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Community Spotlight

Betsy Andrus says that, like most communities dominated by businesses in the retail, hospitality, and cultural realms, Great Barrington suffered mightily during COVID-19.

But through that suffering, there were lessons learned and resiliency gained, said Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce (SBCC), adding that these lessons, and this resiliency, are serving this eclectic community well as it puts COVID in the rear view and moves deeper into its busiest seasons — summer and fall.

Indeed, among those lessons learned is the popularity of — and, now, the necessity for — outdoor dining, she said, adding that it is now a huge part of the scene in the city’s vibrant downtown and its pulsating center of activity, Railroad Street.

Betsy Andrus

Betsy Andrus

“The area just keeps on growing — it grew a lot during COVID, as a lot of places where people had second homes did. People moved up here and got out of the city, and that’s a trend that has made our winters much better.”

“Before COVID, very few, if any, of the restaurants offered outdoor dining,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, most of them do, and it’s a huge part of the scene on Railroad Street.”

Paul Masiero owns one of those restaurants, Baba Louie’s, maker of sourdough pizza and other specialties and a Great Barrington staple for nearly 30 years. He said he started offering outdoor dining during the pandemic and is now part of the broader scene on Railroad Street, which the city actually closes off to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights for several months a year and turns it over to a festival, figuratively but also quite literally, of outdoor dining.

“It’s kind of like a street fair,” Masiero, which is organized by Berkshire Busk!, an initiative that strives to improve economic development and community engagement during the summer by harnessing artistic talent to create a new and vibrant downtown cultural experience. “From July 4 to Labor Day, we put out 10 tables, and there are five restaurants that take part. It’s been really, really good; the closing of the street has been a great decision for the community — a lot of people come out.”

Beyond outdoor dining and the added vibrancy, COVID has helped Great Barrington and other Berkshires communities in other ways, Masiero said.

He noted that, at the height of the pandemic, some of those living in New York and other large urban areas who had second homes in and around Great Barrington decided to sell the first home and move there.

This growth in population has brought new business for restaurants and other types of ventures, he said, and brought more business throughout the year (more on that later).

Restaurants are just part of the picture in Great Barrington, the largest and most vibrant community in what would be considered Southern Berkshire County, said Andrus, adding that this city of just over 7,000 people has “something for everyone.”

That list includes shops, mostly smaller, specialty shops in and around downtown, she said, as well as culture, most notably the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, where, this summer, visitors can do everything from see some vintage films, from The Empire Strikes Back (July 28) to The Lion King (Aug. 11), as part of its Friday Night Summer Movies series, to a live performance by Broadway star and Tony Award winner Sutton Foster on Aug. 19.

“COVID forced them to look at other avenues of doing business. Before, they were kind of content and didn’t bother to really look at what they doing, why, and how. COVID forced them to think outside the box, which, for some locations, really helped — a lot.”

It also includes outdoor recreation, she said, listing the Ski Butternut resort, hiking, camping, and watersports facilities, among many others.

“Whoever comes here … there’s going to be something for them,” Andrus said. “Whether you like opera or just want to sit and have dinner and listen to music, or shop, or antique, you can find it all here.”

For this, the latest in its ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusnessWest takes an in-depth look at Great Barrington, how it has staged an impressive recovery from COVID and its after-effects, and how it manages to live up to that promise of having something for everyone.

 

Taking Center Stage

Masiero told BusinessWest that, after working in the restaurant business for several years for various establishments, he was ready to get out and try something different.

“I was tired of working for other people and wanted out,” he said, adding that, around that time, Baba Louie’s came onto the market. He measured the risks and potential rewards of buying the establishment, and decided that the latter far outweighed the former.

“I realized I could be the owner, be the head guy,” he said. “I decided to take a chance on it and see what I could do.”

That was 23 years ago, he went on, adding that what he could do, and has done, is not only continue the business, but build on it, becoming a part of the fabric of the economy.

He’s opened a second location in nearby Hudson, N.Y., and moved the Great Barrington location from Main Street, where it held court until just before COVID, to a larger location on bustling Railroad Street.

There, it has thrived, he said, adding that the scene in Great Barrington today is characterized by vibrancy and energy, and not just during the summer, thanks in large part to that aforementioned growth in population witnessed by the town and surrounding communities such as Egremont, Mount Washington, Otis, and others.

“The area just keeps on growing — it grew a lot during COVID, as a lot of places where people had second homes did,” he noted. “People moved up here and got out of the city, and that’s a trend that has made our winters much better.

“Berkshire County is really a destination for summer unless you ski — it’s a summertime destination with Tanglewood and all the outdoor theaters and playhouses,” he went on. “But it’s grown quite a bit in the winter, too; all our business used to happen in the summer, but now it’s more of a year-round business.”

Andrus agreed, noting that, beyond this COVID-generated population growth and its accompanying benefits, the pandemic eventually helped businesses by forcing them to dig deep, pivot in some cases, and find new ways to carry on.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,172
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.07
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“COVID forced them to look at other avenues of doing business,” she explained. “Before, they were kind of content and didn’t bother to really look at what they doing, why, and how. COVID forced them to think outside the box, which, for some locations, really helped — a lot.”

Overall, Great Barrington continues to thrive because of its full menu of offerings, enjoyed by residents and visitors alike, she went on.

“There’s really unique shops with things you can’t get in the box stores. And there’s food; I’ve traveled all over the country, and I always get to places and think, ‘I’ve got to get home because the food is not good — I’ve got to get back to the Berkshires.”

This is an ever-changing community, Andrus said, noting that, while many establishments have been doing business for years and even decades, there are always new businesses opening, making each visit to the city different and fresh.

She noted that, coincidentally, some of the longer-tenured stores in the community — such as Out of Hand; Evergreen, a crafts store; and Byzantium Clothing — have closed due to retirements or will close soon. But storefronts are rarely vacant for long, she added. “Sometimes is looks there’s an empty spot, but it’s not.”

While the town is more of a year-round destination now, summer is still the busiest and most vibrant time of year — and the outdoor dining and accompanying entertainment on Railroad Street have made it even more so, she said.

“There’s entertainment of all different sorts throughout the evening each night that the road is closed,” she explained, noting that Berkshire Busk! provides everything from musicians to acrobats to balloon-character makers. Visitors come for the entertainment and then often stay for dinner at one of the restaurants.

Amid these good times, there are challenges, especially with the regionwide problem of finding and retaining adequate levels of talent. Indeed, many restaurants have been forced to reduce the number of days and hours they are open, Andrus said, adding quickly that most are coping and making the most of a difficult situation.

 

Right Place, Tight Time

Masiero can’t remember where, but he read somewhere that Great Barrington was listed among the top 10 places to move to during COVID (Hudson, N.Y. was the number-one destination, he recalled).

That ranking speaks volumes not only about how the pandemic that initially bruised this small town has gone on to help it, but also about all that this colorful community has to offer.

As Andrus said, it does have something for everyone, and now there are seemingly more people to enjoy it all.

The scene on Railroad Street on weekend nights tells the story — in all kinds of ways.

 

Banking and Financial Services Community Spotlight Special Coverage

An Uphill Climb

Dan Moriarty was among the participants in the recent IRONMAN competition that wound its way through many Western Mass. communities.

The president and CEO of Monson Savings bank, Moriarty is also an avid biker, and decided to take things up a notch — or two, or three — with the IRONMAN, which featured a mile swim, downstream, in the Connecticut River; a 56-mile bike trek; and a half-marathon (13 miles and change).

Moriarty said his time — and he doesn’t like to talk about time — was roughly seven hours, and joked that that he believes he met what was his primary goal: “I wanted to come in first among all the local bank presidents.”

As things are turning out, the IRONMAN isn’t the only test of endurance he will face this year and next (yes, he’s already scheduled to take part again in 2024). He and all other banking leaders are facing another stern challenge, and where they finish on this one … well, there are several factors that will ultimately determine that, as we’ll see.

Indeed, the past year or so has been a long, mostly uphill, upstream stretch for banks, which are being severely tested by unprecedented interest rates hikes implemented by the Fed, which have a domino effect on banks — and their customers. For banks, these moves are squeezing margins that were already tight, with some margins off 50 basis points or more from last year. And for public banks, their stocks have, for the most part, been hammered.

This domino effect involves everything from the huge increase in interest paid to customers on their deposits to the manner in which those interest-rate hikes have brought the home-mortgage business to a virtual standstill.

To quantify that increase in interest paid to consumers, Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank, recalled a quote he read from the president of a large national bank that put things in their proper perspective.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability. It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

“He said, ‘my raw-material costs have increased 600%,’” Senecal noted. “His raw materials are the funding for deposits for his wholesale assets, which have literally gone up 600%. If you look at any business and their profit margins — our raw materials have gone up 600%, so that squeezes our margins.”

Meanwhile, with interest rates more than double what they were a year or so ago, the refi market has obviously disappeared, said Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president of Westfield Bank, adding that, with home sales, those who might be thinking about trading up wouldn’t want to trade a 2% or 3% mortgage for one closer to 7% mortgage, so they’re taking what could be called a pause.

As is the Fed, which is taking a close look at the impact of its interest-rate hikes before deciding what to do next, although most experts expect at least one more rate hike this year.

And that will keep banks on this current treadmill, said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank, adding that, while there has been talk that rates might start coming down this year, that likely won’t happen until at least early next year.

By then, the country may well be in recession, adding new levels of intrigue, said Moriarty, noting that the yield curve is currently inverted, a historically accurate predictor of recession.

“We’re going to eventually get into a recession in the third or fourth quarter of this year,” he said. “We were anticipating it might happen a little earlier with hopes that the Fed would have cut rates before of 2023, but now, we’re guessing that interest rates are going to be elevated another year out until they start cutting.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal says unprecedented interest-rate hikes have put a great deal of pressure on banks large and small.

Overall, banks’ fortunes are tied, ironically enough, to how well the economy is doing, and they are in the unusual position of hoping that things cool off a little, said O’Connor, adding that, like the Fed itself, banks don’t want to see efforts to curb inflation throw the economy into reverse.

The biggest question, among many others, concerns when the pendulum might start swinging in the other direction and things will improve for banks. There is no consensus there — not with the economy still doing well, a presidential election looming in 2024, and other factors.

But the general feeling is that the uphill portion of this trek won’t be over soon.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability,” Sullivan said. “It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

Moriarty agreed, noting that, while the first two quarters of 2023 has been a difficult year for most banks, the rest of this year and 2024 might be an even more of an uphill climb.

 

Points of Interest

Senecal told BusinessWest that, as he was heading home for the first weekend in March, he planned to take a break from his phone and spend a few days unplugged.

And he did … until news broke that Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in California had failed after a bank run on its deposits.

So he started looking at his phone again. And he kept looking at it.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits. There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Indeed, there were many discussions with other leaders of the bank about how to communicate with customers and convince them that their deposits were safe.

“That whole weekend, myself and our commercial team and our retail people were on the phone explaining what was going on, answering their questions, and putting their minds at ease,” he recalled. “And I talked to a number of my competitors, and they were doing the same thing.”

Such discussions were necessary, he said, because even though those deposits were becoming far more burdensome, cost-wise, as he noted earlier, all banks need them to have the money to grow their loans, and consumers were getting skittish.

Jeff Sullivan

Despite the interest-rate hikes, the economy is still humming in many respects, Jeff Sullivan says, meaning the Fed may still have some work to do to slow it down.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits,” he said, citing a combination of concern fueled by social media and the ease with which consumers can now move money electronically as the dominant causes. “There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Overall, there was less fallout in this region, said O’Connor, another of those banking leaders who was the phone to customers assuring them that their assets were safe, adding that the failure of SVB and a few other banks this spring, and the resulting fallout from depositors, were just one of the many speedbumps encountered by banks in 2023.

Indeed, this was a year the industry knew would be challenging — or more challenging — going in, especially with regard to rising interest rates. Just not this challenging.

“Just a year ago, rates were quite low, and everyone thought rates were going up a point and a half, maybe 2%, something in that ballpark — that was the consensus prior to August of last year, when Chairman [Jerome] Powell said, ‘no, we’re really going to stomp on the brakes,’” Sullivan said. “Up to that point, we thought that rates would go up slightly, and we were modeling our projections on that; I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

O’Connor agreed. A year or so, banks were paying maybe a half-percent interest on deposits, he recalled, adding that most new CD products being advertised are featuring rates in the 4.5% to 4.9% range on the higher end, while rates on money-market accounts are coming up as well, numbers that reflect both the need to garner new deposits and growing competion for those assets.

“You have competition from other banks, internet-only banks, the security brokers — everyone is clamoring for those deposits,” O’Connor said. “And that certainly puts pressure on all banks, including community banks.”

Institutions are adjusting to this landscape, said those we spoke with, but it’s going to take some time to fully adjust because the rate hikes came so quickly and profoundly.

And such adjustments take several forms, they said, including efforts to trade fixed-rate assets for variable-rate assets, initiatives that take time and come with their own set of risks — indeed, rates could, that’s could, go down quickly.

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty says many ominous signs point toward a recession, which could bring more challenges for banks and their customers.

On the mortgage side of the equation, there aren’t many options. Senecal said PeoplesBank has been working to acquire mortgages written in areas that are still relatively hot, such as Cape Cod. Meanwhile, O’Connor said Westfield Bank and institutions like it are pushing home-equity loans, and there is a good market for them as homeowners look to take that equity and put it back into their homes or make other large purchases.

“It certainly doesn’t make up for what we’re losing in mortgages and refis, but it does help,” O’Connor said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in home-equity loans.”

 

No Margin for Error

While banks cope with the present, there is just as much discussion, if not more, concerning what will happen next and when conditions will improve for this sector.

And most of that discussion obviously involves the Fed and what will happen with interest rates, because it’s these rates that determine what happens with all those dominoes.

There is some general uncertainty about what the Fed will do, said those we spoke with, because the jury is still out, in some respects and at least in some quarters, on whether it has accomplished its mission when it comes to slowing down the economy and curbing inflation. This uncertainty led to intense discussion at the most recent Fed board meeting, Senecal said.

“There are two schools of thought on this. One is, ‘let’s wait and see what our rate increases are doing to the economy, because it’s like steering a battleship — it doesn’t happen right away,’” he told BusinessWest. “So the Fed took this pause trying to gauge what happened, and what happened? Inflation came down little bit; it was up to 6 or 7%, and now it’s 3.5% or 4%. But their goal is to get it to 2%. So do they continue to raise rates and wait to pause, or do they raise and do a long pause to see if inflation comes down to their target level of 2%?”

“I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

While inflation slowed in June — the consumer price index rose 0.2% last month and was up 3% from a year ago, the lowest level since March 2021 — core inflation is still running well above the Fed’s 2% target. And Moriarty is among those saying there is ample evidence that the Fed still has work to do to slow the economy and further decrease inflation.

“Employment numbers are surging, and that’s an indication the economy is still moving fast and hot,” he said. “My uneducated crystal ball is telling me we might see a few more interest-rate moves, which means it’s going to be more difficult for the economy to continue on this path.”

Many are saying that the probable course will be another rate increase and then that pause, he went on, adding that there is more conjecture about what will then happen. Will rates stay where they are, or will they start to come down and perhaps reverse the trends seen over the past year or so?

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor says rising interest rates have slowed the mortgage business — and destroyed the refi business.

“The consensus is that the economy is starting to slow down — not quickly, but it’s starting to slow down — and that rate cuts will probably start to happen in 2024 because inflation and economic growth both show signs of slowing down,” Sullivan said. “When that happens, we can start to price the deposit costs down.

“We’re probably not going back to where we were before,” he went on, meaning rates near zero. “We’re going back to normal, or what could be a new normal — deposit rates in the 3% range. They’re not going to be zero, and they’re not going to be 5%; they’re probably going to be somewhere in the middle once all this settles out.”

When things will settle down is another question that is difficult to answer because the economy is still chugging along, and, with the notable exception of the mortgage market, consumers are still borrowing money.

“Borrowers have gotten used to paying loan rates in the 6s and 7s — they’re not happy about it, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone’s appetite for acquiring assets and borrowing money,” Sullivan said. “There’s still plenty of business out there, and that would support what Powell has been saying — that they haven’t really slowed the economy yet; in fact, it’s pretty darned good. We’re taking applications every day, and we’re writing loans every day; we’re running our business as usual.”

 

Taking Account

Well … not quite usual at most institutions, especially with regard to mortgages and refis, a huge part of the success formula for the region’s community banks and credit unions.

In this environment, O’Connor said, Westfield Bank and institutions like it are putting even more emphasis on customer service, attracting new customers and retaining existing customers.

“We have to make sure that we’re the bank of choice and remain that,” he said. “We work hard at the commercial relationships, the consumer relationships … our branch teams, our cash-management teams, our lenders, everyone is out there being very available to our customers and working hard to attract new customers from other banks.”

Banks are always working hard on attracting and retaining customers, he said in conclusion, but this year, and in this climate, there is even more emphasis on such initiatives.

It’s all part of a broad response to something that is a little more than your typical economic cycle. It’s somewhat unprecedented, in fact … and certainly a long, uphill climb for most banks.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets based at Barnes Westfield Regional Airport, one of the many assets contributing to economic-development efforts in the city.

The F-35 stealth fighter is nicknamed ‘Lightning,’ and it is certainly expected to provide a powerful surge in Westfield.

The Pentagon announced in April that 18 F-35A fighters will be based at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport with the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, replacing the F-15s that have been flying over the city — and on missions around the world — since 2007.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council — but also a former mayor of this city for a dozen years and currently a city councilor — said the F-35s will become an obvious point of pride for the community and the region, but there is an economic-development component to this decision as well.

Indeed, the move will stabilize and secure the long-term future of the 104th, which brings more than 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in direct support to the local economy each year.

“The F-35s are obviously hugely important, not only to the operation of Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, but to the 104th, which is a significant employer in the region, and a significant business,” Sullivan explained. “Aside from being an absolute point of pride for the city and the region, it’s an important economic development as well.”

Chris Willenborg, manager of the airport, agreed.

“The F-35s mean a lot to the future of the 104th’s presence at the airport,” he told BusinessWest. “This decision really solidifies the 104th Fighter Wing having a mission at Barnes Regional Airport for the next 50 or 60 years; having a new fighter based here will be a significant asset for the airport moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the F-35s provide a powerful, up-close representation of an important part of the city’s economy: its precision-manufacturing shops, large and small, many of which provide parts to the defense and aerospace industries and planes like the F-35A.

Indeed, Sullivan, in talking about the presence of the precision-manufacturing sector and its importance to the region, has often noted that, when military or commercial planes fly over the region, residents can point to them and note that components of those aircraft are made in the 413.

And especially in Westfield, which boasts companies such as Advance Manufacturing, Boulevard Machine and Gear, and Peerless Precision, all of which have a number of customers in the aviation, defense, and aerospace sectors.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty says Whip City Fiber has become a $30-million-a-year business.

Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless, told BusinessWest that, after a lull toward the middle of the pandemic, business is picking up for Peerless and other precision manufacturers, who say their biggest challenge remains finding enough talented workers, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation retire in ever-larger numbers and the numbers of young people looking to get into this field remains … well, underwhelming.

“It’s still very much an employees’ market,” she said, adding that firms in this city and neighboring communities are competing tooth and nail for a very limited supply of qualified help, which is driving wages and benefits skyward and making it harder for smaller shops to compete against the larger national and international players.

While precision manufacturing remains a large and stable employer, the city’s economy is strong and diverse, said Mayor Michael McCabe, the former police captain who sought and won the corner office in 2021 and will seek a second two-year term this fall.

He noted the strong presence of manufacturing and distribution facilities, many of them located at or near the airport, as a well as strong retail (Walmart, Home Depot, and many others have locations in the city) and hospitality sectors, and major employers including Baystate Noble Hospital and Westfield State University.

It could also become home to a sprawling, $2.7 billion hyperscale data center complex planned for the city’s north side. That project and an accompanying tax-incentive financing plan have been approved by city officials, and the developers are awaiting word from the state on economic incentives it will provide to support the massive undertaking.

McCabe also cited a changing, rebounding downtown, one that will never again be the retail hub that is was decades ago, but is evolving into a collection of diverse shops and intriguing new developments, such as the housing complex taking shape in the former Lambson’s furniture store building on Elm Street.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on Westfield, where things are looking up — and so are people, especially when the F-35s are flying overhead, as they did at the recent airshow at Barnes and will do for perhaps the next 30 or 40 years.

 

Ready for Takeoff

McCabe said Westfield is a city that has long boasted a number of enviable assets when it comes to business and economic development. And it has taken full advantage of those assets.

That impressive list includes developable land, a commodity lacking in many area communities, especially in its North Side, which, as noted, has become home to a number of manufacturing and distribution facilities, the latter drawn by not only land but a turnpike exit, easy access to other highways, and rail service.

The list of assets also includes the university, the airport, and a municipal utility, Westfield Gas & Electric, which, through its comparatively low electric rates and expanding fiber-optic network, has become a key contributor to economic development in the city (more on that later).

As for the airport, it has long been a somewhat hidden gem, but it continues to emerge as a force in the local economy as home to not only the 104th, but also companies like Gulfstream Aerospace, where private jets are serviced, and also as a home base for a handful of jets and dozens of other planes.

“Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community.”

This will go down as a big year for the airport, which has thrust itself into the limelight in a number of ways.

For starters, it is celebrating its 100th birthday, Willenborg said, adding that this comes on top of the announcement of the F-35s, which brought press coverage locally, regionally, and nationally. There was also the recent Westfield International Air Show, which featured a wide range of aircraft, including the F-35A, and brought more than 100,000 people to Barnes. And just a few weeks ago, the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit group based in Texas, brought several vintage World War II aircraft — and thousands of spectators — to the airport.

On top of all that, Barnes is enjoying what could be called a building boom, he said, noting that there are four new hangars in various stages of construction, investments totaling between $8 million and $10 million, as well as two taxiway projects on the docket, one to start this month and the other set for next year.

Overall, the airport, which sees 50,000 takeoffs and landings each year, contributes roughly $1.2 million of direct revenue to the city, and its overall economic impact, according to a 2019 statewide study, is roughly 2,100 direct and indirect jobs and economic output of $236 million, numbers that take into account the 104th.

“The airport is definitely a major economic engine and employer here in Western Massachusetts,” Willenborg said, adding that the arrival of the F-35s is only expected to increase that impact.

 

The Jet Set

Also making a considerable impact is the city’s utility. General Manager Tom Flaherty said Westfield G&E’s rates are considerably lower than investor-owned utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, a competitive advantage that, when coupled with those assets listed above, gives the city a leg up when it comes to landing large manufacturing and distribution facilities, as well as the planned data-center campus.

One of the latest examples of the saleability of this package of assets is the arrival of James Hardie Building Products, which plans to open a construction siding factory in the former Old Colony Envelope plant in the city’s north side.

When it opens, the James Hardie plant will become the G&E’s largest natural-gas customer and one of its 10 largest electric customers, said Flaherty, adding that utility rates certainly played a role in the company’s decision to come to Westfield.

“It was a solid a mix of things — Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community,” he explained. “And when it narrows down to utility cost, and people are looking at cost and system reliability and the capability to meet that gas demand, Westfield has all that.”

Elaborating, he said Westfield has its own natural-gas spur that comes off the Tennessee Gas pipeline, which the G&E wholly owns, giving it — and the city — a huge advantage over communities such as Holyoke and utilities currently enforcing moratoriums on additional natural-gas service.

Another advantage — again, for both the city and its utility — is the G&E’s expanding fiber-optic business, Whip City Fiber. Launched in 2013 to provide fiber-optic service to residents and businesses in Westfield, the endeavor has become a $30 million-a-year business whereby the G&E has built out and now manages fiber-optic networks in 20 area communities — from Blandford to Goshen to Colrain — with more in the pipeline.

These include West Springfield and Southwick, said Flaherty, adding that more cities and towns in this region and beyond will be joining that list in the years to come.

“In the beginning, the broad goal was to bring an additional service to the residents and business of Westfield and, hopefully, break even,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, today, through its continued expansion in the city and to other communities, Whip City Fiber generates roughly $3.5 million in net income for the utility, money that is currently poured into expansion of the fiber-optic network to different parts of the Westfield.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 40.834
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.52
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

When the entirety of Westfield is covered by the service, that revenue can be put toward other initiatives, such as the utility board’s recent vote to make additional payments in lieu of taxes to the city with the intention that they be used to upgrade athletic fields in the city.

“We’re looking to partner with the city to turf up to six fields and pay the bond for that, up to $1 million a year,” he said, adding that many of the city’s athletic fields are in need of upgrading or expansion. “That’s a project where we can give back to the community as we continue to bring in revenue from communities outside of Westfield.”

 

Soar Subject

While the F-35s are expected to provide a boost in civic pride and some stability for the 104th and the local economy, the precision manufacturers in the area are hoping they do something else — generate some interest in the field.

Such forms of inspiration are still very much needed, said Carlson, adding that, despite attractive pay rates, good benefits, and even growing flexibility in the workplace, it remains a struggle to find and retain talent, a challenge that is testing many of the shops in the city, including hers.

Hiring was an issue before COVID, noted Carlson, who was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers award in 2021, primarily for her tireless work to educate young people about this sector and hopefully draw more of them into it, adding that the pandemic and its many side effects, including generous unemployment benefits, only exacerbated the problem.

“Whoever thought it could get harder for manufacturers to find good people?” she asked with a laugh. “It’s always been a struggle for our industry, and post-pandemic, it’s been even worse; somehow, I was able to fill open positions inside of a month this year, and I’m not really sure how that happened.

“There are a lot of us in Westfield who constantly have job openings, and we’re trying to fill them, as is the case with every manufacturer in the state and the country, for that matter,” she went on. “The problem is the same that it’s always been — we have a limited skilled labor force that we can pull from, and we’re all competing for the same ones.”

Elaborating, she said Westfield Technical Academy graduates 16 to 18 students a year from its manufacturing department, and there are roughly 30 shops in Westfield alone competing for those students, many of whom are brought into shops as part of a co-op program while they’re seniors, with the goal of seeing them stay with the firm in question.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had the additional effect of pushing many Baby Boomers over the retirement cliff, Carlson said, adding that this drain of experienced talent further tested shops large and small, including Peerless, which saw two long-time employees retire over the past year.

Still, despite these challenges, most shops, including Peerless, are thriving, she said.

“We had a slump last year, but we’re coming out of it, and we’re at almost 90-degree climb now, so it’s good,” she said, using an aviation-industry term to get her point across. “We’re seeing a lot of large customers who had really slowed down during the pandemic coming back in full force, and we’re seeing customers come back that we hadn’t done business with in three years because of the pandemic.”

 

Uplifting Thoughts

Speaking of 90-degree climbs … the F-35s are not expected to arrive until 2026. But already, expectations, and the overall outlook for the city, are sky high.

After years of effort and lobbying on the part of city, state, and national officials, the latest-generation F-35s will be coming to Barnes, providing — as Sullivan, McCabe, Willenborg, and others told BusinessWest — both a point of pride and an economic boost for the city and region.

It’s a lightning strike, to be sure, and one with a powerful jolt.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Package Machinery

Plans are moving forward for a large warehouse facility on the former Package Machinery complex.

For more than 35 years now, the property at 330 Chestnut St. in East Longmeadow, known colloquially as the Package Machinery complex, has been the subject of question marks about what will come next there.

Indeed, while there have been sporadic uses of portions of the sprawling property, especially its massive warehouse facility, over the years, it has been mostly vacant. The once-mowed acreage adjacent to the administration and production facilities is completely overgrown with weeds and other forms of vegetation. And the large ‘X’s on the front of the property instruct fire crews not to enter because it has been deemed unsafe to do so.

So the questions persist — only, these days, months after a controversial plan to build a large warehouse facility there were first unveiled, and weeks after the plan was approved by the town’s Planning Board with a lengthy list of conditions, they are somewhat different in nature.

Now, the questions mostly concern what these conditions, including one requiring a right turn out of the property, will mean for certain areas of the community, including its downtown and famous (make that infamous) rotary, and other communities, including neighboring Enfield and Longmeadow. They also concern whether these conditions will be altered and new ones added, and even whether the project will hold up under potential litigation from residents.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families.”

The matter will be the subject of a reopened public hearing on June 20, said Planning Board Chairman Jon Torcia, adding that, when it voted to approve the project in May, the board noted the concerns about traffic and noise, but ultimately concluded that this was a use allowed within that zone, and one that should be approved, with conditions.

Overall, 2023 is shaping up as a possible watershed year for this growing community of more than 16,000 residents.

