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Transition Game

Photo by Sandra Costello

As the founding director of the Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley, Ira Bryck has spent countless hours talking about the importance of succession planning and how to execute it properly. When it came time for his agency to transition, he — and his board — followed his own advice.

Ira Bryck knew it was time — as in time to put a succession plan in place — when he attended a gathering of family business center directors just over a year ago, took a quick look around the room, and concluded that he was the only first-generation leader still on the job roughly a quarter-century after this “movement,” as he called it, began.

“They were all second- and third-generation administrators,” he said of the other 39 people in the room. “I was the elder statesman, and that was a wake-up call.”
He laughed as he recalled this — it was one of those Baby-Boomer-realizing-he’s getting-on-in-years laugh — but there was considerable seriousness in his voice as he talked about the subjects of succession and succession planning.

As leader of the Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley Inc., and as a fourth-generation member of a family business himself, he knows that far too many companies, large and small, don’t have succession plans, or don’t have them until it’s too late.

For this reason, the transition in leadership at the FBC, as it’s called, from Bryck, whose name is pretty much synonymous with that agency, to Jessi Kirley became not just a succession, but what amounted to an exercise in successful succession planning.

And, no, these two are certainly not shy about using that phraseology this early on — just as Kirley is about to officially take the reins at the FBC’s 25th anniversary gala next month at the Log Cabin. They really believe that this is how it should be done.

“The family business, as a topic, has a lot to do with succession, and I have coached a lot of other people how to go through succession, and I did see it with my own family,” said Bryck, who will remain with the FBC on a very part-time basis working on special projects and coaching. “I believe what we’ve done here is a good model to follow.”

Kirley concurred, and noted that this transition has been different from most she’s observed in the way that the process used has enabled her to establish relationships and trust with the board and the FBC’s members before her tenure officially began, helping to ensure a smooth passing of the baton.
“Ira’s been talking about this transition for a long time,” she explained, “giving the members time to absorb it, to ask questions, to share concerns, and being really available.”

Elaborating, the two said the board of the FBC, which currently boasts nearly 60 members, was involved in not only making sure Kirley was a proper fit — she and Bryck both took a battery of personality tests — but that the transition was given the time, resources, and blueprint to help ensure success.
By time, they meant nearly 10 months of the two working together at the FBC, and by resources, they meant the payroll flexibility to have them both on the clock for that extended period.

And by blueprint, they meant a plan of action whereby Bryck would hire a program manager who then would be assessed to determine if he or she had what it took to become the FBC’s second executive director. And for this assessment, the chosen candidate (Kirley) would quickly start making key decisions and assuming a leadership role.

“One of the first things I said to her was, ‘I’m throwing you in the deep end of the pool and making sure you don’t drown,’” said Bryck, adding that this strategy paid off. “Right away, she took ownership.”

Kirley agreed, and described this succession as a “slow, conscientious hand-off.”
For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this handoff to detail both this important change at the FBC at its 25th anniversary, and also the manner in which this became what Bryck and Kirley both believe could be a model transition.

Following the Script

Bryck called it a “rainy-day fund.”

That’s what the FBC, like many businesses, agencies, municipalities, and states, calls money put aside for emergencies and unforeseen expenses.
It was this account that was tapped to enable Bryck and Kirley to be on the payroll for several months together — budget flexibility that they readily acknowledged that many businesses and nonprofits don’t have.

The FBC didn’t officially rename the fund, but Kirley did unofficially, suggesting that it might be called the ‘growth and sustainability fund.’
Such thinking helps explain the mindset that all those involved in this transition — Bryck, Kirley, the FBC’s board, and its membership — took with this exercise.

“One of the first things I said to her was, ‘I’m throwing you in the deep end of the pool and making sure you don’t drown.”

Photo by Sandra Costello

It was, indeed, a slow, conscientious handoff, one designed to secure perhaps another 25 years for this agency, devoted, as the name suggests, to providing education and insight to those involved in family businesses — however they are defined, and there are several working definitions.

And while this story officially began with Bryck walking into that conference meeting room, it started to gather steam when he got back. Not long after, he talked with his board and conveyed the need to start the process of succession.

“I knew I needed to find someone who did what I did, but would do it differently if they really wanted to increase the capacity,” said Bryck, “and do the second quarter-century the right way.”

This was a huge moment in the FBC’s history, because Bryck had been there from the beginning and was (and still is) quite popular with members — and for many reasons.
They include his innovative methods — right down to writing and then performing plays about various aspects of being in business with family members — as well as a hands-on approach and first-hand experience with being in a family business, specifically a children’s clothing store.
So it was important not only to pick the right successor but orchestrate a smooth transition that would not only retain members, but create momentum and enthusiasm for the next 25 years.

The process started with finding the right person. Kirley was recommended to Bryck by a mutual friend who, Bryck recalled, kicked things to a higher level with the comment, ‘why haven’t you hired Jessi Kirley yet?’

Jessi Kirley says the deliberate, well-orchestrated passing of the baton at the FBC helped her build confidence before officially taking the helm.
Photo by Sandra Costello

After several interviews with Kirley, who was looking for a new challenge after working in administrative positions for a succession of healthcare-related businesses, Bryck decided she had the requisite skills and potential. And she decided that was where she wanted that search for a new challenge to end.
“It was clear that there was a growth-oriented mindset built into the fabric of what Ira has created over 25 years,” she recalled. “I felt like I was home, that I was around people who want to learn and love and care for their business; it’s what I had always been looking for.”
Thus began a lengthy process of making sure she was the right fit for the executive director’s position, one that included several personality assessments, for both Kirley and Bryck.

“They wanted to make sure that she had the leadership style, the ability to gather a community together, and the ability to tap into what a lot of people have in common,” Bryck explained. “They also wanted to determine if she was coachable and if she could scale this over the next 25 years.”

Bryck originally thought this process of evaluation and eventual succession would take roughly two years. But in practice, it has gone much more quickly, roughly 10 months, in part because of that decision to throw Kirley into the deep end of the pool.

“He let me try things,” she recalled. “Within my first month, he let me book a speaker, which was a big risk for him. He’s let me try to throw on new systems that ask him to do things differently. He could have said, ‘we’re going to do things this way, and then when you have full reins, you can do what you want,’ but he didn’t.

“There’s something to be said for taking risks with a safety net,” she went on. “Having Ira there and being able to test ideas and try things little by little … I don’t know if enough rising leaders get to do that. And it built my confidence quicker, as well as my credibility, and it allowed us to know sooner that this was going to go well.”

“There’s something to be said for taking risks with a safety net.”

Bryck and Kirley acknowledged that certainly not all businesses and nonprofits can transition in this manner. Many simply wouldn’t have the payroll flexibility or an environment that would allow responsibilities to be shared in such a manner. But when possible, they said, the slow, conscientious handoff could help ensure a successful succession.

Bottom Line

Several weeks ago, both Bryck and Kirley both went to the 2019 edition of the gathering that triggered this succession process.
Still the elder statesman in the room, Bryck felt much more comfortable this time, because he no longer had to be concerned about succession; he and his board had found a successor.

Not only that, they provided to their members a real-life demonstration of how to put a plan in place and then execute it.
And that’s something else to celebrate as this important resource for the region’s business community celebrates a critical milestone and moves on to what’s next.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

As anyone who lives in Hadley, visits the town, or drives through it knows, Route 9, the main commercial thoroughfare in this still largely agricultural community, is in a seemingly constant state of motion.

In this case, motion translates into everything from high traffic counts to a continuous flow of new businesses across a wide spectrum that includes service ventures, retail outlets, and hospitality-related companies, to infrastructure work aimed at improving traffic flow.

And Hadley is seeing all of the above at the moment, as Town Administrator David Nixon noted as he talked with BusinessWest about the state of his community.

There are a number of new additions to the commercial landscape in various stages of development, said Nixon, listing a new Homewoods Hotel that recently debuted — bringing the total number of hotel rooms in town to 612 — as well as a Five Guys, L.L. Bean, Harbor Freight Tools, and 110 Grill that will be unveiled soon.

“There’s a lot of demand, and obviously the infrastructure is in place to support that demand except for the gas moratorium,” said Nixon, referring to an ongoing ban on new or expanded natural-gas service in Hampshire and Franklin counties due to a lack of capacity, a source of considerable controversy and consternation within the community. “The University of Massachusetts and the other colleges in the area, as well as 25 other campuses within an hour’s drive of this spot, make the area recession-proof.”

“Route 9 is a big economy booster for the town of Hadley and is continuously being renovated to provide services to both residents and visitors.”

And they make Hadley, population 5,000 or so, a much more populated place during what would be called business hours, with between 35,000 and 80,000 visiting the community each day.

But Hadley has always been much more than a place to visit or travel through on the way to somewhere else, especially the college towns that border it, Amherst and Northampton. Indeed, a mix of culture, recreation, and bucolic countryside makes it an attractive place to live.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned infrastructure work and a mix of municipal projects designed to make it even more attractive.

That latter category includes a new, $3.9 million library that can be seen from the top of Hadley’s Town Hall building. Molly Keegan, general government liaison for the Hadley Select Board, said the state’s Library Building Assoc. is matching 50% of the project costs.

“Like many communities, we were suffering from deferred maintenance on some of our older town properties,” she noted, “and we were able to move forward with a funding strategy that allowed us to build a new library and take advantage of the state grant program.”

Right next door to the library, a new, $7.1 million senior center is under way, and a new, $3.5 million fire substation is being constructed on River Drive.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure work includes a number of road and bridge projects, all aimed at improving traffic flow along Route 9.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how the word ‘Hadley’ remains seemingly synonymous with both ‘change’ and ‘progress.’

Routes and Roots

As is the case with most infrastructure projects, progress usually comes after a lengthy period of inconvenience. And that will certainly be the case in Hadley.

Three major road projects will be taking place simultaneously over the next few years, said Nixon, adding that all are needed for the community to better accommodate those tens of thousands of visitors every day.

Currently underway is work on the roundabout at the west side of the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton.

“The current configuration is not efficient — it doesn’t allow cars to go through quickly,” he explained. “They’re going to put an exchange with the ramps, the bridge, and the surface streets, so that will get traffic moving a lot quicker.”

