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This Community Within a Community Is a Constantly Changing Picture

Back in 1997, Will Bundy and his wife, Paula, had a vision for the sprawling vacant mill in downtown Easthampton that had most recently been home to Stanley Home Products — to not only lease space to wide array of businesses, but create both a destination and a community. That vision has become reality, but this canvas, known as Eastworks, is still being filled in.

By Elizabeth Sears

The mill at 116 Pleasant St. in Easthampton was looking for a new purpose when Stanley Home Products shut down after 40 years of operation. The former mill had seen a variety of owners throughout the century, starting with West Boylston Manufacturing Co. in 1908. General Electric and even the U.S. Department of War had at one point called this building theirs.

Over the past quarter-century, 116 Pleasant St. has transformed into something entirely new, and it is a picture that is constantly changing and adding new dimensions.

“When we started, 25 years ago this March, the idea of the mill district was a very distant thought and idea, and so I feel like the artists and businesses and residential tenants who took a chance on Eastworks in its bare-bones stages really helped to form and define what the mill district could become,” said Will Bundy, owner and managing partner of Eastworks, referring to the broader effort to transform a number of Easthampton’s old mills into a home for artists and an eclectic mix of businesses.

When Bundy and his wife, Paula, bought the property, their vision was a broad one, and it involved not only filling its vast spaces, but creating both a destination and a community. And while the vision has become a reality, it is still very much an intriguing work in progress.

Heather Beck

Heather Beck says she’s developed not only a gratifying business at Eastworks, but many meaningful relationships.

Certainly one appeal of Eastworks, where it all started, is the sheer amount of space offered in the building. The former mill has nearly 500,000 square feet of space, most all of it with high ceilings and large windows, many with views of nearby Mount Tom. The property has become home to a wide range of businesses looking for room to grow in unique, comparatively inexpensive spaces.

Ventures like Easthampton Clay, a pottery school and studio that set up at Eastworks late last year. It offers classes, individual and private group lessons, workshops, and memberships that rent out shelf space and allow people 24-hour access to the studio.

“When we started, 25 years ago this March, the idea of the mill district was a very distant thought and idea, and so I feel like the artists and businesses and residential tenants who took a chance on Eastworks in its bare-bones stages really helped to form and define what the mill district could become.”

“We had four studios at one point, but they were all little spaces, and I just felt like that wasn’t conducive to community,” said Liz Rodriguez, owner of the venture. “I wanted us all together; I felt like the students really benefited from seeing what the members were doing. We occupy a lot of space in the building now.”

Eastworks is assuredly more than just an awe-inspiring building. What really brings the structure to life is the people who are occupying the space — a quality that has continued to grow and thrive throughout the years — as well as the sense of community that prevails, as we’ll see.

And while Eastworks has become a unique success story, there are chapters still to be written, said Bundy, noting that he still has roughly 100,000 square feet to be developed.

Efforts to bring that space to life are gaining momentum, most notably with the addition of another restaurant, Daily Operations, which opened its doors on Feb. 11.

“The mill district is becoming so vital and is changing so much that we, at least Eastworks, were looking at how do we finish our work,” said Bundy, noting that he is looking to meet an emerging need within the region by adding more residential units at Eastworks, complimenting the artists’ lofts on the top floor.

“We have a model that works; we have a very dynamic arts and entrepreneurial community, we have a significant nonprofit community,” he said of the current mix of tenants. “The next phase is … trying to create some additional housing in Easthampton, which is a really critical and important issue. Somewhere on our property, we’re looking at bringing in up to 150 units of housing.”

Easthampton Clay to Eastworks

The large amount of space available was a big selling point in bringing Easthampton Clay to Eastworks.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest revisits Eastworks 25 years after it was conceptualized to see how this community within a community continues to grow and evolve.

 

Golden Opportunity

Heather Beck is a fine jeweler, metalsmith, and educator who runs Heather Beck Designs at Eastworks. A highlight of Beck’s business is something she calls “legacy jewelry” — made from family heirlooms that are repurposed into new pieces. Her clients get to carry the memory of their loved one with them through the new piece of jewelry while also helping to positively contribute to the environment through ethically sourced, recycled jewelry.

