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Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Getting Down to Business

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

The primary role of the Westmass Area Development Corp. — as the agency recently stressed in a letter to area stakeholders — is to “to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion.” How it performs that role is changing and expanding, however — not just in its portfolio of development and property reuse, including its industrial parks and the ever-intriguing Ludlow Mills project, but as a valuable consultant for businesses and communities with a vision.

The letters, 150 of them, went out earlier this month.

They were sent to mayors, economic-development leaders, and other officials in communities across the four counties of Western Mass., dozens of area cities and towns, and served as introductions, invitations, and reminders all at the same time.

Officials in those communities were and are being invited to take full advantage of the talent and resources available at Westmass Area Development Corp. — the not-for-profit economic and real-estate development firm established in 1960 by state-enabling legislation — to help with a wide range of projects, from urban-renewal plans to environmental permitting; from complex site-related issues to specialized tax incentives.

The reminder part? Well, Westmass has been offering this kind of assistance to area communities almost from the start, but under the leadership of Jeff Daley, who took the helm at the agency in the summer of 2019, consulting work has become a much larger part of the business plan for the agency, which is promoting such services more heavily — and in a number of ways.

Like with those those letters, which quickly get to the heart of the matter.

“Every community, no matter its size or complexity, requires an ongoing economic-development effort to ensure financial stability of that community,” it reads. “Ideally, through the public-private partnership process, commonly shared economic-development goals can be identified and ultimately achieved. The primary role of Westmass is to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion — and [be] engaged throughout all stages.”

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers. But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

There are already some good examples of how Westmass with worked with area communities to achieve stated goals, said Daly, citing assistance with managing grants that helped land the Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and some similar assistance with bringing the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center to reality.

The goal moving forward is to add to the portfolio and become more of a contributing force when it comes to economic development and property reuse in the region.

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers,” he explained. “But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

That background he mentioned includes his own private consulting firm, CJC Development Advisors, and a stint as director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, during which he worked on several projects in the city’s downtown. He is now part of a team that also includes Sara la Cour, vice president of Operations for Westmass, and Sean O’Donnell, Economic Development planner and leasing manager for the agency.

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, is expanding his operation at the Ludlow Mills, making the complex more of a destination.

Overall, this consulting arm is now one of three main prongs to the Westmass operation, with the others being industrial-park management — the agency oversees several parks, including facilities in Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Hadley, and Westfield, most of which are fully leased — and redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills site, a 15-to 20-year project that Daly believes can serve as a model for what other communities can do with old mill buildings and complex brownfield sites.

The mill now boasts 30 tenants, including a senior housing complex, a rehabilitation hospital, and a host of smaller businesses, including several recent arrivals. That list includes Kamil Peters, a contemporary metal sculptor who relocated to the mill from Holyoke (more on him later); Westnet Inc., a medical-supplies distributor, which moved in earlier this year; and Herron Automation, a machinist and CNC operator.

It also includes a tenant that isn’t new but is intriguing nonetheless. That would be Iron Duke Brewery, which almost left the mill in the protracted legal battle over whether lease conditions were violated, but wound up staying and is now in an expansion mode, with work on a new beer garden slated to begin later this year.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how Westmass intends to broaden its impact in the region by helping area cities and towns take complex projects off the drawing board and make them reality.

 

Not Run of the Mill

Returning to that letter sent out to area communities, it’s part of a larger effort on the part of those at Westmass to create more visibility for the agency, make its expertise and resources known to more municipal officials and developers, and, in general, tell its story. A move downtown, to offices in Monarch Place, is part of that initiative.

“We’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Other components, part of a new multi-year strategic plan being reviewed by the Westmass board, include a revamped, far more modern website and more extensive use of social media, said Daly, adding that many in the region believe Westmass is only in the business of developing industrial parks. That’s a big part of the mission, he noted, but it’s not the whole story.

And he wants to write more chapters in the broad realm of consulting, where, he believes, there is considerable room for growth. That’s because of the wide range of experience the agency can bring to the table, including assistance to both communities and developers in many realms.

These include everything from business-improvement districts (la Cour ran the Amherst BID for many years) to district-improvement financing, one of Daly’s areas of expertise.

“When I started my own private business, it was a shot in the dark because I saw what communities didn’t have and what developers were missing,” he explained. “And it proved to be very successful very quickly. I’m taking the same passion I had for that kind of work in my private practice and rolling it into Westmass’ purview to help area communities, because that’s what we’re here to do — develop properties, help communities, and create jobs.”

Daly said Westmass is targeting all communities west of Worcester when it comes to its consulting arm. And while smaller communities without economic-development staffs can certainly benefit from such services, larger municipalities can as well, and some already have.

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills that are giving the complex a different look and feel.

The full list of areas for which Westmass can assist developers and municipalities also includes strategic planning for integrated project permitting, project financing and incentives, public procurement and grant management, and site acquisition and redevelopment of historic buildings, greenfields, and brownfields.

That last category brings us back to Ludlow Mills, which encompasses all three of those types of property. It is certainly historic — the mills played a huge role in the growth and development of Ludlow, and there is a large mix of brownfields and greenfields being redeveloped.

And with its experience in redeveloping the mill complex, Westmass has established itself as a leader of sorts in this kind of large, very complex redevelopment.

“This is the biggest mill in the region, and it’s very time-consuming and capital-intensive,” he noted. “But we’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Often with such projects, environmental issues are a key consideration — and a major stumbling block, he went on, adding that this was certainly the case with Ludlow Mills. Over the past 11 years, Westmass has applied for and received several million dollars worth of grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state to clean the site and make it ready for redevelopment.

The latest EPA grant, totaling $461,000 (word of approval was just received), will enable Westmass to clean 10 buildings on the site with roofs loaded with asbestos, preparing them for eventual demolition and redevelopment of five to six acres of property.

“It was a competitive and comprehensive program that we applied for,” said Daly, “and we’re grateful to the EPA to get selected for exactly what we asked for.”

The property in question, just south of the Ludlow Senior Center, includes several of the stockhouses that populate the site. Some may remain standing, said Daly, but the ‘clean dirt’ that will result from demolition of those deemed unsavable will give Westmass a real opportunity to add to its eclectic mix of tenants in the mill complex.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years. My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

That tenant base has evolved over the years, said O’Donnell, and now includes a number of storage-related ventures, several light manufacturers, the brewery, a battery sales and servicing company, the senior housing complex, and even a wholesale florist.

