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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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 118: June 27, 2022

George Interviews Diana Szynal, the incoming president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce

Diana Szynal

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Diana Szynal, the incoming president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce. The two discuss her new appointment, the business scene in Greater and Springfield, and the challenges and opportunities facing chambers of commerce today. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

 

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Features Special Coverage

Uplifting Spirits

For most in this region, the war in Ukraine is something to read about or see on the nightly news. For Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, who operates a distillery in Poland just a few hours from the border with Ukraine, the war hits much closer to home — figuratively, if not literally. He made a trip to Poland and then the border in March, and he’ll be going back in July, bringing cash for refugees and other types of support.

Paul Kozub says he’d like to forget some of the things he saw and heard while on his trip to Poland and its border with Ukraine in March, just days after the fighting began there. After all, he was seeing people in extreme distress — women and children, mostly, who were leaving their home country, sometimes with just on their clothes on their back, not knowing if they would ever be returning.

But these words and images, and there are many of them, are burned into his memory, he said, and they make him even more committed to doing what he can to help refugees who have made their way to Poland, where Kozub, founder and owner of V-One Vodka, owns a distillery.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022,” he recalled, adding that he wound up making three trips to the border in March, with each visit lasting seven or eight hours. “We saw the buses on the highway filled with women and children — martial law was declared in Ukraine, so no men under the age of 60 were allowed to leave the country. So you just saw women and children leaving, fleeing in buses on the highway — bus after bus after bus full of people.

“On the border, there were tents set up for food and a kind of transition spot,” he went on. “But you’d see women 70-or 80-years-old crossing with bags, and young women with strollers and children just walking over the border.”

Kozub told BusinessWest that he felt compelled to travel to Poland in March. He wanted to visit the distillery, located in the town of Lublin, something he’s done every few months over the past several years, although far less frequently since 2020 due to COVID, but also to support refugees if he could.

He left with several thousand dollars in cash, most of it in $100 bills, that he distributed to several different individuals and families knowing that the way exchange rates were moving, U.S. currency would buy much more than the Polish dollar. He made a few trips to the border, which is about a 90-minute drive from the distillery, and in doing helped bring the war to this country through a few interviews with a Boston television station that picked up his story and talked with him from his hotel room and at the border.

“I never thought I’d be a war correspondent, but there I was talking about what I saw and what I experienced,” he said. “To me there’s no more clear example of good versus evil, a country that’s invaded for no clear reason.”

Today, Kozub is planning a return visit to Poland and his distillery with his family — his wife and four children. He’s not sure if he will make it to the border, but does plan to visit some refugee centers and try to reconnect with several of the people he met three months ago.

He plans to visit the Help the Ukranian Children Foundation in Zyrzyn, Poland, which he is supporting through a special label for his vodka, one with the blue and yellow of the Ukranian flag; $2 from the sale of each bottle going to support refugees.

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag. He is donating $2 from each bottle to help refugees.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Kozub about how the war in Ukraine — and the plight of those who have fled that country for Poland — have become personal for him, and how he continues to find ways to not only support those individuals and families, but also shed needed light on their situation.

 

Proof Positive

As noted earlier, Kozub has many indelible memories from his March visit, one that brought the war in Ukraine and its profound impact on its people, home in ways that can’t be appreciated by simply tuning into CNN.

He used the word ‘surreal’ more than a few times to describe what he saw, especially during those visits to the border.
“Poland was normal for the most part — there were a lot of Ukrainain flags,” he recalled, “But as we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022.”

“That was the first time we got a little anxious,” he went on. “Once we got to the border, we befriended a few Polish police men and women who started telling us the stories they were hearing.”

One memory stands out for him. It involves giving a ride to a young girl and her parents to the city in Poland where he was staying.

“We didn’t notice until they got out that they had nothing,” he recalled. “No bags, no nothing, just the clothes on their backs. The way the man was dressed — he had a nice watch, nice clothes on, nice shoes — you could see that they just left so quickly they didn’t have time to pack a bag. Seeing stuff that like really hit home.

Kozub said he left for Poland with the expectation that he would bring a few thousand dollars to the border, maybe visit once and try to help people as they were coming into Poland during the first days of the war. But those expectations were altered by what he encountered, and also by contributions sent to him in advance of his trip, including $4,000 from his commercial lender, PeoplesBank — the most that can be sent via VENMO.

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border, will be returning to Poland next month.

“That contribution really helped — while I was there, I was able to buy so much more,” he recalled, noting that he was able to buy a washer and dryer for an apartment building now housing 80 women and children, and also bring more needed food and water to the border.

He recalled one instance where he tried to help a woman with four young children.

“All these people didn’t want to accept money from me at first,” he recalled. “But I said ‘you have to — that’s why I traveled all this way.’

“That was back when there were tens of thousands of people coming over every day — that’s when most of the need was going on,” he recalled, adding that the sights from those days remain with him even though the scene has changed, as have the needs of the refugees that have made their way to Poland.

While what he saw was disturbing on many levels, so too was what he heard from some of those he encountered, he said, noting that he has come to understand the Polish language, which is very similar to what is spoken in Ukraine.

“As we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.”

“We could understand most of what they were saying,” he noted. “We would see the cars of people driving into Poland, and they would have pieces of paper in the window with ‘ditya,’ which is ‘child’ in Russian written on them. We were hearing stories that the Russians were shooting at them; they were bombing these lines of cars as they were leaving.

“The stories of atrocities that we’re now hearing every day … I was hearing them in the beginning,” he went on. “It is so unbelievable that this is going on today; it’s very heartbreaking, and you just don’t want to believe that it’s true.”

While there are still some people leaving Ukraine for Poland, much of the activity is now moving in the other direction, with many returning to the country they fled. Still there are millions still in Poland forging a new life for themselves there, a challenge made simpler by the Polish government’s decision to change its law and allow people from the Ukraine (which is not part of the European Union) to come into that country and work and start businesses.

“In some of the major cities, like Warsaw and Krakow, they’ve seen a 30% to 40% increase in population,” said Kozub, adding that refugees are finding housing in the homes of Polish residents, in churches, camps, and other sites.

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal in many respects and included work as a “war correspondent.”

As for his planned July trip back to Poland, Kozub said he plans to reconnect with some of the individuals and families he met at the start of this conflict, including a young man who renovated a 20-unit apartment building in Zyrzyn that is now home to 80 women and children.

“We’re continuing to raise money for them, so I’ll bring some money for that charity,” he said, adding that he also plans to visit — and bring some money to — an orphanage located near the distillery, one that he has been supporting for several years now, which is now housing orphans from Ukraine.

To further assist refugees, and, specifically, Ukranian Children Foundation, Kozub has created a special label for his original V-One vodka, a project that was fast-tracked, with the label being finalized in just a few months, rather than the full year that it normally takes.

It was undertaken as Kozub was introducing another new flavor — Double Espresso — to his growing portfolio, one that is ever-changing and expanding to keep pace in the ultra-competitive vodka market.

The March trip to the distillery was undertaken to finalize the recipe for that new flavor, he said, adding that the overall process has been slowed by supply-chain issues and huge increases in shipping costs and other expenses — challenges that are making it much more difficult to do business in this industry.

Despite these challenges, Kozub wanted to introduce his new label, a project that was conceived just before his March visit, with the expectation that there would be long-term needs among the refugees.

“It takes about a year to get things done, between the approvals and the printing time, and other issues, but we were able to get it done in three weeks,” he said, adding that the son of one of his employees at the distillery drove 10 hours each way to pick up the labels, which were affixed to 3,000 bottles overnight, in time to get on a container ship.

The special edition bottles should arrive by mid-summer, he said, and he expects them to be sold out by August.

 

His Best Shot

Like most everyone taking in what’s happening in Ukraine — from a few feet from the border or 4,500 miles away — Kozub has no idea when this conflict will end or how it will end.

What he does know is that there are many people still in need. They are an ocean and then a continent away from V-One’s headquarters in Hadley, but only 100 miles or so from where his vodka is made.

Since setting up shop in Poland, he has been active in that ‘community’ and a source of support for orphans and others in need. The landscape there has changed dramatically over the past three months, and Kozub has responded accordingly. As he said, it’s personal for him.

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Strategic Decisions Now Can Benefit You in the Long Run

It’s late June — time for, among things, thinking about your taxes. Actually, it’s time to do more than think about them. What’s needed is a hard look at matters ranging from business classification to expiring provisions to charitable donations, and then formulating strategies that will benefit you and your business for the long term.

By Kristina Drzal Houghton, CPA

Accountants spend a lot of time talking to clients during tax season about the importance of tax planning. Now is that crucial time. As we approach the halfway point of 2022, tax planning discussions should be underway for many businesses and individual taxpayers

Starting early is important but plans should consider that tax rules might change at the end of the year and businesses and individuals simply can’t afford to not prepare for those changes. Additionally, some COVID-19 relief programs are set to expire this year, therefore businesses should be ready to document appropriately and/or take advantage of potential savings. With so much probable change, it’s important to carefully consider your options and make strategic decisions that could benefit you in the long run.

As a small business owner, tax planning should be a key part of your overall financial strategy. By taking advantage of tax breaks and deductions, you can minimize your tax liability and keep more money in your pocket. Here are nine strategies you should consider:

 

Review your tax liability for the current year

EventTake a look at your tax situation for the current year and estimate how much tax you will owe. This will help you determine if you need to make any changes to your withholdings or estimated tax payments.Event

Consider a tax status changeEventYour entity type not only impacts how you are protected under the law but it also affects how you are taxed. If you’ve outgrown your current business structure, or if you previously set up a structure that wasn’t the best fit for your business, you can elect to change your structure. Each entity type has its own benefits and drawbacks, so it is important to make sure you have a full picture before committing to your decision.

 

Amortization of research and experimental (R&E) expenditures

Due to law changes, companies are no longer allowed to fully deduct their R&E expenses. Instead, these expenses are amortized over a period, based on where their services are provided. Classification of expenses as R&E should be renewed.Event

 

Review expired provisions

Some of the tax relief provisions in 2021 the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) were carried over into 2022 by the Build Back Better Act. Principal among them are ARPA’s increases and expansion of the child tax credit, including its monthly advance payments, which have now ended as of the December 2021 payment. The Build Back Better Act was signed into law this past March 11 and included a renewal of that provision for 2022. Beyond those expiring provisions, a number of pre-ARPA “extender” items lapsed at the end of 2021, such as the treatment of premiums for certain qualified mortgage insurance as qualified residence interest and multiple energy and fuel credits.Event

 

Review the new limit on state and local tax deductions

For individual taxpayers, one of the biggest potential changes being lobbied is the possible restoration of the deduction for state and local taxes (SALT). If this proposal becomes law, it could have a major impact on your tax bill. As such, it’s important to think about how you would adjust your tax planning if the SALT deduction is restored or remains limited. Additionally, there are a number of other proposed changes to the tax code that could impact individuals, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the latest developments and plan accordingly.Event

 

Consider the Qualified Business Income (QBI) Deduction

The qualified business income (QBI) deduction, which provides pass-through business owners a deduction worth up to 20% of their share of the business’s qualified income. However, this deduction is subject to a number of rules and limitations. For example, owners of specified service trades or businesses (SSTBs) are not eligible for the deduction if their income is too high. SSTBs generally include any service-based business, such as a law firm or medical practice, where the business depends on its employees’ or owners’ reputation or skill. If a business is eligible for a QBI deduction, owners should carefully weigh salary vs. flow through income.Event

 

Budget for larger charitable donations

Finally, if you’re thinking of making a charitable donation, recently you may not have benefited as much from the deduction for your donation as you have in the past. Since the TCJA nearly doubled the standard deduction started effective 2018 and capped the SALT deduction, fewer people itemize their deductions on their tax return.

As a result, the tax benefits of charitable donations have been limited to those who itemize their deductions. If the SALT cap is increased or eliminated, the deduction for charitable contributions could be more beneficial. If you are considering more significant contributions, gifting appreciated stuck to qualified charities offers great benefits. You will get a tax deduction for the fair market value and not be taxed on the unrealized gain. Event

 

Remember, meals and entertainment are still 100% deductible.

For 2021 and 2022 only, businesses can generally deduct the full cost of business-related food and beverages purchased from a restaurant. (The limit is usually 50% of the cost.)

 

Review your accounting methods and records

It’s a great time to look at the books, and make a plan to adjust anything that should be changed while also planning for the future. Many times, unexpected changes come up that can impact your business and individual taxes that you may not have even considered. For example, will you have any major life changes, such as getting married or having a baby? Buying a house? Leasing a business vehicle? Hiring more employees? Relocating your business? Spending more than usual on talent acquisition? Investing or accepting cryptocurrency? These changes can have a significant impact on your tax liability.

 

No matter what changes are ultimately enacted into law, the key to successful tax planning is staying informed and being proactive. By taking the time to understand the potential implications of proposed changes and making strategic decisions now, you can help ensure a smooth tax season for yourself and your business in 2022.

 

Kris Drzal Houghton is a partner at the Holyoke based accounting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Union Forces

 

Pat Goggins, left, and Brian Megliola

Pat Goggins, left, and Brian Megliola

 

Pat Goggins and Brian Megliola say the talks concerning an acquisition and merger of their companies began more than a year ago. They started — and then continued to a successful conclusion — because of similar philosophies and the shared belief that a union made sense on many different levels. The new company, with two divisions based in Northampton, will emerge and “be right at the top of the agencies in this area,” said Goggins.

By Kailey Houle

Brian Megliola says he considers Pat Goggins a role model.

“I’ve always had so much respect for Pat and what he’s achieved in the Northampton, Hampshire County area,” said Megliola, owner of Coldwell Banker Community Realtors. “He showed me what I wanted to be as a business owner.”

Elaborating, Megliola said that it was Goggins’ success in business — he and the company he started have been a force in commercial and residential real estate in and around Northampton for 40 years now — as well as his commitment to the community that made him not only a role model, but a logical business partner.

Indeed, Coldwell Banker Community Realtors recently announced the acquisition and merger of Goggins Real Estate, a transaction that will bring together two of the longest-running family-owned real estate companies in Franklin and Hampshire Counties. The union that will create a larger, more powerful force in the local market, and one that is expected to balance an already-formidable residential real estate book of business with growth on the commercial side of the ledger.

“When I started talking with Pat about the acquisition and merger more than a year ago, our companies were just so aligned in our values and culture,” said Megliola. “I’ve always seen Pat as a heavily involved community figure and he’s always been a role model for me. His involvement with the community made sense that he would be the right person. It was a perfect scenario — there was no other company we could blend with so well.”

The 112 Main St., Northampton office of Coldwell Banker Community Realtors will be the main office for the residential company. Coldwell Banker’s commercial division will move to the present Goggins office at 79 King St., Northampton. “This separate franchise with Coldwell Banker Commercial will also have a name change to Coldwell Banker Commercial-Goggins Associates.

“I’ve always had so much respect for Pat and what he’s achieved in the Northampton, Hampshire County area. He showed me what I wanted to be as a business owner.”

“We felt it was important to continue the legacy that Pat has created in commercial real estate in the Northampton area and fitting to rename our commercial company to include the Goggins name.”

Pat Goggins will continue on as the manager of the commercial side, building on four decades of work that have seen the ‘Goggins’ name attached to a large portion of the commercial transactions that have taken place since the Northampton market started booming in the early ’80s.

“I plan to remain very active in real estate and look forward to running the commercial company”, said Pat Goggins.  “I look forward to this new partnership, as it enhances our ability to provide even better service to our clients with the added tools and systems we will now have available to us through Coldwell Banker.

“They are an impressive organization and bring a lot to the table, both for our residential clients and our commercial ones as well,” he went on, adding that the acquisition came about after lengthy talks — and, unlike many such deals, it is a true acquisition.

“This was something that Brian paid for; it was a reflection of his interest and determination on his part as to where the value was,” he explained. “If you’re buying anything, you have to figure out what makes that particular purchase valuable. And I think that he felt that we were not only compatible, but he was also intrigued by the market share that we have had for many years.”

“When I started talking with Pat about the acquisition and merger more than a year ago, our companies were just so aligned in our values and culture.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Megliola and Goggins about how this important deal came about and what it means moving forward.

As noted, the two companies that came together in this merger have long histories in this region.

Goggins got his start in 1982, and over the ensuing 40 years, the firm has handled some of the Northampton area’s biggest residential developments, including Bear Hill, Village Hill, Parson’s Brook, Baker Hill, and is presently handling the new development Hawley Manor on Hawley St. in downtown Northampton.

But the firm has made perhaps an even bigger influence in the commercial market, handling handing many of Northampton’s biggest commercial deals over the years, including countless transactions in the downtown area, which has remained consistently vibrant.

Over the past four decades, Pat Goggins has been a go-to source for BusinessWest and other media outlets on what was happening in the Northampton commercial market and the forces that were driving it.

As for Coldwell Banker, Coldwell Banker Community Realtors of Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties originally started as Upton and May Real Estate in 1987 in South Deerfield, with Christine Aubrey, and Steve Upton, who were both teachers. When they got laid off from teaching in Turners Falls, Upton decided to make real estate a full-time job and asked Aubrey to help run the office. They built their own properties and soon after that, people asked them to assist in selling their own homes. They then merged with Massamont Real Estate in Shelburne Falls, and became Upton Massamont Real Estate. They later franchised with Coldwell Banker in 2006 and have grown to four offices, located in Northampton, South Deerfield,  Shelburne Falls and Amherst.

They also have a commercial office in Greenfield, and they’ve handled many residential developments throughout Franklin and Hampshire counties, including Emerson Way, Silvercrest, Ridgecrest, most of the condominium developments in South Deerfield and, currently, The Residences in Shelburne Falls. 

“We’re going to see something emerge that is going to be right at the top of the agencies in this area.”

Megliola, who has been with Coldwell Banker for 13 years now — the first seven years, he worked in IT and worked his way up to operations — will be the sole owner of Coldwell Banker Community Realtors and Coldwell Banker Commercial-Goggins Associates, and will oversee all aspects of the new entity. Besides Megliola, there are nine other full time support staff and a total of 45 agents, many of whom have been Realtors for over 25 years.

The name “Coldwell Banker Community Realtors” will remain as the name of the residential real estate company.

“Pat, Christine and I share a strong commitment to the communities we serve and feel that name speaks to our style of doing business,” said Megliola. “We have all been very active in supporting our communities and although we have a national brand that brings us a higher level of service for our agents and clients, we are still a locally owned company that has deep roots here in the Valley. That will never change.     

