Marois Construction recently converted this single-family farmhouse built around 1860 into a three-story, 30-unit housing complex (top).
Construction is a lot like the mail. Projects have to be delivered on time, regardless of the weather.
And to say it’s been a rainy year is an undertstatement.
“Weather is a common occurrence in the construction industry. And, depending on what we have going on at any particular time, we typically have to continue operations, as long as it’s not a total washout,” said Carl Mercieri, vice president of Marois Construction in South Hadley.
On one day of downpours in mid-September, he recalled, “our crews were in the field. They were tying rebar for footings for a project they were doing for the Chicopee Water Department. They braved the weather and set up some collapsible canopies.
“Our project schedules don’t take weather into consideration. So we’ve got to complete them,” Mercieri added. “And not only that, but the crews doing that job need to move on to another job. So we do the best we can with what we got to work with. And, you know, I’ve been doing this for over 40 years, and the weather is not changing here in New England.”
But plenty else has changed in construction over the past 50 years, and Marois Construction — founded by company President Joe Marois in 1972 — celebrated that half-century milestone last year. Those changes run the gamut from new technology to cutting-edge materials to modern priorities in the building world, especially around green, energy-efficient building.
Through all of it, Marois has steadily built a solid reputation, and its current workload reflects that.
“Backing up a year, 2022 was a stellar year, and in 2023, we got off to the same start,” Mercieri said “Every year is a little bit different, though. This year has been a bit quirky. We’ve had a lot on our books, but for one reason or another, we’ve had some projects that got delayed.
“And then, of course, summer is our busy season, with all the college and school work. So we were working six days a week. Typically, when September rolls around, we start to slow down, and things get back to normal,” he went on. “But when those projects that actually got started got delayed, they all came to life in September. So we’re not seeing any slowdown here, looking at the third quarter and toward the end of the year. So it looks like it’s going to be another really good year for us.”
Broad Range of Expertise
Marois performs both public and private work, both new construction and renovations, across a range of sectors, including commercial, industrial, and educational projects, Mercieri said.
“Right now we’re doing a branch bank … we’ve got a couple of schools that we’re doing, kitchen renovations in schools. We’re also building a police department for one of the local municipalities.”
“I’d say probably 70% of the guys in the workforce are closer to retirement age than not. So it’s extremely important that we get some of the younger people in.”
This diversity can be a positive in an uncertain economy.
“With all the ARPA money out there, there’s a lot of school work going in the public sector,” he added. “And we’re seeing a trend toward the private schools and charter schools. We’ve got one that we’re working on right now out in Stockbridge.”
In the post-pandemic world, contractors have been faced with a number of challenges all at once, from the impact of inflation to supply shortages. Mercieri said those trends are starting to subside, but not as quickly as most would like.
“We continue to see issues. There seems to be longer lead times on products,” he noted, citing doors and windows as examples. “A few years ago, before COVID, we could call in an order in the morning for hollow metal door frames and have them by in the afternoon. Now, we’re seeing a lead time of several weeks, which really impacts the schedule.
“For a while there, lumber was scarce, but lumber seems to have rebounded,” he added. “Prices have come down somewhat, but they really didn’t get back to where they were.”
And when supplies and equipment are difficult to procure or beset by delays, “it keeps the project going. You can’t close it out, even though it’s substantially complete. So one of the things that we deal with is that, going into a project, you can anticipate these delays, but you really can’t put a finger on how long the delays are going to be; it really depends on the manufacturer’s production line and what they’re doing.”
In one case this year, involving a generator, he was given a delivery date of April, and a week or two before it was supposed to ship, the date was pushed to June, then it was pushed again to August.
“We ended up getting it the first or second week of September,” he went on. “So you have no control over that, and it’s an unfortunate situation. And we don’t know where the problem lies; we don’t know if it’s a matter of materials on the manufacturer’s end or labor or a combination of both. But it has a pretty big impact on the construction industry, for sure.”
So has a persistent workforce shortage, one that has affected many industries lately. “It’s tough, but that’s been a trending issue over the years; I don’t think that’s anything new in this industry,” Mercieri said.
“Ninety percent of it is showing up every day; 10% is paying attention and learning.”
“So … we’ve adapted,” he went on. “We run our crews a bit leaner, meaning when we set up a job, rather than having a large crew over there, we’ll set up a smaller core crew at each job. And then, as a task comes up, we’ll move people around to the job and build up the crew, get them in, get them out, and then move them on to another job.”
The leadership team at Marois is certainly not alone in noting the need for more young talent in the pipeline.
“I go to these job sites, and I see our own crew, or I see our subcontractors, and … some of these guys I’ve known for 35 years,” he told BusinessWest. “I’d say probably 70% of the guys in the workforce are closer to retirement age than not. So it’s extremely important that we get some of the younger people in.”
He said the industry has been hurt over the past couple decades by a prevalent message that young people need to go to college to be successful. In fact, Massachusetts ranks among the top states in sending high-school graduates to college. At the same time, industrial-arts programs have been cut from public-school curricula, due to liability, budget cuts, or other factors, Mercieri noted.
But there is a pitch to be made, at a time when families are growing more concerned with crushing debt coming out of college, that careers in construction are attainable, with a clear path to growth, without much, if any, debt.
“Ninety percent of it is showing up every day; 10% is paying attention and learning,” he said, citing the example of someone who wants to specialize in carpentry but might not have the skills for a specific niche right off the bat. “There are multiple facets in carpentry. And you may be better at one or the other. Maybe you’re good at rough carpentry, and maybe you’re not as good at finished carpentry. But over time, you’re going to be very experienced — and you’ll probably be good at both.”
From the Ground Up
Mercieri knows what he’s talking about; he fell into construction at a young age, doing work for a friend’s father who owned a construction business.
“Basically, I was the young kid, and I got to carry all the tools for the tradespeople. I learned the electrical trade, plumbing, carpentry. I got my hands and feet wet being a helper. Then, over the years, it kind of grew on me, and the rest is history.”
He’s been in the field long enough to experience the transition from bid requests via phone calls and snail mail to digital platforms.
“And you think about the field now. Back then, there were no cell phones; there were no iPads. If something came up, a guy would run to a phone booth, or we’d set up landlines with a trailer, and they’d be calling the office. Now our guys in the field have iPads; as soon as we receive something here in the office, it goes right upstream, and they receive it out in the field.”
It’s just one of many changes Mercieri has seen over his decades in construction. And with one more year almost in the books, he’s feeling optimistic about 2024.
“We’ve got a fair amount on the books,” he told BusinessWest. “Some of the jobs that we’re doing now will run into 2024. The bidding market seems very strong. So we think we’re going to do pretty well.”
We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.
Joe Bednar Interviews Carl Mercieri, vice president of Marois Construction
The 50th anniversary of any business is a notable milestone, and Marois Construction not only celebrated that achievement last year, but recorded one of its strongest years in memory. The firm’s work — in a variety of sectors, both public and private — continues steadily in 2023, despite ongoing industry challenges ranging from inflation to supply uncertainty; from workforce shortages to a lot of wet weather in Western Mass. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Carl Mercieri, vice president of the South Hadley-based company, talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about how Marois has navigated these challenges while continuing to make its mark on the region in its second half-century. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.
Doug Moglin and Heather Kies stand at the construction site for Whalley Computer Associates’ 85,000-square-foot addition.
When Whalley Computer Associates in Southwick recently broke ground for a new 85,000-square-foot warehouse and office addition, Doug Moglin said the company was making a statement about its commitment to the town.
“We’ve been operating in Southwick for 44 years, and the new facility represents our investment in the next 25 to 30 years,” said Moglin, vice president for Whalley’s OEM business.
