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Berkshire East Positions Itself as Outdoor Adventure Center

Berkshire East’s new mountain coaster

Berkshire East’s new mountain coaster opened last October and has earned the distinction of being the longest alpine mountain coaster in North America.

In the fall of 1976, Roy Schaefer drove his family from Michigan to Charlemont to look at Thunder Mountain Ski Resort, which was about to go bankrupt.

Although it was failing, Schaefer was optimistic that he could bring it back to life, and he and a partner purchased it from Greenfield Savings Bank for $1, plus a debt of several hundred thousand dollars.

Schaefer renamed the resort Berkshire East, and although his hard work and dedication paid off, he dedicated only the fall and winter months to the operation.

“My father and his partner operated a ferryboat company in the summer on Mackinaw Island in Michigan, and when the ski area ended, all of their energy shifted there,” said Roy’s son, Jonathan Schafer, who co-owns Berkshire East Mountain Resort with his family.

However, Roy and his partner kept the area alive, and it became a place where generations of families learned to ski. But, because it was a seasonal operation dependent on weather, he battled Mother Nature for decades. However, his commitment and belief that outdoor recreation is a sustainable model for economic growth not only helped area businesses and provided seasonal employment, but was passed on to his four children.

Today, the resort is undergoing a $5 million transformation and is ushering in a bevy of recreational activities designed to transform it into a year-round destination that offers not only alpine skiing, but snow tubing, ziplining, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and the opportunity to ride North America’s longest mountain coaster.

The family also added overnight accommodations to the resort last September by purchasing the nearby, 530-acre Warfield House Inn and Farm, a bed and breakfast located just over a mile from Berkshire East that operates as a working farm complete with llamas, cattle, chickens, and gardens.

Jonathan has worked alongside his father for years, and says he and his brothers developed their own vision for expanding the family ski resort into a year-round retreat years ago.

“We were all ski racers who traveled the world, and due to our racing, we got to see a lot of things: bungee jumping in New Zealand, mountain biking, and other amazing activities,” he said. “We knew that we wanted to bring them to Charlemont and also realized that the Berkshires compare to any mountain range anywhere.

“We never had a written master plan, but we knew where we wanted to go with the resort due to our shared experience,” he went on, “and our goal now is to become the number-one family, four-season resort in Southern New England.”

The vision morphed into reality in 2008, when Jonathan’s brother, James, who lives in New York City, bought out his father’s business partner in Michigan.

Change began almost immediately, and in 2009, Berkshire East installed its first new recreational venue, Zipline Canopy Tours, that would change its status from a winter resort into one that offered year-round activities.

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest looks at the many changes and additions at Berkshire East, and how the resort is now at the top of its game — in more ways than one.

Reaching New Heights

The expanded venue has been a success, and people can choose three different zipline options that begin with a ride up the mountain on a chair lift that offers panoramic views of the Deerfield Valley. The descent is exciting, moving from platform to platform through mountainous terrain, and Zipline Canopy Tours was named by USA Today as one of the top 10 ziplines in the nation.

“The tours are guided and were built to fit in with the landscape. It’s a great adventure that lasts two to two and a half hours,” Jonathan said.

The Schaefer family has always strived to be in tune with nature, and in 2011 they installed a wind turbine, followed by a 10-acre solar field in 2012.

“We were the first ski area to produce all of our own electricity, and we remain the only ski area in the world to produce renewable energy on site,” Jonathan told BusinessWest.

Berkshire Whitewater

Berkshire Whitewater will begin offering rafting trips in May, with a variety of excursions designed for people of different ages and abilities.

The wind turbine powers the pumps that transform water into snow, and from 2009 to 2013, Berkshire East made dramatic upgrades to its snowmaking operation. “We also added a mountaintop pond, which allowed us to double our snow guns and open earlier each season,” Jonathan said, adding that the resort contains 160 skiable acres. “We opened the last weekend in November, and this year is our longest season ever.”

Another new attraction has increased business and added to the operation’s year-round status. It’s a 5,400-foot, all-season mountain coaster that opened last October on Columbus Day weekend.

“It was built as a diversification against the weather; ski weekends can be wiped out due to cold and snow, so we needed a way to drive business and give people a great experience,” said Jonathan. “The things we have done allow us to be open 365 days a year, and we built a 12,000-square-foot addition onto our lodge last year. It’s beautiful, as it’s made from hand cut timber.”

He noted that the lodge has two floors, two restaurants, and a bar, and has been a tremendous boost to the property. “Many couples book their weddings here, and now their guests will be able to enjoy the activities we offer year-round.”

The mountain coaster is one of them, and it’s a noteworthy attraction. “It is the longest mountain coaster in the nation and the third-longest in the world. It’s powered by our wind turbine and solar panels, and is an inviting way for people to enjoy the outdoors, as there are no fitness or skill requirements,” Jonathan said.

The coaster’s construction proved to be an extraordinary engineering feat, because each section had to be designed to adapt to the contour of the mountain with minimal impact to the landscape. The sections were installed in 10-foot lengths, and each car is towed up the mountain by a stainless-steel cable and strategically released when it reaches the top.

“Each car is independent of the others and has its own braking system, which allows people to slow down or speed up by pulling on the handles,” Jonathan said. “However, if one car gets within 80 feet of another going down the mountain, the brakes automatically stop it.

“The track twists and turns down a mountainside of cliffs and trees, so it’s a wild ride on a dynamic hillside,” he added. “Anticipation builds in riders who are going up, as they can see others coming down because the course crosses uphill four times.”

The new attraction has attracted coaster enthusiasts from across the nation, and groups have already booked trips there this summer.

Growing Venues

Berkshire East enjoyed a cooperative partnership with Moxie Outdoor Adventures for years, and recently acquired its Deerfield River rafting operation. It has been renamed Berkshire Whitewater, and although it kept most of Moxie’s river guides, Berkshire East purchased 10 new rafts designed exclusively for the river, along with other state-of-the art equipment.

“We have 60 spots on the river, plan to open in May, and will continue the rafting trips until it gets too cold to run them in the fall,” said Jonathan. “We can’t add 1,000 vertical feet to the ski area, so we are adding world-class activities to show off what a beautiful spot we have here.”

Trips will be available five days a week and will begin when the hydroelectric Bear Swamp Generating Station releases water, which is done on a regular, scheduled basis. Since it stores approximately 1.7 billion gallons of water almost 800 feet above the river, when it is released, it turns the river into an ideal spot for rafters, kayakers, and downriver canoeists.

A variety of adventures along different sections of the river are planned for different age groups and abilities, but all rafters will receive a 20-minute safety lecture before they leave. A picnic lunch is provided for people who opt for one of the easier excursions, while another, more advanced course ends with a barbecue.

Each trip lasts four or five hours, and there are options to satisfy everyone, including a leisurely, half-day float trip that families with children ages 5 and up can enjoy.

“They float along in a whitewater raft, and there are places for them to get out, splash around, and swim,” Jonathan noted.

In addition, guided kayaking trips will be offered daily, and children ages 5 and up can accompany an adult in a boat on the four-hour adventures.

Since some people have already rafted on the Deerfield River, Jonathan said, Berkshire Whitewater is offering trips on the Millers River, east of Greenfield, and the West River in Jamaica, Vermont. “But they all start here, and people are taken to those sites in vans,” he told BusinessWest.

skiing remains a major part of Berkshire East

Despite the resort’s all-season changes, skiing remains a major part of Berkshire East’s roster of offerings.

The Schaefer family is also building a new mountain-biking park and commissioned a group from Whistler Mountain, whose track record includes building the largest and most dynamic bike trail in the world, to construct 10 miles of trails down the mountain. “We plan to open the park in early July and will have a major focus on beginners, with a learn-to-ride program,” Jonathan said.

Meanwhile, because the Schaefers know that many people want to enjoy their resort for more than a day, the purchase of the mountaintop complex that contains the Warfield House Inn will allow them to offer overnight lodging.

“It was a logical move because there was no housing at the ski area and this was a beautiful facility that needed new life. We thought it would be a great complement to our business,” he said.

The bed and breakfast, which was recently renovated, contains a meeting facility, restaurant, and pavilion with mountaintop views. “It’s a gorgeous place to get married,” Jonathan said, adding that the farm is also known for its maple-sugaring operation, producing about 1,000 gallons of the sweet treat each year.

Endless Possibilities

Over the past few years, Berkshire East also installed a new Sky Trac Quad chair lift, with the help of a helicopter and an army of loyal employees, that can deliver 2,400 people an hour to the top of the mountain to ski, mountain bike, hike, and enjoy other outdoor activities.

“For many years, we were just a ski area, and we have continued to expand the skiing and offer a lot of learn-to-ski programs for children,” Jonathan said. “But it’s a sport that takes skill. There is a learning curve, and it requires equipment, so we wanted to add other year-round activities that would give families the experience of a lifetime.”

He added that his brother Bill, who lives in Iowa, is part-owner of the whitewater-rafting business and has purchased rental properties in the area; his brother Tom, who lives in California, has also purchased rental properties; and he, his brother James, and their father run the day-to-day operation of the resort and remain committed to providing healthy, recreational outdoor activities.

Today, the family is excited about the expansion, and their goal is for Berkshire East to become known as “New England’s Outdoor Adventure Center,” Jonathan said.

“We think it is possible,” he noted, “because we have added attractions that will drive business and give people a great experience here 365 days a year.”

Features Sections Travel and Tourism

Clark Art Institute Reopens After Major Renovation

The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown celebrated the grand reopening of its 140-acre campus on July 4. It has been transformed by a $145 million renovation designed to give visitors a more coherent and expanded view of art and nature.

