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Blueprinting a Unique Culture

Rafal Dybacki (left) and Neil Scanlon

Rafal Dybacki (left) and Neil Scanlon are focused on continued growth and something they call ‘humanizing manufacturing.’

It’s called “The Pick, Place, Podcast.”

It’s co-produced by Worthington Assembly Inc. (WAi) and a collaborator — and tenant within its space in Deerfield’s industrial park — called CircuitHub, and it’s billed as an electronics show where representatives from the companies, which specialize in circuit-board design and assembly (contract manufacturing), discuss the printed circuit board (PCB) assembly process, offer design tips, and talk to industry guests.

“It’s a unique show — no one else is doing anything quite like this,” WAi principal Neil Scanlon said. “And we have a lot of fun doing it.”

But while proud of their own podcast, Scanlon and Worthington co-owner Rafal Dybacki preferred to talk about a different podcast, called “Uncover the Human,” featuring consultants who talk with guests about … well, how to make the workplace more human.

This has been one of the overriding goals for the two partners since they acquired the company, originally based in Worthington (hence the name) and moved it to Deerfield, and, long story short, they were featured on an episode of “Uncover the Human” just over a year ago.

“It’s a couple of consultants out of Colorado, and they’re trying to find … one way to say it is to peel back the layers and find the good in work and try to make workplaces more human and be not what they are today,” Scanlon said.

“One of our employees is good friends with one of the employees at this consulting company, and they were on a trip together, and our employee was telling her about our culture and how we make decisions. And she kept asking her questions and saying, ‘this doesn’t make any sense,’ and ‘let me try to understand this more.’ She became so fascinated, she said she had to get us on their podcast.”

They told the host what they told BusinessWest — that they take a different approach to hiring and developing employees. It’s an approach hinted at broadly in the headline over the company’s posting on jobsinthevalley.com, which features the two words ‘humanizing manufacturing.’

The two explained what that means.

“We have a flat, decentralized organization,” Scanlon said. “We don’t have supervisors, and everyone works in teams, and the teams work together to deliver quality product to our customers.

“We’re focused on people who are interested in problem solving, learning, and growing,” he went on, adding that part of the team’s culture, as we’ll see, is involving all employees in the work to find people who will make good fits.

Elaborating, Dybacki explained that, after inititial interviews, job candidates will then take what he called a “self-guided tour” of the factory and its various departments, seeing what’s done and asking any questions they might have. By doing this — something that very few, if any, other manufacturers would allow — the applicant gets a sense of not only of the work, but the people he or she will be working alongside.

“We have a flat, decentralized organization. We don’t have supervisors, and everyone works in teams, and the teams work together to deliver quality product to our customers.”

If that candidate is still interested, they begin what Scanlon described as a “three-day working interview,” during which the individual is assigned to work with specific teams. And if they’re still interested, things get taken to the next level — a 30-day working interview.

Overall, this process was blueprinted — there’s that word again — to get the right people on the company’s teams, and a workforce where members are both focused and happy.

For this issue and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest talked at length with Scanlon and Dybacki about Worthington Assembly and what’s in their business plan moving forward, but also about humanizing manufacturing and the unique culture they’ve created.


Making It Here

The consultants behind the “Uncover the Human” podcast aren’t the only ones interested in talking with these two entrepreneurs lately.

Indeed, Yvonne Hao, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Economic Development, got them on the phone late last month as part of a larger effort to assess the climate for small businesses in the Commonwealth, especially those in advanced manufacturing, and better understand their issues and concerns.

Scanlon and Dybacki said they talked about a number of things with her, from the millionaire’s tax and how they feel it penalizes S corporations, like Worthington Assembly, to the gross-receipts tax and how it also it also hamstrings small-business owners. They also talked about the company’s culture, said Dybacki, speculating that Hao may have heard the “Uncover the Human” episode.

Whether she did or not, the call is an indication of how the company and how it operates have gained traction and visibility as it continues to grow and evolve — and mark a half-century of working on the cutting edge of circuit-board contract manufacturing.

Indeed, it was back in 1974 when Tom Quinn, the company’s founder, set up shop in his bedroom and soon developed processes for assembling circuit boards, first for a Boston-based client called Cyborg Inc.

The company moved from Quinn’s bedroom to a small barn in Worthington, where it continued a pattern of steady growth. Quinn and his wife, Barbara, sold the operation to Scanlon and Dybacki in 2008 and, seeking larger quarters, more reliable power, and faster internet, moved it to the industrial park in Deerfield a year later.

There, they’ve continued and enhanced the company’s reputation as a contract manufacturer, amassing a deep portfolio of clients, most of them in New England, in sectors ranging from medical-device manufacturing to industrial controls; from HVAC to segments of the automobile industry.

“We essentially build to a blueprint, much like a machine shop builds to a blueprint,” Scanlon explained. “A customer will come to us with a blueprint, and we will build that product for them precisely as that blueprint states.”

WAi does a considerable amount of work with CircuitHub, a designer of circuit boards for customers around the globe, and ships directly to its clients, Dybacki said.

It is one of the few circuit board assemblers in Western Mass., and a relatively small player in a large and extremely competitive sector, where, in this case, the smaller size is a competitive advantage because it comes with flexibility and the ability to handle the smaller orders that the larger players would not even consider, Scanlon explained.

“We handle things at lower volumes, where it’s too much work to send it off the China because the volume isn’t there, and other competitors simply don’t want to get involved with a $4,000 or $5,000 order,” he said, adding that the company can handle orders of a few dozen of an item to several thousand.


True Grit

WAi has enjoyed steady growth over the past several years, growing its workforce to 35, said Dybacki, adding that the focus has always been on “finding the right person and getting them in the right seat, and making sure they stay here.”

And this is where we return to the company’s culture and that notion of humanizing manufacturing.

Finding the right people is crucial, Scanlon said, because of the custom nature of the work being done.

“We do so many unique assemblies,” he explained. “On a given day, with this team of 35 people, we might be shipping 10 different assemblies that have in some cases never been built by anyone else. In order to do that, you need really good people that have a thorough understanding of how this works.

“You can’t have memorizers, you can’t have button pushers … our people that work here do the same thing over and over again for an hour, and then they move on to something totally different,” he went on. “They need a unique skill set.”

To find the right people — and then keep them — the company has created a comprehensive hiring, training, and onboarding process, one that secures input not only from those doing the interviewing and hiring, but those who will be working alongside the candidate in question.

It begins with that headline over the job placement and accompanying job description — ‘humanizing manufacturing.’

“This catches their eye, and they read about it, and then a lot of times they’ll reach out to us,” Scanlon said. “The type of person you get doesn’t necessarily have the exact skills you’re looking for, but they have the right attitude and a willingness to learn.

Dybacki concurred, adding, “in a lot of cases, that’s more important than having the needed skills.”

That aforementioned process, including the three-day and 30-day working interviews, includes something called a ‘360 form,’ whereby team members are evaluated by colleagues using core values and successful habits. These are listed with accompanying phraseology, so employees know just what they’re looking for, and ‘scores,’ if you will, ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘average’ to ‘poor.’

These core values and descriptions provide some real insight into the degree to which the company wants people who are good fits, and how everyone at WAi is involved in finding those fits.

Under the core value ‘humility,’ we find “puts the team first; works well with others; open to change; open to learning; check any arrogance at the door; listens to others. No, really listens.”

Under the core value ‘honesty’ (described as “to be candid, straightforward, and fair”) is written, “our ability to be candid with our teammates is essential for our success; we cannot continuously improve if we aren’t talking about opportunities for improvement.”

Other core values and successful habits include ‘have fun,’ ‘contribute,’ ‘work well with everyone,’ and even ‘grit’ — “we need to always stay focused and push through the hard tasks all day, every day without becoming bored or complacent, and take pride in the simple yet at times difficult tasks.”

“Our teammates here will let you know if you have grit, if you’re able to do this work or not,” Scanlon said. “They’ll know just by the sound of the screwdriver.”

Using tools like the 360 form and a rigorous interviewing and onboarding process — which includes listening to that episode of “Uncover the Human” — the company has managed to successfully hire and maintain a workforce when many in manufacturing, and other sectors as well, are struggling to do so.

And much of it comes down to getting everyone at the company involved in this process.

“People here can’t complain about who they’re working with because they helped choose them and they have the ability to put feedback into a person’s 360,” said Scanlon, adding that, overall, these processes have created an environment where everyone is happy with who they’re working with, and they work together to take the company to the next level.

This is a true blueprint for success and a reason why this company is getting some attention — not just for the circuit boards it produces, but for the culture it has created.

Franklin County Special Coverage

Big Ideas in Small Towns

Lucy Damkoehler has developed a strong following from both within and outside Franklin County for her bakery and cooking classes.

When Lucy Damkoehler returned to Western Mass. after 20 years away, she opened a bakery in a town she knew well — Bernardston, to be exact, with its population of 2,000.

That was in 2018. Today, Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop is thriving, demonstrating, like many other businesses already have, that it’s possible to succeed in a county whose 26 communities total around 71,000 residents — less than half of Springfield alone.

“It took off right away,” she said. “My prices were competitively high. I knew the cost of food was going up and the cost of labor was going up, so I priced it so I didn’t have to change my prices too often. But people didn’t complain about it, and I felt like it was doing pretty well.”

When COVID shut down much of the world, Damkoehler pivoted to a concept called Take & Bake Meals, which, at its height, was sending 50 to 60 meals out the door each day, which wound up expanding her reach and widening her exposure.

“We were getting people from Connecticut, from New York, discovering us,” she recalled, and those days partly explain why her customer base went from 90% local before 2020 to a ratio today of about 60% repeat customers — who come anywhere from every day to once a month — and 40% travelers checking out the bakery for the first time.

And Damkoehler’s success continues; she used a crowdfunded grant and a bank loan to build an addition, doubling her kitchen space and allowing her to begin offering cooking classes last September. She now employs six full-time bakers and six front-of-house staff, and is looking to hire a chef instructor as well.

“It blows my mind that I’ve only had one class that’s had to cancel due to low enrollment. They usually sell out within a couple of weeks, if not days,” she told BusinessWest. “It shows there’s a major need for that part of the business; there’s nothing like that around here. We’re doing kids’ classes now, too.

“I’m amazed every day that we’re able to do this successfully,” she added, especially in a community of just over 2,100 residents. “The prices are not cheap. But people recognize the value, and they appreciate it, and they’re willing to spend more money on something that’s done right. It doesn’t scare people away.”

So that’s what Damkoehler brought to the table: talent, quality, drive, and the instincts to pivot to what the market needed, which, both during the pandemic and with her classes, generated further opportunities for growth. Meanwhile, other businesses throughout this mostly rural county bring their own differentiators, but they also testify to a supportive, if small, community.

“Business owners here who are thriving have really committed, loyal customers. They have customers who love to come out and spend time there, spend their dollars with them, and they’re focused on providing a really great experience every time someone comes in,” said Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA).

“One thing that I hear from some business owners is a sense of community and mutual support,” she added, noting that one of the GBA’s goals is to keep building opportunities for business owners to know each other better, so they can recommend each other.

“I think it’s organizations like ours and like the chamber that are able to listen to business owners and respond and really be another set of hands in their business success. That’s not overrated when you’re wanting to have a brick-and-mortar presence. So I hope businesses will think about opening here; I hope businesses will think about opening a second location here.”

“We were getting people from Connecticut, from New York, discovering us.”

To that end, Rechtschaffen added, “when we’re in conversation with Greenfield Community College about getting an internship program going, or when we’re in conversation with the Franklin County CDC about small-business support and entrepreneurship, all of those relationships are so, so crucial. None of us want to feel like we’re toiling away alone. We want to feel like we’re part of a larger ecosystem.”

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, agreed.

“Partnership and collaboration are the special ingredients in Franklin County. The way our communities come together to support our small businesses, it’s not like anything I’ve seen elsewhere,” she said.

“What I love to see here are thoughtful partnerships and strategies around how to best support business owners in filling in some gaps and resources that some more populated areas have, and how to attract different industries to the area,” she continued, touting, as Rechtschaffen did, the partnership between the chamber and GBA, but also Greenfield Community College, the CDC, and various economic-development entities.

“We want everyone’s business to be as successful as possible and have as many resources as they can tap into to ensure that success,” Deane said. “We wake up every day asking how to best support them.”


Declining Numbers

Such partnerships and mutual support are especially meaningful in a county that, after years of plateauing population, has seen those numbers start to creep downward, especially in the small towns beyond Greenfield and Deerfield.

“Certainly, population decline — or the projection of population decline we see — is a pretty major threat to many rural parts of Massachusetts,” said Linda Dunlavy, executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “As Baby Boomers age, we need help, and not attracting young people to our region will be a concern for us. So we’re working on that.

Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield

Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield is just one example of the many cultural offerings in Franklin County.

“But population decline also hurts Franklin County and its rural areas because so many state and federal funding formulas, the distribution of aid money to municipalities, is based on population,” she continued. “So as our population decreases, the amount of money we have for infrastructure improvements, for education, etc., also decreases, which compounds the problem: how do we get people to come to our region if we’re not caring for our infrastructure, our assets, adequately?”

Dunlavy, who was named one of the Difference Makers for 2024 by BusinessWest, has been working for the benefit of Franklin County for decades, so she understands its assets — from arts and culture to outdoor recreation to that supportive business community others mentioned — but she understands the challenges of an aging, shrinking population base, too.

“Because we’re so rural, we have to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “We are a very collaborative region, probably one of the most collaborative regions in Massachusetts, because all the regional organizations are working together. We combine services of municipalities, our businesses work together, and they are served by strong regional support systems. It’s a great region to live in — if you know about us.”

A.J. Bresciano, first vice president and commercial loan officer at Greenfield Savings Bank (GSB), has been lending in Franklin County for the past 16 years, and he feels good about the current strength of business activity in the region.