Then, there’s Peters, who has transformed one of the high-ceilinged stockhouses into a new studio. On the day BusinessWest visited, he was working on a number of wooden benches (he does woodworking as well) for a new client that is transforming what was the late actor Christopher Reeves’ estate in the Berkshires into a mix of Airbnb and event space. He was also doing some work for Harold Grinspoon, one of BusinessWest’s recently honored Difference Makers, who is, in addition to being a successful business owner and philanthropist, a prolific sculptor.

Known for his metal masks, Peters said he found Ludlow Mills at the suggestion of a few friends and colleagues who thought the space would provide him space to work — and grow.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years,” he noted. “My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

The plan moving forward is to make the mill more of destination, which could attract many different kinds of businesses, said Daly, adding that, as noted, this is both a brownfields project — redevelopment of the old mill buildings — and greenfields, specifically 37 acres of undeveloped land which is drawing considerable interest and will certainly attract much more when a private road to that property, one of many priorities for Westmass at this site, is constructed.

Meanwhile, a $7 million project to construct a public road along the Chicopee River, which will create frontage for several properties, should also put the mill property on more radar screens.

Overall, the evolving mix of tenants is “changing the dynamic” at the mill complex, said Daly, adding that, with the beer garden and tenants like Peters, who has a goal to create an artists’ gallery in his space, the mill does become a destination.

“Businesses like this are bringing people here after work, on weekends … it’s not just a 7-to-3 manufacturing facility anymore,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s driving a different economy of scale with who comes here and the money they’re spending. It’s a neat concept that we’ve stumbled into, if you will.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s the kind of concept that Westmass would like to help other area communities stumble into.

With those letters that went out earlier this month, as well as other initiatives undertaken recently to improve its visibility, Westmass is not exactly broadening its mission, but rather putting more emphasis on what could be called another ‘growth area’ for the agency.

It’s all part of a larger strategic plan aimed at making an agency that has been a driving force in economic development in this region an even more powerful engine.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Some of the municipal leaders who spoke with BusinessWest about economic development and progress in Ludlow.

For more than a decade now, the Ludlow Mills project, a 20-year initiative that is changing the face of that historic complex and bringing jobs, new businesses, and new places to live to this community, has been the dominant talking point when it comes to the subject of economic development here.

But municipal officials are quick to point out that it’s just one of many intriguing stories unfolding in this town of around 21,000 people, the sum of which adds up to an intriguing, very positive chapter in the history of this community across the Chicopee River from Indian Orchard.

Indeed, there are a number of both municipal and private-sector commercial projects in various stages of development that are keeping town officials busy, and providing ample evidence that this is a community on the rise — in many different respects.

On the municipal side of the equation, construction of a new elementary school, approved by town voters in the spring of 2018, is underway. The facility, to be called Harris Brook Elementary School, will essentially combine the Chapin Street and Veterans Park elementary schools, two aging structures, under one far more efficient roof. It is being constructed on the playing fields adjacent to the current Chapin school.

“It’s always a balancing act. You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Meanwhile, construction will soon begin on a new senior center that will replace a facility deemed generally unsafe and largely inadequate for the town’s growing senior population.

“We’re in the basement of a 115-year-old building that used to be a high school and junior high school,” said Jodi Zepke, director of the Council on Aging, adding that the long corridors in the structure are difficult for seniors to navigate. “We’ve done a lot with what we have, but it’s time for a new building.”

The town is also implementing a new communication system, a central hub for police, fire, and EMT services, and has embarked on an extensive renovation of Center Street, the main business thoroughfare, a project in the planning stages since 2008 and deemed long-overdue, said Town Administrator Ellie Villano.

“This is a MassDOT state construction,” she said, explaining that the Commonwealth is paying for the changes to the road. “It widens Center Street and adds a center turn, bike lanes, and new sidewalks.”

All this will make Center Street more presentable and easy to navigate for visitors to two new fast-food restaurants that will take shape there in the coming months — a Wendy’s and a KFC.

These various developments present a combination of benefits and challenges — benefits such as tax dollars and additional vibrancy from the new businesses, and challenges when it comes to paying for all those municipal projects. But the former should definitely help with the latter, said Derek DeBarge, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“One of the challenges is that a number of these big projects have all happened at the same time,” added Todd Gazda, superintendent of Ludlow schools. “We’re having to essentially prioritize all of these things, which are all important projects.”

For the latest in its long-running Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with a number of town officials about the many forms of progress taking place and what they mean for the community moving forward.

From the Ground Up

“Revenue, revenue, revenue.”

That’s the word DeBarge repeated several times when asked about the motivating factors behind all the recent municipal projects.

“My concern is obviously trying to do better with our taxes,” he said, adding that a growing senior population, many of whom are living on a single income, is also at the top of the list. “As this revenue is coming in, with the solar, the KFC … it’s all tax-based revenue for us. And the more revenue that comes in, the better we can do for our departments, and that means the better we can do for our tax base, and that’s better for our constituents and for everyone.”

Elaborating, he said that, while town officials have worked hard to secure grants for these municipal projects — and they have received quite a few — the town must bear a good percentage of the cost of each project, which presents a stern budget challenge.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.82
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

Education, and the need to modernize facilities, is just one example of this.

Gazda said the town has been doing a lot of work on the schools recently to improve the quality of educational services provided to students, and one of the top priorities has been to do it in a cost-effective and fiscally responsible manner.

“It’s always a balancing act,” he said. “You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Gazda noted that maintenance costs on both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, both built around 60 years ago, had become exorbitant. So a decision was made to put forth a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“We’re currently under budget and ahead of schedule,” he said of the $60 million project, adding that the new facility is slated to open in the fall of 2021 with an estimated student enrollment of 620 to 640 students.

About 10 minutes down the road on the corner of State Street and First Avenue, the new, 18,000-square-foot senior center is under construction and due to open in roughly a year.

Like the new school, its construction has been prompted by the need to replace aging facilities and provide the community with a center that is state-of-the-art.

“It’s no secret that there’s more people over 60 than under 20, and that population of seniors is only going to continue to grow,” said Zepke. “We just took a hard look at the numbers, and we can barely accommodate what we have now.”

As for the new communications system, Ludlow Police Chief Paul Madera says this will make communication between all town entities and the central hub much easier, using radio rather than having to pick up a phone.