“Community is really important to my team and I,” he went on. “We decided community is what needs to be not only the center of what we do, but also the center of our name. Our name changed to Coldwell Banker Community Realtors about 15 years ago. We knew franchises were going to come and we were getting tired of having to reinvent the wheel every time so we decided we would look into the best franchise out there. We settled on Coldwell Banker for a couple reasons- there is a long history of ethics and at the time they had been around for about 90 years.”

Returning to the subject of the talks that led to the acquisition and merger, both Goggins and Megliola said they came about because of the synergy between the companies, shared philosophies, and timing.

“One of the oddities of this sale was the fact that it occurred 40 years to the date of me starting the business — it was kind of like an anniversary and at the same time, a sale; it was kind of interesting,” said Goggins. “The main motivation is the fact I’m 74 years old and have been doing this for about 50 years. My wife kept kicking me and saying, “Come on — sell this.”

Moving forward, both Goggins and Megliola believe the combined names on the door, but more importantly what’s behind those names, especially the decades of experience in both the commercial and residential markets, will make the firm a force within the region.

“Brian is extremely energetic and with his approach to the business, there’s no doubt that he will blend our experience with his energy,” Goggins said. “And we’re going to see something emerge that is going to be right at the top of the agencies in this area.”

Megliola agreed, and noted that in order to build the brand, there will be a strong focus on growing the commercial side of his business, an assignment that should be helped by the Goggins name, but also Pat Goggins’ desire to continue building on the foundation he has laid over the past 40 years.

“I’m going to remain as active as I want to be, and I still find the work stimulating. I enjoy being engaged in it,” he said. “I’ve been very actively involved in it for 50 years so, I don’t have any plans of moving permanently to Florida — but don’t get me wrong, I will be spending time down there! It just seemed like it was the right time.”

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 117: June 20, 2022

George Interviews Anthony Gleason II, president and co-founder of the Gleason-Johndrow Companies and winner of BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award for 2022

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Anthony Gleason II, president and co-founder of the Gleason-Johndrow Companies and winner of BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award for 2022. The two talk about the phenomenal growth of his company and the many facets of his work within the community.  It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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Class of 2022 Event Galleries Special Coverage

The Class of 2022

More than 600 people turned out at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House on June 16 to celebrate BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty Class of 2022. The class, chosen by a panel of five judges, was the 16th class of rising stars celebrated by BusinessWest. The evening also featured the announcement of the Alumni Achievement Award winner for 2022 — Anthony Gleason II, president and co-founder of the Gleason-Johndrow Companies, a member of the class of 2010. The loud, boisterous crowd enjoyed networking, fine food, entertainment, and an opportunity to celebrate the latest young leaders to join one of the region’s more exclusive clubs. The photos on the following pages help convey the energy from a special evening. The event was sponsored by presenting sponsor PeoplesBank, with supporting sponsors Comcast Business, Live Nation, Mercedes Benz of Springfield, The Mill District, UMass Isenberg School of Management, and Stand Out Truck. The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield was an event partner. The Alumni Achievement Award was again sponsored by Health New England.

2022 Presenting Sponsor

2022 Supporting Sponsors

2022 Presenting Sponsor Alumni Achievement Award

Partner

2022 Sponsor Videos

PeoplesBank

Health New England

Comcast Business

Live Nation

Mercedes-Benz Springfield

The Mill District

Stand Out Truck

UMass Isenberg

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 116: June 13, 2022

George talks with Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank. The two discuss the ongoing workforce crisis and the adjustments area business owners and managers should make if they want stand out in this marketplace and effectively attract and retain talented individuals. Her best advice?  “Meet people where they are.” It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Landmark Decision

Country Bank

Country Bank

The property on Main Street

The property on Main Street has always played an important role in the economic vibrancy of the town, and this is expected to continue with its new function as a police station.

Country Bank recently introduced a new marketing slogan — ‘Made to Make a Difference.’ There have been myriad examples of that mindset over the bank’s 172-year history, but perhaps none bigger than the recent announcement that the bank would gift its former headquarters property on Main Street, valued at more than $3 million, to the town, with the intention of it becoming the site of a new police station and perhaps home to other town offices.

 

Paul Scully says that, over the past few years, or since Country Bank started ramping up discussions about what to do with its vacant former headquarters building on Main Street in Ware, there had been talks with various real estate developers about the property.

But they didn’t go very far, said Scully, the bank’s president, noting that those making inquiries were “more speculators than investors,” as he put it.

“And we didn’t want to sell it on a speculative basis and then not have it maintained,” he explained. “Or have someone say ‘we bought this with the intention of having some office move in but it never came to fruition’ and now the property is abandoned.

“Yes, we were approached by some people,” he went on. “But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”

With that, Scully poignantly described the mindset that ultimately led to the announcement on June 1 that the bank was donating the property at 75-79 Main St. to the town with the intention of it becoming the site of its new police station and perhaps other municipal uses.

Elaborating, he said there were multiple objectives in mind as the bank considered what to do with the property that had been its home until it moved its headquarters into renovated mill space on South Street in 2005.

These included a desire to help the police department find larger, better quarters — something it desperately needs — while also “energizing Main Street,” as Scully put it, noting that the town’s central business district has been hit hard by COVID and other factors and needs a spark. He believes that having the police department and perhaps some other town offices in that complex will provide one.

The decision to gift the property to the town comes, coincidentally, as the bank introduced a marketing tagline: ‘Made to Make a Difference.’

This tagline evolved from a series of focus groups with customers, team members, board members, and non-customers who had gathered to discuss their experiences with the bank and their knowledge of its impact on the people and communities it serves, said Scully, adding that the donation of the Main Street building is the latest example of this mindset at work.

“Yes, we were approached by some people. But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”

“It’s what we’ve been doing for 172 years — we’re made to make a difference; make a difference in your loan, make a difference in the community, make a difference in your financial planning,” he said, adding that this mission has been carried out in countless ways over the years, including a recent project in Worcester to build 55 beds for children in conjunction with the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, at which the new slogan was formally introduced to the bank’s staff.

“That was the first time they’d heard the slogan, and in the previous two hours, they had just made a difference in a child’s life, someone who did have a bed of their own,” he explained, adding that the donation of the Main Street property adds a new and an intriguing chapter to that long-running story of giving back.

 

Building Momentum

As he talked about the decision to gift the property to the community, a donation he described as rare for a private institution, Scully first set the stage in an effort to explain how this came about, why it makes sense for the town, and how it meets the bank’s ongoing commitment to the community embedded in its new marketing slogan.

He started by discussing Main Street and, more specifically, what was largely missing from it — vitality, or energy. Elaborating, he said that many retail businesses had moved over the past several years from Main Street to the new commercial hub on Route 32, near a Wal-mart. And in recent years, several fires, including one at the bank’s Main Street property, prompted more moves by businesses. Meanwhile, COVID and lengthy and very involved reconstruction of Main Street brought additional challenges to that part of downtown.

These forces coincided with Main Street property going quiet, as a result of the pandemic and forces resulting from it.

That property, valued at approximately $3 million, includes the former banking office located on the corner of Main and Bank Street along with the E2E building located at 79 Main St., the rear parking lot and bunker style garage, and rooftop parking situated behind the 65-71 Main Street location that was also donated by Country Bank to the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corporation back in 2016.

Country Bank president Paul Scully

Country Bank president Paul Scully

It has been vacant since the start of the pandemic, when the bank closed its branch there due to staff and customer safety concerns.

“Not maintaining a presence on Main Street was a tough decision that required months of consideration while assessing how this location might be best utilized to support the community,” said Scully. “The effects of the pandemic combined with a significant decrease in customer foot traffic over the years and a shift in banking habits to more customers adopting electronic delivery channels were all a considerable part of the decision. It is a massive building to be sitting empty. The decision to donate the building became evident as we weighed the usage of this location and discussed the opportunities it could provide to the town.”

Elaborating, Scully said that while there have been ongoing discussions about the fate of the building over the years, they took on new urgency with the pandemic and the bank’s decision not to have on presence on Main Street.

However, that urgency coincided with the large-scale construction work undertaken on Main Street, he went on, adding that nothing could really be done while that work was going on.

“Over the past year, and with more earnest, we’ve been saying ‘let’s figure out what we can do with this building a make a difference,” said Scully. “And it somewhat coincided with hearing about the need for a new police station.”

The pricetag for such a facility was pegged at $7 million to $9 million, he said, adding that a new station is clearly needed, with the department having outgrown its current quarters, the town’s former post office.

By gifting the town its former headquarters, the bank can help save the town much of that expense — it will still need to renovate the property for that new use, said Scully — while also helping to bring some new life to a downtown that is poised for a resurgence given the recent roadwork and an easing of the pandemic.

“We knew that now that the roads had been repaved and new sidewalks installed, there was more of an opportunity for a resurgence on Main Street than there had been during that construction process,” said Scully. “And we didn’t want to circumvent that by having someone buy the building who wasn’t going to be able to maintain it or have the financial resources to take care of it.

“We wanted it to be right formula for the town and for the other merchants on Main Street to allow them to get some foot traffic back,” he went on, adding that a police station, and other town offices that might eventually move into that space, will help accomplish many of those goals.

Although there is no specific timeline for the transfer of ownership, which needs approval from the town at a scheduled town meeting, the bank intends to work on a smooth transition with all parties involved and expects the transfer of the location to happen in 2023, said Scully.

 

The Bottom Line

Reflecting on the long history of the Main Street property, Scully said it has housed different banks, including Country, the Ware Trust Company, and Ware Savings, since before World War I.

It has long played a role in the economic vibrancy of the town, he said, adding that even though its function will change, it will continue to do so. This was that guiding compass the bank used as it went about determining a new use for the property.

“We look at this as a great investment in community — this is what community banking is all about,” he said. “We say that we exist for our customers, our community, and our staff, and this really is the community basis of it. We’re really excited that we can help make a difference downtown and help make a difference to the taxpayers.

“We met internally as a board and a senior management team, and our driving focus was to what’s right for the town,” Scully explained. “We’ve been in town since 1850, and we believed we’ve made a difference over all those years and wanted to continue making a difference.

Education Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

The original home to HCC

The original home to HCC, the former Holyoke High School

The campus today

The campus, and its renovated campus center, today

Holyoke Community College, the state’s first community college, is marking its 75th anniversary this year. This has been a time to reflect on how the school has evolved to meet the changing needs of those living and working in the communities it serves, while remaining loyal to the mission with which it was founded — to open doors to opportunity.

 

It’s called the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center.

And the name says it all — if you know about this kind of facility. It’s not a daycare center — there’s already one of those on the Holyoke Community College campus. And it’s not an early education facility — the college has no intention of getting into that business, according to its president, Christina Royal.

Instead, it’s a … child-watch center, a place where students can bring young children for a few minutes or a few hours, while they’re attending classes, taking part in meetings, or perhaps huddling with advisors.

“In daycare, you drop your child off in the morning and you pick it up at the end of the day; it’s generally for full-time working parents,” she explained. “In a child-watch program, you’re dropping the child off for a short-term period that is very specific; you’re coming, you’re taking a class, you need to put your child in a child-watch program for that 50 minutes or an hour and a half that you’re in class.”

The presence of the Itsy Bitzy Child Watch Center is just one example of the profound level of change that has come to the institution now known as Holyoke Community College. There are many others, including the name over the door — the school was originally called the Holyoke Graduate School (a night program), and was later renamed Holyoke Junior College, before becoming HCC in 1964 — as well as the setting. Indeed, the college was originally located in the former Holyoke High School, which was totally destroyed by fire in 1968, to be replaced by the current campus, carved out of a dairy farm, which opened in 1974.

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today. Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.”

But for perhaps the most dramatic change we need to juxtapose the picture of the first graduating class in 1948 with some statistics that Royal keeps at the ready, specifically those noting that more than half of the current students are women, and that during the most recent semester, 41 different countries were represented by the study body, and 33 different languages might be heard on the campus.

The first graduating class

The first graduating class (1948) was much smaller, and far less diverse, than the classes today.

But while celebrating all that has changed over the past 75 years, the institution is also marking what hasn’t. And there is quite a bit in that category as well.

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Indeed, HCC has, seemingly from the beginning, been a place to start for those seeking a college education, but not a final destination, said Royal, noting that many have transferred to four-year schools to obtain bachelor’s degrees and then graduate degrees.

It’s also been a place for those for whom college is certainly not a foregone conclusion.,

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today,” said Royal. “Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.

“No matter who you are, or where you’re at in your career, there is a place for you at HCC,” she went on. “This creates doors that open for many students, and it’s also why, when you look at our alumni, we talk about HCC being a family affair; we have many alums who say that either their parents had come here or their siblings or their cousins come here.” because you see many generations of students that continue to come back and have the next generation supported at HCC.”

Meanwhile, the school has always been known for the high levels of support given to its students, many of them being the first in their families to attend college. In 1946, and the years that followed, many of these students were men who had served in World War II and were attending college on the G.I. Bill.

Fire destroyed the college in 1968

Fire destroyed the college in 1968, leaving some to ponder whether HCC had a future.

Today, as noted, more than half are women and far more than half are non-white. Many arrive with specific needs — ranging from food insecurity to transportation to a child-watch facility — and HCC, while helping them earn a degree or certificate, has been steadfast in its efforts to address those needs and “meet students where they are,” as Royal likes to say.

Moving forward, the school is marking its first 75 years with a variety of ceremonies, a commitment to continue its tradition of being accessible, and a refreshed strategic plan, one that has put additional emphasis on academic success and meeting student needs.

“It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Royal about where HCC has been, where it is today, and where it would like to be in the years to come.

 

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest late last month, Royal was planning for, and very much looking forward to, commencement ceremonies at the MassMutual Center on June 4.

This would be the first in-person ceremony in three years, and members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 were invited to join this year’s graduates in the proceedings. Royal; said several dozen members of those earlier classes accepted the invitation to march.

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation on Jarvis Avenue is one of many recent additions to the HCC landscape in recent years.

“We’ve heard from some members of those classes that they desire to have that traditional pomp-and-circumstance experience,” said Royal, noting that, beyond the canceled in-person commencement ceremonies, the pandemic has tested HCC in myriad other ways, from enrollment to helping students secure access to the Internet.

“We were impacted as intensely as everyone else in the world,” said Royal, adding that this has been a test that has left the school stronger and more resilient, in her estimation.

And looking back on HCC’s 75 years of service to the region, the pandemic is certainly not the first, or only, time the school has faced adversity of the highest order — and persevered.

Indeed, the fire of 1968, which broke out on Jan. 4, just before final exams, left the school shaken to its foundation — quite literally, with some wondering if it even had a future.

“Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career.”

“Springfield Technical Community College had just opened,” said Royal, only the fourth president in the school’s history. “And there was a lot of conversation about whether we needed another community college in this region — and if so, do we want to build it in Holyoke? It was amazing that while all this debate and discussion was going on, we inherited the land from the Sheehan family, what was the Sheehan Dairy Farm, and be able to rebuild the college in a place that allowed us to continue to expand and grow to what you see today.”

And since opening its facility off Homestead Avenue in 1974, the college has certainly grown within that space, adding several new facilities, including the Bartley Center for Athletics and Education, the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development, a new health sciences facility, and a renovated campus center. It has also returned to its roots with facilities in downtown Holyoke, including the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Center in the Cubit Building on Race Street, and the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center.

Meanwhile, it has become far more diverse, said Royal, adding that, overall HCC has changed and evolved as the region, its host city, the local business community, and society in general have.

The Kittredge Center

The Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development is another of the many recent additions to the HCC campus.

“We are a reflection of the community,” Royal explained, adding that the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center is just one example of this phenomenon.

“When you look at the history of our communities and when you think about how these communities have changed, then we’ve had to grow and change with them to keep up with the changing demographics of our region — both in growth in numbers and in terms of the ‘who’ that we’re serving; we really serve a lot of student populations.”

Elaborating, she said that today, as always, the focus is on inclusion, empowering students, and creating an environment in which they can not only attend school, but achieve success, however they wish to define it.

“We’re really focused on equity,” Royal explained. “It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door. And the data shows us that our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of Color) students are not succeeding at the same rate as our white students.

“So our equity initiatives look to be able to provide the additional support and services so we can bring those numbers into alignment,” she went on, adding that, overall the school has become far more data-driven as it works to understand the changing demographics of those it serves — and usethat data to determine how it pivots and changes to better serve students and other constituencies.

Summing it all up, Royal said, “We have a reputation of being a place to come, to start your education at an affordable rate, with high-quality faculty, strong academic rigor, plenty of support services, and to set students up to transfer to any of the prestigious four-year institutions in our area or beyond.”

 

Course of Action

Looking at HCC today, and what she projects for tomorrow, Royal said the process of evolution at the school is ongoing. And that’s because change is a constant — change within the communities being served, change in the business community and the workplace, and change when it comes to the needs of the students coming to the Homestead Avenue campus.

The pandemic accelerated this process of change in some respects, said Royal, and it also brought a greater need for reflection on just what students need — and how those needs can be met.

Returning to the subject of the new child-watch center, she said it’s a reflection of how the school has been focusing on the basic needs of students and taking direct steps to address them, work that was part of the latest strategic plan, which was completed in 2017.

“We want to be a college of academic rigor, known for helping students overcome barriers to success,” she explained, adding that when discussions were launched on this matter, there were four barriers that were initially defined — food, housing, transportation, and childcare — with area focal points, such as digital literacy, mental health, and others, identified

Each has been addressed in various ways, she said, citing initiatives ranging from a program to house students in dorms at Westfield State University (which not only provides housing but provides exposure to potential next step in the higher education journey), to another program that provides 3,000 bus passes to students to help them get to and from the campus.

Childcare has taken longer to address, she went on, adding that collected data clearly showed the need for a facility where students could place children while they were attending class or accessing services at the college. With $100,000 in support from the state, HCC was able to become the second community college in the state (Norther Essex is the other) to offer child-watch services.

While addressing these needs, HCC is also focused on the changing world of work, what it will look like in the years and decades to come, and how to prepare students for that world.

“Our focus is on having students create life-long relationships with the college,” she explained. “Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career. Now, the world of work has shifted, the future of work has changed a lot, and we know that people make job changes much more rapidly than they did in past decades, and so therefore, there’s a different interconnection and relationship between education and workforce.

“It’s not linear anymore,” she went on. “It’s integrated, and it changes depending on how a student’s path changes in life, how many career changes they make; they’ll come back and retool through short-term training or perhaps another degree, and then they make their way into a new career field.”