Indeed, beyond the controversy over the future of 330 Chestnut St., there is also the matter of a proposed new high school for the town, one with a sticker price now north of $177 million, with the town’s share expected to be roughly $120 million.

The matter is due to come up for a vote on Election Day, Nov. 7, and to say this a huge vote for the community would an understatement.

The current high school opened its doors in 1960 and is the last of the high schools built in this region during that time that is still standing. Some see the high school as a potentially limiting factor in the town’s ability to compete with other surrounding communities for families, current students, and even businesses. Meanwhile, the building is very much energy-inefficient at a time when municipalities are moving to build schools and other facilities that move in the other direction.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families,” said School Superintendent Gordon Smith, adding that, if voters approve the measure in November, ground would likely be broken in the summer of 2024, with the new building, to be built on athletic fields behind the current facility, to be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2026.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

But despite its aging high school and its uncertain future, East Longmeadow remains a popular landing spot for both families and businesses, especially with a uniform tax rate.

“The town has become very desirable,” said Bill Laplante, owner of Laplante Construction, a residential builder with offices on Main Street. And he speaks from experience — he grew up in East Longmeadow, graduated from its high school, and raised a family there. “When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

Elaborating, he said that, while there are more building lots in this town than in neighboring Longmeadow or many other communities, the inventory certainly isn’t what it was years ago. This means lots that become available in the few subdivisions being built go quickly, and the prices of existing homes move higher (more on all this later).

Beyond the warehouse and high school, there are some other big decisions that might be made in 2023, including what to do with another long-vacant property: the former home of Carlin Combustion Engineering on Maple Street. It is due to be acquired by the town, said Town Manager Mary McNally, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued. Meanwhile, there are plans on the table for renovating one of the town’s gems, Heritage Park, plans that might move off the table — or not, depending on a number of factors, including the high-school project and its cost to the taxpayers.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at East Longmeadow and the many important decisions that will likely be made this year.

 

Developing Stories

As noted earlier, the property at 330 Chestnut, across the street from the Lenox manufacturing facility, has been a declining eyesore, and a source of seemingly endless speculation, for many years.

It appeared that an answer had been found several years ago, when a development group, East Longmeadow Redevelopers LLC, put plans on the table for a mixed-use facility, or ‘village,’ as it was called by some, one that would include housing and commercial uses. Those plans were conceived just before the start of the pandemic, said McNally, adding that the project essentially died on the vine amid COVID-related issues such as spiraling costs and supply-chain woes, as well as disagreement between the developer and the Town Council over how much of the space would be devoted to commercial uses.

“When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

In its place, East Longmeadow Developers LLC proposed the large warehouse facility — more than 500,000 square feet in size, with 100 docking bays — which has drawn considerable opposition from residents, especially those in an over-55 luxury condo development called the Fields at Chestnut, citing increased truck traffic and noise.

The project is allowed, from a zoning perspective, and the Planning Board approved the proposal, with approximately 20 conditions, earlier this spring, Torcia said. One of those conditions, mandating a right turn out of the property, away from the Fields of Chestnut, was not discussed at earlier hearings, he noted, adding that it would certainly be the focus of discussion at the public hearing slated for June 20.

The developers have estimated there will be roughly 400 vehicle trips per day at the site, he said, adding that he believes that most of these trucks will take a second right — rather than a left and head for the center of town — and proceed to highways through roads in Enfield and Longmeadow.

“I think this project will bring benefits in that it will rehabilitate a blighted property that has not been operational for quite some time,” he explained. “But we did hear from people who spoke at the meetings who were rightfully concerned about an increase in traffic, going from a property where there’s been no activity to one with considerable activity.”

Mary McNally

Mary McNally says there’s plenty of support for a new high school, but there are also cost concerns.

There has been no activity, or very little of it, at the Carlin Combustion site for the better part of a decade, said McNally, but that could soon change now that the town is acquiring the property from its current owner.

She noted that motorists navigating Maple Street at or above the posted speed limit might not even notice the property, with its overgrown weeds and rusting signs hinting at its former use. But it has not gone unnoticed by town officials or the authors of the master plan, who have identified it as a potential asset.

East Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 16,430
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.20
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.20
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center
* Latest information available

Indeed, there are many possible future uses for the property, said McNally, adding that some would like it devoted to open space — it abuts a rail trail and a rail depot converted into an ice-cream parlor — or as home to a new public-safety complex, while others, and she puts herself in this category, would like to see housing of a more affordable variety than most all of the homes currently being built in this community.

“I think housing is the best option, and the Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options,” she explained. “There are a lot of new homes going up for $600,000 and $700,000; a lot of people who live here would like to stay here and perhaps downsize from a $200,000, $300,000, or $400,000 home into something smaller.”

 

School of Thought

When asked what plan B might be if residents do not support the proposal to build a new high school this fall, Smith, said that, in essence, there isn’t one. Or at least one that makes sense, in his opinion.

The only option for the town would be to spend an estimated $120 million to renovate the school and bring it up to modern codes, he said, adding that this isn’t much of an option.

Elaborating, he said that, through two phases of a feasibility study and feedback from residents and other constituencies, the town has moved to the point where new construction has been deemed the best option.

“The public feedback was ‘you might as well go for new construction because of some of the challenges that have been identified,’” he said, noting, as one example, that if the town were to upgrade the HVAC system to bring it to code, doing so would decrease the room size because of the need to create new walls to fit the HVAC equipment that would go between those walls.

“The Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options.”

He said the town has been talking about a new high school for at least a decade. Over those 10 years, the price tag has only increased, and the current projections — and these could change with final design — is approximately $177 million, with $55 million to $57 million to be reimbursed by the state.

This will obviously be a large burden on the taxpayers, said McNally, adding that, for a small community like this one, “the numbers are frightening.”

The exact impact on the tax rate hasn’t been determined, she said, adding that some estimates put the hit at $1,000 annually for the average taxpayer. Overall, she said it is difficult to project how November’s vote will go.

“There’s a lot of support for the school; I think everyone acknowledges, or most people acknowledge, that it’s needed. But then there’s the cost barrier. But in the absence of a new school, I’m not sure we can compete as well with Wilbraham and Longmeadow, both of which have relatively new schools.”

Meanwhile, a project of this size and scope might impact or delay other capital projects, such as long-needed, long-talked-about improvements to Heritage Park.

Indeed, McNally produced a thick file folder detailing roughly $7 million worth of improvements that include a new recreation center, an indoor gym, walking trails, dredging the pond, athletic fields, and more.

“We need soccer fields and play areas,” she said, adding that soccer fields at the Lenox complex, used by the town for years, are being converted to solar farms, and other facilities will no longer be available for public use. “Unfortunately, the school vote has somewhat tapered my encouragement of the progress of some of these other projects because you can’t pay for everything at the same time.”

Despite some of these municipal issues and question marks moving forward, East Longmeadow remains a community in demand. That’s true on the commercial side — many area banks have located branches there over the past decade or so, for example, and Chase, which is renovating a property in the center of town, is the latest to join that list — and on the residential side as well.

Indeed, Laplante said building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

“You do a search for available building lots in town, and you find that there really aren’t that many,” he said. “There are scattered lots that are in established neighborhoods, but you don’t see many available building lots in a neighborhood setting.”

Still, there some new homes being built, including one his company is handling in a new subdivision off Prospect Street called Bella Vista. Overall, Laplante has built three of the homes in the complex — another high-end development where the lots are absorbed quickly, which in many ways reflects what’s been happening in this community over the past several years.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says Lenox’ tourist economy largely rebounded in 2022.

 

Heading into the high season for tourism in Lenox, Jennifer Nacht didn’t believe this community, home to Tanglewood and dozens of other popular cultural institutions, could do much better than it did last year when it came to filling up rooms at its large portfolio of hotels and inns.

Turns out, she was wrong.

Indeed, a seemingly insatiable appetite on the part of the public for some fun time off away from home, coupled with the relaxing of three-day minimums at many of those lodging facilities, has pushed the numbers even higher, said Nacht, executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, adding that, in many respects, Lenox started turning the clock back to 2019 last year.

“Last year was so busy,” she said, to the point where she wasn’t sure if 2023 could surpass it, but things are trending that way. “In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

Still, while the inns and hotels, many of the restaurants, and nearly all of the numerous outdoor attractions staged a full recovery in 2022, many of the theaters and galleries continue to make their way back, said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing and Communications for Shakespeare & Company, which operates on 33 acres in Lenox.

“In talking with the inns, everyone is booked; they’re finding that people are waiting a little longer to book, but by Wednesday of the weekend ahead, the inns are getting completely booked up.”

She told BusinessWest that most theaters struggled somewhat last year, with few if any sellouts, as the public was still wary about COVID-19, especially early in the summer.

“We didn’t have terminally light crowds, but the people just weren’t here — it was still a building year for theater,” said Stevenson, who also sits on the Lenox Cultural District Steering Committee. “Visitors were coming back to the Berkshires — outdoor recreation had a banner year — but a lot of the theaters and music venues still struggled; it didn’t feel like we were fully back to normal and where we wanted to be. It felt like we were at 75%.”

Early indications are that theaters will likely improve on last year’s numbers, she said, adding that ticket sales are climbing higher.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year,” she explained. “I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

As summer commences, Lenox will look to build on the momentum it gained from last year, while also leaning on the lessons learned during the pandemic and the opportunities created by it, especially in the broad realm of outdoor dining, which was in many ways new to the community and came of age during that time.

Meanwhile, the chamber will continue to build on its multi-faceted efforts to market the community and bring people to it by spotlighting the myriad things to do and many ways one can fill a day — or several days — while visiting (much more on that later).

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Lenox and how its economy, dominated by tourism, has made it most of the way back from the depths of the pandemic and is looking to set the bar still higher in the months and years to come.

 

Coming Attractions

Nacht knows all about being a business owner in Lenox. She was “one of the gang,” as she put it, the owner of the Scoop, an ice-cream and candy shop on Church Street, which she eventually sold to cryptocurrency tycoon Ryan Salame in 2021; he now owns several businesses in the community.

“I had skin in the game,” she noted, adding that, by then, she was already managing the chamber as well, putting the 40-year-old institution back on a path to better fiscal health and a more effective execution of its mission, which she described this way: “to be a full-service marketing firm for our members.”

And when she says full-service, she means it.

Shakespeare & Company

Shakespeare & Company has a robust slate of performances scheduled for 2023.

“If a member comes in and needs help with graphic design, we’ll do that, too,” she said, adding that, mostly, this work as a marketing firm involves promoting the community, its events, its cultural institutions, and a whole lot more. It does this in a number of ways, including a weekly email blast sent to a growing list of subscribers now numbering more than 1,700.

A quick look at the most recent missive, under the headline “All the Good Stuff to Know This Week from the Lenox Chamber of Commerce and Its Members,” reveals just how much is going on in this community as summer beckons.

There’s the start to the Lenox Farmer’s Market on Church Street, the Lenox Loves Music Sunday series in Lilac Park, the Lenox Wine Fete, which took place on June 3, the Summer Lenox Art Walk, set for June 10-11, a Community Conversation at the Lenox Library titled “The Impact of the Pandemic on Mental Health and How to Manage Moving Forward,” a performance of Dear Jack, Dear Louise at Shakespeare & Company, the Berkshire Mountain Distillers’ Summer Food Series, and performances of What the Constitution Means to Me, featuring two-time Tony Award-nominated actor Kate Baldwin, at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Unicorn Theater in Stockbridge.

Then there are reminders about some of the region’s attractions, many opening for the summer, including the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home; the Wit Gallery; and ‘ghost tours’ of Ventfort Hall in Lenox, home to the Gilded Age Museum, as well as looks ahead to the Jackson Browne concert on Aug. 31 at Tanglewood (tickets went on sale June 1) and other events.

“We had a good year in 2022, but it was a rebuilding year. I’m feeling better about 2023 — our ticket-sale numbers are mirroring 2017, which was a good year for us.”

The list goes on and on. There’s even a reminder about wellness clinics offered by the Berkshire Humane Society.

The email blasts are part of just part of the chamber’s work to bring people to the region, said Nacht, adding that, while there are some service businesses and representatives of other sectors, the vast majority of the chamber’s 136 members are focused, on one level or another, on tourism and hospitality. They include hotels and inns, restaurants and taverns, theaters, art galleries, bookstores, summer camps, and more.

And while most of the chamber’s work on behalf of these members falls into the category of marketing, there are other initiatives as well, said Nacht, including work with town officials on business-related issues, such as a WiFi bylaw, quarterly meet-and-greets held in conjunction with the chambers in Lee and Stockbridge, and a recently staged job fair designed to help businesses navigate a still-difficult workforce environment.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,095
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.16
Commercial Tax Rate: $13.03
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

“We had 20 tables of members who were looking for summer help, temporary help, permanent help,” she recalled. “And we had more than 100 people show up; it was really successful event — many of our members actually hired people from the job fair.”

Overall, though, most members are successfully “staffed up,” as she put it, thanks to returning college students and other applicants. And they will need to be as a summer that promises to be even better, from a business standpoint, is poised to begin.

 

Staging a Comeback

For the theaters and music venues, there is still some rebuilding to do from the pandemic, Stevenson told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2022 provided some steps in the right direction, there is certainly room for improvement in the upcoming season.

“Last year was tough,” she said, “and there was a lot of guesswork throughout the season: ‘who are we talking to?’ ‘Who’s here?’ Who wants to come?’”

Elaborating, she said COVID was still on the public’s mind, especially earlier in the summer, when the numbers of cases were still running high. Meanwhile, and as noted earlier in that rundown of all that is happening in Lenox and surrounding towns, there is a lot to do there, and individual venues and attractions are competing with one another for the time and interest of residents and visitors. And in 2002, “it felt like the crowds we were competing for were small and finite.”

There were other issues last summer, including weather — a windstorm cost Shakespeare & Company two performances, Stevenson said, adding quickly that the outlook for 2023 is positive, not just for theaters and other performance venues, but the region in general, as visitation continues to rebound from the COVID years.

Shakespeare & Company recently launched its new season with the two-person show Dear Jack, Dear Louise, she noted, adding that there is a full and intriguing slate of performances slated for this year. The first Shakespearian offering is a rendition of Henry VI Part 2, billed as The Contention. “Henry VI is said to be the inspiration for Game of Thrones, so we’ve been leaning on that a lot.”

Coming later in the summer are August Wilson’s Fences, featuring horror-movie icon (think Candyman) Tony Todd; Golda’s Balcony, a play about Golda Mier; a stage reading of Hamlet featuring Christopher Lloyd; and, in the outdoor theater, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a “late-’70s music spin,” she added.

Overall, there is a little something for everyone, a well-worn phrase that could also be applied to Lenox itself, said both Stevenson and Nacht, noting many new restaurants downtown and, overall, a calendar full of events and things to do.

In short, a community that took some huge strides toward making a full recovery from COVID is looking to take even more in the year to come.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Molly Keegan

Molly Keegan co-founded the Hadley Business Council to address the needs of local companies.

Each spring, the town of Hadley attracts attention for its asparagus crops, as well as its crowded hotels and restaurants due to college graduations in surrounding towns.

This year’s asparagus crop is strong, and the Asparagus Festival is back and bigger than ever (more on that later). Graduations are all on schedule, too. Getting to all those events — well, that can be a challenge.

Route 9 — Russell Street in Hadley — is undergoing a reconstruction of two and a quarter miles of roadway, which involves replacing infrastructure below the road as well as upgrading and widening at the surface.

In most towns with just over 5,300 residents, a road project would present only a minor inconvenience. But Hadley’s geography places it in a unique situation because Route 9 serves as the main artery connecting it to Northampton, Amherst, and several other towns. Between the universities and businesses in the area, traffic through Hadley — a largely rural community both north and south of Russell Street — can easily top 100,000 vehicles a day.

To keep things moving, communication becomes essential. With college graduations scheduled for the latter part of May, followed immediately by Memorial Day, Carolyn Brennan, Hadley’s town administrator, said mid- to late May is among the most challenging times.

“Once we get through the next few weeks, that will be huge,” Brennan said, noting that traffic becomes more manageable once the colleges empty out for the summer.

The week of May 7 proved particularly disruptive, as town projects were scheduled on several side roads — the same side roads drivers were using to avoid the Route 9 construction.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example.”

“We called it the perfect nightmare,” Brennan said, adding that police got involved to encourage residents to sign up for daily notices about where construction was taking place. “I’m so proud of the Hadley Police Department for taking a proactive approach to send out alerts every morning to residents so they know what streets will be impacted.”

While it’s helpful when the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (DOT) issues weekly updates on Route 9 construction, Molly Keegan, Hadley Select Board member and co-owner of Curran and Keegan Financial, felt businesses in town needed more.

As an active member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, Keegan felt Route 9 construction created several issues for Hadley businesses that did not affect chamber members in other towns. So she and Kishore Parmar, whose Pioneer Valley Hotel Group owns two hotels in Hadley, formed the Hadley Business Council.

“We felt like there are issues unique to Hadley; the widening of Route 9 is a perfect example,” Keegan said. “Not everyone on the Amherst Area Chamber is keenly affected by the construction in the way that Hadley businesses are.”

Kelly Tornow

Kelly Tornow says cannabis companies like HadLeaf need to use every means to get the word out, as advertising is strictly regulated.

After reaching out to the DOT and Baltazar Contractors, the Ludlow-based construction company doing the roadwork, Keegan and Parmar met with town department heads. The purpose of all these meetings was to make everyone aware of the business council and to encourage better communication in all directions.

“We are trying to find ways to leverage the business council so we are all talking, rather than having it be a complaint department,” Keegan said. “Anyone can complain; we’re looking to leverage these relationships.”

Now that the entity has been established, there are already conversations about how it may address future opportunities for Hadley businesses. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber, has suggested the Hadley Business Council could look at designing a map that would promote agricultural tourism. Stops along the way would be ice cream at Flayvors of Cook Farm, petting a cow at Mapleline Farm, and more. Keegan noted that farmers in Hadley are looking for ideas like this to promote agri-tourism.

 

Green Days

Located on Route 9, HadLeaf Cannabis is one business accustomed to working through challenges. The group that started HadLeaf signed its community host agreement in February 2020, allowing it to start building the dispensary. Weeks later, COVID-19 shut everything down and caused huge delays. A planned opening for early 2021 was pushed back by delays until HadLeaf was finally able to open in October 2022.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open,” said Matt McTeague, regional manager for HadLeaf. “Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

Kelly Tornow, general manager of HadLeaf, has worked in retail for most of her career. Since joining the operation in February 2022, she was part of the effort to get the dispensary up and running.

“We had quite a few hiccups to get where we are, just to open. Everyone we’ve dealt with from the town has been welcoming and helpful as we worked throughout the process.”

“This is the first time I’ve been involved with launching a retail operation from the ground up,” Tornow said. “The biggest challenge was learning all the laws and regulations that come with cannabis.”

To overcome situations like road construction, most retail businesses simply increase their advertising, but advertising cannabis is strictly regulated.

“We’re trying all the avenues that are open to us to get our name out there,” Tornow said, noting that membership in the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce is one avenue that has been successful. “Because we’re members of the chamber, we have a presence at their golf tournaments and other community events.”

Because podcasts are allowed under the advertising regulations, an informational podcast wil launch soon at hadleafuniversity.com. “We will produce it in the store with different speakers and vendors,” Tornow explained. “The idea is to educate consumers about different aspects of cannabis.”

The HadLeaf name has been a positive marketing tool as well. McTeague said many people compliment him on the creativity of the name. “We wanted something that would be relevant to cannabis and identify with the town of Hadley. We tried a couple combinations, but HadLeaf really stuck.”

But the term ‘Hadley grass’ has nothing to do with cannabis; that’s another name for the crop that has made Hadley the asparagus capital of the world.

For decades, Hadley asparagus has had the reputation of being served in fine restaurants across the globe. According to mediterraneanliving.com, for many years Queen Elizabeth II served Hadley asparagus at her annual Spring Fest.

Asparagus Festival

More than 8,000 people came out to last year’s Asparagus Festival, set for June 3 this year.
Photo by Erin O’Neill

New England Public Media (NEPM) sponsors the annual Asparagus Festival, scheduled this year for Saturday, June 3 on the Hadley Town Common. While the event is in its ninth year, the festival was not held for two years during COVID-19. Before the pandemic, the event drew between 6,000 and 7,000 attendees. Last year, an estimated 8,000 people came out on a sunny Saturday to enjoy the return of the festival. Vanessa Cerillo, NEPM’s senior director of Marketing, Communication, and Events, expects the same kind of crowd this year.

“The Asparagus Festival is about celebrating the wonderful agricultural heritage of Hadley,” Cerillo said. “We’re excited to produce the event and partner with the town of Hadley for the year-long planning that goes into the event.”

More than 100 local food, crafts, cultural, and agricultural vendors will be represented at the festival’s Farmers and Makers Market. Local breweries will set up in the Beers and Spears tent, while food trucks will be on hand with traditional fare as well as fried asparagus and even asparagus ice cream.

For the first time this year, the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition (MassBike) will take part in the festival, offering free bicycle valet service.

“Everyone who rides their bikes to the festival can leave it with a valet, where it will remain secure while they enjoy the festival,” Cerillo said. “The festival gets so packed with cars that we are encouraging people to ride their bikes to it, if they can.”

Festival attendance is free with a suggested $5 per person (or $20 per family) donation to support public media in Western Mass.

 

Worth the Wait

In addition to approving a new budget at the Hadley town meeting held in early May, the community unanimously approved expansion of ambulance service. Action EMS provides primary ambulance coverage for Hadley. A second ambulance run by the town will shortly be added due to the call volume, which is affected by those 100,000 drivers who use Route 9 every day.

“We certainly benefit from the entire commercial district along Route 9,” Keegan said. “Because of the high traffic volume, we need to provide services like we are a small city and not a rural hamlet.”

To staff the ambulance, the town will hire two additional firefighters trained as EMTs. Brennan said the ambulance is scheduled to be ready by July 1.

“There’s quite a lot involved when you put an ambulance into service,” she explained. “We spent all of last year outfitting the ambulance, training the staff, getting state approvals, and more.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,325
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $11.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $11.54
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

One long-term project Brennan discussed involves increased maintenance on the West Street levee along the Connecticut River that plays a vital role in flood control for the town.

“The levee is doing its job, but we are continuing to work with engineers to make sure it provides protection well into the future,” she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to achieve FEMA certification, which is a multi-year process.

More immediate town business involves compensation and succession planning. In order to make sure Hadley is paying its employees comparable wages, the town has hired a consulting firm to study compensation. The firm has also been charged with developing a succession plan.

“We have people in key departments who will be looking to retire soon,” Brennan said. “Like many small towns, we have several one-person departments, so we’re getting ready for the number of retirements that are likely to happen in the next few years.”

Another long-term project involves what Keegan called “a big conversation” about housing.

“We are taking a more focused look at our master plan, working with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and with UMass,” she said. “If we are going to expand our housing, we need to figure out where should it go and what should it look like.”

The old Russell School, located across the street from Town Hall, will undergo a feasibility study to figure out the best options for possible reuse. Like many Western Mass. towns with older buildings, the cost of rehabilitation to bring it in line with today’s public building codes can exceed millions of dollars.

“The Russell School is a beloved building with a good number of people who want to preserve it and others who don’t want to spend the money to keep it,” Brennan said, noting that the study will look at options for the town to keep the school, pursue a public/private partnership, or sell it outright to a private entity.

Meanwhile, Route 9 construction continues, with the work moving along on schedule — even if vehicle traffic slows, at times, to a crawl. The project is expected to be completed by 2026.

Despite the current headaches, the investment is necessary, Brennan said, with a wider road and new infrastructure transforming Route 9 in ways that will benefit the town for years to come.

Keegan agreed. “I keep telling people, it will be worth the wait.”

Features Special Coverage

News That’s Fit to Print

Jim and Kelly Sullivan

Jim and Kelly Sullivan
Photo by Paul Schnaittacher

At first, Jim and Kelly Sullivan thought the email was junk or a hoax.

“It was an invitation to us from the president to go to the White House to sit in the Rose Garden with him and the vice president for a remarks ceremony,” Kelly recalled, adding that the missive was followed shortly afterward by an email from the Small Business Administration (SBA), essentially letting them know that the email from the White House was real, and they should reply — soon.

They did, and when they gathered in the Rose Garden with the other 49 Small Business Persons of the Year for each state, as recognized by the SBA, they managed to get within a few feet of the president, but didn’t fight the crowd to get any closer.

This gathering, which came during National Small Business Week, has been part of a nearly month-long whirlwind for the Sullivans, owners of Millennium Press in Agawam, the Small Business Persons of the Year from Massachusetts.

There was an awards ceremony in Washington that came just after the White House visit, and, earlier this month, another small-business awards ceremony in Massachusetts, at which they were recognized for their accomplishments in business — and for their perseverance through a series of challenges over the past 34 years.

There was an appearance on a Bloomberg podcast — “I was terrifed; I’m a printer, and they’re firing questions at you left and right,” Jim said — and, just a week ago, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, who directed the Sullivans to SBA funding, and other officials toured Millennium’s facilities to get a look at its cutting-edge technology and talk with its team of 18 employees.

“Never in a million years did I ever think we would ever win anything like this — I’m still in awe that we did get it.”

As they spoke with BusinessWest at their shop in Agawam, the Sullivans talked a little about their awards, meaning the physical awards (they each got one) they received from the SBA. They are glass, large, quite heavy … and, for now and probably for a long while, “safe at home, under lock and key,” as Jim put it.

“You don’t want to ever break something like this,” he said. “Never in a million years did I ever think we would ever win anything like this — I’m still in awe that we did get it.”

But mostly they talked about what’s behind the award and the wording on it, and how they were chosen over the 700,000 other small businesses in Massachusetts to receive it. Specifically, it would be more than 30 years of hard work, sacrifice, making those large investments in technology, coping with and overcoming adversity — from several downturns in the economy to the Great Recession to the pandemic — and, in short, doing what they had to do to keep the doors open and the dream alive.

“I feel that we did a lot of good things with these SBA programs,” said Jim, adding that, personally, the couple did everything they were asked to do to qualify for such programs, including reducing their income and even buying a smaller home.

the team at Millennium Press

Jim and Kelly Sullivan, center, with the team at
Millennium Press.
Photo by Paul Schnaittacher

SBA District Director Robert Nelson said essentially the same thing as he remarked on the Sullivans and their achievements.

“The Millennium Press story demonstrates how small businesses can persevere when faced with extraordinary challenges,” he said. “The Sullivans didn’t give up on their dreams and kept working toward sustainability with support from public/private resources, including the SBA and its lender network that help stand by your side through the toughest challenges.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the Sullivans about the SBA award, what it means to them, and why it embodies their approach to doing business and managing a workforce.

 

Don’t Stop the Presses

To say the Sullivans started small with their venture would be a huge understatement.

Indeed, they launched their business in a garage — and it wasn’t even their own garage.

“Our house didn’t have one, so we used Kelly’s brother’s garage,” said Jim, a printer by trade who was working at a shop in Holyoke at the time, but started printing short runs of specialty forms for different customers at night and on weekends, a part-time job that quickly became full-time.

Indeed, the Sullivans, who quickly became partners in the venture, said they recognized a growing need for printed forms that could be produced inexpensively and quickly. With an Apple computer, a two-color press, and a collator that would put the forms together — Kelly would handle the desktop publishing, and Jim ran the printing press — they started adding customers and achieving a foothold in the competitive printing business.

Over the course of the next 30 years, they would continue to grow the company, establishing a full-service, one-stop printing and mailing business operating out of a 20,000-square-foot building in the Agawam Industrial Park that they would eventually purchase and expand.

From the beginning, Jim recalled, they understood the importance of investing in new equipment and staying on the cutting edge of improving technology, knowing that doing so would open new doors for them.

Small Business Persons of the Year for Massachusetts in 2023

Jim and Kelly Sullivan pose with an award they recently received at the recent SCORE Boston awards breakfast, where they were recognized as Small Business Persons of the Year for Massachusetts in 2023.

This was especially true with the installation, in 2007, of an automated, six-color Heidelberg press, the XL 75, a more than $2 million investment that included not only the press, but also Heidelberg software to automate all the company’s processes, from estimating to shipping.

This was the first such installation in the U.S., he told BusinessWest, and it came on top of a $1 million expansion of the building and a number of existing equipment loans.

The acquisition of the XL 75, and those other investments, were a well-thought-out business strategy, and the equipment was expected to enable Millennium to take a major step forward, he went on. However, the timing was unfortunate, to say the least.