In addition, the Bay Road Bridge over Fort River is being completely replaced. The bridge will be reconstructed with wider shoulders and new sidewalks, with construction set to begin in the spring of 2021.

Finally, a four-year project is set to widen Route 9 from Town Hall to 2.5 miles east by the malls. This project will add another lane to the popular route in hopes of significantly reducing traffic tie-ups.

“Traffic congestion has been a real problem in some areas, but is now becoming a real problem all over the East Coast,” Nixon said. “Taking care of the infrastructure is of regional importance.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250 (2010)
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.36
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Equally important is maintaining what has been a diverse business community, he noted, adding that, while the retail and hospitality sectors have exploded along Route 9 in recent decades, agriculture remains a huge part of the town’s vibrancy — and its identity.

“Agriculture is a part of our heritage,” he said. “This is still very much an agricultural town.”

He’s talking about the six dairy farms and endless acres of preserved farmland on town property that accompany the booming business on Route 9.

The town has the most protected farmland in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he said, adding that the strong commercial and industrial base helps the community to not only preserve its agricultural base, but keep its residential tax rates comparatively low.

But while small in size (population-wise) and mostly rural in character, Hadley is facing some big-city challenges.

“We are, at our core, a small town,” Nixon said. “We have the resources of a small town, and yet we’re dealing with much larger issues.”

Chief among them is traffic, he said, adding that this is a seasonal concern for the Berkshires and Cape Cod, in Hadley, it’s a year-round problem, although conditions are somewhat better when the colleges are not in session.

The town will have some help as it goes about taking on these various challenges in the form of a higher bond rating.

On June 21, Hadley was informed that its bond rating was upgraded from AA+ to AAA, an achievement only three other towns in Massachusetts — Northampton, Great Barrington, and Lenox — can currently boast.

“That’s quite an achievement for a small town,” said Nixon. “We’re insufferably pleased with ourselves. It’s an accomplishment not only of the town government and the million things that we do, but it’s also an accomplishment for the entire business, residential, and agricultural community. It’s something that everyone can take pride in and feel good about and take credit for.”

Keegan added that a financial team has been working hard alongside elected officials to make the higher bond rating possible.

“Having that bond rating … not only is it public recognition of all the good work being done by the municipal employees and volunteers, but it also puts us in the best position we can be in in terms of borrowing,” she said. “The timing on that could not have been any better.”

Planting Seeds

As for the future, Nixon hopes Hadley continues to build upon its recent successes and especially that higher bond rating.

What is distinctly clear is that the town is in a period of ongoing growth and evolution, all while maintaining the rural quality and agricultural character that makes Hadley, well, Hadley.

And like that AAA rating, this is something to celebrate.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Four years ago, a $7,500 grant from MassDevelopment helped to fund the first annual Downtown GetDown block party in Chicopee. Mayor Richard Kos understands why that was a good investment.

“They like the idea of people coming downtown, because when they do, it gives other people impetus to want to develop the downtown,” he told BusinessWest.

In that first year, he went on, “the block party really removed a lot of question marks. People say there’s no parking downtown. Well, we had 15,000 people over a weekend, and no one complained about parking. It was not an issue. We had people come down and say, ‘this is a nice place to walk around.’ It’s safe, secure, well-lit at night, and they had a lot of fun.”

Now in its fifth year, Downtown GetDown is again expected to draw around 15,000 people the weekend of Aug. 23-24, offering a steady diet of music, entertainment, food, and more than 60 vendor booths.

And what visitors will see is a downtown on the rise, the mayor noted. Take, for example, two residential projects in the pipeline, both of them conversions of former mills: the SilverBrick Group’s $29 million project that will offer 280 units at the Cabotville Mill, and Mount Holyoke Development’s $14 million project that will bring another 105 to the Lyman Mills building.

Across the street is Ames Privilege, a 270-unit development that opened several years ago and now has a two- to three-year waiting list. “We look at that as a model,” Kos said. “If anyone wonders about the need, we point out what a success Ames Privilege is.”

Mills have a particular attraction for young professionals who seek urban living surrounded by public transportation options and walkable amenities. The latter will get a boost with the expected opening of a C-Town supermarket downtown.

“That eliminates a food desert downtown,” Kos said. “To some degree, they’re anticipating what’s happening when you add several hundred apartments. People need groceries — it’s convenient to just walk out your door to a market that provides a lot of food options.”

Chicopee has also signed on to the regional ValleyBike program, with the downtown joining two other locations — in Chicopee Falls and Willimansett — with bike-share stations. “We think those will be positive, and will give people another way to get to work and do things they enjoy doing,” the mayor added.

But perhaps the most intriguing development downtown is the two-year MassDevelopment grant that will pay for a Transformative Development Initiative fellow who will focus on economic-development initiatives in the city center, said Lee Pouliot, the city’s director of Planning and Development.

“Our objectives are things like reactivating the old library that’s been vacant for a really long time, getting vacant storefronts filled, and using the GetDown as a catalyst for finding entities that might be interested in growing their business to a permanent location,” he said. “It’s taking energy from those activities and, through the fellow who’s working on our behalf, getting those things to the next step.”

To Kos, it’s all about continuing the momentum that has been picking up steam in recent years. “That’s how you get a downtown where people want to come,” he said, adding, “I grew up in an era of urban renewal where you tore everything down, and unfortunately sometimes there was no plan to replace it, so you wound up with nothing. And then people would scramble to find stuff.”

But he sees value in preserving a downtown’s character — for example, the old mills — while looking to the future. “The old brick-and-mortar buildings were so much more impressive than the new stuff.”

 

For this edition of Community Spotlight, we shine the light on what’s happening not only in Chicopee’s downtown, but across a city that developers have found increasingly attractive in recent years.

Mayor Richard Kos says Chicopee’s downtown is enjoying more visitation and vibrancy.

Long Overdue

One of the city’s more visible signs of improvement is the work going on at the 148-year-old City Hall itself, which is undergoing a $12 million improvement and renovation project addressing everything from handicap accessibility to roof and foundation repair; from a new elevator to a full auditorium renovation.

“This building needed a little attention,” Kos said. “The last time I was mayor, we built schools and a library. This time, we’re fixing things.”

The city also bought a house near City Hall from the Valley Opportunity Council, and will demolish it; coupled with other city-acquired properties nearby, the endgame will be 125 to 150 additional free parking spots next to City Hall and walking paths to connect them with downtown destinations.

That comes on the heels of a $10 million renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety complex a couple miles away on Court Street. “As one proponent of that, we’re putting a civilian dispatch facility there and making it robust enough to make it regional,” Kos said, an effort that currently includes Longmeadow but could eventually expand to other towns.

“A number of communities have been looking to do this, but nothing was being done, and we made our improvements sufficient, so it just made sense,” the mayor continued. “In some parts of the country, there’s a regional dispatch for 20 to 30 cities and towns. Here in Massachusetts, nearly every community has own dispatch, and for some, it just doesn’t make sense, with one or two calls a night, if that.”

The city is also training civilians to work the system, which will keep more uniformed officers on the street, he added.

Meanwhile, the 10-year (so far) quest to develop the former Uniroyal site continues, as the city needs to abate three more buildings, demolishing one and securing two for future development, including office and residential uses, Pouliot said.

The city also continues to invest in its two high schools, such as an upcoming replacement of the turf field at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and new LED lights for the Chicopee High School field. It’s also starting an $8 million reconstruction of Fuller Road that will include permitting work to create access to Chicopee River for kayakers.

On the city-services side, Kos continues to tout Chicopee’s low residential tax rate, a municipal electric-light utility with similarly attractive rates, and a plan, also through Chicopee Electric Light, to install high-speed fiber throughout the city, joining the growing ranks of ‘gig cities’ across the U.S.

“That will benefit both residents and businesses,” he said. “The internet is really what drives so much now.”

Meanwhile, in preparation to close its dump on New Lombard Road, which it did in June, Chicopee has promoted less waste over the past few years by limiting trash pickup to one 35-gallon barrel per household, with residents able to buy bags for additional trash.

“For the vast majority of people, it’s worked well,” Kos said. “We also gave everyone a barrel three times that size for recycling, which sends the message that you should recycle more than you throw away, and it’s been working. Our trash has gone down by over 25%.”

Give and Take

In other words, it takes cooperation between the city and its residents and businesses to create an environment where people want to live and set up shop. On the latter front, the booming commercial center at Mass Pike exit 5 picked up another pair of businesses with Five Guys and Mattress Firm in recent months, while Dinesh Patel’s planned $45 development at exit 6 is set to begin soon, and will include a hotel, a gas station, a sit-down restaurant, a coffee shop, and two fast-food eateries.

In Willimansett, major employers like Callaway and J. Polep are thriving on Meadow Street, while Chicopee Street recently saw the opening of Leadfoot Brewing. Meanwhile, the new marijuana economy has arrived in Chicopee as well, with Mass Alternative Care already operational on East Main Street, Theory Wellness set to open a shop on Fuller Road, and a couple of other businesses moving forward with the permitting process.

In short, there’s a lot going on, said Kos, who is getting ready to step down from his second stint as mayor, not seeking re-election this fall. To help harness that energy, the city is getting ready to launch a comprehensive planning project, a resident-driven project being conducted by Horsely Witten Group under a two-year, $150,000 contract.

“It will simply answer the question, ‘what does Chicopee want to be in 20 years?’” Pouliot said, “so we can start developing policy and update zoning to support what we want to build now, versus what we wanted to build back in the ’40s or the ’70s.”

Added Kos, “we’re not only dealing with the present, but preparing for the future” — and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about both.

“We’re trying, as a city,” he went on, “to move on multiple fronts to draw more businesses and more residents — to make this a place where you want to live, not where you have to live.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Cynthia West says Easthampton had the best ‘feel’ for the business she launched with her daughter, McKenzie, the Sonnet & Sparrow ‘curated thrift store.’

It was the food that brought Cynthia West to Easthampton.

Well, sort of.

It was the food, in the form of weekly visits to restaurants like Galaxy, Kisara, and others that gave West … well, a flavor of Easthampton and, eventually, the opinion that this was the place to bring a business she had been thinking about and dreaming about for some time.

