I was able to buy so much more,” he recalled, noting that he was able to buy a washer and dryer for an apartment building now housing 80 women and children, and also bring more needed food and water to the border.

He recalled one instance where he tried to help a woman with four young children.

“All these people didn’t want to accept money from me at first,” he recalled. “But I said ‘you have to — that’s why I traveled all this way.’

“That was back when there were tens of thousands of people coming over every day — that’s when most of the need was going on,” he recalled, adding that the sights from those days remain with him even though the scene has changed, as have the needs of the refugees that have made their way to Poland.

While what he saw was disturbing on many levels, so too was what he heard from some of those he encountered, he said, noting that he has come to understand the Polish language, which is very similar to what is spoken in Ukraine.

“As we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.”

“We could understand most of what they were saying,” he noted. “We would see the cars of people driving into Poland, and they would have pieces of paper in the window with ‘ditya,’ which is ‘child’ in Russian written on them. We were hearing stories that the Russians were shooting at them; they were bombing these lines of cars as they were leaving.

“The stories of atrocities that we’re now hearing every day … I was hearing them in the beginning,” he went on. “It is so unbelievable that this is going on today; it’s very heartbreaking, and you just don’t want to believe that it’s true.”

While there are still some people leaving Ukraine for Poland, much of the activity is now moving in the other direction, with many returning to the country they fled. Still there are millions still in Poland forging a new life for themselves there, a challenge made simpler by the Polish government’s decision to change its law and allow people from the Ukraine (which is not part of the European Union) to come into that country and work and start businesses.

“In some of the major cities, like Warsaw and Krakow, they’ve seen a 30% to 40% increase in population,” said Kozub, adding that refugees are finding housing in the homes of Polish residents, in churches, camps, and other sites.

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal in many respects and included work as a “war correspondent.”

As for his planned July trip back to Poland, Kozub said he plans to reconnect with some of the individuals and families he met at the start of this conflict, including a young man who renovated a 20-unit apartment building in Zyrzyn that is now home to 80 women and children.

“We’re continuing to raise money for them, so I’ll bring some money for that charity,” he said, adding that he also plans to visit — and bring some money to — an orphanage located near the distillery, one that he has been supporting for several years now, which is now housing orphans from Ukraine.

To further assist refugees, and, specifically, Ukranian Children Foundation, Kozub has created a special label for his original V-One vodka, a project that was fast-tracked, with the label being finalized in just a few months, rather than the full year that it normally takes.

It was undertaken as Kozub was introducing another new flavor — Double Espresso — to his growing portfolio, one that is ever-changing and expanding to keep pace in the ultra-competitive vodka market.

The March trip to the distillery was undertaken to finalize the recipe for that new flavor, he said, adding that the overall process has been slowed by supply-chain issues and huge increases in shipping costs and other expenses — challenges that are making it much more difficult to do business in this industry.

Despite these challenges, Kozub wanted to introduce his new label, a project that was conceived just before his March visit, with the expectation that there would be long-term needs among the refugees.

“It takes about a year to get things done, between the approvals and the printing time, and other issues, but we were able to get it done in three weeks,” he said, adding that the son of one of his employees at the distillery drove 10 hours each way to pick up the labels, which were affixed to 3,000 bottles overnight, in time to get on a container ship.

The special edition bottles should arrive by mid-summer, he said, and he expects them to be sold out by August.

 

His Best Shot

Like most everyone taking in what’s happening in Ukraine — from a few feet from the border or 4,500 miles away — Kozub has no idea when this conflict will end or how it will end.

What he does know is that there are many people still in need. They are an ocean and then a continent away from V-One’s headquarters in Hadley, but only 100 miles or so from where his vodka is made.

Since setting up shop in Poland, he has been active in that ‘community’ and a source of support for orphans and others in need. The landscape there has changed dramatically over the past three months, and Kozub has responded accordingly. As he said, it’s personal for him.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

Jaclyn Stevenson says Shakespeare & Company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer.

 

Jennifer Nacht describes the beginning of the summer season in Lenox as a light switch that clicks on to a time of “happy mayhem.”

Unofficially, the season begins after Memorial Day weekend, but Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, noted that the weekends leading up to the holiday were plenty busy, as well. In fact, as early as January she first began to see a vibrant summer on the horizon for Lenox.

Back then, Nacht had begun planning the Lenox Art Walk event scheduled for this month. Her attempt to reserve hotel rooms for artists who planned to travel to the event was more difficult than anticipated.

“I was able to find only three rooms after calling several different hotels back in January,” Nacht said. “They were all so apologetic and said that because of weddings and other events, every place was booked full.” 

This difficulty with finding rooms is just one indication of what promises to be a sizzling summer for Lenox, which, because of its tourism-based economy, faced innumerable challenges during the past two summers of COVID, and is poised for a breakout year.

Indeed, ‘healthy’ and ‘robust’ are terms that Marybeth Mitts, chair of the Lenox Select Board, uses to describe tourism in her community as high season, the three months of summer, commence.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019,” Mitts said, adding that, with a full summer of Boston Symphony Orchestra performances as well as a Popular Artists series, Tanglewood’s economic impact on Lenox and the Berkshires is considerable.

As one small snapshot, Nacht pointed out that James Taylor’s annual shows on July 3 and 4 will bring more than 36,000 people to town over just those two days.

“We’re excited to welcome the first full season of Tanglewood since the summer of 2019.”

Shakespeare and Company is another Lenox-based arts institution projecting not just a solid summer, but a solid year.

Indeed the theater company has extended its season into the shoulder months surrounding summer. Jaclyn Stevenson, director of marketing and communications, said the longer season is experimental, and will incorporate performances both indoors and outdoors.

Last year when COVID numbers stubbornly stayed high enough to threaten Shakespeare and Company’s ability to stage indoor plays, plans for an outdoor theatre that was a “someday” project, moved on to the fast track.

“The Spruce Theatre was constructed in 90 days in the summer of 2021,” Stevenson said. Modeled after the amphitheaters of ancient Greece, the stage rests in front of several tall spruce trees that are incorporated into the design.

“When the idea for it was presented in the context of COVID, it was much easier for everyone to understand the vision Artistic Director Allyn Burrows had for the theater,” added Stevenson.

While the company already had its outdoor Roman Garden Theatre that seats 280, the Spruce Theatre is a 500-seat facility with room to stage larger productions. In fact, the opening play for the Spruce Theatre was a production of King Lear featuring actor Christopher Lloyd in the title role.

“Having Christopher Lloyd here to christen the stage was a real coup,” Stevenson remembered. “It was the kind of fanfare we would not have been able to create otherwise in a COVID world.”

For this, the latest installment of its Ciommunity Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how Lenox is well-positioned to further rebound from COVID and take full advantage of what is expected to be a big year for the tourism sector — and communities that rely on such businesses to fuel their economy.

 

Art and Soul

The Art Walk is a good example of an event that was created at the height of the pandemic after the town was forced to cancel its annual Apple Squeeze event. As an alternative to the town-wide festival, Nacht and others developed the Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when Apple Squeeze would have taken place.

The first Art Walk consisted of 40 artists set up in different areas of town known as “artist villages.” These villages were arranged to accommodate only small groups of people with an emphasis on foot-traffic flow to keep everyone moving through the exhibits.

The event received great feedback and has quickly become a tradition in Lenox. Now in its third year, Art Walk features spring and fall editions. Meanwhile, the Apple Squeeze has returned, and will take place on Sept. 24.

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says the summer is looking very promising for Lenox and its many tourism-related businesses.

“It’s very validating to see these events that we put together on the fly are now becoming established,” said Nacht, noting that Lenox Loves Music is another event created during the pandemic that has had staying power.

In Lenox, music and entertainment are an important part of the town’s identity. When Tanglewood, Shakespeare and Company and the other entertainment venues shut down at the height of COVID, the chamber began working with the Berkshire Music School on a series of Sunday afternoon concerts, and Lenox Loves Music was born.

“The new events really help the merchants,” Nacht said. “Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

Like the Art Walk, the popularity of Lenox Loves Music has made it a keeper, with concerts every Friday in June and September.

“We run all these events in the shoulder months of May and June then September and October,” Nacht said. “Once our high season hits, beginning the weekend of July 4, we’re packed with visitors so we don’t need to entice tourists because they are already here.”

Shakespeare and Company is another organization that has extended its season to the shoulder months. In years past, the company would stage three plays by the Bard and three contemporary works. With the expanded season, it is staging two Shakespeare plays along with five or six modern plays.

“The mission of our company is based on the work of Shakespeare,” Stevenson said. “We choose our plays thoughtfully to reflect the spirit of the Bard and to show people new things.”

In addition to staging plays, the company also has a robust actor-training program and a nationally recognized theatre-in-education program.

Stevenson noted that a high-school-age theater group had recently performed Romeo and Juliet on the Spruce Theatre stage.

“The new events really help the merchants. Our real goal is to hold events that bring people to Lenox who will eat in our restaurants and explore our shops.”

“It was so cool to see students on the same stage where actors from all over the world will be performing Much Ado About Nothing in July,” Stevenson said. “You could see the joy of them being in that space.”

 

Setting the Stage

To accommodate all the tourists visiting these attractions, and locals as well, Lenox has a number of projects in the works to refurbish some of its municipal buildings while plans are in the works to build several new structures for town departments.

Beginning with Town Hall, Mitts said improvements are underway to replace the carpet and curtains in the auditorium as well as install a new roof and gold leaf on the Town Hall cupola.

“The town has capital plans within the next five years to begin construction on a new wastewater treatment plant, and a new public safety structure to include the Lenox police and fire departments,” Mitts said.

In addition to roof and chimney repairs to the library, Mitts said a key project involves updating the HVAC system.

“We’re installing a new interstitial system to manage ventilation in the building,” Mitts said. “This is to ensure proper storage of the library’s collections including rare books and ephemera of the region.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of refurbishing project is taking place at Mass Audubon Society’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, a popular destination for hikers at all levels. Last July a wind and rainstorm felled thousands of trees and severely damaged a boardwalk at Pike’s Pond. With $200, 000 of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds from the state and private donations, cleanup and renovations are in progress.

“Many of the trails and structures have been restored, however, there is on-going work to bring the facility back up to the full capacity it enjoyed in June 2021,” Mitts said.

As for the chamber of commerce, Nacht said that while the pandemic really challenged the agency in many different ways, it also presented an opportunity for the chamber to show what it could do to support efforts in town.

“People are now confident in the chamber and look to us for help with their events,” Nacht said offering the example of a proverbial ‘good problem to have’ at a recent farmers’ market.

“The farmers’ market brought so many people to town there weren’t enough lunch places for people,” Nacht said. The chamber arranged for a food truck run by someone who had worked in Lenox restaurants for 20 years. “He was excited to be back in Lenox and tells people he’s living his dream with his food truck.”

“It’s nice to feel that kind of energy coming back to Lenox,” she went on, adding that energy levels are expected to soar even higher during what is shaping up to be a very memorable summer.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

Carolyn Brennan says that while Hadley is a small town, the traffic and visitation it sees every day create some big-city challenges.

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

One is a small farming town, known locally — and even beyond — for its asparagus. The other Hadley exists on Route 9, the main artery running through town that can see up to 100,000 vehicles a day bringing people to shopping centers, universities, hotels — and neighboring towns.

This dual nature brings obvious opportunities and challenges — and many of both — to this Hampshire County community.

The opportunities are clearly evident all along Route 9 — retail outlets of every kind that bring people, and vital tax revenue, to the town. The challenges … they are clearly evident as well.

And one of the biggest is meeting the demands of those 100,000 vehicles using the town’s infrastructure with the staff and budget of a small town.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day,” said Carolyn Brennan, town administrator.

In the first round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, Hadley received $1.5 million, which was used to address repairs to two culverts as well as repairs to the dike that runs next to the Connecticut River. The town sought separate funding for its largest infrastructure project, a 2¼-mile reconstruction of Route 9. When complete the road will be widened for additional traffic lanes and bus shelters, and storm drains will be upgraded.

Brennan said that because Route 9 is a state road, the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) is splitting costs with the town. Brennan explained that the town will open the road to fix the infrastructure below, and MassDOT will handle the widening and new pavement.

“The perception is that Hadley is a small town, but it really isn’t when you consider the number of people who are here during the day.”

“The initial phase of the work has begun, like clearing brush and marking utility poles that will be moved,” Brennan said. “There will be much more activity in the next few months as the town begins to replace storm water and sewer lines.” The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

According to Brennan, communication is essential to keep traffic flowing while construction is occurring. Baltazar Contractors stays in close contact with the town when road work is planned. This approach is already paying dividends, as Baltazar had initially planned road work for May 13, the day of the UMass commencement ceremony at McGuirk Stadium.

“We quickly notified them to not do any road work that day to avoid a traffic tie-up,” Brennan said. “It would have been insane.”

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says businesses and events in Hadley are returning to their pre-pandemic levels.

Brennan also shares the weekly construction schedule with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Hadley has been incredible with communicating when road work will be taking place,” Pazmany said. “It allows us to let businesses know what the traffic patterns will be.”

And lately, traffic has been heavier as the region returns to something approaching normalcy after two years of pandemic.

Indeed, business in Hadley is definitely picking up, with Pazmany reporting that more businesses are returning to pre-pandemic hours of operation and events like the Asparagus Festival (June 11) are back on the schedule.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer,” Pazmany said. “The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at a town that is much more than a bridge between Amherst and Northampton.

 

Fruits of Their Labor

Echoing Pazmany, Drew Perron, co-owner of Arizona Pizza at the Hampshire Mall said his business is vibrant, with numbers approaching those of 2019. He gave credit to his staff to help get through the worst of the pandemic.

“Many of our employees are long-termers and have been with us from seven to 12 years,” Perron said. “We made it through this entire ordeal thanks to their dedication.”

Once part of a chain, Arizona Pizza is now locally owned by Perron and his business partner. While its location is tucked around the back of the mall, customers have no problem finding it.

“I’m very thankful we have a number of regulars who kept us going through COVID and they continue to support us,” Perron said.

“I’m hearing from our local hotels that weekends are booked solid from now through the end of the summer. The hotel folks are also saying their receipts are back up to 2019 levels. That’s huge.”

With Cinemark theaters located next to Arizona Pizza, blockbuster movies help keep the restaurant busy.

“Doctor Strange came out last weekend, and that was a good weekend for us,” Perron noted. “I communicate with the general manager at Cinemark, because the more successful they are, the more successful we’re going to be.”

Perron and Cinemark working together is an example of the cooperative spirit that motivated Andrea Bordenca to locate two businesses in Hadley.

Bordenca is CEO for both Diversified Equipment Services & Consulting Organization (DESCO) and Venture Way Collaborative.

DESCO is a service company where technicians maintain and repair technology such as EKG machines, operating room tables, and similar equipment found in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. Founded by her father in 1970, Bordenca worked through the ranks of DESCO with positions in quality assurance and sales. While her dad taught her some basics of business, Bordenca realized she had no leadership skills and was motivated to enroll in the Institute for Generative Learning (IGL) an international leadership training and coaching organization.

“I wanted to create a higher leadership role for myself to carry on the legacy of my father and of DESCO,” she explained, adding that she credits IGL for teaching her how to be a leader and how to grow the company by centering DESCO’s focus on building and aligning teams.

“Over the past 15 years, we have more than doubled in size, doubled in revenue, and quadrupled in profitability,” Bordenca said.

Her training at IGL so inspired Bordenca that she now owns the U.S. affiliate for the training organization. Other affiliates are in Latin America, the United Kingdom and Asia, making her one of four owners and operators of IGL.

That brings us to her second business, Venture Way Cooperative in Hadley, where IGL is located. While DESCO had been in Eastern Mass since its founding, Bordenca moved the company’s headquarters to the Venture Way location in May 2020.

“When I came to Western Mass I saw lots of collaboration and a sense of commitment for each other to succeed,” said Bordenca. “I just didn’t see that kind of collaboration in Eastern Mass.”

The two organizations currently have 61 employees, with Bordenca serving as CEO for both entities. DESCO has a national presence with an office in Miami and field technicians who work from home in various states. She was able to coordinate the company’s move to Hadley without losing any employees.

“We’re looking to triple in size over the next five years,” Bordenca said. “We want to share our culture and our ability to build teams and create engagements to other states.”

When BusinessWest spoke with Bordenca she was planning a ribbon cutting and open house to introduce more people to IGL and DESCO. To illustrate what happens at DESCO, a service technician will hold a demonstration at the open house of how they service a sterilizing machine. The technician will also work with something more familiar to most people, an ice machine — DESCO also services ice machines for restaurants, hotels and surgery centers.

“On the training side of Venture Way, I’ve invited local speakers to talk about the work they’re involved in to begin a dialog about the ways community members can help affect change together,” Bordenca said. “This is the first of many events like this and we’ve begun lining up great local leaders to present in the coming months.”

One way Bordenca sees Venture Way helping DESCO is by training a more diverse workforce to step in as older workers retire. She admitted that technicians in the industry have traditionally been mostly white and male.

“We want to make sure our industry is visible to all genders and races,” she said. “At Venture Way we can expose people to what we do and even offer mini courses so more people can get a taste of this as a career.”

Large numbers of workers reaching retirement age is happening in all professions. Brennan said it’s an ongoing challenge for Hadley.

“In the next few years, we will see a significant number of highly skilled, intelligent workers retiring and leaving with lots of historical knowledge about the town,” Brennan said. “The real challenge is encouraging younger people to work in municipal government.”

Brennan is working on a more robust internship program between UMass and the town to introduce public policy majors to the workings of a municipality.

“Once people start working with a municipality, they’re hooked for life,” Brennan said, relating to her own experience where, after working in municipal government, she took a job in the private sector for a short time but could not wait to get back into municipal work. “I was hooked, and we just have to get new people hooked.”

Pazmany, who recently took part in a workforce-strategies panel, said a trend is emerging where modern workers want to be part of something bigger than just having a job and are more concerned about a community focus in their work.

In her role at the chamber, Pazmany makes many direct connections among area businesses and has found new ways to help employers fill positions.

“Members are allowed to upload job listings, which we then upload to our social media sites,” Pazmany said. “We’ve posted hundreds of jobs in the past several months.”

 

Experts in Their Fields

Bordenca said she’s excited about moving DESCO to Hadley, calling it the perfect location for what the company does.

“Hadley is more centrally located to serve customers throughout the Northeast in places like New York and Vermont,” Bordenca said. “This location makes us feel closer to our employees and our customers in lots of ways.”

Perron concurred, noting that Hadley is a town that works well for his restaurant. He also gave credit to the current Hampshire Mall management as the best he’s seen in well over a decade.

“I like being a tenant here because the mall managers are very good about working with us and caring about us,” Perron said.

He’s also encouraged by the continued growth of the Route 9 corridor and the number of people it brings to the town.

“I see an uptrend happening here,” said Perron, who is clearly not alone in that assessment.

Features Special Coverage

A Complicated Picture

John Regan says that, in many respects, it is difficult to reconcile the numbers from the latest Business Confidence Index (BCI) released by Associated Industries of Mass. (AIM) with recent headlines and the many strong headwinds facing business owners and managers today.

Indeed, the monthly confidence index continued an upward trend since the start of the year, rising to 58.1, a gain of 0.9 points, putting the index “comfortably within optimistic territory,” according to AIM, which Regan serves as president.

That optimism, though, comes as inflation remains at nearly historic levels, gas prices continue their upward climb, a stubborn workforce crisis continues, supply-chain issues persist, and the stock market is down double digits (almost 20%, in fact) from the start of the year. That’s why Regan acknowledges that the BCI’s trajectory seems illogical, if not contradictory to what’s happening.

“It’s hard to reconcile, but people feel confident,” he said. “And the Business Confidence Index is important because if you’re confident, you’re more willing to make investments in equipment, people, facilities, and new products.”

And a closer look at the landscape might reveal that there are, in fact, reasons for such optimism, he said, starting with a simple comparison to where things were two years ago — and even four months ago — with regard to the pandemic and its many side effects.

John Regan

John Regan

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance.”

And then, there’s those soaring state revenues. The Department of Revenue took in more than $2 billion above what was expected in April, giving Gov. Charlie Baker cause to press his case for the Legislature to take up his proposals to provide roughly $700 million in tax relief to residents.

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance,” he said. “If you match business confidence with the state’s own revenue performance, clearly positive things are happening.”

Overall, there are several factors, competing numbers, and varying opinions relative to just what is causing this record inflation that make it difficult to speculate about what will happen short- and long-term and whether the country is heading for a recession, as many are now projecting. GDP declined by 1.4% in the first quarter, and many economists are projecting that this trend will continue in Q2. And the matter is complicated further by the Fed’s ongoing efforts to slow the pace of inflation by raising interest rates — an aggressive strategy that is fueling speculation about a recession.

As Bob Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst surveys the scene, he said it is largely without precedent, thus making analysis, let alone predictions, difficult.

“We live in complicated times,” he said, with a large dose of understatement in his voice. “It’s a complicated picture, more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Brian Canina, executive vice president, CFO and treasurer at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, agreed.

“This is a very unusual period of time,” he told BusinessWest. “Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

And even harder to project what will happen. Nakosteen does not anticipate continued decline in GDP for the second quarter, which, if it did happen, would be the technical definition of recession. But he’s not projecting strong growth, either.

Brian Canina

Brian Canina

“This is a very unusual period of time. Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

“My prediction is we’ll see growth in the second quarter,” he said. “Not robust growth, maybe 1% or 1.5%, but I don’t think you’ll see GDP decline again.”

Meanwhile, Regan said economists with AIM are projecting that recession is “more likely than not, but it won’t be a terribly long recession.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with these experts and asked them to slice through the complex confluence of issues and try to anticipate what will happen with the economy in the coming months and quarters.

 

On-the-money Analysis

It was the late U.S. Sen. John McCain who, in 2015, described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Paying homage to that quote, Nakosteen, echoing others, said Russia is a “a gas station with an army.”

That classification, and the acknowledgment that Russia, and Ukraine, both export large amounts of wheat and fertilizer, speaks volumes about just one of the many forces — most of them unpredictable in nature — that are impacting the national and global economic scene. And they’re also making it difficult to determine what will happen in Q2, Q3, and well beyond, said Nakosteen, who, like Regan, said that despite those aforementioned headwinds, there are many positive signs when it comes to the economy.

Bob Nakosteen

“The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

“The GDP decline in both the state and the nation was almost more a technical issue, because all the numbers that went into it, except those regarding inventory, were strong,” he explained. “The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

Which prompted two interest-rate hikes this year, including a half-point increase late last month, designed to slow the economy. But with those rate hikes comes talk of inflation, said Nakosteen, adding that, historically, one has led to the other.

These factors add up to a lot of watching and analyzing for people like Canina, who said there is a lot to digest, including current loan activity, or the lack thereof, as well as inflation and the dreaded inverted yield curve — a successful predictor of many recent recessions — and the impact of rising interest rates on consumer spending as the cost of borrowing increases.

Starting with a look at loan activity, he said it has slowed markedly in recent months, with most all refinancing of home mortgages complete and commercial loans in the post-PPP era being relatively stagnant.

“For what should be a very robust economic environment, we’re not seeing the equivalent loan opportunities on either the commercial or residential side,” he said, adding that the rising interest rates, coupled with low inventory and soaring prices, are certainly impacting the latter. “We’re not seeing a lot of loan demand; we’re doing what we can to find it, but it’s challenging for us right now.”

And this lack of loan activity will certainly have an impact on interest paid on deposits, he said, noting that while one might assume that these rates will rise naturally as the Fed increases interest rates, they won’t if loan activity remains stagnant.

“We’re coming off a time when banks have a ton of cash because of all the government stimulus that’s been flooded into the market,” he explained. “So they have a ton of cash on their balance sheet and not a lot of loan demand, so it’s going to be very difficult for them to pay higher rates on deposits unless they can turn that cash into loans.”

And the loan market is just one of the many things to watch moving forward, he went on, adding that the sluggishness in that area is a symptom (one of many) that the inflation being witnessed is a product of government policy and other factors — supply chain issues, workforce shortages and resulting higher wages among them — rather than the economy being hot and in need of being cooled down.

“I don’t think gas prices or the cost of groceries are really being impacted by consumer spending,” he said. “I think those things have been impacted by government regulation, supply chain, and cost of wages — grocery stores paying $17 an hour for kids to bag groceries because they can’t hire people at lower wages because there’s no one to hire.”

“It’s all been reactionary to the pandemic — everything right now seems to be incredibly artificial,” he went on, adding that, for this reason, the Fed’s interest-rate hikes might provide a real, unfiltered look at what’s happening with the economy. “We have artificially driven rates on the short term, and the Fed also manipulating rates on the long end with their bond purchases. If they can start shrinking their balance sheet, and raising interest rates on the low end can normalize the yield curve, and then get out of the markets, then we can see what’s really going on.”

Still another thing to watch is how quickly and profoundly interest rates are increased, he said, adding that, in the past, when rates rise quickly and in large doses, the Fed has had to back off and reverse course in an effort to pick up a slowing economy.

Nakosteen agreed, and noted that there are many factors that go into inflation, some of which are likely to be impacted by rising interest rates — such as the spending spawned by government-awarded money in the wake of the pandemic — and some not.

“It’s a complicated picture,” he said. “And inflation is more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Looking back to see if there was a time to compare all this to, Nakosteen said there were many similar attempts to slow the economy, but perhaps none at a time when there were so many issues clouding the picture.

“It’s a bizarre mixture of factors,” he said. “There’s COVID, the war in Ukraine, the aftermath of all the stimulus … it’s a strange mix.”

And despite this mix of factors, or headwinds, business owners are generally upbeat, as indicated in the upward movement of the BCI, which Regan explained this way:

“When things are going badly, the BCI usually predicts that. Despite all the negative stock market activity and the presence of significant inflation pressures, along with continuing supply chain issues and the challenge of securing a workforce, the index is in significantly positive territory.

“When you look at the BCI and some of the other things that are happening, it’s hard to reconcile, other than to say that the people who are responding to the survey feel very confident about how they are doing and how they perceive conditions for their own operation,” he went on, adding that the next reporting of the BCI will be watched with great interest.

