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Scenes from the October 2017 Gala

Photos by Dani Fine Photography

healthcareheroeslogo021517-pingThere were more than 70 nominations for the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class, and each one of them was truly worthy of that word ‘hero.’ Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

On Oct. 19 BusinessWest and The Healthcare News recognized the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class. Collectively, they are pioneers, and were celebrated at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden. Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS, HUB International New England, and Health New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.


Their stories reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, innovation, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There were eight winners in this first class, with two in the category of ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness,’ because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Dr. Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.



Change Agent

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat

Donna Haghighat has seen a number of titles on her business cards over the years — everything from ‘tax attorney’ to ‘grants manager’ to ‘founder and CEO’ — yes, she’s launched a few businesses of her own. A common denominator with most all those career stops has been a desire to work with women and girls to identify goals and opportunities and remove the barriers to realizing them. Call it a passion — one that has brought her to her latest business card, which reads ‘CEO, Women’s Fund of Western Mass.’

“She changed the world for women.”
That was the simple six-word response Donna Haghighat summoned, after a few moments of thought, when asked why she sought to become the next director of the Women’s Fund of Western Mass.

By way of explanation, she said this is a mantra of sorts that she lives by, but also something she would perhaps like people to say about her when her career is over — which won’t be for quite some time now.

She told BusinessWest that she took this position with the hope, and expectation, that she could better live up to that mantra — and, well, also make it more likely that people will be saying that about her.

In many ways, they already are.

Indeed, Haghighat (pronounced Ha-gi-gat) has spent most of her career in positions devoted largely or entirely to that mission of changing the world for women, in some way. Her résumé includes a stint as the chief Engagement & Advocacy officer for the Hartford Region YWCA, and another as founder and CEO of a “social entrepreneurial website,” as she called it, called shoptimize.org, which featured products from emerging women entrepreneurs. Her background also includes work as the grants and programs manager for the Women’s Advancement Initiative at the University of Hartford and as executive director of the Aurora Women & Girls Foundation in Hartford.

She started out as a tax attorney and served for two years earlier this decade as the chief development officer for the Hartford Public Library, but assisting women and girls has been her real passion.

“Even when I wasn’t working professionally in women’s funding, I’ve always done that on an individual level even when I couldn’t do it on an organizational level,” she explained. “So for me, when this opportunity presented itself — one that would allow me to work at an organizational level to really bring about bigger change and mobilize the collective resources of women and their allies — it was really a no-brainer.”

She said she came to the Women’s Fund primarily because two of its main focal points — awarding grants to agencies and programs focused on assisting women and girls and developing programming on women’s issues and leadership — also happen to be her two main focal points.


With the former, she’ll strive to “strengthen the strategy concerning our grant making,” as she put it, meaning a more concerted effort to identify specific issues the grants are intended to address.

And with the latter, she is intrigued by both the prospect of building upon existing initiatives, such as the hugely successful Leadership Institute of Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) program, and new undertakings, such as the Young Women’s Springfield Initiative (YWSI), which features young women leaders working together with adult mentors to create a roadmap for their collective futures.

“I like that we’re able to do both grant making and on-the-ground programming as well,” she explained. “We’re helping women and girls in Massachusetts right now, and also building for the future in terms of shaping future leaders.”

When asked what was on her to-do list for the Women’s Fund, she started by talking about the organization’s mailing address. At the moment — and for the foreseeable future, it is 276 Bridge St. in Springfield, a strategic location chosen by the previous administration to address another item on Haghighat’s list — creating more visibility for the organization.

But that’s the address of the new Innovation Center in Springfield, an ambitious project led by DevelopSpringfield, MassDevelopment, and other partners that is currently in a holding pattern (construction work ground to a halt in May) amid funding problems and a now a lawsuit filed by the general contractor over non-payment for services and materials.

Haghighat, who started on Sept. 1, said the Women’s Fund is a tenant in the Innovation Center and has no control over the fate of the project. So while she watches as those issues play themselves out, she’ll focus on what she can control, specifically the programming and grant awarding she mentioned, efforts that should be boosted by another new addition at the agency.

That’s Christine Monska, who has joined the Women’s Fund as program officer for Leadership Programs, and in that position will play a lead role in administering the Young Women’s Initiative as well as other programs.

Overall, Haghighat said the broad goal for all members of her team is to make the Women’s Fund a greater resource and a stronger vehicle for positive change for girls and women across the region.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with her about what brought her to the Women’s Fund and also about where she wants to take this organization that lives by the same mantra she does.

Seizing an Opportunity

Haghighat said she became aware of the position at the Women’s Fund in a roundabout fashion, but one that speaks to how her skill set matches what the agency was looking for its next leader.

She had recently launched a consulting firm called Collabyrinth Collective, LLC, one that provided guidance to small businesses and nonprofits in realms ranging from marketing and fund-raising to diversity and inclusion.

Fast-forwarding a little, she said she reached out to friend and former Trinity College classmate Patricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, about her new venture, and in turn, Canavan asked her if she would ever consider taking on interim CEO opportunities.

They would eventually go on to discuss one such opportunity at length, one that didn’t pan out due mostly to issues of timing (Haghighat had a lengthy trip to China already on the calendar). But not long thereafter, the discussion would take a much different, rather serendipitous tone, because Canavan would be assigned the task of chairing the search committee charged with choosing a successor to outgoing Women’s Fund CEO Elizabeth Barajas-Román.

“She [Canavan] was reminded that I had considerable women’s funding experience,” Haghighat went on, adding that while she wasn’t exactly looking for a new opportunity and was enjoying her consulting work, the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. intrigued her on a number of levels.

Specifically, the WFWM position offered an opportunity to take experiences from several previous career stops involving women, fund-raising, and both, and apply them at an organization that is clearly in growth mode and developing new ways to carry out its multi-faceted mission.

Such as the YWSI, an initiative that has enormous promise on a number of levels, said Haghighat.

Elaborating, she said the Women’s Fund of Western Mass. is part of a coalition of eight women’s foundations across the country (the others are in Birmingham, Dallas, Los Angeles, Memphis, New York City, Washington, D.C., and the state of Minnesota) taking part in the Young Women’s Initiative.

In Springfield, the program will kick off Oct. 18 at UMass Center at Springfield, an event designed to highlight some of the key issues facing girls and women in the Commonwealth’s third-largest city and what the Women’s Advisory Council (YWAC) plans to do about them.

The program was inspired by an effort in New York City launched by an organization called Girls for Gender Equity, funded by the New York Women’s Foundation, Haghighat explained, adding that the Women’s Funding Network, of which the WFWM is a member, saw great potential in the initiative, which led to the pilot programs launched in those eight areas.

Here’s how it works. Girls and women from Springfield — meaning they are from the City of Homes if not necessarily living there now (they may be away at college, for example) — are eligible to participate in the program, which enlists them to both identify concerns and learn how positive change can come about.

“Through these young women, the program helps identify the concerns and the barriers that these women are seeing in their own lives,” she explained. “And then it will teach them about what public policy is all about and how they can affect public policy by looking at the issues affecting them and pushing for change.”

YWSI will partner the Women’s Fund with the city of Springfield, she went on, adding that funding for the initiative has been secured from MassMutual. It will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on girls and women of color, and will invite a number of stakeholders to be part of the process of initiating change and progress.

“Here’s an opportunity for young people to be at the center of efforts to try to change some of the things that are impeding their own progress and keeping them from reaching their full potential,” she went on, before motioning to the words written on large sheets of paper affixed to the walls outside her office.

Those words were some of the collective thoughts gathered at a host of so-called ‘listening tours’ staged in the run-up to the start of the program.

The girls and women gathered for those tours listed a broad array of interests (a list that including everything from fashion to arts to ‘daydreaming’) as well as concerns, barriers, supporters, and more, she said, adding that the collected thoughts serve as a form of preliminary database as the project gets underway.

“We’re learning a lot about what young women in Springfield see as both their opportunities and challenges,” she said. “And that’s going to help us inform our curriculum.”

The participating girls and women (Haghighat is expecting between 20 and 30 of them) will meet at least monthly between now and the spring.

While launching YWSI, Haghighat and her team will address a host of other issues on her growing to-do list.

Included on that list are bringing on two new staff members (Monska and an intern tasked with working on the YWSI program) and “having the team coalesce under my leadership,” as Haghighat put it, as well as work to finesse a recently drafted strategic plan.

Also on the list are increasing visibility for the Women’s Fund as well as staging more events like the LIPPI alumni gathering recently held in Shelburne Falls.

And for Haghighat personally, after spending the bulk of her career working in and around Hartford, she plans to work hard at becoming more familiar with this region, its institutions, its resources, and potential partners moving forward.

Impact Statement

Asked to look ahead to next spring and, more specifically, toward what she hopes and expects participants in the YWSI program to come away from that effort with, Haghighat offered thoughts that reflected not only on that initiative, but also what has become her life’s work.

“I want to have these young people walk away having a clearer sense of what their own challenges and opportunities are,” she said, “as well as an understanding of how policies work and how they can speak up and either join other groups or create their own groups to effect change that will remove barriers and hopefully amplify the opportunities they have so that not only them but also other young women can benefit.”

The wording varies, but that’s essentially the mission of every agency or business she’s ever worked for, including her own consulting company.

It’s about changing the world for women — for the better. That’s a mantra, but it’s also a career, one that has brought Haghighat to Springfield and the Women’s Fund.

Where she will take the organization remains to be seen, but the goal is clear: to broaden its impact and make it even more of a change agent.

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

Cover Story Sections Super 60

Saluting Success

super60logoA large technology company that has been a fixture in Western Mass. for decades and a craft-beer startup that has quickly shot from obscurity to a large cult following may boast very different histories, but they have one thing in common: they are the top honorees in this year’s Super 60 awards.

“The success of this year’s winners is a clear indication that our regional economy is strong and reflects the diverse nature of our industries,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, which is presenting the Super 60 honors for the 28th year. A celebration event honoring this year’s class will be held Friday, Oct. 27 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam.

Whalley Computer Associates Inc. of Southwick placed atop this year’s Total Revenue listing, followed by Marcotte Ford Sales Inc. of Holyoke and Commercial Distributing Co. Inc. of Westfield. In the Revenue Growth category, which recognizes the fastest-growing firms in the region, Tree House Brewing of Charlton tops the 2017 list, followed by Five Star Transportation Inc. of Southwick and LavishlyHip, LLC, an online outfit based in Feeding Hills.

“In just two short years of operation, Tree House Brewing, Inc., has moved straight to the top of the Revenue Growth category in its first year as a Super 60 winner,” she said.  “And LavishlyHip, an online retailer that garnered the top honors last year has returned in the top three this year.”

To be considered, companies must be based in Hampden or Hampshire counties or be a member of the Springfield Regional Chamber, have revenues of at least $1 million in the last fiscal year, be an independent and privately owned company, and be in business at least three full years. Companies are selected based on their percentage of revenue growth over a full three-year period or total revenues for the latest fiscal year.

Creed noted that this year’s winners hail from 17 communities across the region and represent all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits, transportation, energy, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, retail, and service. One-quarter of the Total Revenue winners exceeded $30 million in revenues. In the Revenue Growth category, one-quarter of the top 30 companies had growth in excess of 100%.

Four companies in the Total Revenue category also qualified for the Revenue Growth category, while 15 companies in the Revenue Growth category also qualified for the Total Revenue category, although each honoree is listed in only one category.

Tickets to the Oct. 27 event cost $60 for chamber members, $75 for general admission. Reservations may be made for tables of eight or 10. The deadline for reservations is Wednesday, Oct. 18. No cancellations will be accepted after that date, and no walk-ins will be allowed. Reservations must be made in writing, either online at www.springfieldregionalchamber.com or by e-mail to [email protected].

Total Revenue

1. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.
One Whalley Way, Southwick
(413) 569-4200
John Whalley, president
WCA is a locally owned family business that has evolved from a hardware resale and service group in the ’70s and ’80s into a company that now focuses on lowering the total cost of technology and productivity enhancement for its customers. Boasting nearly 150 employees, Whalley carries name-brand computers as well as low-cost compatibles.

2. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
1025 Main St., Holyoke
(800) 923-9810
Bryan Marcotte, president
The dealership sells new Ford vehicles as well as pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs, and features a full service department. Marcotte has achieved the President’s Award, one of the most prestigious honors given to dealerships by Ford Motor Co., on multiple occasions over the past decade. It also operates the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center.

3. Commercial         Distributing Co. Inc.
46 South Broad St., Westfield
(413) 562-9691
Richard Placek, Chairman
Founded in 1935 by Joseph Placek, Commercial Distributing Co. is a family-owned, family-operated business servicing more than 1,000 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 400 package and liquor stores. Now in its third generation, the company continues to grow by building brands and offering new products as the market changes.
A.G. Miller Co. Inc.
57 Batavia St., Springfield
(413) 732-9297
Rick Miller, president
Early in its history, A.G. Miller made a name in automobile enameling. More than 100 years after its founding in 1914, the company now offers precision metal fabrication; design and engineering; assembly; forming, rolling, and bending; laser cutting; punching; precision saw cutting; welding; powder coating and liquid painting; and more.

Aegenco Inc.
55 Jackson St., Springfield
(413) 746-3242
Spiro Vardakas, president
Aegenco, an energy-conservation consulting firm and the manufacturing arm of Aegis Energy Services, has grown steadily since its inception in 2005.

Aegis Energy Services Inc.
55 Jackson St., Holyoke
(800) 373-3411
Lee Vardakas, owner
Founded in 1985, Aegis Energy Services is a turn-key, full-service provider of combined heat and power systems (CHPs) that generate heat and electricity using clean, efficient, natural-gas-powered engines. These modular CHP systems reduce a facility’s dependence on expensive utility power, reduce energy costs, and reduce one’s carbon footprint.

Baltazar Contractors Inc.
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-6160
Frank Baltazar, president
Baltazar Contractors has been a family-owned and operated construction firm for more than 20 years, specializing in roadway construction and reconstruction in Massachusetts and Connecticut; all aspects of site-development work; sewer, water, storm, and utilities; and streetscape improvements.

Braman Pest
147 Almgren Dr., Agawam
(413) 732-9009
Gerald Lazarus, president
Braman has been serving New England since 1890, using state-of-the-art pest-elimination procedures for commercial and residential customers, and offering humane removal of birds, bats, and other nuisances through its wildlife division. The company has offices in Agawam, Worcester, and Lee, as well as Hartford and New Haven, Conn.

City Enterprises Inc.
38 Berkshire Ave., Springfield
(413) 726-9549
Wonderlyn Murphy, president
City Enterprises Inc. offers skilled general-contracting services to the New England region. Priding itself on custom design and construction of affordable, quality homes and the infrastructure surrounding them, the firm executes its mission in a way that supports community empowerment through job opportunities and professional development.

filli, lcc d/b/a con-test                                     analytical laboratory
39 Spruce St., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-2332
Established in 1984, Con-Test provides environmental consulting and testing services to clients throughout Western Mass. The laboratory-testing division originally focused on industrial hygiene analysis, but expanded to include techniques in air analysis, classical (wet) chemistry, metals, and organics, analyzing water, air, soil, and solid materials.

EG Partners, LLC d/b/a Oasis Shower Doors
646 Springfield St., Feeding Hills
(413) 786-8420
tom daly, President
Oasis Shower Doors, New England’s largest designer, fabricator, and installer of custom frameless glass shower enclosures and specialty glass, has rapidly expanded its operations in recent years, with showrooms located at Feeding Hills, Weymouth, and Peabody, Mass., as well as Avon, Conn.

Fuel Services Inc.
95 Main St., South Hadley
(413) 532-3500
Steve Chase, President and CEO
Full-service home-comfort and energy-solutions firm offering heating oil and propane delivery; plumbing, air-conditioning, and natural-gas services; installation of heating, cooling, water, and indoor-air-quality equipment; and more. The company serves more than 30 communities in Western Mass. and provides 24-hour emergency service.

The Futures Health Group, LLC
136 William St., Springfield
(800) 218-9280
Brian Edwards, CEO
Futures provides occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, special education, nursing, mental health, and other related services to schools and healthcare facilities across the U.S. Founded in 1998, it continues to be managed by expert practitioners in their fields.

The Gaudreau Group
1984 Boston Road, Wilbraham
(413) 543-3534
Jules Gaudreau, president
A multi-line insurance and financial-service agency established in 1921, the Gaudreau Group helps clients respond to an ever-changing economic environment. The agency offers a broad range of insurance and financial products from basic life, home, and auto insurance to complex corporate services, employee benefits, and retirement plans.

Haluch Water Contracting Inc.
399 Fuller St, Ludlow
(413) 589-1254
Thomas Haluch, president
For more than 30 years, Haluch Water Contracting has served the region as a water-main construction and excavation contractor specializing in water, sewer, pipeline, communications, and power-line construction.

JET Industries Inc.
307 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-2010
Michael Turrini, president
Jet Industries Inc. is a leading design build electrical, mechanical, communications and fire sprinkler contractor. What began as a small, family-run oil company founded by Aaron Zeeb in 1977 has grown into one of the nation’s largest companies of its type with over 500 employees servicing projects all across the country.

Kittredge Equipment Co. Inc.
100 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 304-4100
Wendy Webber, president
Founded in 1921, Kittredge Equipment Co.is one of the nation’s leading food-service equipment and supply businesses. It boasts 70,000 square feet of showroom in three locations. The company also handles design services, and has designed everything from small restaurants to country clubs to in-plant cafeterias.

Lancer Transportation & Logistics and Sulco Warehousing & Logistics
311 Industry Ave., Springfield
(413) 739-4880
Todd Goodrich, president
In business since 1979, Sulco Warehousing & Logistics specializes in public, contract, and dedicated warehousing. Lancer Transportation & Logistics is a licensed third-party freight-brokerage company that provides full-service transportation-brokerage services throughout North America.

Louis and Clark Drug Inc.
309 East St., Springfield
(413) 737-7456
Skip Matthews, president
Since 1965, Louis & Clark has been a recognized name in Western Mass., first as a pharmacy and later as a resource for people who need home medical equipment and supplies. Today, the company provides professional pharmacy and compounding services, medical equipment, independent-living services, and healthcare programs.

Maybury Associates Inc.
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-4216
John Maybury, president
Since 1976, Maybury Associates Inc. has been designing, supplying, and servicing all types of material-handling equipment throughout New England. Maybury provides customers in a wide range of industries with solutions to move, lift, and store their parts and products.

Notch Mechanical Constructors
85 Lemay St., Chicopee
(413) 534-3440
Steven Neveu, president
A family-owned business since 1972, Notch Mechanical Constructors provides piping installation and repair services to facilities throughout southern New England. Its team has the capacity to address process and utility piping challenges at any business within 100 miles of its locations in Chicopee and Hudson, Mass.

O’Connell Care at Home
One Federal St., Bldg. 103-1, Springfield
(413) 533-1030
Francis O’Connell, president
For more than two decades, O’Connell Care at Home, formerly O’Connell Professional Nurse Service, has grown to deliver a range of home-health and staffing services across the Pioneer Valley. Services range from nursing care and geriatric healthcare management to advocacy and transportation.

PC Enterprises Inc. d/b/a Entre Computer
138 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
(413) 736-2112
Norman Fiedler, CEO
PC Enterprises, d/b/a Entre Computer, assists organizations with procuring, installing, troubleshooting, servicing, and maximizing the value of technology. In business since 1983, it continues to evolve and grow as a lead provider for many businesses, healthcare providers, retailers, and state, local, and education entities.

Rediker Software Inc.
2 Wilbraham Road, Hampden
(800) 213-9860
Andrew Anderlonis, president
Rediker software is used by school administrators across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries, and is designed to meet the student-information-management needs of all types of schools and districts. For example, 100,000 teachers use the TeacherPlus web gradebook, and the ParentPlus and StudentPlus web portals boast 2 million users.

Specialty Bolt & Screw Inc.
235 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 789-6700
Kevin Queenin, president
Founded in 1977, Specialty Bolt & Screw (SBS) is a full-service solutions provider of fasteners, vendor-managed inventory (VMI) programs, and C-class commodities. Based in Agawam, it has locations in Valcourt, Quebec; Juarez, Mexico; Queretaro, Mexico; Rovaniemi, Finland; and Kaohsiung, Taiwan.

Troy Industries Inc.
151 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(413) 788-4288
Steve Troy, CEO
Troy Industries was founded on the principle of making reliable, innovative, over-engineered products that function without question when lives are on the line. Troy is a leading U.S. government contractor that designs and manufactures innovative, top-quality small-arms components and accessories and complete weapon upgrades.

United Personnel Services Inc.
1331 Main St., Springfield
(413) 736-0800
Patricia Canavan, president
United provides a full range of staffing services, including temporary staffing and full-time placement, on-site project management, and strategic recruitment in the Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton areas, specializing in administrative, professional, medical, and light-industrial staff.

W.F. Young Inc.
302 Benton Dr., East Longmeadow
(800) 628-9653
Tyler Young, CEO
This family-run business prides itself on offering a variety of high-quality products that can effectively improve the well-being of both people and horses with its Absorbine brands.

Webber & Grinnell Insurance Agency Inc.
8 North King St., #1, Northampton
(413) 586-0111
Bill Grinnell, president
Webber and Grinnell’s roots can be traced back to 1849, when A.W. Thayer opened an insurance agency on Pleasant Street in Northampton. The agency, which offers automotive, business, homeowners, employee benefit, and other types of products, serves more than 5,000 households and 900 businesses throughout Western Mass.

WestMass ElderCare Inc.
4 Valley Mill Road, Holyoke
(413) 538-9020
Priscilla Chalmers, Executive Director
WestMass ElderCare is a private, nonprofit agency with a mission to preserve the dignity, independence, and quality of life of elders and disabled persons desiring to remain within their own community. Programs include supportive housing, home care, options counseling, adult family care, nutrition programs, and adult foster care.

Revenue Growth

1. Tree House Brewing Company Inc.
129 Sturbridge Road, Charlton
(413) 523-2367
Nate Lanier, Damien Goudreau, Dean Rohan, Owners
The opening of a 45,000-square-foot facility in Charlton speaks to the recent growth of this brewery. Tree House was founded in Monson 2011, but in 2015 counted just one employee and 55 barrels of cellar space. The new facility can accommodate 50,000 barrels of cellar space, which will enable the brewery to produce up to 125,000 barrels a year.

2. Five Star Transportation Inc.
809 College Highway, Southwick
(413) 789-4789
Nathan Lecrenski, president
Five Star provides school-bus transportation services to school districts and charter schools throughout Western Mass. From its launch a half-century ago with a single bus route, the company currently services more than 12 school districts and operates a fleet of more than 175 vehicles.

3. Lavishlyhip, LLC
Feeding Hills
Rika Woyan, owner
This online retailer of jewelry and accessories offers accessory collections from the latest top designers. By meeting with the designers in their showrooms and at industry events, it stays on top of what is trending. Shoppers will find hip and classic jewelry for women and men, cashmere, silk and blend scarves, and hair accessories.

Adam Quenneville Roofing and Siding Inc.
160 Old Lyman Road, South Hadley
(413) 525-0025
Adam Quenneville, CEO
Adam Quenneville offers a wide range of residential and commercial services, including new roofs, retrofitting, roof repair, roof cleaning, vinyl siding, replacement windows, and the no-clog Gutter Shutter system. The company has earned the BBB Torch Award for trust, performance, and integrity.

Alliance Home Improvement Inc.
375 Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 331-4357
sergiy suprunchuk, president
Alliance is a professional local contractor providing quality and reliable residential services. Its products are Energy Star certified, and most of them have lifetime warranty provided by the manufacturer. Services include siding, windows, doors, roofs, gutters, faux stone siding, and custom-built homes.

Baystate Blasting Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-4440
Paul Baltazar, president
Baystate Blasting, Inc. is a local family owned and operated drilling and blasting firm located in Ludlow, Massachusetts that began in 2003.   Sitework, heavy highway construction, residential, quarry, portable crushing and recycling, ATF licensed dealer of explosives as well as rental of individual magazines.

Center Square Grill
84 Center Square, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0055
Michael Sakey, Bill Collins, Proprietors
Center Square Grill serves up eclectic American fare for lunch and dinner, as well as an extensive wine and cocktail selection and a kids’ menu. The facility also has a catering service and hosts events of all kinds.

Charter Oak Insurance &                        Financial Services Co.
330 Whitney Ave., Holyoke
(413) 374-5430
Peter Novak, General Agent
A member of the MassMutual Financial Group, Charter Oak been servicing clients for more than 125 years. The team of professionals serves individuals, families, and businesses with risk-management products, business planning and protection, retirement planning and investment services, and fee-based financial planning.

Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.
107 North Chicopee St., Chicopee
(413) 538-7279
Carol Campbell, president
Founded in 1992, Chicopee Industrial Contractors is an industrial contracting firm specializing in all types of rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, heavy hauling, plant relocations, concrete pads, foundations, and structural steel installations.

Community Transportation Services
288 Verge St., Springfield
(413) 732-1500
Houshang Ansari, president
Community transportation is a locally owned medical, elderly, and VIP transportation service founded in 1991. Its goal is to provide the community with safe and affordable transportation services. It is especially committed to meeting the transportation needs of senior citizens and the physically and mentally challenged.

Courier Express Inc.
20 Oakdale St., Springfield
(413) 730-6620
Eric Devine, president
Courier Express is committed to providing custom, same-day delivery solutions for any shipment. Its focal point is New England, but its reach is nationwide. The company strives to utilize the latest technologies, on-time delivery, customer service, and attention to detail to separate itself from its competitors.

Court Square Group Inc.
1350 Main St., Springfield
(413) 731-5294
Keith Parent, president
Court Square is a technical strategic advisor to the life-science and biotech industries. Consulting services include business analysis and consulting, information security and disaster recovery, SharePoint and document management, long-term archiving, project management, and much more.
FIT Staffing Inc.
25 Bremen St., Springfield
(413) 363-0204
Jackie Fallon, president
FIT Staffing, founded in 2005, provides a personal approach to connecting companies to the right IT professionals. FIT takes the time to meet the hiring manager to determine the exact qualifications, skills, and personality traits for the client’s ideal candidates. Meanwhile, FIT’s extensive listing of local IT openings is continuously updated.

Fletcher Sewer & Drain Inc.
824A Perimeter Road, Ludlow
(413) 547-8180
Teri Marinello, president
Since 1985, Fletcher Sewer & Drain has provided service to homeowners as well as municipalities and construction companies for large pipeline jobs. From unblocking kitchen sinks to replacing sewer lines, Fletcher keeps up to date with all the latest technology, from high-pressure sewer jetters to the newest camera-inspection equipment.

Gleason Johndrow Landscaping Inc.
44 Rose St., Springfield
(413) 727-8820
Anthony Gleason II, David Johndrow, Owners
Gleason Johndrow Landscape & Snow Management offers a wide range of commercial and residential services, including lawn mowing, snow removal, salting options, fertilization programs, landscape installations, bark-mulch application, creative plantings, seeding options, pruning, irrigation installation, maintenance, and much more.

Kelley & Katzer Real Estate, LLC
632 Westfield St., West Springfield
(413) 209-9933
Joe Kelley, Christine Katzer, Co-owners
Kelley & Katzer combines more than 40 years of real-estate experience with a modern approach. It is involved every step of the way of the real-estate process, guiding clients with a hands-on approach and knowledge of the real-estate market, blended with a genuine understanding of clients’ needs.

Knight Machine & Tool Company Inc.
11 Industrial Dr., South Hadley
(413) 532-2507
Gary O’Brien, owner
Knight Machine & Tool Co. is a metalworking and welding company that offers blacksmithing, metal roofing, and other services from its 11,000-square-foot facility.

Market Mentors, LLC
30 Capital Dr., Suite C, West Springfield
(413) 787-1133
Michelle Abdow, principal
A full-service marketing firm, Market Mentors handles all forms of marketing, including advertising in all mediums, media buying, graphic design, public relations, and event planning.

Martinelli, Martini & Gallagher Real Estate Inc.
1763 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 736-7232
Paul Gallagher, president
Gallagher Real Estate boasts four locations in Holyoke, Agawam, South Hadley, and Springfield, offering commercial and residential sales and leasing services, as well as a real estate school and a separate division devoted to handling property-management needs.

North Atlantic Trucking Inc.
100 Progress Ave., Springfield
(413) 455-3981
James Vieu, Director of Fleet Services & Financials
North Atlantic Trucking began by hauling a variety of products, including paper, plastic, metal, and more. The company is rapidly growing with a current fleet of 15 vehicles providing transportation services for miscellaneous products throughout the U.S.

Northeast IT Systems Inc.
777 Riverdale St., West Springfield
(413) 736-6348
Joel Mollison, president
Northeast is a full-service IT company providing business services, managed IT services, backup and disaster recovery, and cloud services, as well as a full-service repair shop for residential customers, including file recovery, laptop screen replacement, PC setups and tuneups, printer installation, virus protection and removal, and wireless installation.

Paragus Strategic IT
112 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 587-2666
Delcie Bean IV, president
While still in high school, Delcie Bean founded Paragus IT in 1999, first under the name Vertical Horizons and then Valley ComputerWorks. Under the Paragus name, it has grown dramatically as an outsourced IT solution, providing business computer service, computer consulting, information-technology support, and other services to businesses of all sizes.

Rock Valley Tool, LLC
54 O’Neil St., Easthampton
(413) 527-2350
Elizabeth Paquette, president
Rock Valley Tool is a 17,000-square-foot facility housing a variety of both CNC and conventional machining equipment, along with a state-of-the-art inspection lab. With more than 40 years of experience, the company provides manufactured parts to customers in the aerospace, commercial/industrial, and plastic blow-molding industries.

Rodrigues Inc.
782 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 547-6443
Antonio Rodrigues, president
Rodrigues Inc. operates Europa Restaurant in Ludlow, specializing in Mediterranean cuisine with an interactive dining experience, presenting meals cooked on volcanic rocks at tableside. Europa also offers full-service catering and banquet space.

Royal, P.C.
270 Pleasant St., Northampton
(413) 586-2288
Amy Royal, owner
Royal, P.C. is a woman-owned law firm that exclusively represents and counsels businesses on all aspects of labor and employment law. It represents a wide range of businesses throughout the New England states and nationally, and is an approved panel counsel for insurance companies that provide employment-practices liability insurance to employers.

Safe & Sound Inc.
428 East St., Chicopee
(413) 594-6460
Michael Laventure, owner
Since 1983, Safe and Sound Inc., a family-owned company, has been providing customers with a wide selection of quality components such as home theater speakers, audio/video receivers, amplifiers, subwoofers, as well as car audio, remote starters, and security.

Taplin Yard, Pump & Power
120 Interstate Dr., West Springfield
(413) 781-4352
Martin Jagodowski, president
Taplin has been servicing the local area since 1892, and is an authorized dealer for parts, equipment, service, and accessories for a wide range of brands. It boasts a large inventory of zero-turn mowers, commercial lawn equipment, lawnmowers, lawn tractors, trimmers, blowers, generators, pressure washers, pole saws, sprayers, chainsaws, and more.

Valley Home Improvement Inc.
340 Riverside Dr.,
(413) 517-0158
Steven Silverman, owner
Valley Home Improvement has specialized in home improvement, renovations, and remodeling service since 1991. Home-improvement and remodeling services include kitchen design, bathrooms, additions, sunrooms, screen porches, basement finishing, weatherization/insulation services, garages, and custom cabinetry and countertops.
4 Open Square Way, #310, Holyoke
(413) 268-1600
Michael Feld, CEO
Calling itself a group of advisors, confidantes, strategists, and innovators for hire, Vertitech has, in its own words, created a new path to IT transformation, aiming not just to solve technical problems, but to develop the strategic solutions that make an organization or healthcare institution thrive.

Western Mass  Demolition Corp.
50 Summit Lock Road, Westfield
(413) 579-5254
Dale Unsderfer, president
Western Mass Demolition Corp. has a wide range of services to meet clients’ demolition and recycling needs, including complete structure removal, selective works, emergency and fire on call, lowboy and equipment hauling, building separation, abatement and remediation, concrete cutting and breaking, oil-tank removal, recycling, reuse, and salvage.

Education Sections

Degrees of Growth

The AIC campus

The AIC campus has seen considerable change over the past decade, and the picture continues to evolve, with a planned addition and renovations for an existing building to house exercise science classes.

American International College has again earned placement on the list of the fastest-growing colleges in the country. Overall, the institution has nearly doubled its enrollment over the past decade or so, largely out of necessity. But the methods for achieving such growth — specifically in response to trends within the marketplace and a high-touch approach to student needs — offers lessons to schools of all sizes.

Jonathan Scully was searching for a word or phrase to describe the situation when it comes to enrollment on college campuses today.

He eventually settled on “it’s scary out there,” which certainly works, given the current trends. Indeed, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there were 18,071,000 students taking classes on American campuses in the spring of this year. That number was 19,619,000 million three years earlier, a nearly 8% decline. According to most reports, the numbers have been falling rather steadily, about a percentage point or two the past several years, with no real change on the horizon.

