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The Spirit Moved Him

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Almost from the day he started V-One Vodka, Paul Kozub has been dreaming about, and planning for, the day when he’d make his product himself, at a distillery he owned in Poland, the birthplace of his ancestors — and vodka itself. Now, that day is here, and Kozub believes this huge investment will enable him to scale up his venture on a dramatic level.

Paul Kozub says the hardest part about the whole thing was keeping it a secret.

And that’s saying something, because there were many hard parts to his ambitious plans to building his own distillery to produce the Vodka label, V-One, that he brought the marketplace nearly a decade ago.

There was the process of finding a location in Poland, birthplace of both his ancestors and vodka itself, or so the story goes, as well as designing a facility and getting it built. And none of that could happen unless he sold enough shares of his company to raise the needed capital — but not so many shares that he would lose majority ownership of the venture.

But the keeping-it-all-a-secret part? That was quite necessary because, if word ever got out to those who had been producing his vodka since he launched his label that he was going into that end of the business himself, then they would stop producing it for him posthaste and leave him scrambling to not only fill orders but find someone else to make it in the interim.

So Kozub went to great lengths to keep his search and then his building project a secret. And, as he said, it wasn’t easy.

“My family and friends knew, but I had to really keep things quiet otherwise,” he explained at a short press conference on Feb. 26 to announce the purchase and expansion of a distillery in Kamien, Poland, about two hours southeast of Warsaw. “Every time I went to Poland, I wouldn’t post it on Facebook, because my suppliers are friends of mine and they’d see that I’m there [Kamien] and not coming to see them, so they’d know something was going on.”

As noted, he said this at a press conference, which means this huge development for the company is no longer a secret. Kozub told those friends who were producing his product (the operative word there is ‘were’) about it a few weeks ago, and he said they quite happy for him. At the Feb. 26 press conference, he told several media outlets, supporters, clients such as MGM Springfield, area bars and restaurants, and more.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

It was an emotional announcement and an intriguing new chapter in the V-One story, which started back in 2003, when Kozub started distilling in his home in Hadley after using a $6,000 inheritance from his “Polish moonshining grandfather” to buy some equipment. There have been a number of milestones along the way, from the creation of his signature bottle to expansion into different markets; from the addition of several new flavors to Kozub’s being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2016 (in recognition of all of the above).

The distillery, which he describes as a “multi-million-dollar investment,” without being more specific, represents the next milestone and one Kozub believes will greatly accelerate growth of the company.

“This will allow us to produce 400 times more vodka than we produce today; we will be looking to not only expand as a national brand, but as an international brand,” he explained. “This represents the next stage of the company — and a very exciting stage.”

Elaborating, he said he doesn’t have a firm timetable, obviously, but expects to expand outside of New England and down the East Coast in the years to come, and will then look to expand globally.

For now, though, he’s focused on getting the first bottle off the line in Kamien, something that should happen on or around April 1.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at everything that has brought Kozub to that moment and at what will likely happen next.

Proof Positive

As he announced his expansion into Poland — a return to his family’s roots, if you will — Kozub did so with a type of high-tech slideshow. Only it started with a few low-tech pictures that captured some of those milestones described earlier.

One was of his first house in Hadley, a small Cape that he moved into just a few days after his Polish grandfather died, and another captured its basement, where he first started making vodka, or “moonshine,” as he called it. A third zoomed in on the special plumbing that enabled cold water to run through the still, a development that made everything that’s happened since possible.

Other pictures captured his first V-One bottle and his first van, which he purchased soon after going into business. He would load it with 100 cases of V-One and deliver it to clients across the region himself.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

Yes, that’s a lot of firsts. But to take the venture forward in a meaningful way, Kozub said he needed to control production of his vodka with his own distillery. He said he’s known this almost from the beginning, but the costs of such a facility have been imposing and, until recently, prohibitive.

But knowing he needed to take this step, he raised capital by taking on additional investors as part of a process that really began a few years ago. Subsequent steps included scouting locations and kicking the tires on existing distilleries available for acquisition.

With that explanation, his show shifted to video captured by his phone as he traveled through the community he eventually chose to be home to his distillery.

“There’s thousands and thousands of acres of fruit trees here … it reminds me a lot of Hadley,” he said as the car transporting him moved down a rural road. “As soon as I saw this, I knew it was the place I wanted to call home.”

Home, meaning the actual distillery itself, has been around for more than 133 years, and thus it has some history, said Kozub, noting that, during World War II, the Nazis took it over and produced different kinds of spirits.

The next chapter in its history involves a sizable expansion necessary for producing V-One in the quantities that Kozub is envisioning for the years and perhaps decades to come. Indeed, the facility will include, in addition to the distilling equipment, laboratory space (mostly for R&D and new product development), a bottling area, and warehouse space.

Thus, when asked what this ambitious move does for the company, Kozub said quickly, “it makes everything better.” Elaborating, he said that, almost from the beginning, he has understood the critical need to have more control over every aspect of the V-One operation, especially production.

“I wanted to be in control of production — I’ve had a number of production nightmares over the past 15 years,” he explained. “Literally, we’ll be planting our own grain, our own spelt, harvesting it, and processing it. We like to say that, from farm to glass, we’ll be in control of each process, and that’s the trend today.”

Beyond control, Kozub said this expansion into Poland and the opening of his own distillery allows him to accelerate the process of growing the V-One label and taking it into new markets — in this country and then eventually abroad.

“I really never wanted to make rum or tequila or gin, but I have at least two dozen other vodka products I’d like to make someday,” he told those assembled at V-One world headquarters (a converted church) on Route 9 in Hadley. “And this allows us to be really innovative with doing some of that stuff; when someone else is making your vodka, you’re limited to their schedule and their timeframe.”

Moving forward, Kozub said that, while he did a sell an interest in the company — something he could do only after its raising its value over the past decade through new products and a wider reach market-wise — he is still the overwhelming majority owner, and still one who is quite hands-on and involved in all aspects of the business. That said, he still plans to spend the vast majority of his time in this country, and probably visit Poland about as much as he does now — maybe once a quarter.

While leaving actual production in the hands of a manager in Poland, Kozub will focus on the proverbial big picture and, more specifically, territorial expansion for V-One and a scaling up of the operation.

And having his own distillery, as he said, will certainly help in this regard.

“People comment to me all the time … ‘you’re a 13-and-a-half-year-old business; how come you haven’t gotten out of the New England market?’” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve had some serious production problems and packaging issues that have worried me about getting into Florida or Texas or California, three of the biggest vodka markets. This [distillery] will really allow us to scale up and tackle those challenges.”

Expanding within the U.S. and then overseas markets will obviously require more capital, he added, and he plans to sell additional shares in the business within the next year.

Bottom Line

As he continued his slideshow presentation before the press and his supporters, Kozub placed a map of Poland on the screen to show exactly where his distillery will be located.

He did so to offer a point of reference, offer up a short lesson on Polish geography, and also show where his ancestors are from — a small town not far Krakow. But he also did it to be a touch poetic.
“This really helps put on us on the map,” he said of the distillery, using that phrase to say a great deal.

This venture is now on the map, literally, and its product will be on — meaning available to — a much larger chunk of the map in the years to come because of what this facility will enable the company to do.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke has been operating since last summer, and many new ventures could be opening in the years ahead.

Alex Morse says his phone was already ringing — quite frequently, in fact — before he was interviewed on CBS This Morning late last June.

But then, it really started ringing. And his e-mail box became even more crowded.

That’s because, with that report, Holyoke’s efforts to roll out the welcome mat for the cannabis industry, pun intended, became a national story rather than a local story — although it was already well-known.

Yes, this was the detailed report where Morse told CBS that the city once known as the ‘Paper City’ might soon be known as the ‘Rolling Paper City.’ His tongue wasn’t in his cheek, and there was a broad smile on his face as he said it.

Getting serious, or more serious, because he was already serious, he told CBS, “it’s legal … people need to wake up; the days of the past are moving forward. Holyoke has embraced the industry, and we acknowledge that this is an economic-development driver for us.”

Morse, and Holyoke, woke up long ago, meaning just after (or maybe even before) recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts in the fall of 2016, and today it is making giant strides toward creating what officials are calling a ‘cannabis cluster.’

And they’re comparing it, in some ways, to the cluster that put this city on the map — figuratively and quite literally (this was a planned industrial city) — the paper and textiles cluster.

As they used that word ‘cluster,’ both Morse and Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Economic Development, said it means more than the creation of a number a number of businesses and jobs in a specific sector, although that’s a big part of it. It also means establishment of an infrastructure of support services that can have a large multiplier effect, if you will.

“With a cluster, it’s more than the sum of its parts,” Marrero explained. “Once you have a cluster, then you have an expertise, just like Holyoke did when it was the Paper City. Just as you have an expertise with paper, you can have an expertise with all the expects of this [cannabis] business.”

Elaborating, he said cannabis-cultivation facilities require highly specialized construction, lighting, anti-contamination, air-movement, and security systems, and all this adds up to opportunities for companies in this area that can handle such work.

In many ways, Holyoke is well on its way to seeing this cannabis cluster become reality, said Morse, noting that one large cultivation facility, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), is currently operating in a former textile mill on Appleton Street. And there are several other businesses across the wide spectrum of this business — from cultivation to retail — moving their way through the involved process of getting permitted to operate and eventually absorbing some of the vast amounts of commercial real estate that are vacant or underperforming.

Holyoke at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1786
Population: 40,341
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.29
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.87
Median Household Income: $36,608
Median family Income: $41,194
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available

“For us, cannabis is another form of manufacturing that’s bringing buildings back to life, being a revenue generator and job creator,” said the mayor.

