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Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Construction Special Coverage

Building Momentum

The past year has been an unusual time for the construction industry — one marked by project postponements, soaring prices for materials, and the establishment of strict COVID safety protocols on job sites. But for most builders, it wasn’t a devastating year, and, in many cases, it led to a surprisingly promising 2021. After all, the need for projects to be completed hasn’t gone away, and the backlog is actually creating a surplus of projects to bid on. The aforementioned challenges still remain, contractors say, but the work rolls on.

Laurie and John Raymaakers

Laurie and John Raymaakers say there’s plenty of infrastructure work available — and that trend should continue in the coming years.

 

By Mark Morris

 

For Dan Bradbury, 2020 was “a year of pivoting and finding new ways to get the job done.”

As director of sales and marketing for Associated Builders, Bradbury saw a slowdown at this time last year as several projects that were scheduled to break ground were instead postponed indefinitely.

By including construction as an essential industry, Gov. Charlie Baker allowed job sites to stay open and keep workers employed while following pandemic protocols. While Bradbury appreciated the ability to keep projects moving, other slowdowns were out of his control.

“There are a lot of hurdles to get over in a large industrial or commercial project, and COVID hit the brakes on all of them,” he said, noting in particular the new challenges surrounding what in the past had been routine business with municipal governments.

“We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

“Because municipalities had to move to fully remote meetings, they occurred less often, which made it difficult to get building permits, zoning-board approvals, and the other essential documents we need to start and finish a building project,” Bradbury said, adding that Associated has projects in the works in a number of different sectors. One example is a 30,000-square-foot building in Bloomfield, Conn., where a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

His company’s experience isn’t unique. BusinessWest spoke with several area construction managers to discuss how their industry looks this spring compared to a year ago, when COVID-19 suddenly changed the world — and the main takeaway is one of optimism and promise.

A significant part of Houle Construction’s business involves interior renovations for medical facilities. Company President Tim Pelletier noted that, when COVID first struck, business came to a complete halt as medical professionals were dealing with rapidly increasing numbers of COVID patients. One year later, he’s optimistic about the increase in construction activity.

“It’s absolutely busier than last year,” he said. “We’re seeing more projects taking shape, especially with our hospital clients.” In the meantime, Pelletier has picked up renovation projects at organizations that offer hall rentals, such as the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“The temple has not been able to host gatherings for the past year, so they are using the downtime to make renovations for when they can open again,” Pelletier said, adding that it’s a way to take advantage of what everyone has gone through and find a positive side.

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School

An aerial view of Worcester South Community High School, one of the many recent school projects undertaken by Fontaine Brothers.

Bradbury credits pent-up demand for the increase in projects his company has been taking on this year.

“As soon as the calendar page turned to 2021, our phones started ringing,” he said. “We already had some projects scheduled to start this spring, but, more importantly, we’re starting to fill our pipeline again with projects that will take us well into the fall of this year and potentially into 2022 as well.”

Dave Fontaine Jr., vice president of Fontaine Brothers, said his company has been fortunate to have several projects ongoing since before the pandemic hit. Many of his largest projects involve building schools, for which budgets are approved long before breaking ground, so funding for them was not affected by COVID concerns. Since the pandemic hit, Fontaine said some towns have delayed public funding approvals, but not as many as he had anticipated.

“In the last six to eight months, we’ve picked up more than $400 million in new work,” he noted. “Some of these projects are in pre-construction now and will start this summer.”

Among the projects scheduled to begin in June are the $75 million DeBerry-Homer School in Springfield and the $240 million Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester.

Infrastructure construction also experienced steady business last year. J.L. Raymaakers and Sons Construction specializes in installing water and sewer lines as well as site excavation for municipalities, airports, and private companies. After a busy 2019, co-owner John Raymaakers said 2020 was nearly a record year for his company, and he’s on pace to fill up the project list for 2021.

Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn

In this Associated Builders project in Bloomfield, Conn., a local chemical company will occupy part of the building and lease the remaining space.

“It’s amazing the amount of infrastructure work that is out there for bid,” Raymaakers said, explaining that his company subscribes to a register that lists all the new public and private projects available for bid. Since the middle of last year, he has seen no slowdown in the volume of bidding opportunities. “Looking only at our category of construction, there were five to six new projects announced just last week.”

Raymaakers predicted bridge construction, another area of expertise for his company, will also see increased activity.

“In the next few years, I think we are going to see a lot of work on replacing aging bridges in New England,” he said, adding that this should happen even without a federal government infrastructure bill, citing two recent bridge-replacement projects his crews are working on in Stockbridge and Pittsfield. Still, he’s hopeful that some kind of infrastructure legislation passes, saying it would be “a huge boost to us and others in our industry.”

 

Help Wanted

While business activity is brisk for everyone BusinessWest spoke with, they’ve all faced recent challenges; some are unique to doing business in the COVID environment, and others are chronic problems made worse by the virus. The issue of having enough workers was a challenge on both fronts.

“We’ve definitely lost people from the workforce due to COVID concerns,” Fontaine said. “They might be taking care of a family member, or they might be in a group that has underlying health concerns.”

He added that managing COVID on the job site is also difficult. “Anytime someone tests positive for COVID, that individual and anyone in close contact with them has to go home and quarantine for the time period,” he explained. “That can result in a lot of labor disruption on a daily basis.”

COVID also exacerbated the long-running problem of fewer workers in skilled-trade and general-labor jobs. Raymaakers said finding help in construction is a constant challenge. Co-owner Laurie Raymaakers pointed out that heavy-equipment operators and construction laborers can make a good living.

“There’s a misconception that laborers aren’t paid well,” she said. “The pay and benefits at our company are pretty good; the reality is there are just fewer people who want to do this type of work.”

She added that it’s also misleading to suggest laborers are not skilled, pointing out that her company’s laborers are highly skilled at making sure pipes are situated properly and secured to withstand years of service.

“Our workers also put together fire hydrants, which require about 50 bolts that have to be tightened in a certain pattern. Hydrants are under constant water pressure, so if it’s not built correctly, parts of the hydrant will go flying in the air.”

As older craftsmen such as plumbers and electricians continue to retire, their ranks are not being filled by enough younger workers. With projects increasing, Bradbury said an already-competitive labor market gets squeezed even further.

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution

Tim Pelletier, president of Houle Constrution, at the Masonic Temple in East Longmeadow.

“Between the demand for commercial/industrial as well as residential, everyone in the trades is busy, and they can’t find enough workers,” Bradbury said. “On top of that, solar companies are hiring all the electricians they can find at a time when electricians were already in short supply.”

The biggest hurdle to doing business right now, according to Bradbury, involves managing enormous price increases for materials, in some cases rising by more than 100% compared to this time last year.

“Over a period of months, we’ve seen multiple price increases in steel and lumber products,” he said. “Those two create a trickle up that affects prices for every other building material.”

Bradbury noted that steel manufacturing has been affected by labor outages due to COVID, leading to product-supply shortages. He also pointed to increased demand for lumber, especially on the residential side, where housing starts are booming. In addition, his company and many others receive a great deal of lumber from Canada, where the U.S. still has tariffs in place on lumber.

Bradbury said COVID issues are not affecting project schedules because his firm will not start a job until it has a guarantee that materials are available. “We are also adding cost protections in our contracts as a way to guard against the constant increases in materials.”

It’s too early to determine what immediate impact the pandemic will have on building design, but Bradbury said clients from current and future projects have begun asking about air handling and filtration.

“For sure, air handling and using UV light to sanitize a space are areas where people have been putting more focus,” he said. “I think these requests will continue as there is an increased emphasis on clean air and other ways to keep facilities sanitized.”

At Worcester South Community High School, workers installed air-handling units that use bipolar ionization, or, as Fontaine described it, a system that cleans the air and removes many of the germs and bacteria from the building.

“The motivation to install this system was driven by COVID, but there are other benefits, too,” he said. “Systems like this provide a better environment for people with asthma and other health concerns.”

 

Spring of Hope

The arrival of spring and increased numbers of people receiving COVID vaccines gives all the construction managers we spoke to a sense of optimism about life and getting their projects done.

At press time, asphalt plants in the area had begun to open. Because the plants close for the winter, municipalities will not allow road construction because there is no access to repave the roads. So the plant openings are great news for companies like Raymaakers, which plans its water- and sewer-line projects around those openings.

Other managers look forward to a time when they do not have to socially distance their crews and wear masks all day.

“Masks are another nuisance to deal with,” Pelletier said. “If we can start to get distancing and masks behind us, it will speed things up on the job site.”

As part of planning for future business, Bradbury has begun to ask some fundamental questions about what lies beyond the horizon. “Where is the growth potential going to be as we come out of COVID, and which industries will still want to build and have the money to build?”

As he considers the types of industries that are prevalent in Western Mass. and Northern Conn., such as aerospace and manufacturing, he wonders if government spending will still drive those industries. He has also given some thought to the insurance industry.

“Typically, there has been a huge demand for office space for the insurance industry, and how they address that moving forward is a big question mark coming out of COVID.”

As the insurance industry reconsiders its needs, Bradbury added, there has been a sharp decline in demand for all office space. “We are definitely not building more office space anytime soon.”

