Home Archive by category Special Coverage

Special Coverage

Giving Guide Special Coverage Special Publications

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

When importance of giving to those in need — and to the organizations who help others secure their basic needs — doesn’t take a holiday, and there’s no season of the year when their work is not critical, especially at a time when the pandemic is barely in the rear-view mirror and an uncertain economy continues to pose challenges to so many individuals and nonprofits.

Still, there’s no doubt that people think about giving more around the year-end holidays, and that’s why BusinessWest and the Healthcare News publishes its annual Giving Guide around this time: to shine a spotlight on specific community needs and show you not only how to support them, but exactly what your money and time can accomplish.

The 18 profiles below of area nonprofit organizations, are just 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.

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.

Joseph Bednar, Editor
John Gormally, Publisher
Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 190: December 4, 2023

Joe Bednar Interviews Ashley Batlle, owner of Beauty Batlles Lounge in Chicopee

Ashley Batlle wasn’t sure where she wanted to take her cosmetology degree 20 years ago, but she’s certainly found her place today as owner of Beauty Batlles Lounge in Chicopee, a cutting-edge spa that aims to build clients’ self-confidence by making them look and feel their best. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Ashley talks withBusinessWestEditor Joe Bednar about the growth of Beauty Batlles since its 2018 opening; its recent move to a larger space, allowing her to expand into more wellness services, including cryotherapy; and the many ways in which she uses her platform to support and uplift her community. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 189: November 27, 2023

Joe Bednar Talks to Local Entrepreneur Myke Connolly

Myke Connolly says he learned marketing at age 9, reselling candy to classmates in the Bahamas. As an adult, his entrepreneurial spirit and belief in the value of hard work have led him into many ventures, from Stinky Cakes — which turned diapers into gifts for new parents — to a business training and networking entity called Marketing and Cupcakes, to a rolling electronic billboard called Stand Out Truck. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Myke talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about what’s next for his enterprises, how he’s been impacted by mentors and strives to do the same for other aspiring entrepreneurs, and much more. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Craig and Pat Sweitzer

Craig and Pat Sweitzer at the recently unveiled mural in the center of Monson.
Staff Photo

“Sophisticated rural.”

That’s how Craig Sweitzer, who has lived and worked in Monson for more than 40 years now — and served on the town’s Planning Board for most of that stretch — chose to describe this community of almost 9,000 people on the eastern edge of Hampden County.

By that, he meant that this town is certainly small and rural, but, as he put it, “you don’t have to leave town to eat.”

Indeed, the community’s downtown boasts several restaurants and, at last count, three coffee shops, said Sweitzer, who, with his wife, Pat, owns and operates Sweitzer Construction, a design-build firm that specializes in medical facilities (especially dental offices) and, more recently, cannabis operations of all kinds.

Indeed, the arrival of the cannabis industry has brought work across all aspects of that sector, Sweitzer said, from dispensaries to production facilities; from testing labs to an armored-car operation in Belchertown created to handle the large amounts of cash generated by these businesses.

“After you get your feet wet in something, you master it, and it leads to more work in that area,” he said, adding that the same is true of dental offices (his firm has now built more than 200 of them), and it is now true with cannabis facilities. “And when you do design/build, you offer the whole package — the architecture, the financing, the site selection … and we’ve done the same thing with cannabis.”

The Sweitzers made Monson their home and the base for their business back in the ’80s, and they’ve watched it grow and evolve. A little.

“Monson still has its rural quality — we still don’t have a traffic light,” Craig said, adding that the town has not changed much over the past four decades, and for those who live there, this is mostly a good thing; sophisticated rural is an attractive quality, one that many are seeking, especially post-pandemic.

Indeed, the town has seen a slight rise in population in the wake of COVID and the manner in which it prompted some living in large population centers to seek more rural areas in which to both live and work.

“Post-COVID, flexible work and hybrid models became very attractive, and so did communities like Monson, because obviously it costs much less to buy a house out here then it does in the Boston area,” said Dan Moriarty, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, who grew up in town and thus admitted to some bias, adding that, if the proposed east-west rail project becomes reality, Mosnon and communities like it will become even more attractive to those looking to work in Boston but not necessarily live there.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people,” he went on. “It’s a nice place to live, and I get the best of both worlds because I work there as well.”

He said Monson is close enough from Springfield and Worcester to be an attractive landing spot for those working in those metropolitan areas. Meanwhile, it has its own economy in a way, with those aforementioned restaurants and coffee shops, a supermarket, several service businesses, and some ventures that accentuate its rural personality while also making it a destination.

That list includes Silver Bell Farms, a multifaceted enterprise that features everything from Christmas-tree sales (although not this year as the farm builds up inventory for the future) to many different kinds of events, to a new lighting display called Silver Bell Nights.

“There’s still that sense of small-town feel and community here in Monson, and that’s very attractive to many people.”

Michael Moore, who runs the operation with his wife, Laura, said Silver Bell Nights is an intriguing addition to a portfolio of events and attractions that brings more than 50,000 people to the farm each year, with activities running year-round and especially in the fall and then around the holidays.

“This is something we’re really excited about — it’s a dazzling outdoor lighting display,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the lights were turned on amid considerable fanfare on Nov. 18, and the show will go on until the new year. “We’re looking forward to many new visitors discovering the farm and all that we have here.”

For this the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest visited Monson to get a feel for what sophisticated rural is all about.


The Nature of Things

Craig Sweitzer said that, during his long period of service on the Planning Board, the largest housing project to come before that body has been a subdivision of no more than 12 homes.

“Monson is quite hilly, and we have a lot of land that’s tricky to build on,” he said, adding that this topography helps explain why, unlike some of its neighbors, and especially Belchertown, it has not seen large-scale residential development.

What it has seen is slow but continuous growth, one or two homes at a time, on existing roads.

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition

Michael Moore says Silver Bell Nights is an exciting new addition to what has become a year-round destination.
Staff Photo

“Although there are no massive subdivisions, there’s always a steady flow of new lots being created from existing road frontage,” Sweitzer explained, adding that any growth has been incremental and not (like Belchertown) explosive.

What the new residents encounter, and what those already living there thoroughly enjoy, is a town that’s both isolated and accessible at the same time, one with a small yet thriving downtown, a lively arts community, some intriguing new businesses, and nature.

“There’s a lot here … it’s a quiet, vibrant town with its own personality,” said Pat Sweitzer as she walked with BusinessWest on Main Street. “There’s a lot to like here.”

All of this is captured in, and manifested in, a mural adorning the wall of Adams Hometown Market on Main Street. The byproduct of a project led by local artists Melissa Stratton-Pandina and Shara Osgood and unveiled in September, the mural is titled “Past, Present and Future.” It depicts town landmarks; some of its history, including its granite quarries and involvement in the Civil War; and rural nature — there’s an image of a mountain lion that has become part of town lore, said the Sweitzers, who believe they’ve seen the cat.

The mural, created with large amounts of feedback from the community, effectively tells the story of a town that celebrates its past — including the recent past and a still-ongoing recovery from the June 2011 tornado that roared through Main Street — as well as its present.

And there is much to celebrate, including a high quality of life; a stable, still-evolving downtown; a vibrant arts community thanks to the ongoing efforts of the Monson Arts Council; annual gatherings such as Summerfest and a popular food-truck festival; and what both Moriarty and the Sweitzers called an entrepreneurial spirit that has yielded a number of intriguing new business ventures in recent years.

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business

Dan Moriarty says the broad goal in Monson is to attract new business while maintaining the community’s rural look, feel, and personality.
Staff Photo

Overall, the business community is quite diverse, said Moriarty, and includes many ventures in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality. These include the restaurants and coffee shops downtown; small bakeries and specialty food producers, such as Cookies by Ray and Happy Hen Farmstand, which sells everything from eggs (hence the name) to a variety of baked goods; and agriculture-related businesses such as Echo Hill Orchards and Winery, Bryson’s Maple Syrup, and Silver Bell Farms, a relatively recent addition that continues to evolve.

Indeed, what started as a Christmas-tree farm roughly a decade ago has become a site for events and activities year-round, said Moore, listing everything from private events such as birthday parties to an Easter egg hunt, Christmas in July, a fall corn maze, barrel-train rides, tractor-pulled wagon rides, and even interactive theater productions.

There are plenty of holiday-season happenings and programs as well, including Santa story time, wreath decorating, and a farm store that sells everything from Christmas ornaments to cider donuts.

The big addition this year is Silver Bell Nights, the holiday light experience that features a number of different displays throughout the property.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,865
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.86
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.86
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Moore said the initiative represents a sizable investment, but one that will make Silver Bell more of a holiday destination — and tradition — for area residents, and a vehicle for continued growth at the farm.

Moriarity said Monson’s challenge moving forward — and it’s the same challenge facing many smaller towns — is to promote growth of the business community while maintaining the rural quality that makes it so attractive.

“Like most small towns, we try to be open-minded,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m very passionate and hopeful for continual pro-business decisions in town, where we can bring in some small-business opportunities for people, because I think that, for the town to be viable, we must be open to new business opportunities, while at the same protecting the open space and beautiful landscape the town has.”


Getting a Feel for It

Getting back to that mural, it tells a story — and it is quite a story.

A story of a community that is continually looking for ways to build on an already-attractive landscape and create more reasons for people to want to live and work there.

That’s the big picture in Monson — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Building Trades Special Coverage

It Runs Hot and Cold

Fifth-generation president Ted Noonan

Fifth-generation president Ted Noonan says the company continues to grow and diversify its products and services.


Going back nearly 135 years, Ted Noonan says, the company now known as Noonan Energy has been defined by ambition, innovation, entrepreneurship, diversification, and, perhaps most importantly, the willingness — and ability — to adapt to changing times.

And these qualities continue to describe Noonan today, he said, noting that the company started by his great-great-grandfather in 1890 as an ice-delivery venture continues to evolve and create new business opportunities.

Indeed, Noonan, which moved on from ice after the advent of refrigeration and morphed over more than a half-century into a leading provider of oil and HVAC services, has added two new divisions in recent years, electrical and plumbing services, that give it the ability to provide more services to existing and potential customers — and intriguing growth opportunities.

“We added these new divisions because there was so much synergy with our other services,” he explained. “We were constantly needing an outside plumber or an outside electrician to pull permits and do work, so we said, ‘since we’re hiring one all the time, why don’t we just bring one on and create a new division?’”

The plumbing division was added in 2011 with the hiring of master plumber Mark Gadourey, and the electrical unit was introduced in 2018 with the addition of master electrician Daniel Rollend, said Noonan, adding that both continue to grow, as do other aspects of the broad operation.

“We were constantly needing an outside plumber or an outside electrician to pull permits and do work, so we said, ‘since we’re hiring one all the time, why don’t we just bring one on and create a new division?’”

“We’ve had some nice growth in both of those divisions over the past five to 10 years, and on the service and installation side as well,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the company installs everything from oil tanks and oil burners to air-conditioning systems, heat pumps, and mini-splits, while also undertaking home-energy audits and creating comfort plans. “We have a whole host of … everything.”

As fifth-generation owner, Ted Noonan continues many traditions, if they can be called that, of the owners who came before him. Being entrepreneurial is one of them. Growing up in the business and learning all aspects of it first-hand is another — Noonan recalled riding with the delivery men in his youth and unwinding hose. And filling in, especially in a pinch, is yet another.

“I still drive today when we get really busy in the winter,” he said. “I enjoy it … I always say that it’s therapy for me; I get out of the office, I shut my phone off — or try to — and make deliveries. I’ve pretty much done every territory we handle, so if we get a couple of call-outs in the winter, I’ll step in.”

Mostly, though, he is involved in short-term and long-term planning, creating additional opportunities, and exploring new avenues for growth and expansion. He noted that a trend toward consolidation within the industry, one that has fueled the dramatic growth of this company over the past 50 years, continues, especially as the Baby Boomer owners of smaller oil-delivery and HVAC service companies move into retirement.

Ted Noonan (right) and his father, Ed

Ted Noonan (right) and his father, Ed, have continued traditions of innovation laid down by T.F. Noonan back in 1890.

“We’re still looking at acquisition opportunities and expansion opportunities, while also keeping an eye on what might create great synergy from a diversification standpoint,” he noted, adding that, at present, the company is focused on “shoring up” those new divisions and growing those aspects of the business.

For this issue and its focus on the building trades, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Noonan Energy, exploring its rich history, the continuing of a tradition of entrepreneurship, and the question of what might come next.


Freeze Frame

Flashing back more than a century to company lore that he is well-versed in and relates often, Noonan marveled at how the venture known as T.F. Ice Dealer (named for his great-great-grandfather, Timothy F. Noonan) cut huge blocks of ice from Lake Massasoit (Watershops Pond) in Springfield and, using sawdust as an insulator, kept it relatively cold all through the year for delivery to customers in the Greater Springfield area.

And he continues to be awed by the insulating properties of sawdust.

“We’re still looking at acquisition opportunities and expansion opportunities, while also keeping an eye on what might create great synergy from a diversification standpoint.”

“We have a small barn at our house, and we have sawdust for the horses,” he noted. “You’ll go two months after cold weather, and if we’re digging in the sawdust, we find snowballs. And that always brings me back to how this company started.”

While some things haven’t changed — like sawdust’s ability to keep ice cold — the Noonan company certainly has. Its history is told through a huge photo display in the lobby of the company’s offices on Robbins Road, in the shadow of a 2-million-gallon oil tank. That lobby is also home to an oil-delivery truck circa the 1930s — it was rescued several years ago, refurbished, and painted with the Noonan colors (green and white) to resemble trucks the company had on the road 80 or so years ago.

Providing a quick history lesson, Noonan said the company, while it has remained in the same family, has changed names a few times and added new products and services on a consistent basis.

The first name change came in 1911, when T.F. decided to put ‘Massosoit Lake Ice Company’ over the door and on the side of the horse-drawn wagons. He would sell the company to his son, Edward J. Noonan, in 1923. The entrepreneurial second-generation owner would add kerosene and home heating oil to the products delivered by the company, additions that would prompt a name change to Massasoit Lake Ice and Fuel Co.

Second-generation owner Edward J. Noonan inaugurated the company name Massasoit Lake Ice and Fuel Co.

Second-generation owner Edward J. Noonan inaugurated the company name Massasoit Lake Ice and Fuel Co.

By 1939, with refrigeration chipping away at the ice business, Ed Noonan diversified by opening a gasoline station at the corner of King Street and Eastern Avenue in Springfield, one that also sold paint and wallpaper, which many of those facilities did at that time.

In 1958, Ed Noonan sold the business to two of his sons, Timothy and William, who ran a company that would take the name Noonan Oil Co. Inc., a venture that would slug its way through the oil embargo in 1973 and manage to expand sales and develop new markets. Timothy would become sole owner in 1981.

“We see a bright future … it’s going to be different, certainly, than it was five, 10, or 50 years ago, but everyone is always going to need warming and cooling, and we’ll be there to provide it.”

His son, Ed, would launch his own career in the business by acquiring Palmer Coal and Oil in 1973, while his father continued to grow Noonan Oil. (The two companies were in friendly competition for several years.) Ed Noonan doubled the size of his company with the acquisition of Leonard Oil Co. of Monson in 1978 and continued to grow with other acquisitions, including Dulude Oil Inc., Palmer Oil Co., City Oil in Springfield, Marquis-Rivers in Holyoke, and Tinco Fuel in Ludlow.

He would eventually put all those brands under one name, Noonan Energy, in 1985, and in 1985, Noonan Oil Co., still owned by Ed’s father, Tim, would become part of Noonan Energy as well. In the ensuing years, many other smaller oil-delivery and service ventures would be acquired, including Better Heat Inc., Bolduc Fuel, Royal Heating, National Heating, Canary Oil, Hampshire Oil, Hillside Oil, Davis Fuel Co., Hadley Fuel Co. … the list goes on.

Ted Noonan, Ed’s son, joined the company in 1998, became its president in 2009, and was named a member of BusinessWest’s Forty Under 40 class of 2017.


Hot Takes

During his tenure, one during which Tim has remained active with the business, Ted Noonan has continued his father’s tradition of aggressive acquisition of smaller fuel-oil and service businesses.

In 2011, the company acquired the assets of Whiteley Fuel Oil Co. in Chatham; in 2011, it purchased Ray Kelley & Son of Palmer; in 2013, it acquired East Springfield Oil Co; and, most recently, it added Borsari Oil of West Springfield, Chudy Oil in Three Rivers, and Westfield Fuel to the fold.

All these acquisitions give the company something very much needed in this day and age — size, said Noonan, adding that they also give it a presence in several different markets across the region.

Indeed, the Noonan footprint, or service and delivery area, now stretches to the edge of the Berkshires to the west, several of the border communities of Connecticut to the south (penetrating further into the state is difficult, Ted said), into Franklin County to the north, and into Worcester County to the east. With that acquisition of Whiteley Fuel Oil, it also serves a dozen communities on Cape Cod. Locations in the 413 are in Springfield, Westfield, Amherst, and Palmer.

Noonan Energy is known for heating and HVAC services

Noonan Energy is known for heating and HVAC services, but has become a player in electrical and plumbing work as well.

Beyond these acquisitions and the accompanying territorial expansion, the company has achieved additional growth though expansion of its product and service portfolio, said Noonan, adding that, in addition to the new plumbing and electrical divisions, the company also added a home-energy audit division under the leadership of his sister, Kara Noonan, in 2012.

He said these new divisions, and especially the plumbing and electrical units, were natural additions that came about as need became evident, especially as plumbers and electricians retire in large numbers, and as customers looking for those services continued to ask people from Noonan — who were delivering oil, servicing a boiler, or installing central air conditioning — if they knew a good plumber or electrician.

After years of offering referrals if it could, the company made the entrepreneurial decision to change its answer to those questions to ‘yes … that’s us; we can handle that.’

“It’s similar work to what we do, and it’s a niche we can fill,” Ted Noonan said, adding that the ability to give that answer puts the company in a position to offer a portfolio of services that few, if any, of its many competitors can match. Noonan said many still just deliver oil, while others will also handle installation and service of HVAC systems. Meanwhile, some handle plumbing and HVAC, but not electrical or oil delivery. But very few cover all those bases.

The new divisions enable the company to further diversify and better position it for a future where there will certainly be less dependency on fossil fuels, said Noonan, adding that the company is already making strides in that direction through steps such as the blending of biodiesel and traditional heating oil to create bioheat, continually increasing the blend so it is less carbon-intense.

“We see a bright future … it’s going to be different, certainly, than it was five, 10, or 50 years ago, but everyone is always going to need warming and cooling, and we’ll be there to provide it,” he said, adding that the ability to change with the times — and sometimes see around the corner and anticipate what’s coming next — has kept Noonan viable since Benjamin Harrison was patrolling the White House.

And these qualities will continue to serve it well into the future.


Architecture Special Coverage

Something to Build On

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Vice President Vinny Magnano (left) and President Jeff Noble.

Western Mass. is home to dozens of architecture firms. And engineering firms. And land-surveying companies.

Not too many can say they’re all three.

But over its 75 years in business — it celebrates that milestone early in 2024 — Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners Inc. has evolved into a entity that can manage all those aspects of a project. And President Jeff Noble says that broad expertise sets Hill apart in its field — or, more accurately, fields. It’s also a strong buffer against shifting economic tides.

“We’re organized in three departments — architecture, engineering, and civil surveying — and it’s seldom that you get all three of those going gangbusters all at once,” Noble explained. “Sometimes we’re very fortunate, but other times, one might wane a little bit, while the other two are going well. That diversity of services has carried us along, so we’re able to sustain the level of employment and the types of services we offer. That’s been a big benefit.”

The company’s roughly 40 employees reflect that range: architects; structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers; civil engineers, land surveyors, and survey technicians; and project managers, designers, and drafters in all three niches.

For instance, “we did a brand-new facility for Standard Uniform Services. We started with the permitting, the site development, the architecture, the engineering, and designed that whole facility for them,” Noble explained, adding that it contracted with Forish Construction on the build. “That range of services has allowed us to provide all that, though it’s not always necessary that you need all those services together.”

“A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners was established by William T. Hill in 1949 to provide mechanical-engineering design services to the robust paper industry of the Berkshires. It has called Dalton, a small town just east of Pittsfield, its home since its opening.

“Mr. Hill was a paper-mill engineer for Crane & Co. here in town, and he evolved from there,” Noble said of the company’s founding. “He grew little by little and did structural engineering, electrical, and mechanical engineering, strictly for the pulp and paper business.”

Vice President Vin Magnano came on board in 1975, and the company’s work and client base started to expand beyond paper into a wide range of commercial and industrial clients — still primarily engineering, but moving gradually into some design work.

“Then it just started to evolve organically to include more architectural work,” Noble added. “And we had engineering here to offer as backup for an architectural project, so it made a lot of sense.”

This Berkshire Family YMCA project

This Berkshire Family YMCA project includes a pool, court, elevated track, and fitness room.

Magnano recalled that “when I came here — I was just a kid, in my 20s — the only architecture we did was to put up a building that covered the machinery; that’s all they cared about. But we started changing after I was here a few years.”

In 1980, a group of five employees purchased the fixed assets of the founder and changed the company’s name to Hill Engineering Inc., and the company began to expand its footprint further in the fields of architecture, engineering, and surveying. In 1986, the company’s leadership contacted Noble, who had worked there before, to head up the growing architectural group. He was intrigued by Hill’s new model.

“I said, ‘yeah, that sounds like a good opportunity,’ and it turned out it was,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, as an architect, “I always appreciated having engineering in-house. A lot of architectural firms are just architectural firms, and they have to go to get an engineer for structural, mechanical, electrical, civil … that’s not part of their company. In Western Mass., very few of those have combined engineering and architecture — and certainly not land surveying besides.”

The company name was changed again in 1987 to Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners, Inc. to better reflect these expanded areas of service.

“We still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”

“We just started growing the architectural side of the business, doing more commercial work and some residential, institutional, recreational … lots of different types of projects that weren’t industrial. We added staff, and the company has grown over the years.”


Industrial Evolution

Over the decades, Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has performed work for dozens of the most recognizable names in Western Mass., including General Dynamics, General Electric, Berkshire Health Systems, Union Carbide, Solutia, Kanzaki, and Smith & Wesson, as well as numerous colleges and universities; several Berkshire County municipalities; recreational, religious, and commercial entities; cultural institutions like Berkshire Museum, MASS MoCA, the Clark, and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center; and land subdivisions throughout the region.

“When the architecture started to evolve from the paper mills, it was still industrial-based, no commercial; we hardly ever did banks or colleges or any of that,” Magnano said. “It was really driven in the industrial.”

Today, the firm boasts many long-time clients in all those sectors above, some for 40 years or more, he added.

Its acquisition of West Stockbridge Enterprises became an opportunity to get into the land-surveying and civil-engineering aspect, Noble added. “It, again, broadened our range of services that we can provide to our clients, whether it was strictly a subdivision survey or supported an architectural project. Clients say, ‘hey, I want to build something,’ and they’ve got to go through all the permitting aspects, site design, maybe find a site, do site analysis. All that started to become services we could provide for our clients.”

Meanwhile, in the engineering group, Magnano said, “we still do pretty much every discipline except fire protection; we partner with a company in Albany for all our fire-protection work.”

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt.

The Weidmann Electrical Technology facility in St. Johnsbury, Vt. is among the firm’s largest projects.

The firm’s radius of work is typically about 50 miles, though it has done major projects outside that, including a major expansion of Weidmann Electrical Technology’s paper mill in St. Johnsbury, Vt., one of that region’s largest employers, a little over a decade ago — about 35 years after Hill first worked on a project for Weidmann.

“They were losing their edge in the market, in the industry; Germany and other places were building new, high-tech stuff. So they spent $40 million doing a new addition on the old addition. We did everything, right from the site work,” Magnano said. “That was probably one of the most unique jobs we’ve done, and we were literally in there from day one — about four years. That was a big one.”

Over the decades, Hill has seen a number of changes, from technology to the way projects are bid. For one thing, there are fewer long-term, local relationships with clients because of consolidation, with clients being purchased by larger entities all the time. “So your companies that used to be local are now owned by a company that’s out of Springfield, Illinois or something,” Noble said. “You don’t have the same relationship, unfortunately.”

Meanwhile, codes and regulations have become more challenging, and an emphasis on energy efficiency and sustainability has impacted how projects are designed, he added. “But we still do an awful lot just like we always have: we listen to our clients and respond to their needs. They come to us with a problem to solve, and we solve the problem, and move on to the next one.”


Welcome Mat

One negative trend that has impacted businesses of all kinds has been recruiting and retaining talent, and Noble said Hill has been able to maintain a steady staff, but it’s not always easy, especially with engineers.

“You don’t see people applying. It used to be people would come in, knock on the door, send a résumé pretty routinely. Now we can’t even solicit them. We go out and try to get them, and no responses,” he told BusinessWest, adding that Hill’s headquarters in the Berkshires can be a problem for some. “Our location just doesn’t seem to have the attraction for younger people. They’d rather go to the cities where there’s potential for maybe more glamorous or high-profile types of work.

“Students are still enlisting in engineering and architecture schools, but they don’t tend to come back here,” he added. “They go to UMass or Boston for college, but then they won’t come back to the Berkshires to work. That’s what we see as the issue.”

Still, the firm has managed to attract employees from the Pioneer Valley and the Albany, N.Y. areas, and it has also maintained relationships with trade schools to bring young people in for co-op experiences, some of which have resulted in hires over the years.

“You don’t have to necessarily get a master’s in such-and-such; you know you can come out of trade school and go to work as a computer operator here, and we’ll put you to work,” Noble explained. “You can learn on the fly, but under the tutelage of professional engineers.”

Magnano added that “we’ve been fortunate enough to get some individuals whose roots are in Dalton, or close by, and wanted to come back to Dalton. Over the last five to 10 years, we’ve really brought in another whole generation that hopefully will keep it going.”

NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield

Here, the envelope and siding go up on the NUPRO plastic-fabrication factory in South Deerfield.

Hill-Engineers, Architects, Planners has been community-minded in other ways as well, Noble said, by supporting local nonprofits, social organizations, churches, and other causes in a number of ways.

“The [Dalton] Community Recreation Association is one, whether we do our work at a reduced fee or we support them through ads in their programs, or we sponsor a basketball team or baseball team.”

The firm also supports the Pittsfield YMCA, for which it just completed a major $12 million renovation, including a pool, court, elevated track, fitness facilities, and more. Often, Hill is able to provide services to nonprofit clients at a lower cost, or in an in-kind way, he said. “It works both ways. We get good experience out of it, and the client gets the service at a more affordable level.”

The firm’s leadership and employees also sit on boards and are encouraged to volunteer in the community, Noble added.


Shovels Out

As part of its 75th-anniversary year, the team at Hill is planning to bury a time capsule that includes, among other artifacts, some tools of the trade in 2023, and then unearth it 25 years from now, at the company’s centennial, to see how much their industry — sorry, industries — have changed.

Things have certainly changed plenty since 1949.

“I think we’re just very proud of having carried on Mr. Hill’s legacy here for 75 years,” Noble said. “I think he’d be really happy to see where we’re at. And who knows? Maybe we’ll keep it going for another 75.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 188: November 20, 2023

Joe Bednar Interviews the owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, Ashley Kohl

It’s no wonder Ashley Kohl has adopted a philosophy of author Gabby Bernstein: “obstacles are detours in the right direction.” Because Ashley, the owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, has encountered more than her fair share of obstacles. But by turning them into triumph, she’s created a growing space for people of all ages and abilities to discover dance — and themselves — in a safe, uplifting environment. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Ashley talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about her career journey, the importance of creating positive experiences through dance, and where Ohana is headed next. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 187: November 13, 2023

Joe Interviews Tech Foundry CEO Tricia Canavan

Since its launch almost a decade ago, Tech Foundry has trained hundreds of students and partnered with scores of employers across Western Mass. to get people trained for good IT careers and help businesses grow with local talent. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Tech Foundry CEO Tricia Canavan talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about how the organization continues to play a key role in the region’s high-tech ecosystem — and how its new partnership with Holyoke Community College, called Tech Hub, promises to help even more people navigate the digital world and improve their job prospects. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Law Special Coverage

Getting Their Message Across

Seth Stratton wasn’t belittling what he does. He was just stating what most would consider the obvious — “business law isn’t what you would call sexy.”


Indeed, when the state Supreme Judicial Court overturns a $3.5 million settlement awarded to a couple living next to a golf course after 651 stray golf balls hit their property, frightening their young child and forcing them to confine themselves indoors for fear of injury — which it did almost a year ago — that’s business law that tumbles into the ‘sexy’ category. (The case became front-page news in the Boston Globe and other large daily publications.)

Understanding this, and also understanding that his firm, East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Law, P.C., has a few golf courses in its portfolio of business clients and would like to add more, Stratton posted this item on LinkedIn:

“Interesting SJC decision worth noting in the context of golf course neighboring residential developments. In essence, the SJC overturned a $3.5 million verdict in favor of the neighboring homeowners on the basis that the jury needed to consider the reasonableness standard in connection with an easement for the ‘reasonable and efficient’ operation of a golf course. Always a good sign when courts emphasize reasonableness in trial decisions.”

He then attached a link to a Mass Lawyers Weekly article on the case.

While the post falls into the category of education, it can also be considered marketing and building brand awareness, said Stratton, adding that the item speaks to how the marketing and advertising of legal services, something first permitted 46 years ago, has certainly changed over that time, even over the past 10 years or so, and certainly since the days when the yellow pages, and especially the back page of the phone book, were at the top of the list of options for many firms and sole practitioners.

“We’re not trained for this; they didn’t teach it when I was in law school. In fact, it was the opposite — they were teaching you how to be thoughtful about what you do, while marketing is sort of shouting from the rooftops, ‘we’re greater than sliced bread.’ And they still don’t teach it now.”

“That post took me five minutes to prepare and share,” he told BusinessWest. “Twenty years ago, firms would spend hours on a client alert, color, printing, and mass mailing.”

With that, he explained how a LinkedIn post can reach a large audience quickly, efficiently, and at minimum expense, and how social media has become a larger force in an equation that has many components — and questions to be answered.

Indeed, there are many aspects to be considered with marketing, said Tim Mulhern, a partner with the Springfield-based firm Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, noting, as others we spoke with did, that marketing isn’t something law students typically study.

Amy Royal

Amy Royal says the importance of law marketing continues to grow, as does the number of options for law firms to consider.

“We’re not trained for this; they didn’t teach it when I was in law school. In fact, it was the opposite — they were teaching you how to be thoughtful about what you do, while marketing is sort of shouting from the rooftops, ‘we’re greater than sliced bread,’” he said. “And they still don’t teach it now.”

So lawyers and firms have had to learn as they go, he said, adding that there is much to learn as the methods for getting a message across have evolved. Meanwhile, firms have to decide if they want to do it themselves — many have marketing committees comprised of lawyers — or hire a marketing director or an outside PR firm, an expensive step (one that didn’t have to be taken years ago), which many of them have taken.

And the job descriptions for these marketing directors have certainly changed as the times have.

“When I began my career in legal marketing in 1995, law firms were just starting to introduce websites as a tool to differentiate themselves from the competition,” said Jennifer Jacque, head of Marketing and Business Development for Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. “Responsibilities of marketing professionals in law firms were limited to tasks such as writing bios and planning events. Since then, law firms have expanded their core portfolio of marketing services to include branding, public relations, advertising, social media, digital marketing, market research, communications, accolades and awards submissions, and more.”

Meanwhile, the importance of marketing and building brand awareness has grown steadily, said Raipher Pellegrino, managing partner of Springfield-based Raipher, P.C., which specializes in personal injury, medical malpractice, and related fields. He cited several reasons why.

