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Briefcase

Opioid-related Overdose Deaths Decrease in Massachusetts

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts decreased in the first nine months of 2018 compared to the first nine months of 2017, according to the latest quarterly opioid-related deaths report released recently by the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH). In the first nine months of 2018, there were a total of 1,518 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, as compared with 1,538 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2017. This estimated decrease follows a 4% decline between 2016 and 2017. “The opioid epidemic, fueled by an all-time high level of fentanyl, remains a tragic public-health crisis responsible for taking too many lives in Massachusetts,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “While there is much work left for all of us to do, we are encouraged that overdose deaths and opioid prescriptions continue to decline as searches on the Commonwealth’s Prescription Monitoring Program increase.” The latest report also indicates that the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl present in the toxicology of opioid-related overdose deaths continues to rise and reached an all-time high at 90% in the second quarter of 2018. Meanwhile, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in those deaths continued to plummet. In 2014, heroin or likely heroin was present in 71% of opioid-related deaths; by the second quarter of this year, that number had fallen to 37%. Last month, the Baker administration filed legislation seeking $5 million to support a regional, multi-agency approach to fentanyl interdiction and crime displacement by Massachusetts municipal police departments. The funding will supplement surveillance work and overtime costs for units engaged, and officers in the field will also work to get buyers into treatment. In addition, last April, Baker signed legislation that included a long-overdue ‘fentanyl fix’ to allow law enforcement to pursue fentanyl traffickers.

Five Colleges, PVTA, Towns Agree to Increase Bus Payments

SPRINGFIELD — A proposal by the Five College Consortium to increase its annual payment to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority by a total of $250,000 over the next four years has been accepted by PVTA and area municipalities. PVTA’s costs are covered with a combination of federal and state subsidies, payments from towns and cities, and passenger fares. Since 1979, Five Colleges has agreed to pay PVTA the town portion of the cost of bus routes that include its campuses. This has been with the understanding that, to encourage bus use, Five College students do not have to pay fares. In recent years, however, the cost of operating buses along Five College routes has expanded beyond what PVTA was charging. When the campuses became aware of the gap last year, the consortium developed a schedule for increasing payments that would provide greater support to PVTA without creating an undue burden for its campuses. Building on the most current charge of $500,000, the agreement has the campuses paying an additional $50,000 each year until total annual payments reach $750,000. The first payment was made in the last fiscal year, and additional payments will be made in each of the coming four years.

Travelers Aid Begins Service at Bradley International Airport

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — The Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) and Travelers Aid announced that Travelers Aid International has begun serving the passengers of Bradley International Airport as the operator of the guest-service volunteer program at the airport. Travelers Aid now operates the Information Center in Terminal A on the lower level, which is the baggage-claim level. There are currently 45 volunteers, and Travelers Aid will be recruiting additional volunteers in order to better serve the airport’s passengers. The center’s current hours are from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week. Mary Kate Doherty, an experienced volunteer manager, has been retained by Travelers Aid to manage and expand the program. Bradley International Airport will be the 18th airport in the Travelers Aid Transportation Network, which also includes four North American railroad stations and a cruise terminal. In the coming months, Travelers Aid will be reaching out to the residents of the region seeking additional volunteers. Doherty said Travelers Aid will be seeking anyone, both students and adults, interested in assisting a traveler with their questions. Anyone interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities should contact Doherty at (860) 500-8582 or [email protected].

ValleyBike Share Touts Inaugural Season Success

SPRINGFIELD — ValleyBike Share recently extended thanks to all users, sponsors, and supporters during its inaugural season. While the system experienced some expected (and unexpected) issues during this year’s startup, users successfully traveled over 88,000 miles together and made the bike-share system a success. People have been using the system instead of their cars for commuting to work and school, running errands, and even just for exercise and fresh air. “We are excited by the enthusiastic response in this first season of bike share, which has exceeded our original ridership projections,” said Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz. “We look forward to Easthampton joining the program next spring and also filling in the gaps in the system to continue expanding this important transportation alternative in the region.” Tim Brennan, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, noted that, since ValleyBike has been in existence, residents and visitors of the five founding communities and UMass Amherst have traveled the equivalent of three and half times around the Earth — “something truly worth celebrating as its inaugural season comes to a close.” As originally programmed, the system shut down completely on Nov. 30 and will be re-opened on April 1 (weather permitting). During the time ValleyBike Share bikes are over-wintering, ValleyBike will be working to fix the issues noted in the startup season to provide the public with new and improved riding opportunities next season.

Monson Savings Bank Seeks Input on Charitable Giving

MONSON — For the ninth year in a row, Monson Savings Bank is asking the community to help plan the bank’s community giving activities by inviting people to vote for the organizations they would like the bank to support during 2019. “Every year, we donate over $125,000 to organizations doing important work in the communities we serve,” said Steve Lowell, president of Monson Savings Bank. “For several years now, we’ve been asking the community for input on which groups they’d like us to support. We’ve been so pleased by how many people inquire each year as to when the voting will begin again and how many people actually participate.” To cast their vote, people can go to www.monsonsavings.bank/about-us/vote-community-giving. On that page, they can see a list of organizations the bank has already supported in 2018 and provide up to three names of groups they’d like the bank to donate to in 2019. The only requirement is that the organizations be nonprofit and providing services in Hampden, Monson, Wilbraham, or Ware. The voting ends at 3 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 31. The bank pledges to support the top 10 vote getters and will announce who they are by the middle of January.

