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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 96: January 17, 2022

George Interviews State Senator Eric Lesser

Eric Lesser

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with State Senator Eric Lesser. The two talk about everything from the prospects for high-speed rail finally becoming reality, to Lesser’s recent decision to run for lieutenant governor. There’s a lot to unpack, and it’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 95: January 10, 2022

George Interviews Paul Stelzer, president of Appleton Corp

Paul Stelzer

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Paul Stelzer, president of Appleton Corp. The two talk about the region’s commercial real estate market and the powerful forces driving it, especially COVID and its many side-effects. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

 

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Features Special Coverage

Missed Connections

It’s a widely quoted statistic that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much in recent years — only about one-quarter of information-technology (IT) jobs are held by women, and the percentages are much less for women of color — and women in IT leadership, for that matter. That will change, those working and teaching in the field say — but only with a stronger emphasis on making not only women aware of the wide array of careers available in IT, but girls as well.

Hilary LeBrun

Hilary LeBrun says stereotypes have obscured what a rich, varied field IT is — and kept many women from exploring it.

As an associate professor of Computer Science at Elms College, Beryl Hoffman is somewhat far afield of her first chosen college major: biology.

“I had not really heard about computer science as a career at all — my high school didn’t offer it,” she told BusinessWest. “But a friend talked me into taking a coding class for fun.”

And she enjoyed it — enough to eventually push her studies in a different direction.

“As soon as I started it, I felt that, if girls had that experience early on, they would also really enjoy it,” Hoffman recalled. “What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots. Girls don’t get to experience that as much.”

That reality has no doubt contributed to a wide gender disparity in the IT world. According to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., but hold only 25% of computing roles. It’s more dire for minority women; of the 25% of women working in technology, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while black and Hispanic women account for 3% and 1%, respectively.

“What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots.”

“It’s mostly societal expectations and stereotypes,” Hoffman said. “I do believe we need to start introducing people, especially young girls, to computer science and technology when they’re young. That’s happening more and more — I’m seeing more computer science even in elementary schools. It will change; it’s just slow. But I have been seeing slight improvements every year.”

Hilary LeBrun didn’t start out in computer science, and she certainly never thought she’d eventually be COO of Paragus IT when she was working in the hotel industry.

“I was up for a change — I wanted to work in a more family-friendly industry, and the hotel industry isn’t family-friendly. I also wanted to work for a growing company with a good culture that was doing something important. And I found it in Paragus.”

She started as an assistant to CEO Delcie Bean and was quickly excited about how the company helps other businesses — keeping networks secure, creating efficiencies, finding budget-friendly solutions for clients, and the like. She sees the wide variety of work available in IT, and the relationship-centered focus of much of it, and has thought about why more women aren’t plugging in to these careers.

Beryl Hoffman

Beryl Hoffman says one key to closing the gender gap in IT is introducing girls to computers at much earlier ages.

“Part of it is the stereotype,” LeBrun said, echoing Hoffman’s thoughts. “It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

For instance, “it can attract somebody who wants to solve problems, and also create efficiencies, even someone who wants to go into management — there are just so many different aspects. There’s a lack of awareness around that, and the ways that women — and even men — can learn and get that education, get that foot in the door.”

“It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

Zoe Alfano got her foot in the door as a college student at UConn, where she had her eyes on an engineering degree but began working in campus tech support and realized she was good at solving problems. With four years of that work experience in hand, she was hired by Paragus as a client support engineer. She cited a couple of reasons why women don’t follow a similar path.

“It depends a lot on the person, their experience. They might not have been exposed, or didn’t have someone in their lives say, ‘try it out, you might be good at it.’ Or, some people just don’t consider themselves technical; they think they’re not good at it. But they might be good at problem-solving, and solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem. Some people might be better than they anticipate, but don’t have the opportunity to try.”

Constant Change

When they do try, Alfano said, they find that it’s a field that’s constantly evolving, with always something new to learn.

“There’s such a wealth of knowledge, it’s impossible to be a jack of all trades, with so many things to specialize in. A network manager can prevent attacks. A technician like me is good at solving day-to-day issues but might not be as good at solving network-related issues. There are so many different things to know about and learn, and you always have an opportunity to learn something new and choose where want to go.”

Zoe Alfano

Zoe Alfano

“Solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem.”

That can be appealing for women who love learning and working collaboratively, she added — and, often, helping people.

“You’re able to say, ‘hey, I can help with your issue,’ and if you value getting a positive response from someone, that’s a big reason to stick with the field. You talk on the phone, and they’re so grateful their problem isn’t happening anymore. It just makes you feel good.”

LeBrun finds a gratifying challenge in how quickly IT changes.

“Even just the technology we support — 10 years ago, every company had a server. Now servers are dying; everyone’s going to the cloud,” she noted. “So we always need to adapt, always need to change, and that’s one of the aspects I love about it. The industry is not stagnant. There’s always something to learn, new technology to adapt and bring to our clients.”

Beverly Benson, IT and Security program director at Bay Path University, first became interested in the field when her own information was compromised. The more she learned about cybersecurity, the more she related it to the non-technical things people do every day to keep safe, from locking doors to watching over their kids. In short, she saw an appealing human element to a technical field.

“We do that as mothers naturally, always trying to protect our children, always checking in and protecting. I just get paid to do it,” she said. “I think it comes naturally as a woman; we’re the nurturers in a positive sense, a protective sense.”

She agreed with the others BusinessWest spoke with that more awareness of the breadth of IT careers, from the highly technical side to the more relationship-driven side, would boost the number of women interested in pursuing it. “There are a variety of careers within the field — they need to know it’s much more than coding,” she noted.

“There is a need to protect information and infrastructure in every sector,” Benson went on. “It has the potential to impact the food you eat, the vehicles that you drive, it can impact healthcare and your medical records … everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

Hoffman agreed. “It’s a really awesome field of high-growth, high-paying jobs,” she said. “Also, technology is essential in any field now. A lot of folks are missing out on the opportunities out there. And I think a lot of it starts with education. We need to let people know about these careers and have girls experience them.”

To that end, Hoffman is part of a nonprofit, Holyoke Codes, that aims to bring coding and robotics to kids in Holyoke. She also received grant to build a high-school curriculum called CSAwesome, a free e-book that teaches AP CS A and Java and is becoming more widely used in high schools.

“That’s great to see, too,” she said. “And the AP College Board has done a lot to try to get girls to take AP classes in computer science. It’s nice to see as we try to grow that pipeline, and see it broaden and become more diverse.”

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“Everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

The education needs to start earlier than high school, though. “They say that most kids start thinking about careers in middle school. So we need to start educating them there,” Hoffman said, adding that girls need to see more female role models from the IT world.

“As more women go into IT, they will encourage even more women to go into IT. But it’s just slow. We should start them young — even at home, often the robotics and the computers are bought for the boys, not the girls.”

Disparities linger in school districts as well, she said, noting that suburban schools are more likely to present robust computer-science programs than urban and rural schools.

That’s a lot of factors in play, she told BusinessWest, “but it’s slowly changing.”

 

Serve and Protect

LeBrun admits IT can be an intimidating field for women, considering the gender disparity and stereotypes, and is glad she found a company in Paragus that employs — and promotes — plenty of women. She hopes others will find similarly supportive cultures.

But she also believes women need to consider how important IT is to the work world as a whole and how gratifying it can be to be a part of that.

“COVID really opened up businesses’ eyes to how important their IT is and how much they depend on it,” she said. “We try to tell our clients, ‘picking your IT firm should be as important a decision as picking your lawyer or accountant.’ We’re a partner. We’re working to protect their business.

“And I think that’s really exciting,” she added, “to be in an industry that can protect other companies so much — it just creates so many opportunities. Again, it’s about bringing that awareness to girls in school who are still trying to figure it out.”

For older women and career changers, Tech Foundry, a workforce training program affiliated with Paragus, is one example of how to create opportunity — “to just make it doable for them, because it can be scary,” LeBrun said. “There’s a lot to learn in the field.”

“A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

IT companies would do well, she added, to seek employees who might not have every technical skill, but brings fresh perspectives to an organization. “They might not have the traditional background, but have the drive and personality, and the rest can be taught.”

The collaborative nature of much IT work is appealing as well, Hoffman said. “A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

The IT industry is also becoming integrated into other careers, she added, from healthcare to finance. “More and more, all fields are integrating IT, so no matter what you do, those skills are going to be useful in the future, especially in Massachusetts, with so much growth in biotechnology and health sciences.”

The ability to work remotely is another plus — for many firms, a fairly recent one, Benson said.

“Because we had no other choice, we had to work remotely during the pandemic. That has opened doors of possibilities for all people, including women. You don’t have to uproot your family to move to a state heavily populated by cybersecurity opportunities. Now some organizations are OK with you working remotely.”

In short, opportunity abounds. Hopefully, the women we spoke with said, awareness will follow — and stereotypes will continue to crumble.

“I try to encourage women to give it a try,” Benson said. “My mantra is ‘dare to dream.’ I want to see more women in this field. We need them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Law Special Coverage

What Can Business Owners and Managers Expect in 2022?

This past year was a busy one on the employment-law front, with a number of new measures and mandates for employers to follow and some emerging trends, such as unionizing activities, to watch. As the new year dawns, these matters will continue to be at the forefront, and obviously bear watching.

By John S. Gannon, Esq. and Meaghan E. Murphy, Esq.

Last year, we saw legislators and employers trying to pivot from COVID-19 safety measures to more traditional labor and employment-law issues. However, with the Delta and Omicron variants wreaking havoc across the globe, businesses and lawmakers are once again looking for ways to stop the spread of the pandemic. Here are some labor and employment highlights from 2021 that are sure to impact employers in 2022.

John Gannon

John Gannon

Meaghan Murphy

Meaghan Murphy

Employer Vaccination Mandates

In September 2021, President Biden signed several orders requiring federal employees, federal contractors, and most healthcare workers across the country to be vaccinated against COVID-19. He also instructed OSHA to develop an emergency temporary standard directing private employers with 100 or more employees to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates or require weekly testing for their unvaccinated employees. These mandates have been challenged in courts around the county, with varying results. For example, in early December, a federal court in Georgia issued a countrywide stay of the federal-contractor vaccine mandate.

The OSHA ‘shot-or-test’ rule was similarly blocked by one court late last year, but a few weeks later, a different court ruled in favor of the Biden administration and reinstated the emergency standard. It appears the U.S. Supreme Court will have to sort all of this out, and we expect they will rule on these issues early in 2022.

“Unionization campaigns at some of the country’s largest companies have been heating up.”

Here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, state mandates are in place for employees working in long-term care and assisted living, certain home-care workers, and executive-level state workers (including law enforcement). Legal challenges to the vaccine mandates were filed in Massachusetts courts, but to date all of them have failed.

 

Accommodations to Vaccination

In October, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released guidance making it clear that all employers, regardless of size or industry, can require that employees receive the COVID vaccine. There is one big caveat: federal and most state laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious beliefs, disabilities, or pregnancy-related reasons. These are commonly referred to as medical and religious exemptions. Employers that are considering a mandatory vaccination program should have policies explaining how these exemptions work, as well as exemption forms ready for employees to fill out.

 

Biden Administration’s Support for Unions

In June, President Biden appointed Jennifer Abruzzo as the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) new general counsel. She quickly made clear her (and the new Democratic administration’s) pro-labor stance on various issues through a series of memoranda issued by her office. Not surprisingly, Abruzzo has vowed to undo much of the NLRB’s activity under former President Trump, which tended to be pro-business.

Unionization campaigns at some of the country’s largest companies have been heating up. Employees at a Starbucks in Buffalo, N.Y. voted to unionize. Starbucks has agreed to sit down at the table and bargain with the union. This is the first time organized labor has gained a foothold in one of Starbucks’ U.S. locations, but it certainly does not seem like it will be the last. Employees at Starbucks in several other states, including Massachusetts, Washington, and Arizona, are also seeking to unionize.

In addition, employees at an Alabama Amazon warehouse recently voted not to unionize, but the union trying to organize those employees alleged that Amazon intentionally interfered with its union-organizing efforts. In one of its biggest actions under President Biden, the NLRB announced that Amazon had committed to allow more room for employees to conduct union activity and to send an e-mail directly to current and former employees to inform them of their labor rights. It is the clearest example to date of how Democratic officials in this administration will seek to use federal power to help employees organize.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave

Starting Jan. 1, 2022, most Connecticut employees will be able to take paid time off to attend to personal and family health needs. Under the program, employees are entitled to 12 weeks of paid-leave benefits, and up to 14 weeks if an employee experiences a serious health condition that occurs during a pregnancy.

This program is similar to the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave program, which went live at the beginning of last year. The Department of Family and Medical Leave published data stating that the department approved 43,440 applications between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2021. Benefits totaling $167,915,781 were paid out during this time. This was before employees could take PFML to care for family members, which became available on July 1.

 

Employee Mobility: Tackling the Labor Shortage

A record 4.4. million Americans quit their jobs in September 2021. The high quit rates were commonly dubbed the ‘Great Resignation,’ and made it clear that Americans are switching jobs for better pay, starting their own businesses, or continuing to struggle with child care and school schedules.

As the pandemic lingers, it’s likely that the quit rates will remain high for the next several months. As a result, employers will need to raise wages and/or offer more lucrative benefit packages to attract and retain talent. Businesses should also consider offering employees who do not physically need to be in the office every day some sort of a hybrid work-from-home schedule, a model that has dramatically increased in popularity over the last year.

 

John Gannon and Meaghan Murphy are attorneys at the firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]; [email protected]

Health Care Special Coverage

When It Can’t Wait

Mercy Medical Center

Mercy Medical Center, like all area hospitals, has seen a series of COVID surges over the past two years, including the current one.

Last month’s DPH guidance to hospitals, telling them to postpone all non-essential procedures that could result in an inpatient stay, is a challenge on multiple levels, local hospital leaders say. One, it’s not so easy to simply redeploy personnel from one department to another. Two, there’s no one-size-fits-all definition of ‘non-essential.’ But most important, it’s critical that patients seek out the care they need and let doctors make the judgment calls — and the fear is that this new guidance will chase those patients away. It wouldn’t be the first time.

It’s never good to put off necessary treatment, Spiros Hatiras said, whether that be cardiac screenings, lab tests, or cancer surgery.

“The outcome is not going to be good,” said the president and CEO of Valley Health Systems, which includes Holyoke Medical Center. Yet, that’s exactly what has happened over the past two years, due to a combination of people’s fear of public places and guidance from the hospitals themselves for people to stay home during the early height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

“People were initially scared; they wanted to stay away from the hospital,” Hatiras said. “Then we started reducing capacity and told people, essentially, ‘don’t come to the hospital.’ We started seeing people come back over the summer and fall, and now we’re back to telling people to stay away.”

He was referring to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s (DPH) guidance to hospitals concerning non-essential, elective, invasive procedures, which took effect Dec. 22.

“We started seeing people come back over the summer and fall, and now we’re back to telling people to stay away.”

“To preserve healthcare personnel resources, all hospitals are directed to postpone or cancel all non-essential elective procedures likely to result in inpatient admission in order to maintain and increase inpatient capacity,” the guidance reads. “Patients are reminded to still seek necessary care at their hospital or from their healthcare provider.”

The guidance comes as the Omicron variant has pushed hospitals to capacity limits with a new COVID surge.

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose says treating all patients, urgent and non-urgent cases alike, is part of Mercy’s mission, but it will abide by the state’s guidance.

“Hospital capacity is stretched more than it has ever been since the beginning of the healthcare emergency,” Massachusetts Health & Hospital Assoc. (MHA) President and CEO Steve Walsh said in recent testimony to the state Legislature. “After two years of fighting this virus, our caregivers are simply exhausted.”

He acknowledged that “some of these pressures, we feel, are not COVID-related and may have also been mounting for several months.” Still, a strained healthcare workforce is facing a staffing shortage that has contributed to the loss of approximately 500 medical/surgical and ICU hospital beds since the beginning of the year.

Still, Hatiras questions the wisdom of simply assuming caregivers can be efficiently redeployed to other tasks.

“The idea is that, if we don’t do these surgeries, it opens up resources to redeploy in the hospital. But we know that’s not so easily done. You can free up nurse, but in a lot of cases, there’s not a whole lot they can do. It’s not like they can suddenly be an ER nurse or an ICU nurse. There are a lot of issues around that in terms of training and competencies. So the value of actually redeploying staff is somewhat questionable.”

He suggested what might work better is to issue the guidance as an advisory. “We can advise hospitals to find ways to create capacity. At the end of the day, there’s not a single hospital that would leave a patient untreated because they’re going to schedule a plastic surgery ahead of that patient. What we really need is more staff, which we don’t have.”

Dr. Robert Roose, medical director of Mercy Medical Center, said his team takes pride in caring for all the needs of the community, so the DPH guidance poses a challenge.

“Hospital capacity is stretched more than it has ever been since the beginning of the healthcare emergency.”

“It is important for us, from a mission perspective as well as from an operations perspective, to be able to be there when patients need us, whether for emergency care or non-emergency care,” he said. “All types of care across the continuum support individuals’ well-being and wellness.”

That said, “Governor Baker and the Department of Public Health have issued an executive order for hospitals to suspend non-emergency procedures that could result in an inpatient stay. In order for us to fulfill our obligations as a hospital, we are, of course, complying with those orders. We recognize this can be a concern for patients, as well as our providers and colleagues who wish to continue to provide the care they are so expertly trained to do. This is not an ideal situation, but one we find ourselves in, and we look forward to resuming all care in the very near future.”

 

What Is Non-essential?

To help redirect resources, Gov. Charlie Baker activated the Massachusetts National Guard on Dec. 22 to address the non-clinical support needs of hospitals and transport systems. Up to 300 of these Guard members will support 55 acute-care hospitals, as well as 12 ambulance service providers across the Commonwealth.

DPH surveyed hospitals and ambulance service providers and, in concert with the MHA, identified five key roles that non-clinical Guard personnel can serve in support hospital operations for up to 90 days: driving ambulances used to transfer patients between two healthcare locations, such as when patients are discharged from a hospital and transferred to a long-term-care facility; providing continuous or frequent observation of a patient who is at risk for harm to themselves; helping to maintain a safe workplace; bringing patients via wheelchair or, if needed, stretcher, from their patient room to tests such as X-ray or CT scan, or from the emergency department to their inpatient floor; and delivering patient meals to their rooms.

Spiros Hatiras says very few procedures can be deemed non-essential when one considers the health effects of delaying them.

But if resources are, indeed, being directed away from non-essential procedures, the question becomes what, exactly, constitutes a non-essential procedure. And the answer, in many cases, is complicated.

“The decision of what can be safely postponed, even for a week or three or four, is left to the discretion of the surgeon or clinical team,” Roose said. “That is an incredibly important fact because, ultimately, the providers are the ones responsible for the care of the patient, and we never want to see something untoward occur during the period of time when they could have been attended to. At Mercy, just like at other hospitals, those decisions are made by the treating providers and patients in collaboration, with their best interest in mind.”

Hatiras agreed. “When we talk about necessary procedures, first of all, there’s no particular approach; every individual is different. If you think about it, there are very few procedures where postponing it enhances one’s health. We’re talking about surgery here. When somebody gets to the point where they need surgery, it’s not like getting a haircut, where it can wait until next month.”

Exceptions to this rule might include discretionary plastic surgery and perhaps Lasik, where the worst-case scenario might be a few more months of wearing glasses or contacts.

“But that’s about the only things I can think of,” Hatiras said. “With other things, you’re doing it because you’re in pain or your health is deteriorating in some way.”

Take bariatric surgery, which some people might put in the non-essential category. Those patients start the process six months before surgery and tackle issues such as diabetes and blood pressure — “all the issues that make COVID deadlier,” Hatiras said. They typically have to lose a certain amount of weight before surgery and undergo psychological screening and counseling.

“When they meet all the milestones and the date approaches where they’re ready for surgery, should we now tell them, ‘guess what? We can’t do your surgery; we’ll let you know when we can.’ That would be wholly detrimental to the patient, who worked for six months to get to a point they might never get back to.

“Could you call that elective?” Hatiras added. “When you do the surgery, the diabetes gets better, the blood pressure gets better, the heart gets better. I take issue with what some people consider elective.”

Or take knee and hip replacements, he went on. “Is that really elective when there’s a risk of blood clots because they can’t walk or they’re risking other illnesses because they’re taking pain medications to cope with it?”

 

Call Your Doctor

Hatiras and Roose both hope the new state guidance doesn’t chase people away from seeking the care they actually need. That’s what happened last year, and hospitals and patients are still feeling the effects.

“At this point in the pandemic, our concern is that we have started to see the impacts of people in the community delaying care during prior waves of the pandemic,” Roose said. “We want to encourage members of the community to seek out important primary care, preventive care, and non-urgent care that can contribute to their health and wellness.”

In other words, let doctors and facilities decide what’s necessary — and how that care can be delivered.

“We have seen the pandemic shift many things in healthcare, including the way people seek care, which now is occurring far more through digital or virtual means than prior to the pandemic,” Roose said. “We’re seeing high demand for additional services in the home after a hospital stay, or in skilled nursing and other facilities. We are paying attention to how we can provide a service that delivers both in terms of convenience and excellence, because the pandemic has changed fundamentally the way care will be delivered for many years to come.”

The MHA, the DPH, and hospitals are united on one front: the unvaccinated far, far outnumber the vaccinated when it comes to taking up inpatient beds — and especially ICU beds — with COVID, in turn making it harder for hospitals to provide other services.

“When somebody gets to the point where they need surgery, it’s not like getting a haircut, where it can wait until next month.”

According to the DPH, 97% of COVID breakthrough cases in Massachusetts have not resulted in hospitalization or death, and unvaccinated individuals are five times more likely to contract COVID than fully vaccinated individuals and 31 times more likely to contract COVID than individuals who have a booster.

The MHA’s executive committee recently released an “urgent plea” for Massachusetts residents to do five things if they haven’t already: get vaccinated for both COVID-19 and the flu, and get boosted when eligible; always wear a mask when in public and when social distancing isn’t possible; get tested for COVID-19 if you develop symptoms or if you come into close contact with someone who has tested positive; keep up with regular medical appointments, “as we are now seeing the devastating effects of delayed care from the first waves of the pandemic”; and seek care from a doctor or urgent-care center when appropriate.

“When in doubt, you should never hesitate to visit your local emergency room,” the committee noted. “But for many medical situations, these settings can provide you with more timely and efficient care.”

It’s notable that, along with the expected advice to vaccinate and mask up, these medical professionals would warn against delaying care, even amid the DPH’s guidance to hospitals to postpone some procedures.

“Cumulatively, I think we’re dropping the health status of individuals,” Hatiras said, noting that people have put off colonoscopies, mammograms, and other procedures that are key to detecting issues early, before they develop into health crises. Holyoke Medical Center has responded with a public campaign to bring patients back, so they don’t keep delaying important visits.

“Don’t put something off. Don’t make that decision yourself,” he added. “To me, there is no safer place than a hospital. To me, a hospital is a lot safer than a restaurant, a lot safer than the mall, whatever you want to compare it to, because we have personnel aware of infection-control issues. We wear masks indoors, we hand sanitize, we know how to avoid infection.”

And don’t put off behavioral-health needs, either, Hatiras added, noting that isolation and anxiety have soared during the pandemic. “We see a lot of people deteriorating, in both their physical health and mental health, and that combination is never good.”

Roose agreed that it’s critical for individuals to seek the care they need, no matter what the state is saying, and let their doctor guide their next steps.

“There’s a lot of attention on capacity in hospitals, but we would not want anyone to delay care for important business, like mammograms, colonoscopies, lab tests, or emergency or urgent care,” he told BusinessWest. “We are here to take care of you, and we want to continue to send that message.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Features Special Coverage

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq. and Ryan J. Barry, Esq.

Jodi K. Miller

Jodi K. Miller

Ryan J. Barry

Ryan J. Barry

A woman injures her ankle while jogging and goes to the local emergency department for treatment. Despite her injury, she makes sure to go to a hospital in her health plan’s network. Some weeks later, she receives a significant — and unexpected — bill from an emergency department physician. While the hospital was in her health plan’s network, it turns out the treating physician was not. Her health plan paid a portion of the physician’s charges, but she is responsible for the remainder.

This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services. These bills are often a surprise because the patient either was not able to choose an in-network provider or was unaware that the provider was out of network until after the services were rendered.

Recently enacted legislation at the federal level and in Massachusetts attempt to address this issue.

A new federal law, the No Surprises Act, went into effect on Jan. 1. The No Surprises Act imposes requirements on healthcare facilities and providers, as well as on health plans, in three key areas: emergency services, non-emergency services provided by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, and air ambulance services. When those services are rendered, health plans must make a payment to the out-of-network providers, and patients are responsible only for the cost-sharing obligations they would have incurred had the care been provided in network (e.g., co-payments and deductibles).

If the provider does not accept the health plan’s payment, the plan and the provider must attempt to negotiate a reimbursement rate. If negotiations fail, the plan or the provider can initiate a dispute-resolution process to resolve the issue. In these cases, providers may not bill the patient more than the cost-sharing amount, and they are potentially subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $10,000 per violation if they do so.

