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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 68: June 14, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce

BusinessWest editor George O’Brien talks with Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The two discuss the broad impact of the pandemic on a region heavily dependent on  college students and tourism, and how the same region is bracing for the ‘new normal’ and the many challenges and opportunities that will come will with it. It’s must listening,  so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Construction Special Coverage

Framing the Issue

Few industries have been immune to the supply shortages and rising costs that have plagued the world economy over the past few months, but construction is especially vulnerable, relying heavily on materials — most notably lumber and steel, but dozens more as well — riddled by soaring prices. The good news is that demand for work is high, but many still worry about the long-term implications of a cost problem with no end in sight.

 

By Mark Morris

Early in 2020, several lumber mills and steel plants expected demand for their products to take a nosedive once the pandemic hit, so they slowed down or closed some of their operating plants. Instead, after only a brief hiatus in March, home and commercial construction resumed — and then significantly increased.

For Bob Boilard, vice president of Boilard Lumber, the decreased supply of lumber and growing demand have created multiple challenges. Orders for lumber that once took a week for delivery now have vague timetables and constantly changing prices.

“Pricing right now is set at the time of shipment, so we don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost us until it’s on the back of a truck,” Boilard said.

Because lumber prices change so often, Boilard and dealers like him study the commodity market every day to make sure they stay current. At press time, an eight-foot 2-by-4, used primarily to frame houses and certain commercial buildings, had increased to $11, up from $4 several months ago, a price hike of 175%.

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says shortages are nothing new in construction, but so many types of materials being in short supply at one time is very uncommon.

Construction professionals have called this an unprecedented time. Price hikes and shortages of certain building materials are nothing new to the construction industry, but no one has seen inflation and scarcity of so many supplies that go into building a house or a business.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers who said we are currently in a perfect storm of greatly increased demand, COVID-related manufacturing slowdowns, and, literally, storms.

For instance, back in February, ice storms knocked out the power grid in Texas, shutting down several resin plants there and in neighboring Louisiana for several weeks. The resins from these plants are used in a broad range of building products, from adhesives to make plywood to the plastic that insulates electric cables. The resins are also used in many paints and primers.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products. In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

Dan Bradbury, director of Sales and Marketing for Associated Builders, said the commodity price he follows closely is cold rolled steel. Most of the structures his company builds are pre-engineered metal buildings for commercial and industrial use.

“Cold rolled steel prices have increased 225% since last August,” Bradbury said. Due to shortages in getting the steel, he tells customers the building they order today will be delivered in about 20 weeks. Before COVID-19, that same project would take 10 to 12 weeks.

Increases and shortages don’t end with commodities, but also affect other materials involved in construction. Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction, said an electrical contractor told him about the price instability of a heavy-duty cable used in commercial applications.

“His supplier would only hold the price for one day,” Sweitzer said. “Usually, our material prices are good for 15 days, so we’re not used to seeing this.”

What makes this time different is the broad array of materials impacted, said Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products,” he noted. “In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

As someone who builds medical and dental offices, Sweitzer uses steel studs in place of 2-by-4 wood studs for interior wall partitions. At one time, the two products were close in price. While prices for both have increased, a steel stud is now far less expensive than wood.

“While the price of a steel stud has increased about 30%, it’s well below the double and triple price hikes we’ve seen with wood,” he said, adding that he’s also experienced shortages in random materials such as joint compound to finish walls, acoustical insulation, and interior doors. “There’s a particular style of door we use that once took a week to get. Now it can take eight weeks, and the price has increased.”

 

Steady On

Despite shortages and price hikes, the construction managers we spoke with are all grateful to have plenty of work scheduled.

“I’m fortunate to be busy, and at the same time, it’s incredibly stressful to keep everyone happy and meet deadlines,” Riley said. “It’s a crazy time right now.”

To manage some of that craziness, he has invested in a new tool, a CRM (customer relationship management) system.

“Through our system, we can keep everyone on the same page, and it allows customers to check in on their project,” Riley said. “By staying in closer contact with our customers, they’ll know immediately about any issues that might slow down a project.”

Managing expectations becomes essential when prices and timelines are uncertain. When someone wants a fast turnaround on a project, Bradbury gives them straight talk. “We’re honest and upfront with our customers as to what’s realistic,” he said.

Some customers have chosen to delay their projects, anticipating that prices may come down. Bradbury said that may work for some, but when a company needs a building to grow their business, they can’t always wait it out.

“My advice is to build it sooner rather than later because we are more likely to see further price increases,” he said. “Also, with lead times so long, the sooner you get in the queue for your project, the better off you’ll be.”

Beyond materials, shortages have also extended to the human element. Riley said finding laborers for home building has always been challenging, and the increased demand for new homes only exacerbates an already-tough situation.

One of the thorniest challenges to solving supply shortages, Boilard noted, involves finding truckers to move the goods. “You can’t get drivers to get behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. There are lots of trucking jobs open right now, but few people to fill them.”

Construction workers were deemed essential during the pandemic, so their time off the job was brief. Bradbury said the short shutdown allowed his company to retain most of its workers. “Some of our subcontractors have felt labor shortages, but we are grateful that has not had a significant impact on our business.”

When COVID first hit, Sweitzer gave all his employees a raise to make sure they were compensated well enough to stay with his company. “We’ve been lucky because we have an extremely good and loyal crew. I’ve found that good labor is worth the investment.”

 

Looking Ahead

Predictions on when prices and supplies might stabilize is anyone’s guess. Boilard explained that his company determines its lumber-buying needs early in the year, which these days is a real challenge. If a dealer stocks up heavily now only to see prices eventually crash, they are stuck with expensive inventory in a market that no longer supports those higher prices.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

“It’s not a fun time because we have to do a balancing act of meeting our customers’ needs without having too much inventory on hand,” he said.

Riley has seen conflicting predictions about lumber prices dropping either at the end of 2021 or sometime in 2022. He’s seen lumber and electrical wire come down before, but he’s more concerned about other materials that go into building a house.

“In my years in business, when windows, siding, and roofing shingles increase in price, I’ve never seen them come back down,” he said. “I think increases like that are here to stay.”

Bradbury said he can’t predict what will happen in his industry, but he hopes to see the supply of steel catch up to demand by the end of this year. “My best guess is supply will get better and lead times will improve before we see prices start to stabilize.”

Sweitzer noted that he has a degree in management, while his two sons have degrees in economics and business administration, so they often discuss what may lie ahead. And their conversations have been optimistic.

“Markets always find some level of equilibrium, and I believe that will happen in this market,” he said. “Market equilibrium may take a temporary vacation, but it has always returned, and I think it will again.”

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures

 

John Hazen stands beside displays

John Hazen stands beside displays of just a fraction of the products created at his company using holographic technology.

Hazen Paper, a third-generation family business that’s approaching a century in operation in the Holyoke mill district, has never stood still, expanding its operation over the years into facets like foil laminating, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. But its emergence over the past 15 years as an internationally celebrated producer of holographic printed products may be its most profound shift. Its entry into this niche was a calculated risk, the company’s co-owner said, but one that gradually paid off in a striking way.

 

John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

The results? Well, the numerous awards that pour in every year testify to the company’s success. Like a 2021 Product Excellence Award from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL), for a holographic consumer package.

“To magnify visual effect on a very small carton,” the press release for the award reads, “Hazen micro-embossed specially coated polyester film with ‘Mercury,’ a unique overall holographic pattern, then metallized the film and laminated it to a solid bleached sulfate board before registered sheeting. The film lamination delivers mirror-like brightness and a liquid-flash effect of full-spectrum color, as well as durable performance for clean scoring and folding.”

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk. Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

Most of those words won’t register with the average consumer. But the effect of the packaging certainly does. “This package really stood out,” one judge said. “The embossed areas are like a hallmark and impart a feeling of luxury.”

It’s the latest in a string of AIMCAL awards for Hazen, which also earned the association’s Product of the Year honors in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The latest was for a transfer-metallized carton, featuring custom holography, created for Nordic Premium Beverages’ Arctic Blue Gin, a project made with Hazen Envirofoil, which uses less than 1% of the aluminum of traditional foil laminate — one way the company continues to stress sustainability, which is being increasingly demanded by clients.

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil, earned Product of the Year honors in 2020 from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL).

In fact, it’s understanding customer needs that led Hazen to step into the world of holography with two emphatic feet in the first place. “In many ways, it’s requests from the customers, information coming in from the market — trying to identify opportunity.”

For background, he explained that the holographic industry saw significant consolidation between 2000 and 2004. In the late ’90s, holographic manufacturers were mostly small mom-and-pop shops, but that changed when larger players started buying them out. One of the catalysts was … well, toothpaste.

“When Colgate came out with a line of holographic packaging on their toothpaste … in the world of holography, the world of consumer packaging, that was a major event,” Hazen said. “They gained market share against Crest, and that’s what it’s all about. If they can pick up 1%, it’s massive. Once Colgate truly validated the use of holography, things got pretty exciting.”

Another growth area was DVD packaging — in fact, Hazen would go on to create holographic images for the DVD boxes for numerous major films, including for the likes of Pixar and Marvel. But its entry into that niche came in 2004, when it created the DVD packaging for the TV show Quantum Leap, which involved a custom hologram.

By that time, however, some of the small holographers Hazen used in the ’90s had been bought up, so it turned to one of the big conglomerates, Illinois Tool Works, or ITW, which had bought up several of the small, boutique holographers.

“We had to work with ITW, but we didn’t feel like they were using their power very well,” Hazen recalled. “We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

So, seeing the expanding opportunities in front of him, Hazen started creating an in-house holographic division.

Around 2005, “one of the companies that got acquired got busted into pieces, and we were able to start reassembling the pieces of the broken puzzle,” he recalled. “We set up our holographic lab, bought the holoprinter technology, hired some castoffs from the consolidation era, and set up a holographic lab in the basement. Since then, we’ve been able to expand.”

 

Shining Examples

Holography isn’t particularly new in the corporate world, Hazen said, noting its use on the dove image on Visa cards.

“That’s a hologram. They’ve had that on the Visa card for 40 years. A lot of times, holography is used as a branding feature, but also as a security feature. It authenticates, makes it hard to counterfeit. It’s done with money as well. That’s security holography, and it tends to be small.

“The holography we do for decorative packaging and some branding is larger format,” he went on. “We’re producing holographic plates as big as 60 inches by 60 inches. It’s not security holography and tends to be lower-resolution. But it is very unique; it’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. And from a graphic point of view, it gives the graphic artist a mechanism for providing backlighting, for creating movement, for creating a 3D kind of effect.”