“In terms of business lending, I think there’s some growth and some optimism, post-pandemic, in starting businesses and seizing opportunities to capitalize on improving economic markets. I think there is some opportunity for people with great ideas and a passion for what they do to come in and start something new,” he told BusinessWest.

That said, “there are certainly some challenges in the interest-rate environment,” he added, especially on the residential side, where higher rates and a shortage of housing have taken away the ‘churn’ of a vibrant market. “But I think that will change. Hopefully we’ll see rates start to come down in the near future, which will give people an opportunity to go out and seek new opportunities. We’re pretty optimistic about what the future holds.”

On the plus side, “there’s a lot of interest in this market because it’s less expensive than other markets that are overdeveloped. So a lot of borrowers see opportunity here,” said Peter Albero, chief financial officer and treasurer, noting that GSB originated $100 million in commercial loans and $70 million in residential loans last year. “The residential side is still a little bit lower … but the commercial side is very strong. A lot of banks are competing for strong borrowers.”

The aging of the population has created a fair amount of business turnover, Bresciano added, as long-time business owners are looking to retire and move into the next chapter of their lives.

“So there’s definitely opportunity for someone else to come in with new ideas, new ambitions, and to cultivate a new environment,” he said, pointing to one project — the conversion of the former Wilson’s Department Store in downtown Greenfield to a mixed-use property — as an example of forward thinking.

“None of us want to feel like we’re toiling away alone. We want to feel like we’re part of a larger ecosystem.”

For her part, Deane has seen a pipeline emerge of younger leaders in many Franklin County communities as older leaders, like those older business owners, look to retirement. “I’m excited about the leadership we’re seeing step into those roles,” she said.


Plenty to Promote

Rechtschaffen is acutely aware of what a spread-out county like Franklin faces in terms of housing, transportation, and access to amenities, but she tends to light up when talking about what she loves about the region — and there’s a lot of that.

“We have so much amazing outdoor arts, outdoor activities, whitewater rafting, skiing, theater … there are so many things. So I always want to make sure that people know what there is to visit up here.”

The target audience isn’t just visitors from afar, though.

“We have an advantage in Franklin County, which is that people really do want to support local, so it’s important that we have the right retail mix and experience mix here for people to be able to do that,” Rechtschaffen said, which is the impetus behind efforts like the “find it in Greenfield” campaign running on Bear Country radio and through other outlets.

“A lot of people don’t realize what’s so close by. So getting the word out can be a challenge,” she added. “We’re really trying to keep beating that drum and making sure that things are affordable, things are accessible, and we’re bringing businesses into Greenfield and Franklin County that people really want. That’s also a crucial part of the puzzle.”

Dunlavy has helped put many pieces in place, from north-south rail to broadband access to a planned partnership with other regional councils of government on a Connecticut River climate-resiliency plan.

“You do nothing alone. Everything takes partnership and many people working together,” she said. “And I like that part of the job. I like that challenge, and I like that focus. I’m never bored, ever. There’s always something to work on and always something to think about.”

Rechtschaffen never stops thinking about Franklin County, either.

“This is really creative work,” she said, “to be problem solving, to be listening, to be connecting people with one another so that their business can thrive, maybe in ways they didn’t think about. I really love all of this work to grow Greenfield and Franklin County in a way that feels good, for as many people as possible.”


Franklin County

Putting the Focus on Community

Thomas Meshako

Thomas Meshako says Greenfield Savings Bank plans to grow organically and with a strategic expansion of its footprint.

Thomas Meshako acknowledged it was a quite a change moving from the large, regional institutions where he worked the first 30 or so years of his career in financial services to Greenfield Savings Bank.

But it’s a change he wanted.

“I decided I wanted to get out of the buying and selling of banks and really wanted to become part of the community — something I always felt was missing when you’re working in a bank and dealing with mergers and acquisitions and always trying to make the next quarter’s earnings,” he said, noting that most of the banks he’s worked for have been absorbed by larger institutions. “I wanted to be at a bank where we invested in the future, for the long haul, and that cares about the community it serves.”

He’s found all that GSB, where he arrived in 2016 as chief financial officer and serves now as president and CEO, new titles he was awarded late last fall following the search for a successor to John Howland.

Since arriving, and especially since becoming president and CEO, Meshako has been out in the community, taking part in events ranging from the Hatfield Bonfire music festival fundraiser to Northampton’s Pride Parade to Tapestry Health’s recent auction. As he talked with BusinessWest, he was gearing up for the Green River Festival, the massive three-day music fest (Little Feat is among the headliners) set for June 23-25 in Greenfield; the bank is a major sponsor.

He’s been at so many events, especially on weekends, that he’s spending far less time at his cabin in Vermont than he expected to be, but he acknowledged that “this is where I need to be.” By that, he meant Greenfield and GSB, an institution that crashed through the $1 billion assets mark in 2020 and is now focused on the next milestones — $1.5 billion and $2 billion — and what it will take to get there.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

The bank was celebrating its 150th anniversary when it passed the $1 billion milestone; when asked when he thought GSB might get to $2 billion, he joked, “sooner than 150 years.”

Elaborating, and turning more serious, Meshako said the bank plans to grow organically, and he is looking at expanding its footprint, specifically in Hampshire County, where five of its 10 branches are located. He didn’t pinpoint specific communities for new branches, but did say they would be towns deemed ‘underbanked’ by recent feasibility studies.

Meanwhile, GSB will be rolling out some new products, including a new rewards program for debit-card users, and continually upgrading its technology, with a new online product for loans and deposits, for example, to stay current and provide customers with what they want and need.

“Most people are looking for more convenience to bank from home, and we’re trying to make sure we offer that,” he said, adding quickly that brink-and-mortar branches, which provide visibility and other forms of convenience, are still a big part of GSB’s growth strategy.

For this issue and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest talked at length with Meshako about his new role, his long-term outlook for GSB, and his thoughts on Greenfield, Franklin County, and how this gem of a region is making major strides when it comes to economic development — and as a destination.


Generating Interest

As he talked with BusinessWest, Meshako gestured out the windows of GSB’s main conference room toward the other side of Main Street and the properties on either side of the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, one of the signature redevelopment projects of the past decade in this community.

“Just a few years ago, most of those storefronts were vacant,” he said, noting that they are now occupied, with everything from a book shop to a pop-up store that are, collectively, contributing to a new sense of progress and vibrancy in this city of almost 18,000 residents.

The GSB senior management team

The GSB senior management team includes, from left, Lori Grover, Mark Grumoli, Thomas Meshako, Steve Hamlin, and Shandra Richardson.

And there is more coming, he said, noting the highly anticipated redevelopment of the former Wilson’s Department Store, a few blocks down Main Street from the bank, into a mix of retail (specifically the Green Fields Market) and housing, which he believes is sorely needed in this community.

“Availability of housing is very tight in Greenfield and all of Franklin and Hampshire counties,” he explained. “This is something we desperately need, and that’s one of the reasons why this project is so exciting.”

Getting involved in a community at this level was an element missing for most of Meshako’s career, one that, as noted earlier, was marked mostly by work at larger, regional banks that have since been absorbed by larger institutions.

Most recently, he served as chief financial officer of Merchants Bancshares in Burlington, Vt., a commercial bank with branches throughout Vermont and the Springfield market. Prior to that, he served in several positions, including principal financial officer, at Brookline Bancorp in Boston. There were also stints at Union Bankshares in Vermont and Chittenden Corp. and the institution that acquired it, People’s United Financial.

After nearly three years at Merchants Bancshares, Meshako was a looking for a new and different challenge, and found it at GSB.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

And it has continued that growth pattern, he said, noting that the bank posted record earnings in 2021 and 2022. It won’t continue that streak this year amid spiraling interest rates that are negatively impacting both the residential and commercial loan portfolios and tightening margins, but it will be another solid year, he said.

And while achieving solid growth on the bottom line, the bank has also been able to increase its contributions within the community by 10% a year since he arrived — a pattern of improvement Meshako is committed to continuing.

Looking ahead, he said the bank has essentially ruled out additional expansion in Franklin County, where there are currently five branches, and instead will focus its sights on Hampshire County, where GSB currently has a physical presence in Northampton (two branches), Amherst (two branches), and Hadley (one location).

“We’re always the number-one lender in Franklin County, and we’re now the fourth-largest lender in Hampshire County,” he explained. “And we hope to continue to grow that market share as well. Within the Five College community, there is a need for housing, and being primarily a commercial real-estate lender, that’s a niche that I think we can fill; we’ve done very well there.”

GSB has conducted feasibility studies on which communities would make suitable landing spots, he went on, adding that he considers some communities underbanked because of some of the recent mergers and acquisitions which have left fewer banks in some markets and larger institutions in others.

In the case of community banks, and especially this one, the investment — and the commitment — in a new location involves much more than brick and mortar that goes into the actual branch building.

“We don’t just put a branch up … when we move into a community, we give to the local organizations, we hire local people, and we try to make sure that everything we do makes us part of that community,” he explained. “So it’s more expensive than just opening a branch or putting people in a location.”


By All Accounts

Getting back to that view out the conference-room windows, Meshako said Greenfield, and Franklin County as a whole, is seeing progress on many fronts, from tourism to Greenfield’s downtown, which has many new businesses and projects in various stages of development, from a new town library and fire station to the aforementioned Wilson’s redevelopment initiative.

“Greenfield is on its way up; it has a lot of character, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve,” he told BusinessWest, citing not only the new building projects and the new storefronts, but a greater livability — and relative affordability — that is attracting residents and entrepreneurs alike. “The people moving here want to be part of a community, and that’s what they find — community.”

And he believes more people are finding it these days, and will be finding it in the future, especially as technology, and changing attitudes in the workplace, enable more people to live where they want and work where they want at the same time.

“Because more people are now able to work remotely, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of people buying properties and moving to Greenfield,” he said, adding that, while this trend will certainly impact housing prices in the long run, it will also bring more support businesses, hospitality-related ventures, and general vibrancy to the region.

As Meshako talks about his bank, its plans for the future, and its involvement in the community, and also as he talks about Greenfield and the many positive developments there, it’s clear why he made that career change seven years ago.

As he said, he wanted to be at a bank that didn’t just have a mailing address on Main Street, but a stake in everything that that is happening on Main Street — and many other streets as well.

As Meshako said, it was a big change, but a change he wanted — and needed — to make.

And he has never looked back.

Cover Story Franklin County

Northern Exposure

Brolin Winning, general manager of the Shelburne Springs

Brolin Winning, general manager of the Shelburne Springs luxury hotel, sees many signs of new life along the Mohawk Trail.

Brolin Winning and his wife used to run a barbecue stand on the Mohawk Trail, and he’d occasionally look up at the abandoned building next door, a mansion built in 1914 that later operated for decades as the Anchorage Nursing Home before closing in 2011.

“We’d look up the hill at this place — which had been abandoned for a decade — and just think, ‘man, that’s a sweet spot.’ But it was just melting into the ground.”

But then a friend came into some money and was looking for an investment project. “I said, ‘you should buy the nursing home,’” Winning recalled. So they did — and begin fixing it up.

That was early 2020, when COVID hit, but the ensuing shutdown of the hospitality economy gave the team — owner Hilltown Lodge LLC, Thomas Douglas Architects of Northampton, and Tristan Evans Construction of Greenfield — time to redesign the space, gut the building down to its studs, and restore it with seven spacious suites; a kitchen, bar, and upscale but cozy lounge areas; and outdoor relaxation and recreation space across 38 acres. Among the next plans is a big stage up the hill for weddings and other events.

“I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”

But while Winning is gratified that the hotel, called Shelburne Springs, has had a successful first few months, he doesn’t view the property in a vacuum, but as part of a renaissance along the Mohawk Trail that includes renovations and reopenings at the Sweetheart Restaurant in Shelburne Falls, the Duck Pond antique shop in Shelburne, the Blue Vista Motor Lodge just over the Berkshire County line in Florida, and more.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, whereas I feel like it was … I wouldn’t say run-down, but quiet for a while,” Winning said. “COVID obviously affected everybody in this area, but a lot of people were coming out here even more because we’re like in the country and away from the crowd, and there’s a lot of outdoorsy stuff.

Jeff Sauser (left) and Jeremy Goldsher

Jeff Sauser (left) and Jeremy Goldsher have expanded Greenspace CoWork to a second location on Main Street in Greenfield.

“I’ve lived all over the country; I’ve lived a long time in California, Boston, Chicago, and different cities,” he went on. “But I’ve always loved it here. I grew up in Amherst and Northampton, but I used to come up here to fish when I was a kid. That’s how I got into the Mohawk Trail. To me, there’s nowhere like it. I was in San Francisco for a long time, and I would come back here twice a year. And I couldn’t wait to come back, just to be in the woods again and on the river again. It’s just, like, the best place to live.”

He’s not the only one who feels that way about this county of 71,000 residents — fewer than half the total of Springfield — spread across 26 communities.

“It’s stunningly beautiful. That can’t be overlooked,” said Hannah Rechtschaffen, recently appointed coordinator of the Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA). “And I think there is a wonderful, long history up here of people being very engaged in their communities. When you travel from town to town, you find a lot of residents and business owners who feel very passionate about that, about the town that they’re in.”

“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it.”

Rechtschaffen cited draws like the county’s outdoor recreation experiences and attractions like Bridge of Flowers in Shelburne Falls and Poet’s Seat Tower in Greenfield, but said tourists find much more.

“People come for these beautiful experiences, and they’re also finding other cool stuff, from whitewater rafting to restaurants. So the challenge is to reach out to people up and down the Valley and let them know there are really lovely experiences close to them,” she said. “All these towns have something special to offer, but together, we can offer something really beautiful.”

For residents and business owners, she added, “because it’s a small county, it has a bit of history of people needing to go to neighboring communities for different things. When you have that history of people stepping to the community next door to find something, you have this nice connectivity, which has gotten more robust over time. You have an opportunity for towns in Franklin County to work together in a unique way.”

