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Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Celebrating Innovation

By Julie Rivers

The University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute (UMDI) turned 50 in 2021. It was a milestone, like many, that was marked in quiet fashion, and in this case, very quiet, because of the pandemic.

The actual celebration, in the form of an anniversary gala, came this year — May 3, to be precise. More than 150 people attended the event at the UMass Club in Boston, a gathering that offered UMDI and its supporters the long-awaited chance to reconnect, meet new people, and celebrate.

And there was, and is, much to celebrate.

Indeed, charged with social service, economic development, and community engagement, the Donahue Institute interfaces with many aspects of life in Massachusetts and beyond. In fact, UMDI has received global recognition for its economic research, program-evaluation capabilities, and workforce and educational initiatives.

Anticipating almost $25 million in revenues for fiscal year 2022, UMDI has about 175 employees with staff across the country, including all six New England states, Southern California, and Arizona. UMDI operates like a consulting firm, with 98% of its revenues being self-generated.

At the gala, recently appointed Executive Director Johan Uvin offered what amounted to a state-of-UMDI address, and in a Zoom call with BusinessWest that involved several leaders of the institute, he did the same, highlighting what’s changed over the years and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t for this vital resource.

“As someone coming in from the outside, this is a solid model — it’s not broken,” he said of the institute’s method of operation. “The Donahue Institute has the autonomy and intellectual freedom to pursue work that is meaningful to society but that also aligns with its mission and capabilities.”

Over the years, that work, has come in a variety of forms, including everything from housing to the national Census; economic data and ways to measure it, to office automation. And the institute’s work has often to led to changes in how things are done and how issues are addressed.

Johan Uvin addresses attendees

Johan Uvin addresses attendees at the recent gala marking the Donahue Institute’s 50th anniversary.

Slicing through it all, Mark Melnik, director of UMDI’s Economic and Public Policy Group, used terms not often applied to such an agency.

“We’re a dynamic organization, especially for a public-service institute,” he told BusinessWest. “While entrepreneurial mode can be exhausting, it allows us to push corners.”

This unique blend of public service and entrepreneurship provides the institute to recognize and seize what he called “opportunities that just make sense.”

For this issue and its focus on innovation, BusinessWest looks at these opportunities while reviewing the institute’s first 50 years of work and asking UMDI’s leaders what will likely come next.

 

History Lessons

In the beginning, the Donahue Institute focused on providing consulting services to state and local governments. Named for former president of the Massachusetts State Senate, the late Maurice A. Donahue, UMDI branched out in the mid-1980s by helping clients in the corporate and nonprofit sectors.

According to J. Lynn Griesemer, who served with UMDI for 31 years, including several as president, and still acts as a senior advisor, a breakthrough assignment in the early days of the institute was to assess how to most effectively introduce office automation into workplaces. While automation is incontrovertible today, back in the paper-laden manual task days of 1970s office life, the project was just one of many groundbreaking concepts the institute would help launch.

Another early assignment that would shape the future of the institute involved improving floor operations at the General Motors assembly plant in Framingham. However, while the project was underway, the plant began laying off shifts — but UMDI was already there as an implant that was well-positioned to lend a hand. Shifting focus, the institute helped the newly dislocated workers create resumes, get additional education, and ultimately find jobs or even start businesses of their own. Through this fortuitous timing, the institute quickly became the largest services provider to dislocated workers in the Commonwealth.

Donahue Institute

From left, former director of the Donahue Institute Eric Heller, former deputy director John Klenakis, former director Lynn Griesemer, Director Johan Uvin, and Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan

The federal government’s Department of Defense would then present the institute with an opportunity to help make systems uniform across military branches. This project allowed UMDI to develop the national credibility to successfully bid on the Head Start program, one of its core initiatives to this day.