 

Class Act

Summing up both the first 75 years and what comes next, Royal said that while there has been tremendous change since HCC was founded, and there is much more to come, there is a constant:

“We believe in transforming communities through education; that is at the core of what we do,” she told BusinessWest. “We believe there are a lot of different ways that people can find their path and contribute to our local economy.”

Helping individuals forge a path is what this institution has been about since it was called the Holyoke Graduate School. And that is what is being celebrated in this milestone year. u

 

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

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Things Are Heating Up

It’s really happening. After a 2020 summer season in which most recreational and cultural venues were shuttered, and a 2021 that made halting progress toward normalcy, with a mix of in-person and virtual offerings, most area attractions are planning a 2022 summer season with few, if any, restrictions, worrying less about COVID this year than the gas prices tourists will be paying to visit them. For those willing to brave the pump, Western Mass. offers a whole lot to do, from live music to theater and dance; from sporting events to Fourth of July festivities; from agricultural fairs to multiple ways to enjoy the Connecticut River. Here are some suggestions to get you started.

 

Adventure East

11 Bridge St., Sunderland

www.adventureeast.com

Admission: Varies

Year-round: People enjoy being out in nature, but planning an outdoor adventure can be time-consuming and challenging. So Adventure East handles the logistics of outings involving hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, shoeshoeing, and more — as well as the equipment — so participants can take in the region’s natural beauty without the hassle of figuring out the details. Its activities take place throughout the region’s forests, mountains, and waterways, with guided tours geared at a wide range of skill and experience levels.

The Big E

The Big E

The Big E

1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield

www.easternstatesexposition.com

Admission: $10-$15; age 5 and under, free; 17-day pass, $20-$40

Sept. 16 to Oct. 2: As regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music, which in 2022 includes Nelly and the Dropkick Murphys. But the Big E isn’t the only agricultural fair on the block. The Westfield Fair kicks off the fair season on Aug. 19-21, followed by the Blandford Fair and the Three County Fair in Northampton on Sept. 2-5, the Franklin County Fair in Greenfield on Sept. 8-11, and the Belchertown Fair on Sept. 23-25, to name some of the larger gatherings.

 

Bridge of Flowers

Shelburne Falls

www.bridgeofflowersmass.org

Admission: Free

Through Oct. 31: The Bridge of Flowers connects the towns of Shelburne and Buckland. The seasonal footbridge, once a trolley bridge, has a garden of flowers covering it, which has long drawn visitors from both near and far. While admission is free, visitors may express their appreciation by offering donations in the kiosks located at both entrances. The Bridge of Flowers was recognized as a Franklin Favorite tourist attraction four years in a row (2018-2021) in a contest sponsored by the Greenfield Recorder.

 

 

Brimfield Antique Flea Market

Route 20, Brimfield

www.brimfieldantiquefleamarket.com

Admission: Free

July 12-17, Sept. 6-11: After expanding steadily through the decades, the Brimfield Antique Flea Market now encompasses six miles of Route 20 and has become a nationally known destination for people who value antiques, collectibles, and flea-market finds. Some 6,000 dealers and close to 1 million total visitors show up at the three annual, week-long events; the first was in May.

 

Concerts at the Drake

44 North Pleasant St., Amherst

www.thedrakeamherst.org

Admission: Varies

Year-round: For decades, the Amherst community has clamored for a space for a live performance and music venue. The Amherst Business Improvement District and the Downtown Amherst Foundation listened, and the result is the Drake, a recently opened performing-arts venue in the heart of downtown Amherst, with a planned lineup of both legendary and emerging musical artists from Western Mass. and across the globe, as well as workshops and open-mic nights. Check out the website for a full lineup.

 

FreshGrass Festival

1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

www.freshgrass.com

Admission: three-day pass, $54-$174; ages 6 and under, free

Sept. 23-25: 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 on four stages over three days. This year, the lineup includes Gary Clark Jr., Old Crow Medicine Show, Tanya Tucker, Trampled by Turtles, the Del McCoury Band, Taj Mahal, and many more.

 

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival

300 North Main St., Florence

www.glasgowlands.org

Admission: $22; ages 6-12, $5; age 5 and under, free

July 16: Celebrating its 27th anniversary, the largest Scottish festival in Massachusetts, held at Look Park, features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries. Featured performers this year include Enter the Haggis, Albannach, Sarah the Fiddler, and Charlie Zahm.

 

Green River Festival

Green River Festival

Green River Festival

One College Dr., Greenfield

www.greenriverfestival.com

Admission: Weekend, $170; Friday, $55; Saturday, $75; Sunday, $75

June 24-26: For one weekend every summer, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with hot-air-balloon launches and evening ‘balloon glows.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 30 artists and bands — from Father John Misty to Waxahatchee to Asleep at the Wheel — slated to perform this year.

 

Independence Day Weekend at Old Sturbridge Village

1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge

www.osv.org

Admission: $14-$28

July 2-4: Old Sturbridge Village will celebrate Independence Day weekend with a citizens’ parade, fife and drum music, cannon demonstrations, and more. Attendees can join in a game of old-fashioned baseball, watch a toy hot-air balloon flight, listen to a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence, and hear excerpts from Frederick Douglass’s 1852 address “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” On July 4, a citizen naturalization ceremony will take place on the Village Common.

 

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Road, Becket

www.jacobspillow.org

Admission: Prices vary

June 18 to Aug. 28: Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance. This season begins with the 90th anniversary gala on June 18, which precedes dozens of events, including “Eastern Woodland Dances” on June 22, Ted Shawn’s “Dance of the Ages” on June 23, Ronald K. Brown’s “Evidence” from June 29 to July 3, Caleb Teicher’s “Sw!ng Out” on July 6-10, Ballet Nepantla’s “Valentina” on July 13, and much, much more; check out the website for a full listing.

 

Lady Bea Cruise Boat

1 Alvord St., South Hadley, MA

www.brunelles.com

Admission: $18-$25; kids 3 and under, free

All summer: Interstate 91 is not the only direct thoroughfare from South Hadley to Northampton. The Lady Bea, a 53-foot, 49-passenger, climate-controlled boat operated by Brunelle’s Marina, will take boarders up and back on daily cruises along the Valley’s other major highway: the Connecticut River. If you don’t feel like sharing the 75-minute narrated voyage with others, rent the boat out for a private excursion. Amenties include a PA system, video monitors, a full bar, and seating indoors and on the sun deck.

 

Monson Summerfest

Main Street, Monson

www.monsonsummerfestinc.com

Admission: Free

July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community. The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event — now in its 23rd year — has evolved into an attraction drawing between 10,000 and 13,000 people every July 4.

 

Shakespeare & Company

70 Kemble St., Lenox

www.shakespeare.org

Admission: Varies

This year marks Shakespeare & Company’s 45th season of performances, actor training, and education, taking place at two indoor venues and two outdoor spaces, including the 500-seat Spruce Theater, an amphitheater built just last summer. The two Shakespeare productions planned for 2022 include Much Ado About Nothing (July 2 to Aug. 14) and Measure for Measure (Aug. 19 to Sept. 18), while visitors can also take in plenty of contemporary plays, as well as comedy and other events.

 

Six Flags New England

Six Flags New England

Six Flags New England

1623 Main St., Agawam

www.sixflags.com/newengland

Admission: $34.99 and up; season passes, $59.99 and up

All summer: Unlike most seasons, Six Flags has not announced a new ride for 2022, but is touting an improved visitor experience, adding single-rider lines on some of its most popular rides, including Batman the Dark Knight, Harley Quinn Spinsanity, Supergirl Sky Flyer, and more; as well as upgrading its Flash Pass system to a mobile app, offering mobile food ordering, and unveiling new dining options. The main park and the Hurricane Harbor water park are both open now.

 

Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival

Stearns Square, Springfield

www.springfieldjazzfest.com

Admission: Free

Aug. 12-13: This year, Springfield’s biggest music festival moves to the Stearns Square neighborhood, and Worthington and Bridge streets will be closed to vehicles to create a pedestrian area. The Charles Neville Main Stage will be located near Stearns Square, and the Urban Roots Stage will be located near Tower Square Park. The music lineup will include Bomba de Aqui, Albino Mbie, Curtis Haywood, Dayme Arocena, and the Haneef Nelson Quintet, with more announcements to come.

 

Star Spangled Springfield

Downtown Springfield

www.spiritofspringfield.org

Admission: Free

July 4: What’s a better end to an Independence Day filled with food, family, and outdoor fun than taking in a spectacle of the skies? Springfield’s annual event will feature family-friendly entertainment, a flyover by the 104th Fighter Wing, and a dazzling fireworks display from the Memorial Bridge. But that’s hardly the only display on tap. Among the Western Mass. communities that have announced fireworks events are Holyoke (June 24); Chicopee and Northampton (June 25); Greenfield (July 1); South Hadley (July 2); Agawam (July 2-4); East Longmeadow (July 3); Amherst, North Adams, and Pittsfield (July 4); and Otis (July 9).

 

Summer Stage at Ski Butternut

380 State Road, Great Barrington

www.etix.com/ticket/v/23194/ski-butternut

Admission: $24 to $28

July 16, Aug. 27. Sept. 17: For the first time this summer, Ski Butternut will present a family-friendly concert series. The cover bands span a range of rock styles and time periods and include Dean Ford and the Beautiful Ones: A Tribute to Prince (July 16), The Machine: Dark Side of the Moon and Greatest Hits of Pink Floyd (Aug. 27), and The Breakers: A Tribute to Tom Petty (Sept. 17). A variety of food, beer, and wine will be available for purchase.

 

Tanglewood

Tanglewood

Tanglewood

297 West St., Lenox

www.bso.org

Admission: Varies

June 17 to Sept. 4: This summer, for the first time since 2019, Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, will offer a full season of concerts and events. With Ozawa Hall and the Linde Center for Music and Learning reopening to the public alongside the Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood will present a wide range of programs, including eight world and American premieres and 28 works by living composers, as well as 21 artists making their Tanglewood or BSO debuts. See the website for a full listing.

 

Valley Blue Sox

MacKenzie Stadium, 500 Beech St., Holyoke

www.valleybluesox.com

Admission: $5-$7; flex packs, $59-$99

Through July 30: Western Mass. residents don’t have to trek to Boston to catch quality baseball. The Valley Blue Sox, two-time champions of the New England Collegiate Baseball League, play the home half of their 44-game schedule close to home at MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke. Frequent promotional events like postgame fireworks and giveaways help make every game a fun, affordable event for the whole family.

 

Westfield Starfires

Bullens Field, Westfield, MA

www.westfieldstarfires.com

Admission: $10; flex packs, $99

Through Aug. 6: Still can’t get enough baseball? The newest baseball club to land in Western Mass., the Starfires, a member of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, play a slightly longer schedule (56 games) than the Blue Sox. Now in its fourth season, the team plays at Bullens Field in a city with a rich baseball history, and peppers its games with plenty of local flavor and fan experiences.

 

The Zoo in Forest Park

The Zoo in Forest Park

The Zoo in Forest Park

293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA

www.forestparkzoo.org

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

Through Oct. 10: 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, and, unlike 2020 and 2021, guests no longer need a timed ticket to visit. u

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Growing Desire

 

Tina D’Agostino

Tina D’Agostino

For many, the pandemic was a time for introspection, for thinking about what’s important in life, for finding what makes one happy. It was that way for Tina D’Agostino, who, after landing in the corporate world following two decades of work at CityStage, decided she wanted to “pursue a career I could love again.” That pursuit led to Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, a business that brings a passion for flowers and some entrepreneurial fire together in the same mobile venture.

 

 

Tina D’Agostino says she’s always been entrepreneurial, and has long had a desire to start a venture of her own. Until very recently, though, the timing just wasn’t right.

By that she meant that she was either busy raising children and working part time, a period much earlier in her career, or working full time, as in very full time, promoting and staging events for CityStage with Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp., until 2018.

“I think that fire, and that interest, was always there,” she said. “But life did not allow me to test those waters and jump in.”

And when it did allow her to jump in and eventually launch Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, the timing could hardly be considered ideal. Indeed, she opened the doors to the truck in the middle of the pandemic, when operating any business was a stern challenge.

In some important ways, however, the pandemic inspired this entrepreneurial gambit, she said, adding that, for her (and many others) that challenging, unprecedented period brought with it time, and reason, for introspection and a focus on what’s important.

And for her, this meant finding work that … well, isn’t really work. Flowers are more of a passion, she said, and working for herself brings rewards on many different levels.

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

In this case, it meant taking a life-long love of flowers and gardening and coming up with something different, specifically a flower truck — a tricked-out Mercedes Sprinter van to be more precise. It’s not a delivery van, but rather a flower shop on wheels, one that she takes to various locations, like the Longmeadow Shops, to sell flowers but also to stage workshops and other programs.

She opened on Mother’s Day — one of those big days for florists — in 2021, and officially opened her studio in the Mill at Crane Pond in Westfield last November. Just over a year in, she described what’s transpired thus far as a rewarding learning experience, one that has yielded all the emotions encountered by entrepreneurs and the normal amounts of highs, lows, doubts, convictions, and nights where she could have done with more sleep.

“It’s certainly stressful figuring out where the next check is coming from and how I’m going to make the next payment on the van,” she continued. “But it’s worth it; at the end of every day, I’m glad I made this move.”

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy. That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

Overall, she has perservered and put down some solid roots in a highly competitive industry. And she has her business on a track to continued growth and new opportunities, while successfully returning to where she was — a place where she loves coming to work every day.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with D’Agostino about her still relatively new venture, where she wants to take it, and how she intends to get there.

 

Stem Class

D’Agostino calls this the fourth chapter in her career. The first three included an intriguing mix of career stops, all of which in some ways helped her prepare for this latest act.

During that first chapter, she worked for a direct-mail company, a treadmill manufacturer, and an elementary school, when her children were very young. After she divorced, she needed full-time employment with benefits, and found it at CityStage, where she would climb the ladder, advancing from director of marketing to general manager to executive director, the post she was in when the city announced it was closing the nonprofit agency in 2018.

From there, she worked at Mercy Medical Center in the office of Philanthropy, and, later took a community-engagement role with Health New England just days before the pandemic arrived in Western Mass.

“I was at Health New England for four days before we were sent home to work because of COVID, so the community engagement part of that never took off,” she noted, adding that she worked at the company into January of this year as she gradually transitioned out of that phase of her career and into this one.

“I realized that, after enjoying a pretty robust career in a nonprofit in a very unique industry, the entertainment industry, it was hard to make that shift to the corporate environment,” she explained. “I think that this, coupled with COVID, promoted me to pivot to this business and become an entrepreneur. To go to a job every day sent me into a bit of a depression.”

Her chosen field, pun intended, is a hobby and passion that goes back to when she was a child.

“My grandmother had the greenest of all thumbs,” she explained. “She was a gardener and had tons of flowers outside and inside; actually, both sets of grandparents had vegetable gardens. We grew up gardening and paying attention to flowers — when I was a kid, it was big outing to go to Stanley Park and look at the roses, and we used to go to flower shows with my mom and my aunts when I was a kid, so I’ve always been around flowers.

“My father died when I was very young, and after he died, my mom went to work part time in a flower shop, so I had that exposure,” she went on. “It’s always been an interest of mine, and I’ve always arranged my own flowers.”

But making flowers a business is challenging in the current marketplace, she told BusinessWest, adding that there are still plenty of traditional flower shops in the region and supermarkets in nearly every area community with huge floral departments.

Upon surveying this scene, she decided she needed something decidedly different, and by that she meant the experience of choosing and buying flowers. And she decided that a mobile model would set Blooms apart and provide that unique experience.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving. I’m rewriting the business plan regularly.”

“It’s kind of like a food truck, but with flowers,” she said, adding that she does pop-ups at the Longmeadow Shops and other locations such as wineries and breweries, and will also appear at events like charity golf tournaments. She has also made appearances at businesses — the Big E was one of them — that are showing appreciation to employees by giving them flowers.

Her first real challenge, and maybe the biggest in her estimation, was simply finding a van in which to operate — a difficult task when inventory is short and prices have skyrocketed.

“When I was looking last year, there were zero; there was nothing out there for a few months,” she recalled, adding that at one point she was in line to get a used model but eventually scored a new one and in less time than she anticipated.

Last November, she went next level and opened the studio at the Mill at Crane Pond in space by the loading dock that was formerly occupied by a machine shop. There, she sees some foot traffic for flowers and also conducts some workshops.

Moving forward, she is shaping and reshaping the business model and working to create enough revenue streams to see the business through the months that don’t have those busy flower days, like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and even Thanksgiving, which was more lucrative than she imagined it would be.

Such streams include everything from event planning, something she has done for years, and providing flowers for such gatherings, to an array of gifts she sells at the studio — most of which are intended for marrying couples — to work helping area residents with their home gardens.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving,” she explained. “I’m rewriting the business plan regularly; some things have worked, and some things haven’t. The latest incarnation is to focus on as much events business as possible, and try to book as many large events, such as weddings and corporate gatherings, as possible.”

Elaborating, she said she wants to create more added value at such events by providing take-away gifts such as bouquets, or staging workshops for attendees on making arrangements, an interactive experience she calls a “Blooms bar.”

 

Plant Manager

All this is part of an entrepreneurial experience that is, in many ways, what she expected. But in other ways, it’s been much more than she could have imagined.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but it is a lot more work than thought it was going to be because I’m just one person,” she explained. “I have friends and family that help when I need it for larger events, but for the day to day, I’m handling all of it — managing the books, the buying, the marketing, the social media, and the delivery; it’s much more than I thought.

“I do have to remember that it’s good to put things down and put things away,” she went on. “I really have to focus on staying organized, planning my time, and budgeting my time so that it’s not completely taking over. But that’s also the blessing of being an entrepreneur, because you can make your own schedule.”

Overall, the highs and lows, up and downs, have certainly been palatable, because D’Agostino is in a place she wants to be, figuratively, but also quite literally.

“There aren’t really any bad days, but at the end of the worst day, I look next to me, and I’m delivering, or surrounded by, or working with, all this beauty, and that’s really important to me.”

 

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 115: June 6, 2022

George Interviews John Regan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Mass.

John Regan

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with John Regan, president and CEO of Associated Industries of Mass.  The two discuss the state’s the economy and the headwinds facing it, especially the ongoing workforce crisis. They also discuss the prospects for a recession and the many issues keeping business owners up at night. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 114: May 30, 2022

George O’Brien talks with Charlie Epstein, senior vice president of HUB International and Epstein Financial

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Charlie Epstein, senior vice president of HUB International and Epstein Financial. The two discuss his upcoming show at Holyoke Community College — Yield of Dreams — and how it brings together his twin passions — acting and educating people about not just saving for retirement, but realizing their dreams. It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Law Special Coverage

Common Compensation Blunders

By John Gannon, Esq.

