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Daily News

The Gove Law Office announced that Amanda Carpe has joined the firm as an associate attorney focused on real estate transactions, estate planning, and estate administration.

“Amanda is a very valuable addition to our firm, and will be supporting our growing real estate department, as well as helping clients plan for their future and negotiate the probate process,” said Michael Gove, founding partner of Gove Law Office.

Carpe earned her J.D. from Western New England University in 2016. While in law school, she interned with Gove Law Office, and for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, where she appeared on behalf of the Commonwealth in child-endangerment cases. She also clerked for Judge Charles Belsky.

Carpe began her career in Worcester, where she worked on complex estate planning, elder law matters, guardianships and conservatorships petitions, and probate administrations.

The Gove Law Office, with offices in Ludlow and Northampton, is a bilingual firm with attorneys licensed in Massachusetts and Connecticut who provide practical, solutions-oriented guidance to clients in the areas of residential and commercial real estate, estate planning and administration, business representation, personal injury law, commercial lending, and bankruptcy.

Departments People on the Move
Michelle Chase

Michelle Chase

United Bank announced the hiring of Michelle Chase, a local banker with 16 years of banking and financial experience throughout Western Mass. and North Central Conn., as its new vice president/branch manager of the Ludlow branch at 528 Center St. Chase brings extensive banking experience and financial expertise to United Bank, holding key roles throughout her career in commercial lending, consumer lending, operations, loan servicing, and retail banking. Most recently, Chase spent more than six years with PeoplesBank, where she managed its Westfield branch and led a team that turned it into one of the bank’s top-producing banking offices. Prior to PeoplesBank, Chase was a small-business lender with the Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund from 2008 to 2011 and a Loan Operations manager with New England Bank, formerly Enfield Savings Bank. Her 16-year career in banking started in 2001 as a lending specialist with Southbridge Savings Bank. Chase earned a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and went on to receive an MBA from Bay Path University. She also studied at the Center for Financial Training. Her reputation in the banking industry spans beyond her professional and educational successes. In addition to winning internal company awards, Chase was selected to BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2017, which recognizes young civic leaders in Western Mass. She also received the Young Professional Society’s (YPS) Excellence in Leadership Award in 2014 for excellence in leadership skills and initiative and for her mentorship of other YPS members.

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Jennifer Plassmann

Jennifer Plassmann

North Brookfield Savings Bank (NBSB) announced the recent promotion of Jennifer Plassmann to the role of branch manager at the 1051 Thorndike St. branch in Palmer. In her new role, she will supervise and oversee all aspect of banking within the Palmer branch, including managing the teller line, scheduling, opening accounts, taking loan applications, and assisting customers with their banking needs. “Jennifer’s promotion is very well-deserved. She has proven herself to be a very valuable asset to the community and customers of Palmer, to the staff at her branch, and to the entire team at North Brookfield Savings Bank,” said Donna Boulanger, NBSB President and CEO. “We are confident she will continue to deliver many great benefits by sharing her experience, product knowledge, excellent customer-service skills, and her dedication to the community.” Plassmann most recently served as assistant branch manager and acting branch manager at North Brookfield Savings Bank’s Palmer location, where she excelled at being a leader for the branch staff and providing customers with exceptional care and attention, Boulanger said. In addition, she is a strong community supporter, often volunteering her time and efforts for various local community events, including but not limited to the Palmer 300th Anniversary Parade, the Palmer Historical and Cultural Center Tree and Wreath Festival, the Ware Flair Parade, the West Brookfield Asparagus Festival, and annual financial-aid nights at local high schools. “I am so pleased to continue my banking career with North Brookfield Savings Bank and within the community of Palmer,” Plassmann said. “I know and appreciate this neighborhood and all of the wonderful people and businesses who call this home. I am very excited to develop my existing relationships, expand to make some new relationships, and to increase my community involvement.”

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John Gannon

John Gannon

Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. announced that attorney John Gannon was named a partner in the firm on Jan. 1. Gannon, who has been with the firm since 2011, focuses his practice on employment litigation, workplace-safety laws and OSHA compliance, enforcing non-competition and confidentiality agreements, and wage-and-hour compliance. He also provides day-to-day advice to businesses with questions about workplace-related issues. “We are thrilled that John has accepted partnership in the firm,” said attorney Marylou Fabbo, a partner at Skoler Abbott. “John has demonstrated the expertise and leadership necessary to provide our clients with the best possible legal service, whether that means taking a case to trial or helping businesses protect their rights and assets.” Gannon is a frequent speaker on employment-related legal topics for a wide variety of associations and organizations, and was selected by BusinessWest as a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2016. He is a member of the Massachusetts, Hampden County, Connecticut, and American bar associations. He also sits on the board of directors for Riverside Industries, a not-for-profit human-services agency that serves people with perceived limitations and disabilities, and Educational Resources for Children, an Enfield nonprofit that provides out-of-school-time programs for children. “I am excited to enter this next phase in my career, and am honored to be a partner in one of the leading labor and employment law firms in the country,” Gannon said. “I look forward to helping the firm further expand its expertise on behalf of our current and future clients, and I’m privileged to be a contributing member to the Pioneer Valley business community for the foreseeable future.”