 

The Bottom Line

Looking again at the complicated picture that is the national economy, Nakosteen said that, historically, efforts by the Fed to slow inflation by raising interest rates usually take six months or more to reveal their true efficacy.

But in this case, such initiatives have been designed to speed that process, he said, adding that he’s not at all sure whether they actually succeed in doing that — or whether they will succeed at all, given the many question marks concerning the nature of this historic inflation.

Overall, the always complicated task of projecting what will happen with the economy has become that much more difficult. In other words, stay tuned.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Mike McCabe

Mayor Mike McCabe says he’s gained needed feedback from his visits with business owners and monthly coffee hours.

Four months into his new job, Westfield Mayor Michael McCabe says he loves his work.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing,”said McCabe, who, after serving for 36 years in various capacities with the Westfield Police Department, unseated incumbent Donald Humason in last November’s election.

The same two men squared off in 2019, to a different result, obviously. McCabe ran then, and tried again last year because he thought he could use his leadership skills and ability to build relationships to move the city forward in several key areas. Early in his first year in office, he can already point to some progress and the potential for much more.

He starts downtown, where he’s made a point of visiting every business from Park Square to the Great River Bridge. And as he did so, he visited some that opened just months and even weeks ago, a sign of resilience and growth in a central business district that has struggled for many years.

“I’ve spoken with all the store owners, and I take part in a coffee hour with the chamber every month,” said McCabe, adding that these listening tours are educational in many respects; they let him know what businesses are concerned about, a list topped by traffic.

That’s one topic in McCabe’s wheelhouse, as his last few years with the police department were as traffic commission chairman.

One major traffic issue involves entering and exiting the Mass Turnpike in Westfield. McCabe is working with the Mass. Department of Transportation (MassDOT) to create a new eastbound entrance to the turnpike known as a slip ramp. This would greatly benefit truck traffic while at the same time, relieve much of the backup at the turnpike entrance.

“I’m able to make an impact in areas that I wouldn’t have thought I could; the job requires a lot of problem-solving, something I’m used to doing.”

“The idea is that once you get to the top of North Elm Street, you take a right and you don’t have to stop until you get to Boston,” McCabe said adding that the ramp would reduce wait times for north bound traffic by 66%. “That’s a big number.”

It would also cut in half the wait times for vehicles trying to exit the turnpike from the west during rush periods, where vehicles are often lined up for a half mile trying to access the exit ramp.

While the slip ramp has not yet received formal approval, McCabe said feedback from the state so far has been good. “Fundamentally, there were no issues with what we are proposing,” he said.

Beyond downtown and the turnpike proposal, McCabe and other municipal and business leaders can point to progress on several other fronts, including plans to create a hyper-scale data center in the northwest corner of the city.

According to McCabe, the data center is still only in the planning stage, but if it comes to fruition, this campus of buildings could be the largest development ever undertaken in this region.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty, general Manager of the Westfield G&E says his internal goal is to see 99% of the city with fiber optic access by 2024.

The plan is for the data center to occupy some 155 acres in the northwest corner of the city and cost $2.7 billion when complete.It would serve as a clearinghouse of sorts for big data companies such as Google, Amazon and Facebook.

Overall, McCabe and other city leaders say Westfield’s bevy of assets — from its location off the turnpike to its abundance of developable land center; from its municipal airport to its municipal utility, which offers a potent mix of attractively priced energy and high-speed internet — are paying dividends for the community and making projects such as the data center feasible.

That much is made clear in this, the latest installment ofBusinessWest’sCommunity Spotlight series.

 

Things are Looking Up

Westfield Barnes Municipal Airport is one area of town where things are literally taking off.

According to Chris Willenborg, airport manager, nearly 50,000 takeoffs and landings occur at Barnes every year. A $4.7 million taxiway apron that was completed late in the fall allows the airport to accommodate larger aircraft and improves operations on both the civilian and military side of the airport.

“Neary 3,700 student athletes fly through Barnes on sports team charter planes,” Willenborg noted. “These flights are typically larger aircraft, which we can now accommodate.”

Three new hangars are currently under construction that will allow Barnes to have 12 to 15 more aircraft based there.

“Right now, there is a waiting list to store aircraft at Barnes,” Willenborg said. “The leases, fuel fees and other associated costs will all generate revenue for Westfield.”

With the Mass Turnpike and I-91 close by, Barnes has become an appealing airport for business aviation, which has Willenborg looking for even more hangar development. Work has also begun for what Willenborg called a “major project in the pipeline.”

“We have a $15 million to $20 million taxiway project going out to bid next year,” he said. “It’s in the design phase now and will involve relocating and widening one of our taxiways.”

On the military side of the airport, Westfield currently houses a fleet of F-15 fighter jets. Last year the Department of Defense invited air bases to make their case for hosting F-35 jets and Barnes made its bid. The DOD is expected to decide by May or June.

“The most important thing about this process is that Barnes will be getting a new fighter jet,” Willenborg said. “We will either bring the F-35 here or we will get the brand-new F-15 EX fighter. Either way, we are anxiously awaiting their decision.”

Developments at Barnes are just some of the newsworthy projects in the northern, industrial end of the city.

Indeed, another growth area for Westfield involves James Hardie Building Products, which will soon move into the former Old Colony Envelope building. Hardie manufactures construction siding products such as backer board, a drywall-type sheet used in wet areas such as bathrooms.

Meanwhile, off Route 202, both Home Depot and Lowe’s maintain distribution centers for the region. Another major retailer will soon join them as Target is planning a warehouse in the same area.

The city has been able to attract these large distribution centers — and become the preferred site for the hyper-scale data center — because of its location, inventory of land and available properties, and the abundance of cheap power and high-speed internet.

Those last two selling points come courtesy of the Westfield Gas & Electric and Whip City Fiber, a division of the G&E continues to install its fiber optic high-speed internet infrastructure in Westfield and many small towns. Tom Flaherty, general manager for the G&E, said Whip City is on track to have 85% of Westfield covered by this time next year.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette says nearly 20 new businesses have opened in Westfield during the pandemic, a sign of entrepreneurial energy in the city.

At the same time, the company is bringing high-speed internet to 19 towns in Western Mass where no internet infrastructure previously existed. For towns like Cummington, Windsor, Heath, and others, it’s an economic boom.

“Real estate agents are using access to Whip City Fiber as a selling point to sell homes,” Flaherty said. “Because they now have internet access, one town official told us they are building five new houses, where before they were lucky to build one house every other year.”

Critics of Whip City Fiber have complained about resources going to other towns while sections of Westfield are still without fiber optic internet. Flaherty said revenues from Whip City Fiber customers in Westfield and the hill towns will help pay for finishing the job in town.

“We have most of Westfield covered and we are tackling some of the more complex and costly areas now,” Flaherty said. Installing the fiber optic cables in apartment complexes and in areas with underground wiring is more complicated and expensive.

“Officially, we hope to see 99% of Westfield with fiber optic access by 2025,” Flaherty said. “My internal goal is 2024.”

 

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, back in downtown Westfield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette reported that small businesses continue to open in Westfield.

“During the pandemic, nearly 20 new businesses opened; that blew my mind,” he said. “These folks had made the decision to pursue their vision and were undaunted by the pandemic.”

As COVID numbers get under control and the weather warms up, the chamber has returned to hosting in-person events.

“We thought that was important because it’s tough to network from behind a screen,” Oulette said. “When people can be present with each other it leads to more clients and more job opportunities. It even opens the door for us to meet businesses who might want to join the chamber.”

While membership dropped off during the pandemic, Oulette is hoping to grow from the current 230 members to 300 by the end of the year.

Several efforts are in place to encourage small business activity, such as a vacant-storefront initiative, where the city will subsidize a new business by covering half their rent payments for up to two years. There’s also a façade initiative that involves repairing and restoring building fronts for businesses in the city.

McCabe has a vision for downtown that emphasizes retailers who sell consumables.

“That means taking a chance on offering places with eclectic food and more diversity than what’s currently available downtown,” he said.

The mayor also made a promise to himself regarding the hole in downtown where the former Newbury’s store stood before it was destroyed by fire more than 30 years ago. McCabe has plans to turn that lot into a public green space.

“I’d like to see it used for farmers markets or tag sales, or just to have a nice place to eat lunch outside,” he said. “We could do a lot of different things with that space.”

He hopes the green space will be completed by the end of the summer.

“I want to bring the idea forward,” he said. “If it works — great, if it doesn’t, a green space is still better than what’s there now.”

Another goal for McCabe involves creating a sustained partnership with Westfield State University. Linda Thompson joined WSU as its new president just a few months before McCabe became mayor. Because they both began their respective jobs around the same time, McCabe is hopeful they can work together for their mutual benefit.

“President Thompson is a great person to work with and I’m looking forward to what we can do,” McCabe said. “My goal is to have Westfield State graduates consider staying here when they finish college.”

As Westfield pursues all its potential, there may be many new traffic issues in the future. That’s one challenge McCabe would gladly invite.

“I’m all about transportation,”said the man wearing a classic car pattern on his tie.

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And All That Jazz

Kenny Lumpkin

Kenny Lumpkin doesn’t like to use that word ‘club’ when it comes to his establishment on Worthington Street, Dewey’s Jazz Lounge. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ which really says it all. Those are his passions — in life and now in business. A year after opening, he’s off to a solid start and now looking to make an even greater impact on Springfield’s dining and entertainment scene.

Kenny Lumpkin is the true definition of serial entrepreneur.

Since as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be in business for himself — and he’s put his name and talents behind many different types of ventures.

One was called Room by Room, an app he developed with a friend that he described as “applying Uber to the cleaning industry — an on-demand way to get your house cleaned.” He eventually sold that venture, took the capital, and segued into real estate, flipping houses, and wholesaling. And while doing that, he also got into consulting, specifically with businesses in the hospitality sector looking for help with marketing, and later, biotech and pharmaceutical consulting, working for a few different firms.

But his real passions — yes, we need the plural here — are music, food, and beverage.

And he and business partner Mark Markarian have brought them all together in an intriguing new venture in the heart of Springfield’s entertainment district, or what many are now calling the Dining District.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential.”

It’s called Dewey’s Lounge, with that name chosen to honor Lumpkin’s cousin Dwight ‘Dewey’ Jarrett, who passed away in 2014. It’s been called a club by many, but Lumpkin doesn’t necessarily like that term attached to his establishment. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ with ‘restaurant coming first for a reason.

Opened almost a year ago, Dewey’s was obviously conceived and launched before and then during the pandemic, although Lumpkin admits that he’s been working on bringing this concept from the drawing board to reality for many years now. And since it is a product of the pandemic, the business plan for Dewey’s has been revised … well, Lumpkin doesn’t know how many times.

“Maybe 15 or 20 times — I’ve lost track,” he said, adding that many things have changed since the original plans were put down, including (and especially) the location.

Indeed, the original site was on Main Street, the former JT’s tavern. Lumpkin and Markarian had signed a letter of intent and were primed to get started when COVID arrived in March of 2020. The partners quickly put those plans on the shelf for what would be more than a year, but in many respects, the pandemic was somewhat of a blessing.

“I look back on it now, and while it was frustrating in the moment, it was extremely beneficial,” he recalled. “It allowed us to really dig deeper, develop the plan in more detail, and look at other locations.”

But what really hasn’t changed is the broad concept and the desire — make that the mission — to make this all happen in Springfield, where Lumpkin was born and spent his early years.

And over its first 11 or so months in operation, Dewey’s is off to what Lumpkin called a solid start that has been better than expected, especially while dealing with COVID, two different surges, mask mandates, and the corresponding changes in attitude about going out and being in a crowded place.

Deweys Bar

Dewey’s was conceived as a place where food, beverage, and music would come together in a powerful way.

“We’ve seen two dips and two spikes,” he explained, adding that he and Markarian understood the risks of moving ahead with their venture when they eventually did — December of 2020 — but decided these were risks worth taking. “There was really no good time to do it. We took that risk, and, in looking at the cycle of it, understood that we were going to come out of this eventually.”

The goal moving forward is to continue to build on the solid foundation that has been created, he told BusinessWest, while also advancing plans for another new business in the downtown — a sports bar on Dwight Street (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lumpkin about a host of topics — Dewey’s, the joys (and perils) of entrepreneurship, downtown Springfield and its comeback from COVID, and much more.

 

Sound Investment

Lumpkin told BusinessWest that the chosen location for Dewey’s came about more or less by accident.

As he tells the story, he was helping his sister prepare for the grand opening of her venture, called Ethnic Study, a co-working space and café in a property on Worthington Street, in late summer of 2020, when she asked him to move some paint and other materials to the other side of the divided first floor.

What he found on the other side was what was left (not much, as he recalled) of the former Fat Cat lounge, which had closed years earlier.

As he looked around, Lumpkin concluded that he had found what he was looking for. Sort of.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody. That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

It wasn’t what he could see that intrigued him — although that, too. But rather, it was what he could imagine. And that was the restaurant, bar, and music venue that he had always dreamed of.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential,” he said, adding that he signed a lease late that fall and commenced transforming the location in December.

Dewey’s has attracted entertainers

Since it opened, Dewey’s has attracted entertainers from across the region — and across the country.

There was a good deal of work to be done, including the replacement of the bar and moving it from the center of the first floor to one side, new shelving, a new bar and seating on that mezzanine level, and more, and it was completed over the next six months or so, with Dewey’s opening in June 2021.

Before getting more into this intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield landscape and how it came about, we first need to explain how Lumpkin made his way back to the City of Homes and made his dream reality.

We pick up the story at Emmanuel College in Boston, where Lumpkin was studying business management, with a focus on marketing, and working as a barback at a local restaurant. Later, he worked as a server at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, and then as a server and bartender at the Envoy Hotel in Boston’s Seaport.

While working these jobs, he developed that Room by Room app mentioned earlier, then segued into real estate, and then into various forms of consulting. The money was good and the work was rewarding in many ways.

“But … I wasn’t passionate about it,” Lumpkin recalled. “And what I realized I was passionate about was people, and music — I’m really passionate about music. I love to eat, and I love a good cocktail.

“And that’s where this business idea began to develop, because I really do enjoy connecting with people,” he went on. “And I’ve been the friend who said, ‘everyone come to my house — I’ll cook, let’s drink, let’s hang out all night.’”

So he set out to create a business where he would be the host and people could eat and drink, and also listen to live music.

As noted earlier, the plans for what would become Dewey’s started jelling months before anyone had ever heard the word COVID, and would certainly be impacted by the pandemic in many respects. But while there have been some ups and downs that have coincided with surges and subsequent drops in cases, the venture has come together as things were originally envisioned.

Before and after photographs

Before and after photographs show the dramatic transformation of the former Fat Cat lounge into Dewey’s.

He acknowledged that being a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry, is difficult, and that’s without a global pandemic being thrown in for good measure. But he enjoys the challenges, and even used the word “fun” when talking about how to plan and execute during COVID.

“We would all prefer boring,” he explained. “But challenges like the ones we’ve seen keep you intrigued, keep you interested, and keep you creative. And if you get to the core of what an entrepreneur is, it’s someone who is creative, who can find new ways to problem-solve, and find ways to increase volume or throw out new dishes or cocktails; it keeps it fresh and it keeps it new.”

 

Achievements of Note

It helps to have something new, different, and intriguing, and Dewey’s has those ingredients.

Specifically, this is an appealing mix of food, signature drinks, and music, a combination that has had many guests thinking they’re somewhere other than downtown Springfield when they walk in the door, said Lumpkin, adding that this was the idea when he conceptualized Dewey’s.

And, as noted, he emphasizes that it is a restaurant first, with offerings ranging from Cajun shrimp pasta to baked mac & cheese to fried catfish and grits.

But craft cocktails are an important part of the mix — figuratively but also quite literally — as well, he said, adding that Dewey’s is considered the only craft cocktail bar in downtown Springfield.

“All of our syrups, all of our juices — all of the ingredients that go into our drinks — we make in-house,” he explained. “Everything but the spirit is house; we probably squeeze a couple thousand limes a week.”

The signature cocktails vary with the month and the season, he said, adding that current, spring offerings include ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a mix of whiskey, iced tea, lemonade, and peach syrup; ‘Louis’ Lemonade,’ which features gin, lemon juice, and lavender simple syrup; and ‘Billie’s Holliday,’ featuring vodka, limoncello, and house-made grenadine, topped with prosecco.

As for the music, when asked how and where he finds performers, Lumpkin said that, in many cases, they find him — because they’re looking for intriguing new places to play.

“You’d be surprised by all the talent that’s here in Western Mass. and Connecticut, and Boston as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The most consistent bookings we receive are within a 100-mile radius; however, we’ve had bands come in from New Orleans, Georgia, D.C., Sacramento … we’ve had bands come in from across the country, but the majority are local.”

Dewey’s is currently booked through July, and it boasts live music five nights a week, he said, adding that each night has a different theme, with vocalists or “a vocal-like instrument” on Wednesdays, with a “throw-back R&B” on Thursday. Friday night is more of a “funky, groovy night,” as he put it, with Saturday devoted to straight-up jazz and Sunday and its brunch reserved for classical or a “more groovy type of band.”

It is the combination of all of the above that has enabled Dewey’s to get off to a good start and attract visitors from across this region and well beyond it, said Lumpkin, noting that he carefully tracks such information and notes that through aggressive, targeted marketing and people simply Googling ‘live music,’ or ‘craft cocktails,’ Dewey’s has drawn patrons from Vermont, New York, and many from Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Boston area, in addition to communities across this area.

Dewey’s a destination.

The combination of food, drink, and music has made Dewey’s a destination.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody,” he noted. “That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

Elaborating, he said Dewey’s has been able to attract a clientele that is diverse in every sense of that word, which is unusual in hospitality — and especially in this region.

“We’re in a community where you don’t really see all demographics in one establishment simultaneously,” he explained. “What surprised me … actually, it didn’t surprise me, because I expected it, and what has made me really happy is to see the eclectic group of people that Dewey’s has attracted.

“You see a range of age, gender, nationality, and ethnicity here every single night,” he went on. “People come in and say ‘I don’t think I’m in Springfield; this has a bigger-city vibe, because you’re seeing so much diversity in one room.’”

Moving forward, Lumpkin wants to build on this momentum, obviously, while also embarking on another venture, that sports bar on Dwight Street.

He is targeting a late-summer opening for that facility, and believes there is ample room in the marketplace for such a facility and also ample motivation for him to fill what he sees as an unmet need.

“There’s no sports bar in the area, and any restaurateur understands that sports bars also produce the best margins when it comes to this industry,” he explained, adding that, overall, he is a firm believer in amassing an abundance of hospitality options and, while doing so, creating a true destination in a city or, in this case, a dining district.

“It sounds crazy to say, but there’s almost no such thing as competition in this industry,” he told BusinessWest. “Patrons don’t go to one establishment; they typically at least go to two. They’ll say ‘let’s grab a drink here, a bite here, and dessert here’ or ‘a bite here, a drink there, and let’s get catch a show.’ People get to two or three places a night, and so the pie grows.”

 

Just Desserts

As he talked with BusinessWest, Lumpkin noted that plans are coming into place for what promises to be an exciting one-year anniversary for Dewey’s.

Indeed, he has a star-studded entertainment lineup coming together, with musicians from New Orleans, Boston, New York, California, and this area as well, signed up to perform.

“It’s going to be quite the party,” he said, adding that there is much to celebrate — with this new venue and what is transpiring along Worthington and elsewhere downtown.

It’s taken a few years, but Lumpkin’s dream has become reality in Springfield. It’s a place where his passions come together under one roof, and where a diverse mix of clients has come together as well.

It hasn’t all gone as planned, but in most all respects, it has gone better than planned.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany have presided over many grand openings in downtown Amherst in recent months, testimony to the community’s comeback from the pandemic.

 

If business openings are any indication, Amherst is poised for a strong rebound from a pandemic that has been very rough on its mostly tourism-and-hospitality-based economy.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) said that, by the end of August by her estimation, at least 13 new businesses will have opened in downtown Amherst.

“We’re watching a lift that we haven’t seen in a long time,” said Gould, who shares office space with the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Claudia Pazmany.

The two women and their organizations are working together along with town officials to drive economic empowerment and development for Amherst, and, as recent events demonstrate, it’s working.

Pazmany has presided over 10 ribbon cuttings over the past few months and her calendar has plenty more of these celebrations scheduled in the coming weeks and months.

“Many of these businesses opened during the pandemic and now want to celebrate because they have lasted and even grown their businesses,” Pazmany told BusinessWest.

All this activity in Amherst represents a strong comeback of sorts from the many side-effects of the pandemic. As the community where UMass Amherst and Amherst College are located, it has been described as the quintessential college town. When the pandemic hit and colleges were shut down, the economic impact was abrupt and severe.

“Overnight, nearly 50,000 people left the area,” Gould recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

One way to get an idea of the economic impact colleges have on the town is to look at the number of undergraduate students there. But Gould pointed out that the real impact of students on a town must include all the people who support them, like faculty, staff, and even all the friends and parents who visit the students. When the pandemic hit and campuses were abandoned, Amherst experienced what life would look like without its colleges.

Paul Bockelman

Paul Bockelman says housing is just one of many priorities that have emerged in discussions about how to best spend ARPA funds.

“Once everyone left, our businesses ran at 20% to 30% capacity— and that’s not sustainable,” Gould said. To put it another way, business was off 70% to 80%. “Having the colleges open and the students back fills my heart with joy.”

As noted, these students — and all those who support them or might come to visit them — will see a number of new businesses, especially in the downtown area. That list includes the much-anticipated Drake performance venue, which opened its doors late last month. The Drake meets a long-recognized need for a live-performance venue and it is expected to bring people to Amherst from across this region and well beyond, said Gould, adding that it will likely be a catalyst for more new businesses.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses. In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

But the Drake is far from the only addition to the landscape, she noted, adding that there are new restaurants, retail shops, and more, bringing an ever-more-eclectic mix of businesses to downtown that will make that area more of a destination.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on Amherst, which was hit very hard by the pandemic, but is moving on from that two-year nightmare is every way imaginable.

 

On the Town

As part of the effort to bring Amherst out of the COVID era, the Chamber and BID began a campaign to promote Amherst as a destination titled “What’s Next? Amherst Area.”

Pazmany explained that this campaign promotes the quality of life in Amherst and surrounding areas.

“We focus on three things: the outdoor adventures available here, our iconic cultural institutions — think colleges and the Emily Dickenson Museum — and the ability to have a global dining experience among our restaurants,” she said.

Global dining is more than hyperbole, as downtown Amherst lists 43 restaurants featuring cuisines from all over the world. Each one has an intriguing story.

Indeed, Antonio Marquez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico to Amherst because his wife’s family lives there. As he researched where to open his restaurant, Mexcalito Taco Bar, Marquez considered several towns in the Pioneer Valley and credits destiny for making Amherst his choice.

“This is the best spot for us because we have a family connection here and we like the fact that Amherst is a university community,” Marquez said.

While Mexcalito was ready for business prior to the pandemic, Marquez held off when the world shut down and decided instead to open in July 2021. Now 10 months in business, Marquez said his goal with Mexcalito is for customers to learn something new about Mexican culture through the eatery’s food and drinks.

“When people come in, they feel a different ambience, hear different music,” Marquez said. “We’re looking to do more with sophisticated Mexican cuisine and we will be adding 20 new drinks to our cocktail menu.”

He added that Amherst is the right place for Mexcalito and appreciates his relationship with the town. “We’re feeling like we fit here, it’s pretty cool.”

The broad goal moving forward is create more of these ‘fits,’ said Gould and Pazmany, noting that the Drake is another intriguing example.

That facility fills the need for a music venue for downtown, said Gould, adding that her mindset as she tries to help bring other new businesses to the town is to meet other identified needs.

“As we look at different entities, we are trying to curate our mix of businesses,” Gould said. “In that way we can bring in what we’re missing and make Amherst a vibrant and vital destination.”

That strategy is reflected in the 13 businesses that are opening in the next few months. Among the businesses Gould hopes to see are a fish market, a brewery, and a breakfast/lunch café.

“I have a list of businesses Amherst needs,” Gould said. “We don’t have them yet, but we’re working on it.”

 

House Money

While the business community is rebounding from COVID, the real estate boom that began during the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down in Amherst.

An outdated perception of Amherst is that only college students and retirees lived there, said Pazmany, adding that these days, when a house goes up for sale real estate agents are bombarded with at least a dozen cash offers, all above the asking price.

“Because the pandemic has allowed a number of people to work from anywhere, many are choosing Amherst for the quality of life it offers,” Pazmany said. “One realtor told me most of her clients are people who grew up here and are returning.”

In a good news/bad news twist, UMass and Amherst College are contributing to the housing shortage as both keep moving up academic ranking lists.

“We’re seeing people from literally all over the world who want to do their post-graduate work at UMass,” Gould said. “That means they need somewhere to live.”

And the town intends to use some the $9.8 million it has received from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), to help such people find a place. Indeed, $2 million has been earmarked to begin to address some of the affordable housing concerns in the community.

Housing was just one of many priorities identified by the town as it went about gathering information and soliciting opinions on how to spend ARPA monies, said Paul Bockelman, town administrator, adding that the public and key stakeholders identified 17 different areas to address.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

With the projects finalized this past November, Bockelman reported progress in using the ARPA funds in areas such as filling firefighter and paramedic positions, as well as adding a position in public health. The ARPA funds also included a $750,000 allocation for economic development, specifically to support the creation of the Drake.

As for other developments in town, a $36 million project is underway to renovate and expand the historic Jones Library. Plans call for maintaining the stone exterior while adding space and making it one of the most environmentally efficient buildings in town.

Not far from Jones Library, the Emily Dickenson Museum has a $6 million renovation underway. When the museum re-opens later this year, it will display a collection of period furniture and costumes used in the Apple TV series Dickenson. The show’s producers bought actual period pieces for the show and offered them to the museum at the end of the series shooting.

“The TV show has brought Emily Dickenson to a whole new generation who are now obsessed with her,” Gould said.