The No Surprises Act also provides that out-of-network providers of certain scheduled services may not balance-bill patients unless the provider has given advance notice and obtained written consent from the patient. The act sets out specific requirements for the content of the notice, including a good-faith estimate of the costs incurred and a list of in-network options for the patient. This notice and consent process, however, is not available for out-of-network providers of emergency services and other ancillary services (such as anesthesiology, pathology, radiology, and other diagnostic services), or in circumstances where there no in-network provider is available.

Other provisions of the No Surprises Act, including disclosure requirements for both providers and health plans, also aim to increase transparency and consumer protections. Providers are required to publicly disclose and provide to patients a one-page notice about the balance-billing requirements and prohibitions of the No Surprises Act, as well as state law. As discussed below, Massachusetts, too, has recently imposed new disclosure requirements for providers.

Notably, the protections of the No Surprises Act do not apply to emergency services by ground ambulance providers. In those circumstances, out-of-network ground ambulance providers may still bill patients for significant balances, which are invariably a surprise to patients who had no ability to choose an in-plan ambulance provider in an emergency.
Regulations implementing the No Surprises Act have not been without controversy. Medical associations have criticized the regulations implementing the dispute-resolution process as unfairly favoring health plans. Health plans, on the other hand, have lauded the regulations, maintaining that the process will make healthcare more affordable and avoid unnecessary increases in health-insurance premiums.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts passed its own law to address balance billing for non-emergency services. That law, which also took effect on Jan. 1, requires healthcare providers to disclose to patients certain information regarding their participation in patients’ insurance plans and patients’ financial obligations for scheduled procedures and services.

Generally, providers are required to tell patients whether they participate in the patient’s insurance plan. If the provider does not participate in the patient’s plan, the provider must disclose the charges and any facility fees for the procedure or service. The provider must also inform the patient they will be responsible for the charges and any facility fees not covered through the patient’s health plan and that they may be able to obtain the procedure or service at a lower cost from an in-network provider.

The law also imposes new requirements on in-network providers to disclose information to patients regarding charges for procedures or services. Providers must also inform patients if their participation in the patient’s health plan changes during a continued course of treatment and make various disclosures when referring a patient to another provider.

There are two consequences if a provider violates the Massachusetts law. First, if an out-of-network provider fails to provide the required notifications and information, the provider cannot bill the patient at all, except for any co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible that would be payable had the patient received the service from an in-network provider. Second, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health is authorized to fine non-compliant providers up to $2,500 per violation.

The recently enacted federal and state laws seek to provide protections to consumers to avoid inadvertent balance bills from out-of-network providers. As these laws go into effect at the start of the new year, providers and health plans should be ready to implement the requirements, and consumers should see fewer surprises in their mailboxes.

Jodi Miller and Ryan Barry are partners in Bulkley Richardson’s healthcare practice.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 94: December 27, 2021

George Interviews Rick Sullivan, President and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council

Rick Sullivan

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. The two talk about the year that was … and what the region might expect in 2022 when it comes to everything from the workforce crisis to supply chain issues to attracting individuals and businesses to Western Mass.  It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Seeking a Return

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

Paul Scully says customers are feeling more optimistic about the future.

While year one of the pandemic taught banks how to constantly pivot — to remote work, new modes of serving customers, and multiple phases of PPP loans — year two has brought more stability, even normalcy, but also new challenges, particularly inflation and supply-chain disruption that has made it more difficult for customers to save, borrow, and invest. That they’re doing all these things, to some degree, lends a healthy sense of optimism to 2022.

 

There’s nothing wrong with normalcy, Paul Scully said.

And if nothing else, the business of banking in 2021 was more stable than in 2020. That doesn’t mean all the economic issues individuals and businesses are dealing with have gone away, just that banks, and businesses in general, had to do less pivoting. Or at least have learned to roll with the punches.

“With vaccination rates increasing — or at least the availability of vaccinations up — we saw business picking up and customers feeling more confident coming into the banking centers,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank. “And with commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

What was going on last year were the early throes of a pandemic with no vaccines available, widespread shutdowns of economic activity, and banks more involved in PPP loans than normal commercial activity. “But we started to see, probably by the second quarter of this year, a normalizing, with customers feeling more confident and feeling more optimistic about the future and for their business.”

“With commercial business picking up, people were feeling a little more optimistic with what the future has in store for them — where 2020 was all about trying to figure out what the heck was going on.”

That’s a positive trend for commercial lending. Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, was on an economic-outlook call with Visa recently, which projected a 7% uptick in 2022 in business investments in fixed assets, which means more borrowing. “That’s pretty healthy growth,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking to borrow out there. Corporations’ financial statements are looking pretty strong the last couple of years, and a lot of consumers are sitting in pretty good financial shape; we’ll see whether they want to pull the trigger or not.”

On the consumer side, they have, with 2021 being the second straight year of double-digit growth on the mortgage-lending side at Freedom, along with healthy business in auto and home-equity loans. “And last year, deposits were up over 20%; this year, it was 10%. Our balance sheet, like many institutions, has grown pretty significantly since COVID hit.”

Tony Liberopoulos, Liberty Bank’s senior vice president and regional manager for Commercial Banking, said the bank’s new commercial-lending push in Western Mass. — it opened a loan-production office in East Longmeadow in June and has added three more employees since then — has gone well.

“We’ve been very happy. We had a very strong year; we’ve been very busy,” he told BusinessWest, noting that much of that success can be attributed to customers craving normalcy — in this case, face-to-face dealings with a stable team.

“With the amount of market disruption between mergers, community lenders leaving their jobs for other opportunities, and, in many instances, competitors still working from home, we’ve had opportunities to meet prospects and clients to grow our business,” he explained.

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says borrowers want access to digital tools, but mainly prefer face-to-face interactions.

“We’re firm believers that, while businesses have been struggling with things like COVID and supply chains, things will bounce back,” he went on. “And we’re seeing a lot of opportunities just by being in front of the clients. They want to see familiar faces; they don’t want to deal with just Webex and phone calls.”

Liberty’s lending numbers have borne that out, with 2021 figures close to what they were pre-COVID, Liberopoulos added. “That’s all we can ask for at this point. We’ve found customers and prospects still want face-to-face meetings; they want a normal relationship with banks.”

With that in mind, “I think the trend is toward more confidence in 2022 than there was in 2021,” he went on. “I think companies have seen their business come back since late May, early June, when a lot of COVID restrictions were lifted. We’re seeing businesses thrive again, and now they’re starting to invest in 2022. That’s what we’re counting on.”

 

Into the Digital Age

While many customers do, indeed, prefer to bank in person, Scully said, one of the big industry stories of the pandemic was how customers who had avoided digital banking options embraced them when they had to — and then stuck with them.

“More and more people developed a comfort level with technology,” he explained. “Many had a fear of the unknown — ‘will my money be safe?’ But the last 20 months allowed people to recalibrate a little bit, and we’re seeing more and more reliance on technology, which is great.”

Country even converted a small branch in the Ware Walmart to an interactive banking office with two interactive teller machines (ITMs). “They can absolutely do anything on the machine. The customer response has been really positive.”

Technology has helped banks in other ways — including combating a workforce shortage that has affected every industry and has not spared banks and credit unions.

“The fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.”

“Honestly, it doesn’t matter what business you’re in these days, the fact that there aren’t a lot of employable people out there is taking its toll on businesses. Anyone in a customer-service business is looking for people; it doesn’t matter whether if you’re running a bank or a local coffee shop.

“But that customer expectation still exists for us, so technology has helped quite a bit,” Scully went on. “Customers during the pandemic became more familiar with doing their banking through technology, and their reduced reliance on coming into the branch reduced some of our traffic.”

At Country, while the banking centers operate five or six days a week with in-person staff, in the back-office areas, employees remain on a hybrid schedule, three days in the office, two remote — with Wednesdays mandatory for everyone to come in. “That’s more of a cultural thing for us, so folks would still be connected to one another.”

And the hybrid model has worked well, he noted. “We recognized early on, as we started to look at the reopening process, there are a lot of benefits to having a hybrid workforce. It’s like 2020 allowed us all to recalibrate, and ask why you’re spending an hour twice a day commuting to the office just to do work you were able to do at home for a year. We decided, ‘let’s rethink this.’”

Staffing has also been a challenge for Freedom, Welch said, which had to close down a branch or revert to drive-up only on occasion to deal with it.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says workforce issues have not only affected staffing for banks and credit unions, but have begun to put pressure on wages.

“We’ve seen other institutions have the same issue. We’re certainly trying to hire people, but it’s been difficult. People leave, and it’s hard to get people interested in coming in and working. I don’t know if it’s because it’s a retail environment — that’s where most of our openings are, in branches — or it’s just people retiring or finding other things they want to do.”

The crunch has started to put pressure on wages, Welch added, which not only affects the banks themselves, but often doesn’t do enough to balance surging inflation for those earning the paychecks.

Liberopoulos said the shift toward digital banking options is a good one, and even though many of his commercial clients have wanted to do business in person, they, too, also want to be able to access the same digital experience — with its speed, flexibility, and personalization — that consumer clients have.

“Innovation is always the key to growth and sustainability. To survive, you need to invest not only in talent, but in products and services,” he said, noting that there’s certainly a need for both online options and a bricks-and-mortar presence.

 

Back to the Street

Communities and nonprofits saw their needs soar during the pandemic, too, and that’s one area community banks and credit unions continued to focus on in 2021. For example, over the summer, Country Bank — which has traditionally focused its giving on basic needs like food insecurity, homelessness, and healthcare — donated a total of $1 million to two regional food banks.

“To be a healthy community, residents in the community need to be in good health. Nutrition should be a right and not a privilege,” Scully said, noting that needs became more dire due to the pandemic, job losses, inflation, and an increase in addiction.

“If you have a heartbeat, you enjoy giving back, and it doesn’t have to be a certain size,” he said, turning the topic around as a challenge to others. “You may be able to donate only a dozen boxes of pasta, but that’s a dozen more boxes of pasta available for someone in need. What we like to do is partner with organizations and get their stories out there, so other people can jump on the bandwagon and be a part of it too.”

That speaks to Liberty’s priorities as well, Liberopoulos said. “We’re very in tune with our community and helping out the non-for-profits; we’ve done a lot of good things so far and continue to do that. That’s very important to us. We live, work, and lend in this area, and we want to support this area as well.”

Welch said Freedom has not only supported nonprofits, but gotten others involved by choosing a charity each month — A Bed for Every Child, the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, and Unify Against Bullying are just three recent examples — and involving members in the giving.

“We have been advertising that on our website and trying to get donations not only from the credit union, but from members who find the causes worthwhile and have the ability to donate,” he explained.

As for member business in the coming year, Welch knows inflation remains a drain on savings and assumes interest rates will rise at some point in an attempt to slow it down. “That could have an impact on people being able to borrow. Student-loan payments are starting up again, too, so people will have $300 or $400 coming out of their pocket for that in addition to increased prices and increased rates.”

These are problems that affect businesses, too, Scully said.

“With inflation and the cost of goods going up, and so many businesses looking at inflated utility expenses, now, with the shortage of qualified, available help, payroll tends to go up as well,” he noted. “Clearly there are a lot of challenges for folks in the business arena — which is why you really want to encourage people to shop local and keep Main Street storefronts occupied.”

Many businesses struggling with higher costs are still looking to borrow and invest, he added. While the PPP loans of 2020 were about keeping the lights on and keeping employees paid, for more traditional loans going forward, borrowers need to show a continuation of revenue streams without the PPP revenue to bolster them.

“For the most part, that’s exactly what happened. Businesses have returned to a good level,” Scully said. “Certainly, some are still taking their hits — hospitality was one of the hardest-hit, whether it’s food services, hotels, or entertainment venues. They had tough restrictions put on them last year. Those restrictions were lifted for the most part, but now they can’t rehire enough workers.”

These are all factors that might cause individuals and businesses to pull back from borrowing, he added.

“What will the impact of inflation be? When will interest rates start to rise a little? The big piece that looms for me is employment: where is the workforce going to be? Will there be enough employable people for all of the jobs? We’ve heard about this Great Resignation. It’s real.”

Still, like other financial leaders we’ve spoken with recently, Scully remains optimistic. “All indications suggest 2022 should be an OK year from a business perspective.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

‘We’re Like a Cruise Ship’

By Mark Morris

Cheryl Moran supervises a balloon volleyball game

Cheryl Moran supervises a balloon volleyball game at the Atrium at Cardinal Drive.

Visit any senior-living community and it’s easy to notice all the activities residents take part in. But there’s more to all that activity than just fun and games.

Indeed, while providing entertainment, activities also contribute to the well-being of seniors in every setting, from independent living to assisted living and memory care, and even in skilled-nursing facilities.

It all begins with crafting an activities calendar. Sondra Jones, chief marketing officer for the Arbors Assisted Living communities in Amherst, Chicopee, Greenfield, and Westfield, said residents have a full schedule of activities from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. They can take part in anything from exercise sessions to religious services to food classes and lectures. On one sunny day in October, residents in Chicopee took part in an outdoor drumming circle. Calendar offerings change all the time based on the types of activities that interest residents the most.

“Because people live here, we’re in essence an apartment building,” Jones said. “And in some ways, we’re like a cruise ship, because residents have all their meals and activities here, too.”

Even with nearly a dozen scheduled activities available each day, some residents might want to take part in something that’s not on the calendar. That’s OK with Cheryl Moran, executive director at the Atrium at Cardinal Drive in Agawam, who noted that this is their home and the staff are visitors in the home.

“The activities our residents take part in are all geared to keeping these skills a part of their everyday life. When they begin to struggle with a skill, we step in and help them find a different way to succeed.”

“One woman likes to spend her time doing crossword puzzles, and another just likes to paint because it makes her feel like an artist,” Moran said.

Heidi Cornwell, director of Marketing & Sales for Kimball Farms Life Care in Lenox, said most facilities make sure they cover five key areas when planning an activities calendar: gross motor skills, socialization, self-care, sensory, and memory. Specific activities are usually modified to fit a particular setting to help everyone keep moving and engaging as part of their daily routine.

“The activities our residents take part in are all geared to keeping these skills a part of their everyday life,” Cornwell said. “When they begin to struggle with a skill, we step in and help them find a different way to succeed. We work very hard to be a failure-free environment.”

According to Lori Todd, executive director for Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing in Springfield, when a person needs medical attention in a skilled-nursing setting, activities remain an essential factor in the patient’s recovery.

“Activities definitely help patients by encouraging the kind of wellness behaviors that contribute to the healing process,” she said.

Meanwhile, in settings such as assisted living, the level of functioning varies from person to person. Moran said she likes to have everyone together because it creates a dynamic in which people of different levels of function help each other with activities or just daily life.

Residents at the Arbors in Chicopee

Residents at the Arbors in Chicopee participate in an outdoor drumming circle.

“Our high-functioning residents enjoy helping people in wheelchairs or those who need help in some other way,” she told BusinessWest. “For the person who functions on a higher level, it gives them a sense of purpose.”

 

Much More Than Bingo

In the past, senior-living activities usually concentrated on gathering for bingo. While bingo remains popular, Todd said many group activities now aim to incorporate exercise so they can combine something fun with meeting a patient’s rehab needs at the same time.

“When setting up the calendar, we make sure to include plenty of wellness activities, whether they are emotional, physical, social, reminiscing, basically anything that helps memory or keeps people physically active,” Todd said. They also insert fun social activities such as a happy hour with an entertainer. “We strive for feel-good activities as well as ones that promote healing.”

Physical and social activities are certainly not limited to schedules on a calendar. Cornwell discussed how the actions of a resident leaving their apartment, walking down the hall, perhaps taking an elevator, and then walking to the dining area all contribute to physical activity. Once they arrive, they sit with a friend or neighbor and then engage in conversation, which adds to their social experience.

“When setting up the calendar, we make sure to include plenty of wellness activities, whether they are emotional, physical, social, reminiscing, basically anything that helps memory or keeps people physically active.”

“This is where senior living provides much more physical movement than if the person was at home,” she added, “where a caregiver brings them a meal and they might not leave their chair all day.”

Activities involving music are popular in every senior-living setting. While singers are not yet allowed in most places due to COVID-19 concerns, Cornwell said it’s a form of therapy when violinists, pianists, and other musicians come to play.

“Studies show music touches a part of the brain and leaves a positive impact,” she noted. “Music goes a long way toward self-care and helps people feel better about themselves.”

Jones credits her activities staff for finding an innovative way to include singers into music performances while still following COVID mandates.

“We had singers outside in the courtyard area while the residents gathered in the library with the doors open so they could see and hear the entertainment from a safe distance,” she said.

As mandates continue to gradually ease, everyone who spoke with BusinessWest expressed gratitude for all the difficult work the staff at senior-living communities performed during the worst days of the pandemic.

At the height of COVID, residents were essentially quarantined in their apartments, so staff at each facility made an extra effort to stay engaged with them.

Residents at Kimball Farms engage in tai chi.

Residents at Kimball Farms engage in tai chi.

“Our resident-care attendants and activity teams all turned into nail technicians, hairdressers, and personal stylists,” Cornwell said. “They did everything to keep residents looking good, feeling good, and feeling like someone cared.”

At the peak of the pandemic, when frequent temperature taking was essential, staff would dress up as a lion or some other whimsical costume just to get a laugh out of the residents.

One common practice at several facilities involved opening apartment doors and encouraging residents to socialize from the entrance of their unit. Staff would also use the hallway as the focal point for a bingo game and, in one instance, as a socially distanced bowling alley. “All the staff found creative ways to keep things social,” Jones said.

Added Cornwell, “the pandemic has been difficult and extremely challenging. Our residents rallied, and I give our staff 100% props for their out-of-the-box thinking to keep people safe and engaged.”

Before vaccines were available and while COVID was rampant, Todd said patients at the skilled-nursing facility at Loomis Lakeside at Reeds Landing could not have any visitors in their rooms. Fortunately, that unit is located on the first floor.

“Families were able to visit their loved ones through the window and could communicate by phone or iPad through the glass,” she explained. “We wanted to address social isolation while at the same time keeping everyone safe.”

Without that effort to engage with residents, the lack of socialization can quickly lead to depression, Jones noted. “Once they could leave their rooms again, I heard one woman say to another, ‘I haven’t held anyone’s hand in so long.’ Social interaction is a good distraction.”

For nearly four years, Gladys Fioravanti has lived at the Arbors in Chicopee. She believes activities are an important part of staying healthy.

“If you sit in your room day after day, you start thinking too much,” Fioravanti said. “You think of your loss, then you break down and cry and need some pills to calm you down, so I think it’s good to have something to do.”

She takes part in a number of activities because they keep her busy, but not too busy.

“I like the exercise class in the morning followed by the Mass right after,” she said. “After exercise, the Mass allows you to cool down.”

One afternoon, Fioravanti was sitting in the library area with several friends, including Claire Henault, whom Fioravanti met at the Arbors.

“We play cards together,” Fioravanti told BusinessWest. “We cheat together — I mean, Claire cheats.” At which point Henault chimed in, “I can’t be cheating because I never win.”

 

Moving Toward Normalcy

While residents are free to move around their facilities, families are not yet allowed in common areas but may visit loved ones in their apartments, where they can eat in the unit or take the resident out for dinner. Before COVID, families could join the loved ones during activity time.

“Recently, a family member called just to ask when they can attend the activities again because they enjoyed it too,” Moran said.

All the managers praised the patience families showed during the worst days of COVID. Since the beginning, Cornwell said, they have educated families on the latest protocols and good safety habits. “And we’re still educating them.”

The use of iPads and other tablets were a key to connecting families with their loved ones when no visitors were allowed. Cornwell said Kimball Farms parent Berkshire Healthcare Systems invested in tablets so residents could speak to family members on Skype or FaceTime. Even for residents who were aphasic and had trouble with verbal communication, that connection was still important for all involved.

“Even if the resident couldn’t verbally express their feelings, they could at least see the faces of their loved ones and hear their voices,” Cornwell explained. “Family members were able to see the resident’s smile and maybe even some blush on their face when our care attendants would put some makeup on them to help them look beautiful for the camera.”

As more people receive the COVID vaccine and booster shot, Moran hopes to eventually see families back inside the Atrium at Cardinal Drive.

“It’s enjoyable when we have lots of people here with the residents and the families are all talking with each other,” she said. “I don’t know when we’ll be able to invite everyone back in, but I hope we eventually can because I miss them.”

Like many industries, senior care is always looking to add more staff. Still, Jones noted, while the Arbors had some challenges, staffing is not a big issue.

“We have several staff members who have been with us for more than 20 years,” she said. “We will always have turnover, but we also have a core of stable employees, so that’s a real positive.”

During the height of COVID, Moran hired a number of Harbor Universal Associates (HUAs) to accommodate residents who may want coffee before 9 a.m. when breakfast is served. By having this extra staff person to help and engage with residents, Moran can offer what she called parallel programming.

“We may have one main activity going on in the center of the room, while several smaller groups are doing what they want around the perimeter,” she said. “The HUAs provide that added level of support for our residents who want to do their own thing.”

When a family comes to visit a new resident, Jones said, her goal is to be able to tell them, “your mom is busy right now.”

Ultimately, she added, all the activities available for seniors creates what she called a healthy distraction. “It beats having dinner with Pat and Vanna every night.”

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Breaking Through

By Mark Morris

Sina Holloman has grown HomeCare Hands

Sina Holloman has grown HomeCare Hands to more than 200 caregivers and employees.

Back in 2003, Sina Holloman discovered she loved working with seniors in a one-on-one setting. That passion eventually inspired her to start HomeCare Hands, one of the fastest-growing homecare agencies in Western Mass.

Initially trained as a nurse, Holloman was looking to make a career change and began to work privately for several families in an elder-care role.

“I managed all aspects of the senior’s care from mental, physical, financial, everything that had an impact on the individual,” Holloman said. “I did that for several years, then decided to try my hand at business.”

In 2013, she stayed up many nights with her laptop computer studying how to start a home-care agency, how to understand the needs of the community, and what it means to be a woman in business.

After several months, she took out a “tiny ad” in the Reminder offering in-home care for seniors, listing her cell phone as the contact.

“That first call had me jumping for joy,” she said. Her elation was quickly replaced with concern when she heard the specific demands of the assignment. Located in Southington, Conn., this family needed a live-in caregiver for three months for their loved one. The family specified they wanted a mature person, which they defined as 45 to 55 years old, and this person must speak Italian.

“That was our first call,” Holloman said. While uncertain she could find someone to meet all those criteria, she made it work, and the three-month assignment lasted a year.

“We know this is more than a business — these are lives we’re responsible for. We come to work to take care of folks and to make sure caregivers and clients alike are getting what they need.”

“This was our first client, first caregiver, first anything,” she said. “Since then, we’ve built on that success and haven’t stopped.”

These days, HomeCare Hands boasts more than 200 caregivers and employees. Headquartered in Springfield, the agency has offices in Northampton, Greenfield, Boston, and Hartford, with coverage extending to communities surrounding those locations.

While providing caregivers for the home remains its core business, HomeCare Hands has also branched out as a staffing agency for hospitals, assisted-living communities, and other medical facilities.

The arrival of the pandemic aggravated an already-challenging situation with healthcare staffing.

“We saw the needs during the worst of the pandemic and asked how we could help,” said Angie Thornton, marketing coordinator for HomeCare Hands. “The answer was to do something about the lack of staff in all these facilities.”

Achieving this level of growth, diversity, and reputation within a highly competitive market has not come easily. Overall, Holloman attributes the company’s success to going the extra mile when it comes to helping the caregivers they hire — quite literally, as we’ll see — and finding creating ways to meet client needs.

“We know this is more than a business — these are lives we’re responsible for,” she said. “We come to work to take care of folks and to make sure caregivers and clients alike are getting what they need.”

 

At Home with the Idea

It was not so long ago that Holloman developed a formal business plan for HomeCare Hands and faced constant rejection from banks and other avenues of funding.

“As a result, we have no government contracts, and we have no debt,” she said. “We have no back-up plan, and we run on grit.”

It was with this grit and that aforementioned passion for working with seniors that Holloman started her business from a small office on Main Street in Springfield in 2015. After a number of years, as the business grew, she moved to new quarters on State Street. In October, HomeCare Hands took over a larger space that she knows is already too small for their future plans.

The office staff at HomeCare Hands, which has branched out beyond home care and become a staffing agency for hospitals and other facilities as well.

The office staff at HomeCare Hands

The office staff at HomeCare Hands, which has branched out beyond home care and become a staffing agency for hospitals and other facilities as well.

“We’re now looking for our own building,” she said. “We need the extra space because we continue to grow and we are hoping to open a CNA training school in 2022.”

How HomeCare Hands has grown so quickly and profoundly is an intriguing business story, one about a company adapting to meet merging needs and diversifying to find new ways to not only generate revenue, but serve seniors and area healthcare providers.

And in many ways, the company has the right services at the right time.

Indeed, demand for in-home senior services has seen huge growth simply because of demographics. U.S. Census figures show nearly 10,000 Americans turning 65 every day, a trend expected to continue until 2030.