“It’s a whole new Clark; we have recast the public profile of the institution,” said Thomas Loughman, associate director for programs and planning. “We have maintained the beautiful, intimate experience we are known for, but created a better way to experience it so visitors can connect with the great pinnacle of human creation, which is art.”

Reflecting pools greet visitors to the Clark.

Reflecting pools greet visitors to the Clark.

The changes, which include new architecture and the newly built Clark Center, the main entryway into the campus, are breathtaking and have attracted rave reviews. The building was designed by Pulitzer Prize-winning architect Tadeo Ando to direct people’s views as they enter through walls of glass and three-tiered reflecting pools outside, where trees and hillsides are mirrored in water that comes right to the edge of the glass. In addition to their aesthetic value, the pools are advanced water-management systems that will reduce the Clark’s potable water use by 1 million gallons a year.

“Ando is truly dedicated to the idea that great architecture needs to be in harmony with the landscape, and the reason the Clark Center has so much glass is because it was meant to bring the outside in,” Loughman said.

“The glass was installed to create a connection, historically and visually, with views to the left and right,” he continued, as he sat in a room backed by glass that looked out onto another pool of water. “The materials used in this building frame one’s view of the landscape, whether it is man-made and orderly or partially wild, with gradations in between.”

New ways to circulate between the buildings have also been created, which include a bridge outside and a hallway between the Clark Center and the museum. It has glass on one side, which changes as people travel along it, redirecting their view from a lily pond on the left to the reflecting pools on the right. Exhibit space has also been increased within the museum building itself, which had been closed for three years before the grand reopening last month.

Sally Majewski, manager of public relations and marketing, said reaction to the transformation has been overwhelmingly positive. “We’ve had an incredible response to what has been done, which has been very gratifying.”

She added that, when the museum building closed for the renovation, 75 French paintings from the Clark’s collection were sent on a three-year international tour in 11 cities. “They returned just in time to be reinstalled before we reopened,” Majewski told BusinessWest, noting that the international tour drew more than 2.6 million visitors.

In addition to the Clark Center and renovated museum building, other changes have been made, and the entire campus has become so inviting that locals can be seen walking their dogs along miles of pathways in the verdant landscape and pausing to sit beside the reflecting pools, while people from all over the world view art, study, and conduct research inside the buildings.

Ambitious Plan

Loughman said the expansion plans were first conceived in the late ’90s, when it became clear that the facilities at the Clark were too limited for their program, but they had ample room to grow.

Thomas Loughman says the design of the Clark and its surroundings help visitors make the connection between the beauty of nature and art.

Thomas Loughman says the design of the Clark and its surroundings help visitors make the connection between the beauty of nature and art.

“The population of the town is only 5,000, but we have a very big impact on the region and on the global mission of portraying the history of art,” he said. “The fellows who do research here come from all over the world, and we have exchange relationships with museums around the world in terms of lending and borrowing. And although we had 140 acres, we were hunkered down in two old buildings. So we commissioned Cooper Robertson and Partners in New York City to create a master plan. They told us we needed to change the circulation of the campus, which included moving the parking to one spot, and responsibly crossing two brooks via a bridge to allow access to the rest of the campus.”

In 2002, an architectural competition was launched, and Ando was chosen to design two new buildings. The first — the 42,600-square-foot Clark Center — includes more than 11,000 square feet of gallery space for special exhibitions, a multi-purpose pavilion for events, a dining area, a museum store, family spaces, and an all-glass museum pavilion that creates a new entrance to the original museum building.

The second new structure is the Lunder Center at Stone Hill, which houses smaller exhibits and contains a new art classroom, a seasonal café on a terrace that offers a sweeping view of the landscape, and the Williamstown Art Conservation Center’s facilities.

Phase 1 was completed in 2008 and included the Lunder Center, a new bridge, and a free shuttle service provided between that building and the main campus. Phase 2 involved the construction of the Clark Center with its reflecting pools, site work to the parking lot, and renovations to the museum building and Manton Research Center.

Consideration was also given to the environment, and the terraced reflecting pools that cover an acre were part of Ando’s master plan. They unite the museum’s campus by providing a peaceful view from inside and outside of Stone Hill Meadow, Christmas Brook, and its wetlands.

But they are functional as well and have helped position the Clark at the forefront of the museum world as a leader in sustainability and energy conservation.

Loughman said all the rainwater from the roofs and terraces is channeled into the pools and used to flush the toilets. “It’s a huge advance to have our stormwater-management system and gray-water system tied together in a sustainable fashion,” he told BusinessWest, as he gazed at the sheet of water, which is about 12 inches deep and has a bottom composed of Berkshire river rock and fieldstone.

Funding for the project came entirely from donations, with the exception of $1 million from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund, and financial vehicles were created to keep it moving forward. “People care deeply about our mission, which is to bridge the distance that separates the general public from what is happening in art history,” Loughman said. “We try to connect our guests with ideas and objects, and our new facilities let us do this better.”

Unification Efforts

Each of the four buildings on the campus has a distinct character. “The museum, which was built in the ’50s, is clad in white marble and looks like a Greek temple or mausoleum, while the Manton Research Center, designed in the ’60s, is clad in purple granite and built in New Brutalist style,” said Loughman, pointing out some of the differences.

But today, thanks to Tadeo Ando Architect and Associates, Selldorf Architects, and Reed Hilderbrand and Gensler, materials used in the Clark Center mirror those used in the museum and Manton Center.
The museum’s interior has also undergone change. The building gained 15% more exhibit space, which equates to about 2,200 square feet. That was made possible by moving the loading docks, mailroom, and other service spaces. “It allows us to put a substantially greater number of works on view, many of which were held in storage,” Loughman said.

New lighting and environmental controls were also installed, and three small galleries were created to showcase silver and porcelain as guests move west to east throughout the building. “In the past, we had very primitive displays, but the new cases give us so much more space,” he continued. “There is also a purpose-built gallery for American paintings in the former mailroom that allows us to show off our great collection of Winslow Homer and George Inness. We originally had two of Inness’ works in our collection, but two years ago, we were given eight more of them. Now, we have a place to display them.”

Other changes made to the museum building included raising and reconfiguring the height of the academic gallery to mirror the Impressionist artwork on display there. In addition, new walls were erected to create small showcases within the larger gallery, and the color in some areas was changed to create a more spacious feel.

A new small room with special lighting allows the museum to showcase pastels, and is one of three areas carved out to spotlight select pieces of art. “Ando and the curators tried to create moments of surprise by creating them so they could highlight a small number of works,” Majewski said.

There has also been a change, which began seven years ago, in the type of work put on display. “We wanted to challenge ourselves to show things beyond what people expect to see at the Clark,” Loughman said.
In the past, that was a collection of great 19th-century French and American paintings. But today, the Clark has exhibitions of 20th- and 21st-century art as well as non-Western art and antiquity.

“What we’ve done on these fronts seems very provocative, but we have created immersive experiences that include contemporary art,” Loughman noted, referring to a number of exhibitions, including “Circles of Influence,” which showcases the work of the abstract expressionist Georgia O’Keefe and the modernist Arthur Dove.

Today, a show called “Unearthed: Recent Archaeological Discoveries from Northern China” is on display in the new Clark Center, while an exhibit titled “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith” can be seen in the Lunden Center.

The multi-million-dollar, multi-phase project that began 15 years ago is almost complete, and a video presentation near the new entrance to the museum building documents the undertaking. Although it has taken time, the end result is a seamless experience, due to the work of four internationally renowned architects who added more than 13,000 square feet of gallery space, demolished the former physical plant building to make way for the new Clark Center and its three reflecting pools, upgraded major utilities, added a series of new geothermal wells, planted 1,000 new trees, and created new ways to circulate among the four buildings on the campus.

Unified Atmosphere

Other changes include upgrades and expansion of the walking trails, a new entry drive, and parking areas with water-permeable surfaces that lead to the rainwater-collection system.

A renovation of the Manton Research Center will complete the project. “The lobby will be turned into a public reading room. It’s one of the greatest art-history libraries in the world, but it has been behind doors, so it is critical to bring it out,” Loughman said.

Although this is important, he added, what has been already accomplished is extraordinary.

“The transformation allowed us to leap over something very old and non-functional and become something that is a generation ahead of our peers in terms of design and sustainability,” he said. “It was difficult to do everything at once, but our project was driven by unity and the historic connection to the earth, which is really art.”

Sections Travel and Tourism

The Big E Continues to Be an Economic Engine

Eastern States Exposition CEO Gene Cassidy and the man who inspires his work, fair founder Joshua Brooks.

Eastern States Exposition CEO Gene Cassidy and the man who inspires his work, fair founder Joshua Brooks.

Joshua L. Brooks was a man who got things done. And Gene Cassidy, CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, doesn’t let anyone forget it, hanging a large portrait of Brooks, the fair’s founder, at the front of the conference room where he meets with his staff.

“Mr. Brooks was concerned about agriculture,” Cassidy told BusinessWest. “He was an industrialist, but he saw that agriculture was losing ground in New England at the turn of the last century, with so much agriculture being produced out of the Midwest and South Central estates. So he established the Eastern States Agricultural and Industrial Exposition.”

Specifically, he got the National Dairy Show to move its annual event from Chicago to West Springfield in 1916, but only after he transformed a bare plot of land into a property where the expo could be staged.
“There’s a great story of how he capitalized the fairgrounds and got people to donate incredible sums of money,” said Cassidy, citing, as an example, the night of Feb. 1, 1914, when a major blizzard hit the Pioneer Valley. A fund-raiser was scheduled for that night, and Noyes Fisk, owner of Fisk Tire Co. in Chicopee — which later became Uniroyal — was given the responsibility of raising $750,000. “Even in that blizzard, with limited attendance, he was able to raise $450,000. That was the initial capital providing resources to build these facilities, including A Barn, B Barn, and C Barn.”

