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Determining Whether a Business Qualifies Can Be Complicated

By Scott Foster & Jacob Kosakowski

 

Scott Foster

Scott Foster

Jacob Kosakowski

Jacob Kosakowski

Business owners have been bombarded recently with solicitations from firms offering to help them realize millions of dollars through the IRS’s Employee Retention Credit (ERC) program, which was included in the CARES Act adopted in the early phases of COVID-19. The CARES Act also contained the popular, and well-documented, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with forgivable loans that kept many businesses afloat.

Originally, if a business received a PPP loan, it was not eligible to receive ERC. The initial IRS guidance on this could not have been more clear: “an employer may not receive the Employee Retention Credit if the employer receives a PPP loan that is authorized under the CARES Act. An Eligible Employer that receives a PPP loan, regardless of the date of the loan, cannot claim the Employee Retention Credit.”

However, subsequent legislation, namely the Taxpayer Certainty and Disaster Tax Relief Act of 2020, enacted Dec. 27, 2020; the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) of 2021, enacted March 11, 2021; and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, enacted Nov. 15, 2021, greatly expanded eligibility for ERC.

While some of these firms are offering legitimate services and will help businesses file accurate and legitimate claims for ERC, business owners should proceed with extreme caution due to several factors: the very complex rules regarding eligibility for an ERC, the IRS’s near-automatic acceptance of these filings (and payment of the credit, of which the firm usually collects 25% or more), the very strong likelihood that these filings will be audited in years to come (the IRS has up to five years to audit ERC returns), and the equally strong likelihood that the less-reputable ERC firms will have closed their doors and have liquidated all assets before those audits are completed, leaving the business holding the proverbial bag for tax penalties, fines, and interest.

“Perhaps the most complicated facet of determining eligibility under ERC relates to how its provisions interact with the Internal Revenue Code’s special aggregation rules for businesses.”

The IRS issued a warning on Oct. 19, 2022, stating that some firms “are taking improper positions related to taxpayer eligibility for and computation of the credit.” The IRS warning goes on to explain that firms “often charge large upfront fees or a fee that is contingent on the amount of the refund and may not inform taxpayers that wage deductions claimed on the business’ federal income-tax return must be reduced by the amount of the credit.”

Determining whether a business qualifies for ERC can be quite complicated. If the business was fully or partially suspended due to a governmental order limiting commerce, travel, or group meetings related to COVID, then it may qualify for the time during which it was so suspended. If the business was not suspended but suffered a “significant decline in gross receipts,” it may also qualify. A significant decline in gross receipts is measured on a quarterly basis, comparing 2020 quarterly receipts to 2019 quarterly receipts (50% or greater decline), 2021 quarterly receipts to 2019 (20% or greater decline), or Q4 2020 receipts to Q4 2019 receipts (20% or greater decline).

Perhaps the most complicated facet of determining eligibility under ERC relates to how its provisions interact with the Internal Revenue Code’s special aggregation rules for businesses. Under the aggregation rules, multiple businesses may be combined into an ‘aggregated group’ based on common ownership, where all employees of an aggregated group will be treated as employed by a single employer. The members of an aggregated group are determined based upon the stock or membership interest ownership of a business entity. If multiple businesses are comprised of similar ownership, those businesses might be combined into an aggregated group.

The ownership of a business might be comprised of individuals, trusts, partnerships, or corporations. The ownership composition of a potential aggregated group must be closely examined because the aggregation rules and thresholds will differ based on whether the group consists of corporations, LLCs, or partnerships. Further, the relationship of individuals to one another will also impact how the aggregations rules operate.

By way of example, imagine three individuals: Alice, Brady, and Carol. Each own a one-third interest in each of Alpha LLC, Bravo LLC, and Charlie LLC. Under the aggregation rules, the three LLCs would form an aggregated group, known as a ‘brother-sister controlled group,’ based on their common ownership structure. All employees of all three LLCs would be treated as employed by a single employer. As another example, now assume that Alice and Brady own a one-half interest in Alpha LLC, Brady and Carol own a one-half interest in Bravo LLC, and Carol and Alice own a one-half interest in Charlie LLC. Under the aggregation rules, none of the LLCs would form an aggregated group with each other because any potential aggregated group would not meet the requisite ownership threshold requirements.

An aggregated group will impact how the members of such group are treated under the ERC provisions. Most notably, the aggregation rules affect the determination of a business’ average number of full-time employees, as well as what constitutes a ‘significant decline’ in gross receipts among members in an aggregated group. The aggregation rules also impact how suspensions due to governmental orders are enforced among members of an aggregated group. Businesses should consider carefully examining their ownership compositions so beneficial business aggregations are not missed.

And remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.

 

Scott Foster chairs Bulkley Richardson’s Business/Finance Department, and Jacob Kosakowski is an associate in the firm’s Trusts & Estates Department.

Features Special Coverage

Going the Extra Mile

AST

AST President Billy Kingston, center, with his sons, Chris, left, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services.

Billy Kingston says the global shipping business has historically been an ultra-challenging, often-misunderstood sector of the economy, one defined by heavy competition, demanding customers, unseen twists and turns, and a landscape that can, and does, change quickly and often.

And that was before COVID and the manner in which it eventually turned the supply chain on its ear, inflation, the war in Ukraine, higher tariffs on many goods, a workforce crisis, soaring fuel prices, remote work, and everything else that has happened over the past few years.

Summing it all up, Kingston, president of All States Transport, better known as AST, said this has certainly been a tumultuous and very difficult time for this industry, one that AST has withstood because of all it can bring to the table, especially (in his case) a half-century of experience, but also a deep, talented core of employees, connections around the globe, and, most importantly, a commitment to delivering for customers and going the extra mile.

Those are both industry terms, sort of, but they help explain why AST, a domestic freight broker and international freight forwarder, terms that are self-explanatory, is able to stand out in a sea of competitors, both domestically and globally, in a business where firms are tasked with getting things from here to there — or there to here — in a timely fashion.

Elaborating, he said the keys to success for any company in this business are flexibility, the ability to move quickly and effectively, establishing trust with customers, and amassing a track record for success in delivering for clients, in every sense of that phrase.

“We arrange for transportation of goods to and from our customers anywhere in the world,” said Kingston, offering a simple explanation for work that is anything but simple. “The domestic side of the business is how we started way back, and that side of it is very active. The international side has been growing over the years and doing well; we move freight internationally by land and water.”

“We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.”

“It’s a rugged business with real issues, and we live them,” continued Kingston, who leads a staff of 20 along with his sons, Chris, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services. “Through all of the ups and downs of the economy, fuel issues, and supply-chain woes over the past few years, it has just been very challenging.

“For us as a company, it has been our best period of time, business-wise,” he went on. “But it’s also been the most difficult to operate in.”

In a wide-ranging interview, the Kingstons pulled back the curtain on an industry that few outside really know, one that is settling back into something approaching what was happening before the pandemic, although no one came close to using the word ‘normal.’

To put things in perspective, Billy Kingston said that, before the pandemic, the cost for a shipping container coming in from China was $4,000 to $5,000. At the height of the pandemic, that cost had soared to $25,000 to $30,000.

“The spike was just amazing, and at that price, you were bidding, and hoping, to be able to get a container, and then hoping to get a spot on a ship to come this way,” he said, adding that the impact of the many issues within the shipping industry on inflation and the general economy cannot be understated.

 

Train of Thought

As he talked about the global shipping business, Chris noted that, like other sectors of the economy, this one has a language all its own, with an alphabet soup of acronyms.

These include TL (truckload), LTL (less than truckload), DAP (delivered at place), DPU (delivered at place unloaded), and myriad others.

Learning this language and helping clients understand it is just one of the many nuances of the global shipping business, said Billy, who got his start in it back in the mid-’70s, working in sales for several different national trucking companies as well as an international freight forwarder.

After working in the business for many years, he decided he knew it well enough, and had enough solid connections, to strike out on his own. He started All States Transport in the basement of his home in the Forest Park section of Springfield in 1985.

The global shipping industry is highly competitive and ever-changing, and the pandemic only added several additional layers of challenge.

For the first year or so, it was a one-person operation that eventually moved into a small office in Market Square in downtown Springfield, adding employees as it continued to grow and expand its portfolio of clients, many of which have stayed with the company through its history.

The company had a few different homes — as well as its own small trucking company, which it operated out of property on Avocado Street in Springfield for several years — before settling into its current location on East Columbus Avenue, the former home to the Leonard Gallery and Sam’s Glass.

For the past 15 years, AST has also operated a small office in Miami. At one time, it also housed a trucking operation there, but that, like the one in Springfield, became difficult to manage. So, in both locations, the company has returned to its roots — and its routes — as a freight broker and forwarder.

“When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time.”

As he explained the operation, Billy said that, in a nutshell, AST goes about finding global shipping solutions for its many kinds of clients, most of them manufacturers. About 80% of the company customers are based in Western and Central Mass., Northern Connecticut, and Rhode Island, he said, with the rest spread out over the country.

As a broker, AST will work with a client to secure the shipping of goods to or from their business. To do so, it works with trucking outfits across the region and around the country, as well as rail-service providers and sea and air carriers. What separates the many (as in thousands) of competitors in this field is their ability to make and maintain connections with carriers, know and understand the market, move quickly (many clients want same-day service), and deliver on both price and quality of service.

And all this requires an experienced, talented workforce. “You need a staff that is familiar with the marketplace and has all the tools and technology they need to succeed,” Billy explained. “It’s a fast-moving, time-sensitive, rate-conscious industry — that’s what it’s about.

“We have other customers that we’ve done business with for years and years … they don’t ask us for rate on every load,” he went on. “In many cases, we have the ability with those customers to move up or down as we need to, to service their needs and ours. And that only comes from years of good faith and years of trust, built up between us and our customers because they know that if we need to add extra dollars to a rate, there’s a good reason for that. They also know that if we can reduce that rate, we’re going to do that, and we do this as often as we can.”

Beyond rates, successful freight brokers and forwarders need to have a thorough understanding of the players in the shipping field, where they operate, and how, said Tim Kingston, adding that AST works with trucking companies across the country.

“And we need to, because trucking companies, by their nature, and by their history, generally service certain sections of the country,” he explained. “Some will go anywhere, but a lot of them carve out a part of the country that they want to service for their business needs. You learn those, and when you have freight moving to South Carolina, you know where to start.”

Chris agreed, and said one constant for the company through the years has been to apply an established set of values and principles and to effectively partner with clients and communicate with them — another must in this business.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases. You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot.”

“If you have good news for a customer, give them good news; if you have bad news, something’s gone wrong, let them know early, communicate that, and try to work through problems,” he said. “We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.

“Sure, 60% of your loads are going to go without a hitch,” he went on. “The other 40% … that’s where the real work is, so we try to apply the same values across all our different sectors.”

 

Plane Speaking

This combination of experience, built-up trust, and ability to adjust to rapidly — and often profoundly — changing conditions, has enabled AST to not only thrive for the past four decades, but also persevere through this recent, and ongoing, period of heavy turbulence.

Indeed, as noted earlier, this challenging business has become more so — make that even more so — over the past several years with the profound changes to the landscape brought on by the pandemic.

At the top of this list were supply-chain issues that could only be described as historic, said all three Kingstons, noting that the industry was seeing explosive surges in prices for shipping containers and backups at ports around the globe. It didn’t happen overnight, but almost.

Billy explained how it all happened. “When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time,” he said. “Manufacturers then began cutting back, as well as transportation companies — steamship lines parked vessels all over the world because the demand wasn’t there. No one had an idea when it was going to come back, and that really kicked off the fluctuation in the supply chain.”

Chris agreed, and noted that, three or four months into the pandemic, an array of colliding forces made the situation much worse.

“A lot of people were at home, and they weren’t doing the things they always did in terms of discretionary income,” he explained. “People were at home, and they bought many more things than they normally buy. And then, you had the stimulus programs, which gave people more spending money. Then … you had a lot less international shipping capacity, but a giant surge in demand. Meanwhile, you had empty containers in the wrong places that took forever to get repositioned.

All this created a messed-up supply-and-demand curve, which would have resulted in a container coming in from China for $25,000, just for the cost of the container, never mind the tariff,” he went on. “It created a lopsided supply-and-demand curve, which pushed prices out of sight.”

This phenomenon, which has eased considerably in recent months but is still an issue, is just one of many that has contributed to this being what is considered the most volatile period ever for an industry known for volatility.

On top of everything else, the global shipping industry, like virtually every other sector, has been impacted by an ongoing workforce crisis, Billy said, adding, again, that success in this business is directly related to the quality and consistency of the people doing the work.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases,” he told BusinessWest. “You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot; you need to have a staff that understands customer needs and understands which customers can be a little more flexible and more reasonable at times, and which customers can’t be because of the nature of their business. They need to be thick-skinned because it’s not always pretty.”

Indeed, many in this business, including AST, are looking for help right now, he went on, adding that, over the past several years, and essentially from the beginning, AST has made itself into what he considers a good place to work — and grow.

“In this environment, especially, we take care of our staff in every possible way,” he said. “We have some benefits that are quite outstanding, especially for a company our size, and we’re proud of that. As a result, generally, our people are with us for a very long time; very few people leave, and we’re proud of that, too.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of tight deadlines and the need to deliver, there is pressure on employees, something the company’s managers work to alleviate as best they can.

“We have some fun every day — at different times, you never know when it’s going to happen,” he went on. “And there are days when the fun doesn’t come very quickly or very often because you’re right to the wall, morning ’til night. But we try to lighten things up when we can and in whatever way we can.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

The Deerfield Inn

The Deerfield Inn was built in 1884 and is still in use.

This year, the town of Deerfield, though incorporated in 1677, will mark its 350th anniversary since the first English settlers called the upper Pioneer Valley their home in 1673. Since the beginning, a lot has changed, but the town has tried to keep some aspects the same.

“It was a farming community,” Town Administrator Kayce Warren said. “If you’re going to Historic Deerfield, you’re going to see a lot of agricultural land. Most of it is preserved; most of it is still used for agricultural purposes. That was an element for many, many years that probably goes back to incorporating the town because of where we are; we had a great ability to grow things.”

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said the town, while maintaining that agricultural focus, has also become a true tourist destination. In fact, tourism contributes about $79 million to Franklin County’s economy, and Deerfield is one of the driving forces behind those numbers.

“We’re seeing just about 27,000 visitors to Yankee Candle each year, and Historic Deerfield has just under 14,000,” Deane told BusinessWest. “These are people that are driving more than 50 miles to reach these destinations. In a lot of cases, these people are staying over at Champney’s and the Deerfield Inn. They’re taking in the sights, and they’re hopefully enjoying all of what Franklin County has to offer.”

 

Celebrating the Old

Historic Deerfield — an open-air destination that boasts a history museum, an art museum, and several historic house museums, as well as the Deerfield Inn and its historic restaurant, Champney’s — certainly reflects those roots. As one of the best-preserved collections of original historic houses in New England, Old Main Street, or simply “the Street,” as Historic Deerfield President John Davis called it, is lined with 40 houses that predate the Civil War.

As a frontier settlement, Deerfield regularly suffered from attack. The village was abandoned during King Philip’s War after the 1675 attack at Bloody Brook and resettled in 1682, only to face several more raids in the 1690s and into the early 1700s.

Today, the 18th- and 19th-century houses of the village center, many on their original sites and filled with antique furnishings, reveal the lifestyles of Deerfielders from the time of the first English settlement to the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. The village has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks since 1962.

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into,” Davis said.

Over the past year, Historic Deerfield has “really emerged from the pandemic” and is close to being back to where it used to be, recording its second-best month in its existing 75 years this past October, he added.

Because it was already engaged in virtual programming, he explained, the museums were able to hit the ground running faster than some of the larger museums when it came to using Zoom for digital content — and they’re continuing to do so. And when restrictions were lifted, the houses reopened for people to come see the 32,000-piece collection and the 12 homes open to tour.

“Being able to bring all of those back has really encouraged folks to visit us again in person, and there are a number of seasonal educational programs that are also big drivers for us,” Davis said. “One of the most popular of those is our open-hearth cooking program where you can actually see a meal being prepared in the old-fashioned way, over an open fire, and it’s not an experience that you can get in many other places.”

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into.”

John Davis

John Davis

Another program that brings locals and visitors as far as Boston and New York City to ‘the Street’ is the Sheep on the Street program in May, which attracts hundreds of people to look at the historic trades associated with wool. Flocks of heritage-breed sheep walk the streets like they would have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and visitors enjoy sheepdog and shearing demonstrations as well.

Davis said that the town and Historic Deerfield have a close relationship and like to function as “the town’s museum,” with Deerfield residents getting into the sites for free. But he wants to rekindle the museum’s relationships with schools, not only in the surrounding areas, but as far south as Springfield and Holyoke. Schools stopped having field trips because of COVID, and now that they’ve returned, he wants to make welcoming students a bigger priority in 2023.

Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield features 12 historic homes that visitors are able to tour.

“Western Massachusetts is a fascinating region, both for its history and its contemporary beauty,” he noted. “And this is one of the most magical places — this mile street that you can turn off of Route 5, and it’s like you’re going into a different century. I think that that is a part of the story of our region here in Western Mass. that is really interesting to folks who may not otherwise think of this as a destination area.”

 

Embracing the New

One of the more recent and frequently visited attractions is Tree House Brewing Company. Originally established in Brimfield, the brewing company now occupies the old Channing Bete headquarters on Route 5 and is celebrating its one-year anniversary in town.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $14.97
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.97
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

The craft-beverage scene in Franklin County was “alive and well” before Tree House Brewing Company joined the long list of local breweries, Deane said, but Tree House certainly helped introduce Deerfield and Franklin County to a larger craft fanbase.

Warren added that the taproom at Tree House Brewing Company is “really fun,” and several of her colleagues meet there to socialize and catch up after work.

“Tree House has really good beer, and they have really good pizza. You can bring your own food in, but once again, it’s nice to have options, so it’s not just Yankee Candle,” said Denise Mason, chair of the town’s Connecting Community Initiative. “We have Tree House, which is an anchor, and we have everything else — we want to connect all of it to give people choices.”

She went on to say that Yankee Candle offers pizza, but if someone wants another food option, they don’t always know what’s available in Deerfield. To create opportunities for diners and restaurant owners alike means making the town more accessible.

Warren added that the piece that really leads to economic development is getting people off the highway into the town center so they can shop, eat, get their hair done, and engage with the many wellness-focused enterprises. “We want to be able to get people back and get people into the center of town.”

Moving forward, Deerfield officials hope to improve the municipal parking lot, known as the Leary Lot, to create a more direct pathway to the main streets in the center of town. Berkshire Brewing Company wants to expand, “and that’s a good place for them to do it because there is parking and accessibility right next to the lot,” Warren noted. “But there’s also this concept of creating small spaces for people to eat, to gather, that are pretty and accessible and inviting.”

Fixing up the Leary Lot helps businesses around the center because it gives them some parking access and resources to other parts of town. With four other restaurants on Elm Street and another restaurant, Wolfie’s, on South Main Street, parking in the center of town is a massive need.

“If there’s no parking, people won’t shop or stop, especially older individuals,” Mason said. “If they don’t have easy parking, they just go somewhere else.”

The goal, of course, is to keep them in Deerfield, a town that has seen plenty of change over the course of 350 years and is looking toward a positive future while celebrating its rich past.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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Bill Sapelli

Bill Sapelli says Agawam has seen consistent growth in his five years as mayor.

The town of Agawam sits on the banks of the Connecticut River, a prime location for its original inhabitants, the Agawam native tribe, and later William Pynchon and other settlers who bought the land in 1636.

Centuries later, the town that sits by the river retains a rural character, at least outside its main business arteries, surrounded by larger cities like Westfield, West Springfield, Chicopee, and Springfield.

Now that the Morgan Bridge construction is finally complete, new businesses and developments are making their way into town to call it home.

“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned,” Agawam Mayor Bill Sapelli said.

Unlike other cities, Agawam doesn’t have many big-box stores or chain establishments. Yes, Wendy’s, McDonalds, Stop & Shop, and Rocky’s Ace Hardware have a presence here — as does one of the country’s top theme parks, Six Flags New England — but the town is mostly made up of small, local businesses and some manufacturing.

Many of the businesses in town have been thriving in Agawam for a long time, surviving through challenges ranging from the Great Recession to COVID, Planning Director Pam Kerr said.

“The bridge slowed development because no one was going to try to develop on the land across from it and try to get people to come if they couldn’t get over the bridge. So we’re looking forward to a lot of the development that’s planned.”

One of those businesses that has thrived and is now expanding is Hood Milk, originally founded in Charlestown in 1846 and later opening its largest plant in Agawam in 1960.

“Hood purchased the old Southworth Paper Company adjacent to them. That’s a big, big building, and they just did a complete renovation of their existing building, a facelift that really looks good,” Sapelli said. “So they’re a very good neighbor to Agawam. They’ve been here for a very long time, and they’re expanding, which is great news.”

He and Robin Wozniak, director of the West of the River Chamber of Commerce, agreed that renovations and redevelopment spur growth in the town’s overall economy, helping Agawam businesses prosper and stay in town.

Another local staple in Agawam is Cooper’s Commons, located on the “most traveled road in town,” Route 159. It is a marketplace with a variety of specialty shops, services, and offices where locals and travelers can eat, drink, shop, work, and more.

Sapelli explained that the Commons are important to Agawam for many reasons, including the ones mentioned above, but most importantly to bring new businesses and residents into town.

“When you talk about Cooper’s Commons and places like that, anytime we have a specific destination for somebody to come, like Cooper’s, especially this time of year, it brings people into town, and it benefits the town in many ways,” he said. “Businesses like that just foster more businesses and more residents by attracting people to come into town to begin with.”

 

Harvest of Success

In the coming year, both Kerr and the mayor said they were excited for the businesses coming into the area.

Even though a few businesses were lost during the pandemic, Sapelli told BusinessWest, small business in the town is growing; for example, two new realty companies set up shop in the past year, along with multiple restaurants.

In October, Autumn Mist Farm and its farm-to-table restaurant opened its doors, replacing the old 911 Burgers and Dogs restaurant. Derrick Turnbull has been raising beef cattle since he was 11 years old on his parents’ farm. With the family business having played a vital role in his life, he’s now teaching it to his daughters.

“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam.”

Robin Wozniak

Robin Wozniak

On his website, Turnbull says he is “blessed to walk out the door and go to work with all active family members in the business.” And locals feel the same way.

“The Autumn Mist farm-to-table restaurant is on the same street that the farm is on, where the animals are raised. And people really like the idea of that, knowing that they’re getting fresh and local meat,” Kerr said.

Keeping the environment in mind, selling locally reduces the carbon footprint that the beef industry creates, he noted. The farm’s customers are restaurants and college dining facilities interested in serving fresh and local food. The Turnbull family also has a beef contract with Big Y, a chain that has focused on buying local for many years.

Wozniak explained that the mission of the chamber is to help support these small businesses through the challenging times and get their faces out there, working closely with the mayor and municipal leaders.

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,692
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.19
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

“Bringing in businesses into those empty storefronts, those little mini-plazas that do have some empty storefronts, keeping those filled and keeping people coming within Agawam and from outside of Agawam to purchase their goods and services. that’s obviously just going to help Agawam in the long run,” she said. “So ensuring that the businesses stay in business is the chamber’s mission, and also helping the new businesses come in with ease and helping them showcase who they are.”

She explained that bigger, more well-established businesses can roll with the challenges created by the pandemic, the changing economy, and the workforce crunch. But the town’s job is to be “that middleman” to ensure its part of Western Mass. grows with a focus on helping small businesses become bigger ones.

 

Culture of Support

Not only are town officials helping small businesses thrive, businesses are helping each other, like Six Flags aiding the Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

On Dec. 17, the amusement park donated its parking lots and staff to assist with parking almost 4,000 cars for Wreaths Across America, the annual event to remember and honor veterans through the laying of remembrance wreaths on graves and saying the name of every veteran aloud. King Gray Coach Lines also donated its bigger buses to shuttle people to and from the Six Flags lots to the cemetery.

“All of this shows that Agawam is really taking steps necessary to help the small businesses grow, flourish, prosper, and stay in Agawam,” Wozniak said. “The mayor and the council being transparent and helping the businesses get anything they need to enhance their business, and the ease of that, makes it very enticing for new businesses to come to Agawam.”

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Udderly Innovative

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David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz

David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz are part of the sixth and seventh generations now carrying on traditions — and creating new ones — at the family farm in Hadley.
Staff Photo

While she grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Hadley and enjoyed that lifestyle, Denise Barstow Manz had no intention of making the 200-year-old operation a career.

“The farm was a place that was fun, and I had a really good time playing with my cousins, being around large animals, and being around nature — it was an amazing way to grow up,” she recalled. “And then, as I got older and I started to see the numbers and realized that the farm was a lot of hard work and not an easy path to wealth, I thought that maybe I should go and do something else.”

She attended the University of New Hampshire — in part because of its renowned dairy program, although she chose a different major — and would later move west and work for the National Park Service, with stints at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in Montana. And it was while on these assignments that she began to rethink what she would do with her life — and why.