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Susan Hillis

Susan Hillis

Susan Hillis has been promoted from treatment director to vice president of Clinical Services at AdCare Hospital. “Ms. Hillis has been a vital component of the clinical team at AdCare Hospital for many years,” said Patrice Muchowski, senior vice president of Clinical Services. “As vice president of Clinical Services, Ms. Hillis will be able to redesign existing treatment programming and develop new modalities to ensure that AdCare remains a leader in substance-use treatment.” A licensed independent clinical social worker, Hillis has served as treatment director since 2006. Prior positions include director of Rehabilitation Services at AdCare Hospital and director of AdCare Outpatient Services offices in Worcester and Boston. She received the 2015 Massachusetts Assoc. of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselors’ Robert Logue President’s Award for her long-standing support of membership and her dedication to substance-use treatment, recovery, and professional credentialing in Massachusetts. A former board member and chair of the Massachusetts Professional Recovery System, she currently oversees clinical practicums for students in the Addiction Counselor Education program at AdCare, and provides clinical supervision for students in MSW programs at a number of schools. Hillis presents frequently on substance-use related topics such as “Addiction 101,” “Co-occurring Disorders,” “Motivational Interviewing,” and “Designer Drugs” to community, school, and professional organizations locally, regionally, and nationally. She holds a master’s degree in social work from Boston College and an undergraduate degree in music therapy from Anna Maria College in Paxton.

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Kailee Wilson

Kailee Wilson

Robinson Donovan, P.C. promoted former law clerk Kailee Wilson to the role of associate attorney following her admission to both the Massachusetts and Connecticut bars. Wilson is a 2017 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law. While attending law school, she also interned with the school’s Tax Clinic, gaining skills and insights that have proven invaluable to her current business practice. In addition, she is now a member of the Massachusetts Bar Assoc., the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and the Connecticut Bar Assoc. “Kailee had a very successful year at Robinson Donovan, P.C., and we are thrilled that she is expanding her role at our firm,” said Partner James Martin. “Kailee has been a real asset to our firm, and we look forward to her having a successful career here.” Wilson assists clients in the areas of business and corporate counseling, commercial real estate, and estate planning. Outside of work, she channels her passion for advocacy into her role as a volunteer coach with the Special Olympics and in the Alumni in Admissions program for her alma mater, Bates College.

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Tara Brewster

Tara Brewster

Greenfield Savings Bank promoted Tara Brewster to vice president of Business Development. Her position includes developing long-term strategies for business development and outreach to perspective customers, including small businesses and individuals for lending and account services. She joined GSB as a Business Development specialist in late 2016. “Tara’s efforts to expand the bank’s portfolio of small-business customers and individuals have been very successful,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “Her more than 20 years of experience in small-business management has given her great insight into the needs of local businesses.” In addition to her duties at the bank, Brewster is active in volunteering on the committees and boards of a wide range of community organizations, including Northampton Chamber of Commerce board of directors, Hampshire Regional YMCA board, Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board, Downtown Northampton Assoc. board, Northampton Redevelopment Authority committee, North Star Self Directed Learning for Teens development committee, Community Health Center of Franklin County marketing committee, as a Northampton Chamber of Commerce ambassador, and as chair of the Pedalmotion for Locomotion Look Park fund-raising event. Before joining the Bank, Brewster worked for independent small businesses and multi-million-dollar companies, including seven years as owner of Jackson & Connor in downtown Northampton and in a wide range of management positions including manager, promotions director, buyer, regional sales manager, and East Coast account executive. She is a graduate of Smith College.

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Theresa Curry has been named executive director of Planned Giving at UMass Amherst. Curry, an attorney, has extensive experience in business and organizational development, nonprofit giving, and gift administration. “We are delighted that Theresa Curry will be joining UMass Amherst’s development team,” said Vice Chancellor of Development and Alumni Relations Mike Leto. “She brings deep expertise in estate planning to this role, as well as her considerable impact and success in fund-raising for higher education.” Curry comes to UMass Amherst from the University of New Hampshire Foundation, where she held several senior management positions in gift planning since 2012. Most recently, she served as assistant vice president for Gift Planning and Administration at UNH. She established UNH’s gift-planning program and played a major role in its recent $275 million fund-raising campaign. Previously, Curry established gift-planning programs as regional director of Philanthropy at the ALS Assoc. and as the capital campaign manager for Merrimack College. She has worked as an employee, consultant, volunteer, and lawyer in gift planning since 1998. She holds a juris doctor degree from the William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minn., and a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Minnesota. She is also a triathlete and distance runner.