Indeed, just a year later, the words ‘Great Recession’ were working their way into the local lexicon. The Dow was cratering, the economy was in freefall, and businesses large and small were hunkering down and simply trying to survive the onslaught. And, by and large, no one was printing anything.

“In 2008, we saw sales drop. People weren’t purchasing as much printing — annual reports, mailings … they just weren’t doing the volume of printing they were in the past. Yet, our expenses were at their highest point.

“In 2008, that was the first year we didn’t turn a profit,” he went on. “And the banks … they want to know who you are at that point.”

Elaborating, he said the couple had a great 19-year relationship with a bank (he chose not to name it) that was sold to a larger bank, an entity that saw Millennium’s declining debt-to-income ratio and essentially said, “you’re not for us.”

The Big Picture

The Sullivans said they knew they needed to create a plan to slash debt, both business and personal. They altered their lifestyle and borrowed a significant portion of their retirement money to retain employees and pay down debt to keep the business open. They also sought help from the SBA, working with the agency’s lending team to refinance their building and business debt and essentially save the business.

And for the next decade, until 2020, the company continued to be profitable, pay down debt, and even build a reserve fund, said Kelly, adding that, by the end of 2019, they approached a traditional bank about a loan to pay off all their existing SBA debt.

“Our numbers were good enough, our equity was good enough, our debt was right where it needed to be, and they approved us in March of 2020,” said Jim, adding emphasis when noting the month and year, and for obvious reasons. That was the start of the pandemic.

“The bank came back and said, ‘we’re going to have to put your financing plan on hold,’” he went on, adding that the company saw more than half of its customers shut down, a staggering loss that forced Millennium to lay off 75% of its workforce, although the Sullivans continued to pay for their health insurance after they were laid off.

Even with a skeleton crew — the Sullivans and a few others — the company was chewing up its reserve fund at a rate that was not sustainable, Kelly said, adding that PPP loans and EIDLs (Economic Injury Disaster Loans) from the SBA not only helped Millennium, but also enabled other businesses to regain their financial footing and buy services — like printing.

“Those two products from the SBA helped jump-start the economy,” she said, adding that, by the fall of that year, Millennium was able to bring back all of its employees. The winter of 2022 brought another slowdown and more “scary” times, she added, but a second round of PPP enabled the company to retain its workforce and make it through the whitewater.

The company was also able to take advantage of an SBA debt-relief program for its outstanding loans from the agency, Jim said, noting that the SBA made payments on those loans during the pandemic — payments that did not have to be repaid.

“In 2008, we saw sales drop. People weren’t purchasing as much printing — annual reports, mailings … they just weren’t doing the volume of printing they were in the past.”

All this support had the company back to “almost normal” by the end of 2021, he went on, adding that he and Kelly again approached the bank that had approved their financing plan but put it on hold because of the pandemic — and this time it was approved, just before interest rates started climbing at a precipitous rate.

Milennium’s involvement in many SBA programs had the effect of “putting us on the agency’s map,” said Kelly, referring to recognition programs such as Small Business Person of the Year.

But what won the Sullivans this honor, in her opinion — and Jim’s — has been its willingness to invest in cutting-edge technology, its commitment to supporting its employees through the many difficult times, and to do everything they had to do keep the company on the track they set in on back in 1989, even through extreme hardship.

“To do the amount of work we do, we would probably need more than 30 employees — if we didn’t invest in the technologies we have,” Jim said. “And we have technologies that no one in this area has, especially at the small scale that we are; we’re Heidelberg’s most advanced print shop with fewer than 20 employees in the United States.”

 

Bottom Line

Jim and Kelly’s email now comes with a signature, courtesy of the SBA, identifying the sender as a 2023 Small Business Person of the Year State Winner.

Behind those words, printed on a gold banner above storefronts depicting small businesses, is a compelling story, one that involves sacrifice, perseverance, determination, and, as Nelson noted, a firm commitment not to let go of a dream.

All that has earned the Sullivans those large, glass awards they are keeping safe at home. But it has earned them much more than that — the ability to keep writing new chapters to a remarkable and inspirational success story.

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Doug Moglin and Heather Kies

Doug Moglin and Heather Kies stand at the construction site for Whalley Computer Associates’ 85,000-square-foot addition.

When Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick recently broke ground for a new 85,000-square-foot warehouse and office addition, Doug Moglin said the company was making a statement about its commitment to the town.

“We’ve been operating in Southwick for 44 years, and the new facility represents our investment in the next 25 to 30 years,” said Moglin, vice president for Whalley’s OEM business.

While many of its customers are based in New England, Whalley sells all over the U.S. and internationally. Warehousing is essential because a big part of the business involves acquiring various types of computer equipment from manufacturers, customizing it to clients’ specific needs, and then shipping out the final product. All of that requires space, which can present a challenge. Moglin gave an example of a national retail chain that needed new servers, a case that explains the need for the expansion.

“One day, 8,000 servers showed up to our near-capacity warehouse,” he explained. “And because only eight servers fit on each pallet, it quickly became a math problem.”

The company currently uses warehouse space in Westfield to handle the overflow, but the need keeps growing. For several years, senior managers had discussed building more warehouse capacity on the parcels that surround Whalley’s main facility in Southwick. Supply-chain issues during the pandemic accelerated those discussions.

“Supply-chain reliability is a concern for our customers, so having components on hand is a huge benefit,” Moglin explained. “Having the capacity to hold more inventory brings additional customers to us because, instead of buying direct from manufacturers or companies like ours out of the area, they have a local resource that provides better service and better support.”

Heather Kies, marketing manager for Whalley, called its evolution “a great story of a company that’s growing but still staying in its hometown.”

The Southwick Select Board and the Massachusetts Office of Business Development worked with Whalley to secure a tax-increment financing (TIF) agreement.

Russell Fox, chair of the Select Board and a selectman for most of the past 40 years, said the TIF was well worth the effort to keep the project in Southwick. Under the agreement, Whalley has agreed to add to the 200 workers it currently employs. “The Whalley project is all positive news for Southwick,” Fox said.

“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel.”

In another part of town, the Planning Board is now considering a reconfiguration of the site where a Carvana facility was once proposed but then shot down by residents over concerns of increased traffic along College Highway. Now the same area has been redrawn as five separate lots, with some facing the road and smaller lots positioned in the back of the parcel. Fox sees the new plan as a great compromise.

“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel,” Fox said, adding that, when new businesses occupy that parcel, it will help the town make its case to add a traffic light at the Tannery Road intersection.

Moving forward, the town’s goal is to continue decades of work to create an attractive balance. Fox noted that, while Southwick is known as a recreational community — it is home to the Congamond Lakes, a successful motocross track, and two golf courses — it is also a town that wants and needs to continually grow its business community.

Overall, it strives to be a community where people can play, work, and live, with new housing developments under construction and others set to come off the drawing board, as we’ll see later.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and how this community on the Connecticut border is building momentum — in all kinds of ways.

 

Getting Down to Business

A key agenda item at the upcoming Southwick town meeting in May involves bringing fiber optics into town to handle its cable-TV and internet services.

The process involves forming a municipal light plant, which voters approved at a special town meeting last fall. A second vote for the plant will be taken at the May meeting. Fox pointed out that the municipal light plant is an entity in name only. If the second vote is successful, Southwick will begin interviewing firms to install and maintain the fiber-optic network. Whip City Fiber in Westfield will be among the companies under consideration.

“We’re telling all bidders that they must cover the entire town and not just the densely populated neighborhoods; that’s a non-negotiable point,” he said. “We are a community, so everyone must have access.”

The fiber-optic network is considered an important step forward for the community, one that will bring faster, more reliable service to existing residential and business customers, and provide one more selling point as town leaders continue their work to attract more employers, across a wide range of sectors.

Diane DeMarco has a special trade-show display

Diane DeMarco has a special trade-show display room to help clients pick the right materials for their needs.

The town already boasts a large and growing business community, one that is served by the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, which has increased its membership among Southwick businesses, a sign of growth both in Southwick and in the chamber.

Indeed, last year, the chamber reported 13 members from Southwick, while this year, that number has grown to 20.

Diane DeMarco, owner of Spotlight Graphics in Southwick, is a long-time chamber member. For 10 years, the company has provided area businesses with logo signage, trade-show materials, and graphic vehicle wrapping, among many other services offered.

When COVID hit, Spotlight lost a few clients when it was forced to shut down. Since then, DeMarco reports she has gained back many more clients than she lost. “Business has been very good for us. We have new clients coming on board, and word of mouth about us is spreading.”

She credits customer loyalty through the years thanks to the relationships she and her staff have built. “Our customers aren’t buying their graphics from a company; they are working with Allie, David, or Diane,” she said, listing long-time employees at the business.

In addition to offering full-service, quality work, Spotlight Graphics is a nationally certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) and certified by the state as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). DeMarco explained the state designation has led to work from clients who are required to do business with DBE firms as part of their state contract. She described it as a win-win.

“The client is fulfilling their contractual requirement for the state by working with a woman-owned business, and they are getting a quality product at a fair price,” she said.

While DeMarco competes with online graphic firms that offer cheaper prices, she’s not worried because they often can’t match Spotlight’s quality.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,232
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.11
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.11
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

“Sometimes a client will buy an inexpensive retractable banner stand or go for the cheap price on a poster,” she said. “Then, when the stand breaks or the poster is the wrong color, they come to us to get it done right.”

In fact, Spotlight clients can see and touch the quality of banner stands and other graphic materials at its trade-show display room. DeMarco said online and print catalogs provide only an approximate idea of the size and quality of trade-show materials.

“People who are new to trade shows or have to revamp their current displays like to stop by because they can see the actual items they would use and get answers to their questions from our staff.”

 

No Place Like Home

While its business community continues to grow, Southwick is experiencing residential growth as well.

Indeed, the Greens of Southwick, a housing development located on both sides of College Highway on the former Southwick Country Club property, is nearing completion. With 25 lots on the west side and 38 on the east side, only a handful of parcels remain for this custom-built home development.

Fox appreciated the quality of the homes that added to the number of new residences in Southwick. “The developers did a tremendous job with the houses there,” he said. “The whole project is a real asset to our town.”

Next up for new housing, a 100-unit condominium complex has been approved at Depot and Powder Mill roads. While construction has not yet started, the town has already secured a grant to install sidewalks around the perimeter of the eventual construction. Fox said the sidewalks make sense because the location of the condos is an active area.

“The sidewalk will connect to Whalley Park, the rail trail, the Southwick Recreation Center, and to the schools at the other end of Powder Ridge,” he explained.

In Southwick, much of today’s activity is as much about the future as it is about the present.

As Moglin noted about Whalley Computer’s building addition, “this is not a 2024 investment; this is a 2044 investment, and beyond.”

The same can be said of the fiber-optic network soon to be built, the plans to divide and then develop the site eyed by Carvana, and the many housing projects in various stages of development.

In short, this is a community with expanding horizons, both literally and figuratively.

Features

Material Growth

LiftTruck celebrates 35 years

As LiftTruck celebrates 35 years, Kara Sotolotto says, its focus is on continuing to grow its many business operations and building on an already-solid foundation.

Kara Sotolotto says she essentially grew up in her family’s business, LiftTruck Parts & Service Inc. in West Springfield.

She remembers doing a little bit of everything for this company — founded by her father, Mario C. Sotolotto, which specializes in forklift and lift-truck sales, maintenance, parts, rentals, and more — but especially the vast amounts of paperwork that have long since been replaced by computer files. This included handling work orders, parts inventory (something that is still done by hand), calling customers, and much more. It seemed there was something new every day, and, collectively, those various assignments have prepared her for her current and somewhat new role, as the company’s vice president, a title she shares with her brother, Mario A. Sotolotto.

She was still waiting for her new business cards when she talked with BusinessWest, but she has already eased into the role, which will see her work with other family members (and there are many of them) and other employees to chart a course for future growth for this venture, which this year celebrates 35 years in business.

It is marking this milestone in a mostly quiet fashion — but also with charitable donations each quarter, including one recently to Baystate Children’s Hospital — and by essentially doing what it has been doing from the start, Kara Sotolotto said — taking care of the many different needs of its clients, mostly manufacturers and distributors located across the Bay State, but also in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Over the years, the company has expanded well beyond its West Springfield roots, opening an office in Brockton to better serve customers in the eastern part of the state, including Cape Cod and the islands, as well as Rhode Island. Looking forward, she said the company is looking at possible additional expansion in the Worcester area, with a location to house what she called a ‘green division,’ dedicated to sales and service of battery-powered BYD material-handling equipment (more on that later).

Overall, though, the business plan calls for shifting more of the day-to-day responsibilities of managing the company to the second generation, Sotolotto explained, as well as simply building on the solid foundation created over the past 35 years, one that has enabled the company to thrive in a sector with many competitors.

Indeed, when asked how LiftTruck manages to stand out in such a crowded field, she said simply, “our service and our mechanics; these are mechanics that everyone likes and trusts, and they really know their stuff.

“He started from the ground up with a few mechanics, who are actually still with us today, and one person in the office.”

“Also, our lines,” she went on, adding that, while many competitors will sell one or a few brands, LiftTruck handles many labels and many options when it comes to how machines are powered — from propane to electric.

It is this ability to provide clients with choices, but also reliable, quality service, that has both enabled the company to thrive for the past 35 years and positioned it for continued success for the next 35.

 

Getting a Lift

As she offered BusinessWest a tour of the LiftTruck facilities and posed for a few pictures, Sotolotto pointed to a Clark forklift — vintage 1948, by her estimate — that was at the shop for some maintenance. It’s not really used anymore, and she believes it is one of the items on display at a small museum at Barnes Airport in Westfield.

While it is not in active service, the company services many pieces of equipment dating back to the ’60s and even the ’50s that still are, she said, adding that fork trucks, depending on how much they are used, can run for decades, and most clients are determined to get their money’s worth out of their machines.

But there are challenges to servicing such long-lasting pieces of equipment.

“These forklifts were built like tanks because they were used in the military,” she explained, referring to the older Clark machines. “The trouble is, it comes to a point where you can’t find parts for them; there are times when we can have people fabricate the parts for them, but once you get to certain big parts, like cylinders, you have to give in.”

Helping companies keep their machines running as long and as efficiently as possible has become one of the many trademarks of this company, which was started by the elder Mario Sotolotto in 1987.

As Kara explained, her father worked for Northeast Clarklift, joining his father-in-law there, and starting in the parts department and moving up the ladder. He eventually decided to take all that he had learned and start his own venture, one that would focus on all aspects of this competitive business — including sales of new and used machines, service, parts, forklift training, rentals, and more.

“He started from the ground up with a few mechanics, who are actually still with us today, and one person in the office,” she said, adding that the company has enjoyed steady, consistent growth over the years.

This is a family business, she added with conviction in her voice, noting that there are many members of her family who are involved, including her father, the company’s president, who, she said, “likes to keep involved in all aspects of the business,” as well as his uncle, Sales Manager Anthony Sotolotto.

There’s also her brother, Mario, who works mostly out the Brockton facility, and focuses on the sales and everyday operations sides of the business, while Kara is focused more on the back end of the operation — accounting, receiving equipment, managing the West Springfield facility, and talking with the press.

As noted, this is a multi-faceted business, with several components and revenue streams.

On the sales side, the company handles a number of manufacturers, including Clark, Komatsu, Doosan, Heli, and the most recent addition, BYD, which offers machines that run on iron phosphate batteries, Kara said, noting that buyers have a number of options these days in terms of both brands and how machines are powered.

Indeed, while gas-, propane-, and diesel-powered vehicles are still popular, this sector, like the automotive industry, is moving aggressively toward more electric vehicles.

“A lot of people are switching over to electric forklifts,” she explained. “It’s more economical for them, and it’s better for the environment; they’re becoming more and more popular.”

Looking ahead, Sotolotto said the company is strongly considering creation of that aforementioned ‘green division,’ one that will focus on the BYD line and likely be based in the central part of the state so it can effectively serve all corners of the Commonwealth.

“Having a facility to at least store all of our electric lifts and maybe have a few mechanics operate out of there would be great,” she told BusinessWest. “This is definitely something we’ve been talking about and moving toward; it’s a logical next step.”

The sales side of the business has been steady, she added, and it received a somewhat unexpected boost during COVID, when rentals were harder to come by (just as rental cars were) and many customers decided to buy instead — if they could find machines to buy.

And overall sales remain steady as customers seek to replace machines that hit a certain number of hours.

Meanwhile, the machine-rental side of the business remains solid as well, she said, noting that businesses will rent equipment for a day, a few weeks, a quarter, or for much longer stretches depending on need. To mark its 35th anniversary, the company is donating 10% of its rental revenue to various charities, including Baystate Children’s Hospital, each quarter.

The service side of the operation is another key contributor to the company’s overall success, Sotolotto said, noting that clients need their machines to operate successfully, and LiftTruck’s ability to provide reliable service has been another of its hallmarks.

 

Lock and Load

These various parts contribute to the whole, she said, adding that LiftTruck has much to celebrate as it marks its milestone anniversary this year.

Mostly, it is celebrating what has become a family, or a bigger family, to be more precise, one that includes several people related to one another, but also others who have been part of this operation for years — in many cases, 35 years.

Together, they have made this venture an uplifting success story — in every sense of that phrase.

Features Special Coverage

The Sky’s the Limit

new Zeiss projector

[email protected]

 

For a few minutes on April 28, if you were looking for a gaggle of local lawmakers and Springfield Museums board members, you’d have to look beyond earth, because they were traveling through space.

At least, they felt like they were.

That’s the idea, anyway, and it’s becoming reality thanks to the addition of a state-of-the-art Zeiss Velvet full-dome projector in the Seymour Planetarium, which will provide a fully immersive, 3D experience for visitors to the Springfield Science Museum. The planetarium opened to the public with the new system on April 29, the day after legislators and museum supporters got a tour.

“Our new projector creates an incredibly immersive experience,” said Jenny Powers, director of the Science Museum. “We hope that even more in-depth learning will happen when our visitors feel that they are traveling through part of our universe.”

The planetarium’s venerable Korkosz star ball — in continuous operation since 1937 — is not being replaced; in fact, it works in tandem with the Zeiss projector to create a more detailed, realistic virtual journey through the cosmos.

Meanwhile, just down the hall from the planetarium, a newly upgraded, interactive International Space Station exhibit will provide visitors with a better understanding of what it takes (and what it’s like) to fly among the stars, living and working in outer space for months on end. That improved exhibit also opened on April 29.

“In addition to the educational value of these improvements for schools and workforce development, the dynamic additions to the Science Museum will help drive tourism and generate critical economic development for the region.”

Taken together, these improvements — and others throughout the Science Museum — represent a $750,000 investment made possible through private donations as well as support from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism and a partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration under a federal earmark sponsored by U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren.

Kay Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums, said these projects are major steps toward the goal of making the museums the premier STEM learning center of the region.

“Today is historic,” she told the gathered guests the day before the new exhibits opened. “The story starts back in 1934 to 1937, when the Korkosz brothers of Chicopee made a star-ball projector by hand for the Seymour Planetarium. And they did this because it was the Depression and the museum could not afford a state-of-the-art Zeiss projection system. That being said, this star-ball projector was a marvel of innovation and invention. And it entertained such celebrities as movie star Clark Gable, who actually saw a live show in the planetarium in 1939.”

Fast-forward to 2022, and the museum was still using what had become the oldest operating star ball, not just in the country, but in the world, she added.

“So we’re very, very proud of our antique star ball, but we knew that we could do so much more to teach children and families about the wonders of the universe and really provide high-quality STEM learning experiences for students,” Simpson said. “So we’re fortunate that we were able to receive funding through federal and state earmarks so we could finally purchase the state-of-the-art Zeiss projector that we could not afford back in 1934. We have come full circle, and we are so excited about what is happening.”

 

The Final Frontier

In 2018, Simpson explained, the Springfield Museums launched its Evolution Campaign, which was designed to make the Science Museum a 21st-century, state-of-the-art attraction.

“In addition to the educational value of these improvements for schools and workforce development, the dynamic additions to the Science Museum will help drive tourism and generate critical economic development for the region,” she said.

Simpson emphasized the public and private support for the project, which has drawn on state and federal earmarks and leveraged funding from private foundations and individuals as well.

“So, needless to say, this is just an incredible moment for the Science Museum and a major investment in amplifying our importance as an educational resource for students and also a must-see tourist attraction. And I think we are really doing great work on both fronts.

opening of the upgraded planetarium

Kay Simpson celebrates the opening of the upgraded planetarium alongside (from left) state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, state Sen. Jake Oliveira, and Darryl Williams from the office of state Rep. Bud Williams.

“We all know that the education for our children is essential for workforce development,” she added. “We hear a lot about educational equity. Museums are playing a role in all of that. And tourism, as we all know, is a major economic driver in Western Massachusetts.”

State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez agreed. “We know the importance of tourism; we know the importance of these destinations,” he said. “Having these locations to bring people from across the world to visit is so critical and important. But also, for the community and city of Springfield to come and embrace the educational opportunities that they have here is so great.”

State Sen. Jake Oliveira agreed. “Tourism is our third-largest industry, and it is so important for the Pioneer Valley, and the Springfield Museums have played such a critical role in that.”

He added that he was pleased to attend the legislative visit as someone who has always loved outer space. In fact, he recalled visiting the Springfield Museums as a child, taking in the space exhibits, and dreaming of one day being an astronaut.

“That dream ended very quickly when I realized I’m afraid of heights, small places, and fires. So that dream ended very quickly,” Oliveira said. “But I’m so glad that so many families can explore the opportunities of space that we have here at the Springfield Museums — and going into a planetarium that can actually project the images of the Webb Space Telescope, which are some of the most beautiful images of our galaxy and beyond that we can see.”

Powers emphasized the potential the Seymour Planetarium will have in creating customized programs for local teachers and students.

“There are two different ways that we’re going to be able to serve schools,” she said. “First of all, the planetarium shows have previews, and we’ve been able to embed them on our website so teachers can see them in advance and match the content of the show to what they need to teach their children. That’s really important.”

“The planetarium shows have previews, and we’ve been able to embed them on our website so teachers can see them in advance and match the content of the show to what they need to teach their children.”

In addition, Kevin Kopchynski, STEM curator for the Springfield Museums, can create custom shows for students, Powers explained.

“So if a teacher comes in from any level, from kindergarten up through college, and has a particular thing they need to focus on, Kevin can make them a show about that. It’s something that’s highly customizable.”

Also, for the first time ever, the planetarium will offer Spanish-language planetarium shows.

“We can do almost any kind of representation that we want to using this system,” Powers said. “The modern planetarium shows offer us such a greater diversity of people than the old ones do. That’s one way we can serve not only schools, but all of our visitors. We’re incredibly excited about that.

 

The Next Generation

Darryl Williams, district director for state Rep. Bud Williams, spoke at the legislative event and, like Oliveira, recalled fond early memories of the Science Museum.

“This is my favorite museum here in Springfield. I grew up going to this museum every summer; my parents made sure that we came here,” he said, noting that his parents also bought him a telescope to gaze at Mars and Venus and myriad constellations — and that he was inspired by learning about the accomplishments of scientists during his museum visits.

“I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to many, many more years,” he said, “and I look forward showing my grandkids this one day.”

That’s the kind of legacy the Springfield Science Museum and its Seymour Planetarium has cultivated for generations, and will continue to cultivate — only now, in much sharper detail.

Features Special Coverage

Moving Beyond a ‘Safety School’

chancellor in recent history at UMass Amherst

As the longest-serving chancellor in recent history at UMass Amherst, Kumble Subbaswamy has posed for more than a few photos during his tenure.

Kumble Subbaswamy recalls that, when he arrived at the UMass Amherst campus a dozen years ago, his first priority was to bring some needed stability to a school that had seen a number of leadership changes over the previous decade.

After that, he said, his main goals were to bring the school to a higher level in terms of national rankings, prestige, and reputation — locally, nationally, and internationally.

As he prepares to step aside in a few months and move on to next challenges and opportunities in his career, Subbaswamy, the longest-serving chancellor in the modern era at the school, talked with BusinessWest about how he believes those broad goals have been accomplished — and the manner in which they’ve been accomplished.

In a wide-ranging interview, he talked about everything from the school’s climb in the rankings, and what it means, to the challenges facing UMass and all colleges and universities today and tomorrow, to the pandemic — what it was like to lead the school through that tumultuous time, and how that period changed higher education.

He said he has a rather unique way of measuring how he fared with all that and his legacy, if you will, on the campus — the number of students, and others, who want to stop and take a selfie with him.

It’s an official measuring stick, to be sure, but one that indicates just how far this campus has come during his tenure, and how his leadership helped generate and sustain the very palpable sense of momentum at the school.

 

BusinessWest: Turn the clock back 12 years, if you will, and talk about the goals you set and how you fared with achieving those goals.

Subbaswamy: “One of the first goals was simply to create some stability. There had been a lot of turnover in a short period of time; there was instability, insecurity, and a lot of drama coming out of Whitmore [the school’s administration building]. So there was a strong desire to stabilize that situation so the campus could then go about its business of achieving its mission of teaching, research, and outreach. And there was no guarantee this would happen — it’s a complex job where you have multiple audiences. You have the system office; you have to keep them happy. You have to keep the campus happy, you have to keep the unions happy, you have to keep the local legislative group happy, and so on. So none of that was a given.

“But when we were able to focus on improving the campus … one important focus that became self-evident as I was looking at the data was that, while we claimed to be the best public university in New England, the data didn’t really show that, especially student-success data. We were much further behind UConn, for example.

“That was the beginning of what I’ll call installing a planning culture — always being data-driven and doing plan assessment and improvement on a continuous basis. That was not necessarily the culture on the campus, at least not in a systematic way. So when I look back and identify one important thing that helped turn the campus around, I would say it was creating a culture of strategic planning, being data-driven, and always thinking about improving those aspects in which we could be doing better or where we’re not doing as well as our competition.”

UMass Amherst

During Kumble Subbaswamy’s tenure, the UMass Amherst campus became much more of a destination for top students.

BusinessWest: What was the biggest step forward taken by the university during your tenure?

Subbaswamy: “Improvement in graduation rates would be one example, but there are other measures, such as people doing internships, job placement, and more, and all this showed up in U.S. News & World Report rankings, because there is strong weight given to graduation rates, and without being overly selective, when you achieve high graduation rates, you get lots of points.

“It’s not that we’re pursuing rankings, but those metrics that we care about, and achieving progress with them, really does help. And when we went from number 52 in national public university rankings to number 26 — we’re hovering right around 25 or 26 — that made people take notice of Massachusetts.

“That rise in the rankings gave everyone associated with the university a point of pride; alumni started taking notice, parents and prospective students started taking notice, guidance counselors started taking notice. It started a positive cycle where more and more highly qualified students started applying, our classes got better, and our results got even better.”

 

BusinessWest: Talk more about how that rise in the rankings was achieved.

Subbaswamy: “Back in 2013, based on what was going on, as well as part of our requirement for re-accreditation, we developed a strategic plan; we declared that our goal was to make UMass Amherst a destination of choice. We had been thought of as a safety school in previous decades, and we were essentially saying, ‘no, that’s not who we are — we’re the flagship of the Massachusetts system, we’re the flagship of the Commonwealth.’ In fact, that became our tagline.

“This was a strategic plan that sought ways to make improvements across the board, with a particular emphasis on undergraduate education, where we really did need to catch up with some of the neighboring states. It then became a rallying cry for the entire campus; every department, every college focused on what they needed to be doing better in order to retain our students, make sure they graduate on time, placement, bringing in more internships and other experiences that help students get jobs, improving student experiences, and improving student outcomes. And that culture is now part and parcel to who we are at UMass.”

Seen here with former Gov. Charlie Baker, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy says managing the school through COVID was an intense challenge marked by decisions involving “life and death.”

BusinessWest: What has this experience of leading UMass at this critical time in its history been like for you, personally and professionally?

Subbaswamy: “It’s been exhilarating. It’s been the pinnacle of my career in terms of the personal satisfaction I’ve had in being able to rally the campus — all sectors of the campus — to a single goal of being better, serving our students better, serving the Commonwealth better.

“We’re trying to make people feel like they belong. In fact, belonging is a major theme in our equity and diversity efforts — we want people to feel that they belong here, and if they don’t, then we want to know why and see how we can improve that. It’s been very rewarding to see the campus feel like an entity with a purpose and with a vision.”