For all the good things happening, both Gould and Pazmany admit that Amherst’s business community faces the same challenges every municipality faces, from supply chain issues to inflation to the ongoing workforce crisis.

“As restaurants are still staffing up, they are doing what they can, even if it means reduced hours instead of being open all the time,” Pazmany said. “As they are working through it, we’re asking everyone be patient during these times.”

While outdoor dining saved many restaurants from going under, Gould pointed out that most outdoor set-ups were thrown together with a few jersey barriers and no budget. The BID has received a grant to run a pilot program with several restaurants to show what outdoor dining looks like when it’s done right.

“If we can show the community how this looks when it’s done properly, we can encourage more permanent outdoor dining destinations,” said Gould.

One more challenge, she noted, involves encouraging people to set aside the “add to cart” option of having everything delivered. Instead, she suggested that consumers go out and meet a shopkeeper.

“You can walk into a store and make a human connection,” Gould said. “Amazon was a safety net when we needed it but we can now go down the street to browse.”

 

The Bottom Line

Pazmany added that a new breed of entrepreneurs is opening shops in Amherst.

“There’s a revival of people who want to be business owners,” she said. “They are proud to be here and eager to help.”

Both women look forward to the positive changes that are taking shape in the next couple of years.

“When I think of Amherst in 2023 and 2024, I see a new way of life that is refreshed and yet remains historic,” Gould said. “We do everything we can to keep the town beautiful, but it needs a face lift, and we’re excited because it’s about to happen.”

Features

The Future of Work

By Mark Morris

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser says the pandemic accelerated a number of work trends that were already in motion.

Topics like ‘the future of work’ can often sound like a lofty concept, something that’s years or even decades away from the present.

But to state Sen. Eric Lesser, the future of work has already arrived.

Lesser and state Rep. Josh Cutler co-chaired a commission on the future of work and recently released its final report.

The commission came to be after Lesser authored and filed legislation back in 2019 to address the rapid changes that are happening in workplaces across the state. From increased automation and robotics to international trade policies, all these factors affect the economy and the lives of workers in Massachusetts. The arrival of COVID-19 only accelerated and intensified these economic changes.

“The idea was to take a peek over the horizon, to look beyond COVID to see what a worker’s experience will be over the next five to 10 years, and how we can prepare for that,” Lesser said.

The legislation was signed into law in January 2021 by Gov. Charlie Baker as part of an economic-development bill. Lesser called the commission “diverse in every sense,” with members representing the private sector, the public sector, labor, and academia. Members of the commission also hailed from every region of Massachusetts.

“We gathered a group of people with a diverse set of experiences, backgrounds, and perspectives,” Lesser said. “It was important to reach consensus by considering all our viewpoints.”

A major finding of the commission’s report discusses how every type of worker is facing some new level of technology integration into their jobs. Lesser gave an example of a restaurant server who once needed only a pad and pen to take dinner orders.

“The idea was to take a peek over the horizon, to look beyond COVID to see what a worker’s experience will be over the next five to 10 years, and how we can prepare for that.”

“Now many restaurants have software programs to keep track of orders, payments, and reservations,” he said. “We’re seeing this type of technology integration in jobs across industries.”

In order to qualify for jobs that use ever-changing technology, training workers for current and future jobs becomes essential.

“One finding in the report said the state of Massachusetts has to train or retrain 30,000 to 40,000 workers a year just to keep up with all the workplace changes,” Lesser said. “That’s more than double our current capacity at the MassHire Workforce Training Center.”

On top of all the challenges on the job, another key finding addressed work-adjacent issues that affect workers off the job and impact family stability. Escalating costs for childcare and housing are among the top work-adjacent concerns.

“Private childcare in Massachusetts is $8,000 higher than the national average,” Lesser said. As a byproduct of COVID, the price of houses and rents are soaring, which forces people to live further away from their workplaces and exacerbates another concern — transportation.

 

So, What’s the Answer?

While it’s easy to list all the issues confronting workers in Massachusetts, Lesser said the report also provides recommendations to guide legislation going forward to address these concerns and make life better for workers in the state.

“The idea is to integrate the findings and perspectives of the report into everything the state does,” he noted, giving examples of upcoming legislation on healthcare and economic development where the Future of Work report aided in drafting the bills.

The most pressing area where the report can influence workplace policies involves putting a focus on equity and inclusion to make sure no one is left behind. The report reveals serious roadblocks to finding meaningful work, which Lesser wants to see addressed.

“More than one-third of families in Springfield do not own a laptop or desktop computer,” he noted. “Today, nearly every employer requires the first application be done electronically, so right off the bat it locks out a whole population of people.”

The report also suggests an increase in language training for non-English speakers, which would make it easier for immigrants to join the workforce instead of being held back by language skills.

“Predictions are that today’s worker will have 12 different jobs over the course of their work career. That number will only increase five to 10 years from now, so the notion of training for a job once is really obsolete.”

While the report is future-focused, Lesser quickly pointed out that traditional models for successful careers are already out of touch with the demands of today’s workforce. The old model where workers learned a craft or students went to college and then joined the workforce for the next 45 years without much change rarely happens these days.

“Predictions are that today’s worker will have 12 different jobs over the course of their work career,” he said. “That number will only increase five to 10 years from now, so the notion of training for a job once is really obsolete.”

To adjust to a world that keeps changing at a faster pace, the report recommends an emphasis on “stackable credentials” for workers, with constant, specific training keeping them current and promotable.

“By acquiring skills that stack on top of each other, workers can move up the skill ladder, move up the income ladder, and build out a fulfilling career as a result,” Lesser explained.

As technology demands in the workplace keep advancing, the workforce itself is aging, especially in Massachusetts. Baby Boomers are staying on the job longer than previous generations, partly for financial reasons and because technology has lessened the physical demands of work. Lesser said it’s important to consider the needs of an aging workforce from several perspectives, including work-adjacent issues.

“It’s not surprising to see workers dealing with childcare and elder care for their parents,” Lesser said. “The work culture hasn’t really accounted for that type of situation because it’s a more recent consideration.”

All these issues are called out in the report to enable the state to have information on what’s needed to help workers in the years ahead, he added. “The state needs to do its part to make sure all these work-adjacent issues are considered when planning the future of work.”

 

Strong Foundation

While all these issues and concerns can sound dramatic and overwhelming, Lesser said it’s important to remember all the contributions made by the Massachusetts economy and its workers. Early development of COVID vaccines, as well as many breakthroughs in life sciences and new technologies, are just some of the innovations the state can claim.

“We are well-positioned to benefit from all these changes because we have a highly skilled workforce, great educational institutions, and leadership in many fields,” he noted.

Looking ahead, Massachusetts has a positive story to tell. Lesser said the next challenge is to make sure “this booming engine of a state” includes all communities.

“As a result of all the changes in the workplace, we are making contributions to the world. Now we want to make sure we continue to do this without leaving people behind in the process.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says Palmer has looked into several family-friendly attractions to draw more people to town.

Three years ago, when Ryan McNutt took the job as Palmer’s town manager, he observed that, when people entered town from Mass Pike exit 8 (now exit 63), they encountered a Big Y World Class Market, a McDonald’s, a couple of other businesses, and lots of empty parcels all around them on Thorndike Street.

“You don’t typically see this near a turnpike exit; it’s usually built out with commercial real estate,” he said, adding that town residents — and those passing through — may soon see the landscape change in a meaningful way.

Indeed, McNutt has been working with other town officials and with landowners to take advantage of the considerable opportunities these empty lots present.

“The landowners have met with several national chains, and I can now share that one of the projects will be a Starbucks coffee shop,” he said.

Linda Leduc, the town planner and Economic Development director, is working on finding a retail tenant and a sit-down restaurant to join the planned Starbucks. She said turning these chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses gives a big boost to Palmer residents.

“Just seeing the cleanup happen on two of the lots we’re developing is getting people excited,” she added.

Far from a scattershot approach, these commercial developments are part of a master plan the town compiled and published at the end of 2020. McNutt said this is the first master plan for Palmer since 1975.

“We had an amazing amount of public input on the plan,” he noted. “When you put the meetings on Zoom, more people show up.”

The plan addresses commercial, residential, and protected open space in Palmer. McNutt said it helps prioritize the “low-hanging fruit” where the town should put its energy now, as well as projects that can be done later. The master plan lists 20 underdeveloped sites in Palmer, 12 of which are in the process of being developed or close to that point.

“Instead of getting off the pike and just driving through, there are going to be lots of opportunities for people to stop and spend money in Palmer,” Leduc said.

 

Right Place, Right Time?

One significant potential development area is known as ‘the hill.’

As drivers exit from the turnpike, they are immediately confronted by a large hill at the end of the exit ramp. On top of the hill are nearly 100 acres of land available for development. The hill was once the proposed site for a casino until voters in Palmer rejected those plans. Recently, the Town Council approved a zone change that made an adjacent 78-acre parcel available for business use and further incentivize a large-scale project for the land.

“We’ve always seen interest in development of the hill,” said McNutt, adding that there is optimism that interest may soon turn into progress and some recognized needs met.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer. The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

One priority residents have shared with him involves bringing another supermarket to Palmer. Big Y has been a stalwart in town for many years and has contributed to various community efforts.

“Big Y is a great company, and they are a great partner, but residents would like to have some other options,” McNutt said. “It’s what I’m hearing the most from people in Palmer.”

Closer to downtown, a recent zone change to the former Converse Middle School has drawn both interest and concern. Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, said the more business-friendly zone change has drawn interest from a company that would convert the school to an Esports Arena, where video-game players of all levels could compete against others.

“In the New England area, there’s really nothing like this,” said Surprise. “There are some at colleges like UMass Amherst, but those are geared to students on campus rather than the general public.”

The Esports Arena is one of several ideas to bring family-friendly attractions to Palmer. According to Surprise, the town has looked into a water park, a trampoline park, and other attractions.

Linda Leduc

Linda Leduc says turning chronically vacant sites on Thorndike Street into vital businesses is a development priority.

“I believe the town will do a feasibility study at some point for the Esports idea as there’s still much to do to make sure the residents approve of it or any other proposed use,” he said.

Through a MassDevelopment program know as the Transformative Development Initiative, Surprise is working on other ways to attract businesses to Palmer. The Vacant Downtown Storefront Program is one that may have some promise for the downtown area. “It provides grant funding for a business to renovate a storefront if they plan to open there,” he explained.

Meanwhile, as interest in more retail grows, another aspect of the town’s economy, tourism and hospitality, is poised for a resurgence after two long years of the pandemic.

Indeed, for the past two years, Surprise has held off publishing the chamber’s tourism guide and visitors directory. The pandemic led to frequent changes and cancellations to event schedules, making publishing the guide seem futile.

Businesses are now contacting Surprise because they want to get their names and events out to the public once again. The new guide is scheduled to be complete by early May and available to the crowds attending the Brimfield Antique Flea Market in mid-May.

“With the tourism guide, we’re hoping to entice some of the folks who go to Brimfield to check out antique shops, vintage shops, and other boutique retailers in Palmer,” he said. “The idea is to create a trail, similar to brewery trails.”

Speaking of breweries, Surprise said Palmer and other towns in the chamber are looking to host a brewery in their community.

“Even though there are lots of breweries in the general area, we have our eyes open for anyone who wants to open a brewery to see if we can help them with any incentives,” he noted.

 

Bridges to the Future

To make Palmer more economically viable, the master plan suggests ensuring proper infrastructure is in place. Two main bridges in town, located on Church Street and Main Street, are both in need of replacing. MassDOT closed the Church Street Bridge in 2019 while the Main Street bridge had minor repairs which will keep it safe for vehicular traffic. The town will soon erect a truss bridge to use while a new Church Street bridge is built.

“The state said it will use some of their infrastructure funding to fully replace the Church Street bridge, but that could take up to five years,” McNutt said. “The truss bridge allows us to keep the bridge open to traffic.”

In MassDOT terms, the Main Street bridge is not in imminent danger, but the town does need to replace it in the future. McNutt said the plan right now is to use the truss bridge on Church Street, then move it to Main Street once the permanent Church Street bridge is complete.

With passage of the federal infrastructure bill, McNutt remains optimistic about the proposed east-west rail proposal across Massachusetts. Currently, the state has three alternative configurations for the rail project, with a stop in Palmer included in all three. McNutt said he’s hopeful that remains the case and looks forward to talking with the state once it is ready to proceed.

“Obviously, this would be transformative for Palmer,” he said, adding that a rail stop will serve to make the town an even more attractive option for new retail and hospitality-related businesses.

Nearly two-thirds of housing in Palmer consists of single-family homes, higher than the state and county averages of just below 60%. McNutt said town leaders are working to attract more permanent housing development for the community.

To that end, work will soon begin on a 200-cottage development at Forest Lake. The plan calls for seasonal cottages that will have water and sewer services. McNutt estimates that, when complete, the cottages will add nearly $800,000 to the tax base in Palmer.

On the other side of Forest Lake, the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game plans to build a new boat launch, parking lot, and ADA-accessible fishing pier so people of all abilities can enjoy the water. McNutt estimates the state project and the cottages are about two years away from completion.

“I feel like we’re finally getting to the point where Palmer is going to see lots of great things happening that residents and visitors will be able to enjoy,” Leduc said.

 

 

Bottom Line

Everywhere he goes in town, McNutt carries a copy of the economic-development chapter of the master plan.

“This way, when someone has a question about what we’re doing, I can show them in the plan how we want to create destination locations for them and for folks who have never been here,” he said.

With the proposed east-west rail and a lower cost of living compared to Eastern Mass., McNutt believes Palmer has the right location at the right time, and can take a meaningful step forward in terms of growth and prosperity.

“We’re going to position Palmer as an attractive place to live,” he said, adding that it can, and hopefully will, also become an attractive place for businesses of all kinds to plant roots.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says Main Street will undergo much change over the next five years.

When it comes to her city, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner takes the long view.

“In five years or less,” she said, “you will not recognize Main Street in Greenfield because so many good things will be happening.”

Two notable projects in the works involve the building of a new, $20 million library on the east end of Main Street and a new, $18 million fire station on the west end.

“These two big investments at each end of Main Street show the city’s commitment to making Greenfield a desirable place to do business,” Wedegartner said.

That commitment also includes a $5 million project to address parking on Main Street. Right now, the street has a mix of angled as well as parallel parking. When complete, Main Street will have all parallel parking and a bike lane.

“Businesses are rightly concerned about the disruption from the work, but we have lots of parking downtown, so their shops will still be accessible,” the mayor said.

Danielle Letourneau, Wedegartner’s chief of staff, said the plan is to modernize more than the parking.

“During the redesign of Main Street, we want to replace the old pipes and infrastructure under the pavement,” Letourneau said. “That way, the redesign will get a couple things done with only one disruption.”

The street project is expected to begin in the fall, Wedegartner said. “By making investments above ground and on the infrastructure below ground, we are showing that we believe in the future of Greenfield and of our downtown.”

In 2021, Greenfield was one of 125 communities in Massachusetts that took part in the state-sponsored Rapid Recovery Plan (RRP), a program designed to help local economies recover from the impact of COVID-19. Based on input from city officials and businesses, the state put together a formal plan for Greenfield titled “The Deliberate Downtown.”

While noting the downtown area is “very walkable” and has solid entertainment anchors, the report also pointed out that Greenfield took a bigger economic hit from COVID than other communities. According to the plan document, more than 70% of downtown businesses said they lost money in 2020 and in 2021, and two-thirds said they were still far behind their pre-COVID levels of business.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to. Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

Foot traffic also suffered as 97% of the local merchants said fewer people visited their businesses. MJ Adams, the city’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the community is in many ways a place of necessity because it serves as a hub for Franklin County and attracts people in from surrounding towns for the YMCA, the John W. Olver Transit Center, and other regional assets.

“Greenfield is not a place you happen to go, it’s a place where you are drawn to,” Adams said. “Once here, it’s our job to help people make the best use of their visit to downtown.”

One idea to bring more people downtown involved blocking Court Square in front of City Hall to create a pedestrian-friendly area with the adjacent town common. Tried for the first time last year, the effort was framed by Wedegartner as a pilot project that received positive reviews from people who enjoyed the weekly farmer’s market as well as the opportunity to relax at bistro tables and Adirondack chairs with eats from nearby food trucks. The only negative feedback came from some residents who couldn’t find parking near City Hall.

“We learned that people who have lived here for years did not know we have an accessible parking lot behind City Hall,” Wedegartner said. “This year, we’ll adjust the plan to make sure people know about all our parking.”

City staff spent so much energy to establish the space last year, they couldn’t give much thought to what programs could be offered there, Adams noted. “This year, we’re doing it the other way around. Now that people have seen the space, they are asking us when they can use it this year.”

 

Out and About

Indeed, a public open space was among the recommendations from the “Deliberate Downtown” report, which suggested this would be a good way to encourage more foot traffic downtown. According to Letourneau, this is not the first time the open-space idea has been suggested.

“We found plans from previous administrations that discussed closing off the Court Square area dating as far back as 1985,” she said.

The Court Square space now operates from May to November, and once she can find the budget for it, Wedegartner wants to redesign the area, incorporating the town common into a permanent pedestrian space.

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon

Steve Capshaw says VSS Inc. may look to hire 50 more workers soon, and has found a solid pool of talent in the Greenfield area.

Outdoor dining will also return as the weather gets warmer. When the governor relaxed outdoor-dining restrictions at the height of the pandemic, the idea was to help restaurants generate some business during warm-weather months. That special order ended this week, on April 1, but cities and towns across the state have sought variances to continue the program through 2022.

While not all restaurants took advantage of outdoor seating, Wedegartner said, it was a popular option with many people. “We will be doing some version of outdoor dining again this year.”

An ongoing challenge for the mayor and her staff involves two prominent vacancies in Greenfield. The First National Bank building overlooks the town common and has been empty for several years. Efforts to reconfigure the space as a cultural venue were abandoned recently because several entertainment and cultural venues, such as Hawks & Reed, the Shea Theatre, and other spots no longer make the bank building feasible.

“We are putting together an RFP to see if a private developer might have an idea for that space,” Adams said. “It’s an important project for the city to get something in the former bank building.”

Wilson’s Department Store once dominated Main Street but now stands as a prominent downtown vacancy. The nearby Green Fields Market has been considering an expansion into Wilson’s, but it hasn’t yet happened. Wedegartner called the situation an ongoing conversation that’s still in progress.

“Their move into Wilson’s will be wonderful if it can happen,” she said.

 

Manufacturing Progress

Advanced manufacturing is one area where Greenfield has seen steady growth. Wedegartner pointed to Bete Fog Nozzle and especially VSS Inc. as significant companies to the city and surrounding communities.

Once known as Valley Steel Stamp, VSS has transitioned into high-tolerance machine services for the aerospace and defense industries. Steve Capshaw, president of VSS, said the company has grown over the last 10 years from $2 million in annual sales to $40 million.

MJ Adams in front of Court Square

MJ Adams in front of Court Square, which will be a pedestrian area again this summer.

“We’re looking to increase sales another 50% next year,” Capshaw said, adding that the three- to five-year plan is to become a premier advanced manufacturer and assembler for the aerospace industry. VSS customers include Pratt and Whitney and Raytheon Missiles, as well as manufacturing key parts for F-15 and F-35 fighter jets.

Demand for his company’s services remains strong as many of his customers are “re-shoring” or having components made here in the U.S. once again. As Capshaw pointed out, COVID exposed supply-chain issues and unrealized cost savings companies thought they were going to get when they moved production overseas.

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained. With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

“Our customers are making this shift for cost and strategic purposes,” he said. “Looking ahead, we see very strong demand for U..S-made precision machine services.”

With 135 employees currently at VSS, Capshaw would like to hire at least 50 more people this year just based on current business. Because his company uses computer numerical control (CNC) machining — pre-programmed software dictates the movement of the factory tools — Capshaw understands that he must build his workforce through training.

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.32
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.32
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

“No one in our industry who is looking for a job comes here already trained,” he said. “With the pool of available labor in the Greenfield area, we have successfully hired and trained people to become skilled machinists.”

With a predicted need of several hundred more employees in the coming years, he said the search for new workers will encompass a 20-mile radius around Greenfield to “build on what has already made us successful.”

Despite the tight labor market, Capshaw welcomes the challenge. “We like competing for labor. It makes all companies do better, and I don’t see it going away.”

Back in 2010, VSS moved into a 22,000-square-foot facility in Greenfield Industrial Park. After several additions to the site, VSS now occupies 45,000 square feet and is looking to expand.

“Right now, we’re working with the city to find a local place we can buy or a site where we can build an additional facility,” Capshaw said. “We will keep what we have and look to add more space for manufacturing.” He also credited Greenfield officials for all their help in the company’s expansion.

With a new library taking shape, a new Fire Department about to break ground this spring, and a growing advanced-technology manufacturing sector, Greenfield is well on its way to realizing Wedegartner’s vision of transforming the city for the near and distant future.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal says the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce’s move to Deerfield will include a visitor center.

 

By Mark Morris

 

Deerfield is one busy town these days.

Residents there are engaged in 22 different boards and committees planning several ambitious projects to better the town. Still, while all that activity is admirable, it also invites confusion if anyone feels out of the loop.

A group of 15 residents who serve on several boards and committees in Deerfield were aware of the potential pitfalls and formed the Connecting Community Initiative (CCI) to improve communication among the various committees and with municipal officials. Denise Mason, chair of the CCI, said the initiative came about after increasing frustration among members of several boards and committees.

“Because we are all volunteers, people often don’t have the time to stay on top of activities that fall outside of their committee work,” Mason said. “We created the CCI to eliminate the silos in town so we can keep all our projects moving forward.”

The initiative started in November, with the group meeting eight times since then. Mason said they’ve been successful so far with keeping people informed and projects on track.

One big project involves renovating and repurposing the former Deerfield Grammar School to house the municipal offices. Part of the plan also calls for building an addition on the back of the building, where the town’s senior center would be located.

“These projects are part of a bigger objective, which is to create a walkable town campus in Deerfield,” Mason said, explaining that 45% of residents are over age 45.

Kayce Warren, Deerfield town administrator, strongly supports these plans and intends to use American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to develop a municipal parking lot centrally located in town.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community. With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

“If there’s parking, people will come,” she said. “We’re looking to create a campus that provides walking access to the municipal offices, the senior center, and other resources, such as a small market and a bank.”

The walkable community idea doesn’t stop at the center of town. Work has begun on a municipal park on North Main Street, located past Frontier Regional School. Warren would like to see sidewalks extend from the center of town to the park, nearly two miles up the road.

“This is an opportunity for us to make Deerfield a more walkable community,” she said. “With an aging population, a community’s walkability is a big part of helping people age better.”

 

Location, Location, Location

Deerfield’s location along the Interstate 91 corridor makes it easily accessible from all directions. Many in town are hopeful the new Treehouse Brewery that opened in the former Channing Bete building will be a catalyst for drawing people to town. In her meetings with the brewery, Mason said Treehouse is cautiously developing its Deerfield location in three phases.

“Right now, they are working on the second phase, which calls for construction of a pavilion to stage outdoor concerts,” Mason said. “Once that’s up and running, hopefully this year, there is a big potential for other businesses to benefit as well.”

Among those businesses, Yankee Candle will likely benefit, as it has always been a big tourism draw for Deerfield. As Yankee and Treehouse are located close to each other on Route 10, Warren is hopeful they will create a working relationship to bring even more people to Deerfield.

It would surprise no one if the two entities were brought together by Diana Szynal. The executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce recently moved the organization from downtown Greenfield to Historic Deerfield. She said the move makes perfect sense because, prior to COVID-19, Historic Deerfield traditionally drew nearly 20,000 visitors a year.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources.”

“We will be opening a visitor center, which will allow us to promote all the attractions in Deerfield and surrounding towns,” Szynal said. The chamber’s former visitor center was located in a corner of the Registry of Motor Vehicles in Greenfield, a location she said was never worthy of Franklin County. “With the visitor center in Historic Deerfield, thousands more people will be able to learn about all the fun things to do in Franklin County.”

While Szynal and her staff are still settling in from the move, which occurred in mid-January, their focus is on having the visitor center ready to go when Historic Deerfield begins its season on April 16.

Jesse Vanek, vice president of Development and Communications for Historic Deerfield, said 2022 is a tremendous opportunity to welcome back large crowds to the outdoor museum that depicts life in 18th-century New England. “Historic Deerfield is such a special place, and we’re hoping to see our in-person visits get back to pre-COVID levels.”

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $15.17
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.17
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

Every year, the museum runs a full schedule of programs for visitors. Beginning in the spring, programs will range from Sheep on the Street, which explores heritage breed sheep and the role of wool processing in New England’s history, to a Summer Evening Stroll held on July 3 and themed on Deerfield during the American Revolution.

 

COVID and the winter season inspired Historic Deerfield to expand its program offerings online through virtual sessions. As a result, the museum now reaches audiences around the world. The winter lecture series included relevant topics such as understanding climate change from a historical perspective.

“We are fascinated with the response to our virtual programming,” Vanek said. “I believe it helps entice people to come visit us, which is good for our organization, the town, and the region.”

 

Out in the Open

Szynal has learned that people will travel long distances to take part many of the outdoor activities in Deerfield and Franklin County.

“We were shocked to learn how robust fly fishing is here,” she said. Indeed, whether casting a line into the Deerfield River or rafting in Charlemont, outdoor activities are a true resource for the area and bring in people who often stay for several days.

“The rivers and mountains have always been here, but suddenly there has been a renewed interest in these resources,” she said.

Warren is thrilled that Szynal and the chamber are now part of Deerfield.

“Diana has great ideas, and I think she can help us keep Historic Deerfield connected to the rest of the community,” Warren said, adding that, in a perfect world, Deerfield would provide more incentives for tourism, but ongoing infrastructure projects have stretched budgets to their limits.

Located between the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, the town faces constant challenges with stormwater runoff and flooding issues. Bloody Brook, which also runs through town, maintains a higher-than-normal water table.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the tow. They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Deerfield was one of the first communities to qualify for the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) program. MVP grants are awarded to cities and towns that build climate-change resilience into all their infrastructure plans. Warren explained that type of thinking applies to every project in town, from simple tree boxes designed for better stormwater management to larger projects like the school repurposing and sidewalk additions.

