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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 59: April 5, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet

Dave DiRico

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet. The two have a lively discussion about everything from the state of the golf business in the wake of the pandemic — the sport has actually received a big boost from COVID — to how the federal government’s various economic stimulus programs are helping small businesses — like his — by giving people more buying power. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Construction Special Coverage

Building Momentum

The past year has been an unusual time for the construction industry — one marked by project postponements, soaring prices for materials, and the establishment of strict COVID safety protocols on job sites. But for most builders, it wasn’t a devastating year, and, in many cases, it led to a surprisingly promising 2021. After all, the need for projects to be completed hasn’t gone away, and the backlog is actually creating a surplus of projects to bid on. The aforementioned challenges still remain, contractors say, but the work rolls on.

Laurie and John Raymaakers

Laurie and John Raymaakers say there’s plenty of infrastructure work available — and that trend should continue in the coming years.

 

By Mark Morris

 

For Dan Bradbury, 2020 was “a year of pivoting and finding new ways to get the job done.”

As director of sales and marketing for Associated Builders, Bradbury saw a slowdown at this time last year as several projects that were scheduled to break ground were instead postponed indefinitely.

By including construction as an essential industry, Gov. Charlie Baker allowed job sites to stay open and keep workers employed while following pandemic protocols. While Bradbury appreciated the ability to keep projects moving, other slowdowns were out of his control.

“There are a lot of hurdles to get over in a large industrial or commercial project, and COVID hit the brakes on all of them,” he said, noting in particular the new challenges surrounding what in the past had been routine business with municipal governments.

“We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

“Because municipalities had to move to fully remote meetings, they occurred less often, which made it difficult to get building permits, zoning-board approvals, and the other essential documents we need to start and finish a building project,” Bradbury said, adding that Associated has projects in the works in a number of different sectors. One example is a 30,000-square-foot building in Bloomfield, Conn., where a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

His company’s experience isn’t unique. BusinessWest spoke with several area construction managers to discuss how their industry looks this spring compared to a year ago, when COVID-19 suddenly changed the world — and the main takeaway is one of optimism and promise.

A significant part of Houle Construction’s business involves interior renovations for medical facilities. Company President Tim Pelletier noted that, when COVID first struck, business came to a complete halt as medical professionals were dealing with rapidly increasing numbers of COVID patients. One year later, he’s optimistic about the increase in construction activity.

“It’s absolutely busier than last year,” he said. “We’re seeing more projects taking shape, especially with our hospital clients.” In the meantime, Pelletier has picked up renovation projects at organizations that offer hall rentals, such as the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“The temple has not been able to host gatherings for the past year, so they are using the downtime to make renovations for when they can open again,” Pelletier said, adding that it’s a way to take advantage of what everyone has gone through and find a positive side.

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School, one of the many recent school projects undertaken by Fontaine Brothers.

Bradbury credits pent-up demand for the increase in projects his company has been taking on this year.

“As soon as the calendar page turned to 2021, our phones started ringing,” he said. “We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

Dave Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said his company has been fortunate to have several projects ongoing since before the pandemic hit. Many of his largest projects involve building schools, for which budgets are approved long before breaking ground, so funding for them was not affected by COVID concerns. Since the pandemic hit, Fontaine said some towns have delayed public funding approvals, but not as many as he had anticipated.

“In the last six to eight months, we’ve picked up more than $400 million in new work,” he noted. “Some of these projects are in pre-construction now and will start this summer.”

Among the projects scheduled to begin in June are the $75 million DeBerry-Homer School in Springfield and the $240 million Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester.

Infrastructure construction also experienced steady business last year. J.L. Raymaakers and Sons Construction specializes in installing water and sewer lines as well as site excavation for municipalities, airports, and private companies. After a busy 2019, co-owner John Raymaakers said 2020 was nearly a record year for his company, and he’s on pace to fill up the project list for 2021.

Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn

In this Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn., a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

“It’s amazing the amount of infrastructure work that is out there for bid,” Raymaakers said, explaining that his company subscribes to a register that lists all the new public and private projects available for bid. Since the middle of last year, he has seen no slowdown in the volume of bidding opportunities. “Looking only at our category of construction, there were five to six new projects announced just last week.”

Raymaakers predicted bridge construction, another area of expertise for his company, will also see increased activity.

“In the next few years, I think we are going to see a lot of work on replacing aging bridges in New England,” he said, adding that this should happen even without a federal government infrastructure bill, citing two recent bridge-replacement projects his crews are working on in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. Still, he’s hopeful that some kind of infrastructure legislation passes, saying it would be “a huge boost to us and others in our industry.”

 

Help Wanted

While business activity is brisk for everyone BusinessWest spoke with, they’ve all faced recent challenges; some are unique to doing business in the COVID environment, and others are chronic problems made worse by the virus. The issue of having enough workers was a challenge on both fronts.

“We’ve definitely lost people from the workforce due to COVID concerns,” Fontaine said. “They might be taking care of a family member, or they might be in a group that has underlying health concerns.”

He added that managing COVID on the job site is also difficult. “Anytime someone tests positive for COVID, that individual and anyone in close contact with them has to go home and quarantine for the time period,” he explained. “That can result in a lot of labor disruption on a daily basis.”

COVID also exacerbated the long-running problem of fewer workers in skilled-trade and general-labor jobs. Raymaakers said finding help in construction is a constant challenge. Co-owner Laurie Raymaakers pointed out that heavy-equipment operators and construction laborers can make a good living.

“There’s a misconception that laborers aren’t paid well,” she said. “The pay and benefits at our company are pretty good; the reality is there are just fewer people who want to do this type of work.”

She added that it’s also misleading to suggest laborers are not skilled, pointing out that her company’s laborers are highly skilled at making sure pipes are situated properly and secured to withstand years of service.

“Our workers also put together fire hydrants, which require about 50 bolts that have to be tightened in a certain pattern. Hydrants are under constant water pressure, so if it’s not built correctly, parts of the hydrant will go flying in the air.”

As older craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians continue to retire, their ranks are not being filled by enough younger workers. With projects increasing, Bradbury said an already-competitive labor market gets squeezed even further.

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution, at the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“Between the demand for commercial/industrial as well as residential, everyone in the trades is busy, and they can’t find enough workers,” Bradbury said. “On top of that, solar companies are hiring all the electricians they can find at a time when electricians were already in short supply.”

The biggest hurdle to doing business right now, according to Bradbury, involves managing enormous price increases for materials, in some cases rising by more than 100% compared to this time last year.

“Over a period of months, we’ve seen multiple price increases in steel and lumber products,” he said. “Those two create a trickle up that affects prices for every other building material.”

Bradbury noted that steel manufacturing has been affected by labor outages due to COVID, leading to product-supply shortages. He also pointed to increased demand for lumber, especially on the residential side, where housing starts are booming. In addition, his company and many others receive a great deal of lumber from Canada, where the U.S. still has tariffs in place on lumber.

Bradbury said COVID issues are not affecting project schedules because his firm will not start a job until it has a guarantee that materials are available. “We are also adding cost protections in our contracts as a way to guard against the constant increases in materials.”

It’s too early to determine what immediate impact the pandemic will have on building design, but Bradbury said clients from current and future projects have begun asking about air handling and filtration.

“For sure, air handling and using UV light to sanitize a space are areas where people have been putting more focus,” he said. “I think these requests will continue as there is an increased emphasis on clean air and other ways to keep facilities sanitized.”

At Worcester South Community High School, workers installed air-handling units that use bipolar ionization, or, as Fontaine described it, a system that cleans the air and removes many of the germs and bacteria from the building.

“The motivation to install this system was driven by COVID, but there are other benefits, too,” he said. “Systems like this provide a better environment for people with asthma and other health concerns.”

 

Spring of Hope

The arrival of spring and increased numbers of people receiving COVID vaccines gives all the construction managers we spoke to a sense of optimism about life and getting their projects done.

At press time, asphalt plants in the area had begun to open. Because the plants close for the winter, municipalities will not allow road construction because there is no access to repave the roads. So the plant openings are great news for companies like Raymaakers, which plans its water- and sewer-line projects around those openings.

Other managers look forward to a time when they do not have to socially distance their crews and wear masks all day.

“Masks are another nuisance to deal with,” Pelletier said. “If we can start to get distancing and masks behind us, it will speed things up on the job site.”

As part of planning for future business, Bradbury has begun to ask some fundamental questions about what lies beyond the horizon. “Where is the growth potential going to be as we come out of COVID, and which industries will still want to build and have the money to build?”

As he considers the types of industries that are prevalent in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., such as aerospace and manufacturing, he wonders if government spending will still drive those industries. He has also given some thought to the insurance industry.

“Typically, there has been a huge demand for office space for the insurance industry, and how they address that moving forward is a big question mark coming out of COVID.”

As the insurance industry reconsiders its needs, Bradbury added, there has been a sharp decline in demand for all office space. “We are definitely not building more office space anytime soon.”

But his and other firms are building — and that’s good news after a year of uncertainty and a pandemic that hasn’t yet gone away.

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Get Back Here

It’s called ‘revenge spending,’ or ‘vacation retaliation’ — the idea that people who were unable able to spend money on travel last year will go all-out this year. Surveys say it’s a palpable sentiment among Americans right now; the question is whether they will actually follow through on those plans, and how safe they’ll feel doing so. When they’re ready, area tourism and hospitality leaders say, Western Mass. will be an ideal destination, boasting the variety of indoor and outdoor experiences and affordability that travelers seek — an ideal answer to all that pent-up demand.

Gillian Amaral (left) and Stacey Warren

Gillian Amaral (left) and Stacey Warren, co-founders of Three Chics Hospitality.

Mary Kay Wydra learned a couple new phrases over the past few months.

“The buzz term is ‘revenge spending,’” the president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) said. “That is, ‘I’ll spend more on things I was denied because of COVID.’ Things like in-person entertainment, eating at restaurants next to people, and travel.”

The other buzzword making its way around the tourism industry is ‘vacation retaliation,’ and it means roughly the same thing.

She likes those phrases — or, more accurately, what those sentiments portend. “That bodes well for us as a region,” she told BusinessWest. “We are affordable and easily accessible — a destination with a lot to offer.”

Indeed, while COVID-19 has been far from a positive for the region, it did open many people’s eyes to what Western Mass. has to offer, particularly those who migrated here to escape New York City or Boston at the height of the pandemic. That’s evident in the surging real-estate market, but also in the optimism many in the tourism and hospitality sector are beginning to feel about what lies ahead.

It can be detected in Hampden County’s hotel occupancy, which was 39% in January — down from the 49% recorded a year earlier, but significantly higher than the statewide figure of 29%, and on par with national numbers.

“A great number of people are planning to travel, and Western Mass. is well-positioned to get summer travelers. We have that combination of indoor and outdoor attractions and all this green space for recreation.”

It’s also impacting surveys, like a recent ‘sentiment study’ conducted by American Express that found that 84% of Americans have travel plans in the next six months, the highest figure since the earliest days of the pandemic. And 69% of those intend to take advantage of ‘second-city’ destinations, Wydra noted — in other words, those outside of big cities and top tourist spots.

Places, she said, like Western Mass.

“A great number of people are planning to travel, and Western Mass. is well-positioned to get summer travelers,” she added. “We have that combination of indoor and outdoor attractions and all this green space for recreation.”

One more statistic from the survey: 61% of travelers intend to spend more than normal because they couldn’t go anywhere last year.

That’s music to the ears of Stacey Warren and Gillian Amaral, two veterans of the hospitality industry who recently launched their own enterprise, Three Chics Hospitality, which seeks to market its clients to group-tour operators.

“Our clients are group-friendly restaurants and attractions interested in having motorcoach groups come to their establishments or attractions; we offer consulting and marketing for them,” said Warren, who has worked in the hotel field for 17 years.

She called such connections “vital” to the region. “Every single bus that comes in may need 20 or 25 overnight rooms, then you have 20 to 25 dinners at different restaurants, attraction tickets … one bus is really a big impact on the economy.”

Amaral agreed. “Based on multiple tours we can bring in, the economic impact to the region will be huge,” she said. “And just based on conversations I’ve had with people, they’re ready to travel, they’re ready to get out, but they’re also ready to have someone else do that for them. People are like, ‘I just want to go on a tour; tell me where to go, make it easy for me, and take me there.’ That’s our business model. It just makes sense to be ready when the environment is ready for us.”

That moment isn’t far away, Warren added. “People are ready, and we want to be here to help the restaurants and attractions capture that business while they’re here.”

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, noted in a message to that organization’s members last week that sentiment around travel is starting to turn in a way that promises to benefit Western Mass.

“A year ago at this time, we were headed into two or three months of lockdown where nearly all economic activity ceased. A year later, we’re mostly headed in the other direction,” he said. “Vaccinations are finally beginning to add up, public-health metrics have improved, and statewide capacity and operating restrictions continue to be eased on an almost-weekly basis. Out-of-state travelers from neighboring states are now only subject to travel advisories, and within the next couple weeks, even those should continue to be relaxed.”

Sensing a changing tide, Butler noted, organizations like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow (see story on page 39) both recently announced a return to live performances for the upcoming season, and will be joined by other institutions like Barrington Stage Co., Berkshire Theatre Group, and Shakespeare and Co. in bringing performing arts — and, in turn, visitors — back to the region.

“When you combine this exciting news with the continued momentum of the outdoor recreation economy, and our other major cultural properties operating closer to full capacity — now having a year under their belt in learning how to best operate during this pandemic — 2021 starts to feel far more exciting than a year ago.”

 

Taking the Long View

As director of Sales for Hampton Inn Chicopee/Springfield, as well as president of Hampton Inns of New England, Warren has her finger on the pulse of hospitality in the region, as does Amaral, an assistant professor of Management at Bay Path University who also runs Events by Gillian LLC, specializing in event management and consulting, and whose past event experience includes stints at the Eastern States Exposition, MassMutual Financial Group, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The third ‘chic’ in their new enterprise’s name is, well, hospitality itself, represented by the image of a pineapple. And they feel like Western Mass. has become more of a household name in tourism and hospitality — with the potential for an even broader reach.

Mary Kay Wydra says Western Mass. is well-positioned

Mary Kay Wydra says Western Mass. is well-positioned to raise its profile in the tourism world.

“A lot of the tour operators that have been bringing groups here would just use this as a stopover because they’re from all over the country, and a lot of them just think of Boston and the Cape,” Warren said. “But they’re starting to think of Western Mass., too, and wanting to do things to add on, to offer new and fun ideas for their clients and keep them coming back.

“There are so many great things they can do right here,” she went on. “We can keep them here for a couple of days and reap the rewards, and have their clients leave here happy and wanting to come back.”

Amaral said the two of them have talked about building a business around this concept for years, and felt like this was the right time — even during a pandemic.

“We felt like there was a need. People would come to the Massachusetts area and always go straight to Boston, but what about us here in Western Mass.?” she asked. “Fast-forward to a pandemic we’re almost out of, and we thought, this is the time for us to be positioned for the influx of travel that will come with group tours.”

With their deep knowledge of the region’s tourism industry, she added, they’re able to craft itineraries tour operators can sell to clients, and it’s not too soon to start making those connections, even when the economy isn’t fully opened up.

“Every single bus that comes in may need 20 or 25 overnight rooms, then you have 20 to 25 dinners at different restaurants, attraction tickets … one bus is really a big impact on the economy.”

“Everyone is poised and ready at this point to just go — let’s hit the switch and move forward,” Amaral said. “That’s why now is the time to launch, versus in July, when things are opening up and people are feeling comfortable. At that point, you’re behind.”

Wydra agreed, noting that statistic about 84% of Americans with travel plans in the near future. “People are creating destination wish lists, and simply having a future trip planned makes people happy. We’re optimistic people are going to visit this year. We pushed pause on marketing last year, but hope to start spending again.”

She said the meeting and convention business will be slower to return, simply because large events are often planned years in advance, and an organization that cancels an event here may not be able to return for a few years. Last year, 164 groups canceled or postponed events in the region, with an estimated economic impact of $97 million going unrealized. However, about half those who canceled plan to come back in a future year, she added.

In the meantime, the GSCVB is engaging in some creative sales pitches for the region by planning virtual site visits at destinations like the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, MGM Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We’re showcasing the attractions because these attractions set us apart,” she said, adding that the bureau is equally intent on highlighting the many different meeting spaces available. “We want to make sure Western Mass., as a brand, stays out there in front of meeting planners.”

Lindsey Schmid, vice president of Tourism & Marketing for 1Berkshire, recently told Berkshire Magazine about a multi-pronged marketing approach, promoting all there is to do virtually in the Berkshires, as well as continuing to feed travelers ideas and imagery that will inspire them to plan a Berkshire getaway now and more extensive travel later. Part of that message is the outdoor recreation opportunities that helped the region’s tourism sector stay afloat last summer.

It’s a widely understood selling point; U.S. News & World Report’s recent “Best States” feature ranked Massachusetts the ninth-best state in which to live, based on eight factors ranging from healthcare and education to public safely. In the category of natural environment, the Commonwealth ranked fourth.

“Our region leans on the combination of natural beauty and cultural offerings that serve as anchors to drive economic activity; right now, those anchors are preparing for big things in the summer of 2021,” Butler noted.

He added that “the pandemic has tempted us all to lean on pessimism when thinking about the future, but the progressing conditions around us truly call for more cautious optimism. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that the summer of 2021 will mark a return to pre-pandemic activity, but we should absolutely be preparing ourselves for a far more robust season than a year ago.”

 

Up in the Air

Certainly, optimism is in the air, although it’s still mixed with some uncertainty. Gathering limits are still a thing, most live performances remain firmly lodged in the future, and some attractions have given no definitive answers on when they’ll open, and to what extent.

For instance, Six Flags New England held a large hiring event last month to fill 3,000 seasonal positions, but the company has issued no definite opening date yet — though it is expected to decide soon, looking to state guidance and the realities of its own business model.

It will do so with heavily publicized safety protocols, like every other tourist destination — an element of the sector Wydra is particularly proud of.

“We’re climbing out of this with precautions still in place,” she said. “I’m very proud of our attractions, with all the protocols put in place, the cleaning and everything else they’re doing to keep visitors safe. You’ll see a lot of that continue.”

Warren said visitors will want to feel safe before the sector really opens up. “There are still some people who are nervous, but we’re able to show them what we can do — what plans the restaurants and attractions have in place to keep them safe when they come — and that’s making them feel very comfortable and ready to visit.”

Amaral cited research showing that people are more comfortable and apt to travel when adequate protocols are in place.

“Being knowledgeable about what to expect ahead of time puts them at ease,” she added. “And, of course, so many people being vaccinated is helping as well. The apprehension, even from six months ago, is much different than it is now. People are just ready to go — with caution, but nonetheless, they’re saying, ‘let’s go.’”

Wydra agreed. “There’s definitely some optimism as we move forward with the vaccines. We’re always hearing about new ones being introduced, and the government keeps making people eligible for it — that’s great news.”

Butler tempered that optimism with the other side of pandemic reality — which is, we’re not out of it yet, and people shouldn’t just abandon the common-sense behaviors that keep case counts down.

“Any increase in business needs to be done with public health and safety as the foremost consideration,” he said. “But all of the larger-picture conditions that have fueled growing visitor and economic activity throughout the past two decades are aligning well.”

Warren has been in the hospitality field long enough to ride a few economic cycles, but she’s never witnessed anything like last year — “and I never want to see it again,” she said. “I’ve never had to cancel so many groups and lose literally millions of dollars in revenue. So I’m looking forward to coming back strong this year and help everyone to bounce back.”