Hazen also uses a digital process — several different ones, actually, as opposed to Visa. “The Visa dove is analog — they created the model of a dove, set up lasers around a room, and got light to refract and bounce back.”

“We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

These days, Hazen Paper’s holography can be seen in hundreds of applications worldwide, from product packaging to the program covers for annual events like the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement (since 2013) and the Super Bowl (since 2004, although not in 2021, since there were questions early on about the game’s scheduling during COVID-19, and the design process has to start many months in advance).

Hazen showed off a copy of the 2020 hoops-hall enshrinement program, the class that includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It showcases 3D imagery of the Hall of Fame’s iconic dome and spire and its panoramic interior, juxtaposed with a collage of the year’s inductees in action. The back cover is a holographic treatment of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, where the enshrinement ceremony was held. Again, it used the sustainable Envirofoil process.

Hazen has created over the past two decades

Top: the holographic Kat Von D Metal Crush limited-edition powder highlighter carton won AIMCAL’s Product of the Year honors in 2018. Above: one of the many DVD packages Hazen has created over the past two decades.

Hazen has also added to its trophy shelf multiple times in the past year, including a Next Century Award from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which recognizes employers, individuals, and community organizers that have made unique contributions to the economy and residents of Massachusetts. The company employs 200 people and participates in an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

“We create opportunities for young people to learn about the industry in general and our operation in particular — and expand our future talent pool,” Hazen said when the award was announced.

And back in December, the International Hologram Manufacturers Assoc. (IHMA) named Hazen Paper’s 2020 holographic calendar Best Applied Decorative/Packaging Product at its Excellence in Holography Awards.

Featuring a fire-breathing dragon with three-dimensional scales, the oversized calendar utilized an array of innovative holographic techniques to create a decorative design the IHMA called “outstanding.” These holographic designs included gray-motion for the sky background, color-motion for the dragon, and two-channel color-motion lenses and fire-motion lenses to animate the flames.

And the company continues to innovate. For example, it announced back in August it had created an innovative, two-sided promotion to demonstrate cutting-edge holographic technologies. The Hazen team designed the artwork on both sides to showcase specific visual effects with nano-holography that delivers an even more dramatic three-dimensional effect.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the promotion is that it is two-sided custom holography, transfer-metallized on both sides. “It hasn’t been done before,” Hazen said last summer. “The ability to transfer-metallize a lightweight stock on two sides with custom holography opens up the potential for use in many applications where consumer impact is key. It’s very exciting.”

 

Changing Times

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation expanded the company numerous times over the next three decades, as Hazen Paper became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow the enterprise and expand its capabilities, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

In 2005, Hazen Paper set up its holographic origination lab and design studio in Holyoke, and has since developed thousands of unique holographic designs and holds several patents on the processes it has developed. Shortly after, the company launched a holographic embossing and metallizing operation a mile away on Main Street.

“They always say it’s dangerous to go outside your traditional business model, outside your wheelhouse,” John Hazen said of those early days in this new niche, and particularly that plant. “We came in way over budget, at least six months behind, but that plant came to life right at the end of 2008.”

That’s right — at the beginning of a crippling recession.

“When you think about what was going on in the world, the first half of 2009 was really a scary time,” he said. “Fortunately, the business came back in the summer of 2009, and everything started to fall into place.

“Everyone’s system for making holography is different — they’re similar, but they’re different — but the one thing we knew was our system worked,” he went on. “But we went through some rough years from 2010 to 2016. We definitely overextended ourselves to get into the holographic business, and part of that overextension was the impact of the 2009 recession.”

In 2006, Hazen set up its first satellite plant in Indiana, a lamination and sheeting operation that ultimately operated 24/7, with more than 50 full-time employees. In 2016, however, it sold the plant as a strategic move away from commodity-type foil laminations to increase focus on growth opportunities in holography and specialty paper products in Holyoke.

Broadly speaking, packaging remains the broadest category of holographic work nationally, with designs seen on everything from boxes of golf balls and toothpaste to liquor packages. But the sky is the limit, Hazen said, and new uses emerge all the time — justifying that initial investment more than 15 years ago.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” he told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.

 

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 67: Monday, June 7, 2021

George O’Brien talks with John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame

BusinessWest editor George O’Brien talks with John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame. The two discuss the state’s New Normal stage of reopening, new exhibits at the Hall, and how 2021 is shaping up as a strong, memorable  year for the shrine. It’s must listening, so tune in to 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 66: June 1, 2021

George Interviews Chris Howland, director of procurement, logistics, and special projects for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien continues his series of discussions with members of the magazine’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021. This week, his guest is Chris Howland, director of procurement, logistics, and special projects for Auxiliary Enterprises at UMass Amherst. The two discuss all that goes into his job, but mostly they talk about the award-winning UMass Dining program and all that goes into keeping it at the top of the heap among programs across the country. 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 Travel and Tourism

Fun in the Sun

Last year may not have been a total washout when it came to outdoor recreation and events, but many well-loved attractions and destinations had to dramatically scale back operations — if they opened at all. This year, with May 29 marking the end of most gathering restrictions in Massachusetts, there’s once again plenty to look forward to. You can read about some of them on the following pages: two local collegiate baseball teams back in action, the return of a beloved music and craft festival in Greenfield, and — as a shoutout to the governor — a baker’s dozen other options. There’s much, much more to look forward to, so get online and check out what else is happening near you, during a summer that promises to be a long-awaited breath of fresh air.

Berkshires Arts Festival

380 State Road, Great Barrington

www.berkshiresartsfestival.com

Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10

Aug. 13-15: Ski Butternut plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 20th year. When Gov. Charlie Baker announced the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions as of Aug. 1 (since revised to May 29), event organizers moved the dates of this year’s festival to mid-August. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 175 artists and designers from across the country, in both outdoor and air-conditioned indoor exhibition spaces. “With its relaxed atmosphere, great food, exceptional art, and fine crafts, puppet shows, and live music,” the Berkshires Visitors Bureau notes, “it’s a great weekend for the entire family.”

 

The Big E

1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield

www.easternstatesexposition.com

Admission: $8 and up; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40

Sept. 17 to Oct. 3: Yes, it’s happening. And as regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, with something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses and parades, the local vendors and crafters, or the live music. Musical highlights this year include Machine Gun Kelly in concert on Sept. 17, and Brad Paisley performing in the arena on Sept. 24, marking the 20th anniversary of the first time Paisley played the Big E.

 

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting

2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont

www.crabapplewhitewater.com

Admission: Varies by activity

All summer: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters. Starting May 29, the company will accept reservations for all group sizes. Meanwhile, waivers will be sent in advance to guests for e-signing to ensure a touch-free check-in process, hand-washing stations have been added at all building entrances, and transportation to and from the river will be offered in vans and buses.

 

Drive-in Concerts at the Wick

The Wick, Legion Road, Southwick

www.westfieldlivemusic.com/southwick

Admission: $25 to $45

June 11, July 9, Aug. TBA: The national touring and recording artists Beatlemania Again will headline a summer series of live drive-in concerts on to benefit the Southwick Civic Fund, which creates and produces events that provide a sense of community spirit, celebration, and civic pride. The concert will be held at the Southwick MotoX Track (the Wick) on Legion Road in Southwick on June 11 at 7:30 p.m., and will follow all current CDC and local health department guidelines. Each vehicle will have a space next to it for the occupants to set up lawn chairs or blankets to enjoy the show. A modest PA and lighting will provide a real concert feel. Upcoming concerts in the series include Foreigners Journey (July 9) and an August show to be announced.

 

FreshGrass Festival

1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

www.freshgrass.com

Admission: $50-$150 for three-day pass; free for children under 6

Sept. 24-26: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the FreshGrass festival is among the highlights, showcasing dozens of bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Dispatch, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Béla Fleck My Bluegrass Heart (featuring Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton), Watchouse, Sarah Jarosz, and many more. FreshGrass features bluegrass traditionalists and innovators on four stages and platforms throughout the museum’s 16-acre campus. Festival programming also includes FreshScores, a silent film with original live music; FreshGrass commissions and world premieres; instrument and industry workshops; pop-up performances and retail; and local Berkshire food and spirits vendors.

 

Fresh Paint Springfield

Downtown Springfield

www.freshpaintspringfield.com

Admission: Free

June 5-13: Fresh Paint Springfield, the mural festival that began in 2019 in downtown Springfield and transformed large exterior walls into art, will return with 10 new murals downtown and in Mason Square. This year’s festival will involve members of the community in the design and painting of all 10 murals, which will result in opportunities for more than 1,000 Springfield residents to actively participate in the beautification of the city. The murals will use a technique that employs giant paint-by-numbers canvases on special polytab mural fabric for members of the community to paint at COVID-safe outdoor paint parties during the festival. New this year, the Community Mural Apprentice program will pair 10 local artists with established muralists to learn how to independently engage with the community in designing and painting large, professional murals.

 

Historic Deerfield

84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA

www.historic-deerfield.org

Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6

All summer: This outdoor museum interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850 and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. Summer activities include educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period items and art. Due to COVID-19, access to the historic house museums is still restricted, but at least one historic house will open for touring each day, with wider access possible later on. Visitors should inquire on the day of their visit which house is open for touring that day.

 

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Road, Becket

www.jacobspillow.org

Admission: Prices vary

June 30 to Aug. 29: Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, and this year’s festival returns with live, in-person events, but much more as well. “We will share the restorative and uplifting power of dance in person at our campus in the Berkshire Hills, on the road in our communities, as well as through live and on-demand events online to reach audiences across the world,” its directors say. “Our offerings will include commissions, premieres, Pillow debuts, talks, and workshops that take into account COVID-compliant protocols to ensure the health and safety of our community. The festival will put artists back to work after the devastation of the pandemic and remind us all of the power of dance to positively impact communities.”

 

Mattoon Street Arts Festival

Mattoon Street, Springfield

www.mattoonfestival.org

Admission: Free

Sept. 11-12: Now in its 48th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination. Admission is free, as is parking at the TD Bank lot. Located just three blocks from I-91, this family-friendly event is ideal for holiday shopping, seeing new craft ideas, or just walking on a beautiful Victorian street.