From there, former Massachusetts Governor William Weld asked the UMass President’s Office to assist with an economic development initiative for the state. With the help of economic experts from across the UMass campus, UMDI worked with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston to forge the MassBenchmarks project. To this day, MassBenchmarks assesses the Massachusetts economy through reports and analyses that it then produces and releases twice per year in journal form.  

These early projects laid the groundwork for UMDI to get approved as a vendor by the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA). This designation allows the institute to bypass the lengthy bidding process usually required to win large federal contracts. 

Indeed, the institute’s keen eye for evaluating opportunities and strategically selecting those that will open doors has built the solid foundation it now stands on.

Today, the Donahue Institute is comprised of 10 business units. However, despite the ever-growing diversification of its core capabilities, a vibrant and robust research component remains at the backbone. This includes both UMDI’s Applied Research and Program Evaluation unit and its Economic and Public Policy Research group, led by Melnik.

This group operates as a project-oriented consulting firm, much like a think tank, bringing academic expertise and methods to real-world social problems. The group works with demographic, labor market, and economic data to help state and municipal governments, planning agencies, and nonprofits guide broad public policy discussions.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts.”

One current project examines how to leverage new apprenticeship models to minimize employee retention challenges. Another potentially groundbreaking study involves using data gathered for COVID-related purposes to develop new and more affordable ways of providing healthcare services to consumers instead of funneling people into highly complex systems that they have to navigate on their own.

A core assignment for Melnik’s group is its work with the Secretary of the Commonwealth preparing for census enumeration, which is the basis for federal funding allocation and congressional seats. With help from UMDI’s population- estimates program, the state’s census data is head of class in the nation. This is especially noteworthy since census data is relied upon heavily for resource allocations and predicting where jobs will be. It also informs decisions around population projections used by the MassDOT and Mass. School Building Authority for school district planning.

The group’s portfolio also includes a two-phase initiative with Way Finders that uses Greater Springfield as a case study on housing market affordability. With a focus on upward mobility and wealth creation, the study seeks to answer what it’s like for low- to moderate-income families to live in a high-cost state.

“Wages are so much lower in the Pioneer Valley that more than 54% of renters are housing cost-burdened,” Melnik says. Additionally, the majority of those burdened are people of color.

“Housing is the most central public policy question when we talk about Massachusetts,” he explains. This is because it tells the story needed to inform public policy, including the future of transportation.  

Another of the institute’s long-term projects is the Head Start program, which it has been involved with since 2003.

UMDI’s New England Head Start Training and Technical Assistance group is co-directed by Rosario Dominguez, M.P.A. Dominguez says that when people think of the Head Start program, early childhood education is often the only thing that comes to mind. However, that barely scratches the surface of what the program does, as it begins at pregnancy and continues to support families through college.

With this long-term intervention approach, the program addresses intergenerational poverty by using what goes on in the classroom as a lens for examining how families can reach their financial goals, ultimately strengthening entire communities. Through the partnerships it forms, the program has the reach to solve issues much larger in scale than early childhood development, including informing policies that move social equity and upward mobility forward by helping education and social service organizations improve their systems.  

Beyond its regional and national footprints, Ken LeBlond, Marketing Communications manager, said UMDI also handles international work. Funded by the United States Department of State, the institute has contributed to economic mobility at the global level since 2004.

This includes its exchange program in which groups of 20-30 people from about 60 countries, such as Argentina, Pakistan, and Eastern Europe, come to Western Massachusetts each summer. The groups travel the region engaging in active learning, helping at the Amherst food bank and senior center, and working on river cleanup projects.

 

A Look Ahead

In August 2021, the Donahue Institute welcomed Uvin as its executive director. Uvin had previously served as assistant secretary of Education under the Obama Administration. Working alongside Associate Director Carol Anne McGowan, Uvin holds the distinction of being the institute’s first executive director to be hired externally.

When asked what is ahead for UMDI, Uvin talked about alternative models for providing health care and exploring different educational models in challenged communities to lift entire neighborhoods through training and interventions.