She’s heard from tour operators that they do, indeed, want to come back. But they’ll be returning to a changed tourist economy, and change isn’t always a bad thing, Amaral said.

“This has been a wake-up call to most businesses to think differently, which is exciting to me. Let’s not wait for a pandemic or tragedy to happen to think about a different way to do business or attract a target market or a different product line. If there’s anything we can take from this, it’s don’t get into the same rut. Think about different ways to improve your business.”

Amid the changes, of course, some normalcy is more than welcome.

“Who would have thought, a year ago, that we couldn’t go into a bar and have a drink?” Wydra said. “I want to meet friends after work for drinks. And I’m excited, because I think we’ve got some positive stuff happening in the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Weathering the Storm

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky says flexible leases, as offered in the co-working world, will be more in demand in the future, and rigid, long-term leases less so.

Since launching Click Workspace a decade ago, Mary Yun has seen nothing but growth in one of the region’s first co-working ventures.

That growth led her to abandon her original 1,000-square-foot facility in 2015 and develop a 9,000-square-foot building in downtown Northampton, which, at its peak prior to the pandemic, hosted 80 members and a host of community arts and cultural events.

“That was a good number for us, where we could operate with a full-time member advocate and myself as executive director overseeing all the operations and also working on events,” she said. “We’re mission-driven, bringing in the community through art shows and music; that was my wheelhouse.”

With 80 members, all the private offices and dedicated desks were filled, as was the shared open space, for the most part, while a meeting room holding 24 people was regularly put to use by the community. In short, Click was … well, clicking.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

“We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

“When the closures happened, we closed down like all businesses, and we still had members supporting us, paying their monthly dues for a while. We had members who were now working remotely from home,” Yun said.

But the erosion began almost immediately.

“We had always maintained a good number of members who had private offices that were being funded by their companies. At their businesses, they were the remote workers,” she went on. “But, because everything was now remote, that benefit went away for a lot of our members, so we lost a handful.”

When Click reopened at the end of May, around 55 members were still supporting the space, paying their dues, even though not everyone was coming in regularly — usually, no more than a dozen at a time through last summer. A few members actually joined during the pandemic — some with their career situations in flux, others who needed a place to work because their homes were suddenly too crowded by partners and kids working and learning remotely.

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels after the pandemic fades, but it may be a gradual process.

But it wasn’t enough. “Right now, we’re down to less than 30 members, which is a huge drop in revenue,” Yun said. “Right now, our membership is lower than when we first moved into this building almost six years ago.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

The pandemic has impacted the model in the short term, but the people operating area co-working spaces believe it’s a model with plenty of potential in the long term, and perhaps even more than before COVID-19.

“Like most businesses, we definitely lost some business,” said Jeff Sauser, who co-owns Greenspace CoWork in downtown Greenfield with Jeremy Goldsher. “No one knew what to expect, and we managed to be as flexible as possible with members; those relationships are important to us. We gave every opportunity to pause membership and make changes.

“We lost a chunk of memberships — not everybody; some stayed on, even though they weren’t coming as often — but we were able to stay afloat and survive,” he went on. “We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

As a consultant for a Boston-based company that used to have four offices there and now maintains just one, Sauser sees first-hand the way workplaces are evolving — and in a way that may benefit co-working facilities.

“People don’t come into work every day anymore. We expect more people will have more flexible working arrangements with their employees.”

Yun agreed, noting that many of Click’s members left because their kids were learning at home — which is sure to be a temporary situation; in fact, many schools have already invited students back to campus. She believes an increase in membership at Click is inevitable, though it may take some time.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job.’ I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

“I think what’s going to happen is, when kids go back to school in the fall full-time, parents will be like, ‘maybe I can make it work at home,’ and continue to work at home, and in a couple months, they’ll start to get lonely — professionally lonely — and start to come back, which is why they came here in the first place,” she told BusinessWest. “Really, I’m hopeful and optimistic.”

Stroke of Inspiration

Ned Barowsky was certainly optimistic when he launched a franchise of the national co-working company Venture X in Holyoke, right next to the Holyoke Mall.

He’s owned the retail and office complex at 98 Lower Westfield Road for 25 years, and faced a series of vacancies over the past couple of years the departures of Pier One Imports, Kaoud Oriental Rugs, and a series of mattress stores. For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies, to no avail. That’s when Barowsky was inspired to by the co-working model.

“I had done a couple franchises in the past; I was familiar with franchising, so I started looking at co-working spaces,” he said. “I just knew that everything was being shut down, and when people come back out, they’re not going to go back to these five-year leases, 10-year leases. People aren’t going to do that anymore. They’re going to want flexible plans — ‘I want to be here for a month, three months, six months, a year, and with a smaller footprint.’”

When he started researching a few companies, he was “blown away” by Venture X, which tags itself “the future of workspace.”

“That’s our tagline, but it literally is the future of workspace. It’s flexible — you decide how many of each kind of office you want,” he said, noting that some franchisees opt to emphasize shared space, but his facility includes fewer shared stations and about 65 offices, in several sizes, to house any number of workers. “I wanted more offices, so that’s what I did — I put in more offices.”

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say robust co-working spaces can be economic drivers for communities.

Sauser sees the potential, too, in companies downsizing their space and offering more flexible arrangements to workers — partly because of what they learned during the pandemic, when they saw how productive employees could be while working remotely. And that has implications for entire communities.

“I think co-working spaces are very well-positioned to receive those people,” he said. “I’m an urban planner — I’ve been thinking about this stuff long before the pandemic hit. A lot of trends show that, if people can work more flexibly, and make decisions about where they live based on lifestyle and not where the jobs are, people can move where they want to.”

He pointed to surging real-estate sales in Western Mass. and in the suburbs outside large cities like Boston.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job,’” Sauser said. “I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

A lot of towns in Western Mass. offer that already — Greenfield has a walkable downtown, with opportunities to work in a co-working space, so it can be more competitive attracting new residents,” he went on. “I think of it as economic development for communities, not just for businesses like ours.”

Several years ago, Sauser and Goldsher met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City. They say members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, meeting space, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

The pandemic actually revealed new opportunities for co-working spaces, Sauser added, from remote workers who live in rural communities with poor broadband access to college students who needed the space when campuses were closed, to working parents who craved a break from their suddenly bustling house.

“And we were honored to see a lot of members choose to stick with us and extend their membership even when they weren’t using the physical space,” Goldsher added. “Before this, the concept of co-working was a novelty, but we brought an urban concept to a smaller community and showed the model does translate in a different way. Now a lot of other opportunities are presenting themselves.”

Bills, Bills, Bills

Yun had a broader vision as she grew Click — one centered around the arts as an economic driver, with gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like, to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space. That aspect of the complex has been wiped out during the pandemic.

“It’s been a hardship for the people who have been coming in — there’s very little community left right now with so few coming in,” she said. “We’re eking by, but we’re going to make it. I think a lot of it is because we operate as a nonprofit, so we had reserves built up, and we’re dipping into those reserves now.”

PPP loans, a Massachusetts small-business grant, and rent reduction have helped, but the complex will eventually need to boost its membership back up.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have one person here or 50; you have all these fixed expenses,” Yun said. “There may be a little bit of give in the rent, but we have to pull in fiber-optic internet — that’s a huge cost for us, almost $900 a month. All the utilities are fixed. Last summer, I said to myself, we need to be able to sustain ourselves until the summer of 2022 because I felt like that was going to be when the recovery was in full swing for us.”

That timeline seems more accelerated now, but she feels like the return to normalcy will still be a gradual one. “Do all the former members come back? A lot have moved on, and co-working is such that people come and people go all the time.”

The pandemic saw an influx of residents from New York to Western Mass., but many of them have purchased large homes with home offices, so it’s unclear what effect that migration will have on co-working. “It seems daunting, but we’ve been open for over five years here now, and I feel like we’re here to stay. Who knew we’d have a pandemic?”

To counter that still-active pandemic, Click, like every other workspace, has launched a series of safety protocols, from requiring masks when moving about to regular sanitization to pumping in fresh air.

Air quality was a big concern for Barowsky at Venture X as well. “During COVID, I was very cognizant of air-filtration systems. I spent well over $100,000 on seven rooftop units,” he said, in addition to investments in touchless bathrooms, numerous hand-sanitizer stations, and a keyless entry system.

Greenspace takes safety seriously as well, Sauser said. “From a COVID safety standpoint, we follow all the state guidelines and have protocols in place — cleaning, masks, sanitizers.”

Goldsher added that the state’s rules early on made little sense, noting that Greenspace was not designated an essential business, but — unlike Click — stayed open throughout the pandemic anyway because one of the companies it houses was deemed essential, and had to continue using the space.

“While I think we proved that we are a very necessary asset in the community, there’s this strange dichotomy being open for essential business and not being considered an essential business ourselves.”

Here to Stay

But those who own co-working spaces in Western Mass. — other prominent centers include AmherstWorks, 734 Workspace in Longmeadow, and Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, to name just a few — say they are indeed an essential part of the 21st-century economy.

“I think the future of the workplace is very much up in the air. There’s no way to predict what the open concept will look like in five years time, but we have some good ideas,” Goldsher said.

Sauser agreed that the future of the workplace is in flux, but suggested that the office of the future might look much like co-work spaces of today, “where flexibility is the emphasis, in part because office managers and companies dedicate less space to individual employees when employees are not coming in every day.”

Yun added that companies have decisions to make about whether to extend their traditional leases or move toward more flexibility and smaller footprints. That, in turn, could drive the next surge of growth in co-working, and she welcomes more such facilities, because each new complex will raise awareness of the model and its benefits.

“We don’t know how all this will shake out,” she said. “But the more co-working spaces exist, the better.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 58: March 29, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

On this installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield. The two have a lively discussion about the toll the pandemic has taken on this nonprofit and the many types of events it stages for the region, and how, if all goes well,  2021 could be a bounce back year for this important institution. They also talk about just how critical SOS events, like Bright Nights, the Fourth of July fireworks, the pancake breakfast, and the  Big Balloon Parade are to the quality of life in this region. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 57: March 22, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute in Amherst

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute in Amherst.  The two have a lively discussion about everything from recent data on how many people are leaving the state — and why — to the ongoing economic recovery, the shape it will take, and the many factors that will drive it. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

 

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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Creating a Powerhouse

M&T Bank Corp. is no stranger to acquisitions, having broadly expanded its geographic footprint through a series of mergers over the past two decades.

But every acquisition is undertaken with purpose, Chairman and CEO René Jones said, and that includes the recent announcement that M&T will purchase Bridgeport, Conn.-based People’s United Financial Inc. in a $7.6 billion, all-stock transaction.

“The combination of M&T and People’s United will benefit both firms, providing additional growth opportunities beyond what either firm could achieve independently,” Jones said during a recent conference call with investors, adding that the culture of M&T will “resonate” with People’s United customers.

The transaction has already resonated through the region’s banking industry, as it will create a ‘super-regional’ banking franchise (as industry analysts are calling it), with approximately $200 billion in assets and a network of 1,135 branches and more than 2,000 ATMs spanning 12 states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The combined franchise will operate across some of the most populated and attractive banking markets in the U.S., M&T officials note. As part of the transaction, People’s United’s current headquarters in Bridgeport will become the New England regional headquarters for M&T.

Jack Barnes

Jack Barnes

“The merger extends our reach by providing customers access to a larger banking network and an expanded array of services.”

“In People’s United, we have found a partner with an equally long history of serving and supporting customers, businesses, and communities,” said Jones, who will continue to lead the expanded company in his current roles. “Combining our common legacies and our complementary footprints will strengthen our ability to serve our communities and customers, and provide solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. I am incredibly excited about this opportunity and look forward to welcoming new customers and team members to our M&T family.”

In the conference call, Jones recognized the value of People’s United’s footprint and resources.

“In addition to new geography, we expanded the talent and capabilities in our organization as well as the product sets vailable to our combined customers,” he noted, adding that the acquisition will make M&T the 11th-largest commercial-bank holding company in the U.S. by both assets and market capitalization.

In addition, “the combined geographic footprint is concentrated, offering a distribution system across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states that represents over 20% of the U.S. population and over 25% of GDP, and has attractive levels of household income.”

Indeed, the median household income in People’s United’s footprint is almost $87,000, well above the national median, according to the Wall Street Journal. M&T will also add People’s United’s national equipment-finance business and its mortgage warehouse lending business.

“The density allows us to leverage local market knowledge, our recently bolstered technology infrastructure, and our nationally recognized brand,” Jones added, noting that the two companies have a complementary top-tier deposit share in core markets with a top-three share in most of their respective top-10 markets.

People’s United Bank’s headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn

People’s United Bank’s headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn. will become M&T’s New England regional headquarters.

“And People’s United’s outside proportion of core operating accounts makes it among the most attractive franchises in New England,” he added. “In our view, this is the most important characteristic of a stable, well-run franchise.”

 

Cultural Considerations

Jack Barnes, chairman and CEO of People’s United, noted that the cultures of the two banks are a good fit.

“M&T is a like-minded partner that shares our culture of supporting communities by focusing on building meaningful relationships and providing personalized products, services, and local market expertise to customers, while building on our legacy of excellence in service,” he said. “The merger extends our reach by providing customers access to a larger banking network and an expanded array of services. I am confident our shared community-banking philosophies will provide significant long-term value for our shareholders, employees, and loyal customers.”

M&T leaders note that both companies have been long been recognized for their community commitments and support of civic organizations. Over the past decade, M&T, through The M&T Charitable Foundation, has donated $263.7 million to more than 2,800 nonprofit organizations across eight states and the District of Columbia. M&T Bank has been awarded the highest possible Community Reinvestment Act rating on every examination since 1982 from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Meanwhile, People’s United Community Foundation and People’s United Community Foundation of Eastern Massachusetts have granted $40 million to nonprofits aligned with the foundations’ collective mission since their inception in 2007. Through the foundations, M&T will use $90 million to support charitable activities in the communities currently served by People’s United.

In the Greater Springfield area, People’s United Bank traces its roots to the Bank of Western Massachusetts, which opened in 1987 and grew it into a regional commercial-lending power, one that was acquired by Chittenden Bank in 1995 and then again by People’s United in 2008.

People’s United, with a much longer history (it was founded in 1842), boasts more than 6,000 employees these days, offering commercial and retail banking, as well as weath-management services, through a network of more than 400 retail locations in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The company also provides specialized commercial services to customers nationwide. As of Dec. 31, 2020, the institution had total assets of more than $63 billion, loans of $44 billion, and deposits of $52 billion.

René Jones

René Jones

“The density allows us to leverage local market knowledge, our recently bolstered technology infrastructure, and our nationally recognized brand.”

M&T, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., operates banking offices in New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It ranks among the largest regional lenders in the Northeast, with $142.6 billion in assets at the end of 2020. Commercial real-estate loans comprise almost 40% of its portfolio, and despite the pandemic’s impact on that sector, loan performance at the bank has been better than expected over the past year.

Under the terms of the agreement, People’s United shareholders will receive 0.118 of a share of M&T common stock for each People’s United share they own. Following completion of the transaction, former People’s United shareholders will collectively own approximately 28% of the combined company.

The merger has been unanimously approved by the boards of directors of each company and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021, subject to customary closing conditions, including receipt of regulatory approvals and approval by the shareholders of each company.

 

Open the Floodgates

The acqusition is just the latest in a series of regional mergers seeking scale in order to better compete with the largest U.S. banks as low interest rates cut into lending profits, Forbes reported.

Last year, for instance, Huntington Bancshares Inc. agreed to merge with TCF Financial Corp., First Citizens Bancshares Inc. announced plans to acquire CIT Group Inc., and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. struck a deal to buy the U.S. arm of Spain’s BBVA. The year before, BB&T and SunTrust merged to become Truist Financial Corp. in the largest bank deal since the financial crisis of 2008 ushered in stricter regulations.

Ultra-low interest rates and meager loan growth have made it difficult for banks to profit from lending, the Wall Street Journal notes. The effect is most pronounced on regional banks, which rely more on lending profits than their national counterparts. Net interest margin, or the difference between what a bank pays its depositors and what it earns from lending, hit a record low for commercial banks in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Tom Michaud, CEO of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, recently told Barron’s that, if regional banks want to be “relevant and significant,” they need to compete against the ‘Big Four’ of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America.

Robert Kafafian of the Kafafian Group, a consulting firm in Bethlehem, Pa., told American Banker he expects a surge in bank mergers in 2021, partly due to needed investments in new technology. “Customers have shown they can adapt to changing technology. Adoption may have advanced three to five years faster than what it might have been otherwise without the pandemic. Tech capability is all the more important now.”

Jones agrees, but stressed that many different considerations went into the decision to purchase People’s United and create a new, super-regional bank.

“Not only are our geographics complementary,” he said, “so too are the talent, product sets, and credit cultures, creating a solid platform we can build upon.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

A Challenging Docket

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve and create new opportunities, even during the pandemic.

It’s been a challenging year for businesses of all kinds, and the profession of law is no exception.

But in many ways, the pandemic set the critical role of lawyers in even sharper relief, says Sudha Setty, dean of the   (WNEU) School of Law.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial,” she told BusinessWest, and it extends far beyond business disruptions.

“The pandemic has hit very unevenly in a lot of communities, including Western Massachusetts, and you have issues of trying to get unemployment benefits or ensuring against foreclosure of homes or eviction,” she noted. “A lot of legal needs have come out of all that. Those needs existed previously, of course, but the pandemic has exacerbated them. So the need for lawyers to help in those capacities has increased exponentially in the past year.”

Or take the growing (literally and figuratively) field of cannabis; a course on “Cannabis and the Law” is hugely popular, Setty said, because students see legal opportunities in an industry that still has plenty of room to expand.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial.”

“It’s a new field, and it’s not going away. It’s a way to think about new opportunities as a lawyer, but you’re also learning nuts and bolts you can apply to other fields as well, like regulatory law and how to navigate state bureaucracy and a lot of other pieces that will be helpful even if your practice isn’t in cannabis law in the long run.”

In short, the world will always need lawyers, and after a very uneven past two decades when it comes to the job market and law-school enrollment, colleges across the U.S. have reported an uptick in applications over the past few years, one that hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic.

WNEU welcomed an incoming class of 130 last fall, well over the 88 who started classes in the fall of 2018, Setty’s first year as dean. While the fall 2021 numbers won’t be finalized until the summer, she hears from Admissions that applications are still strong.

“Nationwide, I know most law-school applications are up significantly,” she added. “In this region, it’s up about 20%, and we’re about the same. So I feel cautiously optimistic.”

Programs she has shepherded have only made WNEU a more attractive destination — for example, the Center for Social Justice, launched in the spring of 2019, has offered a robust series of community conversations, pro bono opportunities, and other initiatives aimed at giving students real-world experience in making a difference, even while in school.

“Students have always been interested in that mission, but now we have this focal point and can shepherd students toward job opportunities, toward scholarships, toward career paths, thinking about what they need to be a social-justice lawyer,” she said, noting, as one example, the Center’s Consumer Debt Initiative, which helps area individuals who are unrepresented in debt collection, sometimes over a few hundred dollars, sometimes a few thousand.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

“They can make a difference in someone’s life. It’s a way for students, faculty, and lawyers from the greater community to address this economic-justice issue. We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

Add it up, and the WNEU School of Law hasn’t slowed down its pursuit of building a program that will remain relevant in the ever-changing field of law, well after life — and the educational experience — return to something resembling normal.

 

Back to School

Like every college and university, WNEU had to scramble last spring to get students learning remotely, and faculty and staff spent the summer raising their online competencies to make sure courses would be even more effective in the fall.