Pedal ‘n’ Party

Brunelle’s Marina, 1 Alvord St., South Hadley

www.pedalnparty.com

Admission: $30 for 60 minutes, $15 for 30 minutes

All summer: Want to have some fun out on the water? Rent an individual hydrobike, which can be use to explore the Connecticut River and the streams that feed into it. This eco-friendly, pedal-powered vessel moves at a comfortable 4-6 mph with easy effort. From its stability to its high visibility on the water, the hydrobike is engineered for a safe, reliable ride. Its pontoons were scientifically developed by a professional canoe designer for optimum buoyancy, speed, and maneuverability, ensuring a smooth ride even in very choppy water. Stable enough to dive from, the hydrobike can also handle rough water conditions, including five-foot swells. Rent it for a beautiful day on the water, a workout, or a fun group activity.

 

Pioneer Valley Ballet

Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton

www.pioneervalleyballet.org

Admission: $20, $10 for children and seniors

June 4-5: It’s been a year and a half since Pioneer Valley Ballet (PVB) last performed for a live audience, but that will change in June as the company welcomes spring with an outdoor, site-specific performance of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and treasured works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After having to cancel all of its 2020 performances, PVB is once again taking to the stage — only this time the ‘stage’ is Easthampton’s Park Hill Orchard, where for two afternoons small groups will wind through the fields, discovering scenes from the Midsummer story at sites throughout the picturesque orchard. A new audience will enter every 30 minutes. The first performance of each day will be a non-roaming, single-location performance for anyone with mobility concerns.

 

Six Flags New England

1623 Main St., Agawam

www.sixflags.com/newengland

Admission: $29.99 and up; season passes $49.99

All summer: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Supergirl Skyflyer, a spinning, high-speed thrill ride. The main park is now open, and the Hurricane Harbor waterpark opens Memorial Day weekend. “We are beyond thrilled that we can reopen our theme park with a full complement of our more than 100 rides, attractions, and unique experiences,” park President Pete Carmichael said recently. “Now more than ever, families need an escape that is safe, accessible and fun.”

 

The Zoo in Forest Park

293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA

www.forestparkzoo.org

Admission: $5-$10; free for children under 1

Through Oct. 14: The Zoo in Forest Park, located inside Springfield’s Forest Park, is home to a wide variety of species found throughout the world and North America. Meanwhile, the zoo maintains a focus on conservation, wildlife education, and rehabilitations. The Zoo is open seven days a week, weather permitting, but all guests, including members, currently need a timed ticket to visit. Recently, state Sen. Eric Lesser and other local lawmakers announced $125,000 in pandemic recovery funding for the zoo to continue its mission of education, conservation, and rehabilitation.

 

 

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Getting Down to Business

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

The primary role of the Westmass Area Development Corp. — as the agency recently stressed in a letter to area stakeholders — is to “to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion.” How it performs that role is changing and expanding, however — not just in its portfolio of development and property reuse, including its industrial parks and the ever-intriguing Ludlow Mills project, but as a valuable consultant for businesses and communities with a vision.

The letters, 150 of them, went out earlier this month.

They were sent to mayors, economic-development leaders, and other officials in communities across the four counties of Western Mass., dozens of area cities and towns, and served as introductions, invitations, and reminders all at the same time.

Officials in those communities were and are being invited to take full advantage of the talent and resources available at Westmass Area Development Corp. — the not-for-profit economic and real-estate development firm established in 1960 by state-enabling legislation — to help with a wide range of projects, from urban-renewal plans to environmental permitting; from complex site-related issues to specialized tax incentives.

The reminder part? Well, Westmass has been offering this kind of assistance to area communities almost from the start, but under the leadership of Jeff Daley, who took the helm at the agency in the summer of 2019, consulting work has become a much larger part of the business plan for the agency, which is promoting such services more heavily — and in a number of ways.

Like with those those letters, which quickly get to the heart of the matter.

“Every community, no matter its size or complexity, requires an ongoing economic-development effort to ensure financial stability of that community,” it reads. “Ideally, through the public-private partnership process, commonly shared economic-development goals can be identified and ultimately achieved. The primary role of Westmass is to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion — and [be] engaged throughout all stages.”

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers. But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

There are already some good examples of how Westmass with worked with area communities to achieve stated goals, said Daly, citing assistance with managing grants that helped land the Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and some similar assistance with bringing the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center to reality.

The goal moving forward is to add to the portfolio and become more of a contributing force when it comes to economic development and property reuse in the region.

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers,” he explained. “But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

That background he mentioned includes his own private consulting firm, CJC Development Advisors, and a stint as director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, during which he worked on several projects in the city’s downtown. He is now part of a team that also includes Sara la Cour, vice president of Operations for Westmass, and Sean O’Donnell, Economic Development planner and leasing manager for the agency.

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, is expanding his operation at the Ludlow Mills, making the complex more of a destination.

Overall, this consulting arm is now one of three main prongs to the Westmass operation, with the others being industrial-park management — the agency oversees several parks, including facilities in Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Hadley, and Westfield, most of which are fully leased — and redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills site, a 15-to 20-year project that Daly believes can serve as a model for what other communities can do with old mill buildings and complex brownfield sites.

The mill now boasts 30 tenants, including a senior housing complex, a rehabilitation hospital, and a host of smaller businesses, including several recent arrivals. That list includes Kamil Peters, a contemporary metal sculptor who relocated to the mill from Holyoke (more on him later); Westnet Inc., a medical-supplies distributor, which moved in earlier this year; and Herron Automation, a machinist and CNC operator.

It also includes a tenant that isn’t new but is intriguing nonetheless. That would be Iron Duke Brewery, which almost left the mill in the protracted legal battle over whether lease conditions were violated, but wound up staying and is now in an expansion mode, with work on a new beer garden slated to begin later this year.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how Westmass intends to broaden its impact in the region by helping area cities and towns take complex projects off the drawing board and make them reality.

 

Not Run of the Mill

Returning to that letter sent out to area communities, it’s part of a larger effort on the part of those at Westmass to create more visibility for the agency, make its expertise and resources known to more municipal officials and developers, and, in general, tell its story. A move downtown, to offices in Monarch Place, is part of that initiative.

“We’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Other components, part of a new multi-year strategic plan being reviewed by the Westmass board, include a revamped, far more modern website and more extensive use of social media, said Daly, adding that many in the region believe Westmass is only in the business of developing industrial parks. That’s a big part of the mission, he noted, but it’s not the whole story.

And he wants to write more chapters in the broad realm of consulting, where, he believes, there is considerable room for growth. That’s because of the wide range of experience the agency can bring to the table, including assistance to both communities and developers in many realms.

These include everything from business-improvement districts (la Cour ran the Amherst BID for many years) to district-improvement financing, one of Daly’s areas of expertise.

“When I started my own private business, it was a shot in the dark because I saw what communities didn’t have and what developers were missing,” he explained. “And it proved to be very successful very quickly. I’m taking the same passion I had for that kind of work in my private practice and rolling it into Westmass’ purview to help area communities, because that’s what we’re here to do — develop properties, help communities, and create jobs.”

Daly said Westmass is targeting all communities west of Worcester when it comes to its consulting arm. And while smaller communities without economic-development staffs can certainly benefit from such services, larger municipalities can as well, and some already have.

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills that are giving the complex a different look and feel.

The full list of areas for which Westmass can assist developers and municipalities also includes strategic planning for integrated project permitting, project financing and incentives, public procurement and grant management, and site acquisition and redevelopment of historic buildings, greenfields, and brownfields.

That last category brings us back to Ludlow Mills, which encompasses all three of those types of property. It is certainly historic — the mills played a huge role in the growth and development of Ludlow, and there is a large mix of brownfields and greenfields being redeveloped.

And with its experience in redeveloping the mill complex, Westmass has established itself as a leader of sorts in this kind of large, very complex redevelopment.

“This is the biggest mill in the region, and it’s very time-consuming and capital-intensive,” he noted. “But we’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Often with such projects, environmental issues are a key consideration — and a major stumbling block, he went on, adding that this was certainly the case with Ludlow Mills. Over the past 11 years, Westmass has applied for and received several million dollars worth of grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state to clean the site and make it ready for redevelopment.

The latest EPA grant, totaling $461,000 (word of approval was just received), will enable Westmass to clean 10 buildings on the site with roofs loaded with asbestos, preparing them for eventual demolition and redevelopment of five to six acres of property.

“It was a competitive and comprehensive program that we applied for,” said Daly, “and we’re grateful to the EPA to get selected for exactly what we asked for.”

The property in question, just south of the Ludlow Senior Center, includes several of the stockhouses that populate the site. Some may remain standing, said Daly, but the ‘clean dirt’ that will result from demolition of those deemed unsavable will give Westmass a real opportunity to add to its eclectic mix of tenants in the mill complex.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years. My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

That tenant base has evolved over the years, said O’Donnell, and now includes a number of storage-related ventures, several light manufacturers, the brewery, a battery sales and servicing company, the senior housing complex, and even a wholesale florist.

Then, there’s Peters, who has transformed one of the high-ceilinged stockhouses into a new studio. On the day BusinessWest visited, he was working on a number of wooden benches (he does woodworking as well) for a new client that is transforming what was the late actor Christopher Reeves’ estate in the Berkshires into a mix of Airbnb and event space. He was also doing some work for Harold Grinspoon, one of BusinessWest’s recently honored Difference Makers, who is, in addition to being a successful business owner and philanthropist, a prolific sculptor.

Known for his metal masks, Peters said he found Ludlow Mills at the suggestion of a few friends and colleagues who thought the space would provide him space to work — and grow.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years,” he noted. “My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

The plan moving forward is to make the mill more of destination, which could attract many different kinds of businesses, said Daly, adding that, as noted, this is both a brownfields project — redevelopment of the old mill buildings — and greenfields, specifically 37 acres of undeveloped land which is drawing considerable interest and will certainly attract much more when a private road to that property, one of many priorities for Westmass at this site, is constructed.

Meanwhile, a $7 million project to construct a public road along the Chicopee River, which will create frontage for several properties, should also put the mill property on more radar screens.

Overall, the evolving mix of tenants is “changing the dynamic” at the mill complex, said Daly, adding that, with the beer garden and tenants like Peters, who has a goal to create an artists’ gallery in his space, the mill does become a destination.

“Businesses like this are bringing people here after work, on weekends … it’s not just a 7-to-3 manufacturing facility anymore,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s driving a different economy of scale with who comes here and the money they’re spending. It’s a neat concept that we’ve stumbled into, if you will.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s the kind of concept that Westmass would like to help other area communities stumble into.

With those letters that went out earlier this month, as well as other initiatives undertaken recently to improve its visibility, Westmass is not exactly broadening its mission, but rather putting more emphasis on what could be called another ‘growth area’ for the agency.

It’s all part of a larger strategic plan aimed at making an agency that has been a driving force in economic development in this region an even more powerful engine.

