Kate Phelon has long appreciated the spirit of collaboration between Westfield’s municipal, business, and educational leaders — and points to the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which just wrapped up its third year, as a good example.
The alliance, WE2BA for short, connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent. Last year, it launched an adopt-a-classroom program — Mestek, Forum House, and PeoplesBank were the initial adopters, and more are expected to come on board next year — while Westfield High School’s annual career fair drew a record 61 vendors.
“We want to get more people involved — more businesses adopting more classrooms,” said Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. “The principals are engaged in this.”
Stefan Czaporowski, the city’s Superintendent of Schools, said those efforts can have long-term economic-development impacts.
“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”
It’s not just WE2BA (much more on that later) that’s showcasing the city’s strengths. Take, for example, Go Westfield, a collaboration among municipal officials, Westfield Gas + Electric, Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.
“The city had never really taken on the task of marketing itself until just recently,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’ve gotten much better at touting what we have. We’ve got a lot of things here. We have an airport, a college, a hospital. We’ve got an exit off the Mass Pike. We’ve got transportation potential, between I-91 and the Pike. We’re literally two hours away from six different state capitals; geographically, we’re situated nicely. And we have more developable land than most.”
But Go Westfield is about more than marketing; it’s also a means to continual self-improvement. Phelon cited three recent focus groups — targeting the retail, manufacturing, and nonprofit sectors — as a notable example.
“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate. But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”
“These are the businesses that are here, and we wanted to find out from them what’s working really well, and what keeps them up at night,” she told BusinessWest. “That helps us better market ourselves as we address concerns and find out if other businesses have the same concerns. We want to make our existing businesses happy and address their issues — and if we don’t know what those issues are, we can’t help them.”
Sullivan agreed. “We’ve gotten much better at listening to stakeholders. It used to be that the city would have an idea, and we would go after that idea. Now, it’s more reaching out to the companies in town and saying, ‘what’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’ We’re making the companies already here a little better, and by listening to their needs, it’s helping out other companies who are saying, ‘yeah, we needed that too.’”
Sullivan hears those needs at the Mayor’s Coffee Hour, sponsored by the chamber and hosted by a different business each month.
“Those companies get to show off what they do, and we get to talk about things like construction projects, road projects, what’s coming down the pike for the City Council,” Sullivan said, adding that he often brings along other city department heads to enrich the discussions. “I don’t want to just stand in front of the room and talk; it’s got to be a two-way conversation. And an hour can fly by.”
That’s partly because there’s a lot to talk about these days in the Whip City — and the collaborations driving that progress are becoming more robust.
When someone contacts one of the Go Westfield member organizations, Sullivan explained, other members are quickly roped in, whether that’s a municipal department, Westfield Gas + Electric, or the chamber. “If some company is interested in coming here and calls the chamber, Kate’s been really good at giving me a heads-up that, ‘hey, these people are looking to come.’”
Companies like Wright-Pierce, a 72-year-old environmental/civil infrastructure engineering firm, which recently announced it will open an office in Westfield.
Or Myers Information Systems, which is relocating downtown from its previous location in Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it. The firm expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the coming months.
Westfield at a glance
Year Incorporated: 1669
Area: 47.4 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $38.00
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available
“Some of the reasons Myers chose here were the chamber, a bike trail, access to downtown, and fiber coming from the Gas + Electric,” the mayor said. “We reached out, wooing them to come to us. They were pretty impressed with how solidified we were as a group.”
He was referring specifically to Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric that continues to expand gigabyte-speed internet to residences and businesses across the city.
“Having access to that is huge for an awful lot of companies that are looking for bandwidth and a central location for their employees,” he explained. “Companies aren’t 9 to 5 anymore, where people come in and do their work and leave. It’s all hours of the day, it’s weekends, and if you can have access to high-speed internet, you can thrive as a company.”
The Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, continues to focus on revitalizing a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017.
The same year, the Westfield Redevelopment Authority demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The WRA plans to issue a request for proposals for the site — much of which used to house J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store — within the next month.
The mixed-use concept, Sullivan said, is an important one for a wide swath of Millennial professionals who crave city living with walkable amenities.
“They want to live downtown and don’t want cars; they want to walk or bike anywhere they want to go — a total urban lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest. “With Millennials, it’s not ‘build your house somewhere and have your two cars and go to your job.’ They want to be downtown, walk to the coffee shop, bring their laptop, do some of their work there, and go for a bike ride.
“The trend is all about internet access, getting to and from places without using a car, and downtown visibility,” he went on. “That’s what drove Myers to Elm Street, access to all these things.”
Another economic trend in Massachusetts involves the cannabis industry, and Westfield has embraced such businesses, with four available licenses for retail, cultivation, or other uses; two are currently going through the permitting process. With Southwick and West Springfield currently not in the marijuana game, Sullivan noted that Westfield is in a good spot when it comes to cornering market share, particularly from across the Connecticut border.
“The City Council is figuring out whether we want one in downtown core district or keep them on the outskirts,” Sullivan said. “It’s such a new industry that nobody really knows what’s going to shake down. Everything is on the table right now.”
Meanwhile, initiatives like Go Westfield continue to dig into what the business community wants and how to bring new companies into the fold, with the goal of boosting economic development not only downtown, but across this sprawling city of more than 47 square miles.
“You have to adapt, and we’re getting better at adapting and opening up our ears,” he added. “And that’s what these focus groups are doing. We’re sitting there and listening to what’s lacking or what’s not working, or maybe what is working, and doing more of that.”
Back to School
Phelon and Czaporowski are excited about the potential of expanding the reach of the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, enlisting graduate students from Westfield State University to help out with programs moving forward. At a focus group in the spring, about 20 professors from various degree programs expressed an interest in working with different organizations in town, getting students into the weeds of local businesses.
“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back. We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”
The existing connections work on multiple levels. For instance, the students who worked with Mestek in the adopt-a-classroom program improved their presentation skills and performed, on average, markedly better than their peers in the school’s science fair. Meanwhile, Westfield teachers went to Mestek to help employees with limited English proficiency boost those skills.
“We want to expand adopt-a-classroom because getting the business community in front of the kids and sharing their expertise and their work experiences is huge,” Czaporowski said. “And we want to keep promoting what some call soft skills and we call essential skills — speaking with eye contact, how to interview, résumés, but also how to be a productive employee — things like punctuality and attendance. We call them essential skills because these are skills you’re going to need throughout life.”
Meanwhile, businesses visited elementary schools for career-day events toward the end of the school year, getting kids thinking early about career pathways and even what high school to attend to best serve those interests.
“We’re exposing kids to relevant life learning,” the superintendent said. “And it’s beneficial to the businesses too. The experience is eye-opening for them.”
That’s partly because students learn differently today — in a more interactive, collaborative style, with different tools — than they used to, Sullivan said, and it’s helpful for employers to understand that.
“It’s all about workforce development,” he said. “A lot of these companies will need their talents someday. They need those kids to walk into their business and start working. That training is now happening in the schools. And it’s a two-way street. A lot of the best companies in town are sending a representative to some of these meetings with the students because they want the students to know their product when they get out.”
Whether it’s through the career fair, adopt-a-classroom, or other efforts, Phelon noted, there are many ways to engage with students and show them what career and lifestyle opportunities exist in their own backyard — just as Go Westfield broadcasts that message to a much wider audience.
“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back,” she said. “We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]