“We are linking everything together in terms of managing water issues, and we’ve set our sights on staying on top of this for the next 50 to 100 years,” Mason said.

As Deerfield’s many projects move forward with Mason and the CCI keeping them on track, Warren took a minute to appreciate the situation.

“We have a group of passionate volunteers who want to work together help the town,” she said. “They are engaged and willing to put in the time to keep these projects moving forward, and that’s so important.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Holyoke Looks to Build on the Momentum from Cannabis, Entrepreneurship

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says there are many cannabis-related businesses now operating in Holyoke, and many more in the pipeline.

Joshua Garcia, Holyoke’s first Puerto Rican mayor and a lifelong resident of this historic community, says that, in many respects, history is repeating itself in the city.

Elaborating, he said that for the better part of a century, the paper and textile mills on the canals were a symbol of strength, a source of jobs, and, in many ways, the city’s identity (see Sidebar here)

It wasn’t that way through the latter half of the 20th century as most of the mills went south, and into the 21st century, he went on, but it’s becoming that way again, largely because of the booming cannabis industry that is breathing new life into those long-vacant mills.

“Those mills were the economic anchor,” he said. “And it’s interesting to see history repeat itself; but instead of the Paper City, there’s now this ‘Rolling Paper City’ interest. Although it’s a different industry … the impact is the same.”

Indeed, cannabis is changing the landscape in Holyoke, figuratively if not literally, although that, too. Aaron Vega, director of Planning & Economic Development in Holyoke and a former state representative, said there are now eight cannabis operations doing business in Holyoke, and several dozen more in various stages of development.

Just as important as the number of ventures is the broad diversity on display, he said, noting that the city boasts several cultivating operations, dispensaries, a testing lab, and more.

“We continue to see cannabis interest and cannabis companies opening,” said Vega. “There’s a lot in the pipeline.”

But while the emergence of a cannabis cluster in Holyoke — similar to what is happening with biotech in Worcester in many respects — has been impressive, there is much more to what most would call a resurgence in this city than one industry. There has been a surge in entrepreneurship that has brought many new businesses to High Street and other streets. There have been several new restaurants, for example, despite the toll the pandemic has taken on that sector, but many other kinds of ventures as well, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses.”

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses,” she said, noting that her ceremonial scissors have been given a workout. She credits the pandemic and the manner in which it has prompted introspection and, for many, a desire for something different and hopefully more fulfilling than their 9-5 job, as being a catalyst for some of this activity.

Tessa Murphy Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke and now also at-large City Councilor — she was elected last November — agreed.

She said the pandemic has helped fuel interest in entrepreneurship across the board, meaning people of all ages and demographic groups. EforAll has been expanding and evolving in ongoing efforts to meet the needs of such individuals, she said, adding that it is now staging its 12th and 13th cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, one for English-speaking candidates, and one for Spanish. It is also adding a new program, called E-Forever, a resource for those who are already in business rather than trying to get off the ground.

But beyond COVID, this surge in entrepreneurship is also being fueled by Holyoke’s emergence as a landing spot for those looking for affordability, diversity, a growing cultural economy, and a chance to do something they may not be able to do in a larger, far more expensive municipality.

People like Jay Candelario, who grew up in the city, moved to New York, but eventually returned. Battling heavy doubts and some long odds, he took an historic home on Dwight Street that had been damaged in a lightning strike, and converted it into Jay’s Bed & Breakfast.

Opened in 2016, the facility has certainly been challenged by the pandemic, but it has hung on, through diversification into catering and events, and Candelario’s persistence and belief in not only himself and his concept, but Holyoke itself (more on that, later).

Jay Candelario

Jay Candelario, seen here at the grand staircase at his B&B on Dwight Street, says Holyoke is staging a resurgence and attracting many new residents and businesses.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke and the many forces that are shaping progress in the city and, as the mayor noted, enabling history to repeat itself.

 

On a Roll

While there are many developments in Holyoke from a business perspective, cannabis continues to be the story.

And as Vega said, it’s one that involves a large number of businesses, diversity of ventures, and large supply of potential new initiatives in the pipeline.

Providing a quick snapshot of the cannabis cluster in Holyoke, which has a popular destination because of its cheap electricity, location near major interstates, and large supply of old mill buildings, Vega said there are now more than 500 people working within the industry in Holyoke, many of whom have graduated from cannabis programs at area colleges (see related story, page 35), and many different kinds of facilities, from cultivation and manufacturing operations., to dispensaries, to a testing facility, Analytics Labs, which opened last year, on Appleton Street. It’s the first operation of its kind in Western Mass., and provides a vital service to businesses that are required to submit the cannabis to independent labs that run a number of tests, for potency, solvents, pesticides, pathogenic microbes, and more.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year,” said Vega.

But there are still many challenges facing those looking to enter this industry, especially the smaller ventures, he went on.

“I think there’s still a lot of challenges for these companies to get their financing,” said Vega. “The MSOs — the multi-state operators — are able to set up shop more easily than the locally owned companies, but they are starting to come to fruition.”

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke, took her involvement in the city to a higher plane with election to the City Council last fall.

One development that may help some of these businesses get over the hump — and help Holyoke as well — is the creation of what Vega called an “incubator” for cannabis businesses in the old National Blank Book property on Cabot Street. There, many smaller businesses are getting support to break into the business and overcome the many hurdles — from financing to licensing to building a workforce — to opening the doors to a new cannabis business.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Vega, adding that there are a number of smaller enterprises occupying spaces in the facility and trying to move ventures forward.

Looking ahead, both Vega and Garcia said that one challenge — and opportunity — for the city is to promote the development of support businesses for the cannabis sector.

Elaborating, Vega said that these businesses must now order lighting, raw materials, and other products from companies on the other side of the country, and would certainly prefer to be able to source them locally.

“They all agree; there could be substantial savings if they didn’t have to order their products from Texas and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also like to think about the bigger picture — if we get those kinds of companies to land here in Western Mass., not just Holyoke, but Western Mass., there could be tremendous opportunities for the region.”

Elaborating, he said several neighboring states have either already legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so, and having support businesses that can provide lighting and products in Massachusetts, as opposed to Texas, could facilitate efforts to make this area a hub, not just for Massachusetts, but for all of New England.

 

Getting Down to Business

Murphy-Romboletti said she first started thinking about running for City Council two years ago. A former city employee — she worked in the mayor’s office and, later, the Office of Planning & Economic Development — she said she has always wanted to be involved with the community and knew that the Council was where one could make an impact — on the city, but also its business community.

After consulting with her bosses with EforAll, a national organization with several locations in the Bay State, including two in Western Mass., and getting their blessing, she threw her hat into the ring. She’s only been on the job a few months now, and has spent most of that time reaching out to department heads and talking with them about what they need for their offices to run better and more effectively.

From an economic development perspective, she said she has long understood the Council’s impact on business. “It has the ability to slow down process or speed up process on things,” she said. “And I think permitting, in and of itself, within our local government, is confusing and not always as necessary as it needs to be, and that’s one of the reasons why I ran.”

Elaborating, and without actually using the phrase, she said one of her goals is to help make the city more business-friendly, and especially at a time when there is so much interest in entrepreneurship — both within the cannabis sector but also well beyond it.

Which … brings her back to her day job. EforAll is seeing growing numbers of applications for its cohorts, she said, adding there are 22 participants in the current sessions. The pandemic has brought a regrettable halt to most in-person learning opportunities (although she’s hoping that might change soon), but the agency is carrying on through Zoom.

A number of graduates have gone on to open businesses, many in the downtown area, she said, adding that the ongoing needs of these ventures prompted the creation of E-Forever.

Undertaken in conjunction with Entrepreneurs Forever, the new group is a “resource for those who have gone through the program and are currently in business, rather than those who are just getting started,” she explained.

“These businesses are generating revenue, and they have unique challenges,” she went on, adding that this group of perhaps 8-10 entrepreneurs will meet once a month, share information, and troubleshoot. “The entrepreneurs pick what they want to work on; it’s like having an accountability group that meets each month to support whatever challenges you’re having as an existing business owner.”

The broad goal, she said, is to enable more businesses to weather the many storms they will face as they mature and grow and stay in business, preferably in Holyoke.

A good deal of resilience has already been on display, said Jordan, adding that she couldn’t think of a single business in the city that closed during the pandemic, and, meanwhile, as she noted, many new ones have been opening.

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber, says the pandemic has helped create a surge of entrepreneurship in the city and a number of new businesses.

“It’s been remarkable to see the perseverance the community has to see Holyoke thrive,” she said, adding that while existing businesses, often with help in the form of local, state, and federal grants, have found what it takes to survive the pandemic, COVID has inspired many others to join their ranks in the business community.

“People began to prioritize not only their personal life and their personal interests, but also their mental health and well-being,” she explained. “And many found that what they wanted was more work-life balance and flexible schedules. And that’s where entrepreneurship came into play … with people finding their true selves, what their purpose is, and what they want their purpose to be; the pandemic really shook things up in that sense.”

She said the roster of new businesses includes restaurants, like Crave, El Paradiso Colombiano, and the Avalon Café, and several cannabis-related businesses, but also a few boutiques. And, as noted, most are in the heart of downtown, bringing many formerly dormant spaces to life.

 

Rooms with a View

That historic home on Dwight Street that Jay Candelario found was more than dormant.

It needed considerable work inside and out, he told BusinessWest, adding that while most were more than willing to consider the property known to most as the Moriarty mansion and ultimately pass, he decided to take a chance.

“I’m a risk taker,” said Candelario, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Holyoke and then Amherst, and moved to New York City as an adult. “And you would have to be a risk taker to take this on.”

Those sentiments reflected more than the condition of the Queen Anne Victorian; they also referenced the time of this acquisition (2009, the height of the Great Recession) and the seemingly long odds against creating a successful B&B in downtown Holyoke.

But Candelario was able to look past the challenges and the doubters and see opportunity. It’s taken a while for the vision to become reality, and the pandemic has certainly put more hurdles in front of him — he admits to coming close to packing it in and moving on to something else — but Candelario, like many business owners in Holyoke, has persevered.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year.”

As he gave BusinessWest a tour and pointed out rooms bearing the names of places he’s visited in and lived in — ‘Brazil,’ ‘New York,’ ‘Puerto Rico,’ and ‘Holyoke,’ among others — Candelario said business has been steady if unspectacular, with guests ranging from traveling nurses, to executives for Coca Cola, to “emergencies” in the form of needed beds for those being helped by the nonprofits Roca Holyoke and Women’s Shelter Companeras, now Alianza. Over the years, though, he’s been able to draw guests visiting area colleges, individuals in town on business, and those attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade and road race. His audience is those who want something different than the run-of-the-mill hotel room.

Shut down for the better part of a year by the pandemic starting in March, 2020, he said he’s been able to keep his dream alive by diversifying and expanding his operation into catering and the hosting of events ranging from baby showers to family reunions to nonprofit retreats.

While reflecting on his business and where he can take it, Candelario also ruminated on Holyoke, its present and its future. And he drew many comparisons to the Bronx, another diverse community he believes is also misunderstood and underappreciated. He lived there for some time, and was originally planning to open a B&B near Yankee Stadium until the economic downturn in 2008 scuttled those plans.

“The Bronx and Holyoke have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s the inner city, working class, different cultures; they’re melting pots that many people just don’t appreciate for all that they are.”

Beyond these qualities, the city boasts location and affordability, two important factors in these changing times.

“Holyoke is very affordable for those people who are starting off,” he explained. “They can get better housing for the buck. And if you want to work in Northampton, it’s 10 to 15 minutes away; Springfield is 10 to 15 minutes away; Agawam is 10-15 minutes away.

“I see Holyoke as a very progressive, very upwardly mobile city,” he went on. “You have people from many different areas coming here, not just locally, but from around the country. I run into people from Chicago who moved here, and Florida, California, New York City, and Boston. They come here because they see opportunities. People see the same thing that I see.”

 

View to the Future

Candelario said he assigned the name ‘Holyoke’ to one particular room at his B&B because, if one looks closely, he or she can see City Hall from one of the windows.

As he surveys the scene, though, he sees more than that iconic structure. Much more.

He sees a city that is putting its recent, not so glorious, past, behind it, and becoming something else: a destination of sorts, for travelers, but especially residents seeking affordability and quality of life, and businesses looking for a solid spot to land.

This is what Mayor Garcia had in mind when he said that history is repeating itself in Holyoke, and not just when it comes to the mills as a symbol of jobs and economic might.

Indeed, Holyoke’s past, as an ethnically diverse center of business and culture, is also its future.

 

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

Features

Sidebar

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia says that, among his friends, family, and colleagues at various career stops, there was always an expectation that that he would someday run for mayor of Holyoke. And not just run, but win.

“Even when I was a kid … people would say ‘this young man one day is going to run for mayor, should be mayor,’” he said, adding that it took a while before he eventually started believing — and acting on what people were saying.

Born and raised in Holyoke, he attended city schools and spent much of his time at the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club, where he would later work. Starting at an early age, he got deeply involved in the community.

That involvement included stints on the School Committee, the Fire Commission, Nueva Esperanza, an agency devoted to promoting entrepreneurship and spurring economic development in the city, and other groups. Meanwhile, on the career side, he was gaining experience in the management of municipalities, early on at the Holyoke Housing Authority (while he was also earning a master’s degree in Public Administration), then with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which he served as municipal services coordinator, and later as town manager of Blandford, population 1,200.

That blend of professional growth and community involvement would earn Garcia a 40 Under Forty plaque from BusinessWest in 2015. Meanwhile, each of these stops seemed to bring him closer to that ‘someday’ when his friends and family thought he would run for mayor, and that day came last year, and an election that would determine a successor to Alex Morris, who left Holyoke City Hall to become town manager of Provincetown.

“I started getting the questions again … it was election time, and people were saying ‘why aren’t you running for mayor?’” he recalled. “My answer was that I liked my career track — it was great being a town manager of a town where I could go home at the end of the day and spend time with my family.”

It was with some prodding from his wife, Stefany, (Garcia actually called it an “endorsement”) that he was eventually swayed to become the seventh candidate to declare for the position.

“What many don’t realize is that small towns have their own set of unique challenges that can be just as challenging as a large city.”

“That endorsement really sealed the deal for me,” he told BusinessWest. “She just simply said that, in her opinion, being mayor of the City of Holyoke, knowing who I am, is bigger than her family. I thought that was a very humble and unselfish response. We talked more about what that meant …and felt strongly that if running for mayor to help more people is the sacrifice, then why not?”

He would eventually triumph in that crowded race, becoming the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor. He commenced finishing Morse’s unfinished term in November, and started his own first term in January.

Garcia moves into the corner office at a time when Holyoke is in what most would call a growth mode, especially when it comes to jobs, new business development, housing, and overall vibrancy. As the story on page 14 relates, the city has benefited tremendously from the strong five-year start of the cannabis industry, with many of its long dormant or underutilized mills roaring back to life as homes to a wide array of cannabis-related businesses.

But there is more to the story than this one industry, he said, adding that, even during a pandemic, many new businesses have opened across several sectors, especially hospitality.

“During the pandemic, when restaurants everywhere were shutting down, Holyoke was opening six new ones,” said the mayor, adding that the EforAll Holyoke, the nonprofit created to inspire would-be entrepreneurs and help them get started and to the proverbial ‘next stage,’ has helped create a wave of entrepreneurial energy that is bringing new businesses to the downtown and other areas, and also creating more interest in the city as a place to live.

While all this is positive, said Garcia, these forces are spawning some new and different challenges for Holyoke, especially when it comes to the affordability that has defined it for decades now.

“There’s a tidal wave that’s coming in a very positive way, but it’s going to create a new set of challenges that we’re going to have to figure out,” he told BusinessWest. “One of them is affordability. No one wants to be in a situation where they are priced out of their neighborhood. Costs are rising everywhere, not just in Holyoke but around the region. How to move forward and embrace these new quality-of-life activities that are going on, but also balance that with making sure we’re not pricing people out of the neighborhoods they grew up in. And that’s why affordable housing continues to stay in the forefront.”

While focusing on these issues, Garcia said he will also concentrate on how Holyoke is managed, with an eye toward improvement. And as he goes about that work, he will take some lessons from his last assignment.

Indeed, while Blandford and Holyoke are seemingly worlds apart when it comes to the size and nature of the communities, Garcia said he can draw on his experience serving that hilltown in his new role in the Paper City, especially when it comes to creativity — in management and finding solutions to problems.

“What many don’t realize is that small towns have their own set of unique challenges that can be just as challenging as a large city,” he explained. “The greatest benefit for a city of Holyoke’s size is capacity and resources — you have enough resources to hire full-time department heads and experts to help mitigate liability and meet mandates.

“In a town, you have the same expectation, but you have to be very creative in how you can keep and be competitive, meet needs and mandates, and maintain quality of life,” he went on. “Here, I make a call to a department, and I have someone on a grant, writing and executing it, and doing things. In a town, I’m it, with part-time people or volunteers; so oftentimes, the skill you build working in a small town is the ability to be as creative as you can to meet needs for the community.”

Elaborating, he said that, while Holyoke does have capacity and resources, the growth in new businesses, an unprecedented influx of federal money through ARPA (The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) and other sources, and a growing mix of challenges and opportunities is putting the city to the test.

“The new challenge internally is the capacity to execute from start to finish,” he said. “In my campaign, I didn’t engage in any of the traditional rhetoric involved in campaigns; instead, I focused on the need for management. My focus with this budget season is to help departments build up so that they’re in a much better position to effectively carry out the responsibilities they’re charged with, and keep up with these projects.

“Holyoke’s form of government, with the mayor as the city manager, is antiquated,” he went on, adding that, overall, he’s working toward reducing or eliminating what he called ‘learning curves’ — in the mayor’s office and elsewhere in City Hall, and perhaps adding a city manager, comptroller, or other positions.

“Whatever model the city decides to go forward with, the idea is to strengthen internal controls and better mitigate harm and liability,” he went on. “Those are some of the longer-term objectives, and it’s going to require the community coming together, between this office, the City Council, and residents, because we’re talking about ordinance and charter changes, potentially.”

 

George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort

Robin Wozniak says the chamber’s grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses.

Like most area communities, Agawam continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, while also making plans for the day when it is history.

That sentiment applies to the business community, the school system, infrastructure projects, and the local chamber.

“As we find our way back to a normal life, we are also trying to help people find new opportunities for success going forward,” said Robin Wozniak, executive director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce (WRC), as she talked about the present and the matter of preparing for the future. “These are times when we are all learning and growing together.”

With that statement, she summed up the sentiments of many in this community of roughly 29,000, which, like most area cities and towns, has suffered greatly through the pandemic, but has also seen COVID yield some opportunities, which have come in many forms.

These include American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, which the city plans to use mostly on infrastructure projects (more on that later), some new businesses, and even an acceleration of the timetable for reconstructing the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam with West Springfield. The bridge work was to be completed later this year, but wrapped up more than six months ago, due in large part to a $1.5 million bonus from the state to incentivize the general contractor, Northern Builders, to get the work done sooner.

But gaining the roughly four weeks on what would have been shutdown time if the 2020 Big E had not been canceled certainly helped in those efforts.

The bridge project was undertaken to improve traffic flow in and out of the city and, ultimately, spawn new business opportunities in that section of the community, Mayor William Sapelli said. Time will tell what ultimately transpires, but already there are plans to develop a large vacant lot just over the bridge and a block from City Hall.

Colvest Group purchased the property several years ago, used it to park cars during the Big E, and leased it to the contractors as a staging area for the bridge-reconstruction work. Soon, it will advance plans to develop the property into three business parcels, including an office building and a Starbucks location.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century.”

As for the chamber, it plans to step up its support of small businesses impacted by the pandemic through a grant program, Wozniak noted, adding that the WRC plans to begin awarding business grants starting in June and extend them through the end of the year.

“We’re planning to announce five $1,000 grants at our annual meeting in June and continue awarding grants into the summer and fall,” she said. “We’re excited to start the application process.”

 

Getting Down to Business

Before he became mayor in 2018, Sapelli was the long-time school superintendent in Agawam. And while his list of responsibilities is now much broader, the schools remain a primary focus.

And among the many issues to be addressed is the city’s high school.

A recent assessment of Agawam High School recommended $26 million in repairs to the building. Since 2002, the town has applied to the Massachuetts School Building Authority (MSBA) for consideration of a new high school. The MSBA looks at building conditions, as well as demographics and population trends, as part of its approval process.

While Sapelli has seen West Springfield, Chicopee, and Longmeadow all build new high schools, he’s encouraged because those projects actually help move Agawam up the list.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is putting federal money to good use on everything from infrastructure to small-business support.

“One reason we’ve been overlooked was all the investments we’ve made over the years to maintain the building,” he said. Rather than continue to spend on the current high school — built in 1955 — he favors new construction.

“We could get a new roof and a good boiler and better windows, but the facility will still not be appropriate to meet our education needs for the 21st century,” he went on. If approved, the new school would be built on the practice fields adjacent to the current building.

A few years back, a new high-school building was proposed for the former Tuckahoe Turf Farm located near Route 187 and South Westfield Street. Now owned by the city, the 300-acre parcel will be developed into a passive recreation park for Agawam. Construction will begin in the spring to provide roads, parking areas, and access to a pond that will accommodate fishing, kayaks, and canoes.

A solar-energy installation is part of the parcel and will occupy nearly 50 acres of the land near South Westfield Street.

“The city will receive income from the solar array, which will help mitigate the costs to develop and maintain the property,” said Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development for Agawam. “The solar panels will occupy one small area of the parcel, leaving more than 200 acres for recreation and trails.”

While developing this long-vacant site, city leaders will continue to take steps to make the community more attractive for new business development.

As part of these efforts, infrastructure work is planned at the intersection of Springfield Street, North Street, and Maple Street, an area known as O’Brien’s Corner. This project, scheduled to start in the spring, will involve paving, adding curbs, and upgrading the traffic signals in the area.

Agawam received just over $8 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which Sapelli plans to use on several stormwater infrastructure projects in town. Culverts on North Street and North Westfield Street have been temporarily repaired, but the state has made it clear both areas need a permanent solution. In addition, heavy rains are causing flooding problems on Meadow Street and Leland Avenue.

“Some of the puddles are so bad, people sent us photos of their neighbors going out in kayaks,” Sapelli said, adding that the photos helped emphasize the need for fixing these storm drains. “We are using the ARPA funds for what they are intended. These are projects that need to be addressed where we did not have the funding to do so.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.11
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

Beyond infrastructure, the city is using funds from various COVID-relief efforts to help the business community. Indeed, it secured a $200,000 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) grant designed to help micro-enterprises — five or fewer employees — in Agawam.

“These grants are designed to help these small-business owners with some relief until they can open their doors again,” Strange explained. “The grants help businesses that didn’t have access to other funds to help them.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to support its beleaguered restaurants with an ordinance that will allow outdoor dining on a permanent basis.

“In the early days of the pandemic, outdoor dining was a lifesaver,” Sapelli said. “Now, going into the third year, it’s so popular, we are proposing an ordinance to make it permanent in Agawam.”

 

Giving Back

As for the chamber, its grant program is part of a broader effort to expand and diversify its support programs for businesses. For the past two years, the chamber has put its focus on keeping members up to date on health regulations, helping them identify grants they might qualify for, and any other information to keep them going.

“The last couple years have been all uphill for many of our members,” Wozniak said. “The chamber board feels the need to start giving back to our small businesses.”

Staying connected through events has been a long-time business model for chambers of commerce. Wozniak said she has reintroduced networking events with a hybrid twist where people can attend in person or take part remotely.

“We welcome those who feel comfortable going in person, and for those not yet ready, we offer a remote option so they can log on and enjoy the whole event from the safety of their home, remote office, or wherever.”

Wozniak reported the hybrid meetings have been successful because they help bring people face-to-face.

As she mentioned earlier, these have been times when business owners have been “learning and growing together.”

These efforts will hopefully yield dividends for the day when ‘normal’ is not a goal, but a reality.

Features Special Coverage

They Know the Drill

Rocky’s Ace Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone II

Rocky’s Ace Hardware President and CEO Rocco Falcone II

 

 

The Falcone family have been innovators since 1926, when Rocco Falcone II’s grandfather opened his first hardware store in Springfield — and later doubled his profits with a foray into tool rentals. Now part of the Ace Hardware co-op, the family business has made plenty more pivots since then, adopting the home-center model in the ’70s and then shifting to a more targeted, customer-service-focused model in the ’90s to combat the rise of Home Depot. And today, at a time when the pandemic is crushing small, independent stores, Rocky’s is still growing, to 38 stores and counting.

 

 

Rocco Falcone II didn’t need a pandemic to tell him his business is essential.

His family business, Rocky’s Ace Hardware — helmed for the past 30 years by Falcone, its third-generation president and CEO — has been proving that for more than 95 years.

But when businesses of all kinds were shuttered almost two years ago, during the early days of COVID-19, hardware stores were, indeed, among the ‘essential’ businesses the state allowed to remain open.

And it’s a good thing, judging by the surge in demand that followed.

“What really took off with COVID, the first area we saw a spike, was home-improvement projects. When people were suddenly staying home, the biggest thing they were buying was paint. They wanted to be productive working at home, and have a nice home office.”

“We’re fighting with Home Depot and Lowe’s for these products, and you want to get your fair share, but there’s a disruption in the supply chain.”

When the weather warmed up, the next spike was backyard grills. “Everyone wanted to get outside because of COVID, and they were buying Weber and Traeger grills and the Big Green Egg — gas, charcoal, smokers, pellet grills … that business remained strong, and still is.”

He paused for a moment. “But we’ve had our challenges, too.”

The biggest have emerged during the second year of the pandemic, and affect industries of all kinds: namely staffing and supply-chain issues. At Rocky’s, the former involves making sure everyone is healthy.

“We employ more than 500 people,” Falcone said. “I would say not a day goes by when someone in the company isn’t out on quarantine with COVID. It’s a challenge staffing stores. We have a great staff, though, and people are willing to help out. If a store’s assistant manager is out, or two assistants are out, we have someone from another store hop over to that store.”