And as they say in the agriculture business, Holyoke is certainly fertile ground for the cannabis industry. Indeed, it boasts, by the mayor’s estimate, 1.5 million square feet of vacant or underutilized former mill properties. Meanwhile, it has, again, by Morse’s calculations, the lowest electricity rates in the state (Holyoke has its own municipal utility), and it has something just as important as those ingredients — a giant, figurative ‘welcome’ sign when it comes to this business, as will become clear later.

But cannabis isn’t the only positive development in this city. Holyoke is also making great strides in ongoing efforts to attract entrepreneurs and arts-related businesses. It is also convincing more people, especially the younger generations, that this is a place to live as well as work and operate a business. And it’s seeing many of those aforementioned mills being put to creative and momentum-building uses.

Mayor Alex Morse

Mayor Alex Morse, an early supporter of the cannabis industry, says its many components collectively form an economic driver in Holyoke.

All of the above can be seen in one high-profile project known as the Cubit Building, the structure on Race Street that takes that shape. The first two floors are now occupied by the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, a story that embodies education, workforce development, and economic development, and in the floors above are apartments that were leased out even quicker than the optimistic owners thought they would.

“You drive by at night, and it’s all lit up,” said the mayor. “People are living on the top two floors, and on the first two floors you see students in the chefs’ hats cooking and doing classes; there’s a lot of vibrancy on Race Street.”

Lights are coming on all over Holyoke, and for this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how this has come about and why Holyoke is creating a buzz — in all kinds of ways.

Budding Ventures

As noted, this cannabis cluster is a solid work in progress, with GTI now approaching a full year in business and several other projects in various stages of development.

Conducting one of those ‘if-all-goes-well’ exercises, Morse said he can envision a cluster that generates perhaps 300 to 400 jobs and many types of businesses, from cultivation facilities to cannabis cafés like those in Amsterdam. If that picture comes to fruition, marijuana-related businesses would constitute economic development in many different ways, from jobs to tax dollars; from revving up the real-estate market (aspiring ventures have acquired options on a number of properties) to giving tourism a boost; from creation of support businesses to helping give Holyoke a new brand.

As Morse told CBS — and BusinessWest — cannabis has become an economic driver. And city officials have had a lot to do with this by being so aggressive, welcoming, and accommodating.

As one example, Morse and Marrero cited the host-community agreements that such businesses traditionally sign in order to set up shop. Some communities have been excessive in their requests (or demands), while Holyoke has taken a different tack.

“These agreements have become another choking point for the industry,” said Marrero. “Communities try to negotiate, they go back and forth, and hold you down for a bunch of criteria. We’ve been very transparent and said, ‘we’re going to go for the maximum allowable benefits for the community by law in terms of impact fee, and if you sign here, you have a host-community agreement; we don’t become an impediment in the process.”

Morse agreed. “There have been communities that have tried to go above the state law in terms of percentage of annual revenues or have tried to negotiate for various line items such as a new fire truck,” he explained. “They say, ‘in addition to the percentage, you need to give ‘X’ amount to this nonprofit every year.’ We have a standard document, so it’s not intimidating in that sense; the burden is really on the companies to get through the state regulatory process — the local process shouldn’t be an additional burden to bear.”

Holyoke’s willingness not to push for every dollar or every concession, on top of its many other selling points, including available mill space and lower utility costs, have certainly caught the attention of the cannabis industry.

“There is political openness and stability to the industry, which is very valuable,” said Marrero. “We were, if not the first, one of the first handful of communities that had a permissive ordinance in place, so we were first to market on the government side to say, ‘we’re open to this business.’

“They saw the mayor’s advocacy, and they saw that the operational costs would be lower, and that is very, very significant,” he went on. “The energy savings alone … you can save 40% on your energy costs.”

This attractive package has attracted a number of interested parties, said Marrero, noting that two additional cultivators, East Coast Farms and Solurge, are working their way through the permitting process. Overall, a total of 15 host-community agreements have been executed, and seven special permits have been issued. Within a year, it is expected that another two or three cultivation facilities could be doing business in the city, and other types of cannabis-related businesses as well.

And as the cluster grows, it gains momentum and recognition, which fuels additional opportunities. Marrero drew some comparisons to Detroit (the car industry) and Silicon Valley (IT).

“The industry has to train a workforce on how to grow these plants and clip these plants, and as that workforce develops locally, other companies know they can locate in Holyoke and they will have an accessible workforce,” he explained. “They will have access to other vendors that know how to provide services or provide goods to cannabis companies.”

Marcos Marrero

Marcos Marrero says a cannabis cluster is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Building Momentum

As noted earlier, though, cannabis is just one of many intriguing economic-development-themed stories being written in what is still called the Paper City.

Others include everything from the culinary arts center and the sum of the Cubit Building’s many parts to ongoing evolution of the Holyoke Mall — one of the city’s main draws and largest employers — in response to a changing retail landscape; from redevelopment of two municipal properties — the former Lynch Middle School and the Holyoke Geriatric Authority building — to entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building efforts that are bringing new businesses, and jobs, to the city.

At the mall, as stores large and small shrink or disappear from the landscape (longtime anchor Sears closed its Holyoke store a few months back) and those that remain operate with a smaller footprint, the facility is changing its look and adding more entertainment-related businesses, said Marrero.

These includes more restaurants, a bowling alley, and a planned movie-theater complex, he said, adding that, overall, the mall is responding proactively to a changing retail scene.

“They’ve been very resilient … retail is changing, and the mall is putting a much greater emphasis on entertainment and making it more of an experience rather than just shopping,” said the mayor. “Whether it’s the escape rooms or the kids’ center or the laser tag and bowling alley, it’s about creating experiences.”

Meanwhile, additional retail will be coming to the city with redevelopment of the former Lynch School, located just off I-91, by the Colvest Group. The property is slated for demolition later this year, and the expectation is that it will become home to several retail outlets.

Reuse of a different kind is slated for the Geriatric Authority property, which closed several years ago. Indeed, Baystate Health and US HealthVest have chosen the site for its planned 70,000-square-foot behavioral-health hospital.

Plans calls for 120 beds in a facility that would represent consolidation of some of the existing beds in the region and creation of new beds as well.

“This is a great story of reactivating a site that had once been a money pit for the city, one that was draining almost $1 million of taxpayer funds,” Morse said of the days when the Geriatric Authority was operating was site. “Overall, we have two large, city-owned properties that are being developed, and that represents real progress.”

There is progress on many different levels in the downtown area and especially the city’s Innovation District, the area around the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which opened in 2012.

On the municipal side, there will be several infrastructure projects undertaken in the area over the next several years, said Marrero, including street work, reconstruction of one of the canal bridges, and other initiatives.

Meanwhile, the city continues to add jobs and vibrancy organically through entrepreneurship-ecosytem-building initiatives such as SPARK, which recently joined forces with the Massachusetts-based program Entrepreneurship for All, or EforAll, to form SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

The new organization offers a number of programs, including a business accelerator, pitch contests, and co-working space currently being built out on High Street that will be available to program members.

Launched four years ago, SPARK has helped a number of ventures get off the ground or to the next stage, and most of them have settled in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that these startups, in addition to some others started organically, are bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

He listed a catering venture, a salon now under construction, and a microbrewery on Race Street, among others.

“There are things that are happening organically, and I think these businesses are tapping into the momentum happening in the downtown and the ecosystem they feel here and the support they see,” said Morse. “They feel they can be viable here opening up a catering business or a salon or a brewery in downtown Holyoke.”

Marrero agreed. “We’re tilling our own soils, and stuff grows,” he said, referring to organic growth of the business community. “Every now and then, a business moves here, but a lot of this is organic.”

And these businesses are helping to fill more of those vacant or underutilized properties.

“We’re seeing this dynamic where more square footage is coming online,” said Marrero. “It’s being rehabilitated and filled by these businesses.”

As for the culinary arts center and the Cubit Building on the whole, it is bringing many different constituencies to the Innovation District area, adding to this vibrancy there. These include college students, their professors, those attending functions, and, yes, Morse himself, who has signed up for two night classes, one on how to make macaroons, the other involving a chiffon layer cake.

After those, he’ll be even better suited to answer the question, ‘what’s cooking in Holyoke?”

That’s a Wrap

As he was wrapping up his walk through the city with CBS, Morse told the reporter that it would be a good problem to have if the cannabis industry so embraced Holyoke that it found itself running out of commercial space for additional ventures.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon (1.5 million square feet is a considerable amount of inventory), but a cannabis cluster appears to be no longer a goal but a reality. How quickly and profoundly it develops remains to be seen, but Holyoke appears to be well on its way to having history repeat itself on a certain scale.

A name change probably isn’t in the cards — ‘Paper City’ will stick — but a new era in the city’s history is certainly underway.

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

Features

About the Judges

A panel of judges was kept quite busy over the past few weeks, reading, evaluating, and eventually scoring nearly 200 nominations for the Forty Under 40 Class of 2019.

Yes, that’s a record, and it’s a clear indication of how coveted that designation ‘BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree’ has become within the 413.

Who will be most recent 40 people able to add that line to their résumés? The judges are concluding their work, and the letters alerting the winners should be going out sometime this first full week in March. They will be announced in late April, and the gala is in June at the Log Cabin.

To say the judges had their hands full this year is an understatement. But it is a very capable group that includes one previous winner, representatives of a number of business sectors, and a few players within the burgeoning entrepreneurship ecosystem within the region. Here are the judges for this year’s competition:

Michael Buckmaster

Michael Buckmaster

Michael Buckmaster, vice president of Commercial Banking for Community Bank, N.A. He has more than 30 years of experience within the banking industry working for a wide range of institutions, from global market leaders in corporate and investment banking in The U.K. to U.S. regional and community banks within the areas of small-business and middle-market commercial lending. Current specialties include commercial banking loan origination and relationship management for small and medium-sized businesses, and commercial investment real-estate financing within the New England region.