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Packaging prepress provider CSW Inc. announced a strategic re-shaping of company leadership. Longtime company President Laura Wright has transitioned to a new role as CEO. “My grandfather founded CSW in 1937, and I’m proud to continue moving us forward,” she said. “Although I will continue to actively manage all aspects of the company, I decided to share the day-to-day decision making with someone I trust. This lets me address long-term strategies for company growth.” That trusted advisor is new company President Scott Ellison, formerly CSW’s vice president of Sales. Ellison brings more than 15 years of executive leadership experience, including five years in the packaging industry, to CSW. He will manage sales, marketing, customer service, operations, IT, and R&D. According to Wright, “Scott comes to us with new ideas developed from both inside and outside our industry, and has already identified and pursued new growth opportunities for CSW.” Rounding out the organizational shift is former director of Graphics Marek Skrzynski’s new position as technical director. CSW has a long-standing reputation for producing creative solutions to package printing challenges, Wright said. Ellison noted that “Marek has been instrumental to the development of innovations such as WhiteFX ink transfer, X-Color EG separations, and 3D visualization services. This new role allows him to focus on expanding new initiatives such as Web2Plate, an automated prepress workflow for narrow to wide web flexo printers.” Added Wright, “CSW has thrived for over 80 years, thanks to our ability to creatively adapt to our client’s changing needs. These changes are realigning us once again so we can continue to succeed for another 80 — or longer.”

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Springfield College announced that Brooke Hallowell has been named dean of the School of Health Sciences and Rehabilitation Studies. As dean, Hallowell will collaborate with leadership of other divisions and units of Springfield College to participate in strategic planning and implementation activities that further the overall mission of the institution. She will oversee academic areas within her school, including physical and occupational therapy, physician assistant, health science, emergency medical services management, communication disorders, and rehabilitation counseling and disability studies. She will be responsible for assurance of quality of programming in line with student needs, institutional mission, and the requirements of applicable accreditation bodies. According to Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Martha Potvin, “Dr. Hallowell will play a pivotal role in working with faculty to advance education across a broad array of health sciences and professions and to extend the college’s impact on global healthcare issues that we face both in our local and regional communities as well as abroad.” Hallowell has held several academic leadership positions and has a global reputation in advancing research and scholarship and fostering successful interdisciplinary initiatives. Most recently, she served as the founding executive director of the Collaborative on Aging and the coordinator of graduate and undergraduate gerontology certificate programs at Ohio University. She also held several other positions at Ohio University, including associate dean for research and sponsored programs in the College of Health and Human Services; director of the School of Hearing, Speech and Language Sciences; and coordinator of Ph.D. programs for the School of Rehabilitation and Communication Sciences. She also served as director of the School of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Northern California. Hallowell received a Ph.D in neuropathologies of language and speech from the University of Iowa, a master’s degree in speech language pathology and audiology from Lamar University, and a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science/psycholinguistics from Brown University. She also studied at the Conservatoire National de France in Paris and Rouen.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Robinson Donovan, P.C. promoted former law clerk Kailee Wilson to the role of associate attorney following her admission to both the Massachusetts and Connecticut bars.

Wilson is a 2017 graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Law. While attending law school, she also interned with the school’s Tax Clinic, gaining skills and insights that have proven invaluable to her current business practice. In addition, she is now a member of the Massachusetts Bar Assoc., the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and the Connecticut Bar Assoc.

“Kailee had a very successful year at Robinson Donovan, P.C., and we are thrilled that she is expanding her role at our firm,” said Partner James Martin. “Kailee has been a real asset to our firm, and we look forward to her having a successful career here.”

Wilson assists clients in the areas of business and corporate counseling, commercial real estate, and estate planning. Outside of work, she channels her passion for advocacy into her role as a volunteer coach with the Special Olympics and in the Alumni in Admissions program for her alma mater, Bates College.

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Experts Don’t Foresee Any Rocking of the Economic Boat

economicoutlookartMore of the same. That’s what the experts are predicting for this region, and the country as a whole, when it comes to the economy. And by more of the same, they mean growth that is steady if unspectacular — even with tax reform — and few if any signs of what could amount to real trouble. “Another boring year,” was how one economist put it. But for many businesses, boring is more than acceptable.

As a student — and a professor — of economics, Bob Nakosteen fully understands that the region and the nation as a whole are, as they say, due for a recession.

Maybe even overdue.

Indeed, eight and a half years is a long time to be in an expansion, if history and especially 20th-century history is any guide, and that’s about the length of the run the country has been on, said Nakosteen, a long-time educator at UMass Amherst who pegged the summer of 2009 as when the Great Recession ended and the upswing — as unspectacular as it has been, for the most part, in this region — began.