Competition is one of them, he said, noting that firms in this market now compete against regional and national giants that open small offices in markets like this one — and they have for some time now. More recently, there is increased competition from firms from Boston and other large markets who can take advantage of shifts brought on from COVID — especially Zoom calls with clients and Zoom court hearings instead of the in-person variety of both — to take cases in this market that previously would have been prohibitive.

These same shifts bring down the cost of client representation, Pellegrino went on, making it possible for a potential client to hire a firm in a larger market that might previously have been out of their price range (more on this later).

All of this points to the importance of marketing and business development and the need for firms to stay on the cutting edge, said those we spoke with — whatever that might be.


Case in Point

As he talked about marketing and the many changes that have come to the profession and the legal landscape, if you will, in Western Mass., Mulhern noted that, among other things, the names of many of the firms are shorter — in some cases, much shorter.

“Years ago, if you added a new partner, you added their name to the firm,” he said, noting that some firms had six, eight, or even more names on the letterhead and sign over the door.

Shorter names are, for the most part, a function of marketing and branding, he said, adding that there are myriad other parts of this equation, from a strong web presence to involvement in the community, such as with his firm’s charitable foundation.

Indeed, as Jacque noted, marketing and business development covers areas ranging from PR to submitting nominations for the many ‘best of’ awards that lawyers can put on their résumés, the press releases for which start flooding the inboxes of media outlets each fall, when the announcements are made.

The world of law marketing changed dramatically in June 1977, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, essentially striking down prohibitions against advertising by attorneys.

Tim Mulhern

Tim Mulhern says that, while law marketing has certainly evolved, word-of-mouth referrals are still effective.

Until then, marketing was a function of signage on a building or office door, networking — everything from joining the Rotary Club to being active with the local chamber of commerce — and word-of-mouth referrals, all of which, and especially the last two, are still very important pieces of the puzzle and perhaps the most important, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, Stratton said he and other lawyers at Fitzgerald are very visible, attending a number of business functions (the recent Developers Conference in Springfield is a good example) and fundraisers for area nonprofits. Meanwhile, word of mouth has long been perhaps the most effective way to build a book of business.

“Word of mouth has always been important,” said Mulhern, who specializes in business organizations, estate planning, and real estate. “My favorite way to get a new client is to have another lawyer say, ‘Tim knows how to do this stuff.’”

But while advertising was frowned upon by many in the business for years after the 1977 ruling, the many aspects of marketing and brand building have become more accepted and increasingly important over the years, for those reasons mentioned earlier. The questions have always concerned how to market.

And the answer usually depends on what type of law one specializes in and what audiences they are trying to reach.

“Marketing of law firms comes down to messaging — and then targeting who you want to be receiving this message,” said Jacque, noting that the work of targeting takes many forms and involves different mediums.

Amy Royal, founding partner of the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm, agreed, noting that her firm, which represents and counsels businesses on all aspects of labor and employment law, focuses on that specific audience.

That’s why she never took out ads in the yellow pages — she was solicited annually but always said no — and instead focused on business publications like this one.

“We’ve also expanded over the years into the digital space — and while we don’t do advertising, we do brand awareness on social media,” she said, adding that some firms have gone to platforms ranging from Facebook to Instagram and even TikTok to get their message out with videos, articles, links to reports on recent rulings, and more. Doing so enables them to reach large audiences inexpensively.

“Now, in order to be competitive, you have to advertise in some form. But you have to figure out what works for you.”

Meanwhile, the firm’s web page has become a valuable asset, especially since the start of the pandemic, for introducing people to the firm and its lawyers, and also disseminating information through a blog, articles, and links to articles, such as the ones Royal’s attorneys write regularly for BusinessWest.


Weighing the Facts

Overall, Royal said law firms often need to use several vehicles, including traditional forms of media, depending, again, on the audience they want to reach and the messages they want to send.

Pellegrino, who uses billboards, television, print, and other mediums, agreed, but added that, for many lawyers, especially those who specialize in different areas, targeting specific audiences can be more challenging.

“Now, in order to be competitive, you have to advertise in some form,” he told BusinessWest. “But you have to figure out what works for you; it’s a very difficult business to advertise in. If you were selling engagement rings, you’d target the 19- to 30-year-old audience. But who gets in accidents? What type of clientele are you targeting? Personal injury is a very difficult business to advertise.”

Meanwhile, measuring return on investment from whatever forms of marketing are used is more difficult with legal services than other products or services, Pellegrino went on.

“There’s no guarantee of what you’re going to get in return,” he said, adding that, while it’s like this for all industries, it’s especially true with the law and especially personal-injury law, where the goal is to get the higher-end cases with bigger returns.

Despite these challenges, he said marketing is ever-more important because the level of competition continues to increase, with regional and national firms specializing in personal injury moving into this market — and making their presence known.

And the advent of virtual hearings and client meetings enables firms in other markets to woo clients in the 413.

“Before, the Boston lawyers didn’t want to take cases in Western Mass.,” he said. “But now they do because they can do a lot of the hearings by Zoom, so they don’t have to drive out here; it’s more cost-effective, and it’s really good for the consumer. And it means that it’s more important to advertise.”

Stratton agreed, noting that, overall, success in this industry is about forging relationships and continually strengthening those relationships. This is accomplished by staying visible and front of mind — in every way imaginable, be it by attending functions, being active in the community, writing articles to be published in BusinessWest, or, yes, sending links to articles on developments and cases like the one involving that couple living just off the golf course.

Doing so helps show that, while business law isn’t sexy — usually — it’s important, especially to those in business.

Legal advertising usually isn’t sexy, either, but it’s equally important, and while the landscape has changed dramatically since June 1977, and even over the past five years, the basic mission remains the same — to build a brand and put one’s best foot forward.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Signs of Progress

Country Bank’s display at Polar Park in Worcester has given many businesses what Paul Scully calls “sign envy.”

Paul Scully didn’t want to say how much Country Bank has invested in that 60-foot-long sign that sits atop what is known as the Worcester Wall at Polar Park (that facility’s version of Fenway’s Green Monster), easily the most visible manifestation of the bank’s partnership with the WooSox.

Instead, he offered a gracious “you can ask…”

But he certainly did want to say that he considers the overall investment in this sponsorship, and especially that sign, well worth it.

Indeed, it is certainly an attention getter, at all times but especially at night — it’s one of the few illuminated signs at the home of the WooSox and the second-largest after the one for the beverage company that bought naming rights.

Scully told BusinessWest that he has talked with a number of business owners in Worcester, Springfield, and in between who are suffering from what he called “sign envy.” Meanwhile, upon introducing himself at various occasions, he said he’s been greeted with the response “that’s the bank with the big sign at Polar Park.”

So the display is doing what is was designed to do, although fully leveraging it and other aspects of the partnership with the WooSox is an ongoing learning experience in a different kind of branding exercise (more on that later). And it’s merely one of many signs of progress, growth, and expansion — figuratively but also quite literally — at the Ware-based institution.

Another would be the bank’s business center on the 17th floor of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, opened in 2022. There’s only a small sign at the office, but the facility gives the bank a much larger presence at this end of Hampden County. Meanwhile, Country is adding some new products, including a WooSox debit card, and it recently completed a comprehensive digital upgrade on both its consumer and business banking platforms.

Still another sign, this one not of the visible variety, is the bank’s resiliency during what has been a challenging year for all financial institutions amid skyrocketing interest rates and a sagging housing market, due in large part to those soaring interest rates, but other factors as well.

Overall, Scully said Country Bank remains in a growth mode and, like other institutions, understands the value of size to continued success. The bank is looking at where to bring its brand next, he said, adding that there are many opportunities within its current footprint between Springfield and Worcester and perhaps beyond.

And there are, obviously, many factors to consider when it comes to where to go, when, and in what fashion.

Indeed, the 3,000-square-foot branch with a few drive-up lanes is largely a thing of the past, he said, adding quickly that while customers, and especially the younger generations, have fewer reasons than ever to visit a branch, they still serve a purpose. Actually, several of them.

“What we continue to look at are smaller footprints that will provide several things; getting your name on a building or a storefront is a form of marketing and the ability to get our name and our brand out there,” he said, adding that the bank’s broad strategy will be to maximize both brick-and-mortar facilities and digital banking platforms — often at the same address.

The team at Country Bank’s business office

The team at Country Bank’s business office at Tower Square in Springfield, another sign of the bank’s continued growth and expansion.

As to what additional addresses might become reality in the future, he said that’s one of many questions to be answered in the years to come.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest engaged in a wide-ranging discussion with Scully, who addressed everything from broad strokes in the bank’s business plan to the outlook for the year ahead when it comes to the economy, interest rates, and other factors; from the bank’s adjustments to a changing workforce to that big green sign in downtown Worcester.


Home Field Advantage

Like the famous Citgo sign outside Fenway, the Country Bank sign at Polar Park is always on, Scully said, adding that he can see it outside the apartment he has in the city.

“They do great things at the park and with the city to keep it going year-round,” he explained, noting that the bank’s visibility certainly doesn’t end when the games stop in September. “Whether it’s a Holy Cross football game or the charity walks that are constantly going on … every time the park is being used, or whether you’re in the DCU Club, a beautiful function venue at the park, that Country Bank sign is right in your face.”

And having his bank’s name in lights — big lights — is just one component of the bank’s partnership with the Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate, Scully said, noting that it will soon be introducing a WooSox debit card — ‘the official debit card of the Worcester Red Sox.’ Meanwhile, the organizations collaborate on a ‘teacher of the month’ program, a ‘community heroes’ initiative, and other endeavors, he noted, adding that the investment in the team and its ballpark continues to pay dividends.

And the key to a successful partnership in such cases is effective leveraging of the signage and other elements of the collaboration, he said, adding that, in many respects, this remains a learning experience for the bank. And he used the DCU Center, the indoor arena in Worcester, to get his point across.

“I was with someone a few years ago, and I said something about DCU, noting that this was Digital Credit Union,” he recalled. “And she looked at me and said, ‘that’s what that stands for?’ So you need to make sure that, if you’re going to do something like this, you have to figure out what it’s going to get you.

“And you have to really work at leveraging it,” he went on. “Whenever you take a new approach to how you market your brand, you have to do the research, and you have to know when to shift gears. Clearly, it’s not just about turning on a sign; it’s about how you leverage that to be an expansion and an awareness of your brand.”

He said the bank’s marketing team spends a lot of time with the marketing personnel at the WooSox to develop strategies for how to fully leverage the partnership between the organizations.

Elaborating, he said the bank does this in various ways — through visibility from the sign, obviously, but also with the debit card, ticket giveaways, work with the WooSox Foundation, and being on the field for promotional events, such as the police-fire charity baseball game staged at the park in September.

“We were there, and we were a big sponsor of that event,” he went on, “and that allows you to reach out into various mediums of people and get your brand out there, so they get to understand what the brand is and what it stands for.”


Covering His Bases

Overall, the brand stands for many things, Scully said, noting that Country is a community bank that is large enough to provide the services required by its commercial clients and consumers, but small enough to deliver a personalized brand of service, qualities that have served the bank well during what has been a year of challenge for most all financial-services institutions.

Indeed, Country has enjoyed what Scully called a “decent year,” not on par with those that immediately preceded the pandemic, but solid from an earnings perspective and in most areas, including the mortgage side of the ledger and home-equity loans.

“We’re one of the most highly capitalized banks in the Commonwealth — our capital ratio is over 15%, and we’re quite profitable,” he said, adding that such stability bodes well at a time when not all banks can make such claims.

As for the mortgage business, Scully said it was definitely more vibrant than he would have expected over the past year, adding quickly that there are challenges within certain sectors of the market, especially the first-time homebuyers.

“They got the double whammy — the pricing of housing went up, and now interest rates have gone up,” he said. “There’s that segment of the population that’s looking to buy a home, but they can’t find it within their price range because their price range has been altered by the increase in interest rates.

“But we’re seeing people who have sold a home and are buying another one and trading up who don’t seem fazed by interest rates,” he went on. “Part of it is because a large percentage of the mortgages we are doing are adjustable-rate; they’re at a lower rate than a fixed rate, and I think the thought process is, ‘I’ll get an adjustable, and then, when rates come down, whether that’s in 12, 24, or 36 months, I’ll just refinance.’”

Overall, consumers continue to spend, despite the higher interest rates and historically high inflation.

“We see a younger segment seemingly unfazed by interest rates,” he told BusinessWest. “If the debit card works … they have a good time for themselves; that’s what’s happening.”

Things are slower, overall, on the commercial side of the ledger, Scully noted, adding that many business owners are fazed by higher interest rates. Meanwhile, with commercial real estate, many potential investors are waiting and seeing what’s happening with the office market, he said, adding that that the shift to remote work and hybrid schedules, seemingly permanent in the eyes of many, have brought a hesitancy to many investors.

Country Bank is one of those companies that has embraced a hybrid approach — and Scully is one of those who works remotely at least a few days a week on average.

He said these strategies have better enabled the bank to recruit and retain talent and, overall, become what he called “an employer of choice.”

“It’s really understanding evolution — an evolution of the workplace and an evolution of the economy,” he said, “and being able to adapt to it.”


Knowing the Score

Scully was quick to note that his office is not equipped with a crystal ball, but he said there are many signs, especially on the employment side, that the economy is still chugging along. Companies are hiring, he noted, and this trend generally yields sufficient levels of optimism among consumers.

And with interest rates, he projects they will stay pretty much where they are — a level that is considerably higher than what has been seen over the past decade, but, from a historical perspective, acceptable in most respects.

“We need some stabilization to get a sense of what real is these days,” he said. “The rates were so low for so long, but were those rates real? That’s the big question. If we step back 10 or 15 years ago, if you were getting a mortgage at 6%, that was pretty darn good.”

The other lingering question about 2024 concerns what will happen on the business and commercial real-estate sides of the ledger, he said, noting that there is a great deal of uncertainly when it comes to the future of retail — and the office.

“We’re hybrid, and we have a lot of office space,” he said. “We don’t have plans to condense it, but I’m sure there are companies that are looking at that. What will that do to the prices of things? That’s what we’ll start to see in 2024.”

As he talked about possible opportunities for expansion and bringing the Country Bank name (and green sign) to different communities, Scully acknowledged that the bank already has a rather large footprint, one that includes the state’s second- and third-largest cities and the territory between them.

There is the banking center in downtown Springfield and full-service branches in Belchertown, Brimfield, Charlton, Leicester, Ludlow, Palmer, Paxton, Ware, West Brookfield, Wilbraham, and two in Worcester, including a recently opened facility in Tatnuck Square. That footprint covers three counties — Hampden, Hampshire, and Worcester — and communities large and small.

The bank has been steadily growing its presence in Worcester, he went on, adding that it has always had a strong commercial-lending book of business, and has gradually increased its visibility and its overall presence with branch locations.

“We’re looking for opportunities throughout the Central Mass. and Western Mass. area,” he said, acknowledging that this certainly covers a considerable amount of real estate.

With the exception of that business office in Tower Square, the bank does not have a physical location west of Ludlow, he noted, adding that Country is certainly looking at opportunities to change that equation.

But the opportunity has to be right, he added quickly, noting that the bank isn’t interested in expansion for expansion’s sake.

“We continue to look at both markets, Worcester and Springfield, and say, ‘what opportunities are there in towns that are not already overbanked?’” he said. “We don’t want to be the 10th bank in the town.”

Getting back to those businesses he mentioned with ‘sign envy,’ Scully said they’re going to have to live with that condition for the foreseeable future.

“That’s their problem because we’re going to be there for a long time,” he said, using that phrase to refer to the sign, but also the bank’s presence across an ever-wider stretch of the state. This is an institution that is hitting it out of the park — in all kinds of ways.

Holiday Party Planner Special Coverage

It’s Become a Venue of Choice

Suzy Fortgang

Suzy Fortgang in the Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm.


Suzy Fortgang says it took four full years to acquire the horse barn on the grounds of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy in South Hadley, disassemble it, and put it back together at what is now known as Valley View Farm in Haydenville.

“We were looking for a barn, we found it, and we took it down piece by piece,” she recalled. “It was a laborious process; every piece, some of them 40 feet long, was tagged, taken apart like a LEGO, and moved … luckily, we had drawn a good diagram so we could put it back together.”

And when asked about the price tag for doing all that, she said simply, “I don’t want to think about it; I never wanted to add it up.”

But she thinks often about how that cost, and all that hard work, were certainly well worth it.

Indeed, what’s known as the ‘Yellow Barn,’ built by the son of silk magnate William Skinner for his daughter, has become the centerpiece, — figuratively, but also quite literally — of a multi-faceted operation at the farm, shaped over the past several years by Fortgang and her husband, David Nehring, and especially its thriving weddings and events business.

“It was a laborious process; every piece, some of them 40 feet long, was tagged, taken apart like a LEGO, and moved … luckily, we had drawn a good diagram so we could put it back together.”

Fortgang, a psychotherapist by trade, said the venue hosts roughly 80 weddings a year, in addition to a variety of other events, from fundraisers for nonprofits to retirement and birthday parties to a few holiday gatherings, with the obvious goal of doing more of all of the above.

The site has become an increasingly popular venue for weddings, drawing couples from an ever-wider geographic circle, but especially from across New England, New York State, and, increasingly, New York City.

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest, Fortgang recapped a wedding the previous weekend involving a couple from Brooklyn, with most family and friends coming from in or around Gotham.

“They don’t get to experience this much — being outdoors and being in nature and eating local food,” she said, referring to the broad experience that Valley View provides. “It’s a gift that you can give to your guests.”

Valley View

Valley View is a working farm, but also a true destination and venue for many different kinds of events.
Photo by Aleksandr Verbetsky

Indeed, those hosting these events — and those who attend them — are treated to a site that blends scenic beauty with some history, especially in the form of that barn (more on that later), hard cider (another important piece of the business plan), and some spectacular views.

“We now make a living hosting weddings and other events,” said Fortgang, adding that this component of the business started coming together just seven years ago. “And I think we’ve risen to become one of the most popular venues in New England.”

As noted earlier, this is, indeed, a multi-faceted operation. Fortgang and Nehring grow a number of crops, from apples and peaches to blueberries and a variety of vegetables. They also produce maple syrup, raise chickens and sell eggs. And several years ago, they started making hard cider and eventually opened the Muse Cider Bar, a destination unto itself that is open to the public on nights when there are no events.

“We now make a living hosting weddings and other events. And I think we’ve risen to become one of the most popular venues in New England.”

For this issue and its focus on holiday party planning, BusinessWest visited Valley View Farm and gained a full appreciation for how it has become a true destination, and in many different respects.


Story Material

Getting back to that barn…

It’s not just the painstakingly laborious process of taking it down and reassembling it that makes its new home and purpose so significant, although that’s a remarkable story in its own right. It’s also where it’s located.

Indeed, the farm now sits just a few hundred yards from where the original Skinner silk mill was located in Haydenville, then known as as the Unquomonk Silk Company. That mill, which was uninsured, was destroyed by the Mill River Flood of 1874, with Skinner eventually rebuilding in Holyoke in what became one of the best business comeback stories ever recorded.

“It just felt right to bring it back to Haydenville,” said Fortgang, adding that the barn had been condemned and was due to be demolished by Berkshire Hills when she and Nehring, who previously owned a small engine-repair shop in Northampton, stepped in to rescue it.

That was a few years after they had acquired the property in 2013, outbidding, by a dollar, a developer who planned to build condominiums on the site.

“We bought it with the intention of farming,” she recalled. “We wanted land … we both loved the outdoors. He wanted to farm — he grew up on a farm.”

Originally a dairy farm but also an orchard, the property had not been farmed for many years, she went on, adding that they gradually added facilities, crops, and revenue streams. The farm is now home to more than 250 fruit trees, including vintage apple trees with heirloom varieties. Maple sugaring and cider production were soon added, and while doing all that, Fortgang and Nehring conceptualized and advanced a secondary plan to convert the property into an events venue and destination.

The Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm

The Yellow Barn at Valley View Farm, carefully deconstructed and put together at the scenic property in Haydenville, has become a popular wedding venue.

“When we bought the land, it was in my mind to do all of this,” she said, gesturing with her hand to indicate everything from the main event space to a smaller barn converted into a pavilion, to the cider bar. “Because I interviewed all the farmers, I knew about how to make a living farming, and I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that without the history and the infrastructure.”

And the Yellow Barn become the focal point of that plan.

Featuring high ceilings, huge windows to let in sunlight and moonlight, and tables and chairs fashioned from boards from a secondary floor, it is open for events year-round — it’s heated and air-conditioned — and blends history and culture with today’s conveniences.

“It has all the amenities of a modern venue, but it also has the history and charm of being an old horse barn,” said Fortgang, adding that it also features some unique spaces, such as the ‘Love Nest.’ Located on the second floor of the barn, it’s a private suite, decorated with antique furniture collected by Fortgang’s parents, that is used for photos, hair and makeup, and as a “romantic getaway.”

This blend of old, new, and historical, coupled with everything else on the property, from the views to the horses grazing in the nearby pasture to the hard cider, has quickly made Valley View a destination of choice for couples looking a different kind of wedding venue.

Fortgang said that perhaps 30% of the weddings involve people from this area. The rest are from across New England and New York and well beyond, making tiny Haydenville what could be considered a destination-wedding spot.

“We’re happy to get to know more people and share this beautiful place with them. This has become a place to come and celebrate … and we know how to throw a good party.”

Indeed, wedding parties and guests will often stay a night or two in hotels in neighboring Northampton and other communities, making Valley View an economic engine of sorts.

“They all stay in Northampton, they take a bus up here, and they spend the day here,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s kids who grew up here, but now they live in other parts of the country. We have New Yorkers, we have a lot of Brooklyn couples.

“Couples these days … when they’re looking for this aesthetic, they get on the internet, and they’re considering Vermont and Maine and Rhode Island, and all of New England, really,” she went on, adding that their search now often ends in Haydenville because of word-of-mouth referrals and the venue’s strong track record for excellence.

Indeed, 2024 is essentially sold out as far as weddings are concerned, she said, while bookings for 2025 and beyond are quite solid. The venue generally does three each weekend, with the pace of business slowing in the winter months, obviously.

Beyond weddings, Valley View also hosts different kinds of private functions in its various spaces — the Yellow Barn for larger gatherings, as it can accommodate up to 200 people, and a pavilion and patio (moved from the historic Hemenway Hill Farm a few miles away) and Muse Cider Bar for smaller functions.

It has hosted wedding anniversaries, bridal and baby showers, nonprofit fundraising events, retirement parties, family reunions, and some holiday parties as well, said Fortgang, adding that the business plan calls for building this side of the operation by creating more of those word-of-mouth referrals.

“We’re happy to get to know more people and share this beautiful place with them,” she went on. “This has become a place to come and celebrate … and we know how to throw a good party.”


Bottom Line

During COVID, when the wedding business screeched to a halt, Fortgang and Nehring still managed to put their facilities to use, creating a cocktail bar, called the Farm Bar, in the Yellow Barn, and actually handing out drinks through the windows to visitors from across the region — many of them desperate for something to do — before eventually moving the operation outdoors.

“It became a thing,” she said, adding that the farm became such a popular gathering spot for the public, it was decided to open the Muse Cider Bar on nights when there are no events.

“We’ll have a food truck down there and serve cocktails and cider,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is just one of the ways in which Valley View has gone from being a celebrated part of Haydenville’s past to being a huge part of the community’s present and future.

And a destination — in every sense of that term.

Healthcare News Special Coverage

Stemming the Tide

Christine Palmieri

Christine Palmieri says economic tides, particularly around housing availability, have exacerbated the opioid epidemic.

When BusinessWest visited the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) in Springfield last fall, Christine Palmieri reported what she called a “troubling” trend locally: more deaths by overdose, over the previous year or two, than she’d seen in her entire career.

She wishes she had different news to report now.

“Anecdotally, it hasn’t improved. We’ve lost a number of individuals over the course of this year to opioid overdose,” Palmieri, vice president of Recovery and Housing at MHA, said this month.

Earlier this year, the state reported a similar lack of positive news. Specifically, opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by 2.5% in 2022 compared to 2021, with 2,357 such confirmed and estimated deaths in 2022.

Breaking it down further, the data showed that non-Hispanic Black men saw their opioid-related overdose death rate increase 41%, from 56.4 to 79.6 per 100,000, while the rate for non-Hispanic Black women increased by 47%, from 17.4 to 25.5 per 100,000.

Some of the broader trends may track back to the isolation and loss of connection people were feeling during the pandemic, Palmieri said, but economic tides are more significant factors right now, from access to work to higher costs of food, transportation, and especially housing — key social determinants of health that hinder recovery.

“It’s a difficult environment to try to get better in now,” she told BusinessWest, noting that the state Department of Public Health (DPH) has begun investing significantly in housing programs for people experiencing substance abuse. Using funds from the state’s Opioid Recovery and Remediation Fund, DPH expects to increase low-threshold housing units — housing provided in conjunction with supportive recovery services — statewide from 394 to 761 this year.

“MHA and a lot of our colleagues have been benefactors of that funding, which helps get people off the street into a warm and safe place and on the path to recovery,” Palmieri said. “It’s hard to do the work of recovery if you don’t have a safe place to lay your head. Getting people off the streets into safe housing is critical. It’s the first step on the path to recovery.”

“It hasn’t improved. We’ve lost a number of individuals over the course of this year to opioid overdose.”

Among MHA’s transitional and permanent housing programs are three residences in its GRIT program, for individuals with co-occurring substance-abuse and mental-health diagnoses, which require no time limit on a stay as long as a resident is benefiting and engaging in the program.

“Housing is the biggest barrier for us in the mental-health world,” she added. “The thing that keeps people in programs longer than anything else is the lack of affordable housing. We don’t discharge people into homelessness; we help them land somewhere — sober houses, transitional houses, re-housing programs.

“That’s why funding from the state is so crucial. It allows us to subsidize housing costs for people with very low incomes who experience substance-use issues,” Palmieri added, noting that MHA also has relationships, often spanning decades, with local landlords. “When a unit becomes available, they’ll call us because they know the rent will get paid and that we’ll be there to support them with whatever they experience.”

Dr. Katie Krauskopf

Dr. Katie Krauskopf says everyone should have access to naloxone, the only intervention that can reverse an overdose.

Dr. Katie Krauskopf, medical director of Substance Use Disorder Services at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke, said her organization has expanded outpatient substance-abuse treatment services — both programs and operating hours — as well as broadening an effort to treat patients with co-occurring mental-health and substance-abuse issues through its inpatient psychiatric services.

“The work definitely continues,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re still seeing overdoses at high rates — and any overdose is too many. We’re also seeing an adulterated drug supply.”

And it’s not just fentanyl, she noted; the new additive on the street is a tranquilizer called xylazine, which is being detected in an increasing number of drug-overdose deaths.

“To address the opioid crisis, we need to prioritize overdose death prevention while simultaneously investing in comprehensive supports for those dealing with substance-use disorder, to ensure they have every opportunity for recovery,”  Secretary of Health and Human Services Kate Walsh said when the DPH report was released. “We have to lean into the disparities we see in impacts on Black residents and target our interventions accordingly. Challenges like housing, hunger, and accessing education, behavioral-health treatment, and transportation need to be addressed in concert with substance-use treatment in order to turn the tide of this epidemic.”


Instant Intervention

To save lives while an overdose is in progress, the state, its municipalities, and organizations like MiraVista and Tapestry Health have worked in concert to make naloxone, also known as Narcan, more widely accessible, in order to reverse the deadly effects of an overdose as it’s happening.

For instance, the city of Greenfield recently announced that four naloxone boxes have been installed at Energy Park, Hillside Park, and the two Greenfield City Hall public restrooms, and the boxes will be refilled weekly by Tapestry.

This effort, spearheaded by the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin, Tapestry, the North Quabbin Community Coalition, and Boston Medical Center, is part of the National Institutes of Health’s HEALing Communities Study, which began in 2019 with 16 Massachusetts communities that qualified based on opioid overdose fatality rates.

The new naloxone boxes are part of the $800,000 the local task force received to finance opioid-related fatality-reduction strategies in Greenfield, Athol, Montague, and Orange. In addition, the task force and Tapestry continue to host virtual overdose-prevention and Narcan trainings.

“The city welcomes the opportunity to be a partner with Tapestry and the Opioid Task Force in this effective, life-saving, harm-reduction effort by allowing naloxone boxes to be available in our City Hall and public parks,” Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner said.

According to the DPH, Massachusetts has already exceeded, and plans to expand upon, federal naloxone ‘saturation’ goals, providing communities with enough naloxone to prevent overdose deaths that may occur from a lack of medication access. Since 2020, DPH has distributed close to 300,000 naloxone kits to harm-reduction programs, opioid treatment providers, community health centers, hospital emergency departments, and county houses of correction, with distribution increasing about 40% each year.

In 2022, the DPH launched the Community Naloxone Purchasing Program with the aim of increasing distribution of free naloxone through organizations to the community. Meanwhile, this past spring, in response to the rise in opioid-related overdose deaths, DPH issued an advisory urging healthcare providers to increase availability of naloxone kits and train staff to administer naloxone to anyone who may need it, and retail pharmacies to continue to dispense it without a prescription as part of a statewide standing order.

“Narcan is the only intervention we have to reverse an overdose. And if you have a medication that does that, everyone should have access to it. It does save lives,” Krauskopf said.

Roxann Wedegartner

“The city welcomes the opportunity to be a partner with Tapestry and the Opioid Task Force in this effective, life-saving, harm-reduction effort by allowing naloxone boxes to be available in our City Hall and public parks.”

Meanwhile, since August 2022, DPH has increased its distribution of rapid fentanyl test strip kits at no cost to providers and community organizations. Single-use fentanyl test strips help reduce the chances of overdose by allowing people who use drugs to test their supply prior to consumption to determine if it is tainted with fentanyl.

Other recent innovations in battling substance abuse range from medical — such as Sublocade, a long-acting injectable that has helped many patients keep off opioids — to regulatory, such as a move during the pandemic to allow patients to take home medications they could not previously, Krauskopf added.

Palmieri noted that the Western Mass. region — and the organizations within it that deal with addiction — do a good job of providing a wide spectrum of residential and outpatient services, from acute detox centers to medication-assisted treatment to recovery coaching.

“It’s vitally important that the community has options to meet everyone’s needs,” she added. “No one size fits all, and there are many different pathways to recovery.”


A Slowing Trend?

There is also, perhaps, some good news from the DPH’s recent study, which reported that, according to preliminary data, there were 522 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in the first three months of 2023, a 7.7% decrease (and an estimated 44 fewer deaths) from the same time period in 2022.

“Too many Massachusetts families, particularly families of color, have been impacted by this crisis,” Gov. Healey said at the time, “and in order to effectively respond, we need to address the gaps in the system by advancing long-term solutions that include housing, jobs, mental healthcare, and more resources for our cities and towns.”

And addiction doesn’t discriminate by the size of those cities and towns. According to the DPH report, the most rural communities in Massachusetts had the highest opioid-related overdose death rate in 2022 at 36.1 deaths per 100,000 residents.

However, Springfield was among the cities and towns that experienced notable increases in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2022 compared with 2021; others high on that list included Lawrence, Leominster, Lynn, Waltham, Weymouth, and Worcester.

“We know overdose deaths are preventable,” DPH Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein said. “The pandemic has had a devastating impact on mental health and substance use, especially among marginalized communities. We are working to reverse these troubling trends by continuing to build on our data-driven and equity-based approaches toward responsive support and treatment.”

Shop Local Special Coverage

Gifts for Every Season

By Manon L. Mirabelli

Michelle Wirth says the Feel Good Shop Local

Michelle Wirth says the Feel Good Shop Local website gives area merchants access to many more shoppers.

The gift-giving season is quickly approaching, and the business of everyday life can make it difficult to find the perfectly thoughtful gift. Fortunately, the 413 is full of good ideas.