“Some of them were already ahead of the curve,” Setty said. “For some of us, including me, it was a lot of learning, a lot of training, a lot of mock classrooms we did with each other to build up our ability. This place is about good teaching, and that was the really important thing to drive home — that, by the time we got back in August, everyone had to continue this excellence in teaching as part of the ethos of the law school — in a hybrid format, if they had to.”

The 2020-21 year has, indeed, taken a hybrid form, with students alternating between learning remotely and in classrooms at the Blake Law Center, due to social distancing and capacity limits. “The largest classrooms normally hold more than 100, and now they’re at 40-something. So the students are rotating through,” she added. “Some students, for health reasons, can’t come at all, so they’re fully remote. That’s the way we’ve been operating.”

The law school has long been known for its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.

Those clinics are still operating, Setty said, but they now feature a strong remote component as well.

“Lawyering these days is largely remote,” she noted. “Client counseling is remote. Witness interviews are remote. We have remote hearings in front of judges. So there’s a separate and related set of competencies that our students are learning, which deal with remote client presentation. It’s very different than what they’ve had to do before, and it has its challenges.”

However, she continued, “the flip side is that this is going to be a part of lawyering going forward. Everything’s not going back to fully in person after the pandemic fades. There are going to be some elements of remote trial work and remote client counseling, so I feel like our students are on the cutting edge of learning this stuff, so when they’re out looking for jobs, they can say, ‘not only do I have this skill set, I also have remote competencies in client representation; I’ve been a remote mediator, I’ve represented people in a criminal proceeding remotely.’ These are remarkable experiences they’re having — they’re very different, but absolutely what we need to do.”

Those graduates are entering a job market that has proven resilient during the pandemic, Setty said, noting that the contraction of law-school enrollment nationally a decade ago has gradually increased demand for talent.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work.”

“The employment piece for the folks graduating during the pandemic, I think there’s still uncertainty around that,” she said. “But for the most part, our graduates have kept their jobs.”

The school has added some faculty members in the past two years, most recently Jennifer Taub, who specializes in white-collar crime, criminal procedures, and other business-law subjects, and authored the book Big Dirty Money: the Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime.

“We’re on a positive swing,” Setty said. “The energy of our students, our faculty, and our staff has been terrific. Working through a pandemic requires a lot in terms of navigating the uncertainty and the need to adapt, but also all the hours it takes for faculty and staff to dig in and collectively make this work so we can have in-person education here.”

 

Community Focus

Setty took the reins as dean of the School of Law in 2018 after 12 years as a professor at WNEU. She first joined the faculty in 2006 as a professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life, and has produced notable scholarship in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security.

Through her career, she has maintained that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole. The Center for Social Justice has been an important part of that philosophy over the past two years.

“I really wanted to establish this center and get it off the ground, and it has been terrific,” she said, crediting grants from MassMutual, individual law firms, and other entities to help fund its programming. “Not only is it a way to help our students and meet the social-justice mission of the law school, but it does such good work in the community. It’s great for attracting new students, but it’s also great for the work it does.”

Areas of focus have included economic justice, racial justice, and a recent effort, funded by a WNEU alum, to create an LGBTQ speaker series and support summer work in that realm for two students each year.

“It draws people in with a lot of interests,” she said of the center. “People come to law school wanting to make the world a better place, and they’re wondering how to do that — this speaks to them in a way that’s really profound.”

In fact, the law school as a whole has taken a hard look at its own efforts toward racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, Setty said, from the coursework to how it connects with the outside community on issues like police practices.

“We have made an effort to think more about this and integrate it into our curriculum and how we engage in the larger community, but I want to do it in a sustained fashion so it’s not like, ‘oh, that was the focus for 2020; we don’t have to think about it anymore.’ The idea is to integrate it into who we are as a law school and focus on it going forward as well. It shouldn’t be a flavor-of-the-month issue, and then we move on.”

Setty is, however, more than ready to move past the pandemic and welcome students back on campus full-time, but she’s proud of what has been accomplished during the past unprecedented year.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work,’” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ve been relatively successful. I continue to be really grateful to be the dean — particularly at a time when it’s required so much collective effort to make this happen.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Special Coverage

Remote Possibilities

Most of Big Y’s 11,000 employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, about 70% of them have worked remotely since the start of the pandemic.

“This past year, we learned that remote work can work, and it allows for a lot of flexibility for individuals,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at the supermarket chain. “That being said, we’re a company where we stress collaboration and teamwork, and that has definitely been a challenge at times. Meetings using technology are different than having in-person meetings. It definitely can work, but there are pros and cons to it.”

The company’s pandemic response team was quick to set up safety protocols last spring to protect the thousands of customer-facing, frontline employees, but it also set many employees up with the necessary technology to work from home, put together a best-practices guide for working remotely, and has carefully followed the public-health data to determine when to bring them back.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy. Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.”

One important finding? Productivity never flagged — which tracks with accounts from many other area employers over the past 12 months. Thus, many employers feel no rush to bring everyone back before the pandemic is in the rear view — and that poses a question no one expected last March: does every employee really have to come back? And what if they don’t want to?

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says employers run the gamut when it comes to bringing back remote workers; some are anxious to do so, while others may see value in changing their model altogether.

Most employers last March thought shutdowns would last a couple months. But a year later, millions of workers are still working from home — and the result has been a national experiment with remote work that has borne some surprising data.

“It’s striking — we’re seeing a little bit of everything,” said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “We have a number of companies — like manufacturers — that never shut down and had employees come in the whole time. And we have companies starting to have employees coming back on a sporadic basis — maybe not five days a week, but two or three days a week. Then others have said, ‘we aren’t even thinking about having employees back until later in the year.’”

One reason for that hesitancy is the fact that workers have not only adapted to remote work, but have, in most cases, been as productive as they were in the office. So employers are taking their time bringing them back, looking to state guidance and public-health metrics to guide decisions.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy,” Wise said. “Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.’”

UMassFive College Federal Credit Union is one example of that phenomenon.

“We moved about 60% of our workforce home last spring, and it continues to be that way,” said Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing. “We’re developing plans and processes for what this will look like in the post-pandemic world, but we’re not looking to bring people back until the state says it’s safe for large groups to gather indoors.”

During the exodus from office to home last March, he recalled, “I won’t say it was chaotic, but we had to make a lot of quick decisions at the senior level to make sure everyone had the equipment and support they needed at home,” in addition to developing guidelines to ensure accountability and making sure everyone understood new (to them, anyway) communication tools like Zoom and Slack.

“We found there are some real positives with productivity and being able to shut off some of the distractions,” he went on.

Employees — especially those who have grown to appreciate working from home, and even prefer it — are thinking similar thoughts, and that may pose a problem of pushback at some companies when they try to bring their teams back in. For now, in most cases, there’s no rush, but those days won’t last forever.

 

National Conversation

The same story is playing out nationally, with some companies planning to remain 100% remote post-pandemic, while others — including big names like Microsoft — taking a hybrid approach, giving workers more flexibility about where they work. Other companies are clamoring to bring everyone back.

“I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life.”

“It’s no longer, ‘do you offer remote work?’ but, ‘do you offer it with enough organizational support so I can be as successful as the people who work in the office?’” Andrew Hewitt, senior analyst at market research firm Forrester, told CNN recently. He expects about 60% of companies will offer a hybrid work model, while 30% of companies will be back in the office, and 10% will be fully remote.

Since last summer, Big Y’s support-center workers have been required to be on site at least one day a week, and the company continues to discuss internally what the full transition back will look like.

“Productivity has not been an issue,” Galat said. “But, with our company, the culture is a huge component of it. Collaborating and having discussions on Zoom … you can do that, but it’s not the same.”

By essentially being forced into a mode of flexibility since last March, he believes companies — including Big Y — have learned some important lessons going forward. “I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life. It’s a constant discussion we’re having with the executive team about what’s working, what’s not working, and what this will look like in the future.”

The fact that the support center is not just an 8-to-5 operation, but requires coverage on nights and weekends, allows for some flexibility of schedules for workers juggling their kids’ remote learning or taking care of parents, he added. “We continue to take care of business, while allowing people the flexibility to take care of home needs as well.”

Another of the region’s largest employers, MassMutual, continues to keep a large swath of workers off campus, and is in the process of evaluating their return to the office, said Chelsea Haraty, communications consultant in Media Relations for the company.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“At a high level, we expect to have MassMutual employees return to our corporate offices in a slow, phased manner later this year,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to monitor and reassess that plan, factoring in a number of considerations — including guidance from medical experts and government officials, a sustained reduction in cases, broader availability of testing and vaccines, as well as our employees’ circumstances and comfort in returning.”

What employers are starting to understand, Wise said, is that employees are also weighing the pros and cons of coming back, and while some are eager, others would rather stay home, and may make that fact known.

“Employers have employees all over the spectrum — some want to get back into the office and don’t feel part of the team when they’re not. Others are saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to come back; I’m not sure about the cleaning protocols and sanitation protocols. Are people wearing masks? I’m not sure I’m comfortable in the office.’”

She noted that some companies are fine pushing those decisions into the future. “They’re saying, ‘things are going pretty smoothly; we don’t have quite as much water-cooler talk, not as much gossip going on, and people are really productive when they’re remote. We don’t have to have people come back to the office and incur the expense of coffee and bathroom supplies. Maybe we can cut some of our expenses.’”

Including some major expenses — most notably the office space itself. “Some of these companies have leases coming up in the next year, so they’re asking, ‘can I reduce my footprint? Do we need as much space as we have?’”

 

Back and Forth

On the other hand, Wise said, questions about workplace culture are very real. “Some companies are looking at their culture, their camaraderie, their teamwork, just the ability to walk down the hall and talk to somebody, and they want to get all their employees back in the office as soon as they can.”

She noted the importance of age-old rituals of the workplace, walking in the door at the start of the day and asking co-workers about their weekend, or their family, or whatever might be going on, whether it’s related to their jobs or not.

“How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

“When people are removed from an environment that really is a team, where you’ve gotten to know each other’s family situations and personal life, you really do lose that with a remote connection,” she said. “When people come into an office meeting, they sit down and chit-chat with the person next to them a little. It’s hard to recreate that on a Zoom meeting; you lose some of that personal connection.”

Boivin agreed. “The productivity piece seems to be working out pretty solidly now,” he told BusinessWest. “At the same time, the collaborative, in-person aspect is missed.”

One big topic of conversation is new-employee onboarding, he said, noting that orientation is conducted in person, and video communications are a regular reality, but he wonders if that’s enough to keep them engaged.

Mike Galat

Mike Galat

“I have a new graphic designer in the Marketing department who started at the end of August. She’s been [physically] at UMassFive for just a day or two. How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

Also challenging is the way boundaries between work and personal life have blurred, whether it’s juggling job responsibilities with helping kids with remote schoolwork, or simply working too many hours.

“Productivity is up,” Wise said, “but some of it is putting in longer hours — rolling out of bed, having breakfast, and getting right to work instead of commuting, and then at 5, instead of getting in the car and driving home to fix dinner, they keep working. Something we’ve heard is that people need to build in some transition time so they don’t start working at 7 and quit at 6.”

Whatever the reason, many employees will be more than happy to return to the pre-pandemic work world.

“Now that we’re going on a year, a lot of people are saying, ‘I thought I wanted this, but I really want to be back in the office — maybe not five days a week for 52 weeks a year, but maybe in the office three days and at home two days,” she added. “A lot of employees are saying, ‘this isn’t what I thought it was going to be — I need to be back around people; I need to have boundaries by being back in the office.’”

Each industry is different, too, Wise added. For example, companies where creativity is crucial, like marketing firms, probably find it easier to brainstorm when people are together in one physical space, able to immediately bounce ideas off one another.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all answer that’s going to fit every organization,” she said. “My guess would be a lot of manufacturers, since they have individuals on the floor who have to be at work, are going to be less likely to have their office staff remain totally remote because that creates an us-and-them mentality. But some other organizations will allow many people to stay totally remote, or there may be that hybrid of people working in the office and then from home.”

Galat agreed, adding that that he’s heard of some companies staying fully remote, but most seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach — which speaks to one way COVID-19 may have permanently altered the American workplace.

“We’ve learned a lot through the year,” he said. “We miss that component of teamwork and collaboration; not having that makes it more challenging. But I think the hybrid approach might be the approach we look at going forward. We’ll evaluate and fine-tune it as we go.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Learning to Take Charge

By Mark Morris

Only one-third of all businesses in Western Mass. are owned by women, according to a recent survey. In the healthcare sector, one of the largest employers in the region, leadership positions are held by women 41% of the time — with outliers like one hospital where it’s only 16%.

These findings are from a 2019 study commissioned by the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts titled “Status of Women and Girls in Western Massachusetts.”

To address disparities like the ones in the survey, the Women’s Fund and Holyoke Community College (HCC) have teamed up on an eight-week training program this spring for women who want to enhance their leadership skills.

Titled “Women Leaning into Leadership: Empowering Your Voice,” the course begins March 25 and runs through May 13.

According to Michele Cabral, executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at HCC, the idea for the course grew out of the Women’s Leadership Luncheon Series, hosted by the college.

Until COVID-19 forced it into a virtual meeting, the college hosted the luncheon every month for the past five years. With attendance limited to 28 attendees, four women leaders would each select a topic relevant to women and leadership, then break out the attendees into four groups to discuss their particular subject. The next month, the groups would rotate so they could discuss a different topic with a different leader. Areas of discussion have included dealing with different leadership styles, the role of communication, and conflict management when you’re the only woman in the room.

When COVID hit, Cabral said they pivoted to a remote video lunch and changed the format to having one person lead the discussion and opening it to anyone who wants to join via video. A recent conversation covered how to deal with changes brought on by the pandemic. Because some women wanted to discuss some of the topics in more depth, Cabral said, developing a course was a logical next step.

Michele Cabral

Michele Cabral

“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths. They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”

“These women want to get to know themselves better, to identify what skills they need to focus on and promote their strengths,” she explained. “They were looking for a more structured program to help guide them through that process.”

A few years back, Monica Borgatti attended the Women’s Leadership Luncheons at HCC. As chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, she especially liked the cohort-style of learning (a collaborative approach in which individuals advance together in an education program) that took place at the events.

“The cohort model works well in this type of learning situation because people start to feel comfortable with each other, and they are more willing to be vulnerable as they share and learn together,” she said.

The luncheon reminded her of a program the Women’s Fund used to run known as the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI). While it had some success, Borgatti and her colleagues thought the program suffered from trying to be all things to all women and fell short in that effort. After compiling feedback from women who had gone through LIPPI, the Women’s Fund put the program on hold.

“LIPPI grads gave the program its highest marks in the cohort learning approach,” she recalled. The graduates also cited networking opportunities and making connections as solid benefits from the program.

After wrapping up LIPPI, Borgatti explained, the Women’s Fund’s emphasis shifted from creating and running programs to identifying leadership programs it could adapt for this area, as well as support for existing programs.

“When I learned HCC was developing a more in-depth leadership program, I thought it was worth exploring to see if there might be a partnership opportunity for the Women’s Fund,” she said.

 

Engaged in Equity

The course is targeted to women in mid-career, especially those who are emerging as leaders in their careers and the community. As part of its partnership, the Women’s Fund is offering sponsorships of up to $650 to defray the $799 tuition cost.

“The Women’s Fund is contributing in such a meaningful way. With their sponsorships, HCC is able to bring this program to people who would not have access otherwise,” Cabral said, adding that many employers do not reimburse the cost of training, so these sponsorships make the course more accessible for women who struggle to pay for self-development.

“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community,” she noted.

Borgatti said taking part in the course was an easy call because it allows her organization to reach women who are seeking personal and professional development. “We want to see more women in leadership positions across our region, so we’re proud to partner with HCC to help more women become effective leaders.”

While the goals of the Women’s Fund address gender equity and gender justice, Borgatti also made it clear that her organization also strives to improve racial equity and racial justice.

“We know that women are not in leadership roles as much as men, and there are even fewer women of color in leadership positions,” she said, noting that the HCC course is one way to support the current and future leaders of color in the community.

“HCC provides the education, the Women’s Fund provides the sponsorship, and together, we bring our common mission out to the community.”

Borgatti added that her organization became involved to make sure affordability would not prevent anyone from taking the course. “We want to encourage more women of color in programs like this, and we want to make sure it’s financially accessible for all women.”

Cabral noted several highlights of the course, such as assessing communication styles and techniques, as well as working with each woman to develop a professional roadmap to help her reach her potential. Each program participant will also receive 30 minutes of private, one-on-one coaching from Annie Shibata, owner of Growth Mindset Leadership and Communication Coaching in Cincinnati, who will coach each student via video link.

“Incorporating one-on-one coaching elevates the course to a higher level of really personalizing the experience for each individual,” Cabral said.

One of the main reasons the Women’s Fund got involved was to encourage more representation of women in leadership. Borgatti hopes women who take the course emerge more confident in their skills and abilities to step into all sorts of leadership roles.

“We want to see more women CEOs, more women chiefs of police, more women judges,” she said. “Unless we support women being able to access these opportunities, we’re not going to see real change.”

At the end of the day, Cabral said, she and Borgatti share a common mission: to elevate the skills of women who are willing to put in the work. “We want to make sure those skills are here in Western Mass., and they stay in Western Mass.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 56: March 15, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce

Vincent Jackson

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. The two have a lively discussion about the deep toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Paradise City, and how that community’s strong, eclectic business community has responded with determination, imagination, and perseverance. The two also discuss how the pandemic has challenged all chambers, including his, while also changing their roles to some extent and making them even more vital to area small businesses. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 55: March 8, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House, the Delaney House, and other hospitality-related businesses

On this installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House, the Delaney House, and other hospitality-related businesses. The two discuss the state’s changing regulations and protocols for such businesses what they mean for this embattled sector of the economy. They also discuss when ‘normal’ might return and what it might look like, and also how the restaurant landscape will likely be altered long term by this pandemic. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Home Improvement Special Coverage

Backyard Experience

 

By Mark Morris

On a Thursday in February while snow fell on the region, Bob Schwein was answering a steady stream of phone calls at Drewnowski Pools.

Sure, some calls were from people who use their spas year-round, but many more inquiries were to schedule swimming-pool openings.

“Swimming-pool owners know that if they want to schedule a pool opening for Memorial Day, when thousands of other people want to open their pools, they need to schedule now,” said Schwein, sales manager for Drewnowski.

Early spring is typically when he receives calls to replace vinyl pool liners and to repair or renovate pools made from gunite, a concrete product used for many inground pools. “Repairs to gunite pools can take weeks, and people don’t want to interrupt the middle of their swimming season, so we usually schedule these early in the year.”

With his business growing over the last five years, Schwein said backyard pools are not what they used to be, particularly inground pools (see photo above).

“It used to be a rectangle with a three-foot concrete walk around the pool and a fence surrounding it by itself in the yard,” he noted. “Now, the pool is part of an entire backyard experience.”

That trend — toward creating an experience right outside the back door — is one that many different types of outdoor-improvement contractors can attest to, particularly during the era of COVID-19. BusinessWest spoke with several who said people are spending more money on their homes simply because they are spending more time at home.

The oft-heard story is that people were encouraged to only go out when necessary, and those who were fortunate enough to work from home during this time have been able to save some money, while also becoming more acutely aware of repairs and renovations they may have been putting off. As a result, many contractors reported their most successful year of business in 2020.

As many of the pandemic restrictions continue, people are not sure how long they will continue to work and attend school from home. It reminds Brian Rudd, owner of Vista Home Improvement, of the uncertainty that emerged during a different historic time.