But he quickly noted that there’s no actual relationship between how long a country has been in an expansion and when it’s due for a recession. Time isn’t officially one of the factors that determine such things, he noted, adding that none of the issues and indicators that do are — at this moment, at least — pointing toward recession.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

“The expansion is old, certainly, but there’s nothing on the horizon to interrupt the expansion,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that a host of factors will shape what course a continued expansion takes. “The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University, agreed, and summoned another word for what he’s projecting for at least one more year: boring.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will. It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

“Unless you were on Twitter, last year was pretty boring,” he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek while focusing his remarks on what was happening in this region economically. And that was essentially the same thing that’s been happening for the past several years — steady if unspectacular growth that amounts to a few percentage points on average and not the kind of boom times that traditionally follow a recession, especially like the one of almost a decade ago now.

“Even with the tax break, the projections are for the U.S. economy to grow at 2.5% in 2018, and in 2019, 2.1%,” he said. “And if we did see a big increase in growth, it’s very likely that that the Fed will raise interest rates to slow down inflation. The forecast is for another boring year — I hope.”

Indeed, for many in business, boring translates into a decent year, and that’s what Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said many of his clients — commercial and residential alike — experienced.

He told BusinessWest that the residential real-estate market is enjoying a surge fueled by low inventories, and that many individual sectors are experiencing steady growth. And he expects tax reform to lift most boats still higher.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices. We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“With corporate tax rates projected to decrease from 35% to 20%, that will have a significant impact on most businesses,” he went on. “I expect that to be a determining factor in what our local economy will be like in 2018.”

There are other determining factors, obviously, and some areas of concern, both nationally and locally, including persistently stagnant wages.

Despite steady growth in the economy and soaring corporate profits that have fueled a nearly 20% rise on Wall Street this year, wages have remained flat, said Petrick. And he doesn’t believe — despite what leading supporters say — that tax reform will change that equation. And if wages remain stagnant, that might slow the economy down.

“Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will,” he explained. “It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the precipitous decline of traditional retail could pose some problems regionally (more on that later), as could a host of other factors ranging from escalating student debt to tighter immigration laws that could keep some foreign students from landing on area college campuses.

But overall, these concerns are not expected to significantly alter the picture or impact those projections for more of what the region has seen over the past several years.

Onward and Upward

“Stable.”

That’s the word Senecal summoned early and often as he talked about the local economy, and it’s another word business owners always like to hear.

He said the region’s economy has historically been fueled by education and healthcare (‘eds and meds’), and that trend continues. And those sectors are, well, stable, to say the least.

“If you think of the spin-off economies in the Western Mass. market, we clearly benefit from those sorts of industries [healthcare and education] that are not recession-proof, but they certainly come through recessionary times much more stable than the rest of the economy,” he said. “And I see this in the numbers from our residential loans and our commercial loans. The stability and continued growth has been there, and we expect it to continue throughout next year.”

Beyond eds and meds, Senecal noted, a number of sectors are doing “pretty well,” as he put it. These include ‘green’ energy businesses, commercial construction (although moreso in the eastern part of the state than this region) and the residential real-estate market, which, as noted earlier, has picked up dramatically over the past few years.

“Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices,” he explained. “We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s; it’s clearly a seller’s market right now.”

Surveying the scene locally as well as nationally, those we spoke with said there is no indication of anything that will disrupt this stability to any significant degree.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks concerning the year ahead. And perhaps the biggest concerns tax reform and what it will mean.

Petrick and Nakosteen said such reforms — usually measures to be administered during a recession, not an expansion — can’t (or shouldn’t) be expected to trigger the wage hikes and subsequent consumer spending predicted by supporters of the legislation, because … well, because history shows this isn’t what happens, they told BusinessWest.

“Tax cuts really have little effect,” said Nakosteen, “especially when the economy is not in recession and is near full employment.”

Also, early and unofficial polling of business leaders indicates that wage increases for their employees are not in their plans.

“Many big corporations have already said that, whatever tax breaks they get, they’ll use them to buy back stock,” Petrick noted. “That will do wonders for the stock market, but there’s no indication they’ll use that tax break to raise wages.”

But Senecal projected that tax reform might, in fact, provide a real boost for the economy in the form of investments made by business owners.

“Tax reform has a significant impact on corporate spending,” he opined. “I think that, right now, a lot of businesses are waiting and seeing on tax reform to determine how aggressive or reserved businesses are going to be come 2018.”

Economic Indicators

As for other factors that might impact the year ahead, to one degree or another, Petrick put wages, and the stagnancy of same, at the top of that list.

“We see growth, but the foundation for continued growth continues to be a little bit shaky, in terms of wages at the national level and the state level,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re just not growing, even as unemployment comes down.

“And that is a bit of conundrum for us at the state level and the federal level, because that puts more pressure of households, especially with uncertainty with what’s going to happen with the individual mandate and how that might impact insurance rates,” he added. “It also impacts state tax revenue, because if wages don’t go up, the state doesn’t collect more.”

There are many reasons why wages are stagnant, he went on, listing everything from soaring health-insurance costs for employers to the decline of labor unions, to the retirement of Baby Boomers and their replacement by younger workers earning lower salaries. But the bottom line is that, generally, flat wages are not good for the economy.