Michelle Wirth, founder and CEO of Feel Good Shop Local — and a believer in the importance of supporting local retailers — has been working with area merchants since 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic halted business as we knew it.

A successful marketing executive and entrepreneur, Wirth — who, with her husband, Peter, brought Mercedes-Benz of Springfield to the region — said she has always been passionate about supporting local, independent businesses.

“People today are busy and don’t have time to do research to find small businesses,” she said. “But we can’t have a vibrant downtown if we don’t support small businesses throughout the year so they can survive.”

Wirth established Feel Good Shop Local (FGSL) and its website, www.feelgoodshoplocal.com, to support independent merchants and empower conscientious consumers by offering a simple online solution for those who want to shop locally and/or to support small businesses, she explained.

“Small business is the backbone of any thriving community, and FGSL wants to create an elevated online experience so shopping locally becomes the go-to solution when trying to find great products easily.”

Not only does FGSL support local commerce, the nonprofit organization also increases sales for small-business merchants by making its online store available to them to sell their goods. The concept behind the website is to offer consumers an alternate shopping stream while boosting sales for the businesses.

The website, Wirth noted, gives merchants access to a significantly greater number of shoppers. It started with 20 businesses and has increased to 50 this year, offering consumers a wide array of shopping options.

“Our online e-commerce website shop is a one-stop shop that gives small, local business access and exposure to new consumers who would not otherwise know about the business,” she said. “We’re giving these businesses access to sales, vitality, and exposure. We’re doing the heavy lifting for business and the consumer.”

As a busy mom of four and business owner, Wirth understands the challenges consumers face when balancing the need for convenience and the desire to make value-driven purchasing choices. She personally curates a selection of the best products from independent merchants and local makers.

The shopping convenience and variety of choice, as well as the benefits to business owners, make up just some of the bigger economic picture. The importance of shopping locally benefits the long-term success of any community’s downtown offerings and can make the difference between a stagnant town center and one that thrives with activity.

“It’s important to shop local,” Wirth said. “We all want a vibrant downtown community. When people shop local, they are voting with their wallets and making dreams come true for the business owner.”

Just as important, the consumer benefits by having the opportunity to purchase unique items, she added. “There is a higher propensity of finding something unique while providing economic growth in the community. We pride ourselves on providing a personalized experience. We know the owner, remember what you like, and the money is going to a person, not a faceless corporation. We offer a higher level of customer experience.”

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, echoed Wirth’s sentiments on how critical supporting local business owners can be to a community’s success.

“They create the fabric of our community. Entrepreneurship is soaring since the pandemic, and as a result, Amherst alone has an array of new retail offerings and many new restaurants and food establishments,” Pazmany said. “When you support local, you are directly investing in positive social and economic impact. We developed our Amherst Area Gift Card program to showcase local and remind our community that these small businesses should be your first place to turn for gift giving.”

For our annual Shop Local Gift Guide, BusinessWest offers up 18 such options, whether you’re looking for a physical gift to wrap up, a service, or an always-welcome gift card.

Arts Unlimited Gift Gallery
25 College St., South Hadley
(413) 532-7047
Arts Unlimited was founded with one goal in mind: to provide customers with a high-quality, smart, and reliable gift shop. Offerings include a wide variety of art, accessories, and decorations, and gifts for birthdays, retirements, weddings, holidays, and more.

The Baker’s Pin
34 Bridge St., Northampton
(413) 586-7978
This extensive kitchen store carries a wide range of cookware, cutlery, electric devices, bakeware, kitchen tools, home goods, cookbooks, and food products as well. But it also offers an array of cooking classes, both online and in person, exploring different foods and techniques appropriate for the season.
Berkshirecat Records
63 Flansburg Ave., Dalton
(413) 212-3874
Berkshirecat Records is an independent record store located inside the Stationery Factory building, selling quality vintage and new vinyl records of classic rock, blues, jazz, psychedelic, garage rock, folk, indie, pop, and metal recordings.

The Bookstore and Get Lit Wine Bar
11 Housatonic St., Lenox
(413) 637-3390
The Bookstore, a fixture in Lenox for more than 40 years, was actually born in the neighboring town of Stockbridge, in the living room of a small rented house behind an alley that housed a then little-known café that later came to be known as Alice’s Restaurant. The bar is open whenever the bookstore is, and the bookstore stays open later some nights when the bar is open as well.

The Closet
79 Cowls Road, Amherst
(413) 345-5999
The Closet’s mission goes beyond connecting shoppers to the perfect black dress or favorite pair of shoes. Environmentally conscious, the shop wants to do its part to prevent clothing from being thrown away. Buying previously loved apparel stops the further use of natural resources and prevents clothing from wasting away in landfills.

Fresh Fitness Training Center/Fresh Cycle
320 College Highway, Southwick
(413) 998-3253
Fresh Fitness is a new, full-service, state-of-the-art gym with brand-new equipment and training for all fitness levels, from beginner to advanced, and is located in the same building that houses Fresh Cycle, one of the region’s premier indoor cycle studios, with more than 25 classes per week led by certified instructors.

Glow Studio Suites
2260 Westfield St., West Springfield
(413) 579-8455
Glow Studio Suites features individual beauty experts in one location. Walk in the door and find a lash artist, nail technician, esthetician, and injector. In addition, spray tan and waxing services are available.

Highlands Cards and Gifts
303A Springfield St., Agawam
(413) 315-3442
Highlands Card and Gifts features a large selection of Irish and Celtic products, Irish knit sweaters, and Irish saps year round, as well as Celtic jewelry, Emmett glassware, Irish and Celtic themed sweatshirts and tees, wool capes, handbags, mugs, teapots, wall hangings, lamps, Irish foods, and much more.

Julie Nolan Jewelry
40 Main St., Amherst
(413) 270-6221
Julie Nolan’s work blends traditional techniques of wax carving, diamond setting, and goldsmithing with a modern sensibility for design and composition. She sells her own handcrafted, one-of-a-kind heirloom pieces by hand in her studio and boutique, alongside a curated selection of home and gift items by Western Mass. makers.

Pilgrim Candle
36 Union Ave., Westfield
(413) 562-2635
Pilgrim Candle Co. opened its doors in 1992 and expanded its already-busy operation in 2000 by acquiring Main Street Candlery. In 2007, Pilgrim expanded into private-label manufacturing. Since its first sale more than 30 years ago, Pilgrim Candle has developed a high-quality line of scented candles for candle lovers all around the world.

Pioneer Valley Food Tours
(413) 320-7700
This enterprise creates walking food tours that explore local flavors from Northampton and around the region. It also creates gift boxes sourced from 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.
Pottery Cellar
77 Mill St., Westfield
(413) 642-5524
Located in the Mill at Crane Pond, the Pottery Cellar offers the largest selection of authentic Boleslawiec pottery in New England. From holiday-themed seasonal pieces to full dining sets, Pottery Cellar is a regional destination for authentic Polish pottery.

80 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(413) 737-6223
Renew.Calm offers 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. Multi-treatment packages make great gifts.
The Shot Shop
722 Bliss Road, Longmeadow
(413) 561-7468
The Shot Shop medical rejuvenation spa offers medical rejuvenation treatments for a wide variety of needs. Anyone feeling run down and tired, noticing visible signs of aging, or with other concerns that need to be addressed may find a medical rejuvenation treatment here that will help.

Springfield Thunderbirds
45 Bruce Landon Way, Springfield
(413) 739-4625
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 franchise plays home games through April at the MassMutual Center, with a constant stream of promotions.

Springfield Wine Exchange
1500 Main St., Springfield
(413) 733-2171
Located on the ground floor of downtown Tower Square, the Springfield Wine Exchange offers customers local select craft beers and wines imported from around the world, providing a wide array of options for any occasion.

Visual Changes Salon
100 Shaker Road, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-1825
With more than 30 years dedicated to all dimensions of the hair industry, salon owner Mark Maruca is widely respected for his innovative approach hair styling. Services and products are individualized to suit client needs.

Zen’s Toyland
803 Williams St., Longmeadow
(413) 754-3654
Zen’s Toyland sells a variety of items ranging from baby teethers to adult puzzles, including high-quality, unique items that aren’t available elsewhere. All the toys are handpicked, and the shop also has a playroom for children to ‘test drive’ items.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 186: November 6, 2023

Joe Bednar talks with Meg Talbert, Dakin Humane Society executive director

During the first eight months of 2022, Dakin Humane Society cared for 1,830 animals. During the same eight months of 2023, the number was 3,007. In short, demand for Dakin’s services — which include spay/neuter and parvo clinics, pet food aid, a ‘kitten street team,’ pet-loss support groups, and much more — have, quite simply, exploded. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Dakin’s executive director, Meg Talbert, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about how the Springfield-based nonprofit is meeting these needs with the help of a dedicated team, hundreds of volunteers, and individual and corporate generosity. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 185: October 30, 2023

Joe Bednar interviews Maria Rivera, executive director at Hospice of  the Fisher Home

Hospice care has been a great source of comfort to individuals and families facing a difficult time of life, yet not everyone knows exactly what services are available and how they can access them. Maria Rivera has spent more than a decade guiding people through this process at Hospice of the Fisher Home, including the past three years as its executive director. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, she talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about the importance of hospice care at a time when the population is aging, why this work is so personally gratifying to her, and why she’s excited about a capital campaign to raise funds to meet some critical needs. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented byBusinessWestand sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

It’s Business, Not Nostalgia


Jeb Balise, left, and Jack Dill

Jeb Balise, left, and Jack Dill


Jack Dill likes to say he’s been involved with the building at 1441 Main St. in Springfield since “before it was a hole in the ground.”

Indeed, Dill, now a principal with Colebrook Realty Services, was an employee at Colebrook back in the late 70s, when it was the real-estate arm of Springfield Institution for Savings (SIS), and was assigned to take the plans for building the bank a new headquarters at that address — plans that had been on the drawing board for some time but unable to move forward — and make something happen.

Dill looks back at that assignment, given to him by the bank’s then-President and CEO John Collins, with fondness, pride, and a large amount of self-deprecating humor.

“I don’t know how they ever let me do this,” he recalled. “John said, ‘look, we’ve spent a lot of money on this; we don’t think it’s going to work. We’re not paying you very much; take six months … before we throw the plans away, see what you can do.”

Long story short, he made it all work.

Dill recalls that the city of Springfield wanted some retail at that location (that sector was still a huge force in the downtown at the time, although not for much longer, as we’ll see), and the bank, as noted, wanted a headquarters building. He conceived something that served both masters.

And with the help of a $4 million Urban Development Action Grant from the Carter administration, the $20 million project did move off the drawing board. When finished, the complex boasted several stores and a few restaurants. Meanwhile, SIS had a large presence, and there were dozens of other business tenants in the office ‘tower.’

“I don’t know how they ever let me do this. John said, ‘look, we’ve spent a lot of money on this; we don’t think it’s going to work. We’re not paying you very much; take six months … before we throw the plans away, see what you can do.’”

Dill, as a principal at Colebrook, which became a private company in 1999, would go on to manage and lease the property for decades, steering it through changes in the business and commercial real-estate landscapes. And today, he does largely the same, but through a different lens and with a much-different title: co-owner.

Dill, his partners at Colebrook (Mitch Bolotin and Kevin Morin), and Jeb Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales (soon to be based in Springfield, on the third floor at 1441 Main St.) partnered to acquire the 12-story office building in early 2022.

The ‘birdcage,’ erected in 1986 to camouflage closed retail at 1441 Main St.

The ‘birdcage,’ erected in 1986 to camouflage closed retail at 1441 Main St., will soon be coming down, one of many changes coming to the downtown office complex.

They came together, they said, to bring the property under local ownership and make some changes to bring more vibrancy. The fact that Balise’s company has a new home for much of its operation (and roughly 55 employees) was always on the table, he said, but not a deciding factor in his participation in this venture.

“I went in with an open mind, and it was enticing, but I really had to do my homework, and one of the things I did was move my own office here and do a test drive,” he said, borrowing a term from his industry. “And what we found is that the location is incredibly convenient to all the places we go, between banks, attorneys, accountants, architects, and engineers that we deal with locally.”

That convenience extends all the way to Riverdale Street in West Springfield, where Balise has a handful of dealerships, he went on, noting that, because Riverdale is a divided street, employees can get to many of those dealerships from 1441 Main St. as quickly as they could from the current headquarters at Doty Circle, just off Riverdale.

Since taking ownership, the partners have undertaken several initiatives, including improvements to the elevators and recruitment of a new restaurant — Mykonos, one of the displaced tenants in the Eastfield Mall — with more in the planning stages, including replacement of an escalator (a remnant of sorts from the building’s retail roots) and extensive renovations to the mezzanine level, specifically the removal of its wooden façade and what Dill not-so-affectionately refers to as the ‘birdcage’ (more on that later).

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Dill and Balise about their acquisition of this downtown stalwart and what will likely come next for the property.


Building Momentum

Dill recalls with some fondness, and more of that humor, the first time he met Jeb Balise.

It was in 1976. Dill was 24 and looking for a new car, specifically a Camaro, a four-speed with a V8 engine. Balise was 17 and in his second year working as a salesman at the family’s Chevy dealership on East Columbus Avenue.

Dill liked the car, and the car liked him, but the sticker price was beyond his means at the time. So he stayed in his Volkswagen, the one with 112,000 miles on it and no heater.

Four and a half decades later, he did buy a car from Balise — a Volkswagen GTI, one of the few cars still on the market with a manual transmission, he noted. (Jeb stayed on the sidelines for that transaction.)

Over the years, Balise Motor Sales has been a client of the Colebrook company, and the parties have worked together on several projects. Meanwhile, at 1441 Main St., a succession of banks that had come into ownership had looked into selling the building, but ultimately decided not to, said Dill, because of the relatively low cost of owner occupancy; in short, being in that building was cheaper per employee than leasing space elsewhere.

But ultimately, TD Bank decided to sell what was the last building it owned, said Dill, adding that it went on the market in the spring of 2021. Soon thereafter, a unique and decidedly local buying group came together.

“Jack and his team approached me and said, ‘TD is probably going to put the building on the market, and we think it’s a great opportunity,’” Balise recalled. “I remember them being specific: Jack’s vision was, ‘we’d like to see it be Springfield-owned, and we’d like you to be a part of it.’”

It was at that point, he went on, that he first learned the story of how Dill had been involved in the building of SIS’s new home as a young employee of the bank.

“It was a great history lesson for me, and a fun history lesson, because I was reliving where I was at that time, and where Springfield was,” he went on. “So the way I would sum it up is … Jack, as the consummate sales pro, romantically lured me into wanting to be Colebrook’s partner.

“Jack and his team approached me and said, ‘TD is probably going to put the building on the market, and we think it’s a great opportunity. I remember them being specific: Jack’s vision was, ‘we’d like to see it be Springfield-owned, and we’d like you to be a part of it.’”

“I think it’s a timeless, beautiful building,” Balise added, “and I loved the notion of keeping it locally owned and jointly doing our part to help Springfield grow and prosper.”

Dill agreed, and stressed repeatedly that, despite his long history with the building, nostalgia was not a factor in this decision. Ultimately, this was a business deal.

“Obviously I’ve been involved with the building for a very long time, but we tried not to have an emotional decision,” he recalled. “We thought that having a good and reliable partner was a real plus; we’ve been in business a long time, and we’re friends; he’s a great partner.”

Elaborating, he said those at Colebrook and Balise were of one mind with regard to the property — that this would not be a buy-to-flip scenario, and that they were in it for the long haul, with Jeb Balise providing an invaluable “new set of eyes,” as Dill put it.


Signs of the Times

As he looked back on those 45 years of involvement with the property at 1441 Main, Dill jokes that there have been many times when he wished that he was in the sign business.

Indeed, the name over the front entrance and high on the façade has changed many times, usually taking on the name of the bank that owned the property. And that’s a long list, courtesy of a continuing wave of mergers and acquisitions in the financial-services industry that started in the early ’90s.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve had at least five or six signs on this building,” he said, listing Family Bank, First Massachusetts Bank, Banknorth, TD Banknorth, and then TD Bank. He admitted that it was hard to keep track, even for someone who managed the property.

But the letters on the building are not the only thing to have changed over the years.

Indeed, the retail component of the building collapsed, as it did across the street at Tower Square, a byproduct of the malls, especially the one at Ingleside in Holyoke, said Dill. The property’s owners adjusted, converting a mezzanine that was retail into back-office space for the bank and erecting, in 1986, the ‘birdcage’ — a wooden façade that looks like … well, a birdcage — as “camouflage, so it wouldn’t look like closed retail,” he explained.

A framed portrait of John Collins

A framed portrait of John Collins, the man who gave Jack Dill the assignment of making 1441 Main St. a reality, is now displayed in the lobby of the building.

The Colebrook team answered an RFP, and the property eventually became the home of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) soon after it was created in 1996. Meanwhile, space formerly devoted to retail — a Falcetti Music store and a CVS, among others — was soon occupied by several agencies, ranging from the Springfield Regional Chamber to the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau to the entity now known as MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board.

Over the years, it also became home to several prominent nonprofits, including the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

The office tower, meanwhile, has become home to several federal and state agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Office of the Attorney General, and others.

When the Colebrook/Balise partnership acquired the property, the occupancy rate was roughly 85%, said Dill, adding that it is now closer to 90%, with additions including a temporary office for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, the general contractor for construction of the parking garage taking shape across Harrison Avenue.

That number won’t change when Balise moves its headquarters to the property early next year, but the number of people working in the building will, Dill said, noting that the 55 or so employees from Balise will bring more vibrancy to the property and more foot traffic to downtown service businesses, bars, and restaurants.

That includes Mykonos, which will occupy space on the first floor, Dill noted, adding that additional restaurants are certainly possible.

Meanwhile, on the second floor, to attract more office tenants, the new owners are opening up the back of the space, which faces the park where the Steiger’s department store once stood, by putting in a bank of large windows. There are also plans to remove the ‘birdcage’ and take out the escalator and replace it with a new staircase.

“With these new windows and the removal of the birdcage, we’ll have a lot more natural light on the second floor and first floor,” he said. “And we have some other ideas on new design and a new visual identity for those two floors.”

Looking long-term, both Balise and Dill believe they can retain current office tenants and add new ones, even at a time when work is in flux and the future of office buildings is more clouded than at any time in recent memory.

“Work is a social activity, and we’re seeing a lot of companies bringing people back,” said Dill. “Maybe not five days a week, 40 hours, but they’re coming back to the office, because work is a social activity.”


Bottom Line

Not long after the acquisition of 1441 Main St., Dill placed two portraits on easels in the building’s lobby, one of Richard Booth, another former president and CEO of SIS, and the other of John Collins; he considers both mentors and major influences in his life and career.

It was Collins who handed Dill the assignment to build a new headquarters building all those years ago. It led to what amounts to a lifetime of work stewarding the building through decades of change and positioning it for the decades to come.

Now, this work takes on new meaning and new urgency, because he has ownership of the matter — both literally and figuratively.


Features Special Coverage

In Good Company

Jeff St. Jean, left, and John DeVoie, co-founders of Easy Company Brewing

Jeff St. Jean, left, and John DeVoie, co-founders of Easy Company Brewing

It will be called ‘Brécourt.’

And like the beers that came before it — and the ones that will likely come after it — this one celebrates a chapter in the powerful story of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, known simply as Easy Company. This was the ‘band of brothers’ whose exploits during World War II are famously chronicled in the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO miniseries that both took that name.

Brécourt Manor is a town about three miles southwest of Utah Beach in Normandy, France. It was the location of a German artillery battery that was disrupting landing forces of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division on D-Day. Easy Company’s assault on the Brécourt Manor, led by First Lt. Richard Winters, is one of the unit’s more noted accomplishments, and there were many.

“They charged that gun nest and took all four guns out, saving countless lives,” said John DeVoie, co-founder of the growing Hot Table chain of panini restaurants, who has long been entranced by the story of Easy Company. So much that, when he and his longtime best friend and fellow veteran Jeff St. Jean — they both served with the 104th Tactical Fighter Group at Barnes Airport, and St. Jean still does — decided to create a beer label and donate all the profits from the sale of those products to agencies that assist fellow veterans, the name came easily — although not much else has, as we’ll see.

Easy Company Brewing, branded simply as ‘E,’ plans to introduce Brécourt, what’s known as a keeping ale, in the coming months. It will join two labels already available in many liquor stores, bars, and restaurants: Currahee American Lager, named in honor of the hill the men of Easy Company had to run up daily while in training in Toccoa, Ga., and Ald-Borne, a new English IPA, named after Aldbourne, the tiny village in the south of England where the unit would begin the preparations for D-Day.

“We thought, ‘why don’t we just give it all back?’ We’d model it after Newman’s Own and give 100% of the profits to charities that support veterans.”

DeVoie and St. Jean, both beer lovers themselves, could hardly contain their excitement as they pondered what might come next for beers as their venture continues to follow the story of Easy Company as the war progressed. Indeed, the unit took part in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands, famous for its beer, and also in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium, equally famous for its beer, then were in several operations in Germany, including occupation duty at Berchtesgaden, home to Hitler’s famous Eagle’s Nest, at the German-Austrian border.

the brewery’s offerings follow the story of Easy Company

Starting with American and English ales, the brewery’s offerings follow the story of Easy Company through World War II, with beers from France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany to come next.

“The next stop is Holland … and these guys captured Eagle’s Nest, so we may use that name when we get to making a German beer — or not; there are plenty of options from Germany,” DeVoie said, noting that, in honor of Dick Winters, famously a teetotaler, they may make a non-alcoholic beer.

But the two are even more excited about where this venture could go in terms of what it can do for veterans.

Launched just before Memorial Day in 2022, Easy Company Brewing did not turn a profit its first year due to the high operational costs involved with getting the venture off the ground, but the two partners wrote checks anyway to several well-vetted nonprofits that assist veterans, including Operation Second Chance, the Special Operations Warriors Foundation, and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation.

The brewery is expected to turn a small profit this year, and there is considerable optimism about where all this might be down the road.

In a word, the story of Easy Company Brewing and its mission “resonates,” said St. Jean, adding that most all those who hear the story, or just see the name, want to know more and support the effort in some way.

That goes for everyone from the thousands who sampled the Easy Company’s offerings at the Big E to Donnie Wahlberg, who played First Lt. Clifford Carwood Lipton in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers — and who, upon becoming acquainted with the venture and its mission when St. Jean and DeVoie met him briefly at Foxwoods at the opening of a new Wahlburgers restaurant, posted on Instagram a picture of himself with a large class of their brew and the words “my new favorite beer!”

Donnie Wahlberg, who played one of the men of Easy Company

Donnie Wahlberg, who played one of the men of Easy Company in the Band of Brothers miniseries, shows his support for the venture in an Instagram post.

For this issue, and with Veterans Day approaching, BusinessWest talked with DeVoie and St. Jean about their venture, the veterans (and especially the members of Easy Company) who inspired it, and how they intend to make what is now a local story into a national phenomenon.


Lager Than Life

As they talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, St. Jean and DeVoie were making plans to head to Newport, R.I. the following weekend for a reunion involving descendents of the men of Easy Company.

There are no living members of that unit, but the reunions, which started in 1946, the year after the war ended, have continued, said DeVoie, adding that he met the granddaughter of William ‘Wild Bill’ Guarnere, a staff sergeant in Easy Company, recently, and she invited the partners to this year’s gathering.

“We’re going there almost with reverence — we’re going to share our beer with them and tell our story,” he went on, adding that, given their mission and the way it honors those in Easy Company, they were to be “guests of honor” at the event in some ways.

In most all other ways, the two consider themselves merely stewards of the Easy Company name, and they have made it their mission to use it to both honor those men and to help those who have served their country — as they have themselves.

Indeed, they served together as mechanics in the 104th’s engine shop, servicing the A-10 Thunderbolts that flew over Barnes — and served in tip-of-the-spear operations in many parts of the world, including both Gulf wars. Nicknamed the Warthog, the plane was not pretty to look at, but, then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

St. Jean, still serving in an administrative role with the 104th, likes the A-10 much more than the F-15s currently flown by that unit, and DeVoie said simply, “everybody thought it was ugly; I thought it was beautiful.”

DeVoie left the 104th after 11 years, but he and St. Jean have remained good friends, getting together often. One of their favorite spots is the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, and it was there that the story of Easy Company Brewing began.

Indeed, while enjoying a few Spatens at the bar there in 2018, and thinking about all the beer-making countries where the men of Easy Company had been, that they started discussing the notion of creating a beer label that would pay homage to that unit.

They quickly decided that, while this was a good concept, they could not, in good conscience, profit off the names of the men of Easy Company, many of whom died in combat.

So they shelved the concept, only to revisit it later and ultimately decided to honor those from Easy Company and … not profit. To be more specific, they would profit, but then turn those profits over to select organizations assisting veterans.

“We decided that we were going to try to do it on our own; I just read anything and everything I could about brewing, I bought books, read articles, watched a ton of videos, and just started experimenting.”

“We thought, ‘why don’t we just give it all back?’” said DeVoie. “We’d model it after Newman’s Own and give 100% of the profits to charities that support veterans.”

Elaborating, St. Jean said that, as good stewards of the Easy Company name, the brewery and the foundation created to distribute its profits are very selective when it comes to the nonprofits they support.

“We reached out to several charities, but we decided we would only reach out to those charities that gave more than 85 cents on the dollar back to veterans,” he said, adding that they have found several that met this standard.

a location at the recent Big E.

Easy Company Brewing has maintained a consistent presence in the region, including a location at the recent Big E.

While the partners knew they had a good idea, and also knew a lot about business — Hot Table will soon be opening its 12th, 13th, and 14th locations — as well as the story of Easy Company, they didn’t know a lot about brewing or the growing, immensely competitive brewing industry.

So they, and especially St. Jean, set about learning.

“We tried to think of ways we could work with an established brewer to develop recipes, but there are a lot of barriers to entry there,” he said. “So we decided that we were going to try to do it on our own; I just read anything and everything I could about brewing, I bought books, read articles, watched a ton of videos, and just started experimenting.

“I brewed a ton of recipes in my basement, and we enlisted the help of some friends in the area and in the industry to help us taste the beer, develop the flavor profiles, and give us feedback, essentially, until we settled on what we thought we wanted to brew,” he went on, adding that the partners brought the recipes to a contract brewer, Brewmasters Brewing Services of Williamsburg, which scaled them up commercially.

The partners started where Easy Company started, with an American Lager named Currahee, and officially launched, with ceremonies at the Fort, in May 2022. Since then, the learning curve — involving everything from brewing to distribution to marketing — has continued, and they’ve been climbing their own steep hill to profitability.


Mission Focused

The Tunnel to Towers Foundation was launched to honor the life and work of New York firefighter Stephen Siller. He had just finished his shift on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and was on his way to play golf with his brothers when he got word over his scanner of a plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. He abandoned his golf plans and returned to Brooklyn’s Squad 1 to get his gear.

He drove his truck to the entrance of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and, upon finding it closed to vehicular traffic for security reasons, ran the full length of the tunnel with 60 pounds of equipment on his back. He reached the Twin Towers, where he died while trying to save others.

Today, the foundation carries on a number of programs, including the Smart Home initiative, which builds mortgage-free smart homes for catastrophically injured veterans and first responders, and the Gold Star Family Home Program, which honors the legacy of fallen veterans by providing mortgage-free homes to surviving spouses with young children.

That mission certainly resounded with St. Jean and DeVoie, who have made the foundation one of five charities to which the Easy Company foundation will distribute profits from the brewing operation.

The profits are expected to grow as the venture continues to scale up and expand, geographically and otherwise. There are still some considerable hurdles to clear — it’s costly and difficult to expand into new markets in this state, let alone into other states and other regions — and there is immense competition.

“We can throw a rock and hit Connecticut from here, but we haven’t been picked up by a distributor yet,” said DeVoie. “Each state is different, all the laws are different … it’s very complicated.”

But the partners have two big things working for them — the name Easy Company and the mission they have taken on. As noted earlier, both resonate with constituencies ranging from beer drinkers to veterans groups to the business community.

This was made clear to the partners — not that they really needed more affirmation — at the Big E, where they had a presence at the Local Brewers Showcase and other locations where their beer was sold. And it’s been made clear in the feedback and offers of support they’ve received, not just locally, but nationally and even internationally.

“Quite often, people from across the country and even around the world, particularly Europe, will inquire about us and our beer. People will say, ‘hey, can we get your beer in the UK?’ And we hear that in Ohio and California and all over.”

“We don’t see this is as just another local brewery — there are so many great breweries in every city and town now,” said DeVoie. “We see this as really a national brand.

“When we tell people this story, they get excited about it,” he went on, adding quickly that the story has spread rapidly with the help of social media. “Quite often, people from across the country and even around the world, particularly Europe, will inquire about us and our beer. People will say, ‘hey, can we get your beer in the UK?’ And we hear that in Ohio and California and all over.”

Right now, they can’t get the beer, but they can buy swag, in the form of Easy Company Brewing T-shirts, hoodies, hats, koozies, and other items, which are selling well and raising some revenue, said St. Jean, adding quickly that the beer is the heart of this operation, and the obvious long-term goal is to sell it in more places and to more people.

Already, Easy Company’s beers are in many liquor stores and several taverns and restaurants, including the Student Prince and those at MGM Springfield, and its reach has extended across this region and into Central Mass. thanks to a partnership with distributor Quality Beverage. The goal is to continually add more distribution points and eventually expand well beyond the current markets.

DeVoie summed it up poignantly by saying their mission now is to “sell a lot of beer and give away a lot of money.”


Easy Going

Getting back to Brécourt, the new label that will be coming out soon, St. Jean and DeVoie acknowledged that, while the French are known mostly for the production of fine wine, champagne, and cognac, they said they also make some very good beers.

And so do the Dutch, the Belgians, the Germans, and the Austrians.

Which is why the partners are looking ahead with such enthusiasm to how they will continue to tell the story of Easy Company through beers that reflect the countries where the band of brothers made history together.

But more than that, they’re looking forward to making that mission much broader and more impactful.

Creative Economy Special Coverage

Merry, Scary, and Coming Soon

Producer and director Joany Kane.

Producer and director Joany Kane.

Will Barratt, cinematographer

Will Barratt, cinematographer for A Merry Scary Christmas Tale.

If you enjoy all those Christmas movies the Hallmark Channel cranks out every holiday season, you can thank Joany Kane for her part in that.

That’s because she wrote the first one, The Christmas Card, which broke cable-TV ratings records when it aired in 2006 and garnered an Emmy nomination for its star, Ed Asner — to date, Hallmark’s only Emmy nod.

It also helped kick-start a holiday-movie craze on Hallmark that Kane, a Western Mass. native, appreciates — not only because she’s written and produced about a dozen of them, but because she loves them.

“There was no Hallmark Channel, no Christmas movies on TV” before she started writing The Christmas Card, Kane noted. “You had to go to a theater to see a Christmas movie, and even those were scarce. I wanted to see more Christmas content.”

So she did something about that, and she still is — in fact, her next effort, A Merry Scary Christmas Tale, will shoot in Western Mass. next spring, with plans for a fall 2024 release. Not only is it Kane’s directorial debut, it’s her first foray into a hybrid holiday flick, with one foot planted in the Christmas tradition, and the other in Halloween.

“On Christmas Eve at a remote Massachusetts B&B, a disenchanted candlemaker must survive an evening of sinister merriment in order to find her missing artist aunt,” the film’s pitch reads. Kane said it will be “atmospheric, mischievous, and eerie,” a gothic fable that melds the spirits of Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro.

“In the fall of 2024, we’d like to do a limited-release run, especially in Massachusetts; we can target local theaters and use the screenings for fundraisers for local nonprofits, so we can help the community as well.”