Additionally, Uvin is interested in looking at both the supply and demand sides of regional economies to shape how employers and individuals work together to create wealth.

He explained that the engagement process might begin with going into neighborhoods and asking, ‘what are your aspirations?’ This is important because, according to Uvin, “we are moving headlong into a labor shortage with the babyboomers retiring,” making it critical to have intentional conversations around economic development across many different populations.

While this may be a current focus for UMDI, these issues are not new to the Pioneer Valley, where economists and policymakers have been wrestling with similar challenges for decades. Uvin says that while high-tech industry sectors have grown across the state, it has not been an equitable geographic or demographic spread, with Gateway cities such as Springfield and Holyoke — where nearly half of the region’s minority population lives — being left behind.

Part of Uvin’s vision for the future is to explore work in sectors such as life sciences, which play a key role in the success of Central Massachusetts’ biotech manufacturing and Greater Boston’s R&D and lab-based growth.

This, he says, would involve lifting up underserved communities, which is critical because, on the business side, there are simply not enough workers to grow unless we find ways to include all populations. Representation of people of color in the best-paying jobs of the higher-tech sectors lags severely. In terms of where UMDI is at this point in contributing to solving inequities that plague underserved populations, he says they are in the discovery phase, talking to others on the grassroots level.     

As for the future, the institute is positioned to make great strides. With an executive director from the outside, a new perspective brought on by the COVID pandemic, and an impressive 50 years of success to build from, the institute is at a nexus for bringing widespread change to the communities it serves.

“It’s an exciting time for reflection and renewal — to articulate what has happened, organically anyway, through the COVID crisis, which is the discourse around social equity and social mobility,” said Melnik. “This has been part of our work for a while now and has bubbled up even more.”

In reflecting upon how the institute has evolved over the past fifty years, Uvin and others said it is also important to highlight what hasn’t changed, especially the institute’s model and entrepreneurial approach to its work.

Dominguez adds that what was once called public service has evolved into economic mobility and social equity.

“Although we are further defining what we do, our core values will always be the same,” she said. “How can our work impact communities in need? That’s the core — and that won’t change.” 

Uvin concludes, “we’re not done evolving. COVID revealed what didn’t make sense, and business must respond.” Offering employee support, childcare, mental-health services, and other perks will be integral.

Perhaps what will carry the Donahue Institute forward another 50 years will be that which has stayed the same — a solid culture, a public service-focused mission, and the keen ability to find opportunities that align with core values while also having the potential to open doors.

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]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 49: Jan. 25, 2021

George O’Brien talks with State Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies

Eric Lesser

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with State Sen. Eric Lesser, co-chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. The two discuss the recently passed $600 million economic development bill and how its various provisions will help small businesses severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. They also discuss how the bill might help level the playing field when it comes to Western Mass. and other areas of the state.

 

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Features

Striking a Chord

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.  Photo by Ed Cohen

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.
Photo by Ed Cohen

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.  Leah Martin Photography

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.
Leah Martin Photography

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures .

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music.

“That,” he added, “is where a wall becomes a bridge.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written on many occasions in the past about how the phrase ‘economic development’ means much more than trying to lure an Amazon — or an MGM Springfield, for that matter — to your town or filling a business park with distribution companies.

Indeed, this kind of work extends to such realms as workforce development, improving public education, public safety, infrastructure, marketing of a given region, and promotion of arts and culture.

And, sometimes, economic development is art itself.

We saw this with the recent initiative known as Fresh Paint. This was a mural festival staged earlier this month that involved a number of noted artists, with help from the public, and literally changed the face of a number of buildings and structures, such as parking-garage facades.

The murals are highly visible, and they do more than bring a splash of color — a big splash of color — to some otherwise drab pieces of real estate.

They also help tell the story of Springfield through depictions of everything from Dr. Seuss characters to the diverse population that now calls the city home.

How is this economic development?