Beck is one of many tenants who spoke of the closeness that can be felt in the Eastworks community, and how she is aware that many tenants have become friends with each other and have stuck together through all the happenings of both the pandemic and regular work life.

“Erin McNally of Tiny Anvil, she’s down the hall, she’s one of my best friends … I get to have lunch with her and Trevor of Healy Guitars,” she said. “We get together almost every day for lunch, and we talk about our days, what’s going on with clients. We call ourselves the ‘lunch bunch.’ It’s an invaluable resource to have them in the building and down the hall for support.”

Beck said most of her custom clients are people who were referenced to her from other businesses at Eastworks or people she was able to meet at the property.

“Eastworks has such a great vibe … you’re always meeting new and interesting people,” he said. “I also love to ask people if they’ve been to Eastworks, because if you haven’t been here and seen the grandness of this old mill building that’s been converted into all these spaces, it’s just a really neat space to walk through.”

After a single visit and a few conversations with tenants at Eastworks, what becomes clear is a synergetic relationship between the businesses and their clienteles. The strong community aspect of Eastworks is abundantly apparent and reflects the spirit of the city of Easthampton itself.

“There are a lot of very dynamic parts in the puzzle that make us even stronger. That has to do with Easthampton, and it also happens to do with us having the kind of space people are seeking out,” said Bundy, adding that the unique, wide-open spaces have attracted many different kinds of businesses, many of them not exactly arts-related.

Like YoYoExpert, which has been at its Eastworks location for almost a decade. This venture brings yo-yo toys in from all over the world and teaches people how to use them through the internet.

André Boulay of YoYoExpert spoke enthusiastically of both the lively community experience at Eastworks and the impressiveness of the physical building itself.

“Eastworks has such a great vibe … you’re always meeting new and interesting people,” he said. “I also love to ask people if they’ve been to Eastworks, because if you haven’t been here and seen the grandness of this old mill building that’s been converted into all these spaces, it’s just a really neat space to walk through.”

The wide range of businesses at Eastworks lends itself to visitors enjoying a one-stop trip to complete many of their day’s errands.

“I get my hair cut in the building at the Lift. If I’m hungry, I just go upstairs to Riff’s,” Beck said. “I get my acupuncture done at the Easthampton Community Acupuncture with Cassie. I go to yoga classes upstairs at Sacred Roots.”

 

Passing the Test

The community at Eastworks has certainly been tested by the pandemic. Many of the businesses rely on foot traffic, and they have been impacted by a distinct lack of it since March 2020. And while the pandemic may have slowed the pace of new arrivals and expansions to some degree, there have been some notable additions, such as Peacock’s Nest Studio, a henna and body-art business at Eastworks that moved into the building in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. Since then, it has actually expanded its offerings, including a line of body-care products and different fabric projects like face masks.

“Coming out of COVID, one of the more vital parts of the building seems to be our creative community,” Bundy said. “Our maker community is very solid … it’s a reflection of the Easthampton arts community.”

André Boulay, who has been at Eastworks for almost a decade

André Boulay, who has been at Eastworks for almost a decade, praised the facility’s physical features, community experience, and “great vibe.”

After a long stint of ghost-town hallways and virtual everything, the maker portion of the Eastworks community came together for a vibrant event in early November of last year: Open Studios. This is an annual event during which all the art studios at Eastworks come together for an open house, allowing the public to come in and experience the breadth of what the local artists at Eastworks are doing by participating in a variety of activities.

Easthampton Clay’s first open-house event at Eastworks was part of Open Studios; it was an Empty Bowls event for the Easthampton Food Bank that drew more than 300 participants.

“We had lines out the door waiting for people to come in and throw bowls for charity, which was so sweet and amazing … it was really a mind-blowing experience,” Rodriguez said.

Lauren Grover, owner of Peacock’s Nest Studio, fondly recalled selling masks at Open Studios and spoke about how nice it was to finally have an in-person event after everything was held up by the pandemic for so long.