Incorporations

The following business incorporations were recorded in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties and are the latest available. They are listed by community.

BARRE

Ishana Inc., 578 Summer St., Barre, MA 01005. Monil Patel, 4 Ralph Ave., Worcester, MA 01604. Liquor store.

J. D. Poulin Electric Inc., 351 Old Petersham Road, Barre, MA 01005. Jason D. Poulin, same. Electrical contractor.

BELCHERTOWN

Imperial Auto Movers Inc., 6 Fox Run Dr., Belchertown, MA 01007. Dmitry Kuzmenok, same. Trucking.

CHESHIRE

J. Richardson Contracting Inc., 135 Stafford Hill, Cheshire, MA 01225. Jason Richardson, same. General contracting.

EASTHAMPTON

Glenn Building Inc., 18 Ashley Circle, Easthampton, MA 01027. Norman F. Glenn, same. Building construction and renovation.

FEEDING HILLS

HD Painting Pros Inc., 960 Springfield St., Unit 12, Feeding Hills, MA 01030. Jesse James Hester, same. Painting.

LUDLOW

JBP Construction Inc., 157 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056. Jamie R. Pio, 343 Woodland Circle, Ludlow, MA 01056. Construction services.

STOCKBRIDGE

Here for the Dogs Inc., 6 Shamrock St., Stockbridge, MA 01262. Nicole Jean Bessey, same. Raise awareness to the potential danger of dog collar use and the safe use of dog harnesses.

WARREN

Hardwick Memorial Handbell Choir Inc., 13 Jones St., Warren, MA 01083. Shawna R. Andrews, 1930 Gilbertville Road, New Braintree, MA 01531. Performing and encouraging the Handbell arts in the greater Hardwick community with performances both public and ecumenical.

WESTFIELD

Hearts to Pawz Project Inc., 24 Camelot Lane, Westfield, MA 01085. Terri Kutayli, same. Support local animal shelters.

WILBRAHAM

Gray Hawk Corp., 13 Cottage Ave., Wilbraham, MA 01095. Radu Moraru, same. Construction.

Cover Story

Supporting a Growth Industry

When CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) was launched 25 years ago, this region’s agricultural community was threatened by a host of issues and societal changes. Today, those challenges remain, but CISA, through its ‘buy local’ program and other initiatives, has lived up to its name by getting the community involved in sustaining and growing this vital sector of the economy.

Margaret Christie is quick to point out that the many challenges area farmers faced a quarter century ago are still as much a part of the landscape as asparagus fields in Hadley.

These include everything from the cost of land (among the highest levels in the country), to the many pressures on that land, meaning attractive development options ranging from housing subdivisions to industrial parks, to immense competition from across the country and around the world.

And there are even some additional challenges, including an aging group of farm owners and workers — Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age — and a phrase you didn’t hear much, if at all, in 1993, but certainly heard this summer as the rain kept coming down in the 413: Climate change.

But the environment for farmers has been altered in one important respect, said Christie, and that comes in the form of an additional and quite significant support system called, appropriately enough, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, or CISA. Christie, now the agency’s special projects coordinator, was its first executive director, and she recalled the thought process — not to mention a $1.2 million Kellogg Foundation grant — that brought CISA into being.

“CISA grew out of an effort by a lot of people who were working on different agriculture issues in the valley, many of them associated with the colleges or existing nonprofits, who each felt they were each working on some piece related to food and agriculture, but they weren’t really talking to each other,” she explained. “And so they had a pretty simple idea, which was to have a series of brown-bag lunches, get together every month, and compare notes. And out of that experience, they began to think ‘we need to be doing something bigger and more coordinated.”

That something bigger and more coordinated was CISA, which came about a time when the region’s agricultural base was more threatened than most could have understood, said Christie, noting that in the decade prior to its creation, there was a significant erosion in the agricultural land base — a loss of 21,000 acres to be precise — and a decline in farmers income of about 3%.

“The people who were involved in CISA thought ‘we might really lose this land base, and we have great soil here — we have prime agricultural soils rivaling any place in the world,’” she recalled. “They said ‘this is important to us as a community and we don’t want to lose it.’”

Margaret Christie says CISA has made buying local front of mind

Margaret Christie says CISA has made buying local front of mind for many area residents, and something very easy to do.

To the question ‘how do we avoid losing this precious commodity?’ those at CISA answered, in essence, by saying ‘get the community involved,’ said Executive Director Philip Korman, adding that the agency has done just that.

Today, though initiatives such as the ‘Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown’ campaign with which the agency is synonymous, many forms of technical assistance, and an emergency loan program, CISA has not only brought more attention to local farms and farm products, it has stabilized and, in some ways, actually grown the local agriculture sector — meaning Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin Counties.

Indeed, as the chart on page 10 reveals, there are now 182,428 acres of land devoted to agriculture in those three counties, compared to 165,420 acres in 1993. There are now 36 farmers’ markets across the region, compared to 10 back then; there are 51 farms offering farm shares (CSA farms) compared to 19 back then; and direct farm-to-consumer sales are nor more than $10 million, more than double the total a quarter century ago.

