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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]