There are a number of reasons for this drop, noted Scully, dean of Undergraduate Admissions at American International College (AIC), who listed everything from smaller high-school graduating classes to a relatively strong economy — when times are worse, people often stay in school after graduating or return to school because they are unemployed; from outmigration to steep competition for a smaller pool of students.

Whatever the reasons, most schools — from community colleges to some prestigious four-year institutions — are struggling to maintain their numbers and, at the same time, their standards for admission.

AIC has managed to not only buck these trends but achieve status as one of the fastest-growing schools in the country, said Scully and Kerry Barnes, dean of Graduate Admissions.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully says AIC takes a high-touch approach with students, both before and after they arrive on campus.

Indeed, the Chronicle of Higher Education recently named AIC one of its “fastest growing colleges in the United States,” the sixth time the school has made that list in recent years. Among private, nonprofit doctoral institutions, AIC placed fourth among the top 20 colleges and universities in the country, with a 95% growth rate. Overall, AIC nearly doubled its enrollment between 2005 and 2015. (Worcester Polytechnic Institute, ranked ninth, is the only other school in the Commonwealth that placed in the same category.)

Most of this growth has come at the graduate level, where overall enrollment has risen from 415 to more than 2,000 over the past decade, but there has been improvement on the undergraduate side as well, with the overall numbers up 5% over that same period, much better than the national averages.

AIC has achieved such growth in large part out of necessity. A decade ago, the school was struggling mightily and needed to make a number of adjustments, in everything from its physical plant to its enrollment strategies, to attract students to its campus. But the climb up the charts has also resulted from ongoing and heightened attention to the needs of both the business community and students.

Regarding the former, said Barnes, the college has surveyed the marketplace and worked with businesses across a number of sectors to identify in-demand skill sets and areas of need when it comes to trained professionals. This has led to creation of new degree programs in areas ranging from occupational therapy to casino management.

“We’ve been able to identify key trends within the marketplace,” said Barnes, “but also work with local businesses to say, ‘what do you really need?’ and ‘what do you want students to have in order to be successful in their positions?’ or ‘what are your current employees looking for, and what do you need them to know?’”

Such questions, and the answers to them, have led to the creation of new degree programs, specific areas of study, and even new facilities, such as the expansion of a building on State Street, across from the main campus for exercise science programs.

As for the latter, said Scully, AIC is working hard — much harder than it once did — to assist students (many of them first-generation college students) both before and after they actually start attending classes in an effort to make them more comfortable and better able to meet the many challenges confronting them.

“We focus on a high-touch approach, and we take it all the way through — from recruitment to the time students are on campus,” he explained. “We realize that students aren’t always going to be ready for the rigors of college, not ready for application process, not ready to take that step on their own. And rather than say ‘figure it out — or don’t,’ we hold their hand the whole way and give them whatever they need.”

Add it all up, and it becomes easy to see why AIC has now become a regular on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s fastest-growing colleges chart.

For the this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Barnes and Scully about how the school intends to continue earning placement on that list, even as the enrollment picture becomes ever more scary.

Class Action

They call it ‘summer melt.’ And they’re not talking about ice cream.

Indeed, college administrators use that term to refer to those students they lose between the time they sign on the proverbial dotted line and when classes begin in the fall. There are many reasons for this meltage, said Scully, including financial matters and other personal issues.

“It’s a big problem for a lot of institutions, especially those like AIC,” he explained, referring to the large percentage of low-income and first-generation students at the school. “A student pays their deposit, they intend to enroll, but they fall off for any number of reasons.”

AIC has devoted a considerable number of resources — all of them in that category of hand-holding — to the matter, and as a result, it has seen its melt rate drop from 18% a few years ago to 11%, just below what would be average for schools with AIC’s size and demographics.

This dramatic improvement in a critical area is just one example of how AIC is bucking national trends with regard to attracting and retaining students — and the manner in which it is achieving such results.

Kerry Barnes

Kerry Barnes says graduate programs at AIC have enjoyed explosive growth as the school responds to changing needs in the business community.

But before getting more in-depth about the present and future, it would be prudent to first take a look back — to where AIC was about a decade or so ago.

Talk about scary … that would be an apt description of the picture on campus. Neither Scully nor Barnes was around back then, but they’re both from this area, and they both know what the conditions were like.

“It was a very different place back then,” said Scully. “The physical plant was in decline, the enrollment numbers were falling, technology was lacking. But sweeping reforms were instituted, and they continue today.”

Indeed, both Barnes and Scully give considerable credit to AIC President Vince Maniaci, who arrived on campus in 2005 and made increasing enrollment his first priority — again, out of necessity and real threats to survival.

“There’s a lot to be said for a leader who’s willing to take educated risks,” Barnes told BusinessWest. “We’ve been very thoughtful in our growth, and Vince has supported that, and so has the board of directors. And that’s very important for a school our size to rebound from where we were 10 years ago.”

AIC’s successful efforts to roughly double its enrollment are attributable to a number of factors, said Scully and Barnes, but mostly, it all comes back to working harder, listening better, being innovative, and being nimble. And they have examples for each category.

With regard to working harder, Scully noted everything from those hand-holding efforts he described to more aggressive recruiting across the school’s main catchment area — Massachusetts and Connecticut.

He said there are eight admissions staffers, a big number for a relatively small undergraduate population (roughly 1,500 students), but it’s indicative of that high-touch approach and a reason why the melt numbers are comparatively low.

And this approach continues after the student arrives on campus.

“We hand things off to the academic side, to the student-life side,” said Scully. “They pick up the baton and run with it, and make sure students are treated the same way we treat them during the recruitment process; they get what they need, they get the attention, and they never become a number.”

As for the listening part, Barnes noted, again, that it involves a number of constituencies, including one she called simply the “marketplace.”

By that, she meant careful watching of trends and developments with regard to jobs — where they are now and where they’ll in be the years and decades to come — but also concerning the skills and requirements needed to take those jobs.


As one example, she cited education and, specifically, a requirement in Massachusetts for teachers to become licensed. “We’ve been able to identify programs with growth potential, specifically to meet the needs of the local K-12 districts,” she explained. “We’ve been able to work with those districts to make sure we’re bringing the right licensure programs to their areas; that’s been hugely successful for us.

“We’ve been able to create very structured growth within our own programs to help meet what the market in Springfield needs,” Barnes went on. “In healthcare, we’ve had considerable growth in occupational therapy, physical therapy, and family nurse practitioners, but we’ve also been able to branch off and start key programs like the resort and casino management program, an arm of the MBA program.”

Scully agreed, noting that, with undergraduate programs — and all programs, for that matter — there is an emphasis on creating return on investment for those enrolled in them, something that’s being demanded by both students and the parents often footing the bill.

“We’re focused on programs that the market demands, that are interesting, and that are ROI-driven,” he explained, referencing, as examples, offerings in visual/digital arts, public health, theater, exercise science, and other fields.

“There’s going to be a high demand for exercise science graduates, athletic trainers,” he explained. “So we’re giving the market what it needs.”

As for innovation and nimbleness, they go hand in hand — with each other and also the ‘working hard’ and ‘listening’ parts of the equation. It’s one thing to listen, said Barnes, and it’s another to be able to respond quickly and effectively to what one hears and sees.

AIC has been able to do that, not only with new programs, but also in how programs are delivered, such as online, on weekends in some cases, and in accelerated fashion in other instances.

“We’re being very smart about the programs that we’re offering, and we’re working closely to update everything on the academic side to make sure it’s relevant,” she went on, adding that, in addition to relevancy, the school is also focused on flexibility and enabling students to take classes how and when they want.

“I think it’s cliché to say we’re nimble, but we are,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re able to a do a lot of things that larger institutions can’t, and we’re really in tune with our students and what they need.”

Determined Course

All this explains why AIC is making the best of a scary situation, especially on the undergraduate level.

The school’s presence on — and rise up — the fast-growing colleges list is significant and makes for good press for the institution. More important, though, is how such growth was accomplished.

Words such as ‘relevancy,’ accronyms like ROI, and phrases such as ‘high-touch’ do a good hob of telling this story.

It’s a story of a remarkable rebound in a relatively short time — with more intriguing chapters to come.

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

Holiday Party Planner Sections

Serving Up the Season

Banquet tables

Banquet tables await guests at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse.

By any measure, the holiday-party business is stronger than it has been since a decade ago, before the recession. Buoyed by a generally strong economy, companies are willing to invest in late-in-the-year gatherings for their employees and, sometimes, their families. But it’s still a fiercely competitive environment for banquet facilities, who have become increasingly creative and flexible in their seasonal event offerings, aiming to provide a memorable experience and drive crucial repeat business year after year.

As he spoke with BusinessWest, Peter Rosskothen was getting ready to meet a client planning a holiday party.

The message he intended to share? Don’t do what you did last year — even if you loved it.

“My main focus for that meeting is to motivate them and excite them about relying on our brains and expertise to create something a little different from last year,” said Rosskothen, who owns the Log Cabin and the Delaney House in Holyoke. “It’s very easy for somebody who’s working very hard to say, ‘we had a great party last year; let’s do the same thing again.’ But I think that’s a negative.

“The smart thing in the event business is to create something a little different,” he went on, so your staff, workers, and associates get a different experience. I think it gets same old thing, the same old Christmas party, gets boring. The more change you can bring into it, the more people look forward to coming.”

Indeed, many area facilities take pride in being flexible enough to handle different styles of events.

“Companies are usually looking for something business casual, but we also have events where they want to go all out, have a seated dinner with filets, followed a cocktail hour and ending with a DJ for the younger members of the office,” said Alyssa Blumenthal, event manager at Bistro 63 in Amherst.  “A lot of people know us as not only a bistro, but a pub, so we provide a seamless transition from formal events to lighthearted, business-casual affairs.”

With a stable economy and corporate profits on the rise, a national survey released at the end of 2016 showed that not only are more companies planning holiday parties this year, but many also expect to increase spending on those events.

In its annual survey on holiday-party plans (the 2017 survey has not yet been released), global outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. found that 80% of companies planned to host holiday parties last year, while 21% were increasing the budget.

More than 66% of survey respondents said their companies were hiring caterers or event planners, up from 62% in 2015. In addition, 43% percent of companies were inviting employees’ spouses or family to attend, up from 31% in 2015.

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says he encourages repeat clients to change up their holiday parties from year to year.


“Company holiday parties are a great way for employers to thank workers for a successful year. For employees, it’s a great way to meet and interact with co-workers and managers who are not part of one’s daily routine. If you happen to be attending the holiday party of a spouse or friend, it could be a great opportunity to network,” said John Challenger, the consultancy’s CEO.”

Rosskothen said his business certainly reflected the national uptick last year, and 2017 is shaping up to be as least as strong.

“We’re actively in the holiday planning season right now, definitely entering the core part of the season,” he said. “When people are coming back from summer vacations, they’re really focused on business, but by the time we get to October, they’re starting to focus on holiday parties and so forth.”

’Tis the Season

For many, if not most, banquet facilities, the holiday season — which typically extends through January, thanks to a growing number of businesses that move their company gatherings to after Christmas and New Year’s Day — is  key factor in the year-end bottom line.

“We do anything — baby showers, birthday parties, bridal showers, post-funeral receptions, corporate meetings, and holiday parties,” said Cathy Stephens, director of catering sales at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden, noting that the facility is trying to ramp up its holiday-party schedule after a successful first season last year.

She said many holiday-party clients are leaning away from formal functions in favor of moving around and socializing amid food stations. “It’s not really a sit-down dinner, but more of a networking party.”

The Starting Gate will also host an elaborate buffet luncheon for multiple small groups on Dec. 12, reflecting a trend in the corporate party-planning world toward giving smaller companies a big-party experience for a budget price simply by combining groups into one event.

That will follow fall holiday events including a Halloween dance on Oct. 28 and a comedy night the Saturday after Thanksgiving, both aimed, again, at both the public and area companies looking to treat their employees.

The Log Cabin has hosted similar events in recent years, and this year is no exception.

“Each one is different; some are a little more elaborate, some a little less elaborate,” Rosskothen said. “Some people coming to a party really don’t want to dance, so we respond to that: ‘how about a comedy night, where you can socialize with co-workers and listen to comedy? How about a wine tasting, beer tasting, martini night?’ People find different things they can do.”

His team has been busy selling out most key dates on the calendar, both private and group events. “I think we do very well every year, and it will be that kind of year this year, too. Most of our key dates are sold out, and our group parties well on their way to selling out at this point. We’re optimistic we’ll have another good year — and happy about that, because there’s lots of competition in the market right now, so knowing people are loyal to us is a big deal to me.”

Blumenthal said Bistrol 63 is seeing a record level of event bookings, due in part to having a full-time event team for the first time in a long while. “That has definitely increased bookings. Someone is always here to answer questions.”

Flexibility is important to clients, she added, and companies tend to have a budget in mind. “The buffet option offers the most flexibility to customize the menu, especially for guests who don’t like choosing one dish.”

Bistro 63 emphasizes its unique custom-cocktail program, and, indeed many party guests look to unwind with a drink or two at holiday events. The Challenger survey revealed that 62% of holiday parties would include alcohol, up from the 54% in 2015. And that poses some risks.

“Serving alcohol can make for a more celebratory mood, but it also has pitfalls, especially for employees and their guests,” Challenger said. “Company parties are not necessarily a time to let loose.”

In the Party Spirit

TriNet, a national provider of human-resources services, surveyed employees at small and mid-size businesses late last year about how they felt about their company-sponsored holiday parties.

A majority (65%) of respondents said they planned to attend their office party, while 22% percent said they were not sure and 13% percent said they wouldn’t go. Meanwhile, 36% stated they are required or strongly encouraged to attend, while 48% considered it their choice.

Asked how they feel about the tradition of holiday parties, 37% said they were somewhat excited, while 28% said they were very excited. Only 5% of respondents showed no enthusiasm at all. However, despite the general enthusiasm, a large majority indicated they would trade a party for other perks. For instance, 73% would prefer a cash bonus, while 51% would favor office closure during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Given those options, only 20% would still prefer the holiday party.

Locally, both Stephens and Rosskothen said employees who have a good time at their holiday parties look forward to returning the following year, and their employers are willing to keep paying for the event.

“We’re getting repeat business from people who came last year,” Stephens said of spillover from the Starting Gate’s first holiday season in 2016. Others have experienced other events there, including weddings that incorporate the site’s sweeping vistas, and return for other events, like holiday parties, based on those good memories.

“The holiday business, specifically, is extremely loyal,” Rosskothen said. “It helps that we do things that smaller companies can join if they don’t want to be alone in a smll room, that we create something cool and different. We have created events with all kinds of variety, and companies can pick. Hopefully there’s something for everyone out there.”

The holiday-party business may not have returned quite to pre-recession levels — a trend that holds true nationally as well — but it’s close, he added.

“It’s definitely come back a long way. We see a lot of people trying to do something during the holiday, to tell employees they’re appreciated and bring the team together.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Mission Control

Mark Fulco

Mark Fulco

Roughly 21 months ago, Mark Fulco left Mercy Medical Center for a position with the hospital’s parent company, Trinity Health, one that would groom him for a leadership role somewhere within the vast Trinity system. As it turned out, somewhere became Mercy Medical Center.

Mark Fulco called it the “president track.”

Formally, he was carrying out a role within the Livonia, Mich.-based Trinity Health system, specifically that of ‘vice president, Health Ministries & System Office Communications Interface.’ While doing that, though, he was learning and essentially being groomed for a leadership position in one of the system’s many hospitals and medical centers.

“The idea behind this role was to bring in what they considered a high-potential executive for advancement to come here, work for the system office, learn some new things about how the system worked, and help set the operating model and the agenda for some of what the organization was going to do moving forward,” he explained, “and then return back to the regional help ministries at a level higher than they left the field at.”

He called it providential — a word he chose very carefully because of the significant meaning it carries — that the later stages of his 18- to 24-month tenure on this president track coincided with a presidential search at his former place of employment, Mercy Medical Center in Springfield, part of the Sisters of Providence Health System.

He became a candidate and prevailed in what became a nationwide search. Thus, he’s essentially coming home, as he put it, to a hospital and a system with a somewhat unique mission, one he came to fully appreciate during his tenure there, which included work in everything from fund development to marketing; new-business development to operations of the accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network.

Fulco said the Mercy presidency was essentially the first job at that level that he applied for, and it’s one he sought enthusiastically, because of what he experienced there and was part of.

Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco says one of the items at the top of his to-do list is to make Mercy Medical Center’s high-quality care far less of a best-kept secret.

“In this role [at Trinity], I’ve had the opportunity to see how healthcare is delivered across the country,” he told  BusinessWest. “And from that, I can say that the people of Western Mass. are really lucky to have such a talented and caring team at Mercy. And this is what really called me back to Springfield.

“It’s a great community,” he went on, referring to the Greater Springfield area. “But the real driving factor for me was the Mercy team; I’ve seen 94 or 95 different hospitals in our system, and I’ve met great caregivers from across the country, but Mercy has among the best I’ve seen, and the legacy of the Sisters of Providence … that’s a calling, it’s an honor, and it’s also a big responsibility to carry on that healing legacy.”

Fulco returns to Mercy at what he acknowledged was an ultra-challenging — and uncertain — time for the hospital, the system, and seemingly every healthcare provider in the country, with the uncertainty coming in many forms but especially the unknown fate of the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Fulco said all providers are operating in an environment where reimbursements from most payers, and especially Medicare and Medicaid, do not fully cover the cost of providing care. This is not a recent phenomenon, but the situation has grown steadily more precarious in recent years.

In response, systems and individual providers must become ever-more efficient, he said, and, in a word, they must innovate.

To do to that effectively, he said he intends to take full advantage of the know-how, resources, and, yes, buying power of the Trinity Health system and its New England region. As an example, he cited a project that is in some respects already underway — conversion to a new electric medical record (EMR) system known as EPIC.

“This is something Mercy would not be able to do on its own,” he said of the EMR conversion. “If we weren’t able to rely on our colleagues in the region, this is something we couldn’t afford to do, and that’s just one example of taking full advantage of our regional resources.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Fulco just days before his formal return to Springfield about his new role and that big responsibility he accepted to carry on the work of the Sisters of Providence.

Back to the Future

It’s not listed on his résumé, but Fulco still considers it one of his more important career stops.

He was referring to his time as an advanced-life-support EMT roughly 30 years ago, while he was in graduate school.

“That was my first job in healthcare,” he recalled, adding that, like all those that followed and especially his most recent assignment in Michigan, it was quite a learning experience. “That time as an EMT gave me some unique experience as a caregiver, and it gave me an appreciation for the clinical side of healthcare and incredible respect for physicians and nurses and the work they do.”

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center

Mark Fulco, seen here with team members at Mercy Medical Center, says that, in this challenging time, Mercy, and all healthcare providers, must be focused on innovation.

Over the next three decades, Fulco would move off the front lines in healthcare and take a series of management positions, with each one bringing new and different responsibilities.

After a stint as president of Masonic Management Services Corp. in Wallingford, Conn., a nonprofit affiliate of Masonicare, he became senior vice president of Cardium Health Services in Simsbury, Conn. From there, he took the role of vice president of Strategic Marketing and Business Development at Saint Francis Care in Hartford, another member of the Trinity Health system.

In 2005, he took the position of ‘chief transformation officer’ for the Sisters of Providence Health System. This was a broad role with a host of responsibilities that included strategy formation, accountable-care organization and clinically integrated network operations, and business-development activities, including marketing, communications, and fund development.

And as transformation officer, he helped oversee a good deal of, well, transformation in many areas, including formation and operation of an accountablecare organization, one of many areas where Mercy was out front and in many ways ahead of other providers within the Trinity Health system.

It was roughly 21 months ago that he joined Trinity Health in that aforementioned ‘interface’ role, and he described his time in Michigan as invaluable when it comes to meeting the challenges he will face as he leads Mercy Medical Center.

But as much as he enjoyed working behind the scenes, if you will, he was anxious to get back to a hospital setting.

“Healthcare is not necessarily delivered in the boardroom,” he told  BusinessWest. “Here in Michigan, I have an opportunity to see how the large healthcare system boardroom works, and how the large healthcare system team works in support of what’s delivered at the local level. But care is delivered at the bedside, and while this work here at the system office was exciting and invigorating, and it was wonderful to work with some of the best and brightest in healthcare, the hospital is where hope and healing occurs, and I wanted to be part of that again.”

He said he will bring to that role a management style grounded in the fundamentals of servant leadership, something he says comes to him naturally, because it has been his style throughout his career. And it’s also something that fits nicely with the missions of SPHS and Trinity.

“It dovetails with being a people-centered healthcare organization,” he explained. “And a lot of this was my upbringing — my father was a career public servant, and I was taught to be of service to others. It’s ingrained in me; it’s part of my DNA.”

Bringing it Home

As he talked some more about what made a return to Mercy so attractive to him, Fulco got his message across by relating the reactions he got from others when he would talk about the system.

“People here [in Michigan] are impressed when they hear about what the sisters have done, how they’ve served that community, and what that legacy is,” he explained. “But it’s interesting … they also tell me that me that, when I talked about the Sisters of Providence Health System and Mercy Medical Center, I had a twinkle in my eye that told them there was something special there. And I told them that you couldn’t help but have that if you spent any amount of time within that organization.”


Fulco will now get to spend considerably more time within that system, and he is already compiling a to-do list of sorts, or what he called a game plan for his first 100 days, one that came together through input gathered during the interviewing process, discussions with Interim President Beth O’Brien, and his decade of experience in the system.

And at or near the top of that list is doing a better job of telling Mercy’s story, he told BusinessWest.

“When I look at the challenges at Mercy, I think the care provided there is one of the best-kept secrets in Western Massachusetts,” he explained, adding that no business or organization, especially a hospital, needs or wants that particular quality, if that’s what a best-kept secret is.

“It’s been the organization’s culture to serve and be humble — that’s how the sisters taught us to be,” he went on. “But I think the community needs a better understanding of the physicians, the nurses, and the comprehensive services that are provided at Mercy and through the Mercy network.”

As he goes about working with those providers to better communicate Mercy’s services and mission, Fulco said he will put a heightened focus system-wide on the need to innovate, especially amid reimbursements that do not cover the full costs of providing care.

“Anyone who manages a household budget knows that you can’t spend more than you earn,” said Fulco. “So Mercy and Trinity Health New England are continuing to innovate with some of these approaches to deliver the absolute best and highest-quality care, but also deliver that care at the highest possible efficiency.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the Affordable Care Act,” he said. “But no matter where it goes, we’ll need to continue providing the very best care we can for people, and it needs to be done in a more efficient way at a lower cost year over year.”

There will be several initiatives in this broad realm, and some are already underway, he said, putting the EMR project in this category.

Improved EMR makes a system more efficient, he explained, because it allows for improved communication between providers across the region, giving physicians and nurses immediate access to information, an ability that often eliminates redundancies and mistakes in treatment, thus enabling Mercy, and the healthcare system as a whole, to reduce costs.

“When a test is done, other specialists don’t necessarily have to redo that test, so we’re able to save the system and, ultimately, all of us, as the payers for care, quite a bit of money,” he explained. “If a lab test is done, another physician isn’t redoing that lab test; when an X-ray is done or an MRI, you don’t necessarily have to redo that.”

Putting in the new EMR system is a massive undertaking with a lot of moving parts, said Fulco, adding that such enhancements have been undertaken at several facilities under the Trinity umbrella, and he intends to take full advantage of this accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience.

“We have a great team on the ground both at Hartford that has had experience implementing these systems, and the incredible team at Mercy that will help with the heavy lifting done,” he said. “It will be a process, and a big process, for us to undertake, but we’ll do that and make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

“One of the best things about being part of a system like this is that we’ve done this several times before,” he went on. “And with each one, you do you learn some things; we can now avoid the bumps in the road that others have encountered.”

Mission: Statement ‘Providential.’

That adjective, which Webster defines, variously, as ‘destined,’ ‘divine,’ and even ‘preordained,’ certainly works when Mark Fulco talks about coming home and all that goes with that territory.

He told BusinessWest that carrying on the work of the Sisters of Providence is an honor, but also a very big responsibility. It is all of that and more.

But it’s an assignment he’s looking forward to — as much as he is having still more people recognize that twinkle in his eye when he talks about not just where he works, but where he carries out the sisters’ mission.

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

Name of the Game

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO

Drew Andrews, managing partner and CEO

The accounting firm formerly known as Whittlesey & Hadley has undertaken a rebranding effort, and is now known simply as Whittlesey. The new name was chosen in an effort to be more modern and less formal, while also maintaining valuable name recognition. But the new name is only part of an effort to better communicate all that the firm can do for its clients.

Drew Andrews said the new name was chosen in an effort to be, among other things, less formal, more modern, and perhaps even more efficient by using one word instead of two.

These are trends, if you will, when it comes to the names over the doors and on the letterhead of professional-services providers such as accounting firms and law firms, said Andrews, so much so that a story he’s retelling often these days seems to speak volumes about the matters at hand.

“I was at meetings with two clients over the past two weeks where they were referring to us as ‘Whittlesey,’” he recalled, noting that this wasn’t the firm’s name at the time — but it is now (it became official Oct. 1, to be exact).

Indeed, the Hartford-based firm known as Whittlesey & Hadley for the better part of five decades has officially dropped the ampersand and ‘Hadley’ (dropping just the ampersand was one of many other options considered) but kept Whittlesey as a nod to history, tradition, and, perhaps most importantly, name recognition.

And the fact that people were calling the firm by its new name while it was still using the old name and hadn’t given any hint that a change was coming, only confirms that this was the right decision, said Andrews, CEO and managing partner of the firm.

“Whittlesey & Hadley was more old school,” he said, referring to the name, not the firm, noting that clients, at least some of them, anyway had already come to this conclusion, and were already referring to their accountants in different ways. “What we found was that a lot of people had already shortened it themselves — they were calling us Whittesey or W&H.”

Yes, much ado about a name. But there is a lot more to what Andrews referred to as a ‘rebrand’ than just this new name and the one on the company’s subsidiary — Whittlesey Technology (formerly the Technology Group). There are new colors (blue and coral), a new, more ‘responsive’ website (wadvising.com), and a new marketing tagline, or slogan: ‘Forward Advising.’


Those two words say quite a bit, said Andrews, noting that, historically, and to generalize somewhat, accounting firms have dealt mostly with the past tense, especially with regard to financials, taxes, and audits. But increasingly, clients are looking for help when it comes to the present and future tenses as well, he said, and the firm now known simply as Whittlesey has been ahead of this curve and intends to stay there.

“Even though we’re an accounting firm and we do taxes and audits and things of that nature, our business has morphed into being more of strategic advisors,” he explained. “We’ve helped people with profitability analysis, new products, forecasting, budgeting, succession planning, operational reviews, and a significant effort in technology support in recent years.

“That was kind of a natural progression,” he went on. “We’re really become more advisors than accountants. That’s where we think the profession’s going, and that’s a big part of why we did this rebrand.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Andrews and Cora Hall, director of Marketing and Communications for Whittlesey, about the rebranding efforts, especially as they relate the firm’s efforts to grow its presence in the Western Mass. market.

It Added Up

Andrews told BusinessWest that the rebranding efforts were launched roughly a year ago, and have taken longer than some might have expected because work naturally slowed down during the height of tax season, when many of those involved had more pressing matters to address.

But this project, like most all those of this nature, was undertaken because it was deemed necessary and important to the company’s broad efforts to continue to grow and claim market share in all its markets, including Western Mass.

“We wanted to look at what our communication was to our clients and our potential clients,” Andrews explained, noting that, over the past several years, the company has merged two firms into its fold, if you will — Holyoke-based Lester Halpern and Hamden, Conn.-based Weinstein & Anastasio, P.C. — and needed a common message to go along with the shared name.

“We had what amounted to three firms, and we wanted to have a unified message going out about who we are, what we do, and how we do it,” he told BusinessWest. “We were doing a lot more than accounting and taxes, and were doing advising in many areas — and this didn’t seem to get communicated through our messaging and our website.”

Drew Andrews and Cora Hall say Whittlesey’s rebranding effort is aimed at better communicating to clients and potential clients the firm’s full range of services.

Drew Andrews and Cora Hall say Whittlesey’s rebranding effort is aimed at better communicating to clients and potential clients the firm’s full range of services.

And improved communication is at the heart of this rebrand, he went on, adding that by this, he means what is being communicated and how it’s being communicated.

Elaborating, he said the overall message needed to change and convey the full portfolio of products and services, and the vehicles for delivering the message — and especially the website and a host of social-media platforms — needed to change in order to better communicate to all audiences, particularly the younger ones, and to both customers and potential employees.

“We needed a refresh on our website and how we were going into digital — not only from a client perspective, but from a recruitment perspective and always getting the best of the best talent-wise,” he explained. “We needed to relate better to them in their language.”

What is being related to all audiences is that the firm will still handle a client’s tax and audit needs — but it can also do much more.

“We can help businesses and individuals gain confidence and assurance before they act,” said Andrews. “We work as an extension of an organization’s management team delivering advisory services in the here and now as well as looking forward.

“When we go visit our clients, we talk about what’s going to happen; we’re not just focused on the past, which is what accountants do, because we usually report on historical information,” he went on. “We ask, ‘where are you going in the future? Where are you bringing this business? How can we help you achieve what your financial goals are?’”

All this wasn’t effectively communicated by the old website or old branding messages, said Hall, adding that the new platforms do a much better job at this, as well as conveying the firm’s commitment to the communities it serves.

“We’ve really made a consolidated effort to invest in the region and really become part of the community,” she explained. “And that’s something else we wanted to communicate.”

As for the new name, Andrews said something ‘new school’ or at least ‘newer school’ was needed.

‘W&H’ or ‘WH’ were considered, and might have worked, he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that, as the firm went through the search process, if you will, it came to the conclusion that ‘Whittlesey’ had both a unique sound to it and a great deal of brand equity in all the markets in which it was operating.

“That was true not only in the Hartford market, where we’ve been since 1961, when we were just ‘Whittlesey’ because [Bob] Hadley, Willis Whittlesey’s first partner, didn’t arrive until 1965, but also in Western Mass. and Southern Connecticut with the two mergers,” he said. “We didn’t want to lose that momentum, but we wanted a modern twist on it.”

Sign of the Times

And these days, one name instead of two constitutes a modern twist.

That became clear to Andrews and others when people started calling this firm ‘Whittlesey’ well before Oct. 1, when the official press release announcing the change went out.

But while the new name is significant, that new tag line ‘Forward Advising’ is perhaps even more so, because of the many kinds of messages it delivers.

“The refreshed Whittlesey brand represents where our firm is today and where we want to strategically grow,” Andrews explained, adding that ‘forward’ is where he expects this important exercise to bring the company.

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

Construction Sections

Happy Returns

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

President Joe Marois (left) and Vice President Carl Mercieri

A construction company doesn’t grow and thrive for almost a half-century — through some dramatic economic ups and downs — without the kind of client loyalty that makes it a go-to option for any number of job types. For Marois Construction, those include educational facilities, public buildings, medical offices, bank branches, and more. The firm has certainly left its mark on the Valley — with no signs of slowing down.

There are advantages to being in business for 45 years. One is that it’s plenty of time to build a reputation.

“People are looking for quality work — people they know they can trust,” said Joe Marois, president of Marois Construction in South Hadley, a business he built from the ground up — literally and figuratively — starting in 1972. “We’ve established that trust. We’ve made a lot of friends on our projects.”

A lot of friends means plenty of repeat business, and that has been a key component of the success of one of the region’s iconic names in construction, an entity that quickly grew beyond its roots building cabinets and restoring furniture from a small shed. Five years after that humble beginning, Marois boasted seven employees and five trucks. Today, headquartered in a large building on Old Lyman Road, the company currently employs about 45 people.

The repeat business has long been buoyed by the firm’s close relationships with area colleges and universities and expertise in niches as diverse as bank branches and medical offices. Current projects have the company busy at UMass Amherst, Elms College, a new Polish National Credit Union branch in Chicopee, the new state office building in Springfield, Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Agawam, and Central High School in Springfield, to put up a new press box and scoreboard.

The company also has a standing contract with the city of Springfield to perform needed maintenance and renovation jobs on public schools. “We’re all over the place there,” Marois said. “We never know what the needs will be.”

Carl Mercieri, Marois’ long-time vice president, said those assignments can be for just about anything. “They’re more maintenance-type things, on-call services, everything from changing a window to replacing ceilings in the classrooms over the summer, or repair old plaster. It’s pretty interesting. It’s more service work, but it’s good for the guys; they go to a job for two or three days, then move on to another for some change of scenery.”

Marois Construction workers prepare to install equipment on the roof of John Adams Hall at UMass Amherst.

Marois Construction workers prepare to install equipment on the roof of John Adams Hall at UMass Amherst.

In short, times are better for Marois — and for the industry as a whole, of course — than they were a few years ago, in the shadow of the Great Recession, when all firms were scrambling just to keep their crews reasonably busy.