“It was a lot busier than I expected it to be; it was lovely,” she said. “As the pandemic eases, I look forward to having more events like that.”

Grover also noted the abundant amount of precautions that were taken by Eastworks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, which was echoed by Rodriguez of Easthampton Clay.

Another sentiment shared by several tenants at Eastworks was that the Open Studios event was important because it helped them gain more exposure to Western Mass. locals after the pandemic hampered their visibility in the community for a long time.

“No one had seen my work in almost two years, and then we finally did Open Studios in the fall,” Beck said. “I had a lookbook created, and our entire community came out for that event. It was probably the best-attended Open Studios we’ve ever had … people were able to finally see the work that had been hidden away behind my doors for two years.”

She noted that the exposure she received from Open Studios led to a complete turnaround in her business, and now she is busier than she has ever been, with a waitlist of orders.

 

Art of the Matter

What started as a vision for a vacant, 500,000-square-foot mill building back in 1997 has become a reality.

As it turns 25, Eastworks has become everything Will and Paula Bundy had hoped it would. It has become a destination, certainly, and a community — a bustling space for artists, entrepreneurs, innovators, and more — within a community.

The best part is the fact that the picture keeps changing, and the canvas continues to add more features and more color.

Which certainly bodes well for the next 25 years.

 

Education

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Carol Leary

Carol Leary

Since arriving at the campus of Bay Path College in 1994, Carol Leary has always had her focus on what the future of higher education would — or should — look like, and positioning the institution for that day. As she prepares to retire in late June, she still has her eye on the future. She predicts that careers — and college programs to prepare people for them — will look much different years down the road, and institutions must be open to changing how they do business.

Carol Leary says she found the photo as she commenced the still-ongoing task of essentially packing up after a remarkable 26-year career as the president of Bay Path University — only it wasn’t a university when she arrived, as we all know.

It’s a shot of herself with former Secretary of Labor and Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole — one of the first keynoters at the school’s Women’s Leadership Conference — and Caron Hobin, an administrator at Bay Path who back then had the title of dean of Continuing Education, and is now vice president of Strategic Alliances, a role we’ll hear more about later.

Since finding it on a shelf not far from her first edition of Bay Path Crossroads, the school’s admissions magazine (which also features Dole on the cover), Leary has been showing this photo to pretty much everyone who ventures into her office.

“It brings back so many memories — and it was the beginning,” she said, adding that it has become her favorite photo, not just because she and others can marvel at how much younger she and Hobin were back when it was taken, but because of the way it makes her pause and think about everything that has happened since it was snapped.

It is quite a list — from that aforementioned progression to a university to its dramatic growth; from the addition of baccalaureate, then master’s, and finally doctoral degrees to the creation of the American Women’s College, the first all-women, all-online baccalaureate program in the nation; from the opening of a new science center to national recognition is such fields as cybersecurity. And it is certainly worth dwelling on all those accomplishments.

Leary has certainly been doing some of that over the past several weeks as she winds down her tenure and anticipates the beginning of retirement in late June, especially as she finds more artifacts as she starts to pack up her belongings. But not too much, as her time has been consumed with everything from welcoming her successor — Sandra Doran was introduced to the campus community in late February — to dealing with the many effects of coronavirus, which has hit the higher-education sector extremely hard.

And while the latter is now dominating the final weeks of her tenure, with decisions to be made about events, classes, and more, Leary spent much of her time this winter not looking back, but looking ahead to the future of higher education and how schools like Bay Path can prepare for, and be on the cutting edge of, what should be profound change.

In most respects, this is merely a continuation of what she’s been doing since arrived at the Longmeadow campus in the fall of 1994.

“Colleges are facing some incredible headwinds,” she said. “And beginning a year ago, at each executive committee meeting of the board, I started sharing some of those challenges and opportunities facing not only Bay Path but all colleges and universities.”

When asked to elaborate on these headwinds, she started with demographics, especially those concerning the size of high-school graduating classes. “The number of 18-year-olds is dropping dramatically in this country, and that won’t turn around unless immigration is opened up and you get a flood of immigrants,” she explained. “All colleges are facing it, so what do you do?”