“That rise in the rankings gave everyone associated with the university a point of pride; alumni started taking notice, parents and prospective students started taking notice, guidance counselors started taking notice.”

BusinessWest: Is there an area where there is some significant work still to do on the Amherst campus?

Subbaswamy: “One issue that has come up recently, and one that has been partly exacerbated by the pandemic as well, has been housing in general. Housing, in Amherst and the surrounding communities where our students, faculty, and staff live, is becoming considerably more expensive and harder to find, especially in the past few years. We’re faced with not just a shortage of housing, but a shortage of affordable housing, because that’s a significant component of the cost of education for anyone who comes to Amherst.

“Some serious joint planning with the surrounding communities is needed to try to address the need for more affordable housing so that this university doesn’t become a university that can only serve the affluent.”

 

BusinessWest: We’re seeing some demographic shifts, especially with regard to the numbers of high-school graduates, as well as other trends involving enrollment. What do these mean for the university, and higher education in general?

Subbaswamy: “There has been a lot written about the fact that the number of 18-year-olds, across the country, but in the New England area especially, will drop significantly starting in 2025 for 10 years. But we’re already seeing a lot of changes taking place here. There are some smaller colleges that are really financially stressed, to the point where they may close or merge — we’ve seen both closures and mergers recently. We’ve also seen regional universities, and some of the state colleges, see some decline in enrollment, and we’ve seen community colleges see a similar decline in enrollment.

“What we’ve seen is that more and more students are beginning to apply to the large flagships, and so, nationwide, schools like UMass and others in our class have seen higher numbers of applications, and so we haven’t seen that pinch of demographic decline. I think that’s because of that shift in thinking; some people who used to apply to small colleges are now asking, ‘will that school be there in four years?’ and thinking they’re better off applying to the state university, especially one that’s robust in terms of enrollment and support from the state. There’s definitely some of that going on.

“Also, there was a time when state boundaries mattered, but now they don’t for education. The University of Pittsburgh and the University of Alabama actively recruit in Massachusetts, and we actively recruit in Texas and places like that. It’s a national — in fact, international — marketplace, so quality matters; education matters. So to keep focusing on those things is very important.”

 

BusinessWest: Beyond these demographic changes, what are the other significant challenges facing higher education today?

Subbaswamy: “Affordability is certainly a challenge … even when it comes to public options. For in-state residents, we’re now $31,000 to $32,000 a year, and for a middle-class family, this is a really big hit. So we have to ask, ‘is this model sustainable, and if it is not, how do we bring it under control?’

“What role does online education play in this? Does residency become more a luxury? Do we reduce it so there’s two years online and two years residency? There are many large questions to be answered, and I think this is going to become more and more of an issue moving forward.

“And this is for all public universities in all segments; this is not a UMass Amherst problem, and it’s not a UMass system problem. Affordability looms large for higher education in general, and what that implies for society.”

 

BusinessWest: Your tenure obviously included the pandemic years, a difficult and intense time for all those in higher education. What was it like to lead the school through that crisis?

Subbaswamy: “Toward the latter half of March 2020, we were just breaking for spring break, and just before then, we got the news that the virus was spreading, so we should shut down and send people home. We thought we were sending people home for one extra week; little did we know that was going to be a more-than-two-year deal before we returned to normalcy, whatever that means.

“Like everyone else in the country, we had the enormous task of adjusting to remote learning and remote work in a matter of two weeks … and, along the way, there were decisions for which there was no rulebook; in fact, whatever rules or guidelines were there were changing on a daily basis.

“There were decisions we had to make — like, in the middle of the semester, do we send everyone home? Or at the beginning of the semester, do we bring everyone back, or only a small percentage of the students? If so, how many, and who? And the town was worried: ‘you’re going to bring back 10,000 students? You’re going to bring back 30,000 students? Do you know what that’s going to do to our community?’ At that time, the business community was really struggling and wanted to see the students come back.

“The uncertainties and the competing factors that had to be considered, and the speed with which decisions had to be made, was nothing like what we were ever used to or learned or how any management book would tell you how to do it. We had to make decisions on a rapid basis with a lot of uncertainty, and it was unusual in that you could say that, literally, lives were at stake.

“You were making life-and-death decisions; I don’t ever want to go through that again, and I’m thankful that we got it right, and there weren’t any campus-related COVID deaths that I’m aware of.”

UMass

UMass Amherst made dramatic leaps in the national rankings during Subbaswamy’s tenure.

BusinessWest: Talk some more about some of the hard decisions that had to be made and what it was like for you, as chancellor, to be the one ultimately making them. What was it like day-to-day and week-to week?

Subbaswamy: “By not bringing the students back in the fall of 2020, were ended up having to furlough, for a long period of time, more than 800 employees. That hurts — these are members of our community, and we did our best to make sure that they kept their health insurance and so forth. But nonetheless, lives were disrupted because of that.

“These were difficult and consequential decisions that affected people’s lives and livelihoods, and I don’t wish this upon my successor. It was tense; from morning till evening, you were getting constant reports about what’s going on, how many people were in isolation, how many people are in quarantine, what’s going on in the town. — you were getting daily reports on cases, hospitalizations, if there were any, and much more. And in the middle of all that, we were having internal discussions about how to manage the budget because, between the two fiscal years, we had a $200 million revenue loss. How do you recover from that?

“It was a situation where we couldn’t govern by consensus, even within the leadership team, because there were members who felt very strongly, in one direction or the other, that they were right. But two factions can’t both be right, and I had to make decisions based on my best judgment rather than arriving at a consensus, which is what we usually do. It was very tense, and you just hoped that you made the right decision.”

 

BusinessWest: What did you learn about yourself as a manager and a leader through that time?

Subbaswamy: “I couldn’t show my own frustrations and my own self-doubt in terms of whether I’m making the right call. You have to provide confidence to everyone that we know what we’re doing. As a leader, you always have to put on a strong front, show composure, and show resolve, and that takes its toll, especially when you go back home and start reflecting on the decisions you’ve made.

“By listening and using what experience has taught you over the years, you tend to make the right calls. It was a very stressful time. That’s why you’re seeing a lot of people, even younger people, leave jobs, leave presidencies, because those were very stressful times. No one was happy, everyone wanted something different, and they took out their frustrations on the university.”

 

BusinessWest: How did higher education change because of the pandemic, and what has changed forever?

Subbaswamy: ‘Fundamentally, online education came to be accepted as a result of the pandemic. Until then, there was sort of a significant prejudice that online wasn’t good enough. Residential universities thought of it as second-class education. But once everyone was forced to go online, you saw two things: you can’t suddenly say, ‘we’re giving you a second-class education and charging you first-class rates,’ so people started taking notice of the fact that you can, and must, do just as well. And secondly, everyone was really surprised by how much technology had improved in recent times — and even in real time.

“Zoom became the coin of the realm, and its improvements became accelerated because they had the investment money to do so. In classes and in business, everyone started being connected online in very effective ways. The advantages of remote work, the efficacy and the ability to conduct business, including learning and teaching online, has fundamentally changed to the point where you’re seeing what we call UMass Flex — where flexible work is the way of the future. We will get to a state where UMass Amherst can be experienced almost just as well, in ways that matter, from wherever you are.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, do you have any advice for your successor?

Subbaswamy: “I would first advise him to learn the local culture and work within those cultural norms in order to bring about change. You can’t bring about change unless you’re willing to understand and work inside that culture.

“Ours is a very consultative and participatory campus, where students have their say, and our faculty and staff have their say, both through normal governance but also unions. So someone who builds trust and is accessible and available, and works through our established procedures and consultative process, will succeed.”

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

David Bourgeois

David Bourgeois says Amherst Burger focuses on fun food sourced locally.

By all indications, from bustling sidewalks to traffic congestion, Amherst is most definitely back.

As the home of UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town had always benefited from the presence of all those students, faculty, staff, and visitors, both economically and with the energy they brought. When the pandemic hit, all those constituencies at all three campuses left town while people everywhere dealt with COVID-19.

Slowly but surely, the students returned as everyone learned how to work their way through the pandemic. Now, after persevering through a few very difficult years, there’s new energy and excitement in and about Amherst.

“When the colleges came back and started to re-engage with the community, it really set the tone for everyone else,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “The outpouring of students returning to downtown was huge.”

Currently, downtown Amherst enjoys a 4% vacancy rate for its commercial properties. Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said seven new restaurants have either recently opened or will do so by the end of the year, including a new White Lion brewery.

“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst. It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”

“A staple of a successful downtown center is a brewery,” Gould said. “It’s something we’ve been trying to get for several years.”

Gould and the BID played an important role in establishing the Drake, an arts and entertainment venue downtown. Averaging 200 guests a night with four shows a week, the Drake is achieving the BID’s goal of bringing people, vibrancy, and a tricke-down effect to downtown.

While the return of the students is worth celebrating, older adults have also become essential in Amherst’s comeback.

“At the Drake, the average age of our audience is in the 40s, and 70% of them live outside Amherst,” Gould said, adding that audience polling shows they are eating at Amherst restaurants and going out for drinks after attending performances at the club. “It’s making our downtown destination-worthy, and as a result, we’re bringing in bigger bands and touring groups.”

Gould also credits Amherst’s revival to building owners downtown and in the Mill District who have helped entrepreneurs enter the restaurant or retail business, or open ventures themselves, rather than let their properties sit idle.

Alysia Bryant’s Carefree Cakery

Where the wheelbarrow of scrap wood sits is where the main counter of Alysia Bryant’s Carefree Cakery will be located when she opens in June.

“Landlords understand that opening a new business is hard, so they want to help people get started,” she said. “It’s an exciting shift that’s been happening.”

Barry Roberts owns several properties in Amherst and decided to create a burger restaurant when his previous tenant, Shanghai Gourmet, closed.

“We have lots of wonderful places to eat in Amherst,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID. “But I thought there was a need for a moderately priced place where you can get burgers, beer, and ice cream.”

After brightening up the wall colors and repurposing booths, the Amherst Burger Company was launched. At press time, the restaurant was scheduled to open its doors by late April.

To manage the new restaurant, Roberts hired David Bourgeois, who has experience running other Amherst restaurants. The emphasis at Amherst Burger is on fun food sourced locally.

“We get our beef from Echodale Farm in Easthampton, our ice cream from Cook Farm in Hadley, and our milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley,” Bourgeois said. “We are looking to build relationships with additional local farms as their crops come into season.”

 

Schools of Thought

While downtown has become home to many new businesses, the Mill District in North Amherst is emerging as another hotspot.

When BusinessWest visited Alysia Bryant, owner of Carefree Cakery, the walls in her store were still two-by-four studs. Slated for a June opening, the venture will feature fair-trade ingredients in all its baked goods.

Amherst Burger Company

Amherst Burger Company is just one of many new additions to the downtown landscape.

Bryant started college with the intent of becoming a doctor, but soon realized she didn’t have the passion for it and shifted gears to a business curriculum. At that time, she also began making brownies for friends in her dorm room. When her friends became bored with plain brownies, Bryant added different ingredients, such as peanut-butter swirl and cheesecake swirl, and discovered how much she enjoyed the process of modifying recipes to create new treats.

“I realized that I had a passion for helping people and that my skill was baking,” she said. “So I asked, ‘how on earth could I do both at the same time?’”

While the idea for her own place incubated, Bryant spent five years managing the Sherwin-Williams paint store in Hadley, where she refined her skills before running her own business. Additionally, she researched how to source fair-trade ingredients such as vanilla extract, chocolate, and other essential baking items.

“I knew fair-trade products would be more expensive,” she said. “And my biggest concern was, would people be willing to pay for them?”

To get the answer, Bryant teamed up with the Holyoke chapter of EforAll, a national nonprofit entrepreneurial organization, to conduct surveys on pricing and flavors. She was surprised at the positive feedback. “After the survey results, I felt less trepidation and more excitement about Carefree Cakery.”

The owners of Futura Café, located next door, are planning their opening in June at the same time Bryant opens her doors. They will join nearly a dozen other businesses featuring, among other things, vintage clothing, a general store, and an art gallery.

Amherst at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,263
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $20.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.10
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“I enjoy being in the Mill District because there’s real collaboration among the businesses,” Bryant said. “They’ve put an emphasis on building community here.”

Pazmany concurred, noting that the Mill District has created many new community events, including a recent Easter egg hunt that sold out. “It’s a family-friendly place that keeps growing as more people experience the shops there.”

And family-friendly locations are needed because the Amherst area is, well, attracting more families.

Indeed, over the past few years, Massachusetts has seen a slight decline in its population — less than 1%. But in that same time, Hampshire County has seen an increase in its population of roughly 11%, with Amherst on the leading edge of that growth.

“Private development of housing is a major economic driver at this time,” Town Manager Paul Bockelman said. “There’s a demand for housing because so many people want to live in Amherst.”

Realtors are noting trends of growing numbers of families looking to move back to their hometowns, and Amherst is no exception.

“I’ve talked with people who were unleashed from their offices and could live anywhere, and they chose to live in Amherst because of the schools, open space, and cultural attractions downtown,” Bockelman said. “Our town has become a real magnet for people who work remote most of the time.”

 

Signs of Progress

A key municipal project in the works is the renovation of the North Common, a project Bockelman said will transform the center of Amherst. The area is technically a green space, though most of it is currently covered in wood chips. He said the new design will be a great space for everyone.

“During the pandemic, we learned that people like to get takeout food but then want to linger downtown, and, of course, we want people to linger downtown,” he said. “With the new design, they will be able to get takeout from one of our restaurants and sit at a picnic table or park bench in the middle of a bucolic lawn.”

As the project goes out to bid, several contractors have already told Bockelman they hope to win the contract because the North Common will be such a high-profile job. Construction is scheduled to start in late fall, with completion slated for spring 2024.

“It will be a great civic space where we will have flag raisings, celebrations of different cultures, and, because it’s Amherst, we’ve even created a special space to stage protests,” he said.

Gould said more evidence that Amherst is back can be seen in the restaurants that are busier today than they were before the pandemic. “Restaurant owners are telling me that they’ve never had numbers like this. Many are looking at opening second restaurants.”

Meanwhile, the student population continues to increase as Hampshire College plans to add 200 additional students in the fall.

And downtown will get another boost, with Amherst Cinema being chosen as one of only 12 film houses in the U.S. to show entries into the Sundance Film Festival when it takes place next year. The popular cinema will be the only place in the Northeast to view the Sundance entries.

“That means, during the festival, people will be coming here from Manhattan and Boston because Amherst Cinemas is the closest place in this region to see those films,” Gould said.

Even longtime attractions like the Emily Dickinson Museum are benefiting from the new energy in Amherst. After closing for renovations for part of last year, the museum is busier than ever and draws visitors from all over the world. Many new visitors are young people who discovered the Belle of Amherst through the Apple TV+ series Dickinson.

In the office Pazmany and Gould share, the phone has been ringing much more of late with people complaining they can’t find a hotel room in the area. As much as Pazmany wants to accommodate all visitors to the area, she also recognizes one of those proverbial ‘good problems to have.’

There are actually several of them, she said, noting that people are also complaining about traffic and a need for more places to park.

“Well, the complaint desk is active again, and that’s certainly a sign that we’re busy again,” she said, adding that, after the COVID years, such complaints are more than welcome.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says the ‘hill’ off Palmer’s Mass Pike exit is a challenging site.

You might say Ryan McNutt is a man with a plan. The Palmer town manager keeps a copy of the town’s master plan on his desk for anyone who wants to know the projects and priorities for the community in the years ahead.

McNutt sees a real benefit in a formal plan because it reduces what can be an overwhelming world of choices.

“When you have a document that we’ve all agreed on, it allows us to work toward the different benchmarks that are laid out for us,” he said. “Having a plan just makes it easier to get things done.”

And there are a lot of initiatives that developers, the town, and the state are trying to get done in Palmer — everything from a hotel and water park on the site once proposed for a casino to a stop on the planned, and highly anticipated, east-west rail line; from new cannabis businesses and a brewery to some infrastructure projects, and much more.

Overall, it’s an intriguing tome for this town roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester, one that could change the landscape in all kinds of ways.

One key benchmark involves developing the land near Exit 63 on the Massachusetts Turnpike, commonly known as the Palmer exit.

With several empty land parcels near the exit ramp, McNutt and others see this as a significant economic opportunity. He was prepared to have the town purchase one of the parcels, clean up the lot, and advertise it for development with the hope it would be a catalyst for others.

“When you have a document that we’ve all agreed on, it allows us to work toward the different benchmarks that are laid out for us. Having a plan just makes it easier to get things done.”

While planning that move, a developer bought the parcel from the current owner and signed on to build the Liberty Plaza, scheduled to open late next year. Committed retail stores include a Chipotle restaurant, Starbucks, Jersey Mike’s Subs, and two other retail spaces not yet finalized.

“This is a great success for the town because it turns an empty lot into the kind of plaza you would expect to see close to a turnpike exit,” McNutt said. “Best of all, we achieved the result we wanted without having to buy anything.”

But this project pales in comparison to another proposed project, one that involves development of an area known as the ‘hill.’ Located directly at the end of the turnpike exit, the parcel represents nearly 200 acres of land. It was this area that was the proposed site for a casino complex.

According to Quabog Hills Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Andrew Surprise, Kalahari Resorts is in discussion with the town about a potential 400- to 500-room hotel with an indoor water park. Kalahari Resorts currently has hotel complexes in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas. Themed around African adventure, the hotels emphasize family vacations by featuring large indoor water parks, and business gatherings by offering large conference centers.

Andrew Surprise

Andrew Surprise says the Quaboag Hills Chamber has rebounded following a loss of members and direction during the pandemic.

“If Kalahari eventually locates here, it would be a huge economic benefit to Palmer and the entire region,” Surprise said.

At the town level, McNutt said Palmer is working with the company to address bringing public utilities and access roads to the hill parcel.

“It’s a challenging site,” he noted. “While nothing is a sure thing, I’m glad to see this company feels optimistic enough to keep exploring the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, those in — or looking to enter — the cannabis industry are also finding opportunities in Palmer.

Indeed, while there are no cannabis retailers currently operating in town, that will soon change. Kali Cannabis has begun building a retail operation on Shearer Street, close to the turnpike exit. Cannabis retailer Silver Therapeutics has also broken ground on its facility, and two additional companies, Green Gold Group and Green Adventure, are planning retail operations in Palmer. The latter companies are still completing the permitting process with the Cannabis Control Commission.

In short order, the town could see four cannabis establishments open their doors.

“We will have to see what the market does to determine the right number of cannabis retailers,” McNutt said. “We’re going to let capitalism solve that one.”

As for the chamber, in the middle of the pandemic, it faced a shrinking membership base and a loss of direction. During that time, Surprise became the executive director, with a mandate to turn things around. After nearly three years, he is happy to report the chamber is back.

“We’ve added dozens of new members in the last two years, with more businesses signing on every day,” he said, adding that, in the past year, the chamber has brought $364,000 in economic-development money to its members.

 

Tracking Progress

Another engine of economic development involves a train stop in Palmer as part of the east-west rail project currently under consideration. In the budget that Gov. Maura Healey will present to the legislature for approval, she has identified funding for train stops in Pittsfield and Palmer.

“While the budget hasn’t yet passed, it’s a promising sign because it shows the Commonwealth believes in the rail project and supports Palmer,” McNutt said.

If approved, a rail stop in Palmer offers residents the possibility of direct access to Boston without driving. But Surprise looks at that potential from a different angle. “I’m more focused on bringing people from Boston and Eastern Mass. here, so they can visit the region, spend money in this area, and help our economy.”

It’s an economy that’s growing and becoming increasingly diverse, with many new additions, including cannabis-based businesses as well as the town’s first brewery, created by Rachel Rosenbloom and her husband, Michael Bedrosian, who saw opportunity in Palmer and are seizing it.

“We knew town officials were looking to revitalize downtown, and we thought it would be a good idea to add something to the community that would encourage people to go downtown,” Rosenbloom said.

While the couple have been home brewers for 10 years, Rosenbloom is a professional brewer, working at Fort Hill Brewery in Easthampton for the past five years. Palmer is known as the Town of Seven Railroads because the rail industry was an important part of the town’s early industrial development. That knowledge inspired the couple to name their business Seven Railroads Brewery.

“We didn’t want to go with an obvious name like Palmer Brewing Company,” Rosenbloom said. “We wanted to choose a name that really meant something to the community and to the area.”

Once they receive the proper construction permits for their Park Street location, the couple will start installing their brewing equipment. They have secured a license to brew and are still waiting for approval of their license to pour, which will determine how soon they can open the taproom and start serving the public.

“We’re going to concentrate on being a brewery, and while we won’t be serving food, we will invite local food trucks and let patrons know they can bring in food,” Rosenbloom said.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 12,448
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $21.40; Three Rivers, $21.82; Bondsville, $22.54; Thorndike, $22.25
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
*Latest information available

She is hopeful the taproom can open this spring or early summer, and she’s not the only one looking forward to it.

“Everyone we talk to is super excited and can’t wait for us to open,” she said. “The response we’ve gotten from the community has been so positive, with several local businesses reaching out to help and to discuss working with us in the future.”

Last spring, Surprise resumed publishing the chamber’s recreation guide and business directory after not producing it during the pandemic years. Published in time to distribute at the Brimfield Antique and Flea Market (which brings more than 250,000 people to the region every year), the guide’s return proved a big success.

“We distributed half our print run at the flea market as well as to more than 60 locations in the region, with many asking for more copies,” Surprise said. “People really liked the pocket-guide format, and, of course, it’s available online, too.”

With the 2023 edition, Surprise is looking to create different trails for antique shops, breweries and wineries, boutique shops, and more. He hopes the increased activity will increase the tourism dollars spent in the region. “Right now, our efforts are all about planting seeds and seeing what grows.”

Meanwhile, Palmer continues to seek a new use for the 100-year-old Converse Middle School. McNutt said the town looked into the costs to modernize it for municipal use, but the price tag was too high. Now he’s looking to see if housing developers, specifically those building for residents age 55 and over, can propose an effective use for the site.

As part of its master plan, Palmer is also working on replacing two main bridges in town, on Church Street and Main Street. After minor repairs, the Main Street bridge has been deemed safe for now, while the Church Street bridge was closed. A truss bridge is in use until a new Church Street bridge gets built.

“It’s a complicated construction project, but we are still on schedule with our benchmarks,” McNutt said. “It is still a goal that I will drive my car across the new bridge this year.”

A boat ramp for Forest Lake is one project that is now complete. As a small, quiet spot, McNutt explained that the lake is a popular place for parents to teach children how to fish.

In the past, boat owners would launch from a sandy area along the lake and park their vehicles on the adjacent road. That would often lead to two safety issues of launching during muddy times and then parking vehicles on a fairly busy road. The Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game and Department of Conservation corrected those issues with a dedicated boat launch and an adjoining parking lot.

“From a safety, convenience, and aesthetic point of view, the boat launch was a great project all around that will benefit people for years to come,” McNutt said.

 

Bottom Line

In order to keep town projects on the path to completion, Palmer has a master-plan implementation committee consisting of citizens and town officials to make sure the actions that occur are aligned with the goals the town has identified.

“As we succeed and complete these projects, it serves as a catalyst and allows us to get even more done for the town,” McNutt said.

After all, it’s part of the plan.

Features Golf Preview Special Coverage

Staying the Course

Ted Perez

Ted Perez, long-time pro at East Mountain Country Club

When Ted Perez Jr. talks about the 2023 golf season, he uses the present tense — and even the past tense on occasion.

Indeed, Perez, the pro and co-owner of East Mountain Country Club in Westfield, said the season — for his course, anyway — began in January, as it sometimes does; this family-owned club is famous for being open whenever there is no snow on the ground.

But this January was different from just about any other that came before it, said Perez, who said the course was probably open for play all but a few days that month. And it was open most every day the first three weeks in February as well.

March wasn’t as kind, with the course closed several days by snow and play reduced to a trickle on many others, he said, but overall, it’s been a phenomenal start to 2023.

“I’ll call this a non-winter,” said Perez, whose father, Ted Perez Sr., built this course, located just a long par 5 from the runways at Barnes Municipal Airport, 60 years ago. “I wish every winter could have been like this one.”

Elaborating, he said winter golf of this kind is a real boon for the course because the revenue generated isn’t offset by the expenses encumbered most of the rest of the year, everything from cutting the grass to overseeding the fairways to paying the people to perform those tasks. “My father used to say, ‘it’s like finding money on the street.’”

As the 2023 season begins for most courses in the region — a few others were open for play through during stretches of the winter — they are hoping that their springs, summers, and falls are as good, relatively speaking, as Perez’s winter was.

“My father used to say, ‘it’s like finding money on the street.’”

Actually, they’ll settle, if that’s the right word, for what they’ve seen the past few years, a recognized surge in play that started during the summer of 2020, the height of the pandemic, when there was little else for people to do — they couldn’t even play tennis due to restrictions imposed by the state.

That surge continued into 2021 and then 2022, said Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., noting that the numbers were down slightly in 2022 from 2021, but still better than the years leading up to the pandemic.

“We saw levels jump considerably in 2020 and into 2021,” he told BusinessWest. “In 2022, we were able to sustain levels and continue to grow. Overall, we’ve been able to retain the new golfers and the golfers who were brought back into the game by the pandemic. Our facilities, our operators, and our organizations are doing a great job of keeping the game sticky, keeping it relevant.”

The questions on everyone’s mind going into the new year are … will this surge continue?, and to what extent? As with the weather — always the biggest question mark heading into a new year — no one really knows the answers, but those we spoke with project another solid year for the local golf industry.

EJ Altobello

EJ Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, is among those projecting the recent surge in the region’s golf industry will continue in 2023.

EJ Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club, said most all signs point to a continuation of current trends (his club now has a healthy waiting list for membership), and he points to Florida, where the first three months of the year have been on par (yes, that’s an industry term) with the past few seasons, as evidence.

“They’re off to a great start,” he noted. “Golf retail is off to a great start, golf rounds are off to a great start, and I think things will go the same way up here — there’s no reason to believe otherwise.”

Steve Elkins, chair of the board at Amherst Golf Club, a nine-hole track owned by Amherst College and managed by the board members, agreed. He said the past few years have been solid, and revenues have helped put the course on more solid ground than it has been in some time.

“We’re in good shape … we’re in as a good a shape as we’ve been in a very long time,” he said, adding quickly that courses have to be careful and smart with their spending to stay in solid shape financially.

On the downside, if it can be considered that, it is somewhat more difficult to get a tee time at some courses, said Menachem, and there are now waiting lists at many private clubs. So accessibility is certainly not what it was in the pre-pandemic years.

But for those in this unpredictable business, those are definitely good problems to have.

 

Green Lights

It’s called Good Friday, Bad Golf.

That’s the name of the first organized golf outing of the year at East Mountain Country Club, and, as that name suggests, it’s played every year on Good Friday, which means that some years, it isn’t played at all due to inclement weather, especially when Easter comes earlier rather than later.

This year, it’s set for April 7, and Perez is hoping his luck with the weather in 2023 holds, because there are 140 signed up for golf and the dinner to follow it. Meanwhile, April 7, or thereabouts, is when most courses in the area project to be open, if not a week or more earlier — a solid head start over most years.

“We saw levels jump considerably in 2020 and into 2021. In 2022, we were able to sustain levels and continue to grow. Overall, we’ve been able to retain the new golfers and the golfers who were brought back into the game by the pandemic.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

And as they open, they’re expecting to see roughly what they’ve seen for nearly the past three seasons — more business than they were seeing in the years leading up to the pandemic. In most cases, much more.

Indeed, through the end of the 2010s, golf was in the doldrums, continuing a downward trajectory that started in the early 2000s. For many, and especially the younger generations, the game was too time-consuming and too expensive, and they were putting their time and money elsewhere.

Public courses struggled to get daily play, often despite attractive specials, and private clubs, many of which had been historically full and boasted waiting lists, had plenty of spots available and were marketing themselves far more aggressively than ever before to bring in new members — and much-needed revenue.

The downward spiral was punctuated by the closing of several courses in the area, including Hickory Ridge in Amherst, Pine Grove in Northampton, and Southwick Country Club. Despite this thinning of the herd, many area courses continued to struggle.

Then, the pandemic came.

Golf was still slow and still comparatively expensive, but suddenly, people didn’t seem to care, or care as much. People of all ages and other demographic categories were looking for things to do, ways to keep active as they were eating and drinking more, and opportunities to socialize — and golf could check all those boxes, to one extent or another.

Then-Gov. Charlie Baker lifted tight restrictions on golf in early May 2020, and for the rest of the year, clubs saw surges in play, memberships, and retail sales.