Rocky’s has grown from a single store in downtown Springfield

Rocky’s has grown from a single store in downtown Springfield to a 38-location chain in eight states.

The supply issue, however, is more complex, and doesn’t necessarily involve the same products month to month. When Texas froze over in February 2021, paralyzing manufacturing and trucking down south, the situation crippled the supply of PVC piping and glues and adhesives — products produced in great volumes in Texas, a state most people associate more with oil and energy, Falcone said.

“The freezing created a big shortage in PVC, which you’d see when you’d go down the PVC aisles. The whole supply got disrupted.”

Oh, and back to those grills — it’s been very difficult at times to stock them, especially when big-box stores responded to the shortage by buying up six months’ worth. “That disrupted the supply chain even more. We’re fighting with Home Depot and Lowe’s for these products, and you want to get your fair share, but there’s a disruption in the supply chain.”

Or Stihl leaf blowers. “We’d be ordering at 8 in the morning, going on every day, seeing what they have. All our store managers were trying to reserve leaf blowers and other things. By 8:05, they were gone.”

All of which has spurred inflation, so store owners are seeing vendors push through price increases of 5% or 10% across the board, Falcone noted. “These are crazy times with the supply chain; now we’ve got price increases, and we’ve got to stay on top of that. It’s different for everyone. I know in the car business, new cars have gone up 5% to 10%, but used cars went up 25%. It’s kind of crazy. And we’re seeing that inflation in our prices, too.”

But here’s the thing: two years of economic disruption and shifts in customer expectations aren’t going to slow down a family business that has endured even more dramatic changes over the years — including, perhaps most notably, the rise of the big boxes starting in the early ’90s.

 

Tools for Success

The Rocky’s story begins much earlier that that, however — in 1926, to be exact — when Falcone’s grandfather, also named Rocco, opened a 500-square-foot hardware store at the corner of Main and Union streets in Springfield, soon relocated into larger quarters across the street, and later opened a rental center that would soon match the hardware store for annual revenue — just one of the family’s many smart ideas over the past century.

The original operation was a classic mom-and-pop operation, run by Rocco and his wife, Clara. Later, their son, Jim Falcone, would pitch in after school and on weekends. The venture survived the dark days of the Great Depression, and Rocco eventually expanded the operation in the early ’40s. When he passed away in 1965, his son, Jim Falcone, took the helm of the family business and, with his sister, Claire, as vice president, steered it toward steady growth.

“We started with rentals, hardware, paint, and wallpaper. By the ’60s and ’70s, when my father ran it, they were converting the stores to home centers, with kitchen cabinets, windows, lumber, and sheetrock.”

Rocky’s became a chain with the acquisition of a small hardware store on the corner of White Street and Belmont Avenue in Springfield, with another location soon to follow on the corner of Breckwood Boulevard and Wilbraham Road in the 16 Acres section of the city. The chain became regional with the acquisition of a small hardware store on Walnut Street in Agawam, owned by a longtime family friend.

In the mid-’70s, Jim recognized a shift in the hardware retail realm, one that would ultimately change the size and scope of the stores, increasing their size and shifting to a ‘home center’ model.

“We started with rentals, hardware, paint, and wallpaper,” the younger Rocco told BusinessWest. “By the ’60s and ’70s, when my father ran it, they were converting the stores to home centers, with kitchen cabinets, windows, lumber, and sheetrock.”

By the late ’80s, the Rocky’s chain had grown to seven locations and launched an affiliation with the Ace Hardware co-op, which offered Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain, national advertising, and the computerization of accounting and inventory procedures while still maintaining its identity.

“We really focused on automation, computerizing the business, streamlining inventory,” he recalled. “These individual-owner stores weren’t able to do that; they were still ordering with pencil and pad in the ’70s and ’80s. We got everything automated, and it took a lot of labor out of the process. That way, we could focus more on sales and customers, and spend less time ordering stuff.”

The Ace Hardware co-op offers Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain

The Ace Hardware co-op offers Rocky’s the buying power of a national chain, national advertising, and other advantages while still maintaining its identity.

Rocco II, who moved up the ladder from store manager to director to vice president of store operations, eventually took over as president and CEO in 1992, during the rise of Home Depot — a painful time for Rocky’s and all other small hardware chains, which coincided with a long recession that impacted home buying and remodeling.

When the Falcone family was honored by BusinessWest as its Top Entrepreneur for 2006, Jim told the magazine that these larger, national chains, rather than chasing Rocky’s from the scene, provided a much-needed wake-up call, one that would ultimately make the company more efficient, competitive, and service-oriented.

“When I became president in ’92, I said, ‘hey, wait a second,’” Rocco said, and seriously reconsidered the company’s place in the industry — specifically, where they could compete most effectively on price, and where they couldn’t. So they got rid of the kitchen-cabinet business, as well as doors, windows, insulation, sheetrock, and other staples of large-scale projects.

“We got out of the building materials, and a lot of stores got smaller. In the ’90s, when Home Depot came in, we got out of new construction and focused more on maintenance and repair.”

“No one wanted to come buy sheetrock from us,” he said. “We got out of the building materials, and a lot of stores got smaller. In the ’90s, when Home Depot came in, we got out of new construction and focused more on maintenance and repair.”

Yet, the footprint kept growing. In the late ’90s, Rocky’s acquired eight stores from a chain in Eastern Mass. that was experiencing financial problems, doubling the size of the operation. Today, with 38 stores in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Florida, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, Rocky’s is the largest family-owned Ace retailer.

 

Working on Additions

While the pandemic may have tested Rocky’s, it convinced others, mainly single-store operators, to leave the game, and Rocky’s has picked a few of those stores up.

The two most recent additions are Karp’s Hardware in Stamford, Conn. and Clarke’s Ace Hardware in New London, N.H. “In both those cases, individuals owned them, they were family businesses, and they didn’t have other family members ready or willing to take over the business when the owners were stressed out with COVID and wanted to sell,” Falcone said.

Those acquisitions followed expansions into Bath, Maine; Washington, N.J.; and Forks County, Pa. over the past five years.

“We’re in a growth mode now; we’re looking to continue to grow our business, continue to expand business,” he said. “There is this little pocket of hardware stores, where the people who own them are in their 60s and 70s, and this whole COVID situation has done them in. They’re just stressed out; they’ve created a nest egg and want to unlock the capital they’ve created in their business by selling.”

Rocky’s, on the other hand, thrives in an attractive niche between the big boxes and those individual owners, with an economy of scale that allows it to roll with industry change, always innovating, while focusing on customer service in ways Home Depot and Lowe’s aren’t necessarily known for, and which are impossible on the internet.

“People don’t want to buy paint online,” Falcone told BusinessWest. “You could, but you want to match the right color, and you want someone to reassure you that you’re making the right decision. We have high-service, high-touch paint experts.”

Then there’s power equipment. “We teach the customer how to use it and not hurt themselves, how to use the right fuel, the right mixture, things like that. People don’t want to buy chainsaws on the internet.

“And some gas grills are big and bulky,” he went on. “We assemble them, and assemble them right, so the gas connections are done properly. Now we’re coming up with white-glove delivery; instead of dropping it at the mailbox, for a slight added fee, we set it up on your deck and take away the old grill.

“We’re finalizing that now,” he added, along with the ability to buy from Ace online and pick up the product at a store (and get that lesson in how to use it, too).

Even the way stores are laid out has changed over the years, Falcone added, noting that making it easy to find products is part of customer service, too.

 

Hammering It Home

The fourth generation has joined the Rocky’s team, Falcone said: his son Johnny currently works in merchandise and buying — as noted earlier, a job with some added challenge these days.

Staffing can be a challenge as well, and it varies by store. “We try to treat people fairly,” Falcone said, and that goes beyond pay and benefits, and involves a culture of training.

“Our people tell us amazing stories: ‘I’m a homeowner, and now I know how to fix all these things — a light fixture, toilet, under-sink repair — where I’ve never done that type of thing before.’ That great training helps people grow over time as individuals. You can’t understate the value of that.”

It’s another way Rocky’s Ace Hardware is making people’s lives a little easier. Its success in doing so, and continued growth as it approaches a century in business, is a testament to a model — and a willingness to change it when necessary — that has seen this family business survive recessions, the big-box home-improvement boom, and a whole lot more.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

New Year, Same Virus

By Alexander J. Cerbo, Esq.

As we enter a new year, our lives remain subject to COVID-19 and its variants. With cases surging across the country, vaccination has become a thing of the past as booster shots have become all the rage. Tired, worn out, and frustrated with this seemingly never-ending pandemic, it is important that employers remain vigilant of important COVID-related updates which may impact their workforce and, ultimately, their bottom line.

 

OSHA/CMS Litigation

At the end of 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) issued vaccine mandates that would have impacted nearly 100 million American workers. The OSHA mandate required employers with 100 or more employees to implement a written policy requiring vaccination or weekly testing. The CMS mandate would have generally required vaccination of employees that work in healthcare facilities which receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

Alexander J. Cerbo

Alexander J. Cerbo

“It may be advantageous for employers who wish to mandate vaccination to require booster shots.”

In a major win for businesses across the country, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the OSHA mandate, concluding that the agency overstepped its authority as COVID-19 is not strictly an occupational hazard.

The Supreme Court’s stay is not a final ruling on the topic. The OSHA mandate continues to proceed in the lower courts, and the court left the door open for narrower regulations. Also, the court did allow the CMS mandate to proceed. The agency, in a recent memo, advised employers that their healthcare workers must be “fully vaccinated” (either two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) by Feb. 28.

 

Vaccine Mandates

Besides OSHA and CMS, private employers can implement their own vaccine mandates if they wish. They may want to consider whether they want their employees to be ‘fully vaccinated’ as currently defined, or if they want their employees to be boosted as well. It may be advantageous for employers who wish to mandate vaccination to require booster shots. Early research suggests booster shots decrease the severity of symptoms, allowing those who contract the virus to recover more quickly. This, in turn, will allow employees to return to work sooner. Some exemptions do apply, including religious objections or a disability accommodation.

In addition, employers should continue to stay abreast of any updates relating to state and federal employee/contractor mandates. Gov. Charlie Baker’s executive order issued last August, requiring all state employees to be fully vaccinated, remains in effect, as does the executive order issued by the Biden administration in September requiring vaccination for all federal contractors and subcontractors.

 

At-home COVID Tests and Healthcare Coverage

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just authorized use of over-the-counter, at home COVID-19 tests. The departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Treasury collectively released FAQ guidance expanding upon existing requirements for group health plans to cover the cost of these tests, so long as they are taken for diagnostic purposes.

This will impose a major financial burden on self-insured employers, as they must now cover the cost of these tests either directly or through subsequent reimbursement. To incentivize direct coverage, group health plans may limit reimbursement from non-preferred pharmacies, or other retailers, to the lesser of $12 per test or the actual cost of the test if the plan provides direct coverage both through its pharmacy network and a direct-to-consumer shipping program.

Further, a group health plan may limit the number of at home COVID tests covered for each participant to no less than eight tests per 30-day period (no limit if the healthcare provider orders or administers the test following a clinical assessment).

As the pandemic evolves, employers need to carefully consider these and other COVID-related updates in order to adapt and operate accordingly.

 

Alexander Cerbo is an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Features

Shot Down

By John S. Gannon, Esq., and Erica E. Flores, Esq.

 

John S. Gannon

Erica E. Flores

Erica E. Flores

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court issued one of the most significant employment-law decisions in recent memory. In a decision that appeared to be driven (at least in part) by political ideologies, the six conservative justices of the court ruled against the Biden administration in the back-and-forth legal battle over an emergency temporary standard (ETS) issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

If it had gone into effect, the ETS would have required workers at companies with 100 or more employees to either be fully vaccinated or tested for COVID-19 at least weekly. According to the court’s majority, however, OSHA likely does not have the authority to issue such a mandate.

“Although COVID-19 is a risk that occurs in many workplaces, it is not an occupational hazard in most. COVID-19 can and does spread at home, in schools, during sporting events, and everywhere else that people gather. That kind of universal risk is no different from the day-to-day dangers that all face from crime, air pollution, or any number of communicable diseases,” the court wrote. “Permitting OSHA to regulate the hazards of daily life — simply because most Americans have jobs and face those same risks while on the clock — would significantly expand OSHA’s regulatory authority without clear congressional authorization.”

Technically, the ETS is not dead — at least not yet. The court did not rule directly on whether the ETS is legally unenforceable. Instead, the court reinstated a hold on OSHA’s ability to enforce the ETS while litigation is pending elsewhere in lower courts.

“Employers have good reasons to consider implementing a vaccine mandate or ‘shot or test’ rule voluntarily.”

U.S. Secretary of Labor (and former Boston Mayor) Marty Walsh issued a forceful statement attacking the decision. “OSHA stands by the vaccination and testing emergency temporary standard as the best way to protect the nation’s workforce from a deadly virus that is infecting more than 750,000 Americans each day and has taken the lives of nearly a million Americans,” he said. “The common-sense standards established in the ETS remain critical, especially during the current surge, where unvaccinated people are 15 to 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people. OSHA will be evaluating all options to ensure workers are protected from this deadly virus.”

Walsh’s statement mirrored the dissenting opinion of the three liberal-leaning Supreme Court justices, who argued that COVID presents a “grave danger” to millions of employees and that the ETS is “necessary” to address these dangers.

It remains to be seen whether OSHA will continue to try to defend the ETS in court or withdraw the ETS entirely. Even if OSHA is successful in lower courts, the ETS appears to be doomed once those cases reach the Supreme Court. President Biden’s executive order requiring employees of federal contractors to get vaccinated is also on hold by court order, and its chances of survival look to be pretty slim.

But the ETS is not the only tool available to OSHA to help stop the spread of COVID in the workplace. Indeed, OSHA still has the power under its ‘general duty clause’ to penalize employers that fail to provide a workplace free of hazards that are likely to cause serious harm. Businesses with low vaccination rates and lackluster masking policies could conceivably get cited by OSHA under the general duty clause if it is clear to the agency that COVID is spreading in the workplace. In addition, private parties have filed numerous wrongful-death lawsuits against businesses where employees and/or their family members died of COVID that is believed to have originated in the workplace. Accordingly, employers have good reasons to consider implementing a vaccine mandate or ‘shot or test’ rule voluntarily.

 

Different Ruling for Healthcare Facilities

And even if the OSHA ETS and the federal contractor executive order are doomed, another Biden administration vaccine mandate is very much alive. Indeed, on the same day the Supreme Court blocked OSHA from enforcing the ETS for large employers, the court ruled that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) does have the necessary regulatory authority to require many healthcare facilities to mandate the COVID vaccine for all staff members.

Under the restrictive CMS rule, all employees, licensed providers, contractors, trainees, and volunteers of most Medicare- and Medicaid- certified providers and suppliers must be fully vaccinated for COVID, regardless of whether they perform their duties within the actual facility or provide care directly to patients. The rule covers a host of healthcare providers, including (but not limited to) hospitals, programs of all-inclusive care for the elderly, long-term-care facilities, intermediate-care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, home health agencies, comprehensive outpatient rehabilitation facilities, community mental-health centers, and clinics, rehabilitation agencies, and public-health agencies as providers of outpatient physical therapy and speech-language pathology services.

When does the CMS rule go into effect? Covered facilities must demonstrate that all non-exempt staff have received a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 27, and that all staff are fully vaccinated by Feb. 28. CMS will consider staff to have been fully vaccinated by the Feb. 28 deadline even if it has not yet been 14 days since they received their final dose. Booster doses are not required, but are recommended.

Covered employers must also develop policies and procedures to document and track staff vaccinations, assess requests for exemptions in accordance with federal law, and collect proper documentation of the need for a medical exemption, and must implement additional safety precautions for any staff members who are entitled to a religious or medical exemption. CMS has not offered substantive guidance as to when an employee or other staff member may be entitled to such an exemption, choosing instead to refer covered facilities to guidance published by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

To avoid civil penalties, denial of payment, and even termination from the Medicare and Medicaid program, covered employers that have not already taken steps toward compliance with the CMS interim final rule should act immediately to develop and implement the necessary policies and procedures, determine staff vaccination status, collect required documentation, and assess requests for religious and medical exemptions.

When in doubt about requested exemptions, employers should also consider consulting experienced employment counsel, who can offer guidance and advice about when an exemption may be legally required for medical or religious reasons and when such an exemption can be lawfully denied.

 

John Gannon and Erica Flores are attorneys at the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Chris Brittain

Chris Brittain says several projects in Lee, both town-funded and using ARPA aid, are moving forward.

As the pandemic enters its third year of disrupting life as we knew it, the business community in Lee continues to manage the disruptions of COVID-19 and its variants with a good degree of success. Colleen Henry attributes that to one reason.

“The local people here in Lee are strong supporters of our businesses,” said Henry, executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce.

Along with Lenox and Stockbridge, Lee is part of the Tri Town Health Department, which has maintained a mask mandate for all indoor spaces. One upside of the mask requirement is that it enables businesses, as well as town offices, to remain open without interruption.

That’s important, said interim Town Administrator Christopher Brittain, who has been on the job for only four months, yet has a full list of projects in the queue for this year and beyond.

Lee received an allocation of $1.6 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding, which will be spread out among several projects in town. Among them are replacing water lines in a couple of areas and upgrading the municipal website to make it easier for people to conduct town business online.

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value. We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

All three towns in the Tri Town Health Department will contribute some of their ARPA money to fund the creation of a new food-inspector position in the department, a position certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of a national standards program.

“Obviously, we have inspectors now,” Brittain said. “The new position gives us someone to provide guidance with federal programs and reduce issues with food service and retail food vendors.”

Outside of ARPA funds, Brittain discussed several projects in the works, including paving on Main Street, with $1 million in funding approved at the last town meeting to continue that project into the summer.

Lee at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1777
Population: 5,788
Area: 27 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $13.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.65
Median Household Income: $41,566
Median Family Income: $49,630
Type of Government: Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Lee Premium Outlets; Onyx Specialty Papers; the Landing at Laurel Lake; Oak n’ Spruce Resort; Big Y
* Latest information available

One significant project Brittain hopes to see make progress this year involves the former Eagle Mill paper company. Plans to redevelop the site feature 80 units of affordable and market-rate housing, as well as several restaurant and retail stores. The $55 million project has been in the works for several years, though the official groundbreaking was held only three months ago.

“Because of COVID, the Eagle Mill project is moving slower than everyone wants it to,” Brittain said, noting that a significant next step involves six dilapidated houses near the site, which were recently purchased to be torn down. Construction on the mill complex is scheduled to roll out in two phases. “This is a big project that will take up the entire north end of Main Street.”

Additional housing in Lee would certainly be welcome, said Henry, who noted the current supply of available houses is low because sales have been so brisk. “As a result, we have a lot of new residents, and that’s kind of exciting.”

In terms of real-estate taxes, the past year brought both good news and bad news, as the town lowered the tax rate, but selling prices for homes kept boosting valuations, resulting in higher taxes anyway.

“Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

“When someone sells their home at $20,000 to $30,000 dollars over asking price, every house in that neighborhood increases in value,” Brittain said. “We can’t control the market, but we were able to lower the tax rate.”

For this year, the tax rate is $13.65 per thousand, down from $14.68 the year before. Because of higher valuations, he explained, the average tax increased by $193.

 

High Times Ahead

One industry relatively new to the tax rolls in Lee is cannabis. Right now, Canna Provisions is the only cannabis facility that’s up and running, but Brittain said the town has 14 permits for various cannabis facilities, with interested parties claiming 13 of them. Activity for future cannabis businesses includes a facility for growing on Route 102 under construction and a dispensary proposed for the former Cork and Hearth restaurant on the Lee/Lenox line.

The revenue from Canna Provisions has begun making a difference for the town. Brittain said the impact on tax revenue has made it possible for the town to consider hiring a full-time school resource officer, add streetlights in town, and begin a study on public-safety facilities.

Right now, Lee’s public-safety departments are in several buildings. The police operate out of two floors in Town Hall, the Fire Department is in an historic firehouse, and the town ambulance is located in a separate building.

“We are doing a study to see if we can consolidate public safety in one new building,” Brittain said. “Whether we replace or renovate, we have to do something because the police are running out of space, and the ambulance building needs work.”

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

An artist’s rendering of the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee.

While the study won’t happen for a while, he noted, thanks to the cannabis revenue, the town can explore its options for whether to invest in what it has or move forward with a new facility.

Before the Omicron variant of COVID hit, businesses in Lee were having a strong fall season. Henry said business was brisk. “We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Despite new variants of COVID and other disruptions to business, Henry noted that, because restaurants have developed strong takeout systems, they can quickly adapt and keep serving their customers.

“I’ve heard from people in Lee how grateful they were to still be able to get good food and how the restaurants worked to accommodate everyone,” she said, adding that the quick adaptation to takeout kept people employed “even though everyone still needs more workers.”

Looking ahead to other projects in town, plans are moving forward for a bike path that would run along the Housatonic River. The mile-long path would extend approximately from Big Y to Lee Bank. Brittain said it’s not certain if construction will begin this year, but the town is working with MassDOT to keep the project moving.

“We had lots of people come to Lee who were eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, and shopping in our stores, so we were pretty happy about the fall.”

Lee has also applied to become an Appalachian Trail Community. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy website, when a town along the trail receives designated community status, it is considered a support asset for all who use the trail, and the conservancy encourages people to explore these communities. If accepted, Lee looks to join Western Mass. communities of Cheshire, Dalton, Great Barrington, and North Adams with the designation.

“We’ve been working with the Appalachian Trail folks, and we’re hoping Lee receives its designation by the end of the year,” Brittain said.

 

 

Seeking a Return to Normalcy

For the past two years, Lee had to cancel its annual Founders Weekend celebration — which recognizes the founding of the town back in 1777 — due to COVID concerns. Henry said people in town treat it as a fun birthday celebration, and in 2022, the town will be 245 years old.

Held on the third weekend in September, the community-wide event takes place on Main Street, which is closed to traffic to allow restaurants and other vendors to set up in the middle of the street.

“Founders Weekend always draws a huge crowd, and that’s why we were not able to hold it the last two years. It was too difficult to keep such a large gathering safe,” Henry said.

While there is no guarantee Founders Weekend will happen this year, she has it listed in her event calendar, and both she and Brittain are hopeful the event will take place in September.

“I think people are ready for a fun blowout weekend,” Henry said. “We’re all looking forward to it.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra

New Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra says a redesign of Main Street is one of the city’s key issues moving forward.

 

As 2022 begins, Gina-Louise Sciarra starts the new year as Northampton’s new mayor. As she settles into the job, the city faces big opportunities and challenges, especially the constant challenge of managing COVID-19 and its variants. Even as the pandemic adapts, Sciarra said she’s confident the workers and businesses in Northampton will also adapt and keep moving forward.

“We have to help our businesses through this really difficult time and figure out what the next stage of our economy is going to look like,” Sciarra said. “We have a special downtown that we want to stay vibrant and keep it the popular destination it’s always been.”

One of the largest projects on the mayor’s agenda involves a redesign of Main Street. Northampton has a uniquely wide main artery, which Sciarra said is lovely in some ways, but it also presents safety issues.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space,” she said. “The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

Not surprisingly, the Main Street redesign has been a huge topic of conversation among downtown businesses, according to Amy Cahillane, executive director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA). Cahillane said some of her members favor keeping the wide Main Street and making crosswalks safer, while others would like to see the street narrowed, allowing for wider sidewalks.

“I don’t think there will be a design that makes everyone happy,” Cahillane said. “At the same time, it’s important for all to understand the magnitude of impact that construction will have on downtown businesses.”

She added that she’s eager to find out if the city will support businesses during the redesign because, after two years of reduced income due to COVID, they will soon face a construction process that also hurts the bottom line.

“We’re going to make it safer for pedestrians and bicyclists, as well as create more green space. The redesign will help us meet the next era of retail and commerce while keeping it a place people want to come and experience.”

“I don’t think it can be publicized enough what the construction will look like and how to navigate downtown while businesses are open,” Cahillane said. “I would also like to see financial support for businesses after all they’ve had to endure.”

After years of community input on the project, Sciarra said Northampton is in line to receive nearly 25% from the state for the Main Street redesign project, and that’s enough to keep it moving toward a construction start in 2025.

“Because of the size of this project, we will also modernize the underground infrastructure during the construction period,” she said.

 

Rescue and Recovery

A more immediate task for the new mayor involves $22 million earmarked for Northampton under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Sciarra said one of her first actions will be appointing an advisory committee to determine how to best allocate the ARPA funds. She appreciates that not everyone starts a term in office with these resources.

Vince Jackson

Vince Jackson says businesses have been opening and closing in Northampton at about the same rate during the pandemic.

“It’s spectacular to have these funds, but it’s also a huge responsibility,” she said. “This money comes out of a tragic time, so I want to make sure we steward it well and get the most out of it to benefit Northampton.”

This year will also see a new municipal office with the introduction of the Department of Community Care. This new area of public safety resulted from the efforts of the Northampton Police and Review Committee appointed by previous Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz and Sciarra while she was City Council president. The review committee was charged with looking at what changes should be made to improve public safety.

“Their top recommendation was to create a city department to provide an unarmed response to non-criminal calls,” Sciarra explained.

After hiring Sean Donavan as implementation director for the department in November, the next step is to set up meetings with fire and police dispatchers to figure out how calls from the public will be allocated. Sciarra noted that, because the police have been the default 24/7 responders, they have handled many calls out of their realm.

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback. And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

“My goal is to bring everyone together so we can figure out how to transfer some of these calls to our new service. We have a lot to do, but it’s exciting to set up a new department,” she said, noting that the goal is to have Community Care up and running by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.

From late summer through the fall, many Northampton businesses reported robust sales, some approaching 2019 numbers. In December, the rapid ascension of the Omicron variant of COVID caused the mood to change. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, explained it as people feeling “weary and wary.”

“Weary because we’re just tired of COVID and the sense that we start to make progress only to see another setback,” Jackson said. “And wary because of all the uncertainty when you try to plan ahead in this environment.”