Many schools are shifting their focus to graduate degrees and adult students, and Bay Path was somewhat ahead of this curve when it started added such programs 20 years ago, Leary said, adding quickly that, while such steps have worked, schools can’t depend on them moving forward.

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou

Carol Leary, seen here introducing poet Maya Angelou at one of Bay Path’s Women’s Leadership Conferences, has led the school through a period of unprecedented growth and expansion.

“There are now many more competitors — everyone is adding new programs,” she went on, noting that this is true of both adult (non-traditional) programs and online education, another arena where Bay Path was a pioneer. “As more schools enter the marketplace, that increases your competition, and then pricing gets driven down.”

There are many other headwinds, especially the soaring cost of higher education and the ways in which students will learn, she said, adding that it is incumbent upon all schools to try to get ahead of these issues and respond proactively, rather than react when it is perhaps too late.

This is the mindset she took to Bay Path back in 1994, and it’s the one she’s leaving with the board and her staff as she packs up those photos and other memory-triggering artifacts from a career with a number of milestones.

For this issue and its focus on education, training, and employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Leary. It was supposed to be to flip through a figurative photo album assembled over a quarter-century, but, in keeping with her character, she was much more focused on the future than the past.

Developing Story

As noted, that photo of Leary with Dole and Hobin triggers a number of memories — and stories, which lead to even more stories.

One that Leary likes to tell involves how Dole’s presence at the conference helped lead to another keynoter of note — Margaret Thatcher.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people. And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

“She [Dole] had an advance person, a young man maybe 25 years old, and I’m in the wings with him listening to her speak, and he said, ‘who else would you like to have?’” she recalled. “I said, ‘we don’t have the first woman president of the United States yet, so I’d love the first woman prime minister of Great Britain.’ And he said, ‘my mother is her advance person.’”

Fast-forwarding a little, she said arrangements were made for Leary and Hobin to fly to Washington and deliver the invitation to Thatcher personally. She eventually came to downtown Springfield in the spring of 1998, thus adding her name to a lengthy list of keynoters that also includes Maya Angelou, Jane Fonda, Madeleine Albright, Rita Moreno, Queen Latifah, and many others.

There are stories — and photos — involving all those individuals, said Leary, who got to spend some time with each one of them.

But while she loves to tell those stories, an even more pleasant assignment is talking about the women, many of them first-generation college students, who have come to the Bay Path campus over the past quarter-century. Creating opportunities for them has been the most significant accomplishment of her career, she said, adding that her tenure has in many ways been defined by the small framed copy of that quote attributed to Steve Jobs — “The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world usually do” — she keeps near her desk.

“I don’t even know if he actually said that, but they say he said it,” she noted with a laugh. “Anyway, I always tell people that’s how we have to look at every issue.”

And that mindset has led to a stunning transformation of the 123-year-old school, which was a secretarial school decades ago and a sleepy two-year school when she and her husband, Noel, first visited it after she was recruited to apply to be its fifth president.

By now, most know the story. While many of their friends and family were dubious about this small school as her next career stop after working for several years at Simmons College (another women’s school), the Learys didn’t have any doubts.

But nothing about the turnaround effort — and it has to be called that — was quick or easy. And all the efforts were the result of teamwork, said Leary, who, over the years, has said repeatedly that the success of the institution is not due to one person, but rather a large and talented team.

“People ask how we accomplished what we did, and I always said the number-one reason was that I hired very committed, very passionate, and very smart people,” she said. “And that is the secret sauce — who you hire. I give them all the credit.”

While finding old photographs and items like that issue of Crossroads, Leary has also come across some of the letters (yes, she kept them) from institutions trying to recruit her and headhunters asking to apply for positions. More than the letters themselves, she remembers how she replied to them.

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads

This copy of Bay Path College Crossroads, with Elizabeth Dole on the cover, is one of many poignant pieces of memorabilia Carol Leary has come across while packing up after her remarkable career at the school.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision,’” she recalled. “I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

The work was never done because the school was seemingly always in a state of transition — first from a two-year school to the baccalaureate level, then to the master’s level, and then online and the introduction of new healthcare programs, and then doctorate programs.