It’s called Sonnet & Sparrow, a “curated thrift store” she operates with her daughter, McKenzie West, in space that was once part of the historic, yet also somewhat notorious, Majestic Theater on Cottage Street. Notorious because 30 years ago it was showing adult films and had become a symbol of the decline of Easthampton and the Cottage Street area.

Now, Cottage Street, and the city as a whole, have been reborn, and West decided she had to be part of what is generally referred to as a renaissance in this old mill town.

“I chose Easthampton because I love to eat here,” West, who opened her store just two months ago, said matter-of-factly. “We found the community very welcoming; we wanted to be in the Valley, and we found that Easthampton had the best feel for what we wanted to do.”

She’s certainly not alone in these sentiments about Easthampton’s feel and it being an ideal home for a new business, as made clear in an anecdote the city’s mayor, Nicolle LaChapelle, related about a manufacturing firm that expressed interest in this community in the shadow of Mount Tom as a landing spot.

“They’re looking for 40,000 square feet, and they’re looking in Easthampton because, when they surveyed their employees, who have an average age of 47, they found that they want to be able to live and walk to work, have some options when it comes to leisure recreation, and be part of a city,” she said. “Easthampton checks all those boxes.”

Suffice it to say Easthampton checks a good many boxes for entrepreneurs across the broad spectrum of the regional economy, with a number of new ventures opening over the past few months, and even the past few weeks.

Businesses like INSA, a multi-faceted cannabis complex in the Keystone mill complex on Pleasant Street that includes a cultivation facility, dispensary, lab, kitchen, and more. The company, led by CEO Mark Zatyrka, has other locations in the region and is expanding into other regions of the state, but Easthampton is the headquarters location.

And like Prodigy Minigolf & Gameroom, located in the basement of the Eastworks building, also on Pleasant Street, and home to an eclectic mix of businesses. Founder Jeff Bujak, a musician looking to hit some different notes, calls this the most challenging mini-golf to be found anywhere, but there’s much more to the operation, including an extensive list of board games and video games that would make any Boomer nostalgic and any Millennial quite intrigued.

And like Veracruzana Mexican restaurant, or should we say the latest Veracruzana. Phil Pallante and his wife, Sunia Hood, had already purchased the restaurant’s two locations in Northampton and Amherst, but even before they did that, they informally decided Easthampton would be the next push pin on the map. They eventually found a spacious storefront on Union Street right next door to the Chamber of Commerce, and opened just a few weeks ago.

Mark Zatyrka, seen here in INSA’s dispensary, says he and his partners were drawn to Easthampton because of its amenities and welcoming approach to the cannabis industry.

Collectively, these entrepreneurs and others we spoke with say they came to Easthampton for the same reasons West did — they saw a city on the rise, one that that boasts vibrancy, arts and culture, a growing restaurant sector, healthy tourism, no shortage of things to do, and a very ‘green’ mindset.

Comparisons to neighboring Northampton are inevitable and seemingly constant. There are many who call this the ‘new Northampton.’

But while flattered by such comments, Maureen Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, doesn’t believe they accurately describe what’s going on here. Indeed, she told BusinessWest that, while there may be some similarities, Easthampton has forged its own identity.

“We’re not the ‘next Northampton,’” she said. “Northampton does Northampton really, really well. And we do Easthampton outstandingly well. I like to say that our community is hip, cool, wow, and now.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest explores all that goes into that phrase and why Easthampton is becoming the landing spot of choice for a growing number of businesses.

Getting On Board

Casey Douglass says that, when he arrived on the scene in Easthampton roughly 15 years ago and opened his first restaurant in the city, the community was, in his estimation, like that literary little engine that could and its signature phrase ‘I think I can.’

By that, he meant the city was emerging and developing what became a healthy dose of confidence. It’s no longer saying ‘I think I can,’ but instead has shown that it can do it, he suggested.

“Now, we’re moving like a bullet train, and I’m happy to be on it,” said Douglass, owner of Galaxy, a fixture on Main Street and his third such venture in the city after Apollo and what is now Coco and the Cellar Bar. “And there are plenty of seats available.”

As noted earlier, seemingly every month, if not every week, another business owner is getting on board, keeping Belliveau and her ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors quite busy.

Before getting to some of the recent arrivals, and others, like Douglass, who can talk about the scene in Easthampton with decades of perspective, we need to talk about how Easthampton got here, a state where it is being increasingly compared to its neighbor, a destination that is still the most economically vibrant community in the region.

Summing things up, LaChapelle, a labor attorney who came to the city in 1997, said that, in the mid- to late ’90s, Easthampton laid the foundation for a revival, a reinvention of itself from a mill city to an arts and cultural center, and it has carefully built on that foundation ever since.

Phil Pallante says Main Street in Easthampton was the logical location for the third Veracruzana restaurant.

The bedrock on which it’s built is effective zoning, a huge inventory of old mill buildings ready to be repurposed, a business-friendly government, and a community that can blend affordable housing, plenty of recreation, and that increasingly ‘green’ mindset mentioned earlier.

Over the past few decades, it has steadily added building blocks, she said, in the form of new businesses across many sectors, a slew of new restaurants and cultural attractions that are bringing people into the city, and, perhaps most importantly, jobs to replace those lost when the mills closed.

LaChappele was quick to note that this business-friendly attitude certainly applies to the burgeoning cannabis industry. Indeed, while some communities have outlawed such ventures or are just putting a toe in the water, Easthampton, like another neighbor, Holyoke, has rolled out the red carpet, but in a careful, thoughtful way.

“We’re head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t that’s overstating it,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything this industry is generating, from tax dollars to jobs to foot and vehicular traffic.

“This is a unique industry; it’s very rare in these days that a person on the street or a collection of investors can get in on a new industry and be a part of the regulations,” she went on, adding that the community currently hosts one such business, INSA, but it has several other host-community agreements in place and other ventures in various stages of progression. “It’s a unique opportunity where we, as a community, get to write the rules and work with entrepreneurs on something that provides local tax revenue. I can’t imagine when that will happen again, and I expect the presence of cannabis-related businesses to grow in Easthampton.”

This open affection is no doubt one of the factors that brought INSA to Pleasant Street.

“Pretty early on in the process, we realized how much time and money went into creating this business and how important it was to be timely,” said Zatyrka. “So we wanted to find a city that was welcoming to us. At the time, there were a lot of cities that weren’t as welcoming, and it gets expensive to push your agenda on a city and its constituents.

Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle says Easthampton can “check a number of boxes” for business owners across a number of sectors.

“I was born in Easthampton,” he went on, adding that the other founders are local as well. “In combination with the progressive nature of Easthampton as well as what the mill district and the mills had to offer, we thought this was the perfect home for us.”

There are now more than 150 people working in the company’s facilities at the Keystone complex, in operations ranging from cultivation to retail, he went on, adding that there is plenty of room to expand.

Scoring Points

Prodigy’s Bujak noted, in what can’t be considered an upset, that his favorite Seinfeld episode is the one called “The Frogger.”

You remember (even if you’re a Millennial) … that’s the one where George discovers that, years after he last played a Frogger machine at a pizza parlor he’s revisiting, he’s still the high scorer. And he attempts to take the machine home, an adventure that ends, predictably, in calamity.

Prodigy has been bringing in a lot of George Costanza types since it opened in the spring of 2018, said Bujak, noting that they come to play a wide array of video games that took up a good part of their lives in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. And they’re playing them on a collection of vintage TVs that he’s had no problem assembling because their previous owners were happy to find someone to take them off their hands. He’s also drawing many teenagers and older individuals (this course is not for young children) to his challenging mini-golf operation.

“I’ve played mini-golf everywhere in this country, and this is by far the most challenging — I won’t say difficult, but challenging — and I wanted it that way,” he said, adding that it plays as much like a video game as it does like golf.

Jeff Bujak made Easthampton home to what he calls the most challenging mini-golf facility in the country.

While he’s lived in Northampton for many years, Bujak noted, he never thought of opening his venture there. Instead, he always focused on Easthampton. He said Will Bundy, owner of Eastworks, made him one of those deals that couldn’t be refused. And he didn’t.

“It’s been very successful,” he said of his first 16 months in business. “I’m doing three times the business I thought I thought I would, and that I put down in my original business plan.”

Early on, he was relying heavily on his large fan base, acquired through many years as a touring musician, but visitation from area communities has escalated, and he’s now averaging 500 to 700 people a week.

“And these 500 to 700 people are now also going to the mill district, and to Food Truck Fridays, and to INSA, and to the Mill Pond concerts,” he said, adding that business has become another of those aforementioned building blocks that support one another and bring ever-greater vibrancy to the community.

Pallante agreed, telling a story with many of the same themes as those told by West, Bujak, and Zatyrka.

He said he and his wife would often eat in Easthampton to avoid the congestion in Northampton and Amherst, and in doing so came to understand that the community was building momentum and had become a true destination in its own right. Together, the two drew up plans for the latest Veracruzana on a napkin while having a bite at still another of the city’s restaurants, Amy’s Place, on Cottage Street.

“We knew that, from everything the city had to offer, and logistically as well, this was the place we wanted to be,” Pallante said. “It became very apparent that Easthampton is aggressively seeking and helping people come here, and creating a culture where people want to be.”

Michael Poole, a welder and sculptor and thus one many artisans now working (and in many cases also living) in Easthampton, echoed these sentiments.

He joked that, if they did one of those Taste of Easthampton-type of events when he first arrived in the city in the early ’90s, it would have featured “a few slices of pizza, and none with pineapple on them.”

That last reference was an attempt to accentuate just how much has changed in a quarter-century or so. There is now a solid portfolio of restaurants acting not only as drawing cards bringing visitors and even entrepreneurs (like West), but as anchors for a host of other businesses that need foot traffic to succeed.

Poole noted that a diverse mix of businesses now exist, and many people are choosing to live and work in the community, a change from when he first arrived.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

“There weren’t a lot of jobs back then,” said Poole, owner of Blue Collar Artisans and noted for his ornate ‘tree’ handrails, furniture, and other forms of home décor, as well as the bicycle rack on Main Street he fashioned out of the numbers in the city’s zip code — 01027. “People lived here and worked someplace else.”