 

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

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Upscale but Simple

While interior-design trends in homes can be slow to change — and, in many ways, have been, as evidenced by the white and grey colors that still dominate — the way people are using their homes did change somewhat over the past year. That, and a growing desire among older homeowners to age in place, has influenced what people are looking for in kitchens and bathrooms — and they have no shortage of options to achieve their vision.

By Mark Morris

 

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

 

 

While homebuyers want to put their own stamp on a new house, Scott Keiter said, when it comes to kitchens, they tend to think alike.

In fact, the owner of Keiter Builders currently has six new homes under construction, and for every one, the owners want kitchens that provide plenty of light, an airy feeling, and enough room for people to gather.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space,” he said.

In many cases, the anchor to this space is the kitchen island. While islands have been popular for years as a way to provide more counter and cabinet space, during the pandemic, they saw increased use for food preparation as people ate more meals at home. The island also served as a desk for many who suddenly found themselves working from home. As a result, Keiter said, islands have become more multi-purpose, and the kitchen is now seen as a multi-use space.

“On top of the normal cooking and food prep, we’re seeing a movement to make the kitchen a more communal room. It’s becoming a place to work from home, as well as a place for guests and friends to congregate.”

While the kitchen is becoming more of a gathering place and its form and function are changing, Dave Lloyd, manager of Budget Cabinet, said every customer looking to remodel that space shares one objective: convenience.

“While new houses allow for bigger islands, we do a lot of remodeling projects where people are limited by the footprint of their house,” he said.

Whether incorporating an island or not, one trend that addresses convenience and improved function is what Lloyd called “drawers over doors.” Many cabinet designs offer wide and deep drawers to store bulky or heavy items. That way, instead of making someone reach overhead for heavy dishes in a cabinet, a waist-high drawer allows for easier access — which becomes more important as people age.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space.”

Aging in place also comes into play in bathroom design, said Lori Loughlin, manager at Frank Webb Home. These days, she noted, handheld shower heads are the choice of nearly every bathroom renovation. Also popular are shower fixtures that combine a handheld with a rainfall feature.

“We work with many people who want to age in place, so we stress that a handheld shower is more convenient to use and clean the shower stall,” she explained.

Converting old bathrooms to accommodate a lower-threshold shower for the aging or physically challenged isn’t new, she added, but the styles are changing. “There are things we can do to make a shower safe and functional without it looking institutional. For example, there will be a seat and grab bars, but they are done with more style, so the result looks more like a spa.”

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Aging in place also affects kitchen design, where islands are available in multiple levels, with a lower level constructed to accommodate seniors or people in a wheelchair.

Because everyone is more aware of touching surfaces, touchless bathroom faucets and a toilet that flushes by waving one’s hand over a sensor are available as well. While once considered gimmicky, sophisticated toilet seats that have a warmer built in, along with a bidet, are growing in interest. Loughlin noted that these more premium seats also contribute to aging-in-place considerations by allowing people who might otherwise need assistance to take care of themselves.

Such bathroom renovations might seem like an indulgence, Lloyd said, but the result is a space that provides easier access and convenience, again, allowing people to live in their homes longer.

During this boom time in home building and renovations, BusinessWest caught up with several professionals who shared what their customers are looking for in their kitchens and bathrooms — for both their present and future needs.

 

Form and Function

Lloyd noted that today’s kitchens emphasize designs that are high-functioning and less ornate, and tastes are trending toward cabinet designs with clean lines such as the Shaker look, as well as simpler cabinet hardware.

While the overall trends haven’t changed much over the years, he added, colors have seen some changes. “Translucent cabinet stains are becoming popular because it gives you some color, but you can still see the grain of the wood. Whites and grays — both light and dark — are still very popular color choices.”

Lloyd said his customers want interesting but not ornate designs in kitchen backsplashes, while upscale appliances remain very popular in kitchen remodels, with stainless steel a popular option and black stainless on the rise as a trend.

Black may become the new neutral, Loughlin said, noting that touchless and black faucets are currently big sellers in kitchens. “For the next couple of years, I think we will be seeing a trend of faucets with mixed metals, such as black and gold,” she noted, while faucets with a black finish are trending in the bathroom as well.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

While white farmhouse sinks remain popular, she said they are now available in black and other colors to better match darker shades of quartz and granite countertops. Speaking of which, quartz has passed granite as the most popular stone countertop material.

“People are spending more time in their kitchens, so they are getting what they want,” she explained. The styles that resonate most with her customers include the contemporary farmhouse look and industrial chic, where faucets and lighting have a stylish but industrial look to them.

Lighting also reflects black and gold color schemes, with open fixtures creating an airy look. Pendant lighting, which once featured small pendants suspended from the ceiling, have grown into larger pendants that fill more space and provide more light.

Kitchen floor upgrades were once limited to hardwoods or tile floors made of ceramic or porcelain. Eclipsing both of those choices, the current most popular trend in flooring is LVT, or luxury vinyl tile. Resembling wood planks, LVT floors click into place and are known in the industry as ‘floating’ floors, so named because they are not glued down. Jake Levine, manager of Advanced Rug and Flooring Center, said the waterproof properties of LVT make it a best seller in his store.

“Because LVT handles water so well, it is replacing other more expensive alternatives,” he said. “LVT is also 40% warmer to the touch than a tile floor, and it’s not prone to chipping, also an issue with tile floors.”

Installing a hardwood or tile floor takes real expertise, Levine explained, noting that LVT floors can be a do-it-yourself project because they allow more room for error.

“If you don’t like the direction of the planks, you can unclick them and reinstall,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone will get the same results as a professional, but a capable DIY-er can do it.”

For customers who prefer a tile look, LVT is available in 24-by-12-inch pieces featuring stone patterns that click in place similar to the planks. This style and its waterproof properties make it a good choice for a bathroom, but Levine said most people still prefer porcelain or ceramic tile.

“For many people, the word ‘vinyl’ suffers from an old stigma of linoleum floors that discolored and peeled,” he said. “The click floors are very good for bathrooms because they are designed for areas that get water.”

As Western Mass. is known for its many older homes, a bathroom renovation can often involve converting a spare bedroom into a larger, more modern bathroom, usually adjacent to the master bedroom. Lloyd said this is a popular renovation among empty-nest couples.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

“People who want to stay in their home are figuring out how to use the same square footage, but improve it,” he explained. “The idea of living space is changing, where people will give up a bedroom for a luxury bathroom with better lighting, better shower, and more storage in the cabinetry.”

While many bathroom renovations replace the tub with a more upscale shower, Loughlin said that decision is usually driven by personal preference.

“There are bath people, and there are shower people,” she noted. “People who like to take baths will spend whatever they want for a bathtub, while those who only want a shower won’t even install a bathtub in their master bathroom.”

 

As Seen on TV

For those considering upgrading a kitchen or bathroom, popular media such as the HGTV cable network and social-media sites Pintrest, Instagram, and others offer endless examples of what’s new in design and accessories.

“Every customer who comes in has at least one Pinterest photo on their phone, or they reference something they saw on HGTV,” Lloyd said, adding that houzz.com is another influencer.

Meanwhile, Levine credits HGTV shows with increasing the awareness of LVT flooring. “The vinyl plank is now common knowledge thanks to them.”

Loughlin said the Frank Webb showroom carries several kitchen sink styles that appear on HGTV because customers often have a vision that is influenced by the network. While helpful most of the time, however, these shows can also contribute to outlandish and unrealistic expectations.

“Some people think they can redo their house in 30 minutes; it just doesn’t work that way,” she said. “It’s not unusual for the timeframe to surprise people, especially now, when hiring a contractors is more difficult because they are all so busy.”

While new trends emerge in kitchens and bathrooms, older ones are meeting their demise. In new homes, Keiter noted, people still want bathrooms that are upscale and functional, but use less space.

“Real estate is so expensive now, some people are reassessing where they want to spend their money,” he said. “Instead of a 250 square-foot bathroom with a whirlpool tub, they are opting to lose the whirlpool and reduce the overall size of the bathroom.”

Instead, he said, customers are spending their money in the kitchen or a sunroom, where they spend far more of their time.

In the spirit of simplicity and a clean look, Lloyd said the recent trend of glass cabinet doors is on its way out because “people like to put things away and not have to keep looking at them.”

He also noted that counter space for wine bars is starting to give way to dedicated cabinetry to house an emerging trend: coffee bars. “Wine was big for a while, but coffee has become bigger of late.”

Though tastes may differ, kitchen and bath professionals all agree that customers these days have plenty of options.

“Manufacturers are expanding their product lines to accommodate many different tastes and needs,” said Loughlin, giving people the opportunity to follow their vision or create their own style.

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 65: May 24, 2021

George Interviews Joel McAuliffe, deputy chief of staff for state Sen. Eric Lesser and a city councilor in Chicopee

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien continues his series of discussions with members of the magazine’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021. This week, his guest is Joel McAuliffe, deputy chief of staff for state Sen. Eric Lesser and a city councilor in Chicopee. The two discuss everything from his work to bring high-speed Internet access to his constituents in Chicopee, to the need for — and prospects for — high-speed rail in state, one of the priorities identified by Sen. Lesser.  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 64: May 17, 2021

George Interviews Julissa Colon, special programs coordinator for the Gateway to College program at Holyoke Community College

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien continues his series of discussions with members of the magazine’s 40 Under Forty class of 2021. This week, his guest is Julissa Colon, special programs coordinator for the Gateway to College program at Holyoke Community College. The two discuss the many ways this program helps those who have left traditional education set and reach new goals — for their education … and their lives.  It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

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Features Special Coverage

Generating Results

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle at the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam.

Holyoke Gas & Electric was recently recognized among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system. That designation, from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, underscores a green-energy mindset at the municipal utility that is not only earth-friendly, but a powerful force when it comes to economic development in the Paper City.

Jim Lavelle acknowledged that Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) has some decided advantages when it comes to clean energy and reducing its carbon footprint.

Take, for example, the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam on the Connecticut River, capable of generating 33 megawatts of electricity, as well as some smaller hydro units located throughout the Holyoke canal system that produce another 15 megawatts — clean-power generation that is beyond the means of many utilities, especially municipal operations.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard,” said Lavelle, general manager of HG&E. “It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

But HG&E’s commitment to a carbon-free energy system goes well beyond the hydroelectric facility. Indeed, it also includes early adoption of utility-grade solar power (20 megawatts in all), punctuated by the Mount Tom Solar & Energy Storage System. That facility, built near the site of a former fossil-fuel plant, is a large, utility-scale battery and the second such system to be installed in the state, drawing power directly from the solar farm, the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard. It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

That commitment also includes a diverse power-supply portfolio that includes hydro, solar, nuclear, and wind, as well as efficiency and conservation programs and development of emerging clean-energy technologies, all of which have the utility well-positioned to meet the state’s net-zero target by 2050 (established in the recent clean-energy bill), as well as incremental benchmarks for 2030 (50% below 1990’s emissions levels) and 2040 (75% below).