And because it needs to, the school is still transitioning.

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest a few weeks ago, Leary was splitting her time a number of different ways — although coronavirus had certainly seized most of it as this article was being written, including the postponement of the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, which had been set for March 27 at the MassMutual Center. Meanwhile, there are several retirement parties scheduled, as well as the annual President’s Gala, a huge fundraiser for the university and, specifically, the President’s Scholarships established by Leary to assist first-generation students. Those are still proceeding as scheduled, although the virus and the response to it is a story that changes quickly.

What won’t be changing quickly — in speed or direction — are those headwinds facing seemingly all the most prestigious colleges and universities.

And the most pressing issue, she told BusinessWest, is doing something about the high cost of a college education.

“As higher-education professionals, we have to figure out how to deliver our model in an affordable way so that families can send their children and adults can attend as well and not have high debt,” she explained. “That’s why the American Women’s College was created in 2013, but it is not going to be unique anymore because, as the number of 18-year-olds goes down, colleges have to think about other sources of revenue.”

With this in mind, Leary said Bay Path long ago started looking at new strategies for growth and creating learning opportunities. And it has created a new division, the Office of Strategic Alliances — Hobin now leads it — which is focused on non-credit work and professional development.

“We’re thinking not necessarily about a student coming to us, graduating in four years, and maybe getting a graduate degree, but more in terms of ‘what do we need to do to educate that student through her life cycle,” Leary explained, pointing, with emphasis, to a report she’s seen indicating that a child born today has the potential to live to 150 years.

“If you think about that, they may have an 80-year work life,” she went on. “And so, the college degree they earn at age 22 may not be relevant at age 60, 70, or even 80; a child today will have a longer work life, and it will be a much different work life than what people are experiencing today.

“I can’t even predict what it will be like, but colleges have to stay relevant,” she said, adding that Bay Path’s new division will handle professional development for businesses that want to retool and retrain their workforces. “That’s probably the future; that’s where we need to be — not just offering degrees but also offering lifelong learning opportunities.”

In that future, which is probably not far down the road, Leary projects that higher education will be “unbundled,” as she put it, into degrees but also short- and long-term programs, and with students not necessarily spending four years at one institution, but rather moving in and out of a school.

“This is going to shake up my colleagues in the field, but if I had a crystal ball … I don’t think students are going to come to one college and stay there for 120 credits,” she explained, summoning the acronym CLEP, or college-level examination program, which enables individuals with prior knowledge in a college course subject to earn college credits by passing an exam, thus possibly earning a degree more efficiently and inexpensively.

“I always said, ‘my work here isn’t done — I’m in the middle of this vision or that vision.’ I never had the yearning to go anywhere.”

“We already see students coming and going, bringing in community college and other college credits, CLEP, advanced placement, and more,” she went on. Meanwhile, adults don’t some in expecting to take 120 credits because somewhere in their life they may have taken a year somewhere and then life happened and they dropped out.

“Overall, colleges are going to have to reflect on what is learning, how does learning place, where does it take place, and how does it fit it into a credential like a degree; I don’t believe that degrees are going to be place-bound,” she said in conclusion, adding that such reflection must lead to often-profound change in how things are done.

And higher education is not exactly noted for its willingness to change, she said, adding that this sentiment must shift if the smaller institutions want to not only survive but thrive.

Future Course

As noted, Leary will be staying on until late June, and between now and then she has to move out of her home on campus and pack up everything in her office, including a number of awards she’s received from organizations ranging from the Girl Scouts to BusinessWest; she’s actually won two honors from this magazine — its Difference Makers award and its Women of Impact award.

She’s also planned out the first several months of retirement, with several trips scheduled — to England in July and Italy in August, if coronavirus doesn’t get in the way — and work on two boards in Ogunquit, Maine, where she will spend roughly half the year, with the other half in Fort Lauderdale. She even has a T-shirt that reads, “Yes, I have a plan for retirement.”

As for the school she’s leaving … it’s a much different, much better, and much more resilient institution than the one she found a quarter-century ago. She insists that people shouldn’t credit her for that. Instead, they should maybe credit Steve Jobs and that quote attributed to him.