Hannah Rechtschaffen, Franklin County CDC Executive Director John Waite, and Lisa Davol

Some of the players invested in a more robust Franklin County are (from left) Greenfield Business Assoc. Coordinator Hannah Rechtschaffen, Franklin County CDC Executive Director John Waite, and Lisa Davol, marketing manager of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, agreed.

“I think one of the major strengths of Franklin County is that we have a comprehensive set of supportive services around business development,” she said, citing robust connections between the chamber, local businesses, workforce-development and entrepreneurship-focused agencies, and legislators.

“Collaboration is really the only way forward for us. I think Franklin County has always used partnership and collaboration as a special sauce, and I think that served us well during the pandemic. And part of the chamber’s job is to continue to fuel those collaborations and help make those connections.”

Clearly, it takes a village — well, 26 of them — to create a culture in the northernmost county of Western Mass., one that faces challenges, but also has more to offer than many outsiders realize.


Challenge and Opportunity

Deane said many of Franklin County’s challenges are no different than those seen across Western Mass.

“Of course, housing is a challenge. And transportation is particularly troublesome in more rural communities because that’s a barrier to a lot of our entry-level employment. And childcare is huge; there is a lack of high-quality childcare in this area.”

“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity.”

Hiring also continues to be a challenge across industries, she added — another issue being felt across the state.

“I think we have a unique twist on that because we are a rural community, so it’s a little more exacerbated on this side of the state. One of the challenges I’m particularly concerned about is the population-decline projections. So we’re working overtime in collaboration with our legislators to make sure the Commonwealth is more equitably funding projects and initiatives across the state and, as a chamber, making sure that we’re doing our best to shine a light on why Franklin County is such a great area to live and work, and hopefully attracting new families to the area.”

She said the Regional Tourism Council’s task is to attract more tourism to a county that already brings more than $79 million in tourism dollars every year to destinations ranging from Berkshire East in Charlemont to Northfield Mountain and Sugarloaf Mountain; from Yankee Candle and Tree House Brewing Co. — and its slate of summer concerts — in Deerfield to Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield and Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield.

Ashley Evans

Ashley Evans says reopening the Farm Table in Bernardston was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.

“Tourism is really about OPM: other people’s money. And we want to make sure that we are helping them spend that here. And there is so much to do,” said Deane, who calls Franklin “the fun county,” and wants more people to know about that.

“There are endless opportunities for fun in Franklin County. And in terms of our work in the Regional Tourism Council, we’ve made some significant strides. In the past year, we branded our tourism side. We worked with a local company to give Franklin County a really great visual presence, with the tagline ‘more to Franklin County,’ because one of the things that we found when we did that investigative work is that folks said there’s always more to do: ‘I didn’t expect there to be so much. We’ve got to come back.’”

The council is also in the process of launching a standalone tourism website, Deane added.

“We want to make it easy as possible for people to plan their trip, and we’re working with our hospitality vendors to do itinerary planning based on any given interest. So if you’re really into craft beverages, this is what you can do for a weekend. If you’re really into outdoor recreation, this is what we recommend you can do for a weekend.”

A member of the Greenfield Business Assoc. who is about to join the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and whose family owns Hawks & Reed, Jeremy Goldsher also co-owns Greenspace CoWork with Jeff Sauser, so he has a broad perspective on business life in Greenfield and its environs.

“We’ve seen already that Hawks & Reed started a bit of a new music and cultural renaissance in downtown, to the point that now you can’t walk around in any given weekend without seeing kids running up and down the streets of different local venues,” Goldsher noted.

As the owners of Greenspace CoWork, which now has two facilities on opposite sides of Main Street in downtown Greenfield, Goldsher and Sauser have cultivated key business connections through programs like the monthly Business Breakdown networking events.

“It’s developed quite a bit, from ‘I need some emotional support from my business peers’ to a really fun, informal gathering of a lot of our favorite business leaders, business owners, and a group of young, entrepreneurship-minded folks that we’ve never met,” Goldsher said. “We always get new folks at each meeting. We’re now in our 14th or 15th run of it, and I think the Business Breakdown has been a gateway for us to really get onto the map of Franklin County in a bigger way than our co-work business was permitting us.”

With programs like Business Breakdown and a six-month accelerator program, Goldsher is starting to see a “domino effect” of key connections. “We’re starting to see the Franklin County CDC, which has been a great partner of ours, become a lot more visible in their entrepreneurial work and various programs starting to revolve around specific topics, which is great.”


Planting Roots

Emerging from the pandemic, those connections are more crucial than ever, Sauser said.

“We’ve had our ups and downs with the economy. We got through COVID. I think we’ve been an important part of the downtown revitalization, especially with the move to remote work and more flexibility. That’s important to the economic-development story of Franklin County in general, along with getting broadband access out there and just making this a place people can do a job that’s based anywhere, so they can live where they want to live.”

After all, while tourism is critical to the economy, Sauser said, tourism can’t be all Franklin County offers; it has to be a place people want to live and work, and where they find it affordable and rich enough in amenities to do both.

As an urban planner who has done a lot of policy and analysis work in housing, he said housing is the biggest issue.

“I feel like if you wanted to kill as many birds as possible with one stone, a robust housing strategy would be the way to do it. People are moving here in part because they can’t find the housing they’re looking for; nationwide, there’s a huge shortage.”

So there are real opportunities for growth, he said, adding that municipalities need to be smart with not only strategies for housing development — the residential units coming online in the former Wilson’s Department Store building in downtown Greenfield is a “game changer” for the city, he said — but with property taxes as well. The other big draw for families is school systems, and Sauser said many communities still have room for improvement there.

“That can hold places back. There are other options out there, private schools and charter schools, but the core of the public school system isn’t as successful as it could be.”

For every challenge, though, there are business success stories, Deane said.

“One that comes to mind is Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston,” she said. “Lucy moved back into the area from Seattle. She crowdfunded to start her business. She’s now expanding. And that’s in partnership with support from the chamber, from the great folks at CISA, from the CDC. She’s really taken this bake shop and made it famous across the county. And she’s now expanding to include a community center so that she can help teach cooking courses or baking classes.”

A stone’s throw from Lucy’s is the Farm Table, the iconic Bernardston eatery on the Kringle Candle property that closed in 2020 but is reopening this month under the management of serial restaurateur Ashley Evans, who grew up in Turners Falls and was intrigued by the possibility of reopening the Farm Table while on a visit from her home in the state of Florida.

“When I came to this property, how could I pass it up? It’s just absolutely breathtaking, everything about it,” Evans said, adding that the goal is to offer an elevated culinary experience, with many ingredients locally sourced, but at a less elevated price than before.

“We plan on having a similar menu, but redone and more adapted to the market in this community. Instead of a fine-dining establishment, we want to make it an everyday establishment. You can stop by and get something, and the bill’s not $300.”

Evans also plans to host events, from outdoor movies to Hawaiian nights; from outdoor clambakes to a haunted house in the event center.

“We have a lot of ideas to bring the community together,” she said, adding that, despite the workforce pains plaguing the hospitality industry, she was able to staff up quickly, which says something about the establishment’s reputation.

“That speaks to what this property is. It almost speaks for itself,” she noted. “I didn’t have to do a ton of marketing; we said we’re hiring, and people were anxious to work here, which is a beautiful thing.

“I’m so pumped. I’m excited,” Evans added. “I just walk in and feel grateful every day.”


Grit and Gratitude

So does Rechtschaffen, who spent almost two decades away from Western Mass. before returning in 2018 and immediately immersing herself in Franklin County life, chairing the Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee, which supports the use and implementation of the city’s master plan, and serving on the Downtown Greenfield Alliance and the Local Cultural Council.

She was director of Placemaking for W.D. Cowls in North Amherst before taking on her current leadership position with the GBA, where she’s focused on how businesses in this largely rural county can thrive in the post-pandemic years.

“We’re looking at how people are locating themselves, especially with remote work, with proximity to Boston. We are seeing people come into this area with a different sense of how they’d like their lives to be,” Rechtschaffen said. “We welcome people in who are looking to move out of city-centered life without sacrificing the feeling of community and connectedness and available amenities.”

Deane said the past few years have taught resilience to residents and businesses here, but also new ways forward.

“Economic development is really a long game. So we’re having these conversations now that hopefully will impact the next 15 or 20 years,” she explained. “And we’re doing that with a fresh understanding that, at any point, those plans can go completely rogue and be blown up by whatever comes next. So we’re being cautiously optimistic as we plan and prioritize on a regional level.”

To Sauser, the county’s value is evident in its people, its businesses, its quality of life, and the places that bring those people — and visitors — together.

“I feel like it’s a place to watch,” he said. “I’ve been told, when I moved here, that Greenfield is the kind of place that always feels like it’s about to turn the corner, but it never actually does. I’m getting a lot of signals now that it’s looking pretty good.”

Rechtschaffen agreed.

“One of the things I appreciate about Franklin County is that we can keep our identity — we have the nature, the beauty, the rural luster of it — but there’s increasing opportunity,” she said. “It’s becoming easier to say, ‘this is what Greenfield is all about, this is what Franklin County is all about, and you’re welcome to be here.”

Franklin County

Getting Reconnected

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say the Business Breakdown is just one of many new ways Greenspace CoWork is forging connections within the business community.


While the past two years haven’t exactly been kind to co-working spaces, Jeff Sauser said, the long-term view is much rosier.

“COVID has really accelerated the trend toward remote work,” he explained, noting that the business world was already taking steps in that direction, but at a much more gradual pace. “One silver lining from COVID is that co-working spaces and other shared spaces are seeing a golden age moving forward.”

Jeremy Goldsher, who opened Greenspace CoWork with Sauser in downtown Greenfield several years ago, agreed. “We’ve managed to keep everything afloat during the last few years. Its definitely been a challenge, but Jeff and I have both developed a lot of creative avenues through the co-work model that we might never have considered.”

Specifically, the pair wanted to do more to connect the Greenfield business community, and one way is through a new monthly series of networking events called Business Breakdown.

The idea came out of internal conversations about how to bring people back together and give them a chance to reconnect, Goldsher said.

“I know I’ve spent the better part of two years isolated, and I was excited to find a good reason to be in person with my peers and understanding all the challenges everyone else is going through.”

In addition, he noted, “a lot of new businesses have opened up during COVID, and there hasn’t been much opportunity for anyone to present themselves. We wanted to give a platform for new businesses to come down Main Street and meet fellow business owners and market themselves and speak to the community.”

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership.”

Each Business Breakdown session, which takes place at Greenspace, on the third floor of the Hawks & Reed building on Main Street, begins with an informal presentation from a new local business. The sessions also explore topics like transparency, resource sharing, and recovery in a disruptive climate; the challenges business people face both professionally and personally amid the pandemic; and inventive ways they can overcome those challenges.

The sessions meet the first Wednesday of every month. The April 6 event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership,” Goldsher said. “It’s something we’ve thought about a lot over the past couple years, as the world changed.”

With Greenspace membership back to pre-pandemic levels, Sauser said, “events like these are symbolic for us — people are opening their doors back up, and we’re seeing a lot of good interactions from the business community. They’re anxious to get back together. It’s been tough psychologically for business owners.”

The guest speakers for the inaugural Business Breakdown last month were the head brewer and taproom manager at Four Phantoms Brewery. “They spoke at length about how local flora and fauna have really influenced their ingredients, and how they use local artists for their cans,” Goldsher noted. “It was spectacular.”

Future sessions will collaborate with Cocina Lupida, a restaurant on the first floor of the Hawks & Reed building, which houses Greenspace CoWork. That includes April’s session, which will feature the partners from Madhouse Multi-Arts, which offers collaborative, accessible art spaces on Main Street and helps aspiring artists and musicians access resources and skills they need to reach their creative and professional goals.

“We’re very excited to have them. It’s a new business started by two young Hampshire College grads. They’re very much in the vein of our co-work space, but focused more on the arts,” Goldsher said. “We’ve watched as they took a historical building on Main Street that had been dormant for many years and brought it back to life.”

He added that the event series is “definitely evolving,” and that participation and feedback will help determine what future events will look like. But for now, he and Sauser are encouraged — and excited to hear what Madhouse brings to the table.

“How do you take arts and crafts and turn it into a business? How do you make a living doing those things? We have so many creative people around here — how do you take art and turn it into your livelihood?” Sauser asked. “We want to get a good variety of different business perspectives, not all of which are bricks-and-mortar companies.”

“It’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Greenspace is also working with Greenfield Community College and the Franklin County Community Development Corp. on a pilot series they hope to launch this spring, Sauser said, a handful of workshops on topics like how to start a business, how to write a business plan, getting financials in order, obtaining a bank loan, and more.

“We’re not reinventing resources that don’t exist, but providing an additional outlet to do them,” he explained. “We’ll gather data while we’re doing it and, moving forward, may evolve that into something more substantive and cohort-based, with classes you can go through, a program like LaunchSpace in Orange. We’re looking at opportunities to grow something similar here. We’re thinking about Franklin County holistically.”

And the region’s business owners could benefit from that kind of collaborative approach to growth, Goldsher added.

“A lot of people are just not communicating openly with each other — it’s almost like people forgot how to be honest, and they’re a little bit unsure about how much they’re willing to discuss about their trials and tribulations. But it’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Sauser agreed. “This was something we always wanted to do, and if not for COVID, it might look a little different. I’m excited — it feels like we’re emerging from this situation and responding to what the community needs. We want to have an impact on Greenfield’s revitalization, so we’re looking at it through that lens. And we believe it can be a model for other communities.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County Special Coverage

Lighting the Way



Yankee Candle has long been a national and even global powerhouse in the scented-candle business, but the company will always have special appeal in Western Mass., where Michael Kittredge launched it more than a half-century ago. That appeal is partly — perhaps largely — due to Yankee Candle Village, which has become a significant attraction over the years, one that continues to raise the profile of Deerfield and other Franklin County destinations.


By Mark Morris


Yankee Candle Village may be best-known for its Christmas-themed displays around the holidays, Wade Bassett sees plenty of promise in the spring as well for a company — and tourist destination — that holds year-round appeal, especially as COVID-19 numbers continue to trend downward.