“It finally hit me when I was in Glacier,” she said. “I was a trail guide, and I saw these people donating money to preserve these places. And I thought, ‘if everyone’s giving to places like this, who’s taking care of the places we come from?’ I thought about who was taking care of the place I came from that has been in my family for more than 200 years — and I wanted to be part of that story.”

And with that decision, Barstow Manz would also become part — and she stressed that word part early and quite often, because this is truly a family affair — of one the region’s more intriguing business stories: Barstow’s Longview Farm.

“This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

It’s a story that includes most of the elements shaping the growth, evolution, and resilience of the local economy today. That list includes entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, clean energy, tourism and hospitality, and sustainable agriculture.

They all come together in an impossibly beautiful, picture-postcard setting, the historic Hockanum Village, framed by the Connecticut River and the Holyoke Range, scenery that belies the myriad and ever-more severe challenges facing dairy farmers — and all those in agriculture — today.

It was these challenges — and especially very trying times roughly two decades ago that prompted the sixth and seventh generations of the Barstow family to take the motto that has defined this business — ‘looking forward since 1806’ — to new dimensions.

Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Evolution and diversification have been hallmarks of Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Indeed, a family that has always embraced change and diversification (much more on that later) has taken some dramatic new turns in recent years, first with Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery, and later, through a partnership with Vanguard Renewables to build one of the first farm-powered anaerobic digesters in New England. Meanwhile, the 450-acre dairy farm produces 19,000 pounds of milk daily and is a member of the Cabot Creamery/Agri-Mark Cooperative; almost all of the farm’s milk is supplied to the Cabot/Agri-Mark facility in West Springfield and is made into Cabot butter and other products.

The anaerobic digester (AD), installed in 2013 and expanded in 2016, converts cow manure — the herd at the farm produces some 9,000 tons of it annually — and food waste into electricity, heat, and fertilizer.

It has become an important revenue source for the farm, but it also makes a statement about what the sixth and seventh generations of this family — and those that came before them — stand for.

“The AD speaks to what we believe in as a family — that we need to lower our carbon footprint and play a role in mitigating climate change,” Barstow Manz said, adding that, for this family, sustainability comes in many forms and means many things, including work to ensure that this business will be there for the next generations.

Her father, David Barstow, director of special projects at the farm, agreed. He said that, while many things have changed at this location — in general, but especially during his lifetime — what hasn’t changed is that concept of preserving, and persevering, for those who will continue the tradition.

“My father and grandfather used to talk about working with horses,” he said, adding that change and advancement are constants on the farm; the key is to embrace that change and be at the forefront of it. “This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely.”

All of the various components of Barstow’s Longview Farm make for an intriguing tour — one that usually includes lunch on site — and Denise and other family members offer many of them, all year long. More than that, these elements collaborate to create an inspiring new chapter to a story that began when Thomas Jefferson was patrolling the White House — and even a century before that, as we’ll see.

 

Herd It Through the Grapevine

They call it Pasture Day, and it is celebrated the first Saturday in May.

As that name suggests, this is the day when the cows, which have spent the winter in barns, get to head back into the pasture. It’s the unofficial start of spring, and a community event — many visitors, including several families living in the area, will come out, watch the heifers celebrate their first taste of fresh grass, enjoy live music, and have some ice cream.

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm in the historic Hockanum Village.

“People kick up their heels and have a good time; they sit on the hill and watch,” said Barstow Manz, who doesn’t have a formal title, but serves as the farm’s marketing director. She also handles the farm tours, manages the dairy store and bakery, handles outreach, and acts as the main grant writer. She used to feed the calves, but the farm now has an automated calf feeder, one of many examples of innovation at this institution.

She said Pasture Day is just one of the many traditions that have lived on at this property since Septimus Barstow, originally from Wethersfield, Conn., acquired the property on the bank of the Connecticut River that was first farmed at least 100 years earlier by the Lyman family.

Originally a crop farm that focused on asparagus, as many farms in Hadley did, as well as squash, corn, tobacco, and other staples, the Barstow’s operation eventually evolved into a dairy farm after the advent of refrigeration, which provided an avenue for selling milk wholesale.

By the 1930s, dairy was the primary focus at the farm, she went on, adding that, with a herd of 300 cows, this is small to mid-sized operation, one that is dwarfed by huge operations in this country and overseas.

It’s one of a dwindling number of dairy farms both in Massachusetts and across the U.S., she said, citing statistics showing that this country loses five dairy farms every day.

“And when you lose those farms, you’re losing a lot,” she went on. “You’re obviously losing food and food security for that community. But you’re also losing open space, which is good for wildlife habitat, groundwater, climate resilience, and food security. And you’re losing that heritage and that connection to your past.”

The reason for such attrition is simple. This is a very difficult business to be in, she said, adding that the federal government controls milk prices, and margins have historically been paper-thin.

“Even though it’s very perishable, milk is marketed on a global scale, so we’re competing against New Zealand, we’re competing against California … and it’s kind of a broken system,” Barstow Manz explained. “The only real way for dairy farmers to make more money is to make more milk, which doesn’t always line up with demand. And we have no control over the price of the product we produce.”

There are only 115 dairy farms left in the Bay State, and there probably wouldn’t be any were it not for the Massachusetts Dairy Tax Credit, which enables them to remain competitive, she said, adding that there are six operations in Hadley alone, a concentration that testifies to the quality of the soil in that region.

In the early years of this century, the milk market essentially collapsed, primarily because of oversupply, she said, calling this a scary time for the Barstow farm and all the others in this market.

David Barstow

David Barstow says his family lives by the farm’s motto, ‘looking forward since 1806.’

“The milk market crashed like no one had ever seen or felt before in this country; we were getting $12 per hundred pounds of milk, when our break-even was $22,” she explained, adding that it was a critical time in the history of the farm, or another critical time, to be more precise.

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely,” she recalled. “And that’s when we started talking about how we wanted to diversify and who we wanted to include. And we knew that we wanted to be thoughtful of what the next generation was interested in doing and what our strengths are.”

 

A Process of Evolution

Over the next several years, diversification would come in several forms, starting with the dairy store and bakery in 2008, an operation inspired in many ways by Denise’s cousin, Shannon Barstow, who does most of the baking. It’s an operation that would transform the farm into a true destination.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system.”

“We understood that people were going to have to drive here if we were going to get the support and the revenue we needed,” she recalled. “So we did lunch, and we started probably too big for our britches. But we’ve definitely settled into who were are, and we have a really supportive community.”

The dairy-store operation and bakery offers both breakfast and lunch as well as a number of prepared foods — and ice cream. The bakery serves up pies, cupcakes, brownies, turnovers, croissants, scones, muffins, breads, and much more. The facility handles private functions, porch parties, and catering. Meanwhile, visitors can buy Barstow’s beef — everything from tenderloin steaks to ground beef — on site. There’s even a drive-thru for those who want or need to grab and go.

The facility draws visitors from around the corner, but also from across the state and beyond, said Barstow Manz, adding that it has become a real destination and a way to take the Barstow name and products well beyond Hadley.

“Most of our regulars are from Hadley and South Hadley,” she explained. “But we have people who come to us from Eastern Mass. because they love our beef, and from the Berkshires because they love our pies; we draw from all over.

Shannon Barstow

Shannon Barstow does most of the baking at the dairy store and bakery, which opened in 2008.

“We opened this place to save the family farm, and it’s had so many other amazing qualities to it that we didn’t really expect,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s become this time capsule for all these family recipes — most of the stuff that’s in the dairy case is Grandma [Marjorie] Barstow’s recipes. And it’s also a neighborhood gathering space — it’s a space where people can work close to home and also be part of a family farm and a local economy on a small scale.”

Indeed, the dairy story and bakery now employs 15 people and has provided many area young people with their first jobs.

The anaerobic-digestion system, launched at a cost of roughly $6 million, is not a supplier of jobs, but it is, as noted earlier, a supplier of electricity, heat, fertilizer — and also pride for a family that has, through its long history, been innovative.

The conversations about installing such a facility began around the same time the family was opening the dairy store and bakery, she said, adding that the system is another important step toward diversification.

Explaining how it works, she said the system takes the energy potential (methane) out of cow manure and food waste and converts it into enough electricity to power 1,600 homes. The food waste comes from local food producers, including Cabot/Agri-Mark, Whole Foods, the Coca-Cola plant in Northampton, and local restaurants.

The food waste and cow manure, both treated and in liquid form, are put into the digester, which Barstow Manz equated to a large stomach, with the gas from the ‘digestion’ process rising to the top of the nine-story facility. That collected gas combusts in an engine and turns a generator, thus creating electricity.

Heat, one of the byproducts of this process, is used to heat that system, provide hot water in the barns, and heat the eight homes on the property, she went on.

“It’s pretty cool that the system has lessened our reliance on fossil fuels as a business, but also on a personal level in our own homes — we don’t have to pay for oil anymore,” she noted. “We’re also getting a chemical-free fertilizer; that’s because most of what we put in we get back; we just need the gas.”

Like the dairy store and bakery, the AD, the second such system in the state and one of the first in the nation, is a reliable revenue stream at a time when such sources of income are needed in the wake of those razor-thin margins in dairy farming, she said, adding that it became reality through partnerships, such as the one with Vanguard Renewables, and grants from several entities, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Center for EcoTechnology, and other entities.

 

A Butter Alternative

Looking ahead, Barstow Manz said she and others working at the farm have a simple mission — to live up to their motto and continue looking forward.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system,” she said. “Among the dairy farms I’m aware of, we’re been pretty open to accepting new technology and trying new things. We’re always reading and learning and talking to our vets and to our soil agronomists about what we can be doing better.

“I also think it’s cool that the sixth generation has always been focused on the seventh,” she went on, “and the four of us that work here are constantly thinking about what we’re going to leave our kids — what’s in it for the eighth generation.”

If history is any guide, it will be something that can grow and thrive and be sustainable — in every way imaginable.

Features Special Coverage

Here Are the Stories That Impacted Western Mass. in 2022

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

 

Cannabis Sector Continues to Grow

How many dispensaries is too many? Cities like Northampton, Holyoke, and Easthampton that have embraced the cannabis industry are demonstrating that many such businesses can thrive together, while generating healthy tax revenues for the municipality itself. However, the recent closure of the Source — the state’s first adult-use dispensary to close since shops began opening in 2018 — poses new questions on the competition front.

There’s no doubt cannabis has been a success in Massachusetts, with recreational sales approaching $4 billion since legalization. But one big question is what form the industry will eventually take — with some predicting eventual consolidation by bigger entities alongside a robust population of boutique sellers — and how the state will continue to protect opportunities for smaller players, especially minorities.

The latter prospect was strengthened by a law passed in August aimed at giving minority cannabis entrepreneurs easier access into the industry, and also paving the way for municipalities to allow marijuana cafés. The bill also better regulates host community agreements, creates a state-run loan fund for minority entrepreneurs, lowers taxes for marijuana businesses, and makes it easier to expunge records for old marijuana offenses.

In short, this story is still evolving in intriguing ways.

 

Companies Grapple with Workforce Challenges

The pandemic temporarily dislodged millions of people from their jobs, and when companies started rehiring again, they found it was much more difficult to recruit and retain employees, particularly in lower-paying industries like hospitality, but it was a trend that stretched across all fields, from healthcare to construction to … well, you name it.

At issue has been three intersecting trends: the Great Resignation of older workers, many of whom moved up their retirement timeline in the wake of the pandemic’s economic upheaval; a movement among Gen-Zers and younger Millennials, particularly in service industries, to re-evaluate their worth and push for higher wages and more flexibility; and ‘quiet quitting,’ defined as doing the bare minimum to fulfill one’s job, which, of course, cuts into a company’s productivity.

There are no easy answers to combat these trends, and companies struggling with workforce shortages must grapple with what they mean in the longer term. Workers no doubt have leverage right now like they haven’t had in recent memory, and they’re wielding it, to significant — and, in many cases, still-undetermined — effect.

 

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

Victory Theatre Project Gains Momentum

Holyoke officials and groups involved with the arts have been engaged in efforts to try to revitalize the historic Victory Theatre for more than 40 years now. And while this initiative still has a ways to go before it can cross the goal line, some significant progress was seen this past year.

It came in several forms, but especially the earmarking of ARPA funding to renovate the theater, which opened in the 1920s and last showed a movie in 1979. The ARPA funding is expected to help close the gap between the funds that have been raised for the initiative and the total needed — roughly $60 million.

Momentum can also be seen in a firm commitment on the part of Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who sees the project as an important catalyst for bringing new businesses to downtown Holyoke and another key ingredient in the larger formula for revitalizing the Paper City.

 

The Marriott Flag Returns to Downtown Springfield

It took more than three years, and there were a number of challenges to overcome along the way, but the Marriott flag is now flying again over the hotel in the Tower Square complex. The massive renovation — or “re-imagining” — of the space, as it’s been called, earned Tower Square owners Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor for 2022.

But the undertaking has done more than that. It has helped transform the property into one of the best hotels west of Boston, and it has become a stunning addition to a Tower Square complex that has been reinvented as well, with intriguing additions ranging from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Springfield to White Lion Brewery to a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket soon to emerge in space formerly occupied by CVS.

The new Marriott staged a truly grand opening in November, an event that was a big day not just for Patel and Mitta, but for the entire city.

 

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

This past year was one in which the region’s business community was to return to normal in most all respects after two painful years of COVID. But there was one realm where it didn’t — and that was by choice.

Indeed, remote work continued to be part of the landscape in 2022, but this time there was an air of permanence to the concept, not merely a temporary response to COVID. In interviews for stories written over the course of the year, owners of businesses large and small said remote work and hybrid work schedules have become the new norm. They have become a benefit of sorts for valued workers and have become an effective means for attracting and recruiting talent, as well as for as widening the net for job applicants well beyond the 413 area.

The full impact of remote work on the commercial real-estate market and small businesses that rely on workers being in their offices — restaurants and bars, for example — has yet to be fully and accurately measured, but it appears that this fundamental change in how people work is here to stay.

 

East-west Rail Chugs Forward

East-west rail service between Pittsfield and Boston is still far from reality, and plenty can still happen to derail the decades-long dream of so many legislators, businesses, municipalities, and other rail advocates. But 2022 marked the strongest progress toward that goal yet, with $275 million allocated toward the project in August as part of the state’s $11 billion infrastructure bill — a good start, but only a start.

A high-speed rail connection between the Hub and Western Mass. is about more than convenience; it’s about expanded opportunity — both for workers who can earn Boston wages while enjoying a decidedly non-Boston cost of living, and also for employers who can cast a wider net for talent — not to mention easier access to recreational and regional resources, as well as reduced traffic and emissions.

“We have the money, the support, and I have secured the commitment from both the outgoing Baker-Polito administration and the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration to keep this train literally and metaphorically moving forward,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said earlier this month. “This is an opportunity that will not avail itself again, and now is the time to move on an east-west rail project that will be transformative for all of Massachusetts.”

 

The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship

The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship, but their playoff run was a huge win for the team and the region.

Springfield Thunderbirds Reach AHL Finals

The Springfield Thunderbirds eventually wound up a few wins shy of a Calder Cup this past spring. But their dramatic run to the finals was a huge win for the team, the city, and the region.

Indeed, the race for the cup captured the attention of the entire area, with fans old and new turning out at the MassMutual Center, tuning in on social media, and talking about the team at the water cooler — or the weekly Zoom meeting.

The team, which eventually lost in the finals to the Chicago Wolves, created a great deal of momentum with its playoff run, as well as a surge in season-ticket sales. While not all deep playoff runs are financial success stories, this was one, said the team’s president, Nate Costa. It was also validation for him and for the ownership group that stepped up and brought hockey back to Springfield when the Falcons departed for Arizona.

There’s now an Eastern Conference Championship banner hanging in the MassMutual Center, and even more of a connection between the region and its pro hockey team.

 

Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Returns

After a long, as in very long, two-year absence, the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race returned in full force in March. The twin events have always been part of the fabric of the region and a huge contributor to the Greater Holyoke economy, and that became clear in interviews with parade organizers, city officials, and individual business owners in the weeks leading up to the parade for a story in BusinessWest that carried the headline: “The Return of a Tradition: For Holyoke, the Parade Brings Business — and a Sense of Normalcy.”

Business owners told BusinessWest that the parade and race account for large amounts of annual revenues, and that losing the events for two years due to COVID was devastating. But beyond business and vibrancy, something else went missing for those two years. Marc Joyce, president of the parade for the past three years, put it all in perspective.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up here,” he said. “It’s a homecoming; people come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year. It’s a wonderful, family-oriented event.”

 

The LEDC has a unique model

The LEDC has a unique model featuring coaches on matters ranging from accounting to mental health.

Latino EDC Opens Its Doors

The Latino Economic Development Corp. opened its doors to considerable fanfare in September, and with good reason. The agency, called the Latino EDC, or LEDC, has a broad mission and a unique business model, one aimed at helping businesses, especially Latino-owned businesses, open their doors and keep them open.

The LEDC, located on Fort Street in Springfield, is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners and share what they know. Executive Director Andrew Meledez says the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get where they want to go — coaching, capital, and connections. Overall, its goal is to turn employees into employers, and the agency is already capturing the attention of economic-development leaders in this region — and well beyond.

 

New College Presidents Take the Reins

College and university presidents are in many ways key regional voices, shaping public perspectives on issues through programs and initiatives they spearhead. And in 2022, that exclusive pool of influencers saw some significant ripples.

In April, Hubert Benitez, vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation and acting chief Inclusion officer at Rockhurst University, took the reins at American International College, replacing Vince Maniaci, who had been president there for 17 years.

Then Michelle Schutt, previously vice president of Community and Learner Services at the College of Southern Idaho, began her tenure as president of Greenfield Community College in July, replacing Richard Hopper, who had been interim president since the summer of 2021.

Also in July, Smith College announced that Sarah Willie-LeBreton, provost and dean of faculty at Swarthmore College, will replace Kathleen McCartney, who has served as president since 2013, starting in July 2023.

Finally, in June, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced he will retire in June 2023 after serving in that role since 2012, and the following month, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College since 2017, announced she will retire in July 2023; searches are on to replace both.

 

new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

Civic Center Parking Garage Comes Down — Finally

After years of talking about and working with state leaders to assemble the financing to build a replacement, the city tore down the crumbling Civic Center Parking Garage this fall. As the demolition crews began their work, workers in downtown office buildings paused to watch.

It wasn’t a landmark that was coming down, but rather a decaying structure that had become a symbol of all that Springfield was trying to put behind it — the hard economic times, aging infrastructure, and a downtown of another era.

While the long-awaited demise of the parking garage was news, the more exciting news is what’s going up in its place — a new, state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, 1,000-space facility, and activation of abutting property, acquired by the city, that will enable Springfield to create an atmosphere that officials say will be similar to the scene at Fenway Park on game nights.

 

transformation of the old Court Square Hotel

The transformation of the old Court Square Hotel is a long time coming.

Court Square Transformation Project Proceeds

When Dave Fontaine Jr. talks about work to renovate the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments being a “generational project,’” he means it. Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about the initiative this past summer, he said he believes his father and grandfather were both involved in bids on projects to transform the property going back more than 30 years.

It’s taken decades of effort, but the transformation of the property is now well under way. The project is expected to not only bring new life to that historic property — in the form of 71 units of housing as well as retail on the ground floor — but also create more vibrancy in the city’s downtown and possibly be a catalyst for new hospitality and service-sector businesses.

The Court Square project is a true public-partnership, with funding support from several parties, including Winn Development, Opal Development, the state, the city, and MGM Springfield. And it will make sure that an important part of the city’s past is now a vital cog in its future.

 

Navigating Challenges in Auto Sales

This past year was another wild ride, if that’s the right term, for the region’s auto dealers. Indeed, the trends that emerged in 2020 and 2021 — from historically low levels of inventory to sky-high prices and low inventory of used cars — continued in 2022.

Matters improved to some degree for area dealers, but there were still many challenges to face — and still a number of used cars taking up space on the showroom floors.

But perhaps the biggest news in 2002 involved electric vehicles, with many dealers reporting huge increases in the sales of such models. There are several reasons why, but simple math is perhaps the biggest, with drivers of electric vehicles — after the initial investment, anyway — spending far less to get from here to there than those with gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs.

That trend is expected to continue into next year, say area dealers, as more makers introduce electric-vehicle lines.

 

Live Music Scene Expands

When the Drake opened in downtown Amherst in April, it became the town’s first-ever dedicated music venue, hosting everything from jazz and rock to funk and world music. And it opened at a time when demand for live music in the region is on the rise, and an increasing number of spaces are meeting the need.

With Eric Suher’s Iron Horse Music Hall, Pearl Street Nightclub, and Mountain Park shuttered to concerts these days and the Calvin Theatre hosting a bare trickle of tribute bands, others have picked up the slack.

They include not just the Drake, but Race Street Live, which hosts national touring acts in the Gateway City Arts complex in Holyoke; Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in downtown Greenfield, which schedules a robust slate of events across four spaces; MASS MoCA, which hosts concerts inside the museum and festivals outside it; Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, which opened in October 2021 in a converted 1861 church; and many more.

It’s clear that people are enjoying live music again, and a new generation of venues — and some venerable ones as well — are stepping up to meet that need.

 

Moving On from COVID

President Biden declared COVID over in September. With a winter setting in in which doctors are warning of a ‘tripledemic’ of flu, RSV, and COVID, that’s … well, not quite the truth, not with about 350 people still dying from COVID each day in the U.S., about 85% of them unvaccinated.

What is true is that, even as some people are still overcoming COVID, just about everyone is over it — and especially over the disruptions the pandemic caused to the global economy.

Still, moving on is easier said than done, as is shifting back to something resembling business as usual pre-2020. Construction firms still face challenges with scheduling and cost, knowing that the supply chain can be wildly inconsistent. Families still struggle with inflation, and are getting hit hard by the tonic being poured on it: higher interest rates for loans. As noted earlier, real-estate owners wonder whether a slowed market will remain so as tenants decide they need less space for a workforce that has gone largely remote and may remain so.

In short, moving on from COVID is a slow process, and its effects will continue to reverberate, no matter how much anyone — even the president — wishes it would just go away.

 

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Enfield officials have been running surveys

Town officials have been running surveys to determine how to improve business and quality of life.

Even though the worst of the pandemic is over, businesses are still struggling to get their footing. But now, through Connecticut’s Community Development Block Grant Program, Enfield business owners can take a leap of faith into a new future.

“We’re trying to piece things together, but meanwhile we just try to work with the applicants as best we can,” said Laurie Whitten, director of Development Services for the town just over the Massachusetts border from Longmeadow. “We’ll work with everybody and anybody to make sure that we get the things that the community needs.”

She went on to say the Planning and Zoning board has “actually modified regulations because some of the setbacks were a little onerous.” And in order to bring in more businesses, changes had to be made.

Meanwhile, development is moving forward on numerous projects, from an almost-completed assisted-living and memory-care facility on Hazard Avenue to the transformation of the former Community Health Center facility into a mixed-use space, including TrackStar Nutrition of Springfield and Magic Salon & Barber Shop.

Town officials have been working with businesses owners on initiatives that will make Enfield more inviting.

“We’ll work with everybody and anybody to make sure that we get the things that the community needs.”

“The Town Council approved $450,000 of our ARPA federal funding assistance for a small-business program and a nonprofit grant program in early October,” said Nelson Tereso, director of Economic & Community Development. His department, with the help of the Economic Development Commission — made up of local business owners, community members, and people involved in other commissions who have an understanding of what the community needs — are currently reviewing and scoring the applications.

“I know that a lot of other communities throughout the United States used a lot of the ARPA money to provide recovery assistance, either with utilities or payrolls, things of that nature,” he added. “We are doing something completely outside of the box.”

Meanwhile, through a transit-oriented development initiative, there has been talk to expand and build on the current Thompsonville center, with the goal of making it the town center again.

In short, Enfield is not only looking to weather the post-pandemic era, but thrive and grow.

 

Connecting Points

Tereso explained that Enfield is on the Hartford transit line that connects to Springfield Union Station and New Haven Union Station, with a total of 13 stops between those cities. But Enfield isn’t one of them — yet.

“Enfield is on the Hartford transit line, the last stop in Connecticut heading north. We currently do not have a stop here in Enfield,” he said. “There was once a train station here in Enfield. We are proposing to build a new station through the Connecticut Department of Transportation.”

The town announced a $13.8 million federal grant for the funding of the construction of the station in June, with a ribbon cutting by Gov. Ned Lamont, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, and U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney. State Bond Commission grant dollars are also being appropriated for the project. The town is currently working outside the parameters of the site to infill the development around the station.

Asnuntuck’s behavioral-health center.

Michelle Coach (third from left) cuts the ribbon on Asnuntuck’s behavioral-health center.

One of the areas needing the most redevelopment is Enfield Square, where the Target and largely vacant mall sits. The site’s current owner, Namdar Realty Group of New York, and the town are doing what they can to bring in new businesses.

“It’s the home of the former Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears. Unfortunately, those three businesses are no longer in the Enfield Square mall. The town realizes the importance of trying to redevelop that mall area,” Tereso said. “In order to assist Namdar with potential tenants down the road, we have engaged our Capitol Region Council of Governments to work with the town and are sponsoring an Enfield Square mall area traffic-impact study.”

