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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Business Innovation

Best of Times, Worst of Times

From left, Amy Roberts, Sarah McCarthy, and Carol Fitzgerald discuss why and how recruiting is more difficult in the current economy.

As one of the region’s largest employers, the Center for Human Development is constantly hiring; in fact, it has about 100 job openings right now, said Carol Fitzgerald, vice president of Human Resources.

At a time of low unemployment, CHD isn’t the only company that has to be focused and creative when it comes to filling those open positions.

“I think it’s a candidate’s dream right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re finding that people are coming to us with multiple offers. They’re playing the field, trying to figure out who’s going to get them not just the best compensation, but the best schedule, all these extra benefits. And they often don’t decide until the very, very end. Who’s going to win that race?”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer for PeoplesBank, tells a similar story.

“I’ve never experienced a market where you almost have to aggressively make sure someone shows up for an interview,” she said. “We’re finding, when people are looking, they’re looking in multiple places, so you’re not the only game in town. So we’ve seen an increase in people not showing up to a scheduled meeting.”

Fitzgerald and Roberts detailed the challenges of the current recruiting landscape at a morning-long workshop, titled “Attracting the Best Candidates in Possibly the Worst of Times,” presented on Sept. 20 by Garvey Communication Associates and BusinessWest. Specifically, they took part in a panel of human-resources professionals who explained how the market has shifted and why recruiters have to do things differently than they may be used to in order to land the best talent.

“I think it’s a candidate’s dream right now. We’re finding that people are coming to us with multiple offers. They’re playing the field, trying to figure out who’s going to get them not just the best compensation, but the best schedule, all these extra benefits. And they often don’t decide until the very, very end. Who’s going to win that race?”

“You need to know your market — and we’re in a tough market — and know what your company offers and provides as well as being very focused on the type of individual you want to have work for you,” said Sarah McCarthy, senior Human Resources business partner for Commonwealth Care Alliance, the third member of that panel. “It’s not an environment where people are coming to you; you have to do some mining and find these individuals and encourage them to come work for you, and in doing that, you need to provide context for them — why should they want to come work for you?”

In short, companies need to sell themselves — and their company culture — to job seekers more aggressively than ever before, said John Garvey, president of GCAi, adding that this doesn’t mean catering to stereotypes about young professionals.

“For a while, we heard, ‘Millennials need nap rooms, they have to play foosball, have dance parties,’ all this crazy stuff. I don’t think any of that is true,” he said. “I think people want to be a part of something they’re passionate about. That’s important. And that requires us to talk to them in different ways and develop talent in different ways — and also to reach out in different ways.”

Baiting the Hook

It also means thinking differently about who the perfect candidate is, said McCarthy, adding that flexibility is key — not only in which skills the job requires up front and which can be trained, but what schedule and work-life balance a talented candidate is looking for.

“How can the work be done?” she went on, noting that not every job needs to be 8 to 5, and many employees have needs when it comes to dropping off or picking up kids or caring for a parent. “As an employer, you’re investing in your employees and looking what their needs are, but also what the organization’s needs are. At the end of the week, is the work getting done?”

Darcy Fortune and James Garvey say websites, video, and social media are more effective recruiting tools when they clearly showcase a company’s culture.

There was a time when employers had most of the leverage in these situations, but when unemployment is at all-time lows in Massachusetts, that’s no longer the case, which forces companies to think outside the box more than they’re accustomed to.

“You can train for technical skills, but it’s harder to train for what we would call soft skills — somebody who shows up on time and gets along with everybody and their team,” Fitzgerald said. “Those are the things that are harder to find. If you can find that and train up, you broaden the number of candidates you’re able to consider.”

That said, Roberts added, “it really is about getting the right person in the right job, and not getting hung up on the fact that you have so many openings and it’s so difficult to find people that we’re just going to put anyone in the role.”

The goal, then, should be attracting as many qualified candidates to apply as possible. That starts with the posting itself, said Tiffany Appleton, recruiter and director of the Accounting & Finance Division at Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, who gave a separate presentation on the mistakes companies make in their hiring process.

How to Ensure Your Hiring Process Stinks

Tiffany Appleton, recruiter and director of the Accounting & Finance Division at Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, took a tongue-in-cheek approach to effective hiring practices with a list of 10 surefire ways a company can turn its hiring process into a crushing disappointment.

• Write a boring job description. “Just give them the specifics of what they need to have before they walk in the door, and say, ‘if you don’t have these, don’t bother sending your résumé because I’m never going to look at it.’ Just list the facts, and don’t make it sound fun.”

• Take your time reviewing résumés. “Say, ‘some of those look pretty good, but I should wait a few more days because I might get another one that’s even better.’ Candidates love writing off a job, and then you call them a month later and say, ‘we’d like to have you in for an interview.’ That surprise factor is amazing.”

• Save time when you’re scheduling interviews. “Be efficient. E-mail the people you like — ‘I’d like to have you in for an interview; here are the dates and times that are available.’ Let them get back to you and tell you which ones they want. And to make sure you’re saving time, use a form-letter e-mail template.”

• Interviewers should talk only about the job specifics. “They should not talk about anything about the culture of the company, about it being a fun place to work, about any of the growth opportunities that might be available. They should definitely not talk about any fun projects you might get to work on. Just the facts.”