On top of that growth, Holloman said more people are looking for home-care services since the pandemic. Meanwhile, concern for personal safety has reduced the number of available healthcare workers, as many will no longer work in medical facilities or in people’s homes.

All this has made the pandemic a time of both opportunity and challenge.

At the height of the pandemic, clients and families were cancelling in-home services, and caregivers were as hard to find as many of the supplies needed to keep them safe. Holloman worried about her agency’s survival.

“When we didn’t have enough coverage, our whole management team got into scrubs and went to see clients,” she said. “We also made our own hand sanitizer and other supplies when they were hard to get.”

As they worked through the many challenges of the pandemic, HomeCare Hands gradually placed caregivers, as well as certified nursing assistants and home health aides, for their clients. Recruitment is an ongoing process because the need for staffing never stops.

“We have become the go-to agency for those who are not able to find professionals to meet their needs,” Thornton said, adding that the phone keeps ringing because of solid word-of-mouth referrals.

One key to the company’s success is its willingness to work with caregivers to help them succeed in their jobs with matters such as transportation.

“When necessary, we will pick up our caregivers for their shift and bring them back home. If they are willing to work, we will make sure to support them.”

Agencies commonly require in-home workers to have a dependable vehicle as a job requirement. That’s not an unreasonable demand because clients live in many different areas, most of which are not on a bus line.

Nicole Grimes, chief operating officer for HomeCare Hands, heard about caregivers who were willing to work but had no means to get to people’s homes. This challenge led to the company creating what she called a transportation division.

“When necessary, we will pick up our caregivers for their shift and bring them back home. If they are willing to work, we will make sure to support them,” she explained, adding that, while she will drive caregivers herself in a pinch, this service is offered only until the caregiver can get back on their feet and afford their own car.

Meanwhile, in-home work often requires someone to cover limited hours for only a few days a week. That can be difficult for caregivers seeking a full-time paycheck. Grimes works with caregivers to schedule multiple shifts for those who want more hours. It’s all part of helping people succeed and become independent.

“Caregivers know they can come to us, even for personal matters such as finding an apartment or help with arranging childcare,” she said.

Making that extra effort is all part of the culture Holloman wants to build.

“We take time to get to know each caregiver who joins us,” she told BusinessWest. “When people come here, we want them to stay and be part of the team.”

To help clients and caregivers feel safe, Thornton said vaccinations are a must.

“Anyone new who joins us must be vaccinated,” she noted. “At this point, none of our clients wants someone in their home unless they are vaccinated.”

Because the need for services can often occur outside of business hours, Holloman and her team rotate who is on call to provide 24/7 coverage.

“It could be a Saturday afternoon and someone calls us because they just visited their mom or dad and realize they need services, but don’t know what to do,” she said. “We are there so they don’t have to wait until Monday to get answers to their questions.”

 

Bottom Line

On Jan. 1, HomeCare Hands will celebrate its seventh anniversary. Holloman reflected on the challenging, scary, and ultimately satisfying journey so far. “In 2015, I was asking, ‘how am I going to do this?’ and now, as we approach 2022, I’m asking, ‘OK, what are we doing next?’”

Needless to say, she will answer that question with creativity, enthusiasm, and, yes, a healthy amount of grit.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 93: December 20, 2021

George Interviews Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center

Dr. Robert Roose

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center.  The two talk about everything from the state of the pandemic and the arrival of the Omicron variant, to the immense challenges facing hospitals today, to the ongoing workforce crisis and the many ways it is impacting this important sector of the economy.  It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 92: December 13, 2021

George Interviews Mark Keroack, President & CEO of Baystate Health

Peter Rosskothen

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-sector businesses.  The two talk about everything from the state of the pandemic and its many implications for that sector to the ongoing workforce crisis in the region, to the price of steak, and how it keeps going up.  It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Construction Special Coverage

More Demand Than Supply

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton.

Keiter recently completed a 14,000-square-foot addition to VCA Inc. in Northampton.

 

By now, the phrase ‘supply chain’ has become one of the economic buzzwords of our time, as global shortages and slowdowns of goods, not to mention staffing crunches, have impacted industries ranging from food service and retail to manufacturing and auto sales. The construction industry has been particularly vulnerable to those trends, which is especially unfortunate considering that most builders say the work is there — they just can’t tackle it all until these broader issues begin to stabilize. When they will is anyone’s guess.

 

Most people have heard about the challenges facing the construction industry these days, Scott Keiter said — workforce shortages and supply-chain issues foremost among them — but it’s helpful, he noted, to understand how they’re really part of one large issue.

“Part of the supply-chain issue is the workforce,” said the president of Keiter, the new name for his company, which now encompasses four divisions: commercial and industrial, residential, site work, and real estate. “But the pandemic affects people, and people are the ones who produce products. I think the demand is out there, but those other things out there are causing a little bit of a bog on the system. This is something I hear from others in construction as well.”

It’s what BusinessWest is hearing, too — that there’s plenty of demand for work, but no one is in a place to take on all they could were the workforce and supply outlooks more stable.

“Demand is a great thing,” Keiter added, “but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Carol Campbell agreed. “It’s been a year like no other,” the president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) said. “I think I’ve said that before, but this time is very different.”

“Demand is a great thing. but if the supply chain is already compromised, those things can really put a strain on the system … and we have to work harder to achieve the same results.”

Indeed, “we are certainly affected by the labor force, or the lack thereof,” she went on. “So when you evaluate your sales or how busy you are, well, if we were at full complement, it would be a different story. We’re at reduced labor teams, so we are busy, but it’s hard to serve all our customers at the level we’re at right now.”

From a supply-chain perspective, CIC is a contractor based in the manufacturing world. “Where we have issues with the supply chain is, if we have a team scheduled to do a project, the installation may take a week or two, then, with 48-hours notice or less, we get a phone call saying the machine hasn’t even hit the dock.

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy

Scott Keiter says the industry is busy, but new challenges make it a different kind of busy than before.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare,” she went on. “I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The supply crunch affects both availability and cost, said Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction. “I just got off the phone with someone who needs 12 weeks lead for replacement windows. I’ve never heard of that before. And a lot of materials are unavailable, so we have to search for substitutes.”

Co-owner Pat Sweitzer said she was bidding a project, and a plumber advised her to order a certain piece of equipment needed for the job immediately. “So you ask yourself the question, ‘do we take a chance and order it and expect to get the job?’ These kinds of questions are coming up as well.”

These challenges tend to put contractors in a tough spot, stuck in the middle between customer demands and supply realities.

“Those are real concerns,” Craig said. “At first it sounded like a lot of people complaining, but it truly is an issue. Availability, the cost of materials and shipping, getting stuff shipped to sites … it’s all tricky.”

 

Links in the Chain

One aspect of the supply-chain issue is trucking, Campbell said, which has impacted her firm on two levels.

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this? It’s a scheduling nightmare, a financial nightmare for customers and vendors. It’s been … quite an interesting year.”

She gave an example of a hard deadline of Dec. 31 to get a machine up and running on a customer’s plant floor. “We’re at the bottom of that chain. It has to come through customs — most are made outside the U.S. — then it has to be piped by the piper, the electrician does his work, then you bring the rigger in, all those dovetail together.”

Keiter said supply shortages and delays are causing some price escalation with materials.

“It’s really causing us to have to look ahead and think about how the disruption and supply chain will affect schedules, and then, of course, the ever-moving pricing with materials is a challenge for not only us as contractors, but for clients and their budgeting. It’s very difficult — the days of just showing up and going at it are gone. We’re having to really get ahead of procurement and also securing tradesman and subcontractors. The industry is busy, but it’s a lot different than it was before.”

Windows and kitchen cabinetry have been especially problematic when it comes to significant timeline increases, Keiter noted. “That said, anything special-order, anything that’s not run-of-the-mill, anything made to order, anything not on a shelf, those seem to be taking longer on average.”

The Construction Products Assoc. (CPA) recently downgraded its forecast for construction growth in 2022 from 6.3% to 4.8% amid what it called a “perfect storm” in the supply chain, Construction Manager magazine reported.

“It’s a scheduling nightmare. I tip my hat to our schedulers, how they keep all the balls in the air and keep all the employees working and customers happy, with all the changes that happen on very quick notice.”

The association warned that supply-chain constraints are now expected to hinder growth well into next year, citing a combination of talent shortages, product availability and cost inflation, driver shortages, the impact of energy-cost increases, and delays at ports as factors in that storm.

“The biggest impacts of the supply constraints are on the small construction firms,” CPA Economics Director Noble Francis said. “Large contractors and major house builders have a greater certainty of demand over the 12- to 18-month horizon and are better able to plan and purchase in advance as well as adjust to changing economic situations. Small firms, however, are more focused on flexibility and have less visibility over demand going forward. Plus, they have less ability and resource to plan and purchase in advance.”

But the workforce issues remain problematic as well.

Pat and Craig Sweitzer

Pat and Craig Sweitzer say supply-chain issues affect both availability and cost of materials, and, therefore, both project scheduling and budgeting.

“We were fortunate in that regard,” Keiter said. “We have a very strong, committed team of employees. However, you can see in the workforce in general, whether it’s vendors, subcontractors, or others, I think the pandemic has really shaken things up.”

It’s an issue that worries Campbell moving forward.

“I feel optimistic in our conversations with customers, and we’re booking into 2022, but I have great concerns about the labor force,” she told BusinessWest. “We pay well, and our benefits compare with a state or municipality. And we can’t attract a skilled workforce.

“We’ve always had issues hiring skilled labor just because, coming out of high school, it requires quite a few years of apprenticing. But nothing like we have right now. Over COVID, we had a few people age out, who said, ‘that’s what it took for me to hang it up’ — some people, quite honestly, I just didn’t expect. I understand why they retired, but I think COVID gave them that push.”

Craig Sweitzer said his firm has been navigating workforce issues well, although that did necessitate a lot of personal time to deal with COVID-related issues. “All in all, we survived intact.”

However, the industry’s worker crunch has made clearer the importance of keeping workers happy. “We’ve rolled quite a bit of our profits out of our pockets and put them to use to help our employees and subs. We stress that above and beyond profitability,” he said. “It’s easier to run a business when everybody’s on the same team, pushing in the same direction. So we’re happy to forgo a little profit to have that.”

Pat Sweitzer said she understands the strain workers in all industries have felt over the past two years.

“We have been really fortunate to have our employees and our subcontracting team with us for many, many years. In terms of our employees, they have had family obligations they had to meet during COVID, such as homeschooling and schools being closed down, kids at home. So we have accommodated their needs, and they have stayed with us through the whole year and a half, and we are really fortunate and glad that they have stayed with us all this time; they bring a level of knowledge and skill to our projects that really serve our company and our customers well.”

 

Optimism Ahead

As noted earlier, despite the industry-wide, often global challenges, area firms have stayed busy.

“For us, this year has been a really good year,” Pat said. “Part of that is thanks to Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, which is a manufacturer in the Palmer Industrial Park that had renovations of five high-tech buildings.

“We were building a clean room and upgrading their facilities,” she added. “It really sustained us and positioned them well as a company. It was a good, steady year for us.”

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

“It’s been a nightmare to hire drivers to join our team, then trying to get machines delivered to our facility or to our customer’s facility. They’ll say they’ll be there at noon and may show up at 4 o’clock. So it’s hard because you have to pass some of the cost off, but who’s at fault in all this?”

The firm’s niches in medical and dental facilities continue top be strong as well, she added, and it’s starting to edge into an area with significant growth potential: cannabis.

“One thing I’m grateful about is that we have our bread and butter, our dental and medical work, and now that technical capability and knowledge we’ve developed in those industries is transferring over to the cannabis industry,” she told BusinessWest. “So we have a lot of work coming up, including projects that we hope will be coming through in the cannabis industry.”

Keiter is similarly pleased with his firm’s pipeline.

“We work with a lot of the institutions of higher learning, and those projects continue. We’re also working with a number of nonprofit organizations. We had a pretty good run in 2021. We built a number of new homes, got a lot of residential construction. All the various parts of our business are moving in the right direction.”

In other words, business is booming. That’s the big, positive takeaway amid all the industry concerns about workforce and supply — and how they are, in many ways, the same issue.

“It’s busy, and things are moving. Demand is there,” Keiter said. “We’re here and working hard, and we’re going to get through it. Everyone in construction is hopeful that we’ll start to work our way out of the pandemic and maybe stabilize a little bit.”

Craig Sweitzer agreed. “We’re bidding like mad, and I’m assuming there’s still a lot of optimism out there, so we can only hope to stay as busy as we’ve been. In spite of all the craziness, there does seem to be a lot of optimism out there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Education Special Coverage

A Stern Test Continues

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

 

For the area community’s colleges, the enrollment numbers continue to fall, with annual declines recently in the double digits. There are many reasons for these declines, which actually started well before COVID but were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. With many students and potential students now in a state of what one college president called “paralysis,” there are hard-to-answer questions about what ‘normal’ will be like moving forward.

 

It’s been a while since anyone has talked about parking at Springfield Technical Community College — or the lack thereof.

John Cook, the school’s president, sometimes yearns for the days when they did.

And that was most days. Indeed, going back decades, parking was a problem at this urban campus that sits on the site of the Springfield Armory, despite numerous efforts to add more. By the time Cook arrived in 2017, the school was still parking cars on the commons (the old parade grounds converted by the school into athletic fields) the first few days of classes to make sure all students had a space. That practice was no longer necessary after a new lot was built near the Pearl Street entrance in 2019.

These days, there’s plenty of space in that lot and all the others as enrollment at the school continues a downward trajectory, a pattern seen at the other community colleges in the area — one that is defying many of the patterns concerning these schools and the economy, but one that was already in evidence before the pandemic and only accelerated by it.

“People are in a state of paralysis. And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

Indeed, since STCC saw enrollment hit its high-water mark just after the Great Recession of 2008, roughly 7,000 students, the numbers have been declining steadily to the present 4,000 or so.

“We were down 16 or 17% last year, and this fall, we were down another 10%,” said Cook, adding that this pattern has been seen at other schools as well, with COVID-19 adding an exclamation point to the problem. At Holyoke Community College, for example, enrollment saw another double-digit decline in 2021, and President Christina Royal said that, with just six weeks to the start of the spring semester, the numbers are down another 7% or so from this time last year.

While most all colleges are seeing enrollment declines at this time, community colleges are being especially hard-hit, in large part because the students who attend these schools, especially older, non-traditional students, are those most impacted by the pandemic and its many side effects, from unemployment to issues with childcare to overall problems balancing life, work, and school.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says some students and potential students are stuck in state of what she called ‘paralysis,’ not knowing exactly what kind of career to prepare for.

While many have returned to the classroom, others have remained on the sidelines, and they are in a state of what Royal likened to paralysis, not knowing exactly what to do with their lives or even what course of study to embark upon. And this distinguishes what’s happening now in the economy from almost anything that has happened before.

“A recession, as difficult as it is, is a predictable circumstance — and it has been up to this point,” she noted. “People are familiar with the ebbs and flows of the economy. What we’re dealing with now is fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

“Now people are in a state of paralysis,” she went on. “And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

She said these factors help explain why enrollment continues to decline at a time when logic says they should be rising based on previous performance. Indeed, community-college enrollment would normally rise when the country is in recession or something close to it, when unemployment is still higher than average, and, especially, when businesses in every sector, from manufacturing to IT to healthcare, are facing a workforce crisis unlike anything seen before. And it would also be expected to rise when the cost of four-year schools continue to soar and many parents are looking to community colleges as a sound alternative for those first two years.

“A two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

Michelle Coach, campus CEO at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, agreed. She said enrollment at ACC (one of 12 schools currently being merged into something called the Connecticut State Community College), which hit its peak of just under 1,000 a few years ago, is now in the mid-700s for full-time equivalents, up from a low of 650. The numbers are down for several reasons, including restrictions due to COVID that kept inmates from four prisons within just a few miles of the school from attending.

Even enrollment in the school’s popular manufacturing program, which has been supplying graduates to area plants in desperate need of workers, is down, she said, adding that many who would be applying are cautious and hesitant for all those reasons mentioned above.

Overall, many factors are contributing to the falling numbers, from COVID to smaller high-school graduating classes. The ongoing challenge for schools, Coach said, is to tap into new pools of students and consistently stress the value — in the many ways it can be defined — of a community-college education.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with area community-college leaders about the present and, to the extent they can project, the future as well. In short, these administrators don’t know when, or to what to extent, things will return to normal.

 

Unsteady Course

As she talked about enrollment and the state of community colleges today, Royal, like the others we spoke with, reiterated that the declines in the numbers started well before COVID.

Indeed, if one were to chart the numbers from the past 15 years or so, she explained, there would be a bell curve, or something approximating it, with the numbers slowly rising until they hit their peak just after the Great Recession and then beginning a gradual tumble after that.

“When I came in in 2017, we had already seen seven consecutive years of declining enrollment — this is certainly a long-term trend,” she said, adding that she believes there is some artificiality in comparing today’s numbers to the high-water marks of a decade or so ago. “If you take out the effect of the recession, both the ramp-up and the decline afterwards, it doesn’t look as extreme and bumpy.” 

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism that enrollment numbers at ACC and elsewhere in Connecticut will start to move higher, especially with the many incentives being offered.

But ‘gradual’ turned into something much more pronounced during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that enrollment is off 20% or more from a few years ago, and for a host of reasons.

The declines have become the most pressing topic — after ever-changing COVID protocols — at the regular meetings of the state’s 15 community-college presidents, said Cook, adding that, collectively, the schools are looking for answers, a path forward, and perhaps an understanding of what ‘normal’ will look like in the short and long term.

The answers won’t come easily because COVID has created a situation without precedent, and the current trends, as noted earlier, defy historical patterns, he explained, adding that the overarching question now is “where are the people who would be our students? What are they doing?”

And at the moment, many of them are still trying to simply cope with the pandemic.
“They’re still trying to figure out childcare in many cases,” he went on. “Or they may be reconsidering what their own career process might be. And there’s a lot of people who are standing pat and taking stock of what’s important.”

Cook said there has been growth in some numbers, especially those involving students of color and especially the Hispanic population, and there has been growth in some individual programs, such as health science, which the school didn’t have four years ago.

But numbers are down in many areas, including nursing — at least from a retention standpoint — at a time when demand for people in that profession has perhaps never been greater. It’s another sign that these are certainly not normal times.

Royal agreed. “When we have a typical recession, people don’t like the fact that they can’t find jobs or that they’re laid off,” she noted. “But they know that they have to retool, they go back to college, so that they can be prepared for when the jobs come back and the wages start to go up. Now, people are stuck.

“When you have such a global event as COVID-19 has been for our world, then it has put a lot of people in this state of ‘I don’t even know what a couple of months is going to look like — I might not even know what next week is going to look like. How can I think about going to college and starting a future when I’m not even sure what we’re here for anymore, what my purpose is, and what I want to do?’ All of this is causing people to stay still.”

And it’s prompting those running community colleges to do what they can to get them moving again, understanding this may be difficult given those factors that Royal described and fresh uncertainty in the wake of the Omicron variant and rising COVID cases as the winter months approach.

Indeed, most of the colleges are doing some targeted marketing and putting some of the federal-assistance funds to work helping students with the financial aspects of a community-college education.

“We certainly have used every tool available to us to help us with recruitment and retention,” Cook explained, adding that STCC has issued checks of up to $1,500 to help them defray the costs of their education.

“These are not loans … it’s $1,500 to use as you as you decide,” he said. “We’ve done things like that, and we’ve done it for three semesters. This is a real shot in the arm for people.”

Some are taking advantage of the unique opportunity, but many others remain on the sidelines because of COVID-related issues such as childcare, matters that $1,500 checks cannot fix.

At Asnuntuck, the school is being equally aggressive, especially when it comes to recruiting students from the Bay State. Through its Dare to Cross the Line program, Massachusetts residents can attend ACC for the same price as those in Connecticut.

“Currently, 10% of our students are from Massachusetts, and that has stayed fairly consistent,” Coach explained, adding that many enroll in the manufacturing program and a good number in cosmetology, but there is interest across the board. “We’re trying to get the word out, and we’ve done some additional outreach to Massachusetts high-school students.”

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, ACC was able to place ‘smart classrooms’ in each of the nearby prisons to allow inmates to take classes, bringing enrollment numbers up somewhat.

Moving forward, with high-school graduating classes getting consistently smaller, there will be greater outreach to non-traditional students, but also a focus on high-school and even middle-school students — and their parents — with the goal of stressing the many advantages presented by the two-year schools.

“For the high schools, we’re trying to change the perception of community colleges,” Coach explained. “In the past, they’ve always said, ‘this is how many students are going to a four-year university.’ Well, a two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

 

Learning Curves

Overall, Royal and others said it’s clear that community colleges will have to make continual adjustments to bring more people to their schools and see them through to completion of their program. Changes and priorities will likely include everything from a greater emphasis on early college — enabling high-school students to earn credits for college in hopes that this might change their overall career trajectory — to greater flexibility with semester schedules and length of same, to efforts to address the many work/life/school issues challenging students, especially older, non-traditional students.

Royal noted that those who will graduate next spring will have spent their entire time at HCC coping with a global pandemic and everything that has come with it.

These students hung in and persevered, received their degrees, and, in many cases, will be moving on to a four-year school. 

“These are the students that have embraced that uncertainty, and say, ‘I’m going to do something with my life; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but I’m going to further myself and be prepared for when we get to the other side of that.’ That’s who you’re going to see in our graduating class.”

What you won’t see are those who became stuck, as she called it, those who didn’t have the inclination or the ability to plow forward during the pandemic.

Just when people can and will move out of this state of paralysis is still a question mark. Until then, parking will remain a non-issue at STCC — and other schools as well — and the region’s community colleges will remain tested by a situation that is defying trends and their own history.

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Mall Star

Lynn Gray

Lynn Gray went from selling Holyoke Mall gift certificates at age 15 to running the facility as general manager.

Lynn Gray has truly come full circle, from attending the grand opening of Holyoke Mall as a newborn to her role as general manager there today. In a career spent in the shopping-center world, she has seen plenty of evolution and a few major challenges as well, the pandemic being the latest and perhaps most daunting. But current customer traffic and interest in available space tell her this is an industry with plenty of life, and she’s passionate about helping individual businesses succeed within it.

 

 

When Lynn Gray was two weeks old, her mother packed her up and took her on her very first outing — to the grand opening of Holyoke Mall in 1979, the center where she now works as general manager.

“How cool is that, right?” she asked.

The mall has certainly been a family affair; her mother worked there from its opening as an office manager, and her grandmother would later come on board as a customer-service manager.

“When I was 15, I started at the customer-service desk in the middle of the mall selling gift cards — well, back then it was gift certificates,” Gray recalled. “So that’s how I got into the shopping-center industry.”

It’s been a journey that has taken her across the Northeast and down the East Coast, but mostly at Holyoke Mall and Hampshire Mall, where she was general manager from 2016 until earlier this year, and is still serving in an interim role at the Hadley complex while a replacement is found. And, having been around shopping centers throughout her entire career, she’s seen plenty of evolution in the industry.

“It feels to me very cyclical,” she told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, the 10 years she spent away from Pyramid Management Group, which owns the Holyoke and Hampshire malls, as well as 12 other properties. Between 2006 and 2016, she was with General Growth Properties, taking on various marketing roles, eventually becoming marketing director for the East region.

“I was really focused on the East Coast and got to work with a lot of properties there, from marketplaces to smaller centers to super-regional centers in a variety of different markets. It was funny because, coming back to Hampshire Mall, where my management experience had started, I saw this evolution happening at the properties.”

“When I left them, I had just helped open Target and Trader Joe’s and Dick’s Sporting Goods and Best Buy,” she said by way of explanation — all of them big-name staples at shopping centers across the U.S. at the time.

“It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

“Ten years later, Best Buy had closed, and we had already replaced them with PetSmart. We were putting in a bowling alley; we were putting in a gym. So I saw the the transition from the early 2000s — from Kmart to Target to a variety of new big boxes coming in — and then, when I came back, I saw that cycle over to the lifestyle components like a Planet Fitness, like a bowling alley and an arcade. It was really a cool evolution. That seems to happen every so often, every few years, something fresh and inviting, when customers are looking for something new.”

Indeed, that’s the driving evolution in malls today, she went on — a move not necessarily away from retail, but complementing retail with more entertainment, experiences, and dining options.

“There’s been a lot of change even these last few years, and then, of course, COVID happened,” Gray said. “So then you see a little more of that cyclical stuff happening with the big boxes turning over and repurposing them for a variety of uses.”

And it’s not just a local phenomenon, she added. “I get to support leasing for all of our properties, so I’m not just focused on Hampshire and Holyoke; I get to see what’s happening across the Pyramid portfolio and across the industry. We’re seeing more hotels, we’re seeing apartments, we’re seeing shared office spaces in a lot of our properties. So it’s kind of cool to see it’s not just about a shopping center anymore, it’s about creating a lifestyle.”

