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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets based at Barnes Westfield Regional Airport, one of the many assets contributing to economic-development efforts in the city.

The F-35 stealth fighter is nicknamed ‘Lightning,’ and it is certainly expected to provide a powerful surge in Westfield.

The Pentagon announced in April that 18 F-35A fighters will be based at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport with the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, replacing the F-15s that have been flying over the city — and on missions around the world — since 2007.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council — but also a former mayor of this city for a dozen years and currently a city councilor — said the F-35s will become an obvious point of pride for the community and the region, but there is an economic-development component to this decision as well.

Indeed, the move will stabilize and secure the long-term future of the 104th, which brings more than 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in direct support to the local economy each year.

“The F-35s are obviously hugely important, not only to the operation of Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, but to the 104th, which is a significant employer in the region, and a significant business,” Sullivan explained. “Aside from being an absolute point of pride for the city and the region, it’s an important economic development as well.”

Chris Willenborg, manager of the airport, agreed.

“The F-35s mean a lot to the future of the 104th’s presence at the airport,” he told BusinessWest. “This decision really solidifies the 104th Fighter Wing having a mission at Barnes Regional Airport for the next 50 or 60 years; having a new fighter based here will be a significant asset for the airport moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the F-35s provide a powerful, up-close representation of an important part of the city’s economy: its precision-manufacturing shops, large and small, many of which provide parts to the defense and aerospace industries and planes like the F-35A.

Indeed, Sullivan, in talking about the presence of the precision-manufacturing sector and its importance to the region, has often noted that, when military or commercial planes fly over the region, residents can point to them and note that components of those aircraft are made in the 413.

And especially in Westfield, which boasts companies such as Advance Manufacturing, Boulevard Machine and Gear, and Peerless Precision, all of which have a number of customers in the aviation, defense, and aerospace sectors.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty says Whip City Fiber has become a $30-million-a-year business.

Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless, told BusinessWest that, after a lull toward the middle of the pandemic, business is picking up for Peerless and other precision manufacturers, who say their biggest challenge remains finding enough talented workers, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation retire in ever-larger numbers and the numbers of young people looking to get into this field remains … well, underwhelming.

“It’s still very much an employees’ market,” she said, adding that firms in this city and neighboring communities are competing tooth and nail for a very limited supply of qualified help, which is driving wages and benefits skyward and making it harder for smaller shops to compete against the larger national and international players.

While precision manufacturing remains a large and stable employer, the city’s economy is strong and diverse, said Mayor Michael McCabe, the former police captain who sought and won the corner office in 2021 and will seek a second two-year term this fall.

He noted the strong presence of manufacturing and distribution facilities, many of them located at or near the airport, as a well as strong retail (Walmart, Home Depot, and many others have locations in the city) and hospitality sectors, and major employers including Baystate Noble Hospital and Westfield State University.

It could also become home to a sprawling, $2.7 billion hyperscale data center complex planned for the city’s north side. That project and an accompanying tax-incentive financing plan have been approved by city officials, and the developers are awaiting word from the state on economic incentives it will provide to support the massive undertaking.

McCabe also cited a changing, rebounding downtown, one that will never again be the retail hub that is was decades ago, but is evolving into a collection of diverse shops and intriguing new developments, such as the housing complex taking shape in the former Lambson’s furniture store building on Elm Street.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on Westfield, where things are looking up — and so are people, especially when the F-35s are flying overhead, as they did at the recent airshow at Barnes and will do for perhaps the next 30 or 40 years.


Ready for Takeoff

McCabe said Westfield is a city that has long boasted a number of enviable assets when it comes to business and economic development. And it has taken full advantage of those assets.

That impressive list includes developable land, a commodity lacking in many area communities, especially in its North Side, which, as noted, has become home to a number of manufacturing and distribution facilities, the latter drawn by not only land but a turnpike exit, easy access to other highways, and rail service.

The list of assets also includes the university, the airport, and a municipal utility, Westfield Gas & Electric, which, through its comparatively low electric rates and expanding fiber-optic network, has become a key contributor to economic development in the city (more on that later).

As for the airport, it has long been a somewhat hidden gem, but it continues to emerge as a force in the local economy as home to not only the 104th, but also companies like Gulfstream Aerospace, where private jets are serviced, and also as a home base for a handful of jets and dozens of other planes.

“Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community.”

This will go down as a big year for the airport, which has thrust itself into the limelight in a number of ways.

For starters, it is celebrating its 100th birthday, Willenborg said, adding that this comes on top of the announcement of the F-35s, which brought press coverage locally, regionally, and nationally. There was also the recent Westfield International Air Show, which featured a wide range of aircraft, including the F-35A, and brought more than 100,000 people to Barnes. And just a few weeks ago, the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit group based in Texas, brought several vintage World War II aircraft — and thousands of spectators — to the airport.

On top of all that, Barnes is enjoying what could be called a building boom, he said, noting that there are four new hangars in various stages of construction, investments totaling between $8 million and $10 million, as well as two taxiway projects on the docket, one to start this month and the other set for next year.

Overall, the airport, which sees 50,000 takeoffs and landings each year, contributes roughly $1.2 million of direct revenue to the city, and its overall economic impact, according to a 2019 statewide study, is roughly 2,100 direct and indirect jobs and economic output of $236 million, numbers that take into account the 104th.

“The airport is definitely a major economic engine and employer here in Western Massachusetts,” Willenborg said, adding that the arrival of the F-35s is only expected to increase that impact.


The Jet Set

Also making a considerable impact is the city’s utility. General Manager Tom Flaherty said Westfield G&E’s rates are considerably lower than investor-owned utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, a competitive advantage that, when coupled with those assets listed above, gives the city a leg up when it comes to landing large manufacturing and distribution facilities, as well as the planned data-center campus.

One of the latest examples of the saleability of this package of assets is the arrival of James Hardie Building Products, which plans to open a construction siding factory in the former Old Colony Envelope plant in the city’s north side.

When it opens, the James Hardie plant will become the G&E’s largest natural-gas customer and one of its 10 largest electric customers, said Flaherty, adding that utility rates certainly played a role in the company’s decision to come to Westfield.

“It was a solid a mix of things — Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community,” he explained. “And when it narrows down to utility cost, and people are looking at cost and system reliability and the capability to meet that gas demand, Westfield has all that.”

Elaborating, he said Westfield has its own natural-gas spur that comes off the Tennessee Gas pipeline, which the G&E wholly owns, giving it — and the city — a huge advantage over communities such as Holyoke and utilities currently enforcing moratoriums on additional natural-gas service.

Another advantage — again, for both the city and its utility — is the G&E’s expanding fiber-optic business, Whip City Fiber. Launched in 2013 to provide fiber-optic service to residents and businesses in Westfield, the endeavor has become a $30 million-a-year business whereby the G&E has built out and now manages fiber-optic networks in 20 area communities — from Blandford to Goshen to Colrain — with more in the pipeline.

These include West Springfield and Southwick, said Flaherty, adding that more cities and towns in this region and beyond will be joining that list in the years to come.

“In the beginning, the broad goal was to bring an additional service to the residents and business of Westfield and, hopefully, break even,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, today, through its continued expansion in the city and to other communities, Whip City Fiber generates roughly $3.5 million in net income for the utility, money that is currently poured into expansion of the fiber-optic network to different parts of the Westfield.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 40.834
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.52
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

When the entirety of Westfield is covered by the service, that revenue can be put toward other initiatives, such as the utility board’s recent vote to make additional payments in lieu of taxes to the city with the intention that they be used to upgrade athletic fields in the city.

“We’re looking to partner with the city to turf up to six fields and pay the bond for that, up to $1 million a year,” he said, adding that many of the city’s athletic fields are in need of upgrading or expansion. “That’s a project where we can give back to the community as we continue to bring in revenue from communities outside of Westfield.”


Soar Subject

While the F-35s are expected to provide a boost in civic pride and some stability for the 104th and the local economy, the precision manufacturers in the area are hoping they do something else — generate some interest in the field.

Such forms of inspiration are still very much needed, said Carlson, adding that, despite attractive pay rates, good benefits, and even growing flexibility in the workplace, it remains a struggle to find and retain talent, a challenge that is testing many of the shops in the city, including hers.

Hiring was an issue before COVID, noted Carlson, who was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers award in 2021, primarily for her tireless work to educate young people about this sector and hopefully draw more of them into it, adding that the pandemic and its many side effects, including generous unemployment benefits, only exacerbated the problem.