But long before these mandates and net-zero targets were put in place, HG&E was taking full advantage of its assets, especially those in the clean-energy category, and promoting what it called “cost-competitive clean energy.”

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is located in Holyoke, in large part, because of the low-cost, green energy available there.

This track record, coupled with many recent initiatives, has earned HG&E recognition among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and a spot on the 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard. There, it joins just nine other utilities, all of them much larger, including Southern California Edison, Green Mountain Power in Vermont, and Consolidated Edison of New York.

While Lavelle is clearly proud of the award, what it means, and what it says about his utility, he is focused as much on what it — and all of the utility’s efforts toward clean, modern energy — mean for Holyoke. Indeed, the municipal utility and its lower-cost energy have always been selling points and economic-development engines, he said, but they become even more so as the energy becomes cleaner and greener.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort. Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

This was in evidence with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is based in Holyoke, in large part, because of the availability of vast amounts of clean, lower-cost energy, said Lavelle, adding that these factors also played sizable roles in bringing two huge cannabis-production facilities to the city, with more on the way. And as companies of all kinds look to reduce their carbon footprints, embrace clean energy, and perhaps escape the high lease rates of major urban areas, HG&E and its drive to a carbon-free energy system could bring more businesses to the Paper City.

But while the utility has made great progress in the broad realm of clean energy, it acknowledges there will be stern challenges as it continues down this road.

“With this climate bill … if everyone’s going to convert their gas and oil and propane — their inefficient systems — to cleaner electric systems, that’s going to put a huge demand on our electric capacity,” Lavelle said. “So what we’re forecasting is that we could potentially see a tripling of our electric kilowatt-hour sales by 2050, depending on how we navigate from here to there.

“And even today, we’re seeing that, in certain neighborhoods, all it takes is one resident to put in an electric vehicle, and it taxes the transformer that’s serving that neighborhood,” he went on, adding that upgrading these transformers, built for a different time, will be just one of the many tests awaiting a utility that is committed to being ready for whatever the future brings. And that’s another reason why it’s one of just 10 utilities on SEPA’s short list.

The Mount Tom Solar facility

The Mount Tom Solar facility is the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke G&E’s ongoing efforts — and true leadership — with regard to clean-energy transformation, what it means for a city looking to make history of a different kind, and what the road to hitting the state’s benchmarks might look like.

 

Scaling Up

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the Hadley Falls Dam facility, which has been powering businesses for more than 150 years, Lavelle talked at length about what else goes on there.

Indeed, this is the site of the Robert E. Barrett Fishway, and the fishlift there helps migrating fish over the dam. In a normal spring, the facility would be visited by dozens of school classes on field trips — and other visitors — who can watch American shad, sea lamprey, sturgeon, and (hopefully) a few Atlantic salmon make their way through the lift and over the dam to resume their journey north. This is not a normal spring, however, and the fishway is closed due to COVID-19.

The work of ferrying fish over the dam continues, however, as does the work of producing electricity at the twin turbines, production that, as noted, is just one of the reasons HG&E finds itself among those utilities identified by SEPA as taking the lead in transforming to a carbon-free energy system.

As it went about completing its report on the state of clean-energy transformation and identifying utilities now on its leaderboard, SEPA listed what it calls the “four dimensions of utility transformation” — clean-energy resources, corporate leadership, modern grid enablement, and allied actions and engagement.

As he talked about his utilities efforts, Lavelle touched on all these elements, starting with those clean-energy resources.

HG&E now has many of them, he said, listing the dam, the Mount Tom Solar and Energy Storage System, and others, which, together, create a diverse, increasingly clean power-supply portfolio.

Beyond this portfolio is a mindset to embrace clean energy, efficiency, conservation, and planning for tomorrow, a mindset that has existed for many years now, long before the state started setting net-zero goals.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort,” Lavelle noted. “Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

The latest example of this passion and creativity is the Mount Tom Energy Storage System. Operated by ENGIE Storage (formerly Green Charge Networks), it is designed to keep electric rates stable by reducing rising demand-based charges for HG&E and its customers by storing energy needed to reduce peak loads — in a clean, environmentally friendly manner.

“Two of the highest-cost elements in our energy ledger are capacity and transmission costs,” said Jonathon Zwirko, HG&E’s project engineer and Energy Resources coordinator. “By timing things properly and discharging the batteries at the right time, we’re able to save on both capacity and transmission costs.”

Through the use of this battery system, which can store 6 megawatt hours of energy at a rate of up to 3 megawatts per hour, the utility can save 2% to 2.5% on its total energy costs annually, a number that will go higher when a second, larger battery facility, this one on Water Street, goes online later this month.

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system, the second such system to be installed in the state.

The solar facility and energy-storage facility are just a few components of a diverse clean-power portfolio that, as noted, also includes hydro, wind, and nuclear, a portfolio that gives the utility flexibility and the ability to offer competitive rates, Lavelle said.

As noted, this powerful combination has helped bring some businesses to Holyoke that might not otherwise have considered that zip code.

That’s especially true of the cannabis businesses, including large manufacturers, that have, well, put down roots in the city. They’ve been drawn by the hundreds of thousands of square feet of available mill space, said Zwirko, but even more important to them is the large amounts of green, comparatively cheap electricity needed for all elements of the operations, but especially the lights that enable plants to grow.

Green Thumb Industries is currently operating a plant on Appleton Street that consumes roughly 1.5 megawatts of electricity, said Zwirko, noting that Trulieve, which recently moved into the old Conklin Furniture complex just a few hundred yards from the Hadley Falls Dam, will, when operating at peak capacity, consume 4 megawatts. By contrast, Holyoke Medical Center and Holyoke Community College each consume roughly a half-megawatt.

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge. Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

So these are huge users of electricity, he went on, adding quickly that HG&E can handle several more of these facilities.

“There are about 10 others that have received licenses and are in the process of construction,” he said, “and we probably have another handful that are knocking on our door, with that 5-megawatt request — each — which we’re prepared to handle.”

Lavelle agreed.

“Part of our strategy with our local grid has been anticipating this growth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, starting with the computing center, which consumes roughly 4 megawatts, the city has anticipated that it’s blend of clean, inexpensive power would attract more large-scale users. “We weren’t anticipating the cannabis industry at that time, but were targeting and anticipating data-related loads.

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam is just one of HG&E’s many assets when it comes to green energy.

“We’d like to see more people, more jobs, tied to these developments, and while we haven’t seen that on the data side, we’re seeing it on the cannabis side,” he went on, adding that, with improvements made to the system, the city and its utility can accommodate another 15 or 20 megawatts worth of cannabis-related businesses.

 

Watt’s Happening?

While the utility is well-positioned to handle the needs of the present — and the addition of several more cannabis-related businesses — the future, as noted, is dotted with question marks, especially when it comes to what’s becoming known as ‘electrification’ — of cars and many other things

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge,” Lavelle said. “Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of our load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

In the face of these seemingly inevitable surges in demand, utilities, including HG&E, will have to put an even greater emphasis on energy efficiency, conservation, and education to stem the tide, he went on.

“We’re going to have to do those things so we don’t see a tripling of load,” he said. “Can we mitigate, or offset, that growth through energy efficiency and energy conservation and educate people on how to use less energy? We’ll have to. We’ll need to educate people about how to charge their electric vehicles at the right time — at night, right now — at off-peak times.”

Elaborating, he said there will likely be more of what he called “behavioral incentives” that are already being used to change attitudes about clean energy and reduce surges in demand.

Summing up HG&E’s efforts toward transforming its energy system, Lavelle channeled Kermit the Frog by implying strongly that it’s not easy being green. In fact, it’s quite challenging.

But it’s necessary, and for many reasons. The state is demanding it, and, increasingly, customers, both residential and commercial, are demanding it as well.

Well before these demands became loud in nature, HG&E was committed to exploring and implementing strategies to make its power portfolio cleaner and more earth-friendly, knowing they would pay off, not with awards and accolades (although those have come, too) but in cost reductions and opportunities for the city to grow and attract new businesses.

These investments are certainly starting to pay off, and as they do so, HG&E is making a powerful statement, literally and figuratively.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

As essential businesses that couldn’t shut down operations during the pandemic, banks and credit unions met some daunting challenges over the past year — both logistical and in meeting the needs of customers, many of whom were navigating difficult financial times. While things are starting getting back to normal now, the definition of ‘normal’ has shifted — and area banking leaders say they’ve learned some lessons they will certainly bring into the future.

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank’s call-center activity tripled over the past 14 months.

By Mark Morris

Winston Churchill gets credit for first remarking, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

For bankers in Western Mass., the COVID-19 crisis was in many ways a chance to learn what works best for their customers and their workers.

While branch offices for most banks have reopened, they were ordered closed to the general public at the beginning of the pandemic, opening to customers only by appointment. As a result, many customers relied on online banking to handle routine transactions.

For those who needed to open an account, it was no longer necessary to visit a branch, as the entire process can be done online, said Aleda De Maria, senior vice president, Retail and Operations for PeoplesBank, who noted that new account applications doubled in the past year, and the use of mobile deposits is up nearly 40%.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them,” she added. “We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

Because customers had plenty of questions amid the uncertainty of the past 14 months, De Maria reported a significant increase in activity on the bank’s phone lines. “Our call center tripled the volume of activity we would normally see. Now we’re back to what I would call a busy, but more normal level.”

As cars lined up at drive-up windows during business hours, many banks increased their use of video tellers to extend the hours tellers can be available. A video teller looks and functions like a standard ATM, but the customer can also reach a live professional when they have a more complex transaction.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them. We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

“It’s as if you are standing in front of a teller,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “We had six of these in place before COVID, and they really worked well for us during that time when we could not allow people to come into the branches.” The bank has since added six more of its Teller Connect video tellers.

De Maria said video tellers made it possible to expand beyond normal business hours to even include Sundays.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says credit-union CEOs have been discussing the future of hybrid work arrangements, since employees will expect that flexibility.

“We can now offer banking services seven days a week without us having to keep our banking centers open seven days a week,” she noted, adding that the pandemic made one point crystal clear: customers want options, now more than ever. “Customers want the flexibility to either interact with someone or not to interact.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with several executives from local banks and credit unions about how they have weathered the past year, what lies ahead, and what they — and their customers — have learned.