Now, many more people are coming to Easthampton to work, he noted, quickly adding that many now choose to settle in Easthampton because of all it has to offer and commute to work.

He measures the progress, unscientifically to be sure, by the volume of traffic on Holyoke Street.

“My business is at the far end of East Street, and I can tell what time it is by where the line of traffic stops,” he said. “Our house is right on Holyoke Street, and we joke about the ‘Easthampton rush hour’; every year it gets a little longer. But those are the problems you want.”

Right Place, Right Time

Indeed they are.

Easthampton didn’t have to worry about traffic jams or finding enough parking spaces 20 years ago. Now, it does, to some extent, and, as those we talked with agreed, those are good problems to have.

As is being called the ‘new Northampton.’

It’s always meant as a compliment, said Belliveau, but, as she noted, it’s not really accurate. The city is indeed thriving and establishing itself as a destination, but it’s not the new Northampton; it’s the new Easthampton.

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

Features

Making Courage Contagious

Kirk Jonah has devoted himself to making sure fewer families must suffer the kind of tragedy his did — the death of his son Jack (inset) to a heroin overdose in 2016 at age 19.

Kirk Jonah doesn’t rely on a set script when he gives one of his talks; he’ll vary the message to the setting and the audience.

But generally speaking, he’ll wrap things up the same way, especially when he’s speaking to young people.

He puts up an image of a form. He’ll usually ask if someone knows what it is, and often, someone will offer that it’s a birth certificate. He focuses in closer with the next PowerPoint slide, and it becomes clear that is instead a death certificate — one for his son, Jack.

Then he focuses in even closer on the ‘cause-of-death’ line and the words ‘acute heroin intoxication.’ “I tell them, ‘this is what you get, as a parent, five or six weeks after you bury your child — a death certificate,’” he told BusinessWest.

And he leaves the image there for a few moments — usually to very dramatic effect.

Jonah started giving these talks not long after Jack died of that overdose in April 2016. He says he probably averages one a month now, although the talks frequently come in spurts. And, as noted, the audience varies. Often, it’s young people, but sometimes it’s parents. And at other times, it’s a mix of both.

He talks about Jack — his life as well as his death — but he also makes a point of talking about survivors, those who are fighting addiction, to show there is a path to a better life.

Overall, he talks about the choices people have to make and the need to make smart ones (much more on this later). There are three themes — honor those who have died, educate people about those choices to be made, and support those who are fighting the fight. Honor, educate, and support.

And if there is an overriding message, it’s that everyone, that’s everyone, has to do all they can to prevent more parents, more families, from being mailed a death certificate like the one sent to the Jonah residence.

Today, he’s presenting this message and those themes on platforms far beyond the podium. Indeed, Jonah and his family — wife Nini, son Dan, and daughter Karlye — have created the Jack Jonah Foundation, which this spring staged its first fundraising walk.

Jack Jonah, far right, with his siblings, Dan and Karlye, and grandmother, Anita Barrett.

It netted more than $70,000 in contributions that will be distributed to nonprofits helping to wage the fight against opioid abuse, but it much more than that. It brought more than 1,000 people together behind a cause that has too often been relegated to the background because of the stigma against drug abuse.

And soon, there will be a movie about the Jonah family and its work, to be undertaken by JCFilms, a maker of family-friendly, faith-based narratives; the working title could also be called the unofficial mission of the recently formed foundation — Jack Jonah: Making Courage Contagious.

Dean Cain (Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, Out of Time, Rat Race, and, more recently, a host of JCFilms productions) has been cast in the role of Kirk Jonah, and other roles will be filled soon. In fact, a casting call was issued, and auditions were held on July 20 at West Springfield High School. The poster declared there are more than 13 adult roles, more than 25 teenage roles, and 200 background actors.

“This is not a biography; it’s not a chronology,” said Jonah. “It’s about Jack, and it’s about our family, but there will be a lot of moving parts; it’s an opportunity to engage people in fighting this epidemic.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Jonah about the film, the foundation, and the sum of his efforts to prevent more tragedies like the one that befell his family.

Bitter Pills

Jonah recalls the short conversation as being somewhat odd.

A friend with the West Springfield police called and told him he needed to get home as quick as he could. But he didn’t say why.

Upon arriving, Jonah, who theorized it might have something to do with his alarm system, was told why. His son had been found dead in his room with hypodermic needles around him. Jonah had to take the police at their word because his room was now a crime scene and he was not allowed in.

“The room was locked off — there were police officers at both stairwells,” he recalled. “I called family, they started coming to the house, and we sat in the kitchen while the coroner came and went up to the room, and then the body was taken out of the house; we were not allowed to see any of it.”

Thus, Jack’s death became the latest in an epidemic of fatal overdoses rocking this region and this nation. This one was a little different, though.

Jack’s family had absolutely no idea he was using heroin. None whatsoever.

Kirk Jonah ends most of his talks by putting his son’s death certificate on the screen and focusing in on the ‘cause of death’ line.

“We didn’t see any signs,” said Jonah. “A lot of people who have come up to me over the years have said that a loved one had been fighting addiction for five years or 10 years and they had gone through a lot of difficult moments. We didn’t have that with Jack — we were completely surprised.”

The basic reason for this surprise was all the good that was going on in Jack’s life in the months and years leading up to this tragedy, none of it really consistent with heroin addiction.

“He was going to HCC [Holyoke Community College] and was dean’s list,” Jonah explained. “He was deciding what he wanted to do, and he had kind of narrowed it down to working with animals — he worked at Boston Road Animal Hospital, where he assisted surgical vets — or the medical field, like nursing.

“He was very artistic,” he went on, adding that Jack created a self-portrait in charcoal that hangs in the family’s living room. “He played guitar, he played the piano, and he was also involved in drama — he did some acting and was involved with other students in writing a play called Labels. He was fiercely loyal to his friends and family, and he was just a great kid and a wonderful young man.”

To this day, Kirk Jonah still doesn’t know when or how his son became hooked on heroin. Since Jack’s death, no one has come forward with any information that might help him solve that puzzle.

But in most all respects, it doesn’t matter. What does is that someone died of a heroin overdose. And Jonah, with the help of his family and a very supportive employer, Holyoke Gas & Electric, has dedicated himself to saving some of the lives that might otherwise be lost to drug addiction and overdoses.

When asked how this work began and why, Jonah started by referencing the many sleepless nights he was experiencing after his son’s death.

“A person said to me, ‘that’s Jack and God speaking to you — listen to them, open up, invite them in,’” he recalled. “So I said, ‘OK.’”

He said he was asked to speak at Holyoke Mall at an event called “Living in Plain Sight,” put on by the CARE (Collaborative Accountability Reaches Everyone) Coalition of West Springfield, and from there, the requests have multiplied.

He’s spoken at events ranging from assemblies at area schools to a gathering at Baystate Noble Hospital to Mercy Medical Center’s annual Caritas Gala; Channel 57 recently made the family’s story the basis of an episode of its Connecting Point show.

“People just kept reaching out to me asking me to speak,” he said, adding that he now gives about a dozen talks a year.

Talking Points

As noted earlier, his presentations vary in their specific talking points, depending on the audience.

When he’s talking to the those who have suffered a loss like his, he has some poignant thoughts on coping, advice handed down from his grief counselor.

“I tell them, ‘you’re going to be sad every day, but don’t make it all day — make it part of your day,’” said Jonah, who can tell you at any moment how many years, months, and days it has been since his son’s death. “I say, ‘manage it as best you can; that’s what I do.’

“I have this imagery vault, and I’m the only one who has a key,” he went on. “I open that vault every day, and I take out that sadness; it’s overwhelming. Sometimes it can last 10 minutes, sometimes it’s 30 minutes, sometimes it’s longer. But then you take this sadness, put it back in the vault, lock it, and say, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’”

In all cases, though, Jonah’s talks come back to choices, and the need to make smart ones.

These choices come in all varieties, he went on, from young people deciding whether to pop a few prescription pills while at a friend’s party to adults deciding how to store and dispose of such pills, to the friends of those who are abusing drugs deciding whether to intervene and tell the parents of such an individual.

“In a lot of cases, it starts with prescription medication,” Jonah said of heroin addiction. “It might be at a party, and they took their parents’ prescription pills,” he said. “One person gets addicted, and the other one doesn’t; you don’t know which one you’re going to be, and that’s why you have to make smart decisions.”

He also encourages people to speak up, as difficult as that might be in many situations.

Specifically, he often relates the story of one young person who did speak up and told his parents that his brother had a problem that needed to be addressed.

“This person called his parents, and they said, ‘OK,’ and they started watching for signs,” said Jonah. “When they found their son overdosed, they had Narcan, and they revived him; he’s now been clean for many, many years.

“I say to the kids, ‘how do you think that brother who was doing the heroin felt when his brother spoke up?’” he went on. “They all say, ‘not good.’ I ask, ‘how do you think he feels now?’ They’re best friends.”

He also relates the story of someone who didn’t speak up about an individual who eventually died of an overdose. “And I ask them, ‘which one are you going to be?’”

And, as noted, he finishes with that death certificate.

“I say, ‘when you leave here today, you may remember Mr. Jonah, or you may not; you may remember Jack, or you may not,’” he said. “‘But when you’re out in the world and you’re faced with a challenging decision, think of that death certificate, and hopefully it will give you the strength and confidence to make the right decision.’”

The talks were followed by a website, a logo, a Facebook page, and, eventually, the foundation, a 501(c)(3), all of which came about through the help of a number of supporters, said Jonah, adding that the film, production of which will begin next month, is the latest platform for telling the story.

The short informational piece on the Jack Jonah Foundation website pretty much tells the story about why the film is being made and what those behind it hope to accomplish.

“Jack Jonah was an extraordinary teen with real dreams and a bright future,” it reads. “On April 6, 2016, that ended, and he quickly became a statistic.

“Will you join this project to challenge teens in the community and communities around the country to be courageous in speaking out against drug usage among teens?” it continues. “This is bigger than just a film about Jack’s life; it’s about his voice being echoed throughout this film to save lives.”

In a nutshell, that’s what Kirk Jonah’s talks, the website, the foundation, and everything else are all about.