“After 9/11, we saw people start to nest, and they began to see their home as their kingdom,” he said. “Since the pandemic, the desire to nest at home has happened to an even larger degree.”

“Right now, people are addressing the aesthetics of their houses because they are home more and able to address these things now.”

And they’ve been increasingly looking outside the home, not just inside. After a record year in 2020, Rudd reported that even more customers want new siding and new windows. “Right now, people are addressing the aesthetics of their houses because they are home more and able to address these things now.”

It’s not unusual for customers to call Dave Graziano, landscape project manager for Graziano Gardens, to replace old, overgrown plantings with new ones. Last year was different because, along with replacing old plantings, customers wanted to make other improvements to their property.

“Whether it was adding a big patio or simply hanging flower baskets, people wanted to create more outdoor living space, no matter how large or small their yard might be,” he said.

Brian Campedelli, president of Pioneer Landscaping, said his business doubled in 2020 because people decided to invest in their homes rather than vacations. “The money they would have spent on vacation instead went into their backyards, where we helped them create an outdoor entertainment area.”

Both Graziano and Campedelli noted that firepits have become one of the most popular additions to the backyard.

“While we build a lot of circular firepits, people are getting creative and asking us for square or triangular pits to match the seating they have around it,” Campedelli said.

A worker with Pioneer Landscaping places patio stones.

A worker with Pioneer Landscaping places patio stones.

Once considered only for warmer climates, outdoor kitchens are also a growing part of his business, with many designs incorporating a pizza oven.

“In the past, people would not build outdoor kitchens because of the short season to use them, but I don’t hear that as much anymore,” he said. “I think people are just going for it.”

 

Dive Right In

‘Going for it’ is an increasingly common mindset when it comes to buying an inground pool as well, Schwein noted.

While Drewnowski sells inground and above-ground pools, installation is handled by its parent company, Juliano Pools of Vernon, Conn. As busy as Juliano was last year, many who wanted pools couldn’t get them, due to higher demand than normal combined with shortages of materials and labor. Schwein said 2021 is off to a good start because those who couldn’t purchase last year can do so this year.

“We have a spillover of people from last year and new people who have decided to buy a pool this year, so I’m positive that combination will mean another banner year,” he told BusinessWest.

For years, many believed that houses with inground pools would be tough to sell. The red-hot real-estate market since last spring seems to have made that concern a moot point. Many first-time homebuyers are also first-time pool owners who are calling Schwein for advice on how to maintain their inground asset.

“From what I’ve seen, people are not afraid to buy a house with an existing pool. In fact, to many, it’s a selling point,” he said. While a typical home inspection does not cover the condition of a swimming pool, Drewnowski has pool inspectors available to help prospective buyers understand what they are getting.

With less inventory in the housing market, Rudd observed that many people choose to upgrade the house they have. By the same token, when people do purchase a home, they often come to see him, armed with plans.

“From what I’ve seen, people are not afraid to buy a house with an existing pool. In fact, to many, it’s a selling point.”

“When people move, they improve. And when they don’t move, they improve,” he said with a laugh.

Sprucing up a house isn’t complete until landscaping provides the final touch. In addition to landscaping services, Graziano Gardens has a retail store for those who want to tackle backyard projects themselves. Graziano saw new faces in the garden center last year, resulting in what he termed a “mini-explosion.”

“We sold out of trowels, shovels, gloves, watering cans, things we’ve never sold out of before,” he said. Also hard to come by were grown items such as hanging baskets, vegetable plants, and even evergreen hedges. “It seems like people just wanted to fill in that spot.”

Brian Campedelli says customers are looking for more creativity in firepit design.

Brian Campedelli says customers are looking for more creativity in firepit design.

Dry, warm temperatures early last spring, combined with parents and kids cooped up in their homes, might have led to a shortage in pool heaters. Schwein said he took many calls from exasperated parents who bought a heater and opened their pool earlier than usual to get their kids outside and squeeze a few more months out of the swimming season. That logic was fine until manufacturers ran into COVID issues and Schwein could no longer get them.

“The demand was high, and the supply was low,” he said. “Heaters are something that would normally take six days to get, but last year we ran into three-month delays.”

The pandemic also forced several contractors to find new ways to do business. A summer ritual for many involves periodic trips to the local swimming-pool retailer with samples of pool water to make sure the chemical balance keeps the water clean and safe. When COVID first hit, Schwein said, customers were no longer allowed into his store. “We had to change our business model.”

Specifically, customers left water samples outside the door where employees would test the sample and call the customer with a list of what chemicals were needed. After completing the transaction over the phone, an employee would deliver the chemicals to the customer’s house. Schwein admits it put a strain on his staff and customers, but everyone adjusted well.

“Our customers were able to get what they needed, but the way we had to do everything was different.”

When the pandemic first hit, Rudd and his staff were forced to become familiar with 10 years of new technology in less than three months. Beyond Zoom meetings, Vista consultants used satellite technology to measure houses for roofs and siding when they could not visit a client in person. While skeptical in the beginning, he now calls the technology “amazing.”

Dave Graziano says his garden center sold out of many popular plants last year.

Dave Graziano says his garden center sold out of many popular plants last year.

“I’m from the days of using a tape measure and a pencil, so at first I took comparison measurements to make sure the satellites were accurate,” he said. “It’s scary how accurate they are.”

Rudd enjoys using computer-design tools to give homeowners a good idea of how their space will look with improvements.

“We take a picture of the house, upload it into one of our applications, and change the house right in front of them,” he explained. “It leads to great interaction with the client and lets them have control of their purchase, with us there to guide them.”

Campedelli said it’s difficult for clients to envision a dramatic renovation of their backyard, so computer design goes a long way toward sealing the deal.

“Once they see the design, they want to move forward,” he noted, adding that, once the job is done, he enjoys how thrilled customers are with the result. “It changes their lives in a positive way.”

 

Getting Ahead

With spring around the corner, contractors are preparing for another busy year. Schwein pointed out that his phone is ringing now because customers have learned from the pandemic.

“Last year, people were patient and understood slowdowns due to COVID issues, so they are calling now because they don’t want to hear the COVID excuse this year,” he said.

After a busy 2020 as both a contractor and a retailer, Graziano’s main takeaway from last year was that people want to make their properties into their own oasis.

“Whether they do it themselves or they hire a landscape professional, I think that trend will continue through this year,” he said.

In the meantime, he’s got what he called a “good problem” — figuring out how many more shovels and watering cans to order for 2021.

Special Coverage Technology

A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Special Coverage

Machine Learning

Mary Bidwell says hands-on training will always be critical, but the pandemic taught ACC about what can be accomplished remotely as well.

 

As pivots go, this one was pretty smooth, Mary Bidwell says.

But that’s fitting for an academic program built on precision.

It was almost a year ago — March 13, to be exact — when Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) sent everyone home, including students in its Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, which Bidwell serves as interim dean.

“We finished online through April and the end of May, and by the beginning of June, we were able to open back up,” she said, adding that students were able to finish their hands-on training in fields like welding and mechatronics on campus through the summer. “We were one of the first departments back on the ground.”

In the meantime, the program reinvented itself in some ways, turning to online content in ways professors and administrators hadn’t considered before, not only in classwork for the student body, but in community-focused courses for area workers seeking to boost their skills.

“We’ve pivoted well and created online content, we created hybrid models, we got students back in, and we’ve got good safety protocols in play — and we’re looking forward to getting even more students on the ground,” she told BusinessWest. “And now we have this whole portfolio of online opportunities we didn’t have before, and we’ve diversified what we can offer the community, which is great.”

Innovation and adaptation are not foreign concepts in the field of advanced manufacturing, or at ACC, which has become a robust collegiate pipeline into the manufacturing workforce.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has been around for almost a quarter-century, but it received a major overhaul four years ago with the opening of a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling its space to about 50,000 square feet. It includes an 11,000-square-foot machining lab with 90 computerized numeric control (CNC) and manual machines, an additive-manufacturing lab equipped for both plastic and metal 3D printing, a metrology lab featuring computerized measuring machines, state-of-the-art computer labs — and a whole lot more.

But the center’s most impressive offering may be its partnerships with area manufacturers, who have guided ACC in crafting its certificate program as a way to get skilled workers in their doors quickly — typically at salaries starting around $50,000 or higher.

The program has created work opportunities for both young people and career changers, and addressed what has been a persistent lack of qualified employees these companies need to grow. Normally, advanced manufacturers are looking for people with three to five years of experience. But ACC students are interning during their second semester and being hired for jobs immediately after, at good salaries. The reason is that the curriculum is customized according to industry needs.

Companies can then build on that training, hiring certificate holders, further training them up, and often providing additional education opportunities along with that full-time paycheck.

“People are always thinking about four-year degrees, but if your pathway is through community college, your debt can be so much less,” Bidwell said. “That’s such an opportunity: to start a career and have someone else pay for it.”

Even though the pandemic has temporarily slowed demand for workers at some companies, Bidwell and her team — and the industry in general — believe that’s not likely to continue, especially with an aging workforce in many corners.

“You still hear about the silver tsunami,” she said. “We need to have people ready when they’re needed.”

 

Working Through It

The pandemic has slowed the pace of business in industries like aerospace and at regional anchor companies like Sikorsky Aircraft, mainly due to supply-chain issues dating back to last spring, but students in all three of ACC’s advanced-manufacturing areas — welding, machining, and robotics/mechatronics — are finding jobs, Bidwell said.

“It seems like the staffing agencies have been a source lately that, at times in the past, we didn’t use as much because of our direct contacts,” she said. “But students are getting placed; they’re still going into companies we’ve always worked with.”

Enrollment in the program is about 60% what it usually is, she added. “We did lose students because people just don’t want to go online at all — they want to get back on the ground. Hopefully we’ll see that return for the fall and definitely next spring as vaccines roll out further.”

The numbers aren’t really a problem, though, because of capacity and social-distancing rules on campus. Students have engaged in a hybrid model this year, with some remote instruction and the necessary hands-on training on campus. As expanded vaccination hopefully leads to herd immunity, Bidwell is confident that those limits can be lifted next year, but the college will plan for all contingencies, including more hybrid learning.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

“We’ve proven we can do it, and people have been successful,” she said, adding that the marketing message has been, “people wear their mask and social distance, and you don’t have to stop your education. We’re here for you, and jobs are waiting. As we head into summer and fall, people who want to go to school and get that education, they can.”

While student ages can range from 18 to 65, the average age at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center during the Great Recession, when many more people were looking to switch careers, was around 45. Today, it’s under 30, but no matter the age, the idea is to equip students with a strong foundation from which they can grow into any number of careers.

That foundation begins with a hands-on approach to learning the machinery and techniques, from 3D printers, lathes, and surface grinders to welding and robotics labs — a healthy mix of manual and CNC machines.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Even in a healthy economy, the program still attracts a good number of mid-life career changers who see opportunities they don’t have in their current jobs. Meanwhile, high-school students can take classes at ACC to gain manufacturing credits before they enroll, and a second-chance program gives incarcerated individuals hands-on experience to secure employment once they’re eligible for parole.

It all adds up to a manufacturing resource, and an economic driver, that has attracted plenty of public funding from the state and from private foundations, such as the Gene Haas Foundation, which aims to build skills in the machining industry, and recently awarded the program a $15,000 grant to use for student scholarships for tuition and books.

 

Mind the Gaps

The program has also attracted attention of other kinds. The center was recently featured in the new book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, written by MIT Professors William Bonvillian and Sanjay Sarma. The book explores the gaps and problems in the U.S. workforce education system, while also spotlighting how programs, including ACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, help to mitigate deficiencies across the country to build a stronger workforce.

“We spent time visiting and learning about apprenticeship programs, about new employer training programs, and visiting lots of community colleges,” Bonvillian said. “We found that our community colleges are our critical, not-so-secret weapon in educating our workforce, so we spent time at many.”

While the two were researching programs, they learned from an MIT friend, who grew up in Enfield, about Asnuntuck’s program, and Bonvillian set up a visit to the college.

“I was very impressed by the programs they presented in advanced-manufacturing skills that reached not only community-college students, but students from area high schools and incumbent workers at area companies,” he said. “In the book, we called this the ‘trifecta’ — Asnuntuck was using its flexible programs, its year-round schedule, and its new advanced-manufacturing center with its up-to-date equipment to reach three groups: workers and high-school students, as well as more traditional community-college students.”

That outreach is a constant challenge, Bidwell said, noting that, while outdated perceptions about today’s manufacturing floors — which many older people believe are dirty and unsafe — are changing, they do persist, and work needs to be done to get young people interested.

“I think it’s better than it was, but we’re not there 100%,” she said of the perception problem, adding that many companies market themselves online with videos taken on their clean, high-tech floors. “We are getting a younger population than we did years ago, but we’re still going around the state, trying to educate as much as we can. Guidance counselors are a big piece in high school. We need guidance counselors talking up manufacturing, and they have to understand it themselves. We’ve definitely made strides in that.”

Educating parents about what these careers really entail is part of the process as well, she added.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

“There’s a big push in high school now, but we want to get the middle schools, to get young people aware of manufacturing and create those career pathways. We’re looking at the inner cities, where there’s a lot of population, and the message is, ‘these are viable careers where you can sustain a family and have a good, livable wage.’”

Bonvillian believes Asnuntuck and similar programs can help satisfy the demand for educating a workforce that has been impacted this past year, and not just in manufacturing.

“The COVID crisis is hitting hard at some important sectors like retail and hospitality, and workers there may well need to find new work,” he said. “The U.S. needs to prioritize training more workers more quickly than the country’s current disconnected approach to workforce education allows.”

 

Opportunity Awaits

The connection that First Lady Jill Biden has to community colleges — and her advocacy for them — is important, too, in changing perceptions and helping people understand college and career opportunities they might not have considered, Bidwell said.

“We want more people to take advantage of all that community colleges have available. We see it in manufacturing, but also IT — there’s a big need for IT professionals, and for healthcare professionals.”

And she doesn’t expect any dip in opportunity for students — young or older — who want to explore the modern manufacturing world.

“There’s really a lot of energy in Connecticut, and in Western Mass., right over the border,” Bidwell said. “The plan is to get out of this [pandemic] and keep growing, and be ready for the demand when things turn around.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Taking Shots

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home, gets vaccinated in January. For the public, the process has been thornier.

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

 

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

“Even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

 

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 54: Mar. 1, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Aaron Vega, the former state representative who is now director of Planning and Economic Development in the city of Holyoke

Vega

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Aaron Vega, the former state representative who is now director of Planning and Economic Development in the city of Holyoke. The two discuss the city’s efforts to recover momentum lost to the pandemic, and zero in on efforts to expand a budding cluster of cannabis-related businesses in this former mill town. New operations are opening soon, said Vega, and many more are on the drawing board. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Special Coverage

Taking Shots

By Joseph Bednar

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar at businesswest.com

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 53: Feb. 22, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Kirk Jonah, a man who is trying to “Make Courage Contagious.”

 BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Kirk Jonah, a man who is trying to “Make Courage Contagious.” Kirk’s son, Jack, died of a heroin overdose a few years ago, and Kirk has dedicated much of his time, energy, and imagination to educating others about the dangers of opioid abuse. The two discuss his various speaking engagements, and also a recently-released movie about Jack Jonah, the Jonah family, and others, and its impact on audiences. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Special Coverage

Revving Up

By Mark Morris

 

In the early days of the pandemic, people huddled in their homes while streets were abandoned by nearly all traffic. Area auto dealers, understandably, braced for a slow year.

Instead, sales for many dealers hit record highs in 2020.

It was that kind of year for Jack Sarat, dealer principal for Sarat Ford, who said the pandemic definitely kept sales down in March. “After that, business rebounded, starting with a strong finish in April, and then every month following kept getting better.”

Auto-manufacturing facilities and many of their subcontractors around the world experienced shutdowns early in the pandemic. Steve Lewis, owner and president of Steve Lewis Subaru, said the delays kept inventories low at many dealerships and were also a factor in sluggish sales early in the spring.

“Once the factories were up and running again, around May or June, our inventory started to build back up, and it continues to build,” Lewis said. “Believe it or not, 2020 was our best year ever.”

“After [March], business rebounded, starting with a strong finish in April, and then every month following kept getting better.”

Even with inventory delays, Lewis continued to take pre-sell orders, so when new cars began rolling into the lot, nearly 65% of them were already sold.

Gary Rome, president of Gary Rome Auto Group, said the Korean factories where Hyundai and Kia are made were fortunate, with only brief shutdowns due to COVID-19 concerns.

“Hyundai and Kia never took their foot off the gas when the pandemic hit,” Rome said, which set the table for a strong year. “Our sales increased nearly 20% in 2020; it was one of the best years we’ve ever had.”

Every year, Presidents’ Day represents the first big sales push for local dealerships. Sarat pointed out that Presidents’ Day as a sales event tends to be more of a Northeast phenomenon.

Jack Sarat (left) and Jeff Sarat

Jack Sarat (left) and Jeff Sarat are among many area dealers reporting strong sales down the stretch in 2020 and into 2021.

“In Virginia, if you ask about the Presidents’ Day sale for cars, they don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said, adding that ‘Presidents’ Month’ might be a more accurate name because the manufacturers heavily promote sales incentives throughout February.

With an already strong January in the books, Lewis approaches this Presidents’ Day understanding each year is a different experience.

“Last Presidents’ Day, we had a great weekend. Some years sales are magnificent, other years we are slow,” he said, adding that he defines the weekend as running from the Thursday before the holiday through Presidents’ Day Monday.

Good weather is the key to strong President’s Day sales, Rome said. Encouraging car sales on Presidents’ Day has often been a way for people to start thinking about spring and new beginnings.

Steve Lewis

“Once the factories were up and running again, around May or June, our inventory started to build back up, and it continues to build. Believe it or not, 2020 was our best year ever.”

This year, they may be especially clamoring for spring; on top of the normal winter doldrums, everyone has endured nearly a year of pandemic disruption and isolation. In that environment, auto dealers expect plenty of pent-up demand.

 

Rolling Along

Each of the dealers who spoke with BusinessWest shared his thoughts on why people continue to buy cars during the pandemic.

Those who did not suffer a job loss due to COVID-19 were able, in many cases, to increase their savings. After months of staying inside people, Lewis said, people started doing the math and realized that, with used-car values remaining high, they could trade up to a newer vehicle without spending lots of money.

“They capitalized on it, we capitalized on it, and everybody’s happy,” he added.

Sarat talked about customers who canceled vacations that involved air travel but still wanted to get away. “Several customers told me they were buying vehicles just so they could drive to their vacation,” he said.

While zero-percent interest rates across the industry have helped reluctant buyers, Rome said a job-assurance program gave Hyundai customers more comfort about making a purchase. “Through this program, if you buy a car and lose your job, Hyundai will make your payments for up to six months.”

He also believes battling COVID fatigue played a role in many vehicle-purchasing decisions. “People started realizing that life is short, and this might be a good time to do something nice for themselves.”

The pandemic has produced an interesting economic situation in which many homeowners made big investments in their homes, resulting in an extremely successful year for construction and landscape contractors. Sarat reaped the benefit of the contractors’ good fortune in his commercial-truck business. Contractors tend to replace their vehicles in December to obtain a tax credit against their income for the year, so it’s not unusual to see more sales activity then. Thus, the boom in home improvements in 2020 contributed to record sales in December for Sarat.

“We sold twice as many Super Duty trucks than a normal December,” he said. “Contractors were replacing vehicles and, in some cases, adding to their fleet.” Super Duty trucks are a popular choice among contractors because they can be adapted to a variety of trade professions.

