Features

Put to the Test — Again

A Resilient Square One Goes Back to the Drawing Board

Joan Kagan

Joan Kagan says the gas blast that heavily damaged another Square One facility will further complicate efforts to rebuild following last year’s tornado.

If adversity really does build character, as many would suggest that it does, then Joan Kagan believes that she and the rest of the staff at Square One have all the character they will ever want or need.

“We’d been tried, and we really didn’t need to be tried again,” she said while talking with BusinessWest, for the second time in 18 months, in a setting that looked straight out of Beirut in the mid-’80s, standing in front of what used to be a Square One facility.

This time, it was at the agency’s damaged and now-condemned Chestnut Street Center, located next door to the gentlemen’s club that was erased by the Nov. 23 natural-gas explosion. A year and a half ago, it was beside a pile of rubble that was the company’s headquarters on Main Street, one of many buildings razed after a tornado tore a path through Springfield’s South End.

Now, as then, the talk centers on moving forward, not looking back, and about finding opportunity amid calamity — although there first had to be some reflection (although not much) on the winning-Powerball-like odds of disaster striking the same enterprise twice in such a short time.

“When they told me what happened, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Kagan, the agency’s long-time director, who said she was getting ready to board a plane for home after visiting family in St. Louis for Thanksgiving when she received word of the blast. “I was thinking, ‘it’s November, so this is not an April Fool’s joke,’ but it was almost unbelievable that it could happen twice to Square One.”

This latest calamity, which, like the tornado, resulted in no injuries to students or staff, took out seven classrooms, the reading room, the kitchen, and play areas at the Chestnut Street Center, essentially displacing 98 children and several educators. They have since been relocated to other facilities, including some within the Square One portfolio, said Kagan, adding that, from a bigger-picture perspective, the damage from the blast sends the company back to the drawing board as it tries to blueprint a rebuilding plan for the future.

Indeed, the explosion came exactly one week (almost to the minute) after the agency reached a final settlement with its insurance carrier on the various kinds of damage done by the June 2011 tornado. The numbers in that settlement don’t come close to covering all the losses, Kagan told BusinessWest, estimating that they represent maybe 60% to 70% of the actual total. But simply knowing the number was necessary for Square One to perhaps move ahead with plans to rebuild somewhere in Springfield’s South End and once again be an anchor in that neighborhood.

Now, the agency has to recalibrate, she went on, and decide not only what to build — perhaps one facility to replace both that were leveled — but also where; the Chestnut Street facility served many families living and/or working within a few blocks of that building.

To adequately serve that clientele, the company may have to explore creation of another facility in that area, perhaps in Union Station, which is currently being renovated into an intermodal transportation center, Kagan noted, adding that Square One may not have the resources for such an undertaking.

“We had made some preliminary plans about rebuilding in the South End, but needed to know what our number was going to be,” she explained. “We had planned to reconvene after Thanksgiving, start to look at options, focus in, and drill down on a plan involving what we were going to build, where we going to build, and when. Now, we have more on our plate and many things to think about.

“We’re marching onward and upward, and this is just another challenge — that’s how we’re looking at it,” she continued, adding that there hasn’t been time or an inclination to say ‘why us again?’ “And we’re asking ourselves, ‘does this once more provide us with opportunity?’ It gives us some other things to look at and some other scenarios that could play out.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talks with Kagan — again — about staring down adversity and moving on with the agency’s 130-year-old mission.

 

Time and Space

Kagan’s temporary office in the Scibelli Enterprise Center, which she moved into more than a year ago, remains quite sparse; her printer still sits on a cardboard box, for example.

There are a few pieces of art on the walls — including a print involving some landmarks at her alma mater, Columbia University — but mostly large expanses of barren square footage. Time and energy have much to do with this, she said, adding that both have been devoted to matters far more important than decorating. Meanwhile, many of her personal and professional belongings, such as her diplomas, were lost in the tornado’s fury.