Bassett is the director of Sales and Operations at the Village, Yankee Candle’s flagship store located in Deerfield. Additionally, the company maintains a manufacturing facility in Whately, a distribution center in South Deerfield, and its flagship store on Route 5. Year-round employment totals nearly 600 people, and as the manufacturing and retail operations get busier for the holidays, the number of employees can reach as high as 750.

During the pandemic, staff at Yankee Candle Village incorporated extra cleaning protocols and made sure to always have masks for anyone who requested one. Bassett said the focus remains on providing a safe and worry-free shopping experience for guests who are looking forward to getting out and celebrating traditions with family and friends.

“We’re seeing daycationers, people who aren’t ready to jump on a plane yet. Instead, they are spending time visiting local attractions like Yankee Candle Village.”

“We’re seeing daycationers, people who aren’t ready to jump on a plane yet,” he said. “Instead, they are spending time visiting local attractions like Yankee Candle Village.”

Wade Bassett

Wade Bassett says Yankee Candle’s relationships with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Springfield CVB, and local businesses have driven traffic to the site.

He credited the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau for keeping Yankee Candle Village top of mind as a key regional destination. “Their efforts focus on a collaborative approach to drive traffic and tourism to the area, and we couldn’t be prouder of our partnership with both of them.”

Last year’s arrival of Tree House Brewing Co., located a half-mile north on Route 5 from Yankee Candle Village, has contributed to the amount of traffic in Deerfield, which benefits all local destinations.

“We have a great relationship with Treehouse Brewery, and we’re excited to have them as another strong and prosperous business in our community,” Bassett said, pointing out that guests can visit Powder Hollow Brewery at Yankee Candle Village, then head up Route 5 to Tree House Brewery, and from there it’s a short trip to Berkshire Brewing Co. located close by in the center of Deerfield. “It’s essentially a mini-beer tour right here in our own backyard.”

Deerfield Town Administrator Kacey Warren, who credits Yankee Candle Village for being a strong tourism draw that benefits Deerfield and Western Mass., made a similar observation on the potential mini-beer tour.

“We now have three fun brewing spaces in town that we hope people will visit to make them all successful,” she told BusinessWest.


The Nose Knows

Guests to the flagship store in Deerfield will also find more than 150 fragrant candles on hand. Bassett said many visitors enjoy the treasure hunt of discovering new seasonal candle fragrances such as Sakura Blossom Festival as well as traditional favorites like Clean Cotton, Pink Sands, and McIntosh, a personal favorite of Bassett’s.

The new Well Living Collection are candles designed to transform the mood in the room, he added. “It’s a collection we created to help find balance at a time when wellness is more important than ever.”

Over the last two years, as people were spending more time at home, the Yankee Candle manufacturing facility in Whately stayed busy. Demand for fragrant candles increased during that time, and Yankee Candle products saw plenty of movement off retail shelves. As more people transitioned into working from home, Bassett explained, they were looking to create a space of relaxation and comfort.

“Through fragrance, we are able to help our customers transform their homes into a space that’s happier, fresher, and more inviting,” he said. “Our passion for fragrance helps make your house feel more like a home.”

“Our programs are all about celebrating traditions with families. We are looking at more events that will appeal to all the families who visit us.”

While Yankee is obviously in the candle business, it is also clearly in the home fragrance business. That leads to developing products that may not be candles but help reinforce the Yankee Candle brand in new and different ways, such as the ScentPlug Fan.

“The ScentPlug Fan circulates fragrance throughout every corner of the room and has a built-in light sensor that provides a soft glow when the lights are low,” Bassett explained. Depending on the season or mood, a variety of scents can be easily swapped out of the fan unit.

The new Signature Candle line

The new Signature Candle line features new scents in redesigned vessels.

As April approaches, Bassett discussed several events planned for Yankee Candle Village, beginning with the arrival of the Easter Bunny on April 2, as well as Easter Bunny greetings every weekend leading up to Easter Sunday. There are also events planned for April school vacation week.

“Our programs are all about celebrating traditions with families,” Bassett said. “We are looking at more events that will appeal to all the families who visit us.”

This year, the Franklin County Chamber moved its office and visitor center to Historic Deerfield, a move designed to bring more tourism activity to Deerfield and surrounding towns. Before the pandemic, Historic Deerfield would attract nearly 20,000 visitors every year. Diana Szynal, executive director of the chamber, said the new visitor center is an opportunity to encourage people to explore the area further and stay longer in the county.

“Part of our mission as a regional tourism council is to encourage people to extend their stay,” she said. “Yankee Candle, Historic Deerfield, and other great attractions give people a reason to spend that extra time in our area.”


Making Scents of It All

While visitors come to Yankee Candle Village all year, fall and the holiday season are still the busiest times for guests.

“When you grow up in New England, there’s the smell of fall, the feel of Christmas, and the traditions that come with it,” Bassett said. “It’s like no other time of the year.”

A highlight every year at Yankee Candle Village is the arrival of Santa Claus, who makes his way there by either helicopter or fire truck. Bassett said he enjoys talking with the families who attend this event every year.

“In some cases, the kids who came here years ago are now parents, and they are bringing their own children,” he noted. “It’s become a generational event for lots of families.”

The holidays are just one time when the loyal fanbase of Yankee Candle shoppers will visit the flagship store. But it’s not unusual for people to go there several times a year. “Fragrance evokes memories which are extremely powerful for our guests,” Bassett said.

Now a 30-year employee, he expressed gratitude to be working with “such an amazing company.” And he’s looking forward to spring and the opportunity to talk about another new Yankee Candle product line, the Signature Candle.

“It’s a line featuring new scents in redesigned vessels,” Bassett said. “My personal favorite is Iced Berry Lemonade, a mix of strawberry, lemon, and grapefruit aromas that will be my go-to fragrance for spring.”

As soon as the snow melts in the hilltowns, Bassett plans to make sure an Iced Berry Lemonade candle will have a prominent place on his backyard patio — a reminder that Yankee Candle, both its products and its famous Village, remain a year-round draw for people in Western Mass. and well beyond.

Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

The Greenfield Amtrak stop will be busier this month with the restoration of Vermonter service and a second Valley Flyer train. Photo courtesy of Trains In The Valley

While a proposed east-west rail line between Pittsfield and Boston has gotten most of the train-related press recently, another proposal, to incorporate passenger rail service on existing freight lines between North Adams and Boston, has gained considerable momentum, with a comprehensive, 18-month study on the issue set to launch. Not only would it return a service that thrived decades ago, proponents say, but expanded rail in the so-called Northern Tier Corridor could prove to be a huge economic boost to Franklin County — and the families who live there.


State Sen. Jo Comerford has spoken with plenty of people who remember taking a train from Greenfield to North Station in Boston to catch Bill Russell’s Celtics.

They stepped on at 2:55 p.m. — one of as many as 12 boardings on any given weekday — and the train was already half-full after stops in Troy, N.Y., North Adams, and Shelburne Falls. Then they’d arrive at North Station at 5:15, “and you’d still have time for dinner before the game started,” Comerford said. “That was our reality in Franklin County in the 1950s.”

She shared those words last week at a virtual community meeting to discuss a comprehensive study, soon to get underway, of passenger rail service along the Northern Tier Corridor, a route from North Adams to Boston via Greenfield, Fitchburg, and other stops.

Ben Heckscher would love to see expanded train service in Western Mass.; as the co-creator of the advocacy organization Trains In The Valley, he’s a strong proponent of existing lines like Amtrak’s Vermonter and Valley Flyer, north-south lines that stop in Greenfield, as well as more ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north.

Like Comerford, he drew on the sports world as he spoke to BusinessWest, noting that travelers at Union Station in Springfield can order up a ticket that takes them, with a couple of transfers, right to the gates of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “But there’s no button to push for the Red Sox,” Heckscher said. “It seems funny — we’re in Western Mass., and you can take a train to see the Yankees, but you can’t get to Fenway.”

But sporting events aren’t highest on his list of rail benefits. Those spots are dedicated to the positive environmental impact of keeping cars off the road, mobility for people who don’t own cars or can’t drive, and the overall economic impact of trains on communities and the people who live and work in them.

People want to access rail for all kinds of reasons, Heckscher said, from commuting to work to enjoying leisure time in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington without having to deal with navigating an unfamiliar city and paying for parking. Then there are medical appointments — many families living in Western Mass. have to get to Boston hospitals regularly, and don’t want to deal with the Mass Pike or Route 2 to get there.

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth,” he said. “So they’re going to do a really robust study, and we’ll see what comes of that.”

In addition, as the average age of the population ticks upward, many older people might want to travel but be loath to drive long distances. In fact, that kind of travel is increasingly appealing to all age groups, Heckscher added. “You can ride the train, open your computer, take a nap. You can’t do that operating a car — at least not yet. So, rail definitely has the potential to become even more important.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais agrees. “We know the residents of Central and Western Mass. are hungry for expanded rail service. That is clear,” she said at last week’s virtual meeting. “We are hungry for rail because we know these connections can positively impact our communities with the possibilities for jobs, expansion of tourism, and the real revitalization of local economies.”

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth.”

Makaela Niles, project manager for the Northern Tier study at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the 18-month study will evaluate the viability and potential benefits of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield, and Boston.

The process will document past efforts, incorporate market analysis (of demographics, land use, and current and future predicted travel needs), explore costs and alternatives, and recommend next steps. Public participation will be critical, through roughly seven public meetings, most of them with a yet-to-be-established working group and a few focused on input from the public. A website will also be created to track the study’s progress.

“We know it’s critical that we have stakeholders buying in,” said Maureen Mullaney, a program manager with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We look forward to having a very robust, inclusive participation process.”


Making Connections

Comerford has proposed rail service along Route 2 as a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily access destinations in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier, the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Any new service would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along the entire corridor.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge asked Niles at last week’s meeting about potential tension between freight and passenger interests and whether commuter times will be thrown off by the needs of freight carriers.

“We’ll be looking at how those two intersect and make sure any additional service that could occur along the corridor doesn’t impact with freight or current commuter operations along the corridor,” Niles responded. “We’ll look at how all the services communicate and work together.”

Other potential study topics range from development of multi-modal connections with local bus routes and other services to an extension of passenger rail service past North Adams into Adams and even as far as Albany, although that would take coordination with officials in New York.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston.”

Comerford first introduced the bill creating the study back in January 2019, and an amendment funding it was included in the state’s 2020 budget, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the study until now.

And it’s not a moment too soon, she recently said on the Train Time podcast presented by Barrington Institute, noting that rail service brings benefits ranging from climate effects to economic development to impact on individual families who want to live in Franklin County but work in Boston (see related story on page 39).

With average salaries lower than those available in Boston often making it difficult to settle in Franklin County, availability of rail affects people’s job prospects and quality of life, she noted.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston,” Comerford said, noting that, longer-term, she hopes to see greater business development in Western Mass. due to expanded rail, as businesses that need access to Boston, Hartford, and New York could set up shop here and access those cities without having to deal with traffic.

The bottom line, she said, is that it’s environmentally important to get cars off the road, but there are currently too many gaps in public transportation to make that a reality.

“There was a time when you could work in Boston and live in Franklin County,” she said. “I’ve heard story after story about what life was like up until about the late ’60s. It changed abruptly for them.

“When I was elected, one of the first things I researched was passenger rail along Route 2,” she went on. “I thought, ‘we have to explore starting this again. This is really important.’”


Chugging Along

Of course, east-west rail is only part of the story right now in Western Mass. Running north-south between New Haven and Greenfield are Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines.

On July 26, Amtrak will restore a second train to its daily Valley Flyer service 16 months after cutting a train due to COVID-19. Southbound trains will depart Greenfield at 5:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., and northbound trains will return to the station at 10:23 p.m. and 12:38 a.m.

The Vermonter will return to service in Massachusetts on July 19. A long-distance train originating in Washington, D.C., it has gone no further north than New Haven since March 2020, also due to the pandemic. Amtrak is also reopening three other trains which offer service between New Haven and Springfield.

According to Amtrak, ridership on the Valley Flyer fell by more than half at the Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield stations in 2020, but the company is optimistic it will return to past numbers. That’s critical, since the Flyer is part of a DOT and Amtrak pilot program, which means its funding depends on its ridership. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) will launch an advertising campaign this fall in an effort to boost interest in the service.

“The pandemic really tanked ridership — all forms of public transportation, actually,” said Heckscher, noting that most travelers felt much safer in their cars last year than among groups of people. “But since the vaccine came out, there’s been a comeback in ridership in the Valley Flyer service.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the city has been waiting a long time for the Valley Flyer, “and we don’t want to be just a pilot.”

She feels the city, and the region, will benefit from a perception that people can get anywhere from the Greenfield area, and they may be more willing to move there while continuing to work in the city. Many of those are people who grew up in Franklin County and have a connection to it but still want to feel like they can easily get to work far away or enjoy a day trip without the hassle of traffic or parking.

There’s an economic-development factor related to tourism as well, Adams said. “People in New York City, Hartford, or New Haven can spend the day up here in the country — it’s not just us going down to New York, but people from New York who get on a train, enjoy a nice stay in rural Massachusetts, have a blast, and get back on the train to go home. It’s a two-way street.”

A recent report commissioned by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), in consultation with the PVPC, reinforced the idea of rail as an economic driver, finding a nearly 10-to-1 return on investments in passenger rail between New Haven and Worcester via the Hartford-Springfield metro area.

“In so many ways, the findings of this study confirm what we have seen with our own eyes for decades here in the Valley — regions connected by rail to the major economic hubs of Boston and New York City are thriving, while underserved communities like ours have lagged behind,” PVPC Executive Director Kimberly Robinson said. “We now know what the lack of rail has cost us economically, and this trend cannot continue further into the 21st century.”

Though she was speaking mainly of proposed routes along the state’s southern corridor, Heckscher believes in the economic benefits — and other benefits — of numerous projects being discussed across Massachusetts, including along Route 2.