“All of our communication systems are in need of refurbishing, so the most prudent and fiscal approach was to combine them all together,” he said, adding that this project, with a price tag of more than $4 million, includes the implementation of a public-safety dispatch which combines police, fire, and EMS services into one center.

While these initiatives proceed, the town is undertaking a host of initiatives aimed at improving quality of life and making this a better community in which to live, work, and conduct business.

Ludlow CARES is one such effort. A community-run organization, it was launched with the goal of educating children and their parents on drug and alcohol abuse in response to the opioid epidemic. Now, DeBarge says it has spread to become much more than that, and has inspired other towns and cities to adopt similar programs.

“It has gotten huge to a point where it has gotten other communities involved with their own towns in a similar way,” he said.

Another organization, the Michael J. Dias Foundation, serves as a resource and a home for recovering addicts.

All these initiatives, DeBarge, Madera, and other town officials agreed, reflect upon the tight-knit community that Ludlow has become.

It Takes a Village

As nine town officials sat around the table informing BusinessWest about everything going on in Ludlow, they spoke with one voice about how, through teamwork at City Hall and other settings, pressing challenges are being undertaken, and economic development — in all its various forms — is taking place.

“Our staffs are doing a tremendous job,” Madera said. “They’re wearing multiple hats doing multiple jobs. There’s always room for improvement, but the fact is, they have to be given credit because they’re the boots on the ground.”

And they are making considerable progress in ensuring that this community with a proud past has a secure future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Holyoke Medical Center along with Presenting Sponsor, Marcotte Ford are delighted to present the 1st Annual Laughter is the Best Medicine Comedy Night featuring World Gone Crazy Comedy Band – a night of stand-up comedy with a rock n’ roll soundtrack! We’ll be hosting this event at The Wherehouse? in Holyoke. The show consists of rapid fire song parodies, stand-up comedy, hysterical impressions, commercial spoofs and more! Doors open at 6:30pm. Ticket price includes dessert/coffee and a fun photo booth. Cash bar. Tickets will not be available at the door. The goal is to bring together our community, employees, supporters, and friends for a night of laughter and fun. Funds raised will go towards the many programs and services provided by Holyoke Medical Center. Please join us!

Event Details:
• Ticket Price: $30 per person
• Ticket includes dessert & coffee, photo booth
• Door Open: 6:30PM
• Comedy Band: 8:00-9:30PM
• Cash Bar

Purchase tickets here: https://www.holyokehealth.com/laughter

Cover Story

Community Spotlight

There’s a stunning new aerial photo of downtown Springfield gracing the wall outside Kevin Kennedy’s office in the municipal complex on Tapley Street.

The panoramic image captures the view from above the Connecticut River looking east, with the new MGM Springfield casino prominent in the foreground. Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, is quite proud of the photo and all that it shows, but regrets that it was taken in the very early stages of the elaborate work to renovate Riverfront Park, and thus doesn’t include that important addition to the landscape.

He joked about Photoshopping something in to make the image more current, but then acknowledged that, at the rate things are changing, he would be doing a lot of Photoshopping — or swapping out that photo for a new one on a very regular basis.

Those sentiments speak volumes about the pace of development in the city over the past decade or so, and especially the past five or six years, as Springfield has rebounded dramatically from the fiscal malaise — and near-bankruptcy — that enveloped it only 10 years ago.

Indeed, Kennedy said he doesn’t have to ‘sell’ Springfield to potential developers anywhere near as much as he did when he assumed this office in 2011 after working for many years as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s aide. Nor does he have to tell the city’s story as much — people seem to know it by the time they’ve entered the room. And many are certainly entering the room.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated.”

“We don’t have to explain ourselves — when people walk through the door, they know what’s happened over the past five or seven years,” he explained, adding that, overall, he doesn’t have to convince people that the city is a good investment — most are already convinced, which, again, is a marked change from attitudes that prevailed at the start of this century and even at the start of this decade.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Kennedy equated Springfield’s progress over the past several years to a large jigsaw puzzle, with many of its pieces falling into place. These include everything from the casino to a renovated Union Station; from a restaurant district now taking shape to restored and expanded parks, such as Steans Square, Riverfront Park, Pynchon Plaza, and Duryea Way.

And still more pieces are coming into place — everything from a CVS on Main Street to a Cumberland Farms at the site of the old RMV facility on Liberty Street; from market-rate housing at the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street to a new home for Way Finders at the site of the former Peter Pan bus station in the North End; from new schools to improved traffic patterns.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy stands next to the new panoramic photo of Springfield outside his office, the one he’d like to Photoshop to keep up with recent changes to the landscape.

But there are a number of pieces still missing, Kennedy acknowledged, adding that they’re missing for a reason — these are the hardest ones to fall into place because of their complexity.

Among the items on this list are a replacement for the decrepit Civic Center Parking Garage, which is literally crumbling as you read this; 31 Elm St., an all-important component to the downtown’s recovery because of its location and historical importance; the Paramount Theater project, equally important for all the same reasons; CityStage, now dormant for close to a year; and redevelopment of what has become known as the ‘blast zone,’ the area directly impacted by the natural-gas explosion in late 2012.

To explain their complexity, Kennedy started by making a simple yet poignant observation about development in a city like Springfield.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated,” he explained, adding quickly that there are signs of progress with each of those initiatives, and some may be moved over the goal line in the months to come.

Mayor Domenic Sarno agreed, noting that, among those missing pieces, the top priority at this point is probably a new parking garage, primarily because it is essential to realizing many of the other items on the to-do list, such as a deeper restaurant district, more new businesses, and, overall, greater vibrancy downtown.

“The garage is a mainstay for our business community, and the MassMutual Center is a state facility — the garage is an integral part for the programming that goes on there, whether it’s MGM, the Thunderbirds, or college commencements,” said Sarno, adding that he’s already had discussions with both state and federal leaders about potential funding sources for such a facility. “We’re looking to move on this ASAP.”

For this, the latest installment its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at the jigsaw puzzle that is Springfield — meaning the pieces that have fallen into place and those that are still missing.

Rising Tide

‘The New Wave.’

That’s the name those in the Planning office and the Springfield Regional Chamber gave to what has become an annual presentation detailing planned and proposed projects in the City of Homes.