He serves as board president for Hartsprings Foundation (an affiliation of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County), and as a board member for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County and for the East of the River (ERC5) Chamber of Commerce.

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz, CEO of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), a nonprofit organization based in Springfield offering mentorship, startup accelerators, and co-working space to build the innovation economy in Western Mass., and 40 Under Forty honoree in 2010.

Previously, she was the director of Development for RefugePoint, an innovative NGO, working to help at-risk refugees by improving humanitarian systems. She also consulted with the global philanthropic membership organization Women Moving Millions, creating strategic communications to catalyze unprecedented resources for women and girls. Before that, she served as vice president for Philanthropic Services at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, where she led donor services, professional advisor engagement, fundraising, and communications.

She earned a master’s degree in industrial/organizational psychology from Springfield College, a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, and her yoga teacher certification from Kripalu.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

Julie Quink, CPA, CFE, managing principal of the accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C.

A graduate of Elms College with a bachelor’s degree in accounting, Quink joined the firm in 2011. She is involved in the accounting and consulting aspect of the practice and manages engagements of various sizes and complexities. She also performs services relative to forensic and fraud-related engagements.

Quink is a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, the Mass. Society of Certified Public Accountants, and the Assoc. of Certified Fraud Examiners. She is licensed to practice in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and is a certified fraud examiner.

Active in the community, she serves in a number of boards for the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce, Baystate Wing Hospital, and Square One. She’s also a member of the School Committee of Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College. Royal is the fourth president of Holyoke Community College and the first woman to lead the school since it was founded in 1946.

She holds a Ph.D. in education from Capella University and a master’s degree in educational psychology and a bachelor’s degree in math from Marist College.

She sits on the boards of directors for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Mass. Technology Collaborative, and the American Assoc. of Community Colleges’ Commission on College Readiness. 

Before coming to HCC in January 2017, she served as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs at Inver Hills Community College and previously as associate vice president for E-learning and Innovation at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland and director of Technology-assisted Learning for the School of Graduate and Continuing Education for Marist College, her alma mater. 

Gregory Thomas

Gregory Thomas

Gregory Thomas, executive director and lecturer at the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship. He works with constituents on campus and throughout the Commonwealth to develop and execute partnerships while also teaching courses in entrepreneurship and innovation.

A 1991 UMass Amherst graduate, Thomas held senior-level global roles in his more than 20 years with Corning Inc. In his last five years at Corning, he was a strategist in the Innovation Group. He is also the immediate past president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. board.

Features

Stepping Up to the Plate

Team owners Donnie Moorhouse (left) and Chris Thompson

Team owners Donnie Moorhouse (left) and Chris Thompson

When the Futures Collegiate Baseball League’s newest team steps onto the field in Westfield this spring, it will mark not just the beginning of a 56-game slate extending well into the summer, but also a continuation of a century-plus of robust baseball history in the Whip City — as well as perhaps the most high-profile startup yet from two team owners who are no strangers to either sports management or entrepreneurship.

Chris Thompson said he and his business partner, Donnie Moorhouse, had been kicking around the idea of buying a baseball team for years. So, when an opportunity finally arose, they didn’t hesitate to make their pitch.

It started with a cold call, Thompson said, to Christopher Hall, the commissioner of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League of New England, back in July. The FCBL was looking to expand, and the 90-minute conversation touched on the business backgrounds of Thompson and Moorhouse, and why Western Mass. — and Westfield in particular — might be fertile ground to grow a league that already boasted four teams in the Bay State.

That long talk led to a four-hour meeting in Worcester the following week, and interest on both sides intensified from there.

“Donnie and I started touring the different ballparks around the Futures League and meeting with ownership groups from Pittsfield to Worcester to Nashua, learning why they got involved,” Thompson recalled. “What we really found out is these franchises are run like minor-league operations, and that’s our background.”

Now, they’re bringing their experience — both in sports management and with entrepreneurship in general — to the new Futures League franchise, which will begin play at the end of May, hosting 28 home games in Westfield.

The pair will unveil the team’s name and logo — which reflect a key aspect of the city’s history — this Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m. at Shortstop Bar & Grill. Players will be available to sign autographs meet the public, while attendees will enjoy free appetizers and access to the batting cages.

The team will play in Billy Bullens Field, a Westfield city-owned facility that’s similar in size to other Futures League parks, like Campanelli Field in Brockton or Waconah Park in Pittsfield, Moorhouse said. Still, “Bullens Field, in comparison, would be considered quaint. It’s kind of the Fenway Park of the league. But we’re doing some renovations, and we think it has a nostalgic, Americana kind of feel that appeals to people these days.”

He added that the league is conservative in the way it expands, looking to match strong ownership groups to locations where baseball has strong roots. “These are people who know what they’re doing.”

“The history of baseball in Westfield goes back to the very beginnings of the history of baseball in this country. When the first organized games were happening around the country, they were happening here, too, on the town green.”

He believes he and Thompson do, too. And that’s why they decided to step up to the plate.

Slice of History

While baseball has thrived in Western Mass. — most notably, the Holyoke Blue Sox are defending champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League two years running, and one of the top 10 attendance draws in the country among summer collegiate leagues — Moorhouse says Westfield is a particularly attractive home for a team.

“The history of baseball in Westfield goes back to the very beginnings of the history of baseball in this country. When the first organized games were happening around the country, they were happening here, too, on the town green,” Moorhouse explained.

He noted that Westfield State University has a well-established Division III team, and the city hosted the Babe Ruth World Series in 2016, and will again this summer. Meanwhile, Westfield High School has a strong track record in the sport — 19 of its alumni are playing college ball this spring.

“Some of those kids are going to be on our roster, which is part of our motivation to showcase some local kids who have the ability to perform at a higher level,” he went on. “So I think, even moreso than other places around Western Mass., Westfield has a reputation as being a baseball town.”

The pair have built a business reputation together as well. Six years ago, Moorhouse launched Mosquito Shield, a commercial and residential mosquito- and tick-control operation. After Thompson came on board, the pair bought a holiday- and event-lighting franchise together. Last summer, they opened Eleventh Avenue Productions, a public-relations consultancy.

More to the point of sports ownership, Thompson spent 18 years in the sports-marketing arena, working for an agency in Boston, at the American Hockey League headquarters, and for two AHL hockey franchises in Springfield, first the Falcons and then the Thunderbirds.

The two of them have discussed investing in a sports franchise for years, Moorhouse said. “It’s one of those things that you talk about over a beer, and when the opportunity arose, we jumped at it. When Chris came up to this office last summer, we said, ‘let’s do it, let’s pull the trigger.’”

“They look at this as an economic driver, where families are coming out, and after the game they might go out for an ice cream, or they might go out to dinner … We’ll be getting people from Western Mass. to come to Westfield.”

He said he felt confident they could succeed with a baseball team. “I worked with Chris with the Falcons for two years in corporate sponsorships, and learned an awful lot about game-night operations and the inner workings of a minor-league sports franchise, so it was a great apprenticeship for sure. Chris has been doing it for close to 20 years. To work with him, recognizing the skill set we both have, it didn’t take very long for us, once we were working together, to say it would be great to have some skin in the game — to have an ownership stake in a sports franchise and operate it the way we see fit. And this is our opportunity to do that.”

With the pair firmly in “startup mode,” as he called it, there has been some scrambling.

“We’ve put the cart before the horse on several occasions. We were reaching out to potential players before we actually had the franchise, negotiating the lease before we had the franchise … so if you want to talk about keeping a lot of balls in the air, we were juggling.”

Moorhouse hired his son, Evan, who is director of Hockey Operations at the University of Vermont, as the new franchise’s director of baseball operations, essentially a GM position.

“He played college baseball for four years at Westfield State and has a lot of contacts, not only through baseball but through the hockey world,” he said. “He’s reached out to colleges and put together a pretty competitive roster on paper. We’ve got kids from Kansas State, Eastern Kentucky, UConn, Quinnipiac, Stonehill, Holy Cross, and five kids from Westfield.”

Futures Returns

Founded in 2011, the Futures League has been in growth mode ever since, drawing a league-record 1,514 fans per game in 2018 — the third-highest among all summer collegiate leagues. The league’s other squads hail from Pittsfield, Worcester, Brockton, and Lynn, as well as Bristol, Conn. and Nashua, N.H.

“We’re very fortunate to add such an experienced ownership group with great local ties to the Westfield community,” said Hall, the FCBL commissioner, in a recent press release. “Chris and Donnie have the passion and love for the game of baseball, but also the drive to make the Westfield team a winner not only on the field but in the community.”

Moorhouse said the feedback from the community has been positive. “The city has been very encouraging, the guidance has been fantastic, and, in general, we’ve been having conversations with people who are very excited about the business opportunities and the economic-development opportunities. We have a long history of baseball in Westfield, so I would say there’s a lot of excitement about it.”

Thompson noted that the opportunity might not have been possible without Mayor Brian Sullivan supporting — and the City Council approving — $1.8 million to renovate Bullens Field prior to the 2016 Babe Ruth World Series.

“They made facility improvements that allowed them to lure Babe Ruth to Westfield, and because of those improvements, the Futures League has approved that field as somewhere they’re comfortable with college athletes playing.”

He added that City Advancement Officer Joe Mitchell has been instrumental in helping the pair navigate the approval process at City Hall.

“They look at this as an economic driver, where families are coming out, and after the game they might go out for an ice cream, or they might go out to dinner, so that’s going to help local restaurants. We’ll be getting people from Western Mass. to come to Westfield.”