While many of its customers are based in New England, Whalley sells all over the U.S. and internationally. Warehousing is essential because a big part of the business involves acquiring various types of computer equipment from manufacturers, customizing it to clients’ specific needs, and then shipping out the final product. All of that requires space, which can present a challenge. Moglin gave an example of a national retail chain that needed new servers, a case that explains the need for the expansion.
“One day, 8,000 servers showed up to our near-capacity warehouse,” he explained. “And because only eight servers fit on each pallet, it quickly became a math problem.”
The company currently uses warehouse space in Westfield to handle the overflow, but the need keeps growing. For several years, senior managers had discussed building more warehouse capacity on the parcels that surround Whalley’s main facility in Southwick. Supply-chain issues during the pandemic accelerated those discussions.
“Supply-chain reliability is a concern for our customers, so having components on hand is a huge benefit,” Moglin explained. “Having the capacity to hold more inventory brings additional customers to us because, instead of buying direct from manufacturers or companies like ours out of the area, they have a local resource that provides better service and better support.”
Heather Kies, marketing manager for Whalley, called its evolution “a great story of a company that’s growing but still staying in its hometown.”
The Southwick Select Board and the Massachusetts Office of Business Development worked with Whalley to secure a tax-increment financing (TIF) agreement.
Russell Fox, chair of the Select Board and a selectman for most of the past 40 years, said the TIF was well worth the effort to keep the project in Southwick. Under the agreement, Whalley has agreed to add to the 200 workers it currently employs. “The Whalley project is all positive news for Southwick,” Fox said.
“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel.”
In another part of town, the Planning Board is now considering a reconfiguration of the site where a Carvana facility was once proposed but then shot down by residents over concerns of increased traffic along College Highway. Now the same area has been redrawn as five separate lots, with some facing the road and smaller lots positioned in the back of the parcel. Fox sees the new plan as a great compromise.
“The reconfiguration addresses the concerns of people who don’t want a huge operation. I think it’s a good way to use this industrially zoned parcel,” Fox said, adding that, when new businesses occupy that parcel, it will help the town make its case to add a traffic light at the Tannery Road intersection.
Moving forward, the town’s goal is to continue decades of work to create an attractive balance. Fox noted that, while Southwick is known as a recreational community — it is home to the Congamond Lakes, a successful motocross track, and two golf courses — it is also a town that wants and needs to continually grow its business community.
Overall, it strives to be a community where people can play, work, and live, with new housing developments under construction and others set to come off the drawing board, as we’ll see later.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Southwick and how this community on the Connecticut border is building momentum — in all kinds of ways.
Getting Down to Business
A key agenda item at the upcoming Southwick town meeting in May involves bringing fiber optics into town to handle its cable-TV and internet services.
The process involves forming a municipal light plant, which voters approved at a special town meeting last fall. A second vote for the plant will be taken at the May meeting. Fox pointed out that the municipal light plant is an entity in name only. If the second vote is successful, Southwick will begin interviewing firms to install and maintain the fiber-optic network. Whip City Fiber in Westfield will be among the companies under consideration.
“We’re telling all bidders that they must cover the entire town and not just the densely populated neighborhoods; that’s a non-negotiable point,” he said. “We are a community, so everyone must have access.”
The fiber-optic network is considered an important step forward for the community, one that will bring faster, more reliable service to existing residential and business customers, and provide one more selling point as town leaders continue their work to attract more employers, across a wide range of sectors.
Diane DeMarco has a special trade-show display room to help clients pick the right materials for their needs.
The town already boasts a large and growing business community, one that is served by the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, which has increased its membership among Southwick businesses, a sign of growth both in Southwick and in the chamber.
Indeed, last year, the chamber reported 13 members from Southwick, while this year, that number has grown to 20.
Diane DeMarco, owner of Spotlight Graphics in Southwick, is a long-time chamber member. For 10 years, the company has provided area businesses with logo signage, trade-show materials, and graphic vehicle wrapping, among many other services offered.
When COVID hit, Spotlight lost a few clients when it was forced to shut down. Since then, DeMarco reports she has gained back many more clients than she lost. “Business has been very good for us. We have new clients coming on board, and word of mouth about us is spreading.”
She credits customer loyalty through the years thanks to the relationships she and her staff have built. “Our customers aren’t buying their graphics from a company; they are working with Allie, David, or Diane,” she said, listing long-time employees at the business.
In addition to offering full-service, quality work, Spotlight Graphics is a nationally certified Women’s Business Enterprise (WBE) and certified by the state as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE). DeMarco explained the state designation has led to work from clients who are required to do business with DBE firms as part of their state contract. She described it as a win-win.
“The client is fulfilling their contractual requirement for the state by working with a woman-owned business, and they are getting a quality product at a fair price,” she said.
While DeMarco competes with online graphic firms that offer cheaper prices, she’s not worried because they often can’t match Spotlight’s quality.
Southwick at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1770 Population: 9,232 Area: 31.7 square miles County: Hampden Residential Tax Rate: $16.11 Commercial Tax Rate: $16.11 MedianHousehold Income: $52,296 Family Household Income: $64,456 Typeof Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District *Latest information available
“Sometimes a client will buy an inexpensive retractable banner stand or go for the cheap price on a poster,” she said. “Then, when the stand breaks or the poster is the wrong color, they come to us to get it done right.”
In fact, Spotlight clients can see and touch the quality of banner stands and other graphic materials at its trade-show display room. DeMarco said online and print catalogs provide only an approximate idea of the size and quality of trade-show materials.
“People who are new to trade shows or have to revamp their current displays like to stop by because they can see the actual items they would use and get answers to their questions from our staff.”
No Place Like Home
While its business community continues to grow, Southwick is experiencing residential growth as well.
Indeed, the Greens of Southwick, a housing development located on both sides of College Highway on the former Southwick Country Club property, is nearing completion. With 25 lots on the west side and 38 on the east side, only a handful of parcels remain for this custom-built home development.
Fox appreciated the quality of the homes that added to the number of new residences in Southwick. “The developers did a tremendous job with the houses there,” he said. “The whole project is a real asset to our town.”
Next up for new housing, a 100-unit condominium complex has been approved at Depot and Powder Mill roads. While construction has not yet started, the town has already secured a grant to install sidewalks around the perimeter of the eventual construction. Fox said the sidewalks make sense because the location of the condos is an active area.
“The sidewalk will connect to Whalley Park, the rail trail, the Southwick Recreation Center, and to the schools at the other end of Powder Ridge,” he explained.
In Southwick, much of today’s activity is as much about the future as it is about the present.
As Moglin noted about Whalley Computer’s building addition, “this is not a 2024 investment; this is a 2044 investment, and beyond.”
The same can be said of the fiber-optic network soon to be built, the plans to divide and then develop the site eyed by Carvana, and the many housing projects in various stages of development.
In short, this is a community with expanding horizons, both literally and figuratively.
The property on Main Street has always played an important role in the economic vibrancy of the town, and this is expected to continue with its new function as a police station.
Country Bank recently introduced a new marketing slogan — ‘Made to Make a Difference.’ There have been myriad examples of that mindset over the bank’s 172-year history, but perhaps none bigger than the recent announcement that the bank would gift its former headquarters property on Main Street, valued at more than $3 million, to the town, with the intention of it becoming the site of a new police station and perhaps home to other town offices.
Paul Scully says that, over the past few years, or since Country Bank started ramping up discussions about what to do with its vacant former headquarters building on Main Street in Ware, there had been talks with various real estate developers about the property.
But they didn’t go very far, said Scully, the bank’s president, noting that those making inquiries were “more speculators than investors,” as he put it.