But his and other firms are building — and that’s good news after a year of uncertainty and a pandemic that hasn’t yet gone away.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says Holyoke lost considerable momentum to the pandemic, but it has a solid foundation on which to mount its recovery.

When he made up his mind roughly a year ago not to seek re-election to the state House seat he had held for four terms, Aaron Vega had an informal list of things he would like to do next when it came to his career.

Working in Holyoke City Hall certainly wasn’t one of them. But … things changed, in many ways, and in a profound way.

For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic limited some of the other options he was thinking about professionally, especially those in higher education, economic development, and workforce development. More importantly, though, Marcos Marrero, the long-time director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, decided that he, too, wanted a change. And as he went about looking for someone to fill his rather large shoes, he started talking to Vega, someone who obviously knew the city, was heavily invested in its future, and was looking for work.

“Working for the city wasn’t really on my shortlist — and not in a negative way,” said Vega, the former Holyoke city councilor who started his five-year appointment just a few weeks ago. “Marcos reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in taking the position; it came out of the clear blue sky. I was honored that he saw me as someone who could take the reins and keep going.”

He takes the helm in economic development when Holyoke, like most communities, and especially the urban centers, are looking to regain momentum lost due to the pandemic.

And, in the case of the Paper City, it’s a large amount of momentum.

Indeed, over the past several years, Holyoke had made great strides in a number of areas — downtown revitalization, with its cultural economy, with entrepreneurship and new business development, and, most recently, with cultivation (pun intended) of a new and potential-laden industry sector: cannabis. Indeed, with Mayor Alex Morse — who will not be seeking re-election in November and has been offered the the job of town manager of Provincetown — putting out the red carpet for the cannabis sector and the city blessed with millions of square feet of vacant mill space that is in some ways ideal for cannabis growing and other aspects of this business, Holyoke has become a destination for companies looking for a home.

The pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress in most of these areas, though. It has certainly impacted the cultural economy, most notably with the news that Gateway City Arts, the multi-purpose arts venue, has closed, and its owners are looking for a buyer. But signs of lost momentum are everywhere. The Cubit Building, once a symbol of downtown revitalization, is still humming on its residential floors, but the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center has been all but shut down by the pandemic. Meanwhile, there are still a number of vacancies on High Street and other downtown throughfares. And the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a significant economic engine for Holyoke and the region as a whole, has been canceled for the second year in a row.

“A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

“That’s been a huge financial hit to the restaurants and many other kinds of businesses,” Vega said of the parade. “The trickle-down impact is severe.”

Even the cannabis sector has been slowed a little by the pandemic, but in most all respects, it remains a powerful force in Holyoke, with more than 30 ventures currently at some stage of progression and perhaps 300 new jobs coming to the city with the slated opening in the next few months of Florida-based Truelieve’s facility on Canal Street.

The company, which has more than 2 million square feet of cultivation facilities and more than 70 dispensaries across several states, will operate a multi-faceted, vertically integrated operation that will include cultivation, production, and office operations in a 145,000-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Conklin Office.

“We understand scale, we understand supply chain, and we’re going to be bringing that experience to Massachusetts as we build out our cultivation here,” said Lynn Ricci, director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for the company, adding that the company expects to begin operations by the third quarter this year and employ between 250 and 300 people from the Holyoke area when fully operational.

For this, the latest in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Holyoke, an historic city that has bounced back from its decline in the ’60s and ’70s, and must now, in some ways, bounce back again.

 

Growth Opportunities

Vega is certainly no stranger to the large office he now occupies on the third floor of the City Hall annex building.

When he was a state representative, he would meet with Marrero there every month so he could keep pace with what was happening in the city where he grew up, spent most of his childhood life, and still lives.

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses in the arts and hospitality sectors to be devastated by the pandemic.

“We had a standing meeting with him in this office to keep up to date on all the projects that were going on, particularly around cannabis, because I was on the Committee on Cannabis Policy,” he explained. “So I was familiar with most of what was going on in this office, and I knew everyone in this office.”

Today, he’s having those same meetings with Patricia Duffy, his former legislative aide who successfully ran for his House seat last year.

“We just met a few days ago,” he said with a laugh. “We have a standing monthly meeting. It’s interesting being on the other side of the table — I spent the last eight years fighting for funding for all these programs, and now I’m actually utilizing them, and that’s kind of fun.”

Offering a similar update of sorts for BusinessWest, Vega focused on the momentum that has been lost in the city and the need to turn the clock back, in some respects, and put Holyoke back on the intriguing path it was on before March 2020.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face.”

Before getting to that, though, he was asked to elaborate on the circumstances that brought him to his current post.

“I wanted to focus more,” he said simply when asked why he wanted to move from his House seat. “One of the great things about being a state rep is all the different topics and issues that come across your desk. But, that said, you don’t really get to focus on anything; the best description of my job as state rep was that I was in a permanent liberal-arts education — and there were certain topics that I just wasn’t passionate about.”

He is certainly passionate about Holyoke, and his goal now is built on what had been achieved in the years before the pandemic.

“What Alex and Marcos did was change the conversation about Holyoke, they changed the direction of a lot of the development, and they helped usher in a plan — the urban-renewal plan,” he explained. “A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

The story the city can tell is a good one, although, as noted, it was better before the pandemic.

“Things were happening in this city; the momentum was happening,” Vega said. “It took a while to build that momentum, and hopefully we can get it back soon.”

The loss of Gateway City Arts, however, is a serious setback for the community.

“It was firing on all cylinders,” he said, referring to everything from its event venue to its popular restaurant. “And it’s ironic because we’re six or seven months away from having 200 to 400 more people working in downtown Holyoke in the cannabis industry — people who will be looking for a place to go eat or have a beer or listen to music after work. The irony is that we don’t have that right now.

“The biggest hit has been with momentum,” he went on. “Our restaurants took a hit, just like Northampton and Springfield; the housing developments, especially if they were dealing with state incentives, have been pushed out — everything’s taking longer now.”

Overall, Vega said, the pandemic has made it difficult for some small businesses to survive, and it’s made it more difficult for all of them to operate as they would like.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face,” he said, adding quickly that there is interest in some of the components of that business, and, likewise, the phone is starting to ring, and more interest is being shown in Holyoke within the development community.

“There’s a couple of key projects where, if we can get them online, we can regain some of that momentum,” he told BusinessWest, noting that one such project is a large housing initiative downtown, a 92-unit project being undertaken by WinnDevelopment at the former Farr Alpaca mills that has been slowed by the always-complicated process of applying for and receiving historic tax credits.

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street is ramping up for opening, and is projected to employ between 250 and 300 people when fully operational.

Meanwhile, some projects that were “percolating,” as Vega put it, before the pandemic and back-burnered to one extent or another are perhaps poised to be revisited and moved off the drawing board. These include some indoor agriculture that is not cannabis-related.

“The biggest price-point stuff that they’re talking about right now is lettuce and herbs,” he noted, “because there’s a quick-growing cycle; you can turn lettuce around in 30 days. So many restaurants want locally grown, hormone-free lettuce … there’s real potential there, and they can grow other vegetables, too. The price point is not as good as cannabis, but we’ve been talking about urban farming for a while, and we’re trying to create opportunities.”

 

On a Roll

Speaking of cannabis, while the pandemic has slowed some aspects of that sector, the industry is poised for additional growth, especially in the Paper City. The next important chapter looks to be written by Truelieve, which just received its occupancy permit. But there are many companies with plans in various stages of development.

Indeed, Vega said, there are two growing facilities now online and three dispensaries, but, overall, there are 40 host agreements and 40 provisional licenses at the state level.

As for Truelieve, its story touches on many of the opportunities and challenges that Holyoke and its old mills present, said Ricci, who started by noting that the company was mostly in Florida before last year, when it started expanding aggressively into other states, including a cultivation facility in Pennsylvania (added through acquisition) and dispensaries in Connecticut and other states.

“We really see 2021 as a big year for national expansion and being a true multi-state operator,” she explained, adding that, when looking for places in which to broaden the portfolio with new facilities, Truelieve focuses on cities and towns with large minority populations, communities that clearly need the jobs and everything else these ventures bring to the fore.

“Investing in a majority minority community was important to us,” she said. And upon concluding that the Bay State would be a good market to enter, Holyoke soon came onto its radar.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1850
Population: 40,135
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.74
Median Household Income: $33,030
Family Household Income: $36,262
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center; Holyoke Community College; ISO New England; Hazen Paper
* Latest information available

“We wanted to make sure, going in, that we were revitalizing and adding to the community and providing jobs; those kinds of things are important to us as a core value of the company,” she noted. “When we found this location in Holyoke, an area that had certainly seen better times, we thought, ‘we could invest here and provide the jobs.’”

As for the site in Holyoke, renovating the historic mill has been “a huge undertaking,” Ricci said, adding that the company entered into a sale/lease-back arrangement in order to secure the nearly $40 million required for this project (cannabis operations cannot obtain traditional bank financing, because the product is illegal on a federal level).

The actual buildout was an involved process that began more than a year ago and was slowed by state mandates that shut down many types of construction during the early months of the pandemic.