Wage-and hour-compliance is never easy for businesses, and a recent decision from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) just made things harder.

In ˆ, No. SJC-13121 (Mass. April 4, 2022), the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled that paying employees late is equivalent to not paying at all. This means employees are entitled to triple damages if they are not paid on time, because under the Massachusetts Wage Act, employers who fail to pay wages are liable for three times the unpaid wage amount (treble damages). With that case in mind, here are a few common compensation mistakes employers should avoid to ensure solid wage and hour compliance.

Failure to pay wages on time: The Massachusetts Wage Act requires employers to pay all wages, including any accrued, unused vacation time, to employees who are terminated on their last day of work. For employees who voluntarily resign, all wages are due on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date.

Too often, employers pay final wages a day or a week too late. This is especially common with unpaid commissions. The problem here is that under the Reuter v. City of Methuen case, those wages are not paid on time. Therefore, the employee is due triple damages under the Wage Act.

This is what happened to the City of Methuen; the city paid an employee her final paycheck of about $9,000 (including unused vacation time) about three weeks late. The court ruled that the employee was due almost $30,000 because the city paid the employee a few weeks late. Professional tip: Don’t make this same mistake. Make sure employees who are separated from work are paid all wages on their last day of work. If the final check is not ready the day you need to let someone go, have a process in place to suspend the employee while you work out cutting the final paycheck.

Misclassifying employees as independent contractors: It can be tempting to “contract” with an individual to provide services that are similar to what your employees do. This relationship has tax advantages, no need to worry about leave laws and other employment regulations, and a perceived sense of freedom to easily terminate the relationship if it does not work out.

“The Massachusetts Wage Act requires employers to pay all wages, including any accrued, unused vacation time, to employees who are terminated on their last day of work. For employees who voluntarily resign, all wages are due on or before the next regularly scheduled pay date.”

The problem is that classifying individuals as independent contractors (“I/C”) in this situation can be risky. This is because the I/C classification may violate the Massachusetts Independent Contractor statute, which requires workers to be classified as employees, not I/Cs, when the work being performed is similar to that of other employees.

The Massachusetts Independent Contractor statute also requires true contractors to: (1) be free from control and direction from the business (meaning, the contractors sets their own hours and performance standards); and (2) have their own independently established profession or business (meaning, the contractor has their own LLC, PC, or other established business entity). Even where an individual agrees to be classified as an independent contractor and paid via a1099, businesses run a risk of violating the Massachusetts Independent Contractor if all of the above-mentioned factors are not satisfied.

Travel time troubles: Both Massachusetts and federal law require employers to pay employees for non-commuting travel time during the day. This is commonly referred to as intraday travel. Here is the example provided by the federal Department of Labor: Barbara is a personal care aide providing assistance to Mr. Jones. Barbara drives him to the Post Office and grocery store during the workday. Barbara is working and the travel time must be paid.

What employers in Massachusetts might not know is that under state law you also have to reimburse Barbara for all “associated transportation expenses.” This means you need to pay her for costs like mileage, tolls, and parking (if applicable). It is unclear what employers have to pay for mileage, but the safe bet is paying in accordance with the IRS standard mileage rate, which is currently 58.5 cents per mile.

Meal break miscues: Massachusetts law requires employers to provide a 30-minute meal break to employees when they work more than six hours in a day. The break does not need to be paid; however, if an employee does any work during an unpaid break, the employee needs to be compensated for their time. This could be as little as answering a work-related phone call or making a few copies on the copy machine during a break.

Meal break time may be used by employees for activities other than eating, such as running an errand or taking a walk outside. The key here is that if the meal break is unpaid, workers must be allowed to use the time as they choose, including leaving the building/work premises.

Illegal deductions from pay: When it comes to paychecks, the general rule is that employers cannot make any deductions, with a few exceptions. Some deductions are federal or state mandated, such as any deductions for taxes or child support. Other deductions are consented to by employees, including money put toward insurance premiums and retirement benefits. Other than that, employers should not be deducting money from paychecks under almost any circumstances.

One common scenario where employers want to make a deduction is a situation involving a wage overpayment. In this case, a deduction might be ok if: (1) the employee agrees in writing to the overpayment and deduction; and (2) the deduction does not bring the employee’s earnings below minimum wage. Be sure to check in with employment counsel before making a deduction for an overpayment though, as it does have some potential risk. Also, be sure to never make deductions associated with damaging or failure to return company property (such as a cell phone or laptop). This is not allowed in any circumstances, and can lead to triple damages under the Massachusetts Wage Act.

 

John Gannon is a partner with the Springfield-based law firm of Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Health and Safety Act; (413) 737-4753; [email protected].

Features Special Coverage

A Complicated Picture

John Regan says that, in many respects, it is difficult to reconcile the numbers from the latest Business Confidence Index (BCI) released by Associated Industries of Mass. (AIM) with recent headlines and the many strong headwinds facing business owners and managers today.

Indeed, the monthly confidence index continued an upward trend since the start of the year, rising to 58.1, a gain of 0.9 points, putting the index “comfortably within optimistic territory,” according to AIM, which Regan serves as president.

That optimism, though, comes as inflation remains at nearly historic levels, gas prices continue their upward climb, a stubborn workforce crisis continues, supply-chain issues persist, and the stock market is down double digits (almost 20%, in fact) from the start of the year. That’s why Regan acknowledges that the BCI’s trajectory seems illogical, if not contradictory to what’s happening.

“It’s hard to reconcile, but people feel confident,” he said. “And the Business Confidence Index is important because if you’re confident, you’re more willing to make investments in equipment, people, facilities, and new products.”

And a closer look at the landscape might reveal that there are, in fact, reasons for such optimism, he said, starting with a simple comparison to where things were two years ago — and even four months ago — with regard to the pandemic and its many side effects.

John Regan

John Regan

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance.”

And then, there’s those soaring state revenues. The Department of Revenue took in more than $2 billion above what was expected in April, giving Gov. Charlie Baker cause to press his case for the Legislature to take up his proposals to provide roughly $700 million in tax relief to residents.

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance,” he said. “If you match business confidence with the state’s own revenue performance, clearly positive things are happening.”

Overall, there are several factors, competing numbers, and varying opinions relative to just what is causing this record inflation that make it difficult to speculate about what will happen short- and long-term and whether the country is heading for a recession, as many are now projecting. GDP declined by 1.4% in the first quarter, and many economists are projecting that this trend will continue in Q2. And the matter is complicated further by the Fed’s ongoing efforts to slow the pace of inflation by raising interest rates — an aggressive strategy that is fueling speculation about a recession.

As Bob Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst surveys the scene, he said it is largely without precedent, thus making analysis, let alone predictions, difficult.

“We live in complicated times,” he said, with a large dose of understatement in his voice. “It’s a complicated picture, more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Brian Canina, executive vice president, CFO and treasurer at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, agreed.

“This is a very unusual period of time,” he told BusinessWest. “Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

And even harder to project what will happen. Nakosteen does not anticipate continued decline in GDP for the second quarter, which, if it did happen, would be the technical definition of recession. But he’s not projecting strong growth, either.

Brian Canina

Brian Canina

“This is a very unusual period of time. Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

“My prediction is we’ll see growth in the second quarter,” he said. “Not robust growth, maybe 1% or 1.5%, but I don’t think you’ll see GDP decline again.”

Meanwhile, Regan said economists with AIM are projecting that recession is “more likely than not, but it won’t be a terribly long recession.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with these experts and asked them to slice through the complex confluence of issues and try to anticipate what will happen with the economy in the coming months and quarters.

 

On-the-money Analysis

It was the late U.S. Sen. John McCain who, in 2015, described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Paying homage to that quote, Nakosteen, echoing others, said Russia is a “a gas station with an army.”

That classification, and the acknowledgment that Russia, and Ukraine, both export large amounts of wheat and fertilizer, speaks volumes about just one of the many forces — most of them unpredictable in nature — that are impacting the national and global economic scene. And they’re also making it difficult to determine what will happen in Q2, Q3, and well beyond, said Nakosteen, who, like Regan, said that despite those aforementioned headwinds, there are many positive signs when it comes to the economy.

Bob Nakosteen

“The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

“The GDP decline in both the state and the nation was almost more a technical issue, because all the numbers that went into it, except those regarding inventory, were strong,” he explained. “The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

Which prompted two interest-rate hikes this year, including a half-point increase late last month, designed to slow the economy. But with those rate hikes comes talk of inflation, said Nakosteen, adding that, historically, one has led to the other.

These factors add up to a lot of watching and analyzing for people like Canina, who said there is a lot to digest, including current loan activity, or the lack thereof, as well as inflation and the dreaded inverted yield curve — a successful predictor of many recent recessions — and the impact of rising interest rates on consumer spending as the cost of borrowing increases.

Starting with a look at loan activity, he said it has slowed markedly in recent months, with most all refinancing of home mortgages complete and commercial loans in the post-PPP era being relatively stagnant.

“For what should be a very robust economic environment, we’re not seeing the equivalent loan opportunities on either the commercial or residential side,” he said, adding that the rising interest rates, coupled with low inventory and soaring prices, are certainly impacting the latter. “We’re not seeing a lot of loan demand; we’re doing what we can to find it, but it’s challenging for us right now.”

And this lack of loan activity will certainly have an impact on interest paid on deposits, he said, noting that while one might assume that these rates will rise naturally as the Fed increases interest rates, they won’t if loan activity remains stagnant.

“We’re coming off a time when banks have a ton of cash because of all the government stimulus that’s been flooded into the market,” he explained. “So they have a ton of cash on their balance sheet and not a lot of loan demand, so it’s going to be very difficult for them to pay higher rates on deposits unless they can turn that cash into loans.”

And the loan market is just one of the many things to watch moving forward, he went on, adding that the sluggishness in that area is a symptom (one of many) that the inflation being witnessed is a product of government policy and other factors — supply chain issues, workforce shortages and resulting higher wages among them — rather than the economy being hot and in need of being cooled down.

“I don’t think gas prices or the cost of groceries are really being impacted by consumer spending,” he said. “I think those things have been impacted by government regulation, supply chain, and cost of wages — grocery stores paying $17 an hour for kids to bag groceries because they can’t hire people at lower wages because there’s no one to hire.”

“It’s all been reactionary to the pandemic — everything right now seems to be incredibly artificial,” he went on, adding that, for this reason, the Fed’s interest-rate hikes might provide a real, unfiltered look at what’s happening with the economy. “We have artificially driven rates on the short term, and the Fed also manipulating rates on the long end with their bond purchases. If they can start shrinking their balance sheet, and raising interest rates on the low end can normalize the yield curve, and then get out of the markets, then we can see what’s really going on.”

Still another thing to watch is how quickly and profoundly interest rates are increased, he said, adding that, in the past, when rates rise quickly and in large doses, the Fed has had to back off and reverse course in an effort to pick up a slowing economy.

Nakosteen agreed, and noted that there are many factors that go into inflation, some of which are likely to be impacted by rising interest rates — such as the spending spawned by government-awarded money in the wake of the pandemic — and some not.

“It’s a complicated picture,” he said. “And inflation is more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Looking back to see if there was a time to compare all this to, Nakosteen said there were many similar attempts to slow the economy, but perhaps none at a time when there were so many issues clouding the picture.

“It’s a bizarre mixture of factors,” he said. “There’s COVID, the war in Ukraine, the aftermath of all the stimulus … it’s a strange mix.”

And despite this mix of factors, or headwinds, business owners are generally upbeat, as indicated in the upward movement of the BCI, which Regan explained this way:

“When things are going badly, the BCI usually predicts that. Despite all the negative stock market activity and the presence of significant inflation pressures, along with continuing supply chain issues and the challenge of securing a workforce, the index is in significantly positive territory.

“When you look at the BCI and some of the other things that are happening, it’s hard to reconcile, other than to say that the people who are responding to the survey feel very confident about how they are doing and how they perceive conditions for their own operation,” he went on, adding that the next reporting of the BCI will be watched with great interest.

 

The Bottom Line

Looking again at the complicated picture that is the national economy, Nakosteen said that, historically, efforts by the Fed to slow inflation by raising interest rates usually take six months or more to reveal their true efficacy.

But in this case, such initiatives have been designed to speed that process, he said, adding that he’s not at all sure whether they actually succeed in doing that — or whether they will succeed at all, given the many question marks concerning the nature of this historic inflation.

Overall, the always complicated task of projecting what will happen with the economy has become that much more difficult. In other words, stay tuned.

 

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

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Celebrating Innovation

By Julie Rivers

The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI) turned 50 in 2021. It was a milestone, like many, that was marked in quiet fashion, and in this case, very quiet, because of the pandemic.

The actual celebration, in the form of an anniversary gala, came this year — May 3, to be precise. More than 150 people attended the event at the UMass Club in Boston, a gathering that offered UMDI and its supporters the long-awaited chance to reconnect, meet new people, and celebrate.

And there was, and is, much to celebrate.

Indeed, charged with social service, economic development, and community engagement, the Donahue Institute interfaces with many aspects of life in Massachusetts and beyond. In fact, UMDI has received global recognition for its economic research, program-evaluation capabilities, and workforce and educational initiatives.

Anticipating almost $25 million in revenues for fiscal year 2022, UMDI has about 175 employees with staff across the country, including all six New England states, Southern California, and Arizona. UMDI operates like a consulting firm, with 98% of its revenues being self-generated.

At the gala, recently appointed Executive Director Johan Uvin offered what amounted to a state-of-UMDI address, and in a Zoom call with BusinessWest that involved several leaders of the institute, he did the same, highlighting what’s changed over the years and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t for this vital resource.

“As someone coming in from the outside, this is a solid model — it’s not broken,” he said of the institute’s method of operation. “The Donahue Institute has the autonomy and intellectual freedom to pursue work that is meaningful to society but that also aligns with its mission and capabilities.”

Over the years, that work, has come in a variety of forms, including everything from housing to the national Census; economic data and ways to measure it, to office automation. And the institute’s work has often to led to changes in how things are done and how issues are addressed.

Johan Uvin addresses attendees

Johan Uvin addresses attendees at the recent gala marking the Donahue Institute’s 50th anniversary.

Slicing through it all, Mark Melnik, director of UMDI’s Economic and Public Policy Group, used terms not often applied to such an agency.

“We’re a dynamic organization, especially for a public-service institute,” he told BusinessWest. “While entrepreneurial mode can be exhausting, it allows us to push corners.”

This unique blend of public service and entrepreneurship provides the institute to recognize and seize what he called “opportunities that just make sense.”

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest looks at these opportunities while reviewing the institute’s first 50 years of work and asking UMDI’s leaders what will likely come next.

 

History Lessons

In the beginning, the Donahue Institute focused on providing consulting services to state and local governments. Named for former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, the late Maurice A. Donahue, UMDI branched out in the mid-1980s by helping clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

According to J. Lynn Griesemer, who served with UMDI for 31 years, including several as president, and still acts as a senior advisor, a breakthrough assignment in the early days of the institute was to assess how to most effectively introduce office automation into workplaces. While automation is incontrovertible today, back in the paper-laden manual task days of 1970s office life, the project was just one of many groundbreaking concepts the institute would help launch.

Another early assignment that would shape the future of the institute involved improving floor operations at the General Motors assembly plant in Framingham. However, while the project was underway, the plant began laying off shifts — but UMDI was already there as an implant that was well-positioned to lend a hand. Shifting focus, the institute helped the newly dislocated workers create resumes, get additional education, and ultimately find jobs or even start businesses of their own. Through this fortuitous timing, the institute quickly became the largest services provider to dislocated workers in the Commonwealth.

Donahue Institute

From left, former director of the Donahue Institute Eric Heller, former deputy director John Klenakis, former director Lynn Griesemer, Director Johan Uvin, and Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan

The federal government’s Department of Defense would then present the institute with an opportunity to help make systems uniform across military branches. This project allowed UMDI to develop the national credibility to successfully bid on the Head Start program, one of its core initiatives to this day.

From there, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld asked the UMass President’s Office to assist with an economic development initiative for the state. With the help of economic experts from across the UMass campus, UMDI worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to forge the MassBenchmarks project. To this day, MassBenchmarks assesses the Massachusetts economy through reports and analyses that it then produces and releases twice per year in journal form.  

These early projects laid the groundwork for UMDI to get approved as a vendor by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA). This designation allows the institute to bypass the lengthy bidding process usually required to win large federal contracts. 

Indeed, the institute’s keen eye for evaluating opportunities and strategically selecting those that will open doors has built the solid foundation it now stands on.

Today, the Donahue Institute is comprised of 10 business units. However, despite the ever-growing diversification of its core capabilities, a vibrant and robust research component remains at the backbone. This includes both UMDI’s Applied Research and Program Evaluation unit and its Economic and Public Policy Research group, led by Melnik.

This group operates as a project-oriented consulting firm, much like a think tank, bringing academic expertise and methods to real-world social problems. The group works with demographic, labor market, and economic data to help state and municipal governments, planning agencies, and nonprofits guide broad public policy discussions.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts.”

One current project examines how to leverage new apprenticeship models to minimize employee retention challenges. Another potentially groundbreaking study involves using data gathered for COVID-related purposes to develop new and more affordable ways of providing healthcare services to consumers instead of funneling people into highly complex systems that they have to navigate on their own.

A core assignment for Melnik’s group is its work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth preparing for census enumeration, which is the basis for federal funding allocation and congressional seats. With help from UMDI’s population- estimates program, the state’s census data is head of class in the nation. This is especially noteworthy since census data is relied upon heavily for resource allocations and predicting where jobs will be. It also informs decisions around population projections used by the MassDOT and Mass. School Building Authority for school district planning.

The group’s portfolio also includes a two-phase initiative with Way Finders that uses Greater Springfield as a case study on housing market affordability. With a focus on upward mobility and wealth creation, the study seeks to answer what it’s like for low- to moderate-income families to live in a high-cost state.

“Wages are so much lower in the Pioneer Valley that more than 54% of renters are housing cost-burdened,” Melnik says. Additionally, the majority of those burdened are people of color.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts,” he explains. This is because it tells the story needed to inform public policy, including the future of transportation.  

Another of the institute’s long-term projects is the Head Start program, which it has been involved with since 2003.