The purpose of the study is to improve operating conditions and maximize the capacity along the Route 190 (Hazard Avenue) and Route 220 (Elm Street) corridors and assess development scenarios for the underutilized mall and the potential impact on the roadway system — not just on the roadway itself for traffic, but also improving other means of infrastructure, in terms of bike, pedestrian, and transit stops in and around the mall.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 42,141
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $27.89
Commercial Tax Rate: $27.89
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

To those ends, Namdar and town officials have listening to the needs of the community. A market study was also conducted in town to understand what people want to see and do with the underdeveloped or vacant plots of land in the Enfield Square area.

Tereso told BusinessWest there have been a lot of suggestions for entertainment uses, mixed spaces for retail and housing, and even a walkable outlet setting similar to Evergreen Walk in South Windsor. One thing the study made clear is that business owners no longer want to lease their spaces, but prefer to own them.

“Ultimately, the town was able to subdivide the mall parcels from eight or nine to 16 parcels, and they have already implemented the sale of two or three of them,” Tereso said, adding that Namdar is trying to break off some of the parcels and sell them off individually. “They also sold the Target to Target, so they’re trying to break up the mall to not only help with the redevelopment, but also bring in smaller businesses, especially along the Route 190 and 220 corridors.”

 

Town and Gown

Considering the push for new businesses and attendant workforce-training needs, Asnuntuck Community College has been holding training sessions and using its facility to help local businesses, Whitten said.

“Enfield Social Services and other departments will work with Asnuntuck on programs for training on machinery or car repair, or anything like that. They try to work with them to promote the trades,” she explained. “Having a school in town is a great asset, and we try to work with them as best we can. They’re very willing to work with the town to come up with programs for local businesses to train people.”

Asnuntuck CEO Michelle Coach said many local businesses serve in an advisory capacity to the college. For example, through a Business in Industry program, Asnuntuck allows companies to come in and deliver training resources.

“A lot of the time, and more recently, it’s soft skills because people have been online for so long. So they don’t know how to talk to someone and look at them,” Coach said. “They’re afraid and used to the screen. We’re trying to talk about body language and interactions, and that’s something that’s been brought to the forefront a lot.”

After learning remotely during the pandemic, students are hungry for interaction. In the past year, enrollment has increased 7.8%, and students are asking for more opportunities to engage with one another.

Starting in the fall of 2023, through the Pledge to Advance CT (PACT) program, Connecticut residents and high-school graduates can receive a free community-college education if they are registering and attending college for the first time. Funding covers the gap between federal and state grants received and the college’s tuition and mandatory fees. Entry into the program will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Having a school in town is a great asset, and we try to work with them as best we can. They’re very willing to work with the town to come up with programs for local businesses to train people.”

“A high-school graduate can come and get a free education and then transfer to their four-year school if they need to transfer. It’s a great opportunity,” Coach said. “Our average age has gone down to 26 years old because of that program; it was at 27.5 to 28 depending on the semester.”

One program that has also taken off since its start seven years ago is the Second Chance Pell program in local prisons. When COVID hit, visitors were restricted from entering prisons, but within the last semester, Asnuntuck has been able to reach 145 students in that setting.

“We’re looking at expanding next semester,” Coach said. “We have a new project that’s coming with them, and it’s focusing on some manufacturing classes … looking at blueprint readings, looking at some manufacturing math. And then there’s money that’s been dedicated to a project called Vocational Village. That will potentially bring some opportunities into the prisons to do some hands-on work.”

Asnuntuck has been part of Enfield for the past 50 years and is looking forward to celebrating that milestone during the 2023 graduation. Reminiscing on the past, Coach told BusinessWest a story of how the then-president received the memo that the college was moving to its current location on 170 Elm St.

“He said, ‘if you hear me running and shouting down the hallways, it’s because we got the approval.’” And the rest is history — literally. The school is looking forward to the vignettes and memories that will be shared among alumni and faculty emeriti.

“Things like that are what we want to embrace and enjoy with our campus community,” she added. “We’re small; we all know each other. We don’t live in silos. We really have a good, close community here — a close family feel.”

 

Bottom Line

With a population just over 42,000, Enfield might be a large town, but the community is close and tight-knit, Whitten said. And officials are looking forward to a new year of growth and community.

“We just work the best we can with all developments,” she said, “whether it be the small mom-and-pop or the developer of Enfield Square.” u

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at
[email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza

Armata’s rebuilt plaza (rendering).

Armata’s plaza

After being ravaged by a fire, Armata’s will eventually move back into a rebuilt plaza (rendering above).

Longmeadow is a quintessential small town, veined by Route 5 and a few other arteries and lined with historical homes dating back to before the Revolutionary War. But with a much higher percentage of residential properties than businesses, townspeople have long rallied around the town’s small commercial sectors.

“Our economic development is not so much what you would see in some of the larger cities around us, but Longmeadow has held pretty strong, certainly, over the past three or four years now,” said Lyn Simmons, town manager. “We did not have as much of an impact from COVID as some of those other larger communities that have large retail sectors … but this past year has been pretty good. I think a lot of them are trying to get back to whatever this new normal looks like for us.”

Coming out of the pandemic, the small clusters of business in town have kept residents engaged, said Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, adding that the Longmeadow Shops have “done a wonderful job” with their ‘Stroll the Shops’ initiative and creating activities to keep town residents involved.

“It brings business in, they’ve got shops, they’ve got dining there, and then, across the street, you have more shopping. Wonderful things are happening there.”

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go. From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

Residents and folks from out of town can stop at Alex’s Bagel Shop as they get off the I-91 exit onto Longmeadow Street or stop at the Shops for retail therapy and a bite to eat.

The Maple Center shopping plaza, which was ravaged by a fire a little over a year ago, has long been an attraction as well. Students and their families from Bay Path University frequent the stores, adding to the impact of the economic development.

Bay Path, in fact, is closely identified with Longmeadow, drawing faculty, staff, and students into town from the surrounding areas of Northern Conn. and Western Mass. Barone explained that, even though the college has been in business for 150 years, its “bones and integrity” are still very present.

“What you loved about it 30 years ago is still what you love about it; it still has those great bones, and that’s so important because sometimes, as communities or businesses grow, they grow so much that they lose sight of who they are and what their mission is. I feel [Bay Path] managed to hold onto that really well in Longmeadow.”

 

Out with the Old

Despite the tragic loss of Armata’s Market and a few other shops in Maple Center, store owner Alexis Vallides is looking forward to a fresh start.

Armata’s Market was founded in 1963 by the Armata family and purchased by the Vallides family in the early 2000s. Vallides told BusinessWest that she knew running a business was something she always wanted to do.

“It’s in my blood. I’m fourth generation in my family business,” she said, noting that her great-grandfather immigrated from Greece and launched a career in the food industry. “After I graduated from college, I took a bigger role, and there’s just an opportunity to kind of slide in there.”

The small grocery store had expanded over the decade she had run it; it wasn’t just known for its meats anymore, but also deli foods, prepared hot and cold meals, and a from-scratch bakery.

“We were in a pretty good groove at that point, and people had caught on,” Vallides said. “And we had become pretty well-known. Anytime you would pull into our parking lot, you’d see half Connecticut plates and half Massachusetts plates. So I know we had a good following, and I feel like we definitely did impact the town of Longmeadow economically.”

The fire that tore through the plaza the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2021 completely decimated Armata’s, the Bottle Shop, and Iron Chef. A hair and nail salon were also displaced after the tragedy. The fire’s origin is still listed as undetermined, and no report has been released by the state fire marshal’s office. The lead investigator has retired, and the town is still looking for a replacement.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.64
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“It had a massive impact on those neighborhoods there,” Simmons said. “Those people that just ran out to grab some milk or order dinner and pick it up quickly … we saw a big impact just from people’s day-to-day lives, with the convenience of having those offerings there. And certainly there’s the impact to the people that worked in all of those businesses, especially at that time of year. It was really hard.”

However, through tragedy came resiliency and determination. Vallides and her team continued to provide turkey dinners, deliveries, and from-scratch baked goods that holiday season. The people of Longmeadow rallied around them and are excited for their eventual return.

“There are a lot of flashbacks that come to my head around this time, and Longmeadow was right there from the get-go,” she said. “From the moment the fire happened, they were there with us every step of the way, and we’re just very lucky.”

 

In with the New

As the town gears up for 2023, there is plenty of anticipation about when Maple Center will be rebuilt. The town is currently working with the owners of the property on their rebuilding plans and are going through the hearing process soon, hopefully starting construction within the next few months.

Vallides told BusinessWest she has signed an intent to return with the landlord, but not an official lease yet. At the moment, the new floor plan for Armata’s is expected to be 3,000 feet larger than it was previously.

Right now, she is hard at work with her team as they move into Village Food Mart in Hampden. A second location was always a possibility, but the opportunity had to be right before jumping in.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns.”

“The fire isn’t the only reason we went to Hampden. I would like to believe that, if we still had Armata’s standing today, we still would have taken up the opportunity,” she said. “I think Hampden Village Food Mart resonates a lot with me because it is very similar to Armata’s in many ways, so that’s the kind of opportunity that I was looking for — I didn’t want to just take the first opportunity that came to me. It had to be something that was going to align with what we had built for the brand of Armata’s.”

Barone agreed. If it wasn’t for the support of locals and outside shoppers, there wouldn’t be such a push for the small market to come back.

“They’re very much aware that when your small business does well, it gives back to the community, and then the needs of the community are met. That’s the beauty of small towns. It speaks volumes for Armata’s, and it speaks volumes for the people in the town of Longmeadow,” Barone said. “Everybody longs for them to come back. So instead of going to that little corner, we have to go up the street to the Longmeadow Shops, and there’s some great restaurants there. It’s a change in routine. We just have to wait and see what’s to come in the new phase.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Dressing Down

Ken Albano says businesses need to balance

Ken Albano says businesses need to balance what works for employees with a certain level of professionalism.

If it wasn’t clear before, you know office-attire norms are shifting when the rules for dress-down Friday have to change.

That’s exactly what happened at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many companies with a rule that, with a donation to a charitable cause (in this case, a $5 donation that the company matches), employees may wear jeans and other attire typically deemed too casual for the office.

“But we changed it slightly because of what ended up happening,” said Melissa English, senior tax manager. Specifically, “COVID came, and our dress-code policy went out the window.”

With jeans and other casual attire now acceptable all week, she explained, “for an incentive for people who want to contribute to charity, Fridays are now our ‘wear what you want’ day. Anything goes. There’s no dress-code policy on Fridays if you pay in.”

Flip flops on Friday? Sure, go for it.

“I started 21 years ago with the firm, and no matter what, whether you were in the office, with a client, whatever, you made sure you were professionally dressed,” English told BusinessWest. “Then, over time, it gradually did loosen up a little bit. It became a little more … business casual. When you went to a client, you still had to dress up. But in the office, you were allowed to have professional pants on but maybe not necessarily a suit and tie, just a button-down shirt, stuff like that.”

“I want to be comfortable when I’m working, and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think you’re more productive if you’re comfortable throughout the day. So I do think it was already moving toward business casual, but COVID definitely pushed it.”

If anything, the pandemic, and especially the summer of 2020, only accelerated that trend, she went on. As one of the first businesses back in Monarch Place, at a time when the downtown towers seemed nearly empty, it was easy to relax the dress code.

“At that point, it was wear whatever you wanted. You could show up in your pajamas; it didn’t matter,” she joked. “It was very casual. We had no dress-code policy whatsoever; we were wearing shorts all summer.”

What happened next — and this was something BusinessWest heard multiple times for this story — was that employees liked dressing down. And employers listened.

“Even after COVID, to try to get back to professional dress, I don’t think it’s going to happen,” English said. “For me personally, I want to be comfortable when I’m working, and I think a lot of people feel that way. I think you’re more productive if you’re comfortable throughout the day. So I do think it was already moving toward business casual, but COVID definitely pushed it.

Melissa English

Melissa English says workers have shown they can be both comfortable and productive at work.

“I do know a lot of businesses feel the same way,” she added. “A lot of the businesses we go to now are casual to business casual. You don’t see many people wearing suits and ties anymore. I think it’s more acceptable now, especially after COVID.”

As a law firm with five offices, Bacon Wilson’s workplace policies are generally driven by the main office in Springfield, Managing Shareholder Ken Albano said.

“We have a policy that’s been tweaked over the years. Now, business casual is acceptable throughout the firm. You don’t have to wear a sport coat. Corduroys, a gray sweater, and a button-down shirt — that’s my dress today. That’s deemed acceptable; I’d call that country casual or business casual. Wearing a sport coat every day is no longer required.

“That said, we’ve got old-school people here who just can’t change,” he went on. “They come to work in a suit every day. Even given the opportunity to loosen up their attire, they stick to it, especially some of the older guys in the Estate Planning department who meet clients daily and like to wear a suit and tie when they sit down with clients.”

He agreed that employees returning from long stretches of remote work, where they could get their job done in pajamas some days, grew to enjoy the comfort of casual dress, and the firm’s policy preserves elements of that while stressing appropriate wear.

“For a law firm of this size,” Albano said, “we try to be as flexible as we can without taking it too far away from the professional setting we’re trying to establish for our clients.”

 

Loosening Up

Casual dress has long been the norm in technology workplaces, and that revolution eventually spread to other, more traditionally formal workplaces in fields like law, accounting, and insurance. The shift toward a more casual dress code reflects, in one sense, a desire by employees to embrace comfort and individuality — and, over the past couple of years, a recognition by employers that comfortable employees are happier and, in many cases, just as productive as before, if not moreso.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“As we have instituted our new hybrid workplace approach, which balances in-person collaboration with personal flexibility to best meet the needs of our employees and customers, we’ve seen this level of comfort continue, and I believe it’s here to stay.”

Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources & Employee Experience at MassMutual in Springfield, told BusinessWest that the firm has continually evolved its culture to reflect the changing world, prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion; offering a flexible workplace; and, yes, moving away from exhaustive dress codes.

“In 2015, we instituted a two-word dress code: ‘dress appropriately,’” she explained. “This simplified guidance was rolled out as the company sought to reflect the more innovative and open workplace that was building, and was aimed at trusting and empowering employees while enabling them to be comfortable and express themselves.”

Those we spoke with, however, kept coming back to the importance of dressing for one’s audience and setting. For example, Albano said, a litigator would never appear in court in anything but formal attire. “The dress code is normally what you expect to see in front of a judge. You don’t show up in jeans and sneakers in a court of law; that never changes.”

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle, chief legal and administrative officer at the Royal Law Firm in Springfield, agreed.

“In the courtroom, the attire has not changed since we stopped wearing the wigs,” she said, adding that law schools across the country instill in students the importance of formal attire. “Courtroom decorum won’t change, nor, in my opinion, should it change.”

In the office, however, she has seen some movement toward more casual dress. “But what might be considered lax for one person might be different for someone else. When meeting clients, you’re still wearing blazer and slacks or a cardigan and slacks. Or you have on a suit. In that setting, I believe you’re supposed to dress toward a more professional level.”

Before returning to Royal, Cannon-Eckerle worked as director of Human Resources for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst, a tenure that spanned much of the pandemic.

“They decided to bridge the gap between frontline workers and C-suite folks and make business casual mandatory,” she recalled. “I was still wearing suits every day; they actually pulled me aside and said, ‘you need to relax a little bit and try for a more approachable persona in the workplace.’”

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle says being overdressed and underdressed in certain settings are equally problematic.

She recognizes that a college campus during a pandemic is a different situation than a law firm, but stressed that all professional settings should strive for certain minimum standards.

“At the end of the day, there’s a baseline: you’ve got to be clean, your clothes can’t be wrinkled, and it has to make sense for the room,” she told BusinessWest. “I love to dress up; if I could, I’d wear a wedding dress once a week. But I’m pretty sure I’d be reprimanded by the judge. So, you don’t dress to stand out, but to fit in and make people at ease with you. You don’t want people looking at your clothes instead of you, ogling what you’re wearing and not listening to what you’re saying.”

English said it’s important to know one’s audience in choosing what to wear.

“People can be comfortable and productive, so does it really matter how somebody looks if they’re getting the job done even better than they did before? So I think employers are now more accepting,” she noted. “In the employers we talk to, so many now are going to casual to business casual, and everybody seems to be accepting of it.

“But, again, no matter what, it’s still knowing your audience. You might have that one client that you know dresses up all the time. Well, maybe you need to dress up a little bit more for that client because you want them to take you seriously, and sometimes you have to look the part.”

Albano said job seekers need to be careful with accessories like tattoos and piercings; both are fine at Bacon Wilson, as long as visible tattoos aren’t offensive and piercings aren’t too numerous.

Sneakers and flip flops are a hard no, but jeans are fine on occasional charity days, when, like at MP CPAs, employees can pay $5 to dress down a bit. “That’s always a positive thing,” he said.

 

Lessons Learned

Looking forward, Cicco said employers and employees both learned something about each other during the pandemic, and those lessons will inform dress codes at countless companies in the future.

“As much as we were apart while working remotely during the pandemic, we also became more personally acquainted with one another,” she said. “We were welcomed into each other’s homes as we took Zoom calls from our living rooms with family members and even pets debuting in the background, and with that came a different level of familiarity that further empowered people to dress how they felt most comfortable.”

Therefore, “as we have instituted our new hybrid workplace approach, which balances in-person collaboration with personal flexibility to best meet the needs of our employees and customers, we’ve seen this level of comfort continue, and I believe it’s here to stay.”

English said the managers at her firm have had meetings and talked to consultants about what’s happening throughout the industry and how it informs the dress code moving forward.

“Because we are so casual now, should we go back to a more business casual? What we came up with is the term ‘smart casual.’ You can come in the office in jeans and a polo, whatever, but if you know you are going to go out to a client, then you need to dress in more of a smart casual. You need to be able to dress up and be presentable and make a good impression.”

Having been a business owner and manager as well as a lawyer, Cannon-Eckerle’s take is that, “if you walk in the door and the first thing people think about is what you’re wearing, you might have to rethink it. But if you’re clean and pressed and not wearing a T-shirt that’s flipping the bird, most likely you’re OK.”

In short, read the room.

“Because of COVID, things have changed, and I think people have been more open to someone’s style, open to the fact that dress is part of their personality,” she added. “But that doesn’t mean you can be disruptive in the workplace.

“And, as attorneys, they pay you a hefty hourly rate. If you roll in with sweatpants and flip flops, that isn’t professional. What we see as professional may be changing, but not in all industries, I think.”

As Albano put it, “you don’t want someone to turn their head and say, ‘oh my God, what are you wearing?’ We’re trying to be flexible and make it a healthy work environment, but also a professional setting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Cooling Agent

Jim Young

Jim Young says the first steps in defeating burnout are admitting there’s a problem and seeking help.

“I had a major problem, and I needed a solution. Fast. So I decided to use the best strategy I had: outworking the problem on my own until either it was resolved or I collapsed. It was an easy choice, really. Up until this point, I had a 100 percent success rate in winning those battles. Besides, failure wasn’t an option. I’m a man. We don’t fail, and we don’t need help.

This time I was different. I knew that because of the carpeting.

Until that point in my life, I had never spent time inspecting the nuances of the flooring of my tiny, two-bedroom condo. But there I was, planted face down in the middle of my living room floor, drenched in sweat, tears streaking down my face, anguished groans occasionally escaping my writhing body. The abrasiveness of the matted Berber carpet felt harsh on my nose, forehead, and cheeks. Its aroma, stale and slightly chemical in nature, reeked of atrophy. It was not a pretty scene.

As I lay there uncontrollably sobbing, shaking from waves of stress pulsing through my depleted body, it was clear that I wasn’t OK.”

That’s a very powerful, and poignant, passage from the introduction to Jim Young’s recently released book, titled Expansive Intimacy: How “Tough Guys” Defeat Burnout.

Young, a Northampton-based coach who calls himself the “Centered Coach,” and before that an IT executive, has become an expert on the subject at hand — burnout — and defeating it. He’s been there and done that, as we can discern from his introduction, in which he talks about an assignment to revive a major client’s IT system, one that, coupled with other factors ranging from his grandmother lying on her deathbed to being six months into divorce, sent him nosediving into that aforementioned Berber carpet.

He’s also helped others defeat burnout, but only after they managed to find the strength to do what most men strenuously resist doing — first admitting that they need help, and then getting that help.

“I often describe myself as a men’s and organizational burnout coach,” he told BusinessWest. “Because that’s who keeps finding me; that’s the work I’m most compelled to do, to help men deal with this condition we call burnout.”

“The term has gained a lot of buzz over the past few years — the pandemic has pulled the curtains back on this topic, which has really been there for a long time. I think we conflate it oftentimes with being tired or exhausted. People say, ‘I’m burned out today’ … it’s a bigger issue than that.”

In a wide-ranging conversation about his book and the broad subject of burnout, Young said this term gets thrown out almost daily in the workplace, usually with little regard for its true meaning and symptoms.

Indeed, burnout is, in most respects, a technical term. It doesn’t mean tired, or exhausted, or exasperated, he said, adding that there are several symptoms, and also what he called the “burnout spectrum” in which individuals experience some but perhaps not all of these symptoms.

Expansive Intimacy

“The term has gained a lot of buzz over the past few years — the pandemic has pulled the curtains back on this topic, which has really been there for a long time,” he explained. “I think we conflate it oftentimes with being tired or exhausted. People say, ‘I’m burned out today’ … it’s a bigger issue than that.

“The World Health Organization finally, in 2019, recognized that burnout was a workplace condition of unmanaged stress with three components,” he went on. “Exhaustion, for sure, whether we’re physically, mentally, or emotionally exhausted, but also cynicism and a lack of effectiveness; we don’t feel like we can get things done anymore, and we can start taking a cynical approach that things are never going to get better — a mentality of ‘it is what it is.’ A true case of burnout involves all three of those symptoms, and there are people all across the burnout spectrum who might be dealing with one or two of those symptoms, but not all three.”

With that broad definition, and that list of symptoms, which a great many individuals in business can relate to, how does one go about defeating burnout and put it behind them?

It starts, as Young said, with admitting that there is a problem, something he finally did, and then doing something about it rather than trying (almost always unsuccessfully) to tough it out, which is what ‘tough’ guys usually try to do.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Young about burnout, his new book, and that concept of expansive intimacy, which, in his view, is the only way to get at the root of this problem.

 

When the Heat Is On

When asked how people know, or should know, if they are burned out, Young said that he — and probably many others — don’t actually know in the moment.

“I lived on the burnout spectrum for five to seven years, and I floated through different aspects of it,” he explained. “I didn’t know it when I was in it until I looked back at it and remember not wanting to get out of bed and go to work in the morning. I felt like I was moving in wet cement as I was trying to get things done.

“To me, a lot of it is the felt sense of it, but also, how are people around me responding to me?” he went on. “And if I could be honest with myself, I would ask people, ‘hey, was I difficult to be around? Was I less effective than I was before? Did I come across as someone who never had something positive to say?’ We’re feeling like we’re not getting things done that we’re capable of. That’s the best answer for me when it comes to knowing when we’re burned out. There are assessments we can take, but I always come back to how we’re feeling and getting some perspective from other people on how I am compared to when I’m at my best.”

Elaborating, Young said people and can and often do have bad days, bad weeks, and bad months. But burnout is longer-term. It’s a persistent feeling of simply not feeling like yourself, accompanied by some physical symptoms.

“There’s a ton of practical advice that you can Google; it will talk about exercise, it will talk about diet, it will talk about shifting your work schedule and maybe even changing jobs. Those are all valid things to do; however, they’re just putting Band-Aids on symptoms. They’re not actually getting to the root cause.”

These can include indigestion, lower back pain, and other ailments that cannot be easily explained, he said, adding that these problems equate to stress building up in the body — stress that, if not relieved, will lead to deeper issues.

It’s incumbent upon individuals, and especially men, because often, they don’t listen to what their body is telling them, Young went on, adding that, if they listen hard enough — and he eventually did — they will come to understand that the problem might be burnout.

And this brings us to the next step in this assignment — deciding what to do about it, be it taking time off, finding a new job or career, seeking counseling or coaching, or some mix of the above.

“And that often depends on how crispy you are,” said Young. “Some people, when they’ve had an extreme case of burnout, really need to decompress; I’ve dealt with people who have had to take long-term leave and just not do anything for a while, but that’s not something that a lot of people can do.

“For me, when I started looking at how I defeated burnout and what I wanted to share with others, there’s a ton of practical advice that you can Google; it will talk about exercise, it will talk about diet, it will talk about shifting your work schedule and maybe even changing jobs. Those are all valid things to do; however, they’re just putting Band-Aids on symptoms. They’re not actually getting to the root cause.”

Elaborating, he said the biggest problem he had with burnout — and the problem that most people have — is the isolation and the feeling that he had to deal with it alone.

“When I pulled back all he covers, when I rewound the story, I realized that the thing that got me out of burnout was to stop isolating myself and create intimate connections in all areas of my life so I always had a place to go when my stress was built up,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this is a difficult assignment for many men.

How do they get over that hurdle?