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the continued decline of traditional retail would further change the local landscape, and it might impact the economy in some ways.

Giant retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, Kmart, and others are closing stores in huge volumes, leaving malls with large boxes to fill (or not, as the case may be) and worries about their very existence. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers are disappearing from the landscape, for reasons ranging from the intrusion of online shopping to a lack of a succession plan.

All this is creating a number of empty storefronts and a lot of commercial real estate for sale and lease, said Nakosteen, adding that the problem is impacting even the most vibrant of downtowns, including Northampton’s, where tenants are asking, ‘why are lease rates so high if so many storefronts are empty?’

“And that’s a very good question,” he said, adding that the higher rates will impact existing retailers and perhaps dissuade others from coming downtown.

But it’s an issue in nearly every area community.

“There are so many empty storefronts,” Nakosteen went on, “and the retail sector is so important to so many downtown areas.”

Meanwhile, workforce issues might also have an impact on the course and strength of the ongoing expansion, he noted, adding that a lack of qualified workers within some sectors might stifle growth.

“The state, as a whole, has issues with the labor force not growing fast enough to accommodate the economy,” he explained. “And Western Mass. is even worse. We have very slow labor growth here; you can’t grow the economy faster than you can hire people to fill the jobs.”

Interest rates could play a role as well, the experts noted, adding that, if the economy does start heating up, the Fed will likely raise rates to keep it from overheating and sending inflation higher.

“Prime rate effects people’s home-equity loans, and it effects commercial borrowers,” Senecal explained. “And if the Fed increases rates two or three times, and that’s clearly their intent, that could have an impact on spending.”

Bottom Line

‘Stable. ‘Boring.’ ‘Steady.’ Those aren’t exactly headline-generating adjectives when we’re talking about the economy and where it might head in the months to come.

But they represent reality, and for many in this region — which, as has been noted countless times in the past, doesn’t enjoy stunning highs and crippling lows like other regions — those words are welcome, and much better than the alternative.

And if tax reform works, as Senecal and others believe it might, the region just might wind up doing better than ‘more of the same.’

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Sections

Building Collaboration

The O’Connell Companies has a new home in Holyoke

The O’Connell Companies has a new home in Holyoke (above), replacing the previous headquarters (below) of more than a century.

The O’Connell Companies

The O’Connell Companies traces its history in Holyoke back to 1879, when Daniel O’Connell founded the construction company that eventually branched into property design, management, development, and much more. For more than a century, the company was housed in limited quarters on Hampden Street, but a new headquarters on Kelly Way offers more space, amenities, and opportunities for what one of the firm’s executives called “cross-fertilization.”

In the conference room where Andrew Crystal sat down with BusinessWest recently, the only piece of artwork currently hanging up is a stylized, brightly hued BIM (building information modeling) image of the new headquarters of the O’Connell Companies, located on Kelly Way in Holyoke. On the opposite wall hangs a cutting-edge, multi-screen array for both displaying information during meetings and videoconferencing with other parties.

The room’s long, wooden table, however, is one of the only pieces brought over from the former O’Connell HQ on Hampden Street. The restored table represents some of the connective fiber between old and new that the company wanted its new home to represent, said Crystal, vice president of O’Connell Development Group.

“We’ve managed to incorporate some history,” he said, also referencing a set of century-old, meticulously handwritten balance sheets framed on the wall of another wing, where the accountants work. “The company does have a very long, interesting story, so we tried to preserve some of the history and the culture of the company. That was very important in the design of this.”

Otherwise, the new headquarters, situated on a seven-acre parcel in the woods off Bobala Road, is rife with modern touches, starting with the striking central atrium that connects the wings that house various divisions — O’Connell Development Group, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (construction), Appleton Corp. (property management), and New England Fertilizer Co. (biosolids management).

The atrium is awash in natural light and features tables and chairs toward the back, along with a kitchen and coffee bar. “We wanted to create some space for people to mingle informally, share a meal or coffee break together, with the intent of getting to know each other and, more important, cross-fertilize, because everything we do is related,” Crystal said. “We design, develop, finance, build, and manage buildings, roads, and bridges — it’s all interrelated for me.”

One of the goals of the new building is to bring together all the company’s divisions under one roof; Appleton previously had its own space on Suffolk Street in Holyoke, while the Hampden Street facility that housed the others had long been insufficient.

“It was an old, tired building, and we had looked at renovating it,” Crystal said. “But, to continue to be a great work environment for present employees, but also with an eye toward the future, it made sense to move to a new location and to have everything under one roof. There’s nothing like being in the same building.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, president and CEO of the O’Connell Companies, said as much when he addressed hundreds of visitors at a recent open house, noting that it’s been more than a century since the firm dedicated a new headquarters.

Andrew Crystal

Andrew Crystal stands on the walkway overlooking the sunlit central atrium and the woods behind the property.