And ‘wave’ fits, said Kennedy, because new developments have been coming in waves, one after another, and there is a new one making its way to shore.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them. I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight. They also know that we know how to connect the dots.”

It follows previous waves that brought MGM Springfield, CRRC, a revitalized Union Station, and a repaired I-91 viaduct, projects that were of the nine-figure variety (MGM was almost 10) or very close — the final price tags for CRRC and Union Station were just under $100 million.

The newest wave has just one initiative of that size, and it’s a municipal project — a new pumping station to be built on part of the land once occupied by the York Street Jail. But while many of the projects are smaller, eight- and seven-figure endeavors, they are equally important, said Kennedy, adding that they represent a mix of expansion efforts by existing companies, or ‘legacy businesses,’ as he called them, and relative newcomers.

Together, the projects touch many different sectors of the economy, include both new construction and renovation of existing structures, and total several hundred million dollars in new development. The lengthy list includes:

• MassMutual expansion. The financial-services giant is relocating 1,500 workers to Springfield, increasing the workforce in the city to 4,500. A $50 million project to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield is slated to be completed by 2021;

• Big Y, with a 232,000-square-foot expansion of the current distribution center in Springfield, bringing the total to 425,000 square feet. The $46 million project is due to be completed later this year;

• Way Finders, which is constructing a new, $16.8 million headquarters building at the location of the Peter Pan bus terminal. The 23,338-square-foot structure, to house roughly 160 employees, is slated to open in the spring of 2020;

• Willys-Overland development, a planned 60-unit, market-rate housing project in the one-time auto showroom. Construction is slated to start soon on the $13.8 million project;

• Innovation Center. Grand-opening ceremonies for the $7 million facility on Bridge Street were staged in February. Work continues on the façade, and a new restaurant is planned for the ground floor;

• CVS. Work is set to commence shortly on a new CVS to be constructed at the corner of Main and Union streets. The $2 million facility, to feature what developers are calling an ‘urban design,’ is slated to open this fall;

• Redevelopment of the former RMV site. The location on Liberty Street will be converted into a Cumberland Farms. The $3 million project will benefit a neighborhood that city officials say is underserved when it comes to convenience and gas;

• The Springfield Performing Arts Academy, specifically a $14 million project to relocate the academy in the former Masonic Temple on State Street;

• Tower Square. The office/retail center is the site of several new developments, including renovations to the hotel (which will be rebranded back to Marriott), a new White Lion brewery, and relocation of the YMCA of Greater Springfield into several locations within Tower Square; and

• Educare. A $14 million, 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art early-education facility is currently under construction in the Old Hill neighborhood. The project, a joint partnership between Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and Springfield College, will serve 141 children and is slated to open this fall.

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage on what’s known as parcel 3, the parking lot behind the TD Bank tower. City officials say a new garage is a must for Springfield.

That’s quite a list, said Kennedy, adding that it’s come about largely because of renewed confidence in the city and its future, an attitude far removed from the one that existed even a decade ago, when there were far fewer businesses willing to bet on the City of Homes.

Getting Down to Business

Indeed, today, as evidenced by all the projects in progress or on the drawing board, there is renewed interest in Springfield across many sectors of the economy — from tourism and hospitality to startups looking for a place to launch, to those looking to be part of the burgeoning cannabis industry in the Bay State.

The city has a message for all these constituencies — that it’s open for business and willing to work with those who would make Springfield their home.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them,” said the mayor. “I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight.

“They also know that we know how to connect the dots,” he went on. “We know how to work with all the players — federal, state, and on the local level, all the way down. And they know that we’re willing to put skin in the game, too, and that’s been very advantageous.”

Kennedy agreed, and said that, overall, the city has become what he called a “reliable, predictable partner,” something every business is looking for as it considers locating or relocating in a specific community.

“They don’t need showhorses, they don’t need a lot of glitz,” he told BusinessWest. “They simply want to do their business and know they have a good partner, and I think that’s what we’ve done from the start, and when we sit down to negotiate with people, I think they understand that, and they feel comfortable.”

Kennedy traces this growing sense of comfort to the lengthy and involved process of bringing a casino to the area.

“I think the thing that showed people we were serious was the whole casino process — not necessarily MGM, but the whole process,” he explained. “How we did it, and how upfront with everyone we were. People talk about being transparent, and that’s a jargony-type of a word, but we see it that way … and I think that, by virtue of having a billion-dollar investment come your way, a lot of other companies externally took a look at it, and internally said, ‘look what’s happened.’”

That was a reference to those legacy companies he mentioned, including MassMutual, Big Y, Balise Motor Sales, which is planning another major project in the city’s South End, and many others.

This ability to connect the dots, and be a reliable partner, is creating some progress with some of those aforementioned missing pieces to the puzzle, and will hopefully generate momentum with other initiatives in that category, said Kennedy, who started by referencing two important projects downtown — Elm Street and the Paramount project.

The former, the six-story block at 13-31 Elm St., has been mostly vacant for the past three decades. Plans to convert it into market-rate housing received a significant boost earlier this year when MGM Springfield announced it would was willing to invest in the project as part of its commitment to the city and state to provide at least 54 units of market-rate housing in the area near the casino.

“We’re hoping that we have a development deal struck in a matter of weeks,” said Kennedy. “We’re waiting for the last one or two pieces to fall into place. It’s a tough project, but it’s a necessary project.”

Meanwhile, the $41 million Paramount project — renovation of the historic theater and the adjoining Massasoit Hotel — is moving forward, with preservation work on the roof and façade slated to begin later this year.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno has a healthy collection of ceremonial shovels in his office, one visible sign of the progress the city has made over the past several years.

Another large missing piece is activity in the so-called blast zone, he said, referring to the area from Lyman to Pearl streets and from Dwight to Spring streets. He said the Willys-Overland development, in the heart of this zone, may be a catalyst to more development there.

“Once that project gets going, I’m hoping it will give some push to further development in the blast area, which is probably the next horizon for Springfield,” he noted. “Some property owners have done things — there’s been some clearing and demolition — but others are just waiting and being patient. That’s why this [Willys-Overland] development is important; you have to get that first one in the ground and hope things happen from there.”

Still another missing piece is aggressive marketing of the city and its many assets, said Sarno, adding that may not be missing much longer. Indeed, the city, working in conjunction with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council and a number of area media outlets, is getting closer to launching a marketing campaign for Springfield and the region.