While online shopping and purchasing a vehicle are not new, the pandemic brought out more people interested in using this no-touch approach to buying. Before the pandemic, Lewis noted, nearly 45% of his business was generated from the internet, where customers would do their research online, then come in for a test drive before buying the car. Since the pandemic, that’s increased to 70%.

“What’s different now is that people are taking delivery of vehicles they’ve never seen or have driven,” he said, adding that customers who do this are relying on the brand’s reputation.

Website upgrades since the pandemic allow Rome’s customers to complete their entire vehicle purchase online. From figuring out the value of a trade-in to applying for credit, the entire purchase or lease can be generated online and finished off with an electronic signature. “We will even bring the car to your home to test drive if you want,” he added.

Before internet research, the average customer would visit three or four dealers before purchasing a vehicle. Sarat cited industry statistics showing that customers now visit, on average, only 1.3 dealers before making a purchase. “Because they’ve done the research online, they’ve usually made a decision on what they want to buy before they even come in.”

 

Shifting Gears

For several years, buying trends have shifted away from passenger cars and toward SUVs and crossover vehicles.

“SUVs make up 68% of our sales, compared to sedans,” Rome said. “It used to be the inverse.”

He credits the shift to SUVs handling more like a car than earlier models, which were built on truck frames. He also noted that, as buyers age, they prefer a higher vehicle to make it easier to enter and exit.

“We won’t be back to normal for a while, but everything I read in automotive reports suggests new-car sales in 2021 are going to be very strong . I think it’s going to be an exciting year.”

Nearly every model in Lewis’ showroom is an SUV or crossover vehicle. “The crossover is really a replacement for the old station wagon,” he said. “It’s designed to open up the hatchback, put the back seats down, and throw in your junk.”

Ford is another of the many manufacturers moving away from traditional sedans and toward crossovers and SUVs. In addition, Sarat sells one of the most popular vehicles in the U.S., the Ford F-150 pickup truck, calling it his “bread and butter.”

Ford recently released a hybrid version of the popular pickup truck, and the new Ford Mustang Mach E is an all-electric vehicle. And Sarat has made a move toward all-electric vehicles among commercial cargo vans as well. Jeff Sarat, general sales manager, said these vans can run up to 300 miles a day and then plug in for recharging overnight.

“For business owners, it significantly reduces the cost of ownership,” he said, noting that an electric motor eliminates traditional maintenance and substantially reduces the vehicle’s carbon footprint. “We’ve got a lot of good things coming down the road, and our electric vehicles are going to be on people’s shopping list when they look for their next car.”

While hybrid and electric vehicle sales represent about 5% of Rome’s sales, he expects that number to rise to 10% soon.

“The manufacturers have jumped into this market with both feet. Within two years, we expect to offer a dozen hybrid or electric vehicles,” he said, adding that hybrid vehicles can improve mileage up to 140 miles per gallon, while some all-electric vehicles can go 386 miles on a full charge.

“In some ways, it’s like owning an iPhone, where you want to get a new one every three years to stay up on the latest technology,” he added.

Another shift this year has taken place in the used-car market. The economic shutdown last spring affected new-car production, and dealers found they had more empty spaces on their lots. “When fewer new vehicles are coming in, it also creates a lack of used inventory because people are not trading in their cars,” Sarat said.

For this reason, all the dealers we spoke with said used-car prices stayed high last year and will continue to remain strong in 2021.

Rome acknowledged the strength of the used-car market, but said his business runs somewhat counter to the normal trend.

“In our world, we sell about two new cars to every used car,” he explained. “If you can buy a new car with a 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty for about the same price as a used car, why would you buy the used car?”

 

No Slowing Down

With his business finishing 2020 with a 19% sales increase, Rome predicts an 18% increase on top of last year’s success for 2021.

With his dealership in Hadley, Lewis noted that he is located two miles from five colleges and universities. When students and faculty all abandoned campus early in the pandemic, it cut deep into his business. He is hopeful these sales will return as everyone comes back to campus.

“Despite all that, we had our best year ever, and we’re hoping 2021 is as good as 2020,” he said.

Jack Sarat anticipates at least some supply disruptions due to COVID in 2021, but remains optimistic for a good year ahead as well.

“We won’t be back to normal for a while, but everything I read in automotive reports suggests new-car sales in 2021 are going to be very strong,” he said. “I think it’s going to be an exciting year.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders to address the urgent needs of the business community during the pandemic.

 

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, first made the observation, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

While Epictetus did not live in Amherst, town officials and business leaders there have certainly adopted the philosopher’s adage in their robust efforts to return the town to vitality in the face of a pandemic.

Last March, when COVID-19 began to affect life in communities everywhere, Amherst took a broader hit than most because UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College all shut down earlier than other area institutions.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said the suddenly empty campuses posed a shock to the system.

“We lost 40,000 people in a 48-hour period,” she recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

With college closings and retail activity coming to a screeching halt, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said his town lost its two major industries because of the pandemic. Still, he noted, “despite all that, the town has been resilient, and we are prepared to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong way.”

Early on, Amherst quickly mobilized a COVID-19 response team as Bockelman and the department heads of the Police, Fire, Public Works, and other departments met daily to strategize, he explained. “We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

The next priority was to maintain continuity of government functions. Amherst migrated town staff to remote work and incorporated Zoom meetings to assure key bodies such as the Town Council and the School Committee could keep moving forward. Permit-granting committees soon followed.

“We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

As plans were coming together to allow outdoor dining, the Town Council passed a special bylaw to delegate simple zoning decisions to the building commissioner. This move sped up the permitting process and cut down on much of the bureaucratic red tape.

“For example, permits for serving alcohol outdoors or expanding the footprint of a restaurant could be done through one person instead of going through an often-lengthy permitting process,” Bockelman said.

To address the urgent needs of the local business community, he also met weekly with Gould and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The BID and chamber share office space on Pleasant Street, so Pazmany and Gould worked together to learn about the many grants available to local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The main goal was to help owners stay in business.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says one of her most important roles has been helping business owners navigate the grant system.

“We knew that closing their doors would mean closing their doors forever,” Pazmany said. “That’s what we were trying to avoid.”

 

Granting a Reprieve

Before the pandemic, the chamber would host 56 events in a typical year. Pazmany said she quickly moved to digital events to keep everyone together. “We went from 56 events to 56,000 connections on Facebook and other social media.”

More importantly, in addition to helping local businesses apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Gould and Pazmany have successfully secured grant programs at the state and federal level.

A number of Amherst businesses received grants through the state COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, which provided a total of $668 million for Massachusetts businesses. Amherst also secured $140,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for local businesses.

State Sen. Joan Comerford helped the Chamber and BID to fund the recently formed Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program. Originally designed to provide $500 microgrants, Pazmany said they were able to secure matching dollars, so $1,000 grants will soon be awarded to 18 of Amherst’s small-business owners in the first round of the program.

“The microgrant money will help defray some costs and allow people to keep going,” she said. “Many of these business owners are not even paying themselves; they just want to pay their bills.”

One of the more important roles Pazmany and Gould have taken on involves helping business owners navigate the grant system. Whether it’s identifying eligible funding, helping to fill out forms, or solving technical issues, Pazmany said they are not limiting their support to just chamber members. “Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

While outdoor dining and takeout have enabled restaurants to keep their doors open, the BID launched an effort to do more, buying meals from local restaurants and giving them to families in need. The effort began two months ago with the moniker December Dinner Delights and recently received funding to continue through April. Gould sees this as a win-win.

“We pay the restaurants $1,500 twice a week to help them sustain business, and we provide meals for families in our community,” she noted.

Another effort to support local business involves a gift-card program run by the chamber. Launched at the beginning of the holiday season, the gift cards can be redeemed at more than two dozen local businesses, from restaurants to a cat groomer. Pazmany said she has had to reorder cards to keep up with demand. “It works because you are able to give someone a gift and, at the same time, support a small business; it’s the best type of reinvestment in our community.”

As for town-run programs, last spring, municipal leaders had to figure out what to do about the farmers’ market it runs every Saturday from April through November. In the past, it was held in a cramped parking lot that would not conform to social-distancing protocols. Because the town common had no activities scheduled, the farmers’ market set up there — and had its most successful year ever.

“Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

“Our town common is a bucolic setting, and people who were cooped up all week could safely come and buy things,” Bockelman said. The manager of the farmers’ market reported the average sales week in 2020 equaled the best sales week in 2019, and the booths sold out of their products every week.

The farmers’ market was a highly visible way to revitalize interest in Amherst, as are continuing “quality-of-life developments,” as Bockelman called them, such as the newly opened Groff Park and the building of a new playground at Kendrick Park.

But smaller acts, like making picnic tables available in parks and other public places, were popular as well, he added. “As soon as we put out the tables, people were immediately using them. It was awesome.”

 

Forward Thinking

Looking to the future, Amherst is making decisions on four major capital projects slated for construction in 2022. On the drawing board are a new elementary school, a new library, a new Public Works facility, and a new fire station.

“We are trying to incorporate these projects into our ongoing budget so the taxpayer does not have to take on too much of a burden,” Bockelman said.

The desirability of Amherst as a place to live keeps housing prices high, which he calls a two-edged sword because it hurts the town’s ability to build a diverse socioeconomic community.

“People value diversity in Amherst,” he said. Still, he added, “it’s much more diverse than most people realize, especially our school district.”

To deepen that diverse profile, Amherst is looking to invest in property to develop more affordable housing. Bockelman pointed to a recently approved development on Northampton Road and a potential land purchase on Belchertown Road as additional projects in the works. “The town is willing to make the investment to develop and retain affordable-housing units in Amherst.”

To better address diversity in business, the chamber makes available an open-source document for proprietors who want to identify their business as being run by a woman, minority, or LGBTQ individual.

Pazmany said it’s simply good for business, noting that “we are getting steady requests from people who want to do business with various self-identifying businesses.”

Amherst at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

One element in the town’s strategy emphasizes Amherst’s potential as a tourist destination. Several national news articles have suggested that this decade may become a second “roaring 20s” with a renewed emphasis on cultural attractions. If that’s so, Pazmany pointed out, Amherst has plenty to offer, such as Museums10, a collaborative of 10 area museums, of which seven are located in town. Together, the museums cover various aspects of history, art, literature, and the natural world.

“In a normal year, Museums10 will bring more than a half-million people to the area,” she said. “The Emily Dickinson Poetry Festival itself is a global event.”

For the more immediate future, the plan is to have outdoor dining up and running by April 1. The BID was able to supply enough table umbrellas and heaters during the summer to boost last year’s effort. Because there are so many barriers in place to ensure safe outdoor dining, the BID also paid 35 artists to turn the plain concrete into a medium to express themselves.

“The barriers became nice displays of public art, and they give downtown a bit of an art-walk feel,” Gould said.

Simple touches like the artwork and adding planters around town generated positive comments from visitors and business owners alike. Pazmany appreciated the boost of confidence. “In this next phase, we just want our businesses to be up and running so they can take a paycheck and start to rehire people.”

Most Amherst leaders, in fact, look to the coming year with great anticipation. Bockelman noted that the town has several fundamental strengths, including the university and colleges. Pazmany added that UMass has already reported an increase in enrollment for the coming fall.

Gould admits that pushing forward on grants and other relief efforts helped Amherst through the worst of the pandemic. “Despite how hard everyone was hit, we’ve created a resiliency that kept our businesses here.”

Bockelman agreed. “Everyone’s efforts worked because they were sequential and were patiently done. We just kept moving forward.”

Epictetus would be proud.

Features Special Coverage

Entering a Partnership?

 By Brenden Cawley and Gabriel Jacobson 

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused several partnerships local to Western Mass. to either consider or actually effect a change in ownership. When navigating the complexities of these changes in ownership, partnership basis is a vital component.

For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.

 

Understanding the Basics of Basis

It stands to reason that the cash spent or provided to acquire an asset would be the cost (basis) of that asset. However, when analyzing partnerships, understand the concepts of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ basis. The difference is a shift in perspective. The outside basis is established when the partner joins or forms the partnership through the contribution of cash (or property, which adds additional complexity). The partnership then uses that cash to purchase assets.

The cash outlay to acquire those assets establishes the total inside basis of the partnership. Based on each partner’s ownership, a share of the inside basis of the individual assets is assigned accordingly. This inside basis does not fluctuate with changes in market value of the assets. When a tax year closes, the partners each receive a Schedule K-1 and adjust their outside basis by the income, expense, gain, or loss disclosed on the Schedule K-1.

Brenden Cawley

Brenden Cawley

“For tax advisors and taxpayers alike, basis would be better as a four-letter word. However, understanding the basics of cost basis can prevent future headaches.”

Over the life of the partnership, cash or property will be distributed to the partners, which will decrease their outside basis. The inside basis of the partnership will similarly be reduced as the cost of assets is removed from the books through sale or distribution. When the partnership is in need, the partners may contribute additional cash or property. Additional contributions have the same positive impact on outside basis as the initial contribution that formed the partnership or acquired an interest.

As time goes by, differences can arise between the inside and outside basis of the partner(s). As the inside and outside basis of the partnership fall out of alignment, the partners can experience negative tax consequences. Each taxpayer is responsible for maintaining their own outside basis, so consult your tax advisor if questions arise. Through a Section 754 election, the partnership has an opportunity to avoid these consequences.

Like anything worthwhile, this election takes work. It is perhaps especially laborious if the partner or partnership have not been actively tracking the inside and outside basis disparity. The partners’ Schedule K-1s could offer a lifeline. Prior to 2020, each partner’s capital account in item L could be prepared on a book, GAAP, Section 704(b), or tax basis. It is possible that the partner’s capital account prepared using book, GAAP, or Section 704(b) is a reasonable approximation for the inside basis of the partner.

This is a highly simplified approach that needs to be vetted with the partnership’s tax advisor. Starting in 2020, the IRS has mandated that Item L of Schedule K-1 must be prepared on a tax basis. The partner’s tax capital account is a good starting point for both outside and inside tax basis. Again, this simplified assumption needs to be discussed with a tax advisor. Please note that tax capital reported on the Schedule K-1 is not equivalent to outside tax basis. Instead, outside tax basis considers liabilities of the partnership for which the partner is individually responsible and partner-specific adjustments.

 

Everyday Example

In year one, Ann and Bob purchase a building for $200,000 and split the cost evenly, giving them each 50% ownership in ABC Partnership. Initially, they each had outside basis equal to their inside basis of $100,000. In year two, as a result of COVID-19, Bob wants to exit the partnership. The building has appreciated in value to $300,000, so he sells his interest in ABC Partnership to Carl for $150,000. Bob will recognize a $50,000 gain in year two as a result of the excess cash received compared to his cost basis.

First, let’s imagine the partnership does not make a 754 election at this point. Carl steps into Bob’s inside basis of $100,000. However, his outside basis equals the total amount he paid, or $150,000. In year three, Ann and Carl decide to sell the building (for simplicity’s sake, let’s assume no depreciation has been expensed), which is still valued at $300,000 and therefore results in a gain of $100,000. Both Ann and Carl receive Schedule K-1s with a $50,000 gain for the year because they both had an inside basis of $100,000 prior to the sale.

Gabriel Jacobson

Gabriel Jacobson

“Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex.”

After recording the gain, their inside basis increases to $150,000. Ann’s inside and outside basis remain aligned, but Carl’s basis disparity persists as the $50,000 of gain impacts his inside and outside basis in the same manner. In year four, Carl and Ann decide to dissolve the partnership. At this point, the $300,000 cash they received from the sale of the building is distributed to both partners evenly. Ann receives $150,000 in cash, which equals her outside basis. For this reason, she recognizes no gain or loss on the dissolution of the partnership.

Alternatively, Carl recognizes a $50,000 loss outside of the partnership since his total outside basis is $200,000. At this point Carl is kicking himself because he paid taxes on a $50,000 gain in year three only to recognize a loss of $50,000 one year later. If Carl does not have any capital gains in year four, he can only utilize $3,000 of the capital losses on his tax return. The remaining losses are carried forward indefinitely.

Now let’s imagine the partnership made the 754 election when Carl purchased his 50% interest in year two. At that time, his inside basis would have been increased by $50,000 to match his outside basis. The partnership would have adjusted Carl’s inside basis in the building to $150,000, matching his outside basis. Then in year three, when Ann and Carl sell the building, Carl would not recognize any gain because his inside basis matches his share of the sales proceeds ($150,0000).

In year four, when the partnership dissolved, Carl would not recognize a loss on the distribution of cash from the partnership because his portion of the partnership’s cash balance ($150,000) equals his outside basis ($150,000). Carl avoided the timing issue regarding any taxable gain on the building sale and any loss on dissolution by making the 754 election.

 

On an Income-tax Return

If Carl and Ann decided to hold onto the building instead of selling in year three, Carl could deduct from his Schedule K-1 the basis adjustments related to the Section 754 election. The total Section 754 adjustment of $50,000 is reduced to zero over time using the same mechanics as the depreciation on the building. The 754 adjustment reduces both Carl’s inside and outside basis equally. The benefit is that he will receive deductions on line 13 of his K-1 against income on his tax return each year until the $50,000 is fully deducted.

Partnerships may be relatively easy to form, but the tax implications can be very complex. Section 754 is important for a partner purchasing an interest and for existing partners looking to secure a new partner to help their business. Accurate tracking of inside and outside basis is of the utmost importance to reduce negative tax consequences down the line.

 

Brenden Cawley is a senior associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka P.C., and Gabriel Jacobson is an associate with the firm; (413) 536-8510.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 52: February 15, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley International Airport

Kevin Dillon

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, which oversees Bradley International Airport. The two discuss the profound impact the pandemic has had on passenger volume and revenue at the airport, and what the outlook is for the short and long term. The two also discuss the airport’s ongoing efforts to improve service and effectively compete against both larger and smaller airports both in this region and across the country for planes and routes. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 51: February 8, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center

Spiros Hatiras

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center, recently honored as one oof the magazine’s Healthcare Heroes for 2020. The two discuss the state of the pandemic and current trends with cases and hospitalizations, as well as the many ways COVID is impacting the bottom line at this and other hospitals. The two also discuss HMC’s ongoing, and now changing, plans to add more behavioral health beds in a region that sorely needs them. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Education Special Coverage

Portrait of a Graduate

 

The program is called ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

But maybe an adjective is in order to get the complete picture, pun intended.

Indeed, what the Springfield Public Schools are focused on now is creating a portrait of a successful high-school graduate, through an initiative designed to gain feedback from a host of constituencies regarding the skills — as in all the skills — that young people will need to not only earn a high-school diploma, but thrive in an ever-changing, technology-driven economy.

And this portrait will become a valuable blueprint of sorts as school administrators go about creating a new strategic plan for the city’s public schools, said Superintendent Dan Warwick, who stressed repeatedly that Portrait of a Graduate is very much a community-driven process that will define success for Springfield students, including the values, knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to thrive as learners, workers, and leaders.

Among those providing input are members of the business community, said Trisha Canavan, president of United Personnel and current president of Springfield Business Leaders for Education, adding that their commentary will be critical to creating that portrait and then inspiring needed changes to programming and curriculum.

Made possible by a grant from the Barr Foundation, this Portrait of a Graduate initiative is part of a broad movement across the country to involve the community in shaping a school system’s strategic plan and specific programming and curriculum for helping to ensure student success.

The list of communities that have embarked on such programs grows each year, and now includes Lowell, Shrewsbury, and other cities and towns in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Conn., Fairfax County, Va., and many others, said Warwick.