Well, the murals accomplish something important. They prompt people to stop, look, think, and, ultimately, view Springfield in a different way than they did before. And this is what we want business owners, young professionals, entrepreneurs, and even retirees looking for a place to live to do — look at the City of Homes in a different way.

The murals — there are 10 of them in all, scattered throughout the downtown area and beyond — give the city a new look and vibe. They help send a message that the community is changing, for the better, and that, while once things were dark, the future is seemingly bright.

Can a set of murals really do all that? Apparently, they can.

And for that reason, we certainly hope this is not the last Fresh Paint festival.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

The phrase ‘4/20-friendly’ has been around a while now.

April 20 las long been an international counterculture holiday of sorts, when people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. In recent years, it was also a day to call for legalization of the drug, and even more recently, as legalization spread, the term has morphed into a form of acceptance and, yes, business-friendliness when it comes to the many types of ventures within this industry.

Greenfield could now be considered 4/20-friendly, said M.J. Adams, the city’s director of Community Development and Economic Development, adding that there is already a medical marijuana dispensary, Patriot Care, located within the community, and it is poised to become a recreational dispensary next month. And there are many other parties expressing interest in establishing different forms of cannabis-related businesses within Franklin County’s largest community.

“Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight [cannabis] icenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest from people that want to grow and do recreational retail,” said Adams, noting that Greenfield’s efforts to build a cannabis cluster, if you will, are bolstered by its status as one of the 29 communities across the Commonwealth designated as “an area of disproportionate impact,” as defined by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Such communities — Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, West Springfield, and Pittsfield are among some of the others — have been deemed “disproportionately harmed by marijuana-law enforcement,” according the commission, and therefore, priority review is given to applicants who can meet several criteria involving these areas, including residency.

“We’re quite 4/20-friendly,” she went on, adding that this has become code for communities that are “pretty OK” when it comes to marijuana use. “Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight licenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

But cannabis and the prospect of more businesses in that intriguing industry is just one of positive forces shaping the picture in this community of 18,000 people.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Others include the opening of a long-awaited parking garage on the west end of downtown; the arrival of many new restaurants and clubs downtown, punctuated by the emergence of the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center as a force for attracting diverse audiences to Greenfield; emerging plans to expand the city’s industrial park amid heightened interest in space for manufacturing and warehouse ventures; some new ventures, including the conversion of a Roadway Inn into a 90-bed Marriott Grand Hotel and plans for UMassFive College Federal Credit Union to build a branch within the city; ongoing redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property; and perhaps some forward progress in efforts to forge a new life for the long-dormant First National Bank building on the stretch known as Bank Row.

Meanwhile, from the big-picture perspective, the broad economic-development strategy for the city involves making the community, and especially its downtown area, more of a destination for many constituencies, including tourists, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and families.

That’s the assignment for the city, but also for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said its new executive director, Diana Szynal, who takes the reins in somewhat ironic fashion. Indeed, she succeeds Natalie Blais, who was recently sworn in as the state representative for the First Franklin District. Szynal, meanwhile, was the long-time district director for the late Peter Kocut, long-time state representative for the First Hampshire District, and was unsuccessful in her bid to win that seat last fall.

She inherits a chamber that will celebrate its centennial this year, and while a good deal of her time will obviously go toward marking that milestone, another priority will be helping to get the word out on all that Greenfield and Franklin County have to offer.

“One thing we have to do is spread the word about all the things that happen here and some of the opportunities that are here,” she said. “And Franklin County is a place that young people and young professionals just starting out and looking for a place to put down roots should consider; this is the perfect place for that.”

For this, the latest installment in our ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Greenfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

Getting Down to Business

Szynal told BusinessWest that she worked in downtown Greenfield a quarter-century ago, and that moving into the chamber’s office on Main Street is like coming home again.

“I just came from lunch at Taylor’s [Tavern] and was at Wilson’s [department store] recently,” she said, mentioning two mainstays in the downtown for decades and noting that there are many more that fit that category. “Downtown has many of the same businesses it had years ago; it hasn’t lost its charm — it has that same old feeling.”

