Partnerships Attract Business to Quaboag Region
In 2006, Nelson Rivera opened the Sharpest Edge Barber Shop on Main Street in Ware.
A few years later, he wanted to purchase a building on Pulaski Street to house his expanding operation, but didn’t think he could qualify for a commercial bank loan due to his poor credit score.
However, he found help at the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. (QVCDC), where he was referred to a bank that granted the loan he needed to buy the property.
“The QVCDC opened the door for me,” Rivera said, adding that he also took a QuickBooks class from the organization and recently got a loan from them that allowed him to make needed building improvements.
“The help they offer is amazing and if you have a good idea for a business, this is definitely a great place to launch it,” Rivera continued, as he told BusinessWest that business owners and residents in the area are very supportive of new and existing enterprises.
Lenny Weake agrees, and says the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce has partnered with QVCDC to promote resources available to startups and existing businesses in the region. The chamber represents 15 towns: Belchertown, Brimfield, Brookfield, East Brookfield, Hardwick, Holland, Monson, New Braintree, North Brookfield, Palmer, Spencer, Wales, Ware, Warren, and West Brookfield.
“We want businesses to come to our area and stay here; we have a lot to offer and have established a cohesive network of resources to help them,” said the president of the chamber. “Anyone can open a new company, but it doesn’t mean they know the best way to market their product or service or have the financial knowledge they need to be successful.”
To that end, the chamber and QVCDC have coordinated their efforts and are working collectively to help new businesses as well as landlords with property to rent in the 400-square-mile rural region. “If a business in Ware does well, Palmer and Brimfield also benefit, and if we all work together, we can bring more businesses to the area, which will lead to more jobs,” Weake said, adding that, although some might question the desirability of setting up shop in this region roughly halfway between Springfield and Worcester, it is not as far away as people think. “Palmer is only 15 minutes from Springfield and has an exit on the Mass Pike,” he noted. “Spencer is 20 minutes from Worcester; Route 9 runs from Ware through West Brookfield, East Brookfield and Spencer; Route 20 runs from Palmer to Brimfield into Sturbridge; and the Quabbin Reservoir attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.”
The area contains many former mill buildings that have been converted into office or light-manufacturing space, including the Palmer Technology Center and the Wrights Mill complex in West Warren, which is in close proximity to highways and freight-rail transportation systems.
“We’re a very vibrant region with beautiful open spaces, a rich history and culture, and wonderful people,” said Sheila Cuddy, executive director of the QVCDC and the Quaboag Valley Business Assistance Corp.
Indeed, Weake says some business owners have found that the Quaboag region is an ideal location. “Mike’s Party Rentals moved into space on Route 32 in Palmer several months ago because of its access to the Mass Pike and main roads,” he noted.
For this edition, BusinessWest takes a look at how organizations are working cooperatively to provide invaluable assistance to businesses in the Quaboag region, which include a number of new programs, a workforce-training initiative, and education for landlords.
New Programs and Services
The QVCDC was formed in 1995, and it works in partnership with the Quaboag Valley Business Assistance Corp. and numerous community partners to provide a wide range of offerings. They include loans of $500 to $100,000 to businesses that are not bankable, job creation, and services designed to help businesses start, stabilize, and grow.
There is also help for outcome-driven projects, thanks to mini-grants of $300 to $750 and a network of professionals who offer their services at reduced rates to help business owners with legal issues, marketing, and more. For example, someone can get help with a logo or have an attorney review a contract or lease or provide assistance writing a contract for customers.
The QVCDC also offers classes on business topics not duplicated by other organizations, and Cuddy said a survey conducted in the region uncovered problems that the agencies are working collectively to address.
For example, many business owners reported they had trouble finding qualified employees, so a new program was designed to resolve that issue. QVCDC formed a partnership with Holyoke Community College, which led to the creation of the E2E (Education to Employment) program and the Quaboag Region Workforce Training and Community College Center in Ware.
The center contains two classrooms, private study areas, and office space, and has 10 computer workstations for people who want to enroll in HCC’s online credit classes.
In addition, there are non-credit classes in hospitality and culinary arts, and plans to expand course offerings in the future. Classroom education will be supplemented by hands-on training at Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer, and HCC will offer academic advising and career-counseling services on site beginning this month.