“I think the answer to that is to look at our shame, which is not a word that guys want to talk about, but it’s there,” said Young, who related his own experiences to drive home that point. “If the reason I got into burnout was because I kept comparing myself to the men around me, to my peers, to the people who were a few steps ahead of me on the path, and feeling that I don’t measure up, then I have to double down; I have to outwork everyone. I definitely can’t ask for help; I can’t reveal any of that to anyone because then I’m going to really hear it from the guys. And that’s not OK.

“So I suffered in silence and tried to tough it out,” he went on. “The problem is, the hole kept getting deeper, and so, when I wrote the book, I knew I wanted to write about burnout, because it was a horrible experience for me, but I also knew I wanted to write about intimacy and intimate connections in every area of my life, which was actually the real antidote that got to the root cause. But I didn’t realize that I was going to see shame come up so prominently; as I interviewed dozens of men about it, I got the same story — the fear of being called out by other guys because we’re not man enough to deal with our business and we got burned out is a huge obstacle.”

 

Bottom Line

Clearing this obstacle is difficult, Young said in conclusion, but it is the first big step toward defeating burnout and moving on from it.

It’s the first step toward picking oneself up off the floor — figuratively, or, as we saw in Young’s own case, and probably many others, quite literally.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

The late Gregory Krupczak’s family say he played a significant role at Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

In many ways, Monson is a sleepy New England town with a small Main Street lined with shops, as well as small and medium-sized businesses located throughout the town, in many different industries.

But years ago, Monson was a big mill town known for its granite quarries. As mill owners sought employees, the population grew. And it’s been a resilient community through decades of change, from the decline of the quarries to a tornado that cut through the center of town 2011, causing almost $12 million in property damage.

So, even though the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out plenty of businesses worldwide, Monson was “more resilient than other places that are more dependent on business,” said Andrew Surprise, CEO of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce.

“They have a captive audience. Monson isn’t really close to a lot of businesses; I think the closest and primary shopping area would be Palmer and maybe Wilbraham, or Springfield on Boston Road. Other than that, if you need something specific … there’s an optical business. So if you need eyeglasses, you’re gonna go to the eyeglass place downtown; it makes sense. If you need to run to the pharmacy, there’s one downtown. The supermarket? Downtown. So the businesses there really serve the members that are there in the community.”

Because of the size of Monson, with just over 8,000 residents, Surprise told BusinessWest that it’s all about making the region as a whole more marketable, modeling a tourism guide off of the Newport, R.I. guide.

It includes maps and “more touristy things … like a lot of businesses and organizations that have joined the chamber, wineries, breweries,” and others that will attract tourists, he explained. And because the surrounding region is made up of smaller towns like Belchertown, Spencer, Palmer, Brimfield, and Ware, Surprise said most people don’t come to the area just for one event.

“If we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town.”

“What we find is, if we market as a region, there’s more reason to come to the region because you’re not just going for one thing in one town. You’re going, ‘OK, I can go to the Keep Homestead Museum in Monson, but I can also stop at the Brimfield Antique Fair, or I can go over here to this brewery for lunch,” Surprise said.

The thrice-yearly antique fair is an example of one attraction that raises the profile of the entire region, including Monson. “We like to draw them out into the Quaboag region because there are a lot of people that go to those shows. It’s estimated to be about 250,000 people per year.”

With the help of the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Monson was given $75,000 in grant funding for a variety of projects, including wayfinding signage for the downtown area to point out points of interest and historical sites, as well as $15,000 for events, which primarily run through the chamber in coordination with the town.

On top of the grants provided by state funding, Surprise is working with groups of businesses as well as chamber members and the town of Monson to revamp and create a Monson Business and Civic Assoc., which is essentially part of the chamber, but focused solely on Monson businesses and their marketing.

He went on to explain that this helps businesses with marketing and to create events that will attract people to their location and the downtown business corridor. The grants also allow businesses to incorporate more outdoor seating, places where people can congregate in the downtown area.

 

Family Fun

State Sen. Ryan Fattman worked closely with the chamber to put funding into the state budget, as well as into the economic-development package that just passed, providing $130,000 for agri-tourism businesses. One of the businesses that has received grant money is Echo Hill Orchards and Winery.

“We were planning on building a pavilion with it; it should actually be starting this month. And since we’re seasonal, we don’t have a whole lot of covered outdoor space, so the pavilion will allow us to have more room for people to sit outside so we don’t run out of space,” said Ashley Krupczak, manager of the winery/distillery and the second-oldest of the business’ second generation.

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery was just an apple orchard and fruit farm when the Krupczak family purchased it 25 years ago. Over the years, especially in the past decade, they’ve grown the farm into “more of a destination for families.”

They make wines, spirits, whiskeys, and moonshines out of their apples, as well as a pick-your-own orchard for families with kids of all ages. Visitors can pick pumpkins, pears, sunflowers, and peaches during their respective seasons.

But being part of Monson means working with other vendors throughout the town. During the busy harvest seasons, food-truck vendors from Monson have been invited to the orchards the past couple of years.

“It’s just such a comforting and fun thing to do to be involved with your community and have something to offer the town and have something to offer friends and family to come do at our own place,” Krupczak told BusinessWest. “Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town. And what means a real lot to us, but other people, too, is protecting the land that the orchards give us.”

Despite their apple crop depleting sooner than they’d hoped this year, the winery/distillery has brought more traffic to the orchards. Krupczak said pleasant weather was a driving factor in how well the business did. “We had great customers this year; a lot of memories were made.”

Echo Hill Orchards and Winery is completely family-owned and managed, she added. “My mom is down in the store, my sister and I work in the bar, and in the offseason, we have to prune all of the apple trees. So there’s a lot of work to be done. That’s also when we make all of our wine and our moonshine because we don’t have time in the fall season. It’s a lot of off time, but we’re still working hard, just on other things.”

Just like the Krupczak family, Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty and his team like to stay involved with his community. He said many of his employees are involved with outside organizations and charities. For example, Moriarty and Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Rouette coached youth sports for many years in town.

“Having one of the agricultural businesses in Monson means that we are taking a step in sustaining agriculture in a small town.”

“Whether it’s the arts or sports and recreation, whether it’s seniors, whether it’s education, we just try, and it’s been like that for 150 years,” Moriarty said, noting this year’s anniversary celebration of the bank’s history. “I think the bank has always wanted to be a good civic partner with the organizations in town.”

The bank currently services 429 businesses that call Monson home, from mom-and-pop shops to larger companies that employ quite a few people from in town and outside it.

“I think, and I hope, the perception of MSB is that we’re trying to work with every business in town. The one thing that we pride ourselves on is trying to give honest, prudent business advice, whether we can do a loan for a business or not,” he said. “We always try to help a customer get to a place where we can put them in a position to expand their business.”

Moriarty went on to explain that 2021 and 2022 were the bank’s historic best years from a growth perspective, and he’s confident that, despite an economy that may be heading into a recession, both consumers and businesses have been resilient coming out of the pandemic. “I would describe 2023 as an environment of uncertainty, but with the potential to have some optimism.”

 

Honoring Tradition

Krupczak agreed. Even though this year was solid, business-wise, the family is hoping for a better year in 2023, even after the loss of their oldest brother, Gregory.

“He was great at woodworking and built benches for the orchard; he’d help us make and bottle the wine and whiskeys,” she recalled. “Chris, Gregory, Mia, and I would all bottle wine together each summer. That was a big part of spending time together and making the wines; we will miss that time spent together greatly this coming year.”

She added that the family appreciates the support of everyone in Monson, especially through the hard time they’re facing. “It just showed us so much. It keeps us going.”

But, in some ways, that support isn’t surprising, Krupczak added.

“It has something to do with keeping the town small and keeping traditions alive, like the families that lived in Monson and grown up here way before we owned this.” u

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at
[email protected]

Features

This Strategy May Help You Navigate ‘Wash-sale’ Rule

By Sean Wandrei

 

It is that time of year when taxpayers are looking for ways to reduce their tax liability. It has been a volatile year for the stock and cryptocurrency markets. There may have been some capital gains generated in the beginning of the year when stocks were sold and the markets were doing better than they are now. Now, as the year has progressed, there may be stocks that you are holding that have declined in value. These stocks are ripe for tax-loss harvesting.

Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy used to recognize capital losses by selling capital assets that have declined in value to offset capital gain already recognized. If you have capital gains from stocks that you have sold during the year, you can offset those gains by selling other stocks that have declined in value to generate a capital loss. The capital losses would offset the capital gains that would reduce the amount of taxes that would be paid on those gains by eliminating them. If you end up with capital losses in excess of capital gains during the year, you can deduct up to $3,000 of the net capital loss in the current year. Any capital loss in excess of $3,000 would be carried forward and used to offset future capital gains.

Sean Wandrei

Sean Wandrei

“Tax-loss harvesting is a strategy used to recognize capital losses by selling capital assets that have declined in value to offset capital gain already recognized.”

There could be an issue with this strategy, as the ‘wash-sale rule’ could limit its effectiveness. The wash-sale rule states that, if you are deducting a loss, you cannot buy a ‘substantially identical’ stock or security for 30 days up to the date of sale and 30 days after. If you do, the capital loss may be disallowed. This could be an issue when you sell a stock that you want to stay in, just to generate a capital loss.

‘Substantially identical’ generally means you cannot sell Tesla stock and reacquire Tesla right before or after the sale. If you are selling your Tesla stock just to generate losses and still want to be in Tesla stock, you need to wait 30 days to reacquire it.

What if you are investing in cryptocurrencies? The two most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin and Ethereum, but there are hundreds more that you could invest in. Cryptocurrency prices can be volatile and widely fluctuate throughout the year. Bitcoin has dropped from a price of $66,000 per coin to $16,000 over the past year. Ethereum has seen similar declines over the year.

There may have been many investors who got into the cryptocurrency game hoping to ride the wave of optimism and are now looking at their portfolio, which shows built-in capital losses on their cryptocurrency investments. In 2014, the IRS declared cryptocurrencies to be a capital asset. As of this writing, cryptocurrencies are not stocks or securities and do not fall under the wash-sale rules. There has been some discussion in Washington, D.C. to expand the wash-sale rules to include cryptocurrencies, but as of now, that has not materialized.

If you believe in the underlying blockchain technology and the cryptocurrency associated with it, you may be a long-term investor and want to hold onto the investment believing that there will be future gains. There is an opportunity to reduce your tax liability by selling cryptocurrency that has decreased in value for a capital loss and then buy the same cryptocurrency immediately after the sale. This would not violate the wash-sale rules since cryptocurrency is not viewed as a stock or security. The capital losses generated by this strategy could be used to offset any capital gains that you may have.

Are there some risks with tax-loss harvesting? Of course there are. There is usually a transaction fee associated with buying and selling cryptocurrencies that some exchanges (such as Coinbase, Kraken, or others) charge. This fee could be as high as 4%. Does the cost of the transaction outweigh the tax savings that could be generated from this strategy? As mentioned previously, there are talks of pulling cryptocurrencies into the wash-sale rule, so this should be monitored if you are thinking about this strategy.

Lastly, while tax-loss harvesting defers your capital gains, it does not eliminate them forever. This is a strategy based on the time value of money where tax savings now can be used to invest in more capital assets that will generate income in the future.

As with any tax article, the famous last words: as always, you should see your tax professional advisor if you have any tax questions or concerns.

 

Sean Wandrei is a senior lecturer in Taxation at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst; [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says the city has made great strides when it comes to growing and diversifying an economy once dominated by GE.

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

This is a 16-acre parcel within the William Stanley Business Park, created at the site of the massive General Electric transformer manufacturing complex in Pittsfield, which closed nearly 30 years ago.

The site has been available for development for more than two decades now, said Linda Tyer, Pittsfield’s mayor for the past seven years, but there have been no takers because, in a word, this site is ‘intimidating.’

“Every time we host a business and we identify this as a potential location, they look at it, and they’re instantly intimidated because of the condition that’s in,” she explained. “It’s a big scar in the heart of our community that’s a remnant of our past. People have looked at it, and they’ve just said, ‘I can’t envision my business here.’”

Gov. Charlie Baker was in the city a few weeks ago to hand-deliver a $3 million check that might change this equation. The money will go toward infrastructure work, putting new roads in, greening the space, and other measures that will make this parcel more shovel-ready and, ultimately, a part of this city’s future, not merely its past.

“If we don’t get any interest for the next 10 years, at least it’s not this giant wound in the heart of our city,” Tyer went on, adding she is expecting plenty of interest in the years to come.

Site 9 is where we begin our look at Pittsfield, the latest installment of BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series. This is a city that has been trying to move beyond its past, and the dominating influence of GE on just about every facet of everyday life, since the company left. And in many ways, it has been making great progress.

Its economy is far more diverse and far less dependent on one company or one sector, said Tyer, adding that this was quite necessary given the devastation and outmigration that occurred when GE pulled up stakes. Today, the city boasts a few large employers — such as Berkshire Health Systems and General Dynamics — but the economy is dominated by small businesses across several sectors including manufacturing, IT, healthcare, and especially tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Those latter categories now provide a good number of jobs and have contributed to a rebirth of North Street, the main thoroughfare in the city, after it was decimated by GE’s departure, said Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, a county-wide organization focused on economic development and promotion of the region.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago,” he said, adding that a strong focus on the arts and hospitality has changed the narrative in this community.

The pandemic obviously took a heavy toll on these businesses and the overall vibrancy of Pittsfield, said Butler, but it has managed to come almost all the way back this year, with the arts venues rebounding and hospitality venues back to something approaching normal.

James Galli, general manager of the Hotel on North, so named because it is on North Street, agreed. He said the hotel is on pace to have its best year since opening in 2015, and the mix of guests that it attracts provides some good insight into Pittsfield and what now drives its economy.

“The Pittsfield of 2022 is a completely different city than it was 20 years ago.”

“We get a lot of travelers coming in from Boston and New York to go to Barrington Stage and the Colonial Theatre,” he said, citing two of the main cultural draws in the city. “We get a lot of millennials coming in for hiking and the beauty of the area, some business travelers coming in for General Dynamics and some of the area businesses in town — and it’s a good mix. We are the center of the Berkshires, so we get people staying with us for two, three, four days at a time; they’ll go down to South County or up to North County or into the Pioneer Valley, but they’ll stay with us because we’re very central and they can do a lot more if they stay with us.”

In some ways, the pandemic has actually benefited the Berkshires and especially its largest city, said those we spoke with, noting that the remote-work phenomenon has made it possible for those working for businesses in New York, Boston, and other expensive metropolitan areas to do so from virtually anywhere.

And with its high quality of life and (comparatively) low real-estate prices and overall cost of living, Pittsfield has become an attractive alternative, said Tyer, noting that the city is in the midst of a housing boom that has slowed only slightly even in the wake of rising interest rates and persistently high prices.

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

This is the largest suite among the 45 guest rooms at Hotel on North, and easily the most talked about. That’s because, as that name suggests, it’s decorated with books — some 5,000 of them by Galli’s count.

“There’s a moveable ladder, and … it looks like a library,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s everything from full sets of encyclopedias to children’s books, the Harry Potter collection; we’ve found them at tag sales over the years and made it into a unique, different type of room. It speaks for itself.”

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years.”

The library suite, which boasts about 850 square feet and goes for as much as $700 a night, depending on the season, has been occupied most every night over the past several months, said Galli, noting, again, that visitors of all kinds are coming back to Pittsfield, and to this hotel, which was created out of two historic buildings on North Street.

Business started to pick back up in June 2021 as the state essentially reopened, he said, and momentum continued to build into this year, which has yielded better numbers than the years just prior to the pandemic.

He attributes this to many factors, including some pent-up demand for travel and vacations as well as the unique nature of the hotel, which has several different kinds of rooms, each of them is unique.

“A lot of people are looking for a hotel that’s a little different — a boutique or independent hotel,” he said. “There’s a clientele that goes for the branded properties, but the people who stay with us are looking for that unique experience when they walk in the door.”

But Galli also credits Pittsfield’s resurgence in recent years, especially its cultural attractions and other quality-of-life attributes, making the city a destination for people of all ages.

Hotel on North is part of a new look and feel on North Street, said Butler, noting that the well-documented vibrancy of the GE chapter in the city’s history was followed by the dark and dismal time that he grew up in: “North Street was not a place to be in the ’90s.” The vibrancy has returned in the form of cultural attractions and new restaurants and bars.

“Pittsfield has benefited from planting its flag in the cultural and arts scene in the Berkshires; that’s a huge part of our growing economy and has been for the past 10 to 15 years,” he told BusinessWest. “You have investments like Berkshire Theatre Group with their theater in downtown Pittsfield, and Barrington Stage Company, which has become a major anchor, as well as a number of smaller cultural offerings and pop-ups and galleries in downtown Pittsfield.

“And this has been further bolstered by the emergence, over the past eight to 10 years, of a vibrant food scene — an exciting, trending type of food environment,” he went on, citing establishments, new and old, like Methuselah Bar and Lounge, Berkshire Palate (located in Hotel on North), Pancho’s Mexican Resaurant, Trattoria Rustica, Flat Burger Society, Patrick’s Pub, and Otto’s Kitchen & Comfort.

“There’s some finer dining options — downtown Pittsfield’s a great place to go host some clients if you’re a business or to have a good date night as a couple or a fancy night out with friends,” Butler explained. “But there’s also a lot of great casual offerings in downtown Pittsfield; there’s some great pubs, some great cocktail lounges. There’s also a lot of immigrant-owned businesses in downtown Pittsfield, which adds to the diversity and provides a more rich experience.”

 

At Home with the Idea

This diversification and strengthening of the city’s economy has become the main economic-development strategy for Tyer since she became mayor.

“I have some family history with General Electric — my great-grandparents were part of the GE economy,” she told BusinessWest. “And when I became mayor, I felt strongly that the economy cannot be dependent on one sector; my priority has been that we have diversity in the economy, and that includes everything from the travel, tourism, and hospitality sector to the cultural economy, and it also includes manufacturing and science and technology.”

To attract businesses across all these sectors, and to help existing companies expand, the city has created what Tyer calls its ‘red-carpet team,’ a name that hints strongly at its mission.

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
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

“We want to make sure that businesses that are here now, that are homegrown and might want to expand into a new market, expand their facilities, or grow their employment base, have the same level of support from the city of Pittsfield as we would give to a new business that wanted to start up in the city,” she explained. “We’ve been successful at balancing that approach.”

The red-carpet team consists of a number of city department leaders who work collectively to help counsel and guide a new or existing business toward fulfillment of whatever goal they might have. This integrated process enables a CEO to have one meeting, rather than several, said Tyer, adding that having everyone seated around one table enables the city to be more responsive and move more quickly.

And, overall, there have been a number of interested parties, she said, noting that the Berkshires, and Pittsfield, has a lot to offer employers, including quality of life and lower cost of living, as well as a population that is stabilizing, rather than declining, as it had been for decades.

“We have great neighborhoods, we’re still affordable, and we have beautiful outdoor recreation,” she said. “The combination of all of that is the magic that Pittsfield has going into the future.”

Much of this magic became even more forceful during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that, while most hospitality-related businesses had to shut down for an extended period, the Pittsfield area’s outdoor recreation and quality of life came more into focus for many looking to escape what COVID brought with it.

The hiking trails became even more popular, and the Berkshires — and its largest city — became an attractive alternative for those looking to escape larger cities, their congestion, and their higher costs.

“Our housing market has been on fire,” said Tyer, noting that many professionals from Boston, New York, and other major cities have moved to the Berkshires. “And I think it speaks to this phenomenon that people can be employed by a Boston firm but work from home here in Pittsfield and have all the amenities and quality of life of a small city in a beautiful region of the state.”

The housing market shows no signs of slowing, said those we spoke with, despite rising prices and, more recently, soaring interest rates as a result of Fed action to stem the tide of inflation.

“There’s still this competition, these bidding wars, for homes,” Tyer said. “And the seller is still selling; the market hasn’t really slowed down.”

This phenomenon has led to an increase in the value of homes across the city, she went on, adding that this brings benefits on many levels — everything from the city’s bond rating to its tax rate. It also creates some problems for first-time homebuyers and those looking to trade up, and rising prices within the rental market as well, creating shortages of what would be considered affordable housing.

But in the larger scheme of things, these would be considered some of those proverbial good problems to have, said the mayor, especially in a city that had seen so much hardship over the previous 30 years.

 

The General Idea

The sports teams at Pittsfield High School are still nicknamed the Generals, said Tyer, adding that this just one of the myriad ways to measure the influence that GE had in this city for the better part of a century.

But while the city can still pay homage to its past in this and other ways, it has managed to move past it in almost all others.

Yes, Site 9 and many other parcels that were part of the massive complex remain undeveloped, but overall, Pittsfield and its economy have moved on. It took some time, as it does when a city loses an employer of such magnitude, but the city’s economy, like North Street itself, has been reinvented, and vibrancy has returned.

“We’ve overcome that group depression that we all suffered, and I think there’s a lot of excitement around the art and culture economy; the small-business, science, and technology economy; and some long-standing businesses that have grown since my time in public service,” she told BusinessWest. “I think we’ve overcome the ‘we’re a dying community because we lost GE’ sentiment, and I think we’re a growing, emerging community.”

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Group Created to Stem the Brain Drain Remains Loyal to Its Roots

YPS leaders past and present
YPS leaders past and present, from left: Michael Kusek, Kathleen Plante, Ryan McCollum, Kara Bombard, Heather Clark, and Tyler Hadley.

The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. That’s not a big number, but for a ‘young’ organization, in every sense of that word, it is a significant milestone. What is being celebrated is ongoing work to carry out a mission to bring young people together, to get them involved, to help shape them into leaders, and, while they’re at it, motivate them to stay in the 413. Much has changed over those 15 years, but that important mission hasn’t.

Fifteen years.

Depending on how old you are, it’s either a long time or … a really long time.

To those who were involved in the creation of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS), it certainly seems like the latter. The city and the region have changed considerably since 2007, and their lives have as well. Most are in different jobs than they were back then, and if they were in business for themselves, their venture is probably exponentially larger and more diverse.

Meanwhile, technology and social media have advanced in ways that probably could not have been imagined back then — early meetings were all planned by email, word got out through Evite, and organizers had real rolodexes, for example — and the physical landscape has been altered; many of the venues that hosted those early gatherings of this group, from the Keg Room and Cobalt to the Skyplex nightclub and Sam’s at the Basketball Hall of Fame, have been relegated to memories.

But through all that change — and, yes, there has been a lot of it — the core mission, YPS’s reason for being, is still the same. It is a vehicle for bringing ‘young’ — and that’s young in quotation marks — people together to network, do business with one another, learn, grow, get involved, consider the problems of the region and the world, and maybe discuss some ideas for solving a few.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room. Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

While doing all that, it has made the phrase ‘Third Thursday,’ the traditional gathering night, part of the local lexicon, a tradition that has endured.

The motto back then was ‘live, work, play, and stay,’ with the last word perhaps being the most critical, said Mike Kusek, noting that it was added to convey the importance of keeping young talent graduating from area colleges and universities in this region and minimizing the brain drain that was considered a major problem for the region.

“It was always hard to get a lot of young people in a room,” he said of those days. “Everyone was asking, ‘how are they finding their community?’”

Kusek is one of those founding members, if you will, who has seen his life and career change considerably since 2007. Back then, he was handling marketing for the Valley Advocate. Today, he is the founder and publisher of Different Leaf, a publication dedicated to all things cannabis, especially the growing industry within Massachusetts and across the country (talk about a major change in the local landscape!).

Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.
Mayor Domenic Sarno, right, was among the attendees at one of the early YPS gatherings.

He is one of several founders, as well as some current officers of YPS, who gathered for a roundtable to talk about YPS as it marks 15 years, a milestone that provided a time for reflection on how it got started, what has been accomplished, how the group has evolved, and what might come next.

As to that last question … a 15th-anniversary party is part of the answer. Those at the table agreed that one is certainly needed, and a format and date will come later.

As to those other questions … those at the table agreed that YPS has succeeded with its original mission, but it has also expanded it to include education — through initiatives like its early CEO Roundtables, where members could ask questions of leading area executives — and also involvement (YPS helped spawn the Onboard event aimed at recruiting young people, women, and diverse populations to serve on the boards of area nonprofits), charity, and even politics by encouraging members to register to vote (as part of the national Rock the Vote movement) and staging ‘meet-the-candidates’ gatherings.

The process of evolution continues, and it was accelerated in many ways by the pandemic, said Heather Clark, event manager for Baystate Children’s Hospital and the Baystate Health Foundation, the current president of YPS, noting that the group managed its way through that difficult time by bringing people together through Zoom meetings and finding new and different ways to connect young people and channel their collective energy.

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently,” she explained, adding that, now that COVID is essentially over, the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to determine what the future will look like in terms of where and how members will connect — with each other and the community. “We’re still trying to figure out what that looks like.”

“The pandemic made us look at how we do events and how we meet people differently.”

Tyler Hadley, director of Marketing for DDS Acoustical Specialties LLC in Westfield, and current co-vice president of the board, agreed.