Leary didn’t set out to change the world, necessarily, just that small bit of it off Longmeadow Street. To say she did so would be a huge understatement, and in the course of doing so, she changed countless lives in the process.

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

Travel and Tourism

Shining Example

The MGM lion is the latest addition to the portfolio of displays at Bright Nights.

Judy Matt had been tracking the results daily, almost hourly, and then … she couldn’t any longer.

So, she’ll have to wait, like everyone else, to see how Bright Nights at Forest Park fares in this year’s USA Today competition to determine the top 10 holiday lighting shows in the country.

When she was last able to check the tabulations before the magazine stopped running a count — presumably to build suspense for the Dec. 13 announcement regarding this and some other contests — Matt noted that Bright Nights was running fourth, behind such vaunted displays as the Legendary Lights of Clifton Mill in Ohio, the Bentleyville Tour of Lights in Duluth, Minn., and Christmas Town USA in McAdenville, N.C.

“We were doing very well in the polling, and I think that certainly says something about Bright Nights, how far we’ve come, and how it can help put Springfield on the map,” said Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield, which manages the display. “We’re now certainly among the top displays in the country.”

But regardless of how it fares in the final vote, Bright Nights, now marking its 25th year, will always having something more to celebrate — the manner in which it has become a holiday tradition in this region, now already touching a number of generations of area residents and visitors alike.

“When we started out, we certainly weren’t thinking about winning any awards or anything like that,” said Patrick Sullivan, executive director of Parks, Buildings, and Recreation Management in Springfield and one of the architects of Bright Nights, while acknowledging that he has voted online every day in the USA Today competition, as the rules allow. “We just wanted to create a lighting display, something for families to enjoy during the holidays.”

To say that those involved have succeeded in that mission would be a huge understatement. Bright Nights has become one of the leading tourist attractions in the region, visited by more than 300,000 people and some 30,000 cars and buses annually. Those visitors come from around the corner, across the region, and well outside it, as license-plate-tracking efforts show.

Judy Matt says Bright Nights has become a cherished holiday tradition in the region, one made possible by a collaborative effort involving a number of players.

But while Bright Nights is a success story as a lighting display — as its showing in the USA Today poll shows — it is also a shining example (figuratively and quite literally) of the power of collaboration, said Matt. She noted that launching Bright Lights, keeping the lights on for 25 years, and continually expanding and improving the portfolio of displays (a leaping MGM lion is the latest addition) have been possible because of a powerful partnership between the city, Spirit of Springfield, the business community, and the public, which continually supports it each year.

“It takes a lot of people working together to make this happen,” she explained. “All the contributions are important, and we need every one of them to make this work.”

While Bright Nights is certainly a success story, Matt said, keeping the lights on is certainly a challenge. Margins are slim, and a few days lost due to bad weather (many of the other displays on the USA Today list are in warm climes) can be a disaster in terms of the bottom line.

“In many ways, we make it look easy,” she said of the Bright Nights operation. “It’s certainly not easy; it’s a tremendous challenge, and it takes a great amount of support, on many levels, to make this possible.”

Watt’s Happening

By now, most people know the story of how Bright Nights came to be. And if not, it’s retold in a commemorative 25th anniversary book that is, for the most part, a collection of cherished memories offered by residents from across the region.

In most ways, the saga begins with a brochure from a North Carolina-based outfit called Carpenter Decorating, a company that designed and built holiday lighting displays, that found its way onto Sullivan’s desk.

But actually, we need to go back several more decades, to a time when Sullivan can recall visiting Forest Park during the holidays and seeing wooden displays on the baseball field, a nativity scene in the zoo, and bells hung on wires over the main road. Those simple displays created lifelong memories, and the brochure from Carpenter Decorating spurred thoughts of creating something similar for different generations of area residents.

“In many ways, we make it look easy. It’s certainly not easy; it’s a tremendous challenge, and it takes a great amount of support, on many levels, to make this possible.”