“This is the first installation of any education past high school in the Quaboag region,” Cuddy said, noting that it’s a public-private partnership that will provide critical help to low- to moderate-income residents and local employers.
Tracy Opalinski agrees. “Businesses in this area are starved for qualified employees, so we’re trying to create our own feeder program and build a base so people can live and work locally instead of having to move far away or commute to find employment,” said the trustee of the Edward and Barbara Urban Charitable Foundation, which provided support to the E2E program.
Other E2E community partners and supporters include Country Bank, Monson Savings Bank, the Donovan Foundation, Baystate Mary Lane Hospital, Quabbin Wire, Meredith Management, Otto Florists, and Carol Works for You.
In addition, QVCDC offers free computer-software training to incumbent employees and businesses in Worcester, Franklin, Hampshire, and Hampden counties. The training, which is funded by a state grant, takes place in Ware or at satellite training sites in Palmer or Brimfield. But if it is not feasible for employees to travel to those locations because of time, distance, or expense, the training sessions can be held at the businesses themselves.
“The program began last year and has been very popular; there are still slots available, but they are limited,” Cuddy noted.
She added that QVCDC’s most recent project is the Quaboag Connector, a regional initiative designed to transport people to and from work and the E2E program.
“One of the barriers to employment is the lack of affordable public transportation, and the creation of the E2E accelerated the need for it,” Cuddy told BusinessWest, adding that vans are being donated by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, and funding was provided by the Mass Dept. of Transportation and Baystate Wing Hospital in the form a $30,000 grant.
Another local initiative is the TRACK (Three Rivers Art Community Knowledge) program, which is using art as a catalyst to revitalize the downtown area and has been quite successful. Artwork is being displayed in empty and filled storefronts, there have been waiting lists for events for children and adults, and Workshop 13 in Ware held a business-planning session for artists that was attended by 15 aspiring entrepreneurs.
“We’ve recognized that we’re stronger when we form partnerships and work together,” Cuddy said, adding that the Quaboag Hills and Three Rivers chambers of commerce, the Ware Civic and Business Assoc., the Ware and Palmer Community Development Authorities, and the Palmer Historical and Cultural Center are among the groups that have joined forces to promote economic growth.
Their combined efforts have been enhanced by generous support from donors, which increased substantially over the past year after the QVCDC was selected to participate in the state’s Community Investment Tax Credit Program, which provides a 50% tax credit for donations to selected community-development corporations.
“We went from $126,000 in donations in FY 2013 to more than $208,600 in FY 2016,” Cuddy said. “Substantial support from our community partners has funded innovative new programs, sustained vital existing programs, and helped us leverage significant funding from state and federal sources.”
Weake said the Quaboag Hills Chamber of Commerce is also playing a vital role in economic-development efforts. For the past two years, its economic development committee has worked to match businesses that want to move to the region with available vacant space. It developed a form for them to fill out that provides information about their needs, and identifies suitable sites during monthly meetings.
“We have space available for $4.50 per square foot,” Weake noted, adding that this is very affordable compared to larger cities and towns.
The chamber’s efforts have extended to landlords; there are few commercial realtors in the area, and many property owners lack marketing experience and don’t know what to charge for available properties.
“We have landlords with space for rent who don’t put up signs, and we want to make people aware of what we have to offer,” Weake continued, noting that the chamber is working to become the central point for startups or businesses looking to relocate within the region.
Education is also being provided to landlords on a variety of topics, including the importance of forming and maintaining good relationships with tenants, because there has been a fair amount of turnover in the past.
Weake suggested that some landlords may want to consider measures such as graduated rents based on business profits or a number of other parameters. They are also being advised to provide new tenants with information about things such as rules and regulations regarding signage, and outline exactly what they are responsible for in a lease agreement.
Such education is critical, Weake said, citing the example of a business in Palmer that had to close when a leak in the roof caused damage it wasn’t prepared to fix because the owners hadn’t read the terms in their lease carefully enough.
“We’re doing all we can to work cohesively because we want small businesses to come here,” said Weake, referring to the sum of the many recent initiatives. “They’re the backbone of the community and give so much back to it, while adding life and energy to our towns.”