 

Coming Home

Coming back to Hampshire Mall as general manager in 2016 was truly a full-circle event for someone who had built a career from the bottom up at the two local Pyramid properties. From her humble beginnings selling gift certificates at Holyoke Mall, she progressed in the mid-’90s to an office-assistant position at Hampshire Mall for a few years, which evolved into a marketing role. She returned to Holyoke in the late ’90s as assistant marketing director, then went back to Hampshire as marketing director before her stint with General Growth Properties.

“When I came back to Pyramid again,” she said of her hiring as general manager there in 2016, “it was like coming home.”

As for the recent evolution in the use of mall space, one that’s especially noticeable at Hampshire Mall, Gray said even individual tenants understand the trend.

“A lot of our partners in our tenant base have really gone out of their way to try to diversify their use,” she noted. “A great example is Pinz. You’re not just there for bowling; there’s also an arcade, there’s food, there’s dart throwing, axe throwing, all kinds of things. It’s about keeping people in these spaces longer, and that’s something we’re offering at all of our properties.”

That’s why both malls now feature a gym, bowling, and arcades, as well as shopping (including some big boxes, like Target, which is also featured at both). “We really are creating a destination for you to find everything you need. It’s creating sort of a downtown feel.”

No longer can mall managers cater only to people who want to stop in, get what they want quickly, and leave, even though there are still plenty of those. It’s about giving them more to do once they arrive and, therefore, more reasons to come in the first place.

“I think people have more choices today,” Gray said. “They have less time, more on their plates, they’re going in a million different directions, and creating a space they’re going to frequent more often because they’re not coming here just for shopping is critical, because it keeps us relevant; it keeps us top of mind.

“They’re not just going to Target to get their essentials, they’re coming here for a day with their family and going bowling, or maybe they’re coming several times a week because they’re visiting the gym. Or they’re having their birthday parties at Altitude,” she went on. “It’s a space that’s far beyond just a shopping destination. They’re coming more often and spending more time because they’re coming for a variety of different uses.”

Hampshire Mall in particular is no stranger to innovation. Gray credited the wisdom of its original owners, who built a shopping center on farmland in Hadley more than 40 years ago. The Route 9 corridor eventually exploded with much more retail, dining, and other amenities, fed by the affluent communities of Amherst and Northampton that bookend it, and, of course, UMass Amherst and other local colleges.

“We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises.”

“Somebody had this idea that putting a shopping center there would be really successful, and it has been,” she said. “It’s very desirable real estate now.”

Still, no one in the shopping-center industry was prepared for the impact of COVID-19.

“The biggest challenge has been the uncertainty, which still resonates with a lot of us,” she said. “We’ve been doing everything we can to support the small businesses. Here at the Holyoke Mall, 27% of our businesses are actually locally owned businesses or locally owned franchises. Supporting those businesses, which were hit the hardest during the pandemic, has been something we’ve really tried to put our efforts into.”

That statistic surprises some people, she noted. “Some consider us to be the big-box destination and forget there are so many businesses in this center that are locally owned, here and at Hampshire, and I like to remind people of that. They live in your community, they’re supporting your kids’ schools and sports teams, and they also lease space at a shopping center. It’s not just about the big box and the large retailer.”

The good news, for tenants of all sizes, is that traffic numbers at the malls are up — not just from 2020, but from 2019.

“I think that’s a testament to people itching to get out,” Gray said. “They’ve been missing that in-person connection and getting outside their four walls, and we’ve been able to give them a reason to do that.”

And they’ve been, for the most part, gracious about safety protocols that still fluctuate between communities; in fact, Holyoke Mall currently recommends mask wearing, while Hampshire Mall requires it.

“They want to get out, so they’re going to do what they can to follow the rules so they can continue to frequent those businesses,” she added.

 

Leading by Example

Gray has long been active in the community, and for the past two years, she’s been president of the board directors at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce.

“They were obviously two of the most challenging years for small businesses in particular, so being part of a chamber supporting them was really gratifying,” she said. “Being able to be in the trenches with the executive director and the board of directors and all the various committees that were supporting businesses staying open and surviving the pandemic … I’m really proud of the work we did there.”

She also serves on the board of the Amherst Boys and Girls Club — another family connection, as her mother served on the board of the Chicopee club for many years. She’s also a state ambassador in Massachusetts for CHERUBS, an organization that raises awareness and funds around congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), a condition that affects newborn babies, including Gray’s own baby, who passed away seven years ago.

As the mother of a 19-year-old son, “I think it’s important to set an example for him that it’s not just about getting up, going to work, doing your job, and coming home at the end of the day — it’s about outreach and community development and being out there. It doesn’t just make you feel good, you’re actually doing good. I think it’s important to set that example for our future leaders as well.”

At her day job, of course, she supports businesses in other ways.

“It’s a little win every time we see a new business open, whether it’s an existing business or a small business just starting up. Pyramid is a leasing company; that’s what we do. We want to lease our spaces, we want to stay fresh and relevant, so every time we have a new tenant that’s opening up, we’re excited to share that news. I think it’s a testament to us as a developer that we’ve been able to celebrate so many new openings.”

Gray has heard the rumors over the years that shopping centers aren’t doing well, or are on the decline.

“But people still want to open businesses in successful centers. We’re seeing more and more walk-in requests to look at spaces. There was a time when the phone wasn’t ringing at all, but they’re starting to see that the trend is going up and people are craving being out and about and not just holed up in their homes anymore.”

She also loves working with existing tenants on ways to expand and market their businesses. “They really took a hit, so anything we can do to support the business and spread the word, anything we can do to keep the businesses going, I want to be part of that.”

Gray’s mother no longer works in the shopping-center world; she’s in residential real estate now. But she was very excited to hear her daughter was now general manager of Holyoke Mall.

“She said she’s really proud, and I said I’m really proud, because I went from selling gift certificates at the customer-service desk and answering phones to actually leading the charge for Western Mass.’s largest shopping center. I’m the first woman general manager at Holyoke Mall, and I’m really proud of that. I’m proud to share that story because maybe a little girl can hear that and know that you can start small, and if you grow and work hard at it, someday you can do this too.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Coping with the Conditions

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots, says cars are moving off the lot as fast as they come in, with most sold long before they arrive.

For the area’s auto dealers, this will be a year, and a December, unlike most and certainly not anything approaching normal. Lots are barren, and showrooms often have used cars under the bright lights. Dealers are coping as best they can, and so are customers, and while current conditions are expected to continue into next year, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

 

On one wall in his office at the Hyundai dealership that bears his name, Gary Rome has a large screen that displays images captured by more than two dozen security cameras.

As he talked about the current conditions facing dealers like himself, he gestured toward pictures on that screen of one of the back lots at the massive store on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke — a barren lot with no cars parked on it.

“Normally … that would be full — four lanes, full,” he said, noting that ‘normal’ was quite some time ago. Now, instead of normal, there is only reality, in the form of inventory shortages that have, as Rome noted, prompted dealers to put used cars in the showrooms, position cars so it looks like there is more inventory than there actually is, and even have employees park in front to provide that same effect.

He’s only taking the first of those steps, and that’s out of necessity, he said with a voice that hints at frustration, which is certainly understandable, but mostly acceptance of a situation that is far beyond dealers’ control and something they will have to live with for at least several more quarters.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

The frustration comes from the knowledge that these dealers could certainly sell a lot more cars if they had them, especially given the pent-up demand and the fact that many consumers have money to spend and are eager to spend it. And also the numbers — most dealers are looking at overall sales volume being down between 20% and 30% from what would be considered a ‘normal’ year. The acceptance part comes from the knowledge that consumers have responded to the situation mostly with patience and understanding, and, overall, dealers are making the best of a bad situation that could actually be worse. Much worse.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales. “And we’ve actually fared pretty well, and the customers have been accommodating because they can understand; they see the news. Somehow, we’re making it through, and a lot of customers have no issues with doing it this way.”

By ‘this way,’ he meant that, instead of driving onto a lot and choosing from among the dozens of options of the model they want, they’re either ordering what they want and waiting for it arrive in a few weeks (or a few months, as the case may be) or buying something they know is on a truck and on its way — even if it might not be exactly what they want.

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, agreed, noting that her family of dealerships has an appropriately named program that speaks to all this, called Reserve Your Ride.

“People can pick out their vehicle and order it or pick a car out of pipeline,” she said, adding that, while there may be fewer cars to actually choose from on the lots, people can still buy cars, and they are.

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front, but it might be two more years before dealers see something close to pre-pandemic levels.

Sometimes, because of the inventory issues, it may not be a new car, she went on, adding that, in this environment, some are waiting patiently for the new cars to roll in, while others are opting for used cars, and still others, those with leases that are expiring, are opting to buy those vehicles.

And this is how it will be for the foreseeable future, said those we spoke with, all of whom noted that COVID-19 and its many impacts have made the future — even the immediate future — hard to predict.

As for the present, it’s December, a month that is generally a good one for dealers, and for many reasons, ranging from holiday-gift purchases (especially luxury models) to businesses buying new vehicles before year’s end for tax purposes.

“This is a time of year when people want something new — new cell phones, a new car, a new used car, a new espresso machine,” said Sullivan, adding that this desire for new coincides with a mostly healthy economy, lower unemployment rates, and, overall, higher levels of confidence. “And when people feel confident, they wind up making large purchases because they are not afraid.”

They may not be afraid, but there will certainly be fewer cars to buy, and that means this will be different kind of December, but one that still holds promise for dealers — and customers — waiting for the picture to improve.

 

Dropping Down a Gear

To the untrained eye, Sullivan said, it doesn’t look like much is happening at area dealerships.

Indeed, what most people see in that minute they drive by a store is lots of acreage not being occupied by new or used cars. Indeed, the vacant parking lots have become one of the enduring images of the supply-chain crisis at this stage of the pandemic.

But a closer look would reveal plenty of activity, just not the type that would be considered normal, he said.

“If you put a stop-motion camera at any dealership, you’d see 18-wheelers coming in, you’d see cars coming off of it, you’d see them going through their pre-delivery inspections and service and the salesperson calling the customer to say his vehicle has arrived, and that person picking it up the next day,” he noted. “That’s about how fast this stuff is going right now.”

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting to a landscape that is without precedent in the auto industry.

Other dealers we spoke with echoed those remarks, saying the days of large inventories have been replaced by that new way of doing business described earlier, with the vast majority of cars sold before they reach the lot (70% to 80%, by most estimates) or within days of rolling off the truck.

This new world order is on clear display on a huge board in one of the offices at Gary Rome Hyundai, one that tracks which vehicles have been sold, by whom, and when they will arrive on the lot for the customer to pick up.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

It’s a different landscape, to be sure, said Rome, adding that there would normally be more than 500 cars on the Hyundai lots; currently there are roughly 140, about one-quarter of that total, with only 20 of them being new cars.

It’s the same at the TommyCar dealerships, said Cosenzi, noting that the Hyundai/Genesis dealership in Northampton would normally have 200 new models on the ground. After a shipment arrived the day before she talked with BusinessWest, there were 30 to 35. At the Volkswagen store, also in Northampton, there would usually be 80 new cars. Now, 20 is the norm.

These numbers prompt frustration because they collide with other kinds of numbers, especially the ones pertaining to unemployment, consumer spending, and consumer confidence levels, said Rome, noting, as others did, that pent-up demand remains high for all types of vehicles, but especially new models.

“Our clients, in general, have more money than they had two years ago, they have more savings, they have more equity in their homes,” he explained. “And they also feel like they want to do something good for themselves. They’ve been locked down for the past 20 months, and they’ve been looking at the same car all that time. They want to do something nice for themselves.”

Such dramatic reductions in inventory also make for obvious changes and adjustments, including those that need to be made for the holidays, said Cosenzi, noting that many of those desiring to put a new car in the driveway on Christmas morning understood that, to make that happen, they needed to place their order in November. And they might also have had to settle for their second choice when it came to color.

Meanwhile, more consumers are looking toward used cars, which are in greater abundance but still not in the pre-pandemic numbers, she said, and also at keeping a car that is coming off lease instead of trading it in for a new one.

“And a lot of those buy-out values are under current market values,” she said. “It’s a good deal for the customer.”

While things certainly aren’t normal, in some respects, the picture is actually starting to improve, said Sullivan, noting that arrivals are expected to pick up in December and be ahead of October and November levels and well ahead of months earlier this year, when supply-chain woes peaked.

“There’s cars coming in, and there’s cars going out,” he said, adding that his general managers — and there are nearly 20 of them — have reported as a group that the company should expect a solid December.

Meanwhile, looking down the road, or trying to, anyway, dealers said it is difficult to say when ‘normal’ — as in lots full of cars for people to choose from — will return, or even if they will return.

“I don’t think we’ll see it in 2022,” said Sullivan. “I think it will be 2023 before you drive by a dealership and see a stock full of cars. It’s not until the third quarter of 2022 where you’ll see maybe 65% of what you’d normally see for ground stock.”

Cosenzi concurred, but noted that projections vary with the brand, with some manufacturers responding to the worldwide microchip shortage and supply-chain crisis better than others.

“We’re anticipating that things will get better over the next few months, but it will take a long time for us to recuperate and get back to the inventory levels that we were accustomed to before COVID,” she said. “I think it will take at least a year.”

As for the longer term, Sullivan reiterated comments he made earlier this year when he said some manufacturers may not go back to those days when they built cars and then hoped dealers would sell them. They likely won’t build to order, although that’s possible, he said, but they may build fewer cars and put the hard focus on models they know the customer wants.

“Most of the manufacturers have decided that just ‘build, build, build, build, build’ isn’t that profitable for them,” he explained, “because all the cars end up on our lots, and we have to find a way to get rid of them, and they have to put incentives on them. There is a level of production that makes more sense to them.

“We’re not going to be this order-to-delivery industry, because when people want something, they want it very quickly, and some want it now,” he went on, adding that, despite this, levels of overall ground stock will likely be lower in the years to become, perhaps 75% of their current levels.

 

Bottom Line

But there are still far too many unknowns to make any hard projections about the future, said those we spoke with, adding that, right now, they’re dealing with right now.

And that’s the picture that comes clearly into focus on that screen in Rome’s office. Things are not as they were, and they may not be like that for a while — if ever again, in some respects.

“This is a year unlike anything I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been in this business,” said Cosenzi, who spoke for everyone in the industry with those comments, adding that, while the picture is slowly improving, what would be considered normal is still far down the road.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 91: December 6, 2021

George Interviews Matt Yee, a principal with Enlite, a Northampton-based adult-use cannabis dispensary

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Matt Yee, a principal with Enlite, a Northampton-based adult-use cannabis dispensary. The two talk about that this new business venture, the state of the cannabis industry in Western Mass., and its prospects for continued growth.  It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 90: November 29, 2021

George Interviews Tracye Whitfield, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021

BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Tracye Whitfield, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021, several of whom have been spotlighted in recent weeks. The two talk about everything that went into this honor, from her passion for service on the Springfield City Council to her recent appointment as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer in West Springfield to her work mentoring young people. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.
 

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Giving Guide Special Coverage

2021 Annual Giving Guide

To Our Readers

While philanthropy is a year-round activity, the holidays are a time when many of us think about those who are in need, and how, in general, we can help make Western Mass. a better community for all who call this region home.

To help individuals, groups, and businesses make effective decisions when it comes to philanthropy, BusinessWest and the Healthcare News present their annual Giving Guide. In this section are profiles of several area nonprofit organizations, a sampling of the region’s thousands of nonprofits.

These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing to improve quality of life for the people living and working in the 413, but also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others so desperately need.


View the 2021 Giving Guide PDF Flipbook HERE


And while the need to support these nonprofits is constant — year-round and every year — at this challenging time, the need is even greater. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a huge toll on many of the nonprofits in this region, at a time when the collective needs within the community have perhaps never been greater, not just because of COVID, but also a struggling economy, inflation, and even natural disasters.

These profiles within the Giving Guide list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities. And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide to 2011 to harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support of the organizations dedicated to helping those in need.

The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident it will succeed with both of those assignments.

 

George O’Brien, Editor and Associate Publisher

John Gormally, Publisher

Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

 

The Giving Guide is Presented by:

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Year-end Tax Planning

As the calendar turns to December, business owners and managers — and individuals as well — have a lot to think about. At or near the top of that that list should be an assessment of their tax outlook for 2021. By developing a comprehensive year-end plan, they can maximize the tax breaks currently on the books and avoid potential pitfalls.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton

 

What a year it’s been. So far, we have had to cope with a global pandemic, extreme political division, and a series of natural disasters — just to mention a few noteworthy occurrences. These events have complicated tax planning for individuals and small-business owners.

What’s more, new legislation enacted over the last couple of years has had, and will continue to have, a significant impact. First, the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act addressed numerous issues affected by the pandemic. Following soon after, the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) extended certain provisions and modified others. Finally, the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) opens up even more tax-saving opportunities in 2021.

And we still might not be done. New proposed legislation is currently being debated in Congress. If another new law is enacted before 2022, it may require you to revise your year-end tax-planning strategies. This article focuses primarily on techniques to reduce your 2021 taxes. However, if tax rates increase for 2022, as has been proposed, your strategy might be to accelerate income and defer deductions.

Kristina Drzal Houghton

Kristina Drzal Houghton

“Make sure qualified property is placed in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property, it does not qualify for these tax breaks.”

This is the time to assess your tax outlook for 2021. By developing a comprehensive year-end plan, you can maximize the tax breaks currently on the books and avoid potential pitfalls.

Be aware that the concepts discussed in this article are intended to provide only a general overview of year-end tax planning. It is recommended that you review your personal situation with a tax professional.

 

BUSINESS TAX PLANNING

Depreciation-related Deductions

At year-end, a business may secure one or more of three depreciation-related tax breaks: (1) the Section 179 deduction, (2) first-year ‘bonus’ depreciation, and (3) regular depreciation.

ACTION: Make sure qualified property is placed in service before the end of the year. If your business does not start using the property, it does not qualify for these tax breaks.

• Section 179 deductions: Under this section of the tax code, a business may ‘expense’ (i.e., currently deduct) the cost of qualified property placed in service anytime during the year. The maximum annual deduction is phased out on a dollar-for-dollar basis above a specified threshold.

The maximum Section 179 allowance has increased gradually since 2018, for 2021 the limit is $1.05 million, and the phaseout begins when acquisitions exceed $2.62 million. However, be aware that the Section 179 deduction cannot exceed the taxable income from all your business activities this year. This could limit your deduction for 2021.

• First-year bonus depreciation: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) doubled the 50% first-year bonus depreciation deduction to 100% for property placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017 and expanded the definition of qualified property to include used, not just new, property. However, the TCJA gradually phases out bonus depreciation after 2022.

• Regular depreciation: If any remaining acquisition cost remains, the balance may be deducted over time under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS).

TIP: The CARES Act fixed a glitch in the TCJA relating to ‘qualified improvement property’ (QIP). Thanks to the change, QIP is eligible for bonus depreciation, retroactive to 2018. Therefore, your business may choose to file an amended return for a prior year.

 

Employee Retention Credit

Many business operations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. At least recent legislation provides tax incentives for keeping workers on the books during these uncertain times.

Under the CARES Act, the ERC was equal to 50% of the first $10,000 of qualified wages per quarter, for a maximum credit of $5,000 per worker. The CAA extended availability of the credit into 2021 with certain modifications, including a maximum ERC of $14,000 per worker per year. Now ARPA authorizes a maximum credit of $28,000 per worker for 2021.

In addition, ARPA allows businesses that started up after Feb. 15, 2020 and have an average of $1 million or less in gross receipts to claim a credit of up to $50,000 per quarter.

 

 

Business Meals

Previously, a business could deduct 50% of the cost of its qualified business entertainment expenses. ARPA doubles the usual 50% deduction to 100% of the cost of food and beverages provided by restaurants in 2021 and 2022. Thus, your business may write off the entire cost of some meals this year.

 

Work Opportunity Tax Credit

If your business becomes busier than usual during the holiday season, it may add to the existing staff. Consider all the relevant factors, including tax incentives, in your hiring decisions.

ACTION: All other things being equal, you may hire workers eligible for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC). The credit is available if a worker falls into a ‘target’ group.

“Step up your charitable giving at the end of the year. Then you can reap the tax rewards on your 2021 return.”

Generally, the WOTC equals 40% of the first-year wages of up to $6,000 per employee, for a maximum of $2,400. For certain qualified veterans, the credit may be claimed for up to $24,000 of wages, for a $9,600 maximum. There is no limit on the number of credits per business.

TIP: The WOTC has expired — and then been reinstated — multiple times in the past, but the CAA extended it for five years through 2025.

 

Miscellaneous

• Stock up on routine supplies (especially if they are in high demand). If you buy the supplies in 2021, they are deductible in 2021, even if you do not use them until 2022.

• Under the CARES Act, a business could defer 50% of certain payroll taxes due in 2020. Half of the deferred amount is due at the end of 2021, so meet this obligation if it applies.

• If you pay year-end bonuses to employees in 2021, the bonuses are generally deductible by your company and taxable to the employees in 2021. A calendar-year company operating on the accrual basis may be able to deduct bonuses paid as late as March 15, 2022 on its 2021 return.

• Generally, repairs are currently deductible, while capital improvements must be depreciated over time. Therefore, make minor repairs before 2022 to increase your 2021 deduction.

• Have your C-corporation make monetary donations to charity. ARPA extends a 2020 increase in the annual deduction limit from 10% of taxable income to 25% for 2021.

 

INDIVIDUAL TAX PLANNING

Charitable Donations

There were plenty of worthy causes for individuals to donate to in 2021, including disaster aid relief. Besides helping out victims, itemizers are eligible for generous tax breaks.

ACTION: Step up your charitable giving at the end of the year. Then you can reap the tax rewards on your 2021 return. This includes amounts charged to your credit card in 2021 that you do not actually pay until 2022.

Under the CARES Act, and then extended through 2021 by the CAA, the annual deduction limit for monetary donations is equal to 100% of your adjusted gross income (AGI). Theoretically, you can eliminate your entire tax liability through charitable donations.

Conversely, if you donate appreciated property held longer than one year (i.e., long-term capital gain property), you can generally deduct an amount equal to the property’s fair market value. But the deduction for short-term capital-gain property is limited to your initial cost. In addition, your annual deduction for property donations generally cannot exceed 30% of your AGI.

TIP: If you do not itemize deductions, you can still write off up to $300 of your monetary charitable donations. The maximum has been doubled to $600 for joint filers in 2021.

 

Medical Deduction

The tax law allows you to deduct qualified medical and dental expenses above 7.5% of AGI. This threshold was recently lowered from 10% of AGI. What’s more, the latest change is permanent.

To qualify for a deduction, the expense must be for the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease or payments for treatments affecting any structure or function of the body. However, any costs that are incurred to improve your general health or well-being, or expenses for cosmetic purposes, are non-deductible.

ACTION: If you expect to itemize deductions and are near or above the AGI limit for 2021, accelerate non-emergency expenses into this year, when possible. For instance, you might move a physical exam or dental cleaning scheduled for January to December. The extra expenses are deductible on your 2021 return.

Note that you can include expenses you pay on behalf of a family member — such as a child or elderly parent — if you provide more than half of that person’s support.

TIP: The medical deduction is not available for expenses covered by health insurance or other reimbursements.

 

Miscellaneous

• Pay a child’s college tuition for the upcoming semester. The amount paid in 2021 may qualify for one of two higher-education credits, subject to phaseouts based on modified adjusted gross income (MAGI). Note that the alternative tuition-and-fees deduction expired after 2020.

• Avoid an estimated tax penalty by qualifying for a safe-harbor exception. Generally, a penalty will not be imposed if you pay during the year 90% of your current tax liability or 100% of the prior year’s tax liability (110% if your AGI exceeded $150,000).

• If you are in the market for a new car, consider the tax benefits of the electric-vehicle credit. The maximum credit for a qualified vehicle is $7,500. Be aware, however, that credits are no longer available for vehicles produced by certain manufacturers.

• Empty out your flexible spending accounts (FSAs) for healthcare or dependent-care expenses if you will have to forfeit unused funds under the ‘use it or lose it’ rule. However, due to recent changes, your employer’s plan may provide a carryover to next year of up to $550 of funds or a two-and-a-half-month grace period or both.

 

FINANCIAL TAX PLANNING

Securities Sales

Traditionally, investors time sales of assets like securities at year-end for optimal tax results. For starters, capital gains and losses offset each other. If you show an excess loss for the year, you can then offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income before any remainder is carried over to the next year.

Long-term capital gains from sales of securities owned longer than one year are taxed at a maximum rate of 15% or 20% for certain high-income investors. Conversely, short-term capital gains are taxed at ordinary income rates reaching as high as 37% in 2021.

ACTION: Review your portfolio. Depending on your situation, you may want to harvest capital losses to offset gains or realize capital gains that will be partially or wholly absorbed by losses. For instance, you might sell securities at a loss to offset a high-taxed short-term gain.

Be aware of even more favorable tax treatment for certain long-term capital gains. Notably, a 0% rate applies to taxpayers below certain income levels, such as young children. Furthermore, some taxpayers who ultimately pay ordinary income tax at higher rates due to their investments may qualify for the 0% tax rate on a portion of their long-term capital gains.