“The property is beautiful in its own way — there’s big, wide staircases and beautiful brickwork, but … it needed a lot of work,” she told BusinessWest. “It has been a challenge, and not just to set up different rooms, but to make sure everything was set up properly.”

Staffing is the next challenge to be overcome, Ricci said, adding that final inspections of the facility are expected sometime this quarter, with growing due to begin, as noted, in the second quarter.

Other facilities are in various stages of the pipeline, said Vega, who told BusinessWest that, while the city is welcoming all types of cannabis businesses, the larger cultivation facilities hold the most promise for jobs and overall impact on the city and the region, and he can envision the day when perhaps eight to 12 such ventures are operating in the city.

And, like his predecessor, he sees opportunities not merely for the growing and selling of cannabis, but also encouraging businesses that can provide needed products to those ventures.

“A lot of the products used by these businesses are made in Texas and Florida, the simple things like the planters — we should be making those here in Holyoke,” he noted. “I equate it to the ‘green’ industries. It’s great seeing solar fields — we have some in Holyoke — but we should be building solar panels in Western Mass., not just installing them.”

 

Bottom Line

Making progress in that area is just one of the ways Holyoke will be looking to regain the considerable amount of momentum it lost to the pandemic.

The city that had come so far in the past decade has the foundation that Vega mentioned in place. It has the building blocks, and it has a cannabis industry hungry for the open spaces, low energy prices, and other amenities that this city can provide.

The pandemic certainly slowed the pace of progress, but Vega and other officials are confident that the Paper City can soon regain its stride.

 

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

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders

Paul Bockelman said he’s worked with chamber and BID leaders to address the urgent needs of the business community during the pandemic.

 

Epictetus, the Greek philosopher, first made the observation, “it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

While Epictetus did not live in Amherst, town officials and business leaders there have certainly adopted the philosopher’s adage in their robust efforts to return the town to vitality in the face of a pandemic.

Last March, when COVID-19 began to affect life in communities everywhere, Amherst took a broader hit than most because UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College all shut down earlier than other area institutions.

Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the Amherst Business Improvement District (BID), said the suddenly empty campuses posed a shock to the system.

“We lost 40,000 people in a 48-hour period,” she recalled. “It was like turning off a light switch.”

With college closings and retail activity coming to a screeching halt, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said his town lost its two major industries because of the pandemic. Still, he noted, “despite all that, the town has been resilient, and we are prepared to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong way.”

Early on, Amherst quickly mobilized a COVID-19 response team as Bockelman and the department heads of the Police, Fire, Public Works, and other departments met daily to strategize, he explained. “We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

The next priority was to maintain continuity of government functions. Amherst migrated town staff to remote work and incorporated Zoom meetings to assure key bodies such as the Town Council and the School Committee could keep moving forward. Permit-granting committees soon followed.

“We prioritized the health of our workforce because we wouldn’t be able to help residents if our fire, police, and DPW staff weren’t healthy.”

As plans were coming together to allow outdoor dining, the Town Council passed a special bylaw to delegate simple zoning decisions to the building commissioner. This move sped up the permitting process and cut down on much of the bureaucratic red tape.

“For example, permits for serving alcohol outdoors or expanding the footprint of a restaurant could be done through one person instead of going through an often-lengthy permitting process,” Bockelman said.

To address the urgent needs of the local business community, he also met weekly with Gould and Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. The BID and chamber share office space on Pleasant Street, so Pazmany and Gould worked together to learn about the many grants available to local businesses impacted by COVID-19. The main goal was to help owners stay in business.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says one of her most important roles has been helping business owners navigate the grant system.

“We knew that closing their doors would mean closing their doors forever,” Pazmany said. “That’s what we were trying to avoid.”

 

Granting a Reprieve

Before the pandemic, the chamber would host 56 events in a typical year. Pazmany said she quickly moved to digital events to keep everyone together. “We went from 56 events to 56,000 connections on Facebook and other social media.”

More importantly, in addition to helping local businesses apply for the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Gould and Pazmany have successfully secured grant programs at the state and federal level.

A number of Amherst businesses received grants through the state COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program, which provided a total of $668 million for Massachusetts businesses. Amherst also secured $140,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for local businesses.

State Sen. Joan Comerford helped the Chamber and BID to fund the recently formed Relief and Resiliency Microgrant Program. Originally designed to provide $500 microgrants, Pazmany said they were able to secure matching dollars, so $1,000 grants will soon be awarded to 18 of Amherst’s small-business owners in the first round of the program.

“The microgrant money will help defray some costs and allow people to keep going,” she said. “Many of these business owners are not even paying themselves; they just want to pay their bills.”

One of the more important roles Pazmany and Gould have taken on involves helping business owners navigate the grant system. Whether it’s identifying eligible funding, helping to fill out forms, or solving technical issues, Pazmany said they are not limiting their support to just chamber members. “Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

While outdoor dining and takeout have enabled restaurants to keep their doors open, the BID launched an effort to do more, buying meals from local restaurants and giving them to families in need. The effort began two months ago with the moniker December Dinner Delights and recently received funding to continue through April. Gould sees this as a win-win.

“We pay the restaurants $1,500 twice a week to help them sustain business, and we provide meals for families in our community,” she noted.

Another effort to support local business involves a gift-card program run by the chamber. Launched at the beginning of the holiday season, the gift cards can be redeemed at more than two dozen local businesses, from restaurants to a cat groomer. Pazmany said she has had to reorder cards to keep up with demand. “It works because you are able to give someone a gift and, at the same time, support a small business; it’s the best type of reinvestment in our community.”

As for town-run programs, last spring, municipal leaders had to figure out what to do about the farmers’ market it runs every Saturday from April through November. In the past, it was held in a cramped parking lot that would not conform to social-distancing protocols. Because the town common had no activities scheduled, the farmers’ market set up there — and had its most successful year ever.

“Right now, it makes no difference if you are a chamber member or not. If you need help and you cross our threshold, we will help you.”

“Our town common is a bucolic setting, and people who were cooped up all week could safely come and buy things,” Bockelman said. The manager of the farmers’ market reported the average sales week in 2020 equaled the best sales week in 2019, and the booths sold out of their products every week.

The farmers’ market was a highly visible way to revitalize interest in Amherst, as are continuing “quality-of-life developments,” as Bockelman called them, such as the newly opened Groff Park and the building of a new playground at Kendrick Park.

But smaller acts, like making picnic tables available in parks and other public places, were popular as well, he added. “As soon as we put out the tables, people were immediately using them. It was awesome.”

 

Forward Thinking

Looking to the future, Amherst is making decisions on four major capital projects slated for construction in 2022. On the drawing board are a new elementary school, a new library, a new Public Works facility, and a new fire station.

“We are trying to incorporate these projects into our ongoing budget so the taxpayer does not have to take on too much of a burden,” Bockelman said.

The desirability of Amherst as a place to live keeps housing prices high, which he calls a two-edged sword because it hurts the town’s ability to build a diverse socioeconomic community.

“People value diversity in Amherst,” he said. Still, he added, “it’s much more diverse than most people realize, especially our school district.”

To deepen that diverse profile, Amherst is looking to invest in property to develop more affordable housing. Bockelman pointed to a recently approved development on Northampton Road and a potential land purchase on Belchertown Road as additional projects in the works. “The town is willing to make the investment to develop and retain affordable-housing units in Amherst.”

To better address diversity in business, the chamber makes available an open-source document for proprietors who want to identify their business as being run by a woman, minority, or LGBTQ individual.

Pazmany said it’s simply good for business, noting that “we are getting steady requests from people who want to do business with various self-identifying businesses.”

Amherst at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.82
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

One element in the town’s strategy emphasizes Amherst’s potential as a tourist destination. Several national news articles have suggested that this decade may become a second “roaring 20s” with a renewed emphasis on cultural attractions. If that’s so, Pazmany pointed out, Amherst has plenty to offer, such as Museums10, a collaborative of 10 area museums, of which seven are located in town. Together, the museums cover various aspects of history, art, literature, and the natural world.

“In a normal year, Museums10 will bring more than a half-million people to the area,” she said. “The Emily Dickinson Poetry Festival itself is a global event.”

For the more immediate future, the plan is to have outdoor dining up and running by April 1. The BID was able to supply enough table umbrellas and heaters during the summer to boost last year’s effort. Because there are so many barriers in place to ensure safe outdoor dining, the BID also paid 35 artists to turn the plain concrete into a medium to express themselves.

“The barriers became nice displays of public art, and they give downtown a bit of an art-walk feel,” Gould said.

Simple touches like the artwork and adding planters around town generated positive comments from visitors and business owners alike. Pazmany appreciated the boost of confidence. “In this next phase, we just want our businesses to be up and running so they can take a paycheck and start to rehire people.”

Most Amherst leaders, in fact, look to the coming year with great anticipation. Bockelman noted that the town has several fundamental strengths, including the university and colleges. Pazmany added that UMass has already reported an increase in enrollment for the coming fall.

Gould admits that pushing forward on grants and other relief efforts helped Amherst through the worst of the pandemic. “Despite how hard everyone was hit, we’ve created a resiliency that kept our businesses here.”

Bockelman agreed. “Everyone’s efforts worked because they were sequential and were patiently done. We just kept moving forward.”