“We were really coming off a bad time during the recession, where it was all about survival,” Marois said. “A few of our contemporaries did not make it. It was a culling of the industry, I guess you’d say. And it was further complicated by an influx of outside contractors into our area from New York and Boston; they were hungry too. Right now, we’re turning the corner and staying busy.”

Getting Around

A quick rundown of some of the firm’s recent project reflects its diversity. To wit:

• An upgrade of the electrical and fire-pump systems at John Adams Hall at UMass, a residential tower, included installation of twin emergency generators on the roof of the 22-story building, placed on a new structural steel frame.

• Also at UMass, a renovation of the Amherst Student Affairs Suite in the Whitmore Administration Building included the demolition of a 4,000-square-foot space, rebuilding of interior partitions, and finishes including porcelain tile flooring, recessed light fixtures, and a bamboo slat ceiling.

• A project at Veritas Preparatory Charter School included more than 22,000 square feet of demolition and renovated spaces, including new classrooms, a science lab, a music room, a reception area, and office space.

• The Keating Quadrangle at Elms College features the inlaid college logo and a large firepit that’s popular with students and staff. The project consisted of new drainage systems, underground electrical work, and multiple landscaping features including concrete, pavers, stone, and plantings.

• On the medical side, the Raymond Center at Baystate Health – South Hadley Adult Medicine consisted of developing 14,000 square feet of primary-care space within an existing building.

• At the Lee Hutt Gallery at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, the existing building was converted into a working sculpture studio, as Marois worked closely with the owner on all aspects of the design-build project.

• The company also built a single-story addition to Plainfield Congregational Church to provide new bathrooms and meeting space. Site improvements included a new well, septic tank, and grading. Repairs and improvements to the existing structure included replacement of piers supporting the existing timber-framed floor, thermal improvements to walls, and more.

• Marois also designed and constructed a facility to house supplies and equipment required to maintain the runways and grounds at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

These cupolas are being designed for a project in Amherst.

The jobs are still coming, but a new obstacle looms, he said. “Now we’re being faced with a labor shortage, which is always a challenge. That’s the nature of construction — it’s never perfect. I don’t know to what extent the casino is affecting that, but basically, the labor pool for tradespeople is very small.”

National data bear that challenge out. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, construction employment increased by 28,000 jobs in August, yet contractors still face a lack of experienced workers. Association officials say construction job growth would have been even higher had a majority of firms not reported having a hard time finding qualified staff.

“Construction firms have stayed busy, adding employees in the past year at nearly twice the rate of employers throughout the economy, but more than two-thirds of contractors report difficulty finding craft workers as the number of unemployed, experienced construction workers hit a 17-year low in August,” said Ken Simonson, the association’s chief economist. “Although construction spending has fluctuated recently, many contractors are still looking for qualified craft workers and project managers.”

More than half of the survey’s respondents said they were having trouble finding carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, concrete workers, or plumbers, while some salaried positions, such as project managers and supervisors, are also hard to fill, Simonson added, noting that federal, state, and local leaders should act on measures aimed at recruiting and preparing more young adults for high-paying construction careers. “Exposing students to construction as a career path will encourage more of them to pursue these high-paying careers,” said Stephen Sandherr, the association’s CEO.

Marois would welcome that development. “I just don’t see a lot of evidence of new tradespeople or young people who are enthusiastic about learning a trade.”

Brave New World

Marois and Mercieri have an old-school ethos when it comes to quality work, but recognize that the way jobs are processed today is different than it used to be.

“It has gotten to be technically advanced as far as the computer systems we are using at the insistence, many times, of our clients,” Marois said. “For a dinosaur like me, that’s a challenge.”

Added Mercieri, “sometimes we run into a situation where a project requires specific software, either scheduling or reporting, and some are good, some are bad. It takes away from the normal, day-to-day business, and it’s something we do more to satisfy others than ourselves.”

Green building, however, is a building trend that has grown well past trendiness in recent years; instead, it’s standard operating procedure for many clients. Marois has worked on multiple LEED-certified structures, but even those that don’t reach for those goals are subject to a new world of sustainability.

“There are always new heating and cooling standards, new insulation values on buildings — seismic standards are another thing that’s a great concern for people — to the detriment of renovating older facilities that are non-correctable, for lack of a better word,” Marois said. “With these 100-year-old mill buildings they want to converting to loft apartments, none comply with the basic structural requirements in place today, and they either get variances on them, or it’s not affordable, with the money it takes to bring it to the standard they expect.”

The business has changed in other ways, too, such as Marois’ increased reliance on outsourcing some of the framing and demolition work than in the past, but he’s still keeping his crews active, after 45 years of loyal clients, technological advances, and economic ups and downs.

“I couldn’t even count how many repeat customers we have,” Mercieri said. “The past 18 months have been busier than we’ve been in a long time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Sections

Blueprint for Success

Jonathan Salvon says Kuhn Riddle continues to make its mark on area colleges.

Jonathan Salvon says Kuhn Riddle continues to make its mark on area colleges.

While national forecasters are predicting a slight slowdown in the construction industry, area architects report a healthy flow of projects in the pipeline, and they see that trend continuing for the foreseeable future.

Even during tougher economic times than these, Jim Hanifan says, communities still have to maintain — and often rebuild — their schools, libraries, police stations, and municipal offices.

“The beauty of public work is they’re always putting money in one sector or another,” said Hanifan, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates. “Right now, public safety may be at the forefront — and that goes back to 9/11 — but now more senior centers are being built for the aging population, and they’re not just places to hang out and play bingo; it’s an active place, a community gathering spot. Senior centers have become important.”

Curtis Edgin, another principal at the Chicopee-based architectural firm agreed. “We’ve been very busy — a lot of public-sector work, a lot of education work, from pre-K to university levels,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done a lot of public-safety work. These projects — public safety, police, fire, things of that nature — are important to communities. They recognize the need to provide those services.”

Colleges and universities keep building too, said Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects, and his firm has certainly reaped the benefits.

“We’re lucky to be located right here in Amherst, so we’re conveniently located near the Five Colleges. We’ve always had a certain percentage of our work at the colleges; it’s probably one-third now.”

For instance, the firm is in the planning stages on two UMass Amherst projects, and has also performed a variety of work at Smith College, most recently an intriguing conversion of an historic boathouse into studio space for students of dance.

“That’s an interesting site,” Salvon said, and makes creative reuse of an existing space — a hallmark of New England, where there’s plenty of existing building stock but not as much land and opportunity to design and build new structures.

“We do a certain amount of new construction,” he said, “but a good bit of our work is turning one thing into something new.”

The architects BusinessWest spoke with for this issue uniformly reported a healthy pipeline of projects this year, which belies a cloudy national forecast for the construction industry. After projecting 6% growth in construction spending in 2017, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) adjusted that to 4% at midyear, and expects that slower pace to continue into 2018.

“However, a somewhat more optimistic view is coming from architecture firms,” Kermit Baker, the AIA’s chief economist, reported in July. “While this could be viewed as architecture firms merely working down their backlog from a few stronger years, that doesn’t appear to be the case … New project inquiries and new design contracts were stronger on average in the first half of 2017 than in 2015 and 2016, and as a result firm backlogs have been growing, not shrinking.”

That’s certainly true at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, which is so busy, principal Kevin Rothschild-Shea called the pace of projects a double-edged sword — but one he’s happy to face.

“We’re busy with multi-family housing, a bunch of new commercial work, and we’re seeing some new consrtruction, finally, not just renovations,” he noted. “The commercial market is moving along pretty strong. We’ve got more phone calls coming in than we can get to.”

For this issue’s focus on architecture, these regional players explain why they’re optimistic, not just for this year, but beyond.

Rising Tide

One of Caolo & Bieniek’s projects, the South End Community Center in Springfield, just opened last week, Hanifan said. “It’s a nice project because they were displaced from the tornado and finally have a permanent home again.”

Other projects the firm has recently tackled include Easthampton High School, Dupont Middle School in Chicopee, and, at the university level, academic and residential buildings at UMass Amherst. The company has also worked on the Little River fire station in Westfield, recreational fields in Agawam, the Chicopee public-safety complex, new branches of Polish National Credit Union and Arrha Credit Union, and a new senior center and police station in West Boylston.

Edgin said the more the firm works in one niche — senior centers, for instance — the more its reputation grows in that area, and it becomes easier to kand similar jobs.

“We’re diversified — we don’t focus on one project type,” he added. “The problem is, a lot of these communities recognize the need to replace outdated facilities or build new ones; they recognize the need to bring them in line with the current trends, but the costs are often an obstacle.”

Caolo & Bieniek Principals, from left, Curtis Edgin, Jim Hanifan, and Bertram Gardner.

Caolo & Bieniek Principals, from left, Curtis Edgin, Jim Hanifan, and Bertram Gardner.

Still, he added, municipal work never really dries up. “It goes in cycles, up and down. But we’ve been fortunate, and we hope it continues.”

Beyond its healthy niche in higher education, Kuhn Riddle is currently tackling two early-education facilities — Belchertown Day School is moving and Children’s First Enterprises in Granby is expanding — while taking advantage of a rebounding housing market, moving from multi-family projects into more high-end, single-family homes, a niche that dried up during the Great Recession.

“Before 2009, about third of our work was college, a third was general commercial, and a third was residential,” Salvon said. “That single-family home, we’ve had a little bit of that, not like it used to be.”

Rothschild-Shea agreed. “It really tanked after 2008. Multi-family has been starting to move the past few years — we’ve been doing a lot of rehab on multi-family, affordable housing — but we’re starting to see some new construction coming through, which is nice. We are just literally swamped, in best possible way, and we’re happy to see an uptick; it’s good for the whole industry.”

Salvon is equally gratified by what seems like a healthy outlook ahead.

“We feel better off than we were right after the recession, a lot more stable. I don’t feel like we’re getting close to anything like a bubble; it doesn’t seem like the market is too hot,” he said, before emphasizing the importance of repeat business, especially in the higher-ed sector. “What we try to do with the colleges is do good work and keep them happy with our services. Of course, we try to do that with all our clients. It really is about long-term relationships.”

Lean and Green

Caolo & Bieniek has seen a different sort of growth this year, forming a union with Agawam-based Reinhart Associates, which also has a strong track record in municipal work.

“We’ve both been around long enough — 60-plus years now — that we’ve built a loyal clientele that appreciates the services we provide,” Edgin told BusinessWest. “By drawing those resources together, we can compete with some larger firms from outside the area. There are more opportunities to draw on each other’s strengths.”

That said, he and his partners also keep an eye on industry trends, aiming to ensure they remain on the cutting edge at a time when bank branches, senior centers, medical offices, and police stations are designed a lot differently than they were a 20 years ago.

“We put a lot of effort into watching those trends, not just in Massachusetts, but across the country,” he said. “We’re not just looking at our projects, but all projects, seeing what the best practices are for that particular project type.”

Sustainable design is a good example, he went on, noting that ‘green’ was a buzzword a decade ago, but sustainability is here to stay. “The code revisions that continue to roll out keep setting the bar higher and higher, and complying with and exceeding those goals in Massachusetts touches on energy efficiency, quality of space, natural lighting, storm-water runoff on the exterior, and reuse of water.”

Hanifan agreed. “Clients are much more educated and in tune with green building and energy-efficiency standards, but the codes have caught up, and these things are mandated now. Three or four years ago, it was considered advanced building; today it’s all pretty much energy-efficient.”

Edgin isn’t about to rest on the firm’s laurels, but said its local roots are a plus, especially when it comes to developing long-term relationships and earning repeat business “It all comes down to the level of service you offer.”

“That’s probably our strongest marketing tool,” Hanifan added. “If you do a good job on a project, you’re more likely to get selected for the next one.”

And those projects keep on coming. After all, there will always be a need for the next school, library, or senior center.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


Soaring Expectations

Nate Costa, president

Nate Costa, president

David Ortiz is coming to the MassMutual Center this fall, and that’s only one of many ways in which the AHL’s Thunderbirds continue to build momentum — and their fan base — as they prepare for their second season on the ice in Springfield.

A “significant investment.”

That was Nate Costa’s careful, well-thought-out, and quite predictable answer to the question ‘what did it take to get retired Red Sox slugger/legend David Ortiz to come to Springfield for a Springfield Thunderbirds game in November?’

The response from the Thunderbirds’ recently promoted chief executive (he now has the title ‘president’), while guarded in nature, nonetheless carried significant meaning, both literally and figuratively.

By ‘significant investment,’ he meant, obviously, a large fee commensurate with Ortiz’ status as celebrity and New England sports folk hero. And that word ‘investment’ means, well, just what the dictionary definition says: ‘the use of money for future profit.’

And in this case, the profit is indeed monetary in nature — how much is obviously to be determined, but that is both the goal and the expectation — but it goes well beyond that and predominantly falls into a category that Ortiz himself would be quite familiar with — that infinitely precious commodity known as momentum.

Indeed, the Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise soon to begin its second year of operations in Springfield, remains in what Costa called the “acquisition mode,” or the building stage, or the momentum-building stage. He described this state of development as one where profits are certainly important, but what’s more critical is getting ever-larger numbers of fans into seats at the MassMutual Center, not for one game, but several, and preferably a season’s worth of them.

“We’re focused on continually growing the business and getting more bodies in the building,” he explained. “That’s how we’re going to generate revenue and momentum.”

These sentiments explain why a Coors Light will cost even less on a Friday night than it did at the end of last year — $3 for a cup, to be precise — while hot dogs will be $2 and sodas $1, in addition to live music. “I forgave some popcorn to get another dollar off the beer,” he said of the negotiations with the MassMutual Center. It’s also why ticket prices remained the same as last season, and why the team made that investment in Ortiz.

“The phone starting ringing right after the press conference where we announced this, and we sold out in four hours,” said Costa in reference to a special meet-and-greet offer involving Ortiz that sold for $134, a price chosen as a nod to the number he wore: 34.

And it’s also why Ortiz, while certainly the headline-grabbing promotion for the coming season — everything he does is headline-worthy, it seems — is just one of many coming attractions, if you will.

A Thunderbirds banner

A Thunderbirds banner flaps in the breeze in downtown Springfield, another example of the team’s success in remaining highly visible.

Others include everything from a special salute to Willie O’Ree, who broke hockey’s color barrier in 1958, more than a decade after Jackie Robinson gained much more acclaim for doing the same thing in baseball, to a ‘Blast from the Past’ night that will pay homage to the Springfield Indians, the name that was on the home team’s jerseys for decades.

Collectively, these initiatives and many others speak to how the club, which did well on the ice in its first season (falling just short of the playoffs), but even better off it — especially in the form of retained and new season ticket sales, as well as a number of sales-related awards from the league at its annual marketing meeting — certainly isn’t resting on any laurels.

“Those awards were validation for all the hard work we put in, and it was great to be able to celebrate our success with the entire staff,” Costa said. “I knew if we stuck to hard work, I knew if we put our head down and ignored the noise and did our jobs, we could meet our goals.

“It’s an exciting thing to see the reaction of the local community and to see the change from negativity in some ways to being overly positive,” he went on. “There are a lot of challenges still to overcome, but we have high expectations for this year.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Costa about the Ortiz coup, but also, and especially, the ongoing efforts to build additional momentum for the Thunderbirds and pro hockey in Springfield.

Flying High

Costa’s office at the MassMutual Center holds a trove of artifacts from his brief but already significant career in sports management. They include several bobbleheads, a small collection of hockey sticks, and a autographed Tony Parker jersey, a souvenir from his days working in group sales for the AHL’s San Antonio Rampage, which played its home games in the AT&T Center, also home to the NBA’s Spurs.

There’s a new addition to the collection, and it has already drawn a good amount of attention, and rightfully so. It’s a pilot’s helmet signed by every member of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Demonstration Squadron (the Thunderbirds) that appeared at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield last month.

It was a return gift, if you will, from the team members, who were presented with customized Thunderbirds jerseys.

“The Thunderbird pilots are numbered 1 through 8, so we had each jersey numbered 1 through 8, and we put their names on the back as well,” Costa explained. “They were really blown away by it; they said it was the first time they’d ever been presented with sports jerseys. It was a natural tie-in for us.”

Actually, those jerseys were just one of the ways the hockey team honored its namesake  — Costa said the name ‘Thunderbirds’ was chosen in part to recognize the strong military presence at both Barnes and Westover Air Reserve base in Chicopee — while also doing what it seemingly does best: making its presence known.

Nate Costa displays his helmet, a gift from the Air Force’s Thunderbirds

Nate Costa displays his helmet, a gift from the Air Force’s Thunderbirds. The hockey team gained significant exposure during the recent air show in Springfield.

Indeed, if you thought the Thunderbirds name, logo, and mascot were everywhere this past spring and summer, you weren’t imagining things.

The logo was on banners in downtown Springfield, on the temporary fencing set up in front of the United Bank branch now under construction at Monarch Place, on large banners gracing ‘Thunderbird Thursday’ events staged by the Springfield Business Improvement District, in the windows of office spaces available for lease downtown, and seemingly everywhere else.

As for the mascot, ‘Boomer,’ well, he set what those at Thunderbirds headquarters believe is a record for appearances in a month — 25 of them by Costa’s count — during August.

“There was one Saturday where he was at three different locations,” he recalled. “And that’s an important part of what we’re doing; we’ve trying to accommodate anyone and everyone who’s asked us to be part of what they’re doing. We don’t charge people for an appearance, and it’s a way to show people that we mean what we say when we say we’re going to be part of the fabric of the community.”

Costa said there are certainly quantitative measures for all this exposure the team is getting, especially when it comes to social media and analytics, but there are more qualitative indicators, such as that line ‘I see your logo everywhere,’ or words to that effect.

“We’ve heard it all summer — people will say, ‘I’m seeing you,’ or ‘it’s noticeable,’ or ‘you’re out there,’ and that’s a validation for us that we’re doing the right things,” he went on. “We’ve tried to be community-focused.”

All of this strategic visibility comes with a single goal — to build the Thunderbirds brand, said Costa, circling back to that reference he made to the team still being in ‘acquisition mode.’

And these efforts, coupled with effective pricing, free parking, and other initiatives and incentives, have enabled the Thunderbirds to lead the league in something other than wins and points, and something in many ways more important — a statistic called ‘recovered revenue.’

As Costa explained, this is a metric that the AHL tracks — essentially a measure of the number of renewed and new season tickets sold. The team stood at 115% at last check, a strong number that speaks volumes about the team behind the team on the ice.

“We were over 100% when the season ended, and that’s a testament to our fans renewing in a timely manner,” he explained, “but also to our staff being ready to start having conversations in February; it’s a great metric for us, and it’s something that hasn’t been done here in quite a while. Our season-ticket business has been strong, and our corporate business has been strong as well.”

Covering All the Bases

When asked if not making the AHL playoffs last spring brought any sort of advantage to the team, especially in the form of more time to plan for this season (there was very little time to prep for the 2016-17 campaign, you might recall), Costa quickly dismissed that notion.

“We’d much rather make the playoffs — that’s what we’re all in this for — to win a Calder Cup,” he said. “I talk a lot about promotions and themes and community involvement, but at the end of the day, winning the Calder Cup helps selling better than all that.”

But while the team didn’t win on the ice as much as the fans and management would have liked, it has taken full advantage of every other opportunity to build its brand and its fan base.

And Ortiz’ visit to the City of Homes is a big part of that.

As he talked about it, Costa said the team, fresh off last season’s hugely successful promotional event featuring wrestling icon Ric Flair, was thinking even bigger for this year — but it wasn’t really thinking about the retired Red Sox slugger.

Indeed, Costa told BusinessWest that he was considering big-name bands for a post-game concert and was making inquiries about the Dropkick Murphys.

“We were really close on that,” he recalled, “but then I really looked at it from the business side, and I thought, ‘we’re in the business of running hockey games,’ so it made me really nervous about getting in that other business of promoting a concert with all those other expenses.

“But in the conversations we had with a couple of different groups about talent and a couple of bands we thought might work, someone had seen our Ric Flair night and said, ‘hey, we also do appearances,’” he went on, adding that one thing led to another, and eventually Big Papi was signed on the dotted line.

The makeup of the Ortiz appearance is still a work in progress, said Costa, adding that several options are being discussed.

The emerging plan is to dedicate one of the two intermissions to him and do some “fun stuff” that he doesn’t do at most appearances, Costa went on, such as taking the Zamboni for a spin while tossing out T-shirts, perhaps, or maybe hitting some signed foam baseballs into the crowd.

“We really want to do something unique,” he said, adding that this adjective describes many of the team’s initiatives off the ice.

Such as the night honoring Willie O’Ree’s breakthrough. It will mark the 60th anniversary of his first appearance with the Boston Bruins, but also commemorate his time spent playing in Springfield in the AHL before being called up.

Other promotional events include bringing back Rene Rancourt, who has sung the national anthems of the U.S. and Canada before Bruins games for 40 years; another Star Wars night, and a Wednesday tilt in November that will become a “school-day game,” as Costa called it, with a 10:30 a.m. puck drop and special emphasis on getting schoolchildren in the stands.

And while being creative with promotions, Costa believes the team is doing the same with its prices — by not raising them.

“We talked about not having any barriers for people — we didn’t want to put any negative thoughts into people’s minds when it came to renewal time or for this season when someone comes out to a game,” he explained. “I didn’t want any conversion to focus on ‘geez, they went up $2 on tickets; maybe we won’t go now.’

“That might come in time,” he went on. “But for now, we want to focus on getting more bodies in the building instead of focusing on the small piece of revenue we might generate by going up on ticket prices.”

Hitting It Out of the Park

When asked if the team was likely to recover that significant investment it has made in Ortiz, Costa smiled and said, “we’re well on our way.”

That phrase covers many other aspects of the Thunderbirds operation and the team’s ambitious plans moving forward.

It works when it comes to goals for selling tickets, gaining brand recognition, creating momentum, and making this team part of the region’s fabric and economy.

There is considerable work still be done, and Costa, as noted, strives for continuous improvement. But for now, this team is doing what its honored guest on Nov. 11 did his whole career — hitting home runs.

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


Raising the Steaks

The iconic photo of President Eisenhower from the 1953 Big E

The iconic photo of President Eisenhower from the 1953 Big E. He was there to check in on the steer raised on his farm in Pennsylvania.

It is one of the most iconic photos taken during the 101-year history of the Big E.

Captured in 1953, it depicts President Dwight Eisenhower (the only sitting president to ever visit the Big E during the fair) meeting with Fred Scoralick, age 18, from Dutchess County, N.Y., that year’s winner of the 4-H Beef program, and his grand champion steer.

By now, most have seen the image — it was one of several to gain considerable exposure (pun intended) during the Big E’s various centennial happenings a year ago, and it was among a handful that made the cover of a commemorative book marking that occasion. But most don’t know the full story behind the photo, said Donna Woolam, who relates it often.

As Woolam, director of Agriculture and Education for the Big E, tells it, Eisenhower, then nine months into his first term in the White House, didn’t just happen by the Big E that year, and he had much more than casual interest in the 4-H Beef program and the winning black angus steer in question.

Indeed, it was raised on his farm just outside Gettysburg, Pa. — not far from the Civil War battlefield and now a national historic site — and sold to Scoralick’s family with the intention of entering it in the 4-H competition.

“He was the breeder of that steer, and he was here to see the animal being shown,” said Woolam. “That’s why he came.”

The story behind the Eisenhower photo falls into the category of ‘little-known history,’ and that phrase pretty much sums up the 4-H Beef program, or the Baby Beef program, as it was known in its early years. There is considerable history attached to it — 86 years of it, to be exact — but it is known to a relative few, meaning those who participate and those who support agriculture and events like this one.

Woolam and Big E President Gene Cassidy would like to make this a bigger constituency. More importantly, though — and this goal is directly related to that first one — they want to write many more chapters in the history of the beef program.

And that will be a challenging assignment as agriculture continues to decline as a business — and as part of the culture and landscape — in the Northeast.

“In this day and age, especially in urban areas, I wish there were more people better informed about 4-H; it should be part of the curriculum,” Cassidy said. “It’s important for our children, and for all of us, to have food literacy; it’s important for our health, and it’s important for our economy.”

Raising the stakes (or steaks, if you will), Cassidy went so far as to issue a call of support for the many aspects of the 4-H Beef program. They include not only the competition, but the auction of this year’s steers, where the beef is often contributed to area community food pantries, as the Big E itself did last year when it bought one of the steers and donated the meat to the West Springfield Parish Cupboard.

“The Big E challenges you and your business … SUPPORT NEW ENGLAND AGRICULTURE,” read the ad in the Sept. 4 issue of BusinessWest, which featured all those capital letters for emphasis and went on provide details of the auction, set for Sept. 25 at the Big E’s Mallory Agriculture Complex.

Cassidy is hoping the challenge will be answered, and, overall, he’s also hopeful that more business owners and area residents will realize the all-too-real threats to agriculture in this part of the country and be part of efforts to preserve what’s left, cherish those traditions (and businesses), and secure a future for this sector of the economy.

Meat and Greet

Look closely at that photo from 1953, and you’ll notice that President Eisenhower is holding one of Scoralick’s prizes from that year’s competition — the winner’s banner, or ribbon.

You can’t read it, because it’s facing the wrong way, but it has the words ‘Grand Champion 4-H Beef ’ and ‘Eastern States Exposition’ as well as the year on there somewhere. These colorful, bright-purple awards have become part of the history of the competition, said Woolam, who has two of them mounted in frames hanging on the back wall of her office.

They were a gift were a gift from the family of Lee Jenks, from Agawam, and they represent his winning achievements in what was then the Baby Beef competition in both 1928 and 1930.

“The family walked in here one fair and said that these needed to hang here, in the Mallory, where it all happened,” said Woolam, referring to not only ‘grand champion’ banners but also a photo of Lee, who passed away several years ago, with one of his prized steers. “We’re very proud to have them.”


As are the owners of the other 85-odd champion banners that have been handed out over the years, she said, adding that they have become keepsakes and are often prominently displayed. Winning the beef competition is a proud moment, she went on, so much so that, when a past champion passes away, their accomplishments at the Big E are almost always noted in his or her obituary.

But over time, and especially in recent years, the 4-H Beef program has become much more than a competition among dozens of young people ages 12 to 18. Indeed, it has become everything from a vehicle for helping to feed to those in need to a way for participants to earn needed money for college (and often a degree in agriculture science), to a showcase for a declining agriculture sector, especially in the Northeast.

Overall, the competition hasn’t changed much since it was started in 1921, said Woolam. Young heifers and steers are acquired from breeders (like Eisenhower) and raised for roughly 10 or 11 months prior to the Big E in which they will compete. The heifers are raised as breeding stock, while the steers are destined for the aforementioned auction, with the meat going to the buyers or designated charities.

The animals, which represent a number of different breeds, are judged against industry standards, Woolam explained, adding that this year’s judge hails from Tennessee.

“He’ll be looking for animals with a lot of natural muscling, a lot of structural soundness, visual eye appeal, and more,” she explained, adding that many of the competing livestock are crossbreeds.

This year, 45 steers are expected to be entered, and perhaps 30 of those will be sold, she went on, adding that the winning animal could fetch $5 or more per pound, and last year, the average selling price for the 24 steers that went to auction was $2.70 per pound.

Participants, meaning the young people that raise the animals, are from the six New England states and Dutchess County in the southeastern part of New York. The returning champion (she actually won in both 2015 and 2016) is Olivia Oatley, from Exeter, R.I. She has kept the champion’s banner in the family — her brother won a few times before she did — and has three steers in this year’s competition.

The program, like all 4-H endeavors, is educational in nature, said Woolam, adding that, during the Big E, participants will take part in a host of programs and competitions to test their abilities and knowledge of the cattle industry.

And while participants are furthering their education when it comes to agriculture and agribusiness, Cassidy hopes the public can do the same.

“With our lack of food literacy, there’s such a misunderstanding about food product,” he explained. “And this breeds activism, which harms agriculture.”

As an example, he cited the referendum question on last year’s ballot in Massachusetts that would prohibit sales within the state of eggs from caged hens. It passed, and the measure will take effect in 2021, said Cassidy, who expects that it will put the only remaining poultry farm in the state out of business and significantly raise the price of eggs in the Bay State.

Donna Woolam

Donna Woolam shows off the photo of Lee Jenks, Baby Beef competition winner in 1928 and 1930, that was gifted to the Big E.

“In California, where they passed a similar referendum several years ago, a dozen eggs cost three times what they do in Massachusetts,” he explained. “People here can buy a dozen eggs now for $1.65; that ballot question will take the price to way over $3.”

Cassidy said he sees a direct parallel between programs like 4-H and Future Farmers of America and food literacy. And that’s why he maintains that initiatives like the 4-H Beef program must not only continue, but garner additional support — at the auction, and in other ways as well.

Woolam agreed.

“This is a program with a lot of history,” she told BusinessWest. “And we hope it’s a program that will continue for many more years.”

Gaining Ground

Take one more look at the photo of President Eisenhower, and you’ll notice the large and very well-dressed press contingent (this was 1953, remember) in the background.

It would take a sitting president on the Big E grounds for the 4-H Beef competition and the grand champion steer to get anything approaching that kind of attention, and Gene Cassidy knows that.

That’s not exactly what he’s looking for. He is looking for a little more attention, some additional support, and a better understanding of the business of agriculture and its importance to the region.

In short, he’s looking to secure opportunities to create more — make that much more — little-known history.

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

Cover Story Manufacturing Sections

A New Spin

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds stands by the Truvis V machine with one of the products of the same name.

Over the past century or so, golf balls — and golf-ball history — have been made in Chicopee. Indeed, the sprawling plant on Meadow Street that once bore the name ‘Spalding’ and now ‘Callaway’ has been home to a number of innovations and new products. In recent years, though, that tradition — not to mention the number of workers at the plant — has been in decline. However, a new and exciting golf-ball design is changing the landscape, in all kinds of ways.

They’re calling it the Truvis V.

That’s the name given to a large, sophisticated piece of machinery recently installed at the sprawling Callaway plant in Chicopee. It was built to carefully place the 12 pentagons that have become the distinctive design pattern for the Truvis golf ball, as well as the Callaway name and the player number, all in accordance with USGA rules and regulations.

This machine is cutting-edge when it comes to such work, said Vince Simonds, senior director of Global Golf Ball Operations for Callaway, adding that it packs as much symbolism as it does science and technology.

Indeed, the Truvis V is perhaps the most visible evidence — except for perhaps the soccer-ball-like product the company has developed — of a compelling turnaround in the history of golf-ball manufacturing in Chicopee.

It’s a long history, to be sure, one that dates back to the late 1800s, but recent chapters have certainly not been as glorious. Decades ago, the talk about this plant was mostly reserved to the tens of millions of golf balls produced there annually. Lately, though, it’s been about the dwindling numbers of men and women working inside; decades ago, more than 1,000 people were employed at the plant, and only a few years ago that number dipped below the century mark.

It’s now at or near 200 and steadily climbing, and there were essentially two catalysts for that growth. The first was the arrival of Chip Brewer as the company’s president and CEO in 2012, a move that energized Callaway in many ways, Simonds noted. The second was the development of the Chrome Soft golf ball, or the “ball that changed the ball,” as the company says in its marketing materials.

This became the ball that essentially changed the fortunes of the Chicopee plant as well, Simonds went on, adding that the product has helped Callaway become the number-two ballmaker in the world (well behind the leader, Titleist), and it has also spurred those growing employment numbers in Chicopee.

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant

The ‘Made in Chicopee’ banner at the Callaway plant has new meaning these days.

And the Truvis model of the Chrome Soft is a very big part of this improved and still-changing picture.

It is still relatively new — it’s been on the market for a few years now — and no one on the PGA Tour is using it yet (more on that later), although Tom Watson is using it on the Champions Tour for players over age 50. But it is certainly catching on among amateurs.

As the name implies, the ball’s claim to fame is that is it is easier to see and enables players to focus better. The product has won some supporters among older players, said Dan Gomez, director of Golf Ball Supply Chain at the Chicopee operation, and among the younger clientele as well, who see is as a break from golf’s staid (some would say stuffy) image.

“It’s something new and different, and some would argue that’s just what’s needed in golf right now,” said Simonds.

The response has been so good that Callaway is having a hard time keeping up with demand. In fact, it isn’t keeping up.

“We’re capacity-constrained right now,”Gomez said with a laugh. “We’ve been sold out on this product for two years; everything we make goes right out — we can’t make enough of them.”

This development explains the Truvis V, but also the fact that space has cleared on the production floor for several more of these machines, and the company plans to add 30 to 40 more workers to operate them.

Indeed, Callaway is quite convinced that the strong interest in the Truvis ball does not represent a fad, like colored golf balls were when first introduced 40 years ago, but rather a business it can build on for years to come. And it is investing heavily in new equipment and plant reconfiguration.

It is also taking very necessary steps to ensure that it will have workers to staff those machines in the years to come. Like all manufacturers, Callaway is having a difficult time finding qualified help, and it is forging (that’s an industry term) relationships with area technical schools to help create a better pipeline.