All three of those barns, including several other structures built in the early years of the fair, still stand today, while the fairgrounds has added many others over the years. More importantly, however, the fair — its name eventually shortened to the Eastern States Exposition and known colloquially as the Big E — has built a nearly century-old legacy that’s measured by more than its impressive regional economic impact (more on that later).

“The impact of Eastern States is dramatic, and it’s important to the region,” said Cassidy, who joined the Big E 20 years ago as chief financial officer and took the reins from longtime CEO Wayne McCary. Cassidy’s first two fairs as CEO set records for attendance, but he has been equally successful with another mission: bringing the expo’s history to life, partly by decorating the expo’s offices with dozens of posters, documents, and artifacts from the past 98 years, including more than one celebrating the work of the man he respectfully calls Mr. Brooks.

“Since I became CEO, my goal has been to reconnect and resurrect, if you will, the spirit of our founder, Mr. Brooks,” Cassidy said. “This building was pretty sterile before, but I think the history is important, and it’s important for all of us who work here to be reacquainted with why we’re here — and what, really, is the purpose of the Eastern States Exposition.”

As the 99th edition of the Big E gets set to roll out in two weeks, Cassidy sat down with BusinessWest to answer that question in a number of ways.

Animal Attraction

Although the words ‘agricultural’ and ‘industrial’ are no longer in the fair’s name, Cassidy said, it would be a mistake to underestimate their importance to what the Big E is all about.

“Yes, entertainment drives people’s interest, and we make a big deal about food; that drives people’s interest as well. And certainly the midway is an attraction, so making sure we have a good, clean, safe, attractive midway is key,” he explained. “Behind the scenes, though, we’re engaged in producing an event that serves the agricultural industry and the commodities industry for all of New England. Those are less exciting things for some people, but we get very excited about them.”

He said the fair has become known over the decades as a prime showcase for what he called the “bovine, equine, and swine” categories of livestock shows, as well as for produce and other food products. “If you win a blue ribbon at the Eastern States Exposition, whether it’s for cheese or cattle or goats, whatever it is, that gives you national cachet, national attention. Most fairgoers aren’t cognizant of that, but it’s very important for both the agriculture and industry that drives a large part of the New England economy.”

The fair has always educated people about livestock and agriculture, and Cassidy feels that mission is more important than ever, with so many Americans, particularly of the younger generations, unaware of what goes into putting their food on the table.

“So much time has passed from 1916 to today, and people are so distant from production agriculture. In many cases, animals [at the show] are viewed as if they’re domestic pets and not domestic food products. Youth today have no connection, no understanding of where their food actually comes from,” he said, adding that this disconnect isn’t limited to the agricultural side, and he’d like to see more fair offerings that teach people about food processing as well.

In addition, “it’s a continuing battle with animal-rights organizations,” Cassidy noted. “We get blowback from rogue groups that raise money on the Internet, anonymously, and they influence our programs in a way that’s detrimental to the general public.”

For example, “my office is two miles from the house where I was born and raised,” he continued. “When I was a kid, the Eastern States Exposition had a carcass exhibit, and a butcher butchering beef cattle and explaining the different cuts of beef. People would be mesmerized, and would learn where the loin comes from, the shoulder, and so on. In this day and age in New England, you could never have an exhibition like that, and it’s sad.”

Just like today, fairgoers have long been able to peruse and buy the latest products at the Big E.

Just like today, fairgoers have long been able to peruse and buy the latest products at the Big E.

While maintaining as much of the expo’s agricultural focus as possible, Cassidy said he would like to strengthen the connections the fair has to other notable industries, such as machine tools, using the fair as a platform to grow those businesses and generate jobs as well. He also believes promotion of consumer products still has a place.

“Companies used to use fairs as a means of promoting their new products,” he noted. “With the advent of television, fairs became less attractive for, say, Westinghouse or General Electric to launch their latest washing machine or other product. But we’re working very hard here to create opportunities for companies to re-engage people on the one-to-one level.”

This year’s fair will showcase the Ford Mustang, which made its debut at the New York World’s Fair 50 years ago. The Big E will display one of the Mustangs that was actually on display in New York in 1964, and Sarat Ford has produred a few rare special-edition Mustangs to display as well. “In many ways, we’re celebrating the World’s Fair,” Cassidy said. “It’s a throwback feature, which I’m really excited about.”

Eat, Listen, Love

Cassidy told BusinessWest that he fully understands the fair’s appeal to tradition and nostalgia that repeat visitors enjoy — everything from the livestock shows to the parades and circuses to the state buildings, where the six New England states promote their most popular foods, crafts, and other products. The challenge, of course, is maintaining those traditions while keeping the fair fresh.

Entertainment is a large part of that, and the Big E has long offered free concerts to visitors — this year’s extensive lineup features up-and-comers like The Voice winner Cassadee Pope and veterans like Eddie Money — while mixing in a few bigger-name shows that require an extra admission fee, including Darius Rucker, Little Big Town, and ZZ Top.

“I’ve been trying to get ZZ Top for 10, maybe 15 years, and I finally got them, so I’m very excited,” Cassidy said, adding that financial changes in the entertainment-booking world have made charging for some acts necessary.

“You’ve got to have good entertainment — that’s the thing that puts the buzz in the air. But that’s extremely difficult to do, and every year, it’s harder and harder. When I started here in 1994, we could book the biggest acts in Las Vegas for $40,000 or $50,000, and they would do two shows a day. Now, in the current age, we can’t afford these acts,” he said, noting that booking Reba McEntire in 2011 cost $335,000. “So we’ve been forced to charge now for the biggest acts, and we do our best to find solid acts we can give away.”

He credited John Juliano, the long-time special-events director for the Big E, with always being able to book talent on the rise, from Beyoncé before Destiny’s Child was popular to Hunter Hayes last year to Pope next month.

Still, for many fairgoers, music isn’t the number-one attraction; they’re more interested in finding out how many foods can be successfully deep-fried.

“Talent is such an important way of keeping people interested, but the other way is gastronomically,” Cassidy said of the Big E’s extensive selection of fair food. “I love cheese curds, and this is the only place in the world I get cheese curds. But we also have to continually discover new products and find means by which to bring new products to the fairgoing public.”

After all, the vitality and continuing popularity of the Big E has a direct economic impact on the region. According to a report the Eastern States Exposition produced this year, the 17-day Big E, plus all the other events that take place on the fairgrounds each year — which feature exhibitions for animal lovers, car enthusiasts, gun owners, campers, and dozens of other groups — benefit the region with an annual economic impact of $479 million.

The tax revenues alone include $3 million in income tax, $1.4 million in sales tax, $427,000 in hotel tax, and $3.3 million in food and beverage tax. More significantly, events generate $299 million in gross regional product and account for 3,000 jobs in Hampden County that generate $91.9 million in personal income. The exposition’s impact on the rest of New England and New York include 2,000 jobs generating $134 million in personal income. In all, 2.5 million visitors stop by the fairgrounds each year, well over 1 million for the Big E alone.

“We need all the stakeholders — which include the fair patrons, business leaders from throughout the region, and our own board of trustees — to be able to draw a direct link toward the Eastern States as a mechanism to drive the economy and jobs,” Cassidy said. “The fair has a broad impact on agriculture worldwide, but has its most important role in this region. It plays a very important role in generating business on a grand scale, and that ripples throughout the economy at many different levels.”

Into the Next Century

At one point, Cassidy pulled out an old, worn book filled with stock certificates that Brooks sold to some of Greater Springfield’s most notable citizens in the fair’s early days — then later bought back so that no individual or group could set the event’s agenda.

To continue Brooks’ legacy for the next 100 years, Cassidy knows that the fairgrounds need some attention, starting with those century-old buildings. Renovating the large B Barn, otherwise known as the Coliseum, is a $60 million endeavor, and that’s just one structure. Last year, the fair generated about $5 million in profit — a success, of course, but not the kind of revenue flow needed to sustain multiple improvement projects.

“We need to continue to grow, not just because we’re a 100-year-old facility with a great deal of deferred maintenance, but to re-educate the fair-going public,” he said. “I think we’re the most successful fair in the country; we’re recognized nationally as a best-practices organization. We’re one of the largest fairs, and the largest fair that’s not state-subsidized, which is really remarkable. But we need to put a lot of attention into this 100-year-old plant.”

To do that, Cassidy says it’s crucial to generate regional philanthropy, like Brooks did when he reached out to his wealthy friends to launch the exposition in 1916. “We’re a 501(c)(3) public charity, and financially, we’re a very stable organization, but we need to reinvigorate our stakeholders — not just to sustain ourselves, but we owe it to the region to grow, so the region grows.”

As board treasurer of the Regional Employment Board of Western Mass., Cassidy is keenly aware of the region’s need to retain talent to grow a number of its industries, and he feels like the Big E and its myriad activities can play a role in that, if only by improving quality of life in the Pioneer Valley.

“We have access to the best education in the world, and we’re exporting our graduates. Any company executive who scoffs at that is not being responsible in their duty to grow the economy and make their mark on the general citizenry,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about quality of life. My hope is that the Eastern States Exposition adds to quality of life for people in West Springfield and all of Greater Springfield.”

It’s an easy thing to get excited about, Cassidy added. “People pay to get in, and they’re predisposed to happiness. There are very few jobs in the world where the person coming through the gate is coming in to have a good time. You go to the grocery store because you have to, or go to the tire store because you need tires. You don’t have to come to the Big E.