“It’s got Hallmark moments and Conjuring moments,” she said, the latter a reference to the popular horror-film franchise. She stressed, though, that her movie won’t be too scary. “We’ll have jump scares, but also Christmas carols. It’s great fun.”

But amid the fun comes a lot of work, planning, and raising funds.

“Our goal is to raise some local financing and have some investors come in,” Kane said, explaining that the firm has a high-end budget of $811,000 (which does not reflect 25% tax incentives from the Commonwealth), but could be made for half that if necessary. “If we raise at least $300,000 to $400,000 locally, we can bring in a distribution company from Hollywood who will finance the rest for us. They’ll only do movies over $700,000 on the lower end.”

Joany Kane says her directorial debut

Joany Kane says her directorial debut will have “jump scares, but also Christmas carols.”

Anyone who invests gets an executive-producer credit, and is also promised their money back plus a 20% return on investment, and also potential profit sharing, not only from the initial run, but in future years.

“It’s a quick turnaround to return their initial investment; then, after that, it’s like getting residuals every time the movie plays somewhere or plays on a streamer or DVD or downloads, depending on how much they’ve invested,” she explained.

Once the movie is filmed in the spring, it will be edited through the summer, with plans to hit the fall convention circuit — Comic Cons and other conventions that cater to genre content, she added.

“We’ll start building a buzz, and then, in the fall of 2024, we’d like to do a limited-release run, especially in Massachusetts; we can target local theaters and use the screenings for fundraisers for local nonprofits, so we can help the community as well.”

That would be followed by a short video-on-demand period in early November and then a premiere on a channel or streamer Thanksgiving weekend, then screening events during December.

All the while, she said, the team would maintain an active social-media presence, airing shorts on TikTok about some of the legends touched on in the script, from Krampus to Pukwudgie, a Native American legend Kane believes will become a popular character due to her movie.

In addition, she’s planning for ‘online happy hours’ building up to the premiere, where she’ll host interviews with cast and crew as well as featuring guests speaking from the holiday or paranormal perspective — or both. She’s also looking to film a ghost-hunting documentary at one or more of the film’s allegedly haunted locations, as well as selling merchandise.

The ongoing actors’ strike could alter some actors’ schedules, but as an independent production, Kane has applied for a waiver that would at least allow the production to proceed — once she gets 50% of the financing in place.

Right now, the confirmed cast included Amanda Wyss and Julie McNiven, along with tentatively planned appearances from Boston-based actor Paul Solet, as well as David Dean Bottrell, Michael Hargrove, Lance Henriksen, Cooper Andrews, and Dee Wallace.

In addition, Jeff Belanger is on board to play himself in the movie, sharing creepy and legends with guests at the film’s Harkness Manor. Belanger is the lead writer on the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and a celebrity in the paranormal world, Kane noted, and his song “My Christmas Tree Is Haunted” will be included on the soundtrack.


Local Promise

That’s a lot — cast, crew, financing, filming, and marketing — to juggle, especially for someone sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.

Which is an important milestone for Kane, a 1983 graduate of Northampton High School who got her start in filmmaking during the 1990s, working for the documentary production company Florentine Films (co-founded by Ken Burns) and serving as associate producer on several Emmy-winning PBS documentaries.

“I want to make sure we use as many Massachusetts locations, and place as many Massachusetts products, as we can. It’s sort of a love letter to my history and my home neighborhoods.”

Her first completed screenplay was an office comedy, not unlike Horrible Bosses more than two decades later, that drew interest from some Hollywood players, including Bette Midler, who offered Kane “sage advice,” she recalled. To pay her bills around this time, during the late ’90s, she was also working for Lashway Law in Williamsburg.

Kane’s breakthrough success in Hollywood soon followed, as she finished the script for The Christmas Card in 1999 and optioned it to a producer in 2003, who brought it to Hallmark, where it “launched the current Christmas-movie craze we now have,” she told BusinessWest.

Since her success with The Christmas Card, she has optioned or sold more than two dozen screenplays and has had more than a dozen movies made. In 2013, she came up with a streaming service dedicated to turning romance novels into movies and series; she coined the name Passionflix, purchased the domain, and in 2016 formed a partnership to launch the streamer. Passionflix debuted in September 2017.

She’s excited to shoot A Merry Scary Christmas Tale in Western Mass., hoping to get started in early spring, when the exteriors can still be made to look Christmas-y, but the night shoots won’t make the cast and crew freeze.

Movie and TV veteran Amanda Wyss

Movie and TV veteran Amanda Wyss will play one of the leads in A Merry Scary Christmas Tale.

“We’re doing it independently so we have complete control over quality and creation, and I want to make sure we use as many Massachusetts locations, and place as many Massachusetts products, as we can. It’s sort of a love letter to my history and my home neighborhoods.”

Will Barratt, the film’s cinematographer, is best-known for shooting and producing the Hatchet films, including Frozen, Spiral, Chillerama, and Digging Up The Marrow. He won two Emmy awards in 2002 and was nominated for the 2014 BloodGuts UK Horror Award for Digging Up the Marrow.

Co-producer and co-director Mary Fry specializes in producing feature films and series for an international market, Kane said. Fry has worked on more than 60 feature films and 12 series with award-winning actors such as Kate Hudson, Michael Shannon, Joaquin Phoenix, John Travolta, Snoop Dogg, and Danny Glover; collaborated with Russell Carpenter, who won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Titanic; and produced romantic comedies for Passionflix, Nasser Entertainment, and Caliwood Pictures.

She shares Kane’s vision for a scary Christmas movie — an idea that used to be more common than it is now.

“Telling scary stories by the fireside was at one time a cherished Christmas tradition. That’s how the world got A Christmas Carol. Scary stories at Christmas were as treasured as Hallmark Christmas movies are today,” Kane said, noting that Charles Dickens wrote his classic tale for a Victorian audience that liked to be scared at Christmas. “The cinematic holiday content we enjoy today started with a ghost story.”

With A Merry Scary Christmas Tale, Kane is hoping to revive the once-beloved tradition of telling scary stories at Christmastime — and hopes that, like A Christmas Carol, her film becomes a classic that’s rewatched each holiday season, generating profits to pour into more movies.

“Hopefully this will become like Paranormal Activity or the Conjuring series — a little movie that does insanely well. Then we can have a base in Western Mass., a production company to crank out a lot of fun content that honors the area and its communities.”


Looking Ahead

Kane’s affection for Halloween fare is reflected in other ways; she recently launched Coven Cons with the goal of hosting conventions that celebrate the witch in pop culture.

And her love for her home state is even more deeply ingrained.

“Massachusetts is such a magical state — so much beauty, history, and a lot of cool legends. The people are fun to hang out with, and there’s a lot of great ingenuity in Massachusetts.

“So it’s great to bring all that together and make really cool movies,” she went on, adding that she’s interested in drawing on Massachusetts-based writers who have penned scary stories, including greats like Edith Wharton. “We’d love to turn those into movies. My goal is to focus on stories that would be great to premiere any time from September to December.”

Viewers will have that experience as soon as next fall — that is, if the coming year’s efforts prove more merry than scary to Kane and her team. Anyone interested in investing in the project should email [email protected].

Special Coverage Super 60

Reconfigured Program Recognizes Businesses, Nonprofits in Five Categories

After almost 40 years, Super 60 was in need of a change. This year, it got one.

The Springfield Regional Chamber revamped its popular business-recognition program in 2023 to honor companies and organizations across five categories, not merely the traditional ‘Revenue’ and ‘Growth.’

The new categories are ‘Start-Up,’ ‘Give Back,’ and ‘Non-Profit.’ The Start-Up category recognizes businesses that have achieved remarkable success during their early years of operation, the Give Back category recognizes businesses that made significant contributions to local communities and organizations, and the Non-Profit category recognizes organizations that have displayed selfless dedication to serving the community through exceptional programming and support.

These additions have successfully invited many new businesses to the podium for the awards ceremony, to be held on Nov. 9 at the MassMutual Center, said chamber President Diana Szynal.

“What we want to accomplish with these new categories is recognition that there are different measures of success,” she told BusinessWest. “And it’s a way to award more members across various sectors for their success.”

This year’s winners represent numerous communities across many industries, including dining, automotive, manufacturing, finance, sports, and many more.

“We are thrilled to celebrate the incredible diversity and innovation within our business community through this year’s Super 60 program,” Szynal said. “Small businesses are the heart and soul of our region, and we’re excited to celebrate so many nonprofits that make a difference in our community. As we continue to overcome the challenges posed by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to shine a light on the accomplishments and unwavering resilience of our local businesses and nonprofits.”

Save the Date

The awards program — sponsored by Health New England, WWLP-22 News, bankESB, Stand Out Truck, Marketing and Cupcakes, the Republican, and Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C. — will feature keynote speaker Ashley Kohl, president and founder of Ohana School of Performing Arts, and emcee Rich Tettemer, WWLP anchor.

Tickets for the event — $60 for chamber members and $75 for non-members — can be purchased at springfieldregionalchamber.com. Tables of eight and 10 can also be reserved.

The event attracts more than 500 business leaders each year. The honorees, 12 per category, are:


Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
Mercedes Benz of Springfield
Tighe & Bond Inc.
Adam Quenneville Roofing & Siding Inc.
American Environmental Inc.
Baltazar Contractors Inc.
Baystate Blasting Inc.
Braman Chemical Enterprises Inc.
Freedom Credit Union
Golden Years Homecare Services
Keiter Corp.
L&C Prescriptions Inc.


Springfield Hockey LLC
The Coating House Inc.
Link to VR
Ace Asphalt Maintenance Inc. 
Court Square Group Inc.
Jack Goncalves & Sons Inc. 
Monty’s Motorsports LLC 
Tobiko Sushi 
Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc./Villa Rose
Vanguard Dental LLC 
Vanished Valley Inc. 
Yellow Ribbon Trucking Inc.  


Monsoon Roastery LLC
Something Royal Party Co.
Mango Fish Art / Proud of U Jewelry
Ludlow Animal Clinic Inc.
Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing Inc.
Link to VR
Upscale Socks
Rozki Rides
1636 North
Colorful Resilience
Bridge2Homecare LLC
Feel Good, Shop Local 

Give Back:

Anderson Cleaning
Appleton Corp.
Focus Springfield Community TV
Gary Rome Hyundai Inc.
Keiter Corp.
Mercedes Benz of Springfield
MGM Springfield
Pioneer Valley Financial Group
Polish National Credit Union
Springfield Hockey LLC
Stand Out Truck
Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc./Villa Rose  


Springfield Partners for Community Action Inc.
Valley Opportunity Council Inc.
413 Elite Foundation
Second Chance Animal Services Community Veterinary Hospital
The Horace Smith Fund
Hampden County Career
Center Inc.
Caring Health Center
WestMass ElderCare Inc.
Springfield Rescue Mission
Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts
Revitalize Community Development Corp.
Clinical & Support Options Inc.

REVENUE Category

Whalley Computer Associates Inc.

One Whalley Way, Southwick, MA 01077

(413) 596-4200


Michael Sheil, President

Whalley Computer Associates offers data-center services, cloud backup, managed services, training, desktop services, network services, and staff-augmentation services. The company focuses its work in the corporate, finance, healthcare, K-12, higher education, retail, and SMB industries.

Mercedes-Benz of Springfield

295 Burnett Road, Chicopee, MA 01020

(413) 624-4100


Peter and Michelle Wirth, Owners

Mercedes-Benz of Springfield serves the Springfield area from its Chicopee facility filled with the latest Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The dealership also includes an expert service center, parts center, and tires center. Factory-certified experts offer professional service, maintenance, and repairs, including one-hour express service.

Tighe & Bond Inc.

53 Southampton Road, Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 562-1600


Robert Belitz, President and CEO

Tighe & Bond offers engineering, design, planning, and environmental-consulting services, with focuses in building, transportation, water and wastewater engineering, coastal and waterfront solutions, environmental consulting, GIS and asset management, landscape architecture and urban design, civil engineering, and site planning.

Adam Quenneville Roofing & Siding Inc.

160 Old Lyman Road, South Hadley, MA 01075

(413) 536-5955


Adam Quenneville, CEO

Adam Quenneville Roofing & Siding offers a wide range of residential and commercial services, including new roofs, retrofitting, roof repair, roof cleaning, vinyl siding, replacement windows, and the no-clog Gutter Shutter system. The company has earned the BBB Torch Award for trust, performance, and integrity.

American Environmental Inc.

18 Canal St., Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 322-7190


Charles Hughes, President

American Environmental is a family-owned business providing services like asbestos abatement, structural demolition, boiler removal, commercial lead abatement, concrete cutting, floor preparation, interior demolition, water-jet blasting, roll-off service, and shot blasting. It has worked with property managers, schools, universities, hospitals, churches, stores, industrial sites, and public facilities.

Baltazar Contractors Inc.

83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 583-6160


Paulo Baltazar, President

Baltazar Contractors is a heavy civil construction company with services in utility construction, roadway construction, site work and development, culvert and bridge construction, earth support and shoring, and trenchless technology. The company has remained family-owned over three decades in business.

Baystate Blasting Inc.

36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 583-4440


Dinis Baltazar, President and CEO

Baystate Blasting offers services in ledge and rock removal, rock blasting, and rock crushing. It performs large and small construction-site preparation, road and highway work, line drilling and trench work, quarry shots, and residential work such as foundations and in-ground pools. It is federally licensed as both a dealer and user of explosive materials.

Braman Chemical Enterprises Inc.

147 Almgren Dr., Agawam 01001

(413) 732-9009


Gerald Lazarus, President

Braman has been serving New England since 1890, using state-of-the-art pest-elimination procedures for commercial and residential customers, and offering humane removal of birds, bats, and other nuisances through its wildlife division. The company has offices in Agawam, Worcester, and Lee, as well as Hartford and New Haven, Conn.

Freedom Credit Union

1976 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 739-6961


Glenn Welch, President and CEO

Freedom Credit Union is a credit union that offers banking and loan services to businesses, the cannabis industry, and individuals. It also offers insurance plans for individuals and an investment-services division. The institution celebrated its centennial in 2022 and regularly involves customers and the community in philanthropic outreach.

Golden Years Homecare Services

16 Shaker Road, East Longmeadow, MA 01028

(413) 209-8208


Cesar Ruiz Jr., President and CEO

Golden Years Homecare is dedicated to providing exceptional, in-home care to clients, offering peace of mind, dignity, and comfort. Comprehensive and personalized care meets the needs of clients and their families through the careful matching of client and caregiver. Golden Years offers programs including aroma, music, and laughter therapies, as well as specialized veteran and dementia care.

Keiter Corp.

35 Main St., Florence, MA 01062

(413) 586-8600


Scott Keiter, President

Keiter Corp. is a construction-services company working with clients on residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional projects of all sizes. The firm is divided into four divisions: Keiter Builders (commercial and institutional construction), Keiter Homes (residential construction), Hatfield Construction (excavation, site work, and structural concrete), and Keiter Properties (real estate and rental).

L&C Prescriptions Inc.

155 Brookdale Dr., Springfield, MA 01104

(413) 781-2996


Dr. Kara James, President

L&C Prescriptions, the parent company for Louis & Clark Pharmacy, provides medication solutions to individuals, healthcare providers, and assisted-living, independent-living, and memory-care communities, and offers online prescription refills, MediBubble pre-packaged pills, blister packs to manage daily medications, vial synchronization, consultations with registered pharmacists, and a delivery service.

 Growth Category

Springfield Hockey LLC

1 Monarch Place, Springfield, MA 02110

(413) 746-4100


Nathan Costa, President

Springfield Hockey LLC, better known as the Springfield Thunderbirds, is the local affiliate of the St. Louis Blues and and the American Hockey League’s 2021-22 Eastern Conference champion. Playing its home games at the MassMutual Center since its inception in 2016, the team gives back to the community in multiple ways, like the Thunderbirds Foundation, Stick to Reading school programs, Hometown Salute, Frontline Fridays, and more.

The Coating House Inc.

15 Benton Dr., Suite 14, East Longmeadow, MA 01028

(877) 987-3100


Kim Casineau, President

The Coating House is a fastener and hardware supplier and authorized Loctite service center, allowing it the ability to serve customers in a wide range of industries. The company has been sealing and locking fasteners, fittings, and bolts since 1980 and is a woman-owned company and a pioneer in the pre-applied process.

Link to VR

501 Boylston St., 10th Floor, Boston, MA 02116

(617) 588-2109


Edward Zemba, CEO

Link to VR is an XR media agency that helps organizations implement growth-based solutions using the VR/AR platform. It offers in-house development and partnership opportunities to enterprise customers ready to leverage the transformative technology of spatial computing. Whether it’s on-boarding leadership teams or designing custom XR solutions, it strategically positions clients to realize the full potential of this computing platform.

Ace Asphalt Maintenance Inc.

63 Doyle Ave., Springfield, MA 01104

(413) 537-6156


James Gordon, Owner

For more than 20 years, Ace Asphalt Maintenance has been a premier paving company serving Western Mass. and Northern Conn., offering a one-year warranty on all driveway installations. Services include asphalt driveways, commercial sealcoating, commercial paving, crack filling, patching, and asphalt milling.

Court Square Group Inc.

1350 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 746-0054


Keith Parent, CEO

Court Square Group is a leading managed-service technology company with a focus exclusively on life science. Its business-focused approach has supported many life-science startups as well as some of the largest life-science companies. The team’s expertise provides technical, compliance, and audit-readiness support.

Jack Goncalves & Sons Inc.

172 Munsing St., Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 583-8782

Joquin Goncalves, President and Treasurer

Jack Goncalves & Sons primarily operates in the excavation and grading and building construction industry, and has been in business for more than a half-century.


Monty’s Motorsport LLC

1 Arch Road, Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 642-8199


Monty Geer, Owner

Monty’s Motorsport is a parts, sales, service, and gear store for motorsport vehicles, such as four-wheelers, dirt bikes, motorcycles, electric bikes, street bikes, and more. It offers new and used vehicles, with financing options available, as well as services such as winterization, battery inspections, accessory installations, chain adjustments, oil and filter changes, and full engine rebuilds.

Tobiko Sushi

110 Airport Road, Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 642-8155


Sokharun Yim, Owner

Located in the terminal building at Westfield-Barnes Airport, this eatery opened as Papps Bar & Grill in 2014. A change in ownership brought a new focus, and Tobiko Sushi now specializes in sushi, ramen, and hibachi. Taking advantage of its close-up airport location, large windows offer views of the Barnes complex and the landscape beyond.

Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc./Villa Rose

1428 Center St., Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 547-6667


Tony Tavares, Owner

Tavares and Branco Enterprises owns and operates the Villa Rose Restaurant, lounge, and banquet hall, specializing in Portuguese and American cuisine. With a capacity of 150, the facility caters for parties, funerals, and weddings of 30 people or more. Villa Rose also offers breakfast and brunch for those who are looking to book a shower, seminar, business meeting, corporate functions, and more.

Vanguard Dental LLC

1876 Boston Road, Wilbraham, MA 01095

(413) 543-2555


Dr. Yogita Kanorwalla, Owner

Yogita Kanorwalla, DMD, has more than 15 years of experience in dentistry. She utilizes the latest technology and techniques, with services including dentures, cosmetic dentistry, root-canal therapy and endodontics, extractions, same-day crowns, restorative dentistry, sedation dentistry, periodontics, dental implants and restorations, teeth whitening, Invisalign, sports guards, dry-mouth therapy, patient forms, and laser snoring treatment.

Vanished Valley Inc.

782 Center St., Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 610-1572


Mike Rodrigues, Restaurant Owner;

Josh Britton, Brewery Owner

Vanished Valley Inc. is a small-batch brewery that is family- and pet-friendly and holds events in its taproom and beer garden. The restaurant menu includes appetizers, pizzas, burgers, sandwiches, and barbeque. On tap, the brewery offers IPAs, seltzers, lagers, ales, and stouts, as well as wine and spirits.

Yellow Ribbon Trucking Inc.

265 Bay Road, Hadley, MA 01035

(413) 320-2644


Chris Omasta, Owner

Yellow Ribbon Trucking was established to fill the need of large trucks and heavy hauling services for local construction. It specializes in assisting general contractors and paving companies in facilitating the transportation of materials to and from job sites. It offers trucking, light excavations, landscaping, and snow-removal services, and works with homeowners, businesses, and contractors on the state and federal levels.


Monsoon Roastery LLC

250 Albany St., Springfield, MA 01105

(413) 366-1123


Tim Monson, Owner

Monsoon is an environmentally conscious community coffee roaster with the goal of helping people drink better coffee both at home and on the go. It offers a walk-up, espresso bar where customers can order coffee drinks to enjoy on an outdoor patio, or coffee cans to take home. It also offers an array of local treats from neighboring businesses.

Something Royal Party Co.

Agawam, MA

(413) 334-2548


Alexandria Holbrook, Owner

Something Royal Party Company was established in 2021, aiming to bring joy and magic to even the smallest of events. This party company specializes in live character interactions, including additional add-on services to customize an event to bring a child’s dream to life. Something Royal provides high-quality costumes, wigs, and other materials, and its characters look and act as if they walked directly out of their movies and storybooks.

Mango Fish Art / Proud of U Jewelry

Easthampton, MA

(833) 446-2646


Lori Novis, Founder

By weaving creativity with social responsibility, Mango Fish aims to empower and address women living in poverty through employment opportunities and mentoring. Founder Lori Novis later realized that the jewelry business she started while living in the Caribbean could be scaled up to showcase and highlight the official colors of educational institutions and sororities, and created the Proud of U. gift collection.

Ludlow Animal Clinic Inc.

200 Center St., #13, Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 583-4222

Dr. Eva Rodriguez, Owner

Ludlow Animal Clinic offers a variety of services to dogs and cats. It provides on-site dental treatment, vaccinations, parasite prevention, surgery, radiology, geriatric medicine, hematology laboratory services, and end-of-life counseling. Dr. Eva Rodriguez has an interest in general wellness, preventive medicine, internal medicine, and dermatology.

Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing Inc.

4 South Main St., Suite K, Haydenville, MA 01039

(413) 268-7777


Scott Cernak, CEO

For more than two decades, the team behind Western Mass Heating & Cooling serviced the residential market in Western Mass. under M.J. Moran. Spun off as a separate company in early 2020, the company has a wealth of experience in the residential HVAC and plumbing sectors. Services include indoor air quality, heating systems, cooling systems, and plumbing services.

Link to VR

501 Boylston St., 10th Floor, Boston, MA 02116

(617) 588-2109


Edward Zemba, CEO

Link to VR is an XR media agency that helps organizations implement growth-based solutions using the VR/AR platform. It offers in-house development and partnership opportunities to enterprise customers ready to leverage the transformative technology of spatial computing. Whether it’s on-boarding leadership teams or designing custom XR solutions, it strategically positions clients to realize the full potential of this computing platform.


Upscale Socks

Springfield, MA

(413) 219-3088


Lenny Underwood, Owner

Upscale’s collection of socks includes colorful, vibrant, fun, and meaningful styles for the entire family. The socks are made from 80% combed cotton, 17% spandex, and 3% nylon. Since its inception, it has supported local nonprofit organizations and schools with its Suit Your Soles campaign, matching a sock donation for every purchase. Upscale has also given away college scholarships to a deserving scholars.

Rozki Rides

Springfield, MA

(413) 314-3154


Jessica Rozki, Owner

Rozki Rides provides professional, reliable transportation services for children and teens. With door-to-door service along a diverse range of locations ranging from school to virtual learning facilitation programs to grandma’s house, Rozki gets children safely to their destination. The company also offers charter services for trips and transportation to wedding parties, showers, and other special events.

1636 North

220 Worthington St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 785-4025


Julie Molinary, Owner

Touting ‘elevated dining,’ 1636 North offers on-site dining (including outdoor seating) as well as catering services. Reflecting a variety of culinary influences, entrees range from herb-crusted New Zealand lamb chops to blackened lemon pepper salmon to Caribbean jerk chicken.

Colorful Resilience

201 Park Ave., Suite 9, West Springfield, MA 01089

(413) 213-2979


Mayrena Guerrero, CEO

Colorful Resilience is an outpatient mental-health services office that provides therapy (primarily, but not exclusively) to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, first-generation, and immigrant individuals. Due to a lack of clinical representation and cultural competency in the mental-health field, these communities have historically been underserved, and Colorful Resilience hopes to remedy such disparity.

Bridge2Homecare LLC

120 Maple St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 285-7755


Jessica Dennis, Owner

Bridge2Homecare is a healthcare agency specializing in a wide range of skilled-nursing services. Its goal is to help patients overcome an illness or injury and regain independence and self-sufficiency. It offers services for individuals who need assistance with skilled-nursing services, memory care (for those with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease), orthopedic recovery care, post-surgery recovery care, and more.

Feel Good, Shop Local


Michelle Wirth, Founder

Fueled by the COVID-19 crisis, Michelle Wirth founded Feel Good Shop Local in 2020 to ensure that local small businesses would not be left out of the online shopping and discovery experience. Focused on selling consumer lifestyle goods and services, it has brought local small businesses and artisans of Western Mass. and Northern Conn. to one online marketplace for customers to discover, shop, and have items shipped to their door.


Anderson Cleaning

103 Wayside Ave., West Springfield, MA 01089

(413) 306-5053


Anderson Gomes, President and CEO

Anderson Cleaning’s commercial services include office cleaning, healthcare cleaning, janitorial cleaning, supply management, day porter services, post-mortem cleaning, consulting services, biohazard remediation, and green cleaning. Its portfolio includes healthcare facilities, offices, retail stores, and industrial businesses. It earned Green Seal Certification, emphasizing its dedication to eco-friendly cleaning.

Appleton Corp.

800 Kelly Way, Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 536-8048


Matt Flink, President

Appleton Corp., a division of the O’Connell Companies, provides property, facilities, and asset-management services, along with accounting and financial services, to managers and owners of commercial and residential properties across New England. Its services include transportation management, real-estate services for nonprofits, troubled-asset and repositioning services, and development analysis.

Focus Springfield Community TV

1200 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 241-7500


Stephen Cary, Interim Executive Director

The mission of Focus Springfield is to improve quality of life for Springfield residents by stimulating economic development, community building, education, training, and promoting the benefits of living, learning, and working in the city. The station showcases the cultural and educational achievements of local citizens and provides training to encourage individual and community-based programming.

Gary Rome Hyundai Inc.

150 Whiting Farms Road, Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 536-4328


Gary Rome, President

In its 26 years of operation, Gary Rome Hyundai, offering new and used vehicle sales, service, and parts, has become one of the most successful Hyundai dealerships in the U.S., and was named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year for 2023. Recognized in many ways for his dealership’s community involvement and support of local organizations, Gary Rome was also named a Difference Maker by BusinessWest earlier this year.

Keiter Corp.

35 Main St., Florence, MA 01062

(413) 586-8600


Scott Keiter, President

Keiter Corp. is a construction-services company working with clients on residential, commercial, industrial, and institutional projects of all sizes. The firm is divided into four divisions: Keiter Builders (commercial and institutional construction), Keiter Homes (residential construction), Hatfield Construction (excavation, site work, and structural concrete), and Keiter Properties (real estate and rental).

Mercedes-Benz of Springfield

295 Burnett Road, Chicopee, MA 01020

(413) 624-4100


Peter and Michelle Wirth, Owners

Mercedes-Benz of Springfield serves the Springfield area from its Chicopee facility filled with the latest Mercedes-Benz vehicles. The dealership also includes an expert service center, parts center, and tires center. Factory-certified experts offer professional service, maintenance, and repairs, including one-hour express service.


MGM Springfield

One MGM Way, Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 273-5000


Chris Kelley, President and COO

MGM Springfield recently celebrated five years of operation in downtown Springfield, offering a host of slot machines and table games, numerous restaurants, a hotel, and entertainment at Symphony Hall, Roar! Comedy Club, ARIA Ballroom, the MassMutual Center, and an outdoor plaza.

Pioneer Valley Financial Group

535 East St., Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 589-1500


Charles Meyers, Edward Sokolowski, and Joseph Leonczyk, Founding Partners

Pioneer Valley Financial Group is a financial-planning service, offering services in retirement planning, business planning, asset growth, college funding, estate planning, tax planning, and risk management. It serves retirees, professionals, service members, young adults, and small and medium-sized businesses.

Polish National Credit Union

46 Main St., Chicopee, MA 01020

(413) 592-9495


James Kelly, President and CEO

Since its inception in 1921, Polish National Credit Union has grown to meet the needs of its communities, offering personal, business, insurance, and investment services. As a full-service community credit union, it now boasts eight branches located in Chicopee, Granby, Westfield, Southampton, Hampden, and Wilbraham.

Springfield Hockey LLC

1 Monarch Place

Springfield, MA 02110

(413) 746-4100


Nathan Costa, President

Springfield Hockey LLC, better known as the Springfield Thunderbirds, is the local affiliate of the St. Louis Blues and and the American Hockey League’s 2021-22 Eastern Conference champion. Playing its home games at the MassMutual Center since its inception in 2016, the team gives back to the community in multiple ways, like the Thunderbirds Foundation, Stick to Reading school programs, Hometown Salute, Frontline Fridays, and more.

Stand Out Truck

98 Lower Westfield Road, Suite 120, Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 356-0820


Mychal Connolly, President and CEO

Stand Out Truck is an advertising company with a marketing mindset and a love for traffic. Its digital mobile billboard trucks spread clients’ messages to commuters and at events. Mobile ads on the truck launch businesses, share creative projects, and tell businesses’ professional stories, and the impact is significant; vehicle advertising can generate up to 70,000 daily impressions.

Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc./Villa Rose

1428 Center St., Ludlow, MA 01056

(413) 547-6667


Tony Tavares, Owner

Tavares and Branco Enterprises owns and operates the Villa Rose Restaurant, lounge, and banquet hall, specializing in Portuguese and American cuisine. With a capacity of 150, the facility caters for parties, funerals, and weddings of 30 people or more. Villa Rose also offers breakfast and brunch for those who are looking to book a shower, seminar, business meeting, corporate functions, and more.


Springfield Partners for Community Action Inc.

721 State St, Springfield, MA 01109

(413) 263-6500


Paul Bailey, Executive Director

Springfield Partners for Community Action’s mission is to utilize and provide resources that assist people in need to obtain economic stability, ultimately creating a better way of life. It does so through home and energy services, income-tax assistance services, money-management services, transportation services, veterans’ services, and youth and family services.

Valley Opportunity Council Inc.

35 Mount Carmel Ave., Chicopee, MA 01013

(413) 552-1554


Stephen Huntley, Executive Director

The Valley Opportunity Council (VOC) is the largest and most diverse community-action agency in the region. It offers a network of support and collaborative services that include energy assistance, nutrition, early education and childcare, adult education, senior services, housing, money management, and transporation.

413 Elite Foundation

393 Belmont Ave., Springfield, MA 01108

(413) 354-8326


SirCharles Evans, Owner

The 413 Elite Foundation’s mission is to create a winning community through the game of basketball. Its purpose is to provide mentorship, education, and coaching for a broad community where children and young adults can develop life and leadership skills, and it does so by nurturing endowment, encouraging philanthropy, and promoting efficiency in the management of funds.

Second Chance Animal Services Community Veterinary Hospital

67 Mulberry St., Springfield, MA 01105

(413) 739-2343


Sheryl Blancato, CEO

Second Chance Animal Services is a nonprofit animal welfare organization that operates community veterinary hospitals in Springfield, North Brookfield, Southbridge, and Worcester; subsidized rates are provided to underserved communities. Last year, Second Chance helped more than 44,000 pets through full-service veterinary care, spay/neuter services, adoption services, community and educational outreach programs, training, and a pet-food pantry.