In most of those communities, Portrait of a Graduate is used as part of a strategic plan for a specific school system, said Paul Foster, chief information officer for Springfield Public Schools. Here, though, it will help guide development of a new strategic plan, which is an important distinction.

Dan Warwick

Dan Warwick

“Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.”

“Most communities make it one of the activities as part of creating a plan,” he explained. “It’s not as common to create that vision first and then build the plan based on the vision. I think it’s important that we not make decisions on how to change schools until we have that clarity of vision that a portrait provides.”

Warwick agreed. “Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.

“Other iterations of our strategic plans were mostly academic-focused, which is what you would expect for a school system to put forward in a strategic plan,” he went on. “But this piece is designed to take a wider look and really get the community to rally around what they want our graduates to look like and what attributes they’ll need, and then we’ll build the actual strategic plan from that profile.”

By most accounts, he noted, it has succeeded in its goal of garnering community interest in helping to create this portrait.

“I think it excited people,” Warwick told BusinessWest. “The community involvement has been tremendous — the breadth of the input from every sector of the community has been significant, and this new concept has helped us with that.”

The acknowledgment that needed skills for success in the 21st-century workplace extends well beyond academics is made clear in the six ‘pillars’ of the portrait — learn, work, thrive, lead, persist, and communicate, said Azell Cavaan, chief Communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, adding that the school system has received more than 1,400 responses to a survey regarding a draft portrait that reflects how these pillars will be addressed moving forward.

All those we spoke with noted that there are few real surprises in the feedback that has been received, and the skills and attributes identified as needed are included in most school systems’ strategic plans. However, it is important to have these sentiments reinforced, and equally important to gain input from a broad, diverse audience, one that reflects the community in question.

“We’ve had hundreds of meetings in every segment of the community, and folks have really stayed with this,” Warwick said, adding that the city has been able to maintain momentum for the initiative even in the middle of pandemic, a clear indicator of its importance to the future of the city and the region.

Paul Foster

Paul Foster

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Portrait of a Graduate initiative, its goals, and why Springfield school officials believe it will pay dividends in their ongoing efforts to ensure that students not only graduate, but can succeed after they do.

 

Course of Action

Foster told BusinessWest that Portrait of a Graduate, or POG for short, is becoming an increasingly popular response to what has a national issue, or concern — helping students succeed beyond the classroom.

He said the movement, if it can be called that, started several years ago in the private-school arena, and was quickly embraced by public schools as well. The basic concept is to ask a question — what skills and attributes will students need to succeed years and decades down the road? — and ask a lot of different of people that question. It sounds logical, but it in many ways represents a new way of thinking about this issue, Warwick said.

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community,” he explained. “We’re getting a lot of input on the skills and attributes that people are looking for that, for traditional educators like myself, wouldn’t have been the first things we would be thinking about.”

What are these attributes and skills? The list includes financial literacy, problem solving, and perseverance — being able to stick with something until the problem is solved, said Foster, adding that what has been most important in this process has been not only hearing such comments, but hearing them over and over, and from different constituencies.

“What I thought was surprising, and important, was how aligned what we heard was,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from conversation to conversation and heard the same things over and over again. For example, we heard ‘financial literacy’ at every conversation. There wasn’t a group that we spoke with that didn’t say that was important.

“It was the same with things like problem solving,” he went on. “It wasn’t surprising that we heard those things; I think it was surprising that we were hearing the same things from every group; we were talking to business leaders, we were talking to parents, and we were talking to teachers, and they were identifying the same things, which is good.”

Canavan agreed, and said one of the broad goals of the initiative is to create a sense of ownership within the community when it comes to the city’s schools, or a stronger sense of ownership, as the case may be.

“Getting the collective wisdom of the community is important,” she said, “because I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is our community embracing that notion that this is our responsibility — that it’s not just the responsibility of the schools or just the responsibility of the parents — it’s our responsibility.”

The process of gathering feedback from these constituencies began in the fall of 2019, and the seeds were planted for the initiative maybe six months before that, said Foster, adding that the school department has been hosting what it calls ‘community conversations,’ a phrase chosen over ‘focus groups,’ which comes with some preconceived notions, not all of them good.

These conversations, organized by various stakeholders, have been going on continuously, he went on, adding that they have involved the business community, the refugee community, parents, educators, students, alumni, the faith community, and other constituencies. One was comprised of area business owners who are also alumni of Springfield Public Schools.

Traditionally, these groups, when involved in such conversations, focus on what needs to be done differently in the schools. For this exercise, they didn’t start there, but rather with two questions: ‘what are your hopes and dreams for children growing up in Springfield?’ and ‘what are the knowledge and skills that young people growing up in Springfield will need to realize those dreams?’

The feedback was intriguing, and in some cases powerful, said those we spoke with, especially when it came to students, what their dreams are, and what they need to make them reality.

This is reflected in those six aforementioned pillars and how the assembled feedback has shaped the working portrait with regard to how the school system must address each one.

Under ‘persist,’ for example, it notes that the Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield community will prepare students to:

• Remain focused on goals, using coping strategies and flexibility to overcome obstacles;

• Speak up for themselves and the issues that are important to them;

• Engage in self-reflection to build on strengths and weaknesses;

• Evaluate choices and outcomes when making decisions; and

• Give, receive, and respond to constructive feedback.

Under ‘communicate,’ the bullet points include ‘write and speak with clarity, evidence, and purpose’; and ‘know how to listen to others, ask questions, and seek to understand.’ And under ‘lead’ are these points, among others: ‘be curious, creative, open-minded, and flexible in new situations’; ‘advocate for themselves and for others’; and ‘seek opportunities to understand and serve the community.’

Now that the portrait is essentially complete, said Foster, those leading this initiative are pivoting from writing that document to writing a strategic plan, one that will attempt to prioritize what has been learned over the past year or so and create a blueprint for action and change moving forward. The aggressive timeline has the plan being completed in August, in time to implement changes for the next school year.

“We ended this with a recognition that there are some small ways and some big ways that we need to think differently and change schools,” he explained. “Schooling in the United States has been done in a relatively similar way for a very long time, and some pretty significant things need to change; some of those are going to be one-year changes, and others are going to be five-year changes.”

 

Drawing Conclusions

Moving forward, those we spoke with they expect the POG initiative to help introduce new performance measures and ways of evaluating whether students are ready to not simply receive a diploma, but succeed in what has always been the broader goal — success in the workplace and in life.

“You can have someone has mastered English and mastered math who is not ready for the workforce,” Foster said. “So part of the strategic plan will be introducing new performance measures that are not a replacement of but an addition to the ones we have today; we’re thinking about how you evaluate student performance differently.”

Where this thinking takes the school system is a question still to be answered. But the process begins with a portrait of a graduate, and in Springfield, this is still a work in progress and an important step forward.

 

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

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Uncertainty on the Menu

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

The weekend before March 17, Fitzwilly’s was gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day the Northampton St. Patrick’s Assoc. gathers for its annual breakfast, and then about 200 of them march on down to Fitzwilly’s and spend most of the day there.

“We have Irish bands, and we were sitting on 20 kegs of Guinness beer and a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for a great big party — and it got pulled right out from under us,” owner Fred Gohr said.

Remember March 16? That’s the day restaurants — and most other businesses in the Commonwealth — were forced to shut down, on just two days notice, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It was awful,” Gohr went on. “We had a staff of about 75 people, and I had to tell them all, ‘we’re closed, and you guys have to go on unemployment for a while, and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happened, all across Hampshire County’s robust dining scene, has been a series of starts and stops, hope and despair, and especially two themes that kept coming up as BusinessWest sat with area proprietors: uncertainty, but also evolution.

“We were closed completely for a month or so, then we opened and started doing a little bit of curbside,” Gohr said. “And, honestly, when that’s all you’re doing — at least for us — it’s not very profitable.”

But takeout service, never a major factor in the business, has since morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales. Other restaurants have relied even more on pick-up service, because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has (more on those later).

“Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’”

“It’s been such a whirlwind for small businesses the past 10 months, trying to get our bearings with all the changes,” said Alex Washut, who owns two Jake’s restaurants in Northampton and Amherst. “Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’

That’s because there was no ‘last time’ — no comparable pandemic in the past century, anyway. “Everything was out the window,” Washut said. “We asked, ‘who are we going to be this week?’ Then there was a bunch of changes, and we had to conform to those, and then it was a new restaurant the next week.”

Like Fitzwilly’s, evolving to a takeout model early on was new territory for Jake’s. “We were never a takeout restaurant; maybe 3% of our gross was takeout food,” he said. “So we had no system for it.”

The various systems that area eateries developed, in the weeks last spring when takeout was the only option, involved details ranging from what containers to use to how to present food attractively and, for restaurants that opted for delivery, how to keep it warm in transit.

Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass with some of the supplies used in Galaxy’s takeout business, which has been its dominant model for almost a year.

“We were able to pivot quickly,” Washut noted. “From there, we moved to outdoor dining when that was allowed, but we had never had outdoor dining before” — and questions had to be answered regarding permitting, staffing, health and safety factors.

The positive, he noted, is that, if 2021 follows a similarly bumpy trajectory, “we know what’s expected, and we know how we’ll react in the spring, how we’ll react in the summer, and how we’ll react once the fall and winter come along.”

Indeed, the establishments that survived last year’s storm are, if not stronger for the experience, at least a little wiser, even as many are barely hanging on. The hope, of course, is that 2021 is nothing like 2020. But in this industry, so critical to the economy and cultural life of Hampshire County, nothing is certain.

 

Survival of the Fittest

“We’ve evolved a lot.”

Those were Casey Douglass’ first words when asked what this year has been like at Galaxy, the restaurant he’s operated in downtown Easthampton for the past five years.
The first evolution had to do with meeting customer needs. “We’re part of the food chain,” he said. “We have a lot of customers who don’t go to the supermarket. And we were like, ‘they’re going to be putting themselves at risk going to the supermarket as opposed to getting to-go.’

“So we went to the radio station and created an ad talking about ‘Casey’s comfort food,’” he went on. “And we switched to all a la carte, basic stuff — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, meatloaf — and we were cranking.”

So much that, when he secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, he first thought he wouldn’t need it. “Then a couple weeks went by, and we said, ‘thank goodness we got that.’ It changed so quickly.”

Sales dropped to about 45% of what they once were, but he kept 70% of the labor on board, because that’s the main purpose of the PPP program. That money got Galaxy through the end of June. Then things got rough.

Jake’s owner Alex Washut

Jake’s owner Alex Washut says it might be a while before his two locations (this one in Amherst) are packed with patrons again.

After losing a couple of cooks to unemployment, the restaurant cut back from five days a week to four, and when summer rolled around, fewer customers wanted takeout, but outdoor dining wasn’t a draw, either.

Fall brought a reprieve of sorts, with the milder, less-humid weather boosting outdoor dining, but the winter has been exceptionally tricky. Indoor dining didn’t prove to be a workable option; in a space that seats fewer than 50, the governor’s current 25% capacity mandate is especially onerous, and Douglass and his team also felt indoor dining might not be safe — or, at least, feel safe — for a clientele that skews older than some restaurants.

So as winter wears on, Douglass is pressing on with takeout only — now a hybrid of the comfort-food concept and the creative American meals he’s known for — a bank loan, and plenty of grit.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point,” he said, noting that costs like food, loan interest, utilities, and equipment leases don’t just go away when sales are down. “We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

However, he insisted, “I do think the spring will increase sales a couple thousand dollars a week, and that’s all it takes. We’ll be fine.”

Evolving to a takeout model was jarring at first to Washut, especially since his two locations — an 1800s-era building in Northampton and a new, modern structure in North Amherst’s Mill District — are so different, with a different set of clientele, and not cookie-cutter businesses like quick-service chains.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point. We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

“We didn’t know how to be a takeout restaurant. We were making $50 in sales a day — we were in shock,” he recalled. So he shut things down completely through April, secured a PPP loan and other grant funds, and reopened for takeout in early May, then outdoor seating a couple months later. Armed with the PPP, he was able to bring back the whole staff, and the breakfast-and-lunch establishment added dinners to generate more business. When funds ran dry, dinner went away.

These days, with takeout and limited indoor seating, Washut is bringing in about 30% of typical sales, and the combined staff is down from close to 50 to around 15.

Throughout all the changes, he has prioritized safety. Even if the governor’s 25% seating rule changes tomorrow, he said, “I’m not going to increase my dining room beyond 25%; my staff and I don’t feel that’s appropriate right now. There may be things we’re allowed to do but, in reality, we choose not to do.”

Gohr had a few advantages last year when it came to keeping people safe while generating business. One was a large parking lot next to Fitzwilly’s that he rented from its owner for tented outdoor dining. He could seat 70 there, while the city of Northampton’s decision to turn parking spaces on Main Street into dining space added about eight more tables to the restaurant’s existing sidewalk seating.

“We really had a great summer,” he told BusinessWest. “Through the summer, we had a capacity of 100-plus guests, the majority of them outdoors.”

Gohr’s other advantage is a large indoor space with a normal capacity of 280. The 25% mandate has hurt this winter, for sure, as did Baker’s 9:30 p.m. curfew, which was only recently lifted. But seating 70 — separated by plexiglass barriers — is better than seating a dozen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of room in here, and we’re able to distance people. These places that have even 50 seats — and there’s a lot of places in town with just six tables — but even the ones with 50 seats, now you’re down to letting 12 people in. You can’t survive. So we’re fortunate given the size we have. Seventy people gets us by. We can survive on that if it doesn’t change.”

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return to its go-to dining status in Easthampton once it’s safe to eat out again.

A mild winter, weather-wise, helps as well. “If you start getting snowstorms on weekends on top of all the other stuff, then we’d be in trouble. But we’ve had pretty good weekends.”

A PPP loan and other grants also helped, and he’s applied for a second PPP loan, with this round capping the disbursement for certain hard-hit industries, including restaurants, higher than the first, so he’s hopeful for another influx to carry him to the spring. He’s already in talks about renting the parking lot again, and the city has discussed moving outdoor seating into Main Street again as well.

 

Pressing Through

Still, Gohr, like every other restaurant owner, knows 2021 could be another year of upheaval. “We’re hoping everyone gets the vaccine and we get back to normal. But I don’t think it’s going to be real quick.”

He’s appreciative of customers eating in the restaurant, and said gift-card sales were strong over the holidays, although not to the level of a typical year, when more people are out shopping. And he does believe outdoor dining will be a hit again. But it’s harder to pin down when customers will flock to restaurants at pre-2020 levels.

“My gut tells me it’s not going to be in the spring; it’ll be late summer or fall before we get to that point,” he said. “The mindset that I see in the public is all over the place. I know people — friends and some of my regular customers — that have not been anywhere since March. And then there are others, the minute we opened the doors, they were back. Everybody’s obviously more careful, but everyone’s comfort level is completely different. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Douglass senses real community support for Galaxy, noting that some regulars stop by three times a week, and others drop big tips and cheerlead for the establishment among their peers.

“I feel like, at least in this community, [the pandemic] hasn’t hurt on a big scale economically,” he said. “We haven’t had factories shut down. I’ve heard people are paying their rents. And I think, come the spring, people are going to be pouring out. As much as people are still nervous, if the service staff has been vaccinated, if a majority of customers have been vaccinated, people will be coming out in droves. I think people are going to hunker down all February, and then in March, with the outdoor dining, people are going to be like, ‘sign me up.’”

If that’s especially optimistic, Douglass balances the thought by saying he’s had some dark days as well, wondering if it’s worth the effort to stay open right now, and fretting over the possibility of a snowy weekend that could wipe out almost an entire week’s worth of revenues. It’s his staff who have been most enthusiastic about staying open, believing it’s important to stay in the public eye, so that Galaxy is a go-to destination when people start emerging from winter hibernation.

Still, he said, “everyone wants to go back to what normal is, but if this goes on long enough, does normal shift?”

It’s a good question, and one Washut asks himself as well. “Every day, I’m thinking about my business, trying to find that crystal ball,” he said, meaning no one really knows how 2021 will go. But he’s hopeful.

“Once it gets warm again, once the outdoor dining opens up for food-service establishments, I think the initial rush of business will be great. Unfortunately, with restaurants, it’s really hard to be proactive; we’re constantly in a reactive mode.”

Specifically, it’s tough to staff up for a rush that might be around the corner, but restaurants also don’t want to be caught flat-footed if things pick up quickly. And things might not pick up much at all in 2021.

“This will be with us for a lot longer than we want to tell ourselves, and at some level, we have to come to terms with that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be hosting 60 to 80 people in our dining rooms this year; we won’t have that level of business for a while.”

Yes, the combination of warm weather — and outdoor dining — come spring, and the prospect of rising herd immunity from the vaccines, might inject some life into the industry, but next winter could be just as difficult as this one, depending on how the pandemic’s endgame goes — if an endgame even materializes in 2021.

Meanwhile, Washut appreciates any community support he gets. “If you only come in for gift cards, awesome. If you only get takeout, awesome. Maybe we’re not in a financial position to pass that goodwill on in an equal manner, but I’ll be damned if we won’t later on. If we all keep that attitude in every level of our life, we’ll get through this for sure.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Reading the Fine Print

By Julie Quink

 

The economic stress created by the COVID-19 pandemic compelled business owners and individuals to apply for the relief funds provided by the Small Business Administration (SBA) in the form of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL).

The rollout of these programs came at a time when the reality of the pandemic began to unfold, creating a frenzy for businesses and individuals to apply for the funding, in some cases, before the funding ran out.

Before the ink on the guidance and requirements for these stimulus funds was dry, applications for the funding were being processed, and funds were in the hands of businesses and individuals. To expedite getting funds to those who needed them, much of the clarification about the use of the funds, taxability of the funds, and criteria for forgiveness were ironed out after the funding was in hand and being spent by the recipients. What ensued was months of additions to the SBA’s frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) document clarifying the eligible uses of the funding to ensure forgiveness and further attempts by Congress and the SBA to adjust program requirements as the pandemic continued.

More than 50 FAQs were issued to clarify the PPP requirements, and 20 relating to the EIDL loans.

In the frenzy to obtain the funding for the PPP and EIDL loans, it became clear that not everyone read the fine print, or that the fine print changed as clarity was provided for these programs. The fine print provided recipients with additional requirements for the funding they may have been unaware of at the time of application or even during the spend-down period.

As trained professionals, accountants and business advisors spent months learning the requirements and pivoting as they changed. It would be unreasonable to assume that those who received the funding could keep up with the fast-paced changes that were occurring, including the fine print. For accountants, there have been times we could barely keep up with the changes.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“With the second round of PPP funding recently released and requirements more recently clarified, reading the fine print should hopefully not be such a daunting or surprising task.”

The result is that those receiving the funding need to be aware of those items in the fine print for the PPP funding and the EIDL loans that may impact them.

 

EIDL

Recipients of the EIDL loans, which could be up to $2 million in amount, were required to sign loan paperwork, outlining the terms of the funding. In the fine print of these loan documents are provisions that the borrower should look out for and be aware of. Some of the provisions are:

• For loans under $25,000, collateral is not required. For loans of more than $25,000, the SBA is provided collateral through business assets, current and future. Transfers or sales of collateral, except inventory, require prior SBA approval. In addition, prior approval is required by the SBA in the event these business assets will be used to secure other financing;

• Borrowers are required to keep itemized receipts, paid invoices, contracts, and all related paperwork for three years from the date of disbursement;

• Borrowers are encouraged to the extent feasible to purchase only American-made equipment and products with the proceeds of this loan;

• Borrowers must keep all accounting records five years before the loan and three years after in a manner satisfactory to the SBA;

• Borrowers must agree to audits and inspection of assets, if requested by the SBA, at the expense of the borrower;

• Borrowers have a duty to provide hazard insurance on collateral and may be asked to provide proof;

• Within 90 days of the borrower’s year end, financial statements, in the format specified by the SBA, are required to be furnished by the borrower;

• The SBA may require a review-level financial statement for a borrower upon written request by the SBA at the borrower’s expense;

• Prior approval from the SBA is required for distributions of the borrower’s assets to the owners or employees, including loans, gifts, or bonuses;

• Borrowers must submit, within 180 days of receiving a loan, an SBA certificate or resolution. For most borrowers, the SBA has followed up or is following up on this requirement now;

• Default under the provisions may result if a borrower merges, consolidates, reorganizes, or changes ownership without prior SBA approval; and

• The loans can be prepaid, without penalty, if the borrower does not need the funds or secures other financing.