“Our job,” he concluded, “is to deliver a product that makes you want to be here. If we can take our presence here and use it as a multiplier to drive industry in the local economy, we’ve succeeded.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Travel and Tourism
Mark Your Calendar with These 20 Happenings

SummerInTheValleyCover

In the mood for some music or theater? Enjoy art or antiques? Feel like trying out some different kinds of food?
The Pioneer Valley offers myriad opportunities to enjoy the summer, so if you’re feeling stir-crazy — or the kids say they’re bored — check out these 20 summer destinations, which only scratch the surface of what’s available in Western Mass. Whether you’re into baseball or fireworks, concerts or dogs, you’re sure to find plenty to do.

Taste of Amherst
Town Common, Amherst
www.facebook.com/tasteofamherst
Admission: Free
June 19-22: Kick off the summer by eating your fill during the four days of the 2014 Taste of Amherst. In addition to food offerings from about 20 town restaurants — most for $5 or under — the event will feature live entertainment by the River, 93.9 FM, as well as fun family events. The Taste runs from 5 to 9 p.m. Thursday, 5 to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, and is presented by Atkins Farms Country Market, with sponsorship by the Amherst Business Improvement District, Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass Amherst.

Stearns Square Concert Series
Worthington and Bridge streets, Springfield
(413) 781-1591; www.facebook.com/stearnssquare
Admission: Free
Starting June 26: Thursday evenings heat up in downtown Springfield for another season of concerts in Stearns Square, starting with a visit from Black 47 on June 26, this summer’s kickoff concert. And the bands — from notable local lights to internationally acclaimed acts — just keep coming, including FAT (July 3), the Spin Doctors (July 10), Roomful of Blues (July 17), Diamondback (July 24), Truckstop Troubadors (July 31), Maggie Rose (Aug. 7), John Eddie (Aug. 14), Doug Demings and the Jewel Tones (Aug. 21), and the Smithereens (Aug. 28). All concerts begin at 8 p.m., and there are no opening acts this year. What began 14 years ago as a way to liven up downtown Springfield — it was originally held in the Court Square area — has become a weekly destination for music lovers, people watchers, and scores of motorcyclists. The series is sponsored by the Springfield Business Improvement District.
Stearns-Concert-Series

Williamstown Theatre Festival
1000 Main St., Williamstown
(413) 597-3400; www.wtfestival.org
Admission: $15 and up
July 2 to Aug. 17: Sixty years ago, the leaders of the Williams College drama department and news office conceived of an idea: using the school’s theater for a summer performance program with a resident company. Since then, the festival has attracted such performers as E.G. Marshall, Blythe Danner, Colleen Dewhurst, and Christopher Reeve. This summer, the program will present a range of both classical and original productions, plus other programs like the interactive workshops, post-show Tuesday Talkbacks with company members, and ‘A Festival 4th,’ when actors will celebrate the Fourth of July by gathering at the Williams College Museum of Art to read the Declaration of Independence and the British reply before viewing the college’s noted Founding Documents collection. Williamstown’s classic small-town parade then kicks off on Spring Street at 11 a.m. and ends at the Clark Art Institute for the grand opening of its newly expanded campus.

Clark-ArtClark Art Institute
225 South St., Williamstown
(413) 458-2303; www.clarkart.edu
Admission: Free on July 4; otherwise $20 for adults, free for under 18 and students
Starting July 4: Immediately following the Williamstown parade, enjoy hot dogs, live music, balloons, and other family fun on the museum’s East Lawn before the Clark — which has been closed for an extensive renovation — officially reopens at 1 p.m. Admission is free on grand-opening day. Galleries will be open until 9 p.m., and the Eagles Band will perform at 7 p.m., followed by fireworks at 9. Founded in 1936, the Eagles Band is the oldest continuing performance ensemble in the Berkshires, performing music from the late ’30s through the early ’50s, in styles ranging from traditional brass to contemporary and pop arrangements. Guests are welcome to return throughout the summer (admission $20, students and under 18 free), with new exhibitions including “Make It New: Abstract Paintings from the National Gallery of Art,” which will include Jackson Pollock’s “Lavender Mist,” opening Aug. 2. Perhaps the most impressive work of all is the Clark’s new, 42,650-square-foot Visitor Center — designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Ando, who is known for incorporating landscape into his design. The center boasts new dining facilities, a museum shop, outdoor terraces, and 11,070 square feet of additional special exhibition space. And if you can’t make it to Williamstown on July 4, there’s always…


Monson Summerfest

Main Street, Monson
(413) 267-3649; www.monsonsummerfestinc.com
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest was held at the church, featuring food, games, and fun activities. With the overwhelming interest of nonprofit organizations in town, the event immediately grew, and relocated onto Main Street the following year. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year. The festivities will be preceded this year by a town fireworks display on June 28.

Star-Spangled-SpfldStar Spangled Springfield
Downtown Springfield
(413) 733-3800
Admission: Free
July 4: Speaking of fireworks, what’s a better end to an Independence Day filled with food, family, and outdoor fun than taking in a spectacle of the skies? Springfield’s annual show, starting at 9:30 p.m., is a welcome tradition, but it’s hardly the only one. For example, South Hadley and East Longmeadow have slated their displays for July 3, Old Sturbridge Village will light up the night on July 4, and Westfield and Greenfield have events scheduled for July 5. Many other cities and towns are planning fireworks as well; check with municipal offices for times.

Berkshires Arts Festival
Ski Butternut, 380 State Road, Great Barrington
(845) 355-2400; www.berkshiresartsfestival.com
Admission: $5-$13
July 4-6: Now in its 13th year, the Berkshires Arts Festival has become a regional tradition. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to descend on the Ski Butternut grounds to check out and purchase the creations of more than 175 artists and designers, as well as experiencing theater, music, and dance from local, national, and international acts. Founded by Richard and Joanna Rothbard, owners of An American Craftsman Galleries, the festival attracts top artists from across the U.S. and Canada. Visitors can also participate in interactive events like puppetry and storytelling, all the time enjoying a respite from the sun under tents and in the ski resort’s air-conditioned lodge.

Tanglewood
297 West St., Lenox
(617) 266-1200; www.bso.org
Admission: $21 and up
Starting July 5: Tanglewood has been the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937, and like previous years, it has a well-stocked slate of concerts in store for the 2014 season, including an All-American Opening Night Gala Concert on July 5 and a special gala concert on July 12, a dance-inspired program featuring both the Boston Symphony and fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center, the BSO’s prestigious summer music academy. This season, Tanglewood will offer a special focus on American music with orchestral, opera, and film presentations in the Koussevitzky Music Shed, and opera, chamber music, and recital programs in Ozawa Hall, which marks its 20th anniversary season in 2014. Check out the website for the extensive roster of shows and events, including a number of non-classical shows, such as Tanglewood regular James Taylor, who perform in the Koussevitzky Music Shed on July 3 and 4, with both performances followed by fireworks displays.

BrimfieldBrimfield Antique Show
Route 20, Brimfield, MA
(413) 283-6149; www.quaboaghills.com
Admission: Free
July 8-13: What began humbly — when a local auctioneer decided to hold open-air auctions on his property, and grew into a successful flea market — eventually began including neighboring properties as it grew. It expanded in the ’80s and ’90s to a one-mile stretch of Route 20 on both sides, and these days, the Brimfield Antique Show is a six-mile stretch of heaven for people to value antiques, collectibles, and flea-market finds. Some 6,000 dealers and close to 1 million total visitors show up at the three annual, week-long events; the first was in May, and the third runs Sept. 2-7. The Brimfield Antique Show labels itself the “Antiques and Collectibles Capital of the United States,” and — judging by its scope and number of visitors — it’s hard to disagree.


Green River Festival

Greenfield Community College, One College Dr., Greenfield
(413) 773-5463; www.greenriverfestival.com
Admission: Weekend, $75; Saturday, $49.99; Sunday, $34.99
July 12-13: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and family games and activities — all topped off with four hot-air-balloon launches (rides are available) and a spectacular Saturday-night ‘balloon glow.’ The music is continuous on three stages, and this year features Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Josh Ritter and the Royal City Band, Lucius, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Trampled by Turtles, Grant Lee Phillips, and more than two dozen other artists. Children under 10 can get in for free, as the family-friendly festival features children’s music performers, a kid’s activity tent, games, circus acts, a Mardi Gras parade, and other surprises. New for 2014 is the Maker’s Market, a collective of fine artisans from across Western Mass., offering an impressive array of handmade crafts and jewelry. The festival began in 1986 as purely a hot-air-balloon affair, but quickly integrated musical entertainment into the event. Now, its one of the most eclectic events in the Valley.

Yidstock
Hampshire College, 893 West St., Amherst
(413) 256-4900; www.yiddishbookcenter.org/yidstock
Admission: Festival pass, $145 for members or $185 general admission; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 17-20: Boasting an array of films, concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2014: The Festival of New Yiddish Music lands in Amherst in mid-July. The third annual Yidstock festival will bring the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center. The festival pass includes admission to all concerts, lectures, and workshops.
The weekend will offer an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots and jazzy soul music through popular Yiddish bands like the Klezmer Conservatory Band, Klezmatics, Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, and more. Friday and Saturday feature dance workshops as well.