“With rail, everyone has the ability to travel long distances,” he said — and the impact, while still uncertain in the details, could prove too promising to ignore.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Small-city Living

Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband

MJ Adams says Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband will boost its potential for remote workers.

At a recent briefing about potential east-west passenger rail service through Greenfield, state Sen. Adam Hinds talked about how infrastructure investments — not just in rail, but in broadband access and other realms — feels like a “build it and they will come” moment.

“We’re keenly aware we are in a critical transition, a moment of uncertainty, and it feels like we’re at a time when people are making choices about the potential to live in a region like this, or stay in a region like this, based on infrastructure development,” Hinds said, noting that ridership trends on current north-south rail would likely shift as other types of infrastructure, especially digital, come online.

“Our answer to a major disruption in our society and our Commonwealth is a major investment to make the entire community stronger, that can allow anyone to work anywhere in the world,” he added. “We need to be getting it right as we think about recovering strongly.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community Development, said the city has already made strides in that all-important digital realm — strides that could help position the city as a destination for people who want to keep their jobs in larger cities, but work remotely while living in a place with rural appeal, small-city amenities, and, in their mind, better quality of life.

“We felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband. We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

She was speaking of Greenfield Community Energy and Technology (GCET), Greenfield’s municipal broadband provider, which was created several years ago to meet a growing need.

“For people who require better high-speed connection, they can actually do that here now,” Adams said. “When Greenfield started building out its broadband infrastructure, that was prompted by experiences years ago, when companies turned down locating here because the internet was not very strong.

“So the city decided not to wait anymore and made a pretty big investment on the city side, making the decision that we’re not going to wait for a Comcast to come in and provide service; we felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband,” she added. “We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

John Lunt, general manager of GCET, agreed. In a Greenfield Recorder article in December, he touted GCET’s response to the pandemic — efforts that included no-charge connections for students attending school remotely — but said the utility’s role goes far beyond that.

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

“Revenues tend to stay local, and municipal broadband providers have become economic-development assets to their towns,” he wrote. “Reliable service, better pricing and customer service, local development, and control of critical infrastructure — this is what a municipal provider offers.”

Danielle Letourneau, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s chief of staff, told BusinessWest that the city had the foresight to establish this service well before the pandemic made it more critical. But now, it plays a role in attracting new residents and businesses that are navigating a new world when it comes to how, and where, employees want to work.

“We’ve set ourselves up well,” Letourneau said. “We are a small city with big-city amenities. But we do have a rural feel. We even have several co-working spaces; we’re recognized already for that kind of thing as a way to attract people who want to move here.”

All these amenities open the city up for new arrivals, as well as people who grew up here and want to return and raise their own families here, especially those who can take advantage of new opportunities in remote work.

“Even before COVID hit, we looked at ourselves as being a pretty attractive city,” Adams said, and building out high-speed broadband was one way to build on that. “We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Then the pandemic accelerated the remote-work trend, which dovetailed well with what the city was doing, she went on. “Businesses are trying to understand how to make it work, but employees are also figuring out how it works for them. Here, they have an attractive way of life as they try to work remotely, farther afield from higher-priced communities in New England.”


Living Room

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission in Vermont, told the participants in the passenger-rail meeting that “we’re seeing an odd inversion in Southeast Vermont where people are finding employment here but, because of our extreme housing scarcity, are living in Western Mass. There’s going to be a lag in the data availability, but it’s increasingly feeling like the exurban growth in the I-91 corridor has accelerated.”

He doesn’t know if that emigration will continue, but he also doubts families who have moved to Western Mass. or Southern Vermont for work or other reasons will want to uproot again after the pandemic, so there may be some staying power to these trends.

“We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Indeed, the real-estate market in Western Mass. has been booming, with the latest monthly report from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley showing sales volume up 20.7% across Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties from June 2020 to June 2020, and the median price up 20.4%.

But while Franklin County’s median price is up 23%, its sales actually fell by 10%, reflecting, perhaps, the shortage of homes to meet demand, which is, obviously, hiking those prices. In fact, current inventory of homes for sale in Franklin County is down 52.9% from a year ago.

Adams said Greenfield officials recognize the need for more housing, especially market-rate housing in the downtown area, noting that upper-level residential development would create mixed-use vibrancy downtown.

Understand how critical downtown is to the city’s future, municipal officials were getting ready to update the downtown revitalization plan well before the pandemic, identifying what the strengths and challenges were in the corridor, she explained. “We want to develop in a way that’s thoughtful and local and makes sense for the business community.”

Greenfield was also among the Massachusetts communities that received local Rapid Recovery Plan funding. “That helps us identify actionable plans we can put in place fairly quickly to ramp up the business community,” Adams said. “It means taking a look at both the public and private realms and the business mix and who needs to be at the table to make a comprehensive plan to breathe life back into our downtown.”

It’s a downtown, she said, that already offered entertainment in venues like Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center and had been talking about creating outdoor dining before the pandemic accelerated that process.

“From talking to people, the draw downtown is really experience-based now versus when we were younger, and it was a place to buy goods and services,” Letourneau said. “People come here to eat out, for world-class music venues, arts, great antique shops, stuff you can’t find anywhere else. I think it’s experiential, and it’s a good feel for downtown.”

The question now is, will the city put all those pieces together, plus the draw of well-established municipal broadband, plus possibly expanded passenger rail, and become a destination of choice for an increasingly remote workforce?

“This is our opportunity now,” Adams said. “People are reassessing where they want to be and what they want to work, and they should take a look at Greenfield.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield, which is developing plans for a September opening.

Magic Wings is a year-round operation, Kathy Fiore said — even when its doors are shut.

“This is different from a clothing store,” said Fiore, who co-owns the butterfly conservatory in Deerfield with her brother. “When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

And that means expenses that don’t disappear when no visitors show up — which they haven’t since the facility closed to the public in mid-March, part of a state-mandated economic shutdown in response to COVID-19.

“We kind of saw it coming, and then it just happened,” she said of the closure. “As owners of the business, we’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat and assure our staff, assure our customers.”

As for when Magic Wings will be allowed to reopen, phase 3 looks most likely, which means very soon. But the state’s guidance is only one consideration. The other is keeping visitors safe and helping prevent a viral flareup in a region that has effectively depressed infection rates, as opposed to states like Florida and Texas that were more lax about regulating crowds — and have seen cases spike in recent weeks.

“When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

“My brother and are watching how things are going,” Fiore said. “We’re certainly watching other businesses open back up, but we’re also hearing about the resurgence in certain places, about people getting together and going right back to a situation we don’t want to be in.”

Historic Deerfield, which shuttered its buildings to the public a few weeks before the start of its 2020 season, doesn’t expect to reopen most of them until September.

“We had a lot of different challenges and things to figure out,” said Laurie Nivison, director of Marketing, explaining why the organization’s leadership isn’t rushing back before they feel it’s safe. “Just thinking ahead to when it might be possible to open again, we decided to move some bigger things to the fall. The fall season is always a big time for us. That’s when people start thinking they want to come to Deerfield, so we said, ‘let’s look at opening around Labor Day weekend.’”

Losing an entire spring and most of summer is a considerable financial hit, of course, and the center was forced to lay off dozens of staff. But at the same time, it has looked to stay relevant and connected to the community in several ways, including putting a series of ‘Maker Monday’ workshops online, taking a virtual approach to teaching people how to stencil, make their own paper, or building a decoupage box, to name a few recent examples.

Meanwhile, museum curators have been sharing plenty of interesting artifacts from the collection online, while the director of historic preservation recently took people on a virtual tour of the attic of one of the historic houses.

“People never have the opportunity to do that, so that was great,” Nivison said. “We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

Many Franklin County attractions, especially of the outdoor variety — such as Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East in Charlemont, where people can engage in ziplining, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities — are already open. But indoor attractions face different challenges and are on a different reopening pace, due to both state guidelines and their own sense of caution.

But a wider reopening is the goal, as area tourism officials consider the region a connected ecosystem of activity that draws visitors to take in multiple sites, not just one. In short, the more attractions are open, the more each will benefit.

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

Because it’s an indoor attraction, Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen until she’s confident visitors will be safe.

“We’re talking a lot about how we can convince visitors to come back when the time is right because there’s so much outdoor fun you can have here,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “We have hiking, cycling, fly fishing, regular fishing, walking trails — there’s so much opportunity for things to do here that are perfectly safe and healthy.”

Safety First

Szynal was just scratching the surface when she spoke to BusinessWest. From retail destinations like Yankee Candle Village to museums, golf courses, wineries, and covered bridges, it’s a region that has plenty to offer, and attractions like Magic Wings and Historic Deerfield certainly sense anticipation among fans and potential visitors when they connect with the community on social media.

But they also don’t want to jump the gun and see the region turn into another Houston.

“It’s been a little unnerving, but from the beginning, my brother and I didn’t want to reopen until we feel it’s safe, even if the government lifts the regulations for businesses like Magic Wings. We don’t mind waiting it out a little bit to make sure everything is safe,” Fiore said.

“We normally can take in a lot of people, but we’re different because we’re an indoor facility,” she added, noting that Magic Wings will follow the state’s guidelines for social distancing, masks, and crowd count, while considering options like visiting by appointment as well. “We’re trying to think of all the different things we can do to make sure people are really safe but still have a pleasant experience.”

It helped, she said, that the conservatory procured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its staff paid, and now that reopening approaches, she’s hoping to get everyone back on the regular payroll. “We’re responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people.”

But the shutdown also posed an opportunity, she added. “It’s beautiful here — it’s in pristine shape, because we were able to do some cleanup things, different projects, that we don’t have the opportunity to do when we’re open every single day. We hope to welcome people back to a nice, fresh environment that’s better than they remember.”

While the museum houses of Historic Deerfield remain closed for now, the organization got a boost from the reopening of Deerfield Inn and Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern. The week she spoke with BusinessWest, Nivison said the restaurant already had more than 100 reservations lined up for the following week.

Those facilities will benefit from September’s museum reopening, but this fall may still look a little different than most, as tours may be limited — or be smaller, self-guided experiences — while outdoor tours may be expanded. Demonstrations of trades like blacksmithing may be moved outdoors, while the annual Revolutionary muster event, typically held on Patriots’ Day in April, will likely happen this fall as well.

“We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

“We want to be able to give a good experience to folks and really take advantage of all the outdoor things they can do,” Nivison said. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

One thing people aren’t doing as much as they normally would is getting married — with crowded destination receptions, anyway. Because Magic Wings is a popular spot for weddings and receptions, that was another significant revenue loss this spring and summer, Fiore said.

“Couples had to shift everything, and a couple bumped their weddings into 2021. One couple canceled altogether,” she told BusinessWest, noting that weddings already have a lot of moving parts, and couples are simply unsure right now how many guests they’ll be allowed to include until the state offers more guidance.

All Aflutter

That said, Fiore has been buoyed by the number of people calling since the closure. In addition to its social-media presence, Magic Wings also recently ran a television commercial featuring soothing sights and sounds inside the conservatory — to put a smile on viewers’ faces more than anything.

“It was an opportunity for people to take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing something totally new, and we’re all concerned and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen — what’s safe and what’s not.

“People love butterflies, and they do come see us from all around,” she added. “But they also want to know it’s not going to be a huge health hazard, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

“People are taking this seriously,” she said. “I see the masks. When people are out on errands, walking through stores, they’re giving each other space. As long as this behavior continues, people will feel better moving around a bit more” — and that includes visiting Franklin County attractions.

“I feel people respect this virus and respect each other,” she concluded. “So far, they’re taking the steps they need to keep Massachusetts on the right track.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County Special Coverage

View from Main Street

Diana Szynal

While economic activity is still slow, Diana Szynal says, she senses a resilient spirit in Franklin County.

Diana Szynal is encouraged by what she sees on Main Street in Greenfield as restaurants and retail continue to emerge from months of closed doors.

“I certainly see people making the changes they need to make,” she said, referring to Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance for how — and at what capacity — to open businesses safely. “We’ve seen these business making the effort to reopen and get their staffs back to work and welcome back their customers.”

But no one is fooling themselves into believing everyone is ready to go out again, said Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet,” she told BusinessWest.

“Realistically, things have slowed down, but I feel a very resilient spirit here,” she continued. “People in Franklin County are tough. And you see that not only in Greenfield’s downtown, but the area as a whole — downtown Deerfield, downtown Shelburne … I think you’re going to see them bounce back for sure.”

What will make the difference, she and other economic leaders increasingly say, is consumer confidence, which is being driven right now almost exclusively by health concerns — and that’s a good thing, considering that Massachusetts is one of the few states in the U.S. consistently reducing instances of COVID-19.

“For the typical consumer, making decisions about going out for the day or just going to a restaurant or retail shop, creating confidence is the key,” Szynal said. “And focusing on those [infection] numbers is really critical. That’s really how we’ll build confidence. Some people will take a little longer than others because they have different health concerns. But I think, if we can stay the course, we’ll be heading in the right direction economically as well as from a public-health standpoint.”

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) polls its 3,500 members each month to produce a Business Confidence Index that was firmly entrenched in positive territory for years — until it suffered the largest one-time decline in its history a couple months ago. However, it began to rebound slightly last month as Baker announced the four-phase process for re-opening the state economy under strict workplace-safety guidelines, and in the report due this week, it’s expected to creep up again amid positive news regarding infection rates.

“What makes this whole situation unique — and a little bit mystifying for employers — is that the economic situation is still being driven by a public-health situation,” said Chris Geehern, AIM’s executive vice president of Public Affairs and Communications. “Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet.”

That said, he told BusinessWest, “our members have been satisfied with the state process. It has certainly been a challenge to meet all the requirements, but for most employers, the big issue isn’t what the government tells you to do, but what you know you have to do to ensure that employees, vendors, and customers feel comfortable coming in. It’s going to be a slow recovery whether the government requires these steps or not because people won’t come to your restaurant if you haven’t taken the appropriate safety steps.”