The Horace Smith Fund

16 Union Ave., Suite 2K, Westfield, MA 01085

(413) 739-4222


Josephine Sarnilli, Executive Director

For more than a century, the Horace Smith Fund has helped Hampden County students finance their dreams of higher education. Award opportunities are available to residents of Hampden County who have graduated from eligible local secondary or private schools. This year, the fund awarded a total of $316,000 to local students in scholarships and fellowships.

Hampden County Career Center Inc.

850 High St., Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 532-4900


David Gadaire, President and CEO

Since 1996, Hampden County Career Center Inc., now doing business as MassHire Holyoke Career Center, has been serving the workforce and economic-development needs of individual job seekers, social-service agencies, and the business community throughout Hampden County and beyond, offering a seamless service-delivery system for job seeking, career training, and employer services.


Caring Health Center

1049 Main St., Springfield, MA 01103

(413) 739-1100


Tania Barber, President and CEO

The mission of Caring Health Center is to eliminate health disparities and achieve health equity by providing accessible, value-driven healthcare for diverse, multi-ethnic communities in Western Mass. The organization provides a wide range of health services at eight locations in and around Springfield.

WestMass ElderCare Inc.

4 Valley Mill Road, Holyoke, MA 01040

(413) 538-9020


Roseann Martoccia, Executive Director

This agency’s mission is to preserve the dignity, independence, and quality of life of elders and disabled persons desiring to remain within their own community. It offers services for elders, their families and caregivers, and people with disabilities. Programs and services include supportive housing, home care, options counseling, adult family care, nutrition programs, elder mental health, family caregiver support, and health-insurance counseling.

Springfield Rescue Mission

10 Mill St., Springfield, MA 01108

(413) 732-0808


Kevin Ramsdell, Executive Director and CEO

The Springfield Rescue Mission is a leader in meeting the needs of the poor and homeless in Greater Springfield. As an emergency shelter, mobile feeding program, rehabilitation and transformation center, and transitional living facility, it provides food, shelter, clothing, medical attention, Christian counseling, literacy training, and advocacy, free of charge.

Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts

1160 Dickinson St., Springfield, MA 01108

(413) 737-4313


Nora Gorenstein, CEO

The Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts cares for Jews in need and creates vibrant Jewish life in Western Mass., Israel, and around the globe. Through its community-building and fundraising efforts, the federation supports vital educational and social-service programs locally and globally.

Revitalize Community Development Corp.

240 Cadwell Dr., Springfield, MA 01104

(413) 788-0014


Colleen Loveless, President and CEO

Revitalize CDC performs critical repairs on homes of low-income families with children, the elderly, military veterans, and people with special needs. It improves community health by addressing poor housing conditions, performing assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma, making home improvements that allow seniors to safely remain in their homes, and working with healthcare partners to address food insecurity and chronic health conditions.

Clinical & Support Options Inc.

8 Atwood Dr., Suite 301, Northampton, MA 01060

(413) 773-1314


Karin Jeffers, President and CEO

CSO’s mission is to provide responsive and effective interventions and services to support individual adults, children, and families in their quest for stability, growth, and a positive quality of life. Services include crisis and emergency services; outpatient mental health; family-support programs; community-based programs; and shelter, housing, and homelessness efforts.

Cannabis Special Coverage

The Constant Disconnect




Scott Blumsack is a general manager of Society Cannabis Co., a licensed retailer, wholesaler, and producer of cannabis products in Massachusetts. He oversees 16 full-time employees and directly serves cannabis products to customers.

He filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy, which enables individuals with regular income to develop a plan to repay all or part of their debts over time. But the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Massachusetts denied his repayment plan and dismissed his bankruptcy case.

Why? Because, while Massachusetts law permits the retail distribution of marijuana, it’s still a Schedule I controlled substance, illegal to manufacture, dispense, or possess under federal law. And when Blumsack petitioned for bankruptcy under Chapter 13, he sought to fund his plan with income from his $75,000-a-year job with Society.

Judge Elizabeth Katz agreed with the Bankruptcy Court that, because he is employed in a federally illegal activity, Blumsack could not access Chapter 13 to restructure his finances.

“This banking act has been proposed by bipartisan senators for the last six, seven, eight years, and this is the first year it made it through committee; it’s supposed to get a vote on the Senate floor.”

“There’s just an enormous disconnect between what’s allowed under Massachusetts law and what’s allowed under federal law, and the Blumsack case is a perfect example of this,” said attorney Steven Weiss, a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin in Springfield.

“He was dealing with a controlled substance; that’s where his income was coming from,” he went on. “This guy is doing something that’s perfectly legal in Massachusetts, and yet he’s barred from being entitled to federal bankruptcy relief.”

Steven Weiss

Steven Weiss says he’s surprised lawmakers haven’t moved more quickly toward decriminalizing cannabis on the federal level.

Weiss said Katz, who had taken an oath to uphold federal law, essentially found no way around this nagging disconnect between state and federal law. The case, which has made waves nationally, is being appealed.

This disconnect has thrown a number of wrenches into cannabis businesses, which, among other hurdles, grapple with an onerous tax burden since they can’t write off many of the costs other businesses can. Or, a driver with federal Department of Transportation certification could conceivably lose that license if he transports products across state lines. And attorneys have worried about taking on clients in the cannabis sector, as they are technically advising clients to break federal law.

“Even for me, as a bankruptcy trustee, what would happen if someone suggested I should be appointed trustee or receiver of a marijuana-based business? I don’t know if I could do that, even though it’s legal under Massachusetts law,” Weiss said. “If there’s a change in the presidential administration and someone decides they’re going to enforce the marijuana laws, and there’s a five-year statute of limitations on selling marijuana, am I now a dealer?”

Then there’s banking; most cannabis companies have been all-cash businesses because banks operate under federal statutes.

“The vast majority of Americans live in states with laws that depart from federal law on this issue and where thousands of regulated Main Street businesses are serving the legal cannabis market safely and responsibly.”

But that’s one area that could be changing.

Last month, the U.S. Senate Banking Committee approved the Safe and Secure Enforcement and Regulation (SAFER) Banking Act. The legislation (see story on page 40) would allow financial institutions to do business with the legal cannabis industry without fear of crossing federal banking regulations.

“This banking act has been proposed by bipartisan senators for the last six, seven, eight years, and this is the first year it made it through committee; it’s supposed to get a vote on the Senate floor,” said attorney Scott Foster, a partner with Bulkley Richardson in Springfield. “It’s not law yet, and it may not even get through the House, but you’re definitely seeing little steps moving this forward.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued an official recommendation to the Drug Enforcement Administration calling for marijuana to be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III status in the federal Controlled Substances Act.

A Schedule I classification is reserved for substances with no accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, while a Schedule III classification is reserved for substances having a legitimate medical use and a moderate to low potential for physical and psychological dependence.

Despite this difference, cannabis would still be considered a controlled substance, illegal without a valid prescription, so a reclassification wouldn’t change the law around adult-use cannabis — but it would be a small move in that direction.

Scott Foster

Scott Foster says the disconnect between federal and state laws have contributed to making cannabis “a challenging place to be. It’s not for the faint of heart.”

“Moving cannabis to Schedule III could have some limited benefit, but does nothing to align federal law with the 38 U.S. states which have already effectively regulated cannabis for medical or adult use,” said Aaron Smith, CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Assoc. “The only way to fully resolve the myriad issues stemming from the federal conflict with state law is to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and regulate the product in a manner similar to alcohol.”

Will the federal government ever do that? Stay tuned.


Green Wave

Laws to make cannabis legal for adults have passed in 23 states as well as the District of Columbia, and 38 states have laws regulating medical cannabis. Almost 80% of Americans live in a state where the substance is legal in some form.

“The vast majority of Americans live in states with laws that depart from federal law on this issue and where thousands of regulated Main Street businesses are serving the legal cannabis market safely and responsibly,” Smith said. “It’s long past time for Congress to truly harmonize federal policy with those states.”

And there has been some thawing around the edges of the state-federal disconnect. For one thing, more banks, and larger ones, are edging into the cannabis sector.

For example, calling it an underserved industry, Berkshire Bank recently launched a cannabis banking unit that provides tailored banking solutions for businesses. In a partnership with Green Check Verified, a cannabis compliance software company, Berkshire is promising clients a seamless integrated platform that includes an application process, transaction monitoring, compliance, and funds movement.

Foster said he spoke with an executive at Berkshire Bank only 18 months ago who doubted such a move could happen. “They went from ‘absolutely not’ to ‘our doors are open to cannabis.’ That’s a huge shift for a major bank in the region.”

And as more states come around to legalizing cannabis within their borders, there might eventually come a tipping point that lawmakers in Washington, D.C. can’t ignore.

Foster happened to be on a plane recently with a state senator from South Carolina, and they struck up a conversation about their respective jobs.

“He said, ‘we’re considering legalizing medical cannabis in January. Don’t you see a lot of crime?’ I said, ‘No.’ ‘Homelessness around dispensaries?’ ‘No. Quite the contrary.’

“I told him, ‘you’ve got people in your state right now who are growing cannabis. They’re very good at it. They know their stuff. They know the different strains. In my state, those people are employed at cannabis dispensaries. They have respectable jobs, they’re not underground, there’s no risk of them going to jail. In your state, they still can.’”

Weiss told BusinessWest he’s surprised at the lack of movement on decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level, if only because there’s so much money to be made by banks and other businesses that typically have the ear of lawmakers.

“It’s legal in 38 states. Even small banks are looking at opportunities to make loans or investments in the marijuana business,” he said. “And when Wall Street can make money on something, the law will change. That may be a cynical view of the world, but I’m sort of surprised that marijuana hasn’t become at least quasi-legal federally right now. Right now, the way the industry is operating, the government just turns a blind eye to it.”

Until someone like Blumsack gets caught in the crossfire, or until cannabis business struggle under the weight of much higher business costs and much greater challenges than other sectors when it comes to real estate, transportation, security, or any number of other factors.

“I don’t know all the ways that’s going to shake out,” Weiss said. “That inconsistency is a problem for everybody. If somebody wants to change the law, that’s up to Congress.”

A Congress that, if anyone hasn’t noticed, doesn’t like working in a bipartisan way on very much these days.


The Next Generation

The landscape on some of these matters may still shift. Foster cited a recent decision from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Central District of California in which a cannabis business, the Hacienda Co. LLC, was able to obtain bankruptcy protection, but only after transferring its cannabis assets to a third party. “The decision by the court could be seen as a roadmap for other companies seeking bankruptcy protection,” he noted, “but only for a complete liquidation, not a restructuring.”

Meanwhile, Foster believes federal decriminalization is coming … eventually.

“We still have octogenarians running parts of the government, and they grew up with ‘drugs are bad,’ and that’s something that’s difficult to overcome,” he told BusinessWest. “Twenty, 25 years from now, it will probably be legal, and everyone will look back and say, ‘that was kind of silly.’ But right now, people have ideas deeply ingrained in them by their church, society, family, personal experience, and they’re not going to get over that. They’re just not.”

Until they are — or a new generation of leaders emerges — the juxtaposition between state and federal law will continue to cause problems in this still-nascent industry.

“It’s still a challenging place to be,” Foster said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Insurance Special Coverage

Selling Peace of Mind


Rewarding Insurance Agency owners

Rewarding Insurance Agency owners Lidia Rodríguez and Miguel Rivera.




While their insurance agency has been serving clients in Greater Holyoke for the past several years, Miguel Rivera and Lidia Rodríguez’s story in this sector goes back further than that.

“We started in the insurance business in 2009 in Puerto Rico,” Rivera said. “My wife and I were both insurance agents on the island. I used to sell cars, but I was tired of working six to seven days a week. So I found the insurance industry, and we fell in love with it.”

Their main focus — life and health insurance, mainly for an older clientele — was born from tragedy.

Back in 2009, “we were having a difficult time because my uncle died with cancer. And my aunt died with kidney failure two years later,” Rivera explained. “And I realized that I wasn’t doing my job, because my cousins ended up living in three different places because they didn’t have life insurance.”

So the couple became students of life insurance, and when they moved to Massachusetts, they started selling it in 2016, and it became a key niche when they launched Rewarding Insurance Agency in 2018.

They had no business office at first, and in late 2019, they began renting space at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce. But that was never going to be a long-term solution, especially as the agency grew to more than 1,000 clients.

“We want to be the most complete Latino-owned life, health, auto, home, and business insurance agency in the region; that’s what will make us a unique agency.”

So, earlier this month, Rivera and Rodríguez celebrated another milestone, opening their own office and storefront on Maple Street in downtown Holyoke, which the chamber marked with a ribbon-cutting event.

“It is so incredible to have seen the growth from Miguel and Lidia since they began working in our office,” said Jordan Hart, the chamber’s executive director. “Being the only bilingual insurance agency in downtown, where many residents are native Spanish speakers and live nearby, they recognized the need to accommodate their growing elder Latino customers with life insurance, notarizations, and health insurance, and completely pivoted their business, and now we can welcome them at their own space.”

Rewarding Insurance has its own downtown office

After more than three years sharing office space with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Rewarding Insurance has its own downtown office and storefront.

Indeed, Rivera said, “first, we started selling life insurance, and then we added Medicare Advantage, which is health insurance for seniors. And we are planning to add auto, home, and business insurance in January.”

Rivera said Rewarding is a relatively unique agency in that it serves mostly Hispanic seniors, which he feels has been an underserved population.

“We love our community. Our goal is to educate them in a way that they can understand what it means to have life insurance, because there is a lot of misunderstanding out there; they feel comfortable coming here and asking questions. And we also go to their house or their apartment to orient them about the insurance,” Rodríguez added. “And if something happens to them, the beneficiary can come here and ask questions. We don’t leave them alone in the process. We are with the family during the whole process.”


Planning for a Crisis

Rodríguez noted that ‘final expenses’ insurance, as it’s known, is an affordable type of life insurance that many people aren’t aware of.

“A funeral is really expensive; we’re talking $12,000 to $15,000. So how do they find that kind of money?”

Rivera agreed. “We encourage people to have life insurance so the family doesn’t have to collect donations and or do GoFundMe or things like that,” he said, adding that anyone can qualify for final-expense insurance. “People think that if they are too old, they don’t qualify for life insurance, but they do qualify for final expenses.”

That’s important during times of crisis, Rodríguez said. “It gives them peace of mind so that, ‘OK, I can focus now on healing because I have the financial cover. Let the insurance company cover all this for me.’”

On both the life- and health-insurance side, Rewarding Insurance has established contracts with leading insurance carriers to provide a diverse range of options, Rivera said. “When we meet with a client, we find the best plan for them.”

The agency’s focus on older clients came about organically, he added, based on the needs of the community.

“It was word of mouth; people want to do their life insurance and health insurance in the same place, so we’re trying to make it simple for our clients. And with the health-insurance plans, we give them access to services that help them have a better quality of life — access to durable equipment, food, over-the-counter medications. We help them save money on co-payments and deductibles. We find transportation for them.

“People love to come here and find the best health insurance plan that they can qualify for,” he went on. “We have access to CCA, Fallon Health, UnitedHealth, Health New England, Aetna, all those plans that are the top carriers here in Massachusetts. And depending on the doctor’s network and depending on their Medicare status, we find the best plan for them. We make sure their doctors take the plan they’re enrolled in. That’s the main focus.”

The agency also offers critical-illness insurance, a supplemental product that puts money in one’s pocket in case of an illness or an accident.

“So we are protecting families in case of illness or death or an accident,” Rivera said, adding that Rewarding also does 401(k)-to-IRA rollovers and helps clients make retirement-planning decisions around that savings vehicle. “So we help them protect their families financially with health, life, critical illness, and also their assets with IRAs.”

Jordan Hart

Jordan Hart

“It is so incredible to have seen the growth from Miguel and Lidia since they began working in our office.”

Those services, as noted earlier, will expand further with the addition of home, auto, and business insurance to the practice at the start of 2024.

“We want to be the most complete Latino-owned life, health, auto, home, and business insurance agency in the region; that’s what will make us a unique agency,” Rivera noted. “We will be a one-stop shop for all your insurance needs.”


Community Focused

Having grown into a new space and with new services on the horizon, Rodríguez said she expects more growth and a bigger agency in the future. And the couple both said their niche serving the area’s Hispanic community has been personally fulfilling.

“Holyoke is about 50% Hispanic, and about 90% of our clients are Hispanic — not because that’s what we wanted it to be, but that’s how it ended up being,” Rivera said, noting that Rewarding Insurance serves English- and Spanish-speaking clients with equal effectiveness.

“The Latino community feels very comfortable coming here,” he added. “English-speaking people have many insurance agencies to go to, but Latinos don’t have too many places here in this region where they can go and feel comfortable. We take time with them, explaining to them how everything works.

“We love it here. This is is the space we were looking for,” he added. “We can have meetings and workshops here. We have all the resources we need here. And the people feel comfortable coming here. They don’t want to leave.”

That was one of the goals, Rodríguez added: to create a comfortable, home-like environment for talking about critical issues of insurance and life planning.

“This is for them. This is their place where they can come and ask questions. We answer the phone, and now they know where to find us, too,” she told BusinessWest. “And we love our senior community, but we want to serve their families, too. We know that, once the family knows what we do, they’re going to do other kinds of life insurance with us. That’s what we want to do — not only serve them, but serve their sons, their granddaughters, everyone in the house.”

Rivera said it’s gratifying to get positive feedback in the community.

“My wife was at the supermarket the other day, and a client said, ‘hey, tell your husband I’m thankful because we’re saving money in co-payments and deductibles.’ So people are thankful, and we are glad.

“We just want to thank the community for their support,” he added. “Holyoke has been very welcoming. People say stuff about Holyoke, and Holyoke is not perfect, but we feel welcome here. We love the diversity here in Holyoke, and we are glad that we are in a good position and expanding here.”

Rodríguez agreed. “It’s satisfying when families come here and say, ‘thank you for everything you do.’ That is our goal: to continue to provide services that our community needs.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Robin Grimm says Sturbridge appealed to her for many reasons

Robin Grimm says Sturbridge appealed to her for many reasons, from its beauty to its sense of history to its enthusiastic celebration of that history.

Officials in many different communities like to say they’re ‘at the crossroads’ — of their region or even New England.

In Sturbridge … they mean it.

Indeed, this community of just under 10,000 people sits at the intersection of the Mass. Pike and I-84, which begins in the town and winds its way southwest through Hartford and into New York and Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Route 20, a state highway, and the main east-west corridor before the Pike was built, runs through the town and forms its main commercial artery.

Most area cities and towns also like to say that they have ‘something for everyone.’

In Sturbridge … they mean it.

There are hotels, restaurants, and taverns, as well as campgrounds, hiking trails, and kayaking on the Quaboag River. There’s shopping and antiques (Brimfield is right next door, and there are many shops in Sturbridge itself). There are a few brewpubs, a distillery, and even axe throwing. There’s foliage (many tours of New England’s fall colors end here) and the famous shrine at St. Anne and St. Patrick Parish.

“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis. And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.”

Between the accessibility and the all the things to do — and the two qualities are obviously very much related — there are always considerably more than 10,000 people in Sturbridge at any given time.

Some visitors get off those aforementioned roads on their way to somewhere else and often shop, eat, or both. But, more importantly for the town, the region, and the businesses within, many stay for a night or two … or three.

They come for business meetings and conventions; to look at foliage; to camp or park RVs at the two RV parks; to take in the three Brimfield Flea Markets in May, June, and September; for the annual Harvest Festival, staged earlier this month; and to converge for the Pan-Mass Challenge, the bike ride to raise money for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, which features a route that starts in Sturbridge and winds 109 miles southeast to Bourne.

Terry Masterson says Sturbridge’s trails, campgrounds

Terry Masterson says Sturbridge’s trails, campgrounds, and RV parks are an often-overlooked but important element in the town’s status as a true destination.

And they come for weddings.

Neither Town Administrator Robin Grimm nor Terry Masterson, the town’s Economic Development and Tourism coordinator, know exactly how many, but they know it’s a big number.

“Weddings are a cottage industry here,” said Grimm, noting that a combination of venues (such as the Publick House Historic Inn and Country Lodge and the Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center), beauty, and position in the middle of the state (and the middle of New England, for that matter) make Sturbridge a popular wedding location.

Alexandra McNitt, director of the Chamber of Central Mass South for the past 17 years, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the community’s location, in the very middle of the state and on major highways, makes it a logical choice for meetings and conventions involving state associations, business groups, and families planning reunions and other types of get-togethers.

“If you were the Mass. association of anything, Sturbridge is ideal, because we’re dead center — it’s equidistant from the Berkshires to Hyannis,” she said. “And it’s less expensive than Marlboro or going even closer to Boston.

“And with families and friends getting together … I can’t tell you how many times we get people who call us and say, ‘I live in Maine, I have some friends coming up from New York or Pennsylvania, and they’re coming to Sturbridge because it’s halfway for both of them,’” she went on. “It happens all the time. So we benefit from this location on the personal level, with small-meeting groups and any kind of state clubs or associations.”

Overall, between the hotels, RV parks, Old Sturbridge Village, the Brimfield antique shows, and the weddings, events, and meetings, Sturbridge draws more than a half-million visitors a year.

And those who find the town will now be able to more easily find out about all there is to do there, and in the surrounding region, with the opening of a new home for the chamber, one that includes a visitors center on River Road, just off exit 5 of I-84 (more on that later).

Meanwhile, there is another potential new draw for this already-popular destination with the planned opening of a combination truck stop and what’s being called an ‘electric-vehicle discovery center,’ said Masterson, where motorists can learn about EV ownership and potentially test-drive vehicles from various manufacturers.

For this installment of its ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Sturbridge and how it takes full advantage of its accessibility, beauty, and increasingly diverse business community.


Staying Power

Grimm, formerly a town administrator in Stoughton, just south of Boston, and administrator or assistant administrator in several communities in Rhode Island, where she grew up, told BusinessWest that she wasn’t exactly looking for a job when Sturbridge posted for a town administrator early in 2022. But there were many things about the position that appealed to her, from its beauty to its sense of history to its enthusiastic celebration of that history.

“Sturbridge has always been a favorite community for me — there isn’t a kid in Rhode Island who doesn’t take a visit to Old Sturbridge Village,” she said. “I love rural communities, and when an opportunity to work in this part of Massachusetts came up, my ears perked up.

“Sturbridge is particularly unique,” she went on, “because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”

Masterson, who came to Sturbridge in 2020, has a somewhat similar story. Formerly an Economic Development administrator in Northampton, he said he came to Sturbridge and a similar post there because of that same blend of history and business development. “I enjoy history, so the job posting piqued my interest, and I came and interviewed.”

Masterson said the importance of tourism, hospitality, meetings, and conventions to Sturbridge, and the manner in which all this dominates the local economy, becomes clear as he breaks down the tourism business base, which includes nearly 100 businesses of all sizes.

Visitors to Sturbridge

Visitors to Sturbridge will find information on the community’s many attractions and tourism-related businesses at the new visitors center.

Indeed, there are 11 hotels located in the community, which together boast roughly 1,000 rooms, he said. There are 24 ‘eating establishments,’ three coffee and tea houses, six dessert or ice-cream shops, six brew pubs, five wineries, three orchards, three wedding venues, 17 specialty shops, four RV parks and campsites, five nature trails covering 35 miles, and two golf courses.

All this explains why Sturbridge, which boasts a rich history — Grimm says the Revolutionary War is still a big part of the town’s “culture” — has become such a destination.

Masterson noted that its popularity as a stop, for a few hours or a few days, is made clear in statistics regarding spending on meals; the town has been averaging $63 million annually since 2017, with a high of $72 million in 2022. By comparison, Northampton, a community well known for its stable of fine restaurants, averages $93 million annually.

The hotels have high occupancy rates in spring, summer, and fall, said McNitt, adding that they, and the restaurants, get a huge boost from the Brimfield antiques shows, the first of which, in May, is the unofficial start to the busy season. “That first May show is a huge shot in the arm for the hotels and restaurants; that kicks off the season, and then we’ll be flying until Thanksgiving.”

These numbers, and those regarding overall visitorship, obviously make Sturbridge a popular landing spot for tourism- and hospitality-related businesses, said Masterson, adding that there has been a steady stream of new arrivals in recent years, including several this year.

“Sturbridge is particularly unique, because it’s an unusual combination of the beautiful, rural, foothill feel that you get as you start moving west in Massachusetts, and what happens when you have the reality of the intersection of two major highways.”

They include everything from Wicked Licks, an ice-cream shop that opened on Route 20 near the entrance to Old Sturbridge Village; Tutt Quanti, an Italian restaurant; Heal and Local Roots, two cannabis dispensaries along Route 20; D’Errico’s, an upper-end meat purveyor taking space in the Local Roots facility; and Teddy G’s Pub & Grille, which is occupying the former Friendly’s location on Route 20.


Meeting Expectations

In addition to its meeting, convention, and wedding business, Sturbridge and the surrounding area boasts a number of historical and cultural attractions, parks, orchards, trails, golf courses, and other forms of recreation.

Topping that impressive list, of course, is Old Sturbridge Village, one of the nation’s oldest and largest living-history museums, with 40 restored antique buildings, a working farm, two covered bridges, and much more. OSV draws 250,000 visitors a year and hosts hundreds of school field trips, as it has for decades.

There’s also Sturbridge Common, the picturesque town founded in the 1730s, which was, during the Revolutionary War, the site of militia drills and the collection of military supplies, as well as St. Anne Shrine, which has been welcoming pilgrims praying for physical and spiritual healing since 1888.

Sturbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1738
Population: 9,867
Area: 39.0 square miles
County: Worcester
Residential Tax Rate: $18.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.07
Median Household Income: $56,519
Family Household Income: $64,455
Type of government: Town Administrator, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: OFS Optics, Old Sturbridge Village, Arland Tool & Manufacturing Inc., Sturbridge Host Hotel & Conference Center
* Latest information available

Perhaps less well-known, but increasingly popular — and important to the business community — are the trails, campgrounds, RV parks, and open spaces in Sturbridge.

“We have more than 450 RV pads, which I conservatively estimate will draw more than 100,000 people a year between April and October,” said Masterson, adding that the RV parks, as well as the trails and campgrounds, enabled Sturbridge to continue to draw large numbers of visitors during COVID.

The new chamber office and visitors’ center will help provide more information to those who come to Sturbridge for all those reasons listed above, said McNitt, adding that the town had such a facility years ago, saw it close, but recognized the need to resurrect it.

And many of the businesses and venues that it spotlights helped make this move possible, including the donation of a building for the facility.

“The community has really come together to support this initiative,” McNitt noted, adding that a painting-business owner has volunteered time and talent to paint the facility, while the Publick House donated landscaping, and other businesses have chipped in as well. “It’s definitely been a community effort; they wanted this to come back.”

As for the planned service center and EV discovery center now nearing the finish line, it is one of several such facilities being developed by partners Michael Frisbie and Abdul Tammo, co-owners of Hartford-based Noble Gas Inc. The two partners are building what they tout as a new generation of larger service centers, complete with high-speed electric-vehicle charging stations and a host of other amenities, including an ice-cream shop and outdoor picnic areas.

“If you have an electric vehicle, it’s not like filling your gas tank,” said McNitt, explaining the concept as she understands it. “It doesn’t happen in three minutes; even with a high-speed charger, it takes 20 to 30 minutes, so they’re trying to create an environment that’s friendly toward that.”

It’s just one more way Sturbridge is creating an environment friendly to all kinds of recreation seekers who arrive here at the crossroads.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 184: October 23, 2023

Joe talks with Jody Hagemann, senior director of Sales Engineering for Comcast Business

Everyone has heard of cybersecurity, but not every business knows exactly what it takes to keep them protected. The most effective defenses not only incorporate the latest technology, but emphasize employee education, training, and plain old common sense to reduce the chances of human error — which is a factor in far too many breaches. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Jody Hagemann, senior director of Sales Engineering for Comcast Business, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about the multi-pronged strategy Comcast relates to its clients, why more companies are taking data threats seriously — and why they should. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 183: October 16, 2023

George O’Brien talks with Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders

The housing crisis gripping Western Massachusetts and most of the Bay State has deep roots and a broad impact, affecting everything from homelessness in area communities to the region’s ability to effectively compete with other states and regions for talent and jobs. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Keith Fairey, president and CEO of Way Finders, talks with writer George O’Brien about how we got here, how the crisis has impacted area communities, and how the region recovers from decades of underinvestment in new housing in nearly all categories. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

Analysis of a Crisis


Keith Fairey says the housing crisis gripping the region, the state, and many parts of the country didn’t happen overnight.

“We got here over decades of underinvesting in housing production nationally, and not tuning that production to the needs and demographic changes of communities,” Fairey, president and CEO of Springfield-based Way Finders, noted as he summed up the problem succinctly yet effectively, before noting that a resolution to the matter won’t come overnight, either.

But, in many respects, the state — and this region — don’t have a lot of time, said Fairey and all those we spoke with on this matter, because that word ‘crisis’ is not hyperbole.

It’s real, and it’s a crisis — often called ‘the affordable housing crisis’ — that has a broad impact: everything from increases in homelessness to a decline in the overall health and well-being of the region (housing is a key social determinant of health); from a stifling of growth in cities and towns (many of which stand to benefit from a COVID-induced desire among some to leave larger metropolitan areas for a more rural place to work remotely) to a competitive disadvantage for the region and the state when it comes to business and economic development.

Indeed, employers across all sectors are trying to attract and retain talent, and their assignment is made that much more difficult if qualified applicants can’t find affordable housing. Or any housing.

“One of the things we have to do is make sure Massachusetts remains a competitive state for years to come, and one of the main indicators of whether you are competitive is ‘can people afford to live in this state?’” said state Sen. John Velis, a member of the Senate’s Housing Committee who represents the 4th Hampden District, which includes the gateway cities of Westfield and Holyoke and parts of Chicopee, as well as West Springfield, Agawam, Easthampton, and several other communities. “And the real demographic that scares me is the 20- to 35-year-olds, those who are just getting started; to that extent, that we’re having a lot of outmigration.”

Elaborating, Velis, among others, said the housing crisis involves every level of housing and many different constituencies, from renters facing steep hikes in what they have to pay every month — with many now totally priced out — to homeowners and would-be homeowners facing both shortages in every price range and prices that have skyrocketed, due mostly to those shortages of inventory.

And the situation has only been exacerbated by mortgage rates — now approaching 8% — that are prompting homeowners to stay where they are and pay 2% or 3%, rather than trade up or scale down (in the case of retiring Baby Boomers), leaving fewer starter homes and houses in the middle price range.

“We got here over decades of underinvesting in housing production nationally, and not tuning that production to the needs and demographic changes of communities.”

The full extent of the housing crisis in this region is spelled out in the Greater Springfield Housing Study, undertaken in conjunction with the UMass Amherst Donahue Institute, said Fairey, noting that it showed a housing-supply gap of 11,000 units in the Pioneer Valley projected for 2022, expected to grow to 19,000 units by 2025 “if we don’t do something.”

In most respects, the crisis comes down to the simple laws of supply and demand, said those we spoke with. There is more demand than supply, and there has been for some time.

Keith Fairey

Keith Fairey says the housing crisis has been years in the making and results from several factors, including a lack of investment in new housing.

Creating more supply is challenging on many levels. Developers must be incentivized to build housing across all categories — not just at the very high and lower ends, said Velis, adding that municipalities must adjust their zoning laws to accept more housing, and these cities and towns, and those who live within them, must do more than support more housing anywhere but in their communities (more on that later).

All those we spoke with point to a pending housing bond bill as a huge factor in efforts to stem the crisis and start the pendulum swinging back when it comes to those laws of supply and demand.

The last such bill, passed in 2018, totaled $1.8 billion for what Fairey called a “market basket of programs,” including initiatives to create more workforce housing, supportive housing, public housing, and other types of inventory. This bill needs to be even bigger, he said, adding, “this is a critical moment for the state.”

