Features

Getting Down to Business

GECC Looks to Channel Entrepreneurial Energy

Eric Snyder

Eric Snyder says a large supply of entrepreneurial spirit has helped revitalize Easthampton’s downtown and former mills, and given the chamber some new priorities.

Eric Snyder says that, while there are still a few large employers in Easthampton — Berry Tubed Products, National Nonwovens, and Stevens Urethane, for example — the business landscape in this community in the shadow of Mount Tom is now dominated by small (or, in many cases, very small) ventures.
“We have a lot of two- or three-person businesses, as well as a large number of sole proprietorships, and many of them are artists,” said Snyder, executive director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce (GECC), noting that, as the face of business in this city has evolved over the past several decades, the chamber has responded accordingly.
Indeed, while the basic mission of the organization — representing the needs of the business community and giving it a voice on pertinent matters — hasn’t changed, many of the ways in which that mission manifests itself have.
In short, the chamber, which turned 50 last year, is doing more than it has historically in the broad categories of networking, education, and building exposure, said Synder, in an effort to help the myriad small businesses now filling storefronts and old mill space get off the ground or get to the next level.
“We’re concentrating more on the marketing of these small businesses and trying to keep them more in the forefront,” said Snyder, adding that the chamber now hosts a wide range of networking events, including its Networking at Night program on the second Thursday of each month, a casino night, and wine- and microbrew-tasting get-togethers. “We’re trying to get people to meet people; it’s as simple as that.”
And then, there’s a new monthly newsletter, sent electronically to the chamber’s approximately 300 members. It includes everything from legislative updates and reminders on upcoming events (Bear Fest 2012 was a lead item in the recent edition — more on that later) to news and notes on members; from a list of new arrivals at the chamber to something called ‘Member Spotlight.’
As the name suggests, this segment profiles a GECC member through words and a short video. One recent issue turned the spotlight on Web-tactics Inc., an eight-year-old company that handles Web-site design and other technology-solutions work. The video featured Janel Jordan, the company’s president.
“We like to educate people — ‘Web speak’ is very confusing and very scary, especially to someone just getting started,” said Jordan as the camera rolled. “We’re very patient … and we hold the client’s hand through the entire process.”
Such videos have now told a number of stories, noted Snyder, adding that the free service was designed to assist young and growing businesses by providing them with another marketing vehicle, one that has already brought results to some who have been profiled.
“It’s helping them get their name out and make those all-important connections,” said Snyder, who would put that last word to repeated use.
For this, the latest installment of its Getting Down to Business series, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at the changing business climate in Easthampton and how the half-century-old chamber is evolving to effectively serve its constituents.

Bear Necessities
A quick look at the rundown of new chamber members in the July newsletter speaks volumes about the still-emerging business landscape in this community.
That list includes Fitness Fusion, Furniture Recyclers, Glory of India restaurant, Mountain View Antiques & Collectibles, and Studio 72, among others.
Most of these ventures fall into that ‘very small business’ category, said Snyder, adding that many are now located in storefronts in a revitalized downtown or in the many renovated and rejuvenated former mill complexes that once gave this community its identity.
These include Eastworks (the former Stanhome headquarters building), the Paragon Arts & Industry Building, and Mill 180, all on Pleasant Street, and many others in and around the central business district.
These facilities are now home to a host of businesses across several sectors, including many that would fall into the category of ‘creative economy,’ said Snyder, adding that, on the whole, they speak to the vast supply of what he called “entrepreneurial energy” in this former manufacturing hub.
“Our downtown areas and shops are filling up again,” he said, noting significant progress on Cottage and Union streets in particular. “And we have a good amount of new businesses, which bodes well for the downtown.
“At the same time, things are picking up in the old mill buildings, especially along the Pleasant Street corridor,” he continued. “And we’re seeing a little bit of everything — light manufacturing, studios, and small businesses. Many of these are arts-related, but we’re also seeing the High & Mighty Brewery on Pleasant Street and another brewery operation progressing on East Street.”
What most of these small businesses need are visibility and those aforementioned connections, said Snyder, adding that many chamber initiatives added in recent years have been designed to provide those commodities, while also building what could be called the Easthampton brand.
The various networking events are a big part of the connection-building process, he noted, adding that attendance has been strong at such recent, and now stable, additions as Casino Night (there have been three) and the wine-tasting event, now in its fifth year.
As for branding and putting the city in the spotlight, the Bear Fest has been the biggest addition to the calendar, said Snyder, adding that the chamber partners with Easthampton City Arts on the initiative, now in its second incarnation (the first was in 2009).
This is a public art project in which life-size fiberglass bears are creatively transformed by locally and nationally known artists, putting Easthampton on the map as West Springfield has with its terriers, Springfield with its giant sneakers, and Chicopee with its replica C-5As.
This year, 92 bears now populate various locations in and around downtown. Sponsored by various businesses and organizations, the bears, to be auctioned off later this year at an event at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, bring thousands of visitors to the city’s streets and former mills, said Snyder, where they are introduced to many of the community’s new businesses.
Further introductions are being made on the new e-newsletter, he continued, adding that the publication has become another effective form of networking, as businesses can post news items and events, become a profile subject, and otherwise raise their profile among the diverse chamber membership.
The July edition, for example, has an item about Mary Ann’s Dance and More being featured in a recent issue of Retail Minded, a trade magazine devoted to news, education, and support of boutique businesses. There was also an extensive preview of Bear Fest 2012, with a call for sponsorships, an update on the Easthampton Farmers Market, and a look back at the Easthampton Spirit Committee’s family event and fireworks. There’s even a section called ‘Making Moves,’ highlighting such things as the opening of Mahan Bicycles and the expansion of Fur’s-a-Flyin with a new venture called Hairy’s Pet Supply.
“This is all free marketing, and we encourage people to take full advantage of it,” said Snyder. “It’s a way to bring additional value to members and help them make those connections.”

Work of Arts
Jordan mentions such connections during her member-spotlight interview.
“The networking events are priceless,” she said by way of explaining why Web-tactics is a member of the GECC. “You can go to one and meet hundreds of businesses and individuals and get referrals.”
Such get-togethers have always been part of the fabric of the chamber, but today, they’re even more important, as the city’s business community continues its evolution from a handful of mills that employed hundreds or thousands, to seemingly countless ventures that employ just a few.
“It’s a change for us, but then again, it isn’t,” said Snyder. “It’s always been about helping people meet people.”

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

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