For most borrowers, the requirements may be routine considerations, but for others, these may be new requirements.

 

PPP

In the fine print of the PPP loan documents are also provisions that the borrower should consider, as follows:

• For borrowers who received a PPP loan greater than $2 million, the SBA has indicated it will likely audit those borrowers for compliance with spending requirements;

• Although Congress has confirmed that the proceeds of the PPP loan are not taxable and the expenses paid with PPP are deductible, some states, such as Massachusetts, are not following the federal laws relative to forgiveness of the PPP loans as they have their own rules. For individuals in Massachusetts, the loan forgiveness is taxable income. This affects sole proprietors, S-corp shareholders, and partners of partnerships. A bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. Eric Lesser, state Rep. Brian Ashe, and five other co-sponsors, has been proposed to allow for non-taxability of the forgiveness amounts in Massachusetts;

• Depending on when the PPP loan was funded, the borrower may have a repayment term of two or five years for the loan; and

• Although forgiveness may be granted, the borrower should retain the records used for forgiveness. Generally, most records should be retained for seven years.

 

Bottom Line

Navigating the fine print is key for those who received the PPP and EIDL loans. The navigation becomes increasingly more difficult when the requirements continue to change and the funds have already been received and used to operate the business.

With the second round of PPP funding recently released and requirements more recently clarified, reading the fine print should hopefully not be such a daunting or surprising task.

 

Julie Quink is managing partner with West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli; (413) 734-9040.

Insurance Special Coverage

Are You Covered?

By Mark Morris

Christine Fleury

Christine Fleury says making alterations to the home — a common sight during the pandemic — could change insurance needs.

Call it the great migration indoors.

When the pandemic first hit, many people were forced to quickly convert their homes into offices, schools, and entertainment centers. Some in the insurance industry predicted this might lead to more homeowners insurance claims. In reality, it didn’t.

Similarly, as people spend more time in their homes, they also depend more on their water, electrical, and heating systems to work. While some insurance claims have been filed due to these systems failing after increased use, the increase has not been notable.

In fact, Christine Fleury, Personal Lines manager at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, said companies have actually seen a decrease in severe claims from homeowners. “As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

Corey Murphy agreed, noting that, because people are home, they are noticing and taking care of seemingly minor problems like leaky gutters.

“As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

“As people pay more attention to fixing the small issues, they prevent the larger problems from ever happening. A little preventive maintenance goes a long way,” the president of First American Insurance Agency in Chicopee noted.

Most homeowners insurance claims are the result of severe weather incidents. When COVID-19 first hit, winter was ending, and warm weather soon followed. Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England in Agawam, said the mild winter this year has helped keep claims down.

“Other than a couple isolated wind events, the weather has behaved itself, and that means claims have tended to be in line with company projections.”

The pandemic has thrown a few wrinkles into the home-insurance picture this year, however.

For instance, many homeowners were motivated to invest in substantial improvements to their homes. Home construction and improvement contractors point directly to being cooped up in the house as the main motivator for people choosing to make improvements to their property.

What impact does all this renovation work have on the homeowners insurance carried on the house? The answer depends on what improvements are made and what kind of coverage is already in place.

Everyone BusinessWest spoke with agreed that, for small or cosmetic improvements, there is no need to contact an insurance agent. Some larger projects, however, may require altering or increasing a home’s coverage.

“Adding square footage to your home, doing a full remodel, or building a garage would all be reasons to consult your agent to make sure you have enough coverage,” Fleury said.

Even if they are not taking on home improvement projects, Trudeau advises people to call their insurance agent at least every couple of years so they understand the coverage that’s in place and whether they may need additional coverage.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator,” Trudeau said. “It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

With the lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure the home — and everyone in it — are protected. Here are some key factors to consider.

 

Home Work

While they may not have set foot in the office in months, people who work from home are still protected from on-the-job injuries by workers’ compensation coverage. Office workers tend not to get injured on the job, but the coverage is in place if there is an incident.

“There has never been a distinction between whether employee actions emanate from an office at the company or from an office at the person’s home,” Trudeau said. “Because this coverage is broader in scope, COVID did not force us to make changes to workers’ comp plans.”

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says claims have been kept in check recently by a mild winter.

It’s not unusual for people working from home to have a computer, monitor, and even a printer that belongs to their employer. Murphy said some jobs may require employees to have additional business assets in the home, so it might be wise to make sure everything is covered. “Most policies will pay a little toward assets being home, but it’s usually a minimal amount.”

With homes serving as business offices and classrooms, more people — and their pets — are home at the same time. According to Trudeau, homeowners’ insurance policies consider any issues with an animal as a “strict liability event,” meaning there is no way to defend the action.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim,” he explained, adding that, as people acquire more pets, the likelihood of claims increases. Most insurance companies keep a list of dog breeds they will not cover because those breeds have higher incident rates.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator. It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

Murphy encourages pet owners to speak with their agent because these restrictions can vary widely among insurers. “Just because one company doesn’t want to cover your breed of dog, check with another company; it’s not a universal list.”

Whether they have pets or not, Fleury advises her clients to carry personal liability coverage, commonly known as an umbrella policy, that supplements both homeowners and auto coverage.

“When we write home and auto policies for a customer, we always recommend buying personal liability coverage as well because it gives you that additional safety net,” she said. A typical umbrella policy costs less than $200 but can provide up to $1 million in additional liability coverage when the limits of homeowners or auto coverage are exceeded.

While dog bites and leaking water pipes are obvious reasons to carry homeowners insurance, it can be much harder to detect a leak when personal data is compromised. A significant increase in identity theft has motivated insurance companies to begin offering identity-theft protection as part of their homeowners policies.

“With everyone at home and increased online activity, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your privacy from someone getting into your system and doing real damage,” Trudeau said.

Apart from identity-theft insurance, he advises everyone to follow best practices such as using multi-factor authentication. For example, when working on an important account online, a code is sent to the user’s personal phone that must be entered to gain access.

Corey Murphy

As people pay attention to small issues in the home, Corey Murphy says, they can prevent larger issues from ever arising.

When fraudsters accesses online bank accounts, they often add a payee into the account. Trudeau advises customers to check with their bank to make sure it uses multi-factor authentication to prevent an outsider from accessing their accounts and to make sure it’s turned on at home.

“If someone has logged into your computer and they don’t have your phone, they can’t get that code,” he said.

Fleury said her agency includes identity-theft coverage in all its homeowners policies. “We feel it is important insurance and recommend at least $5,000 worth of coverage for identity theft.”

 

From a Distance

The pandemic has changed the insurance business in other ways. Typically, when a homeowner files an insurance claim, an adjuster will visit the home and walk through to personally inspect the damage. With COVID-19 concerns, that’s happening much less often.

“In some ways, COVID is moving insurance companies along the digital side of things,” Murphy said. “They are allowing homeowners with a claim to submit photos and even have video calls if the insurer is set up for it.”

The trend toward relying on consumer photos rather than a visit by an adjuster follows what’s been happening on the auto-insurance side for some time.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim.”

“Many auto insurers have created apps where the person making the claim takes a photo of the damage, uploads it for an adjuster to review, and then the payment is processed,” Fleury said.

The move toward more digital interaction is no surprise to Trudeau.

“Long before COVID, people e-mailed pictures and documents to us,” he said. “Companies have simply accelerated the move to modernization by using many tools they already had.”

Murphy likes to remind customers that every insurance company offers something a little different that their competitors. That’s why it’s important to put some thought into selecting a homeowners insurance policy.

“People need to assess what they have, in terms of their house and what’s in it, and then speak with an agent about what needs to be covered,” he said, adding that it’s about matching a person’s situation with the company that can best provide coverage for their needs — especially at a time when those needs, and demands on the home, are still in flux.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 50: Feb. 1, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Carol Campbell, president of  Chicopee Industrial Contractors, and one of the magazine’s Women of Impact for 2020. The two discuss the state of the economy and the outlook for 2021, but mostly they talk about the glass ceiling, why it still exists, and what it will take to remove the barriers from women entering the boardroom and even some professions. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 49: Jan. 25, 2021

George O’Brien talks with State Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies

Eric Lesser

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with State Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. The two discuss the recently passed $600 million economic development bill and how its various provisions will help small businesses severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discuss how the bill might help level the playing field when it comes to Western Mass. and other areas of the state.

 

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Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

They’re Still Goal-oriented

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Michael Rouette says he keeps a copy of the 36-year-old news story in his office. He’ll take it out and read it on occasion, and will proudly show it others, usually without much prompting.

“Moriarty-Rouette Team Buys Ticket to Finals” is the headline over that item in the Palmer Journal Register from November 1984, which goes on to note how goals by Rouette, then a junior, and Dan Moriarty, a freshman, along with a “tenacious defense,” propelled the Monson High School soccer team to a 2-1 win over Monument Mountain, giving the Mustangs, as that headline noted, a ticket to the regional finals in Chicopee a few days later.

Today, the Moriarty-Rouette team is still focused on goals, but now as president and executive vice president and chief operating officer (a new position), respectively, at Monson Savings Bank. They are the leaders writing the next chapter in the bank’s history after the retirement of long-term president Steve Lowell.

As the two talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, just weeks before Moriarty was to add the title CEO to his business card (Lowell is still acting in that capacity until mid-February), they talked often about their time on various fields together — they were both three-sport stars — and made frequent use of sports terms and phrases.

Indeed, when talking about the transition in leadership at the top and work to make it seamless, Moriarty said he will try to act as a good referee would — “you don’t know he’s on the field during the game.” And the two of them made early and very frequent references to the importance of teamwork at this (and any) institution.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the pandemic and this transition in leadership, both said there is no playbook for a such a challenging passing of the baton, so they will essentially write their own.

“We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance.”

“As far as meeting with customers and being out in the community more, Mike and I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that, for safety reasons,” Moriarty said. “And that makes things more difficult, but we’re adjusting and preparing for that day when this is over.”

As for that article, both men say it conveys more than coincidence that two high-school soccer teammates, now in their 50s, are leading the bank headquartered in the town where they grew up. Much more. They say it conveys other ‘C’ words, including commitment to the community and continuity.

“That article reminds me of who we are and where we’re from, and not to ever forget that,” Rouette said. “But it also speaks to how we’ve grown as individuals, as friends, as co-workers, as partners, and as leaders. That article symbolizes how our lives have changed but really haven’t changed, and how success can be built on people who have the same vision, the same mindset, and the same family values.”

Moriarty concurred. “We’ve known each other for so long, but the values are the same, even though we’re a long way from the soccer field. “We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance; we try to bring that culture to the bank and to our employees, and we try to lead by example. But we also understand that each individual in the bank is a contributor, and we want them to be part of the team and the success of the bank. We did that before we became leaders of the bank, and we’re just going to continue that and build on that culture of teamwork.”

The two take on their new roles at an intriguing time for the bank — and all banks. The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities — certainly more of the former than the latter, and made some aspects of being a bank leader more difficult. Meanwhile, there is immense competition in a region described by most in the industry as ‘overbanked.’

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, was opened at the height of the pandemic last year, but it is nonetheless off to a solid start.

Both Moriarity and Rouette said that Monson Savings, now with more than $508 million in assets, has been on a steady growth trajectory and they are committed to moving the bank toward further expansion, geographically and otherwise.

 

They’re on the Ball

As noted earlier, Moriarty and Rouette were both three-sport athletes. While most noted for their exploits on their soccer field — both would go to play in college; Moriarty at Providence College and Rouette at Old Dominion — they were also teammates in baseball and basketball.

And as they recalled those days, they often leaned on some self-deprecating humor to make their points.

Indeed, when discussing their time as starting guards (and captains) on the hardwood, they made it clear they were not exactly go-to options when the Mustangs were looking for points.

“I was the point guard, and I couldn’t shoot,” said Moriarty, as he looked at Rouette, who nodded energetically, but said his front-court mate was ultimately the better alternative.

“I was pretty fast … I could steal the ball, but I could only dribble left-handed,” Rouette recalled. “I would have a breakaway, and our coach, Bill Devine, would essentially tell me to stop, hand the ball to Moriarty, and let him shoot it, because it would be like throwing a brick against the backboard when I let it go. I couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.”

Despite those references, the two were much-heralded for their exploits on various fields, and for their work together, even if it was only for two years.

Indeed, while Moriarty continued to make headlines at Monson High in the mid-’80s, Rouette was playing soccer at Old Dominion, majoring in Economics, and, when home from school in the summer and winter, working as a teller at Monson Savings Bank. During those short stints, he impressed those at the bank enough to get a job offer of sorts — specifically an invitation to become part of the lending team when he graduated.

“When I was a junior at Old Dominion, I already knew where I was heading,” he said, adding that he did join the bank and has been there ever since.

Moriarty, who would take a far more circuitous route to his hometown bank, has memories of seeing Rouette heading for a work in a suit while he was toiling for the town’s Highway Department while he was home from college for the summer. “It’s 95 degrees out, Michael’s going to work in a tie, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to work in air conditioning.’”

He would, first at Coopers & Lybrand in Hartford, and later at Aetna, HealthSouth, and then Unicare.

“But the attraction to Monson Savings was always in the back of my mind,” he recalled, adding that, during some conversations with Rouette, he brought up the possibility of joining the bank, and eventually did so in 1998 as an accounting manager.

The two have risen in the ranks over the years, with Rouette rising to senior vice president and chief lending officer, and Moriarty eventually climbing to senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2011.

When Lowell announced his intentions to retire not quite a year ago, both men sought to succeed him as president and CEO. Those titles would eventually go to Moriarty, but the two essentially form a new leadership team, one that brings complementary strengths and shared values.

Moriarty noted that, through his career at the bank, he’s been focused on the finance side of the equation, while Rouette has concentrated on lending and customer relationships, and, in his new role, will add retail to his list of responsibilities.

“Mike is very customer-focused, while I have somewhat different responsibilities — strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, compliance, and technology,” said Moriarty. “I think the bank is positioned to use our strengths in a proper way.”

 

Net Results

All this prompts more flashbacks, and the inevitable analogies, to 1984 and that soccer semifinal against Monument Mountain, where Moriarty notched the first goal of the game, and Rouette, then the all-time scoring leader for the Mustangs, recorded the game clincher.

As for the finals game … that did not go as well — a loss to an undefeated Wahconah team that still stings three and half decades later. (Moriarty wasn’t able to play in that contest due to a broken ankle he suffered in the semifinal.)

But while they do like to look back, Moriarty and Rouette are obviously far more focused on the present and the future.

As for the former, that means everything from coping with the many aspects of COVID-19 to growing the bank’s latest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, which opened last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

That timing wasn’t perfect — many branch lobbies were still closed — but the new facility is off to a solid start.

“We had a good core group of customers in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Moriarty said. “We transitioned them internally to the East Longmeadow branch, so we had a good start, and we’re looking to have that branch in a good position in a shorter period than you normally would in a new market.”

As for the pandemic itself, it’s been a time for the bank to play to its strengths — yes, that’s still another sports phrase — and use its focus on customer service to not only take care of (and retain) existing customers, but also gain some new ones. This has been the case on all fronts, but especially with the commercial lending portfolio and the bank’s strong track record handling applications for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans.

“We basically got out in front of it,” said Rouette as he explained the bank’s basic strategy with the PPP program and its commercial customers in general. “We knew that that they [customers] couldn’t be chasing us. We had a great team effort to reach out to all our business customers; we said, ‘we know there’s an issue, we know PPP is coming down the road, and when the spigot opens, we’ll be there for you.’ And we did it.

“People needed to hear your voice,” he went on, adding that every commercial customer was called in an effort to gauge their needs and concerns and update them on the status of their application. “And that calmed people, that they weren’t on voice mail or weren’t able to get through.”

This high level of customer service enabled the bank to handle PPP loans for non-customers, gains that both Moriarty and Rouette chalked up to word-of-mouth referrals that should have some long-term benefits for the institution as a new round of the program begins later this month.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator between their soccer squad from the ‘80s and the staff at Monson Savings — the importance of solid teamwork.

Looking back, and ahead, Moriarty said he was mentored by his two immediate predecessors, Lowell and Roland Desrochers, and he understands what has made the bank successful — especially its employees and community-bank look, feel, and operating values — and has no intention of altering the game plan.

“The vision for the bank is to continue to be the community bank that these communities need,” he told BusinessWest. “From a business side, commercial customers as well as retail customers, we want to stay competitive in our delivery systems — digital, mobile … we can have people bank with us from Monson to the Cape and into Connecticut. We want to be relevant in the communities we serve for not just today, but for years to come.

“The culture will remain the same,” he went on. “And we’re just going to leverage the talent we have inside the bank.”

Meanwhile, both men intend to continue their active involvement in the community, which mirrors the work of Lowell, Desrochers, and others that came before them. This work comes in many forms, with Moriarty devoting time and energy to several groups, including the East of the River Chamber of Commerce (he’s a board member), the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Brightside Golf Classic, and Monson High School, where he’s the assistant varsity soccer coach.

As for Rouette, he is similarly involved, but focuses most of his time on the YMCA of Greater Springfield, with which the bank has long enjoyed close ties. “Everyone has a passion, and that’s mine,” he said, adding that he’s been a long-time board member and supporter on many levels.

 

Bottom Line

Summoning still another sports analogy of sorts, Moriarty said it is customary, at least with good teams, to look ahead, not back, when a season ends.

“Because it’s January, we say, ‘last season’s over … we finished December, we did well, but now it’s 0-0, and we’ve got a new season ahead of us,’” he noted, adding that, given the many variables confronting banks — and all businesses, for that matter — it’s impossible to know how this new season will go.

What these two do know is that Monson Savings Bank will, as noted, continue to play to its strengths, honed over many years and under leaders that these two have learned from.

In short, there’s a winning formula at the bank, and their only real plans for the future are to continue using it.

 

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

 

Construction Special Coverage

Space Jam

By Mark Morris

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says he had to reschedule in-home jobs at the start of the pandemic until he could figure out how to do them safely.

For home builders in Western Mass., 2020 brought opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

For example, Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction, said 2020 was his best year based on the number of projects, but COVID-19 posed obstacles to nearly all facets of the job. In fact, when the pandemic first arrived, he rescheduled all his in-home projects until he could learn how to safely do those jobs.

“We were fortunate that we had several new construction projects that kept us working until we could figure out the right way to get our in-home jobs done,” Riley said.

Other home builders shared similar stories of adjusting to a new reality on the fly.

When many industries were mandated to stop working back in March, home builders were deemed an essential business by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. That was the right call, said Bill Laplante, president of Laplante Construction. “We had projects with critical work that needed to be completed so people, in some cases, could get back into their homes.”

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on.”

The builders who spoke with BusinessWest all construct new houses as well as additions and renovations to existing homes. On balance, they say, renovations and additions account for more business than new home construction.