“We have to make sure that this housing bond bill that we do is large enough, robust enough, expansive enough to really, really start to push back, to really build units, and to deal with all components of the housing crisis.”

Velis agreed. “We have to make sure that this housing bond bill that we do is large enough, robust enough, expansive enough to really, really start to push back, to really build units, and to deal with all components of the housing crisis,” he said, adding that there is not likely to be another housing bond bill for some time. “It has to be all inclusive to all of the challenges.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the housing crisis, how we got here, and what needs to happen now.


The Pressure Is Building

As he talked with BusinessWest, Velis, was preparing for deployment as a National Guardsman in ongoing efforts to assist at shelters and hotels in various communities as the state struggles mightily with an influx of migrants.

Gov. Maura Healey declared a state of emergency during the summer because of the strain on the shelter system, and on Aug. 31, she activated up to 250 members of the National Guard, with Velis, a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves and the only Guardsman currently serving in the state Legislature, being one of them.

John Velis

John Velis, seen here with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and Gov. Maura Healey, says communities must think outside the box and be more accepting of new housing.

He wasn’t exactly sure where his assignment would take him, but he was sure the influx of migrants represents just another facet of the housing crisis and another grim reminder that solutions are needed — and soon.

“These folks [migrants] are going to hotels, they’re going to colleges and universities,” he said, with discernable exasperation in his voice. “At some point in time, someone is going to ask the question — and it’s going to be me, because I’ve already asked it — ‘when they’re done with their temporary hotels and done with their temporary shelters, where are they going? We don’t have the housing stock. Where are they going to live?’”

The question ‘where are they going to live?’ applies to more than migrants, of course. It applies to a number of constituencies and almost every community in the region, from the larger cities to the smaller towns.

Indeed, as BusinessWest continued its Community Spotlight series this year, talking with business leaders and elected and appointed officials in dozens of municipalities, housing was cited repeatedly as an area of concern — and urgency.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia was one of those elected leaders, and he reiterated what he told BusinessWest back in March — that the housing situation in his city, as in many others, is, in a word, dire.

And as he talked about it, he said the crisis extends across the full spectrum of housing. While much of the recent developments have involved affordable housing, there is still a need for more. Meanwhile, there is an urgent need for market-rate housing, such as that which exits at one of the city’s redevelopment success stories, the Cubit building, where there is a lengthy waiting list for the loft apartments, and also transitional housing for an unfortunately growing homeless population.

“It’s underinvestment, poor planning, and, truth be told, a fair amount of resistance to change and development from different towns and communities that are all about preserving character, and not thinking about what future needs will be and how to keep cities and towns vibrant.”

“Right now, Holyoke is number three, per capita, in the whole state when it comes to children enrolled in our school district that are homeless,” Garcia told BusinessWest. “It’s more than Springfield, more than Worcester, more than Boston. We have families that are in shelters looking for transitional housing; we need more of it.”

It also needs much more market-rate housing, he went on, while relating a conversation he and other city officials had with leaders at a relatively new in business in town, Clean Crop Technologies on Dwight Street, while getting a tour of the facilities.

“We asked them what they needed from us,” he recalled. “We’re thinking they’re going to say they want the roads or sidewalks better, or improved lighting, but to our surprise, they said, ‘we need housing options down here.’”

Elaborating, Garcia said that, while many people commute to Holyoke to work, many would like to live and work there, and at present, many are finding that a challenge.

Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, agreed. He noted that there are many who would like to live and work in Northampton, but for far too many, only the first part of that equation is attainable.

“There’s housing available in Northampton for sale, but are they affordable for the working class and for younger people?” he asked, answering his own question by saying that, in most cases, the answer is ‘no.’

Meanwhile, there have been efforts to build more affordable housing, but many people don’t qualify to live in such units because they earn too much or too little.

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia

Summing up the crisis succinctly, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia says that “what we need is rapid housing construction.”

“They’re never in that sweet spot,” Jackson noted. “And it takes developers months to sell these units because they go through hundreds of applications, and finding people who qualify on all fronts is a real challenge. So those properties can sit vacant.”


Addressing the Problem

Getting back to how we got here, Fairey said the state, and the nation, were essentially caught flatfooted as the Baby Boom generation continued to age, live longer, and age in place — and not build enough housing, especially affordable housing, for the Millennials and other generations to follow.

“Housing for workforce and for middle-income people hasn’t been produced, and at the same time, the cost of that production has increased very dramatically,” he explained. “So if folks look at it from an economic standpoint, they’re only going to build high-end houses because, in order to recoup your money, you need to sell at a high price. But that puts a gap in our marketplace for starter homes.

“It’s underinvestment, poor planning, and, truth be told, a fair amount of resistance to change and development from different towns and communities that are all about preserving character, and not thinking about what future needs will be and how to keep cities and towns vibrant,” he went on, adding that there are some area communities where some progress is being made — although very little of it has come quickly or easily.

He mentioned Amherst, where Way Finders has completed — after 10 years of resistance — Butternut Farm, an affordable-housing community featuring 27 apartments in farmhouse-style buildings set on four acres. It’s described as “a quiet, rural setting with plenty of open space and easy access to surrounding communities.”

Amherst has also put out an RFP for housing in a surplus school, and it has acquired land for more affordable housing, he said, adding that the community has also created an affordable-housing trust to put more units in the pipeline long-term.

Northampton has taken similar steps, earmarking a surplus school for affordable housing, and several other communities, such as South Hadley, have created what are known as 40R zones, which promote compact residential and mixed-use developments in areas near transit stations, commercial centers, or other suitable locations, while leaving the surrounding land untouched.

“There are towns that are beginning to realize need and create opportunities for investment,” said Fairey, adding that considerably more work will be needed if housing supplies are going to approach demand.

In the meantime, if individuals and families cannot find housing they can afford, or any housing at all, in a given state or region, they will simply go somewhere else. And the outmigration statistics regarding the Bay State bear this out.

The Pioneer Institute reported recently on IRS data showing that net outmigration from Massachusetts is accelerating rapidly. Between 2019 and 2021, the state rose from ninth to fourth among all states in net outmigration of wealth, behind only California, New York, and Illinois. And while the so-called ‘millionaire’s tax’ — and high taxes in general — are cited as perhaps the biggest reason for this outmigration, soaring housing prices are also considered a key factor, especially among younger generations.

“The main demographic that’s leaving Massachusetts, that we know of empirically, is the 20- to 35-year-olds,” Velis said. “I know this is an antiquated notion, but living in that house with the picket fence, being a homeowner, is becoming more and more elusive in Massachusetts. So what we’re seeing is states like Tennessee and North Carolina really eating our lunch in this regard; we have data that they’re going there.”

Fairey agreed, noting that, while the state has many strong selling points when it comes to attracting businesses — and people — housing stock certainly isn’t one of them.

“We can talk about all the great potential we have here in Western Massachusetts — we have wonderful higher-education institutions, we don’t have the traffic and other things that you have in Eastern Mass., we have great access north-south, and we have space for both residential development and commercial development of all types. But what you can’t say to someone you’re trying to bring here is that we have enough housing for them.”

Garcia joined that chorus, saying Holyoke is in a growth mode and wants to add more businesses and more jobs, but is being hindered in that assignment by a lack of housing across the spectrum.

“We’re trying to grow our population and bring in new businesses, but we can’t achieve our economic-development objectives and move to the extent that we know we can if we don’t have more housing for all spectrums,” he explained. “Right now, we’re stuck. What we need is rapid housing construction.”


Homing In on Solutions

To stem this tide, make the state more competitive, and address the many side effects of the housing crisis, including a rise in homelessness, the simple answer is to build more housing. Only, it’s not that simple.

“We need to do everything in our power to encourage more building,” said Velis, adding that, while the state has done an adequate job of incentivizing the building of low-income housing, it has to be better at encouraging creation of more inventory in the other categories.

“The reality is that, if you’re a developer, part of your equation is to make money,” he went on. “If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, unfortunately, there just isn’t the money to be made in low-income housing in the same way that there is in market-rate housing and other categories.”

Velis noted that initiatives like HDIP (the Housing Development Incentive Program) — passed as part of a recent tax-reform package to generate more development of market-rate housing in gateway cities — will hopefully encourage more building in that category. Still, more must be done to encourage efforts that will bring about more inventory.

“Developers want to make money, and guess what? They’re not evil for wanting to make money; that’s their job,” he went on. “Because the pressure valve is so intense now, if you can help market-rate housing, you’ll also help low-income housing, and if you help low-income housing, you’re also going to help market-rate housing.”

Overall, HDIP is expected the lift the current cap on market-rate housing incentives from $10 million to $57 million, which Velis believes will clear the backlog of projects currently on the drawing board statewide and generate $4 billion in private investment that will create 12,500 new homes in gateway cities.

This will help, but more must be done on the state level to encourage building, he said. “I would argue that communities, in many respects, have not been given the tools they need to combat this crisis. We haven’t done a good enough job of incentivizing developers to do this kind of work.”

“We’re trying to grow our population and bring in new businesses, but we can’t achieve our economic-development objectives and move to the extent that we know we can if we don’t have more housing for all spectrums. Right now, we’re stuck.”

That said, Velis noted that more communities need to support additional housing within their borders, not anywhere but, which remains a lingering sentiment.

“Many people don’t want to acknowledge this, but NIMBY is a real-world thing,” he said. “And if everyone continues to say, ‘we need to build … just not here,’ then we have a real problem. And I would argue that we’re getting dangerously close, perilously close, to being there. If every community cites reasons why they can’t be the place for us to build new housing units, then we’re going to implode.”

He said Massachusetts needs to start thinking outside the box and perhaps adopting a new approach — or, at least, a new slant on an old one.

Indeed, for some time, the state has employed a carrot-and-stick approach when it comes to incentivizing municipalities to facilitate the building of new housing units, said Velis, adding that, if more do not agree to become part of the solution, then maybe the state needs to focus on the stick more than the carrot.

“The paradigm has changed, and if communities won’t, of their own volition, say, ‘we’re going to build this,’ even with the incentives that we’re offering, at some point in time, you can get to a point where you have two options,” he said. “One is to do nothing, and Massachusetts will become the most difficult place, the most untenable place, to live in the country from a housing standpoint. Or we can say, ‘we’ve tried every carrot imaginable to encourage building, and now, we’re going to switch it up a bit and go down the path of sticks. If you don’t want to build, that’s your prerogative, but we just want you to know that, if you’re not following the law and you’re not building, then these are the state funds that you could find yourself no longer eligible for.’”

Fairey echoed Velis’ thoughts on the pending bond bill, and how it provides real hope for reversing the trends regarding supply and demand — if it’s big enough and bold enough.

“It’s unclear what the number will be — it will be bigger than $1.8 billion,” he said. “But the needs are quite significant.”

Construction Special Coverage

Setting Their Sites

Marois Construction

Marois Construction recently converted this single-family farmhouse built around 1860 into a three-story, 30-unit housing complex (top).


Construction is a lot like the mail. Projects have to be delivered on time, regardless of the weather.

And to say it’s been a rainy year is an undertstatement.

“Weather is a common occurrence in the construction industry. And, depending on what we have going on at any particular time, we typically have to continue operations, as long as it’s not a total washout,” said Carl Mercieri, vice president of Marois Construction in South Hadley.

On one day of downpours in mid-September, he recalled, “our crews were in the field. They were tying rebar for footings for a project they were doing for the Chicopee Water Department. They braved the weather and set up some collapsible canopies.

“Our project schedules don’t take weather into consideration. So we’ve got to complete them,” Mercieri added. “And not only that, but the crews doing that job need to move on to another job. So we do the best we can with what we got to work with. And, you know, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and the weather is not changing here in New England.”

But plenty else has changed in construction over the past 50 years, and Marois Construction — founded by company President Joe Marois in 1972 — celebrated that half-century milestone last year. Those changes run the gamut from new technology to cutting-edge materials to modern priorities in the building world, especially around green, energy-efficient building.

Through all of it, Marois has steadily built a solid reputation, and its current workload reflects that.

“Backing up a year, 2022 was a stellar year, and in 2023, we got off to the same start,” Mercieri said “Every year is a little bit different, though. This year has been a bit quirky. We’ve had a lot on our books, but for one reason or another, we’ve had some projects that got delayed.

“And then, of course, summer is our busy season, with all the college and school work. So we were working six days a week. Typically, when September rolls around, we start to slow down, and things get back to normal,” he went on. “But when those projects that actually got started got delayed, they all came to life in September. So we’re not seeing any slowdown here, looking at the third quarter and toward the end of the year. So it looks like it’s going to be another really good year for us.”


Broad Range of Expertise

Marois performs both public and private work, both new construction and renovations, across a range of sectors, including commercial, industrial, and educational projects, Mercieri said.

“Right now we’re doing a branch bank … we’ve got a couple of schools that we’re doing, kitchen renovations in schools. We’re also building a police department for one of the local municipalities.”

Carl Mercieri

Carl Mercieri

“I’d say probably 70% of the guys in the workforce are closer to retirement age than not. So it’s extremely important that we get some of the younger people in.”

This diversity can be a positive in an uncertain economy.

“With all the ARPA money out there, there’s a lot of school work going in the public sector,” he added. “And we’re seeing a trend toward the private schools and charter schools. We’ve got one that we’re working on right now out in Stockbridge.”

In the post-pandemic world, contractors have been faced with a number of challenges all at once, from the impact of inflation to supply shortages. Mercieri said those trends are starting to subside, but not as quickly as most would like.

“We continue to see issues. There seems to be longer lead times on products,” he noted, citing doors and windows as examples. “A few years ago, before COVID, we could call in an order in the morning for hollow metal door frames and have them by in the afternoon. Now, we’re seeing a lead time of several weeks, which really impacts the schedule.

“For a while there, lumber was scarce, but lumber seems to have rebounded,” he added. “Prices have come down somewhat, but they really didn’t get back to where they were.”

And when supplies and equipment are difficult to procure or beset by delays, “it keeps the project going. You can’t close it out, even though it’s substantially complete. So one of the things that we deal with is that, going into a project, you can anticipate these delays, but you really can’t put a finger on how long the delays are going to be; it really depends on the manufacturer’s production line and what they’re doing.”

In one case this year, involving a generator, he was given a delivery date of April, and a week or two before it was supposed to ship, the date was pushed to June, then it was pushed again to August.

“We ended up getting it the first or second week of September,” he went on. “So you have no control over that, and it’s an unfortunate situation. And we don’t know where the problem lies; we don’t know if it’s a matter of materials on the manufacturer’s end or labor or a combination of both. But it has a pretty big impact on the construction industry, for sure.”

So has a persistent workforce shortage, one that has affected many industries lately. “It’s tough, but that’s been a trending issue over the years; I don’t think that’s anything new in this industry,” Mercieri said.

“Ninety percent of it is showing up every day; 10% is paying attention and learning.”

“So … we’ve adapted,” he went on. “We run our crews a bit leaner, meaning when we set up a job, rather than having a large crew over there, we’ll set up a smaller core crew at each job. And then, as a task comes up, we’ll move people around to the job and build up the crew, get them in, get them out, and then move them on to another job.”

The leadership team at Marois is certainly not alone in noting the need for more young talent in the pipeline.

“I go to these job sites, and I see our own crew, or I see our subcontractors, and … some of these guys I’ve known for 35 years,” he told BusinessWest. “I’d say probably 70% of the guys in the workforce are closer to retirement age than not. So it’s extremely important that we get some of the younger people in.”

He said the industry has been hurt over the past couple decades by a prevalent message that young people need to go to college to be successful. In fact, Massachusetts ranks among the top states in sending high-school graduates to college. At the same time, industrial-arts programs have been cut from public-school curricula, due to liability, budget cuts, or other factors, Mercieri noted.

But there is a pitch to be made, at a time when families are growing more concerned with crushing debt coming out of college, that careers in construction are attainable, with a clear path to growth, without much, if any, debt.

“Ninety percent of it is showing up every day; 10% is paying attention and learning,” he said, citing the example of someone who wants to specialize in carpentry but might not have the skills for a specific niche right off the bat. “There are multiple facets in carpentry. And you may be better at one or the other. Maybe you’re good at rough carpentry, and maybe you’re not as good at finished carpentry. But over time, you’re going to be very experienced — and you’ll probably be good at both.”


From the Ground Up

Mercieri knows what he’s talking about; he fell into construction at a young age, doing work for a friend’s father who owned a construction business.

“Basically, I was the young kid, and I got to carry all the tools for the tradespeople. I learned the electrical trade, plumbing, carpentry. I got my hands and feet wet being a helper. Then, over the years, it kind of grew on me, and the rest is history.”

He’s been in the field long enough to experience the transition from bid requests via phone calls and snail mail to digital platforms.

“And you think about the field now. Back then, there were no cell phones; there were no iPads. If something came up, a guy would run to a phone booth, or we’d set up landlines with a trailer, and they’d be calling the office. Now our guys in the field have iPads; as soon as we receive something here in the office, it goes right upstream, and they receive it out in the field.”

It’s just one of many changes Mercieri has seen over his decades in construction. And with one more year almost in the books, he’s feeling optimistic about 2024.

“We’ve got a fair amount on the books,” he told BusinessWest. “Some of the jobs that we’re doing now will run into 2024. The bidding market seems very strong. So we think we’re going to do pretty well.”

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

More Than a Seminar


Shannon Rudder

Shannon Rudder says achieving real DEI in a company begins with creating a culture of authenticity and trust.



Shannon Rudder remembers her “bad boss.” And she never wanted to be one.

“What that bad boss did, what stuck out for me, was that everybody had to cater to how he led,” she said, adding that he believed that was how to maintain a bias-free workplace. Unfortunately, that philosophy can be incompatible with an equitable workplace.

“If I’m a single mom, maybe I can meet the deadlines, but I can’t do it in the same exact way as someone who doesn’t have kids, or has kids that are grown, right?” said Rudder, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield. “So in the most rudimentary sense, when you take the -isms and race and all that stuff out of it, that’s equity.”

And it’s a concept many businesses neglect when they talk about diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs, Rudder explained. They’re focused on a diverse workplace, but neglect to create the sort of culture where everyone is seen for their unique makeup and treated not equally, but equitably.

Colleen Holmes

Colleen Holmes

“We take a whole lot of pride and pleasure in working with folks as the individuals they are. That means that we look at the whole person and not one single aspect of their identity, and that’s what DEI is about.”

She cited a cartoon often used to express the point (see below). It pictures three boys trying to watch a ballgame from behind a fence. The first panel has each standing on a single box; though they’re being treated equally, the shortest boy still can’t see the game. The second panel, by moving those boxes around, demonstrates equity — now everyone can clearly see over the fence.

The barriers are different for each member of an organization, Rudder said, and so are the proverbial ‘boxes’ they might need to stand on to do their jobs effectively. (To take it a step further, the cartoon sometimes includes a third panel, labeled ‘liberation,’ with the fence removed completely.)

“The CEO of a nonprofit is not the same as a president or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but conceptually, we can’t sit in our positions of power and think we know what everyone’s barriers are,” she added. “I’ve got to like actually talk to people to figure out what the barriers are. So it’s about the relationships.”

Interaction Institute for Social Change / Artist: Angus Maguire

It’s also about honest discussions about privilege and internalized biases and weaving equity into every corner of the organization — and that’s not something that can be achieved with a one-off professional-development seminar on DEI.

“You’ve got to get to the heart of why there are biases, why folks aren’t being productive working together,” Rudder said. “We’re all socialized very differently. So we need to create environments where folks feel comfortable and they trust each other. You don’t want somebody to feel tokenized; you want to be able to create that authenticity, that trust, so then you can begin to understand what the real barriers are.”

Colleen Holmes understands this concept. As president and CEO of Viability Inc. in Springfield, which provides vocational training, job placement, and other supports for individuals with disabilities, she’s worked with employer partners to help them understand how a workplace can benefit from workers from all backgrounds and all abilities.

“All the services we offer are around folks having the opportunity and support to be able to build their skills and attain things that are important and meaningful to them in their lives,” she told BusinessWest. “Everything we do is very specifically geared toward helping individuals find their pathway to thriving beyond whatever their limits are. And for individuals with disabilities, those limits are considerable.”

Trevor Brice

Trevor Brice

“Is this person better-qualified? Just give justification for the decision in case you’re challenged down the road.”

But they can be overcome — if an employer is committed to equity.

“We take a whole lot of pride and pleasure in working with folks as the individuals they are. That means that we look at the whole person and not one single aspect of their identity, and that’s what DEI is about,” Holmes explained. “The aspects of our identity are layered and complex, and that’s what makes us interesting people.”

The said the word ‘accommodation’ carries some baggage because people think it’s a one-way street — that the employer has to accommodate the employee, but isn’t going to benefit from that employee beyond checking a DEI box.

“In fact, when employers learn how to think differently in their approaches to getting business objectives met, they have more humanity in their company,” she said, adding that employers who understand this — who are willing to cultivate not only a diverse workforce, but an equitable, inclusive one — have a leg up.


Questions Around Diversity

The ‘diversity’ piece of DEI has been the source of much discussion lately, as employers have grappled with whether efforts to build a racially (and in other ways) diverse workplace will run afoul of federal law, especially after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions this past June.

“They didn’t directly speak to private employers; it only applies to colleges and universities,” said Trevor Brice, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm in Springfield, adding, however, that there could be ripple effects. “I think the implications of the Harvard and North Carolina ruling go more to reverse-discrimination suits, people in majority groups suing over being given unfavorable treatment in relation to minority groups because of affirmative-action or DEI programs.”

To be clear, he added, hiring and firing employees based on their status in protective classes has never been allowed. “What’s almost inevitable is there are going to be challenges to employers based on these cases now.”

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty

“We have a long way to go with it, but we’re trying to build something. We want to make meaningful progress — not just check a box, but make a difference.”

Mary Jo Kennedy, partner and chair of the Employment Law practice at Bulkley Richardson in Springfield, agreed that the SCOTUS ruling has no immediate impact on the legal standards that govern private employers’ DEI or affirmative-action programs, noting, like Brice, the existing prohibition against making employment decisions solely based on a person’s protected characteristics, like race or gender.

“But there is the potential that we may see more reverse-discrimination cases,” she added, before listing several steps employers can take to promote diversity within the bounds of the law:

• Avoid considering race as a basis for employment decisions or practices in a way that could be seen as granting race-based preferences;

• Review any DEI policies or programs for compliance with federal and state laws;

• Understand that it’s OK to prioritize diversity and inclusion but not OK to use race- or gender-based quotas;

• Broaden the use of the term ‘diversity,’ understanding that it’s more than just race and gender; and

• Review the company website and other public-facing documents and internal DEI materials for compliance with federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination.

Employers can also protect themselves against reverse-discrimination cases by carefully documenting the reasons behind every hiring and promotion decision. In other words, it makes sense to cast a wide net to promote a diverse applicant base, but make sure there’s a business case for each decision, and “document, document, document,” Brice said.

“Why are you making this decision? Is it solely due to race or other protected characteristics? Then it’s probably not going to stand up to a legal challenge. But high GPA, work history, things like that are fine. So, is this person better-qualified? Just give justification for the decision in case you’re challenged down the road.”

Employment-law firms already see plenty of wrongful-termination cases, he added, and there’s a feeling that the June SCOTUS decision will embolden more of them, even though that ruling applies only to higher education. “More needs to be seen. There hasn’t been a legal challenge yet, so there’s no guidance yet.”


Making Meaningful Progress

Monson Savings Bank President Dan Moriarty has been actively been involved in DEI strategy over the past year or so, not only at his own institution, but through his co-leadership of an executive council established by the Massachusetts Bankers Assoc. to promote DEI efforts across member institutions.

“Every individual and every organization is on a different path along the way to being more diverse, equitable, and inclusive in their organization,” he said. “We have a DEI committee here at the bank, and we’re trying to adopt best practices from the Mass Bankers Association for advancing our DEI program.”

That process toward a level playing field begins with understanding the dynamics of DEI and the barriers and biases that hinder it, he noted, adding that he and two other MSB leaders recently attended a seminar at the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley. “That was phenomenal. Just the awareness and deep understanding was very impactful for me personally and professionally. We all have to do more.”

“Our corporate counterparts — and I get why they do it — focus on diversity because that’s a tangible way to demonstrate, ‘we’ve got X percentage of women, we’ve got X percentage that identify as able-bodied or people of color,’ all those identities. I get why diversity comes first. But for me, it’s really centered on equity.”

Adopting some best practices recommended by Mass Bankers, Monson Savings has created a DEI commitment statement, developed and implemented a DEI program that continues to evolve, provided DEI training to board members and employees, identified and monitored key performance metrics, and conducted periodic self-assessments of the program.

In addition, he said, the bank has reviewed numerous documents, including its strategic plan, along with communications, processes, and facilities, to ensure that potential barriers are identified and removed and that DEI expectations are reflected, while also conducting outreach and expanding the bank’s relationships with key community members and organizations.

“We have a long way to go with it, but we’re trying to build something. We want to make meaningful progress — not just check a box, but make a difference,” Moriarty said. “People want to do the right thing, but they have to educate themselves and really make a concerted effort to be able to make the change. It’s not just acknowledging we need more diversity, equity, and inclusion, but we also have to take actual steps to get us to a better place.”

Viability has seen its employer partners — more than 800 of them nationwide — find that better place.

“Some employers are looking to live a philosophy of the organization around diversity, equity, and inclusion because it’s the right thing to do,” Holmes said. “And there is data out there that shows that, if companies have accessible and welcoming environments for individuals with disabilities, consumers are more likely to shop there. And this is something businesses and employers have taken notice of.

“DEI is really a no-brainer,” she added. “But it does require a cultural change within an organization.”


The Rest of the Story

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

That’s one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most popular quotes; just about everyone has heard it. But far fewer, Rudder said, know the rest of the quote, the words King said directly after:

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

“That’s the nutshell of how I approach the work,” she added. “Our corporate counterparts — and I get why they do it — focus on diversity because that’s a tangible way to demonstrate, ‘we’ve got X percentage of women, we’ve got X percentage that identify as able-bodied or people of color,’ all those identities. I get why diversity comes first. But for me, it’s really centered on equity.”

Rudder said she practices ‘culture humility,’ which is a commitment to constant self-evaluation by which people not only learn to understand other cultures, but also critically examine their own — and understand the privileges they enjoy.

“If we’re going to aim to be centered in equity, we have to first understand where our privilege is,” she said. “And that goes back to Dr. King’s quote; we are all mutually interconnected. It’s a journey — it’s not just, ‘let’s do this program, and let’s check the boxes.’ We’ve got to weave this into the very fabric of who we are as an organization, as a corporation.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

MCLA President James Birge

MCLA President James Birge cuts the ribbon at the official launch of the school’s new nursing program.


Jennifer Macksey grew up North Adams, and she’s seen some profound changes in her 50 years — and from many perspectives.

As a young girl, she remembers Thursday nights downtown, which would be bustling as the thousands of employees at nearby Sprague Electric would be out spending their paychecks in the stores, like the one owned by her parents, and restaurants along Main Street and connecting corridors. She also remembers how the landscape changed dramatically, and the vibrancy downtown all but disappeared overnight, after Sprague closed its doors in 1985.

Later, while serving in several positions in City Hall, including chief financial officer and treasurer and collector, and also at the nearby Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and Southern Vermont College, and then as assistant superintendent of the Northern Berkshire Regional School District, she saw the city’s economy struggle as it also evolved, from one dominated by manufacturing to one centered on tourism and the arts, a shift exemplified, in dramatic fashion, by the transformation of the former Sprague Electric complex into MASS MoCA, the nation’s largest museum of contemporary art, which opened its doors in 1999.

Today, Macksey is mayor of the city, a post she has long coveted (more on that later), and is thus in a position to not only observe, but also shape the ongoing evolution of this city of nearly 13,000.

She reports progress on several fronts, from new stores downtown to signs of development at the long-vacant former TD Bank building on Main Street; from a cannabis-cultivation facility in the Hardman Industrial Park to a small but quite significant rise in population — part of a countywide phenomenon involving residents of large metro centers leaving for the Berkshires, where many of them are working remotely.

Jennifer Macksey

Jennifer Macksey

“We’ve brought a lot of new people into the community, but we’re also focused on getting businesses in here.”

“I’m amazed at the people who are buying property here in North Adams,” Macksey said. “We’re seeing a lot of people who are leaving larger cities and coming here to work remotely, and we’re seeing out-of-town investors buying up property, whether it be for long-term or short-term rental. So our population is starting to go up a bit.”

James Birge, long-time president of MCLA and another native of Berkshire County (he grew up in Lee), has also seen a number of signs of progress, both across the county and in North Adams. In addition to meeting its mission of providing a quality liberal-arts education and enabling students from low-income families to live “an elevated life,” as he calls it, MCLA is helping to fuel a changing Berkshires economy by providing qualified workers and also adding new programs to meet recognized need, such as its new nursing-degree program.

“While 40% of our students come from Berkshire County, 50% of our students who graduate stay in Berkshire County,” he said. “So we’re contributing to the brain gain of Berkshire County.”

The nursing program, initiated this fall, was launched in response to a request from Berkshire Health Systems to help meet an urgent need to put more nurses into the pipeline.

“We thought, ‘here is an opportunity where we can develop an academic program that would be in demand and be responsive to the needs of our community,” Birge said, adding that the program started with 20 students this fall and is expected to ultimately grow to 110-120 students. “This is the fundamental, historic purpose of public higher education — to respond to the needs of the community.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at North Adams and the many developing stories there.



Taking the Lead

While growing up in North Adams, Macksey said, her parents always stressed the importance of both giving back and getting involved, qualities she has embraced her whole life.

This passion, coupled with a desire to lead change in a community she said was still struggling in many ways, prompted her to run for mayor in 2021 — and to seek re-election this fall.

“I always wanted to be mayor,” she told BusinessWest. “When I left City Hall, I knew that I would come back someday, but I always said I would come back to the corner office, and that’s what I did. I’m very interested in keeping North Adams moving forward.”

Her focus is broad and covers many issues, from education to public safety, but especially economic development, she said, adding that, like all communities in the Berkshires and beyond, the most pressing need is jobs.

“We’ve brought a lot of new people into the community, but we’re also focused on getting businesses in here, and that is really the charge of my next two years in office, to build out some economic-development plans and to sell North Adams more than it has been.

“North Adams is sold on its beauty and its natural resources, but there are a lot of other things to offer,” she went on. “I’m very focused on the buildings that we do have that are empty and our industrial park and exploring opportunities to bring in some light industry.”

The Hardman Industrial Park recently became home to the Temescal Wellness cannabis growing facility, in a facility that formerly housed Crane Stationery. The facility employs between 75 to 100 people and is thus an important source of new jobs and one of many investments that have taken place in North Adams.

Others include ongoing investment in the Porches Inn at MASS MoCA on River Street and also in the Hotel Downstreet on Main Street — facilities that are catering to the steady volumes of visitors to North Adams, which has increasingly become a destination in recent years — as well as redevelopment of the former Johnson School into much-needed housing.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 12,961
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.67
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.60
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

In the downtown, most of the storefronts are now occupied, Macksey said, and the former TD Bank facility has been acquired, and redevelopment plans are being blueprinted.

“Our downtown is pretty much full,” she noted. “There were many years when it was empty, and I really applaud the owners of those buildings for hanging in there.”

But there is considerable work to be done, she added. “We’ve got a lot of things going on, but we really need to provide more jobs for our workforce here. And we hope to develop some economic-development plans that will bring some people into the city.”

Creating jobs is a process, she noted, one that involves collaboration and partnerships with business, the education sector, and workforce-development agencies, as well as that notion of more aggressively selling the city and its many types of assets and generating new investments in the community.

“We need to create some jobs that provide some on-the-job training,” she said, citing Temescal Wellness as one example of such an employer. “We also need to be collaborating with places like MassHire and other groups to create opportunities where people can learn a trade as they work.