Epictetus would be proud.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
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

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

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 48: Jan. 18, 2021

George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council

Rick Sullivan

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. The two discuss the state of the economy and the outlook for the balance of 2021. The two also discuss the pandemic, its impact on the local business community, and the possibility that it might provide some opportunities for the region in terms of attracting new businesses — and new residents — who might view Western Mass. as a viable option to higher-cost urban centers like Boston and New York. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Living Local.

 

Also Available On

Coronavirus Cover Story

Pandemic Tests the Mettle of the Region’s Small Businesses

Over the course of this long, trying year, BusinessWest has offered a number of what we call ‘COVID stories.’ These are the stories of small-business owners coping with a changed world and challenges they could not possibly have foreseen a year ago. As this year draws to a close, we offer more of these sagas. Like those we documented before, they put on full display the perseverance, imagination, and entrepreneurial will that has defined the business community’s response to the pandemic.

Things Are Heating Up

Hot Oven Cookies Seizes Growth Opportunities During Pandemic


COVID Tails

Pandemic Has Forced This ‘Pet Resort’ to Consolidate and Pivot


Words to Live By

Greenfield Recorder Stays Locally Focused on Pandemic — and Everything Else


The Latest Word

At Hadley Printing, the Presses Have Started Rolling Again


Root Causes

For This Dental Practice, COVID Has Brought Myriad Challenges

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Coronavirus Cover Story

Shell-shocked Businesses Respond with Grit, Determination

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked businesses large and small in virtually every sector of the economy. The individual stories vary somewhat, but there are several common themes — lost revenue streams, struggles to make payroll and pay the bills, and large amounts of uncertainty about what the future holds. But there are other commonalities as well, including a willingness, born of necessity, to respond to this crisis — the worst situation any of these business owners have faced — with determination, imagination, and the will to find a way to get to the ‘other side.’ For this issue, BusinessWest talked with 10 business owners about what has happened since the pandemic arrived with brutal force three incredibly long months ago, and how they’re battling back. These are their COVID stories.

Zasco Productions

Event company works to pivot, position itself for the long term

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Go Graphix

In a sign of the times, this company has pivoted into new products

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Lenzy Dermatology

Practice owner says many patients still wary of returning to her office

Liz Rosenberg

TheToy Box

Shop owner finds ways to share joy at a time when it’s badly needed

Teddy Bear Pools

During peak season, this area fixture is making up for lost weeks

Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality

Hotel group continues to grow through an uncertain time

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood

For this photographer and sock maker, the pandemic is a developing story

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Mercier Carpet

Pandemic poses challenges, opportunities for flooring company

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Cuts Plus

Salon owner says he missed the relationships the most

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

Eastside Grill

Restaurant owner says reopening will be exciting, but scary, too

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Climbing Out

It’s not easy for a business to be shut down — seriously curtailing or even eliminating all revenue — for any period of time. But it’s much more frustrating not to know how long that period of time will actually be. That’s where Massachusetts businesses deemed non-essential during the COVID-19 pandemic stand right now — in a limbo of treading water and being as flexible, creative, and patient as they can while they await word on when the state will reopen its economy, and what form that re-emergence will take.

At some point in early March, Ashley Batlle knew what was coming. And she knew what it meant for her health and wellness spa, Beauty Batlles Lounge, that she opened in Chicopee about a year ago.

“This is a personal, physical-contact business. You’re definitely in close proximity with the client, giving them a service that everyone looks forward to — something they’re accustomed to making part of their schedule,” Batlle said. Yet, the rumblings were that, at some point, the rising threat of COVID-19 was going to force businesses to shut their doors. “So we tried to get as many clients in as we could.”

And then, suddenly, those appointments that clients look forward to were cancelled, postponed until — well, nobody knows yet. And that’s the problem for businesses the state deemed non-essential: the unknown.

Toward the end of April, the Baker-Polito administration extended the statewide essential-services emergency order by two weeks, from May 4 to May 18. Businesses and organizations not on the list of essential services can only continue operations through remote means — if at all possible.

For Batlle, well … she can’t offer facials, waxing, microblading, and other treatments remotely. And she was unable to access benefits through the CARES Act and other government relief measures.

“My anxiety level has been very, very high. It hasn’t been fun, not knowing when we’ll begin to open and what kind of measures will be asked of us by the state and city to be able to reopen,” she said, noting that, as a one-woman operation, it will be easy to comply with social-distancing regulations sure to accompany any sort of reopening.

What’s less certain is how customers will respond — to all types of interactions, not just her services.

“I’m going to be able to open up my doors and get everyone in as quick as possible — that’s what I would love to do, but I think it’s going to be a soft situation, where, little by little, we’re getting back to business,” she explained, noting that some people will be leery of close contact at first, especially since the virus doesn’t tend to show symptoms for a while.

Still, most business owners shuttered by the pandemic would love an opportunity to at least try to get back to normal, even if they understand why the governor put the stay-at-home mandate in place.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

“While we expected and understand Governor Baker’s decision to extend the stay-at-home advisory, that tough decision underscores the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in as a business community,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “We’re doing a balancing act between wanting to get back to work and getting back to work in a safe manner.”

Many of her members supported the two-week extension; a late-April chamber poll, right before the non-essential closures were extended by two weeks, asked what worried them more: the spread of the virus if restrictions were loosened too soon, or the negative economic impact of not reopening quickly enough. It also asked if Massachusetts was ready for a May 4 reopening.

“Seventy-seven percent responded that the spread of the virus was more worrisome, and an overwhelming number — 91% — responded that Massachusetts was not ready for a May 4 reopening,” Creed said, “clearly revealing that much of the business community is concerned about protecting those most vulnerable and stopping the spread of the disease, and demonstrating the commitment our business community has to the community as a whole.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, took a similar outlook.

“I do not think that anyone is surprised that the shutdown has been extended, as the governor has been clear he will follow the data as to when to begin reopening the economy,” Sullivan said. “We may be seeing the number of cases plateauing, but [development of] a vaccine, or treatment medication, is still in its infancy, so the data still says go slow. I do think some businesses previously deemed non-essential could have protocols put in place to allow partial reopening. However, nobody wants to reopen prematurely and see worse spikes later in the year.”

All that may be true, but it’s still difficult — and, for many businesses, exceptionally concerning — to stay closed this long, and possibly longer. Businesses are doing what they can to be creative, in many cases opening doors of commerce they will continue to pursue after the COVID-19 threat passes, or even using the time to support other community members in need (more on that later).

But no one likes the uncertainty of not knowing whether May 18 is the real target for reopening, or just another can to be kicked down the road.

Waiting Game

Paul DiGrigoli would like to reopen, too.

“This has impacted us tremendously,” said the owner of DiGrigoli Salon and DiGrigoli School of Cosmetology in West Springfield. “We haven’t had a chance to reach out to all our clients; some we have. But we just have to wait until Charlie Baker gives us the green light, which hopefully will be May 18.”

He was able to secure a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, succeeding in the second round of that program’s disbursements after missing on the first round. That will help cover costs like utilities and mortgage interest while keeping his employees paid for eight weeks as well. “We went through Community Bank, and they were phenomenal,” he said.

And he’s getting ready for some anticipated changes when the salon does reopen.

“We bought a lot of hand sanitizer to put at the front desk in the school and the salon, we’ve gotten gloves and masks, and what we’re going to do initially is get the clients’ cell phone numbers and call them from the reception desk to let them know when their appointment is available. And we’ll stick with staying six feet apart, spreading out the stations. Both the stylist and the client will have to wear a mask until further notice. It’s going to be uncomfortable at first.”

As for the school, online training has been effective for theory, but students haven’t been able to practice what they learn.

In general, he told BusinessWest, “we’re really trying our hardest to get back to normal, but we’ve really been handcuffed. There has been frustration and anxiety because we don’t know what to expect.”

Or when to expect it, he added. “We don’t know when it will happen. They’re saying May 18, but who the heck knows? We’re hoping it doesn’t go beyond that, but thank God for the relief funds — that really saved us.”

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, polled her members at the end of April and put some of that anxiety into raw numbers. For example, responding businesses are losing an average of $55,837 per month in revenue during the shutdown, and 61% have had to lay off or furlough employees. More than 20% have serious concerns about being able to reopen if the state of emergency extends beyond June 1.

“They’re worried,” she said. “Rent, utilities, and payroll are three areas that continue to be a struggle.”

Amherst is also in an unusual situation, as it’s a small town that loses more than half its population when UMass Amherst and Amherst College aren’t in session. The downtown businesses in particular rely heavily on students — and now there’s talk across the region that colleges might start the fall with distance learning only.

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online. The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

“Initially, there hasn’t been a lot of grumbling, but they’re generally frustrated and just sad. Everything is unknown,” Pazmany told BusinessWest. “They’re fearful — so much is unknown, and delays keep coming. We don’t have a deadline or guidelines; they just keep pushing back the date, and that causes more fear and anxiety.”

Driving Innovation

And also a good deal of invention, driven by necessity.

“On the flip side, this has stirred a lot of innovation from businesses who have been deemed non-essential or limited; they’ve pivoted or gone online,” Pazmany said. “The creativity and innovation we’ve seen have been really exciting.”