However, watch out for the ‘wash sale rule.’ If you sell securities at a loss and reacquire substantially identical securities within 30 days of the sale, the tax loss is disallowed. A simple way to avoid this harsh result is to wait at least 31 days to reacquire substantially identical securities.

TIP: The preferential tax rates for long-term capital gains also apply to qualified dividends received in 2021. These are most dividends paid by U.S. companies or qualified foreign companies.

 

Required Minimum Distributions

Normally, you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from qualified retirement plans and traditional IRAs after reaching age 72 (70½ for taxpayers affected prior to 2020). The amount of the RMD is based on IRS life-expectancy tables and your account balance at the end of last year. If you do not meet this obligation, you owe a tax penalty equal to 50% of the required amount (less any amount you have received) on top of your regular tax liability.

The CARES Act suspended the RMD rules for 2020 — but for 2020 only. The RMD rules are reinstated for this year.

As a general rule, you may arrange to receive the minimum amount required, so you can continue to maximize tax-deferred growth within your accounts. However, you may decide to take larger distributions — or even the full balance of the account — if that suits your needs.

TIP: The IRS has revised the tables for 2022 to reflect longer life expectancies. This will result in smaller RMDs in the future.

 

Net Investment Income Tax

Moderate- to high-income investors should be aware of an add-on 3.8% tax that applies to the lesser of net investment income (NII) or the amount by which MAGI for the year exceeds $200,000 for single filers or $250,000 for joint filers. (These thresholds are not indexed for inflation.) The definition of NII includes interest, dividends, capital gains, and income from passive activities, but not Social Security benefits, tax-exempt interest, and distributions from qualified retirement plans and IRAs.

ACTION: After a careful analysis, estimate both your NII and MAGI for 2021. Depending on the results, you may be able to reduce your NII tax liability or avoid it altogether.

For example, you might invest in municipal bonds (‘munis’). The interest income generated by munis does not count as NII, nor is it included in the calculation of MAGI. Similarly, if you turn a passive activity into an active business, the resulting income may be exempt from the NII tax. Caution: these rules are complex, so obtain professional assistance.

TIP: When you add the NII tax to your regular tax plus any applicable state income tax, the overall tax rate may approach or even exceed 50%. Factor this into your investment decisions.

 

Section 1031 Exchanges

Beginning in 2018, the TCJA generally eliminated the tax-deferral break for most Section 1031 exchanges of like-kind properties. However, it preserved this tax-saving technique for swaps involving investment or business real estate. Therefore, you can still exchange qualified real-estate properties in 2021 without paying current tax, except to the extent you receive ‘boot’ (e.g., cash or a reduction in mortgage liability).

ACTION: Make sure you meet the following two timing requirements to qualify for a tax-deferred Section 1031 exchange:

• Identify or actually receive the replacement property within 45 days of transferring legal ownership of the relinquished property; and

• Have the title to the replacement property transferred to you within the earlier of 180 days or your 2021 tax-return due date, plus extensions.

TIP: Proposed legislation would eliminate the tax break for real estate. If this technique appeals to you, start negotiations that can be completed before the end of the year.

 

Estate and Gift Taxes

Going back to the turn of the century, Congress has gradually increased the federal estate-tax exemption, while establishing a top estate-tax rate of 40%. At one point, the estate tax was repealed — but for 2010 only — while the unified estate- and gift-tax exemption was severed and then subsequently reunified.

Finally, the TCJA doubled the exemption from $5 million to $10 million for 2018 through 2025, with inflation indexing. The exemption is $11.7 million in 2021.

ACTION: Develop a comprehensive estate plan. Generally, this will involve various techniques, including trusts, that maximize the benefits of the estate- and gift-tax exemption.

Furthermore, you can give gifts to family members that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion. For 2021, there is no gift-tax liability on gifts of up to $15,000 per recipient ($30,000 for a joint gift by a married couple). This reduces the size of your taxable estate.

TIP: You may ‘double up’ by giving gifts in both December and January that qualify for the annual gift-tax exclusion for 2021 and 2022, respectively.

 

Miscellaneous

• Contribute up to $19,500 to a 401(k) in 2021 ($26,000 if you are age 50 or older). If you clear the 2021 Social Security wage base of $142,800 and promptly allocate the payroll-tax savings to a 401(k), you can increase your deferral without any further reduction in your take-home pay.

• Sell real estate on an installment basis. For payments over two years or more, you can defer tax on a portion of the sales price. Also, this may effectively reduce your overall tax liability.

• Weigh the benefits of a Roth IRA conversion, especially if this will be a low-tax year. Although the conversion is subject to current tax, you generally can receive tax-free distributions in retirement, unlike taxable distributions from a traditional IRA.

• Consider a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). If you are age 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 of IRA funds directly to a charity. Although the contribution is not deductible, the QCD is exempt from tax. This may improve your overall tax picture.

 

Conclusion

This year-end tax-planning article is based on the prevailing federal tax laws, rules, and regulations. Of course, it is subject to change, especially if additional tax legislation is enacted by Congress before the end of the year.

Finally, remember that this article is intended to serve only as a general guideline. Your personal circumstances will likely require careful examination.

 

Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA, MST is a partner at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Time to Think Big

 

With more than $3 billion being directed to area cities and towns through the American Rescue Plan Act, there is no end to speculation about these funds should be put to use. While infrastructure projects and other municipal needs certainly need to be addressed, area economic leaders and developers are urging communities to think big and make investments that will spur additional private-sector development and allow these cities and towns to take full advantage of the changing times and the opportunities they present.

‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Once in a lifetime.’ ‘Once in a generation.’ ‘Transformative.’ ‘Totally unique.’

These are just some of the words and phrases people are using to describe the federal money now flowing into the state and its individual cities and towns from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help them, their residents, and their businesses recover from the hard sting of COVID-19. Area communities are in line for windfalls ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest of towns in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to more than $130 million for Springfield. And the state itself is receiving more than $5 billion.

By and large, there are few strings attached to this money, so the $64,000 question (or the ‘fill in an amount’ question, as the case may be with individual communities) concerns how this windfall will be spent.

Keith Nesbitt

Keith Nesbitt

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit. But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

The debate is continuing on Beacon Hill and all across the region as mayors, city and town councilors, selectmen, and town administrators mull myriad options for spending these funds — and how other federal money, such as that included in the infrastructure bill recently passed into law, might be put to use.

Much of the talk on the local level concerns infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewer and water lines — as well as new roofs, HVAC systems, and more for municipal buildings, new parking garages, parks, etc., etc., etc.

And while these options have merit, those who spoke with BusinessWest on the broad subject of how this spending spree, especially the ARPA money, should be conducted said that, from an economic-development standpoint, area cities and towns — and the state itself — would do well to think bigger, and more long-term, with an eye toward using this money in ways that justify that word ‘transformative,’ and also spark private-sector development in housing (especially market-rate housing), new businesses, and more.

“These can’t be ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ kinds of investment — they have to be meaningful investments that all of us can benefit from,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Development Corp., who also warned against a rush to commission studies that would likely yield reports that sit on shelves for years.

Keith Nesbitt, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president for Business Banking for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut, agreed.

“There are investments that are needed, and I think they come in a variety of forms,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to attract significant private investment without that pump priming that government resources are going to provide. I think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I really hope that local leaders are bold enough to dream big when it comes to how we use these funds.

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit,” he went on. “But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

What falls in that category? Nesbitt, who is also hiring manager for the bank and understands the workforce issues facing area businesses and the lack of qualified talent across the board, cited a community in Minnesota that is earmarking some of its federal money to ensure that all high-school graduates can attend community college.

Joy Martin

Joy Martin

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area.”

“They recognized that need to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future,” he said. “The investment in free, two-year community college is what they’ve decided to do, and I’d love to see something that like here.”

Meanwhile, Joy Martin, director of Asset Management with Davenport Companies, which has worked on MGM Springfield, recently converted the former Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street into market-rate apartments and is redeveloping the former Registry of Motor Vehicles building on Liberty Street, said Springfield and other communities need to think about investing the federal money in ways that would make it easier to undertake such projects.

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area,” she said, adding that many projects need help from state and local government to make the numbers work for developers.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who can speak to this subject from various perspectives (he’s the former mayor of Springfield and a current city councilor), concurred, and also stressed the need to invest the money and not just spend it.

“I do think it’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and look down the road,” he told BusinessWest. “And not just fill a gap that might exist today, or not just make some repair that might be necessary, but really further your economy or the quality of life in your community you’re living in.”

 

Money Talks

While certainly advocating for longer-term thinking when it comes to how the ARPA money should be apportioned, Sullivan and others noted there are some immediate concerns that may also have some ramifications down the road.

That’s especially true when it comes to existing businesses and especially the smaller ventures across many sectors that are still struggling from the effects of not only COVID but some of the side effects from treating it as well.

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting,” he told BusinessWest. “They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.

“And it can’t be loans because loans come with interest,” he went on. “It has to be either grants or no-interest loans that have a forgiveness provision — it goes away after a short period of time, be it two years or three years or five years; if you stay open and you’re moving forward, the obligation to pay goes away. Some of this money needs to go to your smallest businesses.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting. They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.”

That said, Sullivan and others stressed repeatedly the need to think big when it comes to ARPA, meaning a focus on investments that will pay off the long term, with benefits for generations of residents of a given city or town. That could mean investments in everything from education and training initiatives to faster and more reliable internet, to initiatives that will unlock the development potential of unused and underutilized properties.

Seth Stratton, a business lawyer and managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, said the focus should be on economic-development-related investments, a broad term to be sure.

“The programs and initiatives that should be funded with these resources should be intentional, impactful, and innovative — all with an eye toward a continuing spark; it has to be transformative,” he said, putting support for new housing projects high on his list of priorities. “We want to see economic development and a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we just do one-off projects here and there, that can be helpful, but it won’t have this comprehensive effect of economic development in what many of us see as somewhat of a new economy.

“What do restaurant, food and beverage, and entertainment venues look like going forward?” he continued. “We ought to be thinking about what they look like moving forward and how to embrace that and use funds in a smart way that would have exponential impact, rather than talking about one-off items.”

Daley agreed, and mentioned, as one example, Ludlow Mills, the sprawling former jute-making complex along the Chicopee River that Westmass now owns. He said investments made there by the state and perhaps the town of Ludlow could bring property in line for development and create jobs for several generations of area residents.

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects,” he said, adding that he hopes the ARPA money and funds in other federal programs, such as the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, trickle down to Western Mass. and help it attract the attention of the development community, which has often found it difficult to take on projects here for a number of reasons, including the market lease rates and the costs of renovating old mills and other properties.

“With a small investment — small relative to the numbers they’re talking about Congress and feds giving the state — we could recapitalize those dollars and give a return on investment that would be a million times what they would give us,” Daley said. “We have very, very large properties in Ludlow, specifically, that, without an infusion of cash, it’s going to hard to redevelop. With a small infusion of cash, several million dollars, we can generate a return on investment of $300 million or $400 million, realistically, within five to 10 years — and create a lot of jobs and tax dollars; there are three or four projects we could do that would change the face of Ludlow.”

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects.”

Martin concurred, noting that this infusion of federal money comes at an intriguing time, as many forces are coming together to make Western Mass. a more attractive option for individuals and businesses alike. These include the much higher cost of living in other areas such as Boston and New York and the opportunity to now work in those areas but live in a lower-cost region like the 413.

“Western Mass. is getting more attractive to investors and to people in general. Overland Lofts is 97% leased, and it has been 97% leased for some time,” she told BusinessWest. “We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

Elaborating, she said one of the units is being leased by an executive with a Boston-based firm who is now able to work remotely, and chose to do so in downtown Springfield.

With these trends, or developments, in mind, those we spoke with said area cities and towns need to be thinking about ways to utilize the ARPA funds to take full advantage of the opportunities currently presenting themselves.

 

Impact Statement

Returning to that town in Minnesota using ARPA money to send young people to community college, Nesbitt said this is the kind of long-term, high-impact investing that state and area leaders should be thinking about as they consider options for allocating funds in the broad realm of economic development.

“These kinds of human-capital investments need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that the workforce crisis now impacting every sector of the economy must be considered a long-term problem and not one that will correct itself in a quarter or two or with the end of additional unemployment benefits.

Seth Stratton

Seth Stratton

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments. We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Stratton agreed, noting that expanding vocational-education programs to assist the trades and the region’s large manufacturing sector should also be a priority. Meanwhile, he noted that other forces are converging that might bring more people into the local workforce, such as the ability to work remotely. He said there are more individuals like that executive now living in Overland Lofts, and, moving forward, they will need places to live.

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments,” he said. “We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, with these changes in how and where people work, communities like Springfield have to think about the large amounts of office space currently unleased and the potential for those numbers to climb, he went on, adding that some thought should go into repurposing some of this space into flexible workplaces.

Getting projects like these off the ground is often difficult because it’s not easy to make redevelopment projects like the Overland initiative “pencil out,” as developers say, meaning make the numbers work. Often, historical tax credits or other forms of funding are needed to bridge gaps, said Martin, adding that the state and individual communities should look at using the federal funds flowing to them to make such projects more feasible and doable.

“We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

“We run into a gap between the cost to build something and the actual asking price for something,” she said, citing the Overland project as an example. “We got 60 apartments out of it and rents that fit the area, but none of that would have happened without historical funds and state housing funds. So if the city had something that could bridge some of the financial gap between new-build and the current economic conditions in Springfield, that will help to bring developers here.

“It’s hard to justify an $18 million project with $2-per-square-foot rent,” she went on. “But if there’s some way to help bridge that gap, I think you’d see more developers willing to come in and give you a good product.”

Daley agreed, noting that the developers of the so-called Clocktower Building at Ludlow Mills, another housing project, have had to wait the better part of six years for the historical tax credits needed to move that initiative off the drawing board.

“We have another mill that’s 600,000 square feet; if we were to start today and try to get those kinds of tax credits, it would be 12 to 15 years before they were all distributed,” he said. “If the state wanted to have an impact on development of those kinds of projects, it should make more money available for good projects that are shovel-ready.”

Martin said the gap in funding facing those looking to develop existing but older and challenged buildings is one of the key factors impeding redevelopment of the buildings across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

“It’s not that people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It costs a lot to redevelop these buildings, and then to charge a rent that fits the community … it doesn’t pencil out without some kind of help,” she said. “Using these funds in a smart way like that would help bring back the Main Streets in Western Mass.”

Sullivan agreed, and said such investments are part of that process of looking beyond today and to tomorrow, and what communities want and need to look like in a rapidly changing landscape.

“I do think this is an opportunity for communities to look at the bigger picture regarding where they want their communities to be 10 years down the road, what they want their downtowns to look like, and what sectors — be it a restaurant district or an entertainment sector, travel and tourism, for example — they want to attract,” he said. “It’s about determining what you want your future to look like, and investing in it.”

 

Paying It Forward

Summing things up, Sullivan said these are what he hopes are once-in-a-lifetime windfalls that have come to area cities and towns.

“Hopefully, we won’t ever have to go through this again,” he noted, adding quickly that this unique moment in time represents an opportunity to pause, think about the future, and make some investments in it.

Fixing a bridge or putting a new roof on the fire station might be a suitable use for some of the money, he went on, but overall, cities and towns have to think bigger. Much bigger.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 89: November 22, 2021

George Interviews Jessica Collins, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Jessica Collins, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021, several of whom will be spotlighted over the coming weeks. The two talk about everything that went into this honor, from her passion for public health to her remarkable track record for forging collaborative efforts to address some of the most pressing public health issues facing our region. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 88: November 15, 2021

George Interviews Madeline Landrau, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Madeline Landrau, one of BusinessWest’s recently named Women of Impact for 2021, several of whom will be spotlighted over the coming weeks. The two talk about everything that went into this honor, from her many responsibilities as Program Engagement Manager at MassMutual, to the many facets her involvement within the community, to her ongoing work as a mentor to a number of young women in the region.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the business landscape in countless ways — from where and how employees work to how people communicate. It has also prompted businesses large and small to stop, think about that phrase ‘corporate stewardship’ and what it means to them, and perhaps re-evaluate this all-important concept. We put together a panel of local business and nonprofit managers to discuss the broad topic of corporate stewardship and how COVID may have provided new definition — in every aspect of that phrase — to this issue. For businesses, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to revisit the matter of community involvement and often find new and different ways to give back.
For nonprofits, missions have been broadened, and there has some been pivoting, out of both necessity and a desire to serve in different ways. The panelists are: Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank; Theresa Jasmin, chief financial officer at Big Y Foods; Amy Scribner, partnership director at East School-to-Career Inc., a nonprofit that provides internships, or work-based learning opportunities and other career-education initiatives, for students; Jack Verducci, vice president of Corporate Partnership for the Worcester Red Sox; Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield; and Michelle D’Amore, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. Scully may have set the tone for the discission when he said, “I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference.”

BusinessWest: Let’s start by getting your take on — and your working definition of — those phrases ‘corporate stewardship’ and ‘being a good corporate citizen.’

Scully: “Country Bank has been around for 172 years, and its legacy for all those years has been the belief that healthy communities thrive. We’re all in business for our companies to do well, but from a community perspective, we need communities that are healthy — healthy economically, heathy demographically, educationally, with regard to healthcare. So giving back has always been a focus here, and in recent years we’ve taken it to a higher level, both with writing checks and having people on the street giving back and being part of the community. And it differs, depending on what the needs are. There can be very significant multi-year pledges — we just pledged $1 million for hunger awareness in June, with $500,000 for food banks in both Central and Western Mass., because if people have good nutrition, healthy communities will thrive — or having 14 people at Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house. It’s a focus that we do big and small.”

Jasmin: “Being involved in the community is part of the fabric of our company; we consider ourselves a family, we have a culture of caring, and we focus on personal connection, whether that’s with our customers, our employees, or throughout the community. And that manifests itself in many different ways, from large donations to capital campaigns to investments in time and talent. For us, though, it’s about relationships and creating strong vibrant communities; that’s what corporate stewardship means to us.”

Scribner: “For our organization, it’s not so much the money; it’s about organizations allowing these students to come in for semester and do a work-based learning opportunity, and that has long been a challenge for us. We’re trying to create a pipeline for employment, and to do that, we need businesses to assist us and open their doors to students. Often, it’s not about just writing a check, but getting involved on a deeper level.”

D’Amore: “We as a nonprofit are always seeking — and grateful to receive — financial support from the community. But we also rely on our volunteer base. Our organization was built on volunteers; it is the foundation of what we do. For us, we’re continuing our outreach and working with the community to ensure that what we receive is supporting the families who are with us — and there are many forms that this support can take.”

Verducci: “Our WooSox Foundation is a new foundation and not heavily funded, but what we do have is a platform to provide valuable and equitable experiences to the community; specifically, we tend to focus on pediatric oncology, recreation, education, and social justice. So while we love to donate the funds that we do have, we tend to be able to do the most good through corporate partners and partnerships within the community.”

BusinessWest: Has the pandemic changed the dynamic when it comes to corporate stewardship, and if so, how?

Jasmin: “What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs. We have a pretty structured mechanism for people who are looking for financial assistance. But during the pandemic, that was accelerated because there was a high sense of urgency. For example, within a week of the shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, we gave some sizable donations to each of the five food banks in our operating area because businesses were shutting down, and people were out of work; the social structure to support those people was not in place yet, so food banks were being taxed. We made that gift quickly, and we made a second gift four weeks later when the need was continuing. That’s one of the ways we adjusted — moving more quickly to meet needs.”

Theresa Jasmin

Theresa Jasmin

“What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs.”

Scully: “The urgency absolutely was escalated, but so has the dynamic. When I think of the nonprofits I sit on, so many of them rely on not only corporate giving, but some type of event or two over the course of the year. We’ve all been to a million chicken dinners; what I say to my group is that, when the auction is there, bid high and bid often, because that’s what it’s all about. The big piece that we saw was that people weren’t going to events because they weren’t being held. And it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ unfortunately. The money was needed, the funding was needed, but the money wasn’t coming in, and yet all of those organizations had a more dire need than is typical because there were so many people impacted by the pandemic. We looked at it and said, ‘yeah, we can stay with our traditional model of what we do, but there’s a big need to step in here.’ When we look at corporate stewardship and how things have changed over the past 20 months, the need has increased exponentially. So many were hoping that this was the year — we all had our calendars ready for events, and then, they had to switch to virtual events, which don’t raise enough money. So the corporate community needs to realize that, even if there isn’t an event, the needs are so great, and they need to get out there and make a difference.”

D’Amore: “From a nonprofit perspective, we had to figure out how we could support our mission differently. When the pandemic was creeping, we were mandated by our global entity, which holds our licensing agreement, that we could no longer accept new families. And when the last of the families went home, we actually turned it around to provide support to frontline healthcare workers. We opened the house to workers at Baystate to give them an opportunity — if they needed a place to stay, if they needed to take a shower or get a cup of coffee. So our team was committed to support healthcare and support our partner hospitals who are there for us all the time. The tables turned a little bit, but we are able to continue to support our mission in this time of need, and you saw many organizations doing similar things. We pivoted and reinvented ourselves.”

Scribner: “Last year was a real struggle for students; 20% of those students in the Commonwealth just fell off the radar. So we had to change our mindset and pivot, just to help these students communicate how they were feeling. We would have speakers come in an talk about that — how they’re dealing with it, how their companies and themselves personally are dealing with COVID and being on Zoom meetings and not being in school and not being at work. Kids, while resilient, really had a tough time; they missed going to work and interacting with people. It’s those little things that we don’t think about — like going to a company or going to UMass on a field trip. We’re slowly getting back to whatever the new normal is. But last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Amy Scribner

Amy Scribner

“Last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Johnson: “With the pivot in funding that happened when a lot of companies started steering dollars toward COVID-related things, we also steered a lot of what we were doing toward COVID-related things; we were one of the few places that didn’t really close. When childcare was shut down for the Commonwealth essentially, and then an emergency first-responder-type childcare reopened for those working in retail or transportation or hospitals, we pivoted; our centers closed for one week and then reopened as an emergency childcare facility. We did continue to operate during that time, and on the youth-development side, there were still a lot of great opportunities from a funding standpoint to continue to be involved with some of our corporate sponsors that were changing direction and focusing on COVID.”

Verducci: “We essentially became volunteers; we turned our ballpark in Rhode Island, where we were still based until May, into a food-distribution network. Food insecurity became a huge issue in the region, so we were able to partner with Ocean State Job Lot, which would donate the food, and we would use McCoy Stadium as a vehicle to get that food to people who needed it. We also did coat drives, and we turned the park over to the state to become a testing facility. We tried to use our resources to help where it would do the most good. And once we transitioned to Worcester, we again became volunteers, going to Worcester State University to do food drives and coat drives, and most of those partnerships were with our corporate partners that we’ve had long-time relationships with. We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Jack Verducci

Jack Verducci

“We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Scully: “It was suddenly about putting on a different pair of glasses and switching gears when it comes to how you do things. It’s all about, as everyone has talked about, switching gears and saying ‘how do we adapt?’ much like we’ve all had to adapt to how we run our businesses remotely and attend meetings via Zoom.”

BusinessWest: What are the lessons we’ve learned from all this, from having to put a different pair of glasses, and how will this carry over into the future in terms of how we look at corporate stewardship and giving back?

Scully: “If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater. We have a big building here, and for a while there, about four of us were here. You weren’t connecting with people. But as soon as the opportunity came for people to come back, not only to the office, but to get involved with volunteering again, they really wanted to. I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference. I think people want to be part of something greater, so I think that stewardship will be stronger than ever because this has almost been that switch that has prompted us all to rethink what’s important. There’s a silver lining to everything, and sometimes it’s hard to find, but I think this is it.”

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater.”

Jasmin: “It was reinforcing for us in terms of our viewpoint on our being involved in the community. We took a look at what our philosophy was and really came out with an even greater understanding that these are the pillars we want to focus on. We’re a food company, first and foremost, and one of our pillars is hunger relief and helping with food insecurity. And that was reinforced for us — this is a continuing need, and we should be involved with it. And just in general, it’s also reinforced that we should continue to be involved — that our investment that we’re making in time and money and people is needed and is valuable. What this has taught us is that we need to be invested continuously, so when a crisis occurs, you can react quickly. It’s not something you can develop from scratch. Overall, it was reinforcing.”

Verducci: “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for empathy amongst companies; it was shared experience that was totally unprecedented, so people were empathetic with each other, and they really did understand what was happening with everyone. Instead of people saying ‘maybe not this year’ when we reached out, everyone we contacted over the past 18 months was willing to help in some way. The other thing we realized was that even the best-laid plans are not going to go the way we anticipate, so you need to be flexible and, more importantly, creative, and this will carry forward.”

D’Amore: “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’ Sometimes, prior to the pandemic, we were very focused on our own business model or our own mission, and where it was going. But we were all in the same boat essentially wanting to row in the same direction, so we collectively said, ‘how can we do this together?’”

Michelle D’Amour

Michelle D’Amore

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’”

Johnson: “I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

BusinessWest: Going forward, how do we maintain this new spirit of cooperation, this new sense of urgency, when it comes to giving back?