“And we didn’t want to sell it on a speculative basis and then not have it maintained,” he explained. “Or have someone say ‘we bought this with the intention of having some office move in but it never came to fruition’ and now the property is abandoned.
“Yes, we were approached by some people,” he went on. “But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”
With that, Scully poignantly described the mindset that ultimately led to the announcement on June 1 that the bank was donating the property at 75-79 Main St. to the town with the intention of it becoming the site of its new police station and perhaps other municipal uses.
Elaborating, he said there were multiple objectives in mind as the bank considered what to do with the property that had been its home until it moved its headquarters into renovated mill space on South Street in 2005.
These included a desire to help the police department find larger, better quarters — something it desperately needs — while also “energizing Main Street,” as Scully put it, noting that the town’s central business district has been hit hard by COVID and other factors and needs a spark. He believes that having the police department and perhaps some other town offices in that complex will provide one.
The decision to gift the property to the town comes, coincidentally, as the bank introduced a marketing tagline: ‘Made to Make a Difference.’
This tagline evolved from a series of focus groups with customers, team members, board members, and non-customers who had gathered to discuss their experiences with the bank and their knowledge of its impact on the people and communities it serves, said Scully, adding that the donation of the Main Street building is the latest example of this mindset at work.
“Yes, we were approached by some people. But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”
“It’s what we’ve been doing for 172 years — we’re made to make a difference; make a difference in your loan, make a difference in the community, make a difference in your financial planning,” he said, adding that this mission has been carried out in countless ways over the years, including a recent project in Worcester to build 55 beds for children in conjunction with the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, at which the new slogan was formally introduced to the bank’s staff.
“That was the first time they’d heard the slogan, and in the previous two hours, they had just made a difference in a child’s life, someone who did have a bed of their own,” he explained, adding that the donation of the Main Street property adds a new and an intriguing chapter to that long-running story of giving back.
As he talked about the decision to gift the property to the community, a donation he described as rare for a private institution, Scully first set the stage in an effort to explain how this came about, why it makes sense for the town, and how it meets the bank’s ongoing commitment to the community embedded in its new marketing slogan.
He started by discussing Main Street and, more specifically, what was largely missing from it — vitality, or energy. Elaborating, he said that many retail businesses had moved over the past several years from Main Street to the new commercial hub on Route 32, near a Wal-mart. And in recent years, several fires, including one at the bank’s Main Street property, prompted more moves by businesses. Meanwhile, COVID and lengthy and very involved reconstruction of Main Street brought additional challenges to that part of downtown.
These forces coincided with Main Street property going quiet, as a result of the pandemic and forces resulting from it.
That property, valued at approximately $3 million, includes the former banking office located on the corner of Main and Bank Street along with the E2E building located at 79 Main St., the rear parking lot and bunker style garage, and rooftop parking situated behind the 65-71 Main Street location that was also donated by Country Bank to the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corporation back in 2016.
Country Bank president Paul Scully
It has been vacant since the start of the pandemic, when the bank closed its branch there due to staff and customer safety concerns.
“Not maintaining a presence on Main Street was a tough decision that required months of consideration while assessing how this location might be best utilized to support the community,” said Scully. “The effects of the pandemic combined with a significant decrease in customer foot traffic over the years and a shift in banking habits to more customers adopting electronic delivery channels were all a considerable part of the decision. It is a massive building to be sitting empty. The decision to donate the building became evident as we weighed the usage of this location and discussed the opportunities it could provide to the town.”
Elaborating, Scully said that while there have been ongoing discussions about the fate of the building over the years, they took on new urgency with the pandemic and the bank’s decision not to have on presence on Main Street.
However, that urgency coincided with the large-scale construction work undertaken on Main Street, he went on, adding that nothing could really be done while that work was going on.
“Over the past year, and with more earnest, we’ve been saying ‘let’s figure out what we can do with this building a make a difference,” said Scully. “And it somewhat coincided with hearing about the need for a new police station.”
The pricetag for such a facility was pegged at $7 million to $9 million, he said, adding that a new station is clearly needed, with the department having outgrown its current quarters, the town’s former post office.
By gifting the town its former headquarters, the bank can help save the town much of that expense — it will still need to renovate the property for that new use, said Scully — while also helping to bring some new life to a downtown that is poised for a resurgence given the recent roadwork and an easing of the pandemic.
“We knew that now that the roads had been repaved and new sidewalks installed, there was more of an opportunity for a resurgence on Main Street than there had been during that construction process,” said Scully. “And we didn’t want to circumvent that by having someone buy the building who wasn’t going to be able to maintain it or have the financial resources to take care of it.
“We wanted it to be right formula for the town and for the other merchants on Main Street to allow them to get some foot traffic back,” he went on, adding that a police station, and other town offices that might eventually move into that space, will help accomplish many of those goals.
Although there is no specific timeline for the transfer of ownership, which needs approval from the town at a scheduled town meeting, the bank intends to work on a smooth transition with all parties involved and expects the transfer of the location to happen in 2023, said Scully.
The Bottom Line
Reflecting on the long history of the Main Street property, Scully said it has housed different banks, including Country, the Ware Trust Company, and Ware Savings, since before World War I.
It has long played a role in the economic vibrancy of the town, he said, adding that even though its function will change, it will continue to do so. This was that guiding compass the bank used as it went about determining a new use for the property.
“We look at this as a great investment in community — this is what community banking is all about,” he said. “We say that we exist for our customers, our community, and our staff, and this really is the community basis of it. We’re really excited that we can help make a difference downtown and help make a difference to the taxpayers.
“We met internally as a board and a senior management team, and our driving focus was to what’s right for the town,” Scully explained. “We’ve been in town since 1850, and we believed we’ve made a difference over all those years and wanted to continue making a difference.
I read an article recently about Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who started the business with about $5,000. The recent acquisition of Spanx by Blackstone now positions the company’s value at about $1.2 billion — a staggering transformation. To reward her employees for helping her create this amazing company, Blakely gave each of her 500 employees two first-class airline tickets to a destination of their choice and $10,000 in spending money for their trip.
So how did a woman with barely any means accomplish this phenomenal business venture? There are quite a few strategies and decisions that contributed to her success, but one of the biggest things that stood out to me was the message I saw on the careers page on its website. Here it is, in part:
“We are a high-growth, digital company with an iconic brand that earned its reputation for over 20 years by delivering amazing products and staying true to our greater mission of supporting and elevating women. We don’t believe ‘pain is beauty,’ and we don’t believe ‘business is war.’ We run our business with kindness, empathy, intuition, creativity, integrity … and fun. We don’t believe you have to act serious to be taken seriously. We dream big, think forward, and give back. We challenge the status quo, aim high, and celebrate our ‘oops’ moments. We test and learn and we aren’t afraid of failure. We think like entrepreneurs in everything we do, and we look for people who are self-starters, kind, creative, and out-of-the box-thinkers. If this sounds like you, join us! And help us make the world a better place … one butt at a time.”
Spanx has an excellent track record of being an employer of choice with great retention numbers and pathways for advancement across the organization. So, what helps them drive a robust and engaging company culture? They follow some of the same principles that many other successful organizations employ to create a great employee experience:
• Build trust. In fact, start with trust and go from there. Don’t make new employees earn trust. Start from a place where they have your trust, and manage the relationship from there.
• Empower your employees to make decisions. Don’t create a culture of micromanaging. Allow team members to make decisions, collaborate, and generate new ideas.
• Set clear, transparent goals. Your employees need to know the big picture and their role in that path to success. Work with them to set clear goals and expectations. Train your managers to have coaching conversations regularly, not just once a year at their annual performance review. Set goals, coach, redirect, and repeat.