“We’re trying to meet people where they’re at,” he explained. “Fifteen years ago, young people wanted to get out and do something; now, young professionals may just want to go on a website and look through a business directory. There’s always a place for the in-person gatherings, but we have to look at what else people are looking for.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several current and past leaders of YPS about this organization’s place in the region and within its business community, and about how the process of evolution will continue.

Young Ideas

As they talked about that first, very memorable gathering of YPS back in 2007, those founders (we won’t call them old-timers) we spoke with could remember many things, but especially the lines formed outside the Keg Room on Main Street, the huge crowds that gathered inside, the surprise with those numbers (especially on the part of some chamber and economic-development leaders who had expressed doubts about such an initiative), and the satisfaction that came with those numbers and how they validated the concept.

“We put the word out, there were lines down the street … the place was packed,” said Kathleen Plante, who was handling membership and events for what was then the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield and is now an advertising consultant for BusinessWest. “The leaders of the chamber and EDC [Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council] were shocked by the size of the turnout.”

Those founders just couldn’t remember the date of that memorable gathering.

From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.
From the beginning, one of the stated goals of YPS has been to give young people a place to gather and connect with one another.

Most recalled that it was warm. Most thought it had to be early fall, while others were convinced it was late summer. But a quick check of some early news stories on their phones revealed that the first meeting was in July.

Still, while the actual date is not etched into those founders’ minds, the motivation behind creation of the group certainly was.

Indeed, many can come from other markets — Plante from Seattle, and Ryan McCollum from Boston, where he worked at the State House, for example — where such groups were commonplace. With one voice, they were asking two questions: ‘why don’t we have a group like that?’ and ‘why don’t we start one?’

“I was working for Dave Panagore, then the chief Economic Development officer in Springfield, after coming back from Boston and working in the state Senate — and there were a bunch of young professional groups out there that I was a part of,” McCollum, now a political consultant and lobbyist, recalled. “I asked him almost in passing, ‘why we didn’t have anything like this,’ and he said, ‘why don’t you call down to the chamber and the EDC and find out?”

Plante recalled that there were already many discussions going on about a group for young professionals, and a core group of business and nonprofit leaders — including herself, Kusek, Tricia Canavan with the Springfield Public Forum, Michelle Sade with United Personnel Services, Maria Burke with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, Alyssa Carvallo with the EDC, and Taryn Markham Siciliano at the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce — took the ball, ran with it, and started planning what would the first Third Thursday, even though that name would come later.

From the start, the idea was to bring young people together, on the theory that doing so would, first and foremost, give such people something fun to do with people their own age — or close to their own age. And in the early days, that’s mostly what it was, with gatherings that certainly helped many of the bar and club owners that were bringing a new vitality to downtown Springfield.

So much so, in fact, that YPS developed — and had to fight back against — a reputation of being a party group. But it only fought so hard, said Kusek, adding that it was created to give young people a place to go, a reason to want to stay in this market. Social gatherings with adult beverages are part of that equation.

“There’s real value in that,” he said. “There’s all this talk about the brain drain at the colleges … 22-year-olds want to do what 22-year-olds do, and if your city or town doesn’t give that social outlet and opportunities that 20- and 30-somethings want, then you’re never going to retain them for jobs; they didn’t graduate from college to be a drone.”

McCollum agreed. “There was a thirst and desire to do something like that, and a lot of it was social,” he said of the early days, adding the requisite ‘no pun intended.’ “For 15 years, it’s been Third Thursday, and that’s really cool.”

Today … and Tomorrow

From the beginning, the word ‘young’ in Young Professional Society has always been a relative term. While the broad implication is that it is for people under 40, this has never been a benchmark, much less a requirement.

“You can be young of age, you can be starting a career, you can be 40 years or older starting a new career,” Hadley said. “There’s lots of ways to be ‘young.’”

And YPS has celebrated all of them through a progress of birth, growth, evolution, and diversification, said Plante, adding that one of the early steps was to create a path toward sustainability.

This was accomplished by establishing a board of directors and officers and generating revenue through membership, which comes on several tiers, from ‘partner business membership’ to nonprofit and student membership, as well as sponsorships, events (beyond Third Thursday, such as the annual golf tournament and dodgeball tournament), some bylaws, and endeavors such as the CEO Luncheons.

By giving YPS that needed structure, the organization was able to move past that ‘party group’ reputation, to some extent, and become a stronger force within the local business community.

Today, the attendance at Third Thursday events is a fraction of what it was in the beginning, say the current board leaders. (The after-party at BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty gala in June was a notable exception.)

There are many reasons for this, but among the clearest is the fact that there are now several organizations devoted to young professionals. Indeed, each county now has its own, and some businesses, including MassMutual, have their own groups, which have the same basic mission — to bring young people together to connect.

Meanwhile, the pandemic forced groups like YPS, which currently boasts roughly 140 members, to come together in different ways, including Zoom, and now, hybrid formats have become the most popular option, and for a reason — they make it easier and more convenient for people to take part.

But Third Thursday lives on, and at a wide variety of venues across the region, including the Boathouse in South Hadley, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, the Town Tap in Agawam, Hardwick Winery, and even a local Fred Astaire Dance Studio.

“They gave everyone a quick, 30-minute group dance lesson; it was a lot of fun,” said Hadley, adding, as others did, that with COVID receding into the past tense, there is more of a willingness on the part of many people to get out and attend events again.

Events like a membership drive at Paper City Bar and Grille in Holyoke, staged in conjunction with the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, that drew more than 170 people, said Clark. “I think that event really showed that people want to get back out,” she noted, adding that Third Thursdays remain just part of the equation.

Indeed, YPS carries out its mission the same way it has since the beginning, by bringing people together and getting them involved. There is camaraderie, learning — a series of Leadership Luncheons continues — and team building, through events such as an annual ‘golf escape,’ as it’s called, and an adult field day — the modern-day dodgeball tournament — which is just what it sounds like, a series of team field events that test “speed, wits, and strength (minimal).”

“The winning team gets to choose a charity of their choice for a donation,” said Clark, adding that the event drew 20 teams in its first year and has grown consistently in recent years. Meanwhile, the annual golf tournament continues to thrive as well.

Moving forward, YPS will continue to survey its members and the community at large to determine what they want and need from a young-professionals group, said Hadley, adding that, through such research, the group can continue to provide value to the many constituents it serves, including the region’s business community.

“We would love more data so we can go back to businesses and explain why this is valuable,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, since the beginning, providing value to those involved has been part of the mission.

Bottom Line

Over the past 15 years, YPS has helped spawn several business partnerships, some new ventures among members, some personal relationships, and even a marriage or two.

Mostly, though, it has succeeded in doing what it was created to do: bring young people together, get them involved and keep them involved, keep them in this region, and, overall, more effectively harness the energy and talents of those young people to make this a better place to live and work — and play and stay.

Fifteen years later, this is certainly something to celebrate — and there will eventually be a party. More importantly, there will be more chapters written in this unfolding story — a success story on many different levels.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

The Children’s Chime Tower has been in use since 1785.

 

In a small town where art and culture have long been powerful economic and tourism drivers, the pandemic has been a hurdle — but one many Stockbridge institutions have weathered with aplomb.

Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG), said the town and its surrounding communities understand the importance of keeping live shows going and continuing on with normal life.

“There is no accounting how much the arts do for the community, both economically and sort of socially and spiritually, if you will,” she told BusinessWest.

The Berkshire Theatre Group was created in 2010 by the merger of two of Berkshire County’s oldest cultural organizations, Berkshire Theatre Festival, founded in 1928 in Stockbridge, and the Colonial Theatre, built in 1903 in Pittsfield.

BTG encompasses two stages in Stockbridge: the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse. The Playhouse was established in 1928 when the Stockbridge Casino was sold to Walter Clark; he called a few friends, and together, they formed the Three Arts Society.

The Three Arts Society remodeled the casino’s interior by adding a stage and seating for 450 people and christened the new theater the Berkshire Playhouse. And the rest was history — literally.

“If you go through the history of the Playhouse, it mirrors the history of the American theater. We have an incredible collection of archives and stars as luminous as James Cagney, Al Pacino, Katherine Hepburn, Holly Hunter, Cynthia Nixon — they’ve all performed on that stage,” Maguire said. “And often, when folks walk onto that stage at the Playhouse, they’ll say, ‘I have to be here at least once in my life or my career is not complete.’”

By the 1980s, the Unicorn Theatre became a home for new and experimental work, and in 1992, it hosted cabaret acts from New York City and a workshop-style production. In 1996, the Unicorn was reopened after a lengthy renovation and became Berkshire Theatre Festival’s official second stage. The now-U-shaped performance center, located in the barn, boasts 122 seats.

Today, the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse hold performances of both classics and new works for locals and tourists. BTG even made it possible for those to still gather during the height of the pandemic in 2020. BTG hosted outdoor productions of Godspell during the summer and Truman Capote’s Holiday Memories in December; the former was the only Actors’ Equity Assoc. live production being staged in the U.S. at the time.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 2,018
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.38
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

As for the latter, “in 13- to 20-degree weather, the audiences came,” Maguire said. “They were so hungry for theater and to be together again. Everybody was spaced, everyone was masked. But we kept going, and I think, because we have been able to keep our audiences safe, people have trusted us through the pandemic.”

 

Things to Do and Places to See

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer year-round.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work. The museum houses more than 100,000 original items from Rockwell’s life, including working photographs, letters, personal calendars, fan mail, and business documents.

Of the 20 studios that he worked in, Rockwell said the one he owned in Stockbridge was his “best studio yet.” The museum has turned back the clock to an earlier, active period in his career: October 1960, when he was hard at work on his painting, “Golden Rule,” which would later appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

Another popular cultural destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which straddles the Stockbridge-Lenox line. The summer 2023 season featured offerings ranging from Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band to a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert with BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons leading a program of Bernstein’s “Opening Prayer,” Bernstein’s “Symphony No. 2 the Age of Anxiety,” and Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring.”

Kate Maguire

“The first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes. They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again.”

Among the museums and shops downtown is the historical Children’s Chimes Tower, which recently underwent some renovations. The bell tower was built on the site of the original church in Stockbridge, which stood there from 1739 until 1785. The church was established by John Sergeant, a missionary who moved to Stockbridge to convert the Mahican people, a local indigenous tribe, to Christianity. He served there until his death in 1749 and was replaced by Jonathan Edwards, the former Northampton pastor and prominent theologian who helped influence the First Great Awakening. Edwards remained in Stockbridge until 1758.

The Children’s Chimes bell tower in front of the current church was built in 1878 by David Dudley Field II in honor of his grandchildren, with the intention that “it will be a memorial of those who are enshrined in my heart, while the ringing of the chimes at sunset I trust will give pleasure to all whose good fortune is to live in this peaceful valley.” Today, almost 140 years later, it is still rung, according to his wishes, every evening between Memorial Day and Labor Day at 5:30 p.m.

 

Culture and Community

The creative economy keeps Stockbridge running. Whether it is the local museums, shops, restaurants, or shows at the Unicorn Theatre and the Playhouse, there are plenty of ways to experience culture.

“Doing Holiday Memories that winter of 2020 was a remarkable experience. I mean, the first few moments of all of those shows that we did, I would watch the audience drop their heads and lift them, and you could see tears coming down their eyes,” Maguire recalled. “They were not only together again, even though the audience members were all socially distanced, but they were reminded of what it means to be human again — because that’s what we do in a theater, right? So the culturals in the Berkshires are the driving force of the economy here.”

If someone sees a show, she explained, they will likely have a bite to eat at a local restaurant. Meanwhile, programs run by BTG bring in school-aged children who may later work in the box offices or house management, or take a summer job with the theater group. Annually, BTG hires about 700 people.

The group also makes almost 2,000 tickets available to community members who wouldn’t otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford coming to the theater. Sensory-friendly performances are also an option, Maguire said, “so for those members of our community that may have autism or may not be able to be in a room with loud noise, we make sure that one of our performances is specifically dedicated to making everyone feel comfortable at the theater.”

The arts and culture sector has always been a driving force in Stockbridge, and its resilience during — and recovery from — the pandemic has certainly been a performance worth hailing.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Anna Farrington says First Fridays are bringing out lots of locals, as she had hoped.
Photo by Ben Lamb

In a small city like North Adams, Ben Lamb says, economic growth is easy to see.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow; I believe there were at least six or seven small businesses that opened downtown over the last year,” said Lamb, director of Economic Development at 1Berkshire. “Some of those are growing even at this point; they’re expanding.”

In the past two years, small niche businesses have been moving into a downtown area where Lamb thinks people are looking for more than just a transaction; they’re looking for an experience.

The Plant Connector is a good great example of a shop that started very small on Eagle Street and, within the period of the pandemic, “scaled up fivefold from one footprint to another” because business was so strong, he noted.

However, while business has been strong, Nico Dery, Business Development director for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce, noted that there seems to have been less tourism this summer than in recent summers, with the possible exception of festival weekends.

“Historically speaking, there’s always been a smattering of small businesses downtown, and we’ve seen that number grow.”

“It’s all kind of speculation why that could be, but I do think that a part of it is the lift on COVID restrictions,” she explained. “People aren’t traveling as close to home as they would be. So we’re losing some of those tourists from Boston or New York who might be going abroad or somewhere else within the country rather than making the short trip over to the Berkshires.”

Lamb agreed. “That’s where the downtown small-business community can rise to the occasion,” he said, adding that business that can identify opportunities can make a workable business model out of a fairly niche opportunity.

 

Creative Businesses Surging

In 2015, Lamb founded the NAMAZING Initiative, a community-based organization focused on increasing the lovability of North Adams through creative placemaking in an effort to drive organic economic development. Through the effort, he and his team created points of excitement and attraction to get people to invest and look at what they could do in downtown North Adams.

“Now it’s the businesses themselves that are self-propelling,” he said. “If you see a cool business and then you see a vacant storefront next door, you want to be in that space next door to them.”

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

Jenny Wright says the vending machine at MASS MoCA has brought joy to not only the artists, but visitors too.

With the help of 1Berkshire, NAMAZING was able to directly invest and help set up pop-up shops to help small, niche businesses have a space on their own until they could hit the ground running.

For example, Walla-Sauce and Conscientious Cloth, two young businesses, are co-sharing a common space. Lamb explained that, with the resources provided to start up an operation for a three-month stint, they were able to extend their lease past the three months because they’re seeing enough business and revenue to do that.

“The First Fridays program that’s been going on over the summer — that’s spearheaded by two downtown property and business owners that wanted to see that sort of activity on a monthly business — really catalyzed something exciting over the past year,” he added. “And when you look at all of those opportunities, it also draws more attention to downtown.”

Anna Farrington, creator of First Friday events, owner and primary curator of Installation Space, and owner and principal designer at Anna Farrington Arts & Design, teamed up with Andrew Fitch to work on closing Eagle Street in downtown North Adams to specifically draw people to the local businesses.

Last spring, Farrington thought there was something missing downtown after the end of Down Street Art, hosted by MCLA; street art was starting to draw crowds at this time. Other communities like Pittsfield, Brattleboro, and Boston had a First Friday events program in place and had a lot of positive feedback. She then went business to business downtown and asked if and how they might participate in the First Friday events. Unanimously, the response was “yes, let’s do it.”

“First Fridays is a grassroots initiative; that means businesses participate at a level in which they’re comfortable,” Farrington told BusinessWest. “And the gallery [Installation Space] has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events.”

Installation Space was opened five years ago to provide a space for installation artists where they could show their work without the pressures of a typical art gallery, where artists are expected to make sales and the gallery would then make commissions.

“It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

There are typically up to four or five shows over the course of the year. Each show will have an opening reception that also takes place on First Fridays; “it’s a way to sort of maximize that appeal to people to come down to First Fridays,” Farrington said.

The gallery has been instrumental in helping to organize some of the First Friday events, drawing in artists, artisans, and locals. The inaugural First Friday event was held in August; a block party on the street featuring live music and games drew a successful turnout.

In September, Farrington and her team held a community picnic where a 100-foot-long dinner table was set up, thanks to the American Legion. Locals were asked to bring their takeout or picnics and come down and have dinner on the street together.

“It was very successful. I’m looking forward to doing that again next year,” said Farrington, who, at the time she spoke with BusinessWest, was planning the October First Friday event on Oct. 7, an Eagle Street night market. “We’ll be having 20 vendors on the street, including the Berkshire Cider Project.”

With the creative-economy surge in downtown North Adams, the First Friday events aren’t the only place local artists and artisans are able to share their work in more creative ways. Jenny Wright, director of Strategic Communications & Advancement at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA), emphasized that they’re not just artists; “they are savvy entrepreneurs who understand the risk of starting a business during a pandemic” — and the risk is paying off.

 

Modern Ideas

For example, an artists’ collective repurposed a vending machine to sell art on MASS MoCA’s campus, which also promotes the local businesses that created the art. But that isn’t the only thing the museum is doing to help stimulate the new creative economy surge.

“It’s interesting because, in every strategic plan I think MASS MoCA has ever been involved with, there’s been a priority of making sure that patrons that visit MASS MoCA also visit downtown,” Wright said. “It’s one thing to just point a global audience in the general direction of Main Street and send them on their way; it’s another thing altogether to be a full partner and develop a shared vision for what they encounter once they get there.”

Historically, the city of North Adams has struggled physically and psychologically because of the overpass dividing MASS MoCA and the creative downtown. Even though the environment is improving, it is still an ongoing struggle to get people off the gallery’s campus.

In 2018, the North Adams Exchange was a research study, a collaboration between the city of North Adams, the downtown business community, the NAMAZING Initiative, and MASS MoCA to go into the city and determine how to create tactical and tangible ways of pulling people from the museum into downtown.

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally. Photo by Tricia McCormack

Because of the pandemic, Ben Lamb says, more dollars are being spent locally.
Photo by Tricia McCormack

The organizations created a pop-up space that was like an indoor park, with yard games, activities for kids, and a stage for music events. There was also a pop-up business that sold an array of North Adams-made items from artists and others. The initial pop-up park is where MASS MoCA then invested “a not-so-insignificant amount of money and resources” to make Big Bling Park, Wright said.

“That was like a great litmus test to see what can be done to actually pull those people in,” Lamb said. “MASS MoCA is really trying things, novel approaches, and seeing what sticks. I think having them there as a creative partner is really important because they’re used to that process that happens in the arts. And when you can apply that to planning and movement through a city, you can get some really interesting results.”

The museum’s new director, Kristy Edmunds, has made it her priority to really get to know the community, its people, and individual businesses, Wright added.

One event she hopes will spark more momentum is the museum’s annual gala, historically held in New York, which is moving back to North Adams. The museum is hosting the gala to coincide with the opening of E.J. Hill’s exhibition, Break Run Helix, in Building 5.

“I really think MASS MoCA has an opportunity to help as a catalyst for these creative businesses and in the creative economy of North Adams by partnering with the city, bringing in artists and creative producers from other parts of the country or other parts of the world, to partner with some of these local business that are starting,” Wright said. “That’s where I see our value moving forward.”

North Adams is ready to take this momentum and run with it. MASS MoCA will continue to hold live events throughout the year, from performances by national touring bands like Soccer Mommy to a roundtable with mixed-media artist Rose B. Simpson.

Dery added that retail shops and restaurants in town will congregate to see how the city can drum up business. One idea to reactivate the storefronts downtown is to decorate them with Christmas lights so people can enjoy dressed-up windows for the holiday season.

“I’m also excited, if the businesses are on board with this, to continue our Plaid Friday initiative and Plaid-urday, which is a grassroots initiative,” she said. “Instead of shopping in big-box stores or online for Black Friday, you spend your money in your community, so it stays local.”

Lamb explained that, because of the pandemic and locals working remotely, those dollars were brought back to the community and stayed there versus going to the city where the person was working. Even though people have built habits around the small businesses close to home, there is still a balancing act that every business needs to figure out for themselves in terms of what their customer base is.

 

Taking Stock of the Future

Businesses are prepared for things to slow down for the winter, but they still need to have a critical customer base, so they try to connect with the local community in whatever ways they can to garner support.

“Maybe that’s around pricing, maybe that’s around what they’re offering, doing special gift-card options. It’s really figuring out what is the thing that you can offer to the local market that is going to keep your doors open during the slow times,” Lamb said. “The businesses that take the time to do an analysis on sales and where their customers are coming from, and what those customers are buying, are the most informed and, therefore, the most able to pivot seasonally to fit the market. We’re seeing more businesses that are conscientious of that; they track metrics very intentionally and are planning that before even opening their doors.”

Meanwhile, he and other business leaders are pleased that North Adams is growing — and its creative economy booming — with the help of local partners taking the initiative to make the city a more attractive location for locals and tourists alike.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery

The new Pafumi’s Pizza and Scantic River Brewery building creates a family-friendly hangout spot on Main Street.

As he talked about the new home for Scantic River Brewery in Wilbraham, Dave Avery stressed repeatedly that this will be much more than a facility to make beer — although that will happen, too.

“This is a place where people can come and hang out,” said Avery, co-owner of Scantic River with Dave Buel, as he discussed the new setting on Main Street and the taproom planned for it. “The location is extra special for us because it’s right in the community, and we’re looking at this as much more than just a beer-making place.”

It will be a destination, he noted, adding that Scantic River will share the facility, now under construction, with Pafumi’s Pizzeria, long a staple in the community, in an intriguing business development that will bring more visitors, and vibrancy, to an already-busy business corridor in this mostly residential community that also has a diverse, and growing, collection of businesses both large and small.

Overall, maintaining a critical balance — between welcoming new businesses and the many benefits they bring and maintaining the small-town vibe and high quality of life this town is known for — has been the mission of town officials for decades now, said Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning & Community Development director.

Michelle Buck

Michelle Buck

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase.”

She told BusinessWest that the town has long seen steady growth in its economy and business community, and it is the goal of town officials to continue that pattern.

“There hasn’t been explosive growth; it’s just been steady increase after steady increase,” she noted.

Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce (ERC5), agreed. The growth she is seeing comes from people who have taken time to explore their passions; that little business that they thought would be a side hustle is really taking off and being produced on a larger scale. She added that Boston Road and Main Street are the central hubs for activity.

“There’s a lot of great places on Boston Road; it is very well-traveled, and there’s so many wonderful shops and restaurants and businesses there,” she said. “The Gratti Shop just opened; Sandy from the Scented Garden has been there for so many years. If you’re traveling to and from, you can pull into Delaney’s Market and pick up a meal. We’ve got Fieldcrest Brewery on that strip as well. The roller-skating rink is there … we’ve got a lot of stuff to do, and there’s a lot of businesses to visit.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores this ‘stuff,’ and how it has come together — with more on the way — to make this town a great place to live, work, and start a business.

 

Draught Choice

Those sentiments describe the thought process that compelled Avery and Buel to make Wilbraham their new mailing address.

And the location on Main Street essentially sealed the deal, said Buel, because it allows this venture to get to the critical next level in its growth and development.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.49
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.49
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

“We kept hearing about people wanting to come to our brewery, and a lot of people were asking about hosting events, birthday parties, and stuff like that,” he explained. “So there were opportunities there, and we decided we needed to build a taproom. We realized we’re really missing an opportunity there. We decided to look around, and this place on Main Street in Wilbraham just looked like the ideal location for us.”

Avery and Buel have been brewing for more than a decade; they are from the area, and their daughters went to school together and played on the same sports teams.

Because they were both interested in exploring their passion, Buel started formulating recipes, and the partners started brewing beers in the back of Buel’s garage. They quickly outgrew the small system when their brand began to grow momentum. They then opened a brewing and distribution warehouse in Hampden.

Scantic River Brewery has been able to expand its distribution to Long Island, Upstate New York, Cape Cod, and the area east of Worcester; their labels are sold in 150 Market Basket locations around Massachusetts. But with a growing popularity comes increasing demand.

“The industry changes quite readily in every aspect that you can imagine between ingredient changes and style changes. And as part of those changes, the bottling turned to 16-ounce cans, or cans in general, like overnight,” Avery said. “Within a year, we had to quickly change that. So it became a little harder to do the canning in the garage — the bottling wasn’t terribly hard, but that kind of forced us to switch. Plus the volumes were picking up, so that’s where we had to get better capability.”

Buel added that, if not for the location and people in Wilbraham, the two might well have given up on the constantly changing industry. Instead, they are taking their venture in a new and intriguing direction.

Avery and Buel originally approached Mark Pafumi, co-owner of Pafumi’s Pizza, about leasing space in the proposed building, but then decided to buy into the property along with another investor. “We felt that owning and renting to ourselves made a lot of sense, as opposed to renting from someone else,” Avery said.

Three historical buildings, including the Landry, Lyons, and Whyte Real Estate office, were demolished to allow space for a new joint facility. The new location will be about 8,000 square feet, featuring two outdoor dining areas — one for each business — a taproom in the rear, Pafumi’s Pizza restaurant in the front facing Main Street, a small rental area for outdoor performers, and a second story of apartments.

Scantic River Brewery owners

Scantic River Brewery owners Dave Avery, left, and Dave Buel, with Catherine Avery, who designs logos for their beers

“We wanted to make it bigger and better to suit our needs, the needs of Scantic River, and the needs of the community,” said Pafumi, noting, as Buel and Avery did, that the new facility will be a true destination.