Part of this relationship building involves tours — officials at Springfield Technical Community College recently visited, for example — designed to impress upon schools and the young people they educate that golf-ball making is alive and well in Chicopee.

And that’s something that really couldn’t have been said just a few years ago.

Round Numbers

Speaking of history, there is quite a bit of it on display, literally, in a row of cases in the hallway leading from the executive offices to the main production floor at the Callaway plant.

There’s more than two centuries of golf-ball technology and product developments behind the glass, including a reproduction of a ‘feathery,’ an 18th-century product that, as the name might suggest, was essentially leather-covered feathers. There’s also some gutta percha balls, or ‘gutties,’ as they were called — products used in the 1800s that were made from dried gum resin from guttiferous trees — as well as dozens of balls from the 20th and 21st centuries with the Spalding name on them, as well as those of several subsidiaries acquired over the years.

There’s even a ball that commemorates the historic moon shot, or moon golf shot, taken by Alan Shepard during the Apollo 14 mission in 1971. (Simonds said there is some ambiguity as to just which brand of ball Shepard used for his famous lunar 6-iron, but he signed a promotional deal with Spalding soon after his return from that mission.)

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Dan Gomez, left, and Vince Simonds show off some of the Chrome Soft products that have changed the dynamic at the Chicopee plant.

Further down the hall, there is another display case. Its top rows are currently populated with a number of variations on the Truvis theme — meaning a host of color schemes and a few speciality balls, such as one produced for Australian pro Mark Leishman that has the shape of Australia printed inside the pentagons.

There are rows of empty racks waiting to be filled, as well as the confidence that they will be — something that probably didn’t exist just a few years ago.

Indeed, as he talked about Callaway’s acquisition of Spalding’s assets, including the Chicopee plant, in 2003, Simonds said the ensuing years were certainly not what the leaders at that company hoped they would be.

The company’s consistently sluggish performance in the golf-ball business was coupled with the fact that it was overcapitalized — actually, way overcapitalized — especially with regard to the sprawling Chicopee plant, which was much too big for the company’s needs.

Out of necessity, Callaway downsized and rightsized, said Simonds, adding that it sold the Chicopee plant and is currently leasing back roughly 275,000 square feet, maybe one-quarter the footprint of the original facility.

The rightsizing coincided with Brewer’s arrival as president and CEO of the company and the introduction of new products, especially the Chrome Soft, which is essentially technology that enables lower-compression golf balls to perform as well as higher-compression balls years ago.

These developments led to a dramatic increase in market share — from just over 7% in 2013 to more than 14% at present — which has in turn fueled investments in new product development, and especially the Truvis.

Today, the company is making 200,000 to 250,000 balls a day, and the workforce has steadily grown over the past few years to roughly the 200 mark, about a 50% increase, with more hiring planned, primarily in response to the strong early performance of the Truvis.

“It’s been a phenomenal success,” said Simonds, adding quickly that the company has taken steps, patent-wise (from both a manufacturing and design standpoint), in efforts to protect itself from competitors developing something similar, something he believes they’ll try to do.

At present, there are black pentagons on yellow (popular with fans of the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Steelers) and red-on-white options in this country, and a blue-on-white model sold in Japan, he went on, adding that there have been a number of custom orders as well, including green on white for Dick’s Sporting Goods, white on pink for the Susan G. Komen Foundation and Mother’s Day, and red maple leaves to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Canada.

The response has been so strong — those balls shipped to Canada sold out quickly — that Callaway has mapped out an ambitious, three-year capital expansion plan to produce the balls.

The Truvis V, as noted, is merely the first of many that will be installed at the Chicopee plant.

And this is very specialized, and expensive, equipment.

“This is an involved process,” Simonds explained. “When you think about stamping such a large design on a spherical object … you have to distort the artwork so that it doesn’t look distorted on the ball. And we’ve developed some techniques to purposefully and mathematically distort the artwork so that, when it’s placed on the ball, it looks normal.”

Another challenge will be finding qualified individuals to operate these machines, he said, adding that this is why the company is reaching out to STCC and the technical high schools in the area, with the goal of establishing relationships and putting Callaway back on the radar screen for young people looking for career opportunities.

In the meantime, Callaway officials look forward to the day — and they predict it will come — when a PGA tour regular starts playing the Truvis, a development that would give the ball a huge boost in terms of both exposure and credibility.

“Most of the tour pros have them, and they use them for chipping and practicing,” Simonds explained. “But most PGA tour pros are too traditionalist to put those in play. But I think it will happen someday.”

Growth Patterns

There’s another item of interest on the shop floor to the administrative offices at the Callaway plant.

It’s a large banner hanging from a utility duct that features images of the Chrome Soft ball, with the Truvis product well-represented. Above those images, in large white letters, are the words ‘Made in Chicopee, MA.’

Such banners and such words have been seen at the plant for decades, obviously, but today, there is more meaning behind them, more optimism, and more promise, if you will.

A plant that has made a good deal of golf balls — and a great deal of golf-ball history — is entering a new era in which it will produce more of both.

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

Manufacturing Sections

Moving Experience

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

Company President Carol Campbell shows off new CIC’s new 40-60 Hoist.

When Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC) officially marked a quarter-century in business a few months back, it did so with an elaborate open house at its headquarters in Chicopee.

This meant that a good number of those invited — especially a host of the company’s best customers — had to rely on their car’s navigation systems to get them to the ceremonies.

That’s because, for starters, they’d almost certainly never been there before — and also because this business is not exactly easy to find. Indeed, North Chicopee Street is a dead-end road in the northwest corner of the city, not far from Route 391. Meanwhile, the company’s facility is a somewhat non-descript building, with its claim to fame being that it housed Hampden Brewing Co., maker of Hampden Ale, decades ago.

Those customers, most all of them manufacturers — although there are some other sectors in the mix, including area municipalities — don’t come to CIC, because it comes to them, specializing, as it does, in rigging, heavy lifting, machinery moving, machine installation, millwrighting, machine repair, plant relocations, and more.

Once they found the place, open-house attendees could see that the company boasts a large inventory of equipment, space to store machinery for some customers, a training room where employees hone both technical and soft skills (more on that later), and even a large picture of the property with the Hampden Brewery sign on the roof.

Most of the guests probably won’t be back until there’s another round-number anniversary, said Carol Campbell, the company’s energetic president and CEO, who told BusinessWest that she’s marking her anniversary, in part, with steps and strategic planning to ensure that there are such occasions.

“We’ve done some looking back at where we’ve been and what we’ve accomplished,” she said of anniversary celebrations that officially began in February. “But we’re really looking ahead to what we need to do as a company. We want to be here in another 25 years.

“And what we really need to do is build on our strengths, and there any many of those,” she went on, “while also making ourselves more versatile and better-equipped to take on more kinds of jobs.”

There is much that goes into that phrase ‘better-equipped,’ including initiatives such as the company’s most recent acquisition, a 40/60 Hoist, as it’s called. The numbers reflect the fact that can handle loads of 40,000 to 60,000 pounds, and Hoist is both the name of the manufacturer and a description of what it does.

The machinery was acquired to give CIC more flexibility and the ability to work more efficiently, said Campbell, adding that it’s a solid investment in the company’s future.

As are other measures that fall into that category of being ‘better equipped,’ such as the many training programs carried out in a classroom carved out of space on the building’s second floor and other efforts to build and strengthen the CIC team.

“What makes CIC unique is that this is a group of individuals, brought together by skills, that believe in the company,” she told BusinessWest. “And they not only believe in our mission and our vision — they believe in CIC. It’s not ‘Carol Campbell’s company,’ it’s CIC, and that became apparent at our open house.”

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

The new piece of wall art at Chicopee Industrial Contractors tells a compelling story.

But while Campbell said the 25th anniversary was a chance for her to thank customers such as Lenox, Smith & Wesson, Olympic Manufacturing, and others, as well as that team she talked about in such glowing terms, that second constituency turned the tables and thanked her with a gift.

This was a sculpture of sorts — a collection of the various tools of this trade (turnbuckles, chains, wrenches, and even a bottle opener as a nod to the building’s past as a brewery) welded into something approximating the number ‘25.’

Now holding down a prominent piece of wall space at CIC headquarters, the artwork is symbolic in that those tools, and employees’ mastery of them, made ‘25’ possible. This is a success formula that Campbell won’t be changing — but she may add some new ingredients to ensure that higher numbers can be reached.

Weighty Matters

As she talks about economic cycles, and especially downturns, both modest and severe, Campbell does so with tremendous recall and attention to detail.

Most people who have a business within the construction sector or who have a customer base dominated by manufacturers have such ability, and for good reason. Those are sectors that are among the most vulnerable to recessions, and, as noted, CIC is tied to both.

So she speaks from experience, and lots of it, when she says her business is what she calls a ‘lagger.’ That’s not a real word, but one nonetheless often used to describe a business that lags behind others when a recession hits. And that’s because there’s work to do soon after the economy turns south.

For CIC, that work translates into handling assignments for companies that are downsizing — or worse, as in closing their doors.

After work of this nature is done, then the recession hits for CIC. Which means that, while the phones stopped ringing at most businesses just a few hours after the planes struck the Twin Towers on 9/11, they didn’t really stop ringing at CIC until several months later. And it was the same later in the decade; while 2008, the height of the Great Recession, was the year of doom for most businesses, it was 2009 for CIC.

But while the declines come later, they are still profound, said Campbell, adding that one of her goals as she looks at what’s ahead for CIC is to reduce the impact of such declines, or, in other words, make the ups and downs (or at the least the downs) less dramatic.

This will be difficult, given the nature of the customer base and the general portfolio of products and services, but initiatives such as the new 40/60 Hoist will certainly help, she said.

In the meantime, the company will look to make itself more of a force when the economy is doing relatively well. And this involves sticking to the playbook first drafted in 1992, the one that enabled that sculpture to take the shape it did, and making the team carrying out those plays even stronger.

Elaborating, Campbell said one of her priorities moving forward is securing leadership for the future — at all levels.

“As we’ve brought new employees on from 10 years ago and 12 years ago, and even some of the more recent additions from the past few years, we’ve trained them to take leadership roles,” she explained. “So as we say ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’ to our senior staff, leadership can be transferred to that younger generation.”

And while developing leadership abilities, the company is continually building upon the skills of its team members, one of the keys to its ongoing success, Campbell noted, adding that this was one of the matters she’s stressed to employees as the company has marked 25 years in business.

“I told them that we got here by continuing to sharpen our skills, whether it be our technical skills or our soft skills,” she said, while noting that the latter, which involves team interaction with customers, is just as important as the former. “This has certainly served us well, and we will continue on that path.”

One of the biggest challenges the company faces moving forward is securing enough talented workers to handle the various types of assignments CIC undertakes.

Campbell said she has struggled for many years now to build the workforce when expansion was possible and needed, and like almost every owner of a manufacturing company or contractor, she’s concerned about the prospect of replacing those workers who will retire in the years to come.

“It’s definitely been a challenge — for us, and for everyone,” she told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the generally frustrating search for talent is not exactly stifling the company’s growth efforts, and it’s certainly not keeping CIC from taking on work. But it is a concern moving forward, and one of the many matters to address as the company ponders what the next 25 can and should be like.

Carrying the Load

As she posed for a few pictures around and on the 40/60 Hoist, Campbell looked ready to put it through its paces.

But she’ll leave that to her talented, experienced crews.

Instead, she’ll continue to do what she’s done from the start — manage, do some selling, build relationships, be active within the community and, most important, set a tone for the company she founded.

That would be a tone of continuous improvement and performing well as a team — something her father, Vic Fusia, who coached the UMass Amherst football team in the ’60s, would certainly appreciate.

Those attributes are responsible for the sculpture now gracing the hallway of the old brewery in Chicopee, and they’re the ones that will carry the company to new milestones — and moving experiences of all kinds.

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

Employment Sections

Hire Power

Wanda Gispert, regional vice president of Talent & Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International.

Wanda Gispert, regional vice president of Talent & Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International.

The final countdown has begun at MGM Springfield; the $950 million casino will be open for business in just over a year. That means roughly 3,000 people must be hired between now and then, a massive task that falls to a team that has already been hard at work for months.


That’s the number of applications that Wanda Gispert is expecting for the 3,000 or so positions that MGM Springfield must fill between now and opening night roughly a year from now — actually, well before opening night.

Doing the quick math, Gispert, who takes the title of regional vice president of Talent and Workforce Development for MGM Resorts International, acknowledges that this number equates to just over 40 applicants per job.

That might be the average, but the number of applicants will vary wildly with the position, she told BusinessWest, adding that, for top-level positions, like vice president of table games, there might be hundreds of candidates.

And then, for some positions, 40 applicants for each posting would be a blessing, but certainly not a reality.

“Being a butcher is a lost art — a lot of people don’t have that specific skill,” she said, adding that the casino will need a handful of such individuals. The same is true of pastry chefs and security personnel specifically trained to work with canines.

Filling the hundreds of different kinds of positions needed to operate MGM’s $959 million casino in Springfield’s South End is now Gispert’s responsibility. Actually, she leads a team of people that will handle this assignment, one she is still building.

As she goes about her work, she will draw on years of experience with meeting the considerable workforce challenges of major corporations within the broad hospitality sector.

Her specialty is opening new properties, and her résumé includes considerable work within the hotel industry, specifically with Marriott Hilton, opening more than 200 properties within the U.S., Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, while serving on what is known as the ‘new-opening team.’

She later went to work for MGM Resorts International, and took the lead role in assembling the team of roughly 4,000 for the company’s National Harbor casino, which opened earlier this year.

She will also draw on a host of resources, everything from the area’s community colleges and workforce-related agencies to websites that can tell her which companies are downsizing across the country and, therefore, what types of talented individuals might be looking for work.

Overall, she said assembling a workforce for MGM Springfield will pose some challenges, but nothing out of the ordinary for such assignments.

The region boasts a large, qualified workforce, she noted, and it has the resources in place to train those who will need specific training, such as dealers. Meanwhile, MGM’s name and reputation within the gaming industry will bring a number of experienced workers into this market, giving the new casino ample talent to draw from as its fills out its team.

“With every market that we service, we see challenges in certain areas,” she explained, noting that this region would certainly not boast many experienced casino workers because legalized gaming only came to this state a year ago. “What’s encouraging about this area is that there are professions that easily transfer over to what we need; the banking industry is huge here, for example. From a cage-operations standpoint and how you run a casino behind the scenes — meaning accounting, finance, human resources, and other areas — we have a lot of positions there, but we know skills will transfer over.”

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Gispert about the hiring process for MGM Springfield and how things will unfold over the next year.

Surveying the Situation

As she assessed the challenge of staffing up at MGM Springfield, Gispert made a number of observations.

Among them is the fact this is a good time to be in a culinary-arts program, and for fairly obvious reasons made clear by her reference to pastry chefs and how hard it will be to find them. It’s also a good time to be a math teacher or a retired math teacher, for less-obvious reasons she would explain. And it’s a good time to be a bank teller, especially one who might be downsized in this time when there is need for fewer of those professionals.

As for math teachers and those who have retired from that profession, Gispert said they are the perfect sorts for the behind-the-scenes positions in surveillance.

“Those jobs are very different from security positions,” she explained. “Everyone in surveillance is given a math test; they have to understand all the games — poker, blackjack, craps, everything that we offer — and they need to be able to do math in their head very well, because if I’m watching a play, how do I know if an odd is being paid out properly?

“They catch mistakes; they catch possible cheating,” she went on. “They’re the eyes and ears of the casino. They must be really sharp, and their facial-recognition skills must be really strong.”

Loss-prevention specialists for major retailers would obviously be good candidates for such positions, she continued, but those math teachers and former math teachers are also ideal.

And teachers, in general, are good candidates for jobs through the casino, and for many reasons.

“They’re off every night, they’re off every weekend, they’re off for Christmas,” she said while listing some. “We love school teachers; many of our employers teach school because they have the perfect schedule.”

As noted, Gispert can talk about filling such positions from experience — lots of it.

A graduate of Georgia State’s respected hospitality program (the school is located in Atlanta, a popular site for conventions), she said she started her career on the front desk of a Holiday Inn at age 18 and has worked in a host of different positions within the hotel sector.

“I think that’s what’s given me my edge,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve worked all of those jobs — I’ve washed dishes, I’ve made beds, I’ve worked in sales. You’re a jack of all trades at that point, and when you’re recruiting for those positions or training for them, you know what to look for, and you know how to train better because you’ve been in that position.”

Jason Randall

Jason Randall says the process of onboarding MGM employees is well underway.

As noted, she’s taken all that experience in hotels and added casino staffing to her résumé, assignments that are similar to hotels but have some additional wrinkles, such as host-community agreements, which stipulate commitments that the casino will make to hiring people from the specific host community and region surrounding it.

With MGM Springfield, that commitment is to have more than one-third (35%) of the workforce be comprised of people living in Springfield or from Springfield.

That last consideration is a very important one, said Gispert, adding that one of the things Springfield officials hoped to do by luring a casino here was to bring back some of those young people (with ‘young’ being a relative term) who decided they needed to go elsewhere to find fulfillment of their career aspirations.

That commitment to designate a third of the jobs to those with Springfield roots, as well as other commitments (to hire veterans, for example) is essentially a starting point for this assignment, said Gispert.

“That’s how I start crafting how I will approach my workforce-development game plan for the area,” she explained, adding that 90% of the workforce must come from this region, which is defined loosely as Greater Springfield.

Counting Down

Running down some of the numbers involved with her assignment (there are always lots of numbers to consider when talking about a casino), Gispert said the largest specific team, or department, will be dealers; roughly 600 of them will be needed for blackjack, poker, and other games. A large security force will also be needed, she went on, noting that roughly 200 individuals will be required for such work.

There will be a number of restaurants and catering operations, so about 150 culinary artists will be required, she said, adding that there are subsets within that broad realm (pastry chef, for example), and there will be about 80 cashier, or ‘cage,’ positions, as they’re called; these are people who will be handling money.

There are also a number of positions for which the casino will need just a few talented individuals, or perhaps even one. Butcher falls in that category, as does locksmith, security people that can work with dogs, and ‘master tailor’ (there will likely be just one of those).

When asked about the schedule moving forward when it comes to the process of putting a team in place, Gispert said the hiring has already begun in many areas, especially within the higher levels of management, meaning those who will lead the teams that will be assembled.

The matter of when specific positions will be filled will be determined by several factors, she went on, but especially how much training is involved and, obviously, when the employees in question will be needed.

As an example, she noted security personnel. This will be a large force, as noted, and one that will need extensive training. Also, in many cases, individuals will be needed long before the doors to the casino actually open.

“January is the month when a lot of positions will come on board,” she explained. “Because security and surveillance come in first; they take the longest to train, and you need them on the premises earlier than anyone else.

“Once equipment starts to be delivered, surveillance has to be there from that point on,” she went on. “Once slot machines and other equipment start to arrive, it cannot be left unsupervised; it’s 24 hours a day once they’re on the premises.”

And bringing someone onboard, if you will, is a lengthy process, said Jason Randall, who just went through it himself while being hired as director of Talent Acquisition & Development.

A veteran of the tourism industry in the human resources realm — he was a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under 40 Class of 2014 as director of Human Resources for Peter Pan Bus Lines — he joined MGM in May. He said one of his primary responsibilities is taking new hires “from A to Z,” as he put it.

“Soon, we’ll start building out our human-resources team to start managing that on a volume scale,” he explained. “We’ll have a team that will take over halfway through the process to help initiate drug and background checks, complete offer letters, assisting with gaming-license processing, and eventually queueing everyone up for the big orientation dates.”

Those will be coming after some large hiring events late next spring and into the summer, he went on, leaving ample time for training before the casino opens.

As jobs need to be filled, the positions are posted on LinkedIn and job boards, said Gispert, adding that the response has thus far been solid, and it points toward overall numbers similar to what was experienced with National Harbor — thus that projection for 126,000 applications.

People can apply for as many as three jobs, and many do, she explained, which will be a factor in how many applications MGM receives, but overall, she’s expecting a very strong response, and from people of all ages.

“We reach out to AARP,” Gispert explained, “because a lot of people thought they wanted to be retired, then they retired and they decided, ‘no, I really want something back in the workforce.’”

Odds Are

As she talked about the process of creating a workforce for MGM Springfield, Gispert noted one challenge that might not be apparent to all.

“Not everyone will want to work for us,” she said with laugh, “because if you work for us, you can’t gamble here. Some people would rather be a customer than an employee.”

Perhaps, but she’s quite confident that this obstacle can be overcome as she goes about hiring dealers, security personnel, and even butchers and pastry chefs.

A year from now, roughly 3,000 people will be wearing ‘MGM Springfield’ nametags as part of the work attire. Getting to that point will be a challenge, but the casino and its workforce will be ready, she said.

You can bet on it.

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

Insurance Sections

Risk and Reward

The Encharter management team

The Encharter management team, from left: Trish Vassallo, personal lines director; Beth Pearson, commercial lines director; Tracey Benison, president; and Sue Henry, vice president of finance and administration.

Tracey Benison, president of Encharter Insurance in Amherst, says she deals in what some people may consider a dry topic, or ‘white noise.’ But to her and her team, it’s actually a vibrant, highly personalized process of helping people recognize the risks in their home and work lives, reduce those exposures, and make sure they’re well-covered when the unthinkable happens.

Trish Vassallo says there’s a certain gratification in matching insurance clients to the right coverage, especially when the worst — anything from a destructive hurricane to a violent car crash — happens.

“The best thing we can tell them is, ‘you’re covered for that,’” said Vassallo, personal lines director at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, and a 25-year veteran with the agency. But getting to that point takes time and communication, because each client is different.

“It’s really important to talk to the customer and understand what risks might be hidden, what they might be unaware of,” she told BusinessWest. “They may say, ‘I don’t drive for work, but I drop the kids off on the way to work, and do the same for my neighbors.’ That opens the door to further questioning, and we make sure they have the right coverage.”

Tracey Benison, who came on board as Encharter’s president two years ago, agreed, noting that the firm’s customers range from individuals with $500 policies to business owners whose premiums reach eight digits. “Basically, everyone who walks through the door has unique exposures we need to address. So we learn what’s unique about them and make sure they’re absolutely covered. A lot of people underestimate what their insurance needs are, and underestimate the need to get guidance from an experienced adviser. A lot of people are focused on prices and don’t purchase the right coverages.”

She said real-life examples are plentiful, including one individual she knows who had $20,000 in liability coverage on his auto insurance, and hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk; the victim racked up $350,000 in medical care.

“People say, ‘give me the best price,’ but they’re being penny wise and pound foolish,” Benison added. “And it’s not just the financial impact, but the stress. We want people to understand what their exposures are and what the best products are for it, and have them make a decision from there.”

The agency, formerly known as Blair, Cutting & Smith, traces its roots in Amherst back to 1879. In 1999, the firm was purchased by Plymouth Rock Assurance Corp. and changed its name to Encharter.

“But we remain independent, and we write as independent agents, but we work under the guise of Plymouth Rock, and we represent multiple carriers,” Vassallo said. “We don’t feed clients specific companies, but we look for the best product at the best price.”

Benison noted that many of Encharter’s 25 employees have been with the agency for many years, but plenty of new blood has come on board, including eight hires in the past year alone.

“It’s a growing office, and we want to keep growing,” she said, noting that 17 team members are licensed insurance agents. “That’s the majority of our staff, and to me, that’s a big part of what we do. When people walk through the door, anyone can help them with their insurance needs.”

What’s the Risk?

Encharter has long been a multi-pronged agency, offering a raft of products in both personal and commercial lines. On the personal side, customers cover everything from home and condo insurance to life insurance; from auto coverage to boats, motorcycles, even golf carts.

“We’re partnered with more than 50 carriers, which allows our customers to have access to a broad range of choices,” said Beth Pearson, commercial lines director.

But insurance isn’t just about making sure risk exposures are covered; the process begins with lessening those exposures to begin with, a process known as risk avoidance. “Insurance should be the last stop in the process,” Benison noted.

“One of the great things we do is educate people on exposures they might not be aware of,” Pearson added, noting, for example, that many commercial clients don’t comprehend the scope of today’s cyberthreats and the possibility of data breaches.

Tracey Benison

Tracey Benison says people who shop online for insurance, focusing only on price, are missing out on the personalized advice that could save them major headaches later.

“That’s a very interesting phenomenon in the marketplace. Cybercrime and ransomware and stealing data are becoming more sophisticated, and our client base does not necessarily know how to protect their business from these cybercriminals and hackers. In the fall, we offer a cyber presentation in conjunction with the chamber of commerce because people don’t always understand what’s involved in cyber risk and ransomware.”

As for insuring personal property, everyone is different, Benison said. “You can put two identical homes side by side, but the risk for each of them is different. It could be because someone is working from home, or it could be a piece of jewelry or an antique. That’s why purchasing insurance online is a problem. There isn’t someone going to the next stage, giving them advice on exposure. Instead, it’s ‘get the minimum possible, get the sale, and move on.’

“Commercial insurance is the same,” she went on. “You could have two electricians side by side, but one does commercial work and one does residential, or one has employees, and one doesn’t. You have to look at what they do, where they do it, and how they do it, and help them find ways to protect themselves and their assets.”

That said, Pearson noted, it’s gratifying to become a trusted adviser to someone taking a risk and starting a business. “We see a lot of new business owners, people starting a contracting business, a day care, a restaurant, and we have the opportunity to help all those folks open doors and help them as their business grows. We become their partner for a long period of time.”

Clearly, matching a client with an insurance product isn’t just a numbers game at Encharter.

“Insurance is a contract — very specialized, hard to read, and a lot to understand, and customers need to have it interpreted for them,” Benison said. “You can buy a policy from X and a policy from Y, and they cover very different things. People sometimes don’t spend the amount of time they need to really know what’s being covered or not.”

With an eye on further growth, Benison has also led a push to forge affinity agreements with area educational institutions, banks, credit unions, and nonprofits.

“Essentially, we find groups of people with a need for insurance and deliver that,” she said. “We’re finding a lot of employers aren’t addressing the insurance needs of their employees. So that’s an easy way for us to grow our business as well as meet a need on their behalf.”

Meanwhile, Encharter has also ramped up its continuing-education efforts for employees. “A lot of agencies won’t pay for that, but we do encourage and support it,” she told BusinessWest. “I want people continuously learning. Ten years ago, cyber wasn’t even an issue. Drones — that’s a new thing. And driverless cars will be the next thing we’re talking about. The exposures are forever changing, and we need to be on top of it.”

Community Ties

It’s not surprising that an agency whose hometown roots go back 138 years makes a priority of community involvement. Encharter does so through support of organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of Amherst and Springfield, Hitchcock Center in Amherst, Family Outreach of Amherst, and the Amherst Block Party. It will sponsor an Amherst Survival Center event this fall, and will be the lead sponsor on the 2017 Festival of Trees in Springfield. And a couple of weeks ago, at a new-teacher orientation at a local middle school, agency employees handed out backpacks filled with coffee cups, Dunkin’ Donuts cards, pencils, and other items to welcome the educators.

Some of those efforts are management decisions, but the agency also boasts an employee-run committee that meets once a month and targets organizations to support with fund-raisers like dress-down days; Plymouth Rock matches the donations.

“We’ve sponsored swimming lessons for students, the MSCPA, the Survival Center, and this month, Berkshire Children and Families,” Vassallo said. “They’re empowered to come up with that list for the whole year, not the corporation or management.”

Encharter traces its roots in Amherst back to 1879.

Encharter traces its roots in Amherst back to 1879.

The company also tries to tie its community offerings back into its core business; a good example is Distractology, a week-long program created by Arbella Insurance. “We’re bringing it to Amherst High School — essentially, they will be training high-school seniors on defensive driving for a whole week.”

It’s one way to stress that concept of risk avoidance in an era when 25% of all car accidents involve a smartphone, Benison said. “I drive around, and I see a lot of accidents, and I have to think it’s highly likely that some of them are because someone was looking at their phone — and it’s avoidable.”

Encharter will also be offering educational seminars in the community on risk-exposure topics, she said. “We’ll try to find a way to make it interesting. Most people think of insurance like white noise. We want to provide information in a way that resonates, is meaningful, and prompts people to take action.”

It’s the kind of material the firm already shares on its blog, another way it continually reaches out into the community to help people make the kind of changes that will make insurance claims less likely. “There’s a lot of good information in there, as simple as changing the batteries in the smoke detector, or clearing snow from the gutters and off the roof. Hurricane season can be a scary time as well; we want people to be out in front of it, so they understand what they should be doing now.”

Pearson was quick to add that making connections extends to the Encharter team itself, which enjoys many employee-appreciation programs throughout the year for going above and beyond in their work.

“There are a lot of benefits of working here at Encharter,” she said. “I’ve had the opportunity to work at several other agencies, and Encharter is not only very generous, but thinks more about driving business toward the future, not just resting on its laurels.”

Such efforts will certainly help ensure its continued success in the town it has called home for almost 150 years.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Healthcare Heroes 2017

healthcareheroeslogo021517-pingThere were more than 70 nominations for the inaugural Healthcare Heroes class, and each one of them was truly worthy of that word ‘hero.’ Each one is to be considered a winner in some respect.

On Oct. 19, BusinessWest recognized those who stood out the most in the hearts and minds of an esteemed panel of judges. Collectively, they are pioneers, and they will continue in that vein at the Starting Gate at GreatHorse in Hampden as they become the first individuals and organizations in the region to accept the Healthcare Heroes award.

Their stories reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, innovation, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There are eight winners in this first class, with two in the category of ‘Innovation in Health/Wellness,’ because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2017 are:

Lifetime Achievement: Sister Mary Caritas, SP;

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Dr. Michael Willers, owner of the Children’s Heart Center of Western Massachusetts;

Emerging Leader: Erin Daley, RN, BSN, director of the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center;

Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Holly Chaffee, RN, BSN, MSN, president and CEO of Porchlight VNA/Home Care;

Community Health: Molly Senn-McNally, Continuity Clinic director for the Baystate Pediatric Residency Program;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Dr. Andrew Doben, director of the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Baystate Medical Center;

Innovation in Health/Wellness: Genevieve Chandler, associate professor of Nursing at UMass Amherst; and

Collaboration in Healthcare: The Healthy Hill Initiative.

American International College and Trinity Health are the presenting sponsors of Healthcare Heroes. Partner Sponsors are Achieve TMS, HUB International New England, and Health New England. Additional sponsors are Bay Path University, Baystate Health, Cooley Dickinson Health Care, Elms College, and Renew.Calm. Tickets to the event are $85 each, with tables available for purchase. For more information or to order tickets, call (413) 781-8600.



Growth Opportunities

Aerial Mehler with ‘Snowy,’ her pet goat.

Aerial Mehler with ‘Snowy,’ her pet goat.

When Prospect Meadow Farm was conceived six years ago, the thinking was that working outdoors and with animals could have a significant therapeutic effect on those with autism or developmental disorders. “That’s something I believed in before this started, but I didn’t quite know how powerful it was,” Shawn Robinson noted, adding that he certainly knows now.

Aerial Mehler grew up on the western end of Long Island, just a short train ride from Manhattan. So, in most all respects, she considers herself a city girl.

Thus, when her family relocated to Western Mass. several years ago, her first reaction was that this region was, in all likelihood, too rural for her liking.

And when she was approached about working at Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield, a vocational-services program operated by Northampton-based ServiceNet, after becoming frustrated at a few other employment settings, she was more than a little dubious about the notion that she would soon warm to the place, vocationally and otherwise.

“I thought, ‘I’m from the city — I don’t do this stuff,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that today … well, she does do that stuff, or at least some of the many things that fall into the broad realm of agriculture and farm management.

In fact, she is the program assistant to the facility’s director, Shawn Robinson, and carries out a host of administrative duties ranging from sending out bills to the farm’s many customers, especially those who purchase its eggs and log-grown shiitake mushrooms, to drafting reports to the state, to maintaining the farm’s Facebook page.

“I call myself the on-call employee, because if something needs to be done, I do it, and it’s something different every day,” said Mehler, 29, who actually owns one of the goats now living at the farm, a spirited white female appropriately named ‘Snowy.’

“I’d say I’m a regular here, but that’s a setting on a washing machine,” she joked, expressing an opinion held (if not openly expressed) by most all those who work at the farm — men and women of all ages who are on the autism spectrum or have a developmental disability.

Indeed, there are no ‘regulars’ at Prospect Meadow, only individuals with various talents who, it was thought, could certainly benefit from working outdoors, around animals, and as part of a diverse workforce handling various assignments that, like Mehler’s, are different every day — and also make $11 an hour while doing so.

And six years later, that theory has been validated — and then some.


At top, farmhand Brittany Rawson tends to some of the parsley plants at Prospect Meadow Farm. Below, Shawn Robinson, director of the farm, with one of the resident llamas.

At top, farmhand Brittany Rawson tends to some of the parsley plants at Prospect Meadow Farm. Below, Shawn Robinson, director of the farm, with one of the resident llamas.

“When the facility was created in 2011, it was with the thinking that there would be a significant therapeutic effect to working outdoors and working with animals,” said Robinson. “That’s something I believed in before this started, but I didn’t quite know how powerful it was.