Elkins said Amherst Golf Club (AGC) received a huge boost from students, most of them from UMass, who were still living in the area but not attending classes in person. Looking for things to do with their time, maybe 30 bought attractively priced memberships at AGC, a semi-private course.

Amherst Golf Club

Amherst Golf Club, a 9-hole track with a long history, has seen an increase in memberships and overall play since the start of the pandemic.

“We got a huge COVID bounce from students who couldn’t attend classes in person,” he said. “It was a one- or two-year bump, and now it’s gone away.”

Still, membership remains solid — it’s currently at about 265, down from the peak but certainly up from the pre-COVID years — and daily play (there’s a $32, play-all-day rate) has been stable as well and certainly helped by the closing of Hickory Ridge (just a mile or so down the road) a few years ago.

 

Different Strokes

The surge in play — and spending at local clubs — continued, and even accelerated, in 2021, despite the loss of maybe two dozen days of play to seemingly non-stop rain.

The skies brightened in 2022 — when obsessive heat was the bigger problem — and those trends continued. Indeed, almost everyone we spoke with said 2022 was down slightly from the year before, but still quite solid and better than pre-pandemic.

“Last year wasn’t quite as good, but right in that same ballpark,” said Altobello, using total rounds and membership, which is at a 15-year high, and his main measuring sticks. He noted that the difference might have been as simple as more people returning the office last year, making it somewhat more difficult to “sneak out for an afternoon round,” as he put it.

Overall, though, the numbers were quite good, and they provided ample evidence that those who picked up the game during the pandemic, or picked it up again after putting it down, were, indeed, staying with it, said Altobello, adding that these increases were across the board, and especially encouraging when it comes to women and young people, two demographic groups that many feel hold the key to the long-term success of the industry.

“The indicators are that they are still here,” he said. “How long they stay … that’s to be determined. But as of right now, they’re still out there playing. We’re seeing more and more women in the game, more and more men in the game, and we’ve had a great increase in our youth programs as well.”

As play picked up over the past few years, there were some changes to the landscape, ones that reflect concerns about the cost of the game and the time it consumes, said those we spoke with. Indeed, the nine-hole outing, or ones that are even shorter, became far more common, and more accepted, than perhaps ever before.

“In many cases, people only have time for nine holes. That’s roughly two and a half hours on a full course, and that’s all the time many people have.”

“Ten or 15 years ago, that wasn’t even a thought,” Menachem said of a nine- or maybe six-hole round. “It was either 18 holes or nothing; now, nine holes is a far more realistic and accepted option for those with families, for those with shorter windows of time to play before work or after work. That is definitely a positive.”

Dave Twohig, the head pro at Amherst Golf Club for more than 40 years, agreed. “In many cases, people only have time for nine holes,” he said. “That’s roughly two and a half hours on a full course, and that’s all the time many people have.”

Amherst actually has two “loops,” as he called them, holes 1-5 and 6-9 — both wind up back at the clubhouse — that people can play if they have just an hour or so and want to get a little play in, and many do just that.

 

Round Numbers

Looking ahead, or at what’s right in front of them, in the case of East Mountain and other courses that have been open for play in Q1, those we spoke with said the outlook for 2023 is colored by optimism.

And the head start many courses were able to get will certainly help, said Menachem.

Indeed, he said that, for tracks like East Mountain and many others, especially in Eastern Mass. and on the Cape (maybe 20% of the state’s courses), the robust first quarter provides needed cash flow, as Perez noted, when there are few, if any, offsetting expenses.

“It’s like found money,” said Menachem. “You’re running on a thin operation, and you’re allowing access to the golf course in the condition that it’s in without much preparation on the maintenance front; it’s not too much of a heavy lift, and the revenue you’re able to derive should completely outweigh the expenses.”

Also, the early, solid start provides a buffer against possible headwinds, such as heavy rain and excessive heat, later in the year, he went on.

Meanwhile, almost all courses should be able to open earlier than what would be considered normal, said Menachem, who, as he spoke with BusinessWest a few weeks back, said 60 to 70 were already open.

Despite all the optimism that prevails within the industry, there are still challenges to be overcome.

Indeed, the ongoing workforce crisis is still making it more difficult to attract and retain help than it has been historically.

“Labor is still a huge issue, especially on the maintenance and operations side of the game,” Menachem said. “It’s not always been attractive to get up early and set up a golf course, and we want to make sure we can support the next generation of staff and make sure wages are competitive with other industries. Meanwhile, being a seasonal sport also has its challenges.”

Elkins agreed, noting that Amherst Golf Club has increased pay rates to remain competitive and hire and retain not only young people, but also some retirees looking to work and stay active.

Meanwhile, the higher cost of … well, just about everything poses stern challenges for clubs, most of which are operating on rather thin margins and without huge reserves to fall back on. In a word, clubs need to be careful, said Elkins, adding that this certainly the case at AGC.

“Making sure that we manage our cash is really important,” he noted. “Like a lot of courses, we’re in good shape, but we’re not going to spend a ton of money on something that’s not core to the course, because it’s risky. We want to make sure we have a good capital reserve and that we spend our money wisely.”

Perez agreed, noting that, despite his great start to 2023, he knows things can change quickly, and he’s learned to reserve judgment until he’s added up all the numbers in December.

“I don’t get too caught up in all the numbers until the end of the year,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I know better than to get too excited in March. But it is good to have a non-winter like this one; it beats the alternative.”

 

Staying on a Roll

With the non-winter of 2023 now in the rear view, the region’s golf industry looks forward to the next three seasons.

They do with a spring in their step — figuratively but also quite literally, and optimism that the recent surge the game has enjoyed will continue.

Time will tell if they are right, but all signs indicate that area operators will be able to stay the course — in all kinds of ways.

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

MJ Adams

MJ Adams, seen with one of Greenfield’s signature bees, says commercial and residential development are equally important downtown.

 

MJ Adams recalled a community event in February 2020 called “A Deliberate Downtown: Growing by Design.”

“Because so many interesting things were happening downtown at that time, and we were getting ready to launch a downtown-revitalization effort, we wanted to engage everyone in the community conversation about downtown,” said Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development.

Then the pandemic struck, the world went into lockdown, and the city pressed pause on its plan, she said. But only a pause.

“The COVID-19 pandemic changed many things about the city’s growth plans for the short term, all of 2020 and most of 2021, but it did not change the grit, determination, and resiliency of our city’s business and government leaders,” Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said in a recent state-of-the-city address, noting that municipal leaders moved forward with construction and revitalization programs, aided by a rush of state and federal money intended to pump life into the economy and infrastructure.

During that time, the city broke ground on a new, $20 million library (set to open this spring), solidified a location for its new $21 million fire station (expected to open early next year), and built a temporary fire station to ensure continued service.

“These projects are a testament to the willingness of Greenfield citizens to fund essential services that serve our city and surrounding communities,” she said, adding to that list a skate park soon to open between Chapman and Davis streets downtown, funded with a combination of state grant money and city capital-improvement funding.

It’s all part of what the mayor calls the city’s ‘rurban’ lifestyle, an appealing combination of urban amenities and a rural feel, all highlighted by a downtown set to undergo significant changes to make it more liveable, walkable, and attractive for businesses and visitors alike.

“Downtown areas throughout the nation are changing; some have dried up completely, while others, like ours, are focusing on recognizing demographic and business shifts and are embracing that change,” Wedegartner said in her address. “We have a robust downtown-redevelopment strategy focused on transformational change incorporating available and new housing, new infrastructure improvements, and retail and commercial opportunities. Here is where we merge our economic-development, infrastructure, and housing efforts into a cohesive plan.”

 

What’s in Store?

A significant element in the downtown mix is the former Wilson’s Department Store site, which is being converted into an intriguing mixed-use development.

The city brought together the Community Builders and MassDevelopment in the acquisition and redevelopment of the former Wilson’s property, originally built in 1882. The redevelopment will create approximately 65 residential rental units and will reactivate prominent first-floor and basement retail spaces through the relocation and expansion of Franklin Community Co-op’s Greenfield store, Green Fields Market.

“In addition to creating much-needed, high-quality housing in Greenfield, relocating and expanding Green Fields Market will provide the community with access to healthy food in an area of Greenfield currently without a full-service grocery store,” said Rachana Crowley, director of Real Estate Development at the Community Builders, when the project was announced. “We’re proud to be a part of this team which will create new housing and employment opportunities and invest in a strong and robust Main Street in Greenfield.”

Adams said attracting a combination of commercial and residential tenants through mixed-use development has been important in the ongoing downtown plan. “What happens downtown, how we perceive it, is how the region perceives us as a community. So we knew we had to work on downtown. And we knew we couldn’t leave Wilson’s sitting empty.”

Jessye Deane

Jessye Deane says Greenfield businesses thrive through connections with myriad agencies that provide technical, financial, and other forms of support.

Adams called upper-story redevelopment “a significant building block in our efforts to create more business development and housing in Greenfield.” But the Wilson’s project is only one piece; another 36-unit development on Wells Street will hit the construction phase soon, and developers are eyeing other potential residential-development sites both within and outside of Greenfield’s downtown sector.

“We know we need to take a look at the missing middle-market supply of housing that serves working people who are not eligible for subsidized housing but are also struggling to find housing in any market now,” she said. “This is an issue for the whole state. Everyone is feeling, quite accurately, that we’ve made progress with affordable rental housing, but now we need to work on other aspects of the market.”

Adams feels like Greenfield is an attractive market for people looking for a place to live because it’s considered more affordable than other communities and boasts strong transit links to the rest of the region and beyond.

A $7.8 million, state- and federally funded multi-modal Main Street improvement project should only lend momentum to that perception, she and Wedegartner believe. The mayor appropriated $288,900 in capital funds for engineering and design of the project, which begins 100 feet to the east of Colrain Street and ends at High Street. The project is on track to be included in MassDOT’s Transportation Improvement Program, with construction slated to begin as early as fall 2026.

“While this project is underway, the city will also be able to upgrade underground utilities, primarily our water and sewer infrastructure. This will save the city money as we will not need to dig up Main Street twice,” the mayor noted, adding that additional grant money is being used to fund a parking-management study for the downtown area.

One significant goal of all this, she told BusinessWest, is to make Main Street more pedestrian- and bike-friendly, including continued efforts to make Court Square a pedestrian plaza. “Route 2A can never be pedestrian-only; Main Street has to be open to all traffic. But there’s significant work being done curb to curb.”

“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street.”

Wedegartner stressed that development activity in Greenfield extends well beyond downtown. The Planning Department and City Council continue work to rezone about 40 acres across Route 2A from the I-91 Industrial Park as additional industrial space geared to attracting more advanced manufacturers and sustaining existing manufacturers who have run out of space in the current industrial park.

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, said one of the city’s selling points is its balance between that industrial sector and the sorts of small, locally owned shops and eateries that dot the downtown, as well as attractions ranging from Greenfield Garden Cinemas, which recently celebrated its 94th birthday, to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center.

Greenfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,768
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $19.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.65
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, Sandri
* Latest information available

The owners of Greenspace Co-work, located upstairs from Hawks & Reed, have been bringing local businesses together at a monthly event called Business Breakdown, and Deane has been impressed with what they’re saying.

“The Business Breakdowns are so interesting; we’re hearing how many people not originally from this area chose to start a business in Greenfield because there are so many resources available — partnerships with the chamber and the Franklin County CDC and the city — and how glad they are that they did choose Greenfield.

“Greenfield is the seat of Franklin County,” she added. “When Greenfield does well, all of Franklin County does well. So it’s good to see Greenfield making such a concerted effort to revitalize the downtown.”

 

Partners in Progress

With technical and financial assistance and other resources provided to businesses through agencies like the CDC, Common Capital, the chamber, and others, and workforce-development efforts at Greenfield Community College, Franklin County benefits strongly from a culture of partnership, Deane said.

“It feels like there’s this collective effort to really build on the partnerships; it’s one of the things Franklin County generally does very well,” she explained. “Working through the pandemic, we had effective partnerships, and I’m really seeing those grow as we’re able to share resources and think more strategically about the next generation of Greenfield and what the city should look like.”

That said, “I’ve been really impressed with the energy and momentum I’m seeing in Greenfield,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve seen the city of Greenfield creating an environment more attractive to businesses, while simultaneously supporting the outstanding businesses we already have to make sure we’re ensuring their success.”

That’s Wedegartner’s goal too, of course, even as she asks people for patience as all the visible signs of progress come together downtown over the next few years, from the new library and fire station to new housing and a more walkable city center.

“I’m fond of saying that, in five years, you’re not going to recognize Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s going to be so different and so much more vital in so many ways. But it’s going to take time.”

 

Community Spotlight Cover Story Features

The Paper City Looks Back — and Ahead

Holyoke City Hall

Go just about anywhere in the Paper City — City Hall offices, manufacturing facilities, the local utility, restaurants, some cannabis dispensaries, anywhere — and you will find pictures of what would be called ‘old Holyoke.’ And some images of the new Holyoke as well.

They’re everywhere. Pictures of the old but still-standing mills, the canals, Mount Tom, High Street in a different age, the Hadley Falls Dam, and especially City Hall, the iconic Gothic Revival structure built in 1871 that is, in many ways, the symbol of this historic city.

These pictures you see everywhere are visible evidence of the enormous pride people from this city, or now doing business in it, take in Holyoke.

You see this this pride in every community in Western Mass., from the small towns in Franklin County to the capital of the region, Springfield. But in Holyoke, it’s … well, different. And it just seems like there is more of it.

This much is made clear in the stories that follow in this special section commemorating the city’s 150th birthday. People from Holyoke take a special pride in being from their city, and for many reasons.

There is history — this is the country’s first planned industrial city. There is architecture. There are landmarks. There are institutions. There is tremendous diversity. There is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. Mostly, though, there are people — those who lived a century and more ago, and those who call it home today.

As the city turns 150, there is much to celebrate, and certainly not all of it is in the past, although the past is what many people like to focus on.

There was a time when Holyoke was a model industrial city producing some of the finest papers and textiles in the world. The mills producing these products created thousands of jobs, enormous wealth, and tremendous prosperity.

The city’s fortunes changed, obviously, as these mills closed or moved south or overseas starting just after World War II. For decades, the city was in decline, even as it remained a center of jobs and manufacturing.

Today, there is a sense of revitalization and vibrancy, with new leadership, especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and an economy that is far more diverse and fueled by everything from a surging creative-arts sector to a cannabis industry that found in Holyoke a welcome mat, millions of square feet of old mill space perfect for cultivation and even dispensaries, and inexpensive, green energy.

Another factor powering this revitalization is entrepreneurship. Through the efforts of EforAll, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Community College, and other agents of change, Holyoke residents, and especially those making up the minority majority, are creating new businesses, from restaurants to dance studios to fabric shops, that are changing the face of High Street — and the entire city.

These stories and many others are told in the pages that follow. Together, they tell of a city with momentum. A city with vision. A city with renewed optimism about what can be done when people work collaboratively. A city that has a lot to celebrate.

 

Holyoke. Wanna Make Something of It?

By Darby O’Brien

 

Unless you’re from Holyoke, you probably won’t get it.

We’re a little like Southie on the other side of the state. Hardscrabble Holyokers have grit and never quit. Holyoke is a city with soul. It’s a city of neighborhoods. Churchill, Elmwood, the Flats, the Highlands, Oakdale, and Springdale. As Liberty Bank President and Holyoker Dave Glidden says, “you can take the kid out of Holyoke, but you can’t take Holyoke out of the kid.”

Just look at the cast of characters that came out of this place. Start with the famous drummers. Hal Blaine, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, played with the legendary Wrecking Crew on 40 number-one hits, and Ronnie Hurst played in Steppenwolf. Holyokers Michael and John Shea wrote the Notre Dame fight song. We have Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd. Alan Eisenstock was a writer and producer on shows like Mork and Mindy, Sanford and Son, and Family Matters. My nephew, Lenny Jacobson, is another one you’ve seen on the tube, from big-time TV spots to shows like Nurse Jackie, and he just won the 2023 JFK Award.

We’ve also got Neil Sheehan, the New York Times writer who released the Pentagon Papers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book A Bright Shining Lie, considered to be one of the best books about the Vietnam War. Mitch Epstein is a world-renowned photographer. Frank Leja, who lived down the street from me as a kid, signed as a ‘bonus baby’ with the New York Yankees at 17. To this day, he’s the youngest player ever to appear in the pinstripes. The list goes on. Maybe it’s in the water. We’ve got four reservoirs. They’re all closed for fishing now, but we sneak in and cast a line anyway.

Another thing unique to Holyoke is the game of Pickie. We invented the game in the streets and alleys downtown. Just saw off your mother’s broom for a bat, and grab some Pee Gee balls, and you’re set. It’s always been a sports town. Betsy Frey carries on the family business at Holyoke Sporting Goods, probably one of the last independent sporting-goods stores left. Part of what keeps it going is the boatload of Holyoke merchandise she sells in the store, especially around parade time. You’ve heard about Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, right? One of the biggest in the country.

The late “Made in Holyoke” rapper Justin Chavez said, “it’s a city full of pride and hope, a city that’s alive.” My old buddy John Hickey, who was the Water and Power chief, coined the slogan “Holyoke. Best City by a Dam Site.”

Damn right.

 

Darby O’Brien, a Holyoke native, is the owner of the marketing and public relations firm Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley.

Features Special Coverage

Getting a Leg Up

Pedro Arroyo

Pedro Arroyo says the LEDC mini-grant helped him and his sister, Elizabeth Arroyo, secure better signage for their business.

 

Tony Bermudez started his digital-media venture just before the pandemic hit.

And like just about everyone else who was in business at the time, he lost considerable momentum — and opportunities — when the state essentially shut itself down.

Indeed, his business has many components, but specially event video work, and for the first year or more of the pandemic … there were no events, or very few of them, anyway.

Bermudez, again, like many others, slogged his way through to the other side of COVID. But money has always been tight, and that’s why he considers himself fortunate to receive, and is very appreciate of, a mini-grant from the Latino Economic Development Corp. He is one of several to get one of the grants in a first round issued late last year, with another nine grants awarded in a second round just a month or so ago. Another round of grants will be awarded later in March.

‘Mini,’ in his case, means $1,100. But Bermudez was able to use it to secure software and some new equipment, specifically a lighting kit, that will help him take his business, Tony Digital Music & Media, to a higher level.

Beyond the small grant, though, Bermudez has been able to secure invaluable coaching from the LEDC, and through it he has been able to make important connections, including one with Mercy Medical Center that enabled him to secure work to create a video to help address the stigma attached to opioid addiction; work is expected to behind on that production soon.

Bermudez’s story is one of many that help bring to life the work going on at the LEDC, a new agency that BusinessWest profiled last year. Its mission, in simple terms, is to help employees become employers, said Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC, and enable small businesses to take the next step.

It does this through a unique model focused on everything from these mini-grants to training programs offered by those coaches that will focus on everything from how to qualify for a business loan to workforce training to mental wellness, and much more.

“Capital infusions — putting money into the hands of small business owners — even if it’s only $1,000 or $2,000, can often make a huge impact, whether it’s a new business or even an existing business.”

As for the grants, they are indeed small, with amounts varying from $1,000 to $3,000 in the first few rounds. But small businesses just getting off the ground can use such funds to take important steps forward, Melendez said.

“Capital infusions — putting money into the hands of small business owners — even if it’s only $1,000 or $2,000, can often make a huge impact, whether it’s a new business or even an existing business,” he explained, adding that the grants are funded through $450,000 in overall support awarded to the LEDC by the state. “They can put that money to use in many different and important ways.”

Such was the case with Pedro Arroyo, who used his $2,500 grant to secure new and better signage for his business, Juguitos Healthy Grab & Go, at its new home on State Street in Springfield.

Arroyo and his sister, Elizabeth, saw a unmet need in Springfield for a place where people could get healthy foods in a hurry and moved forward to meet it, despite the pandemic, which was descending on the area just as they were getting started.

Jason Vásquez

Jason Vásquez envisions his business growing and someday being run by his son, Nazareh.

“We saw an opportunity to provide something that wasn’t really available anywhere in the city,” he noted. “We came together, took a chance and said, ‘let’s try this.’

The stories behind these businesses, and people taking chances — and the grants they’ve obtained — help shed important light on the important work being done by the LEDC, and how it is changing the business landscape in all kinds of ways.

 

Progress Report

It’s called the unrestricted construction supervisor’s license.

Jason Vásquez, owner of Nas Small Repairs, which specializes in small construction projects and repairs to homes and businesses, needs one to take his venture, and his career, to the next level. And he’s using his $1,000 mini-grant to buy the code and regulations books and other materials to help him attain that license.

“I want to enable my small business to grow, and in the future, I’d like to have a program for young people and women to learn about construction and maybe move into the field,” he explained. “And to do that, I need this license and the right personnel behind me.”

Vasquez’s use of his mini-grant is exemplary of the many ways they are being put to use and how important they are to small businesses who need them to gain some momentum with whatever might be written into their business plan.

And the names on the businesses that have received such grants in the most recent round show just how varied these business plans are. That list includes Faded Barber Lounge, Thomas’ Cleaning, 50-50 Food Truck, Agudelo Apiary, Burgos & Son Trucking LLC, and Top-Flight Nutrition.

It also includes Juguitos Healthy Grab & Go, a name that tells you all you need to know (or almost all you need to know), and a venture inspired by personal need.

As Arroyo tells the story, he and his sister, Elizabeth, were both looking to shed some weight and “take back their health,” as he put it, starting with their respective diets.

“It was difficult because I was a videographer, and I was on the road all the time — I didn’t have the time to make prepared meals, and would eat out a lot,” he went on, adding that he and Elizabeth set out to address their own needs, and those of countless others, by creating a business focused on smoothies, juices, soups, sandwiches, and other healthy offerings that, as the sign says, people can grab and go.

The venture started off at 112 State St., a small location that was hindered further by a lack of parking, Pedro said, adding that the business was nonetheless able to thrive at that location, and thanks to $75,000 in ARPA funding secured from the city, he and Elizabeth were able to move into needed larger quarters just up the road, at 133 State St.

The LEDC has provided assistance at many critical junctures, he said, including direction on how to secure ARPA funding from the city of Springfield.

This work in progress is just one of many that the LEDC has become involved with, through technical assistance and coaching, a mini-grant, or both. And it’s just one example of how this agency is trying to change Main Street, or State Street, in this case, by helping more people get into business and put their signs on buildings.

Bermudez isn’t there yet, but he’s moving in the right direction, thanks to many different kinds of support from the LEDC.

As noted earlier, he received a grant that he used to buy equipment that made an immediate impact on his venture, which specializes in video promotion, business presentations and advertising, animation, event photography, and more.

“We saw an opportunity to provide something that wasn’t really available anywhere in the city. We came together, took a chance and said, ‘let’s try this.”

But it has been the coaching, and the connections the LEDC has helped him make, that have been even more impactful, he went on, citing not only the Mercy project, but also a contract in Holyoke to teach video production to young people as just a few examples of how the LEDC has been able to help him seize opportunities.

“They have a great team there, and a forward-looking attitude to help Latino small businesses,” he said, adding that that are dozens of coaches, each with a specific niche, that can help individuals like himself not only create a business plan, but execute it.

Gilberto Amador

Gilberto Amador finds it rewarding to coach small-business owners to greater success.

Gilberto Amador, president and CEO of the Mass 2 Miami Consulting Group, is one of those coaches. He told BusinessWest he and other coaches at the LEDC act as a support network for new and emerging businesses.

He said the process starts with an hour-long meeting at which a game plan is developed for creating momentum and forward progress.

“They leave that meeting knowing what we need to work on,” Amador said, stressing the ‘we’ part of that equation, while emphasizing that the business owner needs to take ownership of the next steps and is held accountable for staying on the set course. “Maybe it’s a business plan, because many people are working on their business but they don’t have a business plan, or it could be marketing … whatever needs to be worked on.

“Sometimes it’s cash flow,” he went on. “You talk to them about cash flow and how their business functions, how they have to pay themselves from their business finances of their business, how to separate business from personal … these are things that a lot of business owners are not aware of or they haven’t been doing, and it’s very important for us to shed some light on these kinds of things so that these become more productive, and successful, businesses in our community.”

 

Bright Ideas

Amador described this work as very rewarding, especially as he sees small-business owners, such as Bermudez, Vasquez, and the Arroyos, take important steps forward and put their ventures on more solid footing.

“Part of being a business coach is really seeing the success of some of the businesses that are coming in,” he said. “They work so hard every day to do what they have to do … and we help them articulate what it is that they want to do and lay out the steps to get there. That’s where the rubber meets the road, and I love working with them because you get to see those lightbulbs go on.”

Turning on more of these lightbulbs is the unofficial mission at the LEDC, which has been busy handing out grants in recent weeks and will continue to do through the course of the year.

But that’s just part of the story. The other, much bigger part is helping these individuals get on a path to success, and stay on that path.

Features

Hazen Paper Co.

This Family Business Has Been Innovating for Nearly a Century

President and CEO John Hazen

President and CEO John Hazen

John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

These days, Hazen regularly wins awards from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators for everything from beverage packaging to annual programs for the Basketball Hall of Fame induction ceremonies and the Super Bowl. The 200-employee company has also been recognized for workforce-development efforts like an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation dramatically expanded the company, which became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow and expand, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” John told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Crave

Nicole Ortiz Has Turned a Love of Food into a Growing Enterprise

Owner Nicole Ortiz

Owner Nicole Ortiz

Nicole Ortiz was born in Springfield, but became intrigued by food during her four years in Cleveland.

There, she worked her first job in a kitchen, prepping and washing dishes in a small Puerto Rican restaurant, and the city’s West Side Market — filled with fresh foods from all over the world — became her favorite place, where she became captivated with food culture, local ingredients, and … food trucks.

After moving back to New England in 2016, she put her business degree and an itch for entrepreneurship to work, enrolling in the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Center, then winning a pitch contest and setting up a successful pop-up restaurant experience at HCC. She bought a food trailer, graduated from both HCC and EforAll Holyoke, and launched a food-truck business called Crave, specializing in modern Puerto Rican cuisine, all in 2020.

“My father is from Puerto Rico, and my mom’s family is from Italy and Finland,” she said. “I think the food we offer is different and unique, and draws inspiration from the many walks of life that I have had the opportunity to experience.”

Despite opening into the teeth of the pandemic, Crave Food Truck was a big-enough hit that Ortiz started sharing storefront space on High Street with Holyoke Hummus early in 2021, where she could prep meals and sell takeout orders. In June, she solely took over the lease, and Crave had a full-service restaurant, which now offers sit-down and takeout service, in addition to the food-truck operation and catering gigs.

Now managing a staff of eight, Ortiz is proud to be part of an ongoing entrepreneurial renaissance on High Street (see related story on page 36).

“We want to build on that and let people know what’s going on down here. Before, this street had a bad image, and a lot of people didn’t want to come down here. We created a High Street Business Association to look at all the businesses here on High Street and get all of us on the same page, working for a common goal — you know, bringing more people down here. That’s really exciting.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Nick’s Nest

Area Residents Relish Visits to This Holyoke Landmark

Co-owner Jenn Chateauneuf

Co-owner Jenn Chateauneuf

If you’re looking for perhaps the most iconic hot dog this side of Fenway, look no further than Nick’s Nest — a Holyoke landmark since 1921.

What originally started as a simple popcorn cart evolved into the well-known hot dog stand it is today, more than a century later. It started when founder Nick Malfas was told by his wife that the original location looked like a little bird’s nest — and the name ‘Nick’s Nest’ stuck.

The current owners of 18 years are Jenn and Kevin Chateauneuf.

“We always worked in the restaurant business; my husband was a bartender, and I was a waitress,” Jenn said. “We always wanted to venture out and own our own place. I’m from Holyoke, he’s from South Hadley, so obviously we knew of Nick’s Nest. When it came up for sale, we just jumped at the opportunity.”

Nick’s Nest has been at its current location on Northampton Street since 1948, but Jenn and Kevin have since expanded the menu from its original offerings. “Our specialty is hot dogs; when we bought the place, it was hot dogs, baked beans, and popcorn,” she explained. “We’ve added french fries, onion rings, homemade soups … we have homemade potato salad, homemade macaroni salad.”

Nick’s Nest continues to be the area’s go-to destination for hot dogs. In fact, the venerable eatery has won ‘best hot dog’ honors in the Valley Advocate’s reader poll every one of the 18 years the Chateauneufs have owned the restaurant.