It will focus on a number of audiences, he said, including residents of this region, many of whom need to know about the many good things happening locally, and businesses owners far outside it, who also need to know.

“We have a lot to offer in Springfield — and in Franklin County, Berkshire County, and across Hampden County, and we have to do a better job of telling our story,” the mayor said “When you’re making a sauce, you put in the ingredients; we have all the ingredients here — we just need make a push and send out a clarion call. We need a push locally — sometimes we’re our own worst enemy — but then we need to make a regional push.”

But perhaps the biggest missing piece isn’t actually missing — though it will be soon — and that’s a working parking garage downtown.

Spot of Trouble

Which brings us to a downtown property known as ‘parcel 3.’

That was the name affixed to a number of assembled parcels of land that eventually became the surface parking lot behind the TD Bank office tower on Main Street, an initiative that was part of the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan, drafted nearly 40 years ago and amended several times since.

And that name has stuck — well, at least with city development leaders. To the rest of the world, it’s ‘the parking lot behind the TD Bank building.’ But ‘parcel 3’ is becoming part of the lexicon again as discussions concerning the Civic Center Parking Garage and the glaring need to replace it heat up — out of necessity.

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building — could give rise to a modern parking garage — and open up a development opportunity on the site of the current, deficient garage across the street.

“The garage is on borrowed time,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), quickly adding that this sentiment certainly represents an understatement. The garage probably has only a few years of useful life left, he went on, noting that there are areas on several floors that are currently unusable for parking, thus heightening the need for action.

The SRA, which owns parcel 3, currently leases it to an entity called New Marlboro Corp., which owns the TD Bank facility, a.k.a. 1441 Main St.

That lease, originally 30 years in duration when signed in the early ’80s, was extended several years ago to 2028. And this lease and the fine print within it will obviously become the focal point of discussion in the coming months, said Moskal, as the city tries to move forward with plans to replace the Civic Center Parking Garage with a 1,400-spot facility on the most obvious site for such a facility — parcel 3.

Kennedy agreed, and noted that this is a complex project, in terms of both financing — the projected pricetag is $45 million, and several funding sources would likely be involved, from the Springfield Parking Authority (SPA), which owns the current, failing garage, to the state and the federal government — and the number of players involved, from the SRA to the SPA to TD Bank.

“But just because it’s complicated, we can’t walk away from it,” he said. “A new garage is necessary for downtown; that parking facility at the Civic Center is the main commercial-district parking facility.”

And a new parking garage downtown not only secures a replacement for a long-deficient facility, said Kennedy, but it creates a new and intriguing development opportunity in the central business district — the current garage site.

“You have not only MGM here, but a rehabbed Pynchon Plaza, a burgeoning museum district, especially with the new Dr. Seuss Museum, and other things happening downtown,” he said. “I think we could have a nice mixed-use residential complex there with some indoor parking.”

The mayor agreed. “That’s a very valuable piece of property,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while it while it might become a surface parking lot for the short term, there are a number of more intriguing possibilities for the long term.

While the city continues to reshape and revitalize the downtown, progress is taking place outside it in the many neighborhoods that define the community, said both Sarno and Kennedy.

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $19.68
Commercial tax rate: $39.30
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

They noted a number of projects, including the planned new Brightwood/Lincoln School, a $70.2 million facility that would replace both the Brightwood and Lincoln elementary schools, and be located adjacent to the existing Chestnut Middle School on Plainfield Street; the new branch of the Springfield Library in East Forest Park, due to be completed this fall; expansion of the residential complex in the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing complex in Mason Square (60 new affordable units are planned); a new Pride store at the corner of State Street and Wilbraham Road; several park projects; a redesign of the troublesome ‘X’ traffic pattern; reconfiguration of the Six Corners intersection; and renewed efforts to reinvent the Eastfield Mall into a community with a mix of housing, retail, and other components.

“We’re making a lot of progress in our neighborhoods,” the mayor said. “People are focused on downtown, but our neighborhoods are important, and we’re making great strides there, too.”

The Big Picture

Getting back to that picture on the wall outside his office, Kennedy acknowledged that, as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t tell the full story of all that’s happened in Springfield over the past several years.

And it will only become less accurate, if that’s the proper word, in the months and years to come.

But that, as they say, is a good problem to have. A very good problem.

For years, Springfield was the picture of stagnancy. Now, it’s the picture of motion and continued progress.

There are still some missing pieces, to be sure, but the puzzle is coming together nicely.

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

Features

Collision Course

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

As Valley Venture Mentors completes its move into Springfield’s Innovation Center on Bridge Street, it is also moving into a new era in its history, one that is very entrepreneurial in nature — in keeping with its broad mission — and strives to continually expand and strengthen the region’s ecosystem for supporting and inspiring entrepreneurs.

‘Pivot.’

In the startup world, this term has become incredibly versatile, now serving as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. It has become the subject of lectures, books, and articles bearing titles that hint at its emergence — as in “The Art of the Pivot,” “Three Rules for Making a Successful Pivot,” “Five Steps for Pivoting into Entrepreneurship,” and countless others.

In simple terms, to pivot means to adapt, or to change the course or strategy of an emerging business based largely on customer wants and needs. Some of the most prominent companies in the world owe their success to a pivot, or several of them.

There are various methods of pivoting, as indicated by those article titles above, but the bottom line — both literally and figuratively — is for entrepreneurs to understand the importance of flexibility and the need to pivot, and to not be afraid to so.

Administrators and mentors at Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) have been preaching the need to pivot and showing people how since the nonprofit was launched eight years ago now. And these days, one might say it is practicing what it’s been preaching.

Well, sort of.

What VVM is engaged in now could be called a pivot, although its overall mission and strategy are not really changing. They are evolving, though, and being taken to a new and higher level as the organization completes its move into the long-anticipated, $7 million Innovation Center on Bridge Street in downtown Springfield.

“One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industry.”

The move began last summer, said Kristin Leutz, who assumed the role of CEO at VVM about the same time as the moving trucks started unpacking furniture. And it is ongoing, she said, as new furnishings arrive and new strategies emerge for making the best and most efficient use of the intriguing 10,000 square feet of space VVM now commands.

The agency will be using a small percentage of that space for its own administrative needs, with the rest devoted to revenue-producing, entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building endeavors, from signing on tenants for various co-working spaces and small offices to renting out the large, 175-seat auditorium that dominates the ground floor of VVM’s suite.