UMDI’s New England Head Start Training and Technical Assistance group is co-directed by Rosario Dominguez, M.P.A. Dominguez says that when people think of the Head Start program, early childhood education is often the only thing that comes to mind. However, that barely scratches the surface of what the program does, as it begins at pregnancy and continues to support families through college.

With this long-term intervention approach, the program addresses intergenerational poverty by using what goes on in the classroom as a lens for examining how families can reach their financial goals, ultimately strengthening entire communities. Through the partnerships it forms, the program has the reach to solve issues much larger in scale than early childhood development, including informing policies that move social equity and upward mobility forward by helping education and social service organizations improve their systems.  

Beyond its regional and national footprints, Ken LeBlond, Marketing Communications manager, said UMDI also handles international work. Funded by the United States Department of State, the institute has contributed to economic mobility at the global level since 2004.

This includes its exchange program in which groups of 20-30 people from about 60 countries, such as Argentina, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, come to Western Massachusetts each summer. The groups travel the region engaging in active learning, helping at the Amherst food bank and senior center, and working on river cleanup projects.

 

A Look Ahead

In August 2021, the Donahue Institute welcomed Uvin as its executive director. Uvin had previously served as assistant secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Working alongside Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan, Uvin holds the distinction of being the institute’s first executive director to be hired externally.

When asked what is ahead for UMDI, Uvin talked about alternative models for providing health care and exploring different educational models in challenged communities to lift entire neighborhoods through training and interventions.

Additionally, Uvin is interested in looking at both the supply and demand sides of regional economies to shape how employers and individuals work together to create wealth.

He explained that the engagement process might begin with going into neighborhoods and asking, ‘what are your aspirations?’ This is important because, according to Uvin, “we are moving headlong into a labor shortage with the babyboomers retiring,” making it critical to have intentional conversations around economic development across many different populations.

While this may be a current focus for UMDI, these issues are not new to the Pioneer Valley, where economists and policymakers have been wrestling with similar challenges for decades. Uvin says that while high-tech industry sectors have grown across the state, it has not been an equitable geographic or demographic spread, with Gateway cities such as Springfield and Holyoke — where nearly half of the region’s minority population lives — being left behind.

Part of Uvin’s vision for the future is to explore work in sectors such as life sciences, which play a key role in the success of Central Massachusetts’ biotech manufacturing and Greater Boston’s R&D and lab-based growth.

This, he says, would involve lifting up underserved communities, which is critical because, on the business side, there are simply not enough workers to grow unless we find ways to include all populations. Representation of people of color in the best-paying jobs of the higher-tech sectors lags severely. In terms of where UMDI is at this point in contributing to solving inequities that plague underserved populations, he says they are in the discovery phase, talking to others on the grassroots level.     

As for the future, the institute is positioned to make great strides. With an executive director from the outside, a new perspective brought on by the COVID pandemic, and an impressive 50 years of success to build from, the institute is at a nexus for bringing widespread change to the communities it serves.

“It’s an exciting time for reflection and renewal — to articulate what has happened, organically anyway, through the COVID crisis, which is the discourse around social equity and social mobility,” said Melnik. “This has been part of our work for a while now and has bubbled up even more.”

In reflecting upon how the institute has evolved over the past fifty years, Uvin and others said it is also important to highlight what hasn’t changed, especially the institute’s model and entrepreneurial approach to its work.

Dominguez adds that what was once called public service has evolved into economic mobility and social equity.

“Although we are further defining what we do, our core values will always be the same,” she said. “How can our work impact communities in need? That’s the core — and that won’t change.” 

Uvin concludes, “we’re not done evolving. COVID revealed what didn’t make sense, and business must respond.” Offering employee support, childcare, mental-health services, and other perks will be integral.

Perhaps what will carry the Donahue Institute forward another 50 years will be that which has stayed the same — a solid culture, a public service-focused mission, and the keen ability to find opportunities that align with core values while also having the potential to open doors.

Special Coverage Technology

Making IT Happen

By Mark Morris

Mike Sheil

Mike Sheil, president, Whalley Computer Associates

Mike Sheil says he enjoys his work because his business — information technology — is always changing. And he acknowledges that this is an understatement, as recent events have shown.

Sheil, president of Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick, began his career with the computer reseller right after graduating from North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. After four years, he left for a medical device company where he stayed for another four years. Sheil returned to Whalley 24 years ago and rose through the sales ranks until being named president in June 2020.

His relatively new position comes with a lengthy job description, but, overall, he is charged with authoring the next chapters in what has become a long-term success story — a company that has grown exponentially from its humble roots over the past 43 years because of its ability to adapt to that constant change he mentioned.

The past two years, dominated in every way imaginable by the COVID-19 pandemic, provide a dramatic example of the company’s ability to respond to change, and, in many respects, lead clients through it.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week. If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

Indeed, a banner hanging in the production area reminds employees that, when in doubt, they are to do what’s right for the customer, the company, and the individual. This clear guidance turned out to be valuable when COVID hit and flooded Whalley with sudden demands for products and assistance. With millions of employees suddenly leaving the office to work from home, Whalley clients needed the resources to make that happen.

“We helped companies with thousands of workers to get their folks set up at home,” Sheil recalled. “Some needed monitors and docking stations, while others sought upgrades to their data center because so many more people were tapping into their bandwidth.”

In one instance, a higher education client was looking for 400 laptops to outfit staff members who had been sent home to work.

“I received the request on a Saturday,” Sheil recalled. A colleague found the product, provided a quote for what it would cost, and sent it to the client. “For the first time in my career, I received a purchase order from a public university on a Sunday.” By Monday afternoon, 400 laptops were shipped to the university.

Whalley Computer Associates’ new building

Mike Sheil, left, says Whalley Computer Associates’ new building will allow the company to better serve its clients.

Looking ahead, Sheil said Whalley will soon begin to grow its physical presence with a new 84,000-square-foot building next to its current headquarters in Southwick. Plans call for locating the OEM division in the new space as well as expanding warehouse storage and improving delivery options.

“The new building allows us to go to our clients and let them know we can do even more for them, so that’s exciting,” Sheil said. “This is an opportunity to grow our business in North America while showing our commitment to Southwick and Western Mass.”

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Whalley’s long and intriguing history, and at what’s next for a business that helps its clients get it — and IT.

 

Taking Big Bytes

Tracing that history, Sheil noted that, in the early 1970s, Agawam math teacher John Whalley purchased a small software consulting firm that had a few clients. Working out of his basement after school and during the summer months, Whalley began to add customers, and by 1979 established Whalley Computer Associates.

By 1984 he moved the business out of the basement and in 1985, left teaching to concentrate on growing his company. Whalley is now CEO of the company, which is located in a 62,500-square-foot state-of-the-art building where 200 employees provide products and services to more than 20,000 customers around the world.

Whalley customers range from small businesses to corporations, as well as educational institutions and healthcare organizations. Clients tell Whalley representatives what challenges they need to address in their computer systems. Whalley then orders the product, configures it to fit the client’s needs, then delivers and installs the product at the client’s site. There are other resellers who simply order the product and send it directly to the client, who usually don’t have the space to handle a computer system shipment. Sheil said Whalley is different because it takes a hands-on approach.

“Once we receive the product it’s completely handled by Whalley employees,” Sheil said. “From the engineers and technicians who configure the products, to the people who drive our trucks and install the systems, everyone has a vested interest in doing it right.”

And during the pandemic, the company’s resolve to do it right was certainly tested, a test Sheil said it has passed.

“COVID and supply chain issues have been challenging, yet we experienced growth during that period,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all thanks to our people who were flexible and willing to respond to all these requests.”

The OEM division of Whalley provides custom design of technology systems for clients. When COVID hit and that division temporarily shut down, most organizations would have laid off workers. Instead, OEM employees were sent home with a laptop and a project to work on to benefit the company.

Heather Kies was given the assignment to plan several events for the company. A project manager with OEM, Kies also had a marketing background and enjoyed getting back into this area. She handled the assignment so well, Sheil promoted Kies to Marketing Manager in January and asked her to run the company’s new marketing department, which previously existed only informally as part of business development.

Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record

Mike Sheil says Whalley Computer Associates has a long track record of adapting to change and being nimble in its efforts to serve clients.

These days Kies is working on various company events, including preparations for a major tech conference that takes place in December.

“I’m also busy getting the word out on who we are so people understand all the services we can provide,” Kies said.

While the height of COVID brought unspeakable horrors, it also forced companies to think differently about how to stay in business and meet customer needs. Sheil is one of many who believes that making the pivot and finding new ways to get the job done is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has been with us for more than two years.

“When COVID hit we had to patch different products together because we couldn’t get the materials we wanted,” Sheil said. “As a result, our people figured out how to get clients what they need despite supply chain issues.”

One of the most profound changes since COVID is the growth in hiring people who work far away from the company’s headquarters.

“Since the pandemic, we’ve brought on new employees in Tennessee, Florida, and Texas,”
Sheil noted. “We can now hire folks out of the region to grow our reach.” Whalley won a recent contract in Pennsylvania and is seeking a salesperson for that area.

“This makes sense for us because these folks live there, they know the area and we can support them from here.”

Whalley offers clients different options to store data on the cloud. Sheil explained some clients want to store all their data remotely in the cloud, others choose to split between the cloud and on-premise servers, while other clients prefer to keep their on-premise storage. Having expertise in cloud storage has helped Whalley clients get around some supply chain issues.

“When clients order a storage device and then learn it will be up to six months before they see it, we can offer them cloud storage while they wait,” Sheil said. “When their device finally arrives, they can take it off the cloud. It gives them flexibility.”

In addition to shipping products out the door, Whalley has seen growth in its managed- services area, which Sheil explained as the first line of defense for the client.

“With remote workers logging in at all hours of the day, internal IT staffs are straight out keeping their systems going,” Sheil said. “From our data center, our managed services staff may see a problem developing before it actually becomes a problem.” Using the example of a defective hard drive, Sheil said his staff would notify the client’s IT director and immediately replace the device.

“In many cases, before the client is even aware of a potential issue, there’s an overnight envelope on its way with a new hard drive,” Sheil said. “In this way we can be an extra set of eyes for them.”

Security is an area that continues to grow and remains essential.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth in the products we sell for cyber security,” Sheil said. “We also provide knowledge to our clients so they can prevent ransomware attacks and other threats.”

 

Screen Test

When he looks to the future, Sheil admits that as a sales professional for 34 years, he always sees the glass as half full. After Whalley found success despite a pandemic and a supply chain crunch that continues, he believes the company is now poised for explosive growth.

“Before COVID you would get a quote, get a PO, order the product, it comes within a week and we can install it the next week,” Sheil said. “If we can get back to that type of normal business environment, I believe our company will experience tremendous growth.”

In seven years, the company will celebrate its 50th anniversary. Sheil said he’s excited about the upcoming anniversary while he reflected on how far Whalley has come.

“It’s good to know that we’re a company where you can stay more than 30 years and have a career,” he said. “We want to keep on growing our business while at the same time remain a great place to work in the future.” u

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 113: May 23, 2022

George O’Brien talks with Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group

Carla Cosenzi

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group. A winner of several of BusinessWest’s awards, including Difference Maker, 40 Under Forty, and the Alumni Achievement Award, all presented to those who combine excellence in their chosen field with work within the community, she talks about how those in business can achieve such balance and find ways to give back.  It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 112: May 16, 2022

George talks with Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health

 BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, about the fifth COVID surge, what he and his team are seeing, and what they are projecting. The numbers are rising, he said, but this surge won’t be like those that preceded it, and for many reasons. It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Restaurants Special Coverage

They Have a Lot on Their Plate

Bill Collins

Bill Collins

One restaurateur called it a ‘triple whammy.’ He was referring to a combination of forces — specifically soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and an ongoing workforce crisis — that are standing in the way of a full bounce back from two years of COVID. Despite these issues, restaurant owners are optimistic that 2022 will bring something approaching normal. Eventually.

By Mark Morris

When 2022 began, Bill Collins was anticipating a full year of uninterrupted business for his restaurant, the Center Square Grill. He did not foresee what he called a “major punch in the face” that shut down the restaurant for six weeks.

In January, one of the thermostats in the restaurant’s dining room failed, causing one sprinkler head to freeze. When the heat came back on, the ice in the line moved and activated the sprinklers. By the time Collins could shut off the sprinklers, the restaurant had taken on nearly 15,000 gallons of water.

“The basement was a nearly complete gut job,” Collins said. “In the dining room, we replaced floors, seating, and several walls.” It took exactly six weeks to go from the flood to opening the doors once again.

Locating a contractor can take six weeks, so how did Collins make the repairs to Center Square and re-open so quickly?

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant,” he said. “They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

In some ways, the sprinkler incident is a metaphor for the struggle for area restaurants as they look to make a full comeback after the pandemic. Just when people are dining out again and restaurant owners are looking to make up for two years of lost business, they are getting hit with spikes in food costs, increased labor costs — when and if they can find staff, that is — and various supply challenges that affect food and kitchen operations.

“I looked to my customer base and called the contractors who are regulars at the restaurant. They had a vested interest in getting us back open.”

“It’s a triple whammy,” said Ralph Santaniello, co-owner of the Federal Restaurant Group. “In some ways, this has been more challenging than the pandemic.” He quickly admitted that while the pandemic was a crushing event that came out of the blue, governments, communities and vendors all came together to help everyone get through it.

In addition to the Federal in Agawam, Santaniello and partner Michael Presnal own Posto Italian in Longmeadow and Vinted Wine Bar in West Hartford. Following his parents, who were in the restaurant business, Santaniello said he has been in the industry his whole life and has never seen prices as crazy as they are today.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes,” Santaniello told BusinessWest.

Everyone we spoke with discussed the challenge of rising costs. Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant in Lenox, said that even after forecasting for increased costs, they were 6% higher than anticipated in the first quarter alone.

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant

Aurelien Telle, co-owner of Alta Restaurant, says price increases on food the past six months have been “insane.”

“That’s huge and we don’t know where it’s going from there,” said Telle. “In the last six months price increases on food have been insane.”  

Adding to the craziness in food costs is unpredictability of what will be affected next.

Andrew Brow, chef and owner of Highbrow Wood Fired Kitchen in Northampton said all restaurants plan their menus with a balance of higher-cost items such as filet mignon and less expensive ones such as pasta. In the past, Brow bought braised short ribs at $5 per pound rather than New York strip steak which costs $10 to 12 a pound. Supplies are so mixed up now, that the short ribs cost as much as the New York strip which hasn’t increased in price.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to the price hikes,” Brow said. “One week mushrooms will triple in price, the next week it’s chicken and spinach.”

 

Food for Thought

Creating different dishes is one way restaurateurs are adjusting to the chaotic, soaring prices. When scallops escalated from $108 for an eight-pound case to $223, Collins created a new dish that included shrimp, which has held a more stable price. Instead of an entrée with six scallops, he offered in its place a shrimp and scallop entrée using three scallops and three shrimp.

“We used to plan out the business to see where we would be in five years, then it went to five months, and now it feels like it’s five minutes.”

“This way we can keep the dining price where it is and still offer delicious fun food that people expect when they come here,” Collins said.

Gas and electric bills are another area where prices are going up with no end in sight. Santaniello explained that restaurants, by design, are energy intensive with usage increasing in the summer.

“We have air conditioning running all day and night in the summer because when it’s 98 degrees and humid outside people expect to be comfortable when they go into a restaurant.”

It’s not surprising that take out containers spiked in price and were difficult to find at the height of the pandemic. Supply-chain issues also affected restaurants in less obvious ways. Santaniello said he needed a part for an oven door, something that would normally take a week to get, if the repair person didn’t already have one in their truck.

“We waited two months for the part,” Santaniello said. “So, we were down an oven for two months, and that’s difficult in a busy kitchen.”

Santaniello and Telle are experiencing busier than normal kitchens because as customers are returning to their respective restaurants, labor shortages have forced both men to cut back on the hours when they are open.

Andrew Brow

Andrew Brow says there has been “no rhyme or reason” to price hikes on food in recent months.

“Business has been great because of the pent-up demand of people wanting to go out to eat,” Santaniello said. “Our biggest issue is keeping up with that demand because we’re still looking for employees.”

Before the pandemic, the Federal operated six days a week. Now, in order to give his staff some time off, they are open only 4 days a week.

“The pandemic exacerbated a problem that our industry already had with finding enough workers,” Santaniello said. Advertising on job search sites such as Indeed and a restaurant specific site called Poach has brought limited results.

“We found our biggest success came from advertising on Facebook.”

For 13 years, Alta was open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner. These days, hours have been reduced to 6 nights a week and lunch hours were cut.

“We reduced our hours because we couldn’t hire more people,” said Telle. “I didn’t want my staff to have to work six double shifts, so I closed lunches to protect our staff.”

Telle is currently interviewing people with the hope of offering lunch hours again by late spring.

“We always get busier as the sun comes out,” he said adding that business also gets a big boost from all the tourists who visit Lenox in the summer.

Collins called it the best investment he’s ever made when he paid his staff their full salary during the six weeks Center Square was closed for repairs.

“It’s so tough to find qualified people that it made sense to us,” Collins said. “Most of my team has been with me for quite a while and it would have been tough to replace them if they had to leave and find other jobs.”

There are signs that open restaurant positions may be starting to get filled. Brow reported that Highbrow is fully staffed and he was able to hire a full staff for his new restaurant Jackalope in downtown Springfield.

“Even though wages are up much higher than pre-pandemic, the workforce is back,” Brow said.

As the weather gets warmer, all the restaurant owners look forward to expanding their outdoor dining. They all expressed gratitude to state and local officials for keeping this lifeline open even after diners were allowed back inside.

“I’m sure there are some people who are not comfortable coming back into a restaurant,” Collins said. “I think we’ll start seeing them once outdoor dining picks up.”

On May 1, Telle began accepting reservations for summer dining at Alta.

“People are making reservations into July and August,” he said. “And 85% of those are requests to sit outdoors.”

Collins added, “fresh air is not going out of style anytime soon.”

Summer also brings with it the opportunity to support local farms. Telle said working with local farms allows him to control some of the price increases, though he understands local prices will be higher this year than in the past.

Collins buys as much local produce as he can. In fact, his menu credits Szawlowski Farms in Hadley with supplying potatoes for their French fries.

“When tomato season kicks in we will buy them from Meadowbrook Farm in East Longmeadow,” Collins said. “Nothing tastes better than fresh local produce.”

 

The Bottom Line

Between outdoor dining and customers who are excited about eating out again, the restaurant owners all remain positive about this year and beyond.