 

From a Distance

In addition to new ways of serving customers, banks were challenged to become more flexible with their employees, many of whom were forced to work from home.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, recalled that, at the height of the pandemic, 30 employees worked exclusively from home while another 30 split their time between home and the office. Now, 47 employees are taking a hybrid approach of splitting their work time between the office and home.

“Going forward, employees are going to expect to have an option for some kind of hybrid between working at home and the office,” Welch said, adding that an online forum of credit-union CEOs recently discussed how a hybrid approach might work. “The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

“The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said 176 of his employees work from home right now, and he has no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office.

“In fact, we are so confident in the success of the work-from-home model that we are consolidating one of our branches with a nearby operations center,” Bissell said. While Greylock has no plans to permanently close branches, it is looking into shared-space arrangements to increase efficiency and save on future real-estate investments.

All the bankers agreed that, when possible, they prefer personal interactions with their employees and customers. When that’s not possible, they are grateful for advances in technology that have made it easier to work from home. Sometimes it results in seeing certain jobs in a different light.

John Howland

John Howland says some positions, such as those in loan processing, are more suited for a remote setup than others.

“I never thought I’d say this, but there are some situations where the business and the task is better suited to work remotely,” Howland said, citing certain loan-processing positions as one example. “Because all the documents are electronic, it’s easy to measure a person’s productivity without looking over their shoulder.”

Bissell admits this past year has helped him understand how the pandemic affects employees in different ways.

“Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder,” he said. “We must pay close attention to employee needs and build in opportunities to meet them where they are.”

Whether employees worked in the office or from home, they all stayed busy with mortgage applications for people buying new homes and for those looking to refinance at historically low interest rates.

“Our mortgage business was up nearly 65% last year,” Welch said. “As fewer houses are available for sale, we’re making up some of that slack in the refinancing area.”

He predicts slower growth could loom on the horizon, however. “There are only so many people who can refinance, and when you have less housing inventory to sell, it suggests a slowdown in the mortgage business may be coming.”

While the mortgage market is still active, Bissell pointed out there is a greater demand than housing supply, so Greylock is trying to help increase the supply. “We are partnering with local leaders to look at ways to stimulate development of more housing across the pricing spectrum,” he said, with the goal of a healthy housing market that is accessible to all members of the community.

On the flip side of new mortgages, job losses during the pandemic made staying current on mortgage payments a burden for many.

“We anticipated that people would have trouble when COVID hit,” Howland said, “so we allowed people to defer their mortgage payments without having to substantiate they had a need.”

 

By All Accounts

The pandemic — and the economic shutdown it ushered in — challenged business-banking clients as well, and for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Greenfield Savings Bank created a task force of 43 employees to help local businesses process their loan applications. Employees often made calls on the weekend to clarify any point that might slow down the process. Several applicants received calls from Howland himself.

“It was amazing that no one complained for calling them at 8 p.m. on a Saturday,” he said. “They were all just happy we were working on their behalf.”

In the first round of PPP, Greenfield Savings processed 720 loans totaling around $60 million, and followed up with nearly the same amount in the second round. Meanwhile, the business-banking team at Greylock secured $30 million in PPP loans, which Bissell said helped save nearly 4,000 jobs in the Pittsfield area.

As everyone tries to figure out what lies ahead, bankers remain optimistic. Like every institution, Freedom Credit Union saw a surge in deposits after $1,400 pandemic-relief checks began landing in accounts, Welch noted. “People have only spent about 25% of their government checks, so there’s lot of pent-up demand out there.”

While banks had been increasing their use of technology anyway, industry data suggests COVID accelerated that shift by at least five years. Based on that trend, Welch sees bankers moving toward more of a consulting role.

“I think, eventually, people will visit a bank or credit-union branch when they need financial advice such as buying a home or a car,” he said. “Increasingly, they will handle their routine transactions online.”

Video teller machines are another example of the increased use of technology for everyday transactions.

“I think the pandemic made customers more willing to try new technology that we hadn’t offered before,” De Maria said. “We’ve seen some real success in their adoption of tools like our video banker.”

Still, while bankers are pleased with how well customers have adjusted to making technology part of their banking routine, they all look forward to the time when in-person banking becomes normal once again.

“When you get down to the basics, we provide relationship-based financial services,” Bissell said. “It’s really about personal relationships.”

In addition to engaging customers again, Howland said the camaraderie and collegiality of the staff being together is also essential.

“I’m a big believer in the small talk around the water bubbler,” he said, adding that the pandemic robbed people of those everyday social interactions that were taken for granted in the past.

“We are looking forward to a routine where we see our customers on a regular basis and we can have that friendly conversation once again,” he went on. “Everyone in our company is looking forward to that happening.”

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

Will Colón, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb all took different paths to a career in animation, but when the opportunity arose to launch their own company, they were certainly of one mind. That’s because they’re believers not only in the potential of animation in the business and nonprofit worlds, but that it’s still an underused tool, with plenty of room to grow. Four years after its inception, Open Pixel Studios is proving their conviction to be true.

Remote work might be all the rage right now, but it’s nothing new to the three partners at Open Pixel Studios.

“The future of work is working remotely, having the systems to do that, working with multiple people across different disciplines across the same project — all in a remote environment,” said Will Colón, co-owner of the animation studio he, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb opened in 2017. These days, they work with freelancers across the U.S. to create content for business and nonprofit clients.

“We were doing the remote thing for quite a while before the pandemic hit,” Colón added. “The pandemic really raised the stakes on whether we were doing this correctly — it put us to the test a little bit. But there was almost no shift; our business did not waver at all.”

In some ways, COVID-19 actually provided more opportunity.

“What ended up happening was more people asked us for more work,” he went on. “Normally, a production requires filming and video and people in a studio or on a production set. Those roles diminished overnight, and everyone said, ‘what else can we do? Instead of having people on a screen, or talking heads, let’s do animation instead.’ It was a really big boost to our company.”

And it’s not all remote, even during the pandemic, Taccone was quick to note. “We pride ourselves on being able to communicate with clients in a way that’s comfortable for them. Sometimes clients prefer to be in person, and sometimes it’s totally fine sending e-mails. We try to match how the project is managed, and the way we communicate, to their personalities, so everyone is comfortable.”

Using animation for marketing and messaging is nothing new, Colón said, citing the well-known example of Walt Disney producing animated shorts for every branch of the U.S. military during World War II, putting beloved characters to work rallying support for the war effort.

“I don’t think the things we’re doing are much different than Walt Disney creating content during World War II. Those were ‘explainer videos,’ talking through the points the military wanted to talk about. So this isn’t new technology. What’s new is the application.”

Meaning, while animation has been a mainstay during the internet age — as part of websites, mobile games, and in movies and television — it remains underused by businesses. Colón, Taccone, and Webb are hoping to change that.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

“A lot of businesses haven’t realized they can do amazing things,” Colón said. “Our job as a studio is to introduce businesses to animation for the first time.”

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

“We have 20 freelancers across the country, and I’ve met only a few in person,” he noted. “We’ve always been remote, always done Zoom calls, always done projects managed through cloud-based solutions. It’s been a breeze, and that’s a testament to our process. We were one of the first ‘pandemic industries’ pre-pandemic. We were ready for it.”

Now, they’re ready to move the needle even further when it comes to the power of animation in the business world.

 

Crossing Paths

Colón’s journey to the world of animation began at Hampshire College, where, during his first year in 2009, he tried to get into an advanced computer animation class, but was rejected by the instructor, Chris Perry, because he had no experience.

But after Colón excelled at an introductory course in the field, Perry — a Pixar veteran who served as a technical director on A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo — accepted him into the advanced course.

“As I moved from the basics to more advanced stuff, I didn’t know how much I would love it, that I’d lose myself in the work, forget about time, and really enjoy the process more than the results,” Colón recalled. “I knew this was something I could go into.”

After college, he returned to the Boston area and worked at special-effects company Zero VFX, but desired a move back into animation, and landed a job at Anzovin Studio in Florence in 2013.

Characters created for a piece on Behavioral Health Network’s Crisis Healthline.

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

Webb, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually moved to Western Mass. to work at Perry’s independent studio, Bit Films — and later started working at Anzovin Studio, where she met Colón.

Their company took shape after Anzovin decided to shift his business model into animation tools, while the production team, where Colón and Webb worked, was spun off into a separate entity. The pair then decided to go in a different direction, by launching their own studio.

Taccone’s passion for animation was sparked by a high-school trip to Pixar Animation Studios in California. She later studied animation at UMass Amherst and met Colón while taking class at Hampshire, where he was the teaching assistant. After a stint at HitPoint Studios, she worked at Anzovin from 2014 to 2016, then moved to California to work in the games industry, for EA and Toys for Bob. But in 2017, she returned to Western Mass. to help Colón and Webb launch Open Pixel.

“We decided to go into a different realm, building something new that was going to be ours,” Colón said. “Kathryn came back from California, and that was the beginning of our journey.”

Speaking of journeys, hearing Taccone describe the process of moving a concept to a finished product, it’s striking how much work happens before the actual animation begins.

“A client will come to us with an idea of the message they’re trying to send; typically they’ll have a call to action associated with that message,” she explained. “We take this from the initial script phase — whether we write it ourselves or the client provides it — and bring it into an audio-visual script, which allows us all to be on the same page with what will happen with the story.”

This all happens before visuals are actually created, she added. In other words, clear communication is key — not just with the target audience, but between all the players in creating the animation, and at every stage.

“We make a choice at the concept stage whether or not something should be represented through iconography, text, characters, or just backgrounds,” she added, noting that just using animated words can often be as powerful as talking characters. “Often we’ll use a blend of those things.”

Once the concepts are established, next comes discussion of style, tone, and other elements. Then storyboards are created, laying out the content from start to finish — again, so everyone involved can envision the final piece and make changes before the actual animation begins.

“When we do the animation,” Taccone said, “we hire voice-over artists, we do music and sound effects — again, depending on the client’s needs, but all serving the purpose of matching the tone and style and direction to the story we’re trying to tell.”

While many corporate clients rely on Open Pixel’s work in their employee training videos and modules as well as marketing, a particularly feel-good part of the team’s mission is working with nonprofits on messaging that will draw more attention and support. Nonprofit leaders aren’t always natural salespeople, Colón noted, and he and his team can help them hone their message and educate the public.

“They’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s their mission,” he said. “We’re helping them close the gap between the audience and their mission. We use animation to explain what they’re doing.”