Jasmin: “One of the things we lost during the pandemic was that personal connection. We missed seeing our colleagues, our families, and people in the community at large; through corporate stewardship and giving back, we can create those personal connections, and people are recognizing how important this is. The community is us, so when you’re giving back to the community, you’re giving back to yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers.”

Scully: It starts with all of us — the leaders or organizations — to set the pace. The pandemic may not be over, but I think that what is over is the hunker-down mentality of being locked up at home in the basement on a computer talking to your colleagues all day. It’s time to get on with life. It won’t be the old normal, it will be the new normal, and the new normal is going to be dependent on so many of us to set that tone — that it’s time to get back out there for a Habitat event, with getting over to the Ronald McDonald House to help prepare a dinner when that becomes available to do. It’s dependent on the leadership or organizations to reinforce that tone.”

Scribner: “This pandemic has really allowed people to take time to reflect on their own lives and what’s important to them and their priorities. And when you’re given that time, I think you realize what’s important in life. When it comes to being hunkered down, I think the pandemic provided time and opportunity for people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to get out, and I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a difference.’ People are realizing just how precious things are now, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor or providing food for a food bank.”

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

“I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

Johnson: “In the normal ebb and flow of things, we get hyped up because something’s happened, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the tornado — things that bring us together for a short time. And then, life gets back to normal, and human nature tends to make us drift back to how we were. I think COVID is very different … it impacted everyone, every state, every city — we all know someone who has lost their life or lost their job because of it. It’s had a more far-reaching impact than any of those other tragedies, and, hopefully, that will allow it to stick with us and keep that mentality of realizing how fragile life can be.”

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

Law Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

Like all businesses, law firms have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, which has created both new opportunities and new challenges. Overall, firms have seen obvious changes in where people work and how. But there also may be new dynamics when it comes to recruiting and from where firms can attract new business.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

 

They call it the ‘Zoom room.’ And for obvious reasons.

It’s the office of a retired partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin that’s been converted into a small conference room equipped with a 60-inch screen for, or mostly for, Zoom meetings with clients that involve at least a few of the firm’s attorneys.

“If we have several of us who want to meet with a client or a couple of clients, we can have a multi-person meeting and have a few people in the room,” said Tim Mulhern, the firm’s managing partner, who said that, prior to the pandemic, there was obviously no need for a Zoom room. And the creation of one is just one of the many adjustments — that’s a word he and others we spoke with would use early and often — that law firms have made over the past 20 or so months. And some of them are more permanent in nature than temporary.

That can likely be said of the receptionist at Shatz — or the lack thereof, to be more precise. No one sits at that desk any longer, and, in fact, the door that leads to the reception area is now locked; a sign taped to it provides a number to call for people with inquiries.

The biggest change, though, is the number of lawyers to be found on the other side of the door — roughly half that from the days before the pandemic.

The rest are working remotely all or most of the time, something that took some getting used to — lawyers, especially, like the office setting, said Mulhern — but most have gotten over that hump.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now. We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

Ken Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, agreed. He noted that it’s not uncommon to check his phone in the morning and hear from one or more of the firm’s attorneys letting him know they will be working remotely that day. As other firms have, Bacon Wilson has adjusted — there’s that word again — and become more flexible out of necessity, he said, adding quickly that the firm wants its lawyers and paralegals in the office at least some of the time.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I like the idea of being with a young lawyer or a young paralegal who needs mentoring and advice and has questions. It’s better for me to meet with them one-on-one, in person, with a mask on, as opposed to doing it via Zoom.”

In the grander scheme of things, though, where lawyers work, and whether there’s a receptionist or not, may well turn out to be some of the less significant adjustments, or changes, to result from the pandemic. The larger ones could involve recruiting young lawyers and the potential to add business as a result of the changing landscape.

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to hiring lawyers and paralegals.

Starting with the latter, Seth Stratton, managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, summed things up effectively and succinctly when he said “we sell time.” And with some of the changes brought about by the pandemic — including less time commuting to work and less time traveling to meet clients — there is, in theory, at least, more time to sell.

Also, now that clients of all kinds, but especially business clients, have become accustomed to meeting with clients via Zoom and the telephone, there is potential to have such sessions with law firms based in the 413, which charge, on average, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds what lawyers in Boston and New York charge, and less than those in Hartford as well.

“COVID has resulted in more efficiencies, and, generally, efficiencies mean things take less time, and we sell time, so that means we’re selling less per client,” Stratton explained. “But it allows us to potentially work with more clients and work with clients who are more distant — we can expand the footprint of who we’re comfortable working with and who’s comfortable working with us.”

As for recruiting … the pandemic brings both opportunity and challenge, said Betsey Quick, executive director of Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. She noted, as others have over the years, that it is difficult to recruit young lawyers to Western Mass. law firms, and it often takes a family connection to do so. With the pandemic and the ability to work remotely, there is now the possibility of recruiting lawyers not to Western Mass., necessarily, but to firms based here — and the young lawyers can live where they want.

But — and this is a significant ‘but’ — young lawyers who might want to come to Western Mass. because of the quality of life and comparatively low cost of living can now come here, but not necessarily to work for a firm based here — again, because of the options now available to them.

“Remote working options can help and hurt recruiting efforts,” Quick said. “We are now hearing from attorneys with great résumés who prefer more of a remote schedule. It has opened the doors to new prospects. The concept of urban flight is real, and professionals are considering their options. On the other hand, with remote work, attorneys who once flocked to big-city firms may now have the option to remain at that firm, with the big city salary, and relocated to a rural area.”

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics presented by the pandemic could provide area firms with more opportunities to secure work from clients based outside the 413.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest looks at all of the various ways the pandemic has brought change to a sector that hasn’t seen very much of it over the past several decades.

 

Case in Point

Mulhern remembers when, at the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, he used to carry a small, foldable table in his car. It was for what came to be known as ‘driveway signings,’ among other names — the inking of documents in outdoor settings, including driveways, but also parking lots and parking garages, where each party would bring their own pen and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Those days seem like a long time ago, and in many respects they are, he said, adding that a large degree of normalcy has returned to the practice of law, although things are, in many ways, not at all like they were in February 2020.

As an example, Albano noted the recent end to Springfield’s mask mandate. While the city took that course, Bacon Wilson has decided to still require masks within its offices, a difference of opinion that has resulted in some confusion and even some harsh words for the receptionist from visitors not inclined to mask up.

Overall, changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

Changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

“You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

Going back to that word used earlier, firms have been adjusting to a changed world, and the adjustment process is ongoing, especially when it comes to where and how people work.

At Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, as noted, maybe half the lawyers continue to work remotely, said Mulhern, adding that the firm has not rushed anyone back, and it won’t, at least for the foreseeable future, in large part because the current work policies, if they can be called that, are working.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

And there are variations on the theme, he said, noting that some lawyers work a portion of their day at the office and the rest at home.

At other firms, most if not all lawyers are back in the office. That’s certainly the case at Bulkley Richardson, which implemented a vaccine policy on Oct. 1, said Quick, noting that the firm recognizes the importance of in-person interaction with colleagues and the need for human connection.

That said, Bulkley Richardson and other firms have learned that remote working can and does work, and there is certainly room for — and, even more importantly, a need for — flexibility.

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law”

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law” because of COVID, and she believes there are many positives amid a host of disruptions.

“The transition to remote work was unprecedented, but what we learned by the unexpected lockdown was that flexibility is a viable option,” Quick said. “We have always offered attorneys some degree of flexibility and have worked with them to find an agreeable working model; until the pandemic, most attorneys worked traditional hours within a traditional office setting. But now, with the remote working more acceptable, and sometimes necessary, we have seen no change in productivity or efficiency doing work.”

Stratton agreed, noting that his firm, like most, had a degree of flexibility when it came to working remotely and allowed lawyers to do so; most didn’t, except when they had to (during snowstorms or when they were home sick), because they preferred to be in the office. Now that they’re used to it, and like it, more are taking advantage of the flexibility they have.

Indeed, before COVID, perhaps 10% to 15% of work was done remotely, and now the number is perhaps 25%, said Stratton, adding that this represents a new normal.

And the new ways of doing things have produced greater efficiency, he added, a dynamic that creates the potential for more billable hours in a business that, as he said, sells time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting changes in how lawyers interact with clients present new opportunities for firms in the 413 to do business with those well outside it, Stratton noted.

Before, to get such business, firms would need a physical office in Worcester or Boston. Now, for many types of business law, where personal interaction is less necessary, services could be secured from lawyers in this market at rates far below those charged in those larger markets.

“With the increased use of remote communication and remote meetings, you can more easily tap those markets,” he said, adding that the firm is starting to market itself to such clients through professional networking.

 

Moving Target

Beyond where and how people work, the pandemic may have changed another important dynamic for local firms — the all-important work to attract and retain young talent.

As noted, it has long been a challenge to bring young lawyers to this market unless there is a connection, said Stratton, who offered himself as an example. He and his wife are both from this area, and it was a desire to return here (especially on his wife’s part) after some time spent in Boston that eventually brought him back to the 413.

Summing up the landscape as it has existed for some time, Stratton said the region has long faced what he called “depth of bench” challenges.

Elaborating, he said this is a “top-heavy” market when it comes to lawyers, with many of the leading players in their 60s or even their 70s. There are some rising stars coming up behind them, but not as many as the firms would like.

The reasons for this are many, said those we spoke with, but largely, it comes down to the fact that this market is not the big city — which means it doesn’t have the big-city lifestyle and, more importantly to most young lawyers, it doesn’t have big-city rates for legal services — or big-city salaries.

“Like many cities, Springfield is a proud community with historic charm and continued growth.  And yet, it is not Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C., and in most circumstances, one major difference may be the salaries,” Quick said. “As a Western Mass. firm, we are able to offer a healthier work/life balance and a unique geographic landscape. The challenge is communicating this value to candidates because, if they are not familiar with the business climate in Western Mass. and all it has to offer, attracting new talent to the area can be difficult.”

Stratton agreed. “If I were to have a job posting tomorrow for a junior lawyer with one to three years of experience that fits our practice and say, ‘you come to East Longmeadow, Mass., Monday through Friday, 9 to 5,’ I would get zero applications of qualified attorneys. That might be an exaggeration, but it would be close to zero.”

Albano agreed. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to attracting lawyers to Western Mass. He told BusinessWest the same thing he told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly when it asked him the same question.

“It’s been very difficult to hire quality lawyers and paralegals during this COVID pandemic,” he explained. “The quality of résumés we’re getting in from people in Western Massachusetts and also outside the area is very weak.”

Moving forward, he noted, the number could be much higher because that lawyer doesn’t need to be in East Longmeadow, at least not Monday through Friday, 9-5, meaning recruiting might become easier — that’s might — because of the pandemic and the manner in which it has changed how people work. It’s also changed some opinions about urban living.

“Many lawyers are growing tired of the city life,” Quick noted. “They want to find a reputable firm where they can advance their career and continue to work with high-level clients. At the same time, they are realizing that work/life balance matters. Western Mass. offers the best of both worlds — a growing, professional city surrounded by the landscape of mountains, rivers, and forests right at your fingertips.”

These qualities may well help attract people to Western Mass., but will it attract them to Western Mass. firms? This is a big question moving forward as remote work becomes plausible and more attractive for those toting law degrees in their briefcases.

“You need to compete with markets that you didn’t have to compete with before for talent,” said Stratton, noting that someone drawn to the Western Mass. lifestyle, or who has family here and wants to stay here, no longer has to limit his or her options to Western Mass. firms. “As a young lawyer, you can, potentially, work out of the Boston or Washington, D.C. markets primarily, and the legal rates charged in those markets are higher, and the pay is higher.”

That’s the downside of the changing dynamic, he went on, adding that there is plenty of upside as well, including the ability to look well beyond the 25-mile circle around Springfield that most young lawyers are currently recruited from.

Much of this is speculation right now, he went on, adding that, over the next six to 12 months, firms like his will have a far better understanding of just how — and how much — the recruiting picture has changed.

Albano agreed, noting that, overall, Bacon Wilson will entertain a hybrid schedule, to one degree or another, but it would certainly prefer its lawyers and paralegals to be in this market.

“I got an e-mail with a résumé from a young man in New York, indicating that he was looking to apply for a job here, but he plans on living in Boston,” he recalled. “First of all, his résumé didn’t coincide with what we were advertising — and we’re seeing a lot of that — and, number two, there needs to be that one-on-one connection. You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said the process of adjusting to everything COVID-19 has wrought is ongoing. That includes looking at the amount of space being rented and whether downsizing might be in order.

“We’re talking about what the future looks like in terms of physical space,” Mulhern said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about — do we still still need all the space we have?”

The firm has more than two years left on its lease, he went on, adding that the answer to that question will come at another time. The answers to some of the questions, especially those regarding recruitment and gaining additional business, including some from other markets, might be answered much sooner.

Overall, this is a time of change and looking at things differently than they been looked at for decades.

“There has undoubtedly been a transformation of the practice of law, and we believe that there are many positives amid all of the disruption,” said Quick, referring to those at Bulkely Richardson while also speaking effectively for all those we spoke with. “The pandemic taught us many things, including how to work more efficiently, utilize available resources, and communicate better to keep teams connected. I anticipate many changes will remain with us in a post-pandemic world.”

 

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

Holiday Gift Guide Special Coverage

’Tis the Season

It’s not always easy to find the perfect gift item for everyone on your list, but, thankfully, Western Mass. provides a plethora of options, from cooking classes to balloon rides; from sporting events to spa experiences — not to mention books, toys, locally created art pieces … the list goes on. Even better, all support local businesses and organizations — many of which have struggled during the pandemic — and, in turn, boost the region’s economy at a time when it could really use the lift.

When Bill Cole took over leadership of Living Local 413, he said, it was a loose collection of businesses in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow supporting each other. He knew it could be more, and grew its presence and mission; soon, it will even launch an accelerator program.

“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s about the entire business community in Western Mass.”

It’s a business community, like others across the U.S., that has been ravaged by the pandemic and the economic turmoil that has followed in the wake of COVID-19 — and those challenges have not ended, which is why Cole says it’s critical to support locally owned businesses over national chains and online retailers this holiday season, and beyond.

“We should all eat, shop, and hire local,” he said, citing some statistics to back up that thought. “It’s very, very simple: when you take $100 and spend it at a local business, up to $69 stays in the community. When you spend $100 on Amazon, none of it stays in your community.”

Even shopping at a local big-box store returns just $43 of that $100 to the community, he noted.

“The bottom line is, when your money stays local, it helps things like police and fire departments, and sports teams, which are always sponsored by some local business. And it’s better for the environment because you’re not shipping stuff all over the place. Basically, everyone wins. That’s what it comes down to.”

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“It’s very, very simple: when you take $100 and spend it at a local business, up to $69 stays in the community. When you spend $100 on Amazon, none of it stays in your community.”

Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, agreed, noting that local retailers offer unique, often handmade gifts that stand out from what can be purchased on Amazon.

“This is a time when we have to look inside and say, ‘I want to support local businesses,’” she said. “People often say they support local, but can you really say you do?”

To help shoppers come to that decision, the Amherst Area Chamber has developed an economic-stimulus initiative to support local businesses through a gift-card match program. The gift cards can be used at many local businesses, and two chamber members have each donated $5,000 to a gift-card match. Thus, beginning on Nov. 15, each $25 gift card purchased will be doubled in value to $50, thanks to these donations.

“That will translate into a $20,000 reinvestment in our small-business community,” Pazmany said, adding that the Amherst Business Improvement District is bringing back its red-ticket event, and for every $25 gift card purchased, the buyer will receive two red tickets toward a cash drawing on Dec. 18.

Again, it’s a win-win for shoppers and local businesses, she said, noting that restaurant gift cards make good holiday gifts as well.

“Let’s make an effort. Restaurants haven’t opened to full capacity because of staffing. We’re not there yet. That’s the big message I’d like to send — we’re not out of this by any means. A lot more support is needed, and the best way to do it is to buy local during the holidays.”

Cole said the pandemic has certainly made things tougher for businesses, but many were already feeling the crunch of online and big-box sales before COVID arrived. Fortunately, he added, more people have become aware of the need to support their area retailers, restaurateurs, artisans, and others.

“Any restaurant, smaller retailer, event business, these are segments of the economy that had the crap kicked out of them really, really badly, and they’re still struggling,” he told BusinessWest. “Even if they got help with PPP and all the things available to the small-business owner, it wasn’t easy to begin with. Some of these people may not recover.

“On a more positive note,” he added, “those people who will recover are awesome entrepreneurs. They know when to pivot and change and do things that make a difference.”

And they deserve the community’s support to keep pivoting and keep rebounding, Cole added. “Certainly, that’s what Living Local is going to do. We want to be 100% behind that.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 


 

Keeping It Local

Western Mass. Offers Plenty of Gift-giving Options This Holiday Season

 

The Baker’s Pin

34 Bridge St., Northampton

(413) 586-7978; thebakerspin.com

This extensive kitchen store carries a wide range of cookware, cutlery, electric devices, bakeware, kitchen tools, home goods, cookbooks, and food products as well — extracts, condiments, jams and jellies, sweets and chocolates, oils and vinegars, tea, spices, pastas, and more. But it also offers an array of cooking classes, both online and in person, exploring different foods and techniques appropriate for the season.

 

Book Moon

86 Cottage St, Easthampton

(413) 203-1717; bookmoonbooks.com

Since its 2020 opening, Book Moon has established both a local clientele and a robust online presence. The independent store is run by married couple Kelly Link, author of the Pulitzer finalist Get in Trouble, and Gavin Grant, founder and publisher of Small Beer Press. They carry new and used books, collectible first editions, cards and gifts made by local artists, and “mysterious book bundles in brown paper packages tied up in string.”

 

Cooper’s Gifts

161 Main St., Agawam

(413) 786-7760; coopersgifts.com

Cooper’s is not just a store — it’s a destination,” shopkeeper Kate Gourde has said, calling her facility a shopper’s oasis featuring trendy clothing, window fashions, distinctive home furnishings, and exquisite gifts. “I’ve watched babies be born, grow up, and shop now with their little ones. I’ve assisted them in finding the perfect gifts for all the happy and the sad occasions that life sends us.”

 

Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

125 West Bay Road, Amherst

(413) 559-6300; carlemuseum.org

The Carle calls itself “the international champion for picture books. We collect, preserve, and present picture books and picture-book illustrations for audiences passionate about children’s literature.” But in addition to the museum, its store carries books, gifts, prints and décor, cards and stickers, clothing and accessories, party supplies, and more. Parent’s Choice calls it “the very best bookstore for picture books in the entire world.”

 

Glendale Ridge Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

(413) 527-0164; glendaleridgevineyard.com

Glendale Ridge Vineyard is a small, family-owned winery committed to producing wines that express the land, climate, and winemaker’s vision. Visitors can taste small-batch wines, tour the inner workings of the boutique winery, or enjoy a glass of wine with family and friends in a scenic rural setting — then purchase a bottle or two from the wine shop. The winery building features indoor seating and space for private events.

 

The Mill District General Store and Hannah’s Local Art Gallery

91 Cowls Road, Amherst

(413) 835-0966;
facebook.com/milldistrictgeneralstore

(413) 835-1765;
facebook.com/hannahslocalartgallery

Part art gallery, part experiential retail store, the Mill District General Store features an array of household items, gardening supplies, pet supplies, games, art supplies, gifts, and locally sourced items. The adjacent Hannah’s Local Art Gallery creates a community hub for emerging and established artists to show and sell their work, teach pop-up classes in their art modality, and learn with and from one another.

 

Misty River Ballooning

(413) 586-9579; mistyriverballooning.com

Misty River Ballooning offers hot air balloon rides in the skies above Western Mass. Veteran balloon pilot Don LaFountain launches from several locations in the Pioneer Valley and the surrounding hilltowns. On a clear day, riders can see the Berkshire hills, as well as the mountains of Vermont and New Hampshire. Each flight is followed by a traditional champagne toast and light snacks.

 

Museum Outlets

31 South St., Pittsfield

(413) 499-1818; museumoutlets.com

One of the product categories on its website is ‘cool stuff,’ but really, it’s all cool stuff, with items like vintage maps, French posters, art and prints, and home goods, including elegant serving trays, candle lanterns, alpaca blankets, sculptures, Amish tin stars, bookends, weathervanes, picture frames, doorstops, pillows, rugs, as well as clothing and accessories. No wonder Museum Outlets was voted Best of the Berkshires in the gift-shop category in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2021.

 

Odyssey Bookshop

9 College St, South Hadley

(413) 534-7307; odysseybks.com

Over its 59-year history, Odyssey Bookshop has earned a reputation as an eclectic spot to look for books, and also also features a full-service website for ordering. In addition, according to its website, “we strive to provide a hospitable and nurturing environment to encourage the healthy exchange of ideas by hosting numerous readings, book groups, panel presentations, and online discussions.”

 

Off the Beam Woodworking

www.offthebeamwoodworking.com

Local artist (and full-time nurse) Sheri Lee handcrafts unique woodworking pieces, including cheese and serving boards, picture frames, cribbage boards, knife racks, and lanterns from domestic and exotic woods. “Many of the items I make will represent a specific nonprofit organization,” she says. “When you purchase the item, all of the proceeds from the sale minus just the cost of wood and hardware will be donated to the nonprofit the item represents.”

 

Pioneer Valley Food Tours

www.pioneervalleyfoodtours.com

This enterprise creates walking food tours that explore local flavors from Northampton and around the region. It also creates gift boxes sourced from the unique natural resources of the region’s fields and farms, as well as Pioneer Valley picnic baskets of selections ready to bring on an outdoor adventure. Choose a pre-set tour itinerary, or create a custom tour to suit your tastes.

 

Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

10 West St., West Hatfield

(413) 446-7845; pioneervalleykarting.com

The 1,000-foot track at Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting is capable of racing up to eight karts at once, with the longest races and fastest on-track speeds in New England, featuring a combination of straightaways designed for speed and sweeping corners for technical driving that will challenge everyone from beginners to experts. The track is equipped with a state-of-the-art timing system to record the individual lap times of each kart.

 

Renew.Calm

160 Baldwin St., West Springfield

(413) 737-6223; renewcalm.com

For the past two decades, Renew.Calm has offered an array of both medically based and luxurious spa treatments, with services including skin care, therapeutic massage, nail care, body treatments, yoga, hair removal, makeup, and lashes. The 4,000-square-foot facility also hosts educational events, fitness classes, and more. Multi-treatment packages make great gifts.

 

Rosewood

34 Elm St., Westfield

(413) 642-5365; rosewoodwestfield.com

Rosewood Home & Gifts is a trendsetting retail store located in the heart of downtown Westfield, offering home decor, gift items for special occasions, jewelry, apparel, and more, with a focus on products that support fair trade and products produced locally on the Pioneer Valley. Rosewood also offers seasonal, interactive workshops.

 

SkinCatering

1500 Main St., Suite 111, Springfield

(413) 282-8772; skincatering.com

SkinCatering offers a release from the hectic holidays, so an extra-special, very personal gift may be just what the doctor ordered. Pamper someone special with a massage, facial treatment, spa and sauna package, or any number of other options. And check out its soothing, expanded space on the first floor of Tower Square. Membership packages are available at several different levels.

 

Springfield Thunderbirds

45 Bruce Landon Way, Springfield

(413) 739-4625; springfieldthunderbirds.com

A great deal for big-time hockey fans and folks who simply enjoy a fun night out with the family, Thunderbirds games are reasonably priced entertainment in Springfield’s vibrant downtown. The AHL affiliate of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, the T-birds play home games through April at the MassMutual Center, with a constant stream of promotions, from theme nights to $2 hot dogs, sodas, and beers every Friday night. Purchase tickets at the box office or online.

 

The Toy Box

201 North Pleasant St., Amherst

(413) 256-8697; thetoyboxamherst.com

The Toy Box is “the family fun store of Amherst,” encouraging kids and adults to play and explore, with a wide array of unique products and features like a birthday club and ‘mystery bags.’ For owner Liz Rosenberg, “the gift of sharing something that promotes family and togetherness, is educational and fun, brings joy to children and grownups alike … well, that helps extinguish fears and makes for a better world, better community, and just plain feels right.”

 

The Trustees of Reservations

200 High St., Boston

(617) 542-7696; thetrustees.org

This nonprofit land-conservation and historic-preservation organization is dedicated to preserving natural and historical places. The Trustees own title to 120 properties on 27,000 acres in Massachusetts, all of which are open to the public, including historic mansions, estates, and gardens; woodland preserves; waterfalls; mountain peaks; wetlands and riverways; coastal bluffs, beaches, and barrier islands; farmland and CSA projects; and archaeological sites. A membership makes a great gift.

 

UMass Store

1 Campus Center Way, Amherst

(413) 545-2619; umassstore.com

This is the place for UMass-branded men’s and women’s apparel, drinkware, home and office supplies, accessories, and more. The UMass Store is also the first collegiate campus store to develop a sustainability section. As part of this commitment, it is reaching out to vendors and increasing the variety of sustainable products carried in the store, from recycled newspaper pencils and bamboo calculators to organic cotton T-shirts and recycled bottle apparel.