Meanwhile, the league is a draw for talent for several reasons. “Coaches like the Futures League for the amount of games they play, and they also are impressed with the facilities that the teams play in. We’ve started to build relationships with college coaches around the country in order to build our roster.”

The games are also heavily scouted, Thompson added, noting that 30 of its players were drafted last June by Major League Baseball organizations.

The league also appeals to players at colleges throughout the Northeast who don’t get as many at-bats as athletes do in, say, Florida or California, where the climate allows the season to start sooner, Moorhouse noted.

“Getting that repetition, getting those at-bats, playing live baseball in the summer at a very competitive level, benefits their skill development. In the Northeast, the college season is very short, and the first weekend in May is the playoffs. This is an opportunity to continue playing baseball at a very high level throughout the summer.”

Extending a Legacy

Thompson said the support in the initial stages has been overwhelming, in a good way. “People want to see us do well, from local organizations to business owners that want to get involved. People are really excited about what we’re bringing to Westfield and to Western Mass. as a whole.”

In other words, people are opening their doors to this opportunity — literally as well as figuratively. Evan Moorhouse is in charge of locating host families to take in players, one of many important details the Westfield franchise needs to nail down in order to make the inaugural season a success. But his father has been following baseball in the city for many years, and knows the interest is there.

“Some July nights, 300 people are out watching a Babe Ruth game,” Donnie said. “The American Legion comes down — they know all the players, know their stats. It’s a great vibe. It’s like Friday Night Lights, only it’s any given night of the week. It’s just a really cool slice of Americana happening on Smith Avenue. We’re excited to add to that legacy, hopefully, enhance it a bit, and also showcase what is arguably one of the best baseball leagues in the country in our hometown.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli says Agawam is making progress on many economic-development fronts, from filling vacant storefronts to zoning reform to workforce-development initiatives in its schools.

Mayor William Sapelli has developed a routine since he was sworn into office roughly 13 months ago.

Always early to the ‘office’ (he worked within the city’s school system for decades and wrapped up his career as superintendent), he arrives at City Hall at 7:30 a.m., giving him a solid hour of relative solitude to write some e-mails and clear some paperwork from his desk before other employees start to file in.

But his work day, if you will, actually starts at 7, when he stops in for breakfast at one of several eateries in town he frequents in something approaching a rotation.

“Mondays I’m usually at McDonald’s, mid-week it’s at Partners, and Fridays I’m at Giovanni’s,” he said, referring, with those latter references, to the restaurant on Springfield Street, known for its breakfast items and as a place where people come together, and the Italian pastry shop on Main Street that is also a gathering spot.

“There’s a crew of people that goes in there, and I think now they expect me because I’ve been doing it since I was first elected,” he said of Giovanni’s. “There are crews in each place, actually, especially McDonald’s; a number of seniors go in there. There’s 10 or 12 people, and we kibitz — it’s fun.

“I get beat up sometimes, but in a fun way — they give me good feedback; it goes back and forth. They bust me about taxes or roads or whatever,” he went on, adding that, with municipal elections coming up later this year, there is a new topic of discussion, although he hasn’t formally announced he will run again.

Overall, there is lots to talk about these days over eggs or French toast, especially the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge. Built in 1947, the span over the Westfield River links the city with West Springfield. It is a vital piece of infrastructure, major traffic artery, and entranceway to the Eastern States Exposition, and now it’s about five months into what will be a roughly three-year facelift and widening initiative that is projected to solve persistent bottlenecks in an important commercial area.

But this undoubtedly will be a long three years, the mayor acknowledged, adding that two lanes of the four-lane bridge are now closed, and it will be like this way probably until the calendar turns to 2022.

“There’s a crew of people that goes in there, and I think now they expect me because I’ve been doing it since I was first elected. There are crews in each place, actually, especially McDonald’s; a number of seniors go in there. There’s 10 or 12 people, and we kibitz — it’s fun.”

“It will be an inconvenience, but this work has to be done; it is what it is,” he said, putting Bill Belichick’s classic phrase to work while noting that the inconvenience extends beyond motorists and their daily commutes. Indeed, it will also impact businesses in the area just over the bridge, many of which are relative newcomers to Agawam (more on this later).

Beyond the bridge, other topics of conversation at breakfast include everything from storm drains — Agawam, like all other communities, is facing stiff mandates to update their systems — to streets and sidewalks, to schools and taxes.

The mayor recently took the conversation from the lunch counter to City Council chambers for his State of the City address, the first for this community since 2012. Recapping for BusinessWest, Sapelli said he told his constituents that there are challenges ahead, especially with the bridge, but also opportunities, especially within the broad realm of business and economic development.

Indeed, using two acronyms now probably quite familiar to those he’s sharing breakfast with — DIF (district improvement financing) and TIF (tax increment financing) — he said officials have been bringing new businesses to the city and allowing existing ones to stay and grow.

The DIF has been used to help bring new stores and more vibrancy to the Walnut Street retail area of the city, while the TIF, which is awarded to new or existing businesses willing to commit to adding additional jobs, has been used to enable Able Tool, formerly in the Agawam Industrial Park to build a new building on Silver Street and essentially double in size.

But economic development comes in many forms, he said, touting initiatives in the city’s schools aimed at both introducing students to careers and helping ease some of the region’s workforce challenges. These include the creation of an advanced-manufacturing program at Agawam High School and a heightened focus on making students aware of career options that might not involve a college education.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest caught up with the mayor after his breakfast ritual — and after answering all his e-mails — to get a progress report on one of the region’s smaller but more intriguing cities.

Attention Span

While the start of work on the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge has triggered a host of questions for those breakfast sessions over the past 13 months, it has actually removed one topic from conversation — at least temporarily.

Indeed, the former Games & Lanes property on Walnut Street Extension, long an eyesore and source of unending questions and speculation about potential future uses, before and after it was torn down, has become a staging area for the contractor hired for the bridge project, Palmer-based Northern Construction.

“It made perfect sense,” said Sapelli. “They needed a staging area — there are two of them, actually, with the back end of the Rocky’s [Hardware] parking lot being the other. And with the bridge being under construction and the limited traffic and the inconvenience, it would be very difficult for the owner the develop the property; as soon as the bridge is done, it will be much more marketable.”

But there are still plenty of other things to talk about, said the mayor, who was just settling into his new job when he last talked with BusinessWest. Not quite a year later, he feels more comfortable in the role and is already talking about the challenges of having to manage a city and run for office every other year (Agawam is one of the few cities in the region that have not moved to four-year terms for their mayors).

“Just two years ago, there were a lot of vacant storefronts. Now, slowly but surely, we’re filling those in. We still have a ways to go, but we’re making good progress.”

“I’m learning every day,” he said. “Being an educator, I know that’s a good thing. I never would profess that I have all the answers; I don’t. But every day, I’m learning something new about municipalities and how they operate; I’m learning every time something new comes up.”

Lately, he’s been learning quite a bit about bridge reconstruction and all the issues involved with it. The same goes for his counterpart in West Springfield, Will Reichelt. The two meet and converse often on the matter on the matter of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge in an effort to stay ahead of it and attempt to minimize the potential disruption.

As an example, he pointed to the jersey barriers now up on the bridge. They went up just a few weeks ago, but the initial plan was to erect them months ago, when it wasn’t actually necessary to do so.

“The original plan was to put them up in October, but I’ve seen too many construction jobs where they block them with these barriers and then no progress took place for months,” he explained. “So we said, ‘when you’re ready to block it, make sure you’re ready to do the work immediately and don’t waste people’s time and energy blocking it when nothing’s going to happen.’ And they listened.”

While day-to-day traffic will obviously be impacted by the bridge work, attention naturally shifts to those 17 days in September and October that comprise the Big E’s annual run. The two mayors are already in conversations with leadership at the Big E on ways to mitigate the traffic problems, said Sapelli, adding that shuttle buses are one option, and, in the meantime, electronic signs will likely be put out on I-91 and perhaps other highways to encourage Big E visitors to take alternative routes.

Getting Down to Business

As noted earlier, the phrase ‘economic development’ takes many forms, and in Agawam that means everything from zoning reforms to work on roads, sidewalks, and storm drains; from to efforts to raze blighted properties and commence redevelopment to ongoing work to bring new businesses to the city.

And Sapelli said there’s been recorded progress in all these realms and many others.

More than $2 million has been spent on streets and sidewalks — on both preventive maintenance and replacement — and another $900,000 was recently transferred from free cash to continue those efforts this spring, he noted, adding that 11 blighted properties — 10 homes and one business — have been razed, and another three homes are prepped for demolition, with 10 under renovation and more in the queue for receivership.

“This is a very involved process, and it’s takes time to take these properties down,” said Sapelli, adding that these investments in time and energy are well worth it to the neighborhoods involved.

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.92
Median Household Income: $49,390
Median family Income: $59,088
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England
* Latest information available

As for new businesses, the mayor listed several, including Taplin Yard Pump & Power, now occupying the former Allen Lawnmower property, JJ’s Ice Cream, and several other small businesses.

He noted that considerable progress has been made with filling vacancies in the many strip malls and shopping plazas that populate the city.

“Just two years ago, there were a lot of vacant storefronts,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, slowly but surely, we’re filling those in. We still have a ways to go, but we’re making good progress.”

As examples, he cited what’s considered Agawam Center, a lengthy stretch of Main Street, where several vacancies have been filled, and also the old Food Mart Plaza on Springfield Street, which is now essentially full.

District improvement financing has been key to these efforts, he said, adding that, with this program, taxes generated in a specific area — like Walnut Street and Walnut Street Extension) — from new businesses and higher valuations of existing businesses are put into a designated fund and used to initiate further improvements in that zone.