“When we started this project, our hope was that we could create a modern, contemporary office building where we could more effectively carry out our daily work,” he said. “We wanted improved functionality, a higher level of comfort, and we wanted a few more amenities. We hope that our new headquarters will cultivate a work environment that supports and further develops the spirit and cuture that has made this organization as successful as it has been for as long as it has been.”

For this month’s focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest paid a visit to Kelly Way to check out the results of that effort.

Forward Thinking

The intent, Crystal said, was to house the company’s various divisions in a modern, energy-efficient, healthy environment. “We wanted to be conscientious about the environment in terms of energy efficiency and how we treated the land when we sited the building and took the trees down. And we wanted to preserve and enhance the corporate culture that exists here, which is why we created this atrium space in the middle of the building.”

He has heard of multiple incidents recently of long-time O’Connell employees meeting in person for the first time, which means the design is working.

“Part of the design is to create space and an environment that encourages people to collaborate and work together between companies,” he explained. “It was also done with an eye toward creating a great workplace for employees — not just the employees we have, but as an incentive to attract younger employees. Things like the atrium and a shared coffee bar, and a fitness room downstairs with showers — these are things that younger workers want, and it’s a competitive environment to attract talent.”

As for the subdued exterior of the building, Crystal said he had a specific vision for how the dark-bricked façade would interact with the woods around it.

“We wanted a brick building, but we wanted something that was more unique than red brick, that was an elegant blend with the surroundings,” he explained. “We went through quite a few designs, looking at various mixes of bricks. We’re very pleased with the result; whether it’s a bright, sunny day or an overcast, rainy day, the building really fits into the surrounding environment.”

The natural light that pours in from the building’s tall windows brings aesthetic appeal as well, but doubles as an energy-efficient element — one of many, he explained. “We chose not to get LEED-certified, but the criteria in LEED buildings drove a lot of the decisions around energy efficiency, water efficiency, quality of the air people breathe, and the views people have to the exterior.”

Dennis Fitzpatrick, addressing open-house attendees

Dennis Fitzpatrick, addressing open-house attendees, said it was “high time” O’Connell’s own home reflected some of the modern design elements it was using in its clients’ projects.

For instance, he continued, “all the light fixtures are LED, and all are on occupancy sensors. We have a high-efficiency boiler for heating, and we have energy-recovery ventilation, so when air is exhausted from the building, we recover some of the energy from the air and reuse it.”

Crystal added that the environmentally friendly focus extended to the outdoors, where the building was positioned in such a way that preserved the more mature trees around its perimeter. The plan is to develop some walking trails through the wooded surroundings by next summer. For now, a large outdoor patio overlooks the grounds behind the atrium. “So if you’re on your laptop on a beautiful day, why not sit outside with the beautiful woods and do your work?”

A freshly installed bocce court is another way to help employees enjoy the outdoors during the warmer months, he added. “Again, we want to encourage people to stay after work and recreate and get to know each other. One of our goals is to create a sense of community among employees.”

Daily Impact

In short, Crystal and his development team — which included architectural firm Amenta Emma and a host of contractors and subcontractors from Western Mass. — are firm believers that a building’s design and environment affect both productivity and employee behavior.

“One goal was to encourage collaboration, innovation, and cross-fertilization,” he said, referring not only to the shared atrium, but formal conference rooms in each wing and the open layout of each division, with offices ringing a shared bank of workstations. Each wing also features a small, private room with a phone for employees in the shared space to make private calls.

A color palette heavy on light grays and whites, with a bold splash of blue ringing some walls, was designed to promote brightness and productivity, and the rainbows that occasionally appear in the glass and white-ash floors when the sun hits the atrium’s huge rear windows is “one of those unanticipated surprises,” Crystal noted.

“People seem happy,” he said. “I think the employees are happy to be here. Having a fun, modern, efficient environment to work in is an important piece of that.”

As the company’s president, Fitzpatrick certainly understands the importance of keeping everyone happy.

“Part of our culture is our people working together to come up with creative, innovative solutions to the challenges and risks that our company faces in our daily business,” he told the crowd at the open house.

“At the O’Connell Companies, we all care very deeply about the details,” he went on. “We care about what happens when plane X meets plane Y. We care about quality, and we care a lot about the feel, the sense that you have when you’re in a building, and I wanted this building to represent that. I wanted it to reflect the kind of quality that we hold ourselves accountable for when we go out and develop, build, and manage an asset for someone else. It was high time that our home reflected some of the ones that we were building.”

As Crystal walked BusinessWest past what’s called the Founder’s Room — a formal conference space on the second floor with a black walnut table built by Jonah Zuckerman of City Joinery in Holyoke — he reflected again on how the company’s history in the Paper City impacts how it does business today, and how its new headquarters fits into that history going forward.