For Jeffrey Hoess-Brooks, September and October felt like old times. Hoess-Brooks, regional managing director for the Hotel Northampton and Fairfield Suites, noted that, even when business was up, staffing levels were down — which remains an issue. On some days, the housekeeping crew could not finish their work until evening hours because they were so short-staffed.

“Everyone was pitching in to help,” Hoess-Brooks said. “I cleaned more guest rooms this summer than I have in my entire 32 years in the industry.” Still, while January and February are traditionally slow months, he remains optimistic that business and staffing will improve by spring.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 29.571
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.89
Commercial tax rate: $17.89
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

To find ways to keep going, Cahillane said many business owners are upgrading their online shopping and ordering capabilities, while others are renovating their locations.

Despite all the challenges, Jackson remains hopeful about the coming year. He pointed out that, since the beginning of the pandemic, Northampton has seen 20 businesses close, but 20 new businesses opened during the same time. “It speaks to the resilience of the community and the example that it sets for the entrepreneurial spirit in Northampton.”

 

Raising All Boats

Meanwhile, Cahillane is busy planning her first community event for 2022, the Northampton Ice Arts Festival, scheduled for Feb. 11, featuring various ice sculptures throughout downtown.

“We’ve got our fingers crossed that we will be able to have the event, especially because it’s outside,” she said, acknowledging the uncertainty while continuing to move forward.

Outdoor dining, which Cahillane has called a lifesaver for many restaurants, remains very popular. Amit Kanoujia, general manager of India House (see story on page 25), is looking to start his outdoor seating earlier and expand it later this year because so many people have asked him to consider it. “In the early spring, our guests bring jackets, and by the fall, they are willing to wear parkas to soak in as much of the outdoor experience as they can.”

Kanoujia remarked on the spirit of cooperation he’s seen among businesses and city leaders to keep moving forward. Jackson echoed that sentiment and added that collaboration is more important now than ever before.

“At the chamber, we try to remind everyone that we are all investors in our community and in our economy,” he said. “When one succeeds, we all succeed.”

Features

Unwelcome Surprises

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq. and Ryan J. Barry, Esq.

 

Jodi K. Miller

Jodi K. Miller

Ryan J. Barry

Ryan J. Barry

A woman injures her ankle while jogging and goes to the local emergency department for treatment. Despite her injury, she makes sure to go to a hospital in her health plan’s network. Some weeks later, she receives a significant — and unexpected — bill from an emergency department physician. While the hospital was in her health plan’s network, it turns out the treating physician was not. Her health plan paid a portion of the physician’s charges, but she is responsible for the remainder.

This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services. These bills are often a surprise because the patient either was not able to choose an in-network provider or was unaware that the provider was out of network until after the services were rendered.

“This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services.”

Recently enacted legislation at the federal level and in Massachusetts attempt to address this issue.

A new federal law, the No Surprises Act, went into effect on Jan. 1. The No Surprises Act imposes requirements on healthcare facilities and providers, as well as on health plans, in three key areas: emergency services, non-emergency services provided by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, and air ambulance services. When those services are rendered, health plans must make a payment to the out-of-network providers, and patients are responsible only for the cost-sharing obligations they would have incurred had the care been provided in network (e.g., co-payments and deductibles).

If the provider does not accept the health plan’s payment, the plan and the provider must attempt to negotiate a reimbursement rate. If negotiations fail, the plan or the provider can initiate a dispute-resolution process to resolve the issue. In these cases, providers may not bill the patient more than the cost-sharing amount, and they are potentially subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $10,000 per violation if they do so.

The No Surprises Act also provides that out-of-network providers of certain scheduled services may not balance-bill patients unless the provider has given advance notice and obtained written consent from the patient. The act sets out specific requirements for the content of the notice, including a good-faith estimate of the costs incurred and a list of in-network options for the patient. This notice and consent process, however, is not available for out-of-network providers of emergency services and other ancillary services (such as anesthesiology, pathology, radiology, and other diagnostic services), or in circumstances where there no in-network provider is available.

Other provisions of the No Surprises Act, including disclosure requirements for both providers and health plans, also aim to increase transparency and consumer protections. Providers are required to publicly disclose and provide to patients a one-page notice about the balance-billing requirements and prohibitions of the No Surprises Act, as well as state law. As discussed below, Massachusetts, too, has recently imposed new disclosure requirements for providers.

Notably, the protections of the No Surprises Act do not apply to emergency services by ground ambulance providers. In those circumstances, out-of-network ground ambulance providers may still bill patients for significant balances, which are invariably a surprise to patients who had no ability to choose an in-plan ambulance provider in an emergency.

Regulations implementing the No Surprises Act have not been without controversy. Medical associations have criticized the regulations implementing the dispute-resolution process as unfairly favoring health plans. Health plans, on the other hand, have lauded the regulations, maintaining that the process will make healthcare more affordable and avoid unnecessary increases in health-insurance premiums.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts passed its own law to address balance billing for non-emergency services. That law, which also took effect on Jan. 1, requires healthcare providers to disclose to patients certain information regarding their participation in patients’ insurance plans and patients’ financial obligations for scheduled procedures and services.

Generally, providers are required to tell patients whether they participate in the patient’s insurance plan. If the provider does not participate in the patient’s plan, the provider must disclose the charges and any facility fees for the procedure or service. The provider must also inform the patient they will be responsible for the charges and any facility fees not covered through the patient’s health plan and that they may be able to obtain the procedure or service at a lower cost from an in-network provider.

The law also imposes new requirements on in-network providers to disclose information to patients regarding charges for procedures or services. Providers must also inform patients if their participation in the patient’s health plan changes during a continued course of treatment and make various disclosures when referring a patient to another provider.

There are two consequences if a provider violates the Massachusetts law. First, if an out-of-network provider fails to provide the required notifications and information, the provider cannot bill the patient at all, except for any co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible that would be payable had the patient received the service from an in-network provider. Second, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health is authorized to fine non-compliant providers up to $2,500 per violation.

The recently enacted federal and state laws seek to provide protections to consumers to avoid inadvertent balance bills from out-of-network providers. As these laws go into effect at the start of the new year, providers and health plans should be ready to implement the requirements, and consumers should see fewer surprises in their mailboxes.

 

Jodi Miller and Ryan Barry are partners in Bulkley Richardson’s healthcare practice.

Features Special Coverage

Feeding Frenzy

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed how people look at how they work and where they live, sparking greater demand for homes in Western Mass.

“A $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize.” That’s a quote from a Realtor who spoke with BusinessWest last January about the low supply and high prices of homes in Western Mass. A year later, the situation has, simply put, not stabilized, with the region remaining an in-demand destination for remote workers and new housing stock still lagging. For potential buyers, it’s a situation that demands patience — and, again, hope for a correction down the road.

In her 25 years as a Realtor, Nancy Hamel has never seen anything like it.

Looking back at 174 houses sold in Amherst last year, 63 sold for more than $500,000, said Hamel, who is a top-producing agent with Jones Group Realtors. “That’s crazy. For years, we just had a handful sell for over $500,000.”

She rattled off some actual examples: a home with an asking price of $410,000 going for $511,000. A $595,000 listing selling for $675,000. A $649,000 listing topping out at $740,000. “It could just be underpriced, or it could be it rang all the right bells.”

Mostly, though, it’s supply — and that’s an issue in residential real estate that has pushed home prices into the stratosphere.

“Supply has just been very strange,” said Amy Hamel, Nancy’s daughter and partner on her team at Jones — and someone who, unlike Nancy, focuses primarily on the buyers’ side. It can be hugely frustrating.

“Lack of inventory has played a role in people panicking to find suitable housing,” Amy continued. “More people are able to work remotely now because a lot of companies decided to do that long-term because it’s worked so well. They’re saying, ‘why have communal space when we’re doing the same amount of revenue, or more, having employees work from home?’”

As a result, buyers have flocked to Western Mass. — and other attractive regions of the U.S. when it comes to quality of life — and the existing housing stock is not sufficient to meet demand.

“We see a lot of people moving here from all over — from New York, or from out west, Arizona, New Mexico. People are picking a place on a map, and Amherst is definitely a top place for people to come to,” she explained. “So prices are going up more than I could have ever imagined. Money is coming in from all over the place.”

“When it comes from high-home-value regions like California, where a half-million doesn’t seem as expensive for a home, that drives up prices for locals, for whom that is an intimidating chunk of change,” Amy said. “What they’re paying beyond the asking price is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 15 years.

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors,” she went on. “Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating. I’ve had a lot of buyers put in many, many different offers before they found something, and still I have a lot of buyers laboring because they’re being outbid. And it’s not like they haven’t put in strong offers.”

Nancy noted that her daughter lost out on $14 million in offers last year. “She just got outbid — by people with cash, people offering $50,000 over asking price and still not getting it.”

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors. Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating.”

She took one buyer from California on a virtual tour over FaceTime, who made an offer immediately, and well over asking price.

That’s great for sellers and listing agents, she admits, “but I’m having concerns. What are working people going to do? If you haven’t made money in real estate, it’s very hard to buy in now.”

Locally, in her Amherst-area market, “it could affect people who apply to UMass because professors don’t want to live far away and teach; they want to live in a 20-mile radius,” she noted. “But South Hadley’s expensive, Belchertown’s exploding, Hadley … forget it, and Northampton’s out of sight.”

The pricing has forced some creativity, to say the least, Nancy said. “People are waiving inspections; that’s scary to me. And I’m seeing an awful lot of parents step up to the plate and help. They say, ‘I’d rather help my kids when my eyes are open, rather than having them get it when I’m gone, and I don’t get to see the joy.’

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now, sometimes selling close to $100,000 over the asking price.

“I’m grateful — we’re lucky to be a listing agency,” she went on. “But a lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy. If they’re new and working with buyers, it’s a lot of work to place an offer — a lot of paperwork, disclosures, everyone has to sign, get pre-approval … to do all that work just to be disappointed. The feeding frenzy is just cuckoo.”

 

Shifting Sands

Cheryl Malandrinos, president of the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley (RAPV), said the pandemic caused people to look differently at how they work and, in turn, where they live.

“They decided they didn’t really need to live as close to their offices if they were going to be able to stay remote for the time being. So we’ve definitely seen a shift here,” she told BusinessWest. “We did see buyers from the outside area, from other states, come into the Valley as well. So we continue to struggle with low inventory and rising prices throughout. The reality is, we haven’t been able to produce housing for quite some time. That has not helped us any.”

At the end of 2021, inventory in the region was 30% down when compared to December 2020, and prices rose about 15.4%, on average, over that same time period — which is remarkable, considering that articles like this one — discussing the same issues of a supply crunch and high selling prices — were being written a year ago, too.

One issue is that Millennials are increasingly entering the market, and they’re looking for affordable homes. “The reality is 41% of total buyers are first-time homebuyers, so entry-level homes are high demand,” Malandrinos said, and those homes aren’t being built at the rate buyers demand — especially during a lumber shortage. “It’s hard to build that first-time-homebuyer, entry-level home and make it affordable.”

“A lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy.”

For that reason and others, she said, Realtors and economists expect demand to continue to soar in 2022, especially with the prospect of the Fed raising interest rates. “Buyers will keep us busy in the winter season, looking for homes and hoping to secure them while the rates are still historically low, which gives them more purchasing power.”

Last year, the median price of an existing single-family home nationally jumped to an all-time high of $357,900, up 23% from 2020, according to the National Assoc. of Realtors (NAR).

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. “Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

Yun noted that inflation and the pace of price appreciation is expected to subside next year. At NAR’s recent Real Estate Forecast Summit, economists and housing experts agreed that inflation would likely ease in 2022 at a 4% rate, while home prices are expected to rise at a moderate pace of 5.7%.

So what does that mean for buyers? “You have to be prepared because you’re going to face a fair amount of competition in the marketplace,” Malandrinos said. “Gone are the days when you could find something and, a few days later, think about talking to a lender.

“You need to be prepared right away — engaging a Realtor as soon as possible, getting pre-approved, so you’re all set once you find what you want, because you’re not going to have time to second-guess it,” she continued. “You have to move forward with a strong offer. We’re still most likely going to see things selling over asking price, with multiple offers on properties that are well-priced.”

At the end of 2021, listings lingered on the market 22 days on average, but that number is skewed by a few outliers. “In reality, many properties are leaving the market before that.”

What she doesn’t recommend is acting out of panic — for instance, by waiving inspections. “I’m not one, in good conscience, to recommend that. Maybe you’re saying, ‘I want to hold off my inspection and reserve the right to withdraw, but don’t expect you to do any repairs.’ That’s also a way to get around that.”

 

Street-level View

Nancy Hamil has seen downtown Amherst values rise to 20% higher than similar properties in other neighborhoods, and one factor might be that migration into Western Mass. from people in urban centers who still want to live near amenities.

Lawrence Yun

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market. Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

“People covet living in downtown Amherst; they love to be able to walk places. Northampton is the same,” she said, noting that apartment rents are also on the rise, again impacted by supply and demand, and people priced out of the home-buying market needing a place to live.

“I do think affordable housing needs to stabilize to some extent because prices have gone a little beyond where I thought they would be in our area,” Amy Hamel added. “I do wonder what this year is going to be like. There are many factors that play into the market, and especially with COVID still running rampant, it’s going to be interesting to see how this year plays out.”

The pandemic did change the way homes are shown, Malandrinos said, with 2020 givijg rise to virtual tours using 360-degree videography.”

“That stayed with us and likely will continue, as it makes everyone feel safer,” she said, while noting that in-person tours are still common, though some sellers are leaning more toward open houses instead of many individual showings.

“Some people are still concerned about safety, so you have to work with your Realtor and make a plan that makes sense for you,” she noted. “Often, properties come on the market, and Realtors defer showings and have many people come in at once instead of private showings.”

It’s not unusual, she added, for those tours to have a set layout, with interested buyers entering by one door, following a path, and leaving by a different door. “As we go back to in-person showings, we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible, but as safe as possible, too.”

She pointed to the state’s Housing Choice Initiative, created a few years ago to incentivize communities to build more housing stock, as one way to increase supply.

“I really hope for a market correction so more people can afford to come into the market,” Nancy Hamel said. “I remember, when I was young, we didn’t require these huge down payments, and a house cost $50,000. Home ownership shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.”

Malandrinos agreed. “Buyers are tired,” she said. “It’s not unusual to hear, ‘my buyer lost out on their third property.’ Everyone benefits when there’s more equity in the market. I hope we get there, but we’re not there yet.”

There’s only so much comfort those words bring to people who feel they’re priced out of the kind of home they want in Western Mass.

“It’s easy for people to get frustrated, but stick with it. There is a property for you,” she added. “You need to be confident and come in with a strong offer you’re comfortable with — and hang tight.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Missed Connections

It’s a widely quoted statistic that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much in recent years — only about one-quarter of information-technology (IT) jobs are held by women, and the percentages are much less for women of color — and women in IT leadership, for that matter. That will change, those working and teaching in the field say — but only with a stronger emphasis on making not only women aware of the wide array of careers available in IT, but girls as well.

Hilary LeBrun

Hilary LeBrun says stereotypes have obscured what a rich, varied field IT is — and kept many women from exploring it.

As an associate professor of Computer Science at Elms College, Beryl Hoffman is somewhat far afield of her first chosen college major: biology.

“I had not really heard about computer science as a career at all — my high school didn’t offer it,” she told BusinessWest. “But a friend talked me into taking a coding class for fun.”

And she enjoyed it — enough to eventually push her studies in a different direction.

“As soon as I started it, I felt that, if girls had that experience early on, they would also really enjoy it,” Hoffman recalled. “What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots. Girls don’t get to experience that as much.”

That reality has no doubt contributed to a wide gender disparity in the IT world. According to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., but hold only 25% of computing roles. It’s more dire for minority women; of the 25% of women working in technology, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while black and Hispanic women account for 3% and 1%, respectively.

“What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots.”

“It’s mostly societal expectations and stereotypes,” Hoffman said. “I do believe we need to start introducing people, especially young girls, to computer science and technology when they’re young. That’s happening more and more — I’m seeing more computer science even in elementary schools. It will change; it’s just slow. But I have been seeing slight improvements every year.”

Hilary LeBrun didn’t start out in computer science, and she certainly never thought she’d eventually be COO of Paragus IT when she was working in the hotel industry.

“I was up for a change — I wanted to work in a more family-friendly industry, and the hotel industry isn’t family-friendly. I also wanted to work for a growing company with a good culture that was doing something important. And I found it in Paragus.”

She started as an assistant to CEO Delcie Bean and was quickly excited about how the company helps other businesses — keeping networks secure, creating efficiencies, finding budget-friendly solutions for clients, and the like. She sees the wide variety of work available in IT, and the relationship-centered focus of much of it, and has thought about why more women aren’t plugging in to these careers.

Beryl Hoffman

Beryl Hoffman says one key to closing the gender gap in IT is introducing girls to computers at much earlier ages.

“Part of it is the stereotype,” LeBrun said, echoing Hoffman’s thoughts. “It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

For instance, “it can attract somebody who wants to solve problems, and also create efficiencies, even someone who wants to go into management — there are just so many different aspects. There’s a lack of awareness around that, and the ways that women — and even men — can learn and get that education, get that foot in the door.”

“It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

Zoe Alfano got her foot in the door as a college student at UConn, where she had her eyes on an engineering degree but began working in campus tech support and realized she was good at solving problems. With four years of that work experience in hand, she was hired by Paragus as a client support engineer. She cited a couple of reasons why women don’t follow a similar path.

“It depends a lot on the person, their experience. They might not have been exposed, or didn’t have someone in their lives say, ‘try it out, you might be good at it.’ Or, some people just don’t consider themselves technical; they think they’re not good at it. But they might be good at problem-solving, and solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem. Some people might be better than they anticipate, but don’t have the opportunity to try.”

Constant Change

When they do try, Alfano said, they find that it’s a field that’s constantly evolving, with always something new to learn.

“There’s such a wealth of knowledge, it’s impossible to be a jack of all trades, with so many things to specialize in. A network manager can prevent attacks. A technician like me is good at solving day-to-day issues but might not be as good at solving network-related issues. There are so many different things to know about and learn, and you always have an opportunity to learn something new and choose where want to go.”

Zoe Alfano

Zoe Alfano

“Solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem.”

That can be appealing for women who love learning and working collaboratively, she added — and, often, helping people.

“You’re able to say, ‘hey, I can help with your issue,’ and if you value getting a positive response from someone, that’s a big reason to stick with the field. You talk on the phone, and they’re so grateful their problem isn’t happening anymore. It just makes you feel good.”

LeBrun finds a gratifying challenge in how quickly IT changes.

“Even just the technology we support — 10 years ago, every company had a server. Now servers are dying; everyone’s going to the cloud,” she noted. “So we always need to adapt, always need to change, and that’s one of the aspects I love about it. The industry is not stagnant. There’s always something to learn, new technology to adapt and bring to our clients.”

Beverly Benson, IT and Security program director at Bay Path University, first became interested in the field when her own information was compromised. The more she learned about cybersecurity, the more she related it to the non-technical things people do every day to keep safe, from locking doors to watching over their kids. In short, she saw an appealing human element to a technical field.

“We do that as mothers naturally, always trying to protect our children, always checking in and protecting. I just get paid to do it,” she said. “I think it comes naturally as a woman; we’re the nurturers in a positive sense, a protective sense.”

She agreed with the others BusinessWest spoke with that more awareness of the breadth of IT careers, from the highly technical side to the more relationship-driven side, would boost the number of women interested in pursuing it. “There are a variety of careers within the field — they need to know it’s much more than coding,” she noted.

“There is a need to protect information and infrastructure in every sector,” Benson went on. “It has the potential to impact the food you eat, the vehicles that you drive, it can impact healthcare and your medical records … everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

Hoffman agreed. “It’s a really awesome field of high-growth, high-paying jobs,” she said. “Also, technology is essential in any field now. A lot of folks are missing out on the opportunities out there. And I think a lot of it starts with education. We need to let people know about these careers and have girls experience them.”

To that end, Hoffman is part of a nonprofit, Holyoke Codes, that aims to bring coding and robotics to kids in Holyoke. She also received grant to build a high-school curriculum called CSAwesome, a free e-book that teaches AP CS A and Java and is becoming more widely used in high schools.

“That’s great to see, too,” she said. “And the AP College Board has done a lot to try to get girls to take AP classes in computer science. It’s nice to see as we try to grow that pipeline, and see it broaden and become more diverse.”

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“Everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

The education needs to start earlier than high school, though. “They say that most kids start thinking about careers in middle school. So we need to start educating them there,” Hoffman said, adding that girls need to see more female role models from the IT world.

“As more women go into IT, they will encourage even more women to go into IT. But it’s just slow. We should start them young — even at home, often the robotics and the computers are bought for the boys, not the girls.”

Disparities linger in school districts as well, she said, noting that suburban schools are more likely to present robust computer-science programs than urban and rural schools.

That’s a lot of factors in play, she told BusinessWest, “but it’s slowly changing.”

 

Serve and Protect

LeBrun admits IT can be an intimidating field for women, considering the gender disparity and stereotypes, and is glad she found a company in Paragus that employs — and promotes — plenty of women. She hopes others will find similarly supportive cultures.

But she also believes women need to consider how important IT is to the work world as a whole and how gratifying it can be to be a part of that.

“COVID really opened up businesses’ eyes to how important their IT is and how much they depend on it,” she said. “We try to tell our clients, ‘picking your IT firm should be as important a decision as picking your lawyer or accountant.’ We’re a partner. We’re working to protect their business.

“And I think that’s really exciting,” she added, “to be in an industry that can protect other companies so much — it just creates so many opportunities. Again, it’s about bringing that awareness to girls in school who are still trying to figure it out.”

For older women and career changers, Tech Foundry, a workforce training program affiliated with Paragus, is one example of how to create opportunity — “to just make it doable for them, because it can be scary,” LeBrun said. “There’s a lot to learn in the field.”

“A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

IT companies would do well, she added, to seek employees who might not have every technical skill, but brings fresh perspectives to an organization. “They might not have the traditional background, but have the drive and personality, and the rest can be taught.”

The collaborative nature of much IT work is appealing as well, Hoffman said. “A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

The IT industry is also becoming integrated into other careers, she added, from healthcare to finance. “More and more, all fields are integrating IT, so no matter what you do, those skills are going to be useful in the future, especially in Massachusetts, with so much growth in biotechnology and health sciences.”

The ability to work remotely is another plus — for many firms, a fairly recent one, Benson said.

“Because we had no other choice, we had to work remotely during the pandemic. That has opened doors of possibilities for all people, including women. You don’t have to uproot your family to move to a state heavily populated by cybersecurity opportunities. Now some organizations are OK with you working remotely.”

In short, opportunity abounds. Hopefully, the women we spoke with said, awareness will follow — and stereotypes will continue to crumble.

“I try to encourage women to give it a try,” Benson said. “My mantra is ‘dare to dream.’ I want to see more women in this field. We need them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Features Special Coverage

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq. and Ryan J. Barry, Esq.

Jodi K. Miller

Jodi K. Miller

Ryan J. Barry

Ryan J. Barry

A woman injures her ankle while jogging and goes to the local emergency department for treatment. Despite her injury, she makes sure to go to a hospital in her health plan’s network. Some weeks later, she receives a significant — and unexpected — bill from an emergency department physician. While the hospital was in her health plan’s network, it turns out the treating physician was not. Her health plan paid a portion of the physician’s charges, but she is responsible for the remainder.

This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services. These bills are often a surprise because the patient either was not able to choose an in-network provider or was unaware that the provider was out of network until after the services were rendered.

Recently enacted legislation at the federal level and in Massachusetts attempt to address this issue.

A new federal law, the No Surprises Act, went into effect on Jan. 1. The No Surprises Act imposes requirements on healthcare facilities and providers, as well as on health plans, in three key areas: emergency services, non-emergency services provided by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, and air ambulance services. When those services are rendered, health plans must make a payment to the out-of-network providers, and patients are responsible only for the cost-sharing obligations they would have incurred had the care been provided in network (e.g., co-payments and deductibles).

If the provider does not accept the health plan’s payment, the plan and the provider must attempt to negotiate a reimbursement rate. If negotiations fail, the plan or the provider can initiate a dispute-resolution process to resolve the issue. In these cases, providers may not bill the patient more than the cost-sharing amount, and they are potentially subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $10,000 per violation if they do so.

The No Surprises Act also provides that out-of-network providers of certain scheduled services may not balance-bill patients unless the provider has given advance notice and obtained written consent from the patient. The act sets out specific requirements for the content of the notice, including a good-faith estimate of the costs incurred and a list of in-network options for the patient. This notice and consent process, however, is not available for out-of-network providers of emergency services and other ancillary services (such as anesthesiology, pathology, radiology, and other diagnostic services), or in circumstances where there no in-network provider is available.

Other provisions of the No Surprises Act, including disclosure requirements for both providers and health plans, also aim to increase transparency and consumer protections. Providers are required to publicly disclose and provide to patients a one-page notice about the balance-billing requirements and prohibitions of the No Surprises Act, as well as state law. As discussed below, Massachusetts, too, has recently imposed new disclosure requirements for providers.

Notably, the protections of the No Surprises Act do not apply to emergency services by ground ambulance providers. In those circumstances, out-of-network ground ambulance providers may still bill patients for significant balances, which are invariably a surprise to patients who had no ability to choose an in-plan ambulance provider in an emergency.
Regulations implementing the No Surprises Act have not been without controversy. Medical associations have criticized the regulations implementing the dispute-resolution process as unfairly favoring health plans. Health plans, on the other hand, have lauded the regulations, maintaining that the process will make healthcare more affordable and avoid unnecessary increases in health-insurance premiums.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts passed its own law to address balance billing for non-emergency services. That law, which also took effect on Jan. 1, requires healthcare providers to disclose to patients certain information regarding their participation in patients’ insurance plans and patients’ financial obligations for scheduled procedures and services.

Generally, providers are required to tell patients whether they participate in the patient’s insurance plan. If the provider does not participate in the patient’s plan, the provider must disclose the charges and any facility fees for the procedure or service. The provider must also inform the patient they will be responsible for the charges and any facility fees not covered through the patient’s health plan and that they may be able to obtain the procedure or service at a lower cost from an in-network provider.