And this is where the pivoting comes in, said Leutz, adding that VVM is moving to a slightly adjusted, more entrepreneurial model, necessitated by the need to cover the expenses of what is, in many respects, a growing business in its own right.

These include the nearly $4,000 in monthly rent — a great bargain given the amount of space and the going rates downtown these days — as well as a growing staff and the myriad other costs of running such an operation.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

“This space represents a micro entrepreneurship venture of our own,” she explained, adding that, like the startups mentored and supported by VVM, it has a business plan and a strategy for executing it.

In simple terms, it involves making the Innovation Center not merely a revenue center, although it will become that as well, but an entrepreneurial hub and a place where collisions can and will happen — collisions between fellow entrepreneurs, business owners and mentors, entrepreneurs and potential investors, and more.

“When we think about how to introduce people from Springfield and Western Mass. to the entry point when it comes to entrepreneurship and remove any barriers that exist, we come back to the all-important concept of place-making,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that’s smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industries.”

Summings things up, Leutz noted VVM’s working slogan (“Give. Get. Grow.”) and said the new location and all its facilities — from different kinds of co-working space to a nursing room for new mothers; from a shared kitchen to areas where startups and mentors can meet and collaborate — provide individuals, startups, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole with more opportunities to do all of the above.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the staff at VVM about not only the move into the Innovation Center, but the organization’s pivoting action and the next crucial steps in its history.

Right Place, Right Time

VVM will stage a grand-opening ceremony at its new space on Thursday, Feb. 7, when it co-hosts the annual State of Entrepreneurship Conference with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. The invite list for that event, and the ribbon cutting to follow, is rather lengthy, said Leutz, noting that it includes representatives of a number of entrepreneurial ecosystem partners — from the Grinspoon Foundation to TechSpring to area colleges and universities — as well as a number of other constituencies, including elected officials, VVM alums, mentors, and long-time supporters.

“We’re checking our occupancy level to see how many we can have in here legally,” she said, adding that the agency will test the upper limit of that number, whatever it is.

Getting to this ribbon-cutting ceremony has been an adventure, she noted, and a long journey that started when she and many other representatives of this region toured the Cambridge Innovation Center and came back determined to create a similar place-making facility in this region, preferably in downtown Springfield.

Fast-forwarding somewhat — this story has been well-chronicled — the historic structure at 270-276 Bridge St. was eventually chosen, and a number of funding partners, including MassDevelopment, MassMutual, Common Capital, and others, were secured. The project got underway in 2017, but as work proceeded and walls were taken down, it became clear that the cost of the work would far exceed preliminary estimates — and the amount raised.

Work was stopped for several months before eventually starting up again last spring. Leutz recalled the occasion.

“It was like a reunion — we got the architects back together with the contractor, we were meeting weekly in the space, there were holes in the floor … there was drama, but we were doing it,” she said. “And things moved fast; we knew in June that we were going to fast-track this thing and get it open by January, and we did.”

But as work was starting up again, VVM was going through a transformation of its own, starting at the top, where Leutz, who joined the organization as COO in the fall of 2017, was chosen to succeed Liz Roberts as CEO.

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

“I’ve always been a big fan of VVM,” said Leutz, who was a mentor with the organization in its earliest days and is perhaps best-known locally for the decade she spent as vice president for Philanthropic Services at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

She noted that, while at the Community Foundation, she helped VVM secure one of the first innovation grants awarded by that organization, a three-year commitment made to help launch its accelerator, among other programs. “I understood early on that this was something unique in Western Mass. and that it would really take off.”

And now that it has, she and fellow team members take on the assignment of plotting an ambitious course — and keeping it on the course, again, much like the startup businesses it helps mentor, she said, adding that when she came on board as COO it was to essentially help blueprint a new strategic plan for the nonprofit centered on its home and the new opportunities it offered, and she was intrigued by the assignment.

As was Ron Molina-Brantley, who joined VVM a few months before Leutz did and would eventually succeed her as COO.

Formerly an employee of the city of Springfield, working first in the Finance Department and then the Facilities Department as senior program manager — a perfect blend of skills for an organization moving into new space and also assuming new fiscal responsibilities — Molina-Brantley said he was looking to grow professionally, and VVM and the next stage in its development offered an intriguing challenge.

“VVM was the right place at the right time,” he told BusinessWest. “The environment and ecosystem they were trying to build really appealed to me; there was an instant love affair between me and VVM and the community. The atmosphere is amazing, the startups are amazing, and you just want to be part of it. It’s contagious.”

It was, and is, for Stephanie Kirby, as well, VVM’s director of Mentorship. An alum of the agency’s collegiate accelerator program, she started her own business (a music label) at age 14, and has continually honed and reshaped it over the years — so much so that she was known as the “pivot queen” when she took part in VVM’s first collegiate accelerator while attending Five Towns College in New York.

“I would pivot a lot within my business, and when you come to VVM, that’s what they teach you — how do you actually build your business,” she said, adding that she’s now working to help others master that skill.

Writing the Next Chapter

Together, these and other team members have taken on the assignment of moving VVM into a new era, if you will, one that poses some challenges for the agency, but myriad new opportunities for entrepreneurs and those mentoring them — and for strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem the region has built and that has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

To explain it in simple terms, Leutz said the VVM operation is in some ways similar in structure to a pyramid. At the base is the place — in this case, the Innovation Center — where things, meaning those collisions she mentioned, can happen. The next level in the pyramid is programming, which at VVM means mentorship and acceleration, specifically its two popular accelerator programs — a startup accelerator and a collegiate accelerator. And the top of the pyramid is what she called “an ecosystem builder,” meaning systems to support what others across the region, like the Grinspoon Foundation and the area’s colleges and universities, are doing.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

“Within these realms, we hope to serve everyone, from the ideation stage, early, early, person-with-an-idea-on-napkin type of entrepreneur, to someone who has a venture and is on their way to raising their first round of capital or beyond,” she said. “It’s usually seed stage for us, and our programs are customized for that entrepreneur’s unique goals and challenges. What’s new for VVM, and what we’re really zeroing in on, is ‘how do we take a particular venture and uniquely help it to succeed?’

“Our big focus now is to think about 1,000 startups in the Pioneer Valley — what would that look like and how would that change the success rate, because we know a large number of startups fail,” she went on. “The more that you create, the greater chance you have for seeing transformational companies.”