New England Collegiate Baseball League All-Star Game
MacKenzie Stadium, 500 Beech St., Holyoke
(413) 533-1100; www.valleybluesox.com
Admission: $5-$8
July 20: The Valley Blue Sox (formerly the Holyoke Blue Sox) continue to bring plenty of baseball excitement to Holyoke and its surroundings, playing in a league that attracts some of the top collegiate talent each summer. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for these guys to really showcase their talent in a professional setting,” General Manager Hunter Golden said. “Major League Baseball is a big believer in our product and the caliber of players we bring. Watch the College World Series, and chances are you’ll see half our roster.” This year MacKenzie will host the league All-Star Game, starting at 12 noon on July 20, but the club will play plenty of other home games into early August — usually featuring giveaways and other promotions — to provide families with a fun, affordable evening out.
Blue-Sox-All-Star-Game

Bang on a Can Plays Art
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams
(413) 662-2111; www.massmoca.org
Admission: Festival pass, $75; individual concerts, $15-$24
July 26 to Aug 2: The Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival, a residency program for composers and performers, will take place from July 15 through Aug. 4 at MASS MoCA. The heart of this three-week workshop is a week-long series of 14 concerts running from July 26 to Aug. 2, highlighted by two major Saturday events in the museum’s Hunter Auditorium. The first is David Lang’s “death speaks” on July 26 at 8 p.m., featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars with special guest Shara Worden. Lang combed through every song by Franz Schubert and pulled out just the moments when Death is a character, speaking directly to us, and then set those texts to new music. On Aug. 2 at 4 p.m., the museum will present the six-hour Bang on a Can Marathon with special guests Steve Reich and Glenn Kotche of Wilco. The festival finale will include more than 50 musicians and composers from around the world, and will feature Steve Reich’s newest composition “Radio Rewrite,” a remix of two songs by Radiohead. Another highlight will be a rare performance of Edgar Varese’s riotous masterpiece “Ionisation,” the first piece ever written for percussion ensemble.

Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield
(413) 303-0101
Admission: Free
Aug 9: Following in the footsteps of the Hoop City Jazz and Arts Festival, which drew more than 20,000 people to downtown Springfield, is the inaugural Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, intended to celebrate the emergence of Springfield’s Cultural District and promote an arts-driven, community-oriented, and sustainable revitalization of the city. The event will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists, a variety of ethnic cuisines and local food producers, and more. This inclusive event aims to bring people from Springfield and the surrounding region together to foster connection, stimulate the local economy, and highlight positive initiatives contributing to the betterment of Springfield’s residents, and uniting the city with the rest of the Pioneer Valley. The festival is being produced by Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization led by Kristin Neville, wife of legendary jazz musician Charles Neville. The organization’s mission is to use music and art to celebrate community and culture, build shared purpose, and catalyze social and environmental change.

Dog Shows at the Eastern States Exposition
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
(413) 737-2443; www.thebige.com
Admission: Free
Aug. 20-24: The Big E fairgrounds certainly haven’t gone to the dogs, but it will seem that way for five days in August, when dog shows take over the Better Living Center. The Elm City Kennel Club Dog Show will be in town on Aug. 20 and 24, the Newtown Kennel Club Dog Show will take over on Aug. 21 and 23, while the Northwestern Connecticut Kennel Club Dog Show will make an appearance on Aug. 22. Come see dogs in all breeds compete for best in class and best in show.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
358 George Carter Road, Becket
(413) 243-0745; www.jacobspillow.org
Admission: $50-$150
Aug. 23: In its 82nd season, Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the premier venues for dance in the U.S. Dance enthusiasts will surely marvel at the dozens of free and ticketed recitals performed by celebrated companies from around the world, not to mention Jacob’s Pillow’s other offerings of photography and art exhibits, seminars, discussions, and film screenings. The season concludes on Aug. 23 with the Festival Finale, featuring a performance by the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet or LeeSaar. The ticket also includes entry to a festive after-party, with drinks, desserts, photo-booth fun, and DJ BFG spinning live at the ultimate dance celebration. Proceeds benefit the community programs of Jacob’s Pillow.Jacobs-Pillow2

Three County Fair
41 Fair St., Northampton
(413) 584-2237; www.threecountyfair.com
Admission: $8-$10
Aug. 29 to Sept. 1: In 1818, the Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden Agricultural Society was formed, with the purpose of promoting agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth. The society relied on exhibitions, displays, competitions, and demonstrations to fulfill its purposes, awarding prizes in agricultural and domestic categories. Almost 200 years later, the society’s original purpose still provides the umbrella under which the Three County Fair is presented to the public. Over time, however, various entertainment events became part of the annual fair, from carnival rides and games to thoroughbred horse racing, horse demonstrations, crafts, and, of course, plenty of food. “Taste the past, enjoy the present,” fair organizers say, and visitors will certainly experience a good deal of both.

Blandford Fair
10 North St., Blandford
(413) 848-0995; www.theblandfordfair.com
Admission: $5-$10
Aug. 29 to Sept. 1: Not much has changed in the 145 years of the Blandford Fair, but that’s what makes it so charming. This Labor Day weekend, at the 147th edition of the event, fairgoers can witness the classic rituals of the giant pumpkin display, the pony draw, and the horseshoe tournament, plus more modern additions, like the fantastically loud chainsaw-carving demonstration and the windshield-smashing demolition derby. With many more exhibits and attractions to offer, a weekend at the Blandford Fair is an ideal way for families to close out the summer.

SturbridgeOld Sturbridge Village Family Fun Days
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
(800) 733-1830; www.osv.org
Admission: Adults, $24; children, free
Aug. 31 to Sept. 2: Bring the whole family to Old Sturbridge Village on Labor Day weekend, when the largest outdoor history museum in the Northeast opens its doors to children for free (normally, youth admission is $8). Guests are invited to play baseball the way early New Englanders did, make a craft, join a game of French & English (tug of war), meet the oxen in training, try their hand at marbling paper, see a puppet show, watch a toy fire-balloon flight, visit the Freeman Farm, stop and see craftsmen at work, and much more. In addition, the weekend will feature appearances by Bob Olson, performing 19th-century magic, as well as the Old Sturbridge Village Singers and the Old Sturbridge Village Dancers. Let your kids step back into the 1830s and enjoy the last summer weekend before school.

Glendi
St. George Cathedral, 22 St. George Road, Springfield
(413) 737-1496; stgeorgecath.org
Admission: Free
Sept. 5-7: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, various vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and a joyful atmosphere that the whole family will enjoy.

Sections Travel and Tourism
Six Flags New England Reaches Higher — Much Higher

By JOSEPH BEDNAR and ROBERT GEBO

Jennifer McGrath

Jennifer McGrath says the 400-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer will take the classic theme-park swing ride to the extreme.

Just cross the South End Bridge in Springfield and look south, and it’s easy to see how Six Flags New England already towers over the Connecticut River. On a clear day, Bizarro, Scream, Goliath, and the Cyclone are clearly visible in the distance.

The tallest of those, the award-winning Bizarro rollercoaster and the Scream drop ride, reach about 200 feet into the air, offering breathtaking — and, for some riders, nerve-wracking — views of the river, Mount Tom to the north, and Connecticut to the south.

Now imagine being twice that high.

Actually, visitors won’t have to imagine once the park unveils its newest attraction, the New England Sky Screamer, this summer. Lifting patrons 400 feet up and then swinging them around for two minutes at 35 mph, it’s touted as the world’s tallest swing ride.

Clearly, Six Flags has come a long way in the 15 years since the chain acquired historic Riverside Park, adding it to its international stable of destinations, adding numerous major rides and a bustling water park, and effectively doubling the property’s size. And now, it’s touting a new height record to boot.

“It’s taking that swing ride we know and love and adding every possible element of thrill and fear into it,” said Jennifer McGrath, communications manager for Six Flags New England. “Your arms and legs are exposed in the air, your swing is on chains, just like that classic family swing ride — except this is not classic.”

The ride, which is painted red, white, and blue, will glow with color-changing LED lights at night, she added. “We don’t feel it’s just a new ride for Six Flags New England; we feel it’s a new icon, something people will identify with Western Mass. You can see it from the Springfield area and well into Enfield and Suffield. Six Flags loves breaking records, and they feel this ride is something special, and they know Six Flags guests are going to love it.”

As a prominent chain in a highly competitive industry, Six Flags is always looking to the future, mapping out a national strategy of park additions to keep the buzz high at its 13 parks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Not every park gets a major addition on the level of a Sky Screamer every year, but Agawam has received plenty of recent attention, adding the Bonzai Pipeline slides in the Hurricane Harbor water park in 2013, the Goliath switchback coaster in 2012, and the Gotham City Gauntlet mouse coaster in 2011.

“It’s amazing what we’ve evolved to, and we continue to grow,” McGrath said, noting that it’s a cornerstone of the Six Flags brand to continually invest new capital in its properties.

“In true Six Flags fashion, we’re going even bigger in 2014 with our new attractions,” added Jim Reid-Anderson, the chain’s chairman, president, and CEO, in a press statement. “Our promise to you is to bring something new to every single park every year.”

Work and Play

Economic-development and tourism officials have long pointed to Six Flags New England as a major economic engine for the region. While the park, as a publicly held company, does not release attendance figures, it easily outdraws the number-two tourist attraction in Western Mass., Yankee Candle Village, which records 1.5 million guests per year.

SixFlagsGoliathSign

Six Flags officials say they’re committed to introducing something new at all the chain’s parks every year.

“Six Flags has been a wonderful neighbor to Agawam. They’re one of the top five taxpayers in the community, they work closely with all our departments, and they are a huge economic boon to the Pioneer Valley as a whole,” Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen told BusinessWest. “And it’s a regional tourist attraction, so it’s not just great for Agawam, but for the whole Valley.”

Six Flags is a significant employer as well, with more than 100 year-round employees, about half of whom work in maintenance. In the offseason, they’re busy enhancing the grounds, from new painting and signage to landscaping and structural improvements.

In addition, the park hires more than 3,000 seasonal workers annually, giving a major boost to the region’s efforts to employ high-school and college-age individuals, who are facing an historically lean market for summer jobs.