“Most of the calls we get are from people who want to stay where they are, so many of them are looking to build additions or do a renovation,” said A.J. Crane, partner at A. Crane Construction.

Of course, staying put became nearly universal as COVID-19 mandates resulted in many people working from home. Even those who continued to work at their place of business found themselves at home more often because so many recreational activities and destinations had been curtailed or shut down.

And that posed opportunity for builders. As Laplante observed, the more time people spend at home, the more looking around they do. “They start thinking about adding a room or renovating part of the house to make their space more comfortable.”

In the age of COVID, that means builders must approach job sites differently than in the past. For starters, more people — both adults and children — are likely to be at home while the work is getting done. While workers follow screening protocols before going into the home and wear PPE once there, Laplante instructs his crews to isolate the work area from the residents as much as possible. That’s easy to do for additions and outside renovations, but some work is just more intrusive.

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on,” he said, adding that other projects were pushed off because customers were simply not yet comfortable with outside workers in their homes during the pandemic.

But enough homeowners were OK with their presence to generate a successful, if unusual, year for the home-building and renovation industry.

 

Slow-building Issues

Keeping work crews and homeowners safe was only one challenge builders faced due to COVID-19. In a normal year, the process of getting a permit for a new home or addition is fairly straightforward. Builders bring plans to the appropriate municipal office and pick up the permit a week or two later. As COVID-19 shifted city and town business to e-mails and Zoom calls, it delayed the permitting process — in some cases, for months.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop.”

Meanwhile, supply-chain shortages of common consumer goods such as toilet paper and cleaning products marked the early days of the pandemic. The manufacturing supply chain around the world was disrupted for many building products as well. Riley said appliances and electrical components such as circuit breakers were often delayed by as much as three or four months. As another example, Crane learned that window companies were having trouble getting glass.

“As a result, we were only getting three-fourths of the windows we ordered for a job,” he said. “This created a delay that frustrates the homeowner and puts a big dent into our profit margin.”

In short, COVID-19 kept people at home, they wanted to improve their space, creating high demand for building materials at a time when many manufacturers were already experiencing delays due to the coronavirus, resulting in shortages. And in the wake of those delays, price increases followed.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says he wants to present a home show this year, but only if he can do so safely.

“We saw a 45% spike in the cost of building materials,” Laplante said. “That was difficult to deal with because we had jobs that were already under contract.”

Shortages of special-order or custom materials were no surprise to the builders, but everyday items were affected, too.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop,” Crane said.

While they acknowledge that delays, shortages, and price hikes will be here for the near term, all three builders are optimistic about 2021. Because mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, Riley does not expect a slowdown anytime soon. “For 2021, our company is operating full steam ahead for both new construction and remodeling projects.”

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office. I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

One challenge going forward, he noted, is finding property in Western Mass. to purchase at a reasonable price where he can make a profit on new construction.

For 2021, Laplante has plenty of new construction and renovation projects in the pipeline both in Western Mass. and on Cape Cod, where he recently opened a satellite office.

“We’ve always done work on the Cape, but this is the first year we made it official with an office,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity there.”

Expanding to Cape Cod is a bet Laplante is willing to make because he believes that the pandemic has severely shifted consumer trends. As he sees it, the people who would have sought out exotic travel to places like Europe are now spending their money on their home or investing in a vacation home close to where they live.

 

On with the Show?

For 66 years, hundreds of home projects started with a tour of the Western Mass Home and Garden Show held in late March on the Big E fairgrounds. In 2020, the show was canceled for the first time in its history as the initial wave of COVID-19 swept across Massachusetts just before the event.

Will there be a show in 2021? Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, faces a common dilemma in this time of COVID-19: there is plenty of interest in holding the show, but no one knows if conditions will allow it to take place.

“When things clear up and people can safely go out and stay healthy, we will run a home show, and not until then,” he said. At the same time, his organization, which runs the home show, has nearly sold out all available booths.

“We don’t even have dates for when the home show will happen, but I sold two booths this week,” Crane said, noting that his members are involved in nearly all areas of home improvements. As most of them had success in 2020, they would like to keep the momentum going this year.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says the more time people spend at home, the more they think about how to improve their homes.

When BusinessWest spoke with vendors in preparation for last year’s event, several said a key strength of the home show was the opportunity for people and contractors to speak with each other, as well as the ability to see and touch the latest products in home improvements.

Plexiglass dividers, one-way aisles, and mandatory mask wearing are among the different ways Crane and his staff are looking to configure this year’s show. He doesn’t want a situation, however, in which a member pays for an expensive booth only to allow one person at a time to visit.

“That’s not fair to the vendor or the people attending the show,” he said. “It’s not even fair to the folks who just drop by a booth to take the candy.”

Because planning events is so difficult these days, Crane continues to move forward in planning the home show, but understands that nothing is certain. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it’s a freight train or if it’s the vaccine coming to solve our problems.”

Even with an effective vaccination rollout, Laplante predicts the home-building industry will continue to thrive locally. In addition to new construction, he has several whole-house renovations in the works — projects in which an existing house is torn down and a new one is built on the same lot. With many projects in the pipeline, Laplante believes people have changed their behavior long-term, and the home will continue to be a focal point long after COVID-19 is under control.

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office,” he said. “I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 48: Jan. 18, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council

Rick Sullivan

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. The two discuss the state of the economy and the outlook for the balance of 2021. The two also discuss the pandemic, its impact on the local business community, and the possibility that it might provide some opportunities for the region in terms of attracting new businesses — and new residents — who might view Western Mass. as a viable option to higher-cost urban centers like Boston and New York. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 47: Jan. 11, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Andy Yee, president of the Bean Restaurant Group

Andy Yee

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Andy Yee, president of the Bean Restaurant Group. The two discuss the ongoing plight of area restaurants as they battle the pandemic, ever-tighter restrictions on their operations, and the onset of winter. They also discuss the various forms of relief restaurants are receiving and whether they will be enough to help them withstand the many challenges they are facing. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

Also Available On

Features Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

Over the years, Paul Mina says, the name over the door and on the stationery has changed many times — previous incarnations include Community Chest, Red Feather, and United Fund — but the basic mission of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) certainly hasn’t.

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same,” said Mina, who serves as administrator of both the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the United Way of Tri County in Framingham in an arrangement that speaks to the many fiscal challenges the organization has confronted in recent years and the need to consolidate and achieve economies of scale. “And that is, very simply, to improve the quality of life for people living in the Pioneer Valley area.”

As he talked with BusinessWest about this mission, on the occasion of the agency’s centennial (the actual birthday is Jan. 10), Mina was looking through some old news clippings, brochures, and assorted memorabilia that had been gathered to help with various efforts to mark this milestone. Together, these pieces help tell the story, he said, adding that the United Way has certainly evolved, as its name has, over the years.

But, as he noted, the underlying mission hasn’t.

“I look for a golden thread throughout the narrative,” he said as he thumbed through a large scrapbook and collections of news stories and promotional material. “And through all of that narrative, all of that archival material … the golden thread that links 1921 to 2021 is helping to improve people’s lives; that’s the endgame.

Paul Mina

Paul Mina

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same.”

“And it’s very significant to note that it was never about giving a handout — it was always about giving a helping hand — and to do it with as much dignity and respect as possible,” he continued. “Whether it’s 1921 or 2021, there are still people who need a helping hand so they can move from dependence to independence and self-sufficiency. That has been the goal, it is the goal, and it will always be the goal.”

 

It is somewhat fitting, said Mina, that the agency’s milestone celebration comes in the midst of a crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — because, while the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been there to serve those in need every month of every year since January 1921, it has always come forward and stepped up at especially challenging times to meet greater and often different needs.

With that, Mina offered some history lessons. During World War II, for example, the agency, historically linked very closely with the Red Cross, worked to provide a number of services to returning veterans, and in the case of the local chapter, there was a specific focus on helping to reunite families broken apart by the war, and then help them assimilate to a very changed landscape.

“There was a lot of upheaval back home,” he said. “The men were off fighting overseas, the women were in factory jobs … there was a very different kind of assimilation. When a lot of these men came home, their wives, who were basically homemakers prior to them leaving, many of them had good jobs and careers in factories. This wasn’t something that any of them were used to seeing.

“When the men came back, there was a great amount of adjustment that had to take place,” he went on. “The women had to go back to their previous domestic role because the men had to get their jobs back to go back to work. There was a lot of assimilating, and that’s when philanthropy really took off because, now that women had been outside the home, they were involved in many, many things they hadn’t been involved in before, charity being one of them.”

 

That’s just one example, he said, noting that the agency has stepped up during other periods of turbulence, change, and need, providing help with everything from administering the polio vaccine in the 1950s to supplying food to the many who needed it during the Great Depression.

Bringing things right up to the present, Mina noted that, in recent years, the agency has added new services and new ways to help those in need, with everything from prescription savings to financial-literacy efforts to a Mass 211 hotline and its companion suicide-prevention ‘call-to-talk’ line.

And during this pandemic, UWPV, which serves Hampden County, Granby, and South Hadley, has continued that pattern of stepping up.

Indeed, it created a COVID-19 relief fund that including the awarding of grants to roughly 40 organizations, bringing a truckload of 5,000 hot meals to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, delivering another truckload of food-relief boxes (20 pounds per box) to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club for distribution throughout the city, an initiative called Project Toybox that brought 15,000 new toys to affiliated agencies across the region for distribution to young people, and even a drive-up Halloween event at the TD Banknorth building in downtown Springfield, which served to fill a void left by formal and informal bans on trick-or-treating (more on some of these later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mina about the many things being celebrated as this agency celebrates this milestone, and how the work being carried out during the pandemic is in many ways simply the latest chapter in a century-old story of meeting needs within the community.

 

Past Is Prologue

To emphasize his repeated points about how things have changed over the past century or so — and how they haven’t — Mina pulled a clipping from the pile he had collected, an advertisement of sorts for something called the ‘Charity Chest,’ and pointed to the date, 1918, and then the headline over the piece:

“Charity is not a pocket for the shiftless to dip into,” it read, with the subhead “Far from it. Charity is a long ways from being a lazy man’s paradise.”

Mina noted that this was a reference to how many looked upon those seeking help in those days. He also noted that the language regarding charitable efforts has long since changed, with those involved no longer making any references to the ‘shiftless’ or the ‘lazy,’ for obvious reasons.

But the rest of the ad could almost run today, he said, noting phrases like these with regard to charity: “Its prime function is to relieve distress. Always has been and always will be. Yet, while giving relief in deserving cases, it does far more than that.” And also: “Its main object is to prevent the cause, thereby vitally affecting you and me and everybody. Distress does not always mean poverty. It may mean misfortune, sickness, or the suffering of innocents from wrongdoing of others. All of these charity tries to prevent.”

Again, some of the language has obviously changed over the years, but those sentiments expressed back at the height of World War I are those that still define the United Way today. As Mina noted, it’s not a handout, but a helping hand, and it has been this way through a host of name changes, affiliations, and partnerships.

Tracing the history of all those names the agency has used, Mina said the organization got its start as the Springfield Community Chest. Later, it became the Springfield Community Chest Red Feather Drive (he still has a red feather mounted in a large frame), with the feather being a symbol of charitable giving for more than 150 years. In fact, he noted, the Red Cross and the Red Feather ran an annual appeal together, before the two organizations separated.

Later, the organization was known under the names United Appeal and United Fund, before United Way came into use in the late 1960s.

Regardless of the name on the door, the organization has been carrying out the same essential mission, said Mina, adding that the agency’s programmatic niche, if that’s the proper phrase for it, can be summed up with three simple words: basic human needs.

Elaborating, he said these include food, clothing, shelter, and programs for children and seniors. “These are the things we focus on for a reason, because these are the things that resonate with people. These are the things, whether people are black, white, no matter what ethnicity or color, people in need are in need. Period. That’s the way it’s always been here, and I’m proud to say that it continues to be that way.”

To put the mission and its importance in perspective, Mina rewound the tape on a phone call he received only a half-hour before he talked with BusinessWest from a woman now living in New Mexico after relocating from this region.

“We helped her and her family when they were very much in need about 10 years ago,” he said. “And she called me to say, ‘I don’t know if you remember me or not … but I’m so and so, and I moved from the Pioneer Valley down to New Mexico, and a friend of mine who still lives there needs a helping hand right now — she’s got it very tough, she’s unemployed. I told her that I would call you because I was treated so well by the United Way back then that I wanted her to know that there was someone they could call that would treat them with dignity and respect and do the best they can for you. They’re not going to promise you the moon, but they’ll do the best to help you.’

“That’s a nice compliment she paid us there,” he went on, “because that’s the goal; that’s the whole goal.”

 

Where There’s a Will …

Carrying out these goals has never been anything approaching easy, but in recent years, it has become much more difficult, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the way individuals undertake charitable giving has changed, with many now choosing to give directly to specific groups, rather than to larger umbrella agencies like the United Way that funnel money to other nonprofits, said Mina. Meanwhile, the business landscape has changed dramatically through mergers and consolidations, especially in the financial-services sector, and with many small, family businesses simply disappearing from the landscape.

Also, some major corporations have created their own charitable foundations or giving arms, as was the case with MassMutual in Springfield, which had long been one of the primary supporters of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, he said, noting that all these factors have contributed to making the organization itself much smaller — as well as the level of donations it makes annually. Indeed, while this was a $5 million United Way years ago, in terms of total donations, it is now closer to $2 million.

It was these challenges that prompted the UWPV board to explore a number of options when it came to creating efficiencies and reducing the cost of doing business, for lack of a better phrase, while still carrying out its mission. One of those options was a partnership with the United Way of Tri County whereby that agency would share an administrator and also handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.

The partnership, which came after several years of unsettledness at the UWPV, one that included two CEOs and two interim CEOs between 2016 and 2018, has brought what the board desired most — stability and continued autonomy.

Those qualities have been needed during a pandemic that has further tested the agency, forcing staff to work remotely for a lengthy stretch because its services were not deemed essential, and further impacting its ability to raise money because of the way it has impacted businesses and families alike.

Indeed, this 100th year for the UWPV has been very different, and also very challenging. Need within the communities has obviously increased, but raising funds to meet those needs has been made much more difficult during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the United Way’s time-honored, preferred method of soliciting donations — via payroll deduction.

“Many of the [annual] campaigns are going to be hurting this year because companies are not going back to work in the time frame we need them to,” Mina said earlier this year. “You can’t ask for people to make contributions through payroll deduction if they’re working, and it’s very hard to ask people for support when they themselves are hurting for the first time maybe in many years.

“We’ve found that a very significant number of people in the hospitality industry, restaurants, and food and beverage operations are only a shadow of what they once were,” he went on. “And some of them are never going to recover; a lot of support isn’t there.”

Yet, amid these challenges, the UWPV has found new and different ways to meet its mission during this difficult year, and new and different ways to remind people of the importance of its basic mission.

Through efforts ranging from the food-distribution efforts to the Halloween gathering, the agency was able to meet growing need within the community and address the many ways in which the pandemic impacted day-to-day living and overall quality of life.

Mina was especially proud of Project Toybox.

“It was a wonderful thing,” he said of that initiative. “A lot of the kids that live in the urban area don’t have a backyard, they couldn’t go to the park, they weren’t allowed to congregate … so we figured this was a great opportunity to give them something they could do indoors.”

All this came on top of the annual Stuff the Bus program, which, as that name suggests, fills a school bus each August with age-appropriate backpacks with all the school supplies kids need.

This year, the agency filled 2,600 such backpacks, but in this era of COVID, the exercise was quite bit a different than it has been in previous years.

“It was difficult to come by this stuff because it’s usually donated by the public,” said Mina. “People come to Six Flags, and they get a free roller-coaster ride when they bring items for the backbacks. There’s also a huge collection point at the Holyoke Mall. All those things were not allowed this year.”

So the agency relied instead on a large donation from the MassMutual Foundation as well as some money from the COVID-19 Relief Fund to purchase the needed items at a discounted price.

Overall, these various efforts have been a continuation of that golden thread Mina mentioned earlier, a concerted effort to enable individual donors to collectively make a huge difference in the lives of countless people.

“It’s about empowering the masses to do things that they can’t do alone,” said Mina in summing it all up. “That’s why payroll deduction, which has been the hallmark of the United Way since its inception, is so important. It allows people who don’t have money in the bank, who aren’t necessarily individuals of high net worth, to be able to take a little money out of their paycheck every week, so, at the end of the year, they might have a $52 donation. That $52 donation, added together with the other folks at their company who do the same thing and give a dollar a week, ends up being an enormous amount of money. But they could never do that on their own if they had to give a lump sum.”

 

Finding a Way

Looking to the future, though, payroll deduction is becoming a less-effective way to raise money, for those reasons mentioned earlier, he said. Meanwhile, instead of channeling funds to other agencies, the United Way will be looking to provide more direct services to the residents of this region.

“We just finished a needs assessment, and 90% of the respondents were donors, and of those 90%, 82% thought that the model we had of funding agencies to do good work, to be a middleman of sorts, was not a model that is modern; it’s not a model that they’re willing to continue to support at the levels that they have in the past.

“They want to know that their contribution is directly impacting things,” he went on. “So we looked at the areas that these donors were identifying as gaps, and we put that together with some intelligence work we did on our own, plus what other agencies were telling us, and we identified three huge gaps that we’re going to fill: food insecurity, continuation and expansion of the call-to-talk and Mass 211 lines, and youth-development programs.

“These are our core areas,” he explained. “The survey only reinforced what we already knew — that our niche is basic human needs and helping people improve their quality of life.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Mina said it will be a milestone year for the United Way, and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways.

But for many of the region’s residents, there won’t be much to celebrate. Indeed, while 2020 was the roughest year in memory for many, the coming months are projected to be in some ways even worse as those basic human needs he mentioned continue to mount, healthcare issues multiply because of the many effects of the pandemic, and resources become more scarce.

“There’s going to be a major shortfall in resources in the next year because COVID is having devastating effects on our economy as well as our health,” he said. “But we’ll figure out a way to deal with it; we’ll figure out a way to continue doing our job. We’ve faced tough times before — we’ve faced World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the ’60s … we’ve been there through all these things, and we’ll be there through this, too.”

Figuring out a way and doing its job. This is what the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been doing for a century now. And as its second century starts, this track record of success is certainly worth celebrating.

 

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

Special Coverage Women of Impact

With so many individuals doing so much throughout our community, we want to add an additional award this year. We’re accepting nominations for our Young Woman of Impact to be named the night of the event.

**Nominations MUST be submitted by January 14, 2021 at 5:30pm**

Nomination Eligibility:

  • Young women who are:
    • Creating a positive impact through their strong, inspiring, and motivation driven actions to problem solve in their community.
    • Addressing issues that impact more than just themselves.
    • Aspiring to be a Woman of Impact.
  • Female residents of, in school, or employed in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire county.
  • Submitting duplicate identical nominations for a nominee does not increase the chances of the nominee being selected.
  • Nominations must be submitted through the online nomination form ONLY.

Notification & Recognition:

  • BusinessWest will announce the winners at the 2020 Women of Impact virtual event on January 28, 2021.
 

Judging Process:

  • Nominations can be submitted from January 7, 2021 to January 14, 2021.
  • After nominations have been compiled, five nominees that embody strength, intelligence, and courage will be announced on social media (Facebook, Instagram, & Twitter) on January 19th.
  • From January 19th through the 26th, we ask our community to select on social media, through likes and impressions, which nominee most ignites inspiration and passion within!

Young Woman of Impact Nomination Form

  • Nominated by

  • Nominee Contact Information

  • Questions

    Please complete the questions below to finalize the nomination.
  • Drop files here or

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