• Show appreciation — especially now. If your company has successfully navigated this pandemic, at least some of that success is due to the work and dedication of your staff. Be sure to say ‘thank you’ and celebrate the wins with your entire team.
• Invest in their well-being. A paycheck is great, but you have to do more. Take a genuine interest in your people. Offer wellness resources and train managers and leaders to show empathy with accountability.
• Allow freedom to make mistakes. Don’t punish the team for failures. Bold moves lead to big successes. If your team is afraid of making mistakes, you’ll miss the big moments of greatness.
Not sure where your company stands on the journey to create a thriving company culture? That’s OK. Grab your leadership team and review the key elements of a successful strategy listed above. You may also want to consider asking your employees for their feedback through an employee-engagement survey. Whether your company is trying to improve communication between individuals and teams, gauge morale after a merger or downsizing, or obtain feedback on programs and policies, a customized employee-engagement survey gathers employee feedback via a core set of questions, options for narrative responses, and special areas of focus. Results typically come with a detailed analysis of results, management debriefs, and a clear action plan that will help you address some of your biggest areas for improvement.
Allison Ebner is director of member services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast; [email protected]. This article first appeared on EANE’s blog.
The past year has been an unusual time for the construction industry — one marked by project postponements, soaring prices for materials, and the establishment of strict COVID safety protocols on job sites. But for most builders, it wasn’t a devastating year, and, in many cases, it led to a surprisingly promising 2021. After all, the need for projects to be completed hasn’t gone away, and the backlog is actually creating a surplus of projects to bid on. The aforementioned challenges still remain, contractors say, but the work rolls on.
Laurie and John Raymaakers say there’s plenty of infrastructure work available — and that trend should continue in the coming years.
By Mark Morris
For Dan Bradbury, 2020 was “a year of pivoting and finding new ways to get the job done.”
As director of sales and marketing for Associated Builders, Bradbury saw a slowdown at this time last year as several projects that were scheduled to break ground were instead postponed indefinitely.
By including construction as an essential industry, Gov. Charlie Baker allowed job sites to stay open and keep workers employed while following pandemic protocols. While Bradbury appreciated the ability to keep projects moving, other slowdowns were out of his control.
“There are a lot of hurdles to get over in a large industrial or commercial project, and COVID hit the brakes on all of them,” he said, noting in particular the new challenges surrounding what in the past had been routine business with municipal governments.
“We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”
“Because municipalities had to move to fully remote meetings, they occurred less often, which made it difficult to get building permits, zoning-board approvals, and the other essential documents we need to start and finish a building project,” Bradbury said, adding that Associated has projects in the works in a number of different sectors. One example is a 30,000-square-foot building in Bloomfield, Conn., where a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.
His company’s experience isn’t unique. BusinessWest spoke with several area construction managers to discuss how their industry looks this spring compared to a year ago, when COVID-19 suddenly changed the world — and the main takeaway is one of optimism and promise.
A significant part of Houle Construction’s business involves interior renovations for medical facilities. Company President Tim Pelletier noted that, when COVID first struck, business came to a complete halt as medical professionals were dealing with rapidly increasing numbers of COVID patients. One year later, he’s optimistic about the increase in construction activity.
“It’s absolutely busier than last year,” he said. “We’re seeing more projects taking shape, especially with our hospital clients.” In the meantime, Pelletier has picked up renovation projects at organizations that offer hall rentals, such as the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.
“The temple has not been able to host gatherings for the past year, so they are using the downtime to make renovations for when they can open again,” Pelletier said, adding that it’s a way to take advantage of what everyone has gone through and find a positive side.
An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School, one of the many recent school projects undertaken by Fontaine Brothers.
Bradbury credits pent-up demand for the increase in projects his company has been taking on this year.
“As soon as the calendar page turned to 2021, our phones started ringing,” he said. “We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”
Dave Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said his company has been fortunate to have several projects ongoing since before the pandemic hit. Many of his largest projects involve building schools, for which budgets are approved long before breaking ground, so funding for them was not affected by COVID concerns. Since the pandemic hit, Fontaine said some towns have delayed public funding approvals, but not as many as he had anticipated.
“In the last six to eight months, we’ve picked up more than $400 million in new work,” he noted. “Some of these projects are in pre-construction now and will start this summer.”
Among the projects scheduled to begin in June are the $75 million DeBerry-Homer School in Springfield and the $240 million Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester.
Infrastructure construction also experienced steady business last year. J.L. Raymaakers and Sons Construction specializes in installing water and sewer lines as well as site excavation for municipalities, airports, and private companies. After a busy 2019, co-owner John Raymaakers said 2020 was nearly a record year for his company, and he’s on pace to fill up the project list for 2021.
In this Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn., a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.
“It’s amazing the amount of infrastructure work that is out there for bid,” Raymaakers said, explaining that his company subscribes to a register that lists all the new public and private projects available for bid. Since the middle of last year, he has seen no slowdown in the volume of bidding opportunities. “Looking only at our category of construction, there were five to six new projects announced just last week.”
Raymaakers predicted bridge construction, another area of expertise for his company, will also see increased activity.
“In the next few years, I think we are going to see a lot of work on replacing aging bridges in New England,” he said, adding that this should happen even without a federal government infrastructure bill, citing two recent bridge-replacement projects his crews are working on in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. Still, he’s hopeful that some kind of infrastructure legislation passes, saying it would be “a huge boost to us and others in our industry.”
While business activity is brisk for everyone BusinessWest spoke with, they’ve all faced recent challenges; some are unique to doing business in the COVID environment, and others are chronic problems made worse by the virus. The issue of having enough workers was a challenge on both fronts.
“We’ve definitely lost people from the workforce due to COVID concerns,” Fontaine said. “They might be taking care of a family member, or they might be in a group that has underlying health concerns.”
He added that managing COVID on the job site is also difficult. “Anytime someone tests positive for COVID, that individual and anyone in close contact with them has to go home and quarantine for the time period,” he explained. “That can result in a lot of labor disruption on a daily basis.”
COVID also exacerbated the long-running problem of fewer workers in skilled-trade and general-labor jobs. Raymaakers said finding help in construction is a constant challenge. Co-owner Laurie Raymaakers pointed out that heavy-equipment operators and construction laborers can make a good living.
“There’s a misconception that laborers aren’t paid well,” she said. “The pay and benefits at our company are pretty good; the reality is there are just fewer people who want to do this type of work.”
She added that it’s also misleading to suggest laborers are not skilled, pointing out that her company’s laborers are highly skilled at making sure pipes are situated properly and secured to withstand years of service.
“Our workers also put together fire hydrants, which require about 50 bolts that have to be tightened in a certain pattern. Hydrants are under constant water pressure, so if it’s not built correctly, parts of the hydrant will go flying in the air.”
As older craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians continue to retire, their ranks are not being filled by enough younger workers. With projects increasing, Bradbury said an already-competitive labor market gets squeezed even further.
Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution, at the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.
“Between the demand for commercial/industrial as well as residential, everyone in the trades is busy, and they can’t find enough workers,” Bradbury said. “On top of that, solar companies are hiring all the electricians they can find at a time when electricians were already in short supply.”
The biggest hurdle to doing business right now, according to Bradbury, involves managing enormous price increases for materials, in some cases rising by more than 100% compared to this time last year.
“Over a period of months, we’ve seen multiple price increases in steel and lumber products,” he said. “Those two create a trickle up that affects prices for every other building material.”