But despite this progress, many challenges remain and more are emerging, including the aforementioned climate change. And as it celebrates its first 25 years, CISA is also looking ahead and to ways it can be an even better stronger advocate for local agriculture.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how CISA has supported an important growth sector this region over the past 25 years — figuratively and quite literally — and also at how, as it celebrates this milestone, the focus remains on the present and future, not the past.

Experts in Their Field

It is with a large and easily discernable amount of pride in her voice that Meg Bantle notes that her family has been farming the same tract of land in Adams for six generations covering more than two centuries years — and that she is the sixth.

Indeed, she now operates a modest vegetable and flower operation, called Full Well Farm, on a tiny corner of the 500-acre property that was once a thriving dairy farm. Meanwhile, her mother and grandmother have been trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the property, a question that’s been challenging her family since her grandfather died in 2013, and Bantle is now playing a role in that effort as well.

“Being back on that land, in closer proximity to the family business and my mom, will help me to be involved in the decision-making in terms of what’s going to happen with the rest of the land,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve had a number of discussions about making a succession plan for the future.”

Mantle was one of several area farmers to take part in something called ‘Field Notes — An Afternoon of Storytelling’ on Nov. 18 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. A number of farmers, chefs, and brewers took to the podium to talk of memories, challenges, opportunities lost, opportunities gained, the present, and the future.

The event was staged by CISA as part of its 25th anniversary, said Korman, noting that the agency played a least a small part in many of the stories told. Meanwhile, it exists to help script more of them in the years and decades to come, by inspiring more people like Bantle to return to the land as she did after college and to perhaps help more families devise succession plans.

It has been this way since CISA’s start in a small home office in Northampton. The agency has since relocated several times, with stints at UMass and Hampshire College, for example, and is now located in a suite of offices in the shadow of Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield.

From there, staff members coordinate a number of programs and initiatives, the most visible and impactful of which is the ‘Local Hero’ program and its annual publication, known as the ‘Locally Grown Farm Products Guide.’

“The people who were involved in CISA thought ‘we might really lose this land base, and we have great soil here — we have prime agricultural soils rivaling any place in the world. They said ‘this is important to us as a community and we don’t want to lose it.”

Broken down by community and individual farm, the guide captures, well, the full flavor of the region’s agro sector with colorful snapshots of each operation, usually featuring a personal touch, like this entry for the North Hadley Sugar Shack: ‘Enjoy our Sugarin’ Breakfast daily from mid-February to Mid-April. Come see how we make maple syrup, grab a maple treat, or get supplies to make your own. We serve hard ice cream and our own maple soft serve from May to October, and host lots of fun, family-friendly, and educational events all summer long. Open year-round; local seasonal produce and flowers available throughout the year.’

The annual guide is a big part of broad efforts to use the media and marketing techniques to build broad community support for local farms, said Claire Morenon, communications manager for CISA, adding that these efforts, and especially the ‘buy local’ campaign have helped changed the face of agriculture in the Pioneer Valley and beyond, as indicated in those numbers mentioned earlier.

Christie agreed, and said that, in addition to being the country’s oldest ‘buy local’ initiative, CISA’s program really facilitates the process of buying from local farms, and keeps the practice front of mind.

“We did some survey work before we launched our ‘Local Hero’ campaign, and what we found is that people in this region really understood that supporting local farmers kept their money in their local community and supported their neighbors, and that was important to them,” she said. “We didn’t have to teach people that; they understood it already.

“But I think we were one of the first places to do this at the scale we do, and also at the community level that we do,” she went on. “Certainly state departments of agriculture have promoted food grown in that state for a long time, but I don’t think, in a lot of cases, that they’ve personalized it with the farmer’s face and the story of farms, and taken it to the level we have, where we make it easy for people.

“If you were grocery shopping, and you were working all day, and you picked up the kids from wherever, and you had to go home and make dinner, and everyone’s tired … we wanted you to remember that it’s important to support local farms at that point,” she continued. “And you could, because it was salient, you had heard about it so much that you remembered it and it was easy for you because there was a logo and a label and you could see what was local.”

And by local, CISA means local, said Korman, adding that while buying products made in Massachusetts is an important goal, buying from people down the street or a town or two over is even more so.

Phil Korman says CISA’s mission hasn’t changed

Phil Korman says CISA’s mission hasn’t changed, but the agency has broadened its reach to include issues such as hunger in the region.

“It’s one thing to do branding at a state level, but it’s not the same thing as home — it’s your home state, but it’s not your home,” he told BusinessWest. “We elevated it to a level where people understand that it’s our neighbors who are our farmers, and that ‘I can get to know that person depending on how I buy goods, and I get to understand and taste and develop a connection to the person who’s growing food for my family.”

Yield Signs

Many of the farmers now doing business in this region have been tending the land for decades, but most have never a seen a summer like this one, said Korman.

While the seemingly incessant rain probably helped a few crops, it negatively impacted many others and, overall, it made life miserable for farm owners and their employees.