Many of these new businesses will no doubt be challenged in some ways by the bridge project, which will dissuade some from traveling into that retail area, said Sapelli, before again stressing that he and his administration, working with West Springfield leaders, will endeavor to minimize the impact.

Meanwhile, another avenue of economic development is education and workforce development, said Sapelli, noting that the School Department has been focusing a great deal of energy on non-college-bound students and careers in manufacturing and other trades.

“Superintendent [Steve] Lemanski and his staff are addressing the needs of those who will go on to careers, instead of going on the college,” he said, adding that the School Department is working in conjunction with the West of the River Chamber of Commerce on initiatives to introduce students to career options.

“A recent career day involving high-school and junior-high-school students featured 26 speakers,” he noted, adding that they represented sectors ranging from manufacturing to retail to law enforcement. “They’re doing a wonderful job to promote awareness of what offerings are out there besides just college, and that’s very important today.”

Food for Thought

As this spotlight piece makes clear, there is certainly plenty for those Sapelli is sharing breakfast with to kibitz about these days.

Between taxes, bridges, roads, sidewalks, and new businesses, there is plenty of material to chew on (pun intended).

Overall, there is considerable progress being made — and that includes Morgan-Sullivan Bridge itself — to make the city an attractive landing spot for businesses and a better place to live and work.

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

Features

Complex Equation

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Both the office/retail complex known as Tower Square and the hotel that sits on the property would be considered somewhat risky investments, given their recent history. But the investment group Springfield Hospitality believes otherwise — in both cases. The new ownership group has announced an ambitious plan to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, and it is confident about gaining a wide range of new tenants on the retail side of the equation.

As they talked about their plans for Tower Square, the downtown Springfield landmark they acquired last year, and the hotel that is a prominent part of the complex, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel had to be careful, even cryptic, with some of their comments.

Especially when it came to the long-rumored signing of the YMCA of Greater Springfield as a major new tenant. That deal has not been finalized, said the partners as they talked with BusinessWest following a press conference late last month on their plans for the complex. And when it is, that news will be announced by the Y.

But also when it came to the small park across Main Street from Tower Square. They hinted quietly that this acreage — dubbed the ‘Little Park for a Little While’ after the Steiger’s department store that sat on the site was torn down (yes, that was 24 years ago now) — will likely become the site of another “hospitality-related business,” probably a boutique hotel.

“We really can’t say anything about that at this time; that’s for … later; that will be phase two,” said Mitta, president and CEO of Mitta’s Group and a partner with Patel and also Rohit Patel and Kamlesh Patel of Maine in the Tower Square project.

As for what’s happening now, Mitta and Patel were not at all cryptic or even careful as they talked about Tower Square, the hotel, their plans for both, and their optimism when it comes to achieving progress and profitability at the office/retail complex that has certainly seen better days.

Peter Marks

Peter Marks says a long list of renovations and upgrades must be undertaken to get the Marriott flag back over the hotel, and the new ownership group is committed to making them.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t,” said Patel, owner of the Hampton Inn on Columbus Avenue in Springfield, a Quality Inn in Chicopee, and other hotels across the region, adding that, while there is a good deal of vacant space in the complex, especially on the retail side, there is a solid foundation on which to build, with two colleges, UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, assuming large footprints in the building.

And there are already some new building blocks in place, including White Lion Brewing, which is constructing a brewery and tasting area in the long-vacant Spaghetti Freddy’s space along Bridge Street.

As for the hotel, the press conference was called to announce that the ownership group is on schedule and on target to get the ‘Marriott’ name back on the façade. It was removed and replaced with ‘Tower Square Hotel’ in the summer of 2017 as the complex’s former owner, MassMutual, was putting the property on the market.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t.”

To get that brand name back, the owners must complete a comprehensive renovation and upgrade, said Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, adding that plans have been blueprinted, considerable infrastructure work has already been completed, and the owners are committed to spending “tens of millions of dollars” to return the hotel to prominence and make it a vital cog in the ongoing resurgence in downtown Springfield.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Marks and members of the ownership team about Tower Square and its future (or at least the subjects they could talk about at this time) and why they believe this was a solid investment for them, and the city.

New Lease on Life

Mitta acknowledged that, to the casual observer, anyway, the glass at Tower Square probably looks more half-empty (at least) than half-full.

But the total amount of vacant space (perhaps 20% of the complex) is less than most would think, and there has been, as noted, some progress made toward bringing that number down further.

White Lion will make Tower Square its mailing — and brewing — address, he said, adding quickly that a staffing company and AT&T have come on as tenants recently.

And there is that solid foundation of education facilities on which to build, he said, adding that there are a number of different ways the space may be repurposed in the future.

This is what the new ownership group — operating under name Springfield Hospitality Group — saw when it began looking at Tower Square as a potential investment in 2018. The group paid $7 million for the 25-story office tower and attached retail space, parking garages, and the Steiger’s parcel. The hotel, a separate purchase, was acquired for $10.5 million.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location,” he told BusinessWest. “We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

As an example, he said the complex could become an ‘educational hub,’ or a bigger one, given that there are already two institutions with classrooms and other facilities there.

“We’re working with two other local colleges,” he said, adding that he could not disclose their names because the talks were very preliminary. “Meanwhile, we want to bring in some basic amenities such as a nail salon or a massage parlor or banking. Overall, there are many ways we can fill the available spaces, and we have already started implementing them.”

By that, he meant the AT&T store, the new staffing agency, and the fitness center and daycare components of the YMCA’s operation, which, as noted, have not been finalized.

Overall, flexibility will be the watchword moving forward, he said, and while there are certain visions that have developed for what might the Tower Square complex might look like in a year, or five years, the shape it takes will ultimately be determined by the marketplace and the types of opportunities that present themselves.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location. We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

“We didn’t have a full plan for Tower Square, because as a businessman, you have to take what is available and turn it into opportunity,” Mitta noted, adding that the business plan calls for being profitable “from day one,” and more so with each passing quarter and year.

As for the hotel, it was “unflagged” — yes, that’s the industry term — when Marriott presented a long list of needed renovations and upgrades to the previous owner, MassMutual, which decided those expenditures were not worth making.

As with Tower Square itself, the Springfield Hospitality Group saw things differently, said Patel, adding that he and his partners believe the sizable investment — whatever it will be — will ultimately translate into enough room bookings, weddings, meetings, and other events to justify the expense of getting the Marriott name back over the front desk.

Mitta agreed. He said new construction of a Marriott would require an investment of between $200,000 and $300,000 per room, based on where this building project was taking place. Between the acquisition price of the hotel and the cost of the planned renovations and upgrades, the Springfield Hospitality Group is in that ballpark and probably just below.

“And if those new construction projects are going to work, why not renovations at this prestigious landmark?” he asked, before answering that question himself, in the affirmative.

Plans call for what Marks called an ‘inside-out’ concept, where elements of the city are incorporated into the design and décor of the renovated hotel. Specific improvements call for renovations to each room and the addition of one room, a suite, bringing the total to 266, said Marks. Also, the sixth floor, familiar to most area business owners and managers because it’s home to the banquet space and conference rooms, will get a makeover that includes a new fitness center with glass walls overlooking the rooftop garden.

A new, much larger bridal suite will be added, he went on, noting that the lobby will be given a new look as well.

“There are a lot of exciting changes,” he said, adding that the hotel will become part of what’s called the ‘Reimagined Marriott World,’ a comprehensive survey of customers and potential customers to determine what they want in a hotel — and a Marriott.

“The feedback was, ‘we want more than a place to sleep,’” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we want a place where we can connect, relax, entertain, and do all the things we want to do.’”

And this led to the conceptualization of what he called a ‘great room’ in the lobby.

“The entire great room is the one place to be,” he said. “There’s a bar there, you can eat anywhere in that whole great-room area, and technology will allow our staff to deliver unsurpassed hospitality in the market by going out and greeting the customer with tablet in hand and checking them in the lobby.”

Model rooms will be available for viewing this spring, he went on, adding that construction, already underway on infrastructure systems, will move to more visible areas in the coming weeks.

Staying Power

“We’re going to be the number-one, most prestigious hotel in Western Mass.,” said Mitta, adding that the planned renovations and improvements should position the hotel to fully capitalize on the momentum being seen in downtown Springfield.

He noted that the arrival of MGM Springfield, as well as the performances and events it will bring, add up to considerable opportunity for a name-brand hotel located in the heart of downtown.

“Usually, a casino like this has 1,000 rooms, and some have 1,800 or 2,000 rooms,” Mitta explained. “This one has 250 rooms. That’s not enough when you bring events like Stevie Wonder and Cher to your city. This creates opportunities. If we make this hotel business-friendly with a lot of amenities, people will stay downtown.”

That was the thinking behind this large investment, and the partners who made it are confident their investment will soon start paying real dividends.

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

Features

Cruising Altitude

Two Roads Tap Room

Two Roads Tap Room is among several food and drink options Bradley has either added recently or plans to open in the coming year.

It’s no secret that the air-travel industry is a competitive one. But Kevin Dillon said it’s doubly so for the airports themselves.

“We’re competing with many regional airports for passengers, but we’re also competing with every airport in the country for limited assets — meaning aircraft,” he told BusinessWest. “Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

By any standard, Bradley International Airport has been exactly that in recent years, said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which has managed the airport in Windsor Locks since 2013 — during which time it has enjoyed six straight years of passenger growth.

Part of that momentum stems from giving passengers what they need, and that’s more flight destinations. Recently announced non-stop additions include service to Denver, Raleigh-Durham, and Orlando on Frontier Airlines; to Pittsburgh on Via Airlines, and to St. Louis on Southwest Airlines.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes,” Dillon said, adding that the top goal these days is to boost West Coast service, particularly to Seattle, which would allow easy, one-stop access to Asia from Bradley.