• Take your time after the interview. “You need that time to make sure you’ve arrived at a consensus, that you know who the right people are, and everyone on your team agrees. Candidates really like it when they hear from you weeks after your interview, saying, ‘yeah, we’d like to have you back.’”

• Reach out only to those who made the cut to schedule a second interview. “Don’t worry about those who didn’t make the cut. They’ll figure it out eventually. Don’t waste your time talking to those people. You’d never want them in the future anyway.”

• Make sure the second interview is long and tedious. “Make sure the candidate meets every person they may ever work with in the office in that second interview. Take your time. You need to have that group consensus, remember? Time is on your side.”

• Even if by now you’re feeling confident about whom to hire, be sure to schedule a third interview — or a fourth, or a fifth. “If you want to be sure, you have to ask them every question you’d ever want to know the answer to before you make an offer.”

• When it comes time to make an offer, figure out the lowest possible salary you think will be accepted. “There is no need to waste any money. What is that lowest number they’ll say yes to? What if you start high and they say yes? Why would you do that? They could have said yes to less money.”

• After that offer is accepted, consider your job done. “You don’t need to congratulate them. Don’t say you’re happy they’re joining the team. Don’t give them any guidance. You don’t need to tell them anything. Just assume they’re going to show up. And look at all that time you have to fill that next position!” u

“A job description is that thing you use internally to use as metrics … while a job advertisement is the thing you share with the public that makes them go, ‘wow, that looks amazing; I want it,” she said. “You’re trying to get somebody to read something and go, ‘ooh, that interests me.’”

Later in the morning, GCAi’s James Garvey, digital marketing analyst, and Darcy Fortune, digital public relations analyst, talked about the communication tools companies need to be using when recruiting, including social media, video, and websites that are optimized for mobile devices, because that’s where they’ll reach the most top talent these days. Those channels are also an opportunity to showcase some of that all-important company culture before a candidate ever walks in the door.

“It’s all about the candidate experience now,” Garvey said. “Folks are comparing you to your competition, and they’re going to think about how the process of applying for this position makes them feel. If you can use that as a competitive advantage, that’s a significant opportunity.”

Companies can express a concern for culture in many ways, some as simple as providing employees with breakfast, something Commonwealth Care Alliance does, McCarthy said. “I can’t tell you what a difference that’s made in our organization, especially for young professionals entering the market who don’t have a lot of money.”

Or, it can be expressed in the way a new hire is treated, Roberts said, noting that PeoplesBank sends its new hires a package from Edible Arrangements — a simple gesture that can resonate right off the bat.

“It’s amazing how many people will come in their first day and say, ‘oh my gosh, I got the gift, thank you.’ They just appreciate it — and the other side of it is, their family sees that,” she said. “We’re setting that standard right out of the gate that now they’re part of an organization that cares about them and wants to make them feel welcome.”

Reeling Them In

That’s especially crucial when the job market is so tight for employers that there’s no guarantee someone even shows up after accepting a position, if they find something they like better in the interim.

“I hope they show up,” Roberts said. “Most times they do, but it’s definitely a unique thing I haven’t experienced in my career in HR and recruiting.”

Fitzgerald said it’s no longer enough to post a job and watch the résumés pour in; now companies have to actively court the candidates they prefer.

“The biggest challenge for us is to get the managers to realize it’s not about them anymore,” she said. “We’re trying to tell them, ‘you have to respond within 24 hours to something, or else you’re absolutely going to lose people.’”

It’s a speed game these days, she added, one in which candidates are in effect interviewing companies, seeking the best fit for them of perhaps multiple offers.

Recruiters have to keep in contact and keep top candidates engaged even after coming to an agreement, McCarthy added. “You can’t just make a job offer and walk away now. It’s about the engagement after they’ve accepted.”

That engagement doesn’t end after the first day on the job, she added. “Now the burden is on the organization — now that they’re an employee, how are you going to retain them? Which is very different than a few years ago, when there was a surplus of candidates, and we were hiring and just waiting a month or two, before they came to orientation, to engage them.

Employers that take these steps stand the best chance of landing their top choice to fill a position, rather than just securing warm bodies, Roberts added. “It’s about focusing your attention instead of posting and praying and then deciding 30 days later you have to have that dialogue because it just didn’t work the way you hoped it would.”

And if a top candidate turns a job down? It’s OK to ask why — and learn from the rejection, Fitzgerald said.

“What we’re trying to find out is, what’s the differentiation between us and anywhere else? Sometimes it’s about salary, but mostly it’s about their experience, and it’s really about culture. So we’re really trying to look at total rewards in a way that speaks to individual employees.”

In addition, parting on good terms may lead to a change of heart down the road.

“We want them to have a good experience with us so we can make that next connection. It’s about long-term connections with people,” she went on. “Our managers may be mad they didn’t take our offer, but it’s OK. Maybe it’s not the time now for CHD, but there will be a time when this will work out, or we might have a different opportunity. So let’s stay in touch.”

In a morning filled with stark reality checks and myriad good ideas for facing that new reality, Fitzgerald acknowledged that her own job has become more critical than ever — and her fellow panelists agreed.

“Certainly,” she said, “it’s job security for all of us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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