Growing Optimism

Employers hope a timely return to business will allow them to re-hire some of the 1.2 million Massachusetts residents who have filed for unemployment since the onset of the pandemic.

“From a broad perspective, I’m not getting a super pessimistic view from anyone I’ve spoken to,” Szynal said. “Certain people are concerned — they’ve had to make some changes, and they’ve had some struggles. People don’t expect those struggles to end instantly. But people are pretty optimistic for the long term.”

Again, that likely depends in part on the public-health data remaining on a positive track.

“Employers are encouraged that Massachusetts has been able to moderate the number of new COVID-19 cases. We have said all along that the current economic crisis is being driven by the public-health crisis, and that’s what we see here,” Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors, noted in the latest business-confidence report.

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

“Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

AIM President and CEO John Regan added that Baker’s deliberate, four-phase plan has so far been an effective way to reopen the state economy in a safe and efficient manner.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim many lives a day in Massachusetts,” Regan said, adding that employers, “will in many cases need to reconfigure workplaces for social distancing and determine how to implement other safety measures, such as the wearing of protective equipment, continuing work-from-home policies, and ensuring the health of workers and customers.”

While AIM employers have been satisfied with the pace of the rollout, Geehern told BusinessWest, there was some frustration early on, particularly in the retail, restaurant, leisure, and hospitality sectors, which weren’t included in phase 1. “Some thought we should be moving faster. To be honest, I think the events going on down south persuaded most people that slow and safe is still the best way to do all this.”

He conceded that many AIM members are manufacturers, and they were able to return to work in phase 1 — and many were deemed essential workers from the start and never shut down operations. That partly explains why their business confidence has been slightly higher than non-manufacturers.

“They were, in fact, dealing with issues of workplace safety right along — processes like how to create six-feet separation, sanitize common areas, and monitor the health of people coming in,” he said. “This is something they’ve had a lot of experience with. For our group of manufacturers, it’s been a fairly smooth process.”

All Eyes on the Numbers

That said, Geehern noted that if COVID-19 cases began spiking and the governor paused or slowed the reopening, business confidence would clearly suffer.

“It’s still volatile and changeable, but I think it’s fair to say companies in general are satisfied with the pace of the rollout. Believe me, every employer in Massachusetts wishes Governor Baker could wave a magic wand and everything would go back to the way it was, but everyone knows that’s not the case.”

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence. That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

How schools handle students’ return this fall — and what that does to the child-care picture — is a factor as well, he said. “There are a bunch of different elements to the whole picture. They’ll all eventually become clear.”

Part of that clarity is the sad reality that some businesses will be left behind. According to one AIM survey, slightly more than half of companies that furloughed employees will want them all to return when they’re able to bring them back, but some said they won’t be taking any of them back, because they’re planning on going out of business or running a skeleton staff for a while.

“It’s going to be a slow recovery, but our members still think the fundamentals of the economy that existed in February still exist, and I think that’s going to help us,” he noted, adding, however, that leisure and hospitality, as well as mom-and-pop shops of all kinds — two types of businesses that are important to the Franklin County economy — are especially vulnerable right now.

Knowing all of this — the tentatively good health news and the more uncertain economic outlook — Szynal chooses to take the glass-half-full view.

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence,” she said. “That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Come as You Are

Jeremy Goldsher

Jeremy Goldsher says Greenspace CoWork melds modern amenities with a distinctly Greenfield vibe.

Co-working spaces — hives of business where members share office space — have taken root in many Western Mass. communities over the past several years, for a number of reasons, from the efficiency of sharing resources to opportunities to network and be inspired by other professionals. In the past year and a half, two have cropped up a block apart in downtown Greenfield, with different types of clientele but the same goal: to help enterprises develop and grow, and have fun doing it.

The way people work has changed dramatically since the last century, Jeremy Goldsher says — and so has where people work.

“There are so many intelligent people doing incredible things here, and they don’t feel like they have to go to Boston or New York or Hartford or wherever to flourish,” said Goldsher, who launched Greenspace CoWork about 18 months ago with business partner Jeff Sauser. “No, you don’t have to do that anymore. You can do it from locations all over the place.”

But why not just work from home, as so many companies encourage their employees to do? To Goldsher — and others who believe in the value of co-working spaces — it’s about culture, energy, and especially connection.

“In the great rush to connect people with technology, we’ve forgotten one of the most important things that connects people, and that’s human interaction,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we get a lot of really brilliant people who move out here to get away from the cities and raise families, but there’s not a lot of opportunities to interact, congregate, and meet their neighbors.”

That’s why more people are taking advantage of the co-work model. In some cases, he said, they’ve moved to Greenfield specifically because co-working was an option.

“In the great rush to connect people with technology, we’ve forgotten one of the most important things that connects people, and that’s human interaction.”

“We offer the same amenities you’d get in New York or Boston. But you can do it in a rural setting where you can leave work, go down to the river, swim, come back, jump back on your computer, and Skype with someone in Dubai. We have people here whose companies are spread out all over the country or all over the world, yet they can congregate in the kitchenette, talk over coffee, talk about each other’s kids, and maybe grab a beer after work. It’s just wonderful to see these people enrich their own lives.”

A block away in downtown Greenfield, Pat King, executive director of Another Castle, told BusinessWest that he and Paul Hake, CEO of HitPoint Studios, opened their co-working space, which caters to video-game developers and designers, a little over a year ago after the pair recognized its potential.

Pat King says Another Castle

Pat King says Another Castle helps bring together the region’s large and far-flung game-design community through a number of programs.

King worked with Hake for many years, both with HitPoint and its precedessor, Paul Hake Productions, before striking out on his own about four years ago. During that time, he started a group called Pioneer Valley Game Developers, a networking community that now boasts about 300 members, many of whom gather for monthly meetups and events.

King started talking with Hake about the potential of a co-working space specifically geared for this crowd, especially considering that many are small and solo outfits that could benefit from the networking and shared resources Another Castle offers.

“About two years ago, I realized we have such a vibrant community, and a close community that’s really active and wants to get to know each other, so it made sense to look for a space,” King explained. “We’d looked at other models in other cities that have done similar co-working spaces for video-game developers. We had enough people that expressed interest, and thankfully Paul was also interested in moving to a new location and wanted to go in with me on a co-working space for game developers.”

Michael Crigler found, in Greenspace CoWork, an ideal spot for his digital marketing agency, Bueno Social.

Michael Crigler found, in Greenspace CoWork, an ideal spot for his digital marketing agency, Bueno Social.

With just four members now — HitPoint is the anchor tenant, with about 12 employees — Another Castle has plenty of room to grow, despite the specific challenges of this niche-specific model (more on that later). But King, like Goldsher, is excited about the way the co-working environment encourages professionals to come together in the heart of Greenfield, rather than working alone.

Back to Life

Four years ago, Goldsher’s family bought the four-story building on the corner of Main Street and Court Square out of bankruptcy and rebranded it the Hawks & Reed building, after a former clothing store on Main Street. They have since brought new life — and many more events — to the arts and music space on the first floor, while Goldsher and Sauser worked to develop Greenspace CoWork on the upper floors.

The two met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City.

“I was seeing co-working really starting to take off there, and it was something I wanted to see here. This is the wave of the future in workspaces for my generation, to address the modern needs of workers wherever they are,” said Goldsher, noting that the space has been designed with a Franklin County aesthetic in mind, with original wood floors, reclaimed materials, and greenery. “We didn’t want to throw a bunch of stuff into a space and say ‘done.’ It’s not overproduced, and it reflects Greenfield.”

His biggest challenge right now is building out more space in a building that could eventually house about 150 workers — although, like all co-work spaces, they’re typically not there all at once. About 30 individuals and companies call Greenspace home right now. Open 24/7, the facility has two secured entrances, and one of its conference rooms has access directly from the street without having to walk through the rest of the co-working space, which appeals to lawyers who meet with clients there.

Michael Crigler, who heads up digital marketing agency Bueno Social, is one of the original Greenspace clients, and is currently working with Goldsher to create a new logo and branding and redo its website.

“We had our own office down the street,” Crigler said. “It was nice, but my business partner and I were on the road a lot, meeting new clients, and we have a pretty big remote workforce; employees can work from anywhere. When just one or two people were in that big office, it felt empty, and didn’t feel like there was a lot going on, and we wanted to be more part of a community, where we can collaborate with people.”

When he heard about Greenspace, he was immediately intrigued.

“That week, I was like, ‘we’re going to get rid of our office and move in here.’ So far, our employees love it,” he noted. “I’ve never felt a sense of ease like I feel working here. Jeremy’s vision, and the way he’s built out the space, are warm and inviting, and the people it attracts are very cool. I’m really excited about the next few years in Greenfield.”

“About two years ago, I realized we have such a vibrant community, and a close community that’s really active and wants to get to know each other, so it made sense to look for a space.”

Members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, Goldsher said, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, conference rooms, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

Members range from stay-at-home fathers who show up in the wee hours to get some work done in a professional setting to Australis Aquaculture, an international fish-farming operation headquartered in Vietnam. When its fish farm in Turners Falls was shuttered and the farming operations consolidated overseas, the company needed a place to house eight employees who focus on sales and distribution to large food retailers in the U.S.

“I think it’s a great concept,” said Jackie Galvis, an administrative, financial, and human-resources assistant with Australis. “And it’s cool because this is a historic building.”

Goldsher said it was beyond his expectations to have a company of that size as a member, but at the same time, it makes sense.

“They were downsizing their space but wanted to upgrade in the amenities and the culture,” he noted. “We’re just lucky to have people from the community believe in what we’re building here and invest in our dream. You hear these stories about the synergy that happens in a co-working space, but it’s actually happening.”

Game On

It’s happening at Another Castle as well, though perhaps at a different pace. Besides the 10 HitPoint staffers who work there, Vermont Digital Arts utilizes the space, while the rest of the current members include a 3D artist, a software engineer, and an electrical engineer.

Greenspace CoWork’s private, soundproof phone booths

Greenspace CoWork’s private, soundproof phone booths were designed and built in house.

“It’s a slightly different beast than a general co-working space,” King said, noting that only about half the game developers and designers in the region are making money in this field, making it difficult to afford even the reasonable rates co-work spaces charge.

“I’ve seen numerous success stories of people who have been able to get work through the community, either from HitPoint or word of mouth,” he noted. “So people are definitely interested, but it can be a challenge making pricing work because it’s a hobbyist community. People want to support the space but can’t necessarily join.”

That’s why he and Hake are exploring the possibility of adding incubator space at even lower cost, to attract more startups who might benefit from the synergies, guidance, and networking opportunities available, as well as the 24/7 access and shared resources — not just the wi-fi, conference rooms, and flexible membership plans common to most co-working spaces, but a wide array of cutting-edge computer hardware to be used for testing, playing, or just for being productive.

And the events, too. Another Castle often serves as a community space for events like last month’s Global Game Jam, which drew about 50 participants who designed games for a frenzied 48 hours, producing 15 games by the end of the weekend.

“That was amazing to see a packed space, all people working on different projects,” King said. “We also host monthly educational events and a few workshops here, and we’ve led a couple at GCC and other institutions.”

Greenspace CoWork hosts community meetings as well, Goldsher said, just another way he hopes the venture connects professionals to the city and region around them.

“We want our members to be able to accomplish what they would in a corporate setting, but we also want them to go out into the community and enjoy all the resources and the natural beauty here,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he dreamed of something resembling a co-working environment when he was a kid, even though he had no idea they actually existed, or what they were called.

“This is just a child bringing his dream to life,” he said. “I’ve created a comfortable space that’s open 24/7, and anyone is welcome to join.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Connecting Past and Present

Philip Zea says Historic Deerfield paints an often-surprising picture

Philip Zea says Historic Deerfield paints an often-surprising picture of a large swath of the region’s cultural history.

It’s a grand reopening more than 200 years in the making.

Specifically, it’s a house in Deerfield, built in 1795, that operated as a tavern for roughly a decade.

“We know a lot about it, and because most Americans today travel, we thought it would be great to show the public how people back then lived, not when they were at home, but when they were out and about,” said Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, the living-history museum that comprises more than 50 buildings on or near sleepy Old Main Street.

“Believe it or not, our tranquil street here, north and south, back in the day, was the equivalent of Interstate 91,” Zea went on, adding that Old Albany Road connected with the 18th-century equivalent of the Mass Pike, making Deerfield a sort of crossroads of New England, frequented not only by locals, but by travelers.

Refurbishing that tavern — it will open later this year — is the latest capital project undertaken at Historic Deerfield to expand the scope of the history the museum aims to convey across its 110 acres, he told BusinessWest. “We want to tell that story, what the country was like when it was on the move — not today, but in the 1790s and a little bit later.”

Upstairs from the tavern is a big assembly room that quickly became the largest public space in town, so the tavern keeper drew income from renting that space, for court proceedings, auctions, and balls. Deerfield Academy was founded in that room in 1797.

Zea can share countless historical details like that one in this complex that includes 28 houses built in the 1700s and another 14 that predate 1850. “The skyline is intact, if you will.”

“When people feel the need to know more about the past, we need to be more inventive about how we share it.”

So is business at Historic Deerfield, which opened to the public 71 years ago and has continued to evolve its programs and exhibitions to keep visitors returning and, crucially, keep attracting new generations at a time when it’s not always easy to turn young people on to history.

Knock, Knock

That ‘71 years’ may be an official statistic, as Historic Deerfield was indeed begun in 1947, and its first museum house, the Ashley House (built in 1733), opened its doors to visitors in 1948.

Yet, the street was a sort of unofficial museum well before that. The local library has correspondence, from the 1830s, from two Mount Holyoke College students who wanted to head north and visit Deerfield’s houses, which even then were old. One homeowner charged them a dime to come in and see the house. “That’s the business of history,” Zea laughed.