“We’ve heard from all kinds of farms — orchards, vegetable farms … it’s affected just about everyone, and if it didn’t make things terrible, it made things very unfun,” he said. “And I don’t say that lightly; it’s just been so hard to be out in the field.”

The havoc wrought by the summer of 2018 is made clear by the number of farms likely to apply for aid from CISA’s emergency farm fund, started after Hurricane Irene, Korman went on, adding that the fund is one example of how CISA’s reach has extended beyond marketing and brand awareness, if you will, with the brand being the sum of the area’s farms — and into technical and financial assistance, training, and other avenues of support, all aimed at strengthening the farming community.

And also an example of how the agency, while not changing its core mission in any real way, is broadening its focus to include different issues and challenges — for both farmers and this region.

“In recent years, as the Local Hero campaign has been so successful, and as we’ve felt our original work has been successful enough to stand on its own, we’ve been thinking more about some of the broader food-system challenges we’re facing and thinking outside of just consumers and farmers,” said Morenon. “Such as huger and our role in addressing that, the condition of farm workers and our role with that, and other issues.”

“If you were grocery shopping, and you were working all day, and you picked up the kids from wherever, and you had to go home and make dinner, and everyone’s tired … we wanted you to remember that it’s important to support local farms at that point.”

Elaborating, she and others we spoke with said the region’s farmers can’t solve the hunger issue, but they can certainly play a role in efforts to stem the tide of hunger in the region, specifically through partnerships with local, state, and even national agencies.

A prime example is the Healthy Initiatives Program (HIP). Launched in 2017 and administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance, in partnership with the Department of Agricultural resources and the Department of Public Health, HIP provides monthly incentives to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) — $40 for families of one to two people, and $80 for families of six or more, for example — when they purchase fresh, local, healthy fruits and vegetables from Massachusetts farmers at farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSAs, and mobile markets. The money they spend at these retailers is immediately added back to their EBT cards, and can be spent at any SNAP retailers.

Since its inception, the program has meant better health outcomes for vulnerable families and better sustainability for local farms, said Korman, noting that SNAP families have purchased more than $4 million of produce from farms across the state and that SNAP sales at farm retailers increased by nearly 600% between 2016 and 2017 thanks to HIP.

“The pilot program in Hampden County showed that the incentives increased consumption of produce by 24%,” he explained, noting that the success locally led to a broadening of the program to cover the whole state.

Another example is Monte’s March, the hugely successful food drive to support the Food Bank of Western Mass., led by WHMP radio personality Monte Belmonte — or, more specifically, efforts on CISA’s part to spotlight just how much local farmers donate to that cause.

“They now add up the poundage — and its 500,000 pounds of food that gets donated by local farmers,” Korman told BusinessWest. “It isn’t that it’s the responsibility of local farmers to solve hunger, it’s more the responsibility of all of us to make sure there are local farms, because that generosity and that connection to the community will benefit us all.”

In a nutshell, this is the mindset that helped launch CISA, it’s the philosophy that has guided its first 25 years, and the thought process that will guide it in the future.

Growing the Bottom the Line

Meg Bantle has many vivid memories of life on her family’s farm. One she shared with the audience at Field Notes involved the day some cows stampeded her and other family members.

No one was seriously hurt, she said, but the memory of that day, symbolic of the difficult life farmers live, has always remained with her, like countless others.

It doesn’t say so anywhere in CISA’s official mission statement, but the agency is really all about creating such memories for several future generations of area farmers. How? As it always has, by making a solid connection between the farmers and the surrounding communities and making it very easy to buy local‚ as in local.

There’s some food for thought — in every sense of that phrase.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Picture This

Email ‘Picture This’ photos with a caption and contact information to [email protected]

 

Investing in People

MHA’s Leadership Series

MHA’s Leadership Series, which is open to all members of management in the mental-health agency, delivers a leadership curriculum specialized for human-services professionals. The comprehensive training is designed to support supervisors and directors within their roles. Twenty-six supervisors recently graduated from MHA’s Leadership Series 2018. A second Leadership Series is scheduled for the winter of 2019. “Employee training is essential to the success of any organization. Supervisor training and development can have a profound effect on employee retention, as well as recruitment,” said Cheryl Fasano, MHA president and CEO. “The investment MHA has made in our Leadership Series will benefit the organization for the long run. Investing in our most important resources, our human resources, is a priority.”

 

 

Features

Bridging the Digital Divide

Aneesh Raman says business owners think Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users worldwide, is a valuable tool — even if they don’t always know how best to use it.

According to a 2017 survey, said Raman, who manages Facebook’s global economic-impact programs, more than 60% of small businesses in Massachusetts said Facebook is essential to their business, and 76% said the social-media platform helps them find customers in other cities, states, and countries.

“That’s encouraging data, but as you talk to them, you see a need for more training,” Raman told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re coming to 30 cities to provide training for small businesses across a range of subjects. No matter what their skill level is — whether businesses are coming online for the first time or are online already — we can help them grow their business.”

Earlier this year, Facebook announced that Springfield had been chosen as one of 30 markets where the company will host its Community Boost program, created to help small businesses, entrepreneurs, and job seekers grow their business and develop new digital skills. Facebook will be in Springfield on Sept. 10-11, presenting workshops on a host of topics yet to be determined.