“The restaurant and the brewery will bring some life — there will be a lot of added foot traffic,” he said. “The center is the most heavily foot-trafficked area in the whole town; we’re a restaurant for the community, a place to bring your family.”

 

School of Thought

Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) is looking at taking a couple of spots in the apartments as well, according to Barone. Because the school serves a diverse population of international students from 34 countries, families will need space to come and visit.

WMA was created in 1971, a time when the prep schools of New England began to merge, often with a school for girls merging with a school for school for boys, creating a coed institution.

“It was a good business strategy for the time; times were tight during the 1970s,” said Brian Easler, head of school at WMA. “It was a way for schools to tighten their budgets and eliminate a lot of their debt all at the same time. But Wilbraham Academy & Monson Academy were both all-boy schools, so the merger didn’t go quite as smoothly — they were archrivals for sports. It was kind of a tricky situation.”

Since then, the school has grown exponentially, a pattern that continued even during the pandemic.

“In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

Indeed, Easler told BusinessWest that the school was able to stay open during the pandemic when many public institutions had to close their doors and resort to remote learning. Through rapid antigen testing and taking precautions as early as the summer of 2020, WMA was able to keep its positivity and transmissions rates relatively low throughout its community. Astoundingly, only 50 international students were not able to travel to the U.S. due to travel restrictions.

Surveing the current landscape at WMA, Easler said it is very close to business — or school — as usual, only with even better recruiting of top students.

“I had a senior faculty member, someone who’s been here longer than me, tell me the other day that the incoming class this year is the strongest group of students she’s seen in his 30 years at the academy,” Easler told BusinessWest. “We had one of our best college-admission lists in recent memory, and I’ve been here for about 25 years; I think it was our strongest college-admissions list yet.”

Students are excited to return to a normal school year, he continued. Classes are filling up, and families are having to be turned down. WMA is a nonprofit — all of the money that comes into the school goes to support the school, finding a way to “flood back out” to the community through consultants, service providers, contractors, and employees that live in the area — not to mention the 400 customers every year for the businesses in the center of town.

In short, WMA is an economic driver in the community, Easler said.

Brian Easler

Brian Easler said WMA’s 400 students add to the economic vibrancy in town.

Barone agreed. When school is back in session, Wilbraham’s economy grows, she said, adding that the Village Store and Rice’s Fruit Farm are in walking distance from the academy, along the side of historical Main Street.

“They’re engaged in shopping in the area — they’re visiting that Boston Road sector, they’ll go out and shop for the holidays, and they’re buying gifts to bring home to mom, dad, siblings, and so forth,” Barone said. “When their parents come to visit, they’re going out to dinner, and they’re doing all that Wilbraham has to offer. In a lot of ways, the academy is a smaller version of a college. We don’t have the amount of students that colleges do, but we do have a strong amount of students that do impact the economy in a positive way.”

 

What’s on Tap?

As noted earlier, Avery and Buel are looking at their new home as more than just a beer-making place; it’s a place to hang out and unwind. With local breweries like Iron Duke, Fieldcrest, and Vanishing Valley all within 30 minutes of each other, opportunities for collaboration abound.

“I’m sure we’ll collaborate on some things with them, maybe get a beer-trail type of thing going. We can get together as a group and somehow figure something out,” Avery said. “Rice’s is right down at the other end of Main Street, and there’s a sidewalk that runs the full-length between us; we could possibly do things there, like road races.”

Overall, it’s an exciting new development in a community that has put a premium on balancing business with quality of life, and only one of many stories to watch in the months and years to come.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

Great Barrington came to life with the help of weekend performances by Berkshire Busk!

Like most communities that rely on tourism and hospitality to anchor their economies, Great Barrington was hit hard by COVID-19, with its lively downtown coming to a virtual standstill in the early months of the pandemic and recovery coming slowly amid different surges in 2021 and even early this year.

But in recent months, this community, the hub of the Southern Berkshires, is starting to look like its old self — with some wrinkles and some businesses in new places, as we’ll see. Which means its restaurants, clubs, and cultural attractions are thriving, and people from near and somewhat far are once again finding Great Barrington.

“Everything kind of filled in accordingly,” said Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, referring to both the calendar of events and downtown real estate. “The normal things that have happened, even if they had their hiatus during COVID, are back and seem to be back in full swing.”

This past summer has been a good one for the community as higher gas prices prompted more day tripping, said Andrus, adding that there was considerable pent-up demand for all that Great Barrington has to offer — from brewpubs to a wide range of dining options to an eclectic mix of shops — and business owners took full advantage of the opportunities afforded them.

Town Manager Mark Pruhenski agreed.

“This past summer has been incredible for Great Barrington,” he said. “There were a number of events taking place, such as the popular summer concert series every Wednesday and Friday, the Fire Department’s annual car show, and the farmer’s market that is held every Saturday.”

One of the most popular events this summer made a return after its COVID hiatus. Berkshire Busk! took advantage of the close-knit nature of the town’s businesses and offered many different types of entertainment in different locations. For its third year, weekends between Memorial Day and Labor Day were packed with magic, performing arts, music, and more.

“It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors. But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”

“I’ve lost count of how many weekends they had multiple performers at different venues,” Andrus told BusinessWest. “It exposed the public to so many different local artisans and it was very popular with visitors and locals.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Great Barrington, which hasn’t put COVID in its rear-view mirror, but is definitely looking to even better times down the road.

 

Picking Up the Pace

Andrus noted that, as businesses started to get back into their groove, there was what she called “a great rotation” throughout Great Barrington’s downtown area — businesses moving from one location to another as spaces become available.

This phenomenon changed the landscape in a minor way, but it added a new element to a central business district that has always been a popular destination.

“Everything is about 10 minutes apart at least; it wasn’t very far apart, but they moved,” Andrus said. “I think the choices people made were great.”

She went on to explain that some of the popular restaurants and stores had to change their hours or close certain days mostly because of a persistent workforce crisis, but also “for their own sanity,” as business returned to downtown venues and in a big way, even amid the higher gas prices and skyrocketing inflation.

Pruhenski concurred. “It’s difficult to say if inflation has impacted tourism because it didn’t seem to impact the number of visitors,” he said. “But inflation is certainly impacting purchasing and project costs for the town, and housing challenges remain a high priority.”

Andrus agreed, noting that, with the inflating value of land and housing, people are struggling to find good, reasonably priced housing. Great Barrington and other outlying towns are hoping to find a solution because “people deserve clean, affordable housing in a good location.”

As summer draws to a close, another important and traditionally vibrant time begins for Great Barrington and the Southern Berkshires. The community has a number of events on tap to keep tourists and locals busy and intrigued. Cultural venues will go on with their events until the end of the fall foliage or until it gets too cold to hold events outdoors.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

Betsy Andrus says events like Berkshire Busk! exposed the public to many different local artisans and performers.

“Outdoor dining will continue until it gets too cold,” Andrus said. “I think the fall will not be as busy as the summer, but it will still be very busy.”

Coming up at the end of September is the Festival Latino, which is always very popular among tourists and locals. It features Latin American folkloric dance and music performances, language and cultural activities, artisans, and Latin cuisine vendors.

Meanwhile, the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce is introducing its new video series. Great Barrington has a full menu of dining options, said Andrus, and if people want to see what the town has to offer, they can visit the “Chefs of the Berkshires” series and purchase one video for $10 or $60 for the entire series of 13 restaurants, a savings of more than 50%.

“It’s a way to show people that this is what’s going on in this area; some of it highlights the location, too,” Andrus said. “This whole series is to get people more acquainted with the area. And if they live here, we want to show them there is more than just the restaurant they’re used to going to — we want them to branch out.”

She noted that 50% of revenues generated by the program are given back to the restaurants to help them meet the considerable challenges of these times, including workforce issues, rising prices, and other lingering effects of COVID. “And I want to be able to hand them a big check.”

Another video series the chamber has introduced is “Tour the Berkshires,” a tour package that introduces people to recreation in the Berkshires. Visitors are able to book a weekend of activities if they live in the area or if they’re from out of town and need lodging.

“They’ll go through a whole weekend schedule: there’s yoga and stretching classes, Reiki, dinner at the breweries, renting bikes for a self-guided 20 mile ride, and hiking,” Andrus explained. “There’s a ton of stuff to do here. It’s a whole weekend of activities and food.”

 

Bottom Line

Andrus told BusinessWest that Great Barrington has long been a destination — for people from this state, neighboring New York, and even beyond. Visitors have been drawn to the different kinds of attractions and came knowing they could find old favorites as well as something new.

And that remains true today. Different venues, such as the Chesterwood museum, Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, St. James Place, and Barrington Public Theater all have their own schedules, and they’ll keep producing plays, musicals, and events through the end of the fall season.

It’s taken a while, and COVID has changed the landscape in some ways, but Great Barrington has its groove back.

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

School of Thought

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano, founder and executive director of Veritas Preparatory Charter School, shows off one of the classrooms in the recently opened high school.

Rachel Romano says she started Veritas Prep Charter School after becoming frustrated as a middle-school teacher in Springfield with just how ill-prepared students were to succeed — at the next level in their education, and in general.

She called it “unfinished learning,” and it was occurring at many levels, especially with reading.

“They really hadn’t made that shift from learning how to read to reading to learn, which should happen around third or fourth grade,” she explained. “But if it hasn’t happened and they come into the middle school, most middle schools are not designed to keep teaching that, so students really fall behind. When your foundation is weak, there is nothing to build on.”

It was with a desire to provide middle-school students with a better, stronger foundation so they would not fall behind that Romano started Veritas Prep Charter School, opening the doors in a former nursing home on Pine Street nearly a decade ago. And almost from the day it opened, parents and students alike were asking, ‘when are we going to start a high school?’

It took several years, considerable planning, the transformation of what was manufacturing space on Carando Drive, and many other pieces to fall into place, but that high school opened its doors late last month.

As Romano, an educator but also a true entrepreneur (and BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013), put it, in some ways, the new Veritas facility is high school reimagined. This is a career-focused, early-college model designed, like the middle school, to enable students to succeed at the next level — whatever that might be.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree.”

For many, it will be college, she said, but higher education is not the goal of every child.

“But every kid should have the choice,” she said. “And if they’re prepared for college … then they have options open to them; the doors are not closed to them.”

The early-college model is just what it sounds like, she noted, adding that students can take college courses while in high school and could even have an associate degree upon graduation.

Having a track record of success in college even before walking across the stage to pick up their high-school diploma instills confidence in students and a mindset that they can accomplish anything they might dream, she said, adding that this model also brings great advantages when it comes to the overall cost of a college education.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree,” she explained. “That can be a huge help when they decide to go and get their degree.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Romano about the new high school, but also the broader mission to provide students with that stronger foundation and the tools to build upon it.

 

Grade Expectations

As she offered BusinessWest a tour of the new high school, Romano started in the gym.

The gym is an important part of this equation, she said, noting that the middle school doesn’t have one, and students, parents, and others involved in the design process of the high school identified it as priority.

The gym thus represents an example of how a vision became reality, one that officially started with 90 students (many of them being graduates of the Veritas middle school), teachers, and staff gathering on opening day in late August.

The student demographic at the high school essentially mirrors the grade 5-8 enrollment, said Romano, adding that 70% are Latinx and another 20% are Black. Meanwhile, 83% have what she called ‘high needs,’ and 77% are economically challenged.

The plan is to add a grade a year and build enrollment to roughly 400 students by 2025, she said, adding that for Veritas to realize that size and scope (800 students across nine grades) is something she could not have imagined when she first started conceptualizing this concept.

Indeed, to appreciate where Veritas Prep is now, we need to go back to the beginning, and that’s where we find Romano, a frustrated middle-school teacher, looking to find something better for the city and its young students.

Actually, the story starts in New York, where Romano was working in advertising sales in 2001, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which essentially left her homeless and heading back to Western Mass. and her parents’ home in South Hadley. She took a job substitute teaching to essentially get out of the house — “my mom kept nagging me about what I was going to do next” — and wound up loving the work.

She applied for a full-time teaching job in Springfield for the following year and wound up at Duggan Middle School, where she worked for six years and experienced what could be called a stern reality check.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself,” she explained. “And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.

“And when I began teaching in Springfield, I realized that this just wasn’t true for everyone,” she went on. “My eyes were really opened to the inequity that exists in our public education system.”

What stood out to her — and eventually compelled her to start a new charter school — were the expectations for students and the system’s inability to prepare students for success.

“The expectations for students in Springfield were not that high,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is how and when the seeds were planted for a new charter school.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself. And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.”

She started by looking at urban settings with similar demographics but different results when it came to student performance and success.

“We went to New Haven and Boston, where we found schools serving similar populations of students and getting very different results,” she said. “These kids were outperforming their neighboring wealthy districts, like kids in East Boston outperforming kids in Wellesley, and we saw the same in New Haven, and we went and looked at those schools and said, ‘wow, what are they doing?’ They were charter schools.”

The schools were different in some ways, but a common denominator was a needed level of autonomy to “actually respond to the needs of the kids in front of them and create the kind of school and systems that could generate different results.”

Fast-forwarding significantly — getting a charter school off the ground is a lengthy, complicated ordeal — Romano set about creating Veritas, a middle school that would “reset the bar,” as she put it, one that borrowed (‘stole’ was the word she used) best practices from high-achieving schools, set high standards for its students, and prepared them for high school.

And, as noted earlier, it wasn’t long before parents and students alike were asking if the same model could be used to create a high school, questions that grew louder as the first classes of Veritas students were graduating and moving on to the city’s schools.

The cafeteria in the new high school

The cafeteria in the new high school is one of the many aspects of the facility that are state-of-the-art.

Eventually, the chorus became too loud to ignore, she went on, adding that she went to the Veritas board of trustees with the concept of a high school, and the ambitious concept was greeted with enthusiasm.

A request for expansion was submitted to the state Department of Education in 2019, and, upon approval, what became a two-year planning process commenced. With that time, a design team comprised of former students (those now in high school or their first year of college), current students, families, teachers, staff members, representatives of area colleges, and community partners put together for a blueprint for a high school.

 

Course of Action

And by blueprint, she meant not just the actual design of the school — and its gym. Rather, she meant a plan for helping to make sure that graduates of the school would not have doors closed to them.

“We looked at different models, and we looked into what was happening — where is the innovation in high schools now,” she said, putting the accent on ‘we.’ “We focused on what we could do better and what we could do that was different.”

And the chosen model was early college, or EC, as it’s called, she said, adding that it is a somewhat unique model for this region.

“There’s not a lot of it in happening in Massachusetts,” Romano went on. “There’s a lot of talk now in the Legislature and the Department of Education about early college, but there are some great examples in other states.”

Elaborating, she said this is certainly not a new concept — many area school districts have dual enrollment, with students talking college courses while in high school. But this model is different in that it’s “wall to wall” early college and not merely for exceptional students in accelerated programs, as it is in many schools.

“Every student will be able to earn 12 college credits — it’s not for a subset, but for everyone,” she said, adding that, while some might earn as few as 12 credits, some may actually garner two full years of college credits while at Veritas.

“They can literally walk across the stage with a high-school diploma, and an associate degree awarded by Springfield Technical Community College,” she said, adding that STCC and Worcester State University have both signed on partners in the initiative.

“The cool thing about this model is that it really just breaks down the barrier that it’s really tough for a first-generation college student to access college,” she told BusinessWest. “So our kids will actually have a college transcript; they’ll have a track record of success in college when they graduate.”

And, as she noted, having that head start brings advantages on many levels, from a student’s confidence level to the cost of a college education.

“For some of our kids, they may go straight to college, while others will have to go to work, and they’re going to have to finish college at night and on weekends,” she explained. “This just gives them such a leg up because they’re halfway done — they’ve already got it, they’re on a roll, they’ve built some momentum.”

Building needed momentum was just one of the goals for Romano, the Veritas board, and other supporters as they went about conceptualizing the new high school. The overall mission is to eliminate barriers to success, open doors, and provide that leg up that she talked about, and it shows enormous promise for doing all that.

Returning to that question of why and how a high school came to be reality, she said that she and others at the middle school simply didn’t want to let go of their students.

“Many of our students come in not loving school, for whatever reason,” she explained. “School and learning hasn’t been an experience they’ve really enjoyed and felt that they’re really good at; we’ve kind of turned that around for them in the middle grades. By eighth grade, they’re really invested in their education.”

And now, they can continue investing at another important level.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Meetings of the Minds

Korey Bell says Vistage has acted like a board of directors

Korey Bell says Vistage has acted like a board of directors for small companies who don’t have such a body, and has helped with some important issues.

 

Korey Bell had an issue.

It hasn’t been entirely resolved, but he’s making some real progress, thanks to some other business owners he was able to bounce things off.

The issue concerns pricing of the services provided by his company, Westside Finishing, which, despite that name, is based in Holyoke (yes, it started in West Springfield). More specifically, Bell noted that he held the line on prices, despite inflation and soaring costs of labor, material, and just about everything else, while almost all his competitors had raised theirs. He had questions about what to do and when, but needed a sounding board, like a board of directors.

And he had one in the form of a group of area business owners and managers — many of them in various stages of leadership transitions — called Vistage. This is a global entity with chapters across the country that total more than 23,000 members. The group now serving Western and Central Mass., led by business consultant Ravi Kulkarni, is in its infancy stages, having been formed in the spring.

Bell, the second-generation CEO who took over Westside Finishing from his father a few years ago, was one of the group’s first members. He credits the others in the room with being good listeners, solid providers of advice, and, perhaps most importantly, peers who will hold him accountable when he decides to move forward with something.

“We all do things differently, and that’s a refreshing perspective,” he said. “I may be thinking of attacking a problem one way, but at the meeting, some of the other members are able to ask the questions to get you looking at the problem in a different light. You might come into a meeting with a plan, and by the time you leave, you might have turned that plan on its head, but you’re more comfortable with the plan you came up with with the group then you were with your own.”

“You might come into a meeting with a plan, and by the time you leave, you might have turned that plan on its head, but you’re more comfortable with the plan you came up with with the group then you were with your own.”

Will Maybury, chief financial officer at East Longmeadow-based Maybury Material Handling, agreed. Maybury, son of company president and CEO John Maybury, is poised to take the helm at the company in a few years (there is no firm timetable) and he joined Vistage to help prepare him for that moment and learn from those who already have the title he aspires to.

“Where I saw the biggest value for myself is the growth opportunity the group provided me as someone coming into the CEO position,” Maybury said. “I’m able to surround myself with people who have been in the role and get an outside perspective, while also giving myself some personal growth and networking to help me transition into the role.”

Steve Graham, owner of Toner Plastics in East Longmeadow has been a Vistage member for more than a decade now. He’s not a member of the local group — instead he travels to Boston for meetings there — but is a firm believer of the organization’s power to bring minds together to address common problems and issues, and often help create answers.

“You have an opportunity to speak with other people who are in similar positions of leadership at their companies — entrepreneurs, owners, executives,” he said. “And having an advisory board of sorts, or a board of directors, which is what Vistage boils down to for many of us, is extremely valuable.

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

“You sometimes get reinforcement of an idea that you’ve been thinking about, and it’s just enough to push you over the edge to pull the trigger,” Graham went on. “And sometimes … you get a different view of the problem or the issues that you’re seeking to solve, and it pushes you in another direction; it’s extremely motivating for me.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with members of the local Vistage group about what they gain from participation, and how the monthly meetings have helped them become better leaders at a time when managing a business, large or small, has become ever-more challenging.

 

That’s the Idea

As he talked about his group and how and why it was formed, Kulkarni told BusinessWest that there was a clear need for such an entity in Western Mass., where there are few groups of this type focused on bringing young CEOs from diverse industries together around a conference room table.

Those that do exist are mostly regional, with Boston being the closest meeting place, and have requirements for membership that ultimately exclude many of the small businesses in this region. Vistage requires companies to have at least 25 employees and annual revenues of at least $5 million, which brings more area businesses into the mix, he said.

As for how it works, Kulkarni said it’s rather simple — when you put a dozen or so high-performing business executives in a room, these meetings of the minds have enormous potential for creating not only meaningful dialogue about the issues of the day — and there are many of them — but give and take that leads to problem-solving.

“You sometimes get reinforcement of an idea that you’ve been thinking about, and it’s just enough to push you over the edge to pull the trigger. And sometimes … you get a different view of the problem or the issues that you’re seeking to solve, and it pushes you in another direction; it’s extremely motivating for me.”

Elaborating, he said the hallmark of Vistage groups is something called ‘issue processing,’ a structured, thorough approach to helping members think through the dynamics of a challenge.

“It forces you to push beyond your assumptions and get to the real issues,” Kulkarni explained. “That’s critical to understanding and evaluating your options before making a decision and taking action.”

Such was the case with Bell and his issue with pricing and whether to increase his, which we’ll return to later. As he talked about it, Bell said that while Westside Finishing, a powder-coating operation that handles products ranging from cabinets to hand-dryers, has grown exponentially since his father started it as a one-person show and now boasts 65 employees, it is still, in most all respects, a small company.
“We’re not to the size where I would have a formal board of directors that I, as the president or CEO could lean on, bounce ideas off of, or help me with strategizing and planning for the future growth and development of our business,” he explained. “The members of Vistage are all people who have similar, high-level experience in running and managing a business, but at the same time, they have different backgrounds, very similar to what you would find on a board of directors.”

While Vistage is open to business owners and managers at all stages of their careers, Kulkarni said it is especially beneficial to those going through transition, be it in leadership or ownership.

Such was the case with Dave Boisselle, senior vice president of Operations for J. Polep in Chicopee, which has gone from being family owned to being owned by a large conglomerate, National Convenience Distributors. It’s not a small change, he told BusinessWest.

“When you’re sitting in the room and you’re talking corporate, it’s much different from family,” he said. “Family is family; everyone knows what they have to do, and they can talk to each other a certain way. Corporate is all professional, so you choose your words wisely and explain things in much more detail. It’s a much different structure.”

As for his transition to leadership of his company and how Vistage will ease that process, Maybury said he intends to be a sponge and “soak up as much as he can” at the monthly meetings with the goal of being more ready to take the helm. He said he benefits from being in a room where people at different points in their careers and different business situations, can thus provide different perspectives.

“Some people in our group are getting to the end of their careers and want to pass on some knowledge,” he explained. “I’m at the beginning, and some are in the middle; everyone is different, and that brings a lot of perspective to the table.”

Overall, Vistage provides value to members by bringing leaders of diverse businesses who are facing common issues and challenges together in a room to share what are usually different thoughts and approaches to those matters.

Ravi Kulkarni

Ravi Kulkarni says the Vistage group he leads is diverse and looking to add new members from different sectors of the economy.

“People do things differently in their businesses — they have different ideas,” said Graham. “They may have different ways of financing their business that you haven’t considered, for example, and you make some friends.”

Ryan Clutterbuck, president of Pace Engineering Recruiters in Quincy, which specializes in finding artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicle and high-performance and quantum-computing engineers, and another member of the local Vistage group, agreed.

“It’s beneficial to have a group of people that you can share ideas within a safe environment, where they’re willing to give you direct feedback,” he told BusinessWest. “You can’t always run your ideas by people below you, so you need a group of peers who can give you honest and direct feedback, and that’s what I get out of Vistage.”

Such feedback is what Bell sought, and received, when he brought his ‘issue’ to the group a few months ago.

“This year has been the busiest year in company history — we’ve set four sales records from January up until now,” he said while setting the stage for the discussion that ensued. “The issue brought to the group was ‘I’m busier than I’ve ever been, my margins are pretty good, but I feel that I may be leaving something on the table … because a lot of competitors had gone up 10-fold from what I’d done as far as price increases since COVID started.’

“I wanted to make sure I was charging a fair-market price for the service that I’m offering and make sure I’m not leaving a lot of meat on the bone,” he went on, adding, without going into much detail about his actual plans, that members of the group were able to help him answer those critical questions and others that were brought to the table.

“You can’t always run your ideas by people below you, so you need a group of peers who can give you honest and direct feedback, and that’s what I get out of Vistage.”

This is the essence of issue-processing, said Kulkarni, adding that members ask clarifying questions and, by meeting’s end, have the member in question much closer to moving beyond asking questions and acting. And once this action is taken, these same group members will follow up and hold the members accountable for the actions taken, again, similar to the way a larger company’s board of directors would.

Boisselle agreed.

“When it comes to issue-processing, first members listen and then they ask questions and ultimately give suggestions,” he said. “And you start changing your perspective on how you’re going to do things; asking the questions gets you to start thinking, then the advice comes, and then you connect everything together and decide how to move forward.”

Clutterbuck brought his own issue — one of scalability and the personal mindset to accompany such possible growth — to the group and came away with the feedback he was seeking.

“I’d gone through the roller-coaster of ‘are you building to scale or are you building to get to a certain level and then sustain?’” he said. “So, I brought an issue to the table that was related to more my personal mindset of what should I be doing from a target standpoint and a growth standpoint that’s going to beneficial for both the company and the family and making sure I’m not burning out on either end.

“It certainly helped me reset and get back to the original plan that I had developed for the business and the direction I wanted to go in,” he went on as he recalled this issue-procession session. “It was a good conversation to have, because there’s no one else I can have it with.”