In the end, Taccone said, even the most eye-catching animation isn’t a success if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs. “In a way, the communication is sometimes more important than the art. We’re trying to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

 

Mission Accomplished

For Colón, such work is especially gratifying considering that, early in his career, he never thought about running a business. But his former employer, Raf Anzovin, encouraged that growth — and, in fact, encouraged him and Webb to branch out on their own.

“I feel like the people I met along the way influenced me in continuing this work. If those people weren’t there, we wouldn’t be around,” Colón said.

Achieving the studio’s goals in Western Mass. — a region that has been steadily growing its reputation for innovation and technology — is especially satisfying, he said. Clients run the gamut from large corporations to small outfits, and the remote nature of the work allows Open Pixel to take on projects from Boston to the West Coast.

He’s also particularly proud that the company is certified as a majority women-owned business. Noting that the history of animation has not always been a friendly one for women, he hopes Open Pixel inspires other women to pursue this field.

Through it all, he, Taccone, and Webb hope to continue to expand the work they do, but also become a destination to start a career.

“In the future, we want to be a jumping-off point for folks getting out of college,” he said, noting that it’s natural for talented graduates to depart the Five Colleges and look for jobs in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. To encourage them to start their careers closer to home, Open Pixel has developed a pipeline of interns from Amherst College and Hampshire College. “Not only can you learn the tools here, this can be an entry point into the field.”

As for those tools, they’re much more affordable and accessible than they once were,” Colón said. “You can get a license and run a studio from your home office. But what makes us special is our process and our back end, our ability to push animation further than where it currently is right now.

“So much of it is in entertainment — games and movies,” he went on, “but we’re seeing a shift toward companies creating advertising campaigns utilizing animation because it’s so limitless. You can create anything you like. That’s what we see — unlimited creative expression.”

And always in the service of the client, Taccone added.

“We pride ourselves on being a studio that takes time to understand the balance between the client’s needs and our artistic identity. That way, we all enjoy the process as we go through it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

Hot Table, now a chain of panini restaurants, started humbly in 2007 with a small location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield. The brand has come a long way since then, and in many different ways. There are now seven locations, with plans for four more to open this year or early next, including the first free-standing facility. After that … well, the partners talk of having perhaps 50 stores by the end of this decade. What they do know is that growth will be controlled — and strategic in nature.

John DeVoie gestured toward an array of architect’s renderings of Hot Table’s first free-standing facility, complete with a mobile pickup window, planned for Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and said, “that’s our future.”

He then corrected himself and said, “well … that’s a big part of our future.”

Indeed, the future takes a number of shapes and directions for this growing chain of panini restaurants. Indeed, while construction is due to start on that Chicopee location later this year or early in 2022, work will begin before that on new locations within shopping malls in Framingham and West Hartford, with an additional location planned for a development, blueprinted by Pride Stations owner Bob Bolduc, to reshape the land inside the jug handle off turnpike exit 3 in Westfield with Hot Table and Starbucks.

Overall, this chain, which started with one small restaurant in the Breckwood Shoppes across Wilbraham Road from Western New England University and now has seven locations, has aggressive plans to add four more restaurants by the end of this year and reach perhaps 50 by the end of this decade.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England,” said John, who launched the chain with his brother, Chris, and another partner in 2007. “And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

This brand is striving for a mix of free-standing facilities like the one in Chicopee and more locations leased in retail centers, and, overall, a “balanced portfolio,” said Chris, adding that the goal is measured growth.

“We’re very excited to grow, but we want to grow the right way,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t want to add overhead and layers of management just to support a few more stores; we want to be very strategic about how and where we expand.”

Overall, with four new stores on the drawing board, 2021 is certainly shaping up as a milestone year in the company’s history, one that will take it to new markets and in new directions. This growth and territorial expansion come at a time when many restaurants have been fighting to merely survive the COVID-19 — and some haven’t. Hot Table itself was hit hard initially.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue,” John recalled. “We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

But within the fast-casual category within this sector, many chains bounced back quickly and have enjoyed success since, said John, adding that many have benefited from the takeout nature of most business and also from an added delivery component.

Hot Table invested in an app that enables consumers to order from the menu and arrange delivery through Grubhub or another provider, said John, adding that the technology served to introduce the brand to new audiences.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location, slated for a parcel on Memorial Drive in Chicopee.

“That was a silver lining for us,” he explained. “We had a lot of folks discover us who might have just been at home ordering from a third-party platform, who had never been in one of our stores.”

And this is just one of the ways the pandemic has actually benefited Hot Table, he went on, adding that it has made real estate both more available and more affordable.

So much so that the company, which has long considered Boston far out of its reach when it comes to real-estate prices, is being encouraged to take a good look at the Hub.

Whether this chain can actually attain a Boston address for one its locations is one of the many questions that will be answered over the next several years. For now, the company is focused on 2021, and all that it has on its plate — literally as well as figuratively.

For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with the brothers DeVoie and third partner Rich Calcasola, based in Charlotte, N.C., to get a sense for where this brand can go next and how big the portfolio can become.

 

Ingredients for Success

As he referenced those architectural renderings of the Chicopee site, John DeVoie pointed to what could become the ‘golden arches’ for this chain. That would be the tall red signage, or marquee, with what has become the company’s brand — a stylized slice of panini bread with grill marks running across it, with the words ‘Hot Table’ over it.

It’s not really possible to put such large, pronounced signage on the existing locations within shopping plazas, he said, adding that the new look represents another breakthrough for the company and an opportunity to not only sell more paninis, but grow its brand.

“When you build your own building, you have the opportunity to think about what your brand says on the outside — what is the golden arch for us?” he noted. “And it’s a long way from our origins at the Breckwood Shoppes.”

By that, he meant not just the marquee, but the free-standing store concept, locations on both ends of the state, aggressive plans to add four stores in just over a year, and ongoing talk about where to go next.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England. And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

But before talking more about the present and future, let’s recap how we got here.

Our story begins in 2006, when John and Chris, both successful in corporate sales, decided they wanted to make money for themselves, instead of someone else, and started to focus on the restaurant industry.

Blending vast amounts of experience with taking corporate clients with a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship out to eat, they started shaping a concept for the growing fast-casual category of eatery, and followed the advice of their sister, who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table,’ and their parents, who suggested a made-to-order panini concept.

For their first location, the two chose the Breckwood Shoppes, which they knew well because they both graduated from Western New England. The site wouldn’t attract any of the huge players in the fast-casual arena — Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and others — because of the demographics of the surrounding area, but for them, it worked.

It blended the college crowd — students, professors, staff, and administration alike — with a thickly settled neighborhood, large traffic volume, and visitors to other shops in the plaza.

The large players in smart casual wouldn’t have gone where Hot Table went next — Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in 2009 — either. But the brothers, enticed by the large population of office workers in surrounding towers and an attractive offer from then-owner MassMutual, decided to roll the dice. And they essentially rolled a ‘7.’ Indeed, the site has become a popular lunchtime destination — even moreso with recent arrivals such as Cambridge College and UMass Amherst Center at Springfield — and has even thrived during the pandemic without most of those workers and students.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall,” said John, comparing 2020 with 2019. “What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.

“With the new model of how we do business — we have more than 30,000 users of our app, which allows people to order and then utilize a third-party platform for delivery — our business model shifted,” he went on. “So now, we’re way above pre-pandemic sales levels overall.”

After Tower Square, the DeVoie brothers, now partnering with Calcasola, have been focusing on where the large players in fast-casual have put down stakes. In fact, the strategy has been to follow them — on the theory that their research into where to locate is certainly solid — and, in doing so, create more of a critical mass of quality eateries, which creates dining destinations.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue. We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

This was the case with the company’s next locations — in Enfield (2012) and Glastonbury, Conn. (2014), Route 9 in Hadley (also 2014), Marlborough (2017), and Worcester (2019). And that’s also the case, to one extent or another, with the Chicopee (there’s a Chick-fil-A right next door), Framingham, Hartford, and Westfield locations.

“People just drive there to eat, and you get in the rotation,” Chris said. “When Chick-Fil-A and other competitors came to Enfield, our sales went up.”

 

Location, Location, Location

When asked about the chain’s ‘formula’ when it comes to identifying markets they want to be in and then locations within those markets, the partners said it involves a blend of science and intuition, but mostly critical masses of traffic, retail, diners, and, yes, competitors.

All these ingredients are found in Hadley, said Calcasola, noting not only the large college population (there are four colleges within a few miles of the store’s location on Route 9), but also a host of fast-casual competitors and a large and growing cluster of retail that draws people from three counties.

Most of these same essentials can be found in Worcester, in the chain’s site in the the Trolley Yard, a mixed-use development that is also home to Starbucks, Chipotle, Sprint, and other national brands. Indeed, Worcester boasts seven colleges and a growing business base, said Chris, noting that it benefits greatly from being within easier commuting distance from Boston.

Meanwhile, in Marlboro, there are no colleges, little retail, and a less-dense population than in other communities the chain calls home. But there are a number of office parks and hotels, said John, adding that this was the store most impacted by the pandemic — although it, too, has rebounded.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

The Hot Table chain has come a long way since the opening of its first location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield.

In Chicopee, Memorial Drive has been transformed into a retail destination over the past decade, said Chris, noting that the changes have caught the attention of Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chick Fil-A, which made that the address for its first (and still only) location in Western Mass.

Meanwhile, the Framingham store now under construction and set to open in June is in Shoppers World, a large retail complex boasting 27 stores, including Chick-Fil-A, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and Chipotle.

“That whole area is called the Golden Triangle,” said John, referring to the retail district in Framingham and Natick. “And it’s the number-one retail destination in metro Boston. So it’s kind of a big jump for us, but our business model now supports that.”

By ‘big jump,’ he meant, among other things, the rates for the property being leased, which was also the case in West Hartford and a spot in Corbin’s Corner next to Shake Shack, although, as noted earlier, the pandemic has eased some of the sticker shock, while also creating some opportunities as stores — and restaurants — went out of business.

“There are more opportunities in the form of spaces becoming available,” said Calcasola. “Meanwhile, the asking price dropped in some locations, including West Hartford; we’re still paying a good amount of money, but not what they were advertising it for a year and half ago.”

As to the question of where the chain might go next, there are many ways to answer it.

For starters, the company wants to go where those major brands listed several times above are going. In fact, that’s usually the first question being asked, said Chris, noting that, as Hot Table ponders whether to expand into Rhode Island, the presence of other chains is a key consideration.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall. What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.”

“We’ll ask if there are Chick Fil-As and Chipotles around,” he told BusinessWest. “Wherever they’re going, that’s where we want to be. We want to compete with the nationals.”