“We already have service into Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Seattle would complement those very nicely,” he explained, adding that the CAA is also focused on Phoenix, Austin, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Jacksonville. “As it stands today, we feel we have a very healthy non-stop menu, but we want to expand that.”

Internationally, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with area business and leisure flyers, and the airline recently committed to another four years at Bradley.

“That service has been a success, especially during the spring and summer months, when business travel to Europe is supplemented by more leisure travel to Ireland,” he added. “We’ll be exploring additional trans-Atlantic service, but we also want to be very careful to make sure we’re fully supporting the Aer Lingus service.”

“Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

So, Bradley continues to give flyers what they need in terms of destinations. But just as important is giving them what they want. That’s where customer service comes in — and it’s a much more involved game than it was a few decades ago.

Comfort Zone

When Dillon entered the air-travel world in 1975, he said, operating airports was viewed exclusively as a government function, and airports were largely utilitarian in design. Now, it’s a very competitive business that’s laser-focused on pleasing its customers.

Bradley is doing so in a number of ways, including new eateries, such as recent additions Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Tap Room. “We’re looking to add additional concessions in 2019 — particularly in the concourse that houses United and American. Folks can look forward to some new brands coming in 2019; we’re negotiating the deals right now.

“That nicely complements some improvements made in other areas of the airport,” he went on. “Two Roads and Phillips are doing very well, and so is our club, the Escape Lounge. Black Bear restaurant closed down, and it’s going to be redone and refreshed. A lot of good things are coming to the terminal building.”

On that list is a planned $5 million renovation of all public restrooms in the complex, he added. “Everything we do here in the terminal building, all the improvements we make at Bradley, are with an eye toward improved customer service, whether it’s new concessions or something as routine as adding a new elevator. We’re constantly looking to make someone’s journey through the terminal building better.”

Meanwhile, the CAA recently announced that Travelers Aid International has begun serving Bradley’s passengers with a guest-service volunteer program. Forty-five volunteers currently staff the service — which operates out of the Information Center on the lower level of Terminal A, the baggage-claim level — while Travelers Aid continues to recruit more of them.

Travelers Aid currently operates similar guest-service volunteer programs at four other airports: New York JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan. In addition, it operates the information booth at Washington Union Station. At these five locations, more than 750 Travelers Aid volunteers assisted more than 4.2 million passengers in 2017.

These service-focused improvements have all contributed to Bradley’s continued rise up the annual Condé Nast Traveler poll. The publication’s most recent Readers’ Choice Awards recognized Bradley as the third-best airport in the U.S. Travelers gave the airport high marks for “convenient on-site parking, plentiful charging stations and free wi-fi, decent restaurant options, and an overall relaxed atmosphere.”

airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities

Kevin Dillon says airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities in order to draw business in a competitive market.10

Selling Convenience

Dillon hopes they have similar praise for Bradley’s planned, $210 million ground transportation center, which is the final stages of design and financing. Construction may begin as soon as this year.

When it’s open, passengers will be able to fly into Bradley and connect to the transportation center via a walkway from the terminal. All the rental-car companies serving Bradley will be located there, as well as 830 spaces of public parking.

“We have rental cars scattered all around airport,” Dillon said. “Being able to walk right into the new center to get a car is, by itself, a great customer-service improvement.”

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes.”

The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects New Haven with Springfield. “We feel this is a real opportunity to connect the airport to that rail service,” he added. “We want to have a location within this transportation center where we can process rail and bus passengers.”

Meanwhile, the CAA expects to complete the new airport entrance roadway this summer, he noted.

“That was a safety improvement as well as a capacity improvement, as we look to grow the airport. We want to be sure people can easily access ground transportation, and make sure that driving into airport is just as convenient as the terminal building.”

When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.5 million. But Dillon doesn’t think the airport is close to its potential.

“How big can Bradley Airport get? I do think we can be a 10 million passenger airport,” he told BusinessWest — but only if it continues to drive improvements in what passengers need, and also what they want.

“We know, at the end of the day, that what we’re selling is convenience,” he said. “When you compare Bradley with Logan or the New York airports, what differentiates us is that people look at Bradley as the most convenient option.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Joseph Bednar

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says Pittsfield’s leaders remain focused on the needs of its individual neighborhoods in order to generate economic development.

As part of her annual state-of-the-city address recently, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer praised the arrival of Wayfair — the fastest-growing e-commerce home-décor company in the world — on a number of levels.

Perhaps most importantly, by opening a sales and service center, the company has created 300 new jobs in Pittsfield. Wayfair is also a locally grown success story, founded by Pittsfield High School graduate Niraj Shah. And, Tyer said, Wayfair’s presence signals to other major employers that they can be successful in this city of about 45,000 people in the heart of Berkshire County.

But Wayfair’s arrival speaks to a broader success story as well — that of a city-wide development strategy that’s bearing fruit.

“Wayfair choosing Pittsfield wasn’t happenstance,” she said. “Rather, the foundation was set with the alignment of the city’s economic-development strategy. The city joined forces with the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation. Together, we created the ‘red-carpet team,’ the Mayor’s Economic Development Council, and a new position of Business Development manager.”

In their discussions with companies looking to set up shop in Pittsfield, Tyer noted, those entities are touting not only the economic benefits of doing business here, but quality of life. And people are listening.

“We prepared our presentation assuming that Wayfair will want to know what incentives we might be able to offer them,” she explained. “As the first session got underway, Wayfair’s representatives said they’re not yet interested in the financial incentives. They’d rather learn about Pittsfield’s lifestyle, our schools, our neighborhoods. They wanted to make sure that our community culture aligned with Wayfair’s culture.”

Pittsfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.42
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.94
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

The city’s red-carpet team, made up of city and state officials whose purpose is to develop strategies and explore incentives to support business expansion or startups, has been deployed in myriad cases to help companies move and expand in Pittsfield. Another resource Tyer is excited about is the Berkshire Innovation Center, which broke ground in September at the William Stanley Business Park.

This 20,000-square-foot facility that will support and advance the work of small and medium companies in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and technology, featuring cutting-edge equipment available to advanced manufacturers for research and development of new products. In partnership with Berkshire Community College, the center will be a place of teaching and learning, creating a pipeline of trained employees that area companies desperately need.

Neighborhoods on the Rise

Meanwhile, Tyer touted a downtown district generating energy through its mix of eateries, boutiques, and urban apartments, not mention a renovation of the historic Beacon Cinema on North Street by new owner Phoenix Theatres, which refreshed the interior, enhanced the seats, and added more showtimes.

“Downtown is Pittsfield’s front porch,” Tyer said. “We must remain watchful, always, to ensure a spirited, vibrant experience for all who live in and visit our city.”

She added that it’s time for the city to build on the successes of the North Street revitalization and focus more attention on the historic Tyler Street artery.

“My grandmother, who just turned 95, grew up on Tyler Street,” the mayor said. “She has fond memories of sitting on the front porch, getting an ice cream, and walking to North Street with her sisters to buy fabric at Newbury’s. Tyler Street can be that again, but with a modern twist.”

Anchored by Berkshire Medical Center, General Dynamics, and the William Stanley Business Park, the neighborhood is ripe for a renaissance, she argued. One development toward that goal is the conversion of the former St. Mary the Morningstar Church to 29 units of market-rate housing, a project that drew on $125,000 in state finding for infrastructure improvements around the building.

In addition, the Baker-Polito administration awarded a $30,000 grant last May to support small businesses in the neighborhood. The funding, Tyer explained, will be applied to Pittsfield’s Storefront Enhancement Program. “This is vital financial assistance for businesses to make façade improvements to boost visibility, attractiveness, and ensure accessibility.”

Work also began last summer on the Tyler Street Streetscape Design Project, which aims to create a curated throughway that addresses the needs of pedestrians and bicycles, improves lighting and landscaping, identifies dedicated bus stops, preserves on-street parking, and elevates public spaces. The completed design work is expected to be unveiled early this year.

Going forward, the city will continue to seek ways to take advantage of private investment in North Street and Tyler Street, both designated as Opportunity Zones, Tyer said. “Alliances with local and state representatives, financial institutions, and developers will spur capital investment and job creation.”

On the public-safety front, the mayor focused on several incidents in the Westside area of town, citing a meeting with neighborhood residents who expressed their fears and shared their ideas on ways to enhance the work of the police department, while they in turn tried to understand police protocols.

One idea — to establish a Police Department community outreach office in Westside — is becoming a reality, she added, thanks to space being offered by Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in its building on Columbus Avenue.

Meanwhile, a series of high-visibility patrol operations were conducted in November and December. The operation, led by the Police Department’s uniformed patrol and anti-crime unit, brought in reinforcements from the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, Massachusetts State Police, and the state Alcohol Beverages Control Commission, which, in total, netted 32 arrests, including the seizure of approximately 340 grams of cocaine with an estimated value of $34,000 and a variety of illicit pills.

“While we tackle the complex issue of crime, our Police Department has established a strong philosophy of community policing,” Tyer added, noting that officers have hosted free movie events, back-to-school meet and greets, and other community activities. “All of these interactions create trusting relationships that will endure with our kids, their families, and our police officers.”

Collaborative Efforts

Still, making the community a more desirable one — again, a factor in attracting new business — doesn’t end with public safety. To that end, an LED street-light conversion will be complete by the spring, replacing some 5,300 streetlights in all, with the dual goal of brighter streets and lower utility bills. Meanwhile, the Westside Riverway Park, a new outdoor space along the west branch of the Housatonic River, extends from Wahconah Park to Clapp Park.