In addition to its food offerings, Nick’s Nest has an assortment of branded merchandise including T-shirts and hats that display the name of the establishment along with its slogan — “A Holyoke Tradition” — for patrons to proudly show their love of good food and community.

Though Nick’s Nest has achieved much success over the years, Chateauneuf noted that it hasn’t been without its fair share of trials.

“We try to do a lot for the community because, obviously, they support us,” she said. “They were tremendous through COVID. We’re happy that we’re still standing after those couple of years because a lot of small businesses can’t say that.”

—Elizabeth Sears

 

Star Dancers Unity

This Business Helps Young People Take Positive Steps

Alex Saldaña has made important moves to improve his community — dance moves, that is.

He’s been the owner and operator of Star Dancers Unity on High Street in Holyoke for the past 10 years. He originally became an enrichment dance instructor for Holyoke Public Schools, which is what inspired him to open his own business.

“I pretty much didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” he said. “But it’s just finding the opportunity — to be able to open a center in our community for youth that can benefit from dance services.”

Saldaña knew he wanted to use his background in dancing for good within the community, and he envisioned a space where area young people could go, noting high rates of teen pregnancy at the time of the studio’s opening.

“My inspiration was to be able to help some of those kids get some different activities besides being on the streets or doing things other than being productive in the community,” he said.

Star Dancers Unity currently has 65 students enrolled, said Saldaña, adding that Holyoke has been a great place to run his growing dance studio.

“The community has been supportive of my business, and also the aspect of understanding that I serve not just the youth but families in povery,” he explained. “I try to keep my tuition in a reasonable price range where it could be affordable to all families.”

As an extension of this work, Saldaña has taught salsa and hip hop for Holyoke Public Schools, and has been a visiting teacher in local afterschool and summer programs throughout the region. Currently, he works as a family coordinator for Holyoke Public Schools.

Star Dancers Unity not only participates in dance competitions, but is involved in many community events as well, from Celebrate Holyoke to performances at Holyoke High School for Hispanic Heritage Month.

“We partner up with different art pageants and do things for the schools,” Saldaña said. “When they have cultural diversity times, we also do presentations there.”

Clearly, by creating a safe, inclusive space, Star Dancers Unity is offering young people much more than dance lessons.

—Elizabeth Sears

 

Black Rose Trucking

These Two Women Are Hauling a Load of Ambition

Co-owners Yolanda Rodriguez (left) and Ashley Ayala

Co-owners Yolanda Rodriguez (left) and Ashley Ayala

All Yolanda Rodriguez and Ashley Ayala needed to start a hauling company was … well, a truck. Soon, they will have two. And they’re not stopping there.

That second truck is the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign on Patronicity, bringing in $21,448 from 35 backers, more than their goal of $19,950. It’s an example of growing by thinking outside the box.

“Our long-term goal is to have more equipment and do more transport, which means more employees and growing our company,” said Ayala, the daughter in the mother-daughter ownership team that launched Black Rose Trucking three years ago. “We definitely have big dreams of having a lot of trucks, and being able, in the future, to offer different services than what we do now.”

Rodriguez has been in the commercial trucking industry for a long time, and Ayala eventually caught the bug. “She had a dream of owning her own business,” Ayala said. “She’s passionate about what she’s doing, and that kind of rubbed off on me. So a few years ago, I ended up getting my commercial driver’s license as well. And we decided to make a business out of it. Her dream kind of became my dream.”

COVID-19 delayed the process, and Black Rose didn’t start taking jobs in earnest until early 2021. “We just kept going until everything kind of opened up,” Ayala said.

They haul asphalt and other materials to and from construction sites, as well as doing paving and milling work for contractors and on highway projects, all the while taking pride in their position as women of color in a male-dominated field — and pride in their city as well.

“I was raised in Holyoke, so I see how Holyoke has progressed. And I’ve seen all these small businesses also come about and grow,” Ayala said. “We see these restaurants and other businesses come about that are owned by women of color. You can see every day how they’re progressing, and they’re still around. It’s definitely a nice feeling to be a part of that.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Holyoke Sporting Goods

This Venerable Institution Helps Foster Team Spirit

Owner Betsy Frey

Owner Betsy Frey

Nothing says ‘team spirit’ quite like matching uniforms, and whether you’re on a sports team, a sales team, or even team Gas & Electric, there’s a place in Holyoke to find your team spirit — Holyoke Sporting Goods.

Originally founded in 1928 in downtown Holyoke by James Clary, the company moved to its current location on Dwight Street under current owner and operator Betsy Frey in 2005.

“It’s in a much easier section of town to get to, we’re right off of the highway, which is convenient,” Frey said. “We have our own dedicated parking lot, which is nice, too; you don’t have to park on the street.”

Holyoke Sporting Goods caters not only to sports teams, but to many area businesses. “We do a lot of schools; we sell their sports equipment and their uniforms,” Frey said. “Then we do leagues like Little Leagues — we’ll supply them with all their baseballs, their equipment, their uniforms. I also do a lot of municipal stuff for the city of Holyoke or the city of Springfield, like Holyoke Gas & Electric, Water Works, Housing Authority, all the uniforms that they wear — they’ll wear shirts and stuff with a company logo on them. So we do all that.”

And with St. Patrick’s Day — along with Holyoke’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade — right around the corner, look no further than Holyoke Sporting Goods for related merchandise.

“Right now, we’re doing a lot of stuff for St. Patrick’s Day,” Frey said, “so I have a lot of Holyoke stuff with shamrocks and things like that.”

Frey said she enjoys running a business in Holyoke, adding that she gets a real team-spirit feeling from the city.

“Oh, it’s great,” she said. “Holyoke’s a great place to be in business. The people here are extremely supportive; they like to support their local businesses. I sell a lot of stuff in the store that has ‘Holyoke’ on it or is related to Holyoke. The people in Holyoke are wonderful; they support the business. This is a good community to have a business in.”

—Elizabeth Sears

 

Hadley Printing

For 125 Years, This Holyoke Staple Has Been on a Roll

Owners and brothers Greg (left) and Chris Desrosiers

Owners and brothers Greg (left) and Chris Desrosiers

Hadley Printing has been a family-owned business for 125 years. Currently in its third generation under the direction of brothers Chris and Greg Desrosiers, the commercial printer offers digital printing, offset printing, and mail services to a wide variety of customers in New England.

The business originated in South Hadley, but in 1976, it moved to its current location on Canal Street in Holyoke. When asked about operating a business in the 33,000-square-foot building alongside one of the city’s historic canals, Vice President Greg Desrosiers had a lot to say.

“We’re in an old mill building … it used to be a silk company years and years ago; that’s when it was originated, so we’re kind of in an old silk mill,” he said. “The building itself serves us well — these mill buildings were made really well back in the day; so long as you take care of them, they serve you back really well. Obviously, it has tons of windows with natural light. In a manufacturing setting, that’s really, really welcomed and beneficial.”

Desrosiers noted that many manufacturing settings don’t have any windows to allow natural light to come in, so having the abundant natural light of one of the Holyoke mill buildings is much preferred to the usual dreary setting of four solid walls. The water view of the canal is not only another added bonus for day-to-day working pleasure, but it actually helps with the printing itself — Desrosiers can say with certainty that at least 50% of the company’s power is hydroelectric, but noted the actual percentage is probably much higher than that.

Hadley Printing, with 30 employees working across two shifts, has found another advantage to being located in Holyoke aside from operating out of the former silk mill. The company services customers in Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, the Boston area, and Albany, in addition to local customers, making Holyoke a sweet spot.

“It’s really the crossroads of New England, with 91 and the Mass Pike intersecting right through Holyoke,” he explained. “It’s the center of our customer base. We’re in the middle of who we service.”

Elizabeth Sears

 

International Volleyball Hall of Fame

For a Half-century, It Has Lifted Up Its Sport and Its City

Executive Director George MulryStaff Photo

Executive Director George Mulry

Honor. Preserve. Promote.

Those three simple words reflect a robust, multi-pronged effort to celebrate the sport of volleyball and secure its future, and George Mulry detailed just a few of those prongs. Or spikes, if you will.

“On the honor side, we certainly recognize the inductees and those worthy of enshrinement in the Hall of Fame,” said Mulry, the Hall’s executive director. “But with some of our awards, we’re recognizing local individuals and organizations that are doing great things, not just for the sport of volleyball, but to help move the Volleyball Hall of Fame forward, which in turn helps move the city of Holyoke forward.

“The preserve side is really where we’re focusing a lot of our time now,” he added. “We have our Archival Preservation and Community Access Project, where we’re going through our entire archive, cataloguing it, and trying to digitize it and make it available as a resource library for the area. That will help bring some scholars in, which will give us an opportunity to improve the exhibits that we have and improve some online exhibits as well.

“And on the promote side, we’re not only trying to promote the growth of volleyball, but we want to promote volleyball itself within our region,” Mulry said, listing events like a summer volleyball festival, the collegiate Morgan Classic tournament at Springfield College, and no-cost youth clinics. “We’re just promoting the sport as a whole, while at the same time promoting the Hall of Fame as that vehicle for telling the story.”

From the Hall’s inception in 1971 to the opening of its current facility on Dwight Street in 1984 through today, with conversations taking place about what a future Hall of Fame might look like, Mulry said Holyoke has always been top of mind.

“For over 50 years, the city has really embraced being the birthplace of volleyball and used that as an economic driver for tourism and economic spinoff,” he explained. “There are a lot of really exciting things going on. But it’s the support that we’ve received from the city of Holyoke that really makes the whole thing go.”

—Joseph Bednar

 

Valley Blue Sox

This Team Has Become a Summer Tradition in Holyoke

If you visit Holyoke during the summertime, you might catch the Valley Blue Sox in action at Mackenzie Stadium.

The Blue Sox, originally known as the Concord Quarry Dogs, began in New Hampshire but have since rebranded and have called Holyoke their home for more than a decade now. The team is part of the New England College Baseball League, with players coming from all over the U.S. each summer.

“Having a team in Holyoke is great for us; you have a really loyal fan base, the same fans that usually come to a lot of games, so we get to know the same people throughout the summer in the city,” said Tyler Descheneaux, the new general manager. “The community really rallies around it.”

He went on to explain the team’s national impact as well as local significance.

“The purpose of this league is to try and have players that are trying to make it to that next level, to the major leagues, play summer ball,” he explained. “Our league is ranked as one of the top leagues in the entire country for summer leagues — last year, we were number two in the entire country. It’s a highly coveted league, so a lot of MLB scouts or even college scouts will come to our games to see how these players are.”

The team is going to bat with plenty of new promotions this season, including a partnership with Michael’s Bus Lines on a raffle, with one lucky fan winning a free bus ride for 25 people. Additionally, opening weekend will feature a giveaway of shirts to the first 250 fans who come to the game, and these aren’t just any shirts — the team is debuting a new logo this season, and this will be the first chance for fans to sport the team’s new look.

The Blue Sox are actively involved in the community — on and off the field.

“One thing that we do every summer is we always hold different youth baseball clinics, which usually last a week. We always hold one in Holyoke, and that’s coming up,” Descheneaux said.

With so much in store for the team and the community, this summer seems to be shaping up to be a home run.

—Elizabeth Sears

 

Marcus Printing

For Almost a Century, This Press Has Found Success

The printing industry has seen plenty of changes over the past century, but they’ve only accelerated in the new century, said Susan Goldsmith, president of Marcus Printing.

“Technology in printing has changed more rapidly in the past 20 years than the 100 years before that,” she noted. “We have basically kept up with technology, starting with eliminating film from the printing process and going direct to plate, and then getting into the digital world and most recently expanding into mailing as well as wide-format; we’ve become a little bit of everything to everybody.”

It’s a model that works for Marcus, she added. “We couldn’t be just a standalone digital shop, or a standalone offset shop. We’re a mid-sized print shop. That’s where we’re most comfortable — not printing a million pieces, but we can print 50,000, or we can print two for you. That’s been the niche we always wanted to serve.”

The third-generation family business was established in 1930 by Phil and Sarah Marcus at 32 Main St. in Holyoke, who moved to 109 Main St. in 1942. Back then, it was strictly a fine letterpress printing company, installing its first offset press in 1945.

In 1961, Marcus moved to a 7,000-square-foot space in the former Skinner Mill on Appleton Street. During the next 25 years, it expanded its offset production, purchased the building, and expanded to use all of its 21,000 square feet on three floors. The current location, at 750 Main St., is a 33,000 square-foot facility, all on one floor.

The company’s 30-plus employees pride themselves on customer service, Goldsmith said. “We don’t make promises we can’t keep, and we do everything in our power to get it to you when you need it. And we try to employ as many Holyoke people as we can.”

She’s also proud of her company’s place in the Paper City.

“Holyoke has a great business community, and printing and paper have been at its foundation. We just had a conversation with John Hazen about work our parents did together, and I’m guessing maybe our grandparents. It’s nice to have that long-term connection with the history of what the city is built on.”

—Joseph Bednar

Features

Pride and Promise

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan says Holyokers, like himself, share a deep sense of pride in their community.

Jim Sullivan says he’s not really sure where it comes from. Like most people from Holyoke, he’s just taken it for granted.

He was referring to the immense pride people take in being from this city and, in a great many cases, still living in it.

“There’s been a lot of change over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the spirit of the people,” said Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies, which was started in Holyoke and is almost as old as the city itself (it will mark its own sesquicentennial in six years). “There is a very proud heritage in the city of Holyoke, and it still exists today. Even with the youth today — and I like to spend some time with them at the Boys & Girls Club, where I’m a trustee — you get a sense of pride with the folks that you talk to.”

This pride is something that’s almost palpable as you talk with people from this city, and it was referenced by just about everyone we talked with for this special section — in one way or another.

“There’s a saying … as Holyokers, we can talk bad about Holyoke, but you can’t talk bad about Holyoke,” said Gary Rome, owner of Gary Rome Auto Group, another Holyoke native, and someone with a huge presence in the city. “People here are very committed and passionate about their city.”

Beyond this omnipresent pride, Rome, Sullivan, and other business leaders we spoke with see many other qualities in Holyoke — history, tradition, diversity, economic progress, collaboration, energetic new leadership, new businesses, new business sectors (including cannabis and green energy), and something they’ve always seen: opportunities.

As in opportunities for entrepreneurs, for individuals looking for work or a career, for professionals looking for an affordable place to live, and for people aspiring to work for themselves instead of for someone else.

“There’s a lot of entrepreneurial spirit really coming alive in the city,” said Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall, which opened 44 years ago, changing the landscape in the community in many ways. “And that’s exciting because it benefits the city; it benefits everyone in and around the mall, having that entrepreneurial spirit. Moving forward, it’s a great path to be on.”

Meg Sanders, one of those entrepreneurs — she opened Canna Provisions on Dwight Street, part of a wave of cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke — agreed. She said she sees a great deal of vibrancy and entrepreneurial energy in the city, not just in cannabis, but also in the arts, hospitality, retail, and more.

“There’s a lot happening here — Holyoke is a great city that has so much to offer,” she said, adding that downtown is becoming more vibrant and, with many new types of arts and hospitality businesses opening, becoming much more of a destination.

Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility at PeoplesBank, another Holyoke institution nearly as old as the city (it was founded by silk-mill owner William Skinner in 1885), concurred.

Steve Grande (left) and his son, Ben

Steve Grande (left) and his son, Ben, have engineered a transformation at Meridian Industrial Group.

He cited Gateway City Arts on Race Street, a live-entertainment venue, as an example of a relatively recent arts-fueled resurgence in the city, one that displays the trickle-down effect of such businesses and their ability to spur more development.

“Gateway is an example of the kind of anchor that you can build around,” he explained. “You get some nightlife, and the next thing you know, you have entrepreneurs and food trucks and all that. What’s happened down at Gateway, and what’s happening on Main Street, is that there’s some nice enthusiasm and energy.

“Overall, there is a good core of solid businesses, and there is a government in place that understands the importance of business development — we have smart people with a good vision,” Bannister went on, adding that the current wave of entrepreneurial energy coupled with large amounts of state and federal stimulus money make this a unique and potentially powerful moment in the city’s history.

For this special 150th-anniversary celebration edition, BusinessWest talked with a number of business owners about what they see today in Holyoke — and what they expect to see down the road.

 

Making Progress

There’s a manhole cover embedded in the floor just inside the main entrance to the property at 529 South East St., near the lower canal in Holyoke.

It bears the name J.W. Jolly, the company that made manhole covers for cities across the country and around the globe at that site more than 140 years ago.

There’s a mat now covering the one in the lobby here because more than a few people tripped over it, said Steve Grande, a former Springfield police officer who bought the business that was operating there, Central Massachusetts Machine, in 2009 and eventually changed the name to Meridian Industrial Group to reflect a broader customer base and product portfolio.

Indeed, this cutting-edge machine shop that he manages with his son, Ben, now specializes in very large parts (up to 30,000 pounds), including components for missiles, submarines, and even NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) program that famously knocked a meteorite off its orbit a few months back.

Meridian is an example, and there are many of them in this city, where the past, present, and future come together at the same mailing address. And this is one of the many things being celebrated as the city turns 150.

It’s like that at the Canna Provisions facility on Dwight Street, where a dispensary designed to look like an art gallery has been created in an old mill where Yankee Candle once leased space and began its meteoric rise.

It’s like that at the Gary Rome Hyundai dealership on Whiting Farms Road, where a combination car wash and dog wash is taking shape on property that also boasts a solar array and, in his office, pictures of Rome’s father, who started selling cars in Holyoke more than 60 years ago.

It’s like that the O’Connell Companies’ gleaming new headquarters building on Kelly Way, which includes photos of the company’s founder, Daniel J. O’Connell, and his descendants, as well as construction projects undertaken decades ago — specifically the Memorial Bridge reconstruction project and the Rowes Wharf initiative in Boston, that won Build America awards from Associated General Contractors of America.

And it’s like that PeoplesBank’s banking center at 1866 Northampton St., site of the former Yankee Pedlar, a popular restaurant and gathering spot for generations of city residents.

Yes, the past, present, and future come together seamlessly in this city, where change is as constant as tradition.

Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall

Lynn Gray, general manager of the Holyoke Mall, says there a great deal of “entrepreneurial spirit” coming alive in the city.

This change can been seen everywhere — on High Street, where many new businesses have opened in recent years (see related story on page XX); at the mall, where many of the traditional retail stores have been replaced with entertainment-related businesses, such as a trampoline center and a bowling alley; in the countless mills, many of them now occupied by cannabis-related ventures; on Race Street, where Gateway City Arts and other arts- and hospitality-related businesses are now operating; at the historic Cubit Building, now home to apartments and the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, and elsewhere.

What hasn’t changed is the great pride that people take in their city, and the spirit of entrepreneurship that built the community and is fueling its resurgence today. In fact, what business leaders see when they look at the city today is continued progress and revitalization.

Bannister, like others we spoke with, credited Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and Aaron Vega, former state representative and now director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, for creating a business-friendly environment in the city and generating real momentum on several fronts.

“They’re tilling a lot of soil in order to make things happen,” Bannister said. “When you throw a lot of seeds out, you’re never sure which ones are going to take and which ones aren’t, but you’re creating opportunities for things to happen.”

 

No Place Like Home

Those we spoke with said they consider it important not to just do business in Holyoke, but to be actively involved in the community and especially with efforts involving the next generations of Holyoke leaders.

Rome said his family has been doing business in Holyoke for almost a century. His grandfather started with a drugstore, he believes, and then opened a haberdashery. As Rome tells the story, money was so tight that his grandfather’s store and the neighboring shoe store would share a telephone.

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister credits Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia and his administration for creating a business-friendly environment and fueling a surge in entrepreneurship.

“They had a hole in the wall, and they would pass the telephone back and forth through the wall,” he said, adding that things have certainly changed, for both his family and the city. What hasn’t changed is the family’s commitment to the city.

Indeed, Rome, was recently named one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2023, not only for his success in business — he was recently named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year — but for his work within the community, and especially Holyoke. He is a member of the foundation board at Holyoke Community College, and has donated his time, energy, and talent to countless nonprofits, while getting his company involved with them as well.

“When I look at Holyoke today, I see a lot of hope, a lot of passion,” he said. “And I see a strong initiative to let people know about all the good things that are happening in the city, and you can see that first-hand with our mayor and our economic-development team.”

Sullivan, who has been involved with the Boys & Girls Club for more than a decade now, said O’Connell supports a number of organizations and initiatives, from Girls Inc., which found a new home in the O’Connell Companies’ former headquarters on Hampden Street, to Providence Ministries for the Needy.

Gary Rome

Gary Rome, one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2023, is one of many Holyoke business leaders actively involved in the community.

PeoplesBank, meanwhile, has always been heavily involved in the community — supporting its nonprofits, being the main sponsor to the city’s famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and backing the many efforts at EforAll, the chamber, and other agencies to promote entrepreneurship and help others launch their own ventures, a key to the city’s continued progress.

“There’s an awful lot bubbling up,” Bannister said. “You have to wait and see which ones take root and which ones don’t, but we work with the Holyoke EforAll group to drive entrepreneurship because that’s how the next generation of businesses will come up; it won’t be a giant company that you lure here with tax incentives — it will be a whole lot of small businesses that will take off. It’s entrepreneurs at the street level that will drive growth.”

Even some of the relative newcomers to the scene in Holyoke said they realized early on the importance of getting involved, collaborating with others to generate more positive energy in the city, or just choosing the city as a landing spot.

Indeed, Sanders said there were many reasons why Canna Provisions put down roots in Holyoke, literally. Business-friendly bylaws and attractive space were among them, but there was also a desire to positively impact a city that was negatively impacted by the war against drugs and has, as she put it, “such good bones.”

“For us, Holyoke was a perfect canvas to do good,” she explained, adding that, in addition to bringing jobs and a new storefront to the city, the venture is also sparking other new business. Meanwhile, Sanders herself is getting involved with several initiatives, from the 150th-anniversary celebrations to the parade committee.

“Holyoke is an amazing city with so much potential, and bringing awareness to downtown and making sure everyone knows about all the cool things that are happening is very important,” she said. “Downtowns don’t turn around overnight, but it’s helpful if a community gets behind it — we see things turn around faster when everyone gets behind those efforts.”

Grande agreed, noting that he’s seeing progress in the community and is getting involved himself, with everything from workforce-development issues in manufacturing (he’s involved at Dean Tech and, specifically, an ongoing project to market its manufacturing programs) to his work as vice president of the Holyoke Taxpayers Assoc.

“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and let other people do the heavy lifting,” he said. “We see improvements and excitement; this administration is bringing city officials together, and the real push from the business community is to make the city more attractive to potential new businesses by streamlining the permitting process, addressing crime, and much more. There’s an upward trajectory, but Holyoke has not been an easy sell.”

 

Passion Play

Flashing back more than a half-century to his youth, Sullivan said he and his friends thought Holyoke was “the center of the universe.”

It was only when they got older that their perspective changed — but only somewhat.

For many, it’s still the center of their lives, if not the universe, and the home of their businesses. It’s a unique and special place where the past, even the events of 150 years ago, are never far away and the future seems increasingly bright.

Features Picture This

Photos Past and Present

Holyoke’s rich industrial past, one that earned it the nickname ‘Paper City.’

Holyoke’s rich industrial past, one that earned it the nickname ‘Paper City.’

Old Holyoke Dam

Mountain Park

A view of Mountain Park, the popular amusement park that closed its doors in 1987.

 

Holyoke’s canals gave the city water power — and an identity.

Holyoke’s canals gave the city water power — and an identity.

 

City Hall has become a symbol of Holyoke.

City Hall has become a symbol of Holyoke.

 

One of the horses from the carousel

One of the horses from the carousel at Mountain Park, later moved to Heritage State Park, where it has become a popular attraction.

 

An aerial shot of Holyoke, one of its canals

An aerial shot of Holyoke, one of its canals, and one of its many distinctive mills.

 

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is part of a new era for Holyoke’s business community.

 

This mural created by the artist known as BORDALO II

This mural at 44 Clemente St., created by the artist known as BORDALO II, is part of the Beyond Walls initiative that has changed the landscape in downtown Holyoke and beyond.

 

Features

Getting Down to Business

Brothers Juan (left) and Gilberto Uribe

Brothers Juan (left) and Gilberto Uribe are co-owners of El Paraiso Colombiano restaurant, a true family affair that has found a home on High Street.

Juan Uribe calls it a “family dream.”

He was referring to El Paraiso Colombiano restaurant, an entrepreneurial gambit that is truly a family affair.

Indeed, Juan and his brother, Gilberto, are co-owners and also cook and tend bar. Their father is head chef, and their sister is a waitress. Together, they created and now operate what they believe to be the only Colombian restaurant between here and Hartford, one that opened in the middle of the pandemic, but quickly found its stride nonetheless.

“On grand-opening day, there was a line outside to the corner,” said Juan, adding that, while there have been plenty of challenges with this venture, it has been a huge success to date, drawing patrons from around the block but also across the region and even beyond. “We thought people would come out and support something new, and they have.”

Juan, Gilberto, and other members of the Uribe family are now part of a changing scene on High Street, one of several ‘main’ streets in this city, and also part of an ongoing surge in entrepreneurship that is changing the face of the local business community.

Indeed, where once this city was dominated by large mills that covered several blocks of real estate, it is now marked increasingly by smaller ventures that occupy a storefront or even a desk or cubicle in the incubator space at the EforAll offices, also on High Street.

Jeff Cattell and Joseph Charles are also part of this changing scene. Business and life partners, they launched Paper City Fabrics, a supplier of a wide variety of fine fabrics, in September 2021, and have taken it from an online operation to a storefront on High Street that was most recently home to a law firm. They are completing renovations now and expect to open in the spring.

“Our goal has always been to open a brick-and-mortar storefront,” said Cattell, adding that he and Charles moved to the city four years ago and, after considering several business options, settled on a thrift-store model in what he called the “fiber-arts realm.”

Elaborating, he said the store will accept donations of fabric, everything from cotton to silk, as well as sewing machines and other goods and equipment, and sell them at steep discounts, thus bringing another unique concept to downtown Holyoke and one that speaks to its storied past in many respects.

Paper City Fabrics, El Paraiso Colombiano, and many other new businesses on High Street and beyond, from City Sports Bar to the Artery, a pop-up shop, to Star Dancers Unity (see story on page 50), are, indeed, part of a wave of entrepreneurship in the city, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s a lot of old players in Holyoke — there are many established businesses in many sectors, including manufacturing, which has traditionally been our foundation,” she explained. “But we’re seeing a lot of young, new faces as well, people who are investing in our downtown.”

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke and its Spanish equivalent, EparaTodos — an agency that is fueling this wave through accelerator programs, pitch contests, virtual workshops, co-working space, and more — agreed.

She said that the chamber, EforAll, and programs like the Transformative District Initiative, which are funneling dollars into storefront-improvement efforts and other programs, are helping people launch new businesses and then weather the many challenges they will face.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti (left) and Jordan Hart

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti (left) and Jordan Hart say a surge in entrepreneurship has helped Holyoke’s business community become as diverse as the city itself.

These efforts are also making Holyoke’s business community much more diverse, said both Jordan and Murphy-Romboletti, noting that it looks much like the city itself, with many Hispanics and other minority groups taking on risks and putting their names (figuratively and, in some cases, literally) over the door of buildings on High Street and many other roads.

“Holyoke is such a diverse community, and I think we’re both trying to make sure that our business community reflects our community at large,” said Murphy-Romboletti, who is also an at-large city councilor in Holyoke. “That’s one of the great things about the Holyoke chamber now — you go to one of its monthly networking events, and it looks like the community of Holyoke; it’s very diverse, and Jordan has created a very welcoming environment.”

 

Food for Thought

Juan Uribe was driving a truck when he and other members of his family decided to pool their talents and resources and open El Paraiso Colombiano.

And he still drives a truck in the morning and sometimes during the day depending on how business it is at the restaurant, because … well, because he needs two jobs at this stage in his life, especially as the restaurant continues to emerge and build its brand.

But, like other members of his family, Uribe desired to be in business for himself, and with some encouragement and learning while doing from EforAll, the dream became a reality.

Like many such ventures, it started with a passion that would become a business.

“We were born and raised here in Holyoke, and friends would come around; we’d have little events — my grandmother would make empanadas, and my father would cook, my mother would cook, everyone would just love to be in our house,” he recalled. “So we decided to make it a business; we all love to cook, and this is a family business.”

A restaurant operating at 351 High St. had to shut down because of COVID, he went on, adding that, while the timing may not have been perfect for launching a new eatery, the family took the plunge.