Bradbury noted that steel manufacturing has been affected by labor outages due to COVID, leading to product-supply shortages. He also pointed to increased demand for lumber, especially on the residential side, where housing starts are booming. In addition, his company and many others receive a great deal of lumber from Canada, where the U.S. still has tariffs in place on lumber.
Bradbury said COVID issues are not affecting project schedules because his firm will not start a job until it has a guarantee that materials are available. “We are also adding cost protections in our contracts as a way to guard against the constant increases in materials.”
It’s too early to determine what immediate impact the pandemic will have on building design, but Bradbury said clients from current and future projects have begun asking about air handling and filtration.
“For sure, air handling and using UV light to sanitize a space are areas where people have been putting more focus,” he said. “I think these requests will continue as there is an increased emphasis on clean air and other ways to keep facilities sanitized.”
At Worcester South Community High School, workers installed air-handling units that use bipolar ionization, or, as Fontaine described it, a system that cleans the air and removes many of the germs and bacteria from the building.
“The motivation to install this system was driven by COVID, but there are other benefits, too,” he said. “Systems like this provide a better environment for people with asthma and other health concerns.”
Spring of Hope
The arrival of spring and increased numbers of people receiving COVID vaccines gives all the construction managers we spoke to a sense of optimism about life and getting their projects done.
At press time, asphalt plants in the area had begun to open. Because the plants close for the winter, municipalities will not allow road construction because there is no access to repave the roads. So the plant openings are great news for companies like Raymaakers, which plans its water- and sewer-line projects around those openings.
Other managers look forward to a time when they do not have to socially distance their crews and wear masks all day.
“Masks are another nuisance to deal with,” Pelletier said. “If we can start to get distancing and masks behind us, it will speed things up on the job site.”
As part of planning for future business, Bradbury has begun to ask some fundamental questions about what lies beyond the horizon. “Where is the growth potential going to be as we come out of COVID, and which industries will still want to build and have the money to build?”
As he considers the types of industries that are prevalent in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., such as aerospace and manufacturing, he wonders if government spending will still drive those industries. He has also given some thought to the insurance industry.
“Typically, there has been a huge demand for office space for the insurance industry, and how they address that moving forward is a big question mark coming out of COVID.”
As the insurance industry reconsiders its needs, Bradbury added, there has been a sharp decline in demand for all office space. “We are definitely not building more office space anytime soon.”
But his and other firms are building — and that’s good news after a year of uncertainty and a pandemic that hasn’t yet gone away.
Cinda Jones Is Building a Community — and More — in North Amherst
As the largest private landowner in Massachusetts, with properties in 30 towns, the Cowls family is especially synonymous with North Amherst, where it has made its headquarters — and an enduring legacy in lumber and conservation — for 279 years. These days, Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., and her team are doing nothing short of creating a new town center in North Amherst. Why? Because the family has always transformed the land into what was most beneficial and needed. Today, she says, that’s a sense of community.
The area of North Amherst known as the Mill District has served many purposes over the nearly 300 years the Cowls family has made its name there.
Early on, for example, the farm produced and distributed onions, tobacco, and dairy products. In the 1800s, in a burst of diversified interests, the Cowls family managed a rock quarry, constructed a street railway system, ran two sawmills, built and operated a building supply store, and managed myriad residential and commercial properties, along with thousands of acres of timberland.
In short, each generation of Cowls descendants discontinued enterprises that had become outdated and reinvented the family business to be more relevant for their time — and more personally inspiring to them.
Cinda Jones, along with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth such generation to take on that challenge — and the mixed-use development now emerging in the Mill District, known as North Square, might represent its most dramatic change yet.
It’s that project, but also a rich, two-decade stewardship of the Cowls legacy, that has earned Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., recognition as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2019.
“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place,” Jones told BusinessWest during a lengthy tour of the property earlier this month. “We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different. We have 22,000 square feet of retail space around a town square in an already-thriving area, where 45,000 people commute through every day. And that’s going to increase. So we’re really excited about what this can become.”
“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place. We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different.”
In simple terms, Jones envisioned a modern residential community of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units overlooking a commercial center comprised of roughly one-third food establishments (a restaurant and café, Jakes at the Mill, is already thriving there), one-third retail, and one-third “experiential services, like yoga, making your own pottery, things you enjoy doing — not dentists and accountants, because those aren’t so fun,” she explained.
“Everyone wants that,” she went on. “Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”
At left, the converted barn currently occupied by Atkins Farms. At right, one of the newer buildings housing both commercial and residential space.
Spend a day with Cinda Jones, and the main takeaway is a passion for the many ways land can — and should — be used. And she’s got a lot of land to put to use, and plenty of ideas about what comes next.
Founded in 1741, W.D. Cowls Inc. is, in fact, Massachusetts’ largest private landowner. In 1741, Jonathan Cowls bought a farm in North Amherst and started the Cowls timber company. His son David built the company’s corporate headquarters in 1768 — in a large house that still serves that purpose today. The land Jonathan began acquiring 279 years ago now includes more than 100 parcels in 30 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties.
According to the company’s written history, “for the first 100 years, everything the family had was always passed down to the oldest son, who was usually named Jonathan, and the Jonathans didn’t muck it up irreversibly. After that, with a David and a couple Walters in the mix, every generation of the family built what his generation of community needed on the home farm, while continuing to grow Cowls’ timberland base and conduct sustainable forestry operations.”
Jones got her start in the family business at age 10, cutting yellow triangles out of sheets of plastic for foresters to use as boundary markers. She worked her way up by scraping and painting fences and barns, sorting nails, stacking lumber, and helping the company’s administrative assistant.
Hannah Rechtschaffen says young people, in particular, desire the face-to-face culture that mixed-use developments promote.
After graduating from Colby College in 1990 and earning a graduate certificate in business administration from Georgetown University in 1995, she remained in Washington, D.C. for several more years, holding conservation and timber industry-related leadership positions, including marketing director for the Cato Institute, Wood Marketing director for the American Forest & Paper Assoc., vice president of the National Forest Foundation, and Northeast regional director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.
In July 2001, her father joked that she was “so good at managing nonprofit organizations” that she should come home and manage the unprofitable sawmill, timberland, and real-estate divisions of Cowls. She did, and brought a bit of bad fortune with her.
“Within a year, the sawmill burned to the ground when lightning hit it,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she initially balked at plans to rebuild it. “I said, ‘Dad, it loses money. Why are we rebuilding a sawmill? Let’s do something different.’ He said, ‘it’s what we do. People depend on these jobs. It feeds our store. We will rebuild. You don’t know enough to close it down yet. But if it doesn’t work in five years, you can try something different.’”
So it went back up, as a timber-frame specialty mill. “We tried really hard, but it still didn’t work,” Jones said. “So we closed it in 2010.”
“I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that.”
She was already starting to envision the next step: developing a new downtown area — actually, uptown — in North Amherst. With her brother, she renovated their great-grandmother’s cow barn, which would house the second site Atkins Market site, and built the Trolley Barn mixed-use building, also on Cowls Road, and partnered with Beacon Communities on the residential components of North Square.
“At first, we tried to market the place — ‘locate here!’ But it was just hard-packed gravel and a closed sawmill,” she recalled. “People were like, ‘there’s no here here. Why would we come to a gravel lot in the middle of North Amherst?’”
Coming up with and marketing the Mill District name helped, although Jones first considered a moniker that had been used in the past for this neighborhood of farms and timberland. “I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that. So the Mill District it was.”
The Mill District actually encompasses more than North Square. Riverside Park Stores and Apartments — a former trolley destination that now houses a strip mall and 48 apartments behind it — is part of it, as are Cowls Building Supply and Mill District Depot.
Evan and Cinda Jones represent the ninth generation of leadership in the broad array of Cowls operations.