 

Meeting Expectations

Moving forward, Kulkarni said his immediate goal is to recruit more members — “we’re looking for those who are hungry, humble, and smart” — and bring the number of business leaders in the room closer to 12, the desired sweet spot.

Doing so will bring more voices to that table and more processing of critical issues facing area business owners and managers.

These company leaders do not have their own board of directors, but they can share one. And this is the essence of Vistage, summed up effectively and concisely by Clutterbuck.

“They say it’s lonely at the top; I don’t necessarily agree with that, but you don’t have a lot of sounding boards,” he said. “It’s not like you can bring these conversations to your employees or people within your organization because they’re deeply personal. This is a good group of people to have real conversations with.”

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

Jeff Daley says the Ludlow Mills project is at an important turning point.

When Westmass Area Development Corp. and its board of directors went all in and acquired the massive and environmentally challenged Ludlow Mills complex in 2011, Jeff Daley said, they did so with the understanding that they were embarking on a long and difficult journey.

But they probably didn’t know how long and just how difficult.

Indeed, the process of transforming the former jute-making complex into a mixed-used property and destination has come complete with a number of challenges, many of them related to simply making various parts of the complex ready for redevelopment, said Daley, the executive director of Westmass since 2019.

But, in many respects, the Ludlow Mills redevelopment initiative has turned a critical corner, he noted, adding that much of the work to ready specific buildings and the property as a whole for development has now been completed, and the focus, increasingly, is on development.

“We’re certainly at a turning point, where we’re focusing our efforts on redevelopment as opposed to staying afloat and cleaning the site — it was a very dirty site back when they first bought it,” he told BusinessWest, referring to asbestos and ground contamination. “And there’s still a lot of cleanup left to do, but the focus is shifting from preserving and investing in the cleaning of the site to continuing that cleaning, which we need to do, but also looking now toward projects that we can invest good dollars in and get good returns from.”

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge. And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

That is certainly the plan, and the hope, with Building 8, or what many refer to as the ‘clocktower building,’ because it is home to the town’s most recognizable landmark.

With some imaginative financing assistance — Westmass will actually be taking an equity stake in the project — Winn Development will soon proceed with an initiative to transform the property into a 96-unit housing complex with retail on the ground floor.

Meanwhile, a $1 million project to put a new roof on Building 11, the largest structure on the campus, is underway, with the goal of facilitating development of that 480,000-square-foot property into another mix of housing and commercial businesses, and perhaps a parking garage as well.

Also, work is nearly complete on Riverside Drive, a new road that winds along the Chicopee River, which will connect the front of the property to the undeveloped acreage at its eastern end. Another road, hopefully to be funded with a MassWorks grant (word on the application should be received in the fall), will be built into that property, greatly facilitating its development, said Daley, noting there has been a good deal of interest expressed in that property due to a shortage of developable land in the region.

While the Ludlow Mills complex is certainly the dominant business story in Ludlow, there are other developments of note, starting in Town Hall. There, discussions continue about whether and how to change the community’s form of government, said Marc Strange, the recently hired town administrator.

“Officials are considering a mayoral form of government or a town manager/town council format similar to what exists in East Longmeadow,” said Strange, who served previously as director of Planning and Economic Development in Agawam and also as a selectman in Longmeadow, noting that the town has certainly outgrown its current format with five selectmen, a town administrator, and town meeting.

Karen Randall

Karen Randall says the business started by her father 60 years ago, has grown and evolved, just as Ludlow has.

“That’s a pretty big lift, and the town needs to be on board with it,” he explained. “For now, we’re chipping away toward that goal and making small, incremental changes to get everyone working in the same direction.”

Meanwhile, the community is looking to fund improvements to the downtown area that greets those as they come over the bridge that links the city to Indian Orchard, said Strange, adding that, while Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, it is always looking to build on this base.

“There’s a sense of place there as you come over the bridge,” he said. “And we feel that this is an area that’s untapped and could be refreshed a little bit in terms of the roadway infrastructure and facades.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Ludlow, a community that is a developing story in every sense of that phrase.

 

Growth Patterns

As she talked with BusinessWest outside the main entrance to Randall’s Farm, the business that her father started with what amounted to a vegetable stand, Karen Randall reflected on how much this enterprise — and the town of Ludlow itself — have changed over the past 60 years.

“None of this was here,” she said as she swept her hand in front of her and pointed out the many businesses now located along Center Street. “Ludlow has grown, and we’ve grown with Ludlow.”

Elaborating, she said the town benefits from its location — off turnpike exit 7 and near a number of growing residential communities, including Wilbraham, Granby, Belchertown, and others — and from its own growth; it has seen a number of new residential developments in recent years that have brought many young people to what was an industrial town that grew from the Ludlow Mills complex.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful, in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

Randall’s Farm has certainly benefited from the growth in and around Ludlow, she said, adding that it draws regular, daily traffic from those living in the community, but also steady traffic from those an exit or two down the pike.

“We have customers from within a 20-mile radius,” Randall said, adding that business has been solid this year, and she is expecting the fall, the busiest time for this enterprise, to be very busy as the region continues the two-year-long process of returning to normal from the pandemic and its many side effects.

The pandemic and its aftermath have brought changes at Randall’s — it has discontinued many of its entertainment-related endeavors, including a corn maze and workshops on various subjects — and challenges, including the workforce issues that have impacted businesses in every sector.

Overall, the pandemic has been for Randall’s what it has been for many business ventures, she said — a valuable learning experience.

“COVID taught us a lot of lessons on what works and what doesn’t, and it’s taught us that we can adapt quickly to whatever was coming down the pike,” she explained. “We didn’t miss a beat; we had the same issues that everyone else did — some people may have retired sooner, while others stopped working sooner during the first months of the pandemic, but we persevered, and I think we become stronger because of what we learned.”

Heading into the busy fall season, Randall’s, like other businesses, continues to face workforce challenges — there are some days when it does not have a donut maker, for example — but Randall believes it will be ready. The biggest challenge may be climate, specifically a lack of rain and its still-unknown impact on pumpkins, apples, and other crops grown locally.

“We’re hiring front-line people — we think we have the donut-making issue squared away — and we’re getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ll see how this drought effects the season.”

planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills

Crews work to create a parking lot for the planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills, one of many new developments at the complex.

Overall, Ludlow has a large and diverse business community, said Strange, adding that one of the town’s goals is to improve infrastructure and make the Center Street corridor more attractive and even more of an asset.

Which brings him back to that area, technically the community’s downtown, that greets people coming over the bridge from Indian Orchard. The town will apply for a Community Compact grant to develop a broad economic-development plan that will encompass that area and others in the community.

“There’s some successful businesses in there, but we also have some empty storefronts,” he explained. “Our Memorial Park is there, and that’s where we’ll have Celebrate Ludlow. I think there’s a foundation for something special by way of economic development in that corridor.

“If we can create some kind of plan for that area, that will be helpful,” he went on, “in terms of letting the development community know that we’re open for business and we’re ready to go if they want to come to Ludlow and put some shovels in the ground.”

 

Run of the Mills

There should be some shovels hitting the ground soon at at Ludlow Mills, which has certainly been the focal point of development in Ludlow over the past decade. Indeed, continued progress is being made in what will be at least a 20-year effort to put the various spaces — as well as 40 acres of developable green space — to new and productive use.

Running through recent and upcoming developments, Daley started with Building 8, a long-awaited project that will bring another residential complex to the site after the highly successful renovation of Building 10 into apartments; there is now a lengthy waiting list for units in that property.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.99
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

The plan calls for apartments on the upper floors and a mix of retail on the first floor, Daley explained, adding that a coffee shop or sandwich shop would be an ideal use given the growing numbers of people living and working in the complex or within a few blocks of it. That growing population could inspire other types of retain as well, he added.

“We can’t overlook the fact that, once those apartments are done, there will be 160 units right in that vicinity, with an average of two people per unit. That’s a captured audience of more than 300 people to support small businesses; there might be a doctor’s office or lawyer’s offices, for example.”

To make the project happen in these times of inflation and soaring construction costs — an overall 28% increase in the projected price tag for this initiative — Westmass needed to get creative and take a “sizable equity investment” in the project, Daley said. He didn’t say how sizeable, but he did note that this step was needed to keep this project on track.

“It made the project go, and we really want to see the project go — for the town of Ludlow, for the mills, and, selfishly, we want to see that first floor activated so we can generate some revenues from retail and commercial businesses,” he explained.

As for Building 11, the next major target for redevelopment, a mix of housing and commercial retail would be ideal, he said, adding there will be options when it comes to what type of housing might be seen.

“There’s certainly a need for independent living, there’s a need for care living, dementia living, those types of facilities,” he said. “But also for more market-rate housing.”

Overall, the Ludlow Mills property is well-positioned for development, Daley said, adding that everything in its inventory, from commercial and industrial space to raw land, are in demand.

“We have a lot of interest in not only the land, but everything,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s not a lot of inventory out there — for commercial properties or green space. Our property is flat and mostly dry, so it becomes pretty attractive for development.”

As Daley said, Ludlow Mills has been a longer and more difficult journey than anyone could have anticipated when the property was acquired in 2011, but an important turning point has been reached, and a new chapter in this story is set to unfold.

 

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

Features

Painting the Past

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Khali Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it.

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Kahli Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it. (Photos by Mark Murray)

Kahli Hernandez descended the wall, stood back, and reflected on his long day’s work.

“This mural is more than just a mural because of the things that are associated and attached to it,” said Hernandez, a local painter who got involved with the mural painting at 241 Worthington St., facing Stearns Square. “A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

The idea for a new mural reflecting Springfield’s history came about almost a decade ago when Union Station was about to be completed and the area around Duryea Way had just been revamped. Evan Plotkin, president and CEO of NAI Plotkin Commercial Real Estate, has been a key player in the mural’s conception and production.

The finished work, formally unveiled during the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival on Aug. 12, restores the wall’s faded 1950s advertising art to vibrant life.

“John Simpson and I have been involved with most of the things that are public-art-related downtown, one way or another,” he said, noting that he and Simpson, a noted local artist, co-founded both the Springfield Cultural Council and City Mosaic, a nonprofit with the goal of changing lives and bringing people together, as well as changing the direction and conversation about Springfield from negative perceptions to something positive.

“There would be no City Mosaic without John Simpson. We formed it because we thought we could transform this city. We don’t want people to be afraid to come to downtown Springfield. We want people to enjoy what’s down here,” Plotkin said. “I think this is making a huge contribution of immense proportions. This is a gathering space down here. Everyone should be able to come and enjoy good food and good drinks with the company of friends.”

Through a movement called tactical urbanism, Plotkin and Simpson are trying to reignite a sense of community in the downtown business district. Tactical urbanism, also known as DIY urbanism, is all about action — an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change.

“A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

A two-year study released by researchers from the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania revealed a relationship between the presence of cultural resources in a neighborhood and key aspects of social well-being, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods.

Specifically, low- and middle-income residents with more access to cultural resources experience better education, security, and health outcomes compared to residents of neighborhoods with similar economic profiles, but with fewer cultural resources.

When controlling for factors including economic status, race, and ethnicity, the higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is linked with several health, safety, and education benefits. These include a 14% decrease in indicted investigations of child abuse and neglect, an 18% decrease in felony crime rate, and also an 18% increase in the number of students scoring at the highest level on standardized math and English tests.

“I think art is really transformative for a lot of things,” Plotkin said. “It’s transformative to people and their spirits — whether it be visual art or music, art is beauty, and it helps change people.”

Simpson added that “there’s a woman that lives on this street that has told me she’s seen people stopping in the parking lot to look at the mural — they linger a little and take photos. She thinks it’s good because everyone is really excited to see the finished product, too.”

 

‘Puzzle of Ghost Images’

Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst, said he was flooded with ideas for the mural when sitting with the City Mosaic council. He told BusinessWest there were plenty of ideas about historical figures and events showing Springfield’s pride, but the wall had a different idea, in the form of faded vintage advertisements.

“I said, ‘yeah, I know you want all of this stuff on the wall, but there are also the ads. We want to restore some of them, so I reserve the right to do whatever I want here,’” Simpson said. “When I started, I felt like the wall was going to dictate what it should be. So whatever can be saved, will be saved. Then we thought there was so little to be saved, but eventually, when you get one thing, you’d start to see another.”

He explained the process: research and stare. Then relax. Simpson compared the mural to a “puzzle of ghost images” they were hoping would fall into place. It was beyond the scope of his usual work, but he took it all in and got to work.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

“We got addicted to finding what was there previously and recreating it,” he said. “Evan encouraged me to work on the design. I tried to keep changing it, but it led me here. There has been such great teamwork that it feels like only one person is working on it.”

Artist Susan Riano was also impressed by the work that has gone into the mural on Worthington Street.

“Going in, we all thought it would be a huge project, but we didn’t let the thought of getting overwhelmed bother us. We just went at it and things went pretty naturally, organically. Looking at it now is kind of crazy, but amazing to see how much we were able to accomplish through the whole process,” she said. “It was really cool to see the work of another artist and figure out their process, and see the way they did things — it was a learning experience for us as well.”

Some of the images painted on the wall are meant to represent Springfield and its community through the years. For instance, Simpson and the artists painted a Rolls-Royce with Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s, driving it.

When community members see themselves reflected in social spaces, they feel a sense of respect, ultimately allowing for people to identify with the place they are from, live in, or are visiting. Cultural assets are part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes well-being.

Simpson told BusinessWest about another mural he had worked on and how it connects to his overall goal. “It says, ‘there’s no place like Springfield’ because there is no place like home. That’s for every kid to think about, instead of things they’re hearing from other towns. Springfield is home — there’s history here with beautiful people, art, and architecture.”

Khali Hernandez puts the final touches

Kahli Hernandez puts the final touches on one of the mural’s small sections.

Plotkin agreed. “Springfield has an incredible history. To have something as big and beautiful as this spurs the imagination of those bygone days and recognizes a city that was once another Springfield.

“I think that’s why I do it,” he went on. “John is the artist, and I think that I wouldn’t be able to do what he does; physically, I don’t have the talent. I just really get off on the impact it has on the community and the responses people are giving. I’ve lived and worked here for many, many years. I’ve seen some great times here, and I’ve seen some bad times here when the city wasn’t flourishing as much. We’re on the rise again, and we’re coming back strong. This is going to help us reach the point where we have a commercially viable district here. We want to recreate that.”

 

Tapestry Through Time

Clearly, the mural on Worthington Street is more than just a mural. It is a physical representation of what Springfield has to offer, and a reminder that the past impacts the future, and the future always reflects the past.

“We want the wall to show a little bit of the past, some of the present, and eventually the future,” Hernandez said as he surveyed his day’s work. “It’s a tribute to the overarching narrative that is a part of Springfield.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Features Special Coverage

Pivot Move

 

Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry

Mike Yates, left, and Ray Berry agree that expansion into Amherst is a common-sense move for the company.

 

When asked how he would eventually become business partners with Marcus Camby, the former UMass and NBA star, Ray Berry, founder of White Lion Brewery, leaned back in his chair as if to indicate it was a bit of a long story.

It starts with Travis Best, another former NBA player who made his first headlines while playing for Springfield’s Central High School. It was Best who put together several annual Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement weekend events, including a post-induction gathering. Following the opening of White Lion’s downtown Springfield operation just over a year ago, Best was looking to include the company in the festivities — and did.

Indeed, Best and Berry would collaborate with the city on a block party on Bridge Street during enshrinement weekend — the same weekend, it turned out, that UMass Amherst would be honoring Camby, Julius Erving, and John Calipari with statues in their honor on campus. Best and Berry decided to reach out to Camby to see if he wanted to co-host the event in Springfield, which he did.

“Marcus was all in — he was already in town, and he was excited to be part of what we were doing,” Berry recalled. “We shut down Bridge Street, rolled up the garage doors, and had some entertainment; it was our first grand event at our brick-and-mortar spot. At one point, I think we had 700 people between the brewery and the block-party environment. It was a beautiful evening downtown.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Camby became more than a little impressed with the White Lion operation and Berry’s status as one of the very few minority brewery owners in Massachusetts — so much so that he attached his name to an IPA produced by White Lion. And later — we’re moving very quickly now, but will go back and fill in some detail in a bit — when Berry was presented with an opportunity to expand his footprint and bring the White Lion brand to Amherst with a location in the heart of downtown, Camby agreed to come in as a partner.

The venture will be called White Lion Brewing Amherst, and will be based in a location that has been making headlines in recent months — 104 North Pleasant St., home to the recently opened Drake, a live-event venue that is already fulfilling its vast promise as a destination for music lovers from across Western Mass. and far beyond.

The White Lion taproom will be located just below the Drake in space that was formerly the High Horse restaurant and, before that, Amherst Brewing, where Mike Yates served as head brewer — before working behind the bar at High Horse.

He now has that same title at White Lion, so this new venture amounts to going home for him.

And with that perspective, he believes the White Lion brand is in the right place at the right time, and with the right business partner.

“It will feel good to be back there. It’s a great little town — I love Amherst,” Yates told BusinessWest. “I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area. This is essentially a tourist town — every year you have a new crop of students coming in and parents looking for a place to go for lunch or dinner, and a brewery is always a good option.

“I think this is going to be a big hit here. Since Amherst Brewing left downtown, there’s no brewery in the downtown area.”

“Combine that with our partnership with Marcus and our establishment’s reputation here in Springfield as a prominent player in the brewing business, and I think it will be a big win,” he went on. “I think they hit a big home run with the Drake — that’s what Amherst sorely needed — and we will be another big piece of the puzzle.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this new venture came together, and what it means for Amherst — and White Lion.

 

What’s Brewing?

Berry told BusinessWest that he recently took part in a panel discussion before a convention of craft brewers at the Samuel Adams facility outside Boston.

The subject being addressed by the panel was satellite facilities, and, more specifically, when and under what circumstances they should be considered.

Summing up his remarks, Berry said he told them, “from a business lens, if the situation if right, and you’re not over-leveraging yourself, it could make sense for that brewery’s respective business model.”

That is certainly the case with this new location in Amherst, he said, adding that it makes sense on a number of levels. “Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

So much so that the Amherst Business Improvement District and other stakeholders, diligently trying to replace the lost Amherst Brewing operation, initiated talks with Berry back in 2019, by his recollection, about bringing his brand there.

He listened, but back then, he was devoting almost all of his time and energy to opening his brewery and taproom in the former Spaghetti Freddie’s location in Tower Square, a project that would eventually be slowed — as in slowed — by COVID-19 and its profound impact on construction and the larger renovation efforts at Tower Square.

When that location was well on its way, Berry and Amherst officials essentially picked up where they left off.

“They kept in communication — the conversations would come and go,” said Berry, adding that he eventually went to Amherst to look at some spaces there, including the former High Horse/Amherst Brewing location, which was attractive, but far more space than he needed. Consumed with opening his Springfield location, he put the Amherst project, if it could be called that, on pause.

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA

Marcus Camby has already attached his name to an IPA, and now he will take his involvement with White Lion Brewery to a higher level as a partner in the Amherst venture.

And it stayed there until, by coincidence (again), Camby was back in Amherst for event. While there, he and his business agent were inquiring about the “space across from Antonio’s Pizza” — the Amherst Brewing space.

That conversation started a dialogue between the two about what whether that location was available and what could be done with it, conversations that got more serious over time, prompted more visits to Amherst, and eventually spurred consideration of not the Amherst Brewing site (because it wasn’t exactly available at that time) but one just down the street, owned by the same party.

But then, the space under the Drake did become available, and the parties involved made an important pivot — yes, that’s a basketball term — back to 104 North Pleasant St.

With that backstory now complete, Berry and Yates have their focus on the future, one they believe holds a great deal of promise, because of the community, Amherst, the specific location, and what White Lion can bring to the table.

“From a White Lion lens, this makes total sense, and for a number of reasons,” Berry said. “For starters, the Drake is iconic. What they’re trying to do on that second floor is a game changer for the downtown Amherst community. To be below that music venue has a number of benefits, from a business perspective.”

“To be on the Main Street corridor in downtown Amherst has a number of benefits from a business lens,” he went on, adding that, while Springfield and Amherst are vastly different in terms of size, he sees many similarities in their downtowns and the work done by the two communities’ business improvement districts and efforts to bring more vibrancy to their respective downtowns.

“We see the many benefits that come with being in the heart of downtown Springfield, and we see the benefit of the partnership and the work that our own Business Improvement District does day in and day out, which includes special programming with White Lion,” he went on. “And the leadership at the Amherst BID has a similar fabric relative to their approach with downtown Amherst; they encourage and participate and facilitate and coordinate outdoor programming, special events, and business-improvement initiatives. Based off of what we’ve witnessed and knowing what they’re doing, it made total sense to be right in the heart of downtown Amherst.”

What also made sense, he said, was to meld the White Lion brand with the brand that Camby has developed, especially in the community where he originally made his mark a quarter-century ago.

“Amherst is a great town. It’s a natural fit for White Lion and its progression.”

Berry said preliminary design work is underway, and the Amherst facility should be open for business by the end of December, in time for the winter semester of classes at UMass and other area schools.

The facility will be a taproom, restaurant, outdoor social space, and a small pilot, nano-brew house — the main production will still be in the Springfield location — one that will allow for what Yates called “one-off” experimental ales.

“It will be a smaller scale — probably a three- or five-barrel brew system, which will allow us to spread our creativity wings a little and try some things that we couldn’t afford to do on a large scale like we have here in Springfield,” he explained. “It will be fun; I’m excited. Springfield’s great, and Springfield’s coming along, but it will be great to do a little bit of both.”

 

Draught Pick

Summing up his thoughts on the two communities where White Lion will have a presence, Berry said Springfield and Amherst have “similar bones.”

By that, he meant they’re trying to achieve the same things in their downtowns — specifically the establishment of an eclectic mix of businesses that complement one another and, together, create a destination.

White Lion has become a key piece of this puzzle in Springfield, and Berry is expecting the same in Amherst, especially with his new business partner attached to the project.

Together, they’ll be making a full-court press in a town where Camby is synonymous with success.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s priorities have included housing, business development, infrastructure, schools, and the emerging cannabis sector.

 

 

When people ask Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to list her priorities for the city, her answer is always, “housing, housing, housing, and housing.”

And there’s a reason for that — actually, several of them, which LaChapelle summed up in this poignant way: “Easthampton is the cool-kid city.”

By that, she meant that this former mill town has become a destination for businesses, but also a very desirable place to live because of its arts, culture, attractive neighborhoods, and recreational spaces. That mix has created a need for housing — a major need.

“If we don’t put a huge focus on housing, and if we don’t get housing units done by 2025, our city will be in trouble,” said the mayor, adding that her administration has, indeed, focused significantly on this issue, and it has yielded results, such as the One Ferry project, an initiative that is creating not only new housing but retail and office space as well.

Several old mill buildings on Ferry Street are undergoing a massive effort converting the former factories there to condominiums and rental housing, as well as some retail and office space.

So far, the renovation work has focused on three buildings: 3 Ferry St. was finished in 2020, and it is now fully occupied with residents and several businesses. Meanwhile, 5 Ferry St. consists mainly of apartments with condominiums on the top floor; it is expected to open later this year.

“All but two condos are sold at 5 Ferry St., and the developer reported a 65% lease rate,” LaChapelle said, adding that “70% occupancy is usually the goal for a new development, so they are right there.”

Work has also begun on Building 7, scheduled to open in 2024. When complete, the three buildings will add nearly 150 units of housing to Easthampton.

“The Ferry Street project is what we hoped it would be, a spark for community development and neighborhood pride,” the mayor said. “Watching the progress at the site has been a real confidence booster for the city.”

While housing is indeed a priority, it is just one of many priorities in a community that has seen a great deal of change, evolution, and growth over the past quarter-century, and is poised for more of all the above.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses. This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

Other focal points for LaChapelle and her administration include new business development, business-sector recovery from COVID, infrastructure, schools, growth of the city’s emerging cannabis sector, and more, and the mayor reports progress on all these fronts, especially those involving assistance and mentoring to small businesses.

Many are included in a broad initiative called Blueprint Easthampton. Designed to promote entrepreneurial innovation, the initiative also emphasizes partnerships with key constituents in the community such as nonprofit organizations and educational institutions.

Keith Woodruff

Keith Woodruff was one of the first local business owners to open an online store on the Shop Where I Live site.

LaChapelle said Blueprint Easthampton is like an octopus in the way it keeps reaching out to different areas. One notable partnership is with the Coalition for Community Empowerment, a collaboration with the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce, the Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, and Lawyers for Civil Rights. They have embarked on a statewide program to provide small-business technical assistance and open paths to entrepreneurs from at-risk populations. LaChapelle said at least a dozen businesses in Easthampton have benefited in some way from this effort.

“At a deeper level, three businesses have received grants, and two others have signed up for extensive business coaching,” LaChapelle said, explaining that startup businesses often have to realign their ideas to serve the market that exists.

“In one case, a baker had a business plan based on a delivery and storefront model,” she noted. “After coaching from the coalition, she realized her idea would work better without the storefront.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Easthampton, the many forms of progress being seen there, and what’s next for the ‘cool-kid city.’