Joseph Charles, left, and Jeff Cattell

Joseph Charles, left, and Jeff Cattell, owners of Paper City Fabrics, are part of a changing scene on High Street.
Staff Photos

“We knew we had a good idea going, so we decided to take everything we had and move ahead,” he said. “We knew that, even though there was a pandemic, people still had to eat, and we thought they would come out and support something new.”

That’s the quick version of the story, he said, adding that many pieces to the puzzle had to come together, obviously, as well as a business plan for bringing that ‘something new’ — authentic Colombian cuisine — to Holyoke and the region.

And the learning while doing continues, he said, adding that working for himself is “a lot of work, but it’s something that I love, something that my brother loves. It’s challenging, and it’s hard, but it doesn’t get any better than this.”

Cattell and Charles offered similar sentiments and similar excitement when it comes to being part of the scene on High Street, which is the logical next step for their venture.

“Shopping for fabric is a tactile experience,” Charles said. “Touching and seeing the colors in person and the textures of the fabric is an important part of the buying process.”

The two had been looking for a storefront for more than a year and eventually settled on 330 High St., across the road from El Paraiso Colombiano, a location that affords them the space they need for their retail operation as well as to process donations and create a classroom for sewing lessons. The space has some history — it was once a popular lunch counter — and some intriguing features, such as tin ceilings and a mosaic tile floor that was hidden by carpeting.

“It’s really cool to be able to restore some of that historical perspective,” said Cattell, adding that it’s also cool to be part of a changing dynamic in downtown Holyoke, which is seeing new businesses across many sectors.

Meanwhile, the chamber, EforAll, and other agencies, such as Nuestras Raices, a grassroots urban-agriculture organization, are working collectively to not only create a pipeline of new businesses like these, but help those businesses survive, thrive, and get to the proverbial next level.

For example, EforAll has, in addition to accelerator programs, a number of virtual programs it calls Deep Dives.

In recent months, such dives have been taken into subjects ranging from “Making It in the Food Business” to “Are You Getting All You Can Out of QuickBooks?” to “How to Use LinkedIn to Grow Your Small Business.”

Meanwhile, the chamber, through its many networking programs, is enabling these new small businesses to make the connections they need to grow their portfolios, while also learning from others facing the same challenges.

Indeed, Jordan told BusinessWest that the chamber has an attractive rate for solopreneurs and small businesses, enabling these ventures to be part of a full slate of events that provide invaluable opportunities to not only hand out business cards but also be an active part of a growing, more diverse business community.

Murphy-Romboletti agreed.

“The chamber has created a very welcoming environment, especially for my entrepreneurs who are not familiar with networking and are often so focused on being in the business and not necessarily working on the business,” she explained. “I think the chamber creates this environment where people can step away from the cash register or step away from the kitchen and connect with the community and build those relationships so they can be successful and really be part of the community; that’s been really valuable.”

In addition to helping individuals start a business and move it to the next level, agencies like the chamber and EforAll are working to get them involved in the community and take ownership of efforts to revitalize High Street and, overall, improve the landscape for business in the city.

“Whether it’s a new business or a business that’s been around for decades, we want them to feel like they have the ability to make change and advocate for what they want,” Murphy-Romboletti said. “We’re really being intentional about creating these spaces for them.”

Uribe said that getting involved in the community has been not just part of the business plan, but something important for the family.

Indeed, they are part of the many festivals that place in the city, and Uribe is the founder of the Paper City Food Festival, which staged its second edition last fall on the section of High Street between Appleton and Dwight streets, attracting more than 20 of the city’s restaurants.

“It’s a way for people to come out and see all that this city has to offer,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he engaged the chamber and started the festival to uplift local businesses and celebrate the community’s heritage and diversity.

 

Bottom Line

There was much to celebrate at last October’s food festival, and, similarly, there is much to celebrate with this city’s business community as it turns 150.

There is diversity. There is change. There is vibrancy. And, overall, there is a wider pipeline of new businesses, entrepreneurs like the Uribe family and Jeff Cattell and Joseph Charles.

Together, they are not just filling storefronts on High Street. They are energizing a city and writing an intriguing new chapter in its long and distinguished business history.

 

Features

A Portrait of Resilience

Mayor Joshua Garcia

Mayor Joshua Garcia says Holyokers need to take the long view when it comes to their city and its future.

As he talked about his city and its outlook moving forward, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia first turned the clock back nearly 150 years and did what amounts to a ‘what if?’ exercise.

He was referring to Holyoke’s ubiquitous canals, which were, when they were conceived, no small bit of engineering — and financial — daring.

“It was a risk,” said Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who took office in late 2021. “When folks built the canal system … I think about what that conversation might have been like, the divide that might have been going on in this community. You had some who probably said, ‘yes, we need to be proactive and build this system,’ and others who likely said, ‘this is too much money; our taxes are going to go up if we do that, and besides, I’ll be gone in 30 years.’”

Fortunately, those in that first category prevailed, he went on, adding that the canals helped fuel decades of prosperity, jobs, and an enviable quality of life, and they put the city on the map. And as he looks ahead, Garcia believes Holyokers must have that same willingness to take reasonable risks — to be daring, if that’s the right word — and make the necessary investments to continue, and bring to a higher level, an ongoing renaissance in a city that was among the nation’s wealthiest and a model of innovation and manufacturing excellence.

“I’m trying to get people to not think short-term — the investments we make today are not just for next month or next year, but 20 to 30 years out,” he said. “We want to build a middle school, for example, something that would benefit this city for generations to come.”

Long-term thinking is one of necessary ingredients for continued progress in this city, said Garcia and many others we spoke with for this special section commemorating Holyoke’s 150th anniversary. Overall, they said many of the other needed ingredients are already in place, everything from a focus on entrepreneurship to inexpensive and reliable green energy; from a solid, diverse workforce to spaces in which new businesses can get started and eventually grow.

Jeff Hayden, currently vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College, previously served in several economic-development posts in the city, including as director of Planning and Economic Development. Nearly a half-century ago, he worked part-time at a Dairy Mart on Dwight Street managed by his father.

He has seen a lot of change over that half-century, and, more recently, a good deal of progress as Holyoke has diversified a business community once dominated by manufacturing, especially paper and textile making.

In the ’90s, manufacturing was still a pillar of the local economy, along with healthcare — there are several facilities providing everything from acute care to behavioral-health services to care to veterans, he noted, adding that, in recent years, diversification has included more retail (the city already boasts the Holyoke Mall), cannabis businesses, and strong growth in the arts and entertainment sectors.

And this diversification has strengthened the economy and made it more resilient, he said, adding that current efforts have been focused on creating opportunities across the board — meaning both jobs and opening the door to entrepreneurship.

Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade

Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, this year celebrating its 70th edition, is a great tradition for the city and the many organizations, schools, and clubs that march.

“When I look at where Holyoke is today and where it’s going, it’s clear that its leaders are focused on providing economic opportunity for all, whether they be entrepreneurs who perhaps identify as Latinx or established businesses that have been here for a long time,” he said. “The hope is to help everyone grow, and grow together.”

Aaron Vega, the former state representative who is now serving as director of Planning and Economic Development, agreed.

“Like a lot of cities, we’re at a crossroads,” he said, noting that, while manufacturing has declined in recent years and decades, other sectors have emerged, such as cannabis, IT, and clean energy. One of the keys moving forward, said Vega and many others we spoke with, is that focus on entrepreneurship and helping new small businesses take root, in some cases literally.

“It’s very hard these days to start a small business, but we have a lot of supports for that, like EforAll and the chambers, and people now realize, especially here in Western Mass., that it’s the downtown businesses that create the character in a community,” he said. “So we’re really trying to focus on that; we’re really trying to empower people who live here already to open up their own business.”

 

Something to Celebrate

Like many others we spoke with for this special section, Garcia said the 150th anniversary is a time of reflection, an opportunity to look back at the city’s proud history and ahead to what the next chapters might be.

It’s also an opportunity to celebrate all that Holyoke is — a proud city with a rich history, rich traditions, a diverse population, a legacy of innovation, and other enviable qualities, he said, noting that perhaps the greatest of these is resilience.

Indeed, the city has always displayed the ability to withstand adversity and move on — whether it was the many challenges of becoming the nation’s first planned industrial city or reinventing itself and diversifying its economy when much of the manufacturing moved south or overseas, or, most recently, persevering through the COVID pandemic and its many side effects.

“It’s a celebration of resiliency,” he said, adding that the city will mark the occasion in a number of ways, including a gala, an ‘Eat, Drink, and Be Holyoke’ event, a time capsule that will be placed in City Hall and opened at the 200th anniversary, ‘150th’ merchandise (hats, key chains, etc.), commemorative beers made by local brewers, and much more. “It’s a celebration of everything Holyoke.”

Vega agreed, and noted that one of the driving forces behind the city’s ongoing resurgence is a focus on the arts and culture. He cited businesses such as Gateway City Arts, a live-performance venue, and organizations such as Beyond Walls, which partnered with Nueva Esperanza Inc., a community-development and social-services agency, to honor Holyoke’s designation as a Puerto Rican Cultural District, as well as the city’s rich history and diversity, with the installation of five large-scale outdoor murals.

“When you celebrate culture, people feel more connected to their community, more connected to their neighbors,” he explained. “And when you have the ability to celebrate art, it’s about bringing people into your community, with initiatives like Beyond Walls, the events at Wistariahurst, Gateway City Arts — it’s a celebration of music and arts that invites everyone to come join.”

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says Holyoke has many outstanding traits, especially its long history of resilience.
Staff Photo

Beyond the arts, Holyoke is seeing a surge in new businesses on High Street; a strong wave of cannabis businesses of all kinds, including large cultivation facilities; and an influx of data centers, including the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center. And in many cases, the city’s ability to provide lower-cost, green energy is a big reason why many of those businesses found Holyoke.

“Anyone who is looking for cheap electricity and green energy will knock on our door — we’re the first call they’ll make,” said Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E), which can trace its roots to 1902. “It’s an interesting time, to be sure, and we’re getting a lot of inquiries; people like the story of the low-carbon, cheap electricity.”

Interest is across the board, he said, adding that it comes from data centers and cannabis cultivators (both huge consumers of electricity), but also from business owners who want to minimize their carbon footprint, he said, adding that HG&E is working with city officials to help make the most of this asset and many others the city can boast.

Another asset is Holyoke Community College, said Hayden, adding that, historically, significant numbers of city residents have been unable to take full advantage of the employment opportunities in the city because they were qualified for those jobs.

The college has long worked to change that equation through programs that will ready individuals for jobs, be they as nurses, medical assistants, chefs, or, most recently, workers in the cannabis industry. HCC also has a strong track record of students transferring students to four-year institutions.

“I like to say that we help people get a job, get a better job, or help them do their job better,” he said.

 

Traditions Old and New

Getting back to those planned celebrations … the 150th will be just one of a growing number of events in Holyoke this year, said the mayor, noting everything from the famous St. Patrick’s Day Parade later this month to the Fiestas Patronales, which debuted last August — a four-day celebration of the city and region’s Puerto Rican culture and heritage and billed as the largest Latino event in Western Mass.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says Holyoke has diversified its business community, strengthening it in the process.

These celebrations, old and new, capture the city’s past, present, and future, he said, adding that they reflect the city, its history, and especially its people.

That’s especially true of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, which this year will mark its 70th edition, said Karen Casey, president of this year’s event. The 69th parade was three years in the making because of COVID, she said, a tiring, very frustrating experience on many levels.

What the pandemic years did was make those in Holyoke and beyond — this is, after all, a regional event — appreciate the tradition even more, if that’s possible.

“After having gone through what we all went through a few years ago, you saw just how much this meant to everyone,” she explained, referring to everyone from parade committee members to those who watch each year along the parade route. “Everyone just has a greater appreciation for how important this is.

“This is the third-oldest parade in the country, and we work very hard to maintain high standards,” she went on. “Anyone from around Holyoke is very proud of it; they brag about it … it’s a great tradition.”

While the buildup to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade continues, so too does planning for the 150th anniversary, said the mayor, adding that one of the intriguing tasks — and big challenges — ahead is deciding what should go in the time capsule.

Organizers are already thinking about items like one of the Super Bowl programs created by Hazen Paper, a Holyoke High School yearbook, T-shirts, a history of the city, and much more. It may take the shape of a volleyball with a large box inside.

The task of deciding what goes in the limited space in the time capsule is made more complicated by the many aspects of the city’s history and the many objects — recent and more than a century old — needed to tell the story. In many ways, it’s a good problem to have.

But getting back to that matter of resiliency, Vega said that trait is at the heart of the 150th celebration. And it is one shared by the community and the people who have lived here over the past few centuries.

“People talk about Boston Strong in the wake of the marathon bombing, but there’s also Holyoke Strong; it’s about resiliency, and it’s about history,” he said. “People have always come to Holyoke who have been migrants and have had nothing — and they built a life here. That’s what we need to keep remembering. This has always been a place where people come, get that grit, and find a path.

“This is what we’re celebrating as the city turns 150,” he went on, adding, again, that there is so much to celebrate.

Features

Holyoke’s 150th

By Penni Martorell

Happy anniversary, Holyoke! 2023 is the sesquicentennial, or more commonly called the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the city. It is our good fortune that we, the citizens of Holyoke, will, at long last, will hold an official dedication ceremony for Holyoke’s City Hall, a structure that is not only of notable architecture, but also a fundamental component of Holyoke’s past, present, and future and the foundation of our community.

In a July 1876 article, the Holyoke Transcript reported:

“There ought to be public spirit enough in this city to appropriately dedicate this noble building. There seems to be a small faction opposed to it, but they should not be allowed to present a fitting dedication by those whose money has been spent in the construction of the finest hall in New England.”

That’s right, Holyoke City Hall was never dedicated upon its completion. Apparently, that small faction held out, and other circumstances derailed the building’s official dedication. So, it is only appropriate that we take time now to dedicate this magnificent building as it has stood in service to Holyoke for a century and a half. The official dedication will take place on Thursday, April 6.

Most of the story about City Hall is documented in Holyoke Annual Reports and a lengthy, detailed, unsigned article in the Saturday morning edition of the July 1, 1876 Holyoke Transcript. And as history so often reveals itself in layers, there are likely many more stories about the building. So here is some background information and details about the construction.

The total financial outlay to build this magnificent building, when all was said and done, was $372,000 in 1876. (Additional research done by the Historical Commission indicates that final cost was closer to $500,000 at the time.) In any case, in today’s money, that would be more than $10 million.

The town of Holyoke was established by an act of Massachusetts Congress Chapter 71 and signed into law On March 14, 1850 by Gov. George Nixon Briggs. The town’s first board meetings were held in rented meeting halls like Chapin Hall, Parsons Hall, and the Exchange Hall. A separate selectmen’s office was rented starting in 1861. The largest financial challenges for the town at that time were fees to West Springfield in relation to the contract of separation.

Constructing a building of this size and character was not an easy task, nor was it inexpensive. Delays and contractual issues increased the amount of time and money it took to complete this monumental undertaking. Unfortunately, division arose early on deciding where the building should be located. More delays arose during the building of City Hall and were memorialized in Holyoke’s Building Committee reports.

Fortunately, the city’s incorporation in 1873 brought about the reorganization of elected officials and, most importantly, new Building Committee members who acted quickly and effectively to get the construction work back on track … but it wasn’t a smooth process.

In October 1874, the new Building Committee contracted H.F. Kilburn of New York to serve as architect under the supervision of Watson Ely of Holyoke. In order to facilitate the completion of the building in a timely manner, Ely ordered that everyone that had moved into the unfinished building vacate the building and then closed City Hall during the winter of 1874.

Charles Attwood was the original architect who created the Gothic Revival and Romanesque Revival structural plan in 1871. However, many others contributed structural and decorative details, including local builder Casper Ranger, John Delaney, Ecclesiastical Stained Glass Works, Watson Ely, Henry Kilburn, Kronenberger and Sons, Filippo Santoro, Serpentino Stained Glass, and Samuel West.

Beyond the granite exterior walls, stone steps and pavers, and slate roof, other building materials include random ashlar, galvanized iron, glass, lead, marble, wood, brick, sheet metal, and copper.

One of the most important historical and stately features of Holyoke City Hall is the looming clock and bell tower. The imperial tower stands 225 feet high and houses a bell that weighs nearly 5,000 pounds. The clock’s face is composed of two-inch-thick Belgium milk glass. Sadly, the clock was inoperable and the bell was silent for decades. Thanks to Friends of City Hall, David Cotton, and a team of volunteers, the clock was restored after completing hundreds of hours of repairs, and on July 4, 2018, the clock was lit up and began keeping time again after almost 30 years.

But back to City Hall itself. As of July 1876, it had not been dedicated, and research has not found any indication it was ever dedicated. It’s time to remedy that.

 

Penni Martorell is Holyoke’s city historian and curator at Wistariahurst.

Features

Going with the Flow

By Joseph Bednar

bednar@ BusinessWest.com

Old Holyoke Dam

The city of Holyoke’s website details a series of telegrams sent by one James Mills on Nov. 6, 1848 to a group of industrialists in Boston who had invested in the first dam at South Hadley Falls and were eager to hear of its performance.

“The gates were closed and the water filling behind the dam,” Mills reported at 10 a.m. It would be his only happy missive.

Noon: “Dam leaking badly.”

1 p.m.: “Leaks cannot be stopped.”

2 p.m.: “Bulkheads are giving way.”

3:20 p.m.: “Dam gone to hell by way of Willimansett.”

So, it wasn’t the most auspicious way to begin Holyoke’s new direction as a planned industrial city that harnessed the power of the Connecticut River.

But the builders learned from their mistakes — and built a replacement dam. Like the first, it was also made of wood and completed the following summer. This dam still stands, 150 feet underwater, behind the current, modern stone dam that was put into service in 1900.

This bit of history is just one example of Holyoke not only overcoming challenges, but evolving with them along a winding, intriguing, still-evolving story.

The story actually begins much earlier, with the Indigenous tribes who settled there on the rich, alluvial plain, including the Nonotucks, from whom early European settlers eventually purchased the land that would be incorporated into the future boundaries of Holyoke.

Captain Elizur Holyoke is believed to be the first European to explore the future city. In 1633, he led an expedition up the Connecticut River to explore the potential for settlement. Two years later, based upon his report, European agriculture settlement began in the region. Initially concentrated in Springfield, settlers soon began to migrate to the surrounding areas that would later become West Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke. Holyoke was then known as Ireland Parish, a name that would remain in common use until 1850.

When Boston investors saw in the parish industrial potential similar to Lawrence and Lowell — and the energy potential of the river — they set out to create an industrial city on a large scale.

In 1847, taking advantage of the broad plain and the 57-foot drop in the Connecticut River at South Hadley Falls, work began on the planned industrial city. Canals, mills, boarding houses, offices, and a dam were all built by pick and shovel. And on March 4, 1850, Holyoke — with its working dam — was finally separated from West Springfield and designated its own town.

“There was some resistance from the farmers who initially didn’t want to sell their land,” said Penni Martorell, Holyoke’s city historian and curator of Wistariahurst. “But eventually [the investors] won out. They just bought the land and then laid out the plan for the city. The flats area was definitely the working man’s area. The middle area around the canals was where the factories were built, and then the highlands were set aside for retail businesses and homes of the wealthier families.”

 

Strength in Paper

Before the planned-city idea got rolling, Holyoke was mainly an agricultural community with a sprinkling of industry, including a lumber mill on the river.

“The investors had had success in Lawrence, in getting mills set up along the river up there. And then they were like, ‘well, where else can we go?’” Martorell told BusinessWest. “Lawrence and Lowell often lay claim to being the first planned industrial cities. We say they worked it out there, and then they perfected it here in Holyoke. They really took advantage of the 60-foot drop in the river, how to harness that energy and then send it through the canals.”

Holyoke’s development was rapid, with its population surging from about 3,200 in 1850 to 45,000 by the turn of the century and more than 60,000 at its peak in the early 1920s. Textiles were the first major product of the city, quickly followed by paper, which became the dominant force in the city. At one time, more than 25 paper mills were in operation.

By 1885, 12 years after its official designation as a city, Holyoke was the largest single producer of paper of any city in the U.S., producing around 190 tons per day, more than double the next-largest producer, Philadelphia, which produced 69 tons per day despite having a population nearly 40 times its size. By 1900, Holyoke would produce about 320 tons per day, predominantly writing paper, led by American Pad & Paper Co., American Writing Paper Co., and others.

Holyoke also built schools, churches, parks, and many public buildings, including the historic City Hall (see story on page 28). By the turn of the century, Holyoke exerted considerable influence on American life. The Holyoke Opera House was the test location for Broadway plays before moving on to New York. The Easter parade here drew as many spectators as on Fifth Avenue.

A number of industrial inventions arose out of the city in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first and most prominent hydraulic testing lab in the U.S., Holyoke Testing Flume, performed 3,176 tests to establish turbine efficiency from 1870 to 1932. Other pioneering developments included the first use of Hans Goldschmidt’s exothermic welding process in the Americas in 1904, by George Pellissier and the Holyoke Street Railway. In electronics, the world’s first commercial toll line, between the city’s Hotel Jess and a location in Springfield, entered service in 1878. Holyoke was also home to Thaddeus Cahill’s New England Electric Music Co., which, in 1906, demonstrated the telharmonium, the world’s first electromechanical instrument, a predecessor of the synthesizer.

Meanwhile, the availability of water power enabled Holyoke to support its own electric utility company and maintain it independently of America’s major regional utilities. The city was thus a rare unaffected area in the Northeast blackout of 1965.

But the city’s second century has been a complicated story, Martorell said.

“It was boom and bust. So every time there was a bust, the wealthier people were able to prepare for that. But the lower-income people were not able to prepare. They would move on to wherever there was work. So it was a bit of transience at certain points. The paper industry kind of morphed into other industrial spaces.”

 

Northern Migration

Beginning at the end of World War II, the city’s demographics began to change, as an influx of Puerto Ricans and other Latino groups began to migrate to the Northeast U.S., driven largely by the Farm Labor Program initiated by the U.S. Department of Labor, which recruited Puerto Rican laborers to work on agricultural land; in the case of Holyoke, many worked on tobacco farms and arrived in the city in search of better job opportunities at the mills, as previous generations had.

“In Springfield and Holyoke, housing was inexpensive, you had access to 91 and 95, and a lot of them had an agricultural background and were looking for farm work,” Martorell said of the Puerto Rican influx. “So between Hatfield and the tobacco fields along the Connecticut River, they were able to find work pretty quickly once they got here.”

By 1970, the number of Puerto Rican residents numbered around 5,000; however, by that time, many faced a city economy that was struggling. Holyoke’s mills had closed due to the changing economic landscape of early globalization and deindustrialization; from 1955 to 1970, half of all industrial jobs vanished. Despite economic and social difficulties, however, the population grew significantly, and today Latinos form the city’s largest minority group, with the largest Puerto Rican population per capita of any American city outside Puerto Rico proper, at 44.7%.

As for those old industrial buildings, their use is evolving.

“The Skinners, who made silk, sold their company to Indian Head Mills, which was a conglomerate going around buying up textile mills in the late 1950s or early 1960s. They bought the company and then shut it down a few years later,” Martorell said. “And many of the other paper companies had already gone out. Parsons Paper was the first paper company in Holyoke, and they closed their doors in 2005. So that was a pretty good run.”

A few specialty paper and printing companies remain, but today, many of the old mills along the canals are being repurposed, from cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, and retail operations to the entertainment venue known as Gateway City Arts.

Martorell said change has been a constant in Holyoke, but so has a feeling of promise.

“People in Holyoke love Holyoke. People are committed to being here, and they want to see good things happen for the city,” she told BusinessWest. “And I think the last two mayors have really tried to make an effort to rebrand the city in a more positive way and say that the challenges that we’ve had in the past have made us stronger and more diverse. So we embrace that and celebrate that.”

 

Some information for this article was adapted from the city of Holyoke’s written history and from Wikipedia.

Features

A Changing Landscape?

 

By John Gannon, Esq.

 

John Gannon

John Gannon

Last month, President Biden gave his State of the Union address, during which he hyped the legislative accomplishments made during his time in the Oval Office. One of the topics that made the list: non-compete agreements.

Specifically, the president discussed the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) proposed rule to ban all non-compete agreements in the workplace. The rule could affect the employment terms of more than 30 million American workers.

 

Background

As many readers are likely aware, Massachusetts state law already restricts the use of non-compete agreements in the workplace. The Massachusetts Noncompetition Agreement Act (MNAA), which was passed back in 2018, prohibits non-compete agreements with non-exempt employees. In addition, non-compete agreements are enforceable only if an employee is terminated for cause. Under the MNAA, non-competes generally must be limited to 12 months, and must be supported by garden leave (i.e., paying the employee some amount of money during the non-compete period).

The MNAA does not prohibit agreements restricting employees from soliciting business with customers or clients, nor does it impact non-disclosure agreements meant to protect dissemination of trade secrets. And non-compete agreements entered into after the effective date of the MNAA — Oct. 1, 2018 — are not affected.

On Jan. 5 of this year, the FTC proposed its own rule that would ban all non-compete agreements, with limited exceptions. The proposed rule also bans ‘de facto’ non-competes, which could include anti-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements, depending on how they are written.

According to the FTC, “when employers use non-compete clauses to restrict workers from moving freely, they have the power to suppress wages and avoid having to compete to attract workers. Based on existing evidence, non-compete clauses also reduce the wages of workers who aren’t subject to non-competes by preventing jobs from opening in their industry.” The FTC estimates that “the proposed rule could increase workers’ earnings across industries and job levels by $250 billion to $296 billion per year.”

 

The Proposed Rule

The FTC’s proposed rule would ban all non-compete agreements between employers and employees, as well as independent contractors. The rule defines a non-compete as “a contractual term between an employer and a worker that prevents the worker from seeking or accepting employment.”

This is not limited to traditional non-compete provisions that limit an employee from seeking work with a competitor. The rule would encompass post-employment restrictions that ostensibly prohibit the employee from seeking future employment. Certainly, an argument could be made that overly broad non-solicitation or non-disclosure agreements have the effect of prohibiting a worker from going to work elsewhere.

Unlike the MNAA, the FTC’s proposed rule would rescind all employment non-compete agreements currently in place. It would also require employers to inform employees currently subject to a non-compete agreement that the agreement is no longer valid.

 

Strong Resistance

Not surprisingly, the FTC’s proposed rule does not sit well with businesses.

Calling the rule “blantantly unlawful,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted that, “since the agency’s creation over 100 years ago, Congress has never delegated the FTC anything close to the authority it would need to promulgate such a competition rule.

“Attempting to ban non-compete clauses in all employment circumstances,” the chamber went on, “overturns well-established state laws which have long governed their use and ignores the fact that, when appropriately used, non-compete agreements are an important tool in fostering innovation and preserving competition.”

The FTC has invited public notice and comments on the proposed rule through March 20. Businesses and others can submit comments at www.regulations.gov/document/FTC-2023-0007-0001. After the close of this comment period, the FTC will publish a final rule, incorporating the input it receives.

This will just be the beginning. After the rule is issued, employers and trade associations are certain to challenge the rule in court. Ultimately, the legality of this rule may be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is precisely what happened with the recent rule proposed by OSHA mandating a COVID ‘vaccine-or-test’ policy for larger employers. This rule was struck down by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

 

Next Steps for Employers

Many businesses in Massachusetts went through a non-compete process and procedure review back in 2018, due to the MNAA. However, employers need to understand that the proposed FTC rule goes beyond traditional covenants banning employees from working for competitors post-employment. It would be wise for employers to review non-solicitation and non-disclosure agreements currently in place to be sure they will be enforceable should the FTC’s proposed rule become the law of the land.

Businesses should also enhance any agreements meant to protect trade secrets and/or client relationships with suitable policies and procedures. This involves making sure confidential information stays confidential by limiting data access to ‘need-to-know’ groups. It also involves implementing polices geared toward ensuring that sensitive company information stays on site and cannot be accessed on an employee’s personal device.

Finally, employers should carefully follow the progress of the FTC’s proposed rule and work with legal counsel in drafting or enforcing non-compete and non-solicitation agreements going forward.

 

John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Features

Petition Denied

By Michael McAndrew, Esq. and Michael Roundy, Esq.

 

Michael McAndrew

Michael McAndrew

Michael Roundy

Michael Roundy

The courts have widely established that cannabis businesses, even if compliant with state cannabis laws, are not protected by federal bankruptcy laws because they operate in a federally illegal industry. But can an employee of a cannabis business who has no ownership interest in that business file for bankruptcy individually under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code?