Santaniello, describing himself as an optimist by nature, said, “I’m hoping by the fourth quarter of this year we will see some stability in pricing and as more people return to the workforce it will benefit our industry.”

Telle said he’s hopeful about hiring new staff and looks forward to a busy summer. “Right now, we’re following the same business patterns as a regular year.”

With Jackalope scheduled to open on May 11, Brow expressed gratitude despite all the uncertainty. “For those of us who made it through, it was worth the wait.”

For Collins the year started with closing for six weeks to fix major water damage. Despite that setback, Center Square is still on track to have its busiest year ever. He philosophized that a restaurant experience is more than just food.

“People need to go out and socialize. They need to feel that connection,” Collins said. “When they don’t, they get depressed and grumpy.”

He concluded, “that’s why we’re all back and we’re pumped to be here.”

Home Improvement Landscape Design Special Coverage

Lay of the Land

Dave Graziano

Dave Graziano, project manager of the Landscape Division at Graziano Gardens.

For area landscapers, the pandemic created a boom in business as consumers working at home and unable to go on vacations decided to improve their surroundings and invested accordingly. There is still some of that going on, but noticeably less, with consumers enjoying more spending options, while also experiencing considerable anxiety over sky-high inflation. While there is still plenty of work, landscapers confront a host of challenges, from workforce issues to shortages of materials to soaring gas prices.

By Mark Morris

 

The phones are ringing at landscaping companies this spring — but not at the same frenzied pace of the last two years. And that’s just one of many trends to watch as the calendar moves to mid-spring

Overall, consumers People are more cautious about spending their money this year, said Greg Omasta, president of Omasta Landscaping in Hadley, and, at the same time, they certainly have more spending options than they did in 2020 and even 2021.

“Those who have the money and want to improve their yard are still going to,” Omasta said. “For everyone who was on the fence about it … not so much.”

Steve Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare in Chicopee, concurred with that assessment. He said that while his company has backlog of business through June, he’s not as confident about the rest of the year.

“We’ve had internal discussions that we don’t have as many leads compared to this time last year,” he told BusinessWest. “People are still requesting work but we’re wondering if we will be as busy as last year.”

Two years ago, the pandemic forced people to spend more time at home. Many looked at their outside surroundings and decided they needed to invest in their yards, in many cases using money that would normally go toward a vacation away from home. This created a huge boom for landscapers who could barely keep up with all the demand for their services.

“Now that people are able to travel again, it seems like the COVID spending is slowing down,” Omasta explained, adding that on top of leisure travel increasing and people returning to the workplace, landscapers are experiencing an unseasonably cold spring that brings with it other challenges.

“Every year is different,” said Dave Graziano, project manager of the landscape division of Graziano Gardens in East Longmeadow. “If you talk with any independent businessperson there is some worry this year about what’s coming.”

That worry usually involves how to handle increased business costs, finding workers, and managing supply chain issues with various products. And landscapers are certainly having to cope with all those issues and more.

“Those who have the money and want to improve their yard are still going to. For everyone who was on the fence about it … not so much.”

Indeed, all the landscapers we spoke with have commercial clients as well as residential customers. Rachel Loeffler, landscape architect and principal with Berkshire Design Group in Northampton, said there is often competition, if one can call it that, between commercial and residential when supplies are short.

“Sourcing for plants can be challenging in normal times,” Loeffler said. “Now contractors check with five or six nurseries when they would normally go to one.” This scramble for plants often means finding substitutes.

As a landscape architect, Loeffler often recommends using products like cedar wood that will remain durable for years to come. When cedar became, in her words “extremely expensive” it changed the conversation with clients.

Steve Corrigan leads his crew as they install pavers at Loomis Village in South Hadley

Steve Corrigan leads his crew as they install pavers at Loomis Village in South Hadley, one of many current projects for his company, Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare.

“They had to go back and figure out how to build something that was durable and sustainable, but would also fit their budget,” Loeffler said.

Even world events affect landscaping materials. Omasta pointed out that many of the minerals found in fertilizers come from Russia. “So, some of our supply chain issues are based on what’s going on in the Ukraine.”

For this issue and its focus on landscaping and home improvement, BusinessWest talked with several business owners and managers in this sector. These discussions revealed the full breadth of challenges facing these companies — as well as the ample opportunities for continued growth.

 

Root Causes

Omasta told BusinessWest that, while it’s getting a little easier to find products — with the accent on little — items are coming in at premium prices that are generally 30% to 50% higher than last year.

But finding some products and materials remains a challenge, and the shortages result from a variety of reasons.

As just one example, Both Graziano and Omasta noted the difficulty in finding large evergreens and other large-caliber trees. And Loeffler said the recession of 2008 is the reason why it’s difficult to find such trees now.

“The trees that are available now were cultivated some 10 to 15 years prior,” Loeffler said. “In 2008, many nurseries cut back on their normal planting because of a big drop in demand.”

Overall, tree shortages and rising prices of everything from lawn-care products to bricks are just some of the challenges facing landscapers.

Indeed, on the commercial side of the ledger at Mountain View, Corrigan said his crews are working on several projects in Eastern Mass for parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields. While travelling up to an hour and a half from his home base in Chicopee is a common practice, fuel prices are forcing Corrigan to refigure what vehicles he sends to specific jobs.

“Our crew trucks use a lot of fuel so we leave them at the jobsite and go back and forth with different vehicles,” said Corrigan, adding that he’s looking to conserve whenever and wherever he can, because the numbers are so staggering.

“Last year we spent about $280,000 on fuel,” he said.“With prices increasing, if we use the same amount of fuel as 2021, it will add more than $100,000 to our costs unless we do something different.”

With more than 40 vehicles in the company’s fleet, costs can add up quickly. A newer vehicle might offer better gas mileage — if you can get one, that is.

“We placed an order for three new vehicles back in December,” said Corrigan. “And we won’t see them until July or August.”

Meanwhile, finding enough labor to get the job done remains a challenge.

Corrigan said his company has 95 people on the payroll and he could easily add another 10 — if he could find them. “Just before COVID, we hired a full-time recruiter, because even then we were having trouble finding help,” he noted, adding that the landscaping sector tends to attract young, entry-level people.

Many candidates get disqualified for failing their drug screen or for bad driving records, he went on, adding that he remains optimistic about the labor front. “We’ll get through it, one person at a time.”

Staffing has remained steady for Omasta Landscaping, thanks to a core group that has been with the company for several years. While landscape construction jobs remain hard to fill, Omasta said he had the opposite experience when hiring for clerical and office jobs.

“We took out ads for office people and the response has been tremendous,” Omasta said. “It seems there are people in the job search right now, whether it’s a career change or looking for a different job.”

While coping with these day-to-day issues and challengers, landscapers are also responding to longer-term trends, many of them involving the environment, cost-effectiveness, or both at the same time.

Rachel Loeffler says there is often competition between commercial and residential customers when supplies of certain products are short.

Loeffler told BuisnessWest she is doing more “lifecycle-costing” for projects. With this method, she will evaluate the installation of two similar materials — for example granite curbing vs. concrete curbing.

“We look at initial upfront cost, how long before each needs to be replaced, and then the cost over 100 years … and it’s crazy,” said Loeffler. “While granite is more expensive at the onset, over a 100-year period it’s significantly cheaper.”

She explained that concrete curbing has a useful life of about 15-20 years, so any time the asphalt paving is replaced, a new concrete curb will need to be built. With granite, a bucket loader can pick up the curbing and reset it each time the area is paved.

Loeffler admits most people don’t get excited about curbing, and she understands that project managers may opt to save money in their budget by using concrete, though granite proves to be a less expensive choice over the long term.

In a similar vein, Corrigan said changes are happening with the safety surfaces on new playground construction. For many years, landscapers have covered the areas around playground equipment with a thick installation of wood chips. The specs now call for poured in place rubber surfacing.

“It can cost four to five times more than wood chips, but project owners want it because the rubber works better from a safety perspective and they don’t have to go back every year to dress off the wood chips,”Corrigan said. The two-part process involves a base mat with a colored surface on top. In order to meet safety requirements, the rubber surface goes through a series of tests that mimic children falling on it.

 

Getting the Real Dirt

Looking at the proverbial big picture, Omasta said he understands that people don’t think about landscaping on cold, raw spring days, and there have been quite a few of them lately. “Once we start seeing sunny 70-degree days, the phone will ring off the hook,” he said, expressing optimism that his company, and this sector, will continue to flourish in these challenging times.

Graziano concurred, noting that the cold and windy weather has kept early customers from browsing at the garden center and from booking landscaping services.

“We’ve had a little slower April, but most likely May and June will be crazy — it’s the nature of the business,” he said, adding that nature, meaning Mother Nature, is just one of many issues to be confronted during what will likely be a different kind of year.

Health Care Special Coverage

Mind Over Matters

By Mark Morris

Alyssa Bustamante

Alyssa Bustamante, an occupational therapist with ServiceNet.

According to the Center for Neurological Studies, someone in the U.S. sustains a brain injury every nine seconds. You can do the math.

All brain injuries that are not hereditary are considered acquired brain injuries. One well-known type is a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which results from a car accident, sports injury, a fall, or other incident. The other type of acquired brain injury (ABI) results from events such as a stroke, encephalitis, a brain tumor, or other medical issue.

The effects of a brain injury are unique to each individual. The professionals who work with afflicted patients design individualized treatment plans for each patient. Everyone involved shares a common goal — to help the patient get back to their maximum level of function and independence.

BusinessWest talked with three professional groups that work with brain injury patients at different stages of the recovery process. Those associated with these groups shared common thoughts on what they do and the underlying goals behind their work.

A brain injury is very often a life-changing event, they said. And those who work with those who have suffered such injuries dedicate themselves to helping patients get the most out of what could be considered their new life.

 

Thought-provoking Examples

When a person suffers a brain injury, they receive their initial care at an acute care hospital such as Baystate Medical Center or Mercy Medical Center. The next step is a stay in a rehabilitation facility such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts in Ludlow, where the typical patient may spend from seven up to 21 days, depending on the severity of the brain injury.

“In the beginning we spend lots of time educating patients and their families about what to expect with brain injuries and how the brain heals.”

Because our brains affect all our physical and mental functions, evidence-based research has shown that a multi-disciplinary approach to treatment results in the best outcomes. According to Julie Bugeau, an occupational therapist with Encompass, their approach to care involves making sure the medical staff, along with the occupational therapist, physical therapist, and speech therapist work closely together as a team.

“Brain injuries are complex, so we need all these disciplines to make sure the patient’s needs are addressed,” she told BusinessWest.

When brain injury patients arrive at Encompass, each one has a different level of severity, so the first few days are usually spent on developing a plan for recovery and preparing the patient for what they will encounter in therapy.

“In the beginning we spend lots of time educating patients and their families about what to expect with brain injuries and how the brain heals,” said Stefanie Cust, a physical therapist with Encompass. “We would like to get them up and walking right away but not everyone is ready for that so we may take a couple days to understand where they are and what they can do.”

Managing expectations for the patient and their family is an important part of the therapy process because everyone progresses differently and at their own pace. Bugeau said patients will often have a personality change and become easily agitated or inappropriate in the way they speak or interact with others.

physical therapist

Stefanie Cust, left, a physical therapist at Encompass Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital, and Julie Bugeau, an occupational therapist at Encompass, demonstrate a device to improve use of the hand and wrist.

“We don’t want families to get angry with their loved ones because they are acting in a certain way,” Bugeau said. “That’s why constant communication with the family and everyone on the team is critical to managing their expectations.”

A walk through the facility at Encompass reveals what looks like a large gymnasium with people working out on various machines. While standard fitness machines are part of the mix, there is also an array of specialized equipment designed to help people regain movement in areas of their bodies that were affected by brain injury.

Sometimes the equipment is as simple as parallel bars to aid in walking or a set of stairs. Other times high-tech equipment is used such as interactive touch screens to help the patient regain coordination, reaction time and cognitive abilities.

Cust and Bugeau demonstrated a Bioness H200 a device that fits on the forearm and is used to simulate normal wrist and finger movement for neuromuscular rehabilitation. By using a tablet, a therapist controls the H200 to aid the patient in opening and closing their hand. It’s also used to help build back wrist and hand muscles through repeated movements.

“People with brain injuries need someone to encourage them to get up and move, otherwise they will just sit and do nothing.”

The goal of the therapists at Encompass is for patients to return home. Before patients are discharged, they leave with a recovery plan to help the patient going forward. A case manager gets involved to prepare the family and prepare the home before discharge. In many cases the patient will need outpatient treatment, whether at a facility or at home. Encompass puts patients and families in touch with community resources to keep moving toward recovery goals.

 

Finding a New Way

As late as the 2010s, patients with brain injuries in Massachusetts who required care beyond what they could get at home were mandated to live in nursing homes. A class-action suit resulted in creating two waivers, one for ABI and one known as a Moving Forward Plan (MFP) waiver. Both waivers make it possible for other organizations in the community to provide long-term treatment for people suffering from brain injuries.

Mental Health Association (MHA) created the New Way Services Division to specifically offer treatment for people with ABI. The agency owns nine houses located in communities in and around Springfield. Each residence looks like a typical family home and accommodates up to four adults.

“These residences are the person’s home for as long as they need it to be,” said Sara Kyser, vice president of the New Way Services Division at MHA. “While some folks are likely to spend the rest of their days there, we also have many people who gradually need fewer services and they are able to return to their families.”

Each person has an individualized treatment plan, most of which include regular visits from occupational, physical, and speech therapists. Nurses also visit each home to assist with such things as re-learning taking medication and other tasks. One of the homes is designed to be a transition step where instead of receiving highly intensive support the person is more on their own but still has a safety net.

Lexi Stockwell

Lexi Stockwell says the Strive Clinic at ServiceNet helps those with brain injuries continue to make progress in their recovery.

“The goal is to bring people back to where they were or to a less-restricted setting,” Kyser said. “When possible, they can return to their family and still access outreach supports.”

One of those supports is The Resource Center (TRC) run by MHA. Serving as a day service, Kyser explained that this is where people can work on an array of interesting activities to help with physical and mental rehab in ways that don’t feel like therapy.

“Instead of squeezing a tennis ball, they are doing art projects, engaged in writing, and one of our most popular activities working on wood projects,” Kyser said.

While these activities provide physical therapy, they also help people work on their social skills. Kyser said impulse control is often affected by a brain injury, so learning how to interact with the world again takes some practice.

When BusinessWest visited, staff at TRC were preparing gardening kits in time for planting season.

“The idea is for these folks to learn about and actually plant their own gardens at their own homes,” Kyser said. “They will then harvest and incorporate the fresh fruits and veggies into their nutrition program to bring the whole thing full circle.”

 

Striving for Improvement

ServiceNet is also a provider of long-term rehabilitative care. Through its Enrichment Center in Chicopee, ServiceNet runs the Strive Clinic to help those afflicted with brain injuries to continue to make progress in their recovery.

According to Ellen Werner, director of operations for ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic, the motivation for Strive became apparent after learning about people who were sitting at home with brain injuries who needed therapy.

“People with brain injuries need someone to encourage them to get up and move, otherwise they will just sit and do nothing,” said Werner.

Part of the recovery process also involves persuading people to try things when they don’t think they need to participate. Alyssa Bustamante, an occupational therapist with Strive, said that she and her colleagues try to make patients understand that recovery happens when all the therapies work together. Left to their own devices, patients will tend to only take part in their favorite activities.

“Everyone loves physical therapy, so they all want that,” said Bustamante, adding that one patient felt she didn’t need speech therapy because she just wanted to be able to get dressed. “This person had trouble sequencing the steps to get dressed, which is cognitively based, and speech therapy helps with that,”

Keeping active is essential to prevent brain injury patients from reaching a plateau and backsliding in their recovery. At the beginning of the pandemic many brain-injury patients lost therapy sessions. By the time they were able to return, Werner said that many came in deconditioned and could not do as much as before.

“They still had the foundation of the therapy, but they had lost endurance,” Werner said.

The Strive Clinic has adopted the motto of “Never say Never” to encourage patients to always set new goals in rehabilitation. As an example of that spirit, Werner and Bustamante discussed the case of a gentleman named Bill (not his real name.)

Bill had suffered a stroke more than 10 years ago, and had a below-the-knee amputation. Though he had a prosthetic device for his leg he wasn’t interested in leaving his wheelchair. Enrolled in the day program at the Enrichment Center, Bill would sit in the hallway outside of Werner’s office. When she would attempt to engage and ask, ‘What would you like to do today?’ Bill’s response was, ‘Shut up and leave me alone.’

Bustamante and Lexi Stockwell, a physical therapist with Strive also began speaking with Bill and gradually convinced him he was capable of more than just sitting in his wheelchair.

“At first, with help from others Bill could take about five or six steps on the parallel bars,” Stockwell said. “Now he can pull himself out of his wheelchair, grab the walker on his own and walk 50 feet. That’s big progress in a year.”

Bustamante said Bill has also developed better coping strategies and he speaks in more positive terms. “He’s finding the joy in himself and spreading it.”

Werner added, “Bill now refers to himself as the mayor of the Enrichment Center and he’s become an advocate for our program.”

Bill’s story is an example of how it’s never too late to make progress with a brain injury.

“Everyone needs to keep busy, especially people with brain injuries,” Werner said. “Just because someone says they don’t want help, we keep asking to see how we can get them moving and get them involved.”

Kyser spoke to a misperception that contends the first 90 days after diagnosing a brain injury is the real opportunity to make progress on a patient, but after six months that opportunity is gone.

“That’s baloney,” Kyser said noting that in the past, services didn’t exist after six months, so without engagement it was no surprise that the person was hitting a plateau.

 

The Bottom Line

Thanks to the efforts from agencies like Encompass, MHA and ServiceNet, brain injury patients are making progress every day re-gaining the use of their muscles, many can walk again, and, most importantly, live with independence after their injuries.

“There’s so much that can be done as long as the person is engaged in their therapies,” Kyser said. “My hope is as we’re getting better at this, we will see even more progress.”

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

Craig Erlich

Craig Erlich says the mission at Friendly’s is to create positive experiences — and lasting memories.

Craig Erlich can trace his relationship with Friendly’s back to his fifth birthday party at one of the chain’s restaurants.

“I have pictures of me with my life-size balloon,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, over the decades, this relationship has certainly taken many different forms — from customer, to franchisee, to his current role as president and CEO, in which he has the responsibility of, well … creating memories like that of his fifth birthday for future generations of customers.