“Our mission at Facebook is building strong communities, and we believe at the core of strong communities are thriving small businesses,” said Raman, who is also a former journalist who worked as an international correspondent for CNN, as well as a former presidential speechwriter. “Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

Since 2011, he noted, Facebook has invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses. Community Boost is simply a more visible and direct method of doing so, and will focus on small-business training and digital acumen in general, rather than simply promoting Facebook, Raman said.

“Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

During its visits to 30 cities — including Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and many other metro areas much larger than Springfield — Facebook representatives will take a three-pronged approach to economic development, working with local organizations to provide digital skills and training for people in need of work, advising entrepreneurs how to get started, and helping existing businesses and nonprofits get the most out of the internet.

A broad survey conducted by Morning Consult and co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Facebook suggests that small businesses’ use of social media is creating new opportunities. For instance, in Massachusetts, 62% of surveyed businesses said Facebook is essential for their business; 76% said Facebook allows them to find customers in other cities, states, and countries; and 69% said they believe an individual’s digital and social-media skills are important when hiring.

A lot of people use Facebook for business reasons, but never any kind of training how to do it. They’re on their own,” said Paul Robbins, president of Paul Robbins Associets in Wilbraham and a communications consultant for Community Boost in Springfield.

“People feel like they’ve got this tool, but they don’t know how to use it, especially small businesses,” he went on. “Here in Springfield, we’ve got a very diverse community with a lot of small businesses. Even not-for-profits can take advantage of this free seminar. Anybody can come. The idea is to help people leverage it as a business tool.”

Logging On

Facebook pledged this year to train 1 million individuals and small business owners across the U.S. in digital and social-media skills by 2020. To do that, it will expand its in-person training programs, create more local partnerships, and build more e-learning resources.

The company cites projections that a skilled-labor shortage in America could create 85.2 million unfilled jobs by 2030, and says it is committed to helping close that skills gap and provide more people and business owners with the educational resources they need to advance at work, find new jobs, or run their companies.

Details on Springfield’s Community Boost event, which is free and open to small business and nonprofits, aren’t set yet; Facebook plans to announce a place, times, and course list at www.facebook.com/business/m/community-boost as September gets closer.

“The goal of the program isn’t to come and leave, but to kick off conversations,” Raman said, noting that Facebook has been talking to businesses and economic-development leaders on a specific program that best meets identified needs for small-business and digital-skills training in the Pioneer Valley.

“Small businesses and workers know they need skills. But they don’t always have help getting those skills,” he went on. “Once we know what the professional needs are, we’ll announce the registration date and courses online.”

According to the Morning Consult research, small businesses’ use of digital tools translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the country. And small businesses are the key driver, creating an estimated four out of every five new jobs in the U.S.

The survey revealed that 80% of U.S. small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook say the platform helps them connect to people in their local community, while one in three businesses on Facebook say they built their business on the platform, and 42% say they’ve hired more people due to growth since joining Facebook.

Businesses run by African-Americans, Latinos, veterans, and those with a disability are twice as likely to say that their business was built on Facebook, and one and a half times more likely to say they’ve hired more people since joining the platform.

Raman said small businesses have expressed a desire to learn more about using Facebook and Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing service owned by Facebook. “But we’re teaching skills that apply to any digital platform out there.”

After all, Robbins noted, “not everyone is digitally savvy. A small business may not have the digital skills people assume everyone has. Facebook is trying to demystify it to people, so they’re not afraid of it.”

Getting Social

Increasingly, businesses are embracing 21-st century modes of building their customer base. The 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that the use of digital platforms by American small businesses is ubiquitous — in fact, 84% of small businesses in the U.S. use at least one major digital platform to provide information to customers, and three out of four small businesses use digital platforms for sales.

Yet, businesses face challenges when it comes to the internet, with 57% of small businesses saying lack of familiarity with available digital tools is a challenge.

“At Facebook, we see a big opportunity to make a difference in partnership with local organizations and local officials,” Raman told BusinessWest. “We really do think there’s a skills gap, and by closing that, we can help expand economic opportunity in Springfield and across the country.”

But it’s not just employers the Community Boost program aims to reach. For job seekers, the program will provide training to help improve their digital and social-media skills. According to the research, 62% percent of U.S. small businesses using Facebook said digital or social-media skills are an important factor in their hiring decisions — even more important than where a candidate went to school.

Community Boost will also offer entrepreneurs training programs on how to use technology to turn an idea into a business, as well as ways to create a free online presence using Facebook.

And, of course, business owners will learn how to expand their digital footprint and find new customers around the corner and around the globe. Training will also include education in digital literacy and online safety.

“We also want to teach nonprofits to be part of the programming and how Facebook can help them learn the digital skills they need to increase donations,” Raman said.

Facebook strives to evolve Community Boost based on what it’s learning in its earlier stops. For example, in St. Louis, the first stop on the tour, the company learned exactly how wide the gap is between the digital skills job seekers know they need and the skills they feel they have. In fact, according to a survey there, 93% of job and skills seekers say digital skills are important when looking for job, while only 12% rate themselves highly in this area.