“One thing that we’ve seen is that people who were not successful in other work programs and had explosive behaviors, for example, would come here, and we just wouldn’t see those behaviors,” he went on. “And I have to credit a lot of it to the outdoors and the animals.”

Prospect Meadow is a multi-faceted operation with many moving parts. There are anywhere from 800 to 1,000 chickens on the property at any given time, and egg sales are a huge part of this business. Likewise, a shiitake-mushroom venture that started small and continues to grow provides those products to a host of area restaurants and stores.

There is also a landscaping component — crews will be sent out to handle a wide range of small residential and commercial jobs — as well as a catering operation managed out of the farmhouse. There are also plans in the works for both a feed store and a small café, separate operations that will provide employees with additional opportunities to interact with the public.

And, yes, the farm sells goats as well — to those, like Aerial, who want them as pets; to groups who need them for culinary offerings to be served at dinners and festivals; and to entrepreneurs who ‘employ’ them as “lawnmowers,” as Robinson called them.

But while Prospect Meadow might be gaining an identity from all of the above and especially the mushrooms, it is, at its core, a place of opportunity — employment-wise and personal-development-wise — for those who come here and don shirts with the farm’s logo, a rooster.

“We’re helping to increase these individuals’ skills and improve any sort of vocational deficiencies that may be identified, while also providing them with a real, paying job experience in a supportive environment,” Robinson explained, “with the hope that combining that support with that training could eventually lead to them being very successful in any career they pursue elsewhere.”

For this issue, BusinessWest visited Prospect Meadow to gain a full appreciation for the many aspects of this operation and the many ways it is cultivating growth, in every sense of that term.

An Idea Takes Root

When BusinessWest asked Robinson if he could pick up one of the chickens he was pointing out as he offered a tour of the farm and make it part of a picture, he replied with a confident “sure, no problem.”

The chickens, however, were not going along with the program.

Indeed, try as he might — and he tried several times — Robinson could not get both hands around any of these fast-moving fowl, and both hands are needed. So he suggested that the resident llamas might prove to be more willing subjects for a photo shoot.

Farm director Shawn Robinson (second from left) with, from left, farmhands Ana Tyson, Vicki Taft, and Justin Cabral.

Farm director Shawn Robinson (second from left) with, from left, farmhands Ana Tyson, Vicki Taft, and Justin Cabral.

Only, they weren’t. They were rather shy and kept retreating to their wooden home or the shaded area behind it; only bribery, in the form of a late-morning snack, seemed to help. Their recalcitrance gave Robinson an opportunity to shed some light on their presence at the farm (in some respects, they are where this story begins) and one of their primary assignments — protecting the chickens who live in the same general area on the 11-acre property.

“They use their legs to really fight, and other animals know that, and even their scent keeps some predators away … but they’ll go after other animals, too,” said Robinson, noting that, while llamas are certainly not indigenous to Hatfield, many chicken-loving animals that are, including coyotes, bobcats, and even the occasional bear, seem to know instinctively that messing with a llama is not a good career move.

But these long-legged animals have, as noted, another, far more important role at Prospect Meadow, that of being therapy of sorts for those who come to work there, and this takes Robinson back before the start of this decade and the genesis of Prospect Meadow.

A ServiceNet-operated residential program in Williamsburg for individuals with psychiatric issues was gifted some llamas, he explained, adding that the animals were having a recognizably positive impact on the residents, information that made its way back to ServiceNet director Sue Stubbs.

She was already aware of highly successful farm operations at the former Northampton State Hospital and other similar facilities, he said, and this knowledge, coupled with entreaties from the state for the development of more innovative vocational-services programs, spurred discussions about perhaps establishing such an operation.

However, the original vision was for a residential program for individuals with chronic mental illness, he continued, adding that Prospect Meadow eventually evolved into what it is today, a vocational program with 40 to 45 people working on the property on a any given day.

As for Robinson, he had no experience in the sector known as agribusiness, but that didn’t stop him from seeking out this career opportunity — or from thinking he had what it would really take to succeed in the role of director.

“I live in Hatfield and know lots of farmers, but certainly wasn’t an expert in that area,” he told BusinessWest. “But I was an expert in developing things and building things, so I was pretty confident that I could come up with a vision and develop this into something with the support of the ServiceNet leadership.”

And he was right; he’s built Prospect Meadow into that unique vocational-services program the state desired.

Individuals are referred to the program through the Mass. Department of Developmental Services (DDS) or through a school’s special-education department, and they often arrive after working in other settings.

Most of the farmhands are between the ages of 18 and 35, but there are some who are much older, and one individual recently retired after turning 65. They come from across Western Mass., but most live in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

Revenue to maintain the farm and its various facilities and pay some of the employees is generated in a number of ways, including the sale of eggs, mushrooms, and other products; the catering and landscaping services; and through community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares sold to area residents who, through those contributions, not only support the farm and its work, but fill their table with fresh produce.

Robinson said the farm operation takes on added significance today not only because it provides a different and in many ways better employment opportunity for those with various developmental disabilities, but because such opportunities are becoming increasingly harder to find.

Indeed, he said piecework job opportunities in area factories are fewer in number, and for a variety of reasons. And while some employers actively hire individuals with developmental disabilities, there is a recognized need for more landing spots.

Not a Garden-variety Business

Still, as noted, Prospect Meadow isn’t merely another a place of employment for those who come here. Because it is agribusiness, it provides opportunities daily that fall more in the category of ‘therapy’ than ‘work,’ although they are obviously both.

And this brought Robinson back to the subject of the animals, which are not exactly a profit center (with the exception of the chickens and their eggs), but provide payback of a far different kind.

“We keep the animals, even at a little bit of a loss, because they are able to make the farmhands more impactful in their other work,” he explained. “Having that 20 minutes to feed a goat in the morning or care for a rabbit makes them more focused when they’re dealing with the shiitake mushrooms or working in the garden.”

Indeed, the farmhands, when asked about what they enjoyed most about coming to work every day, typically started with the animals.

But they also spoke of the importance of the bigger picture, meaning being able to earn a better paycheck, learn a number of different skills, do something different every day, and work alongside others.

It was Justin Cabral, an energetic, extremely candid 26-year-old from Deerfield, who probably best summed up the many types of opportunities that the farm provides to individuals like him.

“I really love this job; it’s a real blessing,” he told BusinessWest, before going into some detail about all that he meant by that. And he started with some very practical matters.

“Before I came here, I was doing piecework at a different place,” he noted. “The pay wasn’t very good at all; I decided to leave and come here.”

We’re helping to increase these individuals’ skills … while also providing them with a real, paying job experience in a supportive environment.”

But then, he moved on to the many other elements in this equation — everything from gaining confidence from taking on various job assignments (including work to drill holes in logs with power tools) to learning how to work in teams, to overcoming fears, such as those involving animals.

“I drill holes in the shiitake logs, and I’ve become really good at it,” said Cabral, now in his second year at the farm. “And I used to be afraid of the chickens and the rabbits, and a lot of the animals here, but not anymore.

“I like everything … I like the egg collections, I like working out in the fields, I like feeding the animals, I like hanging out with my friends, and a lot more,” he said in conclusion. “It’s a great job, and there’s something here for everybody.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the many others we spoke with, and through their comments it became clear that Prospect Meadow provides much more than jobs.

Indeed, Robinson said the experience gained at the farm can open the doors for people in a variety of other settings, including other area farms, where individuals would work independent of state support.

Meanwhile, there are career paths at Prospect Meadow itself, he noted, adding that one can move — and some have — from farmhand to senior farmhand to ‘job coach,’ a level where the state is providing no funding for the individual, who has moved into what amounts to, as the name implies, a coaching position.

Scott Kingsley, 36, is a candidate for that job title, which would bring with it a host of new responsibilities, a pay increase, and benefits such as health insurance. He is currently working to help open the feed store and will work closely with those assigned to that operation.

“I like working with the animals, but I also like doing all kinds of different things,” said Kingsley, clutching the walkie-talkie that also comes with senior-farmhand status. “I guess what I like most is working with other people and helping them make money.”

Experts in Their Field

As he wrapped up his interview with BusinessWest, Cabral turned to Robinson, who asked him if he wanted to go back to his duties at the shiitake logs or hang in and listen to others as they offered comments.

“I’m not getting paid to sit here and talk,” he said with a voice that blended sarcasm and seriousness in equal doses. “I’ve got to go back to work.”

And he did just that, as the others would when it was their turn.

Most of them come here for four or five days a week, in all kinds of weather and at all times of year (this is a farm, after all). But none of them would prefer to be called a regular.

That term, as Mehler so eloquently noted, should be reserved for one of the buttons on a washing machine.

Here, there are only individual farmhands who together comprise a hard-working team that makes this farm a well-run business where there are growth opportunities — of every breed and variety.

And a place that can almost prompt Mehler to say she was a city girl.

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


Off-the-Cuff Remarks

Owner Will Brideau

Owner Will Brideau

‘Safely quirky.’ Those are two words that generally don’t come together in a sentence. But Will Brideau uses the phrase often as he describes the products — and the mindset — at the men’s clothing store Jackson & Connor. This quality, if you will, is one of the reasons why the establishment continues to flourish despite sea changes, and rough water, within this sector.


That was the term Will Brideau chose — after giving the matter some considerable thought — when asked to describe consumers in this region and especially those in the market for men’s clothing.

Webster lists a number of synonyms for that word — including ‘prudent,’ ‘careful,’ ‘guarded,’ and ‘wary’ — and Brideau used all or most of them as he offered his answer to that question and, while doing so, explained the basic mindset at Jackson & Connor, the men’s clothing store in Northampton he’s owned since 2013.

Actually, what he said is that people in this market are “more circumspect,” with the implication being that all or most men’s clothing buyers are somewhat careful. But there was an important caveat as well.

We are a little more cautious here, but the thing that has delighted and surprised me is that, while being cautious, people are generally veering toward the more exciting and the more lively.”

“We are a little more cautious here,” he noted. “But the thing that has delighted and surprised me is that, while being cautious, people are generally veering toward the more exciting and the more lively.”

With that, Brideau, who became owner after working at the store for several years and studying (his term) under founders Tara Tetreault and Candace Connors, hit upon his primary mission. That would be effectively serving those who are cautious about their clothing investments — and he would stress repeatedly that this is what people are making — but also looking for the exciting and more lively. And this is an inexact science, to be sure.

“We go for ‘safely quirky,’” he explained, summoning a phrase he’s no doubt used frequently to describe what he sells. “It’s outside the normal. It’s not super basic, but something outside the ordinary, but not costumey; something that’s going to get you noticed and is going to be interesting, but doesn’t prompt someone to say, ‘Halloween isn’t until October, buddy.’”

Achieving all of this, and thus mastering how to serve the circumspect customer, has been a key focal point of a learning experience that Brideau says is very much ongoing, and won’t ever end, really. That’s because change, as it is in so many other business sectors, is a constant in this realm.

“I’m still learning — I learn new stuff every single day I’m in the store, which is part of the joy of it for me,” he explained. “It always keeps me on my toes and keeps me active in trying to discover new things.”

Actually, there are a number of forces keeping Brideau on his toes these days. Indeed, this is an intriguing, and quite challenging, time to be in men’s clothing — and retail in general.

A trend toward more casual clothing in the workplace continues, and many would say it is accelerating, with even bankers and lawyers eschewing suits and especially ties for designer jeans and flannel jackets.

Meanwhile, online shopping continues to grow in popularity, especially as Amazon and other outlets make it increasingly simple to return shoes and clothes that don’t fit perfectly and swap them out for items that do.

But Brideau says he believes the pendulum is swinging back on formal attire, and the all-important Millennial generation is a big factor in that equation. Meanwhile, locally, a thinning of the herd when it comes to men’s clothing stores — Williamson’s in Chicopee was the latest of several establishments to close their doors — has created ample opportunities.

Jackson & Connor

Jackson & Connor owner Will Brideau says he believes the pendulum is starting to swing back when it comes to workplace attire, which bodes well for his venture.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Brideau about how he intends to maximize those opportunities, while continuing to provide clothes in the category of ‘safely quirky.’

Ownership Material

As he offered BusinessWest both a quick tour of the store and some insight into how its shelves and racks are stocked, Brideau stopped at the pool table in the center of the room, a fixture since the establishment opened nearly a decade ago and an effective display area.

There, a sales associate was tying a colorfully patterned tie onto an equally colorful shirt chosen for special showcasing. There is a method to such work, noted Brideau, who’s done it for years, noting that it involves everything from effectively bringing out colors in both the shirt and the tie to spotlighting some of the 70-odd lines of clothing the store features.

“It’s a learned skill,” said Brideau. “Once you get a feel for it, it gets easier.”

The same can be said for just about every aspect of this business, he went on, adding that he can speak from experience on this topic — quite literally.

Indeed, Brideau said he knew almost nothing about the business of men’s clothing when he first walked into Jackson & Connor, the latest in a line of men’s clothing stores in that location on the second floor at Thornes Marketplace, back in 2010. And it wasn’t a long walk, to be sure.

At the time, Brideau was working just a few doors down, at Impish, where he sold strollers, children’s car seats, and related items. He said his first several visits to Jackson & Connor were purely as a customer, or window shopper, only there are no windows at this store.

“I would spend all of my time on break over at Jackson & Connor looking at all the stuff; I would drool over the pocket watches,” he recalled, adding that eventually the nature of the visits changed — or at least they took on an added dimension, one of potential employment.

“I would ask if they needed any part-time help,” he went on, adding that he lost a second job he had when the company in question closed, and he was aggressive and imaginative in his quest to replace it. “I knew absolutely nothing about men’s clothing, not the first thing. But I walked in there and said, “I love this store, I love everything in it, I don’t have any knowledge about this stuff, but if you ever wanted to hire anyone part-time, I’d love to work for you.”

“They said they’d think about it,” he continued, adding that this scenario would repeat itself several times before Tetreault and Connors finally took on Brideau as their first and only employee, thus beginning that ongoing learning experience he described earlier.

It nearly ended a few years later, when the partners pulled Brideau aside and told him they had plans to close the store — not because it wasn’t doing well, but because both of the owners essentially wanted to do something else.

The subject of the conversation eventually shifted to the prospect of Brideau buying the store from them, a proposition he initially shrugged off as unrealistic — although he was soon set straight.

“I told them I had neither the money nor the skill set to do that,” he recalled. “And they said, ‘you have the enthusiasm for menswear, and you can’t teach that; the running of the business is procedural — you learn how to do that job. The rest of it will come — if you’re passionate about it, if you care about it, if you love what you’re doing, that’s what’s most important.’”

Brideau conducted some introspection and concluded that he could check all those boxes, and so began his transformation from employee to owner.

“It was the best of all possible worlds — they wanted to get out, and I wanted to get in,” he explained. “I was just in the right place at the right time with the right opportunity and the right people to help me out and give me a chance.”

And, just as Tetreault and Connors said, the proverbial ‘rest’ as it pertains to managing the business has come. And the learning process continues as he guides the company to continued growth — sales have improved each year since he acquired the company — and new ventures such as a Jackson & Connor private label out on everything from ties to pants.

“The buying is the area where I think the learning curve keeps extending,” Brideau explained. “It’s so interesting to me. The more I buy for the store, the more I feel it becomes more complex and more interesting. That’s where I see a lot of exciting potential for the store — bringing in new lines, phasing out old ones that people are tired of, keeping things fresh, and keeping people interested.”

In other words, effectively serving customers who are, among other things, circumspect, while also dealing with the many seismic forces shaping this industry at the moment.

All this remains a labor of love for Brideau, who wears his passion on his sleeve — and on the vest and gray suit he was wearing the day he spoke with BusinessWest.

Patterns in the Market

As he talked about the art and science of buying for a shop like his these days, Brideau said the task is complicated even further by his clientele mix.

People are looking at these as investments — it’s that kind of thought process. You don’t need a suit until you need a suit, and when you need one, you don’t always have a week to 10 days to special-order one and then another week to 10 days to get it tailored.”

To say it’s broad would be an understatement, with customers ranging in age from roughly 35 to 65 (meaning mostly professionals) with a wide range of tastes and, well, persuasions, if you will. Indeed, some of his customers — in fact, a growing number of them — are not men.

“Increasingly, I’m drawing customers from the LGBTQ community who are looking to dress nicely, don’t feel comfortable wearing women’s stuff, and appreciate the construction and the quality we’re really fortunate to have in menswear,” he explained. “It’s a hallmark of the industry that this stuff is meant to be more of an investment; it’s not fast fashion. And men’s clothing was meant to be tailored — it’s not ‘here’s your medium … good luck.’ Men’s clothing gives people more control over how you present yourself to the world, which is invaluable.”

So one size doesn’t fit all, and one style doesn’t fit all, either, he went on, which makes his buying trips to New York, Las Vegas, and Boston every six months even more challenging — and fun.

As for the trend toward more casual clothes in the workplace, Brideau said that movement is definitely real and ongoing, and anecdotes abound about professionals leaving ties in the closet because they don’t need them with the golf shirts and other types of casual attire they’re wearing to the office.

Brideau had one of his own. “One of my former employees went to work in IT,” he noted. “And one of his first comments when he got that job was, ‘Will, one of these guys doesn’t even wear a belt — forget about a collared shirt or a tie or a jacket.’

“Things have changed a lot when it comes to how people dress for work, and it is what it is,” he went on, channeling his inner Bill Belichick, before offering the opinion, as well as the hope, that the pendulum is in fact swinging back in the other direction, and Millennials are a big part of the reason for that.

“People are starting to invest a little more in suits, particularly having one, two, or maybe three suits that fit you really nicely and that you can break apart and wear as a jacket,” he explained. “You can wear it to a funeral, a wedding, a graduation, a party. Also, people who are getting married now are wearing suits instead of tuxes, because they want to buy something they’re actually going to be able to wear after the fact.

“People are looking at these as investments — it’s that kind of thought process,” he went on. “You don’t need a suit until you need a suit, and when you need one, you don’t always have a week to 10 days to special-order one and then another week to 10 days to get it tailored.”

Beyond these practical sides to the equation, there is some — or more, to be more precise — thinking along the lines of the phrase ‘fashion statement,’ Brideau told BusinessWest, which he has seen anecdotally, and which bodes well for this business.

“That approach to clothing, the ‘what I wear actually does matter, and the way I dress myself really changes the way that other people interact with me in the world’ … we’re seeing a lot more of that lightbulb going off in people’s heads,” he explained. “And that’s fun for us to watch. People will come out of the dressing room, they’re wearing a nicely tailored suit and crisp white shirt that fits them properly, and a tie with a more modern width, and they say, ‘cool, I look great.’

“Witnessing those moments, seeing those faces, is where we get our enjoyment in this job,” he went on. “Seeing that transformation is rewarding, and we’re seeing it a lot more.

Vested Interests

As he wrapped up his tour of the store, Brideau referenced some new lines of ties and how well they were doing from a sales-performance perspective.

This success makes Jackson & Connor somewhat of an outlier within the industry, he explained, because the tie has really taken a hit in the workplace and almost everywhere else these days.

“I think our success stems from the fact that we carry really unusual ties, items you can’t find anywhere else,” he explained. “It’s either fabrics that literally do not exist anymore — they were made 50 or 60 years ago — or patterns you don’t come across at most other shops that have mostly solids and basics. We tend to really focus on things that are weird and outside the normal.”

But still within that category of ‘safely quirky,’ two words that go a long way toward explaining why this establishment is well-suited, in every sense of that phrase, to succeed in an ever-more-challenging marketplace.

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

Autos Cover Story Sections

Awaiting the ‘Autohaus’

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle and Peter Wirth

Michelle Wirth started her career with Mercedes-Benz as a mechanical engineer. Early on, after only a few visits to Stuttgart, Germany, where the cars are designed and manufactured, she learned that the company doesn’t build to industry standards — it creates an environment where engineers can design to their own, higher standards. These are lessons she and her husband, Peter, apply to their life and how they do business, especially with their new venture, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, set to open next month.

Peter Wirth doesn’t know exactly how long it’s been since Mercedes Benz has had a presence in Western Mass. with a dealership.

He does know that it’s been … well, long enough.

As in, long enough that he knows he and his wife, Michelle, and fellow partner Rich Hesse have a lot of work to do in many different realms as they prepare to open Mercedes-Benz of Springfield on the site of the old Plantation Inn across from Mass. Turnpike exit 6 in Chicopee.

For starters, the partners in this nearly $12 million enterprise have to let people know that Mercedes is, indeed, back in the 413 more than a decade after a small dealership on Riverdale Street, this region’s auto mile, if you will, closed its doors, leaving area consumers to travel to Hartford or just east of Worcester to do business.

And they intend to get that job done in a number of ways, from intensive, targeted marketing to a grand-opening celebration (date to be determined), to some work within the community even before the doors open, to show that they are not just here to sell cars (more on that later).

But there is other work to do, and most of it falls in the category of showing just how much Mercedes-Benz — the company, the cars, and the brand — have all changed since the last time someone had the opportunity to buy or lease a new one in Western Mass.

“What I recognized is that we have to — and we love to — reacquaint people in our area of influence with the Mercedes-Benz brand; a lot has changed in 10 years,” said Michelle Wirth, who will oversee marketing efforts and other duties for the company, but started her career with Mercedes as a mechanical engineer. “There are something like 3,000 to 4,000 Mercedes cars in Western Massachusetts currently in operation. I don’t have exact figures, but I’m sure most of them are older, because people haven’t made the trek to Hartford or Shrewsbury or Albany pick up a new car.

“We want to make sure that those folks who are already convinced about the brand know we exist, and then reacquaint them with the new cars,” she went on. “The vehicles themselves have just transformed in the past 10 years.”

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership

An architect’s rendering of the new Mercedes dealership, which will emphasize transparency.

By that, she was referring to everything from the number of models to the depth of the price range. For example, she pointed to the CLA, a Mercedes model that retails for under $33,000, a number that would likely surprise many people, including some who know cars — and Mercedes.

Other things that have changed since Mercedes models were last sold in this region include the carmaker’s focus on safety, and not merely luxury and style (although those are still points of emphasis, to be sure), as well as the dealerships in which the cars are sold and, especially, serviced.

Indeed, dealerships today are well-appointed, convenience-focused, customer-friendly facilities that exist not so much to showcase cars, although they still do that, certainly, but pamper those who buy them.

So much so that Michelle Wirth, as she described the process of designing, outfitting, and operating the facility in Chicopee, said the mindset is that she and her husband are not competing with other dealerships, necessarily, but against hotels, restaurants, and even the new $950 million MGM Springfield casino due to open in about a year, in the manner in which they are all focused on hospitality and taking care of the customer.

“When they walk away from a fine hotel establishment, people say ‘man, they did everything right’ — it’s just a feeling they have,” she explained. “When they walk away, they’re going to feel it, they’re going to feel, ‘wow, they care about me, and they took care of me. That’s the feeling we’re going to create.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest visited the dealership a few weeks before its doors are due to officially open to gain some insight into what the partners in this venture are anticipating as Mercedes makes its much anticipated return to the area.

A Major Coup

By now, most in the region’s business community are at least somewhat familiar with the story behind Mercedes-Benz of Springfield.

Back in late 2014, Peter Wirth and Hesse, owners of a Mercedes dealership in Nanuet, N.Y., were approached by the carmaker about bringing the brand back to Western Mass. with a dealership after that aforementioned lengthy absence, and after some extensive research, the two concluded that this region was, indeed, underserved, and that a facility here had considerable potential.

Especially at the site they eventually chose, two turnpike exits east of Riverdale Street, at the old Plantation Inn site. This location is literally across the street from where the tollbooth once stood, and at the eastern end of Route 291, giving the location great accessibility.

And it will be needed, because this dealership will have a huge coverage area, one that includes parts of four states: Western Mass., Northern Conn., Southern Vermont, and Southern New Hampshire.

That large swath of territory will bring some challenges, said the Wirths as they talked about their business venture — especially the large number of markets they must advertise in — but also a great deal of opportunity to better serve thousands of Mercedes customers.

“It’s a big area, and it’s a big task,” said Peter. “But it’s a huge opportunity for people in the Springfield metro area, who have to drive 45 minutes to Hartford, or almost an hour to Shrewsbury, the next-closest dealership, or an hour and a half to Albany.”

More than three years after those initial talks between Mercedes, Wirth, and Hesse began, the Western Mass. Mercedes dealership, or ‘autohaus,’ as such facilities are called in Germany, is nearly ready for prime time.

When BusinessWest toured the site in mid-August, the exterior of the dealership had been completed, and work was continuing inside. The projected opening date will be late September.

Like most of the dealerships being built, many of them replacing facilities 30 or 40 years old, this one will be spacious, well-appointed, modern-looking, and heavy on glass and metal.

There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships. There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.”

And while the Mercedes corporation has a desired look and feel in mind that its dealers must create, there is plenty of room to personalize one’s autohaus, said Peter, citing, as just one example, the dealership’s car wash; Mercedes doesn’t require one, but the partners considered it a key part of the “experience.”

“There is a corporate identity and design standards for these dealerships, and they make them easily recognizable as Mercedes-Benz dealerships,” he explained. “There are certain kinds of columns, tiles, paint colors, and furniture that are pretty standard across the dealer network. But at the same time, we, together with Mercedes-Benz, worked on laying out the dealership in the way we know it’s going to work.

“That’s something that has now become specific to this site,” he went on. “Mercedes-Benz has ideas, but they will also take our input, and we’ve been very vocal in that process and made it our own. While we’ve been using their design cues, the feel and flow of the dealership is what we know works and will serve our customers best.”

Asked to elaborate, he said this dealership isn’t just open, it’s incredibly open.

Wirth said his office has four glass walls, and from it, he can see the front desk, the sales office, the lounge, and the service drive. In many ways, that office embodies the intended feeling of openness, ease of transition from one department another, and a word that’s becoming ever more prominent in business and politics today — transparency.

“It’s easy for customers to not just find their way around, but to transition from one department to another — we’re not compartmentalized,” he explained. “We don’t think of a dealership as a sales, service, and parts department; it’s one unit to us.”

Driving Force

As she talked about the new dealership, plans for it, and the level of service she and her partners plan to create, Michelle Wirth thought this was the time to discuss her career with Mercedes-Benz, which began soon after she graduated from Lehigh University with a mechanical engineering degree.

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area

Peter and Michelle Wirth say much has changed in the decade since Mercedes had a presence in the area, and they intend to reacquaint the region with the brand.

“I got hired right out of school and worked in environmental and safety engineering,” she told BusinessWest. “I went to Germany a number of times a year, and actually got to go to the design center in Stuttgart, where they design and build these vehicles. I got to learn — I didn’t know this when I walked in the door — that Mercedes doesn’t just build to standards. They rise above those standards, and they have a holistic approach to safety and a holistic approach to design.

“It’s more about ‘what’s the best solution for the customer,’ and that’s impressive,” she went on, “because it creates a space where engineers get to design to the best possible standard, not just the least common denominator. And that translated over to me. As a young person, eyes wide open, I learned a lot from that. It’s like a standard you set for yourself, and it’s the highest one around.”

This attitude, or mindset, permeates everything the couple does in life and in business, Michelle explained, adding that it shapes everything from how they’ll do in business in Chicopee to how they’re already getting involved in the community that will soon be home — to them and their business.

That involvement has taken the form of support for organizations ranging from Square One to Baystate Children’s Hospital, said Peter, adding that these endeavors are part of a culture the company wants to instill. In other words, rather than doing something that might be expected, such as simply meeting auto industry design and performance standards, they’re setting the bar much higher.

“It’s not just checking a box for us,” he explained. “If you can be involved with the children’s hospital, and you have four healthy children; that comes naturally to us. Yes, you’re getting your name out, but it’s also a natural contact point for us; we can help and do good at the same time.”

Meanwhile, back in the realm of car sales, the Wirths believe they have the right brand at the right time to go along with the right location and the right culture.

Indeed, while some luxury brands have struggled with making all-important connections with younger audiences, Mercedes has made inroads, if you will, by creating lower price points and getting younger people into its vehicles.

And once that happens, they often become customers for life, said Michelle, noting that Mercedes not only has one of the highest loyalty rates in the business, but one of the highest conquest rates (winning over the drivers of other brands) as well.

At the same time, the company has adjusted its marketing messages, said Michelle, to appeal not only to the young, but to those who want to think, act, and, yes, drive like the young.

“Now, the marketing focus is more on ‘young at heart,’” she explained. “That’s how we describe people; it’s ‘do you have that Millennial mindset? You may not be that age, but you have that mindset. By doing that, you broaden the audience that you’re speaking to.”

Getting in Gear

Given the huge geographic area it will be serving, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield will already be speaking to a very broad audience.

The initial message will be that Mercedes is back in Western Mass. after a decade’s hiatus. But soon — in fact, almost immediately — there will be much more to communicate: that Mercedes is back, and that this is a brand for both the young and the young at heart.

Also to be communicated, especially through a visit to the new dealership, is that this venture fully embraces that corporate culture of not merely meeting standards, but setting higher ones.

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

Back to School Sections

If at First You Don’t Succeed ….

By Kathleen Mellen

gradgroupcapsThose managing the University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst are big believers in the phrase ‘giving credit where it’s due.’ Indeed, UWW awards college credits for experience garnered in the workplace, enabling non-traditional students to gain the degrees needed to advance their careers.

By his own account, Matthew Malo wasn’t much of a high-school student. But when he graduated in 1992 from Hampshire Regional High School, he set off for college anyway.

Big mistake.

Malo, 43, who is now a sergeant in the police department at UMass Amherst, said he matriculated at the Stockbridge School at UMass back then, thinking he would study landscaping. But, once there, he floundered.

“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a lot of designing and art, and I’m not an artist or a designer,” said the Southampton resident in a recent interview at the UMass police station. “I wanted to be the guy who was out there doing it — not in a classroom.”

He left the program after just one semester.

The next year, at the urging of his parents, he tried college again — this time enrolling at Holyoke Community College. That didn’t go any better.

“It was like high school, one year later,” he said. “A lot of my friends were there, and if I had a class I didn’t like, and a bunch of my friends were hanging out in the cafeteria, guess where I was?”

Strike two. But, as the saying goes, third time’s the charm.

Matthew Malo

Matthew Malo says he’s “kicking butt” in UWW after two unsuccessful attempts at a more traditional college experience.

In 2006, Malo’s father suggested his son look into UMass Amherst’s University Without Walls, a bachelor’s-degree-completion program for non-traditional students, many of whom, like Malo, have abandoned earlier efforts at college. By that time, Malo had been working for some time as a UMass police officer, had gone through the Western Massachusetts Regional Municipal Police Academy, and had even successfully completed a few courses in criminal justice at Greenfield Community College.

“I finally found something I liked,” Malo said.

So, he decided to give it the old college try — one more time. Today, Malo is a student at UWW, where’s he’s studying criminal justice — and, as he puts it, “kicking butt.” He expects to graduate in spring 2019.

UWW, established in 1971, is one of the oldest adult bachelor’s-degree-completion programs in the country. Its specialized services include flexibility in scheduling, options to accelerate the degree process, and the opportunity to receive college credit for work or life experience, including service in the military.

“We believe learning doesn’t have to take place in the classroom, so we take into account the experience they have — the training and learning they’ve had through a variety of experiences,” said UWW’s director, Ingrid Bracey. “We meet students where they are, and the students are amazed at the amount of learning they actually have. The best part of being at UWW is seeing that light go on.”

Degrees of Progress

In winter 2016, Malo met with an advisor at UWW, who explained that the program would allow him to design a major based on his personal interests, and could offer up to 75 transfer credits from previous college courses, no matter how long ago they were taken.

He also discovered that, upon the completion of an in-depth, written portfolio that explored his experiential learning, he would be eligible to receive up to 30 college credits for the work, and living, he’d already done.

Perhaps most important, he said, was that course delivery through UWW is available fully online. (Traditional classes are also available, as are classes that blend online and classroom learning.) That, he said, has been crucial to his success in the program.

“My biggest concern about going back to college was scheduling,” said Malo, who has two school-aged children and works part-time for a small-town police department, in addition to his full-time duties as a UMass cop. “When the adviser said I could do all my classwork online, on my own time, I thought, ‘they really get it. They understand what’s going on with people like me.’”

He’s not alone: online classes are a rising trend across the country. According to a 2014 report from the Babson Survey Research Group, 33% of college students in the U.S. are enrolled in at least one online course, and the rate of online course enrollment continues to far exceed the overall rate of college enrollment.

Judith Odindo’s path to UWW could not have been more different from Malo’s.

A native of Kenya, Odindo, 38, had come to the U.S. in 2001 to study as an international student at Montclair State University in New Jersey. She already had some college under her belt in Kenya, and was looking forward to her year of study abroad.

But then her mother, who was paying her tuition, fell ill back home, and Odindo’s financial support evaporated. So, after a single semester, she was forced to drop out. And because her family was struggling to make ends meet, she knew it would be a burden to them if she returned home.