 

‘Shop Where I Live’

In January, LaChapelle began her third term as mayor. Unlike her previous terms, which each lasted two years, the mayor’s term now runs four years. It’s a change that makes long-term planning easier on many fronts.

“With a four-year term, the mayor isn’t distracted with campaigning after only 18 months,” she said. “The longer term also makes it easier to manage the timing of grant cycles.”

The longer term is beneficial when coping with pressing issues, said LaChapelle, adding, again, that there are many of them, especially in a community that has become home to small businesses across many sectors, from technology to the arts to hospitality, that were negatively impacted by the pandemic.

In partnership with the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, the city secured a grant from the state’s Rapid Recovery Plan, which was set up to address the economic impact COVID-19 had on cities and towns. The grant resulted in an online retail effort run by the chamber known as easthampton.shopwhereilive.com.

Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, explained that the Shop Where I Live program is an Amazon-type experience involving local businesses.

“Many businesses don’t have the resources or the time to set up online shopping, so this site makes that possible,” she said.

Consumers can choose offerings from several local businesses, put them all into an online shopping cart, and make one payment. Because the site is supported by a state grant, it’s open to all Easthampton businesses whether they belong to the chamber or not.

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau said Shop Where I Live will help businesses respond to economic challenges both now and in the future.

“For members, this will be an ongoing benefit,” Belliveau said. “For non-members, the first year is free, then they can choose to join the chamber or pay a service fee to remain on the site.”

Each merchant can offer up to 100 products in their online store, said Belliveau, adding that Shop Where I Live is not restricted to retail operations. Services such as health clubs, web developers, and insurance agents can be found there, too.

“COVID was a huge challenge for businesses,” Belliveau said. “This site allows them to respond to those challenges and to build more resiliency for changes in the future.”

KW Home, an interior-design firm and retail showroom, was one of the first businesses to open an online store on Shop Where I Live. Owner Keith Woodruff expects the site to benefit his business going forward.

“For the last two years I’ve had to operate by appointment only with limited hours,” he explained. “Many consumers are still concerned about shopping in person, so having the online store will be a big help.”

KW Home is an example of a business that provides a service and sells products. Most of Woodruff’s work is driven by working with clients to present design plans specific to their homes and then providing the furniture, lighting fixtures, and other items to execute the plan.

He said 80% of what he sells are special orders for clients. Most items run the gamut from a specific type of fabric for a chair or couch to custom window treatments. He also carries items in limited fabric offerings that are more easily available and work well with the online store.

“In order to make the launch date of June 30, I put only a few items on the site,” Woodruff said. “As this rolls out, I plan to add smaller accessories on there to give people more choices.”

 

Work in Progress

One of the many disruptions COVID caused was the nature of where people work. Even now, some people have returned to their worksites, some continue to work from home, while others have left their jobs to pursue the business idea they’d always wanted to try.

Amid these changing dynamics, Belliveau conducted research on how best to use the space at the chamber office on Union Street. The result is a new co-work space called Work Hub on Union.

“We’re looking to address folks who still work from home but need a temporary space, as well as entrepreneurs who are just starting out but are not yet ready for a permanent space,” said Belliveau, adding that the chamber will remain on site, so those in Work Hub can benefit from its support.

“We are designing this so the furniture can be moved around to create educational space,” she explained. “We’ll be able to run things like development programs and entrepreneurial support programs. In short, it’s a much more productive use of the space.”

While inclusivity is a big part of Blueprint Easthampton, so is accessibility. Working with two land trusts, the city recently bought 22 acres of land near Mount Tom that connect to state-owned property. The purchase was intended to save the land from development. Instead, that area will soon have an ADA-accessible trailhead that goes up to the summit of the mountain.

“I ran on improving accessibility for everyone, so this project makes me very proud,” LaChapelle said.

Riverside Industries was a partner in the trail project. Located in the center of Easthampton, Riverside’s mission is “empowering people of all abilities to help them achieve their highest potential and live their best lives.” It is best-known for placing people with intellectual and developmental disabilities into employment throughout Hampshire, Hampden, and Franklin counties.

Lynn Ostrowski Ireland, president and CEO of Riverside, said anyone can use the new trail because it can accommodate manual or electric wheelchairs, and the ascent along the trail is no greater than the inclines in Riverside’s Cottage Street headquarters.

As someone who has previewed the trail, Ostrowski Ireland reported the summit view is “beyond spectacular.”

“There are plenty of places along the trail to pull off and take a break or just to stop and enjoy the view along the way,” she said. “We will definitely bring clients there and let their families know about it, too. It’s really something everyone can enjoy.”

Natural surroundings like Mount Tom are part of the attraction for new students at Williston Northampton School. The private college-prep school approaches the fall with a full enrollment. Ann Hallock, director of communications at Williston, said 495 students will be on campus, hailing from all over the U.S. as well as 30 different countries.

“We consider our location in Easthampton to be a unique selling point of the school,” Hallock said. “Students love the location, especially being able to walk into town for restaurants or visit shops or go for hikes on Mount Tom. Parents like all that too when they come to visit their kids.”

Williston students also get involved with several local organizations, such as the Easthampton Community Center and the Emily Williston Library.

When classes begin in the fall, the new Mountain View School, housing students in grades K-8, will be fully open to all its students. As the finishing touches were added this year, middle-school students moved in during the spring. Now that construction is complete, the elementary students will begin their classes at Mountain View in the fall.

With the new school project done, LaChapelle has shifted her attention to finding a reuse for the Maple Street, Center, and Pepin schools, the three buildings replaced by Mountain View. Later this summer, the mayor will issue a request for proposals that she hopes will attract the attention of developers who are planning their next construction season.

Naturally, the mayor would like to see the buildings turn into housing.

“Depending on how they are developed, the three buildings could add as many as 150 rental housing units,” she said. “Realistically, we’re hoping to see 70 to 80 units get added to the housing rolls, with 20% to 25% of those designated affordable.”

The search for a developer comes after 18 months of residents working with a consultant to determine the needs and wishes of each neighborhood where the schools are located.

“It’s exciting because every step of the way, we have been talking with residents about the buildings,” the mayor said. “The residents have done an amazing job, and after all their input, it’s safe to say the people have spoken.”

When the people spoke and voted to allow cannabis sales in Easthampton, no one knew what the impact might be on the city. In the beginning, there were fears of higher crime, underage use of cannabis, and fire-suppression issues in the shops. Now, with five dispensaries operating in the city, LaChapelle said none of those concerns came to pass.

Instead, the biggest effect was increased wear and tear on their roads.

“The revenue we’ve received from cannabis has largely been spent on our roads because they have been heavily impacted with the additional traffic,” she told BusinessWest.

The mayor added that it’s actually good news that the impact was on roads because many of them weren’t in good shape before cannabis came to town.

“We had to reprioritize which roads get paved because suddenly there are thousands more people driving on these roads,” she said.

 

Bottom Line

Now that the city is in a good place with its budget and has improved its bond rating since COVID, LaChapelle is reflective on how far Easthampton has come.

“I’m super proud of the people in our city departments and their leaders in how they’ve taken all our projects head on,” she said. “I feel we haven’t dropped any of the balls we were juggling before COVID.”

She quickly added that, because Easthampton is such a desirable place to live, there’s plenty of work to be done going forward.

That’s the reality when you’re the ‘cool-kid city.’

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Mayor William Reichelt

Mayor William Reichelt says West Springfield is making significant progress on many of the goals he set when first elected in 2015.

While the country will be celebrating its 250th birthday in 2026, West Springfield will mark that same milestone two years earlier.

And the planning for what will be a huge party is very much underway, said Mayor William Reichelt, noting that a committee has been put together, chairs of that board have been selected, and a dialogue will soon be launched with town residents to determine how, where, and in what ways they want to observe that birthday.

And while two years will go by quickly, especially with all this planning and execution to handle, this community that operates as a city but still calls itself a town could look much different by the time the big party kicks off.

Several of its major roadways, including Memorial Avenue and sections of Route 5, will be redone or in the process of being redone (hopefully the former, said the mayor as he crossed his fingers — figuratively, anyway) by then. There will be some new businesses on those stretches — Amherst Brewing is moving into the former Hofbrauhaus property, for example — and some of them well before 2024. And there may actually be some cannabis-related ventures in this town that has thus far said ‘no’ to this now-booming industry; a critical City Council vote on the matter took place on July 18, just after this issue of BusinessWest went to press, and Reichelt, who backed a measure to permit the licensing of such establishments, was confident that he had the requisite six votes for passage.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast.”

“We’re in a much different place than we were four years ago, when it was 8-1 [against],” he said, adding that the measure would enable businesses to be located on large stretches of Riverdale Street, the preferred location among those in that industry.

And there is a chance, albeit a slight chance at this point, that the massive power-generating plant near the rotary at the Memorial Bridge may disappear from the landscape it has dominated for decades. Indeed, it has been decommissioned, and its owners are deciding what to do with the property.

“We’re in discussions now about what remediation will look like; I would like to see a clean site so another developer can do something with it, but we’re still in the talking stage,” Reichelt said, adding that the community is looking closely at what happened with a similar but larger property in Salem that is being redeveloped.

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons

The renovated 95 Elm St., now known as Town Commons, features an eclectic mix of businesses and will soon add a restaurant.

But enough about what might and might not happen over the next two years. For now, West Springfield and its mayor are making progress on many of the goals he set down when he was first elected in 2015, including infrastructure, new schools and additions to existing schools, attracting new businesses, and creating what he called a “walkable downtown” with plenty of attractions.

Early on, he said he wanted to create ‘another Northampton.’ “But people have this weird dislike of Northampton, for some reason, so now, we say we want it to be like West Hartford,” Reichelt noted, adding that his community is certainly moving in that direction with initiatives ranging from a walking trail and improved infrastructure along the historic town green to the reinvention of 95 Elm St.

Formerly home to United Bank and still known to many as the ‘United Bank building,’ the three-story office complex is now home to a mix of businesses, and a new restaurant will soon be added to that mix.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on West Springfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

 

Party Planning

Returning to the subject of the 250th birthday party, Reichelt said the wheels are in motion for that celebration, and some pieces are starting to fall into place.

That list includes a special commemorative 250th birthday beer to be created by Two Weeks Notice Brewing, which set up shop in West Springfield several years ago and has established a firm presence in the community; no word yet on just what this brew will be or what it will be called.

Meanwhile, old documents and photos are being collected, and a commemorative history — a significant update to one produced for the 200th birthday in 1974 — is being planned, said Reichelt, adding that there is preliminary talk of staging an event similar to the Taste of West Springfield that was put on for many years by the community’s Rotary Club.

“We’re talking about bringing something like that back, maybe with a food truck festival on the common,” he said, reiterating that planning for the 250th is still very much in the early stages.

And while this planning continues, officials are making progress on a number of different fronts in the community, everything from the planning of infrastructure work on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale Street to determining how to spend roughly $8 million in ARPA funds (other infrastructure projects are at the top of that list) to contemplating what might be done if that massive power plant actually comes down.

Reflecting on that list, and his first six and half years in office, Reichelt, now one of the longest-serving mayors in the region, said he’s learned during his tenure that it often (always?) takes a long time to get something done, and, as a result, communities and those who lead them must be patient and perseverant.

“Once I got into this, there was so much I wanted to do, and I quickly realized that nothing happens fast,” he told BusinessWest. “Projects that I started talking about back in 2016 … we’re just starting to get funding for and breaking ground now.”

As an example, he pointed to the last remaining piece, the restaurant at 95 Elm St., something he’s been pursuing for years and an element he believes will be a nice compliment to what already exists on that street — a few restaurants, the Majestic Theatre, and a bagel shop already at 95 Elm — and make the area more of a destination.

Hofbrauhaus

At top, the town common now boasts new walking paths. Above, the former Hofbrauhaus property will become a new site for Amherst Brewing.

It’s also taken some time to make the planned improvements to the green area, which now boasts new traffic lights, improved intersections, and a half-mile loop for walking and other uses, said the mayor, adding that a similar upgrade is planned for Elm Street.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it,” he said. “We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Meanwhile, there are ambitious plans on the table for improving the full length of Memorial Avenue, from the Route 5 rotary to the recently widened Morgan Sullivan Bridge. The $25 million, state-funded project is slated to commence next April, and it will take two years to complete.

Significant work is also planned for Route 5 (Riverdale Street) and specifically the stretch north of I-91, said Reichelt, adding that the broad goal is to redevelop that section of the street, which has always been far less popular with retailers than the stretch south of the highway.

“There’s this perception … businesses have no desire to be north of the I-91 overpass,” he said. “They all want to be between the overpass and East Elm connection, where are no vacancies.”

As for the aforementioned power plant, it is very early in the process of deciding what its fate will be, said Reichelt, adding that, if all goes well, the community could have 10 acres of land right off Route 5 and Memorial Avenue that could be redeveloped for a number of uses. There is a landfill next door, so there are some limitations, he noted, but industrial, commercial, and infrastructure opportunities exist, including a connection to the rotary so that motorists can go both north and south from Agawam Avenue.

 

What’s Down the Road

But much of the attention is now focused on cannabis-related businesses, that July 18 vote, and what will likely happen if that measure passes.

At present, the only business allowed in West Springfield for cannabis-related ventures is to advertise their products and services on billboards along the highways that run through the community. That will change, of course, if the measure passes, as the mayor predicts it will, and he expects West Side to be an attractive mailing address for such companies.

“We want to bring people downtown and have it be a spot where you can walk around, go to the theater, have dinner in a couple of different places … make a night of it. We have great commercial corridors on Memorial Avenue and Riverdale, but there’s no real place for people in town to go; to have a walkable downtown would be nice. It’s nice to see come that come to fruition after six years.”

Indeed, Reichelt said he no longer uses the phrase ‘crossroads of the region’ to describe his community, preferring ‘retail capital of Western Mass.,’ a nod to the many regional and national retail heavyweights — from Costco to Dick’s Sporting Goods to Home Depot — that have located stores in the community.

The traffic that drew those major retailers should also attract cannabis businesses and especially dispensaries, he added.

Reichelt noted that he believes that there is sufficient momentum to get the measure passed, and there may be more with the recent 3% increase in property taxes, the town’s first in several years. Indeed, he said the tax revenue generated from cannabis-related businesses and its potential to help prevent another such increase in rates may help incentivize the council.

“It’s four years later, and the landscape has really changed,” he said. “You hear a lot of the same legalization arguments that you heard back in 2016, but that argument was settled in 2016 — it’s legal in Massachusetts now. To think that it’s not in town is … not based in reality. There are signs on Riverdale and Westfield Street and Memorial Avenue pointing to the different places you can buy marijuana outside of town; look at the tax money that’s leaving here.”

While the July 18 date was one to circle, there’s another key date fast approaching — Sept. 16. That’s the kickoff to the Big E, which will take another big step this year to returning to normal — as in 2019 conditions.

The fair was canceled in 2020, and while it was staged in 2021, it did not have a full lineup of entertainment, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, adding that, for 2022, it will be all systems go.

Much of the entertainment has already been announced, he said, noting that Lynyrd Skynrd will close the fair this year. Meanwhile, there will be a number of new attractions and events — including an opportunity for fair attendees to communicate with those at the International Space Station — and even food items, including noodles, vegan offerings, and full-sized donuts.

Cassidy said advanced ticket sales are running well ahead of the pace for last year, which was a near-record year for the fair, and other strong years. “People don’t even know what what the fair is going to offer, but they’re already supporting it by buying tickets, sometimes nine months in advance of the event,” he told BusinessWest. “And that provides a great deal of emotional support for those of us who run the place because we know that our patrons care about the organization.”

But while projections are certainly good for this year, he will watch closely what happens at several other state and regional fairs set to open in the coming weeks.

Indeed, one wildcard could be gas prices, which, while they’re coming down, remain historically high and could deter some families from driving long distances for entertainment.

 

Bottom Line

Reflecting on why this city still calls itself a town, Reichelt recalled that the vote to change the charter and convert from town government to city government was close — as in very close.

“They decided when they wrote the town charter to maintain the ‘town’ name to maintain that town feel,” he said, adding that many people have approached him and said ‘Will, it doesn’t feel like a town anymore.’

Such sentiments lead him to believe that maybe, just maybe, by the time West Springfield turns 250, it will not only operate a city government, but call itself a city.

If so, that will be only one of many potentially significant changes that will take place between now and then in a community where there is always movement and the landscape is, well, a work in progress.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox

Karl Stinehart, left, and Russ Fox say Southwick’s goal is preserve its high quality of life while also creating needed business tax revenue.

 

Southwick residents love the natural beauty and the many recreation choices their town offers but they also like reasonable tax rates.

Russell Fox, chair of the Southwick Select Board, said to accomplish both means business development must be part of the equation to ease the tax burden.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously,” said Fox, who has been a selectman off and on (mostly on) for more than 40 years. “I would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

A balancing act indeed, as last year residents made it know that they will support some business development proposals, but not all. After the town’s planning board and select board had approved a $100 million project involving the online used car seller Carvana, residents expressed a number of concerns about the size of the project and its impact on the community.

The site where the Carvana project was proposed is a 90-acre parcel on College Highway near Tannery Road. After residents rejected Carvana, Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer for Southwick said the owner of the property has since come up with a creative solution.

“The parcel will be broken into five lots,” Stinehart said. “We can now look to attract a retail store or a light manufacturer, something that won’t have the negative impact of a large facility.”

That’s the kind of progress that gets the attention of Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a great idea for them to split up that parcel to make it more attractive for smaller businesses,” Oulette said. Currently, 13 Southwick businesses belong to the Greater Westfield Chamber.

Stinehart pointed to the town’s tax rate of $16.98 per thousand for both residential and businesses as another incentive for economic development in Southwick. Oulette agreed.

“Southwick’s tax rate is competitive and should help the town to attract more business there,” Oulette said.

Overall, there are many types of development happening in this recreational town, both commercial and residential.

“It’s a balancing act that the Select Board takes very seriously. would not want to see families who have lived in town for generations say they can no longer afford to stay here.”

That list includes Faded Flowers LLC, which has been cleared to build a cannabis-growing facility. Stinehart said town voters have approved this facility, which will grow and process cannabis for commercial distribution. At the same time, voters have rejected hosting any retail dispensaries in town.

“We are in the early stages of this project,” Stinehart said. “They have done some site work but have not yet built the facility. Once complete there will be a lag time before the business is productive, so we are a long way from seeing any revenue for the town.”

Meanwhile, the Greens of Southwick is a development of custom-built homes on the land that was formerly Southwick Country Club. Located on both sides of College Highway, the west side of the development features 25 lots, with only two still available. More recently work began on the east side of the property where 38 lots are planned. Phase one of the east side has only three lots available.

On the other side of town, a 100-unit condominium project near the intersection of Depot Street and Powder Mill Road has also been approved.

“When those are built, the people who live there will have close access to the Rail Trail and can easily walk to the center of town,” said Stinehart.

While all these new homes will create additional tax revenue, residents who live on Lake Congamond are begrudgingly contributing more to the town’s tax coffers due to improvements to their current homes.

For several years, many of the modest homes on the shores of the lake are getting major renovations by their owners. As a result, these lakefront residences are now assessed at a higher tax rate than before the reno work.

“People are very upset with us about their increased taxes and we tell them how the state sets the tax rate, we have nothing to do with it,” said Fox.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and the ongoing efforts to create that balance that Fox spoke of.

 

Work and Play

Calling the lake a tremendous asset to Southwick, Fox also noted that part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds the town received were used to install weir gates on Congamond.

“Weir gates help us address flood control and keep contaminated water from flowing into the lake,” Fox said. Every spring the town treats the lake with aluminum sulfate or “alum” to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. Without the weir gates, contaminated water from flash floods would back up into the lake and negate the alum treatment. That affects the health of the lake, and the town budget, as Southwick spent $600,000 for the alum treatment.

Looking longer term, Fox said the town would like to dredge certain areas of the lake to keep it healthy.

“Lakes die naturally from sediment that keeps increasing over the years on the lakebed,” he explained. “Right now, there is an estimated six feet of sediment on the bottom of Lake Congamond.”

Because Congamond acts as a recharger for the aquifer, Fox is also hoping to start a dialogue with Westfield and West Springfield, as both communities get their water from the aquifer.

“It might be beneficial for all three towns to kick in to dredge the lake to make sure it keeps providing clean water,” he said.

Most of the $1.4 million Southwick received in its first allotment of ARPA funds was spent on a water project of a different sort, a new water pump and filtration station.

“This is a benefit to every water ratepayer and helps the town with improved water pressure,” said Fox.

Like nearly every town, Southwick has plenty of paving projects to tackle. Stinehart said town officials plan to use some of the ARPA money to fix roads in town but there’s a hitch. Budgets for road projects are set long before any paving happens.

“Because asphalt is petroleum-based, our paving projects now cost much more than we had planned,” Stinehart said. “The price inflation shortens the length of roads we can cover for that amount of money.”

As Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, big decisions are determined directly by residents.

“Everything we do must ultimately be approved by the voters at the Town Meeting,” said Fox. “I tell people all the time it’s the purest form of government.”

Stinehart explained several areas where voters have decided to make investments in their community.

“We continue to expand our paramedic EMS service which is run by the Fire Department,” he noted. “We’re adding more people so we can deliver that service at the highest level.”

Southwick is the lead community for a shared services grant to fund one full time and one part time nurse. In addition to Southwick, the nurses will cover Granville, Tolland, Blandford, Russell and Montgomery and serve in a visiting nurse-type of role. Stinehart explained that because of COVID, some people are still reluctant to go to medical facilities for routine treatment. With several towns taking part, the need for the service can be addressed at a more reasonable cost for everyone.

“It’s tough for one small community to budget for having a nurse on call, but with several towns paying it becomes more affordable for each town and it’s financially worthwhile for the nurse,” Stinehart said.

Southwick at a glance

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

When entering Southwick drivers are greeted with a welcome sign that brands the town as a “recreational community.” One notable recreation spot in town is The Wick 338, the motocross course that continues to grow in prominence in the sport. On July 9, the course will host the Southwick National Motocross Championship, which will be televised nationally on NBC.

“Based on ticket sales so far, the organizers are anticipating one of the largest events ever,” said Fox. “I hope they have good weather for it.”

The town also hosts two popular golf courses with The Ranch and Edgewood Country Club. Stinehart discussed a new golf game in town that has begun to take off: disc golf.

“The folks at the New England Disc Golf Center have told us people are playing hundreds of rounds of disc golf every week,” Stinehart said. “It’s a relatively new sport that’s gaining in popularity.”

Southwick is still basking in the glow of its 250th anniversary celebration. Though 2020 was the actual year of the anniversary, COVID forced the town to delay scheduled events and create new ones. In a “making lemonade out of lemons” kind of way, Fox remarked that they were able to celebrate the 250th for two years instead of just one.

“In 2020 we had a rolling parade where we drove floats into neighborhoods and then last year we held a traditional parade,” Stinehart said. “We’re still selling souvenirs from the event.”

 

Something to Celebrate

The anniversary celebration was so successful, the organizing committee had a surplus after all the costs were covered. That money will be used to make improvements to the town green and renovate the memorial to veterans who were Southwick residents.

“It’s a good use of the money and it will improve the municipal center of our community,” Stinehart said.

Reflecting on the anniversary, Fox said even with a two-year celebration, COVID prevented them from holding all the activities they would have liked to host.

At that point, Stinehart quipped, “Well, there will be a 275th anniversary.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Right Place, Right Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

McGill Hose and Coupling is another example.

Erin Bissonnette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace Barone

Grace Barone

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Buendo

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

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

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

 

The Bottom Line

As for McNally, her next move is well planned.

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

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

Features

A Changing Dynamic

By Amy Roberts

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

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

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Uplifting Spirits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Proof Positive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

His Best Shot

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jaclyn Stevenson

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Art and Soul

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

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

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

Jennifer Nacht

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Setting the Stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Carolyn Brennan

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

In some ways Hadley is a tale of two communities.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Claudia Pazmany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fruits of Their Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Experts in Their Fields

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

A Complicated Picture

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

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

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

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

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

John Regan

John Regan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Canina

Brian Canina

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

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

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

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

 

On-the-money Analysis

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

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

Bob Nakosteen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Mike McCabe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Flaherty

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

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

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

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

 

Things are Looking Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Eric Oulette

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s in Store

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

And All That Jazz

Kenny Lumpkin

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

Kenny Lumpkin is the true definition of serial entrepreneur.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deweys Bar

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

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

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

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

 

Sound Investment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey’s has attracted entertainers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before and after photographs

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

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

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

 

Achievements of Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dewey’s a destination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Just Desserts

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Gabrielle Gould, left, and Claudia Pazmany

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Bockelman

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On the Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

House Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amherst at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Features

The Future of Work

By Mark Morris

State Sen. Eric Lesser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

So, What’s the Answer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Strong Foundation

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Andrew Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Right Place, Right Time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linda Leduc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bridges to the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Out and About

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Manufacturing Progress

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

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

MJ Adams in front of Court Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greenfield at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Szynal

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

 

By Mark Morris

 

Deerfield is one busy town these days.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Location, Location, Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deerfield at a Glance

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

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

 

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

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

 

Out in the Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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