This question was answered with a resounding ‘no’ by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts in its recent decision in In re Blumsack, when the court dismissed such an employee’s bankruptcy petition in its entirety.

The would-be debtor, Scott Blumsack, had worked in the Massachusetts cannabis industry since 2021. At the time of the decision, he was the general manager of a cannabis business that manufactured, retailed, and wholesaled cannabis and cannabis products legally under Massachusetts law. In this role, Blumsack supervised employees, set up the retail operation, managed all aspects of the retail operation, and regularly acted as a ‘budtender,’ a role in which he regularly distributed cannabis to his employer’s customers. He was appropriately licensed under Massachusetts law to dispense cannabis, but had no ownership interest in his employer’s business.

In 2021, Blumsack filed a voluntary petition for reorganization under Chapter 13 of the Bankruptcy Code and submitted a plan of reorganization in which he proposed making payments to creditors out of the salary that he earned working in his employer’s cannabis operation. In the alternative, he proposed a plan for reorganization that would be funded out of his wife’s retirement funds, which arose from her wages unconnected to the cannabis industry.

In response to Blumsack’s proposed plans, the bankruptcy trustee moved to dismiss his bankruptcy petition, arguing that the proposed plans of reorganization could not be confirmed because the debtor’s activities in connection with his employment violate federal law. By working for a cannabis retailer, Blumsack had violated, and continued to violate, federal law by distributing cannabis and conspiring with his employer to violate federal law. The trustee argued that confirmation of the debtor’s plan would necessarily require the trustee to administer proceeds derived from such illegal activity.

Blumsack countered that, if the court adopted the trustee’s reasoning, any employee of a marijuana-related business (such as web designers and warehouse workers serving companies in the industry) could also be deprived of bankruptcy protections because of the cannabis industry’s wide-spectrum contributions to the state’s economy.

The court disagreed. Describing the case as one of “apparent first impression” because no on-point decisions had been found, the court noted that, for approval of a Chapter 13 plan of reorganization, the plan is required by statute to be submitted “in good faith and not by any means forbidden by law.” If a plan is not submitted in good faith, it may be dismissed “for cause.” Although neither ‘good faith’ nor ‘cause’ are defined in the bankruptcy code, both terms have been interpreted in case law throughout the country.

The Bankruptcy Court in this case held that, because Blumsack’s proposed plan of reorganization was funded by wages that were derived from participation in a cannabis retail operation and he continued to engage in the cannabis industry — federally illegal activity — while his bankruptcy case was pending, the plan was not proposed in good faith and was proposed by a means forbidden by law. Specifically, the court found that Blumsack’s job duties “require that he act in violation of federal criminal statutes.” Because of this, his plan would require the Chapter 13 trustee to “knowingly administer wages derived from an active participant in a criminal enterprise.” As such, the court could not find, under an objective standard, that the petition had been filed in good faith.

As a result, the Bankruptcy Court dismissed Blumsack’s petition for cause, noting that a lack of good faith is well-established grounds for dismissal for cause. The court also dismissed Blumsack’s alternative proposed plan for reorganization, despite the fact that it was to be funded by money not derived from the cannabis industry, because even under such a plan, Blumsack “objectively lacks good faith” by seeking the benefits and protections of federal bankruptcy law while simultaneously continuing to earn income from conduct that violates federal criminal law. In short, his plan, however funded, was tainted by his continued federally illegal activity.

While Blumsack’s counsel warned of a slippery slope, the court was unpersuaded and stated that it “must decide only the case it has before it.” The Bankruptcy Court made clear that its decision was cabined to the particular facts of this case, and that questions of good faith require a case-by-case analysis. Nonetheless, it is likely that other courts may take their cues from this decision to prevent others employed by cannabis companies or by companies serving the cannabis industry from filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

How far will the reasoning of the court extend? To employees who do not directly participate in distributing cannabis products? To service providers who generate their own income by serving cannabis clients and thereby assisting them with their federally illegal activities? The Bankruptcy Court’s decision provides no guidance on these issues.

Absent congressional decriminalization of cannabis, issues at the intersection of state and federal laws affecting the cannabis industry will continue to be addressed on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis by federal regulatory agencies, prosecutors, and courts. For now, we can add individual bankruptcy protections to the growing list of complex issues affecting those working in, or for, the cannabis industry.

 

Michael McAndrew is an associate, and Michael Roundy a partner, at the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson.

Features Special Coverage

A Journey Continues

Suzanne Parker, left, and Yadillete Rivera-Colón

Suzanne Parker, left, and Yadillete Rivera-Colón in the new home of Girls Inc. of the Valley on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

An adventure.

A struggle.

An experience.

A journey.

Suzanne Parker used all those terms and others that would be considered synonyms, usually with more than a hint of understatement in her voice, to describe the process of taking Girls Inc. of the Valley to the doorstep of opening its new headquarters facility in Holyoke.

The journey, adventure, or whatever she wants to call it is far from over. In fact, construction is still in what would be considered phase 1. But most of the really hard work — and there has been a mountain of it — is now behind Parker, executive director of this nonprofit, and countless others who have been involved.

Thus, they can focus even more of their energies on making this facility all that they hoped it could be when people first started thinking about a new home more than seven years ago.

Indeed, Parker noted that the ceremonial ‘thermometer’ erected on a sign just outside the property on Hampden Street needs to be adjusted to reflect that 92% of the stated $5 million fundraising goal has now been met. Meanwhile, work continues inside on the various spaces that will define this facility, from a community room to a maker space to a teen lounge.

The work to create a new space for Girls Inc. began in earnest out of necessity — specifically, the knowledge that a 40-year lease on property the nonprofit was leasing in downtown Holyoke was expiring and would not be renewed — and brought Parker and other leaders of Girls Inc. to countless properties in or near downtown Holyoke in search of the perfect fit, knowing that such a thing probably didn’t exist.

But they found something close in the former headquarters of the O’Connell Companies on Hampden Street, a building, or at least portions of it, that date back to the late 19th century.

“Throughout this journey, we have gained a great deal of visibility, and people have been able to learn about who we are, what we do, and why Girls Inc. is so important to this region. It’s been a great opportunity to tell our story and get people involved.”

Retrofitting the multi-level structure, complete with many unique spaces, has become a labor of love for those involved with Girls Inc. — and so much more.

Indeed, for many of the girls who are members, it has been a unique, hands-on learning experience, with real-life lessons in everything from marketing to fundraising to architecture. In fact, several girls worked directly with lead architect Kuhn Riddle to design one of the spaces in the new home.

The ‘thermometer’ measuring donations to the Girls Inc. campaign needs to be updated to reflect that more than 90% of the needed $5 million has been raised.

The ‘thermometer’ measuring donations to the Girls Inc. campaign needs to be updated to reflect that more than 90% of the needed $5 million has been raised.

Meanwhile, this quest for, and the building of, a new home has been a tremendous opportunity for Girls Inc. to gain exposure, make new connections, and strengthen existing ones, said Parker, adding that this work is ongoing as the nonprofit works to raise that remaining 8% of the funds needed.

“Throughout this journey, we have gained a great deal of visibility, and people have been able to learn about who we are, what we do, and why Girls Inc. is so important to this region,” she said. “It’s been a great opportunity to tell our story and get people involved.”

And, in many ways, the project has been a means to celebrate and promote women in all kinds of businesses who have been involved in this endeavor. That list includes those working in fundraising, finance, law, architecture, and construction, as we’ll see.

This has also been a study in perseverance, said Yadilette Rivera-Colón, an assistant professor of Biology at Bay Path University, BusinessWest Forty Under 40 winner, and current Girls Inc. board chair, noting that the many inherent challenges in a project like this were magnified greatly by the pandemic, which made every aspect of the work more difficult.

Summing it all up, Parker said that, while there is much to do, a celebration of all that has been accomplished — and learned — is in order. And Girls Inc. will do that in March as it marks the passing of the 90% milestone in fundraising, as well as the completion of the first phase of construction. There will be tours and an opportunity to make more connections and more friends.

It will be an occasion to celebrate what’s been done and what this new home will be — and there is much in both categories.

 

Home Work

As she talked about the search for a new home and the many properties she and others toured during that lengthy process, Parker paused, glanced skyward, and let out a heavy sigh, body language that pretty much told the story.

“There was a four-year period where I was visiting nearly every building in the city of Holyoke,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while many were attractive in some respects, none could really check all the boxes she wanted to check.

One was seemingly perfect in most ways, but had little if any parking, she said. Other property makeovers into a permanent home for the agency were simply out of the agency’s price range. And a great number simply needed way too much work to fit the bill.

Eventually, some properties graduated beyond the tour stage and into the exploration, or feasibility, stage, and that further consideration meant investments in time, energy, and sometimes money, she explained. And as the vetting process continued, there were often hard decisions about if and when to let go and move on to something else.

“To have to decide not to go ahead with it is a big decision,” she explained. “You’ve invested time and energy and resources into that, but you have to make a decision … that this is not the one. But you don’t know if the one is out there. There were lots of hard decisions to make.”

The property on Hampden Street didn’t exactly check all the boxes, either. Indeed, its front door is literally a five-foot sidewalk away from a very busy street, said Parker, adding that there were infrastructure issues as well.

But those few shortcomings were all but lost in everything else the building provided — from ample parking at a lot just a few hundred feet away to a backyard; from easy access to a nearby public park to 16,000 square feet of intriguing space Parker described as a “blank canvas” that would enable Girls Inc. to accomplish its primary goal of bringing all of its staff and programing under one large roof.

The property became available somewhat unexpectedly in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, and in many respects because of it — its owners had decided it would not be viable as office space moving forward with the advent of remote work. After some due diligence, those at Girls Inc. decided their search was over.

Some of the new and innovative spaces at the new home of Girls Inc

Some of the new and innovative spaces at the new home of Girls Inc. of the Valley include a teen lounge (seen here), a maker space, and a community room.

But the laundry list of challenges certainly wasn’t, especially with the way the pandemic slowed many aspects of this broad endeavor or prompted a full pause.

First, let’s back up a bit.

Our story starts back in 2016, with the knowledge that a new home was needed, said Parker, adding that an initial fundraising campaign, with a goal of $3 million, was launched in 2018 — long before a suitable space had been found. And the campaign got off to a great start, with gifts from the Kendeda Fund and the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation.

“We were doing well,” said Parker. “And then, the pandemic hit, and we had to take a pause from the campaign. But the campaign steering committee continued to meet regularly throughout that time; we figured out how to use Zoom, we met virtually, and they kept meeting month after month.

“I think some people might have pulled the plug on a campaign,” she went on. “But we kept working.”

And this work enabled Girls Inc. to push ahead after all its due diligence on the Hampden Street property and eventually commence work in the spring of 2022, bringing a long-held dream that much closer to reality.

Cynthia Medina Carson, an executive recruiter, talent consultant, and leadership coach now living in New York, is one the campaign co-chairs and a Girls Inc. alumna who grew up not far from its original home. She remembers walking into what was then a new space for Girls Inc. back in the early ’80s.

“The approach has been, ‘we’re not going to make this for you without you.’ Every part of the process involves the stakeholders; they have to be part of it, so that, in the end, this will be a building we will all be proud of.”

She also remembers thinking that setting aside space for girls was somewhat radical at the time — but very important. It gave girls a place to go, things to do, and opportunities to learn. She said that space — and the programs staged in it — was so important to her development that she signed on to get involved in finding and creating a new home.

“I know there’s a lot of afterschool programs and online stuff, but having the actual physical space where people can congregate and be who they need to be around people who advocate for them and champion them is a very unique thing to have for women,” she said. “So it was very important for me to get involved in this project.”

And like the others we spoke with, she said this has been a challenging journey, but an invaluable learning experience as well.

“It was hard and crazy, and it wasn’t the journey everyone thought it would be,” she noted. “We ended up where we needed to be, but it was hard; it was intense.”

 

Designs on Growth

As Parker and Rivera-Colón led BusinessWest on a tour of the facilities, they stopped in a number of the emerging spaces. In each one, they talked about how they would enable Girls Inc. to serve more girls and expand its mission.

The renovations were scheduled to enable significant amounts of program space to be ready this summer, said Parker, adding that, given the property’s prior uses as a home to lawyers, engineers, and other professionals, minimal work will be needed to prepare the space for the agency’s staff and administration.

These emerging spaces include:

• A community room, a large space suitable for both small- and large-group activities. It will be the site of healthy-living programming, including dance, active games, yoga, and meditation;

• Maker space, which will be the cornerstone of the Eureka! program, where eighth-grade girls begin a five-year journey toward possible careers in STEM fields. The space will be educational and fun, with hands-on activities; and

• A teen lounge, a space for teen girls to call their own. A relaxed and empowering environment, it will be loaded with college-readiness resources and will host a diverse range of teen-centered programs.

The renovation work at the agency’s new home — and many stages of the process that came before it — have, as noted earlier, provided learning experiences for girls involved with the agency, said Parker, noting that teens gave tours to donors and potential donors.

The red hard hats

The red hard hats at the home of Girls Inc. reflect a project that has been an adventure and a learning experience on many levels.

Meanwhile, some of the Eureka! program teens learned about architecture and design from the team at Kuhn Riddle, led by president Aelan Tierney (one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2022), and actually made one of the design decisions on one of the spaces — a lobby area outside of the teen center.

Overall, nothing about the new home for Girls Inc. has been finalized without the input of they main stakeholders: the girls themselves, said Rivera-Colon, adding that this includes the location of Parker’s office.

“The approach has been, ‘we’re not going to make this for you without you,’” she explained. “Every part of the process involves the stakeholders; they have to be part of it, so that, in the end, this will be a building we will all be proud of. Everyone has had input, from the youngest girls up to Suzanne, which I think is incredible.”

While offering tours and providing input on the new space, girls have also seen women at work on every facet of this project, which was another goal and another part of the learning experience, said Parker, adding that many area women professionals have been integral to this project.

That list includes Tierney at Kuhn Riddle; attorney Rebecca Thibault with Doherty Wallace Pillsbury & Murphy, a former Girls Inc. board member; construction managers D’Lynn Healey and Ta Karra Greene with Western Builders, the general contractor for the project; Vicky Crouse, president of Commercial Lending at PeoplesBank; and Julie Cowan, vice president of Lending for MassDevelopment.

These professionals serve as role models, said Parker, adding that, from the start, this project was to be women-led and girl-focused.

“It’s been incredible the number of women involved in leadership roles on this project,” Rivera-Colón said. “And it wasn’t by accident.”

Summing up the feelings of most people involved with this project, she added that “we’ve been so long in planning and executing all this that it doesn’t seem real that we’re finally here. But we are.”

 

Bottom Line

Given the words used by Parker and others to describe this long and difficult process, one can see why those involved would certainly not want to do this any time soon.

The good news is they won’t have to; the property on Hampden Street will suit the needs of Girls Inc. for decades to come.

While acknowledging that fact, all those involved also recognize that, as challenging as this journey has been, it has also been rewarding on countless levels. And it encapsulates all that this thriving agency is all about: enabling girls to learn, grow, and reach their full potential — together.

Considering all that, this has certainly been an exercise in building momentum for Girls Inc. — figuratively but also quite literally.

 

Features Special Coverage

Opening the Doors Wider

Community Foundation President and CEO Megan Burke

Community Foundation President and CEO Megan Burke

Megan Burke was taking a walk through downtown Springfield on a Sunday morning not quite a year ago, and found herself on Bridge Street, passing by the offices of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM).

She stopped, looked in, and became immersed in what she was seeing, while also not quite believing her eyes.

“I looked in the conference-room windows, and I saw the papers lining the walls detailing their strategic-planning process and all their priorities for the next year,” she recalled. “And I actually took some photos, sent them to my boss in Hartford, and said, ‘look at how transparent the Community Foundation of Western Mass. is; we need to be more like this.’

“There were no secrets — they just put it right out there,” she went on. “I took pictures, I took notes … I said, ‘hey, they’re moving to the same database system we use, but more importantly, these are things they’re prioritizing for the community.’”

The ‘we,’ in this case, was the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, which Burke was serving as director of Community Impact Grantmaking. The amazing transparency she observed that morning was and is just one of the things Burke admired about the Community Foundation of Western Mass., and which she had come to respect from afar — or not really that far at all, depending on your take; she’s a resident of West Springfield.

And that helps explain why, when the agency’s long-time president and CEO, Katie Allan Zobel, announced in the spring of 2022 (just a few weeks after Burke’s walk in downtown Springfield) that she would be stepping down at the end of the year, Burke became interested in the position, at the same time she was being recruited for it.

After several rounds of interviews, during which she would see and hear more things that impressed her, Burke was tapped to fill Zobel’s very large shoes, thus beginning an intriguing new chapter in a career marked by more than two decades of work in nonprofit management, philanthropy, fundraising, and advocacy, with a particular focus on equitable access to economic opportunities and human rights.

Her career has included work on issues ranging from advancing LGBTQ+ rights in a Latin American country, Nicaragua, to continuing efforts to ban landmines globally, to the challenge of leveling the playing field between those in urban and suburban communities in Northern Connecticut.

“I looked in the conference-room windows, and I saw the papers lining the walls detailing their strategic-planning process and all their priorities for the next year. And I actually took some photos, sent them to my boss in Hartford, and said, ‘look at how transparent the Community Foundation of Western Mass. is; we need to be more like this.’”

Summing it all up, Burke said it has been invigorating and rewarding work, which she is anxious to take to the 69 communities served by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

In a wide-ranging interview with BusinessWest just a few days after she began work in those offices on Bridge Street, Burke said her broad goal is to build on all that’s been accomplished over the past several years to take CFWM well past check writing and into a role as convener and catalyst for positive change.

“I really want to spend at least the next three months getting to know the folks who are involved in the Community Foundation and who’s not involved, and opening our doors even wider,” she explained. “And listening to people — I have a lot to learn. I think I bring a lot to the job, but I have a lot to learn from the community about what they think is important and what they believe we should be doing better.”

She said the Hartford Foundation has been able to mobilize resources and support efforts to more equitable economic and social mobility, and one of her goals is to amass similar forces and create momentum on that same front in Western Mass.

“In both Hartford and Springfield, and in pockets of the regions more generally, success for people is often more closely correlated to the zip code in which they were born than their own talents, creativity, and hard work,” she said. “And I think that’s where the experience I have is relevant to thinking about how we can change that together — not just the Community Foundation, not just our nonprofit partners or our donors, but all residents of the region.”

 

Questions and Answers

Burke recalls that it “almost felt like I was cheating.”

That’s almost.

In the run-up to the first of her interviews with CFWM for the president’s position last September, she noted that Zobel was the most recent guest on BusinessTalk, the weekly podcast hosted by this writer. She listened to the episode, not once but twice, and heard Zobel talk in vague terms about what might come next for her career-wise — and, in far more specific terms, about the many new programs and initiatives she and her staff introduced during her tenure, everything from Valley Gives to Valley Creates.

the windows of the Community Foundation offices on Bridge Street

Megan Burke was amazed by the transparency she witnessed when looking in the windows of the Community Foundation offices on Bridge Street. It’s a tradition she intends to continue.
Staff Photo

“It was such a helpful interview,” she recalled. “I was able to get a sense of what she felt was important and what she thought were some of the great successes here.”

Whether listening to the podcast had any impact on her performance during that interview is a subject for debate (Burke already knew a great deal about the Community Foundation, as we’ll see), but what isn’t — according to those doing the interviewing — is that Burke is a logical successor to Zobel, and this position is a logical next step for someone who has spent a career working to advance diversity, equity, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives.

It’s a career that has taken her from New York to Nicaragua to Hartford, and to remote-working opportunities long before they became the norm.

Our story starts with Burke — who earned her bachelor’s degree in political science at Wellesley and a master’s degree in international relations at Yale — working for the Ford Foundation in New York, where she served as program officer, U.S. Foreign and Security Policy, Governance & Civil Society.

In 2007, she and her family moved to Nicaragua for what she called “a different pace to her work” than what she found in New York. There, she worked first for the nonprofit Centro de Estudios Internacionales, where her efforts supported the emerging LGBTQ+ movement and the development of a nationwide campaign to advance human rights.

“My role was to support various representatives of the movement to create a platform for them to come together and establish some advocacy priorities and to really be a go-between with the funder to make sure of the direction it was moving in, and to really track the impact of the work,” she explained. “For me … I had not worked on that particular issue before; it was incredibly eye-opening. It was very humbling to be working in a second language and be the least articulate person in the room.”

“During my time there, we announced a new strategic focus on dismantling structural racism and promoting more equitable economic and social mobility. And while that work is by no means easy, it’s incredibly important, and I spent the past few years with a great team trying to figure out how to make that happen.”

Burke worked for the group for roughly three years, eventually transitioning to a new role with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines. She started working as a researcher in Latin America — Nicaragua was a country impacted by landmines from the war in the 1980s — and eventually became executive director of the campaign.

She was still in that position when she returned to Western Mass. nearly a decade ago, eventually to ease herself out of that role — while also downsizing the organization, as more countries addressed the problem of landmines.

“It’s kind of nice to be involved in something where we could see steady progress and say we were working ourselves out of a job; it’s not often that you get to say that,” she noted. “Every year I worked there, the casualty rate declined.”

In some respects, leading a coalition to ban landmines is a world apart from work with a local foundation, she said, but in Burke’s estimation, the work is very similar.

“Sometimes people say, ‘how did you go from this international work focused on advocacy at the U.N. and traveling around the world to working for a local foundation?’” she noted. “My feeling on that is that every issue is a local issue somewhere, and what we were really trying to do at the international level is raise up local issues that were impacting people in mostly post-conflict countries, and get international attention to redistribute resources — not totally unlike what a foundation does to help those with the greatest need.”

 

Vision Statement

In 2017, Burke joined the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving as senior Community Impact officer, a position with a broad job description, one that included everything from work creating career pathways to efforts promote civic engagement through grants and training to increase voter engagement and participation in the 2020 Census.

In September 2020, she became director of Community Impact Grantmaking, leading the foundation’s strategic grantmaking — there was an annual budget of $25 million to $30 million — to advance equitable economic mobility and address systemic racism in Greater Hartford.

“During my time there, we announced a new strategic focus on dismantling structural racism and promoting more equitable economic and social mobility,” she explained. “And while that work is by no means easy, it’s incredibly important, and I spent the past few years with a great team trying to figure out how to make that happen.”

Not long after Zobel announced that she would be stepping down from her position, Burke received a call from a search firm to gauge her interest in the position.

It was quite high, she said, and for all the reasons she mentioned earlier — from the agency’s transparency with its goals and plans for the future, as evidenced by the uncovered windows facing Bridge Street, to its rapid and highly effective response to COVID, marked by a deep commitment to helping the region’s struggling nonprofits, along with many other successful programs in realms ranging from the arts to education.

Summing it all up, Burke said that, while she loved her work with the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, the only thing she might like more is a chance to similar work closer to her home, something this opportunity at the Community Foundation provided her.

Still, while those on the other side of the interview table had questions for her, she had some for them, and the answers — especially with regard to a willingness to broaden efforts in the realm of equity — would ultimately determine whether this would be the right fit for her.

“I wasn’t sure where they were in terms of their own strategic vision to promote equity and opportunity,” she explained. “And I know that when you take on work like that, it’s important that everyone has bought in, feels that it’s important, and sees the value in that work.

“You never have a situation where every stakeholder is 100% all in from the very beginning,” she went on. “But from other areas of my work, I’ve seen what happens when there is great resistance, and it makes it really, really hard. I didn’t know if there was resistance, but I also didn’t know how much buy-in there was. So in many of my early conversations, I really tried to get a sense — ‘is there a serious commitment to moving this forward?’ And I got a resounding ‘yes’ from everyone I spoke to.

“It was clear that the commitment runs deep,” she continued. “And that excited me.”

Elaborating, she noted that, while Greater Hartford and Greater Springfield are different in some respects, they are similar in most, especially when it comes to disparities that exist between the urban centers and the more rural and suburban areas, and the manner in which those inequities impact opportunity.

“When everyone has an opportunity to fulfill their own potential, I think everyone wins,” she went on. “When people are held back due to the circumstances of their birth, I think everyone loses.”

Burke started at the Community Foundation on Jan. 18, the day of a scheduled board meeting. She joked that this would be the first and only time she would be at such a meeting with the primary mission of simply watching and listening.

Although she still has a lot of that to do in general, and with a number of different constituencies, she noted that she has already embarked on what she calls a “listening tour.”

Its underlying goal, as she stated earlier, is to enable her to learn about the region and the issues facing those living and working here and to generate some momentum on the broad issue of economic and social mobility and making it more equitable.

“We don’t plan to change our broader strategic vision — I think it’s a great vision,” she said. “And promoting equity and opportunity is not something that’s going to happen overnight; I think there’s a huge commitment to that, and I was brought on to help figure out how to make sure we can operationalize that as effectively as possible.

“I have to listen,” she said in conclusion, “and make sure I’m building on what’s already happening here that’s great.”

 

Bottom Line

When asked what she likes to do when she’s not working, Burke offered a hearty laugh as she said, “take walks in urban areas.”

She also likes to hike in more rural settings, partake in yoga, be a good ‘dog aunt,’ and keep up with friends scattered across the region and around the world.

What she really likes, though, is to work with others to address what she called “seemingly intractable problems” — meaning everything from inhumane weapons to access to healthcare and education for LGBTQ+ residents of Nicaragua to food insecurity for residents of Greater Hartford.

Throughout her long career, it has been her mission to take doors and open them wider to enable more to pass through. With her latest assignment with CFWM, the setting has changed, but that mission hasn’t.

Features

Determining Whether a Business Qualifies Can Be Complicated

By Scott Foster & Jacob Kosakowski

 

Scott Foster

Scott Foster

Jacob Kosakowski

Jacob Kosakowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Going the Extra Mile

AST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Train of Thought

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Plane Speaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Herd It Through the Grapevine

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

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

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Barstow

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

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

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

 

A Process of Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon Barstow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Butter Alternative

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

Here Are the Stories That Impacted Western Mass. in 2022

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

 

Cannabis Sector Continues to Grow

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

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

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

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

 

Companies Grapple with Workforce Challenges

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

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

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

 

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

Victory Theatre Project Gains Momentum

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

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

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

 

The Marriott Flag Returns to Downtown Springfield

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

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

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

 

Remote Work Is Here to Stay

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

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

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

 

East-west Rail Chugs Forward

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

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

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

 

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

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

Springfield Thunderbirds Reach AHL Finals

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

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

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

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

 

Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Returns

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

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

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

 

The LEDC has a unique model

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

Latino EDC Opens Its Doors

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

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

 

New College Presidents Take the Reins

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

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

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

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

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

 

new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

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

Civic Center Parking Garage Comes Down — Finally

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

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

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

 

transformation of the old Court Square Hotel

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

Court Square Transformation Project Proceeds

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

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

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

 

Navigating Challenges in Auto Sales

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

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

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

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

 

Live Music Scene Expands

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

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

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

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

 

Moving On from COVID

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

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

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

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

 

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Features Special Coverage

Dressing Down

Ken Albano says businesses need to balance

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

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

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

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

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

Flip flops on Friday? Sure, go for it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melissa English

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Loosening Up

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

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tanzi Cannon-Eckerle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lessons Learned

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, read the room.

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Cooling Agent

Jim Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expansive Intimacy

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

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

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

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

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

 

When the Heat Is On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do they get over that hurdle?

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

 

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

Features

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

By Sean Wandrei

 

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

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

Sean Wandrei

Sean Wandrei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer

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

It’s called ‘Site 9.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Next Chapter

It’s called the ‘Library Suite.’

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

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

Jonathan Butler

Jonathan Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

At Home with the Idea

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

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

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

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 43,927
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.56
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.90
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The General Idea

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

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

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

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

 

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

Features Special Coverage

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

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

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

Fifteen years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today … and Tomorrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Features Special Coverage

School of Thought

Rachel Romano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Grade Expectations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cafeteria in the new high school

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

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

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

 

Course of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Meetings of the Minds

Korey Bell says Vistage has acted like a board of directors

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

 

Korey Bell had an issue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

William Maybury, now in the process of succession planning

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

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

 

That’s the Idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ravi Kulkarni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boisselle agreed.

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

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

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

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

 

Meeting Expectations

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

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karen Randall

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growth Patterns

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

planned redevelopment of Building 8 at the Ludlow Mills

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

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

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

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

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

 

Run of the Mills

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

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

Ludlow at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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