“Paying attention to what’s happening within our neighborhoods continues to be a primary focus. And our efforts are paying dividends,” Tyer said, noting that a surging housing market has increased home values in the city. Still, she added, vigilance against blight and decay in neighborhoods remains a priority for her administration.

“We have cataloged about 100 problem properties,” she noted. “The city’s code-enforcement team tries to identify and exercise all viable options. Our objective is always to preserve as much as possible. Sometimes, demolition is the only option. We continuously balance the cost of demotion against the very real gains that come with keeping our city appealing.”

Finally, 2018 was the first year of Community Preservation projects, the mayor noted. Drawing from a 1% surcharge on property values, the endeavor resulted in a $580,000 appropriation of funds for investing in historic resources, open space, and recreation. Eleven projects were funded, including the preservation of the Melville Art and Artifacts collection in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the Arrowhead stone wall, restoration of the Springside House, siting and design for pickleball courts, the turf field at Berkshire Community College, and infield restoration at the Pellerin baseball field.

Meanwhile, she said, local partners continue to support improvements in public spaces. This past year, the pavilion at Durant Park went up thanks to a gift from Greylock Federal Credit Union. A Berkshire Bank contribution facilitated the renovation of the basketball court at Lakewood Park, while the Buddy Pellerin Foundation and the Rotary Club are making significant investments in Clapp Park.

The progress Pittsfield has made on these fronts and others are, of course, a collective effort by myriad agencies, businesses, and individuals, Tyer noted. But she wants her administration to set the tone for growth.

“We cultivate an organizational culture that encompasses shared responsibility, proactive long-term planning, dynamic communication and professional development,” she said. “My philosophy around this is simple: when we make decisions that affect the people that we serve, these principles must be in the forefront of our minds.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Collision Course

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

As Valley Venture Mentors completes its move into Springfield’s Innovation Center on Bridge Street, it is also moving into a new era in its history, one that is very entrepreneurial in nature — in keeping with its broad mission — and strives to continually expand and strengthen the region’s ecosystem for supporting and inspiring entrepreneurs.

‘Pivot.’

In the startup world, this term has become incredibly versatile, now serving as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. It has become the subject of lectures, books, and articles bearing titles that hint at its emergence — as in “The Art of the Pivot,” “Three Rules for Making a Successful Pivot,” “Five Steps for Pivoting into Entrepreneurship,” and countless others.

In simple terms, to pivot means to adapt, or to change the course or strategy of an emerging business based largely on customer wants and needs. Some of the most prominent companies in the world owe their success to a pivot, or several of them.

There are various methods of pivoting, as indicated by those article titles above, but the bottom line — both literally and figuratively — is for entrepreneurs to understand the importance of flexibility and the need to pivot, and to not be afraid to so.

Administrators and mentors at Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) have been preaching the need to pivot and showing people how since the nonprofit was launched eight years ago now. And these days, one might say it is practicing what it’s been preaching.

Well, sort of.

What VVM is engaged in now could be called a pivot, although its overall mission and strategy are not really changing. They are evolving, though, and being taken to a new and higher level as the organization completes its move into the long-anticipated, $7 million Innovation Center on Bridge Street in downtown Springfield.

“One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industry.”

The move began last summer, said Kristin Leutz, who assumed the role of CEO at VVM about the same time as the moving trucks started unpacking furniture. And it is ongoing, she said, as new furnishings arrive and new strategies emerge for making the best and most efficient use of the intriguing 10,000 square feet of space VVM now commands.

The agency will be using a small percentage of that space for its own administrative needs, with the rest devoted to revenue-producing, entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building endeavors, from signing on tenants for various co-working spaces and small offices to renting out the large, 175-seat auditorium that dominates the ground floor of VVM’s suite.

And this is where the pivoting comes in, said Leutz, adding that VVM is moving to a slightly adjusted, more entrepreneurial model, necessitated by the need to cover the expenses of what is, in many respects, a growing business in its own right.

These include the nearly $4,000 in monthly rent — a great bargain given the amount of space and the going rates downtown these days — as well as a growing staff and the myriad other costs of running such an operation.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

“This space represents a micro entrepreneurship venture of our own,” she explained, adding that, like the startups mentored and supported by VVM, it has a business plan and a strategy for executing it.

In simple terms, it involves making the Innovation Center not merely a revenue center, although it will become that as well, but an entrepreneurial hub and a place where collisions can and will happen — collisions between fellow entrepreneurs, business owners and mentors, entrepreneurs and potential investors, and more.

“When we think about how to introduce people from Springfield and Western Mass. to the entry point when it comes to entrepreneurship and remove any barriers that exist, we come back to the all-important concept of place-making,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that’s smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industries.”

Summings things up, Leutz noted VVM’s working slogan (“Give. Get. Grow.”) and said the new location and all its facilities — from different kinds of co-working space to a nursing room for new mothers; from a shared kitchen to areas where startups and mentors can meet and collaborate — provide individuals, startups, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole with more opportunities to do all of the above.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the staff at VVM about not only the move into the Innovation Center, but the organization’s pivoting action and the next crucial steps in its history.

Right Place, Right Time

VVM will stage a grand-opening ceremony at its new space on Thursday, Feb. 7, when it co-hosts the annual State of Entrepreneurship Conference with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. The invite list for that event, and the ribbon cutting to follow, is rather lengthy, said Leutz, noting that it includes representatives of a number of entrepreneurial ecosystem partners — from the Grinspoon Foundation to TechSpring to area colleges and universities — as well as a number of other constituencies, including elected officials, VVM alums, mentors, and long-time supporters.

“We’re checking our occupancy level to see how many we can have in here legally,” she said, adding that the agency will test the upper limit of that number, whatever it is.

Getting to this ribbon-cutting ceremony has been an adventure, she noted, and a long journey that started when she and many other representatives of this region toured the Cambridge Innovation Center and came back determined to create a similar place-making facility in this region, preferably in downtown Springfield.

Fast-forwarding somewhat — this story has been well-chronicled — the historic structure at 270-276 Bridge St. was eventually chosen, and a number of funding partners, including MassDevelopment, MassMutual, Common Capital, and others, were secured. The project got underway in 2017, but as work proceeded and walls were taken down, it became clear that the cost of the work would far exceed preliminary estimates — and the amount raised.

Work was stopped for several months before eventually starting up again last spring. Leutz recalled the occasion.

“It was like a reunion — we got the architects back together with the contractor, we were meeting weekly in the space, there were holes in the floor … there was drama, but we were doing it,” she said. “And things moved fast; we knew in June that we were going to fast-track this thing and get it open by January, and we did.”

But as work was starting up again, VVM was going through a transformation of its own, starting at the top, where Leutz, who joined the organization as COO in the fall of 2017, was chosen to succeed Liz Roberts as CEO.

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

“I’ve always been a big fan of VVM,” said Leutz, who was a mentor with the organization in its earliest days and is perhaps best-known locally for the decade she spent as vice president for Philanthropic Services at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

She noted that, while at the Community Foundation, she helped VVM secure one of the first innovation grants awarded by that organization, a three-year commitment made to help launch its accelerator, among other programs. “I understood early on that this was something unique in Western Mass. and that it would really take off.”

And now that it has, she and fellow team members take on the assignment of plotting an ambitious course — and keeping it on the course, again, much like the startup businesses it helps mentor, she said, adding that when she came on board as COO it was to essentially help blueprint a new strategic plan for the nonprofit centered on its home and the new opportunities it offered, and she was intrigued by the assignment.

As was Ron Molina-Brantley, who joined VVM a few months before Leutz did and would eventually succeed her as COO.

Formerly an employee of the city of Springfield, working first in the Finance Department and then the Facilities Department as senior program manager — a perfect blend of skills for an organization moving into new space and also assuming new fiscal responsibilities — Molina-Brantley said he was looking to grow professionally, and VVM and the next stage in its development offered an intriguing challenge.

“VVM was the right place at the right time,” he told BusinessWest. “The environment and ecosystem they were trying to build really appealed to me; there was an instant love affair between me and VVM and the community. The atmosphere is amazing, the startups are amazing, and you just want to be part of it. It’s contagious.”

It was, and is, for Stephanie Kirby, as well, VVM’s director of Mentorship. An alum of the agency’s collegiate accelerator program, she started her own business (a music label) at age 14, and has continually honed and reshaped it over the years — so much so that she was known as the “pivot queen” when she took part in VVM’s first collegiate accelerator while attending Five Towns College in New York.

“I would pivot a lot within my business, and when you come to VVM, that’s what they teach you — how do you actually build your business,” she said, adding that she’s now working to help others master that skill.

Writing the Next Chapter

Together, these and other team members have taken on the assignment of moving VVM into a new era, if you will, one that poses some challenges for the agency, but myriad new opportunities for entrepreneurs and those mentoring them — and for strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem the region has built and that has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

To explain it in simple terms, Leutz said the VVM operation is in some ways similar in structure to a pyramid. At the base is the place — in this case, the Innovation Center — where things, meaning those collisions she mentioned, can happen. The next level in the pyramid is programming, which at VVM means mentorship and acceleration, specifically its two popular accelerator programs — a startup accelerator and a collegiate accelerator. And the top of the pyramid is what she called “an ecosystem builder,” meaning systems to support what others across the region, like the Grinspoon Foundation and the area’s colleges and universities, are doing.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

“Within these realms, we hope to serve everyone, from the ideation stage, early, early, person-with-an-idea-on-napkin type of entrepreneur, to someone who has a venture and is on their way to raising their first round of capital or beyond,” she said. “It’s usually seed stage for us, and our programs are customized for that entrepreneur’s unique goals and challenges. What’s new for VVM, and what we’re really zeroing in on, is ‘how do we take a particular venture and uniquely help it to succeed?’