“We’re building a new uptown in Amherst which is called the Mill District, that incorporates Riverside Park and comes all the way up here,” she explained. “We’re trying to connect the two properties and tell the story of the whole neighborhood. North Square is what we’re doing today, but it’s so much bigger than that.”
Face to Face
Hannah Rechtschaffen grew up in Western Mass. but left more than 17 years ago, most recently attending graduate school and working in the field of urban innovation in Philadelphia. In large cities like that, she said, mixed-use developments are par for the course.
Even outside urban environments, though, after a decade of social media curtailing face-to-face contact, “the pendulum has swung back to wanting to be in person, wanting to live above a coffee shop where you go down in the morning and they know your name,” she told BusinessWest. “At one point, that’s how the world used to be, and now I’m hearing from Millennials that’s what they want. And they don’t just want it, they expect it — to go into a place and not be faceless.”
As director of Placemaking for Cowls, a job she took less than a year ago, part of her job is to create events, art installations, and community programs that bring back personal connections and elevate individual experiences in the neighborhood. To that end, she often reaches out to the community about what they want at North Square.
“Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”
“We have a clipboard over at Jakes where we say, ‘what do you want to see here? What’s important to you?’ And then we go out and try to find those businesses, ideally locally rooted, so they can come and provide some amenities — because there aren’t a lot of amenities along this corridor to Greenfield. We get a lot of feedback from the community about what they’d like to see, and our hope is that what happens here is in line with their vision and our vision.”
Part of that vision is a focus on the arts and opportunities for artists to connect with the community. One example is an art gallery, which will be connected to a general store and a café, featuring artists who hail from the many communities in which Cowls operates.
Some ideas are cheekier than others; Jones said the general store will feature two “experiential public bathrooms,” one with a jungle theme and the other featuring mirror glass — people can see out, but not in — meaning “you can do your business while you’re watching everyone out here do their business.”
Other tenants of the commercial space might include a distillery and tasting room, a flower and gift shop, and a tea house. Meanwhile, Atkins is moving out in July, but Jones has had interest from other food establishments.
Then there are 130 residential units, 20% of which are classified as affordable housing; residents began moving in back in August. Among the amenities — including a community room, gym, and outdoor play areas — are pet-friendly perks like an outdoor dog park and a mud room where dogs can be hosed off after a muddy time outdoors.
And, of course, a raft of shops, eateries, and experiences a few feet beyond one’s front door, and access to PVTA buses to move about the region without having to drive.
“The Mill District is more than just this one place; it’s touching the entire Valley. We’re trying to set an example of how to live in a community,” Rechtschaffen said. “We have to get creative with the experiential aspect of it. Every potential tenant we are talking to right now, they all have some aspect of their business that’s about teaching workshops, teaching classes, sharing what they do and why they do it with community members. That aspect is just crucial, and it’s fun.”
It’s also critical from an environmental perspective, she added, considering how young people aren’t as keen as previous generations were on long drives to get what they need to go. “There’s a lot more around the climate-change conversation — how we live, how we set our lives up to be able to let go of some of those things that have contributed to climate change, and this is one example.”
Land of Opportunity
As president, Jones oversees the real-estate and timberland and natural-resource management divisions of W.D. Cowls Inc., while her brother, Evan, oversees Cowls Building Supply, the retail store founded by their father, Paul. The Mill District has been a joint effort between the two — and it’s far from the only significant land-use project the company has recently undertaken.
For example, Cinda put an agricultural-preservation restriction on 45 acres of Amherst farmland, and in 2012 dedicated the largest contiguous private conservation project in Massachusetts history, the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in the towns of Leverett and Shutesbury, which stands, she says, as a legacy to Cowls’ eighth-generation leader and the family’s commitment to sustainable forestry.
The Trolley Barn building hosts a range of businesses, including a restaurant, Jakes at the Mill.
In 2019, Cowls added an adjacent 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham, this one named for her grandfather, Walter Cowls Jones. A series of solar farms in the region have provided other opportunities for environment-friendly development.
She had already achieved some success at Cowls when BusinessWest named her to its inaugural 40 Under Forty class in 2007, and the evolution of her work since then was reflected in her Continuing Excellence Award last year, and now the Top Entrepreneur honor; she is one of only two individuals to have won three of the magazine’s six major awards.
Previous Top Entrepreneurs
• 2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
• 2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café
“Congratulations to Cinda Jones on this recognition as Top Entrepreneur in our region by BusinessWest,” said Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “Cinda tires of status quo and consistently asks what more can be done. Each idea generated is followed by yet another. She then uses her allies and matches them to local resources to make change happen.
“The transformation of North Amherst through her creation of the Mill District over the last 10 years has not only preserved some of her rich family history in agriculture and lumber, but tied it to the future of our great town, creating economic mobility tying old generations to new,” she went on. “I am proud to call Cinda a friend and colleague and cannot wait to support her in her next project — because there will always be a ‘next’ with Cinda.”
North Square at the Mill District has been that big ‘next’ lately, and it’s the product of not only her team’s vision, but inspiration from unexpected places.
For example, next to Atkins is a recreational area of sorts, complete with a covered sandbox containing books and construction-themed toys. It’s called Wonderland — for good reason.
At the start of construction on North Square, some of the property’s historic millstones and large pieces of granite were converted to benches, tables, and art structures, meant to be a gathering place for people who bought ice cream and a signal that Atkins welcomed them during construction.
A woman named Kate posted on Facebook that her son, Sam, thought this humble play area was the most magical place on earth, referring to it as a ‘wonderland.’ When Jones offered to dedicate the space to Sam, his mom said her daughter Abbie also enjoys playing there, and so did her other daughter, Mabel — during the seven short months of her life.
Jones said that story broke her heart, but Mabel also became an inspiration to create more experiential spaces and programs that make the Mill District a special and important place for more families to connect. Today, Wonderland is adorned with a plaque dedicating it to Sam, Abbie, and Mabel.
Most people are familiar with the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ Jones told BusinessWest, but in this case, it took a child to lend a large dose of inspiration to the creation of an entire village.
That’s not the first time Jones honored one of her inspirations with an indelible mark. She also tells the story of how Cowls transitioned to its ninth generation of leadership. When Jones, then 34, came home from D.C. in 2001, her dad thought the sawmill workers might go around her new authority to speak with him if he were on site, so he tossed her the keys to the office and left, saying, “I’ll see you for coffee every morning, but they need to know you’re in charge, so I’m going to make myself scarce.”
Ten years — and plenty of leadership experience — later, as her father was dying, the family sat with a lawyer at the same kitchen table the kids grew up around, with the company represented by piles of paper being passed down to the ninth generation. As her father was signing documents, she stuck her arm in the way, and he jokingly signed it.
She didn’t wash it off. Instead, she had the signature permanently tattooed there.
A few months later, as she was about to sign off on the Paul C. Jones Working Forest in honor of her father, she rolled up her sleeves, looked down, and saw the signature, and felt like he was still across the table from her in the same house the family has operated from since 1741.
And with the same philosophy, too — one that constantly asks what’s the best use for the land, and the people who live, work, and play there.
“It’s smart growth when you build near jobs and gas stations and schools and population centers, and when you don’t build where there are critical natural resources,” she said. “And Cowls is in the unique position to be able to decide and build in an intelligent way. We have this existing industrial site in North Amherst that we’ve redeveloped for the ninth time, and it’s a new town center, so people who live here can get everything they need. And we do hope they’ll come live here.”
An architect’s rendering of the housing project planned for the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.