“The real value this company has is its intellectual capital,” he said. “Yes, we own real estate, and we own equipment, but what makes the company unique is its intellectual capital, and by locating all our employees in the same building and actively promoting interactions and collaboration, I think the company benefits. That’s what we hoped to accomplish by relocating.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Matter of Speculation

towersquaredpartSince it opened nearly a half-century ago, Tower Square has been both a prominent part of the Springfield skyline and a barometer of sorts for the health and vitality of the city and its downtown. And this explains why there is so much anticipation and speculation accompanying the announcement that the property is being put on the market by owner MassMutual. Experts agree that this will be more than a real-estate transaction — it will likely also be a referendum on Springfield and its apparent resurgence.

Ever since the news broke that Tower Square, the downtown Springfield office tower, hotel, and retail complex, would be put on the market by owner MassMutual, there has been seemingly no end to the speculation about this local landmark.

And it has come in many forms, from questions about why the property is on the block — and why now — to conjecture about who might acquire it and at what price, what the new owner might attempt to do with it, and what role the complex might play in a changing City of Homes.

It was that last question that Bob Greeley found the most vexing.

“What will downtown Springfield look like in 10 or 15 years … I couldn’t answer that one, and I don’t think anyone can — the city can go in one of many directions,” said Greeley, president of RJ Greeley Co. in Springfield and a player in the local commercial real-estate market for four decades.

Most of those other questions were a bit easier to handle, for Greeley and others they were put to. Indeed, there seemed to be general consensus that there will be a healthy market for the property — and for a number of reasons, including its location (much more on that later), Springfield’s ongoing resurgence, the opening of MGM Springfield in 15 months or so, and the solid, consistent performance of the complex’s office tower over the past several decades.

It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option. Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

There also seemed to be general sentiment that there would be strong diversity among potential buyers, with interested local parties as well as national and international bidders.

“It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates. “Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

As for the role Tower Square will play in the future and the shape that property will take … here there was far less certainty in the experts’ voices and only conjecture — except when the subject of conversation was the approximately 180,000 square feet of retail space in the complex.

Moving forward, and even now, for that matter, said Greeley, the term ‘retail space’ should probably be replaced by the phrase ‘commercial space,’ because retail, at least in the traditional sense of the word, almost certainly won’t be a big part of Tower Square’s future.

Indeed, urban retail centers, or malls, if you will, which is what Tower Square was 40 years ago, are fast becoming a thing of the past, and, in most ways, they conflict strongly with most cities’ strategies for revitalizing their downtown centers, said Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who has spent considerable time and energy studying that subject.

Bob Greeley

Bob Greeley is among those who believe the sale of Tower Square should be an effective barometer for Springfield’s resurgence and its prospects for the future.

“I think downtown malls are inappropriate in this day and age,” he explained. “Urban malls take people off the sidewalk, and that’s not what you want; you want that hustle and bustle of people going up and down streets.”

So what can and should happen at Tower Square in the years to come? Plotkin envisions a future with more of what is there now — meaning educational institutions such as UMass Amherst, which has a considerable presence in the complex with its UMass Center at Springfield, and Cambridge College.

If nothing else, the sale of Tower Square should serve as a fairly intriguing barometer regarding the relative health of the city, its worthiness in the eyes of the development community, and its prospects for the future.

“I’m hoping that there will be a strong market for this property because, if there is, that will be a clear indication of where we think Springfield is and where it’s going,” said Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer. “Everyone seems to be in agreement that things are going quite well for us here and our future is pretty good; this sale, or potential sale, will go a long way toward validating all that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest presents a snapshot, or summation, of the conjecture surrounding Tower Square, which will be the biggest commercial real-estate deal (outside of the casino, of course) in nearly a quarter-century, but also much more than that. In many ways, as Kennedy noted, it could be a referendum on Springfield — both its present and future.

Right Place, Right Time?

Plotkin often talks about his grandfather, Samuel D. Plotkin, whose full name was over the company’s door for decades, and the real-estate maps he created for not only Springfield, but a host of other cities as well.

The maps were essentially grids that assigned scores, or values, to blocks and individual properties based on location and other factors.

In Springfield, the block of Main Street between what is now Boland Way (years ago, it was Vernon Street) and Bridge Street, has always been what Samuel Plotkin called a ‘100% property,’ said his grandson.

“My grandfather counted how many people walked by a street corner at 12 noon,” Plotkin explained. “And he had some kind of logarithm or formula, and plotted these numbers on these months. The corner of Main and Boland was called a 100% location, and as you go down the blocks, it was 90%, 80%, or 70%; when you were looking for a site for a business, you always wanted to know the areas that had the heaviest foot traffic.”

Springfield’s resurgence

Area brokers say Springfield’s resurgence, the arrival of MGM in 2018, and the office tower’s historically strong performance should create a solid market for Tower Square.

So historically — and into the future, by most all accounts — Tower Square has that first axiom of commercial real estate — ‘location, location, location’ — well-covered.

But that’s only one of the factors that go into the sentiments of general optimism with regard to the sale of the property, the interest it will generate, the price it will command, and the speculation (there’s that word again) that this will be anything but the fire sale that was the acquisition of Monarch Place by Peter Picknelly in 1994 for $25 million, roughly a quarter of what that complex was built for less than a decade earlier.