Take Zanna, a clothing shop that has been a staple of Amherst’s downtown for decades, but has never had an online store. Until now.

“You have to look at the good in this crisis,” owner Amy Benson said. “In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.

“Do I think it’s the wave of Zanna’s future? No, but I think it’s an extension. We’ll probably keep it going once we’re open,” she added, noting that it opens more opportunities. “We’re in a transient community. We see people from all over the country, between the university and Amherst College. We all want things to be the way they were, but we know we’ll have to adapt. Some of these new trends, like my online store, I’m not going to shut that off.”

Benson has been creative in other ways as well, from curbside pickup — with everyone wearing masks — to ‘virtual shopping,’ where she walks a customer around the store using an iPad and FaceTime, showing them tops and bottoms and coordinating outfits.

“We want customers to be engaged, and they want to hear from us because we form those kinds of relationships,” she said. “When we’re FaceTiming, we’re FaceTiming with a friend and shopping with a friend. It’s a really important way to stay connected.

“You have to do something,” she went on. “You can’t just close your doors and do nothing. Our customers are women who have supported us for over 40 years; we’re not going to just shut our doors and not communicate. I do whatever I can to stay engaged with our customers, they’re the lifeline of our business.”

In other words, Zanna has come a long way since last month, when Benson was in “full panic mode” and offering nothing but a gift-certificate promotion. “We’re not bringing in nearly the revenue we would normally, but we’re supporting what we’re able to do right now.”

She’s not alone, Pazmany noted, citing examples like restaurants revamping their online presence with expanded takeout menus to Amherst Books shipping and delivering items to customers, to the Amherst Area Chamber itself, which has been connecting with the business community through marketing seminars.

Doing Some Good

Or taking advantage of an unusual time to do some good in the community.

Dean’s Beans, based in Orange, has seen a surge in web sales as coffee drinkers are brewing more at home due to social distancing and telecommuting. With COVID-19 causing great economic hardship, the company has chosen to share the money from these web sales with the community by helping to fund school food programs — a total of $26,000, in fact, divided among seven Western Mass. school districts.

“Making sure children have access to food throughout this pandemic is crucial, and we are proud to support these essential programs in Springfield, Amherst, and Orange,” said Dean Cycon, founder and CEO of Dean’s Beans. “Part of a company’s profitability is the positivity it generates for others, and we are committed to helping our communities ease the pain of this crisis.”

Amy Benson

Amy Benson

“You have to look at the good in this crisis. In my case, it moved me — encouraged me — to get an online store open. I’ve only owned the store a year, so I didn’t have time to even think about an online store before. Now I did, so I took the time to get it up and going.”

Meanwhile, Batlle has launched the Hero Project, a virtual fundraiser designed to give back to those on the front lines fighting the pandemic. Funds raised will be set aside to provide complimentary self-care services at Beauty Batlles Lounge for healthcare professionals, police officers, firefighters, EMTs, and employees of sheriffs’ departments, once she can open her doors again. Visit beautybatlles.com to donate.

Considering the masks they’re wearing all day long, “they’re going to need facials when this is done,” Batlle joked, before getting serious.

“I reached out to my nurse friends and heard their stories, about the trauma they’re going through. One friend works in the ICU at a COVID unit — she goes into work one day and has four patients, and when it’s time to leave, she only has one. That has to do something to you. How can I give back to them? That’s where the idea for the Hero Project came in.”

It’s a way to pay it forward while anticipating the light at the end of the tunnel, she told BusinessWest. “This isn’t easy on anybody.”

It would be easier with some clarity from Beacon Hill, but that’s not coming right now. Instead, Baker convened a Reopening Advisory Board of public-health officials, representatives from the business community, and municipal leaders from across the Commonwealth. They are charged with advising the administration on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics, and are expected to develop a report by May 18.

That’s just the report date. So it’s easy to see why businesses might not suddenly be reopening on that date.

“Personally, every time Governor Baker gives us a date when we’re going to open, I think, ‘hmm, I don’t know if that’s going to happen,’” Benson said. “I’m always thinking, ‘what’s the worst-case scenario? June 1? They keep pushing it back.”

That’s why it bothers Batlle that some proprietors of businesses like hers continue to offer services from their home.

“We should all just be staying stationary; we’re all in the same boat,” she said. “That just puts more stress on business owners who are actually following the rules, and it’s could extend the time we’re going to be out of work.”

Which, for too many business owners and employees across Western Mass., already feels like too long.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus

Analysis

By George O’Brien

As the Commonwealth begins the arduous task of turning its economy back on, the complicated situation conjures images from a scene in the movie Apollo 13.

That movie chronicled what became known as the ‘successful failure’ of that ill-fated flight to the moon almost exactly 50 years ago. Those familiar with the story know that, just over halfway to the moon, an explosion damaged the Odyssey spacecraft’s service module. Long story short, the crew had to abandon the Odyssey for the lunar landing vehicle Aquarius, and subsisted there while those at NASA figured out a way to get the crew home.

To get back to Earth safely, those at NASA had to eventually figure out a way to somehow start up the command module, which had been sitting idle for days, without power, in temperatures far below zero. If you’ve seen the movie, you remember a scene where one of the crew members, frustrated by the slow movement on a firm plan to restart the spacecraft, muttered ‘they don’t know how to do it’ to his colleagues.

At this precarious moment in history, many in the Commonwealth are tempted to say the same thing. Like the Odyssey, the state’s economy has been essentially frozen for several weeks now. Unthawing and restarting it will be a complicated process, and, just as with Apollo 13, there is no shortage of Ph.D.s working on the problem and trying to find a solution.

And, just as with that flight, there is obviously a lot at stake. With Apollo 13, it was three lives. With this pandemic … well, according to a report from the Massachusetts High Technology Council, the jobs of at least 40% of workers making less than $40,000 a year are at risk. Already, nearly 25% of the state’s workers have filed for unemployment benefits over the past six weeks. That’s right — close to one worker in four has sought relief. And the numbers could go higher still.

“It will be different, and it will be different for quite some time. Anyone who still believes a switch can be flipped and we can go back to where we were is sadly mistaken.”

Suffice it to say this will be an extremely complicated process, and those undertaking it have to get it right. If they go too fast or move improperly, a setback will likely prove even more devastating for the state’s economy — an economy that was, as we all know, humming right along.

Indeed, just a few short months ago, the Boston-area economy was absolutely bursting at the seams. Cranes were everywhere, major corporations were moving to the city, and people were looking to high-speed rail as a way to somehow possibly relieve the congestion, sky-high prices, and intolerable commutes that were defining life inside Route 128.

It seems like those public hearings in downtown Springfield on high-speed rail options were years ago, not several weeks ago.

And the same can be said of the employment picture across the state and even here in Western Mass. It was only a few months ago that we were all talking about the skills gap and how companies with vacancies couldn’t fill them. The word ‘ghosting’ became part of the vocabulary, a term used, in some instances, to describe someone who, between the time they were offered a job and was scheduled to start, found something better. Every employer had a ghosting story — or several of them.

Not to carry the Apollo 13 analogy too far (too late), but the state’s economy was absolutely soaring, a rocket ship bound for new heights. And then … the explosion.

Now, the task at hand is to restart the economy and get people back home, to where they were. But that’s where the analogy ends. Home is much different than it was when we left, and there’s no just going back to it.

The return to something approaching normal, or a new normal, will be slow, as in painfully slow, and gradual. It will be to workplaces where people wear masks, work at least six feet apart, and get tested for the virus regularly. It will be to a casino where the slot machines are spaced widely, one might use a long, plastic stick to press buttons on those slots, and where thermal cameras monitor the temperature of patrons. It might well be a phased-in return where those who are older and most vulnerable, as well as those most able to work remotely, return last. It will be to a business community where the vast majority of ventures are simply fighting for their lives.

It will be different, and it will be different for quite some time. Anyone who still believes a switch can be flipped and we can go back to where we were is sadly mistaken. This is made clear by the stubbornly high numbers concerning cases and deaths in Massachusetts, and the fact that, just a few days ago, the governor ordered people to wear masks in public.

The state has to find a way to reopen the economy — it can’t stay closed much longer — and also keep people safe, not overwhelm the healthcare system, and not present a scenario where we take one step forward and two or three back.

Apollo 13 had a happy ending — even if the crew didn’t get to moon. But this isn’t a movie, and we don’t know how it’s going to end.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest

Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Cover Story Features Special Coverage

Life in Limbo

It was becoming clear weeks ago that the novel coronavirus would have some sort of economic impact once it washed ashore in the U.S. — but it’s still not clear, and perhaps won’t be for some time, how severe and wide-ranging the damage could be, as people cancel travel plans, curtail business operations, shut down college campuses, and take any number of other actions to stay safe. It’s a fast-moving story, and one that’s only beginning.

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had barely shown up in the U.S. when some of Bob Nakosteen’s students in an online graduate economics course started dropping the course because they were dealing with a more immediate issue: supply-chain interruptions in their own companies.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it,” Nakosteen said. “Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.