And the Innovation Center and VVM’s new facilities are designed to help make that vision reality, she went on as she offered a tour that started on the ground floor, devoted to programming, and the auditorium, which is community space in every sense of that phrase.

“We encourage anyone and everyone to think about how to promote entrepreneurship in their industry, their business, or their community, and come talk to us, and we’ll make this space available,” she said, adding that the space was essentially created to showcase people’s ideas and their notion of entrepreneurship.

That first floor also includes a mentorship lounge, which represents a major upgrade from the spaces where mentors and entrepreneurs would get together in recent years when VVM was located in donated space in Tower Square. “We’ve never had a space like this; before, people were just hanging out on folding chairs in a big, open room.”

It also includes two private offices that can be rented out and café space as well.

The second floor, what she called the “beating heart of our startup community,” is where the co-working space is to be found. Half of the floor is dedicated to people who rent permanent spots on a month-to-month basis, she said, adding that three startups are currently doing so. There’s also the so-called ‘hot desk’ space — unassigned space that be rented for $25 a day, with other rates for more regular use — as well as a ‘brainstorming nook,’ a community kitchen, private phone rooms for entrepreneurs seeking some privacy, the private room for nursing mothers, and more.

Roughly 50% of the space that can be rented is now under lease, she said, adding that the goal is to get that number to 75% and perhaps 100% by the end of this year.

Describing the look and feel of VVM’s new home, Leutz noted that, while these spaces may have been inspired by similar facilities in other communities, they don’t look like those spaces.

“This space is meant to feel like it belongs in Springfield,” she said, adding that there is furniture made by local artists and the walls will feature what she described as ‘community-driven’ art. “It’s beautiful, and it’s aspirational, but it also feels like it’s home. It won’t feel like you’ve stepped into some place in downtown Manhattan, and it shouldn’t. It should feel like Springfield.”

Bottom Line

Summing up what’s been created on Bridge Street, Leutz went back to the goals put down on paper after the group visiting the Cambridge Innovation Center returned to Springfield and set about replicating what they encountered.

“This intention of this project was always to have it be a community-driven space focusing on the innovation economy and enlivening the economic activity downtown,” she said, adding that this is a broad mission, and, as noted, somewhat of a pivot for VVM.

An exciting pivot, for sure, and one that certainly bears watching in the months and years to come.

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

Workforce Development

The Truth About Employee Disengagement

By Brad Wolff

Most companies struggle with employee disengagement. It’s costly in productivity, profitability, and stress. Gallup’s engagement survey data published in 2017 found that two thirds of U.S. workers are not engaged.

American companies have invested billions of dollars per year for many years to solve this problem. The results? The needle still hasn’t moved. How much has your experience been similar? Could this data simply reveal a general misunderstanding of the true causes of disengagement?

The Acme Corporation was suffering a 41% turnover rate. A recent survey showed that 85% of their workforce was disengaged. The general attitude of apathy, complaining, and cynicism permeated the culture. This was puzzling to management since they attempted multiple efforts to improve engagement.

These were well-planned and executed programs such as team-building exercises, social events, and pay raises. All showed early enthusiasm and positive survey results that generated optimism. Unfortunately, the magic always wore off within a few weeks. In despair, Acme engaged a firm with a very different philosophy than their other advisors. This firm focused on helping executive leadership understand the root causes and solutions. Within nine months, disengagement improved from 71% to 26% and turnover dropped to 19%.

The door to solving this dilemma opened when Acme management acknowledged that since their previous solution attempts were ineffective, their current way of seeing the problem must be flawed. This wisdom, humility, and openness paved the way to learn the true root causes of their disengagement. Once root causes are clearly understood, the solutions usually become obvious.

Fixing engagement issues: What works?

The first step is for the company leaders to take an honest, objective view of the company culture (beliefs and behaviors that determine how people interact and do their work) that impacts and drives the way people think and behave.

That’s why lasting change occurs when focusing at the culture level rather than specific individuals. Below are the relevant human psychological needs that are the actual root causes of people’s engagement level. Examples of mindsets/philosophies that effectively address these needs follows each need. Engagement will improve when management’s actions align with people’s psychological needs.

• To feel valued and understood. Management earnestly listens to employees’ concerns, opinions, and ideas with the intent to understand and consider their merits before responding. This replaces the common responses of defending positions or punishing employees for expressing contrary viewpoints. Management isn’t required to agree with the employees. What’s important is the sincere effort to listen, understand and consider their inputs.

• To express our gifts and talents. Management puts a focus on aligning roles and responsibilities with the gifts and talents of the individuals. We all bring a substantially higher energy and engagement (and productivity) when we do work that we like and are good at. As legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “A manager’s task is to make the strengths of people effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

• Meaning/purpose in what we do. This means that employees have a clear understanding of how their work impacts the mission and vision of the organization. Don’t expect them to figure this out on their own. People are much more motivated when they realize that their efforts truly matter.

• Internal drive for progress or development. Employees are at their best when there is “healthy tension” (not too low, not too high) to meet clear and reasonable standards. This means fair and consistent accountability and consequences based on performance relative to agreed-upon standards. Being too nice and lax harms engagement since people inherently desire growth and realize that standards and consequence help them do this. People are motivated when they focus on: “What did I achieve today?” What did I learn today?” How did I grow?”

What doesn’t work:

In short, anything that doesn’t authentically address the root causes of disengagement is doomed to fail. If the message is ‘look at this nice thing we just did for you’ rather than ‘this is how we value you as human being,’ it’s highly likely to fail.

Examples of the ‘nice thing we just did for you’ include most team-building events, social mixers, company newsletters, upgraded office environments, etc. Even pay and benefit increases have an initial rush soon followed by the familiar “right back where we were” rebound effect. That’s not to say companies should not do these things. They’re nice add-ons after the day to day essentials of human psychology are authentically addressed.

In summary, it’s understandable that we gravitate toward easy, quick-fix solutions to our problems. There are plenty of people to make these suggestions and sell them to us. They also don’t require us to identify our own personal contributions to the problems which we’d prefer to avoid. However, as in most things in life, there is no substitute for working at the cause-level and creating new habits of thinking and behavior.