In other words, Erlich is the latest executive to take on the job of resuscitating a brand that has fallen on some hard times in recent years, as evidenced by the sale price of the Friendly’s chain, then in bankruptcy, to Amici Partners and its affiliate company, Brix Holdings LLC: $1.9 million.

Erlich, president and CEO of Friendly’s, understood that the Friendly’s chain had shrunk dramatically over the years and was struggling to compete with the large number of competitors in the fast-casual family restaurant category, a situation only made worse by the pandemic. But he ultimately saw promise, and a challenge he was willing to take on.

“When the opportunity came around — and the pandemic presented a lot of opportunities for reshuffling of leadership of brands — we were really passionate about Friendly’s and what could happen with this brand,” he said. “When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Elaborating, he said that he and his partners already had some plans for Friendly’s in mind when they acquired it in December, 2020, and now, some of those plans are coming to fruition.

That includes the new-look of the Friendly’s that recently opened on East Main Street in Westfield. It’s called the Friendly’s Café, and the model is a reflection of the changes in dining habits that have taken place over the past two years, especially when it comes to take out and delivery.

The new model will feature both, as well as on-site dining, with customers ordering food at a counter or at a table using QR technology. There’s also a traditional ice cream fountain area, providing an ice cream parlor feel.

While the concept is quite different from what Friendly’s customers are used to, the goal is to maintain the chain’s overall look and feel — and its capacity for creating lasting moments … like Erlich’s fifth birthday party.

“With Friendly’s, everyone talks about the experience — they talk about memories,” said Erlich. “We wanted to maintain that quality. When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.

“We knew it was going to be a bit of a different kind of experience for the customers,” he went on. “But when you think about how people dine today, whether it’s QR technology, off-premise dining, curb-side delivery … we knew there was an opportunity for that.”

“When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, other changes have been introduced, especially on the menu, which now includes a number of new items, including a variety of appetizers and salads, and offerings like the Doritos Cool Ranch chopped cheeseburger. The goal is to create an appealing mix of new options and old favorites, he told BusinessWest, adding “the menu feels much more balanced than it did before.”

Flashing back to late 2020, as he and his partners were doing their due diligence on Friendly’s as they explored acquisition, Erlich said this research revealed a chain facing many challenges and restaurants in need of repair and revitalization, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic in many respects. But ultimately, what they saw was opportunity.

“The pandemic forced a lot of companies to focus on just keeping the lights on,” he told BusinessWest. “We knew there was going to be a significant amount of repairs and maintenance needed for these buildings; just the equipment in the kitchens alone was in the millions of dollars.

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield opened earlier this year to positive reviews from customers.

“But we saw a big opportunity,” he went on. “And 2021 was really focused on building the infrastructure and putting some technologies and new ideas in place that would build a foundation for what we’re about to do this year.”

Which brings us back to the Friendly’s Café, which opened at the end of February to solid feedback from customers, said Erlich, who acknowledged that while it’s early in the game, the new location is thus far exceeding expectations.

“Customers have been very complimentary, and it has performed very well; we’ve seen a lot of repeat customers, and that’s the true test,” he said, adding that the company is scouting locations for similar facilities.

The location in Westfield is a free-standing building in a shopping plaza, and that is the preferred model, said Erlich, adding that the company is also looking at expanding its drive-through presence at existing restaurants.

“We think there’s a big opportunity there,” he said. “We have about a half-dozen drive-throughs connected to our traditional restaurants; it’s all about the convenience, and we feel that this model is really convenient for the customer.”

Overall, the company is not looking to replace its traditional restaurants with the new model but rather use the café model as a vehicle for growth, bringing Friendly’s to different communities, including some where a Friendly’s location has closed.

“When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.”

“I’m looking at some locations on Long Island and across the Northeast — Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other states,” said Erlich. “We’re looking for the right locations; we don’t want to expand too quickly and dilute the quality of the location. I think that happens often — some of the brands will get excited about one success story and then they’ll launch others and they think it will be the same in any location. We’re being very careful to be sure that the locations that we pick have similar demographics and traffic counts, and that we feel good about the potential.”

He said there are many communities in the Northeast that had a Friendly’s location and would like to see that brand back, with many long-time customers lobbying through social media and other platforms for a return

“We’re using that as some of our intelligence to start focusing on some areas,” he said, adding that finding suitable sites is an art and a science, with many factors coming into play, from demographics to the prevalence of other restaurants.

Indeed, competition, in the form of a critical mass of dining options is often desirable, he said, noting the Friendly’s Café in Westfield sits between a new KFC and a McDonald’s in the same shopping plaza. Those are fast-food chains in a different category than Friendly’s, he explained, but they still constitute choices, which in turn generate traffic to a given area.

Looking at what’s happening within the industry, Erlich noted that off-premise dining now accounts for roughly half of all sales volume within the industry, a pattern that has held up even as the pandemic has eased in recent months, an indication that this is more than a passing fancy.

The new café model enables the chain to take advantage of this phenomenon while also catering to those who prefer the traditional sit-down restaurant — albeit with some new technology for ordering and delivery.

“You can focus on two different experiences for the guest,” Erlich explained. “Whether it’s making sure that the person bringing the food home is getting a good, quality meal and also that they’re getting a good experience when they’re in the restaurant. It just adds a new dimension that a lot of brands are focusing on, and I know that we are.”

Looking ahead, and projecting where he wants Friendly’s to be in five years, Erlich said the broad goal since the acquisition has been to stabilize the brand and then commence building that foundation for the future that he spoke of. And this has been accomplished, through the introduction of the café concept, the new menu items, and some more aggressive marketing that was launched this month.

“I would like to see the brand grow, and I think the café model will give us the ability to do that,” he said in conclusion. “There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s my job to keep that excitement going and channel it in the right direction. Everyone is rooting for us, from customers to the team members to the franchisees. Everyone has great memories of Friendly’s, and we want to provide great new memories.”

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 111: May 9, 2022

Editor George O’Brien talks with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal about the prospects for momentum on east-west rail in the Commonwealth

Editor George O’Brien talks with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal about the prospects for momentum on east-west rail in the Commonwealth. The congressman believes the stars are aligned on this matter, and explains why Gov. Charlie Baker’s endorsement of the project is just another of many pieces now falling into place. It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

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Features Special Coverage

And All That Jazz

Kenny Lumpkin

Kenny Lumpkin doesn’t like to use that word ‘club’ when it comes to his establishment on Worthington Street, Dewey’s Jazz Lounge. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ which really says it all. Those are his passions — in life and now in business. A year after opening, he’s off to a solid start and now looking to make an even greater impact on Springfield’s dining and entertainment scene.

Kenny Lumpkin is the true definition of serial entrepreneur.

Since as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be in business for himself — and he’s put his name and talents behind many different types of ventures.

One was called Room by Room, an app he developed with a friend that he described as “applying Uber to the cleaning industry — an on-demand way to get your house cleaned.” He eventually sold that venture, took the capital, and segued into real estate, flipping houses, and wholesaling. And while doing that, he also got into consulting, specifically with businesses in the hospitality sector looking for help with marketing, and later, biotech and pharmaceutical consulting, working for a few different firms.

But his real passions — yes, we need the plural here — are music, food, and beverage.

And he and business partner Mark Markarian have brought them all together in an intriguing new venture in the heart of Springfield’s entertainment district, or what many are now calling the Dining District.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential.”

It’s called Dewey’s Lounge, with that name chosen to honor Lumpkin’s cousin Dwight ‘Dewey’ Jarrett, who passed away in 2014. It’s been called a club by many, but Lumpkin doesn’t necessarily like that term attached to his establishment. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ with ‘restaurant coming first for a reason.

Opened almost a year ago, Dewey’s was obviously conceived and launched before and then during the pandemic, although Lumpkin admits that he’s been working on bringing this concept from the drawing board to reality for many years now. And since it is a product of the pandemic, the business plan for Dewey’s has been revised … well, Lumpkin doesn’t know how many times.

“Maybe 15 or 20 times — I’ve lost track,” he said, adding that many things have changed since the original plans were put down, including (and especially) the location.

Indeed, the original site was on Main Street, the former JT’s tavern. Lumpkin and Markarian had signed a letter of intent and were primed to get started when COVID arrived in March of 2020. The partners quickly put those plans on the shelf for what would be more than a year, but in many respects, the pandemic was somewhat of a blessing.

“I look back on it now, and while it was frustrating in the moment, it was extremely beneficial,” he recalled. “It allowed us to really dig deeper, develop the plan in more detail, and look at other locations.”

But what really hasn’t changed is the broad concept and the desire — make that the mission — to make this all happen in Springfield, where Lumpkin was born and spent his early years.

And over its first 11 or so months in operation, Dewey’s is off to what Lumpkin called a solid start that has been better than expected, especially while dealing with COVID, two different surges, mask mandates, and the corresponding changes in attitude about going out and being in a crowded place.

Deweys Bar

Dewey’s was conceived as a place where food, beverage, and music would come together in a powerful way.

“We’ve seen two dips and two spikes,” he explained, adding that he and Markarian understood the risks of moving ahead with their venture when they eventually did — December of 2020 — but decided these were risks worth taking. “There was really no good time to do it. We took that risk, and, in looking at the cycle of it, understood that we were going to come out of this eventually.”

The goal moving forward is to continue to build on the solid foundation that has been created, he told BusinessWest, while also advancing plans for another new business in the downtown — a sports bar on Dwight Street (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lumpkin about a host of topics — Dewey’s, the joys (and perils) of entrepreneurship, downtown Springfield and its comeback from COVID, and much more.

 

Sound Investment

Lumpkin told BusinessWest that the chosen location for Dewey’s came about more or less by accident.

As he tells the story, he was helping his sister prepare for the grand opening of her venture, called Ethnic Study, a co-working space and café in a property on Worthington Street, in late summer of 2020, when she asked him to move some paint and other materials to the other side of the divided first floor.

What he found on the other side was what was left (not much, as he recalled) of the former Fat Cat lounge, which had closed years earlier.

As he looked around, Lumpkin concluded that he had found what he was looking for. Sort of.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody. That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

It wasn’t what he could see that intrigued him — although that, too. But rather, it was what he could imagine. And that was the restaurant, bar, and music venue that he had always dreamed of.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential,” he said, adding that he signed a lease late that fall and commenced transforming the location in December.

Dewey’s has attracted entertainers

Since it opened, Dewey’s has attracted entertainers from across the region — and across the country.

There was a good deal of work to be done, including the replacement of the bar and moving it from the center of the first floor to one side, new shelving, a new bar and seating on that mezzanine level, and more, and it was completed over the next six months or so, with Dewey’s opening in June 2021.

Before getting more into this intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield landscape and how it came about, we first need to explain how Lumpkin made his way back to the City of Homes and made his dream reality.

We pick up the story at Emmanuel College in Boston, where Lumpkin was studying business management, with a focus on marketing, and working as a barback at a local restaurant. Later, he worked as a server at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, and then as a server and bartender at the Envoy Hotel in Boston’s Seaport.

While working these jobs, he developed that Room by Room app mentioned earlier, then segued into real estate, and then into various forms of consulting. The money was good and the work was rewarding in many ways.

“But … I wasn’t passionate about it,” Lumpkin recalled. “And what I realized I was passionate about was people, and music — I’m really passionate about music. I love to eat, and I love a good cocktail.

“And that’s where this business idea began to develop, because I really do enjoy connecting with people,” he went on. “And I’ve been the friend who said, ‘everyone come to my house — I’ll cook, let’s drink, let’s hang out all night.’”

So he set out to create a business where he would be the host and people could eat and drink, and also listen to live music.

As noted earlier, the plans for what would become Dewey’s started jelling months before anyone had ever heard the word COVID, and would certainly be impacted by the pandemic in many respects. But while there have been some ups and downs that have coincided with surges and subsequent drops in cases, the venture has come together as things were originally envisioned.

Before and after photographs

Before and after photographs show the dramatic transformation of the former Fat Cat lounge into Dewey’s.

He acknowledged that being a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry, is difficult, and that’s without a global pandemic being thrown in for good measure. But he enjoys the challenges, and even used the word “fun” when talking about how to plan and execute during COVID.

“We would all prefer boring,” he explained. “But challenges like the ones we’ve seen keep you intrigued, keep you interested, and keep you creative. And if you get to the core of what an entrepreneur is, it’s someone who is creative, who can find new ways to problem-solve, and find ways to increase volume or throw out new dishes or cocktails; it keeps it fresh and it keeps it new.”

 

Achievements of Note

It helps to have something new, different, and intriguing, and Dewey’s has those ingredients.

Specifically, this is an appealing mix of food, signature drinks, and music, a combination that has had many guests thinking they’re somewhere other than downtown Springfield when they walk in the door, said Lumpkin, adding that this was the idea when he conceptualized Dewey’s.

And, as noted, he emphasizes that it is a restaurant first, with offerings ranging from Cajun shrimp pasta to baked mac & cheese to fried catfish and grits.

But craft cocktails are an important part of the mix — figuratively but also quite literally — as well, he said, adding that Dewey’s is considered the only craft cocktail bar in downtown Springfield.

“All of our syrups, all of our juices — all of the ingredients that go into our drinks — we make in-house,” he explained. “Everything but the spirit is house; we probably squeeze a couple thousand limes a week.”

The signature cocktails vary with the month and the season, he said, adding that current, spring offerings include ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a mix of whiskey, iced tea, lemonade, and peach syrup; ‘Louis’ Lemonade,’ which features gin, lemon juice, and lavender simple syrup; and ‘Billie’s Holliday,’ featuring vodka, limoncello, and house-made grenadine, topped with prosecco.

As for the music, when asked how and where he finds performers, Lumpkin said that, in many cases, they find him — because they’re looking for intriguing new places to play.

“You’d be surprised by all the talent that’s here in Western Mass. and Connecticut, and Boston as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The most consistent bookings we receive are within a 100-mile radius; however, we’ve had bands come in from New Orleans, Georgia, D.C., Sacramento … we’ve had bands come in from across the country, but the majority are local.”

Dewey’s is currently booked through July, and it boasts live music five nights a week, he said, adding that each night has a different theme, with vocalists or “a vocal-like instrument” on Wednesdays, with a “throw-back R&B” on Thursday. Friday night is more of a “funky, groovy night,” as he put it, with Saturday devoted to straight-up jazz and Sunday and its brunch reserved for classical or a “more groovy type of band.”

It is the combination of all of the above that has enabled Dewey’s to get off to a good start and attract visitors from across this region and well beyond it, said Lumpkin, noting that he carefully tracks such information and notes that through aggressive, targeted marketing and people simply Googling ‘live music,’ or ‘craft cocktails,’ Dewey’s has drawn patrons from Vermont, New York, and many from Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Boston area, in addition to communities across this area.

Dewey’s a destination.

The combination of food, drink, and music has made Dewey’s a destination.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody,” he noted. “That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

Elaborating, he said Dewey’s has been able to attract a clientele that is diverse in every sense of that word, which is unusual in hospitality — and especially in this region.

“We’re in a community where you don’t really see all demographics in one establishment simultaneously,” he explained. “What surprised me … actually, it didn’t surprise me, because I expected it, and what has made me really happy is to see the eclectic group of people that Dewey’s has attracted.

“You see a range of age, gender, nationality, and ethnicity here every single night,” he went on. “People come in and say ‘I don’t think I’m in Springfield; this has a bigger-city vibe, because you’re seeing so much diversity in one room.’”

Moving forward, Lumpkin wants to build on this momentum, obviously, while also embarking on another venture, that sports bar on Dwight Street.

He is targeting a late-summer opening for that facility, and believes there is ample room in the marketplace for such a facility and also ample motivation for him to fill what he sees as an unmet need.

“There’s no sports bar in the area, and any restaurateur understands that sports bars also produce the best margins when it comes to this industry,” he explained, adding that, overall, he is a firm believer in amassing an abundance of hospitality options and, while doing so, creating a true destination in a city or, in this case, a dining district.

“It sounds crazy to say, but there’s almost no such thing as competition in this industry,” he told BusinessWest. “Patrons don’t go to one establishment; they typically at least go to two. They’ll say ‘let’s grab a drink here, a bite here, and dessert here’ or ‘a bite here, a drink there, and let’s get catch a show.’ People get to two or three places a night, and so the pie grows.”

 

Just Desserts

As he talked with BusinessWest, Lumpkin noted that plans are coming into place for what promises to be an exciting one-year anniversary for Dewey’s.

Indeed, he has a star-studded entertainment lineup coming together, with musicians from New Orleans, Boston, New York, California, and this area as well, signed up to perform.

“It’s going to be quite the party,” he said, adding that there is much to celebrate — with this new venue and what is transpiring along Worthington and elsewhere downtown.

It’s taken a few years, but Lumpkin’s dream has become reality in Springfield. It’s a place where his passions come together under one roof, and where a diverse mix of clients has come together as well.

It hasn’t all gone as planned, but in most all respects, it has gone better than planned.

 

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

Accounting and Tax Planning Special Coverage

Questions and Answers

 

Increasingly, third-party sites like Airbnb and VRBO have made it easier for individuals to rent out their homes and condos and generate revenue. Given these trends, it’s important to understand both the tax benefits and tax implications before listing your property for lease.

By Elliot Altman, CPA, MST

 

Are you a current host or considering renting your property on third-party vacation sites?Understand the tax benefits and implications before listing your property.

Elliot Altman“If you are a property owner, it is important to understand the tax benefits that come with owning rental properties.”

Whether you are a first-time host or an experienced pro, it’s important to consider the responsibilities as much as the benefits. What follows is a comprehensive tax guide for vacation rental owners that covers everything from how to report your income to the IRS, to what deductions you can claim.

 

Benefits to renting out a room or vacation property

With the rise of the sharing economy, more and more people are renting out their homes on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO. Third-party sites like these can offer a variety of advantages.

First, you can reach a large audience of potential renters. Both sites have millions of users, so you’ll be able to find people from all over the world who are interested in staying in your rental. Second, you can set your own price and terms. You’re in control of how much you charge and what kind of rental agreement you want to have with your guests. Finally, renting through a third-party site can be a great way to earn extra income. With careful planning, you can make sure that your rental property is profitable.

 

What is taxable and what is not?

When you’re renting out your property, it’s important to know what income is taxable and what is not. Generally, any money that you receive from renting your property is considered taxable income. This includes rent, cleaning fees, and any other fees that you charge your guests.

However, there are some exceptions. For example, if you rent out your property for less than 14 days per year, the income is not considered taxable. Additionally, if you use your rental property for personal use part of the time, you may only have to pay taxes on the portion of the income that comes from renting it out.