Inspiration that Lives on

Jonah told BusinessWest that he reaps many rewards from his ongoing work. The most important to him are the comments from those who approach him after one of his talks, at the fundraising walk, or just on the street.

Parents have told him that he has inspired them to become more open about a child’s problem and not be caught up in the stigma of drug abuse. Young people have told him that, because of his words, they have intervened in an effort to help a friend, or plan to.

In short, he believes he is creating some progress in an ongoing war against opioid addiction — progress that will hopefully translate into fewer people getting a death certificate like he did.

And he gives all or most of the credit for this progress to Jack, and the way his story continues to move others.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Baystate Health & Wellness Center, which opened last year, lies alongside significant improvements to the Dwight Road corridor at the East Longmeadow line.

When people think of economic development, they might think of a flood of new businesses into a community. Longmeadow will never have that, Town Manager Stephen Crane said, but it certainly has economic development — centered instead around residential property values and the quality of life that maintains them.

“What sustains property values are investments like middle schools, senior centers, things that make the community more desirable to live. That’s the number-one goal of Longmeadow,” he said of a town in which 95% of all property is residential.

“As I always say, our number-one economic activity is the sale of single-family homes,” he went on. “So keeping those homes a desirable place for people to live is job one, and new senior centers, new schools, new amenities — those are the things we can do as a municipal government to sustain that quality of life.”

While a new middle school has been talked about for years, a new senior center will soon become reality, after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 11. The Longmeadow Adult Center will move from its current location, a former elementary school at Greenwood Park, to a $14 million facility on Maple Road next year.

“It’s a fantastic project. It’s a very big deal,” Crane said, noting that the demographic trend commonly called ‘the aging of America’ is certainly underway in Western Mass.; in fact, 29% percent of Longmeadow’s population is age 60 or older, and that number grows every year. Because of that, he said, communities need to provide services that help seniors age in place.

“The senior center will fill a lot of gaps we have in terms of aging in place,” he told BusinessWest, noting amenities like its state-of-the-art gymnasium with a suspended walking track. “The programming space will be substantially better than what we have now. The current programs are great, but the new space will reflect the quality of those programs.”

Crane, who has been Longmeadow town manager for the past six years, will be departing his seat next month after inking a three-year contract as town manager in Concord. He’s witnessed plenty of changes in town during that time, but one of the intriguing ones has been Longmeadow’s shifting demographic reputation, spurred by growing amenities for seniors and a significant stock of ranch homes for single-floor living. In short, a town once known as a place where young parents raised their kids and moved out is becoming an all-ages destination.

Taxing Concerns

To maintain those amenities — and the quality of life so critical to keeping residential property values high — town officials support legislation on the state level that would allow it, and other towns, to override a key element of Proposition 2½, which went into effect in 1982.

That legislation sets a 2.5% ceiling on total property taxes — or $25 per $1,000 of assessed value — and a 2.5% annual limit on property-tax increases. (The ceiling does not include excludable debt for capital projects like the senior center.) Proponents of a change, at least in Longmeadow, would like towns to be able to override the first part of the law by moving the ceiling higher, first by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, then at the ballot box.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government.”

“We are approaching that ceiling. And costs are going to continue to go up, unless property values stay the same or go up. If we have a 1% dip in our real-estate market, our tax rate jumps up even if we don’t spend another dime,” Crane said. “We are not proposing to touch the 2.5% increase, but we propose that the community can set the ceiling where it wants, and decide for themselves how much they want to invest in themselves. It’s really a local-control thing.”

While Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the Commonwealth, it also has a high bond rating. “So our tax rate is not the result of profligate spending. We are an extremely well-managed town from a financial standpoint. We have to be very careful and make great decisions and pursue value in earnest, which we do.”

One way it does that is by pursuing regionalization when possible, as with the two-town (and perhaps others in the future) regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM. That system is expected to go live in October, and dispatchers have already been hired.

“The Baker administration is pushing municipalities to work together,” Crane said. “We certainly embrace that, whether it’s working with East Longmeadow on shared health services for public health, the regional dispatch with Chicopee, we are always reaching across town lines, trying to find ways to work more efficiently and relieve burdens on taxpayers.”

He understands how legislation to change Prop 2½ could be cast as merely an effort to raise taxes, and he understands how that goes over with some.

“Would it lead to increased taxes? Not any more than the current two-and-a-half-percent cap allows year after year. Would it lead to higher tax bills in the future? Potentially. But is it essential to maintain property values and maintain the community’s quality of life? Yes.

“To hit that ceiling,” he continued, “means reductions in services that may not be impactful right away, but would lead to a downhill momentum where services are reduced, quality of life goes down, property values then go down as well — and that’s even if the economy and real-estate market stay stable.”

Important, though, is the fact that, under the proposed change, each community would have a say in moving its tax ceiling — and Crane said Longmeadow residents have long been aware of its unique tax base and the need for community investment to keep property values high.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government,” he added. “The state doesn’t really give a lot of local-control options to communities for generating revenue.”

Moving Right Along

Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue improvements and development on both the public and private fronts. Along the busy Dwight Road corridor that intersects Converse and Williams streets — where the Baystate Health & Wellness Center opened last year — a major infrastructure project included street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the East Longmeadow town line.

“The corridor improvements on Dwight Road are complete, which is a regionally significant improvement,” Crane said. “Traffic is flowing exponentially better than it ever did. Those improvements were clearly needed.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
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

On the private-investment front, in addition to the Baystate project and a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops in 2017, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion on Longmeadow Street has been converted to professional offices, with developers eying a mix of uses, including shared workspaces. On the municipal side, the development of a new Department of Public Works facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road continues despite unexpected costs from asbestos removal from the soil.

Overall, Crane said, “town meeting been generous with appropriations. To me, it’s a sign that they have faith in their local government and know that, if it wasn’t really needed, we wouldn’t be asking for it. The success we’ve had with approval of things shows we are able to articulate the community’s needs in a way that town meeting agrees with.”

For instance, voters recently authorized a $1.54 million debt exclusion to continue improvements to the Wolf Swamp Road athletic fields, which Crane called the town’s biggest and busiest recreational asset.

“The fields have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons — lack of irrigation, overprogramming, and just some disinvestment,” he told BusinessWest. “The DPW does the best it can to maintain those fields, but without irrigation and with the overprogramming, there’s a limit to how effective you can be with maintenance.”

The plan includes a new, central parking lot, converting current parking at one end of the complex to field space, and achieving a net gain in field space.

“The fields will be stripped, graded, planted, and irrigated,” he went on. “It’ll be a couple years out of service, but when it comes back online, it’ll be the envy of the region, I think. That’s not a great economic driver, but when we have tournaments, those do generate revenue for the town, but it also sustains quality of life, which does have economic value.”

‘A Good Place’

Crane said the various departments in Town Hall want to support its local bricks-and-mortar businesses with good infrastructure and cooperative permitting. “You can help people with what they need or you can make them climb through the regulatory systems on their own, and I know we really try to do what we can for our local businesses.”

But he also understands that housing — and the higher revenues that come from raising quality of life and keeping home values high — will always dictate much of what Longmeadow is able to achieve.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve had a small part in accomplishing,” he said as he prepared for his newest challenge in Concord. “We have a great team, great departments, and outstanding volunteers. I’m proud to have been a part of many positive changes that have happened in the community — things that have been quality-of-life improvements, but have not changed the character of the community. The next town manager will have challenges, but I think the town is in a good place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski say the Westfield Education to Business Alliance benefits both current employers in the city and some of their future workforce.

Kate Phelon has long appreciated the spirit of collaboration between Westfield’s municipal, business, and educational leaders — and points to the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which just wrapped up its third year, as a good example.

The alliance, WE2BA for short, connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent. Last year, it launched an adopt-a-classroom program — Mestek, Forum House, and PeoplesBank were the initial adopters, and more are expected to come on board next year — while Westfield High School’s annual career fair drew a record 61 vendors.

“We want to get more people involved — more businesses adopting more classrooms,” said Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. “The principals are engaged in this.”

Stefan Czaporowski, the city’s Superintendent of Schools, said those efforts can have long-term economic-development impacts.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

It’s not just WE2BA (much more on that later) that’s showcasing the city’s strengths. Take, for example, Go Westfield, a collaboration among municipal officials, Westfield Gas + Electric, Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“The city had never really taken on the task of marketing itself until just recently,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’ve gotten much better at touting what we have. We’ve got a lot of things here. We have an airport, a college, a hospital. We’ve got an exit off the Mass Pike. We’ve got transportation potential, between I-91 and the Pike. We’re literally two hours away from six different state capitals; geographically, we’re situated nicely. And we have more developable land than most.”

But Go Westfield is about more than marketing; it’s also a means to continual self-improvement. Phelon cited three recent focus groups — targeting the retail, manufacturing, and nonprofit sectors — as a notable example.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate. But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

“These are the businesses that are here, and we wanted to find out from them what’s working really well, and what keeps them up at night,” she told BusinessWest. “That helps us better market ourselves as we address concerns and find out if other businesses have the same concerns. We want to make our existing businesses happy and address their issues — and if we don’t know what those issues are, we can’t help them.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’ve gotten much better at listening to stakeholders. It used to be that the city would have an idea, and we would go after that idea. Now, it’s more reaching out to the companies in town and saying, ‘what’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’ We’re making the companies already here a little better, and by listening to their needs, it’s helping out other companies who are saying, ‘yeah, we needed that too.’”

Sullivan hears those needs at the Mayor’s Coffee Hour, sponsored by the chamber and hosted by a different business each month.

“Those companies get to show off what they do, and we get to talk about things like construction projects, road projects, what’s coming down the pike for the City Council,” Sullivan said, adding that he often brings along other city department heads to enrich the discussions. “I don’t want to just stand in front of the room and talk; it’s got to be a two-way conversation. And an hour can fly by.”

That’s partly because there’s a lot to talk about these days in the Whip City — and the collaborations driving that progress are becoming more robust.

Welcoming Party

When someone contacts one of the Go Westfield member organizations, Sullivan explained, other members are quickly roped in, whether that’s a municipal department, Westfield Gas + Electric, or the chamber. “If some company is interested in coming here and calls the chamber, Kate’s been really good at giving me a heads-up that, ‘hey, these people are looking to come.’”