“They’re one of the largest hiring employers in the summer for seasonal purposes, which is great in these economic times,” Cohen said, referring to not only young people, but older individuals who might be unemployed or between jobs. “They really are good neighbors, and we’re really proud to have them in Agawam.”

He noted that the public ownership group that bought Six Flags in 2010 has been much easier to work and communicate with than Premier Parks, which operated the chain from 1998 until its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and restructuring a decade later. That’s important, he said, when planning a project like the Sky Screamer, which has the potential of drawing bigger crowds to the park, but is also a significant change to this small town’s skyline.

“They came to us early, in a very timely manner, and answered all our questions,” the mayor said, adding that Agawam residents were largely supportive of the project. “There were some people — not many — afraid that this would change the landscape of the area. But we already have cell towers. And they did this in patriotic colors. They took our concerns into consideration, and it was done tastefully. I have not had many — if any — complaints at all.

“Everything was done expeditiously — the public announcement, meetings, permits,” he reiterated. “They don’t wait until the last minute. Since the new regime took over, they work well on the local level, answering the concerns that people have. The relationship is much healthier, and communication has been much better.”

That’s not to say the park hasn’t been growing all along. Since becoming a Six Flags property in 1998, it has introduced a raft of thrill rides, including Bizarro (formerly Superman: Ride of Steel), winner of five Golden Ticket Awards from Amusement Today as the nation’s top steel coaster, in 2000; Flashback, a switchback coaster, also in 2000; Batman: the Dark Knight, a floorless coaster, in 2002; Pandemonium, a kid-friendly spinning coaster, in 2005; and, of course, the recent additions.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Harbor, which now totals 33 waterslides in addition to a lazy river, two wave pools, and other watery fun, opened in 1998 as part of the Six Flags makeover.

The entire property now comprises more than 270 acres, and ranks as both the largest amusement park and largest water park in New England.

Food for Thought

Other recent changes are less flashy, but are significant to many patrons. For example, McGrath said, restaurant menus will add food items, including more vegetarian fare — a shift that guests had been asking for. Once again, the park will offer a $99 dining plan along with its popular season-ticket options, allowing guests one lunch and one dinner per visit throughout the season.

As for the season tickets, they are priced at different tiers — higher tiers include free parking all year, among other amenities — but tend to pay for themselves within two or three visits, making Six Flags an affordable recreation option for area families, McGrath said. That’s important in a stressed economy, when many families can’t afford to fly to vacation destinations. “This is a day trip for anyone, all the way up to Maine — down to Pennsylvania, even.”

Many of those visitors are parents and grandparents taking their kids to Six Flags and sharing their fond memories of Riverside Park, which existed as an amusement park alongside the Connecticut River for about 90 years.

Some relics remain on the grounds, McGrath said, from the 1909 carousel to the antique automobiles that rattle along a metal track and give youngsters the chance to experience driving a car. Then there’s the Thunderbolt, the 1941 wooden coaster — standing 70 feet tall and traveling up to 40 mph — that has been called a landmark by American coaster enthusiasts. Six Flags preserves rides like this, McGrath said, because the company understands the special memories they have for many.

No matter what a ride’s age, she noted, maintenance teams check each attraction daily, often from as early as 5 a.m. “Our staff is diligent in regard to checking safety, and it’s a main focus — before the park opens, during, after, every potential minute for our guests, it’s a thorough process.”

Besides its obvious link to families, Six Flags involves itself in the community through charity events as well, working with more than 3,000 organizations annually across its 13-park footprint. Locally, that includes school-supply drives and coat drives for children, as well as Cause for Paws, an event that raises money for the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, and an annual skin-cancer-awareness event.

But the main buzz right now is clearly on the rides, which opened to their first guests of the 2014 season on April 12. New England Sky Screamer will open a bit later in the season, and though it’s expected to be a hit, it won’t be the last one, McGrath said.

“Right now, we are well into the planning process of 2015, even though we are executing 2014,” she told BusinessWest. “When it comes to building a new attraction for the park, we listen to our guests, of course, and what they would like to see in the future. We want to entertain those of all ages.”

After all, at the end of the day, it’s all about reaching new heights of entertainment — literally and figuratively.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Travel and Tourism
Historic Deerfield Opens a Door to 18th-Century New England

By KEVIN FLANDERS

Philip Zea

Philip Zea says his mission at Historic Deerfield is to bring the heritage of the Connecticut River Valley to life.

For Historic Deerfield President Philip Zea and his staff, the yearly mission is not simply to preserve the heritage of the Connecticut River Valley, but instead to bring it to life.

And they do so with an intriguing, and always evolving, blend of education and entertainment.

“We’re a lot like a professional sports team in the sense that what we do for a living is other people’s recreation,” said Zea as he worked through an interesting analogy. “We want everyone who comes here to have a great time, but also an informative time.”

Once a bustling destination along the 18th-century Boston-to-Albany road, the 104-acre property is now one of the state’s most popular outdoor history museums. Zea, who has enjoyed two stints at Historic Deerfield, first as chief curator for 18 years and later as president — a position he has held for 11 years — oversees a staff of 47. His passion for researching history and sharing it with others has allowed the museum to steadily increase its attendance over the past five years, thus boosting the bottom line at a time when many museums struggle to gain the time and attention of families with plenty of entertainment options.

And Zea and his staff have a positive outlook for the museum, which saw its total income increase by more than $328,000 from 2012 to 2013 (excluding $510,000 awarded to the museum in 2012 through business-interruption proceeds disbursed as a result of Tropical Storm Irene; more on that later). The solid rebound year generated total revenues of more than $4 million for the facility, said Zea, noting that the biggest challenge facing his staff in future years is to continue to evolve and improve to better serve the community’s needs.

“We want to provide people with a sense of confidence that, if they invest their time and money in us, then they are going to come here and have a good time,” he said. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and learning more about the history of the area to ensure the public has a great experience here.”

Education is a primary focus for the museum staff, which hosts thousands of students each year from throughout Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Along with Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village, Historic Deerfield ranks at the top of the field-trip list for teachers looking to bring their students to an outdoor history museum. Boasting 54 buildings and an expansive campus, students can view everything from hearth-cooking demonstrations to architectural woodworking.

“We have a very robust education program here. In addition to field trips, we also provide programs to help Girl Scouts earn their badges,” said Laurie Nivison, Historic Deerfield’s director of marketing. “We’re looking into arranging programs for the Boy Scouts as well.”

Drawing new visitors is an annual priority for the staff. Zea said the museum has seen an increase in school field trips since 2012, but family trips and private tours in the summer and fall months have also accounted for a significant percentage of visitors. While Historic Deerfield largely remains a hidden New England gem — residents of New England states represented just half of the museum’s total visitors in 2013 — national and international interest has picked up, with 10% of last year’s guests visiting from foreign countries.

The museum’s collection of early-American furniture, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork is a key draw for many guests. The collection was expanded in 2013 with the acquisition of 178 rare objects, including 48 items from the William T. Brandon Memorial Collection of American Redware and Ceramics. All but 30 of the items acquired this year were gifts to Historic Deerfield.

“What’s great about working here is that the setting is the story, with the meadows and village and buildings all adding up to be our biggest artifact,” Zea said. “We like to focus on what people’s lifestyles were like back in the 18th century, learning not only from the physical environment but also the temporal environment.”

Added Nivision, “depending on what your interests are, there’s something here for everyone.”

History Lessons

With ongoing research conducted daily by staff members, there’s something new to learn about the region’s history with each visit. From Benedict Arnold’s arrival in Deerfield to recruit troops (before his turncoat days) to the significance of Barnard Tavern as a political and social hub of the community, new knowledge is just waiting to be discovered at a very old place.

As early as the 1800s, Historic Deerfield, site of the infamous Indian raid of 1704 that claimed the lives of 50 settlers, was attracting history buffs, Zea said, describing letters in the museum’s research library that document Mount Holyoke College students traveling to the campus in the 1830s.

But in order to preserve and present history, the staff at Historic Deerfield must address a number of challenges — everything from Mother Nature (this is an outdoor facility) to that aforementioned competition for the time and dollars of 21st-century families.

For starters, said Zea, the staff must embrace the innate challenge of maintaining the buildings where history was made. Major renovations of two prominent buildings have topped the list of priorities in recent years. The Deerfield Inn, which was damaged by floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, was dramatically transformed, including a completely renovated kitchen, the installation of a new fireplace in the dining room, and significant upgrades to the terrace room. Built in 1884, the building continues to serve travelers as it did 130 years ago.

“Reactions to the new interior design have been overwhelmingly positive,” wrote Anne Groves, chair of Historic Deerfield’s board of trustees, in a letter for the museum’s annual report. “The project team did an exemplary job in managing the renovation and the financial analysis involved in bringing the Inn back online.”

Meanwhile, Barnard Tavern is in the process of undergoing an extensive makeover, which includes repairing the foundation, stabilizing the chimneys, restoring wall paneling, replacing the heating system, and reconstructing the stairway and railings. Completion of the project is scheduled for 2015, 220 years after the tavern was first constructed in 1795.

Meanwhile, attendance is an ongoing challenge, and the staff at the museum addresses it by establishing new and engaging programs and exhibits.

Last year, for example, introduced a three-day workshop called “Every Dish Has a Past,” focused on research of historical recipes — a program that concluded in tasty fashion, with participants cooking the meals they researched.

Moreover, the theme of the museum’s 2014 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will be sports and recreation in New England. Taking place June 20-22, the annual seminar will include presentations on hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, marksmanship, horsemanship, and the paths to popularity of sports like hockey, baseball, and basketball. Lectures will also be given on the history of sports record keeping and statistics, as well as the evolution of sports apparel.