Fast-forwarding quite a bit, the brochure was shown to Matt and others. Someone from Carpenter Decorating came to Springfield, toured the park, and eventually created a plan, if you will, to fill a small portion of the park with relatively simple displays of Santas throwing snowballs and playing baseball.

Matt, Sullivan, and others were thinking bigger. Much bigger. They were thinking of creating displays that would be regional in nature and pay tribute to Dr. Seuss and the characters he made famous; incorporate some of the games created by Milton Bradley (now Hasbro), a company founded in the city and by then located in East Longmeadow; and honor other figures from the city’s history. Meanwhile, their plan would make far more extensive use of Forest Park, designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park in New York.

“I had just become parks superintendent maybe 18 months prior,” Sullivan recalled. “And I felt strongly that the parks could be an asset to the Springfield community; I wanted to ensure that our parks complemented not only the neighborhood community, but also the business community by bringing people to the area.”

But that much bigger dream came with a huge price tag and a long list of logistical concerns. And that’s a big part of this story — overcoming all of these hurdles, and in roughly six months’ time.

Such efforts created a number of Bright Nights heroes, if you will.

They include the late Peter Picknelly, then chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines, who signed the note for the Bright Nights financing. In what has become a bit of Springfield lore and legend, he is said to have told a Spirit of Springfield board of directors wary about taking on such a gamble, “if you don’t want to take the risk, I will.”

But there were other hurdles as well — everything from bringing electricity to a park that had power in only a few areas to piecing the massive displays together (more legend has it that the boxes carrying the displays started arriving with no instructions inside). And, of course, the biggest challenge was raising the money needed to turn the lights on.

And this is where the business community has come to the forefront. Indeed, a number of area companies have stepped up as sponsors and consistent supporters of Bright Nights and Spirit of Springfield, including MassMutual, Baystate Health, MGM, Peter Pan, and many others.

The Springfield Thunderbirds display is one of the latest additions to Bright Nights, which is celebrating 25 years of creating memories.

And the business community continues to provide a strong foundation of support, said Matt, adding that this was clearly on display at the annual Bright Nights Ball, an event that celebrated the first 25 years and all those who made them possible.

“Without the business community, Bright Nights wouldn’t happen,” she noted, adding that support on many levels is needed to keep Bright Nights in the black.

“There are a lot of expenses that go with this — insurance, the crew from the city that sets up the displays and takes them down, police details, park rental, payroll for nearly 60, marketing, and more,” she explained, adding that it costs more than $1 million to stage the lighting display each year. “And all of our [Spirit of Springfield] operating income comes from Bright Nights. So if we don’t have a good Bright Nights, it follows us all year.

“That’s why every day is so crucial,” she went on. “And that’s why we’re so grateful when we get sponsors and when we get the state to give us some funding because we need all of that; if we lost a few weekends due to bad weather, we’d be in trouble.”

As the ambitious initiative marks 25 years, there is much to celebrate, said both Matt and Sullivan, who noted that, while it has become one of the nation’s top lighting displays, for Springfield and the region, it has become much more.

It is a popular tourist attraction, they said, and also a revenue generator for Spirit of Springfield. But it has also become a point of pride for the city and now one of many factors contributing to the city becoming a real destination.

“It’s a labor of love because of what the event does for our community,” said Sullivan. “When we started this, there wasn’t a lot of good happening for the city, and this became a bright spot. Now, it’s one of many bright spots — we have the Museums, MGM, and many other attractions.

“When we started, there wasn’t much going on in Springfield,” he went on. “I really believe Bright Nights was a catalyst for some of the other successes we’ve had.”

Shedding Light

Those involved with Bright Nights don’t have to wait for the results from the USA Today competition to come in to know this lighting display has already made a name for itself — and for Springfield.

Indeed, it has already been ranked — along with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes show, the Rose Bowl, and others — among the top-10 ‘Holiday Happenings,’ according to People magazine.

And beyond cracking those top-10 and best-of lists, they know that Bright Nights has accomplished something far more important.

It has become a tradition, one that continues to grow in size, stature, and relevance.

And that’s certainly worth celebrating as a region marks this milestone year.

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

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