“And we also need to be aggressive in cultivating a community, even in our high school, of students who want to work here in North Adams, be it in a trade or in an administrative position,” Macksey went on. “But most importantly, we’re looking to work with businesses that are sensitive to hiring people here in North Adams.”


Class Act

Birge told BusinessWest that he thought MCLA might fall a little in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking on the nation’s public liberal-arts colleges, a category that includes the service academies. But it didn’t.

Instead, it held its place at number 7 — this was the third year in a row it finished in that spot and the ninth year in a row it has cracked the top 10, out of roughly 500 institutions — a measure, he said, of not only the school’s commitment to excellence, but its ability to consistently deliver on its commitment to providing a quality liberal-arts education.

As proud as Birge might be of this ranking — and he is quite proud — he is even more satisfied with the school’s rankings on U.S. News & World Report’s listing of top performers when it comes to social mobility, a category the publication initiated in 2019. This is a measure of how well institutions graduate students who receive federal Pell grants, typically awarded to students whose families earn less than $50,000, though most Pell Grant money goes to families with income below $20,000.

In this category, MCLA ranked first in the state and second in the country.

“I like this ranking a little bit more, because we’re meeting our mission — we have a mission of access,” he explained. “We want students who may not be able to afford to go to other institutions to come here and get an outstanding education and then go off and have a life that they wouldn’t have if they didn’t come to us.

“I think that’s a more important measure; we’re the highest-ranked public institution in Massachusetts and the second-highest in the nation, and we’re really proud of that,” he went on, adding that one-third of the school’s students come from families earning less than $30,000 per year, and roughly 40% of them are first-generation college students.

“The average starting salary for an MCLA alum is $46,000,” he went on. “Hundreds of students are graduating and making an average salary of $46,000, and they’re coming from families that made less than $30,000. We’re breaking the cycle of poverty for hundreds of kids in four years — we think that’s a pretty noble mission for a public higher-education institution.”

Overall, MCLA is seeing a surge in enrollment due to a roughly 15% increase among first-year students (total enrollment is largely flat), and Birge attributes this to the value the school presents at a time when value has become an ever-more-important factor among students and their parents. Indeed, one can graduate from MCLA with a fraction of the debt they may assume if they were to attend a private liberal-arts college, he said.

While on the subject of value, Birge said a liberal-arts education still holds plenty of value in this job market and in general, despite growing rhetoric questioning the relative worth of a liberal-arts degree, and some colleges and universities — Simmons and Lasell are among the latest to do so — cutting liberal-arts majors, including history, modern languages, philosophy, and literature because of low enrollment.

“I think those institutions that are cutting liberal-arts programs are not being very visionary, and I think they’re cutting off their nose to spite their face,” he added “In our world today, even more than ever, we need people educated in the liberal-arts tradition. We need people who can understand different perspectives and look at things through different lenses.”

Especially in a changing Berkshire County, he noted.

“The economy has changed; it used to be an industrial economy, and now it’s more of a creative economy, across the county,” Birge said. “And I think that has breathed life back into a lot of our communities, including North Adams. It’s a vibrant moment in the history of Berkshire County, and we try to be as participatory in that as we can.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 182: October 9, 2023

Joe Bednar Interviews Carl Mercieri, vice president of Marois Construction

Carl Mercieri

The 50th anniversary of any business is a notable milestone, and Marois Construction not only celebrated that achievement last year, but recorded one of its strongest years in memory. The firm’s work — in a variety of sectors, both public and private — continues steadily in 2023, despite ongoing industry challenges ranging from inflation to supply uncertainty; from workforce shortages to a lot of wet weather in Western Mass. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Carl Mercieri, vice president of the South Hadley-based company, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about how Marois has navigated these challenges while continuing to make its mark on the region in its second half-century. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 181: October 2, 2023

George Interviews Dr. Mark Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center

Dr. Mark Kenton has seen it all during a long career in emergency medicine, from the fast pace and constant challenge of daily cases to a pandemic that sorely tested emergency departments in unprecedented ways. Through all of it, he says effective care, especially of individuals often facing the worst days of their lives, begins with listening and forging personal connections with patients and their families. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about his important work — both inside the ER and often far outside it as an outspoken advocate — for which he has been honored as one of BusinessWest‘s Healthcare Heroes for 2023. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

Fried and True

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee, two of the many partners involved with the White Hut location in Holyoke.

When asked about where they might take the White Hut brand — and when, both Edison Yee and Peter Picknelly took long pauses and then looked at each other as if to say, ‘you first.’

They did so to indicate a few things — first, that they’ve obviously been thinking long and hard about that question, and second … they don’t really know the answer yet.

What they do know is that they will bring the concept beyond Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, the location that was rescued in 2020 by Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines; Andy Yee, Edison’s brother; and others within the Bean Restaurant Group after founding owners the Barkett family announced it would close. And also beyond 825 Hampden St. in Holyoke, the location — a renovated former PeoplesBank branch — that opened last month.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept,” he said, using that term to describe brands with up to 10 locations, adding that locations are being scouted in Westfield and other communities, and if all goes well in Holyoke, there could easily be another location within a year.

Picknelly concurred. “We believe the White Hut is a brand that’s scalable; we’ve had overwhelming success in West Springfield — our customer count continues to grow there — and we think Holyoke is a great location,” he said. “This a solid brand, and we want to expand it out strategically.”

But both said that, at the moment, they and several co-owners in the Paper City venture, including Holyoke natives Jack Ferriter and Mark Cutting, are hard-focused on that location, the success of which might go a long way toward determining where and when this iconic (yes, that word fits here) brand and its red-and-white color scheme might next be seen.

Nathan Yee, director of Hospitality for the Bean Restaurant Group and part of the proverbial next generation of leadership at the company, believes it will do quite well.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept.”

Those involved spent considerable time scouting locations, he said, and eventually zeroed in on the Hampden Street location, which lies on a well-traveled road just a few hundred yards from an I-91 exit.

Beyond location, this site offers … well, everything that has made the White Hut brand iconic — its famous hamburgers, hot dogs, fried onions, shakes, and more — as well as new additions, including a salute to Holyoke: a breakfast sandwich called the Paper City Special, containing a scrambled egg with sausage, hash brown, American cheese, and fried onions on a Venetian water roll.

There are other new wrinkles as well, including a self-ordering kiosk for those who prefer that option, as well as a pickup option by which employees bring the customer’s order directly to their car.

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon of hot dogs at the grand opening of the Holyoke White Hut last month.

In short, the ownership group is taking a brand that has a storied past and a rich history and bringing it into the future — changing what should be changed, and not changing anything that shouldn’t be changed, like those fried onions.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the institution that is the White Hut, the long-planned move into Holyoke, and those still-evolving plans to bring the brand elsewhere within the 413 — and likely beyond.


Relishing the Possibilities

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-September, Edison Yee had a lot on his plate — and yes, that’s an industry term, sort of.

The Big E was going to start in a few days, and Yee and many others at the Bean Restaurant Group had considerable prep work to do get ready; the group has several locations at the fair, including the White Hut, the Wurst House, and a new addition to the portfolio, a ‘Harpoon Beer hut.’

“We sell a lot of food and lot of beer,” he said, adding that the company probably has 100 or more seasonal employees working at the fair, which has been an ever-increasing part of the business plan for the group since it first started taking part eight years ago.

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest, a huge, nearly month-long celebration at the Student Prince, is coming up fast (Oct. 8 is the official start date), and Yee was deep into the planning stages for that annual happening. And then, there’s ongoing planning and the start of work at the restaurant that will become a linchpin of the redevelopment of the Court Square Hotel on Elm Street in Springfield, another collaboration between Picknelly and the Bean Group.

But on this day, and the days before, the main focus was on the Holyoke White Hut location and making sure everything was in order for the grand opening coming up the next morning. This was an event that was maybe two years in the making, said Yee and Picknelly, noting that, not long after the West Springfield location had been saved and was successfully navigating its way through COVID, talk began to turn to where this iconic brand might go next.

And it wasn’t long at all before the focus turned to the Paper City.

But before we explore this move to Holyoke, we need some background, and some perspective on both the brand and the location in West Springfield, which, to many, has achieved landmark status, figuratively if not literally.

Our story begins in 1939, when Edward Barkett opened a small restaurant on Memorial Avenue and decided to call it the White Hut because that was the principal color.

Suceeding generations of the Barkett family owned and operated the restaurant and eventually took the brand beyond West Springfield — to Amherst, in a venture that met with only limited success, in part, Picknelly believes, because the location was not highly visible.

And while the brand is famous for the loyalty exhibited by its regulars, location and visibility are keys to the success of any restaurant, he went on.

Fast-forwarding a little, E.J. Barkett (Edward’s grandson) announced rather abruptly in 2020 that White Hut would close its doors. Picknelly and Andy Yee, both to be counted as Hut regulars, as well as serial entrepreneurs and part of the group that rescued the Student Prince restaurant in 2015 when its closure seemed imminent, stepped into the breach and saved the White Hut.

And they did so under extreme circumstances. Indeed, that rescue came at the height of COVID, when that restaurant, like all others, had to find ways to do business while also keeping people safe. It already had effective takeout service, said Picknelly, adding that this quality was one of many that enabled it to persevere during those trying times.

Another quality, obviously, was the food itself, he said, adding that another ingredient in the recipe for success was simply not to change much of anything that had made the Hut such a fan favorite.

Such diligence has been rewarded with rankings on a number of ‘best burger’ lists. In 2021, for example, White Hut’s cheeseburger with grilled onions was named the best burger in Massachusetts by Thrillist, and it has been ranked among the best burgers in the country. The Hut was profiled in USA Today in 2019, which said everything about the brand is “frozen in time,” and it’s been included by the Wall Street Journal in its “Essential Guide to America’s Best Burgers.”

That success begs the obvious question — where can this brand go? That query refers to everything from geography to the size of what would have to be called an emerging chain.


A Side of Entrepreneurship

The answer to that question begins in the Paper City and the opening of the Hampden Street location, which provides evidence that everything is no longer entirely frozen in time, as we’ll see.

“Holyoke has been on the radar for our group for a long time now,” Edison Yee said, adding that several potential sites were considered before the Hampden Street location, one strongly favored by his brother, Nick Yee, the group’s principal managing partner, became the focus of attention.

the latest White Hut location in Holyoke

From left, Bryan Graham (culinary director and partner), Nick Yee, Peter Picknelly, Edison Yee, and Nate Yee stand in front of the latest White Hut location in Holyoke.

“The traffic counts are great,” he said. “And, growing up in South Hadley, we knew that this was the main street to get onto I-91; you have all the traffic that comes from South Hadley, Granby, parts of Chicopee, and, of course, Holyoke, that are filtering through this road.”

Picknelly agreed, and noted that the traffic count is actually higher on Hampden Street than it is on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

Beyond steady traffic, the location provides more convenience to those who travel down I-91, Route 5, or other roads to get to the West Springfield location (and there are many in that category) while also introducing the brand to new audiences.

“We think Holyoke is a great location,” Picknelly said. “Our brand is still strong here, yet it’s far enough away that we won’t be competing against ourselves, and our customers from Holyoke, Northampton, and Granby won’t have to travel as far — that’s the essence of it.”

And while the location is expected to draw people from several area communities and, its owners presume, travelers on I-91, it is a neighborhood restaurant, one that will in some respects replace another iconic eatery, Mel’s Restaurant, which closed recently, just a few hundred feet away.

The location will offer the same menu as the one in West Springfield — and essentially the same food the Hut has offered since 1939 — but with some of those new amenities, such as the self-ordering kiosk, said Nathan Yee, which will bring another layer of convenience to customers.

“With each unit, we’ve identified some of the operational areas that we can improve on, and that’s what we’ve done with this location,” he said. “We’ve added a few new features to make it more customer-friendly.”

Renovation of the former bank branch took more than a year, he noted, and an investment, beyond the purchase of the property, of more than $1 million.

And this may the first of several initiatives to bring the White Hut brand to different cities, towns, and markets, said Picknelly and Edison Yee, noting, again, that Holyoke will be a barometer of sorts for how well the brand may ultimately travel.

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand,” Yee said. “This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Picknelly agreed, noting that expansion, either through owner-operated locations, such as those in Holyoke and West Springfield, or perhaps franchising, is likely if not inevitable.

“There are restaurant groups in Connecticut that have contacted us and want to franchise,” he said. “We want to expand this on our own first; we think it’s really scalable — this is our first venture to do that. Once this gets up and running, I think you’ll see the White Hut brand all over the Northeast.”

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand. This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Elaborating, he said could envision scenarios where there are both owner-operated locations and franchises, and there are plenty of successful models of such operations, including national brands such as KFC, Burger King, and others.


Food for Thought

Summing up the current state of this brand, Picknelly said it’s “one that the Barkett family built and the Yee family made better.”

Where can it go beyond West Springfield and Holyoke? Only time will tell, but it’s safe to assume that expansion will continue across Western Mass. and perhaps beyond. A brand that’s been called ‘simple,’ ‘tried and true,’ and, yes, ‘frozen in time’ will continue to be all those things.

But time certainly won’t stand still for the White Hut and its owners.

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Rolling with the Changes

By Daniel Eger and Cindy Gonzalez

Tax laws are like a constantly shifting landscape, subject to periodic changes that can significantly impact your financial bottom line. Whether you’re an individual taxpayer striving to maximize deductions or a business owner who wants to optimize your financial strategies, staying informed about the latest tax-law changes is paramount.

Daniel Eger

Daniel Eger

Cindy Gonzalez

Cindy Gonzalez

In this ever-evolving tax environment, we’ll explore the essential updates that individuals and businesses need to be aware of to navigate the new tax frontier effectively. We’ll dive into the critical modifications that may influence your financial planning and tax strategies in the coming year.



In 2023, several significant adjustments have been made to tax laws that individuals should be aware of. These changes encompass a wide range of topics, from energy credits to retirement contributions, interest rates, and tax brackets. Let’s delve into some of the key changes that may impact your financial planning.


Residential Energy Credits

For individuals looking to reduce their environmental footprint and lower their tax liabilities, residential energy credits are worth exploring. These credits aim to incentivize the adoption of clean and energy-efficient technologies in homes. A notable change for 2023 is the Clean Vehicle credits, which are now effective after April 18. These credits apply to new, used, or commercial vehicles, with qualifying requirements for sellers, dealers, and manufacturers.


Interest-rate Changes for Q4 Payments

Starting on Oct. 1, 2023, significant adjustments will be made to interest rates for tax payments. In cases of overpayments, where individuals have paid more than the amount owed, the interest rate will be set at 8%. In instances of underpayments, where taxes owed have not been fully paid, individuals will be subject to an 8% interest rate.


Contributions to Retirement Savings

In an effort to help individuals save for their retirement, the IRS has raised the contribution limits for 401(k) and IRA plans in 2023. If you contribute to a 401(k) or 403(b), you can now put in up to $22,500 a year, an increase from $20,500. Those age 50 or older can make an additional catch-up contribution of $7,500. Similarly, traditional and Roth IRA contributors can now contribute up to $6,500 (up from $6,000), with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution available for those age 50 and older.

“Whether you’re an individual taxpayer striving to maximize deductions or a business owner who wants to optimize your financial strategies, staying informed about the latest tax-law changes is paramount.”

Enhanced IRA Contribution Limits

Traditionally, there have always been strict constraints on contributions to both traditional and Roth IRAs. For the majority of individuals, the contribution ceiling stood at $6,000. However, for those age 50 and above, there was the opportunity to contribute an additional $1,000 as catch-up contributions, bringing the total to $7,000.

The exciting news for 2023 is a boost in these limits by $500, allowing Americans to now contribute up to $6,500 to their IRA. For individuals age 50 and older, this figure escalates to $7,500.

Increased Contributions to Employer-sponsored Retirement Plans

Following a similar upward trajectory, the contribution limits for employer-sponsored retirement plans have also experienced a positive adjustment. In 2022, the threshold for employee contributions stood at $20,500. However, in 2023, this limit has risen by $2,000, providing a new maximum of $22,500. For those eligible for catch-up contributions, the prospects for bolstering retirement savings have become even more enticing, with an elevated contribution limit of $30,000.

It’s important to note that, if you participate in multiple workplace retirement plans, the limitations encompass all salary deferrals and total contributions across these plans. Contributions made to other types of accounts, such as an IRA, remain separate and do not impact these thresholds. These enhanced contribution limits offer individuals and employees greater flexibility and opportunities to secure their financial future.

Health Savings Account Contribution Limits

Health savings accounts (HSAs) have become increasingly popular for managing medical expenses and as an investment vehicle. In 2023, individuals will be allowed to contribute an additional $200 per year to their HSAs, raising the maximum contribution limit to $3,850. For families, the threshold for coverage will also increase by $450, reaching a maximum of $7,750 for the fiscal year. Keep in mind that you must meet the minimum deductibles to qualify for an HSA plan, which are $1,500 for individuals and $3,000 for families.

Tax Brackets for 2023

Lastly, it’s essential to be aware of the changes in tax brackets for 2023. While there are still seven tax rates ranging from 10% to 37%, the income thresholds for these brackets have been adjusted upward by about 7% from 2022. This adjustment reflects the impact of record-high inflation, potentially placing some individuals in a lower tax bracket than in previous years.

These changes underscore the importance of staying informed about tax-law updates to make informed financial decisions and optimize your tax-planning strategy. Be sure to consult with a tax professional or financial advisor to understand how these changes may affect your unique financial situation.



In the dynamic landscape of tax laws, staying informed about changes that affect both businesses and individuals reporting their income and expenses on Schedule C is of paramount importance. In recent years, several noteworthy adjustments have been made, significantly impacting the way deductions are calculated, particularly for expenses like Section 179 deductions, bonus depreciation, and meals and entertainment. Here, we delve into these pivotal changes.

Section 179 Deduction Limits

One of the cornerstones of tax planning for businesses has been the Section 179 deduction. This deduction enables businesses to write off the cost of qualifying property and equipment in the year they are placed in service, rather than depreciating them over time.

In 2023, the Section 179 deduction limit has been raised to a generous $1,160,100 for property used 50% or more for business purposes. This marks an increase of $80,000 from the previous year. This change empowers businesses to invest in capital assets and equipment while enjoying substantial tax savings.

“While there are still seven tax rates ranging from 10% to 37%, the income thresholds for these brackets have been adjusted upward by about 7% from 2022. This adjustment reflects the impact of record-high inflation, potentially placing some individuals in a lower tax bracket than in previous years.”

Meals Deductions

The tax treatment of meals expenses has witnessed a notable transformation, with implications for businesses and individuals alike. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and 2022, the IRS allowed a temporary 100% deduction for such expenses to provide economic relief and support the struggling hospitality industry.

However, starting in 2023, there has been a shift in the deductibility of meal expenses. Any deductible meal is now subject to a 50% deduction under the guidelines outlined in Publication 463. This change underscores the need for businesses and individuals to carefully document and categorize their expenses and adhere to the new rules governing these deductions.


Interest-rate Changes

Starting on Oct. 1, 2023, significant adjustments will be made to interest rates for tax payments. Corporations will experience a slightly different rate structure than individuals. For overpayments exceeding $10,000, the interest rate on the excess amount will be reduced to 5.5%. In contrast, large corporate underpayments, representing taxes owed but not fully paid, will incur a higher 10% interest rate. These adjustments in interest rates aim to ensure fairness and compliance within the tax-payment system for both individuals and corporations.


Changes to Bonus Depreciation

The window of opportunity for fully benefiting from one of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act’s (TCJA) most significant provisions is closing rapidly. This provision allows for a 100% bonus depreciation on a broad range of assets categorized as ‘qualified property.’ Initially set to expire at the close of 2019, the TCJA extended these bonus depreciation rules for assets placed in service after Sept. 27, 2017, and before Jan. 1, 2023, increasing the deductible amount to 100%.

However, unless there are changes in the law, this bonus percentage is set to gradually decrease over the next few years, ultimately phasing out entirely (100% in 2022, 80% in 2023, 60% in 2024, 40% in 2025, 20% in 2026, and 0% in 2027).


Stay Informed

The evolving landscape of tax laws necessitates vigilant awareness and proactive tax planning for businesses and individuals who report on Schedule C. The changes to Section 179 deductions, the phasing out of bonus depreciation, and the modifications to meals and entertainment deductions can have a significant impact on tax liabilities. As such, seeking guidance from tax professionals and staying informed about these changes is crucial for optimizing tax strategies and ensuring compliance with the latest IRS regulations.

This material is generic in nature. Before relying on the material in any important matter, users should note date of publication and carefully evaluate its accuracy, currency, completeness, and relevance for their purposes, and should obtain any appropriate professional advice relevant to their particular circumstances.


Daniel Eger is a tax supervisor, and Cindy Gonzalez is an associate, at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Easy Targets


While the technology used to prevent cybercrime has certainly become more sophisticated over the years, Paul Savas has two simple words when it comes to the human side of cybersecurity.

“Be smart.”

Unfortunately, too many people simply choose not to.

“If it looks like something’s suspect, don’t open it. Don’t click on the links. So many times, these attacks happen to people who are letting their guard down,” said Savas, vice president of Comcast Business’ Western New England Region.

“How many of us get that Amazon text — ‘there’s a question about the order in your account.’ It’s a bogus text, and you should delete it right away,” he continued. “But so many people don’t. They’re curious. ‘There’s a link … I’ll click it.’ But you have to be smarter than that.”

Then there’s the problem of password laziness.

“They keep creating their own passwords. They’ll even keep a file on their desktop that says ‘passwords,’ kind of a spreadsheet. If I’m a hacker, I love that.”

“The biggest problem is common passwords,” said Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology in Easthampton. “So many people reuse passwords; they have a password that they’ve used forever, and they’ll do variations of that password. The problem is, once all the bots out there have that password or something close, they will figure out all your passwords within seconds.”

And he’s run into stubbornness when it comes to changing password habits.

“When I go out to see clients, it’s a constant struggle. One of our hardest adaptations is getting them to start going with password management or password vaulting. They keep creating their own passwords. They’ll even keep a file on their desktop that says ‘passwords,’ kind of a spreadsheet. If I’m a hacker, I love that.”

Allen Reed, assistant vice president and Information Security officer at Freedom Credit Union, has run into similar frustrations.

Allen Reed

Allen Reed says ‘trust, but verify first’ is a good rule of thumb for clicking email links.

“At the credit union, I’m always hammering employees: ‘don’t click that link, don’t open that attachment, don’t ever click until you have verified. Trust, but verify first.’ Yes, it’s inconvenient to make a phone call to someone: ‘did I receive an email from you?’ But that’s the world we live in.”

When he talks about cybersecurity with Freedom employees, Reed says he tries to “put a little fear in them” with examples of mistakes other businesses have made, and the financial consequences. “It gets them to think a little more clearly.”

But the topic isn’t just an occasional one at the credit union. “We institute cybersecurity-awareness training on day one of their employment. In fact, we’re audited from the federal financial sector every year to make sure every employee has had security-awareness training — at least annually, but most importantly, on day one.”

Even then, Reed regularly uses his metaphorical hammer.

“We all receive email all day, every day. And the staff has to be trained over and over,” he said. “It’s like when we were young children at the stove, and we were told, ‘don’t touch the stove.’ We had to be told a thousand times before it sunk in.”

And hopefully, the message took root before a serious burn. That’s what companies of all sizes and from all sectors are dealing with today: the possibility of being badly burned by a breach.

For this issue’s emphasis on cybersecurity, BusinessWest examines why even the best-equipped networks can be compromised because of simple human error — and what employers are doing to drive that message home.


Growing Threats

One problem, Reed said, is that cyberthreats have changed over the years.

“In 2005, you were worried about your average teenager sitting in the bedroom after school thinking about how hack into the CIA mainframe; they did it more for the joy of it, to be proud of it.

“Today, we’re talking about nation-states attacking. We’re talking about a government providing monetary resources, building out multi-story buildings, hiring their own citizens and providing them with pay, to attack other nations. That’s what we’re dealing with today. They attack 24/7/365.”

And their efforts have become savvier, Savas said.

“Don’t underestimate the bad actors, because they are so far ahead when it comes to social engineering and how to employ technology. They do research on social media, and they know things about you, like your dog’s name. That’s a pretty easy password to figure out. So don’t make it easy to guess.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“You know the environment that the client has is pretty darn secure, but when you’re having people from the outside log in from their own equipment that is not secure, you’re really running the risk of a breach.”

Some companies have unknowingly voided their cybersecurity insurance policies because they lacked a certain level of protection — not just hardware and software, but training and compliance. “Every level of protection has a cost,” Savas added, “and some companies are gambling and not being fully protected.”

Indeed, Hogan said many advances in cybersecurity are being driven by insurance companies, which are not happy about paying out for preventable mistakes.

“They don’t want the exposure,” he went on. “And they’re going make it harder to pay off cybersecurity insurance — because that is paying out constantly. They are losing money on that; they’re realizing they sold a lot of policies where people are not doing what they should be doing. And the hackers have caught up.”

Reed noted that, going forward, most businesses will not be able to get cyber insurance coverage until they move to minimum 15-character passwords. “We moved to that four years ago because I knew it was coming.”

And not just longer passwords — or, preferably, pass phrases that are easy for the user to remember but impossible to guess — but two-factor authentication, like a code sent via text or email to the user’s phone. “You have to do that,” Hogan added. “When we install a new environment for a client, they have to do multi-factor no matter what.”

In addition, “there are paid software programs that manage passwords for you and give you different passwords you can copy and paste into the program you’re trying to log into,” Reed said.

For those who choose their own passwords, replacing letters with symbols in a recognizable word — $ for S, ! for I, etc. — makes the password exponentially safer, Savas said, adding that length is still a better safeguard than complexity.

Hogan encourages password vaulting in password generation. “I never generate my own passwords. The client shouldn’t either. So when I go to create that password, I’m going to generate a password that’s going to be random; it’s going to be extremely complex. It’s not the name of my dog. It’s not the name of my car. It’s got nothing to do with me. And it’s going to be a password just for that one website, for that one portal. And then it gets saved to a secure vault.”


Common Sense

While all these procedures are smart, Hogan went on, they only work as long as a company’s employees follow them.

“Can I ensure that everybody’s doing this? No. Can it be a procedure that you mandate? Yes, you can mandate it. But tracking it is a little different. So we add a couple more things on top of all this. Besides password management, vaulting, and multi-factor authentication, then we do the dark-web monitoring and security-awareness training.”

But a lot of cyber protection still comes down to common sense. That includes what people choose to share online, Reed said.

“If you have your entire dossier of who you are on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, whatever, once that dossier is out there, that’s what criminals leverage,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s what’s going to convince your grandmother that you need help, because it really sounds like you.”

Or, convince you that your CEO wants you to click a dangerous email link.

“The hackers look at people that can approve wire transfers, ACH batches, you name it,” Hogan said. “They’re looking at owners, they’re looking at CFOs, they’re looking at controllers. We call that ‘whaling’ or ‘spear phishing,’ where they actually target a certain individual. And they’re very sophisticated. They come up with real information.”

Reed agreed. “If they’re going to impersonate the president or the CEO, the only way they’re able to leverage that person, with that crafty email, is if they spend months on social media learning about that person, gathering information to formulate the email. That’s what gets employees to click — because we all want to do what the CEO wants us to do.”

Much of this behavior, from smart password creation to avoiding phishing attacks, comes down to training, Hogan noted. And sometimes, even that’s not enough.

“We can talk until we’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t mean that somebody working at that company is going to follow those procedures properly,” he said, recalling a recent incident when a remote worker for a client used his own laptop to log into the company portal from a remote site, got a suspicious pop-up, and clicked on it, allowing a cyber attacker to navigate the company’s system.

“That’s a big issue. You know the environment that the client has is pretty darn secure, but when you’re having people from the outside log in from their own equipment that is not secure, you’re really running the risk of a breach.”

And many times, Savas said, companies don’t even know they’ve been breached. “The bad actors go in, look around, see if there’s anything worthwhile, then map out a strategy. And that, to me, is scary.”

On the plus side, he believes the message is getting across, and companies are buttoning up with proper training.

“More education is happening within organizations. Attempts are being made, but it all comes down to that individual user being educated, heeding those warnings, and being smart about the things they can control,” Savas explained.

“Confidentiality of the password, not opening attachments, not clicking those links. Those are the three elements that open up an intrusion,” he added. “A lot of it is preventable. The majority is preventable.”

Special Coverage Wealth Management

Unpacking the Controversy

Presented by Jay Durand

The topic of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing has become increasingly popular over the last two to three years, sparking many discussions and questions. What is, at its core, a simple attempt to make better investment decisions has surprisingly caused quite a bit of controversy. So, what are we talking about when we discuss ESG investing, and what is fueling the debate?


The ABCs of ESG

First, let’s start with the basic ESG standards themselves. Environmental, social, and governance standards can certainly all be interpreted as politically oriented, but why? Taking them out of order:

• Corporate governance means being responsive to shareholders. This is what any investor should want.

• Social means taking account of a business’ impact on society. This certainly affects the appeal of that business to customers and, therefore, can also affect the financial results.

• Environmental also has a perception impact, as well as an impact on whether the business can be run sustainably over time. For example, slash-and-burn agriculture may be more profitable in the short run as long as there is always more jungle. But properly managing farmland is more sustainable — and likely more profitable over time.

ESG doesn’t replace the financial metrics, but gives a more complete picture of them. There’s nothing here that implicitly should be a problem, as they are simply analytical tools.

Jay Durand

Jay Durand

“The worry seems to be that asset managers are running their businesses with a goal to change the world in certain ways. This appears contrary to what investors see as the goal: to do whatever is maximally profitable.”

The Debate

Once we understand the basics, the question often raised is, how are these tools being used? The worry seems to be that asset managers are running their businesses with a goal to change the world in certain ways. This appears contrary to what investors see as the goal: to do whatever is maximally profitable.

Investors seem to have two complaints about ESG investing. The first one is that investors are suffering as companies are being forced by institutional asset managers to run their companies in a suboptimal way. On the contrary, asset managers typically get paid based on a percentage of the asset value they manage, so they have a significant incentive to get the highest returns they can. Those same asset managers are, as fiduciaries, subject to legal requirements to do the same. So the asset-management industry is motivated to seek out the best possible financial returns by both potential rewards and potential negative consequences.

To believe that asset managers are not trying to maximize returns is to conclude that they are willing to hurt their own paychecks and take meaningful legal risks to change the world. Does this seem likely? Think about this: with billions of dollars on the table, if there was any real evidence of asset-manager slanting, wouldn’t there already be lawsuits in play?

The second complaint is that institutional asset managers are forcing companies to drive outcomes that the investors don’t support. That’s not to say some fund managers aren’t trying to change the world; some are. But those funds are typically very explicitly marketed as such to investors looking for that kind of impact. Since those funds are looking for a specific type of investor, asset managers have a clear incentive to make their orientation obvious — and their self-interest and fiduciary requirements point very clearly in that direction.

For the remainder of the industry, ESG may be a marketing strategy or simply incorporated in their standard investment practice. This makes sense for purely financial reasons, as we noted when we covered the basic standards. Those products are out there and, for those who want them, are easy to find.


Is There Reason to Worry?

ESG investing is a set of analytical techniques designed to further inform the financial analysis and investment decision. Those tools can, of course, then be used to implement value-based judgments and to drive desired impacts from that investment, just as with other value-based investment processes. Investment managers should use all the tools available to improve their results, but they have clear incentives (both positive and negative) to disclose both how they are applying those tools and the results.

Is this something to have on your radar? Yes, for reasons both positive and negative. As always, please reach out to our office to discuss your current plan and any concerns.

This material is intended for informational/educational purposes only and should not be construed as investment advice, a solicitation, or a recommendation to buy or sell any security or investment product. Investments are subject to risk, including loss of principal.