That left Odindo stranded in a foreign country, on a student’s visa, but with no way to continue her schooling. She was heartbroken.

Nevertheless, she decided to stick it out in the U.S., which required changing her visa status to allow her to work — not an easy process, she said. Through a series of circumstances, and a move from New Jersey to Springfield, Odindo was able to find work with the Mass. Department of Developmental Services, but it was always her intention to return to college — someday, somehow.

Eventually, she began to take classes as a part-time student at Springfield Technical Community College, but, because of her schedule as a supervisor in a residential home in Springfield, it was a slow process, with no discernable end in sight.

Then, one day, she came across a flyer about UWW. She sent an e-mail inquiry to the program and described her predicament. The response was quick, and hopeful.

Judith Odindo

Judith Odindo says UWW fit her life and work responsibilities in a way other programs did not, allowing her to earn an elusive degree.

“They told me I would be a perfect fit for the program,” Odindo said in an interview at the UMass Center in Tower Square in Springfield. She learned she could transfer her credits from Montclair and STCC, and would likely receive additional credits for her work and life experience. “I said, ‘wow. It fits my life and my work schedule. This could be a way for me to finish my degree.’”

So she signed on, and two years later, in May, she received a bachelor’s degree, with a focus in business studies. Fortunately, her mother has since recovered, and now lives in Springfield as well.

“From a tough time, great things happened,” Odindo said.

Courses of Action

UWW is an academic major at UMass, with 12 full-time faculty and nine full-time administrative staff members, all with expertise in teaching and advising adult students. Students take core UWW departmental courses and then build their degree concentrations by taking courses throughout the university.

More than 4,000 adults have received bachelor’s degrees from the program since it’s inception more than 45 years ago, including NBA legend Julius Erving (Dr. J) and Monster.com founder Jeff Taylor. It enrolls about 1,000 to 1,200 students per semester and enjoys a 65% to 75% graduation rate, significantly higher than the rate of 35% to 40% seen in most degree-completion programs, Bracey said. And a significant number go on to receive higher degrees.

“The number-one thing they want is for you to succeed,” Odindo said.

Elizabeth Brinkerhoff knows from experience just how life-altering a degree from UWW can be. Brinkerhoff, 66, who lives in Shutesbury, is a 1981 graduate of the program, and also worked for many years as a faculty member and advisor in the program, retiring two years ago. She credits her time as a student there with providing the boost she needed to build a career.

Brinkerhoff says she followed four years as “half-assed high-school student” with a “lackadaisical stint” at GCC. “I was floundering,” she said. “I really had no idea what I wanted to do.”

So she dropped out, joined the workforce, moved around a bit, and finally landed back in Western Mass., where she found a job working with alternative-education programs for grades K-12. Then, in 1978, a friend encouraged her to look into the UWW.

Brinkerhoff’s employer at the time supported the idea and allowed her to adjust her work schedule to accommodate classes. (Unlike today’s students, who overwhelmingly choose to take online classes, students in Brinkerhoff’s day had to report to brick-and-mortar classrooms.) She enrolled in spring 1978, and went on to receive a master’s degree from Suffolk University in Boston and, later, a doctorate from the UMass School of Education.

She had planned to become a high-school guidance counselor, but once she started classes at UWW, it didn’t take long for her to adjust her career goals.

“I realized there were a whole lot of people, like me, who were coming back to school, so I stayed in higher education, and with adult learners,” she said.

It’s a trend that has continued: with the demand for college-educated employees steadily increasing, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development has projected that 60% of workers in Massachusetts, and 40% nationally, will need to have an associate’s degree or higher to be competitive in the job market. And that’s sending older Americans back to college.

Today, three-quarters of U.S. undergraduate students are now considered ‘non-traditional,’ according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which has estimated that enrollment of 25- to 34-year-olds in undergraduate degree programs will increase 28% by 2019, while enrollment of students over 35 will go up 22%. That means that adult-learning, post-secondary models, like UWW, are likely to play an increasingly important role in preparing students for today’s workforce.

Indeed, thanks to her UWW education, Odindo says, she’s now eligible to apply for certain advancements in her workplace, and also plans to attend law school. And the UWW experience certainly set Brinkerhoff on her way to a long and successful career.

“The faculty and the students at University Without Walls are part of a learning culture — that thing that happens when people’s minds are at work. It taught me how to learn and how to think, and it helped define my career,” she said. “Then, knowing the program as well as I did, I could help students understand just what was possible there.”

Grade Expectations

As for Malo, he says he hopes his bachelor’s degree will make him “a little more marketable” for advancement on the police force, but that’s not why he’s attending UWW.

“It’s always bugged me that I never finished — there’s always been that weight on my shoulders,” he said. Plus, he added, he’s doing it for his children — Jonathan, 14, and Savanna, 10. “I want my kids to see me finish my degree. They’ll know if I can do it, they can do it, too.”

Thanks to UWW, a lot more people have been able to ‘do it.’

Construction Sections

In the Pipeline

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

Company principals Laurie and John Raymaakers

John and Laurie Raymaakers had a decision to make after the early-’90s recession torpedoed their property-management business — try to rebuild that enterprise, or go in a different direction. They chose, of all things, asphalt seal-coating, but that was only the beginning. Over the years, their company grew, added equipment and services, and is now a heavy civil-engineering firm and general contractor boasting 26 employees, with an intriguing side business in materials recycling — a true, under-the-radar success story in the local construction world.

John and Laurie Raymaakers knew when to shift gears, even if they didn’t always know how.

As the 1990s dawned, the couple ran a successful property-management operation, with 14 employees and some 900 units in seven apartment complexes.

But, due to the recession that struck the nation’s economy at the turn of the decade, the owners the couple worked for started bleeding properties at a startling rate. “We lost 73% of our business within six months,” Laurie told BusinessWest.

With prospects bleak — Laurie went to work at a local police department and a Boys & Girls Club to help make ends meet — the pair looked for another opportunity to strike out on their own, and they found one in seal-coating asphalt driveways and parking lots.

“When we started the seal-coating business, our kids were young, and we would sit around the table and fold brochures into trifolds, then drive around in the station wagon, putting them in newspaper boxes. That’s why we say the kids have been in this business since they were little — it was cheap labor.”

Today, however, ‘this business’ has moved far away from its roots fixing driveway cracks. J.L. Raymaakers & Sons — the couple’s two boys, John Jr. and Joshua, grew up to become partners in the company — is a general contractor and heavy civil-engineering firm employing 26 people and maintaining a fleet of 17 trucks.

The progression between the two points is a lesson in identifying opportunities and working hard to grab them, with the goal of growing a modest, Westfield-based family business into a multi-faceted operation.

Exhibit A is the seal-coating idea itself, one John came up with while researching what types of businesses he might be suited for, and which of those weren’t suffering from an overcrowded market.

This culvert installation in Blandford

This culvert installation in Blandford is an example of J.L. Raymaakers & Sons’ civil-engineering work.

“I saw a need for it; there weren’t many people at the time doing it,” he explained. “It was mostly crack filling, and it wasn’t too expensive to get into. But it started mushrooming; we were doing asphalt work, but then doing little paving jobs.”

For instance, some parking lots couldn’t be seal-coated until a broken catch basin was fixed. So they learned how to fix catch basins, which became a lucrative part of the business. Then they added small excavating projects to their roster.

‘We can do that’ became the couple’s motto, Laurie said. “If someone needed work done, we’d say, ‘we can do that’; then we’d look it up on the computer or ask somebody.”

From a couple of employees and one dumptruck, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons expanded further, getting into some pipe work, which led to the company’s most significant niche to date, heavy civil engineering.

“We’ve always been a general contractor, even from the property-management days, when we’d do carpentry and electrical,” John said, but the firm would, indeed, find its most profitable growth from the ground — or beneath it, actually — up.

Big Digs

Today, John told BusinessWest, the firm regularly takes on $2 million to $3 million jobs, with work ranging from storm-basin cleaning and repair to storm-drain installation and repair; from water and sewer-line installation to concrete work and retaining walls — a step up, certainly, from seal-coating driveways.

Recently, these jobs include a pump station handling sewage for three Southwick schools, a fuel-containment center at Bradley International Airport that involved moving million-gallon tanks, a new water-distribution line for the Thorndike section of Palmer, and, on the general-contracting side, a new security building at Savage Arms, a company for which Raymaakers has completed several projects.

We’re trying to build in as much diversity as we can. We’re trying to stay well-rounded, so that, if the city and state work slows down, the private sector might pick up, and vice versa. The newest thing for us is buildouts on commercial property, additions and that type of thing.”

“We’re trying to build in as much diversity as we can,” he said. “We’re trying to stay well-rounded, so that, if the city and state work slows down, the private sector might pick up, and vice versa. The newest thing for us is buildouts on commercial property, additions and that type of thing.”

That’s being accomplished partly through a recent foray into a steel-building division that promises to keep crews busy in the colder months, when civil-engineering projects tend to shut down. In many instances, Raymaakers is working at the subcontracting level, with an eye on positioning itself as the lead contractor — controlling projects and hiring subcontractors — on an increasing number of jobs.

“The main focus of our business has been this heavy civil construction, but it’s seasonal,” Laurie said. “We’re trying to find ways to expand our season year-round. We’re not just outdoor people.”

That said, the flow of work on the civil-engineering side is strong, even though the firm is typically competing with 15 others to, say, install a water line.

“What we’re not seeing,” Laurie said, “is qualified or experienced people to hire to grow with us. The need for skilled tradespeople is not going away, and it’s not just us — everyone we talk to within the industry says the same thing. And it’s a field where you can make a very good wage.”

Still, the company has hired at a consistent pace over the years, and expansion has taken several shapes recently, from new equipment purchases to the hiring of a second project manager. Meanwhile, John Jr., whose main role is project manager and estimator, and Joshua, a site supervisor, are slowly transitioning into greater leadership roles with the intention of someday running the company on their own.

“They’ve grown with us and learned with us, and they excel in their areas,” Laurie said. “John Jr. is involved in the steel buildings, and Joshua takes the biggest, hardest jobs and is always encouraging us to look at purchasing some properties and renovating them and putting them up for resale. They have their own ideas within the company.”

General-contracting work, like this warehouse

General-contracting work, like this warehouse, helps the firm stay diverse and busy throughout the year.

But the family didn’t stop there. Through their civil engineering and construction work, J.L. Raymaakers & Sons digs up a lot of dirt. So instead of piling it up and letting it go to waste on their 10-acre property, they began cleaning it and separating usable product to sell. That side company, called ROAR (Raymaakers Onsite Aggregate Recycling), employs four of the Raymaakers’ total team of 26.

“We were seeing a need for people wanting loam or trap rock, so we set up an area where smaller construction companies, landscapers, and homeowners can come and buy it,” John said. “We’ve grown that to where we’re selling bark mulch, colored rock, processed gravel, and all kinds of trap rock.”

ROAR simply makes sense, from both a financial and environmental perspective, Laurie added. “We’d rather utilize the land we have and make money off it, while recycling these products from our own jobs.”

Growing Together

Co-owner of a certified women-owned business enterprise (WBE), Laurie is gratified that perceptions about women in construction have come a long way.

She recalls, early in the seal-coating days, that John burned himself badly when a block filled with crack filler splashed him, and for four months, it was just Laurie and her sister-in-law working the driveways and parking lots. After one job, the property owner wouldn’t even answer the door to pay them, having trouble accepting the fact that women were doing the work.

Today, that’s just a humorous story in the history of a true regional success story. John is the first to admit that maintaining a strong family business is a tough road, but repeatedly praised the company’s dedicated crews and long-time employees for their role in growing the firm.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’ve worked hard to get here,” Laurie added. “It’s a constant in your life. There’s been some sacrifice at times, but I’m really proud of what we’ve done.”

John noted that not only their sons have grown up with the company, but so have many of their teenage friends, who now work there.

“All these friends of our kids, they’ve been here 10, 15 years. We don’t tend to lose people,” he said.

That’s a plus for this family that just keeps digging for more opportunities — literally and figuratively.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


A New Experiment

umasslifesciencelabsPeter Reinhart, director of the Institute for Applied Life Sciences at UMass Amherst, said there’s a tendency in academia to think of private industry as the enemy. As one of the nation’s foremost public research institutions, however, UMass has become increasingly engaged with industry, most recently through an expansion of the institute’s core facilities with high-tech equipment that companies can use to help bring ideas to market. It’s a true win-win, UMass officials say, and an example of how public-private partnerships are changing the face of higher education.

UMass Amherst may be renowned for cutting-edge scientific research, but when it comes from turning published papers into public benefits, the transition hasn’t always been smooth.

“What we don’t do well is move the results of our research into society,” said Jim Capistran, executive director of the UMass Innovation Institute. “We’re not good at that. We’re not out there working with industry.”

That’s changing, though, as some 120 representatives from advanced and precision manufacturing firms, research and development companies, commercial lenders, and community colleges learned during a recent visit to UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS, pronounced aisles) to learn about how its newly opened core facilities can help them boost the state’s manufacturing economy.

We want all the precision manufacturers and related industry in the state to know that we are open for business.”

“Now, we have this pathway to commercialization, to take our research and work with industries of all sizes,” Capistran told BusinessWest. “We now have this vehicle to bring research to fruition and make an impact on society.”

Located inside the IALS building, these core facilities — now numbering 30 — and their high-tech equipment are available not only to UMass researchers, but to companies that want to rent the space and equipment.

Peter Reinhart

Peter Reinhart says the core facilities at IALS can help UMass researchers turn academic papers into public benefit, while helping companies solve problems for customers.

The four newly opened core facilities offer additive manufacturing, 3D metal and plastic printing, roll-to-roll manufacturing, device characterization, materials testing, modeling, simulation, computer-assisted design, and other analytical core research facilities that will be available for advanced manufacturers to test designs and prototypes, for example, that could lead to a new product, land a new customer, or add jobs, Capistran explained.

“We want all the precision manufacturers and related industry in the state to know that we are open for business,” he told the visitors. “Today, they can see for themselves what we have to offer.”

Among Capistran’s roles is serving a point of contact for university engagement with industry, which has become an increasing priority over the past decade, he told BusinessWest.

“All these companies have this big research institution in their backyard, but they don’t use it,” he noted, ticking off reasons why they should. “They have their limitations; they can’t buy the latest and greatest tools, and they don’t have the people to use them. As we’re getting to know these companies, they’re finding we’re approachable; we’re not mad scientists running around an ivory tower. They can come here for help with introducing them to new technologies and new ways to approach solutions.”

Manufacturers are listening; among the attendees at the open house were product designers, research engineers, and others from not only large firms such as Raytheon, Pratt & Whitney, Saint-Gobain, General Dynamics, and General Electric, but scores of smaller, local precision- and advanced-manufacturing firms.

Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy expressed to them his commitment to partnering to with industry to support their growth, asserting that, “when Massachusetts manufacturers are successful, the whole state benefits.”

At the same time, the benefits to UMass researchers are obvious, said Peter Reinhart, IALS director. “They’re thinking, ‘I can get more than a great paper out of this.’ They may not have thought that before, but this campus is becoming more industry-friendly. They’re not the enemy. They can help us.”

Next Big Thing

IALS was created in 2013 with $150 million in capital funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the university itself. Its mission is to accelerate life-science research and advance collaboration with industry to effectively shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

Reinhart, a veteran biopharmaceutical executive and researcher, said the institute achieves this goal through three translational centers: the Models to Medicine Center, which harnesses campus research strengths in life science; the Center for Bioactive Delivery, which seeks to discover new paradigms for the discovery of optimized delivery vehicles for drugs; and the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, which aims to accelerate the development and commercialization of low-cost, wearable, wireless sensor systems for health and biometric monitoring.

The goal, Reinhart said, is to realize a broad range of societal benefits that are practical and accessible for the average person.

We’re generating next-generation drug delivery, so the drug itself has the ability to target the inflamed cells. For instance, instead of the drug sloshing all throughout the body, it can target just the cell types in the body that need medicine, which keeps the concentration at the target site high and low elsewhere.”

“We don’t want to develop the next $1,000 or $2,000 home-monitoring device,” he explained, “but the next $20 device that sticks on the skin and measures information about your individual, personal trajectory.”

Meanwhile, in the Center for Bioactive Delivery, “we’re generating next-generation drug delivery, so the drug itself has the ability to target the inflamed cells,” he told BusinessWest. “For instance, instead of the drug sloshing all throughout the body, it can target just the cell types in the body that need medicine, which keeps the concentration at the target site high and low elsewhere.”

In short, IALS wants to create connections between research and the marketplace, and the new core facilities that focus on high-tech manufacturing will be a key step in that process.

Kristen Carlson, president of Peerless Precision Inc. of Westfield and president of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc., told open-house attendees that more than 200 precision-manufacturing firms operate in the state’s four western counties, supplying many thousands of high-quality precision parts each year to the aircraft, aerospace, medical-device, fine-finishing, and robotics industries, among others.

Jim Capistran

Jim Capistran says UMass researchers aren’t “mad scientists running around an ivory tower,” but a practical resource manufacturers can tap into.

Increasingly, this requires sophisticated design and small-batch production of customized components made on extremely high-tech equipment. Among many other services, the IALS core facilities will assist in design and testing to such standards, she added. “I cannot stress enough how beneficial it is to have such innovation centers available to us. I am thrilled to see UMass expand the resources available to us.”

Matthew Koons of Boyd Technologies in Lee said customers approach advanced manufacturers with ideas, many of which require testing and experimentation. “This kind of facility allows us to expand our ability to translate ideas into a product, and more quickly, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Anything that speeds the process and allows more rapid innovation is very valuable.”

Oh-Hun Kwon, director of external relations for Saint-Gobain’s Northboro R&D Center, added that the international firm, which specializes in construction and high-performance materials, appreciates the access to new talent it finds in Amherst. “We’ve enjoyed a long-term relationship with UMass for almost 10 years now,” he noted. “We find the faculty and facilities are top-notch, and we find them a powerful partner in meeting many technical challenges.”

Getting on the Same Page

The very existence of IALS owes a lot to the concept of partnerships. Its creation was funded by $95 million from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency that oversees a $1 billion investment made by the Deval Patrick administration in 2007. UMass kicked in another $55 million to IALS for a total seed funding of $150 million.

“We call it the ‘triple P’ — public-private partnerships,” Capistran told BusinessWest. “We’ve been doing this in Massachusetts for a number of years, and more and more, other states are doing it as well.” For instance, he noted, the state of New York has poured billions into the SUNY Binghamton area in an effort to create another Silicon Valley, while Ohio has invested heavily in the Edison Project. And those are just two examples.

“I think we’re doing it a little bit better here,” he went on. “The state doesn’t put as much money into it because it’s a public-private partnership. The governor has said, ‘I put up money, but you put up money, too; it’s not a free ride.’ I think that’s a good idea.”

But the effort takes more than just funding; it requires an aggressive outreach to the business world.

“I think we’re doing a good job,” Capistran said. “We could do better, and I think people are realizing that we have to engage different partners early, making sure everyone is on the same page, and everyone’s interests are heard.”

Equally important, Reinhart said, is making it easy for industry partners to collaborate.

Western Mass. is much more affordable, and quality of life here is really nice, so we’re doing a lot to get more businesses to spin out from these collaborations and get them to put down roots in Western Mass.”

“We have made the process of getting access to our core facilities as easy as we can,” he told BusinessWest. “We can turn contracts around in a matter of days, not months. We’re geared toward providing access to equipment and faculty expertise in a very streamlined, fast way.”

For companies, IALS provides a key resource and equipment they might not be able to afford on their own — and it could make a difference whether they invest in Western Mass. or go elsewhere. After all, lab space in Cambridge can cost four times as much as in Amherst.

“Western Mass. is much more affordable, and quality of life here is really nice, so we’re doing a lot to get more businesses to spin out from these collaborations and get them to put down roots in Western Mass.,” Capistran explained.

He added that the university also coordinates with other innovation centers, such as the Berkshire Innovation Center in Pittsfield and the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology in Enfield, to make sure UMass is investing in complementary equipment to what’s already available. It has also connected with vocational schools to introduce students to the latest technological advances and prime the pump of interest in advanced manufacturing.

“Whether it’s from their parents or guidance counselors, some have the perception of manufacturing as a dirty, grease-under-the-fingernails trade. It’s not like that; all these shops now computerized, high-tech, clean, and pay good money. We want to help clarify perceptions.”

Into the Future

As to what the next core facilities might be at IALS, well, it can be tough to predict years ahead.

“Ten years ago, you didn’t even hear about 3D printing,” Capistran said. “What’s going to happen 10 years from now? Technology you haven’t even heard of yet.”

As challenges go, it’s an exciting one, and he’s looking forward to seeing more breakthroughs on the UMass campus turn into real-world products, and more companies helping clients with solutions using technology they normally wouldn’t be able to access.

“Like many universities, the way we worked with industry was broken,” he said. “But we fixed that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Meeting Expectations

mmcdpartOn July 1, MGM Springfield took over exclusive venue management at the MassMutual Center, thus beginning an intriguing new chapter in the history of a facility that was first opened almost a half-century ago and was expanded in 2005. The hope and expectation, locally and at the state level, is that MGM’s name, reputation, and strong track record in the entertainment industry will enable the facility to realize its considerable potential.

Alex Dixon calls it “a sleeping giant we plan to unleash.”

He was referring to the MassMutual Center, or the MMC, as it’s sometimes called, in downtown Springfield. And with those few words, Dixon, general manager for MGM Springfield, actually said quite a bit.

With ‘sleeping giant,’ he succinctly and poignantly noted both the MMC’s considerable potential as an event and convention venue — and the fact that, since it opened in 2005, not all of that potential has been realized. In fact, ‘underperforming’ is the word you often hear in relation to the track record for this facility, created through a $70 million investment from the state and now part of the portfolio of venues owned and overseen by the Mass. Convention Center Authority (MCCA).

We have an extremely walkable downtown, easy access off I-91, a great hotel product, and an emerging entertainment corridor. If you stand at the corner of State and Main streets and look to your left and right, you can see the palette that’s there for a bustling corridor over the next several years.”

And that reference to waking it up, to “unleashing” it? That was an equally effective and economical means to sum up the hope — most would actually categorize it as an expectation — that MGM, now venue manager at the MMC, will, through its name, reputation, resources, and the $950 million casino it is building across the street, enable the facility to elevate its game.

Dixon, who arrived in Springfield just a few months ago from the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, understands these expectations, and believes they are realistic. More to the point, he knows that it is now part of his job description to make them reality.

And he believes a confluence of factors, from MGM’s track record in the entertainment business to the game-changing nature of the casino when it comes to drawing meeting and convention goers to Springfield’s broad, ongoing resurgence, will allow him to succeed with that mission.

“We have an extremely walkable downtown, easy access off I-91, a great hotel product, and an emerging entertainment corridor,” he said in offering a partial list of the city’s many assets. “If you stand at the corner of State and Main streets and look to your left and right, you can see the palette that’s there for a bustling corridor over the next several years.”

Nate Little, director of Communications & External Relations for the MCCA, agreed, and said MGM Springfield’s management — and the neighboring casino — should enable the MMC to improve its performance in what has always been an extremely competitive market for events and conventions in the Northeast.

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon says MGM — and a host of other constituencies — are looking forward to the next chapter in the story of the MassMutual Center.

“With MGM’s pipeline of talent and leadership in the entertainment industry, we hope and expect that the company will bring an entirely new level of performance to the MassMutual Center,” he told BusinessWest. “And with the resort opening across the street, there is a good chance for a kind of symbiosis; we expect and hope that it will be a beneficial relationship.”

Both Dixon and Little said it will take time for the MMC to ramp up and dramatically improve its overall performance, in large part because many events are booked several years out. But Dixon noted that there are already signs of progress, especially when it comes to the number of inquiries about the facility and available dates.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of in-bound calls already, well in advance of having a sales team in place,” he said. “There are a number of people expressing interest in the facility.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at MGM’s role as manager of the MassMutual Center and what it means for the future of that all-important regional asset.

Dates with Destiny

When it was announced back in February that MGM had finalized a deal to take over exclusive management of the MMC, staff members at the facility became some of the very first MGM employees in Springfield.

“They’re our first team members,” said Dixon, noting that the occasion was a milestone of sorts and part of an ongoing, quite comprehensive transition to put the MMC onto MGM’s systems and fully integrate that facility with the casino resort complex due to go online roughly 13 months from now.

We’re really getting our house in order so that we can put our best face forward once we begin to market the facility as one big campus.”

“We’re really getting our house in order so that we can put our best face forward once we begin to market the facility as one big campus,” said Dixon, adding that such work will continue for several more months.

It represents a key turning point in the history of the facility previously known as the Springfield Civic Center, which opened 45 years ago and underwent a significant expansion and renovation project starting in 2003.

That project, which included renovation of the arena and the addition of 100,000 square feet of meeting and convention space, was strongly supported by area legislators, especially those representing Springfield, on the theory that it would be a key component in efforts to bring greater vibrancy to the city’s downtown and become a catalyst for progress in a city suffering economic decline and on the brink of receivership.

But while the MMC has had its moments over the years and has played host to a wide variety of events and meetings — everything from college commencements to Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference to the Western Mass. Business & Innovation Expo (scheduled for Nov. 2) — it has not, by most barometers, performed as the MCCA hoped it would.

Indeed, Little said that other venues in the MCCA portfolio, such as the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and the John B. Hynes Veterans Memorial Convention Center, are running events — or “are occupied,” as he put it — between 50% and 60% of the days in a year. That is roughly the industry standard and a good number, because many events require setup before and cleanup after they happen. Meanwhile, the MassMutual Center has historically performed well under those numbers, although he didn’t have exact figures at his disposal.

It was with an eye toward improving this track record that the MCCA awarded a contract involving joint management of the facility to MGM Springfield and Spectra (formerly Global Spectrum) last year, with the understanding that the former would eventually assume exclusive venue management, with Spectra continuing to handle the food and beverage side of the operation. That happened on July 1.

Earlier this year, employers at the MassMutual Center became the first MGM team members in Springfield

Earlier this year, employers at the MassMutual Center became the first MGM team members in Springfield, and there were was a ceremony at the MMC to mark the occasion. MGM Springfield President Mike Mathis is second from left; General Manager Alex Dixon is at far right.

Elaborating, Little said the market for events, meetings, and conventions, especially in smaller markets like Springfield, is extremely competitive. The hope and, again, the expectation, is that MGM Springfield’s management will provide a strong leg up in this marketplace.

“The huge advantage to having MGM on the scene is that there are very few venues of that regional size and quality that are attached to a name like MGM,” he said. “We think that’s going to be a huge benefit for us, and the goal all along was to maximize the performance of the MMC, which we think has huge potential as a venue.

“And we can’t imagine anyone better than MGM to help us unlock that potential,” he went on, adding that the simple goal is to have the building be used much more than it is currently being used.

Gathering Momentum

For his part, Dixon isn’t particularly interested in past performance at the MMC, although he is aware of it. Instead, he’s clearly focused on the present and future.

“We’re looking forward to the next chapter,” he told BusinessWest, adding that MGM has already commenced writing it.

As he discussed this next chapter, Dixon said there are many pieces to this puzzle, including work to ensure the highest quality for events already on the books — many were scheduled months if not years ago — while also going about filling more dates on the calendar.

And MGM will bring vast experience and resources to both sides of this equation, he said.

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

MassMutual Center employees celebrate their entry into the MGM family.

“This year, we’re really going to be enhancing what we already have,” he said, referring to everything from scheduled banquets to presentation of the Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team as it gets set to begin its second season. “And over the next year, we’ll be working to get the frequency and quality of events firing on all cylinders; we are working hard to make sure we get this right.”

By that, he meant both the quantity and quality aspects to this mission to improve the performance of MMC and fulfill an obligation within the host-community agreement to produce four marquee events a year in Springfield.

But Dixon said he considers those events to be merely a baseline, and he anticipates bringing more and better events to the city across the wide spectrum of entertainment. And he said the city has many things going for it in this regard, starting with the MMC itself, which has “great bones and a great staff.”

Beyond that, there is the casino complex itself, a comprehensive “downtown refresh,” as he called it, with many moving parts, and a partner at the state level (the MCCA) willing to invest time, talent, and resources into efforts to take the MMC to the next level.

“Considering all that, you can’t help but be positive about the days ahead,” said Dixon. “We’re getting ready to welcome people to the show — that’s our mantra.”

And the ‘show’ will take many forms, he said, adding that the facilities and amenities he mentioned could help attract a host of shows and conventions to downtown Springfield, and especially the latter.

“What’s great about our environment here is that, if you have a mid-size convention here mid-week, you can really take over the downtown core,” he explained. “Between the hotels, our facility, and the restaurant product, there’s a rollout that we can do that you just wouldn’t see in a bigger market.

“In Boston or some of the other larger markets, you’re a drop in the bucket,” he went on. “Here, we can roll out the red carpet. I’m a big believer in using what you have to the best of your ability. We’re going to hustle to find mid-week convention business, and we’re going to hopefully unlock some groups and businesses that have gone elsewhere.”

At the same time, he went on, MGM and partnering groups will work to convince area organizations that might historically look outside this region (and specifically downtown Springfield) for sites for corporate retreats and other gatherings to “conduct business at home.”

Conventional Thinking

This reference to ‘home’ brings Dixon to what would have to be considered the big picture, or at least the bigger picture.

“Everyone is not just rooting for the success of the building, the MassMutual Center, they’re rooting for the success of Springfield,” he explained. “And if you get that right, it creates a momentum that just builds on itself.”

Creating momentum is what state leaders had in mind when they invested $70 million in the expansion of the Civic Center almost 15 years ago. The facility has generated some of that precious commodity, but the expectation is that, with MGM’s name, reputation, and cache behind the facility, there will be much more in the years to come.

As Dixon said, ‘welcome to the show.’

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

Meetings & Conventions Sections

Echoes from the Past

John Aubin

John Aubin says the space in Mill 1 at Open Square is modern, but also comfortable.

It’s called ‘industrial modern.’

That’s the phrase attached to a genre of interior design, one that takes cues from old factories and industrial spaces — or uses such facilities themselves — and blends them with modern fixtures and furniture to create a unique working and playing environment that blends the past with the present.

That look and feel — which John Aubin, owner, developer, and chief designer at Open Square in Holyoke, also described with the phrases ‘accessible modern’ and ‘comfortable modern’ — are becoming increasingly popular with a host of constituencies. They include people in business, and especially those involved in creative work, who find such spaces inspiring and conducive to imagination and forward thinking.

And Aubin believes this helps explain why Mill 1 at Open Square, the meeting and event space he carved out of one of oldest mill buildings in Holyoke, has become popular not only as a wedding-reception site — there are 40 to 50 of those a year — but also as a place for strategic-planning sessions and other types of corporate gatherings.

“A number of major corporations have rented this space for brainstorming,” he explained. “They’ll rent it for anywhere from one to three days, and sometimes it’s as few as 10 people. They find it a very creative space; they’ll set up whiteboards and displays, and they’ll just brainstorm.”

Indeed, over the past several years, several regional and national corporations, including Hasbro, PepsiCo, and the New York City-based global design firm IDEO, have found Mill 1, said Aubin, who put extra emphasis on the word found. That’s because there hasn’t been much, if any, direct marketing of this space to the business community, and many who have chosen it have done so after Internet searches of unique meeting facilities.

A number of major corporations have rented this space for brainstorming. They’ll rent it for anywhere from one to three days, and sometimes it’s as few as 10 people. They find it a very creative space; they’ll set up whiteboards and displays, and they’ll just brainstorm.”

Overall, the Mill 1 space, which came online roughly at this start of this decade, has shown itself to be quite versatile, hosting everything from performances of the Enchanted Circle Theatre to Common Capital’s annual meeting; from the EDC’s announcement of the new branding slogan for the region (‘Western Mass’), to induction ceremonies hosted by the Volleyball Hall of Fame, headquartered just a few blocks away. Deerfield-based Yankee Candle has even used it as a staging area for a photo shoot involving its products.

“Around this time of year, late July, they shot their Christmas catalog here,” said Maggie Bergin, communications director for Open Square Properties. “It was weird … you walked in, and there was a living room and a den; they created little scenes, and they had actors and models come in, and they’d shoot people enjoying Yankee Candle products.”

This versatility is due to the fact that the space is, in many ways, like a blank canvas to be filled in by those who rent it out for a day, or two, or for just a few hours. In fact, there is an actual blank canvas in the form of a white wall, 11 feet by 40, at one end of the room. Companies have used it to project images such as charts with sales projections, and marrying couples have used it to post pictures that tell the stories of their lives.

The International Volleyball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies

The International Volleyball Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies have been one of many events and meetings staged at Mill 1.

“It’s a neutral canvas onto which people can apply their vision,” said Bergin. “Sometimes, a country-club feeling or something traditional works for businesses when it comes to conferences and social gatherings, but others want a more modern feel or something that isn’t already stamped with a particular look or feel. And I think that’s why we’ve had companies coming here for creative work with their staff.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest paid a visit to the blank canvas that is Mill 1 to learn about the many ways that clients, and especially businesses, are coloring things in and thus bringing a new dimension to their corporate outings.