Rocco Falcone acknowledged that, when he and fellow partners Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly acquired the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza on Newton Street in South Hadley in 2016, they were making that sizable investment at a time when the world of retail was changing — and shrinking.
And they knew then that the plaza, dominated by a closed Big Y supermarket, might not look like it did years down the road — not that they didn’t try to find a strong retail anchor to fill the role that Big Y played.
“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international,” said Falcone, manager of South Hadley Plaza LLC, the entity created to acquire the property, and perhaps better known as president and CEO of the Rocky’s Ace Hardware chain. “When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”
And the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza will, indeed, take on a new look — and role that goes beyond shopping — with the announcement of plans to build 72 mixed-income apartments on a three-acre portion of the plaza where the Big Y once stood; a public hearing is slated on the proposal for June 26 at the South Hadley library.
Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, former mayor of Holyoke, sees the proposed housing project as an opportunity for the community, one that could change the face of an underperforming property (the plaza), perhaps spur new business development at the site and elsewhere, and even boost enrollment at the town’s schools, which have seen their numbers declining in recent years.
“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international. When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”
The announced plans for the plaza comprise one of a number of intriguing developments in South Hadley, a community of nearly 18,000 people that has always been an attractive place to live and has been working for decades to balance its strong neighborhoods with new business opportunities.
Others include progress toward an update of the community’s master plan; introduction of a new option for ultra-high-speed internet service, called FiberSonic, to town residents; efforts to work with neighboring Granby to bring more order to a hodgepodge of zoning on the Route 202 corridor; apparent progress in bringing the town’s long-underperforming municipal golf course, the Ledges, to self-sustainability; and even a new dog park on the Ledges property.
“Dog parks have become somewhat of a recreational amenity in many communities, including Northampton, Granby, and many other cities and towns,” said Sullivan. “It’s surprising how many people are really into their dogs; this is a quality-of-life issue, and at least this will put another 100 to 200 South Hadley residents onto property that they’re paying for. They don’t golf, but they have a dog.”
For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various developments in South Hadley and how they are part of ongoing efforts to make the community a better place to work, live, and start a business.
Getting out of the Rough
Golf courses, especially municipal golf courses, usually don’t generate many headlines.
The Ledges has been a notable exception to that rule. Since it opened at the start of this century, it has been in the news often — and for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, conceived and built as Tiger Woods was rocketing to stardom and golf was booming as a sport and a business, the picturesque Ledges, with breathtaking views of the Holyoke Range, was projected to a be a strong revenue generator for the community.
Suffice it to say things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the course has been a financial drain, racking up deficits of more than $1 million some years, and into six figures most years.
Town Administrator Mike Sullivan says new high-speed Internet service, called FiberSonic might spur more young professionals to move to South Hadley.
Sullivan, who inherited this problem, took the aggressive step of outsourcing not only maintenance of the course, but overall management of the facility, with the goal of turning things around and making the Ledges self-sustaining.
Mike Fontaine, the course’s general manager and an employee of Lakeland, Fla.-based International Golf Maintenance (IGM), which manages more than 30 courses across the country, is optimistic that some kind of corner has been turned at the Ledges. He noted that the shortfall was smaller last year (Sullivan pegged it at roughly $35,000) — despite unrelenting rains that made 2018 a difficult year for every golf course — and that, even with more rain early this year, the course is on track to improve on last year’s numbers and continue on an upward trajectory.
He said IGM’s efforts comprise work in progress, but added that a number of steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience and, thus, generate more revenue for the town. Work has been done to build a management team, place more emphasis on customer service, and give the 19th hole, an important revenue stream for all golf operations, a new look and feel. And even a new name.
“We gave the whole place a facelift, especially the restaurant,” he explained. “It was time for a fresh coat of paint, work behind the bar, new pictures of the golf course on the walls, moving the TVs, changing the name from Valley View restaurant to the Sunset Grille, and going with a whole new brand and marketing campaign.”
The new name highlights one of the course’s hallmarks — dramatic sunsets — and attempts to capitalize on that asset, said Fontaine, who said was inspired by what he saw in Key West, which is famous for its sunsets and people turning out to watch them.
He said the course has generally done well with visitation — 25,000 rounds last year — but needs a break from Mother Nature as well as a break from the negative publicity that hasn’t been good for business.
South Hadley at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1775 Population: 17,791 Area: 18.4 square miles County: Hampshire Residential and commercial tax rate: $20.15 (Fire District 1); $20.55 (Fire District 2) Median Household Income: $46,678 Median Family Income: $58,693 Type of government: Town meeting Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y * Latest information available
“We’re beating the numbers from last year, and we’re hitting our revenue goals despite losing three weekends in a row, including Mother’s Day weekend, due to rain — money we’ll never get back,” he said. “We’ll have a much better understanding of where we’re at when this year is over.”
While the picture seems to be improving at the Ledges, the picture is changing on Newton Street, especially at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.
While there is still significant retail there — the plaza is home to a Rocky’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dollar General, the Egg & I restaurant (a recent addition), the Parthenon restaurant, Mandarin Gourmet, and more — the former Big Y site was proving difficult to redevelop, said Falcone, noting that, after efforts to find a replacement supermarket were exhausted, the building was razed in 2018 with the goal of bringing more options to the fore, including residential.
The proposed 72-unit apartment complex will fill a need within the community for both affordable and market-rate housing, said Falcone, adding that this reuse is consistent with how many malls and shopping plazas are being repurposed at a time when stores are closing at an alarming rate and malls — and communities — are forced to be imaginative in a changing retail landscape.
“We looked at options to possibly subdivide the Big Y property, but we couldn’t get any junior anchors,” said Falcone, adding that the owners spent roughly the past year and half looking for smaller tenants, but to no avail.
“Retail is changing — people are getting away from retail and putting more focus on service and entertainment,” he said, adding that the town created an overlay district within the Newton Street area that allows for mixed-use development and residential space, which brings us to the plans currently on the table.
“We thought this would be a good option and a good opportunity,” said Falcone, adding that research revealed demand for such housing. “If you look at Village Commons, those apartments are always full, and my understanding is there’s a waiting list to get in there. So we think South Hadley is a great community for some additional housing.”
Sullivan agreed. “We’re a vibrant community for condominium development, and there’s considerable demand for them — we have condominiums on the riverfront selling for more than $400,000,” he noted. “But we think this proposed development balances things out; it provides another option for housing.”
The Gig-speed Economy
They’re called ‘fiberhoods.’
That’s the name the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) has given to areas, or neighborhoods, in the community that will be provided with FiberSonic, which will make gigabit-speed internet available to residential homes; the service is already available to South Hadley businesses.
SHELD is starting in the Ridge Road area — the service will be available there in July — and will proceed to the Old Lyman Road fiberhood in August, and the Hollywood Street area in September. By year’s end, 700 homes should be covered by the project, and the 32 identified fiberhoods will be added in phases over the next five years, said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager.
“Establishing fiber-optic internet service throughout the town will bring added convenience and, more importantly, will accommodate the ever-growing bandwidth need for South Hadley customers,” said Fitzgerald, who described FiberSonic as “home-grown, gig-speed Internet.”
This service should help make South Hadley a more attractive option for a growing number of professionals who essentially call the office home, even as they work for companies in Boston, New York, and Seattle, said Sullivan.
“When you can access a high-paying job in New York City, Boston, Montreal, or even Los Angeles, and you might have to only go to the home office once a month or once a week and the rest of the day work at home, your housing costs are lower and quality of life is higher in Western Mass.,” he explained. “We’re seeing more of this in South Hadley, and the new internet service will make this community even more attractive.”
As the overall pace of change accelerates, the town looks to anticipate what the future might bring — and be prepared for it — with an update to a master plan drafted roughly a decade ago.