But there is also some psychology at play, she told BusinessWest. Indeed, by not covering the walls and filling the shelves, Kagan believes that somehow she might be shortening her stay in this building, which houses mostly startup ventures and was once part of the Springfield Armory complex, and accelerate a move into a new Square One facility.

The natural-gas blast has thrown some cold water on that thinking, she said, noting that it adds new layers to the already-complicated process of rebuilding for the future. And for the short term, it gives the company something it certainly didn’t need — more practice in the art and science of bouncing back from disaster.

This time it has been considerably easier than it was in the summer of 2011, she told BusinessWest, adding that the tornado took out the company’s headquarters and everything in it, leaving staff members without the barest essentials as they went about crafting a recovery plan.

After the gas blast, the scrambled staff members had offices, desks, computers, and files, she went on, and communication was much easier. Also, many staff members saw their homes damaged by the tornado, adding more and different layers of anguish that didn’t exist with this latest disaster.

The basic strategy moving forward after the gas blast was to keep students together as much as possible, said Kagan, noting that continuity is important to both children and staff. And for some in both constituencies, this was the second time they had been uprooted by calamity.

She said 60 of the uprooted children have been placed in other Square One facilities, in slots that had been taken offline, while another 40 have were moved to two borrowed classrooms in the New Beginnings Childcare Center on State Street. In general, there has been minimal disruption — students were in their new settings within days of the blast — and impacted families are pleased that new accommodations were made so quickly, Kagan noted.

But while some measure of continuity has been achieved, Square One has essentially lost 60 revenue-producing slots for students, said Kagan, adding that this lost business is one of many things she will have to hash out with insurance carriers and Columbia Gas, which accepted responsibility for the blast and is in the process of handling claims from impacted parties.

Another is replacement of the estimated $500,000 worth of equipment, learning materials, and supplies — from computers used by the children to toys and games — lost to the gas blast.

Overall, this latest disaster has left the agency with seriously depleted resources and reserves, said Kagan, adding that replacing everything lost to the tornado was an expensive proposition.

“In order to replace all that — our computers, servers, printers, and furniture — we had to invest a lot of money to get ourselves back in operation,” she explained. “And we didn’t get totally reimbursed for that from our insurance, depleting our resources and reserves.”

Elaborating, she said that, after the tornado, the company had equipment in storage to outfit two donated preschool classrooms. This year, it didn’t have such inventory available.

While exploring options for replacing supplies and negotiating with the insurance company and Columbia Gas, Square One is also looking at many possible scenarios for the long term, said Kagan, who told BusinessWest last June, at the one-year anniversary of the tornado, that Square One is essentially committed to being an anchor in Springfield’s South End — even as the prospects for a casino in that neighborhood add more question marks to the prospect of rebuilding there.

But with the loss of the Chestnut Street Center, there are now more questions about what to build and where to best serve clients across the city.

“The Chestnut Street facility has always been very popular, and it was always full,” Kagan explained, adding that there was a waiting list for slots.

“We’re going to reassess and talk to the families,” she said. “What we want to find out is whether, if we doubled our capacity in the South End, families would be able to use that facility. Some might say they work at [nearby] Baystate Health or Mercy Medical Center, or downtown, and that a South End center would take them out of their way.

“If we were going to build a facility for 100 children, do we now have to build one for 200 children?” she continued, adding that there are sites to be considered downtown and in the North End, including Union Station, although talks with city officials have not taken place on that location yet. And the reality, she said, is that the company doesn’t have the resources to rebuild in the North End at this time.

 

Not at a Loss

Looking around her office, Kagan noted some recent additions to the landscape, specifically several gift baskets from companies and individuals wishing to lift the spirits of those at the company, especially its director.

There have been many other expressions of support, she went on, citing monetary donations of many sizes, including a $25,000 contribution from the Penn National Gaming Foundation and the Peter and Melissa Picknelly Charitable Fund.

Such help from the community will be needed, she said, because the task of rebuilding from twin disasters and replenishing resources and reserves will be difficult and expensive. “We need all the help we can get.”

One thing she and the rest of the staff don’t need any more of is character spawned by adversity. They have plenty of that already.

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

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