Companies like Wright-Pierce, a 72-year-old environmental/civil infrastructure engineering firm, which recently announced it will open an office in Westfield.

Or Myers Information Systems, which is relocating downtown from its previous location in Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it. The firm expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the coming months.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $38.00
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

“Some of the reasons Myers chose here were the chamber, a bike trail, access to downtown, and fiber coming from the Gas + Electric,” the mayor said. “We reached out, wooing them to come to us. They were pretty impressed with how solidified we were as a group.”

He was referring specifically to Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric that continues to expand gigabyte-speed internet to residences and businesses across the city.

“Having access to that is huge for an awful lot of companies that are looking for bandwidth and a central location for their employees,” he explained. “Companies aren’t 9 to 5 anymore, where people come in and do their work and leave. It’s all hours of the day, it’s weekends, and if you can have access to high-speed internet, you can thrive as a company.”

The Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, continues to focus on revitalizing a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017.

The same year, the Westfield Redevelopment Authority demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The WRA plans to issue a request for proposals for the site — much of which used to house J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store — within the next month.

The mixed-use concept, Sullivan said, is an important one for a wide swath of Millennial professionals who crave city living with walkable amenities.

“They want to live downtown and don’t want cars; they want to walk or bike anywhere they want to go — a total urban lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest. “With Millennials, it’s not ‘build your house somewhere and have your two cars and go to your job.’ They want to be downtown, walk to the coffee shop, bring their laptop, do some of their work there, and go for a bike ride.

“The trend is all about internet access, getting to and from places without using a car, and downtown visibility,” he went on. “That’s what drove Myers to Elm Street, access to all these things.”

Another economic trend in Massachusetts involves the cannabis industry, and Westfield has embraced such businesses, with four available licenses for retail, cultivation, or other uses; two are currently going through the permitting process. With Southwick and West Springfield currently not in the marijuana game, Sullivan noted that Westfield is in a good spot when it comes to cornering market share, particularly from across the Connecticut border.

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept at “opening up our ears” and being responsive to the needs of the business community.

“The City Council is figuring out whether we want one in downtown core district or keep them on the outskirts,” Sullivan said. “It’s such a new industry that nobody really knows what’s going to shake down. Everything is on the table right now.”

Meanwhile, initiatives like Go Westfield continue to dig into what the business community wants and how to bring new companies into the fold, with the goal of boosting economic development not only downtown, but across this sprawling city of more than 47 square miles.

“You have to adapt, and we’re getting better at adapting and opening up our ears,” he added. “And that’s what these focus groups are doing. We’re sitting there and listening to what’s lacking or what’s not working, or maybe what is working, and doing more of that.”

Back to School

Phelon and Czaporowski are excited about the potential of expanding the reach of the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, enlisting graduate students from Westfield State University to help out with programs moving forward. At a focus group in the spring, about 20 professors from various degree programs expressed an interest in working with different organizations in town, getting students into the weeds of local businesses.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back. We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

The existing connections work on multiple levels. For instance, the students who worked with Mestek in the adopt-a-classroom program improved their presentation skills and performed, on average, markedly better than their peers in the school’s science fair. Meanwhile, Westfield teachers went to Mestek to help employees with limited English proficiency boost those skills.

“We want to expand adopt-a-classroom because getting the business community in front of the kids and sharing their expertise and their work experiences is huge,” Czaporowski said. “And we want to keep promoting what some call soft skills and we call essential skills — speaking with eye contact, how to interview, résumés, but also how to be a productive employee — things like punctuality and attendance. We call them essential skills because these are skills you’re going to need throughout life.”

Meanwhile, businesses visited elementary schools for career-day events toward the end of the school year, getting kids thinking early about career pathways and even what high school to attend to best serve those interests.

“We’re exposing kids to relevant life learning,” the superintendent said. “And it’s beneficial to the businesses too. The experience is eye-opening for them.”

That’s partly because students learn differently today — in a more interactive, collaborative style, with different tools — than they used to, Sullivan said, and it’s helpful for employers to understand that.

“It’s all about workforce development,” he said. “A lot of these companies will need their talents someday. They need those kids to walk into their business and start working. That training is now happening in the schools. And it’s a two-way street. A lot of the best companies in town are sending a representative to some of these meetings with the students because they want the students to know their product when they get out.”

Whether it’s through the career fair, adopt-a-classroom, or other efforts, Phelon noted, there are many ways to engage with students and show them what career and lifestyle opportunities exist in their own backyard — just as Go Westfield broadcasts that message to a much wider audience.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back,” she said. “We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Grade Expectations

Trisha Canavan tells the story often, and for a reason — it resonates with everyone who hears it.

United Personnel, the staffing agency she serves as president and CEO, used to make candidates for jobs in warehousing and manufacturing, two of the company’s strongest niches, take and pass what she called a “basic math test” before they could be considered for placement with a client.

That’s ‘used to.’

United stopped the practice some time back, said Canavan, because no one — and she was only slightly exaggerating when she says ‘no one’ — passed the test.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess,” said Canavan, a former educator herself (she taught at Berkshire Community College and Cambridge Rindge & Latin School). “We’re talking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.

“We had used it as a screening tool but stopped doing that — otherwise, we wouldn’t have any employees,” she went on. “This wasn’t just people from Springfield, but because our headquarters are in Springfield, we’re seeing a lot of Springfield residents who really don’t have the basic knowledge to be successful.”

With these experiences concerning the math test ringing in her head — and filling her with frustration — Canavan offered a resounding ‘yes’ when asked a few years ago if she would like to join a group called Springfield Business Leaders for Education, or SBLE, as it has come to be called, a name that certainly tells all or most of the story.

This is a group of Springfield-area business leaders focused on education in the community and, more specifically, strategies for improving it. John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which helped lead efforts to create the SBLE and now co-chairs it with Canavan, called it “a critical friend of the Springfield public school system.” And by critical, he meant both important and judicious in its assessment of what’s happening — and not happening.

The group’s unofficial mission is to ensure that students not only receive a diploma signifying they have fulfilled the requirements needed to graduate from high school, but that they have the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. One is clearly not the same as the other, said those we spoke with, using one loud, resounding voice.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess. We’re taking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.”

Put another way — not that Canavan actually said this — the group exists to perhaps create a day when United Personnel can dust off the basic math test it put on the shelf, once again give it to candidates, and see the vast majority of them pass.

That day, unfortunately, seems far off, she said, adding that SBLE is obviously working to bring it closer. It does this through advocacy, enlightenng its members about the issues in education — it recently hosted a well-attended talk by Gov. Charlie Baker on the subject of education reform at the Basketball Hall of Fame — and, most importantly, through partnerships with other advocacy groups.

These include Massachusetts Parents United (MPU), a statewide group comprised of concerned parents, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), which has a mission similar to SBLE, but is also statewide.

Trisha Canavan

Trisha Canavan says too many students are graduating from high school without the basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Mass. Parents United, now headquartered on Maple Street in Springfield, said the group started as three women meeting in a public library. Today, it has more than 7,000 members and is the largest urban parent-advocacy organization in the Commonwealth.

The work of these groups, individually and collectively, comes at what many describe as a watershed moment for education reform in Massachusetts — when dueling education bills (more than $1 billion apart in overall funding) are being debated in the State House and when those in Gateway cities such as Springfield say students of color are disadvantaged by what they call systemic educational inequity.

Collectively, these groups intend to use this critical moment to press for real and lasting change, adequate funding, far greater accountability when it comes to how education dollars are spent, and, overall, an end to those inequities they cited.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with those involved with SBLE and other advocacy groups about just what is at stake when it comes to education reform in the Commonwealth, but also the broad work of making students workforce-ready when their days in school are over.

School of Thought

It’s called “Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan for Education in Worcester 2018-2023.”

It’s a 40-plus-page document that, as the name suggests, is a strategic plan for the school system for the next five years. Sections in the document have titles ranging from “Culture of Innovation” to “Investing in Educators” to “Academic Excellence.”

Davis presented BusinessWest with a copy for the sole purpose of pointing out that Springfield doesn’t have such a plan — and it desperately needs one.

“There are three things that have to happen in Springfield, three questions to be asked and answered, and it’s an open discussion among all the players — the parents, the educators, the political establishment, and others,” he said. “First, where are we? We need a real, open, and honest discussion about that, because it’s never really happened. Two, where are we going, and where do we want to go? What skills will our kids need?’ And, three, how do we get there? We have to come up with a plan.”

Work to create such a plan has become a priority for the SBLE, said Davis, adding that, as it goes about such work, it knows it needs to partner with other groups, and especially those that involve parents.

Which brings us to the MPU. Rodrigues said she started the organization out of frustration born from how the system was failing her three children, especially one with special needs.

Keri Rodrigues

Keri Rodrigues says Massachusetts Parents United was formed to give a voice to an important, and often overlooked, constituency.

“I saw that my child was already falling through the cracks in kindergarten,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she knew there were others and that it was time to advocate on their behalf. “I saw all these inequities with my kids and could actually fight a little bit. I decided to use my skills as an organizer to help those who were underserved. But I was also looking around and seeing how parents were being left out of the conversation completely.

“Parents are kind of pushed in when it’s convenient and we want to hear them and their little anecdotes, and then we push them along,” she continued. “But we’re prime stakeholders; we have to be advocates for our kids, who are supposed to be the center of the education conversation. So many of us are survivors of our public education system — I was a foster kid myself and got expelled from a public high school and was lucky to get to college — and then to watch my children, from kindergarten on, be underserved, is really frustrating.”

Not wanting to see that cycle perpetuated, she started MPU, which has steadily grown both its membership and its influence, said Rodrigues, and has been especially visible during the ongoing debate over education reform and school funding.

“A few weeks ago, we had more than 150 parents get on buses and go directly to Beacon Hill and advocate for education funding,” she said, “and making sure there’s some accountability with how this money is spent.”

But as large and powerful a constituency as parents may be, MPU knew early on it needed allies in this ongoing fight, said Rodrigues, adding that MBAE has become such an ally.