That document, the town’s first master plan in more than three decades, included no less than 200 recommended actions, said Town Planner Richard Harris, noting that this represents an obviously unachievable number, although many have been implemented, especially in the realms of housing, recreation, and creation of growth districts.
He expects that the updated plan, to be completed by year’s end, will be more strategic in nature.
“While it will still be broad, because the nature of a master plan is broad, we’re expecting it to be more strategic in focus and more related to the current organizational structure and long-term needs of the community,” he told BusinessWest. “I wouldn’t expect as much focus on zoning and land use as the last plan, and instead more on how to capitalize on what we have done.”
There have been a number of community forums staged to solicit commentary and input about the plan and what it should include, as well as smaller, more informal sessions within neighborhoods called “meetings in a box,” said Harris, adding that a draft of a new plan should be ready for additional review by the fall and a final document in place by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the town isn’t waiting for the new plan to address a long-term concern and probable hindrance to growth — the hodgepodge of zoning along the Route 202 corridor, roughly from Route 33 into Granby Town Commons.
“Both towns have the leftover remnants of a ’60s regional road,” he explained, noting that there are homes next to dinosaur-track stops next to other forms of business. “It’s not very well-organized; there’s a weird mix, and we think there is a real need for conformity.
“If we could get that conformity, there’s enough business traffic going into Belchertown, Ware, and, beyond that, Amherst — and we can harness that traffic,” he went on, adding there have been discussions with officials in Granby about zoning and also infrastructure and perhaps tying properties along that corridor into South Hadley’s sewer system, a development that would benefit both communities.
“We hope this will bring more investment to those commercial properties along 202 in South Hadley,” Harris explained. “That will result in more tax dollars — and it would be great to have more people to share the tax burden with.”
Those last sentiments accurately reflect a goal, and an ongoing challenge, spanning decades: creating more opportunities to share the tax burden.
South Hadley has always been a great place to live — and now also play golf and walk your dog. Greater balance in the form of new businesses and better use of existing and potential commercial property has always been a goal and priority.
And between the proposed new housing project, faster internet service, and progress along the Route 202 corridor, the community is making more headway toward realizing that goal.
The following building permits were issued during the month of April 2019.
Jones Library Inc.
43 Amity St.
$9,677 — Door and hardware
City of Chicopee
90 Call St.
$75,500 — Install handicap-accessible bathroom in existing building in Nash Park
Houston Enterprises Inc.
1307 Memorial Dr.
$162,018 — Interior renovations to KFC dining room, including new wall finishes, decor package, front counter, and lighting
HY Management, LLC
362 Springfield St.
$20,000 — Roofing
1460 Memorial Dr.
$300,000 — Interior renovations, including restroom upgrade, new dining-room finishes and furniture, new front counter with finishes, and installation of self-order kiosks
Pride Convenience Inc.
167 Chicopee St.
$5,000 — Interior remodeling; move existing wall and construct new walls to move self-serve beverage counters and add customer-service area
259 Elm St.
$1,028,618 — Interior renovation of Autumn Inn
Richard Webber and William Grinnell
8 North King St.
$85,770 — Roof-mounted solar array
Baystate Wing Hospital
40 Wright St.
$667,151 — Anti-ligature upgrades for psychiatric facility
South Middlesex Opportunity Council
2032 Main St.
$466,825 — Renovate space for commercial use on first floor and residential use above
125 Paridon Street, LLC
125 Paridon St.
$20,000 — Remove and replace six existing antennas and three remote radio units, three hybrid cables, and one generator on smokestack
Blue Tarp Redevelopment, LLC
12 MGM Way
$35,000 — Install double door entry and access ramp to CEF building at MGM Springfield
Blue Tarp Redevelopment, LLC
12 MGM Way
$10,000 — Install and extend concrete piers to raise existing smoking shelters on second-floor roof deck at MGM Springfield
Dennis Chaffee and John Wietecha
412 Albany St.
$59,000 — Install mezzanine within existing storage area for additional storage at Valley Plating
Jon Realty, LLC
230 Verge St.
$20,000 — Remove three cellular antennas and install four new antennas on monopole; swap three remote radio units and install three hybrid fiber lines
Linden Towers, LLC
310 Stafford St.
$35,000 — Remove and replace three roof-mounted cellular antennas
New England Farm Workers
1624 Main St.
$25,700 — Install two non-bearing walls; install exterior doors and new bathroom fixtures
Picknelly Family, LP
1414 Main St.
$319,440 — Alter office space on 18th floor for Ameriprise Financial
Related Springfield Associates, LP
10 Chestnut St.
$20,000 — Remove one cabinet and six roof-mounted antennas; install six antennas, one cabinet, three remote radio units, and three hybrid cables
Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield
35 Everett St.
$38,500 — Alter space for new accessible restrooms on first floor of Sacred Heart Convent and Parish Center
Vibra Healthcare Real Estate Co. II, LLC
1400 State St.
$20,000 — Install three new antennas, three remote radio units, three tripod ballast mounts, and three hybrid cables at Vibra Hospital
Camp Ramah of New England
39 Bennett St.
$1,500 — Replace bathroom floor in summer-camp building
2048 Main St.
$3,000 — Repair and upgrade fire-alarm system at Burgundy Brook Café
2048 Main St.
$2,000 — Install fire-suppression system for kitchen hood and cooking appliances as Burgundy Brook Café
1003-1013 Church St.
$26,100 — Finish portion of first-floor area
1241 Park St.
$10,855 — Reinforce existing joists for new RTUs on roof
355 Berkshire Ave.
$15,000 — Install fire-alarm system
City of Springfield
180 Cooley St.
$165,500 — Replace interior doors at Kiley Middle School
DF Main Street, LLC
145 Union St.
$400,000 — Install fire alarm in MGM Springfield Early Childhood Center
Dwight Station, LLC
95 Frank B. Murray St.
$60,000 — Alter interior tenant office space for Sunrise Behavioral Health Clinic
GELW Mass, LLC
1319 Main St.
$30,000 — Alter tenant spaces from retail to business use
Mercy Medical Center
300 Stafford St.
$71,150 — Alter medical office tenant space on second floor
300 Locust St.
$17,000 — Alter space to change use from business to church
Trinity Health Of New England
401 Chestnut St.
$135,557 — Alter space for new exam room and hall in basement; alter accessible ramp at front entrance
TRT Springdale, LLC
1610 Boston Road
$444,000 — Interior alterations and accessibility updates at McDonald’s restaurant
894 Carew St.
$10,000 — Repairs to bring two break-room kitchens to code compliance
63 A-D North St.
$6,000 — Four new HVAC systems
Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. and Business Assistance Corp.
65 Main St.
$5,000 — Enlarge bathroom, new steel door, basement firewall
Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. and Business Assistance Corp.
69 Main St.
$5,000 — Enlarge bathroom, enlarge hall, new steel door
89 Baldwin St.
$42,000 — Demolish interior wood and masonry walls
Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield
511 Main St.
$1,600,000 — Alter existing toilet facilities, convert existing spaces into toilet facilities, new administrative offices, three new classrooms, mechanical ventilation upgrades, repairs to domestic water service, new fire-alarm system, new fire-protection service, and new sprinkler system
Sisters of Providence
100 Hillside Circle
$6,600,396 — Construct 36-unit assisted-living housing facility
Sisters of Providence
200 Hillside Circle
$1,500,000 — Renovate existing commercial space into office space; new HVAC, offices, sprinklers, electrical, four bathrooms
Wilbraham & Monson Academy
40 Faculty St.
$40,000 — Replace 11 windows in athletic center