“Our big focus now is to think about 1,000 startups in the Pioneer Valley — what would that look like and how would that change the success rate, because we know a large number of startups fail,” she went on. “The more that you create, the greater chance you have for seeing transformational companies.”

And the Innovation Center and VVM’s new facilities are designed to help make that vision reality, she went on as she offered a tour that started on the ground floor, devoted to programming, and the auditorium, which is community space in every sense of that phrase.

“We encourage anyone and everyone to think about how to promote entrepreneurship in their industry, their business, or their community, and come talk to us, and we’ll make this space available,” she said, adding that the space was essentially created to showcase people’s ideas and their notion of entrepreneurship.

That first floor also includes a mentorship lounge, which represents a major upgrade from the spaces where mentors and entrepreneurs would get together in recent years when VVM was located in donated space in Tower Square. “We’ve never had a space like this; before, people were just hanging out on folding chairs in a big, open room.”

It also includes two private offices that can be rented out and café space as well.

The second floor, what she called the “beating heart of our startup community,” is where the co-working space is to be found. Half of the floor is dedicated to people who rent permanent spots on a month-to-month basis, she said, adding that three startups are currently doing so. There’s also the so-called ‘hot desk’ space — unassigned space that be rented for $25 a day, with other rates for more regular use — as well as a ‘brainstorming nook,’ a community kitchen, private phone rooms for entrepreneurs seeking some privacy, the private room for nursing mothers, and more.

Roughly 50% of the space that can be rented is now under lease, she said, adding that the goal is to get that number to 75% and perhaps 100% by the end of this year.

Describing the look and feel of VVM’s new home, Leutz noted that, while these spaces may have been inspired by similar facilities in other communities, they don’t look like those spaces.

“This space is meant to feel like it belongs in Springfield,” she said, adding that there is furniture made by local artists and the walls will feature what she described as ‘community-driven’ art. “It’s beautiful, and it’s aspirational, but it also feels like it’s home. It won’t feel like you’ve stepped into some place in downtown Manhattan, and it shouldn’t. It should feel like Springfield.”

Bottom Line

Summing up what’s been created on Bridge Street, Leutz went back to the goals put down on paper after the group visiting the Cambridge Innovation Center returned to Springfield and set about replicating what they encountered.

“This intention of this project was always to have it be a community-driven space focusing on the innovation economy and enlivening the economic activity downtown,” she said, adding that this is a broad mission, and, as noted, somewhat of a pivot for VVM.

An exciting pivot, for sure, and one that certainly bears watching in the months and years to come.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

The phrase ‘4/20-friendly’ has been around a while now.

April 20 las long been an international counterculture holiday of sorts, when people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. In recent years, it was also a day to call for legalization of the drug, and even more recently, as legalization spread, the term has morphed into a form of acceptance and, yes, business-friendliness when it comes to the many types of ventures within this industry.

Greenfield could now be considered 4/20-friendly, said M.J. Adams, the city’s director of Community Development and Economic Development, adding that there is already a medical marijuana dispensary, Patriot Care, located within the community, and it is poised to become a recreational dispensary next month. And there are many other parties expressing interest in establishing different forms of cannabis-related businesses within Franklin County’s largest community.

“Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight [cannabis] icenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest from people that want to grow and do recreational retail,” said Adams, noting that Greenfield’s efforts to build a cannabis cluster, if you will, are bolstered by its status as one of the 29 communities across the Commonwealth designated as “an area of disproportionate impact,” as defined by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Such communities — Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, West Springfield, and Pittsfield are among some of the others — have been deemed “disproportionately harmed by marijuana-law enforcement,” according the commission, and therefore, priority review is given to applicants who can meet several criteria involving these areas, including residency.

“We’re quite 4/20-friendly,” she went on, adding that this has become code for communities that are “pretty OK” when it comes to marijuana use. “Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight licenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

But cannabis and the prospect of more businesses in that intriguing industry is just one of positive forces shaping the picture in this community of 18,000 people.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Others include the opening of a long-awaited parking garage on the west end of downtown; the arrival of many new restaurants and clubs downtown, punctuated by the emergence of the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center as a force for attracting diverse audiences to Greenfield; emerging plans to expand the city’s industrial park amid heightened interest in space for manufacturing and warehouse ventures; some new ventures, including the conversion of a Roadway Inn into a 90-bed Marriott Grand Hotel and plans for UMassFive College Federal Credit Union to build a branch within the city; ongoing redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property; and perhaps some forward progress in efforts to forge a new life for the long-dormant First National Bank building on the stretch known as Bank Row.

Meanwhile, from the big-picture perspective, the broad economic-development strategy for the city involves making the community, and especially its downtown area, more of a destination for many constituencies, including tourists, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and families.

That’s the assignment for the city, but also for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said its new executive director, Diana Szynal, who takes the reins in somewhat ironic fashion. Indeed, she succeeds Natalie Blais, who was recently sworn in as the state representative for the First Franklin District. Szynal, meanwhile, was the long-time district director for the late Peter Kocut, long-time state representative for the First Hampshire District, and was unsuccessful in her bid to win that seat last fall.

She inherits a chamber that will celebrate its centennial this year, and while a good deal of her time will obviously go toward marking that milestone, another priority will be helping to get the word out on all that Greenfield and Franklin County have to offer.

“One thing we have to do is spread the word about all the things that happen here and some of the opportunities that are here,” she said. “And Franklin County is a place that young people and young professionals just starting out and looking for a place to put down roots should consider; this is the perfect place for that.”

For this, the latest installment in our ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Greenfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

Getting Down to Business

Szynal told BusinessWest that she worked in downtown Greenfield a quarter-century ago, and that moving into the chamber’s office on Main Street is like coming home again.

“I just came from lunch at Taylor’s [Tavern] and was at Wilson’s [department store] recently,” she said, mentioning two mainstays in the downtown for decades and noting that there are many more that fit that category. “Downtown has many of the same businesses it had years ago; it hasn’t lost its charm — it has that same old feeling.”

But there are also many new ventures in the city that are giving it a somewhat new and different feeling as well, she said, especially in the broad realm of hospitality and entertainment.

“There’s Indian food, there’s Thai food, there’s some fabulous Mexican food,” she noted. “So in a way, it has that perfect balance; things you can count on like Wilson’s, combined with new places.”

Building upon this balance and creating an ever-more diverse mix of businesses in the downtown is one of the main strategic initiatives for the city, said both Szynal and Adams, adding that that there are many components to this assignment.

“There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

They include everything from efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to more neighborhoods within the community — a prerequisite for attracting many types of businesses — to formal and informal efforts to help spread the word about all this city and this region have to offer; from making the most of that “area of disproportionate impact” designation when it comes to cannabis to making the First National Bank building a fitting final piece to the puzzle that has been Bank Row.

Indeed, while significant progress has been made in rehabbing and repurposing the buildings along that stretch across from City Hall — the so-called Abercrombie building, now home to the Franklin County district attorney, being the latest — the former First National Bank remains a stern challenge, said Adams.

So much so that the city applied for, and received, a technical-assistance grant from MassDevelopment that will fund a consultant charged specifically with blueprinting a reuse plan for the structure.

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
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, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Built in 1929, the building has been essentially unoccupied for the better part of 40 years, said Adams, adding that the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the property in 2017 with the goal of determining the best reuse option.

“We’re waiting for the consultant that’s been assigned to us to come aboard, and we expect that to happen later this month, and have that individual work through this spring on a potential-reuse study of the building,” she said, adding that she expects this work to be completed by June. “We’re also spending some funding on some engineering to take a look at the building envelope — the structure, the fire-protection systems, and more — and then doing some preliminary cost estimates for getting a clean shell that can be developed.”

The project is important, she said, because the property has a prominent place in the city’s history and a prominent location as well. Its redevelopment could act as a catalyst for other investments and make the city more of a destination.

Speaking of catalysts, the cannabis industry could become one as well, Adams went on, adding that retail operations could help create still more vibrancy in the downtown, and the cultivation businesses could help fill various types of commercial properties, including old mill buildings.

Overall, the goal downtown, and just outside it, is to attract a diverse mix of businesses, said Adams, adding that, while there are have been some new arrivals, there are still many vacant storefronts in the central business district — more than city officials would prefer.

“We did an inventory about two years ago that looked at the properties downtown and especially the ground-floor retail spaces,” she noted. “There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

As for the chamber, as it celebrates its centennial, it will focus on a number of initiatives, including efforts to support and promote not only Greenfield but the entire county. One key to doing so is through collaboration with other entities involved in promoting business and economic development, said Szynal.

“There’s an active business association for Shelburne Falls, there’s one for Greenfield, Nortfield has a business association … there are several of these organizations,” she said. “One of my top priorities is to figure out how to work collaboratively to promote more business growth and keep our businesses strong county-wide.”

One challenge to overcome is enabling Greenfield, and the rest of the county, to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status.

“We have some incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in Franklin County, and that’s something we’re looking to highlight in the coming year,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economy, and it can be even bigger; there are some people who don’t know that these opportunities are here in Franklin County and that you don’t have to drive far to experience them.”

Balancing Act

Reflecting upon her return to downtown Greenfield a quarter-century since she last worked there, Szynal said she is impressed by, and increasingly enamored with, its mix of old and new.

“To some extent, Greenfield is growing and changing, but it’s also staying true to its roots,” she explained. “There’s a familiar feeling as you walk down the street, but there is exciting change as well.”

Moving forward, the goal is to create … well, much more of that, and there has been considerable progress in that regard as well as the promise of more.

Some might result from being 4/20-friendly, as the saying goes, but the bulk of it will come from being plain old business-friendly and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that develop.

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