 

Veronica Martin Design

(413) 628-1985; veronicamartindesign.com

“I’ve always felt compelled to make things with my hands. It’s a reaction, an impulse. It’s how I breathe. Every day should be filled with beauty, and the everyday item should be beautiful.” That’s how Veronica Martin describes her handmade ceramics, candles, and beauty products, which are both lovely and functional. “Their thoughtful aesthetic and elegant characteristics make them luxurious items to own or stunning gifts to give. They are made with a passion for quality, everyday luxury.”

 

Zen’s Toyland

801 Williams St., Longmeadow

(413) 754-3654; zenstoyland.com

Zen’s Toyland, formerly known as The Wooden Toy, has been in business for more than 30 years, selling a variety of items ranging from baby teethers to adult puzzles. “You will find high-quality and unique items that aren’t available elsewhere,” owner Harshal Patel says. “All the toys are handpicked, and we only bring in toys that we would give to our own kids. Also, we have a playroom for your little one to test-drive things we carry. Everyone is a kid at our toy store.”

 

 

 

Special Coverage Veterans in Business

Serving Those Who Serve

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

The USO (United Service Organizations) turned 80 this year. It celebrated, in essence, by enthusiastically carrying out the same mission it has had since 1941 — ‘strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.’ The organization, and the local chapter based in Chicopee (Pioneer Valley USO), does this in a number of ways, from care packages to Monday night dinners at the Westover base, to a program that helps transition servicemen and women to the civilian workforce. For Al Tracy, executive director of the chapter, this isn’t a job — it’s a passion.

 

When Al Tracy was serving with the First Marines along the DMZ in Vietnam, the highlight of his day, week, or month — fill in the blank — was receiving a care package from home.

He would get one from his mother pretty much every month, he recalled, adding that the best thing in them was her apple pie, always wrapped in tinfoil, which was almost as precious — and welcome — as the food.

“We needed that tinfoil — we would reuse it to cook things,” recalled Tracy, flashing back more than a half-century as best his memory would allow, adding that such recollections certainly help drive him in a role that is far more a passion than it is a job — executive director of the Pioneer Valley USO, housed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

There is no ‘interim’ next to Tracy’s title, but technically … perhaps there should be. Involved with the USO (United Service Organizations) since the ’80s, he agreed to serve temporarily as executive director when the person in that job left it roughly 15 years ago.

“They’re still looking for an executive director,” said Tracy with a laugh, adding that he likes everything about his job — except all the paperwork — and especially anything that has to do with helping active-duty servicemen and women and also veterans in need.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military. I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

And there are many programs and services that fall into that category, from the care packages that are sent out to destinations around the globe to the Monday-night dinners the USO prepares for those serving at Westover, and also other servicemen and veterans as well (he and his staff were doing the prep work for one as he talked with BusinessWest on Nov. 1); from a program called Pathfinder that helps retiring servicemen and women transition to the workforce to providing tickets to Thunderbirds games and other sporting events.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military,” he said. “I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

Tracy is even busier than normal these days as he coordinates a transition of sorts for the local chapter, which is giving up its independent charter and becoming part of the World USO.

“Our charter was dissolved on Oct. 1 — we’re now part of World USO. I’m excited. Maybe I won’t have as much paperwork, but I haven’t seen that yet,” he said, adding that the agency at Westover will continue doing what it’s been doing from the beginning: “strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.”

That’s the official wording in the mission statement, but it’s more than words for those tasked with carrying it out. It is a passion, and one that prompts a pause for reflection as the USO, started by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, marks its 80th anniversary. Best known perhaps as the agency that sent Bob Hope to entertain troops in hotspots around the globe, the USO has changed over the years, and some adjustments certainly had to be made during COVID. But at its core, the agency and its purpose remain the same: it’s there to keep deployed service members, and also veterans, connected.

For this issue and its focus on veterans in business, we talked at length with Tracy about the USO, its all-important mission, and the many ways in which it is carried out.

 

Corps Mission

As he talked with BusinessWest, Tracy was thinking ahead to the Nov. 27 Thunderbirds game against the Hartford Wolf Pack, a matinee, at which he will drop the ceremonial puck. It’s an assignment he’s looking forward to.

“I told them I wanted a crash helmet, so when I fall on the ice I don’t hit the back of my head,” he said, adding that the agency partners with the team to get servicemen and women discounted admission, and also tries to secure tickets (to raffle off or simply give away) for area concerts and other types of shows.

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment: keeping servicemen and women connected — to their family, their hometown, and their country.

Dropping the puck is just one of many rewarding aspects to a job Tracy has grown into over the past decade and a half after serving the USO in a variety of capacities, incuding board member and treasurer. Indeed, he’s put his own stamp on a position, and an agency, with a proud legacy and an important mission, one that brings him back to his time in Vietnam, which he can pinpoint with astonishing detail after all these years.

“Let’s see … 11 months, 28 days, four hours, 15 minutes, and maybe 30 seconds, but who’s counting? I was looking at my watch as we left the ground,” he recalled, adding that the best of those days were the ones when the care packages arrived. “During the war, my best buddy was my mom; she sent care packages all the time, and it was pretty awesome. Now … I’m just passing it on.”

And in all kinds of ways.

The care packages might be the best-known and perhaps the most symbolic part of the mission, he said, adding that the proud tradition is carried on today.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity. I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

“We have a huge care-package program,” he noted, adding that the local chapter will send them anywhere — all it needs is an address. “Those packages keep them connected to home; it lets them know people are thinking about them.”

Elaborating, he said the packages can be personalized, and many are, but there are many staples — personal-care items, beef jerky, snacks, sunscreen, and wet wipes, which can and often are used to clean weapons.

But there are many other ways in which the local USO carries out its mission, starting with the Monday dinners served at the base (the cafeteria is closed that night). There are usually 125 to 150 people who partake, including some area veterans, he said, adding that meals are delivered to those serving at guard posts, on the runways, and other locations.

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base provides servicemen and women with a number of services and needed items, including books to read in what’s known as the ‘relaxing room.’

There’s also a food pantry at which service members can buy items; that facility also provides items to veterans in need.

The agency also marks deployments and homecomings, and it will also help take fallen servicemen from the area to their final resting place. It will assist servicemen and women in transition with furniture and other needs, said Tracy, and even provide small loans to those in need.

Then there’s the Pathfinder program that assists those transitioning from the service to the workforce.

“We’ll help them put together a résumé and learn how to interview,” he explained, adding that participants in the program are assigned a ‘scout’ who will assist in a job search on many levels.

There’s also the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, he went on, a program that enables servicemen and women to be recorded while reading a portion of a book or poem. That tape will then be sent to a designated family on a specified date, such as the holidays.

 

Finishing Touch

“That’s just another way that those off serving their country can stay connected,” Tracy noted, adding that this has been the simple yet all-important mission of the USO from the beginning.

For him, as noted, it’s not a job, but rather a passion.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity,” he said. “I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

It’s a unique mission, and for 80 years, it’s been mission accomplished.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 87: November 8, 2021

George Interviews Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at UMass Amherst

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at UMass Amherst. The two talk about everything from the recent jobs report and what it means, to soaring inflation; from supply chain issues and how they will impact the rate of recovery, to projections for the year ahead. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 86: Nov. 1, 2021

George Interviews Tim Netkovick, a partner with the Royal Law Firm

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Tim Netkovick, a partner with the Royal Law Firm. The two talk about COVID, vaccines, and especially the mandates ordered by the Biden administration and what they will mean for area businesses already struggling with the pandemic, a workforce crisis, inflation, and a host of other issues. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

A New Kind of Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested area employers in every way imaginable. And soon, it will test many in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a few months ago — vaccine mandates put in place by the Biden administration and set to take effect probably before the end of the year. The mandates are prompting lawsuits, generating questions that are often hard to answer, and creating high levels of anxiety for employers who are already dealing with a host of problems, especially an ongoing workforce crisis.

Amy Royal says she’s seen all manner of new regulations — state, federal, and local — that employers and their HR departments must contend with as they carry out business day to day.

But she speaks for all employment-law specialists — and those HR professionals as well — when she says she’s never seen anything quite like the COVID-19 vaccine mandates either already in effect or soon to be.

The mandates are far-reaching in their impact, in terms of everything from the number of businesses affected to the costs they will have to absorb to the very real possibility of losing more valued employees, said Royal, a principal with the Indian Orchard-based Royal Law Firm, which specializes in employment law, specifically representing employers. She summed up the measures and their bearing on employers with a single word. “It’s exhausting for companies.”

That would be an understatement.

Already, vaccine mandates enacted by states, individual cities and towns, healthcare providers, and private companies are resulting in thousands of people being fired or simply walking off the job. That list includes the football coach and several assistants at Washington State University, more than 100 state troopers in Massachusetts, police officers in countless communities, and a wide range of healthcare workers, especially nurses.

The recent developments raise questions on everything from just how safe many cities now are to which games NBA star Kyrie Irving can actually play in — none at his home court in Brooklyn, for starters.

And the next shoe — a rather large one — is set to drop in this unfolding drama. That would be the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandates, the ones affecting companies of more than 100 employees, any business with federal contracts, and federal employees — mandates the administration estimates will impact more than 80 million workers.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test.”

Royal and other employment-law specialists we spoke with said there are far more businesses in the 413 in those categories than most people would think, and all of them are, or should be, working diligently to prepare for these mandates — which will take effect soon, although exactly when is a question.

Actually, that’s one of many, many questions, said John Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who said others include everything from whether employees get paid while they’re getting vaccinated or tested to who pays for those tests, to whether employees who ultimately lose their jobs to these mandates are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413 will be impacted by the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate than most people would believe.

“People are asking, ‘what do we do now — what can we do once the mandate is rolled out?’” he said. “They also want to know when it is going to release and how much lead time they’re going to have for compliance. And, unfortunately, we just don’t know the answers to those kinds of questions.”

Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, agreed, noting, as others did, that the vaccine mandates add new layers of intrigue, challenge, and polarization for employers who have seen more than enough of all three over the past 20 months.

When she talked with BusinessWest, Wise had recently left a roundtable of CHROs — chief human-resource officers — representing companies across the Northeast. The group meets every six weeks to discuss the challenges its members are facing, she noted, adding that the dominant topic of conversation was the new vaccine mandates and what they might mean for companies, especially in the broad realm of employee relations.

“People who have not wanted to get vaccinated may get tired of the testing and may eventually get vaccinated, but be disgruntled about it,” she said, adding quickly that, if employers have to pay the cost of testing — and pay employees while they’re getting tested — then there is little incentive, if any, to get vaccinated.

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees,” she went on, adding that employers may have to pay a steep price for a policy they didn’t implement themselves.

The best advice Gannon and the others we spoke with have for employers and the HR departments is to be as ready as they can be for these mandates and fully understand just what they are up against. This means knowing how many employees are vaccinated (and not) and having a plan in place for meeting the mandates.

Above all else, Wise and the employment-law specialists advise that businesses take the mandates seriously — even if enforcement of its provisions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible — and to be prepared.

 

Taking More Shots

BusinessWest asked a number of area business owners and nonprofit managers who fall under the categories of the Biden vaccination mandates to discuss the measures and what they could mean.

Not surprisingly, none really wanted to talk about it — on the record or even off. Indeed, the subject of vaccinations and the mandates regarding them are a hot-button, polarizing topic, to say the least. Most employers are staying away from it, figuring it’s best not to say anything than delve into a matter drenched in controversy.

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees.”

That goes for MassMutual, one of the region’s largest employers, with more than 6,000 workers, which offered only this statement from a spokesperson:

“We are waiting for the specifics of the OHSA guidance to be issued, after which we will be able to better evaluate what it will mean for our company and employees. In the meantime, we have begun to prepare by determining how much of our employee base is vaccinated, which is currently approximately 85%. We are also encouraging fully vaccinated employees to begin coming into the office if they are comfortable doing so and on a schedule that makes sense for them. We’ll continue to evaluate our broader return based on the status of COVID-19 as well as guidance from medical experts and government officials to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our employees.”

With that, the company probably spoke for most employers in the region, who are waiting for OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to offer specifics while also assessing just where they stand with regard to what percentage of their workforce is vaccinated.

Here’s what is known at this juncture. The Biden action plan directs OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19, Gannon said. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plan also includes two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of workforce size. There is no weekly testing exception; employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

And, as noted, there are more companies in the 413 that will be impacted by these measures than most would think. Indeed, while most businesses in this region fit the textbook definition of ‘small’ — under 100 employees — there are hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and institutions that count at least that many workers. That includes healthcare-related agencies, manufacturers, nursing homes, municipal departments, a few banks, and many more. Meanwhile, the provision regarding federal contractors — and subcontractors — brings many more businesses under the auspices of the Biden mandates.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test,” said Royal, noting that her own firm has had federal contracts at different points in its history. “So this has an impact on a number of organizations up and down the valley — including small businesses and human-service agencies that may provide a service to the federal government in some way and come under the umbrella of being a federal contractor.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days.’ But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

“It might even be retail-type product that is sold on a military base,” she went on, while detailing the broad scope of these measures. “This definitely has widespread implications.”

Beyond waiting — and perhaps hoping that the measure is delayed, which most experts say is possible but not likely — the best area employers can try to do is be ready, said Gannon, adding that, while it’s anyone’s guess as to just when the OSHA standard for companies with 100 or more employees will be issued, it will almost certainly be released before the end of the year.

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days,’” he explained. “But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

Indeed, the clock is certainly ticking on the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors, he noted, adding that anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots must wait several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

“It can take employees at least 45 days, and that’s if they act as soon as possible, to make sure they’re vaccinated,” Gannon went on. “Meanwhile, employers are going to have to get testing programs in place and provide options for employees on how they get tested weekly if they are opposed to getting vaccinated.”

The logical next step for employers, if they haven’t done it already, is to determine their vaccination rates and thus get a handle on the scope of the problem they’re facing, he added.

“We’ve seen all sorts of numbers, but generally, employers fall somewhere in the 60% to 80% range,” he said. “And you’re allowed to ask people if they are vaccinated or not — several agencies have confirmed that there is nothing unlawful about that. You can’t ask them why, but you can generally survey your workforce population, and that should be the first step.”

 

Compounding the Problems

Flashing back to those days — it might even have been hours — after Biden announced his vaccination mandates, when the phone calls started coming in, Royal said the initial reaction was shock, followed by incredulousness.

“That’s because it represents a whole new layer of challenges for employers when they’ve already been navigating a number of challenges related to the pandemic, or just workforce-related issues,” she explained, adding that the overriding concern, beyond all the planning, logistics, and costs of meeting the new standards, regards the potential loss of valued employees at a time when workers are retiring and resigning at unprecedented rates (see related story on page 61), and replacing them has been increasingly difficult.

“Whether you’re in manufacturing or in human services, or are a professional service, there is a general worker shortage and shortage of prospects,” Royal noted, adding that the mandates, especially the one regarding federal contracts (because there is no provision for testing, only required vaccination), will make a serious problem that much worse.

Wise agreed. While she noted that the vaccine mandates for those companies in the listed categories relieve employers from having to implement such a polarizing policy themselves, it does bring a new and unwanted layer of challenge to the table, especially when it comes to workforce.

“They’re already hurting for staff as it is,” she told BusinessWest. “If they lose employees over this, that’s going to make it even harder for them to meet their customer demands and fulfill their orders.”

But there are other considerations, including the costs attached to all this and uncertainty over whether employers who don’t want to get vaccinated or tested can become eligible for unemployment benefits.

She said there has been no clear guidance on that, but she speculates that, if the federal government issues a mandate and an employee is unwilling to comply with that mandate, then the employee would not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

But that’s just one of many questions that remain unanswered at this juncture, she said, adding that employers of all sizes are pondering how to get ready for these mandates, but also just how seriously to take them, especially since the T in ETS stands for temporary.

“Apparently, under OSHA guidelines, unless OSHA makes it permanent, within six months this ETS will expire,” she said, adding that some employers may roll the dice and try to wait this out.

Indeed, while there are steep fines attached to the mandates — up to $13,653 per violation — Wise said some employers are wondering out loud just who is going to enforce all this.

“In my mind, this would be a risk that I, as a business owner, don’t think I’d be willing to take,” she told BusinessWest. “But there’s a piece to this that says, ‘how am I going to get caught?’

“OSHA isn’t going to be able to come in and audit every workplace, so there would probably have to be a complaint filed,” she went on, adding that, if an employee doesn’t want to get vaccinated, he or she is unlikely to file a complaint that their employer is not in compliance.

 

Bottom Line

Like Royal and Gannon, Wise said she’s never seen anything quite like the vaccine mandates when it comes to the many ways they might impact an employer.

“I’ve been in HR for more than 40 years, and I can say that there’s been nothing like this,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of regulations and guidelines that employers have to put in place — certain safety precautions, pay requirements, overtime laws — but there really hasn’t been anything that’s come down that has affected the individual and their bodies like this.”

Indeed, these measures are unprecedented in many respects, and they come at a time when beleaguered employers are already being challenged in every way imaginable.

Only time will tell what happens next, but it’s clear that employers will have their mettle tested even further.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Ben Leonard outside Tower Square

Ben Leonard outside Tower Square, where Country Bank just opened an office to service growing commercial business in and around Springfield.

Businesses didn’t stop borrowing in 2020, although much of last year’s lending activity had more to do with staying afloat with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans than expanding operations. These days, with the economy in a more stable — if not exactly robust — place, many businesses are looking to invest and grow (that is, if they can get enough people to come to work), at a time when banks are sitting on more liquidity than usual and are anxious to lend it out.

When Country Bank announced it was opening a commercial-banking office in Springfield, Ben Leonard was intrigued by the opportunity, noting its similarities to the bank’s push into Worcester in recent years.

“Country Bank has been around a long time, but historically, the physical presence has been between Worcester and Springfield,” noted Leonard, a senior vice president who leads the new Springfield office, located downtown in Tower Square.

“But we’ve always served clients everywhere within a 100-mile radius, and we’ve seen more activity here,” he went on. “We have clients in Springfield and the greater area of Western Mass., so the impetus to build that office was to be closer to those customers. Part of that is growing our C&I [commercial and industrial lending] business — we see a growth market here. It’s an opportunity to grow.”

The C&I lenders who work in the Springfield office have experience in niches like manufacturing, distribution, and equipment-heavy companies, Leonard explained. “That’s kind of what the team knows, and that’s a big part of why Springfield and Worcester are appealing markets for the bank to expand in, because those kinds of businesses are what’s here.”

Those are also the kinds of businesses that maintained operations at a more or less steady level during the pandemic, and now they’re ready to grow — and borrow, he said, adding that the real-estate market is active as well.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan

“If there’s a hindrance to businesses growing, it’s labor. It’s not being able to buy the machine, it’s hiring someone to run the machine.”

“Certainly there’s a need for affordable housing, and we’re seeing a lot of turnover in real-estate properties, some repurposing, and some interesting dynamics with real-estate valuations being as high as they are. We’re also seeing situations where the dynamics have changed, where an office building is half-empty now, and it needs to change hands.”

In short, commercial lenders are busy, which marks a change from a year ago. More accurately, they were just as busy last year, but often dealing with some very pandemic-specific activities, from PPP loan processing to commercial-loan deferments, particularly for hard-hit industries like hospitality. These days, however, businesses (not all, but many) are moving past the treading-water stage and calling on banks to help them expand, not just survive.

“People are spending money,” said Jeff Sullivan, president of New Valley Bank, which is based in downtown Springfield, noting that some business owners are looking to buy property rather than continue to pay a landlord, while others are making speculative investments in real estate, rather than sitting on cash they may have accumulated during the pandemic, when spending was suppressed for both individuals and businesses.

“We’ll see two or three buddies get together and pool some money to use for a down payment on a two-family or three-family house, thinking, ‘I can make 10 to 15% on my money investing in real estate rather than have it make zero percent in my savings account,’” Sullivan said.

Many are first-time real-estate investors, he added, including young people and people of color aiming to build wealth, while established businesses are anxious to invest in their own operations.

“A lot of people have squirreled away cash from the government programs during the pandemic, and have been hanging onto that cash for a rainy day, and now they’re in a situation where they can use some of that — and banks are lending,” he said. “If there’s a hindrance to businesses growing, it’s labor. It’s not being able to buy the machine, it’s hiring someone to run the machine.”

Mike Lynch, senior lender at Florence Bank, said his institution is looking at commercial-loan numbers that are at least equal to pre-pandemic activity — and that’s on top of PPP loans.

Kevin Day says last year’s loan deferments were a “lifesaver” for many businesses.

Kevin Day says last year’s loan deferments were a “lifesaver” for many businesses.

“We do all kinds of loans, commercial real estate and C&I loans. We’ve seen strong activity across all sectors; it hasn’t been one pocket more than others,” Lynch said.

Florence Bank President Kevin Day agreed. “It’s kind of across the board — not every sector, necessarily; we’re not seeing many new hotels and restaurants opening up. But investment properties are creating new borrowers, and they need help with financing.”

The combination of low interest rates and high prices were driving the commercial-loan market a year ago, the last time BusinessWest tackled this story, and that has remained true. “In the real-estate market, everyone understands residential properties are hot,” Day said. “But in commercial real estate, it’s similar.”

 

Back to Normal?

One thing that has changed is the reliance on loan deferments, which was one of the leading stories in commercial lending (and retail lending as well, for mortgages, car loans, and credit cards) last year.

“We were very active in the deferment program. It was a lifesaver for a lot of businesses,” Day said. “As we’ve come into 2021, a lot of the deferment periods have ended, customers are emerging from pandemic lockdown activity, and things are becoming more normal.”

In the business world, “almost all commercial customers are out of deferments, back on normal schedules, and it feels like their business is gaining traction, getting back to to pre-pandemic levels,” he added. “In the hospitality areas — hotels, restaurants, and such — the pandemic hurt them, but even they’re coming back out of the malaise, and business is starting to pick up. The deferments gave people time, and as everything is starting to come back online, those businesses will get their customers back and should come out of it fine.”

Leonard said Country Bank handled close to 1,000 PPP loans totaling around $75 million.

“I’m happy to say we deployed a lot of that, and consulted with folks on the front end to be sure it wasn’t a rubber stamp,” he said. “It was a differentiator; I think the smaller banks really shined, and were nimble enough to support their customers. You can talk about being there for your customers when they need it, but could you deliver? I think Country Bank did.”

The bank is well-positioned to be a stable provider of financing going forward, he added, “because our capital ratios are head and shoulders above most other banks, which allows us to do a couple things. It means our lending limits are higher, but it also allows us to be patient and pragmatic with our customers.

“We have a lot of capital to lend and the ability to lend it, but where we’re going to be most successful is really understanding our businesses, so that we can bank them through cycles.”

“So I think we see an opportunity because of that,” he added. “We have a lot of capital to lend and the ability to lend it, but where we’re going to be most successful is really understanding our businesses, so that we can bank them through cycles. That is more important than ever, I think.”

Elaborating, Leonard said the pandemic reinforced the need for banks to have close relationships with their commercial clients and really understand their business, and to understand how much struggle — or success — over the past two years was a pandemic-induced anomaly and how much might remain the trend going forward.

“The value add for any banker, especially a C&I lender, is knowing a company well enough to make those educated decisions,” he told BusinessWest. “Our strategy is to spend a lot of time getting to know the companies we bank, so once we start a banking relationship, we’re in it, and we find a way to be pragmatic and support companies for the long term. That takes thoughtfulness on the front end.”

Sullivan said New Valley has been actively reaching out to small-business owners, who are often too busy running their business to seek help. “Larger companies have more resources and have banks calling on them all the time. There’s plenty of capital out there, and we want to make sure we connect with those business people, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Almost as one, bankers say there’s plenty of liquidity in the market, and once businesses began seeing some clarity with the pandemic — and, to be sure, there’s still plenty of uncertainty — they started moving into growth mode. But, again, the current labor situation is dampening some of that enthusiasm.

“I talk to a lot of business owners who are grateful the government bailed out businesses during the pandemic,” Sullivan said. “But there are some who would rather have a more normalized market where people are coming back to work.”

Meanwhile, “deposits are way up, and all the community banks I know are looking to put that money to work as loans rather than having it sitting around in cash. If anything, that’s become more exacerbated the last few weeks.”

 

Good Business

Like Country Bank, Florence Bank has expanded its geographic footprint in recent years, into Hampden County, specifically, to serve — and expand on — commercial business it was already doing in the region.

It has been a successful transition, Day said, one that has turned into retail business growth as well. But right now, he sees plenty of opportunity on the commercial side.

“Our credit quality, frankly, has never been better. People who had jobs and operated businesses during the pandemic have a lot of cash on hand. Hospitality businesses had to take time off because of the pandemic, but are now starting to get over it. Deferments helped people like that a great deal to come back online.”

The resulting liquidity in the system — and the resulting credit quality — mean delinquencies are at record lows, Day added. “Not only is business good, but the business we have is good business as well.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Special Coverage

Coping with the ‘Great Resignation’

By Sarah Rose Stack

 

You’ve just woken up. As you sip your morning coffee, you open your e-mail and give it a quick glance. Wedged in between your work and personal mail, you have several e-mails with the subject line ‘We’re Hiring’ or ‘Join Our Team.’ You switch over to social media and see that your neighbor just announced she’s left her place of employment for a new opportunity. There are few more posts from friends who are frustrated with their employers’ lack of communication or insistence on returning to the office.