Along with these new additions to the museum’s lineup, Historic Deerfield will return many of its beloved events and activities from past years, beginning on April 26, when a Patriots’ Day re-enactment will feature a cannon-firing display, a parade, and colonial craft activities. The museum will also host its annual Columbus Day antique show, presented by the Antiques Dealers Assoc. of America.

“The Patriots’ Day event is always fun for families, usually drawing at least 300 people,” Nivison said. “It’s a great chance to come out and see several different groups take part in the re-enactment.”

Another goal for the staff in 2014 is to not only educate visitors about the setting and the historical events that have taken place in Deerfield, but to also accentuate the stories of the people who made those events significant.

Zea said it’s imperative to emphasize what people’s lives were like so visitors will have a better understanding of their motivations and interests. The rise of Deerfield as a cultural and political hub, for example, was contingent on geography and the arrangement of roadways, with Deerfield marking the intersection between the Boston-to-Albany road and the north-south Hartford-to-Hanover (N.H.) route, an 18th-century equivalent to the junction of I-90 and I-91.

“It’s important to focus on community history and also domestic history by sharing how people lived and traveled and encountered locations like Deerfield in the first place,” said Zea.

It Takes a Village

The phrase ‘living museum’ has come into use in recent years to categorize facilities like Historic Deerfield, and it’s an apt term.

It accurately describes how such museums show how people lived, but it also suggests that such facilities are constantly evolving and finding new ways to not only transport people back in time, but to help them understand what they’re seeing and put it into historical perspective.

It’s all a part of making the past come alive, said Zea, adding that Historic Deerfield’s imaginative work of the past several years will ensure a solid future for this key regional tourist destination.

Sections Travel and Tourism
Area Vintners Are Seeing the Fruits of Their Labor

Larry Godard

Larry Godard says a close-knit network of vintners has sprung up organically across the region.

Larry Godard acknowledged that he considers them somewhat backhanded compliments. But he loves hearing them anyway.

“They’ll taste one and look at me and pause and say, ‘this is really good,’ and they emphasize the ‘really good’ part as if they are surprised at the high quality,” said Godard, referring to comments about the labels, including Red Hen Red, he’s now producing at Mineral Hills Winery at the Red Hen Farm in Florence.

Elaborating, he said that many of the growing number of visitors to Mineral Hills are from Connecticut and New York. They are wine connoisseurs, and they’ve been to many small wineries across the Northeast. But Western Mass. is a relatively new destination for many of them, and this is one of the reasons behind many of those ‘really good’ comments.

And Godard’s not the only one hearing them.

Gary and Bobbie Kamen

Millennials are a promising new customer base for Gary and Bobbie Kamen at Mount Warner Winery.

Indeed, he is the sole proprietor of one of a growing number of what could be called start-up vineyards and wineries across the Valley, including Black Birch Winery down the road in Southampton, Amherst Winery in Amherst, Mount Warner Winery in Hadley (which overlooks the UMass Amherst campus), Pioneer Valley Vineyard in Hatfield, Les Trois Emme Vineyard & Winery in New Marlboro in the Berkshires, and several others.

They are all part of something called the Massachusetts Wine & Cheese Trail, overseen by the Mass. Farm Wineries and Growers Assoc. (MFWGA), to which Godard belongs, but could eventually comprise a separate wine trail in the four western counties.

In the meantime, Godard and others like him — individuals with a passion for wine and the means and the inclination to go into business making and selling it — are creating what could be described as a community of vintners, and a close-knit one at that.

“A wine trail is already happening by default,” Godard said, explaining that he’ll send his guests to Black Birch and Amherst Winery, and they will in turn send their visitors along to the other wineries in the area. “We have a nice little cluster right here. In fact, Ian Modestow [partner with Black Birch Winery] came over one day to borrow a cup of yeast, like a neighbor borrowing a cup of sugar.”

Mary Hamel, a partner with Black Birch Winery, also noted the fellowship among the region’s wine makers. “That’s one thing about the wine industry that I think is very cool,” she noted. “You don’t feel like you’re in competition with anyone because we support each other, and the more wineries there are, the better it is for all of us.”

More wineries would seem to be a likelihood in every state because demand is growing, and there are many aging Baby Boomers eyeing wine making as a bridge to full-time retirement. According to the 2012-13 “State of the Wine Industry” report by Silicon Valley Bank, a California financial institution specializing the U.S. wine industry, Millennials and Baby Boomers are the two largest sectors of wine consumers, and consumption rates are growing most rapidly among Millennials and men.

And while a burgeoning wine trail will help the region’s vintners, an official trail will certainly be a boon to the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB).

Michele Goldberg, director of marketing for the GSCVB, told BusinessWest that, while the Connecticut Vineyard and Wine Assoc., with its established wine trail, is a longtime member, Western Mass. wineries fall perfectly into the emerging ‘farm-to-table’ movement in the tourism industry.

Ed and Mary Hamel

Ed and Mary Hamel of Black Birch Winery have doubled their visitation for wine tastings through great word-of-mouth referrals.

“From a tourism perspective, wine tasting is incredibly popular with groups and for ‘girlfriend getaways,’ and a future wine trail would be a welcome addition to our diverse list of things to do in the Pioneer Valley,” said Goldberg, adding that the tourism bureau is constantly fielding inquiries from meeting planners looking for unique after-hours activities for convention attendees.

For this issue and its focus on tourism, BusinessWest visited with several area vintners to talk about their businesses and their outlook on how wine can become a prominent part of the region’s economy and tourism sector.

 

Heard It Through the Grapevine

The stories beyond the wineries taking root in the Valley all vary, but there are many common denominators.

They were started, in most cases, by professionals who decided to turn a hobby into a business venture. These entrepreneurs had some struggles getting things both in the ground and off the ground, but they’re now seeing the fruits of their labors — in more ways than one. And they all will inevitably use the phrase ‘an art and a science’ to describe the process of making a fine wine.

Godard, former vice president at MassMutual, with his wife, Susan, a schoolteacher, is a great example of today’s vintner whose passion for making wine became his ‘second-life’ business.

They established their 60-acre Mineral Hills farm in 1984, and for years they had a well-established honor-system farm stand offering apples, blueberries, cider, and honey products from Susan’s bees. Soon their hobby grew to include a variety of flavors of wine made from apples, blueberries, and grapes. It was only after Godard retired from MassMutual in 2009 that he decided to “go pro,” as he called it, and turn the winemaking hobby into a full-time venture, launching Mineral Hills Winery in the fall of 2010. Godard now produces wines from French-American hybrid grapes, but also imports European vinifera grapes from California for his reds.

At Black Birch Winery, two couples share various duties to run one of the newest wineries in the area. Florence dentist Ian Modestow is the vintner, while construction and home-inspection-company owner Ed Hamel manages the two acres of new vineyards, with five more acres soon to be cultivated.

Modestow’s wife, Michelle Kersbergen, and Hamel’s wife, Mary Hamel, both dental hygienists, manage the marketing and outreach, but all four partners pitch in wherever needed.

Because the vineyards at Black Birch were planted in 2010 and are young (they still have about two years of maturity until they can be harvested), the proprietors currently source their grapes from Southeastern Mass. or the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Since June 2012, they’ve doubled their visitation, from 650 tastings to 1,480 this August, with wines priced between $16 and $20.

Hamel was one of the many who put ‘art’ and ‘science’ in the same sentence as she talked about wine making. “That’s why Ian is so good at it, because that’s what dentistry is, too,” she explained. “A dentist has to know the science, but has to be an artist to get your tooth to look exactly as it did before.”

The owners of Mount Warner Winery in Hadley — Gary Kamen, a UMass professor of Kinesiology who is in ‘phased retirement,’ and his wife, Bobbie, a strategic planner with AARP — agreed.

“I think the reason I enjoy grape growing and making wine is because they are both part art and part science, probably because of my science background,” said Gary Kamen. “Each person who gets into this business enters it with a different perspective.”

Like Godard and the partners at Black Birch, the Kamens started growing grapes with six cuttings, or vines, in their field in 2000. Soon they were making wine, and, like Godard, they decided to ‘go pro’ in 2010, opening their winery in June 2012. Now, with 725 vines per acre, they have six wines, including two dessert wines priced between $14 and $20.

Les Trois Emme Winery in New Marlborough, owned and operated by Wayne and Mary Jane Eline, is located just south of Ski Butternut in Great Barrington and minutes from the Norman Rockwell Museum and Tanglewood. While the rural town has a residential population of 1,400, it swells to more than 3,000 with tourists and second-home residents from New York.

Wayne Eline is a former chemistry teacher and high-school principal who, like Godard, took his hobby to a whole new level after retirement in 1999. The Elines set their first vines in the dirt in 2000, and by 2003, they were open for business.

“If you’re going to get into it, you’ve got to make it into a real business, rather than just playing games. It didn’t take long to go from where it was to where it is now,” he said, adding that he has tripled his yield over the past decade due to “getting really earnest” about the business in 2009.

The venture now produces 11 to 13 wines, with Stingy Jack Pumpkin, a white wine with a fusion of pumpkin spices, emerging as the most popular.

 

Age-old Tradition

Godard described wine tasting as a very personal experience — for both the taster and the winemaker — and something he’s getting used to as visitation numbers continue to climb.

But he admits that some comments, including those spiced with ‘really good,’ leave him amused and often surprised.

He recalled one visitor from California who commented, “your wines aren’t like our wines,” to which Godard jokingly replied, “that’s like saying your chicken isn’t like our duck.”

The difference, he said, is between French hybrid grapes that grow best in the Northeast, and European vinifera grapes that area vintners source from California, and the two very different climates in which they grow.