But there are also many new ventures in the city that are giving it a somewhat new and different feeling as well, she said, especially in the broad realm of hospitality and entertainment.

“There’s Indian food, there’s Thai food, there’s some fabulous Mexican food,” she noted. “So in a way, it has that perfect balance; things you can count on like Wilson’s, combined with new places.”

Building upon this balance and creating an ever-more diverse mix of businesses in the downtown is one of the main strategic initiatives for the city, said both Szynal and Adams, adding that that there are many components to this assignment.

“There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

They include everything from efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to more neighborhoods within the community — a prerequisite for attracting many types of businesses — to formal and informal efforts to help spread the word about all this city and this region have to offer; from making the most of that “area of disproportionate impact” designation when it comes to cannabis to making the First National Bank building a fitting final piece to the puzzle that has been Bank Row.

Indeed, while significant progress has been made in rehabbing and repurposing the buildings along that stretch across from City Hall — the so-called Abercrombie building, now home to the Franklin County district attorney, being the latest — the former First National Bank remains a stern challenge, said Adams.

So much so that the city applied for, and received, a technical-assistance grant from MassDevelopment that will fund a consultant charged specifically with blueprinting a reuse plan for the structure.

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Built in 1929, the building has been essentially unoccupied for the better part of 40 years, said Adams, adding that the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the property in 2017 with the goal of determining the best reuse option.

“We’re waiting for the consultant that’s been assigned to us to come aboard, and we expect that to happen later this month, and have that individual work through this spring on a potential-reuse study of the building,” she said, adding that she expects this work to be completed by June. “We’re also spending some funding on some engineering to take a look at the building envelope — the structure, the fire-protection systems, and more — and then doing some preliminary cost estimates for getting a clean shell that can be developed.”

The project is important, she said, because the property has a prominent place in the city’s history and a prominent location as well. Its redevelopment could act as a catalyst for other investments and make the city more of a destination.

Speaking of catalysts, the cannabis industry could become one as well, Adams went on, adding that retail operations could help create still more vibrancy in the downtown, and the cultivation businesses could help fill various types of commercial properties, including old mill buildings.

Overall, the goal downtown, and just outside it, is to attract a diverse mix of businesses, said Adams, adding that, while there are have been some new arrivals, there are still many vacant storefronts in the central business district — more than city officials would prefer.

“We did an inventory about two years ago that looked at the properties downtown and especially the ground-floor retail spaces,” she noted. “There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

As for the chamber, as it celebrates its centennial, it will focus on a number of initiatives, including efforts to support and promote not only Greenfield but the entire county. One key to doing so is through collaboration with other entities involved in promoting business and economic development, said Szynal.

“There’s an active business association for Shelburne Falls, there’s one for Greenfield, Nortfield has a business association … there are several of these organizations,” she said. “One of my top priorities is to figure out how to work collaboratively to promote more business growth and keep our businesses strong county-wide.”

One challenge to overcome is enabling Greenfield, and the rest of the county, to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status.

“We have some incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in Franklin County, and that’s something we’re looking to highlight in the coming year,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economy, and it can be even bigger; there are some people who don’t know that these opportunities are here in Franklin County and that you don’t have to drive far to experience them.”

Balancing Act

Reflecting upon her return to downtown Greenfield a quarter-century since she last worked there, Szynal said she is impressed by, and increasingly enamored with, its mix of old and new.

“To some extent, Greenfield is growing and changing, but it’s also staying true to its roots,” she explained. “There’s a familiar feeling as you walk down the street, but there is exciting change as well.”

Moving forward, the goal is to create … well, much more of that, and there has been considerable progress in that regard as well as the promise of more.

Some might result from being 4/20-friendly, as the saying goes, but the bulk of it will come from being plain old business-friendly and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that develop.

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

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