Environmental, social, and governance criteria are a set of non-financial principles and standards used to evaluate potential investments. The incorporation of ESG principles provides a qualitative assessment that can factor heavily into the security selection process. The investment’s socially responsible focus may limit the investment options available to the investor. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Please contact your financial professional for more information specific to your situation.


This article was authored by Brad McMillan, CFA, CAIA, MAI, managing principal, chief investment officer, at Commonwealth Financial Network, and presented by James E. Durand, CPA of MountainOne Investments, where he analyzes the financial markets and researches stocks, mutual funds, and other investments. He is also responsible for managing many of MountainOne Investments’s fee-based investment accounts. Durand holds his FINRA Series 4, 7, 24, 63, and 86 securities registrations as an investment adviser representative of Commonwealth Financial Network. He earned the Chartered Financial Analyst designation in 2003. He has also served on the board of directors for the Northern Berkshire United Way since 2005; (413) 664-4025; [email protected]


The financial advisors of MountainOne Investments offer securities and advisory services through Commonwealth Financial Network, member FINRA/SIPC, a registered investment adviser. Fixed insurance products and services offered through CES Insurance Agency. MountainOne Bank is not a registered broker-dealer or registered investment adviser. MountainOne Bank and MountainOne Insurance are not affiliated with Commonwealth. Insurance and investments are not insured by the FDIC and are not deposits or other obligations of, or guaranteed by, any depository institution. Funds are subject to investment risks, including possible loss of principal investment.

Healthcare News Special Coverage

A Holistic Approach

The infusion spaces at the cancer center were designed to be calming and comfortable.

The infusion spaces at the cancer center were designed to be calming and comfortable.

ribbon-cutting ceremony

Helen Blake, whose daughter the center was named after, speaks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony alongside Deborah Bitsoli, president of Trinity Health Of New England Medical Group, and Dr. Robert Roose.

Sometimes, opportunity is born from a flood of difficulty. Or, simply, a flood.

That was the starting point, anyway, of what has become a $6 million construction and renovation project to renovate and add 5,500 square feet to the Karen Davis Krzynowek Cancer Center at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Enfield, Conn.

“About 16 months ago, as a result of a flood that had occurred in the old cancer center, we took it upon ourselves to set out a vision for what we could do to enhance and expand oncology services for the patients in Enfield and the surrounding towns,” said Dr. Robert Roose, administrative officer for two Trinity Health of New England hospitals: Johnson and Mercy Medical Center in Springfield.

“From there, it became an opportunity for us to create a state-of-the-art facility with infusion bays with natural light, and to bring medical-office infusion, medical oncology, and radiation oncology under one roof in a newly expanded and beautiful space to better meet the needs of the patients receiving cancer care in and around this community.”

Indeed, the project brings all of Johnson’s outpatient cancer services together under one roof, allowing patients to receive multiple facets of their treatment in one location. In addition to improving accessibility for physician appointments, the project also includes new medical oncology infusion bays that feature privacy screening, personal televisions, and space to accommodate a supporting family member or friend.

“Having all those services there, and especially having our partners in radiation next door in that same building, ensures that patients don’t have to go to multiple locations to get different aspects of their care,” said Tory Murtha, director of Ambulatory Oncology.

“I think that is key for this population,” she went on. “They’re already not feeling well, they’re already stressed, and they have a lot of other things going on in their lives. If you’re telling them, ‘well, first you have to go here and here and here and here,’ I think that’s really hard. So if they can just come and see their physician, see their nurse, get their infusion, have some blood drawn, have holistic support staff with the financial navigators and the nurses and the social-work team, that helps them feel like, ‘oh, they’re looking at me from every angle, every aspect of my holistic well-being.’”

This enhanced, multi-disciplinary care will extend even to surgical services, Murtha noted.

“We’re going to be able to bring breast surgeons over to our space within this cancer center to see patients for those diseases, and have the medical oncologist there with them. That makes a huge difference when you’re a new patient and you’re able to have both physicians there from both modalities of care. And the surgical center is going to be next door. That’s huge.”

Tory Murtha

Tory Murtha

“Having all those services there, and especially having our partners in radiation next door in that same building, ensures that patients don’t have to go to multiple locations to get different aspects of their care.”

Indeed, the new Karen Davis Krzynowek Cancer Center is part of a broader, $40 million expansion and renovation project designed to create a comprehensive hub for outpatient services on the hospital’s Enfield campus. Once complete, the S. Prestley and Helen Blake Ambulatory Care Center will include an upgraded surgery center with four state-of-the-art operating rooms, recovery areas, and additional medical office space.

“You’ll notice some of the design elements between the two centers are going to match,” Roose said, “so that there’s some harmony in the appearance, very much elevating the physical space to match the care that’s provided, so that it is top-notch and really delivers on the promises we have made to meet the needs in the community.”


Under One Roof

Small changes make a difference in cancer care, medical oncologist Dr. Karishma Mehra said, noting, for example, that patients require a physical examination before they can be cleared to receive chemotherapy.

“It’s important to make receiving care as easy as possible for cancer patients. Now, with physician offices just steps away from the infusion area, patients can begin their treatment more quickly. They also have peace of mind knowing their physician is nearby.”

Other changes in the reopened center are aesthetic, aiming to boost calmness, stress reduction, and peace of mind, Murtha said.

“Having natural light coming in, even if it’s on a cloudy day, is important,” she explained, noting that multiple studies have bolstered the connection between sunlight and a positive mindset. She added that the color scheme and artwork on the walls are intended to be calming, as are amenities like heated seats and blankets in the infusion spaces. And designing large-enough rooms to sit with a family member was also important.

Helen Blake cuts the ribbon for the reopening of the Karen Davis Krzynowek Cancer Center

Helen Blake cuts the ribbon for the reopening of the Karen Davis Krzynowek Cancer Center, which is named in honor of Blake’s late daughter, who passed away after a six-year battle with cancer.

“Before, we really didn’t have that, and many times, especially going through COVID, there was not an opportunity for patients to have a family member with them,” she said. “Even if situations arise where we have to be judicious with how many people we allow in, there’s still enough space to allow caregivers and family members to be with them in their space.”

In addition, Murtha said, “it was important to ensure that, in the nursing station for the infusion area, there’s line of sight to every patient. It’s a big space, but you can still see everything, and that’s from a safety perspective, because we give a lot of medications that can have lots of reactions. So ensuring that the nurses have a line of sight to everybody was really important.”

Also, “one thing I love about the Trinity standards is making sure that everything you need is in the exam room,” she added. “So I can do your vital signs, I can take your weight, I can take your height, all in the exam room. You don’t have go to three different rooms to do different things.”

Murtha added that the employees at the cancer center, many of whom have worked there for 15 or 20 years, were gratified to return. “The people who work there, they stay because it is a family, and they do feel very dedicated to this location and to each other and to their patients.”

Enfield has been an important location for Trinity Health Of New England, Roose noted, sitting between its hospitals in Springfield (Mercy) and Hartford, Conn. (St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center).

“We recognize the needs of this community,” he told BusinessWest, “and we have prided ourself on providing great care in this community and very excited about some of the strategic expansions of services that are happening there, which include the renovation and the expansion of the Karen Davis Krzynowek Cancer Center.”

The idea, he added, was “ensuring that each individual has an environment that is comfortable, state-of-the-art, and beautiful, so that we can fully meet the biological, medical, psychological, spiritual, and social needs of each individual patient in this new space. Our mission is to be a transforming, healing presence in the community.”

Murtha added that Enfield is the health system’s fastest-growing market in the region.

“This is not a generalist model, like some smaller cancer centers. We have doctors that are dedicated to specific diseases to ensure that patients get that same level of high-level service that they would get at a large, academic cancer center.”

“Unfortunately, as people get older, we are seeing more and more cancers, and we’re also seeing a lot more cancers earlier on,” she said, partly due to more ambitious early screening recommendations.

“Even with our GI and our lung-cancer patients, we are seeing some of those a lot earlier now than we have historically. So I think it’s really important that ensure that we provide some specialized care. This is not a generalist model, like some smaller cancer centers. We have doctors that are dedicated to specific diseases to ensure that patients get that same level of high-level service that they would get at a large, academic cancer center. That’s another thing that we’ve really worked on to ensure that our patients get everything that they need in this location.”


Bottom Line

At the end of the day, Murtha said, while the building might be impressive, it’s really about the people.

“We want to make sure we’re holistically managing every patient that walks through the door, and their family members, because there’s a lot of burden on the caregivers, too. So we really do take a holistic approach when we meet each of them and ensure that we’re supporting them at every step of the way.”

Roose agreed, noting that “we are confident that these improvements will ease the cancer journey for many individuals in the greater Enfield community.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 180: September 25, 2023

Joe Interviews Diana Szynal president and CEO of the Springfield Regional Chamber

After several years leading the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Diana Szynal took the reins as president and CEO of the Springfield Regional Chamber last summer, and in the year-plus since, she has listened to — and learned from — hundreds of business, government, and economic-development leaders in an effort to ensure the chamber is playing an effective role in the growth and vibrancy of the Greater Springfield economy. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Szynal talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about all this and much more, including some exciting upcoming events, including a reimagined Super 60 that has expanded its categories to recognize a wider variety of businesses and nonprofits. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest 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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 179: September 18, 2023

Joe Interviews Dave Wisseman, the tenth-generation leader of this venerable family farm

What started out as an artistic inspiration more than 20 years ago has become one of the region’s most anticipated fall attractions: Mike’s Maze, a massive, visually striking (at least from above) corn maze at Warner Farm in Sunderland. (This year’s edition is a thoughtful reflection on the growing role of artificial intelligence in society.) The maze has become a significant revenue driver for the farm, a welcome benefit in a year when farmers have faced unusually harsh challenges. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Dave Wisseman, the tenth-generation leader of this venerable family farm, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about the farm’s rich history, how the mazes are created, how the annual attraction has evolved, and much more. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.


Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

We’re All Ears

Dave Wisseman

Dave Wisseman says this year’s maze is designed to get people thinking about AI and all its implications.

“Where art and agriculture come together.”

That’s how Dave Wisseman, the soon-to-be 10th-generation owner of Warner Farm in Sunderland, described the famous corn maze that has put this operation on the map.

And he’s right. The designs that are cut by a Bobcat into the 10 acres of feed corn growing on one field at this gorgeous piece of land in the shadow of Mt. Sugarloaf certainly constitute art — whether the resulting image is of Babe Ruth, the Mona Lisa, an homage to the country’s national parks, or this year’s creation: a nod, if one can call it that, to artificial intelligence.

Or at least the discussion about AI.

But there is more coming together with agriculture than art at what has become an institution in Western Mass. and a destination that draws people from the 413 and well beyond. Indeed, there are also large doses of tourism, entertainment, innovation, inspiration, culture, and education.

And a whole lot of entrepreneurship.

They all collide at the maze, which started its annual run on Sept. 8, but has been in the planning stages for several months now, said Wisseman, who acknowledged that farms are not big on titles, but if he had one, it would be ‘business manager.’

In that role, he noted that the maze has become more than a revenue stream, although it is certainly that. It has become a huge part of the business plan at the 150-acre farm, which grows a variety of fruits and vegetables and operates CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs in Sunderland with five pick-up areas in the Greater Boston area — so much so that many other traditional fall initiatives, and the feed-corn crop itself, now take a back seat to the maze.

“For us, the corn maze is such a huge part of our business that it made sense to slow down the other things in the fall and focus on making sure the maze is the best it can be.”

“For us, the corn maze is such a huge part of our business that it made sense to slow down the other things in the fall and focus on making sure the maze is the best it can be,” he said, noting that the attraction draws more than 20,000 visitors each year, most from Hampden and Hampshire counties, but neighboring states as well. Many leaf peepers have made it part of their annual visit.

As for the images chosen each year, they are part of the evolving story of the maze, said Wisseman, noting that his father, Mike Wisseman, and local artist Will Sillin originally decided to combine talents and create what they called ‘corn art.’ The inaugural image was of the ‘Amazing Minuteman,’ as seen on the 2000 Massachusetts quarter, with subsequent designs featuring the Mona Lisa, Babe Ruth, King Tut, George Bush and John Kerry (who squared off in the presidential election of 2004), Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, and Julia Child — images seen by the world through photos taken by passing airplanes.

In 2015, Sillin essentially retired from corn art to focus on his personal artwork, and the creative development torch at what became known as Mike’s Maze was picked up by Dave Wisseman and his wife, Jess Marsh Wisseman, also an artist.

Her creations have included ‘Alice in Sunderland,’ a tribute to Alice in Wonderland; ‘Greetings from Earth,’ a celebration of the Voyager missions to explore the outer reaches of our solar system; and ‘Cornstock,’ a celebration of Woodstock a half-century after the generation-defining music event — images captured by drone and then sent to the world.

Greetings from Earth

‘Greetings from Earth’ is one the many works of art etched into cornfields at Warner Farm over the past two decades.
Photo courtesy of Mikes Maze

Getting back to this year’s theme of artificial intelligence, it exemplifies the farm’s efforts to be topical and relevant, but also go well beyond creating art in the rows of now-10-foot-high corn stalks. The larger mission is to get people to think, while also being entertained, Dave said.

Etched around the outside of the maze is the question ‘In the Age of Artificial Intelligence, What Makes Us Human?’ In the middle is the word ‘Thinking.’ The letters take on a high-tech look.

“We’re posing that question out in the maze and inviting people to answer it,” he said. “There’s a trivia game all about the different elements of artificial intelligence and robotics, and we’ll have a kids’ game, where they’ll use binary language to decode a secret message. And there will be a few stations out there where we pose some more of the deeper ethical questions about AI and ask people to consider them.

“‘Can computers think?’ That’s one of the questions we ask,” he went on, adding that the maze is designed to prompt visitors to think about technology and its place in the world.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited Warner Farm and this year’s maze to learn about how this has become much more than a place where art and agriculture come together.


Kernels of Wisdom

Tracing the history of the farm, Wisseman said it dates back to the early 1700s, when Eleaser Warner — a descendent of the family who arrived not long after the Mayflower and eventually settled in what was then called Swampfield, now Sunderland — started tilling land near what is now the center of town. (Indeed, the farm’s mailing address is South Main Street).

This is his mother’s family and and one of the founding families of Sunderland, he said, adding that, in the beginning, it was subsistence farming, and it remained that way for several generations. Over time, the farm started growing and selling potatoes, onions, and, later, strawberries.

“In the ’60s, my grandfather was introduced to the concept of pick-your-own strawberries, and we were one of the first people to do pick-your-own strawberries in the Valley, and it really took off,” Wisseman noted. “That was the first venture into the agri-tourism world and inviting people down to the farm to have that farm experience.”

Today, the farm’s main crops are strawberries and sweet corn, but it also grows tomatoes, melons, peas, green beans, peaches, and “a few apples,” he said. It sells wholesale to local stores, other farms, and other CSAs, while operating its own CSAs, including the Millstown Farm Market.

Wisseman said he grew up on the farm until he was 10, when he and his mother relocated to the Cincinnati area, and he would return to the area to work on the farm while in high school and college. He graduated from the College of Worcester in Ohio with no real intention of making the farm his career, but … his commencement coincided with the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

“In the ’60s, my grandfather was introduced to the concept of pick-your-own strawberries, and we were one of the first people to do pick-your-own strawberries in the Valley, and it really took off. That was the first venture into the agri-tourism world and inviting people down to the farm to have that farm experience.”

With few other opportunities available, he came back to the farm to work beside his father in 2010, and together they have continued and refined the many aspects of the operation, including the corn maze, which represents a dramatic (in every sense of that word) and evolving leap forward in agri-tourism.

The concept was born at a Christmas party, he said, when his father and his friend, Sillin, decided to combine their talents. The rest is history in the making.

As noted earlier, the maze has evolved over the years and in a number of ways, from the addition of elements within the maze designed to make people laugh and learn to the diversification several years ago into a separate ‘haunted’ cornfield, featuring a number of attractions, such as an ‘executioner’s chamber,’ designed to entertain and frighten those who enter.

The corn maze at Warner Farm

The corn maze at Warner Farm has become a fall institution, where visitors can see art and agriculture come together in a powerful way.
Photo courtesy of Mikes Maze

The haunted maze and an accompanying Zombie Night Patrol, while both solid additions, were also heavy with overhead, said Wisseman, adding that they were eventually discontinued, with efforts focused on the corn maze and creating an experience for those who visit it.

That experience includes a large playground featuring a drain-tube slide, a tractor-tire jungle gym, and more, as well as horse-drawn wagons, potato cannons, picking out a Halloween pumpkin, and other activities.

Meanwhile, the farm has created what it calls ‘beer mazes’ in a separate cornfield; six brewers — different ones each week — will set up stations in the maze, Wisseman explained. “It’s a brewfest in a cornfield.”


Art and Soul

The corn maze and related activities have become so popular, and such a large part of the business plan, that the farm essentially puts its full focus on that operation in the fall, Wisseman said, adding quickly that planning and execution begin months earlier.

It starts with the concept, he said, and much discussion about what the theme will be. Current events often play a role, as do round-number anniversaries, as was the case with the Woodstock theme. While other options were considered, the overwhelming amount of attention focused on AI eventually made it the logical choice for this year’s theme.

With the theme finalized, the next step is the design — in this case, the words, the font, and more — which was created by Jess Marsh Wisseman.

An Adobe file is then sent to Rob Stouffer, owner of Precision Mazes, a Missouri-based outfit that specializes in creating corn mazes. It has been handling the cutting at Warner Farm for several years now, and has a large image of the ‘Greetings from Earth’ design prominent on its website under ‘featured projects.’

Blending accurate GPS technology with advanced cornfield-cutting techniques, the company will transform a field into a message in just a few days, Wisseman said, adding that the work on this year’s maze was completed several weeks ago.

Walking through the maze, one will encounter some vast, wide-open spaces, especially where the word ‘Thinking’ has been etched, but the maze is a far more valuable revenue stream than the corn that was growing there, he said, adding that this acreage is set aside for feed corn, which is sold to other farms and also a few restaurants for the making of corn tortillas.

“We put a lot of thought into this. You want to dive into a topic, you want to make it fun and interesting, but we also like to challenge our visitors and prompt them to think about it a little bit.”

While not quite a year-round undertaking, the maze has become a huge part of this 300-year-old operation, Wisseman noted, adding that months are spent not only on the concept and design, but also the creation of learning opportunities within the maze — for children, but also people of all ages.

“We put a lot of thought into this,” he told BusinessWest. “You want to dive into a topic, you want to make it fun and interesting, but we also like to challenge our visitors and prompt them to think about it a little bit.”

Getting back to this year’s maze and the broad and now-controversial topic of AI, he said the farm isn’t making any kind of statement or forcing any opinions on visitors. Instead, it is inspiring them to think and create their own opinions.

“We’re saying, ‘hey, this is an issue that requires a little bit of thought,’” he said. “It’s easy to be like, ‘the robots are coming for us,’ but we want people to think about what computers can actually do for us; what is their greatest hope for the invention of AI and this technology? And what is their greatest fear?”

These sentiments explain what the maze has evolved into over the years. It is certainly art — the designs as seen from above are exquisite and captivating — but is so much more than that. It is now a destination and a tradition, as well as a huge part of a business that has survived for multiple generations through perseverance and entrepreneurship.

“It’s a big part of what we do,” Wisseman said in conclusion. “And it’s also just a lot of fun — it works a different part of the brain than the farming.”

The creative side.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Peaking Their Interest

Bob Fraser (left) and Matt Lauro

Bob Fraser (left) and Matt Lauro


Bob Fraser acknowledged there’s a good deal of real estate between the Berkshires and the Bay State’s South Shore. He knows because he traverses that distance regularly.

But for the somewhat unique financial-services institution known as MountainOne, which can trace its roots back to 1848, having bank branches and other facilities on opposite ends of the state, with nothing in between, really … works.

“It has worked out well for us,” said Fraser, MountainOne’s president and CEO. “In the Berkshires, we have tended to be more of a traditional retail, community-based bank, and on the South Shore, we are much more commercially oriented. We do a lot of construction lending in and around the Greater Boston markets, and we also do commercial lending; we have a pretty strong group of commercial lenders.

“In the Berkshires, we see ourselves being able to fill a void, with a high level of expertise in commercial lending within Berkshire County and surrounding areas,” he went on, adding that this void has been created through large regionals either moving their headquarters from the Berkshires (as Berkshire Bank did) or expanding in other areas — leaving what Fraser considers opportunity for his bank in their wake.

Actually, there are many things that work for MountainOne, besides these differing focal points on either end of the state, including that aforementioned strong focus on commercial lending; the diversity of the business (there is an insurance division and an investment arm); its size — large enough to handle the needs of most businesses but small enough to provide a brand of personalized service — a strong focus on technology and how to use it to better serve customers, including a new digital platform for commercial customers to go live this month; and even the name, which doesn’t tie it to one community or one region and now has strong brand recognition in the Western Mass. region, with a mascot — actually, a ‘spokesgoat’ — named Mo.

“Being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”

MountainOne, now with roughly $1 billion in assets, will continue to maximize these various strengths and qualities and work to attain greater market share in both regions it serves, especially in the Berkshires, said Matt Lauro, senior vice president of Commercial Lending, noting that, like the rest of Western Mass. — and the state, for that matter — the region is overbanked.

But it is also, in his view, underserved to some degree.

“There aren’t enough banks that are servicing large commercial clients, or commercial clients as a whole, that are really focused in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “You do have players that are primarily focused here, but there is a void resulting from the larger regionals that have tended to pull back on lending capabilities in Western Mass., and it has left C&I clients, and larger commercial-development clients, with less service than they’ve had historically.”

Added Fraser, “being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”

Both Fraser and Lauro noted that the bank’s strong roots, diversity of services, and strong track record in the Berkshires will serve it well during what can only be described as a time of challenge and uncertainty — when it comes to the economy, banks, and the foreseeable future.

Bob Fraser

Bob Fraser says MountainOne can grow as effectively through online banking as it can through geographic expansion.

“This environment we’re in … I’ve never experienced so much uncertainty as to where we’re headed,” Fraser said. “And an environment of uncertainty makes decision making so difficult, whether it’s running a bank or running your company; it’s incredibly challenging to feel confident about what the next few years are going to look like.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Fraser and Lauro about MountainOne and what can and should come next for this bank as its marks an important milestone.


Scaling the Heights

Team members at this institution are known as colloquially as ‘mountaineers.’

And on Sept. 19, all of the MountainOne offices will close at 1 p.m. so that the mountaineers can attend a celebration for all employees marking the bank’s 175th anniversary.

There will be much to celebrate, said Fraser, listing a rich past, and a potential-laden future, for the reasons cited earlier.

The institution can trace its roots to 1848 in North Adams, when it was known as Hoosac Bank. Fast-forwarding considerably, Fraser noted that, in 2000, Hoosac Bank and Williamstown Savings Bank came together to create the holding company to be called MountainOne Financial, which became the mutual holding company for those two banks.

“If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”

And in 2007, South Coastal Bank, headquartered on the South Shore, merged its holding company into MountainOne’s holding company, creating what Fraser, formerly president and CEO of South Coastal, believes is the first three-bank mutual holding company.

“We’ve seen a lot more of that now, but MountainOne was the first to actually do it,” he said, adding that, over time, the three banks have been merged into one entity under the Hoosac charter and rebranded as MountainOne. Additionally, Hoosac Bank had owned two insurance agencies, which were merged under the name MountainOne Insurance Agency, while the investment division was rebranded MountainOne Investments in 2013.

Today, MountainOne has some combination of bank branches, ATMs, insurance offices, and investment offices in six communities, three on each end of the state: Quincy, Rockland, and Scituate on or near the South Shore, and North Adams, Pittsfield, and Williamstown in the Berkshires.

When asked if there was future expansion under consideration in the Berkshires region — and, if so, where — Fraser said it’s possible, but what is more likely is continued commitment to advancing internet banking capabilities that allow banks to serve customers more efficiently, with less reliance on brick-and-mortar facilities.

“The world is changing,” he explained. “You don’t need as much of a physical presence in a specific geography as you did before to manage and serve a business customer’s banking needs.”

Lauro agreed.

“If the client is in the surrounding area, we are wherever the client is,” he explained. “Wherever the client is, we are happy to be there, to work with them; that has been our opportunity, and it’s a big thing for us. If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”

Matt Lauro

Matt Lauro says the considers the Berkshires to be overbanked but its commercial customers underserved, leaving opportunity for MountainOne.
Staff Photo

And this is what MountainOne brings to the table, Fraser said, noting that, despite the ability to serve clients through the use of technology, commercial banking is a “personal relationship-oriented service,” said Fraser, noting that MountainOne boasts lending professionals like Lauro and Richard Kelly, also a senior vice president of Commercial Lending based in Pittsfield, who are focused on the region and its economic health and well-being.

“Our vision, at the end of the day, is to help ensure the economic vibrancy of the community,” he said. “And by doing that — by supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs — we’re helping to fulfill that mission.”


Economies of Scale

As he talked physical expansion — new branches — in other communities within the Berkshires, Fraser told BusinessWest that it would be “challenging to invest in a branch location in a market that has a declining population base and is already overbanked,” and that the bank’s strategy is, as he said, geared more toward technology.

But he noted quickly that the Berkshires has seen an uptick in population in the wake of the pandemic, with some choosing more rural areas over larger cities, as well as some demographic shifts, with more young people moving to the area, and a surge in entrepreneurship, in part because of COVID and how it prompted many to pursue long-held dreams of working for themselves.

And all of these trends are certainly positive signs for the Berkshire County market and its business community.

Indeed, as they talked about the next chapters in MountainOne’s history, Fraser and Lauro noted that, independent of what is happening with the economy, interest rates, and other factors, there are many reasons for optimism when it comes to broadening the book of business and gaining additional market share.

Some of this has to do with COVID-related population surges, demographic shifts, and that aforementioned surge in entrepreneurship, the size and scope of which are still to be determined. But much of it comes down to what the bank can bring to the table beyond what all banks can provide — money.

“Hospitality is the number-one industry, and we’ve been involved in a number of projects involving hospitality-related businesses, but we also have a number of commercial accounts that involve meaningful employers and well-known companies in the Berkshires,” Fraser said. “And I think there’s a greater opportunity for us over time to continue to expand in that market as we see younger entrepreneurs establishing roots in the Berkshires. Businesses may be looking for an entity that is based in the Berkshires, is local, and obviously has a commitment to the region; we’ve been here since 1848.

“Being a mutual organization, we can look a little bit longer-term strategically than if we were a stock-owned company,” he went on. “It’s just a different business; we can be patient and look beyond the next quarter or two quarters — we have that luxury.”

Elaborating, he said MountainOne has experienced lenders who understand business and what it takes to succeed and can step into the role of adviser as well as banker.

“We’re not just a vendor that is providing you a product, which is the loan,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re also a resource. It’s a relationship, and it’s probably the most unique relationship a business will have. Anyone can sell you something — we’re the only relationship where we have to get what we sold you back.

“Another aspect of it is that we really enjoy this part of the business — it’s in our DNA,” he went on. “We love being with our customers, and we love understanding their businesses. We love talking about what we know, what we’re thinking about, and sharing those ideas.”



As for Mo the mountain goat, he’s the perfect spokesperson for the bank, as detailed in a bio on its website. “Goats are tough,” it reads. “They turn challenges into opportunities every day, and even in the most demanding, unforgiving environments, goats know how to adapt and thrive.”

MountainOne has done a lot of that over the past 175 years, and that collective work has put it in a position where it can turn challenge into opportunity and scale new heights — in all kinds of ways.

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Serving Those Who Have Served

Habitat for Humanity’s Veterans Build

Habitat for Humanity’s Veterans Build initiative has helped many veterans stay in their homes through repair and renovation projects.

Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity (GSHFH) homeowner and local veteran Max needed help. The colonial home he purchased in the McKnight neighborhood in 2002 had become a hindrance.

Max suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and rheumatoid arthritis, which makes climbing stairs to the second-floor bedrooms challenging. He expressed his concerns to Habitat, and together, they discovered a solution. Habitat, through its Veterans Build Home Preservation program, is building a downstairs bedroom and bathroom for the veteran and his wife, Gloria.

Veterans Build is a national Habitat for Humanity initiative that provides housing solutions and volunteer and employment opportunities for U.S. veterans, military service members, and their families. The program serves limited-income homeowners who are affected by age, disability, or family circumstances and struggle to maintain the condition and utility of their homes.

The home-preservation program provides affordable micro-loans to qualifying homeowners who need help with accessibility modifications, home weatherization, general home repairs, yard cleanup, and landscaping. GSHFH works alongside volunteers and homeowners to make repairs.

“Massachusetts has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and many aging homeowners are unable to make needed repairs on their own,” said Aimee Giroux, GSHFH’s executive director. “We are happy to be able to help them through the repair process so they can continue to stay in their homes.”

Max, a former Marines corporal, qualified for the Veterans Build Home Preservation program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Housing Rehabilitation and Modification Pilot Program. The pilot project gives competitive grants to nonprofits that serve veterans or low-income individuals. The grants can be used to rehabilitate eligible veterans’ primary residences. Purple Heart Homes is donating $15,000 while raising additional funds toward the project. Purple Heart Homes, a nonprofit charity, provides housing solutions for former military members who are disabled and/or have decided to age in place.

“Massachusetts has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and many aging homeowners are unable to make needed repairs on their own. We are happy to be able to help them through the repair process so they can continue to stay in their homes.”

“Every act of generosity toward our veterans echoes a resounding commitment to honor their service and sacrifice. With deep gratitude, Purple Heart Homes is proud to contribute $15,000 to the Greater Springfield Habitat Humanity home-preservation project, ensuring veteran Maxwell finds solace and security in a place he can call home,” said John Gallina, CEO and co-founder of PHH. “Our mission extends beyond this gift, as we embark on a dedicated fundraising campaign to reach a goal of an additional $10,000. We believe we’re better together. In collaboration with Habitat for Humanity, we hope to build a legacy of compassion and support for those who have bravely defended our freedom.”

GSHFH is dedicated to strengthening communities by empowering low-income families to change their lives and the lives of future generations through home ownership and home-preservation opportunities. Since 1987, Greater Springfield Habitat has built or repaired 120 homes in 23 towns. This project represents the first home to utilize ICFs, which will further reduce long-term costs for the future homeowners.


Helping Other Veterans

Last month, Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, in association with Window World Military Initiative, Home Depot Repair Corps, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Veterans Housing Rehabilitation and Modification Pilot Program, performed exterior work for former Army Specialist fourth grade Roland and his wife Jo-Ann.

The pilot project gives competitive grants to nonprofits that serve veterans or low-income individuals. Grants can be used to rehabilitate eligible veterans’ primary residences. 

The one-story Monson house, which the couple purchased in 1992, had fallen into disrepair, and Roland said his insurance company didn’t want to insure it because of the state of the siding. He knew of Habitat for Humanity from reading articles about well-known volunteer and former President Jimmy Carter and thought there might be an affiliate in Springfield. When he reached out, Giroux visited his home to help the couple complete the application process.

Window World Military Initiative donated the siding, replacement windows, a new sliding door, and gutters, while also providing volunteer support to help with installation.

“Our family is blessed and honored to live in a country that provides the freedoms that we all enjoy, and as a small family business, we are the example of the American dream,” said Grace Drost, owner of Window World of Western Massachusetts. “With that, we can’t forget that those freedoms and the American dream aren’t free, and we feel this is an opportunity to thank our veterans for the sacrifices they make so our dreams can come true. One of the core values of our company is rooted in changing lives, and this is a chance for our whole team to give back to those who make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms.”

Habitat also replaced the deck and repaired the shed roof and cleaned up the yard.

“Habitat is excellent,” Roland said. “I’m very pleased.”