The law also imposes new requirements on in-network providers to disclose information to patients regarding charges for procedures or services. Providers must also inform patients if their participation in the patient’s health plan changes during a continued course of treatment and make various disclosures when referring a patient to another provider.

There are two consequences if a provider violates the Massachusetts law. First, if an out-of-network provider fails to provide the required notifications and information, the provider cannot bill the patient at all, except for any co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible that would be payable had the patient received the service from an in-network provider. Second, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health is authorized to fine non-compliant providers up to $2,500 per violation.

The recently enacted federal and state laws seek to provide protections to consumers to avoid inadvertent balance bills from out-of-network providers. As these laws go into effect at the start of the new year, providers and health plans should be ready to implement the requirements, and consumers should see fewer surprises in their mailboxes.

Jodi Miller and Ryan Barry are partners in Bulkley Richardson’s healthcare practice.

Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

While two major construction projects reached completion in 2021, it’s no time to slow down for Longmeadow officials, who are planning several more projects for 2022 and beyond.

In June, Department of Public Works staff moved into their new $24 million facility on Dwight Road. Town Manager Lyn Simmons said the new location provides a cleaner, safer work environment with amenities that save money for the town over time.

“The DPW now has vehicle wash bays to clean dirt and salt off their equipment as well as lifts that are appropriate for the vehicles we have,” Simmons said. “We also have covered storage for everything, which, in New England, is critical for maintaining all this expensive equipment.”

Marybeth Bergeron, who chairs the Permanent Town Building Committee, said the DPW facility has come a long way from its old location on Pondside Road. After operating out of a couple buildings constructed in the early 1930s that she described as “incredibly poor condition,” the new location improves efficiency and morale.

“Our new DPW director, Geoff McAlmond, is working to unify all the entities in Public Works, and it’s much easier to do that with all the staff and department heads in one place,” Bergeron said.

Simmons said the new facility will have a positive impact on town business beyond the DPW. “Police, fire, and other departments that have town vehicles now have a fueling facility they can use as well.”

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want.”

In early November, Simmons cut the ribbon for the new Longmeadow Adult Community Center on Maple Road. The $14 million building features plenty of space for seniors looking to take part in exercise, activities, or one of the many other programs available.

Bergeron pointed out that older residents use fewer town resources, such as the school system and even trash pickup, because their households are smaller. At the same time, their numbers are growing as more people retire every day, and they are looking to stay active and social. For all those reasons, she said many communities are investing in their elders.

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want,” she added.

Thanks to a $250,000 donation from S. Prestley Blake toward the end of his life, the center has something few such facilities have: a dedicated gymnasium at one end of the building, featuring a full court that can be used for basketball or volleyball and an elevated walking track around the perimeter. On the day BusinessWest toured, three pickleball courts were set up, with games in progress.

The new facility is located less than 100 yards away from the old adult center, which was a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. In the immediate short term, the commercial kitchen in the old center will be used by staff from Armata’s Market to prepare holiday meals for their customers after a fire in November destroyed the market, a longtime fixture in Longmeadow (see story on page 15).

Looking ahead, the former adult center may be the future home for the town municipal offices. Currently, municipal staff are located in Town Hall and the adjacent Community Hall. Town Hall offers limited space, and Simmons said bringing it into compliance with current standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be cost-prohibitive. A recent feasibility study looked at reusing the Greenwood site as combined office space for the town.

“We would move municipal employees from Town Hall and Community Hall to one location and consolidate under one roof,” Simmons said. If the plan is approved, Simmons said the town can pay for renovations to the Greenwood site out of the $4.6 million allocated to Longmeadow under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Before the town can consider re-using the former DPW site, Simmons said the first goal is to demolish the old buildings which are deemed unsafe.

“We’ve done a feasibility study to see if ground mounted solar panels would make sense for us financially,” she said. “It looks like that would be a good use, but we have a ton of work to do before it can go out to bid.” Right now, it looks like the town will tackle this project in the spring or summer of 2022.

 

Doing Their Homework

Though mask measures are still in place and students are still adjusting to daily in-person learning, Longmeadow Schools Superintendent Martin O’Shea said having students back in class full-time makes it feel more like a typical school year.

In addition to what he termed as “the ebbs and flows of the school day,” he also recognizes the town is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding the future of its two middle schools.

Glenbrook Middle School, built in 1967, and Williams Middle School, built in 1959, are two well-maintained buildings, neither of which has had any significant renovation work since they were completed. Despite all the care and maintenance, time has a way of catching up with many of core systems, and the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical infrastructure in both buildings have reached the end of their useful life. A study by Colliers Project Leaders identified more than $30 million of essential maintenance and repair issues at the two schools.

O’Shea said the Longmeadow School Committee has petitioned the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help answer the question: should Longmeadow repair the two schools or bring all the middle-school students into one new building?

“If we commit to the repairs Colliers identified, we would make critical improvements to the two schools, but we’re left with the old footprint and the old design,” he explained. “We still wouldn’t have the types of learning spaces we think would be best for students for the next 50 years.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.74
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.74
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

Working with the MSBA can be a six- or seven-year process. That’s why O’Shea believes Longmeadow is at a crossroads right now. He and others in town support building new rather than investing in the old.

“Our sense is that it would be more cost-effective and more educationally effective to build a new school,” he said, adding that modern schools are built to be fully accessible, with rich digital-learning spaces, as well as spaces for small-group support and intervention.

O’Shea recognizes many residents value having two neighborhood-based middle schools in town, but both need extensive repairs and modernization to continue to serve today’s students. One new middle school can easily accommodate the 648 students currently attending Glenbrook and Williams.

“If we combined our two middle schools under one roof, we could potentially create educational economies of scale, and the new building would reflect a more typically sized middle school,” he said. “The average middle school in Massachusetts accommodates right around 600 students.”

Unlike many communities, Longmeadow does not experience significant school-enrollment swings, but instead stays fairly steady over many years. O’Shea said that’s an important consideration when going through the MSBA process.

“The whole building project begins when MSBA engages the community in demographic studies to better understand enrollment and population trends,” he noted. “That way, they can make sure the school that is eventually built is positioned for future enrollment.”

The middle-school project represents another chapter in Longmeadow’s continued commitment to academic excellence. O’Shea said education is an important part of the town’s economic engine.

“Longmeadow places a premium on education,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s the reason people move here and why it’s a great place to raise a family.”

 

Great Outdoors

Longmeadow also prides itself on its many recreation areas. Simmons is looking to bring in a consultant to assess all swimming pools, basketball courts, playgrounds, and other sites to assess their condition. Once the town has a baseline on the needs for each area, Simmons’ goal is to have a community conversation with town departments and committees as well as with residents to identify the most pressing projects.

“We want a roadmap so we can get strategic on how we eventually fund that work and complete those projects,” she said.

With these projects and others on the horizon for Longmeadow, Bergeron acknowledged she and the Building Committee will have plenty of work ahead. “I’m looking forward to the next five to 10 years as we get some of these projects off the ground and up and running.”

Features

Picking Up the Pieces

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire that ravaged the Maple Center shopping plaza.

Alexis Vallides has some experience bouncing back from disaster.

Actually, it was her bother who had that experience. His business, Latino Food Distribution, was one of many in West Springfield that were leveled by the tornado that tore through many area communities in 2011.

Vallides has been leaning hard on her brother, and certainly gaining inspiration from his comeback, as she embarks on one of her own.

Indeed, Vallides is one of many business owners who were left homeless by the massive fire just before Thanksgiving that engulfed the plaza in Longmeadow that unofficially took of the name of her business, Armata’s Market.

She was called early in the morning on Nov. 23 to let her know about a fire in the neighboring liquor store. Less than a few hours later, her store was almost completely leveled.

Like others impacted by the blaze, she is starting to write the next chapter in her business story, and, while there are many emotions attached to this rebuilding process, she is, well, very businesslike about it.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks,” she said. “Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

That’s what her team did the morning of the fire — she recalls employees standing and watching the fire, and also conceiving ways to prepare and distribute prepared meals for customers.

Armata’s was one of five businesses impacted by the fire at the Maple Center shopping plaza, which left 74 people unemployed initially. The others are the Bottle Shop liquor store, Iron Chef Asian Cuisine, Longmeadow Salon, and Dream Nail and Salon. Most, if not all, have expressed a desire to reopen — in Longmeadow if they can, said Lyn Simmons, town manager, noting, as others did, that there isn’t a large inventory of retail space, and especially vacant space, in this mostly residential community.

One business, the salon, has already reopened in East Longmeadow, she said, adding that, as these business owners grapple with the many challenges facing them, the town, the state, and several area business and economic-development-focused agencies are bringing resources to bear aiding in the recovery process, and connecting impacted business owners with grants, loans, and whatever else is needed to start anew.

Grace Barone, who leads one of those agencies, the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, knows firsthand what it’s like to claw back after a fire has destroyed a business and left dreams in a state of perilous limbo. Indeed, she owned Bridal Reflections, one of 20 ventures left homeless by a massive blaze in a retail plaza in Palmer.

She told BusinessWest that, in the wake of such a disaster, business owners go through a wide range of emotions, from the initial shock to what amounts to grief concerning their loss, to the frustration that comes from dealing with insurance companies and the myriad other issues related to getting back on one’s feet.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks. Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

“This is a challenging time, and it can be so overwhelming,” she said, adding that, in such a situation, the best her agency and others can do is stand by those impacted by it and provide whatever support they can.

“You go through the shock of ‘oh my gosh, everything I’ve worked for is gone; what do I do next?’” she said. “You try to formulate a plan and determine whether you’re going to rebuild and where you will conduct business in the meantime. And you go forward from there. But every time you think you’ve taken a few steps forward, there’s always something that pops up, and then you have a setback. We want to make sure we’re there for our members when those times come.”

As for Vallides, she is moving forward with plans to find both a temporary location and, if the Maple Center owners rebuild, as she expects they will, return to Shaker Road in the future.

“I’m checking out places in Longmeadow and Enfield for a temporary location, but, unfortunately, Longmeadow doesn’t seem to have anything quite big enough for our needs,” she said, noting that the operation requires roughly 5,000 square feet. “There are a few potential landing spots in February, and maybe by February we can get something up and running.

“We’re in it for the long run, and if we can set up something temporarily, close to our customers, we’ll do that,” she went on. “But, ultimately, we want to be back on Shaker Road.”

As for what she learned from her brother’s experience and is using to help her in her comeback efforts, she said there were many lessons from that story.

“It’s important to be strong and hang in there, not just for myself, but my employees as well,” she said. “Everyone counts here.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone impacted by that fateful fire.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Thinking About Better.com

By John Gannon

 

A few weeks ago, about 900 employees working at Better.com were asked to simultaneously attend a virtual Zoom meeting. They were probably expecting information about updated company policies or perhaps some sort of holiday bonus. Instead, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg notified all attendees during the three-minute video call that their employment was terminated “effective immediately.”

Apparently, Better.com, which is a popular online mortgage-lending service, claimed that hundreds of the employees who were let go had been “stealing” from the company by working remotely only a few hours a day. After videos of the termination meeting surfaced on social media, Garg faced significant criticism for his seemingly crass and heartless actions during the holiday season. He subsequently apologized, saying he “failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better.” He then took a leave of absence from work.

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office.”

There is a lot to unpack here from an employment-law perspective. For starters, was there anything unlawful about Better.com’s actions? Coldness aside, the answer is no, assuming none of the more than 900 employees were let go for discriminatory reasons, such as age, race, or taking medical leave (just to name a few). However, given the media spotlight on Better.com right now, I would not be surprised if at least a few of those fired employees brought lawsuits contending they were let go for unlawful reasons.

Let’s move on to the suspected stealing — can you fire employees who steal from you? That’s an easy one. Of course you can. But were these folks stealing by working less than an expected eight-hour day while at home? I don’t think they were. Employees often fail to work their expected hours in a day, week, or month, while being paid their full salaries at the same time. This is not stealing. Instead, it sounds more like a performance and time-management problem that should be addressed by managers and supervisors. If there is a significant gap between expected and actual hours worked, this could be a problem that warrants discipline or even termination from employment if particularly severe. But it should not be labeled or viewed as company theft.

The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office. I have talked to executives who feel strongly that people simply are not going to get as much done at home because the temptation to slack off is too great. That may be so, but there are tools that businesses can implement to track and monitor employee work habits and productivity while at home.

For starters, daily Zoom meetings, or at least a few video calls per week, put people in the mindset of being at work while giving colleagues a chance to see and interact with their peers, even if it is through a video screen. Second, if a business has real concerns about employees slacking off at home, there are all sorts of employee-monitoring software products out there that do everything from tracking keystrokes to measuring time away from the computer. Just be sure these tracking tools do not run afoul of workplace privacy laws.

In order to satisfy these laws, you generally have to disclose to the employee that they are being tracked and/or monitored, which undoubtedly will cause concern to some of your workforce who feel ‘Big Brother’ is looking over their shoulder.

“The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce.”

The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce. Losing your job over a three-minute video chat alongside 900 peers is just awful. Many of those employees undoubtedly provided numerous years of service to Better.com. They were rewarded with no chance to ask questions about the layoff decision, no chance to talk about other opportunities within the organization, and apparently no offer of severance to get them through the holidays. Garg faced severe criticism in the media for his callous approach to firing 900 people at once — and deservedly so.

But is there an easy way to tell people they are getting laid off? No, there is not. But there is a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way was illustrated by Garg — cold and impersonal, and showing no signs that you care in any way about the employees’ future endeavors.

Based on my experience, the right way to conduct a layoff involves three things. First, employers need a polished communication strategy that involves one-on-one meetings with affected employees that gives them an opportunity to have some real dialogue about the decision-making process and suggestions for future success with another company.

Second, consider offering outplacement services to all employees who are part of a reduction in force. Outplacement services are coaching and mentoring programs that help separated employees find a new position. These services are typically affordable and demonstrate that the business cares about its workforce.

Finally, providing some severance to affected employees is always recommended. This may not be an option if the reason for the layoff is driven by financial considerations, which is often the case. Even so, severance should absolutely be part of the conversation when thinking through a layoff, and, in my opinion, should be offered as a gesture of goodwill unless the bottom line just will not allow for it.

 

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act; (413) 737-4753.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Bob Cressotti

Mayor Bob Cressotti says soaring real-estate activity may lead to the tough decision to re-evaluate Enfield homes and businesses.

There is no shortage of activity in development projects for Enfield.

The most significant project involves the town, with the support of state and federal officials, constructing a train-station platform in the Thompsonville section of town. The planned station will be a stop for Amtrak trains coming from Hartford and Springfield. Mayor Bob Cressotti called it a key to Enfield’s future growth.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield,” Cressotti said, noting that funding for the station will come from the infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden. In the final legislation, Connecticut is scheduled to receive $1.2 billion for roads and transit over the next five years.

When built, the station will be located just beyond Bigelow Commons, a 700-unit apartment complex that was once the Bigelow Carpet Mill. Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development, said plans by the Connecticut Department of Transportation call for a covered 220-foot platform that would accommodate entrances to four train cars. As a high-level platform, passengers would be able to walk directly into the cars.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield.”

Tereso is working on a number of details for the project, among them securing a right-of-way agreement with Bigelow Commons for parking at the station. Northland, the company that owns the Commons, has indicated it supports the train-station project in Enfield.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” he noted. “In fact, many of their apartment complexes around the country are located near transportation hubs.” 

In anticipation of the train station, Tereso said the town has identified several properties within walking distance that would be ideal candidates for redevelopment. With the success of Bigelow Commons, he sees more potential for housing in that area.

On North Main Street, the Strand Theater has been closed for nearly 30 years and is slated for demolition by next summer. Next door sits the Angelo Lamanga Community Center. Tereso said the town has appropriated money for its demolition, too, but he is talking with developers to see if it’s possible to find a new use for the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We want to sell the Lamanga Center to a developer who is forward-thinking and looking ahead at the train station our town will have in a few years,” he explained. “While not as large as Bigelow, these parcels represent an opportunity to build additional market-rate apartments, especially for young professionals who are working in Hartford and Springfield.”

 

On the Home Front

According to Cressotti, demand for housing is certainly up Enfield. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2,200 property transfers have been recorded in Enfield. The rising real-estate market is leading to what he called the tough decision of re-evaluating houses and businesses in town.

“Residential property values have increased by 25% to 30% on average,” he said. “We’re going to adjust the mill rate to prevent a huge spike in the tax bills.”

With such large increases in home prices, getting families to locate to Enfield can be a challenge. Tereso talked about a first-time homebuyer program the town offers to increase purchasing power for eligible buyers. The program provides a deferred loan up to $10,000 at a 0% interest rate for first-time buyers who purchase a home in Enfield. For those who choose a home in the Thompsonville or North Thompsonville section of town, the loan is forgivable.

“This program provides the gap funding that many folks need in order to afford a mortgage,” he said, noting that starter homes in Enfield typically cost between $150,000 and $250,000. “It has especially helped younger families to buy their first home.”

With families in mind, the town is currently transforming Higgins Park from a softball field into a multi-faceted park. Plans call for expanding Higgins, as the town plans to purchase the gymnasium building that belonged to the former St. Adalbert parish that abuts the park. Cressotti said the final layout will feature walking trails, a new basketball court, a swimming pool, a splash pad, and a band shell for outdoor concerts.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now. Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

“When it’s complete, the park will have appeal to all ages, and we will be able to hold sponsored events there on a consistent basis,” he noted.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, officials tried to figure out how to keep town business operating. It so happened that a Santander Bank branch two doors down from Town Hall had recently closed and was on the market. The idea was floated to lease the former bank and use its drive-up window as a convenient and contact-free way to conduct town business during the pandemic.

“The drive-up window worked great for residents looking to apply for building permits, pick up a dog license, or pay their taxes,” Tereso said.

The town moved the entire Tax Department into the former bank and renamed it Enfield Express. The site also had enough room to locate a police substation in the rear of the building. Tereso said the town just finalized the purchase of the building, making it official that Enfield Express is here to stay.

“People love it,” he added. “We will absolutely continue the drive-up service after the pandemic is over.”

Purchasing the former bank branch also expands the amount of municipal parking and provides another entry point for the newly configured Higgins Park.

“When the Tax Department moved out of Town Hall, we turned their old space into a new conference room,” Tereso said, noting yet another benefit of creating Enfield Express.

Finding new uses for existing structures is all part of the plan in Enfield. For example, the Social Services Department recently moved from 110 High St. to the former Alcorn School, where the town’s IT Department is located, while 110 High St. is one of seven town properties Enfield has sold while it strives to efficiently use municipal space.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,626
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

As Tereso explained, “110 High Street was once a day-care center. We sold it to a day-care provider who will now be able to expand their presence in Enfield.”

Enfield Square, purchased by Namdar Realty in 2018, could be another candidate for redevelopment. The new owners were granted a zone change to reconfigure the mall and subdivide the parcels.

While malls all over the country are being redeveloped, Tereso believes Enfield Square’s close proximity to two I-91 exits is a big selling point for future use. He plans to survey residents on possible redevelopment options to get a read on what people would like to see at the mall.

“Whether it’s entertainment, market-rate housing, or outlet shops, all those things could be a successful way to develop the mall for new use,” he said.

 

Life in the Fast Lane

For Cressotti, life these past months has been moving fast.

In October, he won the election to be Enfield’s new mayor. On Nov. 6, he took over the position, and on Nov. 15, longtime Town Manager Christopher Bromson abruptly resigned after a heated exchange with several Town Council members.

After serving in different positions with the town since 1989, Bromson decided to retire and was recently quoted saying he is grateful to see many of the projects started during his time are now going forward. Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox has added interim Town Manager to his job title until a new manager is hired.

Even with all that happening, Cressotti likes the direction Enfield is headed.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now,” he said. “Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

William Rosenblum

William Rosenblum says Ludlow needs to use available funds to benefit the most people and invest in the future, not just immediate needs.

This fall, two long-anticipated projects in Ludlow opened to the public, and officials say there’s more to come.

In September, the Harris Brook Elementary School on Fuller Street opened for full classes for students in grades 2-5. And in early November, the new Ludlow Senior Center officially opened on State Street. Board of Selectmen Chairman William Rosenblum said that, while Ludlow is already a desirable community, the new school and senior center make it even more so.

“We’ve addressed the bookends of our lives by investing in our children and our seniors,” Rosenblum told BusinessWest, adding that next up for this community is determining the best ways to spend $6.3 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Rosenblum said the Board of Selectmen is asking for input from town department heads and Ludlow citizens on how to spend the funds in a way that will benefit the most people in the community and act as investments for the future.

“It’s like the quote from Star Trek — ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’” he said, citing a line credited to Mr. Spock.

Rosenblum added that using the funds to make improvements and updates to existing facilities will take priority over embarking on new projects.

“For example, we’ll be upgrading the HVAC system at the safety complex,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done, and we will most likely use ARPA funds for it.”

Ludlow Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the guidelines in spending ARPA money focus on helping public health departments and businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. They also allow towns to address recreational areas such as community centers and parks.

“This might be an opportunity to upgrade some of the existing facilities in our parks,” he added.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town. It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Another type of project allowed by ARPA involves investments in broadband. Rosenblum said he’d like the town to explore a fiber-optic installation in Ludlow, an idea that was inspired by his work-from-home experience. During the pandemic, while he stayed connected to work through the internet, his two children also attended school online, which severely taxed his home internet capabilities.

“I learned the 19 IP addresses that were in my house, so I could shut down different devices in order to get better internet reception,” he said.

Rosenblum acknowledges that, while fiber optics certainly fits the Star Trek criteria in benefiting many people, such a move requires considerable research to see if it’s even remotely affordable for the town.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at ARPA options and other pressing matters in Ludlow, a community that has seen considerable residential growth in recent years and is now seeing business growth as well.

 

At a Crossroads

According to Rosenblum, home sales remain brisk, largely because interest rates have stayed low. Meanwhile, over the past two years, home prices in Ludlow have increased 30%, with the average list price topping out at $376,000.

While some residents are concerned about the tax rate, he pointed out that increasing home values are what leads to higher tax bills.

“When you look at tax rates in communities across Massachusetts, Ludlow is right in the middle,” he noted.

Stefancik added that some of the larger McMansion-type homes in town bring in more than $10,000 a year in taxes.

“While that may seem high, taxpayers are getting a new school and a new senior center, which are both good things for the community,” he said. “The new school might even convince a family to move here.”

As Stefancik reviewed the many activities happening through his department with BusinessWest, one interesting trend stood out. Last year, 17 homeowners applied for special permits for home-based businesses, a high-water mark for the community.

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard. The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

While it would be easy to assume the pandemic sparked this increase in home-based business permits, Stefancik said it’s a trend that actually started before COVID arrived.

“The permits range from electricians and carpenters to artists and consultants,” he noted. “Back when I started in the job, these requests might occasionally trickle in, but now it’s our most common special permit.”

This trend was certainly in evidence back in October when the Ludlow Cultural Commission held a Community Market event at Memorial Park. Grace Barone, executive director for the East of the River Chamber, an event sponsor, was impressed with the community support and the number of home-based businesses represented at the market.

Doug Stefancik

Doug Stefancik says home values have soared in Ludlow, and so has the prevalence of home-based businesses.

“I saw some wonderful business ideas, and the community market provided a great showcase for them,” Barone said. “It would not be a surprise to see some of these vendors become future storefronts in town.”

The original idea for a community market was to bring together small businesses, artists, and community organizations, according to Michelle Goncalves, chair of the Ludlow Cultural Commission. Because the pandemic’s impact hurt many small businesses, especially those in arts and culture, the event’s focus shifted to become an occasion to support these entities.

For a first-year event, Goncalves was surprised to see nearly 40 vendors reserve space. She speculated that most of the smaller vendors were home-based businesses.

“In addition to businesses that have storefronts, I would guess that many of our vendors were based at home,” she said. “For example, we had a person who makes wreaths, a photographer who uses his home for a studio, one person who sells essential oils, and another who makes charcuterie boards.”

Planning has begun to bring the community market back next fall. “We definitely want to do this again,” Goncalves said.

While the population of Ludlow has remained fairly steady over the last several years, Rosenblum noted the town is seemingly growing based on the increased activity that happens there.

“Folks in Chicopee like to say they are the crossroads of New England,” Rosenblum said. “Well, Ludlow is the crossroads of about four or five towns, too.” Indeed, from the Ludlow exit on the Mass Pike, travelers head to Granby, South Hadley, Belchertown, Palmer, Indian Orchard, Wilbraham, and other communities.

The busy Ludlow exit from the turnpike feeds into Center Street, which is part of Route 21. Even after the state completed a comprehensive upgrade of the roadway last year, traffic has never been busier.

“I think we got used to traffic during the pandemic, which was very light because people weren’t commuting to work,” Stefancik said. “Now there’s traffic all week, and it’s still busy on the weekends.”

Don’t expect traffic to lessen anytime soon because Ludlow continues to invest in its future. In 2017, town officials working with Westmass Area Development Corp. and Winn Development transformed one of the old mill buildings in the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex into Residences at Mill 10, providing 75 units of age-55-plus, mixed-income housing. In 2022, construction begins on Mill 8, the mill building with its iconic clock tower. Once complete, that project will bring an additional 95 units of senior housing to Ludlow. Town officials offered high praise both for what’s been done so far and the potential for the entire area.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town,” Stefancik said. “It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Rosenblum concurred, adding that “the mills are a long-term investment for Ludlow, and we enjoy a great partnership with the developers.”

Like Mill 10, Mill 8 will also offer mixed-income housing. Considering the mills, the new single-family houses being built, and the condominiums that exist and are under construction, Stefancik said, Ludlow gives potential residents many options on where to live.

“Looking forward,” he added, “we’re a community that can offer a wide range of housing and provide a great place to live and do business.”

 

 

Right Place, Right Time

As a selectman, Rosenblum enjoys his involvement in projects that make a positive impact on Ludlow, and he believes local politics is “where it’s at.”