“A situation like this interacts with the ethic of lean production,” he went on. “People keep limited inventories — and that’s great as long as there’s a supply chain that’s frictionless and reliable. As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one. And that’s what you’ve got now.”

Editor’s Note:

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting this region and its business community in ways that are far-reaching and unprecedented. Visit COVID-19 News & Updates  and opt into BusinessWest Daily News to stay informed with daily updates.

More than a week has passed since we spoke with Nakosteen — a professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — for this story, meaning another week for the supply-chain situation for manufacturers and other companies to deteriorate.

In fact, when it comes to the economic impact of the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, now officially a pandemic, virtually everything has only gotten worse.

“We have to assume everything will be affected. Airlines are experiencing reduced demand, cancelling hundreds and thousands of flights,” he said, noting that reduced tourism will hit numerous sectors, from hotels and restaurants to ground transportation and convention halls, that rely on travelers.

“How many firms are curtailing business travel? The NCAA now plans to play playing games with empty stands,” he went on, a decision that became official soon after — not to mention the NBA suspending its season outright. “What happens to the people who provide parking and concessions? Now multiply that over hundreds or thousands of events that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of months. It’s going to have an economic effect.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst is one of several area colleges and universities that are sending students home and will conduct remote classes only for the time being.

Nakosteen’s own campus is certainly feeling that impact. The day before BusinessWest went to press, the five campuses in the UMass system suspended in-person instruction and will transition to online course delivery, at least through early April and perhaps beyond. That followed a similar move by Amherst College, whose president, Carolyn Martin, told students the college was taking to heart the announcement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. is past the point of totally containing COVID-19. Other area colleges have since followed suit, or are considering their options.

“While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects,” she said, using language that will no doubt be similar to the statements other colleges, in Massachusetts and across the U.S., are currently preparing. “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

While all travel is slowing — for example, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have both curtailed out-of-state business travel by government employees, and President Trump issued a European travel ban — Don Anderson, owner of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, has seen vacation travel take a major hit.

“We’re a society where, when you’re growing up, you eat your meal, and then you get your dessert. Now we have a situation where people are not having their dessert — their vacation,” he told BusinessWest. “Imagine kids not going to the islands or not going to a park, to the annual parade, not going anywhere. We are a society that works our butts off, we put in overtime, so we can have our time off. To have a year with no time off, that’s not who we are. As Americans, we want our vacation, we want our escape, so we can recharge and come back and work our butts off again.”

But they’re increasingly calling off those vacations, even though Fauci told reporters last week that cruise ships, with all the precautions they’re taking (more on that later), are safe for healthy young people.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it. Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.”

“The bottom line is, we are unintentionally punishing ourselves by not having an escape. A good portion of our customers are going on trips, but many are not,” Anderson said, adding that he expects the industry to recover after the crisis is over. “That’s what we’re all hoping. Otherwise, it’s a dire situation for the industry and even more so for the economies that travel impacts directly and indirectly, including the United States.”

For now, though, businesses of all kinds are in a sort of limbo, bearing the initial brunt of an economic storm spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself — no one really sure how severe it will get, and when it will turn around.

Sobering Education

Many companies, from small outfits with a few employees to regional giants, are grappling with similar questions about what to do if the virus threatens their workforce. On that upper end, size-wise, is MassMutual in Springfield, which has certainly talked strategy in recent days.

“MassMutual is taking appropriate action to protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community and assure the continuity of our business operations,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This includes limiting non-essential domestic and international business travel and ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including proactively testing work-from-home capabilities.”

In the meantime, MassMutual is limiting non-essential guests at its offices, enhancing cleaning protocols at its facilities, and limiting large-scale meetings, she added. “We are continuously monitoring this evolving situation, reassessing our approach, and staying in close communication with our employees.”

Most importantly, Crisco said, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home, and the company is also communicating basic guidance on how to prevent the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting touched objects and surfaces.

Kevin Day, president of Florence Bank, told BusinessWest the institution has disaster plans in place for a host of circumstances, from epidemics to natural disasters, and has developed strategies for meeting basic customer needs in case staffing is reduced.

Bob Nakosteen

“As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one.”

“We just checked with all our managers and asked, ‘are we comfortable that everyone is cross-trained enough, so that, if your area was out, we could function?’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘yes, we have the plans right here, we know exactly what we’d do.’

He understands, however, that no one can anticipate the extent of the crisis quite yet.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen challenges in the past. Whatever challenge is presented, we’ve just got to get the right people in the building together and think about how to continue to do what we do, which is open the door and serve the customers. We have those things in place,” Day said. “As it ramps up, and all of a sudden your employees start coming down with it, the escalation would get much greater, and you might have to take more draconian steps.”

‘Draconian’ might be a word some people used when they first heard about the college shutdowns, but there’s a logic behind that move.

“While at this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on our campus or in the surrounding community, we are taking these steps as a precautionary measure to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, said in a statement to students. “By reducing population density on campus, we will enable the social distancing that will mitigate the spread of the virus. There is presently no evidence that our campus is unsafe, but our transition to remote learning is intended to create a safer environment for all — for the students who return home and the faculty and staff who remain.”

He conceded that the move is a massive disruption for students and families, but said the university is committed to helping those with the greatest needs on an individual basis. Meanwhile, the Provost’s office is working with the deans to identify laboratory, studio, and capstone courses where face-to-face instruction is essential, and students in these courses will be notified whether they can return to campus after spring break.

At the same time, Martin said Amherst College will consider making exceptions for students who say it’s impossible to find another place to stay.

“It saddens us to be taking these measures,” she added. “It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College, but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

Elementary-, middle- and high schools may close as well, after Gov. Charlie Baker, as part of his emergency declaration last week, freed school districts from mandatory-days rules, so that they have the flexibility to make decisions on temporary closures due to coronavirus.

Specifically, the longest any school district will be required to go is its already-scheduled 185th day. No schools will be required to be in session after June 30. Schools may also disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year.

Reaction or Overreaction?

While some economic impacts may be inevitable, Anderson questioned whether some businesses are being hurt more than others based on, in his case, media spin that has focused on a couple of recent outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Honestly, I’m more concerned walking into the supermarket — that tomato I’m grabbing or fresh produce I’m purchasing, I don’t know how many people before me have touched it. I don’t know who’s touching the elevator button. I don’t know who entered their pin number on the debit/credit-card reader. Even when we voted, everyone who used the polling booth shared the same pens,” he said, adding quickly that election officials in East Longmeadow, where he is a Town Council member, did occasionally wipe down the voting surfaces and pens, as did other communities.

“What we do know is there’s been well over 20,000 deaths of American citizens from the flu this season alone, but I’m not seeing large, front-page stories about that,” Anderson noted. “Why aren’t there long lines out of the local CVS or Walgreens to get the flu vaccine?”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

The key, he said, is a balanced and measured response — and for people to use healthy practices all the time. As one example, he noted the hand-washing stations at the entrance of all restaurants on cruise ships. While at least two cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages, those still operating strictly follow those protocols.

“You have dedicated crew reminding everyone and watching so you wash your hands before going in,” he said. “It’s not something you see in stateside restaurants. But on cruise ships, you have to wash your hands. These washing stations were a consequence years ago of the norovirus impacting a small number of cruise-ship passengers. As a result, the incidences onboard ships has lowered.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Travel Assoc. President and CEO Roger Dow worried about bold moves like barring European travel. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said in a statement.

While many businesses struggle with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the anxiety it’s causing among Americans, others see it as a chance to expand their services.

For example, the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 response team last week comprised of attorneys in the areas of business, finance, employment, schools, healthcare, and cybersecurity. Understanding that each business will be affected differently, the firm noted that taking proactive measures may help minimize the risk of business interruptions, and the COVID-19 response team has developed — and posted on its website — a catalog of issues to be considered by each business owner or manager.

Meanwhile, Associated Industries of Massachusetts published an expansive guide to employment-law issues that might arise due to the virus, dealing with everything from quarantines and temporary shutdowns to remote work and employee privacy issues. That guide is available at aimnet.org/blog/the-employers-guide-to-covid-19. John Gannon, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, also answers some relevant questions in this issue.

Righting the ship if COVID-19 sparks an actual recession could be difficult, for a number of reasons, writes Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy for the Atlantic. She notes several reasons why a coronavirus recession could be difficult to reverse in the short term, including its uncertainty, demand and supply shocks at the same time (that supply-chain issue again), political polarization in the U.S., the global nature of COVID-19, and the fact that monetary policy is near exhaustion, as the Federal Reserve has already cut rates to near-historic lows, leaving little room to maneuver in the coming months

“They really don’t have much space to cut,” Nakosteen added. “Normally when the economy runs into trouble, the Federal Reserve runs in to the rescue. The problem now is we don’t have much room to rescue.”

He also cited the psychological factor that can quickly turn economic anxiety into something worse. “People say, ‘oh my God,’ they start drawing in their tentacles, and that’s when you have a recession.”

Lives in the Balance

None of this is to suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 outweigh the human ones. This is, foremost, a health crisis, one the healthcare community, particularly hospitals, are bracing for.