Availability of real estate is another issue, said John, adding that the company has long sought to be on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, specifically the stretch south of I-91, but has not been able to secure a location because of exclusivity clauses secured by some competitors. Meanwhile, price remains an issue in some areas, including Boston, although the pandemic, as noted, might bring that city into reach.

“We have a consultant that we work with. Before the pandemic, he said, ‘guys, don’t even bother going into Boston; it’s crazy — don’t do it,’” said John. “The last meeting we had with him, he said, ‘you may want to think about exploring opportunities in Boston.’”

 

Pressing On

When and if the company goes down that road remains to be seen. For now, its principals, as noted, have other things on their plate.

Lots of them.

Indeed, this will be a year when Hot Table takes giant strides toward becoming that established brand the partners want it to be, a year when that image of the panini top with the grill marks on it becomes known in new markets and in new ways, like that sign on the property in Chicopee.

That location isn’t the future — but it is a big part of the future, with additional growth and territorial expansion on the menu.

As John DeVoie said, this company has come a long way from the Breckwood Shoppes — and in all kinds of ways.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 63: May 10, 2021

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien begins a series of shows devoted to the 40 Under Forty Class of 2021 by talking with top scorer Jessica Bossie, primary care doctor for Health Services for the Homeless

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien begins a series of shows devoted to the 40 Under Forty Class of 2021 by talking with top scorer Jessica Bossie, primary care doctor for Health Services for the Homeless. The two discuss the critical work that this agency carries out, the many challenges involved with treating the homeless population, and the many ways this program is not only helping the homeless, but bringing down the cost of care for everyone by treating the homeless where they are, and not in the ER. 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 62: May 3, 2021

 George O’Brien talks with Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health

Dr. Mark Keroack

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health. The two discuss a wide range of topics, including the current pace of vaccinations, strategies for improving those numbers, the challenges facing the country as it strives to reach herd immunity, and expectations for when the region, the state, and the nation might be able to reach something approximating ‘normal.’ Keroack provides keen insight into all these matters, and his takes certainly provide food for thought. 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

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Progress Report

Roughly 14 months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., the commercial real-estate market is showing some signs of life, especially with industrial properties, which are in considerable demand, with limited supply. But as companies start to return to their offices, questions remain concerning just how much space businesses will need long-term and how much demand there will be for the large inventories of space now, or soon to be, available.

Pat Goggins has been selling and leasing real estate in and around Northampton for almost a half-century now. It’s very safe to say that he knows that market better than anyone.

And he feels comfortable now, a full year and change after COVID-19 first arrived in this region, in saying that the Northampton market has “bottomed out, and is starting to work its way back to what it had become.”

He bases this assessment on a number of things — from new leases being signed for some vacated properties downtown to interest in some other buildings for sale and lease, to the lease rates themselves, which, he said, haven’t changed appreciably in 20 years now.

“We’re seeing some new activity that is creating some positive vibes,” said Goggins, president of Goggins Real Estate Inc., adding that, while challenges remain and COVID continues to take a toll on Northampton, there are many signs that a corner of sorts is being turned.

Using slightly different words and phrases, other commercial real-estate brokers and managers we spoke with said essentially the same as Goggins, that the market is moving back toward — here comes that phrase again — ‘something approaching normal, or a new normal.’ Meaning, they believe, that the worst is likely over.

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy,” said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, who is using, among other things, the parking-lot test when it comes to what’s happening within this market.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy.”

Indeed, he said the parking lots at the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke, 1441 Main St. in Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, just some of the properties managed by the company, are more populated than they were just a few months ago, and much more full than last fall. The cars in those lots are evidence that businesses are, in fact, returning to their offices and the buildings are moving closer to pre-COVID levels of occupancy and vibrancy.

Still, hard questions remain about just how many more cars will be returning to those lots — and when. And these questions — which are being asked in urban areas across the Northeast and, indeed, across the country — will likely determine to just what extent the market fully recovers. Indeed, as leases have expired over the past year, some companies have downsized, said Bolotin, a few have actually upsized to give employees more space in the wake of COVID, and others are essentially standing pat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to negotiating new leases, most tenants have been able to take advantage of a market that favors them and secure a number that certainly isn’t higher, and in many cases is lower.

Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which manages several office buildings in this region, including the Greenfield Corporate Center and Agawam Crossing, said that nearly 14 months after COVID forced many people to work remotely, questions linger about when and if businesses will summon employees back to the office, and how many will actually come back.

“I think people like to work at home,” he said. “Businesses want them to come back, but I’m not sure the employees will want to go back.”

Meanwhile, some segments of the commercial market, especially industrial properties, are vibrant, if not white-hot, said Vincunas, noting that there isn’t enough inventory to meet a growing need.

Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active

While COVID has slowed some segments of the commercial real-estate market, Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active, with inventories struggling to meet demand.

“The bulk of our portfolio is industrial, and that’s all pretty strong right now — inventory for that is very low, and prices are very high,” he said, adding that the market for medical real estate — and his company has some of it in the portfolio as well — remains strong.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening within the local market and what may happen as the region continues its pursuit of ‘normal’ — whatever that means.

 

Down on Main Street

As he talked about the Northampton market and what has happened within it over the past year or so, Goggins used the word ‘generational’ to describe the changes to the landscape.

By that, he meant many of the businesses that have become synonymous with Paradise City were started by people his age — Baby Boomers at or now approaching retirement.

“Downtown Northampton took off in the ’70s, and it was fueled by people who were contemporaries of mine who came into town or who were part of the community and decided to open restaurants and shops,” he said. “It was fueled by the Baby Boom generation.”

And what COVID did was push some of those entrepreneurs into retirement maybe a little sooner than they were planning, he said, adding that this led to some high-profile vacancies on Main Street, a phrase he uses to connote both that specific thoroughfare and the whole of the downtown. Those vacancies include the massive Silverscape Designs building, a former bank; 147 Main St., formerly Cathy Cross; 162 Main St., formerly Artisan Gallery; and others.

In recent weeks, though, new tenants have been secured for many of these properties, he said, noting that Rebekah Brooks Jewelry has moved into the Cathy Cross space, 25 Central has taken the Artisan Gallery space, and Cotton Gallery has moved into 153 Main St., formerly Thelo. This movement reflects his earlier-stated sentiments that the market has, in fact, bottomed out and is moving back up again, although there is still work to do.

“The vacancy rate is higher than what we would prefer, but we’re nipping away at it,” he said, adding that the emerging cannabis industry has played a factor in these efforts, and it could play a still-larger role moving forward, with nearly a dozen ventures at some stage of the permitting process.

As for the Silverscape property, he said there has been some interest expressed in it, but it is a large space with some accompanying challenges when it comes to a new use.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the former bank spaces, like teller windows, were imaginatively integrated into the jewelry store’s design, they may in some ways limit what can easily be done with the space now.

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton, now on the market, will present opportunities and challenges to its next owner, said Pat Goggins, adding “it’s not for the feint of heart.”

Assessing the office market, Goggins echoed others in noting that, while more businesses are returning to the spaces they completely or partially vacated last March, there are questions about whether businesses that had to rely on people working remotely will bring everyone — or anyone — back to the office.

Vincunas said he has a diverse list of tenants at the Greenfield Corporate Center, including some state agencies that he is not concerned about when it comes to downsizing or not renewing, but also some financial-services and technology-related tenants for which there are some questions moving forward.

“People have learned to work outside the office, so we can’t be sure what will happen long-term,” he said, adding quickly that, for the short term, the property has benefited from COVID in one respect — the regional jury-pool operation has moved into 25,000 square feet of space at the facility for at least a year.

“They couldn’t space people out for jury-pool selection at all the courthouses — there just wasn’t room — so they created an off-site central-clearinghouse type of space,” he told BusinessWest. “We had a big piece of space, so they took it.”

Boloton said he’s seeing some evidence that, while the experiences of the past year have shown that remote working can be effective, most businesses want their workers back together in one place.

“I’ve seen it with a number of businesses … they’ve said, ‘we’re working at home, we’ve figured it out, but there’s still a need to be in the office, and, over time, people want to be in the office,’” he said, adding that the parking-lot test, as unscientific as it is, provides some evidence that companies are working their way back to their office spaces. “It’s a matter of want to, and need to, and there’s a slow progression back. There’s a steady return toward coming back to the office; we’re not there, but we’re getting closer every day.”

For other evidence of progress, he cited the recent closing of a deal with a business to lease 27,000 square feet of office space in a property at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield. He could not disclose the new tenant, but said it was an existing Western Mass. business that is expanding.

“It’s a market that has some areas of slowdown reaction to the pandemic,” he said, listing retail in that category. “But there are other areas that are busy, and we can’t find inventory. Industrial is very strong, and we have a lot of transactions for users buying buildings, so we have a number of properties under contract.”

 

Bottom Line

Between the parking-lot test, some new leases being inked, and tight inventories in the industrial market, the commercial real-estate landscape seems to be changing in this region — and for the better.

That said, many questions remain about the market and especially the office buildings that are not only home to many types of companies, but also generate business at neighboring service- and hospitality-related enterprises.

It may be some time before all those questions are answered, but for now, it seems the worst may well be over and, as Goggins and others noted, this sector is moving steadily closer to something approximating normal.

 

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

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Episode 61: April 26, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Association of the Northeast

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Association of the Northeast. The two discuss a wide range of topics, from how business owners and managers handle the reopening of their offices and the return of employees — some will want to go to the office, but many won’t — to the growing challenge of simply finding enough good help. Employers across virtually all sectors are struggling with this assignment, and Wise notes things may get even worse before they get any better. It’s must listening, so join us for 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 60: April 19, 2021

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Suzanne Murphy, CEO and founder of Unemployment Tax Control Associates in Springfield

On this installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Suzanne Murphy, CEO and founder of Unemployment Tax Control Associates in Springfield. The two discuss a critical issue now facing employers across the region — the huge increases in the unemployment insurance solvency fund assessment now facing all business owners. These assessment increases are dramatic and largely unforeseen, and they come at a time when many business owners are still reeling from the pandemic.  The two have a lively discussion about what’s at stake for businesses if something isn’t done, and just what can be done to provide a softer landing for the state’s businesses. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

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Features Special Coverage

Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.

By George O’Brien

The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.

Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”

These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”

Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.

The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.

 

Space Exploration

Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.

What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.

“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.

“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.

Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.

As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.

Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.

The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.

And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.

The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.

“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.

Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.

The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.

The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.

As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.

“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.

“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”

And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.

“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”

 

Bottom Line

These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.

This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.

Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.

 

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

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

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 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.

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.

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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 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.