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard,” he said. “The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

Mr. Spock couldn’t have said it better.

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A Changing Dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the business landscape in countless ways — from where and how employees work to how people communicate. It has also prompted businesses large and small to stop, think about that phrase ‘corporate stewardship’ and what it means to them, and perhaps re-evaluate this all-important concept. We put together a panel of local business and nonprofit managers to discuss the broad topic of corporate stewardship and how COVID may have provided new definition — in every aspect of that phrase — to this issue. For businesses, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to revisit the matter of community involvement and often find new and different ways to give back.
For nonprofits, missions have been broadened, and there has some been pivoting, out of both necessity and a desire to serve in different ways. The panelists are: Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank; Theresa Jasmin, chief financial officer at Big Y Foods; Amy Scribner, partnership director at East School-to-Career Inc., a nonprofit that provides internships, or work-based learning opportunities and other career-education initiatives, for students; Jack Verducci, vice president of Corporate Partnership for the Worcester Red Sox; Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield; and Michelle D’Amore, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. Scully may have set the tone for the discission when he said, “I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference.”

BusinessWest: Let’s start by getting your take on — and your working definition of — those phrases ‘corporate stewardship’ and ‘being a good corporate citizen.’

Scully: “Country Bank has been around for 172 years, and its legacy for all those years has been the belief that healthy communities thrive. We’re all in business for our companies to do well, but from a community perspective, we need communities that are healthy — healthy economically, heathy demographically, educationally, with regard to healthcare. So giving back has always been a focus here, and in recent years we’ve taken it to a higher level, both with writing checks and having people on the street giving back and being part of the community. And it differs, depending on what the needs are. There can be very significant multi-year pledges — we just pledged $1 million for hunger awareness in June, with $500,000 for food banks in both Central and Western Mass., because if people have good nutrition, healthy communities will thrive — or having 14 people at Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house. It’s a focus that we do big and small.”

Jasmin: “Being involved in the community is part of the fabric of our company; we consider ourselves a family, we have a culture of caring, and we focus on personal connection, whether that’s with our customers, our employees, or throughout the community. And that manifests itself in many different ways, from large donations to capital campaigns to investments in time and talent. For us, though, it’s about relationships and creating strong vibrant communities; that’s what corporate stewardship means to us.”

Scribner: “For our organization, it’s not so much the money; it’s about organizations allowing these students to come in for semester and do a work-based learning opportunity, and that has long been a challenge for us. We’re trying to create a pipeline for employment, and to do that, we need businesses to assist us and open their doors to students. Often, it’s not about just writing a check, but getting involved on a deeper level.”

D’Amore: “We as a nonprofit are always seeking — and grateful to receive — financial support from the community. But we also rely on our volunteer base. Our organization was built on volunteers; it is the foundation of what we do. For us, we’re continuing our outreach and working with the community to ensure that what we receive is supporting the families who are with us — and there are many forms that this support can take.”

Verducci: “Our WooSox Foundation is a new foundation and not heavily funded, but what we do have is a platform to provide valuable and equitable experiences to the community; specifically, we tend to focus on pediatric oncology, recreation, education, and social justice. So while we love to donate the funds that we do have, we tend to be able to do the most good through corporate partners and partnerships within the community.”

BusinessWest: Has the pandemic changed the dynamic when it comes to corporate stewardship, and if so, how?

Jasmin: “What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs. We have a pretty structured mechanism for people who are looking for financial assistance. But during the pandemic, that was accelerated because there was a high sense of urgency. For example, within a week of the shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, we gave some sizable donations to each of the five food banks in our operating area because businesses were shutting down, and people were out of work; the social structure to support those people was not in place yet, so food banks were being taxed. We made that gift quickly, and we made a second gift four weeks later when the need was continuing. That’s one of the ways we adjusted — moving more quickly to meet needs.”

Theresa Jasmin

Theresa Jasmin

“What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs.”

Scully: “The urgency absolutely was escalated, but so has the dynamic. When I think of the nonprofits I sit on, so many of them rely on not only corporate giving, but some type of event or two over the course of the year. We’ve all been to a million chicken dinners; what I say to my group is that, when the auction is there, bid high and bid often, because that’s what it’s all about. The big piece that we saw was that people weren’t going to events because they weren’t being held. And it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ unfortunately. The money was needed, the funding was needed, but the money wasn’t coming in, and yet all of those organizations had a more dire need than is typical because there were so many people impacted by the pandemic. We looked at it and said, ‘yeah, we can stay with our traditional model of what we do, but there’s a big need to step in here.’ When we look at corporate stewardship and how things have changed over the past 20 months, the need has increased exponentially. So many were hoping that this was the year — we all had our calendars ready for events, and then, they had to switch to virtual events, which don’t raise enough money. So the corporate community needs to realize that, even if there isn’t an event, the needs are so great, and they need to get out there and make a difference.”

D’Amore: “From a nonprofit perspective, we had to figure out how we could support our mission differently. When the pandemic was creeping, we were mandated by our global entity, which holds our licensing agreement, that we could no longer accept new families. And when the last of the families went home, we actually turned it around to provide support to frontline healthcare workers. We opened the house to workers at Baystate to give them an opportunity — if they needed a place to stay, if they needed to take a shower or get a cup of coffee. So our team was committed to support healthcare and support our partner hospitals who are there for us all the time. The tables turned a little bit, but we are able to continue to support our mission in this time of need, and you saw many organizations doing similar things. We pivoted and reinvented ourselves.”

Scribner: “Last year was a real struggle for students; 20% of those students in the Commonwealth just fell off the radar. So we had to change our mindset and pivot, just to help these students communicate how they were feeling. We would have speakers come in an talk about that — how they’re dealing with it, how their companies and themselves personally are dealing with COVID and being on Zoom meetings and not being in school and not being at work. Kids, while resilient, really had a tough time; they missed going to work and interacting with people. It’s those little things that we don’t think about — like going to a company or going to UMass on a field trip. We’re slowly getting back to whatever the new normal is. But last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Amy Scribner

Amy Scribner

“Last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Johnson: “With the pivot in funding that happened when a lot of companies started steering dollars toward COVID-related things, we also steered a lot of what we were doing toward COVID-related things; we were one of the few places that didn’t really close. When childcare was shut down for the Commonwealth essentially, and then an emergency first-responder-type childcare reopened for those working in retail or transportation or hospitals, we pivoted; our centers closed for one week and then reopened as an emergency childcare facility. We did continue to operate during that time, and on the youth-development side, there were still a lot of great opportunities from a funding standpoint to continue to be involved with some of our corporate sponsors that were changing direction and focusing on COVID.”

Verducci: “We essentially became volunteers; we turned our ballpark in Rhode Island, where we were still based until May, into a food-distribution network. Food insecurity became a huge issue in the region, so we were able to partner with Ocean State Job Lot, which would donate the food, and we would use McCoy Stadium as a vehicle to get that food to people who needed it. We also did coat drives, and we turned the park over to the state to become a testing facility. We tried to use our resources to help where it would do the most good. And once we transitioned to Worcester, we again became volunteers, going to Worcester State University to do food drives and coat drives, and most of those partnerships were with our corporate partners that we’ve had long-time relationships with. We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Jack Verducci

Jack Verducci

“We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Scully: “It was suddenly about putting on a different pair of glasses and switching gears when it comes to how you do things. It’s all about, as everyone has talked about, switching gears and saying ‘how do we adapt?’ much like we’ve all had to adapt to how we run our businesses remotely and attend meetings via Zoom.”

BusinessWest: What are the lessons we’ve learned from all this, from having to put a different pair of glasses, and how will this carry over into the future in terms of how we look at corporate stewardship and giving back?

Scully: “If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater. We have a big building here, and for a while there, about four of us were here. You weren’t connecting with people. But as soon as the opportunity came for people to come back, not only to the office, but to get involved with volunteering again, they really wanted to. I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference. I think people want to be part of something greater, so I think that stewardship will be stronger than ever because this has almost been that switch that has prompted us all to rethink what’s important. There’s a silver lining to everything, and sometimes it’s hard to find, but I think this is it.”

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater.”

Jasmin: “It was reinforcing for us in terms of our viewpoint on our being involved in the community. We took a look at what our philosophy was and really came out with an even greater understanding that these are the pillars we want to focus on. We’re a food company, first and foremost, and one of our pillars is hunger relief and helping with food insecurity. And that was reinforced for us — this is a continuing need, and we should be involved with it. And just in general, it’s also reinforced that we should continue to be involved — that our investment that we’re making in time and money and people is needed and is valuable. What this has taught us is that we need to be invested continuously, so when a crisis occurs, you can react quickly. It’s not something you can develop from scratch. Overall, it was reinforcing.”

Verducci: “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for empathy amongst companies; it was shared experience that was totally unprecedented, so people were empathetic with each other, and they really did understand what was happening with everyone. Instead of people saying ‘maybe not this year’ when we reached out, everyone we contacted over the past 18 months was willing to help in some way. The other thing we realized was that even the best-laid plans are not going to go the way we anticipate, so you need to be flexible and, more importantly, creative, and this will carry forward.”

D’Amore: “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’ Sometimes, prior to the pandemic, we were very focused on our own business model or our own mission, and where it was going. But we were all in the same boat essentially wanting to row in the same direction, so we collectively said, ‘how can we do this together?’”

Michelle D’Amour

Michelle D’Amore

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’”

Johnson: “I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

BusinessWest: Going forward, how do we maintain this new spirit of cooperation, this new sense of urgency, when it comes to giving back?

Jasmin: “One of the things we lost during the pandemic was that personal connection. We missed seeing our colleagues, our families, and people in the community at large; through corporate stewardship and giving back, we can create those personal connections, and people are recognizing how important this is. The community is us, so when you’re giving back to the community, you’re giving back to yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers.”

Scully: It starts with all of us — the leaders or organizations — to set the pace. The pandemic may not be over, but I think that what is over is the hunker-down mentality of being locked up at home in the basement on a computer talking to your colleagues all day. It’s time to get on with life. It won’t be the old normal, it will be the new normal, and the new normal is going to be dependent on so many of us to set that tone — that it’s time to get back out there for a Habitat event, with getting over to the Ronald McDonald House to help prepare a dinner when that becomes available to do. It’s dependent on the leadership or organizations to reinforce that tone.”

Scribner: “This pandemic has really allowed people to take time to reflect on their own lives and what’s important to them and their priorities. And when you’re given that time, I think you realize what’s important in life. When it comes to being hunkered down, I think the pandemic provided time and opportunity for people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to get out, and I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a difference.’ People are realizing just how precious things are now, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor or providing food for a food bank.”

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

“I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

Johnson: “In the normal ebb and flow of things, we get hyped up because something’s happened, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the tornado — things that bring us together for a short time. And then, life gets back to normal, and human nature tends to make us drift back to how we were. I think COVID is very different … it impacted everyone, every state, every city — we all know someone who has lost their life or lost their job because of it. It’s had a more far-reaching impact than any of those other tragedies, and, hopefully, that will allow it to stick with us and keep that mentality of realizing how fragile life can be.”

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

It’s a classic small-town balancing act. As Monson leaders look forward to new infrastructure and energy projects, many residents also want to maintain a small-town feel.

But progress is important, Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz says. With the town about to receive $1.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and a team at Town Hall looking at ways to use those funds, she favors infrastructure projects because she believes they offer the best return on investment.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers,” Wolowicz said, adding that she is grateful the town has until 2026 to spend the ARPA funds. “That timetable allows us to be thoughtful in how we use the money.”

In April, Wolowicz was appointed full-time Town Administrator after working in the position since February in an interim capacity. When she first came on board, Town Hall was closed to the public due to COVID-19 mandates while the staff inside were busy trying to figure out how to provide the services residents needed. Some town business moved online, but many residents prefer to pay their bills in person, so Wolowicz and her staff installed drop boxes and even offered some outdoor service.

“With a little education and reassurance, we helped people figure out different ways to get business done,” she said.

These days, Town Hall is fully open. The Monson Select Board has relaxed mask mandates in general, but they are still required in schools. Wolowicz pointed out that COVID numbers have been trending lower than in the past, and currently, 56% of residents have been vaccinated.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers.”

Meanwhile, back in January, Andrew Surprise became the new CEO of the Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, which covers 15 towns in the region, including Monson. Surprise admits that, in the past, the chamber had been losing touch with local communities. To address that, he has begun reaching out to Monson businesses to establish a business civic association (BCA).

“The idea is to form a business community in Monson,” Surprise said. “With local people concentrating on the issues that are important to their business and community, it helps the chamber to better focus on ways they can help.”

Upon joining Quabaog Hills, Surprise noticed the chamber did not have strong contacts with local officials at the town or state level.

“As a former city councilor [in Westfield], I’ve seen how important it is for the chamber to have these relationships,” he said. “By connecting businesses and local officials, we can offer better value to everyone involved.”

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, is on a mission to introduce himself to businesses in Monson.

Coordinating efforts is already paying off. Surprise began working with Wolowicz on the idea of a BCA while the town was in the process of seeking a Rapid Recovery grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Knowing that Monson was looking to have a business organization focused on its needs, the PVPC advised Surprise and Wolowicz to make it a joint request. Surprise said the BCA will be formed no matter what, but a grant makes a more robust effort possible.

“The grant would allow a much more expansive implementation and enable us to speed up the building of the BCA,” Surprise said. “Also, the grant makes it possible for the chamber to hire a person dedicated to establishing and recruiting for BCAs in both Monson and Belchertown.”

 

Main Concerns

Much of Monson’s business community can be found right in the heart of town, so BusinessWest asked three Main Street business owners about the idea of a business civic association.

Nissa Lempart, owner of Monson Optical, said the BCA is a good idea if the goal is to reach more people outside of town. “My customers already know where we are, and they tend to keep their business in Monson.”

Richard Green, who owns Richard R. Green Insurance Agency, said that, in his experience, many people tend not to do business in town, so he believes a BCA would be a big plus for Monson.

“It would be a way for local businesses to interact more with the community while benefiting each business and the community at large,” he noted. “I think it would be fantastic.”

Bill Belanger, who has owned Belanger Jewelers for more than 30 years, called Monson a wonderful community, and he’s open to the town taking a different approach to business.

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking.”

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking,” he explained.

Part of that new thinking would allow larger franchises to do business in Monson. In 2020, residents staged a vocal rejection when Dollar General proposed a location in town.

“Dollar General might not have been the right fit for our town,” Belanger said. “But there are many other types of national businesses that would work well here.”

One example of Monson welcoming new thinking involves a 26,000-square-foot building on Route 32 where Holistic Industries runs a cannabis growing facility.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,560
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.12
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.12
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Wolowicz noted that Holistic represents a large tax base for Monson, as the town received $500,000 in tax revenues from the company in June. Holistic-grown products are sold by Liberty Cannabis retail stores in Springfield, Somerville, and Easthampton. “COVID was good for cannabis sales,” she noted.

In terms of seeking other growth for the town, Wolowicz said discussions are taking place with developers about reusing some of the older mills in town. There is also activity at the former site of the state-owned Monson Developmental Center, where several buildings are being taken down. She said some residents have questioned why the town isn’t involved in redevelopment of this parcel.

“These folks don’t understand this is state property and the cleanup is their project,” she noted. “Their plan is to bring it back to green space and hopefully give the land back to the town at some point.”

For the last year and a half Monson, has been making energy-saving improvements to schools and municipal buildings. Part of the project involves converting the current street lights to LED fixtures.

“Even Town Hall, which was built in 2014, will be getting new lighting because that’s how fast technology has changed,” Wolowicz said.

The town also works with neighboring communities on wider-ranging projects. For example, Monson has signed an agreement with Palmer and Ware to convert the town dog pound into a regional animal-control facility for use by the three communities. That project is expected to take place next year.

 

Steady On

That’s a fair amount of activity for a town whose Main Street has no traffic signals.

“There are many folks in town who are passionate about keeping it that way,” Wolowicz said, adding that she favors controlled development to keep Monson a vital community.

Belanger expressed a similar sentiment. “Encouraging more business is a way for the community to advance without losing what makes it special.”

While Monson keeps its small-town feel, there is no shortage of new business proposals landing on Wolowicz’s desk.

“We many not be a booming metropolis,” she said, “but we still have opportunities to pursue controlled development.”

Features Special Coverage

A New Kind of Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested area employers in every way imaginable. And soon, it will test many in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a few months ago — vaccine mandates put in place by the Biden administration and set to take effect probably before the end of the year. The mandates are prompting lawsuits, generating questions that are often hard to answer, and creating high levels of anxiety for employers who are already dealing with a host of problems, especially an ongoing workforce crisis.

Amy Royal says she’s seen all manner of new regulations — state, federal, and local — that employers and their HR departments must contend with as they carry out business day to day.

But she speaks for all employment-law specialists — and those HR professionals as well — when she says she’s never seen anything quite like the COVID-19 vaccine mandates either already in effect or soon to be.

The mandates are far-reaching in their impact, in terms of everything from the number of businesses affected to the costs they will have to absorb to the very real possibility of losing more valued employees, said Royal, a principal with the Indian Orchard-based Royal Law Firm, which specializes in employment law, specifically representing employers. She summed up the measures and their bearing on employers with a single word. “It’s exhausting for companies.”

That would be an understatement.

Already, vaccine mandates enacted by states, individual cities and towns, healthcare providers, and private companies are resulting in thousands of people being fired or simply walking off the job. That list includes the football coach and several assistants at Washington State University, more than 100 state troopers in Massachusetts, police officers in countless communities, and a wide range of healthcare workers, especially nurses.

The recent developments raise questions on everything from just how safe many cities now are to which games NBA star Kyrie Irving can actually play in — none at his home court in Brooklyn, for starters.

And the next shoe — a rather large one — is set to drop in this unfolding drama. That would be the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandates, the ones affecting companies of more than 100 employees, any business with federal contracts, and federal employees — mandates the administration estimates will impact more than 80 million workers.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test.”

Royal and other employment-law specialists we spoke with said there are far more businesses in the 413 in those categories than most people would think, and all of them are, or should be, working diligently to prepare for these mandates — which will take effect soon, although exactly when is a question.

Actually, that’s one of many, many questions, said John Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who said others include everything from whether employees get paid while they’re getting vaccinated or tested to who pays for those tests, to whether employees who ultimately lose their jobs to these mandates are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413 will be impacted by the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate than most people would believe.

“People are asking, ‘what do we do now — what can we do once the mandate is rolled out?’” he said. “They also want to know when it is going to release and how much lead time they’re going to have for compliance. And, unfortunately, we just don’t know the answers to those kinds of questions.”

Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, agreed, noting, as others did, that the vaccine mandates add new layers of intrigue, challenge, and polarization for employers who have seen more than enough of all three over the past 20 months.

When she talked with BusinessWest, Wise had recently left a roundtable of CHROs — chief human-resource officers — representing companies across the Northeast. The group meets every six weeks to discuss the challenges its members are facing, she noted, adding that the dominant topic of conversation was the new vaccine mandates and what they might mean for companies, especially in the broad realm of employee relations.

“People who have not wanted to get vaccinated may get tired of the testing and may eventually get vaccinated, but be disgruntled about it,” she said, adding quickly that, if employers have to pay the cost of testing — and pay employees while they’re getting tested — then there is little incentive, if any, to get vaccinated.

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees,” she went on, adding that employers may have to pay a steep price for a policy they didn’t implement themselves.

The best advice Gannon and the others we spoke with have for employers and the HR departments is to be as ready as they can be for these mandates and fully understand just what they are up against. This means knowing how many employees are vaccinated (and not) and having a plan in place for meeting the mandates.

Above all else, Wise and the employment-law specialists advise that businesses take the mandates seriously — even if enforcement of its provisions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible — and to be prepared.

 

Taking More Shots

BusinessWest asked a number of area business owners and nonprofit managers who fall under the categories of the Biden vaccination mandates to discuss the measures and what they could mean.

Not surprisingly, none really wanted to talk about it — on the record or even off. Indeed, the subject of vaccinations and the mandates regarding them are a hot-button, polarizing topic, to say the least. Most employers are staying away from it, figuring it’s best not to say anything than delve into a matter drenched in controversy.

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees.”

That goes for MassMutual, one of the region’s largest employers, with more than 6,000 workers, which offered only this statement from a spokesperson:

“We are waiting for the specifics of the OHSA guidance to be issued, after which we will be able to better evaluate what it will mean for our company and employees. In the meantime, we have begun to prepare by determining how much of our employee base is vaccinated, which is currently approximately 85%. We are also encouraging fully vaccinated employees to begin coming into the office if they are comfortable doing so and on a schedule that makes sense for them. We’ll continue to evaluate our broader return based on the status of COVID-19 as well as guidance from medical experts and government officials to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our employees.”

With that, the company probably spoke for most employers in the region, who are waiting for OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to offer specifics while also assessing just where they stand with regard to what percentage of their workforce is vaccinated.

Here’s what is known at this juncture. The Biden action plan directs OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19, Gannon said. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plan also includes two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of workforce size. There is no weekly testing exception; employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

And, as noted, there are more companies in the 413 that will be impacted by these measures than most would think. Indeed, while most businesses in this region fit the textbook definition of ‘small’ — under 100 employees — there are hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and institutions that count at least that many workers. That includes healthcare-related agencies, manufacturers, nursing homes, municipal departments, a few banks, and many more. Meanwhile, the provision regarding federal contractors — and subcontractors — brings many more businesses under the auspices of the Biden mandates.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test,” said Royal, noting that her own firm has had federal contracts at different points in its history. “So this has an impact on a number of organizations up and down the valley — including small businesses and human-service agencies that may provide a service to the federal government in some way and come under the umbrella of being a federal contractor.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days.’ But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

“It might even be retail-type product that is sold on a military base,” she went on, while detailing the broad scope of these measures. “This definitely has widespread implications.”

Beyond waiting — and perhaps hoping that the measure is delayed, which most experts say is possible but not likely — the best area employers can try to do is be ready, said Gannon, adding that, while it’s anyone’s guess as to just when the OSHA standard for companies with 100 or more employees will be issued, it will almost certainly be released before the end of the year.

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days,’” he explained. “But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

Indeed, the clock is certainly ticking on the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors, he noted, adding that anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots must wait several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

“It can take employees at least 45 days, and that’s if they act as soon as possible, to make sure they’re vaccinated,” Gannon went on. “Meanwhile, employers are going to have to get testing programs in place and provide options for employees on how they get tested weekly if they are opposed to getting vaccinated.”

The logical next step for employers, if they haven’t done it already, is to determine their vaccination rates and thus get a handle on the scope of the problem they’re facing, he added.

“We’ve seen all sorts of numbers, but generally, employers fall somewhere in the 60% to 80% range,” he said. “And you’re allowed to ask people if they are vaccinated or not — several agencies have confirmed that there is nothing unlawful about that. You can’t ask them why, but you can generally survey your workforce population, and that should be the first step.”

 

Compounding the Problems

Flashing back to those days — it might even have been hours — after Biden announced his vaccination mandates, when the phone calls started coming in, Royal said the initial reaction was shock, followed by incredulousness.

“That’s because it represents a whole new layer of challenges for employers when they’ve already been navigating a number of challenges related to the pandemic, or just workforce-related issues,” she explained, adding that the overriding concern, beyond all the planning, logistics, and costs of meeting the new standards, regards the potential loss of valued employees at a time when workers are retiring and resigning at unprecedented rates (see related story on page 61), and replacing them has been increasingly difficult.

“Whether you’re in manufacturing or in human services, or are a professional service, there is a general worker shortage and shortage of prospects,” Royal noted, adding that the mandates, especially the one regarding federal contracts (because there is no provision for testing, only required vaccination), will make a serious problem that much worse.

Wise agreed. While she noted that the vaccine mandates for those companies in the listed categories relieve employers from having to implement such a polarizing policy themselves, it does bring a new and unwanted layer of challenge to the table, especially when it comes to workforce.

“They’re already hurting for staff as it is,” she told BusinessWest. “If they lose employees over this, that’s going to make it even harder for them to meet their customer demands and fulfill their orders.”

But there are other considerations, including the costs attached to all this and uncertainty over whether employers who don’t want to get vaccinated or tested can become eligible for unemployment benefits.

She said there has been no clear guidance on that, but she speculates that, if the federal government issues a mandate and an employee is unwilling to comply with that mandate, then the employee would not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

But that’s just one of many questions that remain unanswered at this juncture, she said, adding that employers of all sizes are pondering how to get ready for these mandates, but also just how seriously to take them, especially since the T in ETS stands for temporary.

“Apparently, under OSHA guidelines, unless OSHA makes it permanent, within six months this ETS will expire,” she said, adding that some employers may roll the dice and try to wait this out.

Indeed, while there are steep fines attached to the mandates — up to $13,653 per violation — Wise said some employers are wondering out loud just who is going to enforce all this.

“In my mind, this would be a risk that I, as a business owner, don’t think I’d be willing to take,” she told BusinessWest. “But there’s a piece to this that says, ‘how am I going to get caught?’

“OSHA isn’t going to be able to come in and audit every workplace, so there would probably have to be a complaint filed,” she went on, adding that, if an employee doesn’t want to get vaccinated, he or she is unlikely to file a complaint that their employer is not in compliance.

 

Bottom Line

Like Royal and Gannon, Wise said she’s never seen anything quite like the vaccine mandates when it comes to the many ways they might impact an employer.

“I’ve been in HR for more than 40 years, and I can say that there’s been nothing like this,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of regulations and guidelines that employers have to put in place — certain safety precautions, pay requirements, overtime laws — but there really hasn’t been anything that’s come down that has affected the individual and their bodies like this.”

Indeed, these measures are unprecedented in many respects, and they come at a time when beleaguered employers are already being challenged in every way imaginable.

Only time will tell what happens next, but it’s clear that employers will have their mettle tested even further.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Thomas Bernard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

No Summertime Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Adams at a Glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Next Phase

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

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

Putting the Pieces Together

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

Demetrios Panteleakis

Demetrios Panteleakis

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Big Bytes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Powerful Statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

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

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

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

 

Workforce Crunch

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

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

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

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

Northampton at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Keep Moving Forward

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

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

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

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