“We have an emergency preparedness committee, but those policies are sort of general,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of Infection Prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “We’ve had a lot of incidents in the past decade — we’ve prepared for Ebola, measles, H1N1, a lot of things. But each epidemic is different in how it’s transmitted and what to watch for. With each epidemic, we have to go through the emergency preparation plan and figure things out.”

Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, echoed that idea. “We have a standard infection-control committee and a plan that we would activate whenever we have a surge of infectious-disease patients,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular situation is rapidly evolving. We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) continues to offer guidance to the public at www.mass.gov/2019coronavirus. It’s also urging older adults and those with health issues to avoid large crowds and events, while individuals who live in households with vulnerable people, like elderly parents, should also consider avoiding crowds. The DPH is also issuing guidance to long-term-care facilities, where sick visitors could endanger dozens of people very quickly.

Still, coronavirus is also an economic story, one with a plot that’s only beginning to take shape. It also may be a long story, with no end in sight.

“We’re in a position where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we can speculate on what parts of the economy are going to be affected,” Nakosteen said. “We’re all watching it play out without a whole lot of idea how it will play out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Warning Signs

John Regan

John Regan says Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently surveyed a cross-section of its members regarding the economy, the direction they believe it will take, and the steps they are themselves taking as a result.

Roughly 75% of those surveyed anticipate an economic contraction before the end of 2020, and a sampling of the gathered remarks hints strongly at an undercurrent of caution, if not outright concern:

• “Scaling back on hiring plans; slowing down certain capital expense/equipment purchases until we get a clearer picture of what the next six months will bring.”

• “Concentrating on expense reduction … evaluating closely the need to replace positions.”

• “Diversifying our service options.”

• “We have temporarily eliminated overtime, which was formerly unlimited.”

Slicing through all that, Regan said AIM’s members are looking at the conditions, gauging how they will effect things short-term and long-term, and, by and large, deciding not to take on too much until the picture becomes much clearer.

And, as the organization’s new president and CEO — he took the helm in May — he is essentially advising the state to do the same.

“A possible takeaway from the survey for state policymakers as they begin considering billions of dollars in new spending is this could be a difficult time ahead for the state economy,” Regan told BusinessWest. “Businesses are assuming a defensive posture, and significant tax increases — beyond the $1 billion for the new paid family and medical leave system — even for worthwhile causes, could harm the overall economy, most especially the manufacturing sector.

“This might not be the time to really go all in on lots of different tax proposals,” he went on, listing everything from new spending initiatives to the so-called ‘millionaires’ tax,’ a step he believes will pose dire consequences for the Commonwealth. “Legislators should do what our members who answered the questions are doing — delaying their ambitious agenda and letting the things they’ve already done take their course and put some away for a rainy day.”

Passing on members’ concerns about the economy and urging caution when it comes to business-related legislation are two of the many lines on the job description for AIM’s president, said Regan, who moved to the corner office after a dozen years as AIM’s executive vice president of Government Affairs and almost two decades with the agency in that realm.

Another line on that job description involves presiding over annual ceremonies such as the one staged earlier this month at Wistariahurst in Holyoke, at which three area companies — MGM Springfield, American Saw, and Peerless Precision — were presented with Next Century and Sustainability awards for their efforts in creating the next era of economic opportunity for state residents.

A few hours before that ceremony, Regan sat down to talk with BusinessWest about a variety of topics, including his appointment, the state of AIM and its 3,500 members, and even his thoughts on how to achieve more balance between east and west in the Commonwealth.

But the condition of the economy and the results of that aforementioned survey soon dominated the conversation.

Regan noted that, overall, the state’s economy continues to expand, albeit at a slower pace than earlier in the year. Meanwhile, AIM’s Business Confidence Index, generally a reliable barometer of economic conditions, remains in optimistic territory (58.9), although it has lost nearly four points over the past 12 months. Unemployment remains low (2.9%), and private employers created nearly 7,000 jobs between August 2018 and August 2019.

Still, there are some ominous warning signs of a recession, and a number of businesses are already starting to feel the effects of tariffs and other federal and state measures, said Regan, adding that these businesses are starting to play defense — and the state should do the same.

Background — Check

If Regan seems to know his way around the State House — in every sense of that phrase — it’s because he does.

Indeed, before coming to AIM, before serving as vice president of Operations for MassDevelopment and leading its efforts to repurpose Fort Devens, before directing the Massachusetts Office of Business Development (MOBD) for five years, and even before serving as chief of staff to the mayor of Marlboro, he worked in the State House, first as a researcher on the Joint Committee on Banks and Banking, and then as a special assistant to the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I started out on the constituent side, and quickly moved to the policy side,” he said of his work with the Legislature. And, on many respects, he has remained on the policy side ever since.

When asked how he went from working for the state to becoming an advocate for its business community, Regan said there’s a story there. It involves the former Lunt Silversmith (an AIM member) in Greenfield, he recalled, adding that, as director of MOBD, he was asked to help convince the state Highway Department to put up signs that would direct motorists to the company’s new showroom facility. Long story short, he played a big role in getting the signs up.

“AIM was so impressed that state government actually got something done that they asked if I would consider joining the agency and its Government Affairs Department,” he recalled. “At the time, I wasn’t really looking, but I knew AIM from my days at the State House — it was a well-respected group and well-regarded in the building — and I thought this was a good opportunity for me.

“I never wanted to be a lobbyist in that sense that you’re out chasing clients to represent individually,” he went on. “The opportunity to come to AIM represented a chance to use my relationships in the building, but not lobbying for individual clients; at a 3,500-member organization, you’re working on policy, not just individual company issues.”

And over the years, he has advocated for members on issues ranging from unemployment-insurance reform to non-compete agreements; from pay-equity law changes to paid family and medical leave.

Since taking over as president and CEO, Regan said he spent much of the first several weeks focusing largely on internal matters, including membership, marketing, finances, technology, and hiring his successor in Government Affairs — Brooke Thomson, formerly with AT&T.

“I wanted to make sure I understood the parts of AIM I never really had to worry about as head of Government Affairs,” he noted. “And part of what the board charged me with was coming up with an operational plan for the balance of 2019 through 2021.

“It’s not a strategic plan,” he went on, “but just making we’re able to explain what we thought we could do and should do, and get that on paper and in front of the board.”

Reading the Tea Leaves

These days, though, he’s more focused on the Commonwealth’s businesses, the uncertain state of the economy, and policy matters, such as helping to secure a three-month delay in the start of payroll deductions to fund the program.

Returning to that recent survey of members, Regan said it is quite revealing and clearly depicts both the concern felt by business owners and their commitment to act responsibly, and defensively, in such a climate.

“They’re doing the things you might expect,” he noted. “They’re saving money versus investing it, and they’re only doing capital projects that have a very swift return on investment. They’re looking for additional, profitable product lines that might allow them to weather the storm. But mostly, they’re thinking ahead and being ready.”

And this is the mindset Regan believes both the federal and state governments should embrace given both the current conditions and the possibility, if not likelihood, of a recession in 2020.

With the former, Regan noted that tariffs and the trade war are already taking a steep toll — on manufacturing but also other sectors of the economy, including agriculture — and the threat of more such actions loom large over the state and the region.

“Uncertainty around trade, in particular, grows by the day,” he said. “It seems like every day you wake up and there’s another round of tariffs. One of our longest members is Ocean Spray cranberries, and they’re getting killed by tariffs.”

As for the State House, Regan said lawmakers there should consider the current economic conditions and the threat of recession as they ponder additional mandates and taxes, including what is known officially as the Fair Share Amendment, but has been dubbed the millionaires’ tax.

That name conjures up thoughts of rich people sitting on a beach, he told BusinessWest, but the reality is that most of those who would be impacted by this measure, which would impose a 4% income-tax surcharge on annual income beyond $1 million, are business owners, as in the small to medium-sized business owners who dominate the state’s economy and especially the Western Mass. economy.

And recent research, including an in-depth report by Bloomberg News, shows that individuals hit with such taxes often leave for safer havens, taking their income with them, he noted.

“Bloomberg found that Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey face the largest financial drains from the 5 million Americans who move from one state to another each year,” AIM wrote in a recent blog post, citing other states that had passed taxes on high earners. “Connecticut lost the equivalent of 1.6% of its adjusted gross income, according to Bloomberg, because the people who moved out of the Nutmeg State had incomes that were 26% more, on average, than those people who moved in.”

Regan agreed, and said these numbers paint a grim picture and present a competitive disadvantage for the Commonwealth, one the Legislature should consider as it moves closer to joining other states in enacting such measures.

“I love it when elected officials roll out statistics that show ‘30 states do this’ or ‘20 states do that,’” he said. “We can tell them we have a whole list of states that have tried the wealth-tax approach, and it’s bombed, and they say, ‘well, that’s different.’

“How is it different?” he went on. “How are we not going to experience the same things that they’ve experienced?”

Bottom Line

Returning to that survey of AIM members, a few of the business owners polled expressed confidence about riding out what appears to be a storm on the horizon.

“We think we’ll be immune from the contraction,” wrote one, while another said, “our industry is counter-cyclical; when the economy contracts, our industry usually receives a boost.”

Those sentiments don’t apply to most businesses, certainly, and Regan knows that. And that’s why AIM’s new president and CEO is working hard to convince lawmakers to do what his members are doing — what’s best for business and what’s best for long-term economic health.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Schindler

Diana Schindler says it’s key for Deerfield to balance the town’s rural character with needed economic growth.