How many ‘We’re Hiring’ signs have you seen or talked about today?

There has been much discussion about the current hiring crisis, and while many thought that this would be resolved once Pandemic Unemployment Assistance ended, that has not been the case. In fact, the Bureau of Labor (BOL) recorded the highest number of people who quit their jobs in August 2021, with 2.9% of people quitting (4.3 million people). This is the highest number of quits since the BOL started recording this data in 2000. Probably even more concerning is that August was the sixth consecutive month of massive quitting numbers.

Coined the ‘Great Resignation’ by Anthony Klotz, a professor at Texas A&M, people are leaving their jobs at record-breaking rates as the pandemic is waning. This is only expected to be amplified as 2021 comes to an end and people reflect on what they want in life. Employees are demanding more from their current and potential employers. Companies should be very careful to pay attention to the change in dynamics if they want to retain or attract new talent to their workforces.

“Employees are demanding more from their current and potential employers. Companies should be very careful to pay attention to the change in dynamics if they want to retain or attract new talent to their workforces.”

As part of my position at Meyers Brothers Kalicka, I assist clients with finding new talent, such as controllers, accountants, HR, marketing, and other administrative professionals, for their organizations. Prior to the pandemic, I would see 50 to 100 applications from people in Western Mass. applying for every posted job opportunity. That number has drastically declined, the geographical representation has widened, and the questions and concerns from potential employees have also significantly changed.

So, what are employees expressing that they want? Here’s a hint: it’s not just about salary. People had a lot of time to reflect during the pandemic about what work means to them and what role they want their careers to play in their overall lives.

 

Work-life Balance

Prior to the pandemic, Americans were obsessed with ‘hustle culture.’ People were happy to rise and grind and wear their burnout like a badge of honor. Perhaps people were too distracted working around the clock to ever consider what they truly wanted. You’ve probably noticed the shift in sentiment in social media from #hustle to the idea that inner peace is the new success.

Working through the pandemic came with its own unique set of stresses. Some workers had to compensate for poorly staffed jobs, while others lost a feeling of security at their jobs, causing them to work even harder to show their value. Indeed recently posted a study that surveyed 1,500 employees about burnout, and a shocking 80% of people said the pandemic made the burnout worse.

As a result, potential employees have been asking:

• What is your company’s view on work/life balance?

• Does management regularly e-mail or call after hours or on weekends?

• Is the schedule flexible if I have a family event or event for my child?

• Do people actually take their paid time off?

According to PR Newswire, “poor work-life balance tops the list of job-seeker deal breakers, ranking above other immediate turnoffs, including lower salary (50%) and a company’s decreasing profits and lack of stability (48%)”.

 

Flexibility and Remote Work

Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work. Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change.

Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.

It isn’t all hypothetical, either. Stanford conducted a study of 16,000 remote workers over a period of nine months and showed that productivity increased by 13%. Further, with more workers reporting they were happier working from home, attrition rates were cut by 50%.

Time is the only non-renewable commodity, so when employers are demanding that their people return to in-person work, employees are asking themselves, “at what cost?” The most-asked question I have received from potential employees over the last year is: “can this position be done fully or partially remote?” If the answer was no, most candidates politely declined to continue in the application process, presumably in favor of remote opportunities.

I would also attribute the increase of applicants from other regions to the normalization of remote work. I’ve seen applications from all over the country because most people in professional positions are now of the mindset that they can work for anyone, from anywhere.

 

Company Culture and Shared Values

At its core, company culture is its identity. It’s how the company’s values, attitude, approach, and ideals dictate the inner workings of the organization. Generally, this is set and modeled by the leadership and then mirrored by the people within the organization, driving the way the company does everything.

Companies with attractive corporate culture actively value their people in ways that are both tangible and intangible. They may have perks such as food, drink, cocktail hours, paid time off, tuition reimbursement, and professional-development opportunities. More than that, they will also have a solid mentorship program, encourage open communication, speak to each other with respect, and show clear indicators that the work and growth of their people are valued.

As part of corporate culture, shared values are another important consideration for many job seekers today. Whether they are directly impacted by certain causes or not, they are looking to work for companies who have values that align with their own. Employers need to understand that potential employees are doing as much vetting and interviewing of the organization as the organization is doing of them.

Employees want to know what your company culture is like and what your values are. They are asking direct questions such as:

• What is the company’s leadership like?

• Describe the company’s culture.

• Does your company have a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) program?

• How does your company implement its DEI statement?

• How involved is your company in the community?

• How does your company handle discourse among employees?

 

Pandemic Protocols in General

While we all have pandemic fatigue and want the pandemic to be over, there are still so many open issues that need to be faced head-on. Potential employees are very concerned with how companies handle current guidelines regarding masking, social distancing, quarantine, and vaccination.

This would be simple if everyone had the same passionate stance on the subject, but they don’t. Employees tend to be divided into three camps: Those who wants the strictest protocols in place, those who prefer more lax protocols, and those who are indifferent and will simply follow whatever protocols are set. Regardless of which camp your organization falls into, companies should be aware that their response to these questions will either encourage or deter certain prospects from continuing with the interview process.

I’ve found that most candidates were generally satisfied to hear that the organization is simply following the current federal, state, and municipal guidelines. In addition to the actual protocols, candidates have been very concerned with how those protocols are communicated. They routinely ask:

• Does the leadership communicate changes to protocols in a timely manner?

• Have they listened to employees’ questions and concerns?

• Are protocols safe, fair, and reasonable?

 

In Conclusion

We are in an employee market, and employees want the best of it all. They want work-life balance and more remote-work opportunities, but also want to feel connected with their company’s mission and their colleagues.

This may feel like an impossible balance to achieve, but I believe it can be done. People want to work, they want to feel connected, and they want their work to mean something. That’s the good news. Companies who understand these needs can take action and translate them into powerful employment opportunities that almost certainly will yield happier and more productive workers, better products and services, and stronger businesses.

 

Sarah Rose Stack is the Marketing and Recruiting manager for the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

 

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Blast from the Past

Springfield’s Trolley Barn, the property at the corner of Main and Carew streets, has had an important place in the city’s history since it opened back in 1897. It was long home to the Springfield Street Railway Co. and, later, Peter Pan’s Coach Builders operation. Today, it has a new life as home to J.D. Rivet, a roofing and sheet-metal company, thus ensuring that this link to the past will have a place in the city’s future.

At top, the Trolley Barn sign

At top, the Trolley Barn sign is joined by others announcing the newest owners. Above, past and present come together in the second-floor conference room.

Jim Trask says the search took the better part of four years.

That’s because, as he and other members of the leadership team at JD Rivet & Co. Inc., a roofing and sheet-metal company, went about looking for a new home to replace the one on Page Boulevard in Springfield, they had a lot of boxes that needed to be checked.

Chief among them was — and is — location, said Trask, the company’s president, adding that several crews hit the road for jobs each day, and easy access to highways is a major consideration. But there were others, including large open space for a warehouse, parking, and more, as the company, working with a broker, considered a number of options, including property at the Deer Park Industrial Park in East Longmeadow.

Eventually, the search ended at a rather intriguing place, the corner of Main and Carew streets in Springfield, home for nearly 125 years to a building known as the ‘Trolley Barn.’

“That’s a nod to the days when there were actual stables for horses that would pull carriages,” said Trask, adding that the property certainly has seen a great deal of history and change; from the horse-drawn cars to the electrically powered trolleys of the Springfield Street Railway Co., to far more recent uses. These include it being home to Peter Pan Bus Lines’ Coach Builders repair and restoration facility, and, simultaneously, a methadone clinic in the front-office section of the facility.

Trask and Sean Gouvin, the company’s vice president, recalled that, when they were first introduced to the property by Brendan Greeley, a broker at R.J. Greeley Co., they saw both opportunity and challenge, in perhaps equal amounts.

The former was represented by those aforementioned boxes being checked, especially the location part; the property is just a few hundred feet from an on-ramp to I-91, a few blocks from I-291, and a just a few minutes from the Mass Pike. The latter came in the large amount of work that needed to be undertaken to ready the property for the planned new use, especially transforming the portion occupied by the methadone clinic into modern office and warehouse space.

“I liked the building — I could tell it was really strong,” Trask said. “I loved the space in the warehouse, but the office at the time was all broken up and I didn’t really like the office space at all.”

Eventually, though, they decided seizing the opportunity was worth the challenge. Thus commenced more than six months of cleanup and restoration work that yielded some surprises — sheetrock was covering original brick and intricate woodwork in that office area — as well as a few artifacts, and a workspace that speaks to the early 20th century but certainly works in the early 21st century.

At left, from left, Robert Ostrader, Sean Gouvin, and Jim Trask in the new first-floor conference room.

“There are a lot of reasons why we’re here — location, price, everything,” Trask said. “But I love old buildings, and this is one of the most historic buildings around.”

And it provides what the company needs most — a long-term solution to its space needs, he added, noting that JD Rivet has worked through the many hurdles created by the pandemic (although some stern challenges remain, especially supply-chain issues) and is in a growth mode.

Founded in 1960, the company specializes in the installation and maintenance of commercial, industrial, and residential roofing systems. The company has worked on everything from churches to hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

From its new headquarters in Springfield’s North End, it can see the past — and the future as well.

 

Pulling Out All the Stops

As for those artifacts … there are several of them, including old pictures of the trolleys that were once housed there (one now graces the second-floor conference room), a boiler alarm bell (just like it sounds, it’s a bell that would ring if there was a problem with the boiler) that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and some old fire-insurance maps, found on the property, that offer a glimpse of the dramatic growth that came to that section of Springfield in the early 1900s.

These items would be considered a bonus, said Bob Ostrander, JD Rivet’s chief financial officer, adding that what the company really wanted from its new home was a chance to consolidate operations — it was spread out in several different buildings on Page Boulevard — as well as have better, easier access to highways and that room to grow.

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall.”

It got all that and more at an address — Carew and Main — that has seen a lot of history and certainly changed with the times. Indeed, the owner for decades was the Springfield Street Railway Co., which opened in 1870, and originally operated a single line of track — served by four cars and 24 horses — that ran from the North End of the city down Main Street, past State Street.

The original line soon expanded to other parts of the city, and by 1891, the lines were all electrified to run trolleys. By the end of the century, the network had extended to several area communities, and connections were made to other networks in other cities, including Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, and Hartford. To handle all this growth, the company built the facility, named the Trolley Barn, at the corner of Main and Carew.

Like all trolley lines, Springfield’s became obsolete in the 1950s as cars and buses became the dominant modes of transportation. The Trolley Barn would eventually be acquired by Peter Pan Bus Lines to house its Coach Builders operation, which painted and repaired buses.

When the management team at JD Rivet first looked at the property, Coach Builders was still occupying the large area formerly used for housing and maintaining trolleys, and a methadone clinic had recently moved out of the office portion of the property. That later operation required privacy for its clients, said Ostrander, adding that the relatively large area had been carved up into many smaller spaces covered by sheetrock.

Before-and-after shots of the office area show the amount of work needed to restore the historic Trolley Barn to its former luster.

Before-and-after shots of the office area

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall,” he said, adding that their collective imaginations managed to see through all that. And they liked what they saw.

“We had a demolition contractor, Associated Builders, come in and tear down all that sheetrock, and when they did, it revealed all this beautiful wood,” he told BusinessWest, waving his hand across the space that has become his office. “So we decided to restore all that wood — the floors, the wainscoting on the walls, the ceilings, the doors.”

Only small portions of those hardwood floors could not be fully restored, said Ostrander, adding that the company has effectively blended the past — specifically those floors, walls, and ceilings — with the present, including a new, glass-walled conference room created on the ground-floor office area.

Gouvin agreed. “From the beginning, we treated it as historic renovation — every turn was thoughtful,” he said of the efforts to preserve historic qualities of the property (and there are many of them), yet make the property suitable for modern office and warehouse operations.

Elaborating, he said the structure is in a historic district, so any alteration to the building that faces Main Street had to be approved by the Historic Commission. That includes the windows and the front door, which had to be restored and not simply replaced.

The past and present come together in a number of spaces within the building — the warehouse still bears evidence of where trolley cars were kept and maintained, but the there’s now high-efficiency lighting there and elsewhere — but perhaps none better than the second-floor conference room, which takes advantage of large windows, more of that ornate woodwork, and a fireplace (one of several in the building) to provide a unique, homey setting.

“I don’t think we’ve had to turn the lights on in there yet — the windows let in a ton of light,” said Trask, adding that it’s the same throughout the office portion of the property.

 

Past Is Prologue

The business cards for those at JD Rivet list 2257 Main St. as the address.

That’s a location steeped in history, one that brings three different centuries together in the same building.

Those at the company are proud of how they’ve blended the past with the present. But mostly, they’re excited about the future and the opportunities presented by this new facility.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 85: Oct. 25, 2021

George Interviews Tony Cignoli, president of ther A.L. Cignoli Company

George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Tony Cignoli, president of the A.L. Cignoli Company. The two talk about everything from Smith & Wesson’s recent decision to move its headquarters to Tenessee to redistricting and what it means for the region, to the pandemic and the lessons learned from it. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Cover Story Event Galleries Healthcare Heroes Special Coverage

Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, Healthcare News, launched the new recognition program known as Healthcare Heroes in 2017, the initiative has more than succeeded in its quest to identify true leaders — not to mention inspiring stories — within this region’s large and very important healthcare sector.

The attendees gathered at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke for the fifth annual Healthcare Heroes gala were treated to an evening of great food, lively networking, and some truly inspiring stories. These seven individuals and one collaboration were chosen to reflect the broad scope of the health and wellness sector in Western Mass., and the incredible work being done within it.

 

Download the digital flipbook of the 2021 Healthcare Heroes HERE

Presenting Sponsors

Partner Sponsors

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 84: Oct. 18, 2021

George Interviews Peter Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines

Peter Picknelly says fuel prices affect more than the transportation sector he works in

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively, wide-ranging discussion with Peter Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines. The two talk about everything from the ongoing workforce crisis to people getting back on the roads — finally; from the many challenges facing those in the restaurant business, to the loss of his good friend, business partner, and restaurant industry icon Andy Yee. It’s a compelling discussion and must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Manufacturing Special Coverage

The Shot Heard ’Round the Region

Smith & Wesson’s recently announced plan to move its Springfield operations to Tennessee came as a shock to many — the 165-year-old company has been part of the city’s fabric, and the region’s rich manufacturing history, for generations. Amid questions about the gunmaker’s reasons for moving — the company cites proposed state legislation targeting its products, while some elected officials say it’s more a case of corporate welfare and a better deal down south — the most immediate concerns involve about 550 jobs to be lost. The silver lining is that, with some concerted effort, most of those individuals should be able to find other work locally in a manufacturing landscape that sorely needs the help.

 

In the wake of the announcement that Smith & Wesson will be moving its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Maryville, Tenn., questions and discussions have arisen on many levels.

These concern everything from how and when this decision came about to how aggressive Tennessee was in courting this major employer, to whether there were any major deciding factors in that decision beyond what has been stated repeatedly by the company — specifically, proposed state legislation that would ban the manufacture of most of the automatic weapons now made by Smith & Wesson.

But as the dust settles from that bombshell announcement, the lingering questions concern just what the region and the state have lost from the relocation of this company, one that can trace its roots back to 1856.

And the answers to that question don’t exactly come easily.

Western Mass. will lose roughly 550 jobs, according to the information released by the company — a significant number, to be sure, but economic-development leaders are quick to point out that just about every manufacturer has a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, either figuratively or quite literally, and that any one of those Smith & Wesson employees who doesn’t want to relocate to Tennessee can find employment in the 413 quickly and easily (much more on that later).

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce. And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

Meanwhile, the region will also lose a number of C-suite-level employees from the company that were involved in the community, sat on area boards and commissions, and engaged in philanthropic activity.

“They’re tied to the community,” said Richard Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC). “And I think that, sometimes, those aspects of what it means to have a headquarters, the CEOs, and the team at any company get lost; it’s the tieback to the community, because they’re truly vested in the community and want to see it be the best it can be.”

Meanwhile, even though Smith & Wesson handguns and other products will still be made here, and we’re told they will be stamped ‘made in Springfield, Mass.,’ or words to that effect, the region will lose a certain amount of civic pride, if that’s the right term, that comes from having a large employer — and one of the most recognizable brands in the world — headquartered in the City of Homes. Indeed, many would say this company is part of not only the history, but the very fabric of the city.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser says Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations may actually be a blessing in disguise on some levels.

However, those we spoke with said the region and city are unlikely to lose momentum when it comes to attracting employers and jobs, or its reputation as a manufacturing hub.

Indeed, Sullivan used the phrase “one-off” to describe Smith & Wesson’s decision, drawing a distinction between this pending departure and a much larger exodus, headlined by General Electric, that befell Connecticut several years ago.

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce,” he explained. “And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield and several neighboring communities and serves as chair of the state’s Manufacturing Caucus, agreed, and then went further, noting that, amid some obvious losses, there are also some possible benefits to Smith & Wesson’s decision. He even used the phrase “potential blessing in disguise,” mostly to reference opportunities that other area manufacturers may have to stabilize and grow their ventures by hiring displaced S&W workers.

“Sometimes, when one door closes, another one opens, and this may be one of those times,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a very real economic challenge in terms of making sure that those 550 families are taken of. But this is a long-term horizon — they’re not doing this until 2023. Luckily for those families, the manufacturing sector is very hot, and really, almost every company in that sector, including companies right in that immediate neighborhood where Smith & Wesson is located, are looking for people.”

Lesser is one of many elected leaders who are not buying into Smith & Wesson’s contention that it’s moving its headquarters because of the pending legislation. He echoed comments from Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who told the local press that “prudent business people don’t make major decisions, especially a decision that puts hundreds of people out of a job, based on one of the thousands of bills filed each session.”

“The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

Lesser, noting the very attractive deal offered to Smith & Wesson by Tennessee, said the company’s motivation for relocating probably has little to do with Bay State politics. “This is more of a classic corporate-welfare story than it is anything else.”

Which is why it shouldn’t impact Springfield’s reputation as a manufacturing hub or its long-term potential to become more of one, noted Tim Sheehan, the city’s director of Planning & Economic Development.

“In this type of industry, Springfield has had a long history, and the skill levels in this area of manufacturing have been noted throughout the Connecticut River Valley,” he said. “I don’t think this sends a message about the city of Springfield — it’s a broader message.”

 

Targeted Response

The press release arrived in the inboxes of media outlets in this region — and well beyond — at 9:05 a.m. on Sept. 30. The headline over the top read “Smith & Wesson to Relocate Headquarters to Tennessee,” followed by the subhead, “Move includes headquarters and significant portion of operations due to changing business climate for firearms manufacturing in Massachusetts.”

The release went on to quote Mark Smith, president and CEO of the company, saying, “this has been an extremely difficult and emotional decision for us, but after an exhaustive and thorough analysis, for the continued health and strength of our iconic company, we feel that we have been left with no other alternative.”

He specifically cited legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts that, if enacted, would prohibit the company from manufacturing certain firearms in the state. “These bills would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing firearms that are legal in almost every state in America and that are safely used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens every day exercising their constitutional Second Amendment rights, protecting themselves and their families, and enjoying the shooting sports. While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60% of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.”

The path taken — to Tennessee’s Blount County, which proudly describes itself as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” — is similar to the one taken by Troy Industries, the West Springfield-based maker of a wide array of guns and related products, which announced a move to Tennessee back in May.

So while there is precedent and the relocation sounds like part of a movement, many elected officials, including Lesser, were not exactly buying the company’s stated reason for leaving.

In fact, he referred back to that same press release for some evidence. In it, the company said it was also relocating its distribution operations in Columbia, Mo. to the new, $120 million facility in Maryville.

“I don’t believe their rationale why they’re leaving,” he went on. “The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

The bill calling for a ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons, Lesser noted, “has been filed for years and years. And 6,000 bills are filed every year on every conceivable topic; as the speaker said, for a company to make a decision of this magnitude off of one filed piece of legislation doesn’t make any sense.”

Sullivan said there’s no doubt that Tennessee, and probably other, more gun-friendly states and regions, aggressively pursued Smith & Wesson because … this is what they do.

“The states are actively working every day to get companies to move to their state,” he said. “They offer big incentives, and I have no idea what their package was or wasn’t, but they can show a business-friendly attitude, and in this case, they can show an atmosphere that is more comfortable around Second Amendment issues.”

 

Another Shot at Employment

While the company’s reasons for leaving have come into question, the loss of 550 jobs locally is real, and that has become the focus of attention for many elected officials and area agencies, who have pledged to help secure new employment opportunities should these individuals decide not to relocate to Tennessee.

“Our first issue of concern is for the employees, enduring that they have a landing spot, in either a job performing the same task or something that’s similar,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “A number of manufacturing businesses have reached out already, to MassHire and the mayor’s office, about recruitment of those folks.”

It helps, he added that no one is losing their job immediately, with the move not scheduled to be complete until 2023.

“It’s not happening tomorrow, so we have time to plan for this,” he added. “But it’s an unfortunate situation, obviously — they’re good manufacturing jobs that are housed in Springfield, and we would have liked them to stay in Springfield.”

Like others we spoke with, Sheehan said this is a conducive market to find new employment in manufacturing, he doesn’t want the fate of hundreds of workers left to the whims of that market, so a coordinated effort is in order, involving MassHire Hampden County, the EDC, and city officials, to coordinate a response that helps people identify, train for, and succeed in new jobs.

“With any type of upheaval like this, it’s distressing,” he noted. “Our focus is to try to ensure as little economic uncertainty as possible for these employees.”

Dave Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, said his agency is treating Smith & Wesson’s announcement as a reduction in force, or RIF, and not a plant closing, because the plant isn’t closing — 1,000 jobs will remain here in Springfield.

But it’s an unusual RIF in that the jobs won’t officially be lost for roughly two years, until the company builds and moves into its new facilities in Tennessee. At present, Cruise’s agency is awaiting more information from Smith & Wesson on the specific nature of the jobs to be moved before putting in place a formal plan of action to assist those employees impacted by the decision.

“We have a team of people that we deploy whenever we have this type of situation,” he explained. “Right now, we’re looking to gather a little more information — we don’t much more than what we read in the papers — and whenever they sort that out, I’m sure we’ll be able to work with them and see how we come at this.

“It’s hard for us to move forward because it’s still pretty raw,” he went on. “And I’m sure they’re working hard to determine exactly who is being impacted by this. When we know more, we’ll be able to put in motion what we normally do in these situations.”

 

Loaded and Locked

While elected officials and economic-development leaders have voiced concern about the jobs to be relocated and have made assisting those workers their top priority, S&W’s announcement comes at a time when companies across every sector, and especially manufacturing, are struggling to find qualified workers.

In fact, many are already sending inquiries to Lesser’s desk, Cruise’s office, and other destinations about when and how such workers might be become available long before Smith & Wesson departs for Tennessee.

Indian Orchard-based Eastman Corp., a maker of car windshields and a host of other products, issued a statement through Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office announcing it is ready, willing, and able to hire some of those being displaced.

“We appreciate the opportunity through Mayor Sarno and his administration to begin to discuss the possibility of members of Smith & Wesson’s skilled labor force considering positions at Eastman in the future,” wrote Plant Manager Shawn Pace. “When those workers and Smith & Wesson are ready, we want them to know that we are here and want to be helpful. Eastman continually reviews its business and workforce strategies to remain competitive and to ensure our long-term success. Like many, we are still learning about Smith & Wesson’s announcement. Eastman stands ready to offer any assistance that Mayor Sarno, his administration, and Smith & Wesson deem appropriate.”

Many other companies are similarly positioned to absorb workers whose jobs are being relocated to Tennessee, said Lesser, reiterating his thoughts about this possibly being a blessing in disguise for the region and especially its precision-manufacturing base.

“I got a lot of inquiries from people all over the state who are in the private sector who are eager to expand and eager to hire people, including some very fast-growing industries like life science, biotech, and robotics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2023 is two years away, many of the companies looking for help are on a strong growth trajectory, and still will be two years from now.

Elaborating, Lesser cited the tone set the state’s recent Manufacturing Mash-Up event in Worcester late last month, a day-long gathering of those in precision manufacturing.

“We had hundreds of companies from across the state, including a lot from Western Mass.,” he noted. “And they were all saying that they’re busier than they ever have been, business has never been better, and they’re all looking to hire people. And a lot of these companies are in really fast-moving, high-growth areas — robotics, life sciences, medical devices, clean energy.

“We have to react swiftly and make sure those 550 families are taken care of,” he went on. “But it’s also important for people to see the big picture.”

Sullivan agreed.

“I understand that not every manufacturing job can be plug-and-play,” he noted. “But right now, any company that does any kind of manufacturing work is looking to hire. I’m optimistic that everyone who chooses not to move with Smith & Wesson will be able to find a job. That won’t mean that their lives aren’t interrupted, but there are opportunities within this region for them.” v

 

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

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