Managers also see gaps in the skills they need to grow their businesses, the St. Louis survey showed. For example, the majority of managers in that city said creating a mobile-friendly interface was important to growing their business, but very few saw themselves as proficient.

Springfield — the only New England stop for Community Boost — may not have the population of the major metropolitan areas on the tour, but Raman says the needs are universal, and Facebook wants a diverse cross-section of cities represented.

“Springfield has a vibrant small-business community with a diverse population,” he noted. “We think we can make a real impact here.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Agawam Mayor William Sapelli

William Sapelli inherited a long to-do list when he took on his new role as mayor, from infrastructure projects to economic-development concerns, and has only added more items to that list.

Very soon after William Sapelli announced he would be retiring as Agawam’s superintendent of schools — ending four decades of work in education — people started suggesting that he run for mayor that fall.

“They said, ‘you have the skill set — you have a $45 million school budget, which is half the town budget, you deal with 700 employees, you’ve negotiated five contracts, and you know all the city departments,’” recalled Sapelli, who took the suggestions under advisement and eventually took the idea to his family.

At first, he recalled with a laugh, he interpreted their unbridled support as perhaps a loud hint that they weren’t ready to have him home full-time. But soon they convinced him, as did others, that their backing was grounded in the belief that Agawam needed a change — and a fresh perspective — in City Hall. And that he could provide it.

Although he eventually embraced the calls for him to seek the corner office, Sapelli rejected recommendations that he formally announce his intentions before he actually retired almost a year ago (early July, to be exact) because he wanted to avoid any and all suggestions that he might be using the resources of his office as superintendent to help gain the mayor’s chair and focusing on his next job before he finished up in the one he was in.

“I got in late — I was really behind the 8-ball, and people said you can’t get in that late,” said Sapelli, who nonetheless triumphed in the September primary and then the November election. And he attributes that victory, in large part, to his message of needed change and the promise that he can provide it.

“This sounds corny, but I grew up here in town, and I care about this town,” he told BusinessWest. “I personally didn’t like the way things were going; it seemed that elected officials weren’t really getting along. It seemed like things were going off the rails — people not communicating, people sniping at each other — and I thought we could do better, and do better for Agawam.”

Five months in, he said the office is, well, busier than he thought it would be, in part because there are a great many meetings and official functions at which his attendance is required, or at least requested. But another big part of it is that Sapelli inherited a lengthy to-do list, and he’s only added more to it.

Among those line items are a host of important infrastructure projects, especially the rebuilding of the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam to West Springfield. There are also specific business concerns, such as the nagging question about how to inject new life into the tired commercial district known as Walnut Street Extension, home to the now-infamous Games & Lanes, which no longer exists; however, the problem of finding a new use for the property does.

And then, there are broader, more complex business and economic-development concerns, such as Agawam’s notorious — and in many ways debilitating — spot-zoning practices.

“There’s so much spot zoning in Agawam … our system is so archaic,” said Sapelli with some exasperation in his voice. “In most communities, it’s an issue; in our community … well, I’ve had the experts from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission get involved through a grant we received, and they used the word ‘unique’ to describe the problem.”

To address it, Sapelli has created a zoning-review committee, which is expected to make some recommendations in the months to come.

An even bigger issue — although the zoning problem is quite extensive — is the recognized need (on Sapelli’s part, anyway) to make the city more business-friendly.

Walnut Street Extension

Improving the Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution in Agawam.

“People ask how we can become more business-friendly, and one of the ways is to expedite the permitting process,” he explained. “From what I was hearing from individuals who came in and tried to start businesses and get permits for different things was that it took longer than they expected. I thought it was important to go out and try to make this community attractive to businesses.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with Agawam’s mayor (he’s no longer the ‘new mayor’) about the challenge he accepted and how he’s working to fulfill that campaign pledge of bringing positive change to the community.

Learning the Ropes

As he provided a chronology of a career in the Agawam school system that began when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Sapelli said there were a number of stops.

They started with a stint coaching junior-varsity hockey and substitute-teaching assignments at the high school. A year later, he was coaching the varsity team and teaching social studies at the junior high. Later, he taught science for six years, then became assistant principal at the middle school, then an elementary-school principal, assistant superintendent, and, starting in 2011, superintendent.

During the campaign last fall, he encountered — and earned a good deal of support from — people who were students during each one of those stops. When it came to people making such claims about the earliest stages of his career, he admits to having to take their word for it.

“People will say, ‘remember when I had you in school?’” he said. “And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you looked like this when you were 10 or 12, so I don’t recognize you, but I believe that you were one of my students.”

Support from all those former students and colleagues was certainly a factor in Sapelli’s rather large margin of victory over former City Council President Jimmy Cichetti last November.

As was, he believes, the desire for change in a community that had seen little progress on many of the key issues facing it — and his ability to bring about that change.

“I really thought we could do a better job of having local, city, and state government be a kinder, gentler group, if you will,” he said, “and be able to have open, honest discussions and not take things personally.”

While working to stimulate change and progress, Sapelli is also leading efforts on a number of issues, or fronts, that, as noted, have challenged several of his predecessors.

At or near the top of that list is the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, the rebuilding and widening of which has been talked about for years. State funding has been secured for the project, and a bid should be awarded shortly, said Sapelli, adding that work was to have started this spring.