“Whoever thought it could get harder for manufacturers to find good people?” she asked with a laugh. “It’s always been a struggle for our industry, and post-pandemic, it’s been even worse; somehow, I was able to fill open positions inside of a month this year, and I’m not really sure how that happened.

“There are a lot of us in Westfield who constantly have job openings, and we’re trying to fill them, as is the case with every manufacturer in the state and the country, for that matter,” she went on. “The problem is the same that it’s always been — we have a limited skilled labor force that we can pull from, and we’re all competing for the same ones.”

Elaborating, she said Westfield Technical Academy graduates 16 to 18 students a year from its manufacturing department, and there are roughly 30 shops in Westfield alone competing for those students, many of whom are brought into shops as part of a co-op program while they’re seniors, with the goal of seeing them stay with the firm in question.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had the additional effect of pushing many Baby Boomers over the retirement cliff, Carlson said, adding that this drain of experienced talent further tested shops large and small, including Peerless, which saw two long-time employees retire over the past year.

Still, despite these challenges, most shops, including Peerless, are thriving, she said.

“We had a slump last year, but we’re coming out of it, and we’re at almost 90-degree climb now, so it’s good,” she said, using an aviation-industry term to get her point across. “We’re seeing a lot of large customers who had really slowed down during the pandemic coming back in full force, and we’re seeing customers come back that we hadn’t done business with in three years because of the pandemic.”


Uplifting Thoughts

Speaking of 90-degree climbs … the F-35s are not expected to arrive until 2026. But already, expectations, and the overall outlook for the city, are sky high.

After years of effort and lobbying on the part of city, state, and national officials, the latest-generation F-35s will be coming to Barnes, providing — as Sullivan, McCabe, Willenborg, and others told BusinessWest — both a point of pride and an economic boost for the city and region.

It’s a lightning strike, to be sure, and one with a powerful jolt.

Daily News

WESTFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal joined Maj. Gen. Gary Keefe, adjutant general for the Massachusetts National Guard; Col. David Halasi-Kun, base commander for the 104th Fighter Wing; and state Sen. John Velis on Wednesday to celebrate the recent announcement that Barnes Air National Guard Base (ANG) will be receiving a new fleet of F-35A Lighting II aircraft beginning in 2026.

“Today is a good day not just for Barnes Air National Guard Base, but for the entire Western Massachusetts community, and the Commonwealth, for that matter,” Neal said. “The announcement on April 18 that the 104th Fighter Wing will be receiving a new fleet of F-35A aircraft comes after years of advocacy by the Massachusetts congressional delegation, state leadership, and the adjutant general for the Massachusetts National Guard, Gary Keefe. Most importantly, this announcement is a testament to the dedicated service of the brave airmen and women of Barnes, whose integrity has upheld the superb reputation at Barnes, an integral factor in this decision-making process.”

This announcement comes after a rigorous selection process by the U.S. Air Force that reviewed F-15C units throughout the U.S. and considered a multitude of factors, including community support, environmental factors, and cost. The review process also included an assessment of the location’s ability to facilitate the mission and infrastructure capacity. The assignment of a new fleet of F-35A aircraft at Barnes ANG guarantees the long-term viability of the base, ensuring the 104th Fighter Wing can continue its vital mission for years to come.

“I have long advocated for the men and women at Barnes who work to defend us not only here in the Commonwealth, but throughout New England and across the country,” Neal continued. “We are fortunate to have strong partners at the state and federal levels who recognize the significant role that Barnes plays in both defending our nation and supporting our regional economy. This announcement solidifies Barnes’s place in the Western Massachusetts community and provides assurances that our service members can continue their critical work for years to come.”

Keefe added that “this is just a good fit. The 104th has years of experience with the fighter mission at home and abroad, the community is used to fighter operations and provides tremendous support, and the base is perfectly located for defense of the homeland.”

Halasi Kin noted that “this decision validates the Wing’s exceptional performance. We’ve provided air defense for 40 million Americans in New England and New York, a population that produces roughly 30% of the nation’s gross domestic product, through the 24/7/365 no-fail Aerospace Control Alert mission, and our stellar performance was a big factor.”