“Our wines are different, and they [people from California] should have learned their lesson, because they were treated the same way by the French until the French had their eyes opened when the California wines started taking gold medals at international wine competitions. And that’s happening here now.”

All four wineries have won awards regionally for their wines, and this is perhaps one reason why they’re seeing and meeting a number of avid wine lovers from Connecticut, venturing past that state’s wine trail.

To help bolster visitation, the MFWGA has been promoting the annual Massachusetts Wine Passport Program, which offers a $2 passport to 15 participating wineries in the state. Once the visitor has all 15 unique passport codes from each winery, they are eligible to enter a drawing to win a cellar full of Massachusetts wine.

For Goldberg and the GSCVB, anything that promotes regional ‘buy-local’ efforts is beneficial, and a Western Mass. wine trail would certainly help bring more people to the western counties.

“Eventually, having a number of successful wineries could lead to a Pioneer Valley Wine Trail, wine festivals, and harvest festivals,” she noted.

Western Mass WineriesA number of wineries already feature their labels at area farmers’ markets, thanks to the Massachusetts Farm Winery Bill, backed by the MFWGA, which allows vintners in the Commonwealth to sell their wine at such venues.

Keeping with the theme, the Kamens’ philosophy is to make wine only from grapes and fruit that they grow.

“We intend to make a Massachusetts product out of a Pioneer Valley product.” he said, adding that his winery regularly attends the Amherst and the South Hadley farmers’ markets, while Hamel said Black Birch Winery has seen definite growth and awareness of their wines through their appearances at the Northampton Farmers’ Market.

 

Juicy Futures

Just this summer, the Wine Marketing Council, working with the Nielsen Co., released its annual statistics regarding the global wine market, and found that Baby Boomers spend the most on wine, but with more than 15,000 Millennials coming of age per day, a new target market is emerging. Bobbie Kamen is definitely seeing more young people at Mount Warner Winery.

“Millennials are very eager to try a lot of different things; it’s an exploration for them,” she said.  “And if they like it, they’ll buy it.”

Hamel said Black Birch also sees a number of Millennials, which she considers somewhat surprising, but very promising for the future. “On our Facebook likes, the Millennials age group is the biggest,” she said, adding that, while they may not yet have the disposable incomes that Baby Boomers do, they appreciate fine wine and are establishing themselves as solid customers for decades to come.

While advertising will be important, trust in the valued word-of-mouth endorsement will become even more important to this younger generation in learning about the next new thing in wine.

“Word of mouth is really important for us no matter what age, because, yes, we’re in the business of wine,” Hamel stated, “but we’re also in the business of giving people a great experience.”

And at the moment, this is a business laden with potential — not only to spur economic development and jobs, but also to provide a big boost to a host of efforts to put Western Mass. on the map for many different types of visitors.

In other words, when it comes to wine and wineries, the region’s producers have grape expectations.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Travel and Tourism
Springfield Seeks State Designation for a Cultural District
Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says creation of a cultural district will help Springfield brand its many attractions, while spurring economic development.

Evan Plotkin equated it to a business hanging out a sign that reads “under new management.”

Though he quickly acknowledged that the analogy isn’t perfect — the city hasn’t actually changed leadership at the top, and won’t for at least a few more years — he went ahead with it anyway, because he considers it an effective way to talk about what the creation of a cultural district in Springfield can and likely will do for the community.

“Business owners put out an ‘under new management’ sign on a restaurant, for example, when they want to change the dynamic,” said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and a prime mover in ongoing efforts to revitalize and promote the city’s downtown. “They do it because they want people to know that something has changed, something’s different, something’s better — that people should want to come there again.”

Creating a cultural district can do very much the same thing for Springfield, he went on, noting that it will help the city brand itself and its many cultural attractions and, in many ways, give people a reason to give the community a look — or another look.

Kay Simpson agreed. She’s the vice president of Springfield Museums and one of the primary architects of a proposed cultural district that would cover several blocks downtown and include everything from the Armory Museum to the Paramount; from the Community Music School to the five museums in the Quadrangle; from Symphony Hall to the clubs on Worthington Street.

The formal application for creation of the district was sent to the Mass. Cultural Council (MCC) on Aug. 15, said Simpson, who literally knocked on some wood as she talked about what she considers decent odds that the city will join Pittsfield, Easthampton, Lowell, Gloucester, and other cities gaining state designation for a cultural district.

“This is a great tool for promoting the arts,” she said, adding that, beyond building awareness of the city’s attractions, creation of a cultural district will also better position the city for funding from such organizations as the National Endowment for the Arts, and also spur economic development. “A district can stimulate business, especially creative-economy businesses.”

Her optimism about the proposal’s chances is based on comments made by MCC officials who have walked the planned district already and provided input on the application and how it should be written, and also on the large volume of attractions and institutions packed into the multi-block area identified in the map to the right.

Springfield Cultural District Map loRes 5“It’s remarkable when you consider how many major cultural institutions are located in the downtown area,” she said. “This is not a huge geographic area, but there is a dense concentration of cultural assets.”

David Starr concurred. The president of the Republican and chair of the city’s Cultural Coordination Committee described the planned district as a “true gem,” and said its creation will provide new and potent opportunities to increase awareness of the city’s cultural amenities and build on that foundation.

“The problem has always been that these institutions never got the outside recognition that they deserved,” he explained, referring to the museums in the Quadrangle, the symphony, and other organizations. “A cultural district will help sell them and help brand them to not just the local area, but people outside this region.”

For this issue and its focus on travel and tourism, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the proposed cultural district and what its architects believe it can do for the city and its ongoing efforts to revitalize the downtown area.

 

Mapping Out a Strategy

The MCC’s Cultural Districts Initiative was authorized by an act of the state Legislature in 2010 and launched in 2011.

It was inspired by mounting evidence that thriving creative sectors stimulate economic development, said Simpson, noting that the prevailing theory has been that such districts attract artists, cultural organizations, and entrepreneurs, while helping specific communities create or strengthen a sense of place.

“By having the cultural-district designation, you’re creating an environment where all kinds of businesses can come into an area,” she explained. “These creative-economy businesses include everything from art galleries to graphic-design enterprises to coffee shops and restaurants.

“You’re creating a brand for a community,” she went on, “so that people from outside that community know that, if they go to the cultural district in Springfield, there’s going to be a lot for them to do. They can go to museums, see historic monuments and sites, and have lots to do in terms of both the visual arts and the performing arts.”

There are currently 17 cultural districts across the state, with more being proposed. They have been established in Barnstable, Boston, Cambridge, Concord, Easthampton, Essex, Gloucester (which has two), Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, Natick, Orleans, Pittsfield, Rockport, Sandwich, and Shelburne Falls.

Springfield’s proposed cultural district would be bordered by East Columbus Avenue, Bliss Street, Stockbridge Street, High Street, Federal Street, Pearl Street, Dwight Street, Lyman Street, and Frank B. Murray Street, according to a prepared summary.

That section is home to number of cultural attractions and institutions, including the Springfield Armory National Historic Site, the Quadrangle, the historic Mattoon Street area, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, CityStage, the Paramount, and the Community Music School, said Simpson, adding that it also includes several parks, some retail areas, and a number of restaurants, clubs, and hotels.

One of the required traits of a district, as set down by the MCC, is that it be walkable, said Simpson, noting that, while this comparatively large area — which officials originally thought might encompass two districts — constitutes a “good walk,” it meets that stipulation.

Most of the existing cultural districts have names that identify a specific neighborhood, landmark, or street. Easthampton’s, for example, is called the Cottage Street Cultural District, a nod to the many former mills and storefronts on that thoroughfare that have become home to arts-related businesses and agencies. Meanwhile, Lowell’s Canalway District takes its name from an historic section of that former textile-manufacturing center, which has also become a center for the cultural community, and spotlights the city’s most enduring character trait — its canals.

Those leading the drive for Springfield’s district recently ran a contest to name it; submissions are currently being weighed by a panel of judges, and a winner is to be announced soon.

By whatever name the district takes, it is expected to become a point of reference for Springfield, a vehicle for branding the City of Homes, and a source of momentum as the community seeks to build its creative economy and, overall, bring vibrancy to a long-challenged section of the city, said Plotkin.

In a big-picture sense, the broad goal behind the cultural district is to change the conversation about Springfield, he went on, adding that, in recent years, most of the talk has been about financial struggles (the city was run by a control board for several years), crime, poverty, and high dropout rates in the city’s high schools.

“This cultural district will build a sense of community,” he noted. “It will help break down some of those walls that people have about Springfield, including the sense that we’re a broken city with low self-esteem.

“We have to break out of that and build some pride and some community,” he went on. “We have to start doing things that will really change the city, and I believe a cultural district will do that. Doing this can help to start changing the conversation about Springfield and about what we really are culturally and what we have here.”

It can also help make a community more visible — and attractive — to those looking for landing spots for a company or sites for everything from day trips to meetings and conventions, said Simpson, who said creation of a cultural district in Boston’s Fenway area has apparently done all that.

“In the Fenway, they’ve said they have seen an increase in occupancy rates in office buildings and storefronts since the cultural district was created,” she said, noting that the area, home to several museums and other attractions, is in many ways similar to downtown Springfield. “Meanwhile, it has created for them the sense that they’re more recognized in terms of gaining political support.”

 

Sign of the Times

Springfield will probably find out sometime this fall if its proposal for a cultural district has been accepted by the MCC, said Simpson.

If all goes as those behind this initiative believe it will, then the city will soon have a new vehicle for marketing itself and perhaps making some real progress in ongoing efforts to change some of the perceptions about the community.

In other words, the ‘under new management’ sign can go on the door. It will then be up the city to make the most of that development. n

 

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