And it’s often significant history, he went on. During the early Colonial wars, Deerfield was the northwestern point of English settlements in the region, so while people lived and farmed there, it was also a military outpost. Around the time of the American Revolution, the town was an organizational point for troops moving north and west. The week before Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen took Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, Arnold was in Deerfield, buying beef for the army. “That’s real history,” Zea said. “It happened right here.”

For decades, families, school groups, and others have trekked to Deerfield for both its palpable history and its reflection of a quintessential new England village, Zea said. “If someone visits New England, they might go to Fenway Park, or get a lobster in Maine, but if they want a feel for what it was really like long ago, they’ll come here.”

That’s true of Old Sturbridge Village as well, but he doesn’t believe Historic Deerfield is really in competition with that complex, because often visitors want to check out both sites. We’re quite different. They’re interpreting 1830s New England life; it’s all about process and how people made their livings. Rather than focusing on a specific time, we’re one-stop shopping if you want to look at history from the 1770s, or even earlier, to today. If you want to be in a place and feel the expanse of history, this is the place you want to come.”

To keep visitors returning, the museum — which boasts 61 full-time and 115 part-time employees — needs to make it relevant, and that’s not always easy.

“The apex of this kind of museum in America was back around the Bicentennial. That’s when the biggest crowds went to places like this. That was about patriotism, about the roots of the country, the roots of American democracy,” he explained.

“That’s still important,” he went on, “but when people feel the need to know more about the past, we need to be more inventive about how we share it. It’s not always political history; it’s not always military history. What we do here is more about the history of culture in the Connecticut River Valley and the roots of small-town America in a place like Deerfield.”

Even the colors of the houses tell a story. Today, paint colors cost pretty much the same, but back in the 1700s, blue pigment was derived from cobalt, which was expensive. “So, if you could paint your whole house blue, it was like parking a fancy car in the driveway.”

Maintaining the condition of the museum houses and other structures — and expanding the activities within them — accounts for some of Historic Deerfield’s $7.7 million annual budget, bolstered partly by a $49 million endowment and the 1,317-member Friends of Historic Deerfield, which supports the museum through annual gifts from individual and corporate donors.

“We’re finding ways to move forward on the programmatic front, as well as historic preservation,” Zea noted. “One of our problems is, we’ve got a pretty good-sized physical plant, a lot of which is old, by the nature of the place, so historic preservation is important for us; it’s part of our mission and part of our responsibility that requires a fair amount of cash to keep going.”

The other key is to expand the audience because, obviously, the more people who come, the better — both for the museum and the region at large.

“Deerfield’s a little different from other museums in that, while we charge admission to our buildings, it’s a gateless museum. You can come to Old Deerfield, walk around, have a great time, and I don’t get into your wallet,” said Zea, who used to work at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which operates under a similar structure on a larger scale. “But visitors, even visitors we really can’t count, are important not only to us, but to the regional economy, because we draw a lot of people to Franklin County.”

Lens to History

To keep drawing them, Historic Deerfield continues to expand both its programs and the physical space in which to present them. In the latter case, the organization recently purchased the home of 19th-century artist James Wells, built during the 1760s and known as Elmstead, to expand public programming and storage.

As for those programs, one ongoing lecture series, “Native Voices: Rediscovering American Histories,” which began with a well-attended event in January and continuing on Feb. 24 and March 24, aims to reframe the experience and perspectives of indigenous peoples into broader American narratives.

Then, on April 13 — the day that kicks off daily operations after the weekends-only winter schedule — Historic Deerfield will host its annual Patriots’ Day festivities, featuring a military re-enactment group from Connecticut and discussions about the impact of the Revolution on the people of Deerfield.

All of it, said Laurie Nivison, the museum’s director of Marketing, is intended to make history relevant to those who want to learn about it.

“With today’s audience, it’s telling the story and encouraging people to think about how it relates to their life and how their life might connect to one of the families who lived in the houses here,” she told BusinessWest. “When we bring people to come [give presentations] here, we want them to make that connection as well.”

Those connections can be powerful, Zea said, and visitors interact with the history in different ways. “Part of what a place like this peddles is nostalgia — what was it like then, or imagining how they did this and that. So, a big part of our constituency doesn’t want anything to change because that’s the nature of nostalgia.

“But then, there’s an equal part of our constituency that wants to learn more, learn different things, look at Deerfield in different ways,” he went on. “And there are so many ways to do that here because, while Historic Deerfield is a great institution, Old Deerfield is a great place in history. And we’re a sort of lens to that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Hive of Activity

Mary Winzer Canning, owner of Follow the Honey.

Mary Winzer Canning, owner of Follow the Honey.

The movement toward innovation centers and collaborative maker spaces might be hot right now across Western Mass., but the Orange Innovation Center was on the cutting edge when it opened 20 years ago in this small Franklin County town. Under its current ownership, the complex has doubled its tenant roster over the past five years, in turn boosting perhaps its greatest calling card — the built-in support of a business community invested in seeing each other succeed.

Mary Winzer Canning characterizes her business, Follow the Honey, as a “human-rights honey company” that creates products with honey sourced from beekeepers and small-batch producers around the world. So she knows a little something about bees — and their habitats.

“No bee in isolation is effective because it operates as a superorganism,” she explained. “It’s about what’s best for the whole.”

The same can be said for the Orange Innovation Center (OIC) and the 48 businesses that call the complex — nestled in the woods in this Franklin County town of 4,500 residents — home.

“It’s a hive,” Winzer Canning said. “There’s a sense of egalitarianism here, where everyone is really rolling together. We want this to be a place where people are not in their silos. It’s the whole idea of having an open hive where everyone can learn from each other and help each other. It’s about giving; it’s about problem solving.”

And it’s about community, tenants repeatedly pointed out when BusinessWest spent the better part of a morning at the complex recently.

“I love that fact that I get to pamper the people with businesses here in the community, just building those bonds and really cross-advertising each other,” said Danalynn Stockwood, who owns the Fun Fancy Nails salon, just a quick walk down the hall from other personal-care businesses.

“I tell my customers, ‘hey, if you need your hair done or colored, we have a little salon right around the corner, and if you need a facial or waxing, go down the hall,’ and it’s just nice to have that support amongst each other,” she said. “We’re always saying, ‘hey, have you tried the Valley Farm Café?’ or ‘have you tried the gym?’ and ‘have you seen the honey?’ It’s just such a great family.”

Then-building owner Noel Vincent launched the Orange Innovation Center as a mixed-use destination 20 years ago, but occupancy really began to soar under its current owner, Jack Dunphy, who bought the complex in 2013 and has increased its tenant roster from 26 to 48.

“The mill owners had just left these abandoned buildings in the post-industrial era, so Noel started converting it into offices and multi-purpose suites,” said Brianna Drohen, the center’s development director. “He was actually a visionary; this is one of the first innovation centers in the state, if not the country.”

When Dunphy, who also owns Dunphy Real Estate, purchased the property, about 75,000 of its 128,000 square feet were rented, and he saw plenty of potential in the rest — but, more than that, an investment he could truly enjoy.

Brianna Drohen and Jack Dunphy

Brianna Drohen and Jack Dunphy have seen tenancy surge to nearly 50 businesses at the Orange Innovation Center.

“I met some of the tenants and saw a real sparkle in their eye and realized this could be fun,” he recalled. “And if you can do something fun and maybe make a little money along the way, that’s an exciting business venture — and it has been.”

The tenants, several of whom were enthusiastic about speaking with BusinessWest, range from a clinical psychologist to a photographer; from a career-services center to the Literacy Project, and even the Center for Human Development, which houses a branch on the ground floor.

“The kinds of businesses we concentrate on tend to be in the service industries, so they’re bringing in foot traffic — a brewery, a nail salon, a hair salon, a gym, a massage therapist, and there are also lot of professional offices. There’s a really healthy mix of businesses. And we’re strategic about who we let in here,” Drohen said, noting that she and Dunphy don’t allow competing businesses unless an existing tenant doesn’t mind.

“It’s about revenue,” she went on, “but at the end of the day, it’s more about growing this business community and having all the businesses be able to work with each other and sustain each other and support each other in any way they can.”

They certainly do, and in many ways, as we were quick to discover.

Food for Thought

Matt Buzzell has been in the food-service industry for almost a quarter-century, working in establishments in New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. He said he wouldn’t have recognized the potential of the OIC, where he opened Valley Farm Café in July, just by looking at the understated old mill.

“Driving by, you have no idea what’s going on. But this place has a heartbeat — there’s a pulse when you walk in the doors and look around and see these businesses … it’s very energizing.”

He was introduced to the center by Jay Sullivan and Sean Nolan, the proprietors of Honest Weight Artisan Beer, who gave him their spent grain to feed the hogs on his nearby farm. “I found out through them that this opportunity was going to come up — the previous café owner didn’t want to do it anymore — so, long story short, I got together with Bri, had a meeting, and proposed a business plan.”

It turned out to be a successful one; the enterprise — which serves up salads, sandwiches, Tex-Mex fare, smoothies, and more, with ingredients sourced from local farms — draws a long line during the lunch rush, and virtually everyone who spoke with BusinessWest mentioned the café, not just for the food, but for its role as a nexus for making connections and hanging out with other business owners.

“I believe in the economic-development renaissance going on in the area, and that’s what was attractive about coming here,” Buzzell said. “I’m very thankful for the reception I’ve received from the tenants, the sense of community — the support from them is very humbling.”

Carly Mongeau has worked in the hair-salon business all her professional life, mostly in the Worcester and Marlborough areas, but once she settled in Petersham, she fell in love with the Franklin County culture. She stumbled upon the Orange Innovation Center two years ago, and the timing wasn’t right, but when she took a second look last year, she couldn’t stop thinking about the potential. One of the newer tenants, she opened Salon Nouve in January.

“It’s a great opportunity for someone who’s starting a new business to have space versus having to find a whole building — it’s a little more affordable, and a great way to get started,” she explained.

That’s partly because the tenants, especially those in similar fields, not only patronize each other, but also create a one-stop shop of sorts, which they all benefit from.

“Around the corner is a nail salon and a skin-care business, so we’re a good trio,” Mongeau explained, noting that her last client that day, a business owner in Athol, had told her she couldn’t regularly get her nails and hair done if she didn’t have a place to schedule everything at once.

Meanwhile, she added, a handful of women business owners at the OIC meet regularly for lunch. “We all brainstorm and bounce ideas off each other. We’re all different businesses, but we all have common ground in one way or another.”

She also appreciates the way different business owners talk each other up to customers.

“I recommend people to Matt all the time, and Matt recommends people to me. They smell the food as they’re walking up and say, ‘that smells amazing,’ and I say, ‘you have to go check out Matt.’ Or, ‘now that you’re all beautiful, you’ll have to go stop and get a drink at Honest Weight.’ It’s a great one-stop shop, and that’s what most of my clients love — that they can come here and get everything taken care of in a very accessible way.”

Matt Buzzell has seen Valley Farm Café become a hub of sorts

Matt Buzzell has seen Valley Farm Café become a hub of sorts at the OIC, where small-business owners make connections over breakfast or lunch.

Phil Simon is one of the veteran tenants at the OIC, having headquartered his music booking and publicity company, Simon Says Booking, there for a dozen years. Meanwhile, his wife, Angel Simon, and her mother, Lynn England, operate Old 78 Clothing — which makes upcycled and refashioned music-festival wear — elsewhere in the building.

Simon, who previously lived in Oregon, ran his company — which represents about 20 bands doing up to 1,500 shows a year, in addition to representing venues and festivals — from Boston and then Greenfield before moving to Warwick and finding ideal office space in Orange.

“I was an early adopter; it was a matter of convenience for me,” he said, adding that he appreciates the balance between a quiet workspace and the ability to chat with other tenants when he wants to.

“Even though we have our privacy in our office, I could walk down and get something in the café, there’s a gym here, and we can interact with a variety of other local businesses and talk about the things we’re doing. We don’t have to be locked in our box all day long.”

Those neighbors aren’t just friends and sounding boards, however; they’re also resources. For example, he was able to locate a tow-behind generator, to be used at an event this summer, through another OIC tenant. “It’s not surprising; there’s quite a network going on here. We get people knocking on the door all the time.”

Launching an Idea

Like Simon, Alec MacLeod has been at the OIC for a long time; in fact, he was one of Vincent’s earliest tenants, running a wetlands and watershed consultancy. Today, he’s teaming up with Drohen on a project to turn 10,000 square feet in a currently unusable building in the complex into LaunchSpace, a ‘community workshop’ that will provide resources, equipment, training, and support to a broad spectrum of people.

To explain it, MacLeod broke down the endeavor into three tiers. First is a community-based set of shops with three rooms: an arts room for paper arts, fabric arts, pottery, etching, glass blowing, and photography; a large room entirely devoted to robotics and information technology; and a third room divided between metalworking and woodworking.

The second tier is an emphasis on workforce development and education, aimed at improving the employability and salary of members who may, for instance, learn how to operate CNC (computer numeric control) machinery, an important skill in manufacturing. MacLeod has reached out to both local manufacturers about what their workforce needs are, and the region’s colleges and universities about developing courses for the space.

The third tier is entrepreneurial support, he added. “If you would like to be a cabinetmaker or some other type of woodworker, for instance, but you don’t have $30,000 or the room at your own place to set up your own shop, you can buy an entrepreneurial membership here, month to month, and come use our equipment.”

He noted that members will also access storage, marketing services, help with writing a business plan, and the services of board members including two local credit-union representatives and the head of the North Quabbin Chamber of Commerce. As small businesses develop, they may incubate into spaces at the OIC or, better yet, need more space out in the community.

Carly Mongeau, who loves the Franklin County lifestyle

Carly Mongeau, who loves the Franklin County lifestyle, found in the OIC an ideal spot to grow Salon Nouve.

“This is economic development at the most basic,” MacLeod said. “This is grass-roots, town-scale economic development without needing to invite Apple to build a big factory.”

Drohen noted that Jay Ash, the state’s secretary of Housing and Economic Development, supported a recent $250,000 MassDevelopment Collaborative Workspace Initiative grant to improve the LaunchSpace site, because Ash is a believer in what’s happening in this corner of Franklin County.