The basing decision becomes final after favorable completion of an ongoing environmental impact statement on the proposal, upon which the secretary of the Air Force will sign a record of decision (ROD). The signing of an ROD is expected by the summer of 2024, putting in motion the stationing of 18 new F-35A Lightning II aircraft at Barnes ANG.

“The significance of the F-35A fighter jets coming to the 104th Fighter Wing simply cannot be overstated. This decision from the Pentagon not only solidifies the future of Barnes in our national defense strategy, but it will also bring transformative new economic investments to Westfield and our entire region,” Velis said. “From Congressman Neal and our federal delegation’s zealous advocacy at the Pentagon to our work at the state level with the SPEED Act to help Massachusetts meet Department of Defense criteria, so many individuals played a role in making this happen. Most of all though, this announcement is a testament to the incredible men and women serving in the 104th Fighter Wing and throughout our Commonwealth.”

Daily News

WESTFIELD — Years of intense lobbying by federal, state, and local leaders to see the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, based at Barnes-Westfield Regional Airport, receive upgraded aircraft, has paid off in a huge way, with the Pentagon announcing that 18 of its $78 million, latest-generation F-35 fighters will be based at the facility.

The F-35s, which will arrive during fiscal year 2026 at the earliest, will replace a fleet of aging F-15C Eagles.

The announcement was hailed by federal and state officials as a big step forward for the 104th and Barnes, and as a potentially huge boost for the local economy. Indeed, supporters say the decision to base the F-35s at Barnes will not only secure the future of the Guard unit, but provide a needed jolt for an airport that has an estimated total economic impact of roughly $235 million per year.

Barnes was among three Guard bases across the country contending for either the F-35 or the latest incarnation of the F-15. The other bases are in Louisiana and California.

In a statement on the Pentagon’s decision, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said, “today’s announcement that a new fleet of F-35A aircraft will be assigned to Barnes Air National Guard Base comes after years of advocacy from the Massachusetts congressional delegation, state leadership, the adjunct general for the Massachusetts National Guard Gary Keefe, and, most importantly, the superb efforts of the dedicated service members at Barnes. Over the past several years, I have been in constant communication with Air Force leadership to underscore the importance of supplying Barnes with the resources needed to complete their critical missions. I am glad that, after years of ongoing discussions, those efforts have culminated in a positive outcome, one that will benefit the Western Massachusetts community for years to come.

“I have long advocated for the brave airmen and women of Barnes who support and defend us here in the Commonwealth and throughout the country,” he went on. “Their integrity and commitment to service has upheld the longstanding reputation at Barnes, one that is nothing short of excellence. We have an obligation to support our service members, and today’s announcement means that the men and women of Barnes will be able to continue their work for years to come.”

Daily News

BOSTON — The 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts National Guard, stationed at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport; and the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont National Guard are scheduled to perform a flyover for the Red Sox home opener today, March 30, at Fenway Park.

The Red Sox will host the Baltimore Orioles in the opening-day matchup at 2 p.m. The four-aircraft flight, two F-35As and two F-15Cs, will conduct the flyover during the opening ceremony.

The flyovers performed by the 104th Fighter Wing’s F-15 Eagles during any special events serve as an additional training opportunity for the pilots and ground crews, and are scheduled if the operational mission allows, as part of the annual flying-training plan.

COVID-19 Daily News

WESTFIELD — Four F-15 fighter jets from the 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard will fly over hospitals across Massachusetts today, May 6, to show support for workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s a privilege for the men and women of the Massachusetts Air National Guard to provide a ‘thank you’ to medical personnel, first responders, truck drivers, grocery-store personnel, and the countless Americans coming together to support the COVID-19 response,” Lt. Col. Jay Talbert, 104th Fighter Wing pilot, wrote.

The flyover is part of a nationwide effort to honor first responders, according to the statement. Similar flyovers were performed in New York City and Washington D.C. last week.

After nine flyovers in Eastern and Central Mass., eight Western Mass. flyovers are scheduled: Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Holyoke Medical Center, and the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home (12:35 to 12:40 p.m.), followed by Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Northampton VA Medical Center, Western Massachusetts Hospital in Westfield, and Baystate Noble Hospital in Westfield (12:40 to 12:45 p.m).