“Parents are an important constituency, and so is the business community,” she explained. “We’re both invested in these outcomes in our children because it’s not just about getting them to graduation day and handing them a diploma; we want our kids to have access to these wonderful jobs.”

Ed Lambert, executive director of the MBAE, which has been in existence for nearly 30 years, agreed, and noted that, while significant progress has been achieved since the Education Reform Act was passed in 1993, there are still significant achievement gaps — and opportunity gaps — that exist in this state.

“Our achievement gaps are among the largest in the country,” he told BusinessWest. “Students are passing MCAS and graduating, but many are inadequately prepared for college and a career.”

Thus, MBAE, working in partnership with other groups, has been examining and using data to question and “critically, but diplomatically” challenge the establishment.

“We think that, with this next iteration of education reform, with the new funding that is going to come, particularly to the Gateway cities like Springfield, there is an opportunity to close those achievement gaps,” he said. “But only if there’s continued emphasis on improvement and reform.

“Money alone is not is not going to move the needle for a lot of students,” he went on. “We have data and information showing that, statewide, some school systems, with the same or comparable demographics, are spending much more, sometimes twice as much, per student, and not getting the results.”

Subjects Matter

Returning to the state of public education in Springfield, Davis and others said the city needs a strategic plan — and the state needs to further reform education — because inequities persist, and there are serious ramifications stemming from these inequities.

“I was very, very struck by the inequities that exist,” said Canavan, again speaking from experience as an educator and screener of potential employees. “Kids who are living in the surrounding suburbs have different experiences, different opportunities, and different outcomes than their peers in Springfield and other Gateway cities, and we should all be outraged, frankly.

“There have been improvements in the school system,” she went on. “But they’re too incremental for our kids to get where they need to be fast enough. And this is an economic-development issue; employers will not locate here, and they will not stay here, if they do not have the workers they need.”

Rodrigues agreed, noting that her group was inspired by, and outraged by, recent comments she attributed to Springfield’s school superintendent to the effect that the main problem with the city’s schools wasn’t one of performance or results, but merely one of “public relations.”

“That presentation wasn’t based in reality,” she said. “When you take a look at the numbers, the outcomes we’re getting for children … they show something much different. They were talking about growth percentiles, not proficiency.”

John Davis

John Davis says Springfield lacks a strategic plan for its public school system and needs one moving forward.

Indeed, hard data suggests there are problems, and the numbers come to life in a document prepared for SBLE as it goes about its mission of education and advocacy.

Titled “A Call to Action: Building a 21st-century Education System,” the report uses numbers and words to paint a disturbing picture. Here are some examples:

• “Only 33% of third graders meet expectations for grade-level reading, which means that two-thirds of Springfield’s third-graders don’t read at grade level. Children who are not proficient readers are more likely to drop out, not attend college, and are more likely to be incarcerated.”

• “By eighth grade, only 22% are reading at grade level; only 19% are at grade level in math. That means nearly 80% of Springfield’s eighth-graders are not at grade level for math or reading.”

• “The graduation rate for Springfield’s Latino population is only 74%, and only 9% of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree.”

• “Springfield’s dropout rate is more than two times higher than the state average.”

• “While 72% of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020, only 17% of Springfield ninth-graders go on to earn a college degree or certificate within six years of leaving high school.”

The numbers are followed by that call to action, and for formation of a plan that will, among other things, improve the quality of education in Springfield by ensuring the attraction of talented, high-quality teachers; establish universal pre-K; introduce acceleration academies for immediate intervention in schools in critical condition; and lengthen school days for extended learning time with high-quality teachers.

And with that plan, those with SBLE and MPU want more transparency from school leaders and, overall, more accountability.

“We’re not getting the information, and we can’t even agree to the fact there’s a problem,” said Rodrigues. “If we’re lucky enough to get our kids to graduation day, we hand them a piece of paper that says, ‘you have a foundation, and you’re ready to access all of this opportunity in your future.’ And then we find out that the paper means nothing — they have to take two years of remedial courses before they can take a college-level course.”

Canavan agreed, and stressed, again, that lack of proficiency in school translates into both employment issues and economic-development issues.

“We continue to see a persistent skills gap, a persistent gap in work behaviors that would torpedo people’s efforts to be in the workforce,” she said in reference to what she’s observed in her business. “It’s creating more and more challenges for us as a company, but also for employers — we hear over and over again that they don’t have the qualified employees that they need to meet production needs and to meet operational needs.

“We need to look at not just whether people are qualified to get a job,” she went on, “but are they qualified, and do they have the persistence and problem-solving skills to keep a job?”

Doing the Math

Returning to the matter of that very basic math test that United Personnel once gave to candidates, Canavan said the exam had become, toward the end, what she called a “waste of paper.”

“If we used it as a screening tool, we literally would have been unable to run our business,” she said. “But what that means is that, when people go to work, they need much more training and support, and sometimes they can’t even be successful with that support and training.”

But if those tests can, indeed, become part of a movement that brings about real change and an end to the persistent inequities in education that still exist in this state, then they won’t be a waste at all.

That is Canavan’s hope, and the hope of all those in SBLE, MPU, and MBAE, who, as critical friends of the school system, have decided to take on a larger, more impactful role in trying to bring about change.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Woodlawn Shopping Plaza

An architect’s rendering of the housing project planned for the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

Rocco Falcone acknowledged that, when he and fellow partners Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly acquired the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza on Newton Street in South Hadley in 2016, they were making that sizable investment at a time when the world of retail was changing — and shrinking.

And they knew then that the plaza, dominated by a closed Big Y supermarket, might not look like it did years down the road — not that they didn’t try to find a strong retail anchor to fill the role that Big Y played.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international,” said Falcone, manager of South Hadley Plaza LLC, the entity created to acquire the property, and perhaps better known as president and CEO of the Rocky’s Ace Hardware chain. “When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

And the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza will, indeed, take on a new look — and role that goes beyond shopping — with the announcement of plans to build 72 mixed-income apartments on a three-acre portion of the plaza where the Big Y once stood; a public hearing is slated on the proposal for June 26 at the South Hadley library.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, former mayor of Holyoke, sees the proposed housing project as an opportunity for the community, one that could change the face of an underperforming property (the plaza), perhaps spur new business development at the site and elsewhere, and even boost enrollment at the town’s schools, which have seen their numbers declining in recent years.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international. When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

The announced plans for the plaza comprise one of a number of intriguing developments in South Hadley, a community of nearly 18,000 people that has always been an attractive place to live and has been working for decades to balance its strong neighborhoods with new business opportunities.

Others include progress toward an update of the community’s master plan; introduction of a new option for ultra-high-speed internet service, called FiberSonic, to town residents; efforts to work with neighboring Granby to bring more order to a hodgepodge of zoning on the Route 202 corridor; apparent progress in bringing the town’s long-underperforming municipal golf course, the Ledges, to self-sustainability; and even a new dog park on the Ledges property.

“Dog parks have become somewhat of a recreational amenity in many communities, including Northampton, Granby, and many other cities and towns,” said Sullivan. “It’s surprising how many people are really into their dogs; this is a quality-of-life issue, and at least this will put another 100 to 200 South Hadley residents onto property that they’re paying for. They don’t golf, but they have a dog.”

For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various developments in South Hadley and how they are part of ongoing efforts to make the community a better place to work, live, and start a business.

Getting out of the Rough

Golf courses, especially municipal golf courses, usually don’t generate many headlines.

The Ledges has been a notable exception to that rule. Since it opened at the start of this century, it has been in the news often — and for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, conceived and built as Tiger Woods was rocketing to stardom and golf was booming as a sport and a business, the picturesque Ledges, with breathtaking views of the Holyoke Range, was projected to a be a strong revenue generator for the community.

Suffice it to say things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the course has been a financial drain, racking up deficits of more than $1 million some years, and into six figures most years.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan says new high-speed Internet service, called FiberSonic might spur more young professionals to move to South Hadley.

Sullivan, who inherited this problem, took the aggressive step of outsourcing not only maintenance of the course, but overall management of the facility, with the goal of turning things around and making the Ledges self-sustaining.

Mike Fontaine, the course’s general manager and an employee of Lakeland, Fla.-based International Golf Maintenance (IGM), which manages more than 30 courses across the country, is optimistic that some kind of corner has been turned at the Ledges. He noted that the shortfall was smaller last year (Sullivan pegged it at roughly $35,000) — despite unrelenting rains that made 2018 a difficult year for every golf course — and that, even with more rain early this year, the course is on track to improve on last year’s numbers and continue on an upward trajectory.

He said IGM’s efforts comprise work in progress, but added that a number of steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience and, thus, generate more revenue for the town. Work has been done to build a management team, place more emphasis on customer service, and give the 19th hole, an important revenue stream for all golf operations, a new look and feel. And even a new name.

“We gave the whole place a facelift, especially the restaurant,” he explained. “It was time for a fresh coat of paint, work behind the bar, new pictures of the golf course on the walls, moving the TVs, changing the name from Valley View restaurant to the Sunset Grille, and going with a whole new brand and marketing campaign.”

The new name highlights one of the course’s hallmarks — dramatic sunsets — and attempts to capitalize on that asset, said Fontaine, who said was inspired by what he saw in Key West, which is famous for its sunsets and people turning out to watch them.

He said the course has generally done well with visitation — 25,000 rounds last year — but needs a break from Mother Nature as well as a break from the negative publicity that hasn’t been good for business.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $20.15 (Fire District 1); $20.55 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

“We’re beating the numbers from last year, and we’re hitting our revenue goals despite losing three weekends in a row, including Mother’s Day weekend, due to rain — money we’ll never get back,” he said. “We’ll have a much better understanding of where we’re at when this year is over.”

While the picture seems to be improving at the Ledges, the picture is changing on Newton Street, especially at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

While there is still significant retail there — the plaza is home to a Rocky’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dollar General, the Egg & I restaurant (a recent addition), the Parthenon restaurant, Mandarin Gourmet, and more — the former Big Y site was proving difficult to redevelop, said Falcone, noting that, after efforts to find a replacement supermarket were exhausted, the building was razed in 2018 with the goal of bringing more options to the fore, including residential.