“He sees how one business owner, Jack, can host all these businesses, and the state sees this whole collaborative workspace as the new way of doing business. This is where people can grow and can incubate and collaborate.”

Dunphy envisions LaunchSpace as the sort of environment where a middle-schooler might work alongside an 80-year old on woodworking equipment. “There will be interaction that normally doesn’t happen in a community, where different people who wouldn’t otherwise associate with each other are suddenly working together on a project.”

That also, in a way, describes the entire ecosystem at the Innovation Center.

“We’re all here earning our own livings,” MacLeod said, “but when we meet in the café, we have conversations, and we talk about what’s going on — ‘how is your business going? How are you doing? What are the hard parts?’ — and we help each other out. It’s a business community, and it really does foster innovation.”

Bee Ambitious

In a sense, innovation has been happening at the OIC since it housed Minute Tapioca in the early days of the 20th century. It was a multi-use complex in the middle of the century, hosting a sewing company, a shoemaker, and a retail store, among other businesses, before the Bedroom Company, a furniture manufacturer, set up shop in the 1960s.

Today, it’s back to multi-use, but the original tapioca vat is still in the basement, too expensive to remove. On the roof is a 93-kilowatt solar array, with plans to install another on the building that will house LaunchSpace.

That combination of old and new, historic and cutting-edge, isn’t unlike what Adam Suzor brings to the OIC, running two separate businesses: his own information-technology outfit, Suzor Enterprises, LLC — he also maintains the Innovation Center’s Internet service — and a fitness center, where he has incorporated digital technology into the equipment and is gratified when senior citizens join Snapchat to check out the gym’s activities there.

Some business relationships, however, are strictly old-fashioned, such as the bartering that goes on; for example, the resident photographer recently paid for massage services with a photo session.

Meanwhile, Dunphy is emphasizing the complex’s natural surroundings, planning a shuttle service for people who want to kayak or canoe on Millers River, right outside the OIC’s back door. A system of hiking and bike trails, stretching to New Hampshire, is equally accessible.

“We’re trying to offer more amenities to encourage people to come here,” he said. “We put a shower in just for that reason — if you take a bike ride or go to the gym, and then have to go to a meeting.”

In short, it’s a place to enjoy being at work, grow a business, and, in many cases, outgrow the space and have to find other digs, as North Quabbin Food Co-op, which incubated at the Innovation Center, did when it changed its name to Quabbin Harvest and moved into a building in downtown Orange, a short walk up the road.

Stockwood, on the other hand, who lives in Athol and used to rent a booth at a nail salon in Fitchburg before finding the OIC, believes she’ll thrive there for the foreseeable future.

“I absolutely love being here. It’s a cozy atmosphere for my clients,” she said, adding that she maintains a ‘party room’ one door down, where girls and women can get together for baby showers, birthday parties, or other events.

“Everyone gets to paint their nails and do some artwork and have some fun,” she said, adding that “this is my haven. My 11-year-old says, ‘are you going up to your castle?’ I call it my getaway, my quiet space, and it’s just nice to have.”

Winzer Canning feels that way, too, knowing she can throw open her doors any time to make her quiet space a little more social. She operated a yoga studio at the OIC a decade ago and was happy to return to build her bee-based business.

“There’s definitely beauty in numbers; it builds morale. Just go into the hallway — it’s like Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. There’s Matt, smoking his pork out back. There’s Shawn and Jay doing things with their hops, and there’s Brianna talking with the film crew down the hall. She’s the queen bee,” she said with a laugh.

“People are doing their own daily grind, but at the same time, you’re not working in isolation,” she went on. “It really is a hive where you can feel connected to something greater.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Living the Dream

Bob Pura

Seen here with two of many works of art created by GCC students and faculty, Bob Pura says he knew early on that he wanted to make the community-college mission his career.

Bob Pura couldn’t help but laugh and shake his head as he talked about it. And that’s because the whole idea of it was so, well, foreign to him — in every way.

He and his wife will be flying into Edinburgh, Scotland in July to visit their daughter, who’s studying there. “And we bought one-way tickets,” he said, uttering those last three words slowly for emphasis and in a voice that conveyed as much as three exclamation points.

“We might stay a week, we might stay two … we don’t know,” said Pura, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC) since 2000, adding that this is one of the many perks of a retirement that will start in two months — and a radical departure from a 40-year career marked by crammed calendars, countless appointments, and rigid schedules.

And something else as well — extreme devotion to the community-college mission.

In fact, you might say Pura bought the equivalent of a one-way ticket to a career in the community-college realm back in 1980 when he came to the Bay State and took a job on the Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges.

By the time he was working toward his doctorate in educational administration at the University of Texas in Austin a dozen years later (a setting chosen specifically because of its commitment to work in the community-college domain) he was, as they say at that school, hooked.

“I knew by then that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my career — the community-college mission,” he told BusinessWest. “That mission about opening your doors to everyone and holding our high standards is a noble mission, and people who are part of the community-college movement feel a special passion for social and economic mobility.

“It’s a bit of a cliché, but it still brings great meaning to many of us —that American dream where someone can start without much of a background and still have an opportunity to create a better life for themselves and their families,” he went on. “It’s part of what motivates us every day.”

Pura said his passion for the community-college mission stems in large part from the fact that he is a product of that system. In fact, he calls himself the “classic community-college poster child of the Baby Boom age.”

“My father was an immigrant; he never graduated from high school — worked in a deli his whole life,” Pura told BusinessWest, adding that he was the first in his family to attend college — Miami Dade Community College in Miami, to be more specific.

It was, in large part, the only door open to him at the time, he went on, and once through it, he created a host of career options and paths to follow.

It started by going through that door, he said, adding that, for millions of people across the country, it’s the same today. But aside from opening doors for students, community colleges play a huge role in their respective communities, he said, listing everything from workforce-development initiatives to simply being one of the area’s largest employers. And in Franklin County, it goes well beyond that, to a realm that couldn’t be appreciated anywhere else in the state.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest during spring break, Pura, asked about a parking lot half-full of cars, replied that students and other members of the community were on campus simply because they can’t get Internet access at home.

“So much of our West County still doesn’t have service,” he said matter-of-factly, referring to communities such as Heath, Rowe, and Conway. “You can’t get connectivity up there, so people come here more. It’s a serious challenge to the economic and social development of the area; it’s hard to get young families to move here if they can’t have high-speed Internet access.”

“Community colleges have a most significant impact on the communities they serve,” he explained while putting that aforementioned mission, and his career, into some proper perspective. “A long time ago, a college friend of mine said that if Amherst or Williams College were to close, those students would find somewhere else to go. If a community college were to close…”

He didn’t give a full answer to that question because he didn’t have to. And in retrospect, he’s spent his whole career reminding people of the answer.

For this edition and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest talked at length with Pura as he winds down that career. There were many talking points, including GCC and its ever-widening role, the community-college mission, and, yes, that one-way ticket he bought. Actually, both of them.

Class Act

The unknown student might have been born almost 30 years after they broke up, but he or she obviously knows the Beatles and their song lyrics.

“Help! I need somebody,” it said on one side of the card positioned on a stand sitting on a table in GCC’s Math Studio, with “Help! Not just anybody” on the other side.

That message was eventually seen by one of the math professors at GCC — not just anybody — and help was administered, said Pura, adding that this was just the scenario that was envisioned when this studio (actually the second such facility at the college) was created several years ago.

“This is a unique learning environment,” said Pura as he stopped at the studio during an extensive tour of GCC’s facilities, noting that the studio model, envisioned by the math faculty, creates a learning area surrounded by faculty offices.

the learning studios at GCC

Bob Pura says the learning studios at GCC are symbolic of broader efforts at the institution to build community and come together to solve problems.

“Those faculty members said, ‘we want to have our math students with us, with our offices right around that room, so we can check in on them,’” he explained. “They embraced their commitment to having students close to them; the students didn’t have to make appointments or wait two weeks — the faculty were right there. And then the Business Department said, ‘hey, we want one of those,’ and then the sciences, and on it went.”

The college now has studios all throughout the campus, said Pura, adding that these facilities have become symbols of the community-building work that has more or less defined his administration at GCC (more on that later).

First, Pura likes to tell the story about how a group of students were enjoying their time at the Math Studio so much, they didn’t want to leave — and didn’t — prompting security to call the president’s office and request instructions on what to do.

“I got the call at 5 o’clock on a Friday night — and no president wants to get a call from security at 5 o’clock on Friday night,” he recalled. “They said students in the studio don’t want to leave; they have a math test on Monday, and they just ordered a pizza. I said, ‘that’s exactly the kind of problem we want.’”

Pura has a large collection of stories amassed from more than four decades of work in higher education, all of it in Massachusetts.

But our story, as noted earlier, begins in Florida. After graduating from Miami Dade Community College, he transferred to the University of South Florida in Tampa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1973. Four years later, he would add a master’s in human resources administration at St. Thomas University in Miami.

As he contemplated where to pursue a career in higher education, he applied some logic to the process.

“If you’re in theater, you go to Broadway; if you’re in movies, you go to Hollywood,” he explained. “If you want to be in higher ed, you go to Massachusetts.”

He did, starting in 1978 at the Massachusetts Board of Regional Community Colleges as program coordinator of something called Title XX. Based in Boston, he worked with all 15 community colleges. Later, he joined one of them, Massasoit Community College in Brockton, as chair of the Division of Career Studies, and over the next 14 years, he worked his way up to chair of the Health and Human Services Division and then assistant dean of Academic Affairs.

In the summer of 1995, he became dean of Academic Affairs at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield and served in that capacity for five years, until he was urged to apply for the position of interim president at GCC. He did, and he prevailed in that search and later earned the job on a permanent basis.

Over the past 18 years, he’s presided over a number of impressive changes to the campus infrastructure, while broadening its already considerable role within the community.

A major expansion of the core building roughly a decade ago, which includes a new dining commons, a new library, considerably more glass (and, therefore, natural light), and works of art created by students and faculty on every wall (the school is renowned for its art programs), is a very visible transformation, he said.

But he put things in perspective, while also bringing the discussion back to where he likes it — the community-college mission — by saying, “we finally have a building that matches the excellence of our faculty and staff.

“The values of the institution are found in the design of the building,” he went on. “We had great architects to work with, and they listened, but it was all about the values of the institution.”

School of Thought

And this brings Pura back to those studios he mentioned and the community mindset they symbolize.

“There’s a clarity of focus on relationships and community here,” he explained, referring to the studios but also the college as a whole. “And when relationships are powerful and community is powerful and people know they belong somewhere, then learning is powerful.

“The transformative nature of higher education is at its best in that environment,” he went on. “And we’ve been able to crystalize that here; it’s always been part of the core, but we were able to really make it an explicit part of our commitment.”

Continuing with that theme of the studio as a microcosm of what goes on at GCC, he said students in them work together in teams, helping each other work through problems.

“They realize they’re not alone in their learning,” he explained. “And so, when you think about that, it reinforces what will happen when they leave the higher-ed environment; they’re going to go into a work environment where they’re going to work with others in teams and solve problems.”

The progress GCC has made in this regard — in building community and forging relationships within the campus and across the region it serves — bodes well for the school and the president who will succeed him, said Pura. But there are some considerable challenges ahead — for that school, all the community colleges, and public higher education itself, he went on.

Most of these challenges involve resources, he continued, adding that all public schools suffer as the state’s commitment to public higher education wanes, but especially the smaller ones like GCC.

“The struggle is to maintain the kinds of services that are needed for each student,” he explained. “Right now, the strength of the college is that we still have the capacity — and the passion — to form-fit education around each individual; we don’t believe that one size fits all.

“Somewhere along the line I heard that getting an education at GCC is like getting a suit from a tailor and not one off the rack, and I think that’s a special privilege that comes from a small school,” he went on, adding that maintaining this type of custom-tailored education will become ever more challenging in the future, especially as the state continues to shift the cost of public education to students and their families.

As for community colleges as a whole and that mission he embraced 40 years ago, Pura said these institutions have certainly found their place in higher education today. The assignment moving forward is to build on the momentum that has built and make community colleges an attractive option not only to first-generation college students, but second- and third-generation students as well, especially as the cost of higher education continues to soar.

To get his point across, he went back 45 years to when he was a community-college student, a situation that gave him an opportunity to “explore,” as he put it, while trying to chart a path.

“When you’re paying $70,000 a year for a bachelor’s degree, it’s hard to explore,” he said. “At $5,000 or $6,000 a year, you have a lot more breathing space.”

Overall, he’s more than content with how community colleges have registered gains when it comes to overall acceptance and their role within society and the economy. And he’s proud to be a part of it.

“We’ve been accepted in the higher-ed landscape,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a seat at table; great gains have been made over the years, and the future of work is going to be honed and shaped by good conversations at community colleges in consult with the employers in their communities.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said in conclusion. “But there’s more work to be done, because, in many ways, the associate’s degree has become the new entry level into society and work; 12 years and a high school is not enough to develop the kinds of skills needed to succeed given the way society has changed and technology has changed.”

Plane Speaking

As he was wrapping up his tour, Pura noted that, while he has only a few months left at the helm at GCC, his talk with BusinessWest amounted to his first real exercise in reflection upon his career.

“I haven’t given myself the opportunity to look back much — there’s still too much to look forward to,” he said. “But it’s been a privilege to be part of that mission — a real privilege.”

With that, he noted that, despite their differences in education and career paths, he shares something very important with his father — love for their respective chosen fields.

“I have a picture of my dad — one picture of him on our wall,” he said. “It’s a picture of him at work with five salamis in his arms behind the counter, and the most natural, wonderful smile on his face. The man was happy. So I tell students at orientation that I’m going to look for that smile — that authentic, real, ‘I’m happy, I’ve found what I want to do’ smile.”

Pura’s been wearing one of those for about 40 years now, ever since he bought his first one-way ticket — the one to a career fulfilling the community-college mission.

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