If you’re serious about creating the high engagement level lead to more profits with greater ease and personal satisfaction, this is what it takes. As a bonus, openly addressing personal challenges that make you human will increase your effectiveness and fulfillment in every area of your life.

Brad Wolff specializes in workforce and personal optimization. He’s a speaker and author of, People Problems? How to Create People Solutions for a Competitive Advantage. As the managing partner for Atlanta-based PeopleMax, he specializes in helping companies maximize the potential and results of their people to make more money with less stress; www.PeopleMaximizers.com.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress on higher-profile developments, like the health complex at the Longmeadow line and a possible mixed-use project on Chestnut Street.

Denise Menard has witnessed plenty of growth in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall since becoming the community’s first town manager two years ago, from the creation of a seven-member Town Council to the creation of a Human Resources department, a new director of Finance and director of Planning and Community Development, and the establishment of a Board of Health overseen by a full-time director.

But she says the most important change in the city offices may be the ease with which new businesses to town can navigate the permitting process.

“I see myself as a business manager for the town — a business manager that has the authority to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made to streamline the process,” she said. “Just being here day to day, helping implement the priorities of the council and all these other things, is a real a plus for the community. And in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot.”

Take, for instance, the 18,000-square-foot medical office building at 250 North Main St. constructed by Associated Builders last year for Baystate Dental Group. The dental office occupies the first floor, and the second floor is being rented for medical and office space.

“That’s a great credit to the community; they just wanted to locate in East Longmeadow,” Menard said. “We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

Another, more complex project in the health realm is a joint venture with the town of Longmeadow — a medical complex that will add to East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center at 305 Maple St., cross town lines, and provide benefits to both communities.

“We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

The project includes four structures on a 20-acre site: a 50,000-square-foot medical office building in Longmeadow that will be occupied by Baystate Health; a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building in East Longmeadow; and an assisted-living facility and expansion of an existing skilled-nursing facility run by Berkshire Health.

“It’s really moving along,” she said, adding that the buildings on the East Longmeadow side should be up by the spring. Meanwhile, the two towns have worked together to improve road infrastructure at the site. The project encompasses three intersections on Dwight Road — two in Longmeadow and one in East Longmeadow. Longmeadow is managing the road improvements, and East Longmeadow is receiving contributions from the nursing-home developer, which will pass through to Longmeadow to offset the cost of the street improvements.

“The road improvements have been painful to say the least, but it will be such a great improvement at the end of the day,” Menard said. “It’s so nice to have a joint venture with Longmeadow, and both sides are going to win with that. Longmeadow and I are good neighbors. The two town managers really work well together.”

Major projects like these are complemented by a number of other developments in town, a trend she says was boosted by the town’s change in government two years ago.

“I’ve had developers come in and say, ‘we waited because we wanted to see what the new charter was going to be like before we decided to come to East Longmeadow,’” she recalled. “So there was a change in the philosophy of people looking in from the outside, as to what they would like to see here, and I think they’re happy with what they see now with the new government.”

Setting Down Roots

Menard said East Longmeadow has a decent stock of developable land.

“We have industrial space, and we also have agricultural land, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen with that because farming is getting more difficult. But we want to be agriculture-friendly and hope to continue down that path.”

The new director of Planning and Community Development, Constance Brawders, has been taking the land stock into consideration as part of a master plan that’s in the early stages, Menard added.

“That master plan will focus on what residents here want,” she explained, adding that a series of public forums will focus on topics like recreation, traffic, and what kind of land-use mix residents want, balancing residential neighborhoods with the need for commercial and industrial investment.

East Longmeadow
at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.94
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.94
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Cartamundi; Lenox; Redstone Rehab & Nursing Center; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation
* Latest information available

“It will take a little while, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time,” she told BusinessWest. “So it’s time for us to take a snapshot of today and see what we want to look like in the future.”

It’s healthy to conduct such an exercise because society changes a lot over the years, and that affects how businesses operate and how towns cater to their needs.

“Think about the changes in the world just in the past 20 years. There are huge differences,” she said. “The big businesses that required a lot of space because they needed a lot of employees — now maybe they don’t need so many on site because a lot of them can work from home. My son works from home, and he’s part of a huge organization; they don’t require the footprint they used to.

“So a lot of things have changed since we’ve updated our plan,” she went on, “and it’ll be time to just address what we have now and what the current businesses and residents and everybody that has anything to do with East Longmeadow wants, so we can move forward. That’s really exciting.”

Some projects in the works have the potential to create vibrancy in town, such as an ongoing plan to create a mixed-use development at 330 Chestnut St., in the former Package Machinery building. The project would include commercial, retail, and possibly office space in the front part of the building, and above will be some residential apartments or condominiums.

The applicant for that project, MM Realty Partners, withdrew the proposal last winter, but they are now moving forward. The exact nature of the project is still being hammered out, but Menard says mixed use is a promising model for the site, due to the energy and foot traffic it would create.

“That’s the interesting part about it, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the right fit in the right spot for East Longmeadow,” she noted. “It certainly is an interesting concept.”

Other projects have come on line recently, including a gas station and 6,500-square-foot convenience store at 227 Shaker Road, a lot that had been empty for many years. That development was delayed when Atlantis Management Group bought out the property, but after a second round of permitting and approvals, construction went forward and was completed this year.

“The whole change in ownership delayed them applying for the permits they needed to bring it all together,” she added, “but now that’s on board, and they’re always busy.”

Attractive Mix

Part of what makes East Longmeadow attractive, Menard said, is a healthy mix of properties of all kinds, both residential and commercial.

“We have some very high-end housing, but we have some very moderate housing as well,” she noted. “We have a great Recreation Department, and our schools have a great reputation.”

Residents and businesses also appreciate that the town is conservative when it comes to taxation and spending, she added.

“Businesses see that our tax rate isn’t fluctuating up and down; it is really just gradually going to a level of what we need to address the needs of the community. And it’s a community that people are saying they want their children to grow up in. They want to own houses here.”

Employers feel the same way, she added. “In fact, we had a business come in — he was going to be leasing from somebody in East Longmeadow — and he said, ‘I want to come here because my staff, my workers, would be able to live in a nice community with good amenities and good community spirit.’”

Maintaining that culture takes planning, of course, and the woman who sees herself as a business manager is pleased that those plans will be carefully crafted — and hopefully implemented — in the coming years.

“This is a moving, growing community, to be sure,” Menard said. “We have a lot going for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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