The proposed 72-unit apartment complex will fill a need within the community for both affordable and market-rate housing, said Falcone, adding that this reuse is consistent with how many malls and shopping plazas are being repurposed at a time when stores are closing at an alarming rate and malls — and communities — are forced to be imaginative in a changing retail landscape.

“We looked at options to possibly subdivide the Big Y property, but we couldn’t get any junior anchors,” said Falcone, adding that the owners spent roughly the past year and half looking for smaller tenants, but to no avail.

“Retail is changing — people are getting away from retail and putting more focus on service and entertainment,” he said, adding that the town created an overlay district within the Newton Street area that allows for mixed-use development and residential space, which brings us to the plans currently on the table.

“We thought this would be a good option and a good opportunity,” said Falcone, adding that research revealed demand for such housing. “If you look at Village Commons, those apartments are always full, and my understanding is there’s a waiting list to get in there. So we think South Hadley is a great community for some additional housing.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’re a vibrant community for condominium development, and there’s considerable demand for them — we have condominiums on the riverfront selling for more than $400,000,” he noted. “But we think this proposed development balances things out; it provides another option for housing.”

The Gig-speed Economy

They’re called ‘fiberhoods.’

That’s the name the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) has given to areas, or neighborhoods, in the community that will be provided with FiberSonic, which will make gigabit-speed internet available to residential homes; the service is already available to South Hadley businesses.

SHELD is starting in the Ridge Road area — the service will be available there in July — and will proceed to the Old Lyman Road fiberhood in August, and the Hollywood Street area in September. By year’s end, 700 homes should be covered by the project, and the 32 identified fiberhoods will be added in phases over the next five years, said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager.

“Establishing fiber-optic internet service throughout the town will bring added convenience and, more importantly, will accommodate the ever-growing bandwidth need for South Hadley customers,” said Fitzgerald, who described FiberSonic as “home-grown, gig-speed Internet.”

This service should help make South Hadley a more attractive option for a growing number of professionals who essentially call the office home, even as they work for companies in Boston, New York, and Seattle, said Sullivan.

“When you can access a high-paying job in New York City, Boston, Montreal, or even Los Angeles, and you might have to only go to the home office once a month or once a week and the rest of the day work at home, your housing costs are lower and quality of life is higher in Western Mass.,” he explained. “We’re seeing more of this in South Hadley, and the new internet service will make this community even more attractive.”

As the overall pace of change accelerates, the town looks to anticipate what the future might bring — and be prepared for it — with an update to a master plan drafted roughly a decade ago.

That document, the town’s first master plan in more than three decades, included no less than 200 recommended actions, said Town Planner Richard Harris, noting that this represents an obviously unachievable number, although many have been implemented, especially in the realms of housing, recreation, and creation of growth districts.

He expects that the updated plan, to be completed by year’s end, will be more strategic in nature.

“While it will still be broad, because the nature of a master plan is broad, we’re expecting it to be more strategic in focus and more related to the current organizational structure and long-term needs of the community,” he told BusinessWest. “I wouldn’t expect as much focus on zoning and land use as the last plan, and instead more on how to capitalize on what we have done.”

There have been a number of community forums staged to solicit commentary and input about the plan and what it should include, as well as smaller, more informal sessions within neighborhoods called “meetings in a box,” said Harris, adding that a draft of a new plan should be ready for additional review by the fall and a final document in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the town isn’t waiting for the new plan to address a long-term concern and probable hindrance to growth — the hodgepodge of zoning along the Route 202 corridor, roughly from Route 33 into Granby Town Commons.

“Both towns have the leftover remnants of a ’60s regional road,” he explained, noting that there are homes next to dinosaur-track stops next to other forms of business. “It’s not very well-organized; there’s a weird mix, and we think there is a real need for conformity.

“If we could get that conformity, there’s enough business traffic going into Belchertown, Ware, and, beyond that, Amherst — and we can harness that traffic,” he went on, adding there have been discussions with officials in Granby about zoning and also infrastructure and perhaps tying properties along that corridor into South Hadley’s sewer system, a development that would benefit both communities.

“We hope this will bring more investment to those commercial properties along 202 in South Hadley,” Harris explained. “That will result in more tax dollars — and it would be great to have more people to share the tax burden with.”

Bottom Line

Those last sentiments accurately reflect a goal, and an ongoing challenge, spanning decades: creating more opportunities to share the tax burden.

South Hadley has always been a great place to live — and now also play golf and walk your dog. Greater balance in the form of new businesses and better use of existing and potential commercial property has always been a goal and priority.

And between the proposed new housing project, faster internet service, and progress along the Route 202 corridor, the community is making more headway toward realizing that goal.

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

Features

Rethinking Safety

Joe Hileman of Blue-U Defense addresses the audience gathered at the recent seminar on workplace violence.

Joe Hileman of Blue-U Defense addresses the audience gathered at the recent seminar on workplace violence.

Sarah Corrigan thought the new security systems being implemented at OMG Inc.’s several locations would be sufficient to keep employers safe from any sort of outside danger.

But a recent workplace-violence training session convinced her that keeping an office or building safe at a time when active-shooter incidents occur almost weekly in the U.S. is far more about educating and training people than it is about technology — although technology is certainly important.

Corrigan, vice president of Human Resources and Environmental Health and Safety for Agawam-based OMG, said she went into the session, hosted by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) and presented by Blue-U Defense, expecting to receive some type of plan for how to deal with these types of tragic incidents.

Instead, she came out knowing it was up to her to talk with her employees about how they can each help themselves survive such a situation.

“I expected them to give us a process where there would be something set that we follow, so that was different to me, but it made a lot of sense,” she said, adding that she was surprised to hear the instructors actually warn against making a detailed plan.

Blue-U President and CEO Terry Choate Jr. told his audience of 150 business owners, managers, and rank-and-file employees that active-shooter training can oftentimes be too descriptive, putting the lives of those in the path of danger at even higher risk.

“As alarming as some of those videos are to watch, it is truly a reality. We’re really at a point where we need to take matters into our own hands; we have to be proactive at this point. It’s almost like, if we don’t do anything, we can’t expect any change.”

“Most of the active-shooter training across the country is ‘run, hide, and fight’ based. The problem with run, hide, fight is we already know that,” Choate said. “In the end, it means nothing. The key becomes how, when, and where do we run? How, when, and where do we hide? How, when, and where do we fight?”

This was the key takeaway from the three-hour session, hosted by EANE twice earlier this month — on June 12 at the Log Cabin in Springfield and on June 13 at at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.

The sessions were prompted by recent events — all too many of them, including the May 30 mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va. — and alarming statistics. Indeed, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 340 mass shootings in 2018, compared to 269 in 2014. Meanwhile, during the presentation, Choate said the number-one cause of death for women in the workplace is workplace violence.

More than 140 area business owners, managers, and employees attended the event.

More than 140 area business owners, managers, and employees attended the event.

Those numbers help explain why the MassHire Springfield Career Center office, located in the Springfield Technology Park across from Springfield Technical Community College, was uninhabited on the afternoon of June 12, with all 28 employees attending the session at the Log Cabin.

Executive Director Kevin Lynn said his staff had been asking to do a training like the one put on by EANE, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“I think the issue really is that, every time we turn on the news and hear about one of these shootings, you think, ‘do you know what to do? What’s the right thing to do?’ he told BusinessWest. “You’re always sort of guessing.”

And guessing isn’t what he wants to be doing, or wants anyone else on his staff doing, he said, adding that this was a big motivator for sending his team to the training.

The audience at the Log Cabin was attentive and responsive as Choate and his colleague, Joe Hileman, went through their presentation, and the crowd fell silent when listening to the disturbing audio of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

Using that tape and videos of other mass shootings, the two explained that, although it may be a difficult thing to think and talk about such incidents and the steps needed to prevent one, such discussions are necessary in this day and age.

Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR services at EANE, agreed, and said part of the agency’s role as an employer partner has become keeping the employees it serves safe, prompting such programs as the recent training sessions.

“As alarming as some of those videos are to watch, it is truly a reality,” she said. “We’re really at a point where we need to take matters into our own hands; we have to be proactive at this point. It’s almost like, if we don’t do anything, we can’t expect any change.”

Lynn added that the training session forced him to think about things differently, noting that being a company that regularly interacts with the public, serving 12,000 people annually, heightens the need for security.

“There’s really not a lot of room to operate; a building from the 1800s is not really built for this kind of reality,” he said, referring to the Tech Park, part of the Springfield Armory complex and later home to Digital Equipment Corp.

Like OMG, Lynn said he is looking into renovations that could potentially make the building safer, but for now, he said his employees were thankful for the training.

Whether working with organizations as large as OMG or nonprofits as small as MassHire, Blue-U focuses on giving people the tools to mentally deal with a life-threatening situation.

Choate told the audience at the Log Cabin that one of the biggest problems with active-shooter training in these times is that the mental aspect of the problem is not dealt with. Another huge problem comes with overpreparing for a workplace-violence situation.

“We cannot assume what a bad guy or threat is going to do when they come into the building,” he said.

OMG Inc. is in the process of upgrading its security systems, including the installation of cameras and using badges for all 300-plus employees in its Agawam facility, but the company’s leaders now know that a conversation needs to be started with its workers as well.

“There are a lot of doors, a lot of ways to get in,” said Corrigan. “You can’t protect all of those means of access, so you have to teach employees to think for themselves so that they have a plan.”

Kristen Pospolita, HR manager at OMG, said the training session aligned with what the company is currently focusing on.

“I thought that it goes in line with what we are trying to do at OMG, which is to empower our employees to take accountability and responsibility for their own safety in every aspect of the job,” she said, adding that being careful while operating machines and picking up spills on the floor are other ways to be self-aware. “This is just one more step in keeping us all safe. ‘See something, say something’ can be very helpful in lots of different types of situations.”

While a mass shooting or violent crime in the workplace is still not exactly a common occurrence, Choate said such matters are, unfortunately, something people are forced to think about in today’s world. Taking the necessary precautions and thinking about how one would respond in an active-shooter situation can be the difference between living and dying.

“No matter what we do, we will never be able to stop acts of mass violence entirely; it will not happen,” said Choate. “That doesn’t mean we can’t try.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]