Weaving in Some History

When asked about the history of Mill 1 and, specifically, the space converted into a meeting and event facility, Aubin started by pointing to the floor — the one painstakingly refurbished and brought to an admired luster with the application of four coats of industrial-strength polyurethane.

“This was called the loom room; there were two holes in the floor where a belt looped through,” he explained. “And there were holes in the beam in the ceiling that held pulleys; the belts would loop up and back and connect to looms.

“There’s a loom room in Lowell that’s still active,” he went on, referring to the industrial city north and west of Boston that, like Holyoke, was a textile-manufacturing hub (paper making came later in Holyoke). “They have these massive machines with the original belts spinning; they give you earplugs, and the noise is deafening with earplugs — I don’t know how anyone could work there without them.”

The loom room at Mill 1 is quiet now, obviously, except during events, but there are echoes from the past that can be seen and felt. The brick walls, a foundation of the ‘industrial modern’ look, are obviously prevalent, and the many windows present views of today’s Holyoke, but also, and especially, its past, with mill buildings, canals, and the bridges over them coming into focus.

We chose Mill 1 at Open Square because it was a true taste of Holyoke’s history and a glimpse into what life was like back in the 1890s when Holyoke was heavy into manufacturing and volleyball just invented.”

The views at Mill 1 are a selling point, but it’s the interior space itself that draws clients, especially businesses like Pepsi and institutions like the Volleball Hall of Fame, said Aubin, adding that those two words, ‘industrial’ and ‘modern,’ coupled with the history that is so palpable, create a unique venue.

Consider these comments from George Mulry, executive director of the Volleyball Hall of Fame: “We chose Mill 1 at Open Square because it was a true taste of Holyoke’s history and a glimpse into what life was like back in the 1890s when Holyoke was heavy into manufacturing and volleyball just invented.”

This is what Aubin had in mind when he set about creating this space. Well, sort of.

The space inside what’s known as Mill 1 — then wide-open, not finished or polished — was being rented out on an occasional, informal basis, mostly for community-based endeavors and events, said Aubin. From these events, the team at Open Square saw considerable potential for a far more refined space that could host weddings and other gatherings and become an important revenue stream for the larger mill-redevelopment initiative.

Mill 1, with its ‘industrial modern’ look

Mill 1, with its ‘industrial modern’ look, has become a popular site for companies looking to do some brainstorming.

“But we knew we needed to make a considerable investment in that space,” said Aubin, adding that one was made, and it has certainly given the facility that ‘industrial modern,’ ‘blank canvas’ look and feel.

Work was undertaken including refurbished floors, new glass in the windows, construction of an accompanying kitchen, and other facilities, such as a bar (designed by Aubin) that was fashioned from cypress wood used to make a water tower that once sat atop one of the mills in the complex.

Like the bar, the Mill 1 space blends old with modern to create an environment that resonates with people, said Aubin.

“It’s modern materials and a modern look, but it’s very comfortable to be in,” he told BusinessWest. “A lot of modern stuff looks great in pictures, but then people think, ‘if I sat in there, I’d feel like I was from outer space.”

The venue has certainly become popular with marrying couples — Mill 1 made BuzzFeed’s list of the 15 best wedding venues in the country for under $3,000 in 2015 — but, as noted, the business community is finding it as well.

And, moving forward, Aubin says there are a number of factors that should inspire more corporate business.

They include affordability and the uniqueness of the space, he noted, but also Open Square’s status as a zero-net-energy venue (actually, it produces more energy than it consumes through use of hydroelectric generators), a character trait that may resonate with environmentally conscious businesses and business owners.

And then, there’s accessibility, in the form of the train service that has returned to Holyoke after being absent for several decades. The Vermonter, a north-south line, stops in the town once a day, and the city’s new train station is only a few hundred yards from Open Square.

The service is limited, although it is due to be expanded in 2018, Aubin noted, adding that the train does make Holyoke and Mill 1 more accessible to companies in the Northeast corridor, including those in New York.

“We’ve already had some companies come up to do some photo shoots — it’s much less expensive to do that here than in New York,” he explained. “And we’re hoping that the train makes it easier for people to get to us.”

Looming Large

Aubin and Bergin both noted that there are many unique spots within the broad Open Square complex for wedding photos. These include the bridges and canals, the wide-open hallways on the office floors in nearby Mill 4, the brightly painted doors on some of the mills, the stairwells in those facilities, and many more.

And not only do marrying couples and their bridal parties find all of them, but they identify new ones seemingly with every ceremony.

This is what happens when the past and the present come together in ways that inspire optimism about the future and foster determination to turn dreams into reality.

It works for couples on their proverbial big day, and, increasingly, it works for companies of all sizes trying to generate some creative thinking.

This is the power of ‘industrial modern,’ and it certainly bodes well for Mill 1 at Open Square.

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

Cover Story Sections Tourism & Hospitality

Art of the Deal

By Kathleen Mellen

Crowds at Paradise City Arts Festival

Crowds at Paradise City Arts Festival

Linda and Geoffrey Post

Linda and Geoffrey Post say the festival’s early success snowballed and took on a life of its own.

It’s tough to make a living as an artist, and no one knows that better than Linda and Geoffrey Post, who made a go of it for 20 years, much of it on the art-show circuit, before deciding, in 1994, to switch gears. That’s when they founded the Paradise City Arts Festival.

Geoffrey Post, a fiber artist, and Linda Post, a painter, say they took an enormous leap of faith when they started the festival at the Three County Fairgrounds in Northampton. They gathered work from fellow artists, put notices in local newspapers, and set up in the Fair’s largest building, the Arena, whose lopsided dirt floor was better designed to show horses, pigs, and sheep than sculpture, ceramics, and fine jewelry.

And they wondered if anyone would come.

Well, people did. Now, 22 years later, the festival is one of the premier such events in the nation, with 250 artists and craftspeople and some 10,000 customers flocking to the site twice a year, in May and October, to immerse themselves in works by some of the nation’s finest craft makers and independent artists, along with a sculpture garden, fund-raisers for local charities, and a wide array of victuals from local restaurants — all to the accompaniment of lively jazz melodies.

Visitors to the award-winning festival have come from all 50 states, and five continents, to partake of what Boston Magazine calls “a unique visual arts institution.”

How it all came to be this institution, and how it continues to grow and prosper, is an intriguing story, one in which the Posts and a number of other players have remained focused on the big picture — figuratively, and quite literally.

Brush with Fame

The very first thing the Posts had to do, back in 1995, was to establish a working relationship with the fair, which was established in 1817 for the purpose of promoting agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth — a far cry from what the Posts were proposing.

Even with the fair’s blessing, which they received, there was much to be done before a single artist could set up — including making significant investments in the site so it could support such a venture. First up was the installation of an electrical system big enough to power the festival. Plus, they added, when it rained, the whole place, which sits in a floodplain, turned to mud, so they had to fix that.

“It was really an experience trying to transform that space,” Linda Post said. “It took a lot of time, effort, money, planning, faith, and hope.”

But, once they got started, things began to cook.

“In ’95, we were successful enough so that we could have a ’96, and ’96 was a little better than ’95,” Geoffrey said. Then, in 1997, things really took off, when they attracted the attention of the New York Times and the Boston Globe, which wrote features about the event.

“Things just exploded. It was one of those Woodstock-type scenarios, where they’re backed up on Route 91, all the way to Hartford,” Post said. “After that, it kind of had a life of its own.”

Terry Evans

Terry Evans

That success signaled to the city and the fairgrounds that there might be uses for the site other than traditional agricultural events. In 2010, a committee was formed, which included representatives of the fair, the city, and the festival, to consider improvements to the site, with an eye toward expanding its use as a year-round venue for events like the Paradise City Arts Festival. A consulting firm was hired to analyze potential economic gains of an upgrade to the fairgrounds, and the results were impressive: it was projected that such a shift would add 500 jobs and result in an economic output of nearly $63 million, up from $25.9 million.

That got the ball rolling. A $42 million expansion was planned for the 55-acre site, which would include two phases: first, the demolition of old stables and the construction of three new horse barns, and, second, the construction of an 80,000-square-foot exhibition hall, as well improvements to the stormwater drainage, roads, and sidewalks.

Phase one was completed in 2011, when the fair was awarded $4 million by the state to build the new barns and to improve drainage on the site. But then, things stalled, and plans for the exhibition hall were put on hold, says the fair’s general manager, Bruce Shallcross, especially in light of a changed local market, including the addition of a new casino in Springfield and a still-recovering economy.

“We’re not sure, now, that we can support an 80,000-square-foot hall, but the Redevelopment Committee is still looking at alternatives,” he said.

All the while, the festival has stepped up, Shallcross told BusinessWest, sharing expenses for infrastructure improvement, including paving part of the grounds to deal with the mud problem.

Nnamdi Okonkwo

Nnamdi Okonkwo

“They’ve been very good partners over the years,” he said. “They are our anchor event in the spring and the fall, and we have an excellent working relationship with them.”

The Posts also say they have a good relationship with the city of Northampton, and while there’s no official, fiscal partnership, they do enjoy a symbiotic relationship. For example, it is common for the city’s mayor to write a welcome letter for the festival’s catalogue, and the Posts hire police and fire details for security and traffic control. They also bring tens of thousands of patrons from around the region, and across the country, to Northampton.

Indeed, a marketing survey the festival requisitioned about 10 years ago showed that some 70% of the people who attend the show come from outside the Pioneer Valley.

“The restaurants are full, the hotels are full. We think it’s good for the fairgrounds, good for the festival, and good for Northampton,” Shallcross said.

In a gesture of thanks for the city’s support, the Posts offer the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce space at the festival each year, where they can promote the city, its restaurants, events, and tourist attractions. That’s a boon for Northampton and the chamber, says its executive director, Suzanne Beck.

“The festival draws thousands of people to Northampton, and once they’re here, people are naturally curious about the area,” Beck said. “By having a pop-up visitor center at the festival, we can share everything about cultural events, dining offerings —what to see and do in the area — and fulfill that curiosity.

In a Different Mold

Fast-forward to 2017.

Not content to rest on their laurels, in May, the Posts decided to “redo everything.” They moved out the 23-year-old Arena building into the three relatively new barns, which are better equipped to house artists’ display booths — although they are still mainly intended for agricultural use.

“At least they have concrete floors,” Linda Post said.

The festival also utilizes more of the surrounding, outdoor areas, for its sculpture promenade, a dining tent, and entertainment.

It’s a move that has paid off.

“Whenever you make a big change like that, it makes you nervous, but we got great feedback from the exhibitors and the customers,” Linda Post said. “People stayed longer, and they really enjoyed the new layout.”

After more than two decades, the Posts say, they have to work diligently to keep the festival fresh. Each year, they combine new artists with the old, always with an eye toward curating an event that includes different price points and aesthetics, and new trends.

“If we don’t get fresh new artists to every show, it gets stale,” Geoffrey Post said.

Turns out, that’s not a problem: Far more artists and craftspeople apply to the festival than the Posts can accept.

“Every year, we’re getting new generations of artists and new generations of patrons,” he noted. “It has a life of its own.”

Looking to the future, the Posts say, they are finding ways to use the Internet to their advantage. They recently developed the Paradise City Membership Program, a partnership which allows artists to market their work year-round, through the festival’s website.

They produce a glossy magazine that gets mailed out to 60,000 households, and they are developing email newsletters and other promotions that go out to patrons on their email list, which is more than 40,000 strong.

Finally, while they don’t have a Paradise City Arts Festival app, they’ve made sure their website is optimized for cellphone use.

“We’re trying to figure out the right model for using all the new technologies.” Linda Post said.

The next Paradise City Arts Festival in Northampton will be Oct. 7-9, when artists and craftspeople will have on the display, and for sale, a wide variety of mixed-media art, ceramics, furniture, jewelry, photography, works on paper, wearable fiber art, and much more.

As is their tradition, there will be a “show within a show,” which invites participating artists to create work related to a special theme: This year, it’s “Life of the Party.”

And, in keeping with another annual tradition, the Posts will invite participating artists to donate a piece for an auction to raise money for a local non-profit organization. Since 1996, more than $400,000 has been raised in support of such causes as the Cancer Connection, the International Language Institute, and the Breast Form Fund. This year, the money will go to WGBY Public Television for Western New England.

Nice Work, If You Can Get It

As the Posts prepare for the next show in Northampton (they also produce a smaller, sister festival in Marlborough), things are heating up at their offices in Northampton’s Industrial Park.

“People don’t realize how much work goes into the shows; we start preparing months in advance,” Linda Post said. But she doesn’t mind. “Every day, we’re surrounded by all these beautiful objects and creative people. That’s a really good way to have to work.”

If one were to call it work. The Posts prefer to call it their passion.

Cover Story

A Matter of Speculation

towersquaredpartSince it opened nearly a half-century ago, Tower Square has been both a prominent part of the Springfield skyline and a barometer of sorts for the health and vitality of the city and its downtown. And this explains why there is so much anticipation and speculation accompanying the announcement that the property is being put on the market by owner MassMutual. Experts agree that this will be more than a real-estate transaction — it will likely also be a referendum on Springfield and its apparent resurgence.

Ever since the news broke that Tower Square, the downtown Springfield office tower, hotel, and retail complex, would be put on the market by owner MassMutual, there has been seemingly no end to the speculation about this local landmark.

And it has come in many forms, from questions about why the property is on the block — and why now — to conjecture about who might acquire it and at what price, what the new owner might attempt to do with it, and what role the complex might play in a changing City of Homes.

It was that last question that Bob Greeley found the most vexing.

“What will downtown Springfield look like in 10 or 15 years … I couldn’t answer that one, and I don’t think anyone can — the city can go in one of many directions,” said Greeley, president of RJ Greeley Co. in Springfield and a player in the local commercial real-estate market for four decades.

Most of those other questions were a bit easier to handle, for Greeley and others they were put to. Indeed, there seemed to be general consensus that there will be a healthy market for the property — and for a number of reasons, including its location (much more on that later), Springfield’s ongoing resurgence, the opening of MGM Springfield in 15 months or so, and the solid, consistent performance of the complex’s office tower over the past several decades.

It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option. Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

There also seemed to be general sentiment that there would be strong diversity among potential buyers, with interested local parties as well as national and international bidders.

“It certainly seems like a good time for MassMutual to explore this option,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates. “Not only because of all the recent positive activity in the city, but also because of the large number of regional and national investors looking to acquire long-term strategic assets right now.”

As for the role Tower Square will play in the future and the shape that property will take … here there was far less certainty in the experts’ voices and only conjecture — except when the subject of conversation was the approximately 180,000 square feet of retail space in the complex.

Moving forward, and even now, for that matter, said Greeley, the term ‘retail space’ should probably be replaced by the phrase ‘commercial space,’ because retail, at least in the traditional sense of the word, almost certainly won’t be a big part of Tower Square’s future.

Indeed, urban retail centers, or malls, if you will, which is what Tower Square was 40 years ago, are fast becoming a thing of the past, and, in most ways, they conflict strongly with most cities’ strategies for revitalizing their downtown centers, said Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, who has spent considerable time and energy studying that subject.

Bob Greeley

Bob Greeley is among those who believe the sale of Tower Square should be an effective barometer for Springfield’s resurgence and its prospects for the future.

“I think downtown malls are inappropriate in this day and age,” he explained. “Urban malls take people off the sidewalk, and that’s not what you want; you want that hustle and bustle of people going up and down streets.”

So what can and should happen at Tower Square in the years to come? Plotkin envisions a future with more of what is there now — meaning educational institutions such as UMass Amherst, which has a considerable presence in the complex with its UMass Center at Springfield, and Cambridge College.

If nothing else, the sale of Tower Square should serve as a fairly intriguing barometer regarding the relative health of the city, its worthiness in the eyes of the development community, and its prospects for the future.

“I’m hoping that there will be a strong market for this property because, if there is, that will be a clear indication of where we think Springfield is and where it’s going,” said Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer. “Everyone seems to be in agreement that things are going quite well for us here and our future is pretty good; this sale, or potential sale, will go a long way toward validating all that.”

For this issue, BusinessWest presents a snapshot, or summation, of the conjecture surrounding Tower Square, which will be the biggest commercial real-estate deal (outside of the casino, of course) in nearly a quarter-century, but also much more than that. In many ways, as Kennedy noted, it could be a referendum on Springfield — both its present and future.

Right Place, Right Time?

Plotkin often talks about his grandfather, Samuel D. Plotkin, whose full name was over the company’s door for decades, and the real-estate maps he created for not only Springfield, but a host of other cities as well.

The maps were essentially grids that assigned scores, or values, to blocks and individual properties based on location and other factors.

In Springfield, the block of Main Street between what is now Boland Way (years ago, it was Vernon Street) and Bridge Street, has always been what Samuel Plotkin called a ‘100% property,’ said his grandson.

“My grandfather counted how many people walked by a street corner at 12 noon,” Plotkin explained. “And he had some kind of logarithm or formula, and plotted these numbers on these months. The corner of Main and Boland was called a 100% location, and as you go down the blocks, it was 90%, 80%, or 70%; when you were looking for a site for a business, you always wanted to know the areas that had the heaviest foot traffic.”

Springfield’s resurgence

Area brokers say Springfield’s resurgence, the arrival of MGM in 2018, and the office tower’s historically strong performance should create a solid market for Tower Square.

So historically — and into the future, by most all accounts — Tower Square has that first axiom of commercial real estate — ‘location, location, location’ — well-covered.

But that’s only one of the factors that go into the sentiments of general optimism with regard to the sale of the property, the interest it will generate, the price it will command, and the speculation (there’s that word again) that this will be anything but the fire sale that was the acquisition of Monarch Place by Peter Picknelly in 1994 for $25 million, roughly a quarter of what that complex was built for less than a decade earlier.

Others include the generally high-performing, 370,000-square-foot office tower, said Greeley, adding that location certainly plays a role in that success. And while there is some debate about just how much office space will be needed in the future and where it will be needed, the consensus is that 1500 Main St. will long be a business address in considerable demand.

“The office tower has a low vacancy rate, and it’s almost always been that way,” he noted. “It’s a good location and a good facility.”

Meanwhile, the city’s resurgence and the opening of MGM in the fall of 2018 are forces that are projected to make the Tower Square property — and others, for that matter — more valuable and saleable.

“That property is probably worth more today than it has been for a long time,” said Greeley. “This is a good time to be doing this.”

But the question of what the eventual buyer will do with the balance of the property outside the office tower — meaning the Marriott hotel and the 180,000 square feet of retail space — remains the biggest unknown and a question without an easy answer.

Indeed, while several new tenants, including UMass, Cambridge College, Hot Table, and Valley Venture Mentors (soon to vacate its space and relocate to the Innovation Center) have moved in over the past decade, the vacancy rate in the retail component of the building remains high, so much so that it might become a drag on the property during the sale process, said Plotkin.

“Retail is the piece of Tower Square that has been slow to come back,” said Plotkin, noting that, decades ago — or until the construction of suburban malls like Eastfield and Ingleside, according to many observers — it thrived at that location. “The office tower has always done pretty well, and the hotel has always done pretty well. But you’re saddled with a large amount of retail vacancies; it’s been repurposed, and wisely, with the colleges and a few restaurants, but there are still a lot of vacancies.”

Elaborating, Plotkin and others said the retail scene has changed dramatically over the past several years, with Internet sales taking a huge toll on national chains ranging from Sears to Staples, and also on shopping facilities, including urban and suburban malls.

“Retail has been a struggle across the country,” said Greeley, noting that many suburban malls, including Eastfield, are losing anchors and struggling. “Society is changing, and the boxes of retail are going away — not just downtown, but everywhere.”

Space Exploration

This brings Greeley back to his comment earlier about how the retail space in Tower Square should probably be classified as ‘commercial’ moving forward, a term that has a much broader meaning and one that hints at the wide range of possibilities for that space.

Elaborating, Greeley said that eventual uses for those spaces will still have to be synergistic with the office tower and the hundreds of people working there, a consideration that will in some ways limit what can be done.

“You’re not going to put a Chuck E. Cheese in there,” he said with a laugh, adding that many other forms of entertainment and hospitality, especially those focused on children and families, which are now populating suburban malls, may be similarly inappropriate.

Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place. And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Plotkin said some urban malls and properties resembling Tower Square in some ways (it is fairly unique in its overall composition) have been repurposed for housing and other uses, such as higher education, but overall, such assignments require imagination and capital — and in large amounts.

He suggests that more of the “college campus” components, as he called them, might be appropriate and, more importantly, viable.

“Education is one of the directions I would be looking at when it comes to redeveloping the property,” he explained. “It could be a law school, it could be a research facility — there are a number of possibilities.

“We should have something happening there that is going to draw young people to the facility,” he went on, adding that educational facilities could in many ways feed off, and contribute to, the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in downtown Springfield.

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says the retail component in Tower Square remains a challenge, and that more education-related facilities may be the most viable option for that space.

Elaborating, he said the Marriott hotel and its 260 rooms could possibly be retrofitted into a dormitory, bringing a residential campus into the realm of possibility and also the prospect of several hundred young people living in the downtown area, which could fuel further growth of hospitality and service-related businesses.

And with the office tower and its broad mix of tenants in sectors ranging from law and marketing to accounting and financial services, there would be ample opportunities for internships and other learning experiences.

“If someone wanted to be right downtown, there are many amenities there,” said Plotkin, in reference to a college or university. “I’ve always looked upon what UMass is doing there as a start. It’s a good start, but it should just be the beginning.”

And from a big-picture perspective, Tower Square will be just one piece of the puzzle, he went on.

“Main Street is going to come back, I think, and the city is poised for a resurgence, but a lot of things have to happen before that can take place,” Plotkin told BusinessWest. “And there’s much more to it than what happens with Tower Square. It has to do with how we think about cities and the automobile.”

Overall, Kennedy said Springfield’s resurgence and a host of additions to the business and cultural landscape — from MGM to CRRC; from a renovated Union Station to the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — are creating more interest in the City of Homes, and Tower Square could play a role in bringing more businesses here, either through the office tower or its other available spaces.

“I continue to meet with companies that are interested in expanding into Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “I have my fingers crossed, but I think things are going to work out.”

New Lease on Life?

That last bit of commentary was offered in reference to the city as a whole, but also to the pending sale of Tower Square.

This will be a real-estate transaction, but also much more than that. As Kennedy and others noted, it will be a referendum or bellwether of sorts on Springfield’s ongoing resurgence and prospects for the future.

And it may also be one of the larger determining factors when it comes to what that future might be — for the downtown and the city as a whole.

That’s why all that speculation is going on, and also why this will be a very closely watched real-estate transaction.

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

Education Sections

The ‘Arms Race’

Westfield State University President Ramon Torrecilha

Westfield State University President Ramon Torrecilha says investments like the school has made in its food services are necessary in a changed landscape in higher education.

When people hear the phrase ‘arms race in higher education’ — and they’re hearing it a lot these days — what usually comes to mind are dining commons that offer more choices than a five-star restaurant, dorms that look more like hotel suites, and elaborate gyms, rock-climbing walls, and related athletic facilities.

And while that’s certainly part of the picture when it comes to this arms race — terminology generally used to describe a heightened competition for students and especially top talent — there are aspects to this equation that are far less obvious to the casual observer, according to the college presidents we spoke with, including:

• A new administrative position — director of Enrollment Management — at Westfield State University, noted its president, Ramon Torrecilha;

• A considerable investment in additional personnel and facilities in the Career Services Office at Western New England University, said its long-time president, Anthony Caprio;

• Development of a “student experience master plan,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, noting, for example, that the dormitory towers in the Southwest residential area do not exactly lend themselves to social interaction; and

• Renovations to the Hatch Library at Bay Path University to create what President Carol Leary called “collaborative and adaptable spaces for group learning in an environment that is also sensitive to technology.”

These steps and others are being taken because this arms race — a phrase that none of these presidents seemed particularly eager to say out loud because of the somewhat negative connotation attached to it — is about much more than competing for what has long been a smaller, seemingly more discerning, pool of high-school students with ramped-up facilities. Indeed, it’s also about — or more about, according to those we spoke with — helping these students succeed and generating value for the huge investment that they and their parents are making in their education.

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy

UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy says that, as schools compete for students, geographic boundaries and the line between public and private schools have become blurred.

Thus, you’re hearing words and phrases that college administrators hardly ever said out loud until recently — like ‘value,’ ‘customers,’ and ‘return on investment.’

“The value proposition of higher education has changed insofar as the discourse these days is on the return on that investment,” said Torrecilha. “There is a much bigger emphasis on outcomes; students and parents are very interested in knowing what the outcome will be from a four-year education.”

More to the point, they’re interested in securing a solid outcome, meaning a job with a salary worthy of four years of tuition and fees.

“As the cost of education has escalated, more attention has been paid — and rightly so, frankly — to what the student is getting out of their education,” said Subbaswamy. “As the cost has shifted from the state to those families over the years, both students and families are more aware of what they’re giving up, and universities are more attuned to providing value.”

Meanwhile, the presidents we spoke with said there is a fine line between making an investment in a new dorm, dining commons, student union, or science center because it helps in the recruitment process — and because competitors have already built such things — and doing so because these are necessary investments in efforts to help students succeed.

And they would argue that, on their campuses, it has been more for the latter than the former.

“At Bay Path, our response to the ‘arms race’ is all about value — how we provide students with the academic experiences that will best prepare them for the future,” said Leary. “In response to our students’ expectations for value, we strive to contain the cost of education. We are one of the lowest-priced private colleges in the Northeast, and the American Women’s College is exceptionally cost-effective. The investments we make, and increasingly the areas where our donors support Bay Path, are in financial aid, academic advising, and career preparation, including paid internships.”

While Subbaswamy admitted there was one facility on the UMass Amherst that might — that’s might — fall into the category of “keeping up with the Joneses,” as he put it (the John Francis Kennedy Champions Center for UMass Basketball), he and other presidents said their schools are not spending money on items that don’t add to the value proposition and the overall learning experience.

Said Leary, who recoiled at the word ‘amenities’ as it is so often used in discussion of the arms race, “there are not many frills with a Bay Path education.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the many aspects of this arms race, and especially the ways in which area schools are heightening their focus on student success and generating that sought-after return on investment.

Food for Thought

Subbaswamy couldn’t recall the exact wording or many of the specific design details, but the advertisement in the Boston Globe several months ago certainly caught his attention.

It was placed by the University of Pittsburgh, which, to his recollection, was touting itself in that advertisement as the “best public university in New England.”

“Since when did Pittsburgh become New England?” he asked BusinessWest, adding that this marketing initiative speaks volumes about what’s happening in higher education today and the forces that are fueling this arms race.

In short, borders, geographic and otherwise, are coming down as schools recruit needed students, said Subbaswamy and others we spoke with, adding that there is now little distinction between public and private four-year schools — especially as many states pull back on funding and shift the burden to students and their parents. Meanwhile, many institutions, like the University of Pittsburgh, are casting a wider net in the search for students, and taking steps to land them.

And marketing efforts, like that Boston Globe ad, are just one vehicle. For example, in 2015, the University of Maine launched something called its Flagship Match program, whereby students in Massachusetts, for example, could enroll at the Orono campus for the same price they would pay to attend UMass Amherst, a deal that slashes roughly half off Maine’s nearly $30,000 out-of-state rate.

And the tactic has worked. Indeed, the number of Massachusetts students planning to attend UMaine has nearly doubled since the introduction of the program.

But, as noted, discounting the cost of an education is only one of the strategies being put to use. New dorms, dining commons, and, yes, the occasional rock-climbing wall have been built in an effort to turn the heads of students and especially their parents, said Caprio.

Anthony Caprio

Anthony Caprio

We’re aware that the audience has changed. They want bigger, they want more modern, they want to have privacy, they want a lot of room around them.”

And they’re doing it because such facilities are now expected, and, to some extent and with some constituencies, demanded, he went on.

“We’re aware that the audience has changed,” Caprio explained, using that term as a collective for students and their parents. “They want bigger, they want more modern, they want to have privacy, they want a lot of room around them.”

In some respects, that’s because this is what they’ve grown up with, not only at home, but also at some of the high schools going up in communities across the state and the country. “Some of these high schools have better athletic facilities than we do,” he said, without a trace of exaggeration in his voice.

Caprio noted that even elite, Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Yale have been making huge investments in non-academic aspects of their campuses, presumably because even these institutions need to do so in this changed environment.

Torrecilha agreed. “When students come to a new-student orientation, they don’t ask to see the classrooms — they want to know where they’re going live; they want to see what the residential hall looks like and feels like,” he said.

This focus on campus life also explains why WSU recently made a huge investment in creating its own food-services department and significantly upgrading its offerings.

The ambitious project, undertaken in partnership with UMass Amherst, which currently has the top-rated food-service division in the country, was described by Torrecilha as a risk, one he considers well worth taking.

“I spent a lot of nights thinking about this because it meant bringing a $13 million operation into the school budget,” he said, adding that WSU previously used an outside vendor to prepare food. “And once you hire these people, they become part of your payroll. So it was risky, but it was worth it; our participation rate is up considerably.”

Meanwhile, WNEU is also investing in a new dining commons, a $28 million renovation Caprio said is being undertaken out of necessity, not exactly a desire to keep pace, although he acknowledged that’s part of the ‘necessity’ part.

“When we deliberated about this, we said, ‘we have to modernize,’” he explained. “We had a building that was very nice, but it was totally inadequate — it was too small and not conducive for anything but students chowing down their food and getting the heck out of there because someone was trying to grab their seat. That’s not the kind of place we want it to be.

“Students are used to different kinds of diets, and there’s such a new awareness about the quality of food, the types of food available, and how it’s prepared,” he went on. “It’s simply impossible to ignore all of that, and you need to have the right facilities to do it.”

A Study in Value

But while the competition for students has escalated, thus adding to the building and renovating boom talking place on many campuses, so too has the need to show a return on the investment that students and their parents are making, said Torrecilha, adding that both phenomena are part of a still-changing landscape in higher education.

“We’re much more outcomes-driven than ever before,” he told BusinessWest, using that collective to refer to colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes. “Institutions of higher education are being asked to demonstrate that their students will be able to be placed in a job or, in some cases, transition to graduate school.”

And this sea change has led to other types of investments, some of them far less visible — such as those in counseling, career-placement facilities, and enrollment-management efforts designed to not only get students into a school but also get them onto the podium at commencement ceremonies — yet are also part of the arms race.

Carol Leary

Carol Leary says that ‘value’ in higher education is not about rock-climbing walls, but instead about providing a solid return on the investment made in attending college.

Leary said such efforts fall into that broad category of ‘value,’ and noted that this concept is so important to the school and its administrators that it is one of the four main tenets of its Vision 2019 strategic plan and was the primary area of focus for the board of trustees during this past academic year.

“Last fall, the board participated in a series of focus groups with students, parents, alumni, and employers so trustees could hear first-hand how our customers define value,” she went on. “What we learned — and it was no great surprise to us — is that the cost of education, academic advising, and career preparation are top of mind. Not one word was mentioned about luxury dorms, rock-climbing walls, Jacuzzis, or other amenities that some people think of when they hear the term ‘arms race.’”

She believes these focus-group responses are directly attributable to the diversity of students Bay Path serves — more than half are first-generation college students, and an equal number hail from families with what she called “extraordinary financial need.”

“And the majority of our students work one if not multiple jobs to pay for their education,” she went on, adding that two-thirds of Bay Path’s undergraduate students are adult women enrolled through the American Women’s College (AWC), which offers programs online.

“While unique, their expectations are aligned with our traditional students,” Leary said of the AWC students. “They want a major and an experience that will enable them to excel in careers or graduate school.”

And with that phrase, she summed up succinctly what has become a point of heightened emphasis for all schools.

Indeed, while ‘student success’ is not exactly a recent phenomenon, that two-word phrase wasn’t heard much in the corridors and offices within higher-education facilities until this century, said Subbaswamy.

Now, it is the primary directive, and there are many elements that go into this quotient, including facilities like new science buildings (UMass Amherst, WSU, Bay Path, WNEU, and other schools have one, by the way), additional personnel and resources in career centers, WSU’s director of Enrollment Management, and, yes, even those new dining facilities.

“The fields we’re expanding into at this school are ones that require very modern facilities,” said Caprio, echoing the thoughts of his colleagues as he spoke. “We need to have modern laboratories, whether we’re teaching pharmacy or any of the sciences we’ve expanded into, or engineering, or our new programs, like occupational therapy.

“You need to have ultra-modern, up-to-date, current laboratories, because without those tools, these students cannot be prepared to go out and work in the profession they’re choosing to go into,” he went on. “We’re not doing it for show, nor are we doing it because the students can’t tolerate anything more simple; we know what we have to provide in order to provide the kind of education these students need and that they expect to get the jobs they desire.”

Leary used similar language as she talked about Bay Path’s renovations to science labs on its main campus and the building of the Philip H. Ryan Health Science Center in East Longmeadow.