But it’s already late June, and construction still hasn’t started, said the mayor, adding that, since work is due to be halted during the 17-day run of the Big E — which is just a few hundred yards to the east of the bridge — in September, there is now a good chance the project may not see much progress this calendar year.

“They may be doing some preliminary set-up work this fall,” said Sapelli, adding quickly that there will be more definitive timelines for this project emerging shortly. “But I don’t think anything major will happen until next spring.”

The bridge, projected to be a two-and-a-half-year project, is an important initiative, he went on, referring to the traffic bottlenecks that are regular — and problematic — for residents and businesses trying to attract people to that area. And during the Big E, the traffic problems reach nightmare proportions.

To ease those problems, the city plans to improve not only the bridge intersection, but also the one a few hundred yards to the north at Springfield and Walnut streets.

Meawhile, improvement of another key intersection, in Feeding Halls on Route 187, is on the drawing board — it has been for some time, actually, said the mayor, adding that is part of approximately $8 million in road, sidewalk, and intersection improvements that will be undertaken city-wide.

While addressing those infrastructure matters, there are a number of specific business and economic-development-related issues that demand attention as well, said Sapelli.

Chief among them is the ongoing issue of Walnut Street Extension. The Games & Lanes property has been razed, said the mayor, and the property’s owner reports there has been some interest, but nothing likely to translate into redevelopment in the near future.

Meanwhile, that property is just part of the story. The Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution. Last spring, the City Council first rejected a $5.3 million streetscape-improvement project for that area and then a subsequent, scaled-down, $3.6 million initiative.

The strategy moving forward, said Sapelli, is to create what’s known as a DIF (district improvement financing) program for that area. With a DIF, a community can pledge all or a portion of tax increments — additional tax revenue stemming from development or increases in property value — to fund district improvements over time.

“That money gets set aside and earmarked strictly for development in that area that’s mapped out, and that area alone,” said the mayor. “It’s a way of creating a fund to improve that depressed area without using taxpayer dollars or increasing taxes on the people in that area.”

A DIF is a close cousin of the better-known TIF, whereby municipalities may grant property-tax exemptions to landowners of up to 100% of the tax increments for a fixed period. Agawam intends to use both DIFs and TIFs to generate economic development, said Sapelli.

Other specific initiatives include redevelopment of the former Buxton property, later Southworth Paper and Turners Falls Paper, on Main Street, said the mayor, adding that the emerging plan is to subdivide the sprawling plant and attract multiple tenants.

There are also the many smaller retail centers and strip malls within the community, he went on, adding that the town has seen some new businesses come in and fill vacancies, and the goal is to attract more.

As for work on the town’s archaic zoning, Sapelli said his administration is “attacking” the problem.

“It’s going to be a big job, so we’re taking it little bites at a time,” he noted, adding that the Planning Commission has been a big help in this regard. “But we’re going to get it done.”

By the Book

Sapelli said he’s not sure if he’s the only the school superintendent to move the corner office in this region in recent times. But he does know that his route is certainly one that’s not well-traveled.

As his supporters note, he brings considerable experience to the job and knowledge of city departments and how they operate. Those skills have certainly helped him make the transition and advance many different kinds of initiatives.

But his comments — and his body language — convey the message that behind every challenge … there are many more challenges.

He says he’s up for them, because of that dedication to the town where he grew up, and also because he brings a new school of thought to managing this community — literally and figuratively.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Northampton’s downtown, Amy Cahillane says, is nothing if not eclectic.

“We have a great mix of businesses,” said the director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., a two-year-old organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s center. “We have a lot of different clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — there’s a lot of room to find your niche here.”

She said business owners downtown are very much a network of mom-and-pop outfits that take pride in the district’s economic vibrancy and work hard to welcome new shop owners into the fold as they’re launching their enterprises.

“We’re a community that really works hard to make things attractive and make sure there’s stuff to do downtown, and welcome people in our downtown. We’re not just a Walmart and a Target and a parking lot.”

It’s a place, Cahillane said, where small-business owners, many of them first-time entrepreneurs, have no qualms about asking each other about the smallest details, from the best point-of-sale systems to how to keep customers coming in despite a raft of construction projects making it more difficult than usual to get around and find parking.

“All of our small businesses know it’s tough to take that risk and open your own business,” she said. “Business owners who have been around 30 years have had these conversations a million times — they’re very happy to share information, share stories, and lend support. Nobody wants to see a vacant storefront; people want to support other fellow business owners that are taking that gamble. And a lot of times, these business owners are our neighbors or friends, or kids of our friends.”

Aimee Francaes, who opened Belly of the Beast a year ago with her partner, Jesse Hassinger, can vouch for the support of downtown businesses, adding that such an atmosphere suits a restaurant that has forged some other important relationships — with local farms.

“The concept is ‘comfort food mindfully made,’ she said, noting that all meats are sourced from farms throughout the Northeast — and are smoked and cured on site — and 90% of produce in season comes from the Valley, or just over the border in surrounding states.

“We’re very much focused on being part of the community,” she went on. “And we feel like the community has really welcomed us and brought us into the fold. People tend to be very warm and welcoming, and happy to have us here, and happy to have us so active with local farms. Being on Main Street, right across from Thornes, gives us wonderful visibility.”