Deerfield boasts numerous draws for businesses looking to relocate, Diana Schindler says, from its reasonable property-tax rate to its proximity to Interstate 91, Route 116, and Routes 5 and 10.

But there’s also been some pushback against some of those businesses, which reared its head when residents recently spoke out against a proposed Dollar General store in town. The Planning Board listened and turned down the project, said Schindler, Deerfield’s interim town administrator.

“There’s been a feeling in the community that they want that at arm’s length — that big-box retail development, drive-thrus, things they don’t feel are part of the culture of old Deerfield. It’s meaningful to them,” Schindler told BusinessWest.

“On the flip side, it creates more of a burden on the residential tax base,” she went on, noting that more than 80% of the town’s tax base is residential. “There’s a cost to the citizens in their tax rate and the sustainability of that tax rate. Deerfield has always readily paid for the level of service its citizenry wants and expects, but at the expense of not doing some major projects.”

For instance, the town is looking at a $1 million cost to replace a tank at the South Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needed work at the facility over the next decade or two. Then there are plans to expand the Tilton Library and develop a shared senior center with surrounding communities.

“Seniors are asking for that. But all this adds up to millions of dollars, and you have the pressure of limiting development — or, rather, wanting development that will fit into the culture, which does limit it to some capacity,” Schindler said. “Less than 20% of the tax base is commercial/industrial, which is not a lot considering the viability of the property we have along 5/10 and a couple other areas. It’s going to become a question for the citizenry — is it sustainable?”

She’s one of many in Deerfield who believe economic development — in whatever form residents may want — is critical to the future of a town known for its tourist draws, including Yankee Candle’s flagship store, Mount Sugarloaf, Historic Deerfield, and Magic Wings, but needs to diversify and broaden its commercial portfolio.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

“The ideal would be to get everybody together and integrate it all. We’re spread out geographically, and there’s a dichotomy between Old Deerfield and South Deerfield. We’re working toward making sure the town is the town, and everybody recognizes that if the town does well and comes together, then all of the components, all of our events, could do better.”

A veteran of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Hampshire Council of Governments, Schindler has some regional government experience, and she believes there’s value in taking a regional view of economic development. But she’s more concerned with Deerfield’s residents, agencies, and organizations working together to forge a common vision for community development.

“If we could come together,” she said, “especially as we come to our 350th-anniversary celebration, we could build energy off of each other.”

Forging a Path

That celebration rolls around in 2023, which should be enough time, Schindler said, to see some real development progress in town, particularly in the Elm Street corridor, the main commercial area in South Deerfield.

Town leaders know that to attract new businesses — in hospitality and other sectors as well — they need to make the downtown area more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, and they’re eyeing a host of potential improvements in the Elm Street center, which may include work on sidewalks, lights, and storefronts.

For a year before taking on her current role last month — one she is interested in pursuing on a permanent basis — Schindler was a special projects consultant in town, and one of the big projects she embraced right away was Complete Streets, mostly geared toward the South Deerfield center.

South Deerfield center

Town leaders see plenty of potential in the South Deerfield center corridor.

“We’re in the process of putting that plan together. We want to create more walkability, more accessibility, and that includes for folks in wheelchairs, people with children, people of all abilities,” she said. “We’re also looking at ways to make South Deerfield’s center more aesthetically pleasing — light it, put in streetscapes, put in wayfinding, finish the municipal parking lot we have down there; all that is being discussed as part of the plan. We want it to stay a viable downtown.”

The area is not particularly expansive, she pointed out, spanning just a few blocks, but in some ways, that presents a more enticing opportunity, by ensuring that development and improvement efforts are tightly focused. There’s some land-use complexity as well, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation owns a small part of the corridor, and the state owns Conway Street, home to Town Hall.

“But that’s an opportunity,” she said, “because the state is also excited about Complete Streets, and we could see a wonderful economic center down here, which I’m sure the state would support in a variety of different ways.”

The downtown has seen some business change recently, with longtime restaurant Jerry’s Place closing last year, and a café called Leo’s Table setting up shop in the location, with proprietor Jennifer Howard specializing in made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch fare. The building itself — which is also home to Ciesluk’s Market, Giving Circle Thrift Shop, the Tavern, and a Subway sandwich location, as well as 19 apartments on the second floor, has new owners, Jason Kicza and Justin Killeen, who plan to touch up the property this spring.

“I would consider that the anchor building on that side,” Schindler said, “and it’s doing great.”

Cumberland Farms’ move from South Deerfield’s center to the main road — specifically, the corner of Elm Street and Routes 5 and 10 — may not have been as great for the downtown’s prospects.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,400
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $16.34 (Deerfield), $18.14 (South Deerfield)
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

“They have a bigger business down on the corner, but it’s not necessarily a draw into the center; now people can just pop into Cumby’s for gas and keep going,” she said. “So we are looking at ways to basically create more stability in the center of South Deerfield by doing a variety of things. Obviously, part of that is keeping businesses and attracting more businesses.”

These days, the corridor can be oddly empty at certain times of the day, she noted, but well-trafficked during morning and evening rush hours. The goal, she told BusinessWest, is to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly center at all hours, rather than a thruway.

The Complete Streets plan will be a big part of that. By the time the 350th rolls around, she’d like to see significant physical and infrastructure improvements to make the downtown more of a destination. “The sidewalks will look different, maybe more green space, and hopefully we’ll see more people down there.”

High Times

Like many area communities, Deerfield has embraced the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, recently approving two site plans, one for a cultivation facility at Pioneer Gardens on Mill Village Road, and the other for a dispensary run by Harvest Inc. on State Road.

“The culture has changed,” Schindler said, noting that, when communities were first exploring the economic possibilities of marijuana businesses, many Deerfield residents — most of them older — were staunchly opposed. But that opposition has died down to a large degree in many towns, to the point where communities might begin to locate such businesses in more central areas.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

Meanwhile, Schindler and other Deerfield leaders will continue to think outside the box — even if big boxes aren’t in the cards — by examining where pockets of land already devoted to commercial and industrial businesses might have some infill potential, and continue to take pressure off the residential tax base.

“The thing I think is so tremendous about Deerfield is the huge opportunity it offers,” she said. “It’s wide open, and it’s got resources — financial resources, natural resources, culture, art, access to main roads. I get excited about it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

A year ago this time, we were writing how the pieces would soon start to fall in place for Springfield and this region as a whole and how there would be the start of a snow-ball effect regarding the city and heightened interest as it as a place to live, work, and invest in.

Well, 12 months later, the snowball is starting to take on some size and move at a pretty good clip, making the outlook for 2019 considerable bright locally, even as the picture nationally is becoming increasingly clouded by question marks (see related stories beginning on page 16).

In a way, there are two stories when it comes to the economy: nationally, there is considerable apprehension regarding a slowdown — what’s happening in Wall Street is a perfect example — even though most economic indicators, everything from unemployment rates to demand loans, remain solid.

It will be up the Fed, as well as investors and other constituencies, to sort things out at an intriguing time, when there is growth and doubt — both in very large quantities.

Meanwhile, locally, the region, and especially Springfield, seem to be on the cusp of something momentous, maybe even historic.

Those quoted in the stories comprising the Economic Outlook 2019 section speak of not merely optimism (there’s been lots of that over the years), but interest and activity. Tourism officials talk of rising occupancy rates and hotel-room rates and interest in developing new hotels. Meanwhile, commercial real-estate brokers and managers talk of interest in this market that they haven’t seen in decades — if ever.

Investors are looking at sites for everything from housing developments to cannabis dispensaries and everything I between.

It’s not as simple as ‘if you build it, they will come,’ but in many ways it is.

And what we’re building is a vibrant, livable, accessible city (and region) that people and businesses want to be part of. We have a long, long way to go, but more of those aforementioned pieces are falling into place, and more should come in the next few years.

MGM Springfield was certainly a big piece. It brought jobs, foot traffic, and interest in Springfield from people who might have had to look at a map or rely on the GPS system in the car to find it.

But there are many other pieces as well: Union Station and enhanced rail service are making it easier to get to the city; renovation of Stearns Square, Riverfront Park, and other facilities will make Springfield more livable; businesses and institutions moving into the downtown and investing there are prompting others to consider following suit; and an improved police presence is contributing to less apprehension about public safety — not to mention the many colleges now populating downtown, the ongoing remaking of Tower Square (White Lion Brewery will soon be moving in), the cannabis industry, and more.

When things like this start to happen, a city becomes more saleable as a place to live, and we’re seeing considerable interest in development of market-rate housing in and around downtown.

And when more people start to make the city their home address, more businesses — more restaurants, more clubs, some cannabis dispensaries, and more service-related ventures — will follow.

And then more people will want to relocate here, and more businesses will follow. That’s the theory, and in practice — and in some cities, like Cambridge, Lowell, and others — it works.

Will it work here? Perhaps. The signs are there. The pieces are falling into place, and the snowball is starting to take on size.

If 2018 was a year to build some momentum, then 2019 will be a year to capitalize on it. Big time.

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