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions related to taxes and your Airbnb and Vrbo rentals.

Do I have to pay taxes on rental income?
If you rent out your vacation home, spare room, or apartment for more than 14 days a year, you are required to pay taxes on the rental income. This includes all income you collect from rent, cleaning fees and any other additional fees.

How much tax will I have to pay?
The exact amount of tax you owe will depend on a number of factors, including the location of your rental property and the amount of income you earn. In most cases, you will be required to pay federal, state, and local taxes on your rental income.

State and local taxes on rental income vary depending on the location of your rental property.

What expenses can I write off?

People who rent out their homes on Airbnb and VRBO can write off a number of expenses on their taxes. These expenses can include the cost of repairs, cleaning, and furnishings. You will need to allocate rental and personal use in order to write off the expenses. In addition, rental property owners can deduct the costs of advertising and paying fees to the rental platforms. However, it is important to keep detailed records of all expenses in order to maximize the tax benefits. For example, receipts for repairs should be kept in order to prove that the expense was incurred. By carefully tracking their expenses, Airbnb and VRBO hosts can ensure that they take advantage of all the available tax benefits.

Do I need to collect occupancy tax?

The answer depends on the laws in your area, but in general, if you’re renting out a room or portion of your home for less than 30 days at a time, you are likely required to collect and remit occupancy taxes.

These taxes, which are also sometimes called lodging taxes or tourism taxes, are typically imposed by state or local governments in order to generate revenue from visitors. They can range from a few percent to over 10% of the rental rate, so it’s important to be aware of the laws in your area before listing your property. (Massachusetts state room occupancy excise tax rate is 5.7%).

One of the benefits to renting your property through a third-party site, is that they may have an automated feature that determines which taxes are applicable for your listing, collects and pays occupancy taxes on your behalf. Always check to see if this setting is available and if you need to opt in for it to be activated.

Am I considered self-employed if I have rental income?

Unlike wages from a job or a business, rental income isn’t considered to be earned income. Instead, it’s considered to be passive income by the IRS, and therefore is not subject to self-employment tax.

Will third-party rental sites provide me with a tax form?

There are a few factors that will determine if you will receive a tax form from your third-party site. The 1099-K form is used to report income from transactions that are processed through a third party. This includes credit card payments, PayPal payments, and other forms of electronic payments. The form will report the total amount of income that you received from Airbnb or VRBO during the year, as well as the total number of transactions.

Third-party sites, such as Airbnb and Vrbo, typically will provide you with form 1099-K if you meet certain thresholds such as:

• Processed more than $20,000 in gross rental income through the platform, and

• Have 200 or more transactions during the year.

 

Note that these are only general guidelines, and you may still receive a 1099-K form even if you don’t meet both of these criteria.

Maximize Your Tax Benefits on Your Rental Property

If you are a property owner, it is important to understand the tax benefits that come with owning rental properties. It’s important to speak with a tax professional so that you can get the most benefit from your rental properties and ensure that you are taking advantage of all available tax breaks.u

 

Elliot Altman, CPA, MST is a Senior Manager at the Holyoke based accounting firm, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Employment Special Coverage

Work in Progress

 

Since its inception, the SummerWorks program administered by the Commonwealth Corp. has opened doors for young people and introduced them to the world of work. This year, as the program expands to include individuals ages 22-25, it is primed to open more doors — and potentially create more opportunities, for employees and employers alike.

By Kaily Houle

 

David Cruise is more than familiar with the vast potential of Hampden County’s young people and their importance to the region’s business community.

As the president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, he administers a program called YouthWorks, a state-funded summer-employment program that helps teens and young adults gain the skills and experience needed to not only find and keep jobs, but to begin to design a path toward success.

He’s watched over the years as the program has helped introduce young people to the world of work while also assisting area cities, towns, non-profits, and for-profit businesses with finding needed help and, sometimes, long-term employees.

And this year, he’s anticipating that he’ll see more of all of the above.

Indeed, program administrators are expanding the age parameters of YouthWorks in order to reach a broader range of young adults in the region. Initially, the program was offered to people ages 14 to 21, but now young adults from 22 to 25 are able to participate as well. The mindset behind this expansion of the program is to help more people enter or return into the workforce by providing them with jobs, leadership development and career-exploration opportunities, and various skills training.

“The intent is to take young people, primarily those that live in high-risk, urban areas like Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, Westfield, and provide them with the opportunity of a structured work experience that usually lasts five to six weeks.”

“The intent is to take young people, primarily those that live in high-risk, urban areas like Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, Westfield, and provide them with the opportunity of a structured work experience that usually lasts five to six weeks,” Cruise told BusinessWest, adding that the young people participating are not the only ones who stand to benefit.

Those hiring these individuals benefit as well, he said, adding that this is true at any time, but especially when businesses in every sector of the economy are struggling to find enough help to function at full capacity.

The YouthWorks program will see a boost in funding this year, from $2.5 to $3.17 million — enough to fund more than 700 summer jobs and another 130 evening and weekend jobs during the school year. These initiatives are aimed at getting young adults back into the workforce. Because some of these youth, especially those between the ages of 18 and 25, were displaced from the workforce — either by being disconnected from school or working — YouthWorks gives them the opportunity to find not only a job, but a career they can grow into.

“They may be working part time or under the table, but they’re not in a job that is going to lead them to success,” Cruise explained. “They’re not in a job where they’re in a career that will eventually allow them to make a family-sustaining wage and live at a level they feel comfortable; we have a lot of people beyond the age of 21 that are in the marginal labor market.”

YouthWorks was able to receive its funding a year earlier to aid in planning and serve young people more efficiently. In the past, the agency has received separate funds for the summer program and the year-round program. This year, they’ve combined the funds into one lump sum.

“This is the first time we’ve done that; it’s significant because now we can tie together the summer programming and the work we do during the school year,” said Cruise. “Several of the youths involved in our summer program can continue on into our year-long program.

“So it has a nice continuity to it,” he went on. “We’re not offering full-time positions, but we do think our older youth have an opportunity to not only have a successful summer program, but to also get into a company that can offer a full-time position if that is what they want to do.”

 

The Job at Hand

Cruise has long been an advocate of summer jobs — not only as a way to introduce young people to the workforce, specific lines of work, and the soft skills needed to succeed long-term, but also as a way to help at-risk young people find alternatives to the streets and the trouble often found there.

But the YouthWorks initiative has always been a win-win-win, he went on, adding that the initiative has benefitted several sectors of the economy — manufacturing and the broad hospitality sector, to name a few — as well as individual businesses and nonprofits, and area cities and towns as well.

Dave Cruise says summer jobs bring benefits to both employees and employers.

Dave Cruise says summer jobs bring benefits to both employees and employers.

And at a time when many sectors are still contending with an ongoing workforce crisis, there are more opportunities for young people and businesses to benefit, with young adults participating in Youthworks now having a better opportunity to find a job that will last longer than the five-to six-week program.

“I believe there are some opportunities in the private sector, because many companies are having a difficult time finding the sufficient staff to do their work,” said Cruise. “It’s hard in the summer to bring someone on for five to six weeks, but if we do a good job matching the young people to the particular site, that five-to six-week summer program can potentially turn into something full time. We’re pretty confident that some of that is going to happen with our older groups.”

Meanwhile, a main focus for YouthWorks is to teach young adults the importance of work and the employability skills they will need to not only find a job, but to keep that job moving forward. Young adults will learn the importance of communicating with your work colleagues, showing up on time, being open to constructive criticism, working in a team concept, developing critical thinking and judgment skills.

“The technical skills they learn on the job are really important also, and we don’t consider them to be secondary,” Cruise went on. “We want to be sure the young folks are getting a real sense of the value and the importance of work — that work is good, work is healthy. It’s very exploratory with our 14-and 15-year-olds but those soft skills are just as important as they are for the 21-to 25-year-olds.”

Focusing on urban areas allows young adults to provide for not only themselves, but also for their families, said Cruise. Participants between the ages of 16 and 25 will be working 100 to 220 hours over the five-to six-week program, making $14.25, Massachusetts minimum wage.

“It’s a job where … they won’t get rich, but they’ll earn money to help continue to support their families and themselves,” he noted. “They’re not taking their check and running to the Apple store — they have other priorities.”

Young adults will be placed in one of the three organizations working with YouthWorks. They have placement opportunities at New England Farm Workers Council, MassHire Holyoke One Stop Career Center, and Valley Opportunity Center. The goal this summer, as noted, is to provide 740 jobs for the summer program and about 130 jobs during the fall.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the jobs secured by young people through the YouthWorks program were remote in nature, said Cruise, adding that as workplaces return to something approaching normal this year, participates should see a mix of working conditions, which will only add to the learning experiences.

“We want young people to not only experience hybrid and remote work and how that happens, but see it as something they have to adapt to and deal with as they deal with their career path,” he noted.

Meanwhile, Cruise emphasized that, despite the name of the program, those within the extended age range will not be treated like children. The purpose of the program is to help people — whether they be adolescents or adults — realize their potential and become successful members of the workforce.

“It’s hard to take a 25-year-old or an 18-year-old and call them a youth,” he said. “I don’t make that mistake calling them youth; they’re young adults … they’re adults, period. We treat them like adults. We respect them as adults.”

The summer program is going to begin the weekend after the Fourth of July. Applications are still available at the three organizations partnered with YouthWorks, online, and in most high schools in Hampden County.

 

Beyond a Paycheck

Since it was launched decades ago, the summer-employment program has been all about opening doors for young people, said Cruise.

These open doors lead to learning experiences on many different levels — from acquiring a specific skill, to understanding the importance of showing up for work on time, to discovering well … how to make a living.

Sometimes, these open doors lead to much more — not just a summer job, but a career. And with the expansion of the SummerWorks program to a broader age group this year, the hope, and the expectation, that more doors will be opened and many more young people will march through them.

Construction Special Coverage

A Framework for Continued Growth

D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

Mark Sullivan, center, with several members of the team at D.A. Sullivan & Sons.

It started with a few people building a home in Williamsburg in 1897. And over the past 125 years, the firm that came to be known as D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc. has expanded in every way a construction firm can. Its vast portfolio of projects includes construction and renovation of schools, libraries, hospital facilities, dormitories, churches, and much more. While there are many keys to the success of the firm, it’s fourth-generation president says it all comes down to relationship-building.

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Mark Sullivan knows the elements of a successful building — strength, stability, durability, to name a few. And he should know — he’s the president and executive project manager of D.A. Sullivan & Sons, a construction company in Northampton.

Sullivan also knows firsthand that these same elements are essential for a successful company.

While constructing schools, churches, municipal buildings, and more, the Sullivan family has built an enduring business with a strong foundation. Indeed, D.A. Sullivan & Sons is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year — a milestone that speaks to the impressive legacy the Sullivans have built.

“Now I’m the fourth generation — my brother Dennis and myself are the fourth generation,” said Mark. “Our nephew, Andrew, joined us a few years ago, he’s the fifth generation. Hopefully we’ve got more to come.”

The company was started by his great-grandfather, Dennis A. Sullivan (D.A.) along with his brother, in 1897. They worked mostly on houses in Northampton — the city they’ve been based in for the past 125 years. Initially the pair traveled wherever the work was, even as the company grew, but for the past 75 years D.A. Sullivan & Sons has concentrated its services from Pittsfield to Worcester.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons acts as a construction manager or a general contractor. Sometimes it even acts as an owner’s project manager or “OPM” for towns that are undergoing building projects. It acts as a consultant to shepherd municipalities through the whole process of a public building project — undertakings that are often large and complex in nature.

“As a construction manager or a general contractor, we’re responsible for everything,” Mark Sullivan explained. “We self-perform with our own forces — more work than most firms our size. We’re responsible for the coordination of the entire process,” Sullivan said.

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says that relationship-building has been the key to success for this family business.

Of course, the industry has evolved dramatically since the company started all those years ago — the nature of commercial work has changed considerably since D.A. Sullivan & Sons was established in 1897. Even in the 35 years that Mark Sullivan has been with the company, he notes that technology and efficiency have been ever-improving.

“It used to be that my brother and I would each run three or four projects, we had a secretary with us, and that was it,” he explained. “Now you’ll have teams of personnel for each project. You can have four or five people dedicated to a single project … it’s worlds apart from where we were 55, even 35 years ago,” Sullivan said.

And it’s not just the industry that’s been evolving and growing.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has also grown considerably, now having more than 50 employees. However, it’s important to note that there are certain elements to the company that have not changed, even after all this time. The firm continues to be a community-oriented family business, and it is still equally as committed to maintaining close relationships with its clients as it was over a century ago.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area,” Sullivan told BusiniessWest. The Eaglebrook school in Deerfield, in particular … that relationship is three decades old. It culminated a few years ago in their new science, art, and music building, which was a signature project on campus. That was a lot of fun.”

For this issue and its focus on the region’s construction sector, BusinessWest looks at the 125-year history of D.A. Sullivan. Along the way there has a been a good deal of that fun that Mark Sullivan described, but mostly hard work, attention to detail, lots of that relationship-building, and adding on that solid foundation that was put down when William McKinley was roaming the White House.

 

From the Ground Up

Just a quick look at the portfolio of completed projects on the firm’s website provides some deep insight into the diversity of work the company has taken on in recent years and some perspective into how it has changed the landscape in the region — figuratively, but in some cases, also quite literally.

Indeed, the firm handled the recent project to renovate Springfield’s Pynchon Park, which links the downtown to the Quadrangle area. It also took on a massive renovation of Chicopee’s historic City Hall, a project that included rehabilitation of the auditorium, exterior work on the main building, and renovation to the existing clock tower and numerous stained windows.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape

D.A. Sullivan & Sons has been changing the landscape at UMass Amherst for decades, including this dormitory built in the 50s.

Meanwhile, the firm also took on projects to renovate the Worcester Public Library, Gamble Auditorium at Mount Holyoke College, the Fitness Center at Mass. College of Liberal Arts, and the 646-foot-long Fine Arts Center Bridge on the UMass Amherst campus, a complex undertaking that ultimately created more space for the Art, Theater, and Music departments.

Going back further, the portfolio includes projects (some could be called landmarks) such as the Blake Arena on the campus of Springfield College, the Springfield Materials Recovery Facility, Northampton’s new post office, Westfield High School, and countless others.

“Because we’ve been around a long time and we’ve worked with almost every municipality in Western Mass, we have long-standing relationships with a lot of the private colleges and schools in the area.”

Taken collectively, these projects show how the firm has evolved over the years and taken its teams across New England and well beyond. They also show how the firm has consistently added to a diverse list of clients over the years, while also maintaining relationships for years, and, in some cases, several decades.

Perhaps the best example of this is UMass Amherst. Indeed, one of the firm’s longest-standing relationships is with the university, said Sullivan, noting that the firm built 12 of the original 13 dorm buildings there, several other buildings, including Curry Hicks Cage, former home to the basketball team, and is still working with UMass today.

“I just came back from the previously mentioned Newman Center at UMass, which is a new facility for the Springfield Diocese,” he noted. “We haven’t built a church in a couple decades, so that’s been an interesting project.”

This relationship with UMass, one of many that go back 40, 50, or more years, explains why D.A. Sullivan is able to celebrate 125 years in business, and why five generations from the family have worked there.

“We’re a fifth-generation firm, which is incredibly unique. I believe we’re Northampton’s oldest firm,” said Sullivan. “We’ve just been here a long time and it’s crazy to think that my brother and I have been working for more than 35 years,”

Of course, maintaining such an accomplished family legacy comes with a daunting amount of responsibility. Not only do the projects themselves present challenges, but there is the added stress of each new generation keeping the company alive.

“We’re starting to think about that next leadership group coming behind us, and hopefully they’ll shepherd the company to the next century,” Sullivan said, “There’s a certain pressure to keep it going and not screw up on my watch, but we’ve been thankful throughout the years for the relationships we’ve had and the project’s we’ve built. We’ve got great people. More than anything, the people that work for us and with us, have enabled us to stick around for as long as we have.”

The team at the firm is consistently adding to that already large and diverse portfolio of projects with a number of current initiatives.

They include renovation of the public library in Grafton, the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, renovation of Goessmann Labs at UMass, renovation of the home for the Carpenter’s Local 336 headquarters, and a closely watched initiative in Easthampton called the One Ferry project.

This is an effort to stimulate economic development in the city by renovating a collection of abandoned mill buildings, said Sullivan, adding that the One Ferry Project has been and will continue to be a very important project for Easthampton and the surrounding area.

“It’s a build-out of a campus of old mill buildings, and we’re on phase two right now, which is Building 5,” he explained. “We’re looking toward phase three, which is either a renovation of Building 7 or new construction of a new facility next to the mill building.”

He told BusinessWest that the mill area has been a blight on Hampshire County for many years, and D.A. Sullivan & Sons is working with One Ferry Project developer Mike Michon to write an intriguing new chapter in the history of the property.

D.A. Sullivan & Sons is also currently providing general contractor services for the construction of a new library building in Greenfield, a project that started last fall. Sullivan said this is the type and size — $5 million to $35 million — project the firm specializes in.

As it turns 125, D.A. Sullivan obviously has quite a bit to celebrate — a glorious past, a solid present, and a promising future with new milestones to mark.

 

History in the Making

As noted earlier, the images on the company’s website and the photos in its vast archives tell a story.

Its main theme is one of longevity — 125 years is a milestone in any business — but it’s really about the forces that made such longevity possible — excellence, perseverance through the tough times (and there were many of them over the years and the decades), an ability to change with the times, and enduring relationships with scores of clients.

And the best part about this story is that there are many chapters still to be written.

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.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 110: May 2, 2022

George O’Brien talks with Ted Mendoza, a capital projects manager at UMass Amherst

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Ted Mendoza, a capital projects manager at UMass Amherst about the school’s recently announced ‘carbon-zero’ project, a bold initiative to power the campus with 100% renewable energy within the next decade or so. The two discuss the coming steps in the process, the challenges and potential obstacles, and the hope that by reaching this ambitious goal, UMass may set a standard for others to follow. It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 109: April 25, 2022

George Talks Andrew Michael, manager of Dave DiRico’s Golf in West Springfield

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Andrew Michael, manager of Dave DiRico’s Golf in West Springfield. The two discuss the surge that the game — and business — of golf have seen since the start of the pandemic and its prospects for continuing in the 2020 season. They also delve into supply chain issues,  inflation, and the many other challenges facing course owners and managers. It’s all must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

 

Sponsored by:

Also Available On

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

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

Go HERE to view all episodes