Others include the generally high-performing, 370,000-square-foot office tower, said Greeley, adding that location certainly plays a role in that success. And while there is some debate about just how much office space will be needed in the future and where it will be needed, the consensus is that 1500 Main St. will long be a business address in considerable demand.

“The office tower has a low vacancy rate, and it’s almost always been that way,” he noted. “It’s a good location and a good facility.”

Meanwhile, the city’s resurgence and the opening of MGM in the fall of 2018 are forces that are projected to make the Tower Square property — and others, for that matter — more valuable and saleable.

“That property is probably worth more today than it has been for a long time,” said Greeley. “This is a good time to be doing this.”

But the question of what the eventual buyer will do with the balance of the property outside the office tower — meaning the Marriott hotel and the 180,000 square feet of retail space — remains the biggest unknown and a question without an easy answer.

Indeed, while several new tenants, including UMass, Cambridge College, Hot Table, and Valley Venture Mentors (soon to vacate its space and relocate to the Innovation Center) have moved in over the past decade, the vacancy rate in the retail component of the building remains high, so much so that it might become a drag on the property during the sale process, said Plotkin.

“Retail is the piece of Tower Square that has been slow to come back,” said Plotkin, noting that, decades ago — or until the construction of suburban malls like Eastfield and Ingleside, according to many observers — it thrived at that location. “The office tower has always done pretty well, and the hotel has always done pretty well. But you’re saddled with a large amount of retail vacancies; it’s been repurposed, and wisely, with the colleges and a few restaurants, but there are still a lot of vacancies.”

Elaborating, Plotkin and others said the retail scene has changed dramatically over the past several years, with Internet sales taking a huge toll on national chains ranging from Sears to Staples, and also on shopping facilities, including urban and suburban malls.

“Retail has been a struggle across the country,” said Greeley, noting that many suburban malls, including Eastfield, are losing anchors and struggling. “Society is changing, and the boxes of retail are going away — not just downtown, but everywhere.”

Space Exploration

This brings Greeley back to his comment earlier about how the retail space in Tower Square should probably be classified as ‘commercial’ moving forward, a term that has a much broader meaning and one that hints at the wide range of possibilities for that space.

Elaborating, Greeley said that eventual uses for those spaces will still have to be synergistic with the office tower and the hundreds of people working there, a consideration that will in some ways limit what can be done.

“You’re not going to put a Chuck E. Cheese in there,” he said with a laugh, adding that many other forms of entertainment and hospitality, especially those focused on children and families, which are now populating suburban malls, may be similarly inappropriate.

Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place. And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Plotkin said some urban malls and properties resembling Tower Square in some ways (it is fairly unique in its overall composition) have been repurposed for housing and other uses, such as higher education, but overall, such assignments require imagination and capital — and in large amounts.

He suggests that more of the “college campus” components, as he called them, might be appropriate and, more importantly, viable.

“Education is one of the directions I would be looking at when it comes to redeveloping the property,” he explained. “It could be a law school, it could be a research facility — there are a number of possibilities.

“We should have something happening there that is going to draw young people to the facility,” he went on, adding that educational facilities could in many ways feed off, and contribute to, the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in downtown Springfield.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says the retail component in Tower Square remains a challenge, and that more education-related facilities may be the most viable option for that space.

Elaborating, he said the Marriott hotel and its 260 rooms could possibly be retrofitted into a dormitory, bringing a residential campus into the realm of possibility and also the prospect of several hundred young people living in the downtown area, which could fuel further growth of hospitality and service-related businesses.

And with the office tower and its broad mix of tenants in sectors ranging from law and marketing to accounting and financial services, there would be ample opportunities for internships and other learning experiences.

“If someone wanted to be right downtown, there are many amenities there,” said Plotkin, in reference to a college or university. “I’ve always looked upon what UMass is doing there as a start. It’s a good start, but it should just be the beginning.”

And from a big-picture perspective, Tower Square will be just one piece of the puzzle, he went on.

“Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place,” Plotkin told BusinessWest. “And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Overall, Kennedy said Springfield’s resurgence and a host of additions to the business and cultural landscape — from MGM to CRRC; from a renovated Union Station to the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — are creating more interest in the City of Homes, and Tower Square could play a role in bringing more businesses here, either through the office tower or its other available spaces.

“I continue to meet with companies that are interested in expanding into Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “I have my fingers crossed, but I think things are going to work out.”

New Lease on Life?

That last bit of commentary was offered in reference to the city as a whole, but also to the pending sale of Tower Square.

This will be a real-estate transaction, but also much more than that. As Kennedy and others noted, it will be a referendum or bellwether of sorts on Springfield’s ongoing resurgence and prospects for the future.

And it may also be one of the larger determining factors when it comes to what that future might be — for the downtown and the city as a whole.

That’s why all that speculation is going on, and also why this will be a very closely watched real-estate transaction.

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