Speaking of Thornes Marketplace, which houses its own eclectic range of small businesses, it recently undertook a major renovation of its iconic front entrance, making changes both aesthetic and aimed at preserving the building’s historic elements.

It’s the sort of project that pleases the DNA, a voluntary organization open to property owners, businesses, and city residents, whose members work to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

The DNA handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like the first Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales. The city has also given the DNA a full-time worker who cleans and maintains public property in the downtown business district.

Beyond that, Cahillane said, “we do advocacy, and we make sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall, that people feel their voice is heard, and that there are public meetings and community forums on issues that will impact downtown, so everybody has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts.”

The organization rose up after the dissolution of the Northampton Business Improvement District, and has since taken under its umbrella events and projects once handled by the BID and other entities.

“We’re always looking to do new events and create new partnerships,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re open to it all. The focus this year is to tighten up events we already do, but we’re always game to bring new stuff into the fold.”

Positive Trends

Several years into a strong regional economy, indicators such as property taxes, meals-tax revenue, and the number of visitors to the city show plenty of life, and Northampton’s downtown district, home to unique retailers, eclectic dining choices, and active arts organizations, reflects that health.

It can be slightly more difficult to navigate the area, however, thanks to a good reason — the city’s investment in infrastructure on Main and Pleasant streets, which includes ongoing roadwork and utility upgrades, supporting, among other developments, two housing complexes going up on Pleasant Street. Work along that thoroughfare also includes a small park, more parking spaces, and improved sidewalks and bike lanes.

Northampton
at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.04
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
*Latest information available

Cahillane said new businesses like Belly of the Beast have entered this landscape with aplomb, while occasional special events shine a spotlight on other businesses, like Sutter Meats on King Street, which ran a successful, two-day pop-up event in conjunction with the Little Truc food truck, serving up pho to sellout crowds.

Typically, she added, retail establishments participate enthusiastically in special events downtown — such as a fundraiser for Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless, in which music groups were stationed downtown, performing and passing the hat — but it’s harder for restaurants to do the same.

“The retailers are always game for everything. The restaurants, when we have events, are so busy with the people who come downtown for these events that it’s hard for them to also simultaneously staff a second, separate thing on that same day. So we try to bring the people downtown and then encourage them to eat at the restaurants. But they’re very supportive of our organization.”

Homestead, which set up shop in the former Ibiza Tapas location on Strong Avenue, is another fairly recent addition to the restaurant scene.

“They are doing very well and have made a lot of local relationships to bring products into their restaurant that are locally sourced,” Cahillane said, before adding that such a designation is par for the course in this city.

“I would say just about every restaurant in our downtown does some version of locally sourced,” she noted. “We have thought about ‘let’s do some sort of downtown festival where each restaurant could feature maybe a locally sourced dish,’ but that’s their whole menu at every restaurant. That’s not a Northampton festival; that’s an everyday reality. But some of them have had some really interesting or unique things that they have done with those local partnerships.”

Cahillane added that there should be more news of new businesses on the horizon. “They’re not ready to make it public yet, but I’d say, over the next six months, there will be some exciting storefronts popping up.”

That’s always a welcome development, she said, because even Northampton, known regionally and beyond for its downtown life, does grapple with occasional vacant storefronts. But in context, and relative to the struggles of many other communities, Paradise City is in a good place.

“I think it’s a great downtown,” she said, “and I think people are looking to come downtown.”

Making Contact

To cultivate that spirit, the DNA conducts monthly meetings with downtown businesses on a variety of topics.

“That’s a great opportunity for them do some networking with new businesses — and older businesses, too — and talk about things that might be mundane to the outside person, but are still important,” Cahillane said. “Recently, there was going to be construction, and some of them wanted to know how people dealt with the scaffolding outside and putting a banner on it. Other businesses were able to say, ‘make sure it’s really big, and make sure there’s not a lot of words on it, because no one’s going to stop and read it.’ So, things like that, which would not necessarily occur to me, are real issues, and we’re able to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Thornes Market

These connections are important in the big picture — one in which individual success stories become shared successes, she added.

“There is a feeling that all boats rise with the tide, that having a beautiful downtown can only help encourage people to come downtown, and there’s a recognition that is only going to happen if everybody pitches in.”

After all, Cahillane noted, Northampton isn’t the only downtown destination in the region, and shouldn’t rest on its laurels or take its visitors for granted.

“We’re fortunate to live in the Valley where there are a lot of great communities, and there are some, like Turners Falls and Easthampton, that are becoming up-and-coming, hip, trendy places to go and hang out,” she said. “Then there’s the casino that’s opening in downtown Springfield.

“We love our downtown,” she went on, “but we don’t want to just assume that everybody else knows and loves it, and I think you risk getting stagnant and a little boring if you don’t work to improve or at least maintain what you already have. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francaes appreciates the effort, as she does the business owners downtown, from the owners of Thornes Marketplace to established restaurateurs, who acted as informal business consultants when she and Hassinger were getting ready to open their doors.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t been supportive,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s part of the reason we chose Northampton — that vibe and warm, welcoming spirit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]