“We created state-of-the-art facilities to make sure our students have hands-on experience with cutting-edge equipment,” she noted. “Advanced technology has literally transformed teaching and learning in disciplines like neuroscience, occupational therapy, and physician assistant studies. Thus, these new facilities are driven purely by academic needs. I think that is important.”

At UMass Amherst, said Subbaswamy, the more than $1.8 billion in campus infrastructure work undertaken over the past 10 years has been far more about replacing neglected facilities built 50 or 60 years ago — “catching up,” as he called it — than keeping up with the competition.

Course of Action

As he talked about the arms race and the greater emphasis on outcomes today, Torrecilha mentioned another new and apparently necessary expenditure for his institution — the purchase of student names from the College Board.

When I meet with parents, or at our open houses, I talk about how we bring about return on investment to them, and how we’re not at all ashamed or hesitant to say that believe in art for art’s sake and education for education’s sake. We really work hard at trying to provide services and guidance to our students so they understand the world of work and understand the pathways to getting effective jobs.”

This is something the school has never done before (many colleges and universities have been doing it for decades), but is doing now as part of the heightened focus on enrollment and enrollment management, he explained, adding that the school will be acquiring roughly 100,000 names at 42 cents each.

These are the names of young people, most all of them in Massachusetts and the bulk of them from the eastern part of the state, an area WSU has traditionally recruited many of its students from. And they are considered to be potentially solid fits for the institution.

“We’re being more strategic in the way in which we recruit students,” he explained, adding that, as part of this initiative, he wants WSU to start the recruitment much earlier than a student’s junior year in high school — when it traditionally begins — and perhaps as early as elementary school.

WSU’s purchase of students’ names is part of that heightened emphasis on outcomes, said Torrecilha, adding that the school’s new director of Enrollment Management also falls into that category. It’s an important hire, and it speaks to how the business of higher education is changing.

“Westfield State University, like a lot of state institutions, didn’t have to think about enrollment until very recently,” he said, driving home his point by noting that, until this year, the school processed all applications by hand. “It was one of those cases of ‘build it and they will come’; we never had to think about the incoming class, but times have changed.”

Today, the school is far more focused on attracting students, creating what Torrecilha called the “right mix” of students, and guiding those students to success — be it in graduate school or the job market.

This is increasingly a sector-wide approach, said Subbaswamy, noting that his school, like most others, is making greater investments in the realm of student success, many of them outside the classroom — through everything from additional behavioral health services to larger staffs and more resources for the career centers, to that aforementioned effort to improve social interaction in 20-story dormitories.

“Students are here for four years — and we are really acting on behalf of their parents,” he said. “It’s an awesome responsibility to have 22,000 18-to-22-year-olds under your care for eight months of the year, and that’s how we have to approach it.”

All this brings Caprio back to that phrase ‘return on investment,’ one that the individual holding his job three decades ago likely wouldn’t have uttered.

“But I use it just about every day,” he said. “When I meet with parents, or at our open houses, I talk about how we bring about return on investment to them, and how we’re not at all ashamed or hesitant to say that believe in art for art’s sake and education for education’s sake. We really work hard at trying to provide services and guidance to our students so they understand the world of work and understand the pathways to getting effective jobs.”

Torrecilha agreed. “We want our students to identify their passion and find a major to fulfill that passion, but also be productive citizens in the sphere of work or graduate school.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of WNEU’s new dining commons, Caprio described that facility in a way that effectively articulates the many components to this arms race and why it is changing the landscape on so many campuses.

“This will be a place where students come all day and eat, and have space to work if they wish, and work in groups to continue the learning experience in a very comfortable manner that’s convenient to them,” he explained. “Some people would say that really is unnecessary, that it’s unneeded extravagance.

“But it’s not,” he went on, “if you define yourself as a place where people come to learn and learn in groups and have meaningful exchanges in that particular setting. It’s no longer just a cafeteria. It’s a learning center for all practical purposes.”

Thus, it’s an important part of the nationwide effort to bring new emphasis to that word ‘value’ and produce a return on an obviously huge investment.

This is a new age in higher education, one of hotel-like dorms, dining facilities with ‘Mediterranean’ and ‘gluten-free’ stations, and a ‘student-experience master plan’ at the state university.

And all institutions are still adjusting to this new order.

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

Environment and Engineering Sections

Keeping Current

A paddlers group celebrates today’s Connecticut River.

A paddlers group celebrates today’s Connecticut River.
Photo by Craig Norton Photography

When the Connecticut River Watershed Council was formed in 1952, its leaders brought attention to the river’s obvious problems, most notably the raw sewage floating in it. Sixty-five years later, the organization, which recently rebranded as the Connecticut River Conservancy, has assembled a long record of not only cleanup, but dam removals and other efforts to protect wildlife, advocacy for environmental issues at the state and national levels, and public engagement that has connected thousands of volunteers with efforts to create a healthier watershed. And they’re only getting started.

In 1959, seven years after helping to found the Connecticut River Watershed Council, Dr. Joseph Davidson embarked on a week-long source-to-sea trip — from the river’s source, Fourth Connecticut Lake in New Hampshire, near the Quebec border, to Long Island Sound — to highlight the problem of river pollution.

Dr. Joseph Davidson brought attention to the Connecticut River filth levels in 1959.

Dr. Joseph Davidson brought attention to the Connecticut River filth levels in 1959.

During its first decade, in fact, the CRWC spent much of its energy raising public consciousness about what was then described as “America’s best-landscaped sewer.”

Much has changed since then, both along the river itself and in the CRWC, which rebranded in April as the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC). To celebrate those changes, the organization’s director, Andrew Fisk, is repeating Davidson’s 400-mile trek with what he’s calling the Jump In Journey, this time focusing on the many ways people enjoy the river, rather than reasons to actively avoid it.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success in 65 years, and we want to celebrate that, but also highlight the work that still needs to be done,” he told BusinessWest two days before beginning the trip, which began at the river’s source on July 16 and will end at the sound in Connecticut on July 30. “We’ll be traveling by many different modes to celebrate the ways people love the river.”

Fisk and a few traveling companions will navigate the river via canoes, kayaks, motorboats, dragon boats, sculls, handmade boats, swimming, scuba diving, even waterskiing, taking part in community events along the way. In addition, he’s organizing ‘splash mobs’ at various locations to draw in locals.

Andrew Fisk

Andrew Fisk with water samples from various spots along the Connecticut River watershed being tested in CRC’s lab.

The fact that Fisk can do all this without wading through raw sewage, as Davidson did, is reason for celebration, but the board of the CRC considers this rebranding year just the beginning, with plenty of work ahead.

“We’re the second-oldest watershed organization in the country — not environmental organization, but watershed organization,” Fisk explained. “We were started in 1952 by a group of local citizens, business leaders, and elected officials who thought they might be able to address quality of life and quality of the environment on a regional scale, by doing it from a watershed perspective. That was unique at the time.”

Those early years were largely informational, he explained, with members compiling reports, figuring out what they knew about the watershed — which covers 11,000 square miles in four states — and determining what issues they should be working on.

In the 1960s, the group became more active in specific projects, such as advocating for the creation of the Springfield Water and Sewer Commission, spearheading land-conservation efforts, and developing strategies for oil-spill control and cleanup at a time when barges moved huge amounts of crude up and down the river.

When Fisk arrived in 2011, the board had just completed a strategic plan for the coming years, which boiled down to growing into its mission and “doing good work well,” a concept he would come back to more than once during his talk with BusinessWest.

With the rebranding, Fisk said, the Greenfield-based CRC is putting a new face on the organization, one aimed at growing its work further and bringing more partners into the fold.

“That goes back to how this organization works,” he said. “It means collaborating and supporting other organizations and bringing a variety of people to the table to deal with these issues. We knew in 1952 we couldn’t do it all. We worked to create local watershed organizations, and today we do work with many smaller organizations and also collaborate with regional and national groups.”

All of that is aimed at turning the Connecticut River into a waterway that’s protective of wildlife, welcoming to migratory fish, and safe for swimmers and boaters. Davidson’s journey, after all, was just the beginning.

Rising Tide

With 10 full-time employees, and revenues that have grown from $480,000 in 2011, when Fisk arrived, to $1.8 million this year, the CRC has grown in myriad ways. “We have very generous supporters and believers in their river,” he said. “That’s the realization of the board’s aim to grow the organization and do more work and do it well. We’re definitely succeeding.”

It does so though three basic missions: Advocacy, public engagement, and restoration.

A deadbeat dam in Groton, Vt.

A deadbeat dam in Groton, Vt. is removed, one of dozens of similar projects the CRC has tackled to make the waterway more welcoming to wildlife.

“We’re an advocacy organization, so we argue for ambitious water-quality standards,” he told BusinessWest. “We certainly have high expectations for our rivers and streams, and that’s why we work hard to get public investment in things like sewer and water systems. We advocate for strong regulations because it’s important to recognize the rivers as a public trust.”

Fisk then explained what public stewardship of the river means to him.

The law says you, as a member of the public, can set the standards. Sixty-five years ago, we had recreational goals, but now, we’ve set the goals much higher. We’ve succeeded, and we know that when you have cleaner, healthier, and more abundant natural resources, your economy flourishes, and quality of life flourishes. We want to see both economic and ecological abundance, and we do that through advocacy.”

“The law says you, as a member of the public, can set the standards. Sixty-five years ago, we had recreational goals, but now, we’ve set the goals much higher. We’ve succeeded, and we know that when you have cleaner, healthier, and more abundant natural resources, your economy flourishes, and quality of life flourishes. We want to see both economic and ecological abundance, and we do that through advocacy.”

The second arm, engaging the public, involves giving people opportunities to collect information that can be used to improve the health of rivers and streams.

“We measure water quality for bacteria, provide people with opportunities to restore freshwater mussels, which do a tremendous amount of work in filtration, and help people remove invasive aquatic plants, the kind of plants that choke waterways and affect the ecosystem and recreation,” he explained. “We have 900 people on the e-mail list, and they’re people who want to do something.”

The “Is It Clean?” initiative, for example, solicits local groups, municipalities, schools, and individuals to monitor for bacteria and post information on a collaborative, interactive website that gives a color-coded bacteria reading for 150 different spots along the river, May through October. They can either test the water themselves or send it to the CRC’s in-house lab.

“You then make your own decision. We don’t tell people to stay out of the water,” he said. “Instead, we’re saying, ‘here’s the information; you take your own risk.’”

These public-engagement efforts, he said, can fill in the gaps where government agencies can’t reach, and also helps cultivate a more sophisticated public that understands environmental issues at the scientific level, are willing to engage in discourse on the issues, and are less likely to be swayed by pseudoscience and climate-change denial.

The CRC’s third point of focus, restoration, requires the most resources in terms of both money and time. One of the goals is to make the river a welcoming place for fish swimming up from the ocean to spawn and multiply. Many of the habitats they might use, however, have been blocked by dams and other barriers.

“The river doesn’t smell anymore — it’s not raw sewage — but what’s missing? There should be millions and millions of migratory fish moving up and down the river, but there aren’t,” Fisk said, due partly to defunct dams and improperly designed culverts. “These are impediments to migratory fish. So we do dam removals, upgrade culverts, repair riverbanks, and plant trees and native vegetation to rebuild the riverbanks.”

The dams are often abandoned mill dams, ranging from four to 20 feet tall. Municipalities are typically grateful for the CRC’s work, as dam-removal projects often lie dormant because there’s no budget for them. “We bid these projects out to excavators and contractors, and we do the final tree planting and restoration work. Basically, we offer turnkey services for these projects.”

These projects reconnect habitats and make communities and individual landowners more adaptable to a changed climate, Fisk said, as well as bringing beneficial flood impacts. “It’s not going to stop flooding, but it will reduce the damage from flooding and make property owners more resilient.”

Just Keep Swimming

The CRC’s next highly visible project will be its annual Source to Sea Cleanup — slated for Sept. 22-23 — which is a comprehensive trash cleanup of the Connecticut River system along the four-state watershed, including rivers and streams, shorelines, parks, boat launches, and trails.

Each fall, volunteer group leaders coordinate local cleanup sites where thousands of participants of all ages and abilities spend a few hours picking up trash. The CRC uses trash data collected during the cleanup to support legislation and other efforts to keep trash out of the environment. That might mean expanding bottle bills to put a deposit on more plastic bottles, making curbside recycling easier and more accessible, and requiring tire manufacturers to run free tire-disposal programs to discourage illegal tire dumping.

The Connecticut River Conservancy

The Connecticut River Conservancy, formerly the Connecticut River Watershed Council, has been based in Greenfield since its inception 65 years ago.

“We also do work to install and increase recreational infrastructure — opportunities for people to get to and enjoy the river in different ways, and help us build business opportunities through recreation,” Fisk said, efforts that include advocating for the completion of the Connecticut River Paddlers Trail, a network of campsites and access points to help lovers of the outdoors navigate the entire length of the river.

Meanwhile, the CRC continues to pursue affiliations with smaller watershed associations, providing the administrative and educational services that will allow affiliates to focus more on programming.

In short, the Connecticut River Conservancy isn’t slowing down. And with climate change presenting what Fisk calls “the most important issue that’s in front of us,” those efforts are more than justified.

“I think there’s a widespread understanding of climate change. People are invested in knowing what it means for them, what they can do, and, in this current political climate, what the initiatives coming out of Washington, D.C. might mean.”

It really boils down, he continued, to that idea of a public trust, of responsibility to each other.

“Living in a watershed means something you do at your home is going to have consequences for people downstream. A farmer in Vermont has an obligation to Long Island Sound. I think people understand that.”

If they don’t, Fisk hopes his current two-week journey — one far cleaner and more pleasant than the one Dr. Joseph Davidson took — will remind them.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Creative Economy Sections

The Show Must Go On

Brian Hale

Brian Hale hopes an ambitious fund-raising plan will transform the Bing Arts Center into a widely known destination.

Folks who grew up in Springfield’s Forest Park area or near the X commercial district have fond memories of attending movies at the Bing Theater — at least, until it was shuttered in 1999 for non-payment of taxes. But a 13-year (and counting) effort to revitalize the site into a multi-purpose arts center has the place buzzing again, with a regular schedule of arts events. Now comes the bigger challenge — renovating the Bing’s main theater and turning it into a regional destination.

Brian Hale remembers growing up near Springfield’s historic X district and watching movies on Saturdays at the Bing Theater. Those excursions, he understands now, were helping to lay the foundation for a lifetime of appreciating the arts — not just film, but art in all forms.

“A lot of people today don’t realize the impact going to the movies had,” he told BusinessWest. “People today take them for granted; you can watch a movie on your phone or your computer. But back then, going to the movies on a Saturday — that was excitement.”

Hale, owner of Design WorkShop Inc. in Springfield and president of X Main Street Corp. (XMSC), the nonprofit that owns the Bing, spends a lot more time there these days than he did as a kid, not just appreciating the arts, but trying to raise their profile and make the facility the community centerpiece it once was.

It hasn’t been an easy road, and there’s still a long way to go, but there is once again a palpable buzz about what is now known as the Bing Arts Center.

“It’s very intimate, very sociable; it’s a listening room, not a bar,” he said of the unassuming structure on Sumner Avenue, which is slowly being renovated while hosting music and educational events in its small lobby, flanked by two small art galleries. “It’s a welcoming space where people can feel comfortable coming and meeting friends. This is about making the community a better place, and a good way to do that is through the arts.”

I get frustrated with the state of the world and the community as much as anyone. But I feel like nothing brings people together like the arts, and having a community space that attracts a wide variety of people from the city who might not otherwise run into each other.”

Since reopening for cultural and community events in 2010, the Bing has quietly built a busy schedule of performances, all of which take place in the building’s front lobby because the former theater space is in need of a serious remodel. But Hale’s vision, and that of his fellow board members and area arts supporters, is to see the entire venue open once again, with multiple spaces housing gatherings both large and small, indoors and outdoors, perhaps even on the roof — all of it, he told BusinessWest, aimed at bringing people together over shared passions during a time when Americans increasingly feel polarized by current events.

“I get frustrated with the state of the world and the community as much as anyone,” he added, “but I feel like nothing brings people together like the arts, and having a community space that attracts a wide variety of people from the city who might not otherwise run into each other.”

The Bing has achieved part of that goal already. The rest will take a lot more work — and money. But the end result, Hale said, will be one more attraction to further stamp Springfield as a city clearly on the rise.

Reel Life

The building wasn’t always a theater, but originally housed Kossaboom’s Service Station through the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. When it closed, the pumps were removed, the front of the building reconfigured, and an auditorium was built in the rear.

The Bing Theatre, named for then-superstar Bing Crosby, opened in 1950 with a showing of Samson and Delilah. For the next half-century, the movies kept coming, concluding that era with Gus Van Sant’s shot-by-shot remake of Psycho. That was in 1999, when the city of Springfield took the property for non-payment of taxes, and all activity ceased on the property.

the Bing hosts myriad concerts, lectures, films, and other activities in its lobby.

With the main theater currently unusable, the Bing hosts myriad concerts, lectures, films, and other activities in its lobby.

But before long, a group of arts advocates and business people held a series of meetings and suggested the theater should be used as an arts center.

“The city put out an RFP for some type of community arts use, and our organization, the X Main Street Corp., made up of local business people, got involved,” Hale said. “These Main Street corporations are all over the country, and are generally created to try to revitalize urban commercial districts like the X.”

The organization was formed in 1995 to help revitalize the Forest Park neighborhood, the X commercial district, and the Sumner Avenue corridor, with efforts like starting the Forest Park Farmers’ Market, operating a food-security program, and securing significant streetscape improvements for the area, including new streetlights, benches, planters, and other touches to make the neighborhood more attractive. The XMSC also managed a façade-improvement program and developed and presented a series of technical-assistance seminars for local businesses.

The Bing posed a more significant challenge — but a great opportunity as well.

“When I saw this space was available, I said to the board, ‘this would make a great arts center. We could stimulate development, get people here at night; it’ll be good for local restaurants.’”

In 2002, the board of directors decided to adopt the strategy of arts accessibility to strengthen the community culturally and economically. XMSC then became the preferred developer for the former Bing Theater and, in December 2004, finally convinced the city to sell the property to the nonprofit.

Plans were formulated to convert the storefronts to gallery space, bring everything up to code, and use the former lobby as a multi-purpose space. The marquee and façade were also renovated. After six years of planning, fund-raising, and work, the Bing Arts Center opened in June 2010, and now presents regular cultural and educational programming — everything from visual arts and film screenings to musical performances and art classes — in addition to hosting meetings for other community groups, serving as a neighborhood hub.

“We’ve made an impact. We wanted it to be an arts center and offer as much diverse, eclectic content as we could,” Hale said, rattling off some of the performers who had been through in only the past few weeks, ranging from local rock bands to chamber ensembles to a folksinger from Sweden. Meanwhile, local artists are invited to display their work in rotating exhibits in the storefront galleries that flank the lobby.

“We also have a pop-up gallery where anyone can put their art on the wall for an evening and sell it,” he added. “We have refreshments and music; it’s a fun thing. People who want to see their work in a public space can come in and do it.”

The center also promotes connections between artists and the public instead of building walls between them, he added.

“A filmmaker makes a movie and shows it here, and people enjoy talking to them — ‘how did you do this?’ ‘How did you shoot this scene?’ That’s a good way to experience the arts.

“Springfield does big arts pretty well,” he went on. “We have Symphony Hall, CityStage, the MassMutual Center, and Theodores’ is a great little club; there’s a lot of good things to do. But there isn’t really anything else like the Bing in the area.”

Coming Attractions

To reach Hale’s goal of restoring the large theater, with the goal of featuring national-release independent and art films, preparations for phase 2 are underway. The theater will initially be configured for 300 to 350 seats, including a mezzanine, which it did not have before. The original theater held more than 900 seats, but the plan, as designed by local architect Stephen Jablonski, will accommodate two separate spaces, the main room for larger audiences and a smaller, adjoining space for smaller events.

Phase 1 of the Bing’s revitalization

Phase 1 of the Bing’s revitalization saw its façade, lobby, and gallery space renovated, while phase 2 aims to bring back its large theater.

Achieving all that will take about $1 million in fund-raising, but Hale also envisions creating a roof space for outdoor events, which could also be rented out for parties and receptions. “It would be the coolest arts venue in the valley if we had that,” he said, but admitted that addition could push the price tag close to $4 million.

Support for the main theater restoration has come from unexpected places, including a woman Hale went to school with in Springfield; she lives in Arizona now, but the two have kept in contact on Facebook, and she has donated periodically to the Bing’s revitalization. Recently, she and her husband reached out with a request to purchase naming rights to a program, and after a $25,000 donation, her parents have been memorialized with the Richard and Ethel Hanley Arts Education Program.

Understanding that the valley is full of companies and individuals with the resources to make large gifts, Hale hopes it won’t be the last such naming opportunity. It’s an investment worth making, he added, noting that people talk about the rise of Springfield’s downtown, but only a few thousand people actually live there, while some 26,000 call the X and Forest Park area their home.

“Younger people are coming back to cities; they don’t want to live out in the suburbs, and this is definitely a crucial piece,” he said of attracting that new, younger generation of city dwellers.

“The arts can’t change a place by itself, but they are vital, no doubt,” he added. “A city has to think of itself as a business. You need residents moving into your city. There aren’t enough places for musicians to play, for artists to exhibit, places for arts education that bring artists and the community together, where they can actually interact. But it’s happening here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sections Sports & Leisure

Keeping Score

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

Valley Blue Sox owner Clark Eckhoff

As the region’s only collegiate summer-league baseball team, the Valley Blue Sox are surging both on the field and in the front office, which is celebrating league-topping attendance last year and a growing reputation for on-field success. Those victories didn’t come overnight, but result from both skilled roster building and a recognition that the product should be, above all, affordable and fun.

When Darth Vader or one of his stormtrooper henchmen roam the third-base line, it’s understandable that not every eye is fixed between the white lines of the diamond.

That’s OK, though, in the world of college-level baseball, and particularly the world of the Valley Blue Sox, who have turned MacKenzie Stadium in Holyoke into a bona fide summer destination.

“We have to be reaching out through promotions and engaging people who might not otherwise have interest in the game, but they’ll come out for a fireworks show or to see Star Wars characters,” General Manager Hunter Golden told BusinessWest. “There’s a hook, something other than the game.”

That’s true of minor-league and amateur baseball organizations across the country, a culture known as much for its mascot races and bobblehead giveaways — in short, family fun — as for the product it puts on the field. But the Blue Sox are garnering increasing attention in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL) for both the crowds it draws, thanks partly to those promotions, and the quality of the play itself, which is turning casual visitors into devoted fans.

It’s a success story that didn’t happen by accident.

This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley.”

In fact, team owner Clark Eckhoff, a veteran of minor-league baseball who oversaw the revival of a team in the Great Lakes region before buying the then-Holyoke Blue Sox in 2013, saw potential in this team and its surroundings, and had a vision for how to grow its popularity.

“This is truly a team that reaches the entire area; we have fans driving down from Northampton, Amherst, and Hadley,” he said — not to mention the fact that Springfield itself is the largest metro area in the country lacking professional baseball. Consider the success of the AA-level Hartford Yard Goats, who are selling out most of their tilts, and it’s clear a regional appetite for baseball has long existed. The challenge was to field a product — on field and off — to sate it.

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year

Blue Sox attendance ranked first in its league last year, and 11th among 169 summer colleague teams.

So far, mission accomplished. Canny roster building (more on that later) resulted in a deep playoff run last year, and a hot start in 2017 that included a nine-game winning streak in mid-June. Off the field, the team’s heavy promotional schedule of giveaways and events, plus ramped-up efforts to engage with the community, have turned the Blue Sox into the NECBL’s top draw, ranking 11th nationally among 169 summer collegiate teams in 2016, and besting the turnout of 20 A-level professional teams — and three AA squads — to boot.

“I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to take something literally close to not even existing — based on where the team was trending in 2011 and 2012 — and seeing the fanbase grow,” Eckhoff said. “The majority of these kids will be in A ball in two years, so the quality of baseball is really good, and the other things we do provide a great family experience.

“I love going to Fenway Park,” he added. “It’s the most historic stadium; it’s iconic. But the majority of people can’t afford to go there more than once or twice a summer. Here, tickets are $7 — $5 for kids — with affordable concessions, and you can get autographs from guys who will sign pro contracts in a year or two.”

All that and stormtroopers? It’s proven to be a winning combination, both literally and figuratively.

Call of the East

Eckhoff previously owned the Wausau (Wisconsin) Woodchucks of the Northwoods League for 13 years, and was looking for a change of scenery when he bought the Blue Sox in 2013. When he bought the Woodchucks in 1999, the team was drawing some 600 fans per night. By his 10th year, attendance averaged 2,000. He attributes that to the team getting the word out about the quality of play — some 15 of his players eventually made the majors, including Ben Zobrist — but the fun factor as well.

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting

Hunter Golden says building a winning roster means recruiting not only talented players, but those who will best fit into the culture of the team and its region.

“There was a study done showing that 80% of fans who walked into a minor-league baseball game were leaving the game in the sixth or seventh inning and couldn’t tell you the opponent or the score, but they knew it was bobblehead night, and that they had enjoyed an affordable night out,” Eckhoff said.

Golden arrived in the baseball-management world much more recently, after parlaying a passion for sabermetrics — an innovative way to analyze a baseball player’s potential by crunching his in-game performance into, essentially, hard math — into a nationally visible role as a blogger and speaker on the subject. That caught the eye of Eckhoff, who tapped Golden as an advisor early on and later offered him the GM’s chair.

They have proven to be a solid team, pairing Eckhoff’s nose for creating a memorable fan experience with Golden’s ability, tested on the fly, to turn his sabermetrics expertise into actual roster building.

It’s a blend of science and art, Golden said, that extends far beyond the numbers.

“The first is key is building the culture you want,” he said. “There’s a lot of great talent out there, but it’s not just about how much talent a kid has. It’s the best kid versus the right kid — finding not only a baseball player who has great ability, but also a kid who’s going to thrive in our area and culture.”

The NECBL has long competed regionally with the Cape Cod Baseball League, and good players concerned with the difference in scenery between the two won’t make good Blue Sox candidates, he went on.

“I tell college coaches, ‘I don’t have a beach. They won’t be taking their parents out to dinner at a nice restaurant on the boardwalk. Guys that prioritize that stuff won’t have success here.’ I want guys who wake up in the morning, and what they’re looking forward to most is grabbing a bat and glove and getting out there to play baseball. That first month, everyone is into it, but when you get into your second month of three-hour bus rides, the first type of kid starts to run out of gas, but the second type of kid wants to be on that bus. That’s what we’re looking for.”

In return, the Blue Sox offer players a robust array of host families — there’s currently a waiting list to house a player for the summer — and activities ranging from trips to Fenway and Cooperstown to gym memberships and opportunities to engage with the community through educational baseball clinics and other events.

It’s a model that makes recruiting easier each season, Golden said. “Schools want to send their guys to us when they see how they’re treated and how they enjoy their time here.”

College students are also paying attention to how successfully NECBL players transition to the pros. In the recent Major League Baseball draft, 11 former Blue Sox players were drafted, led by left-handed pitcher Aaron Leasher, a sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, followed by outfielder Garrett McCain (Tigers, round 10) and catcher Erik Ostberg (Rays, round 13).

Sound Investments

The city of Holyoke has noticed the recent run of Blue Sox success too, and has been making financial investments in the team, including $3,000 to improve the playing surface. The bullpens are also new, and the left-field fence — where long fly balls long went to die — was pulled in to boost home runs and, by extension, excitement.

Eckhoff also credited the businesses that are finding it increasingly rewarding to buy sponsorships in the club. “In the summer, we reap what we sow in the offseason,” he said of those relationships. “That’s what drives the engine — people buying billboards, community nights, ticket sales. It’s become easier for businesses to support you when you’ve got 2,800 fans out there for almost three hours, looking at the signage and hearing public-address announcements promoting businesses. It tends to multiply.”

Hopefully, he added, a new scoreboard is in the works for 2018. “You add some new pieces every year to improve the experience for fans. That’s our goal.”

The key, Golden said, is to take player development seriously, but also understand that families that show up at MacKenzie Stadium want to have a good — even silly — time. That’s where the bobbleheads and ketchup-and-mustard races come in. But the team doesn’t shy away from meaningful displays as well, such as a recent ceremony that honored the World War I hero for whom the stadium is named.

“What keeps the engine going is the fan experience,” Golden said. “The minor-league teams that fail appeal too much to the hardcore baseball guy. You should want as many people as possible to have access to baseball, and that means going out of your way to appeal to non-traditional fans.”

But the sabermetrician and lifelong baseball fan in him certainly appreciates the product he’s helping put on the field.

“There’s not a lot of difference between low-A ball and the best of college baseball,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s great that our community has access to that. It’s affordable entertainment families can enjoy on a Friday night. We’ve been able to do it the right way, and that’s the plan going forward.”

In other words, play ball.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The ‘Pulse’ of MGM Springfield

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon, a self-described third-generation casino worker, has assumed the duties of general manager of the $950 million MGM Springfield resort casino complex. This is a large job with a broad set of responsibilities that he boils down to creating a winning culture. Roughly 15 months out from the grand opening, his work is focused mainly on assembling a team — and especially the corps of senior leaders — and essentially bringing this facility to life.

When Alex Dixon was assistant general manager at the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, he went to great lengths to fully understand all aspects of virtually every job at the sprawling complex and what it was like to perform such duties.

In fact, he performed them himself.

“I put on a valet’s uniform and parked cars — that’s the best way to learn valet,” he told BusinessWest. “I put on an environmental-services uniform and learned how to clean toilets. I put on the uniform of many of the positions, if not all the positions, in the facility to spend three or four hours with that group to really understand how I, as a leader, can impact the day-to-day lives of my front-line team members.”

And he plans to do the same in his new role, as general manager of MGM Springfield, both before that $950 million facility opens its doors in the fall of 2018, and after. So visitors should keep their eyes peeled, because they might just spot him dealing them in at blackjack, greeting them at the front door, or parking their car.

That happened quite often in Baltimore, actually.

“It’s amazing the reaction you’ll get from customers when they see you on the floor in a security uniform welcoming guests alongside those team members,” said Dixon, 36, who described himself as a third-generation casino worker (more on that later). “But that’s how you fully understand the challenges with each job; in many cases there are very small things we can do to make things easier, and we need to do those things.”

This is the textbook definition of a servant leader, which is the phrase Dixon summoned when asked to describe his management style and what he will bring to Springfield’s South End.

“There’s not a job in our facility that I would not do myself,” he said. “And we really need to understand the day-to-day life of our employees, because that’s who our customers interact with.”

And that’s clearly why, as he talked with BusinessWest a few months after his arrival in Springfield, Dixon turned the discussion early and often to the people, an estimated 3,000 of them, who will be working at the casino complex — on the front lines and behind the scenes — to present visitors with an experience.

MGM Springfield

Fifteen months or so out, the assignment for Alex Dixon and the team he’s assembling is to bring MGM Springfield, seen in this rendering, to life.

He went on at length about how he will not only play a lead role in hiring team members — especially the eight to 10 people who will comprise the senior management team — but also create the environment in which they will work and the culture that will pervade not only the casino floor but every component of this facility, from the shops to the movie theater to the bowling alley.

This is the very essence of casino operations, he explained, adding that such facilities are not about slot machines and restaurants, ornate hotels, and elaborate shows. They’re about the people providing a brand of service that will draw in visitors — and then bring them back.

With that as a backdrop, Dixon noted that if Mike Mathis, president of MGM Springfield, is the face of the operation, as most would say he is, then he is the “pulse,” or “heartbeat.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Dixon to fully grasp everything he meant by that statement.

Background — Check

Before sitting down with BusinessWest, Dixon offered a quick tour of what amounts to MGM’s new, temporary nerve center on the 20th floor at Monarch Place.

The company, which will eventually settle in at 95 State St., adjacent to the casino complex, was operating out of a smaller suite of offices on the ninth floor at Monarch, but with its leadership team starting to come together, more space was deemed necessary.

There is a good deal of it on the 20th floor, where Dixon gestured to a succession of small offices, almost all of them vacant at that time, which will be occupied by seasoned individuals who will have, in some cases, business cards with titles never before seen in Western Mass.

Like ‘vice president of Slots’ and ‘vice president of Table Games,’ for example, two of the positions mentioned by Dixon as he noted who will be occupying some of the offices he passed. There will be other, more traditional roles, such as vice president of Facilities and vice president of Marketing, he went on, adding that he will be spending a good amount of his time in the next several weeks deciding who will take on such responsibilities.

How Dixon came to occupy what amounts to the corner office on the 20th floor, complete with a window from which he can see the casino complex taking shape, is an intriguing story.

Indeed, while he grew up in and around casinos, Dixon didn’t seem in any way destined for work in that industry. But fate and a few chance encounters would change the trajectory of his career path and ultimately put him on a course for the City of Homes.

Our story really begins … well, where you might expect it would when we’re talking about someone with casino work in his blood — Las Vegas — but, as noted, the tome didn’t develop exactly according to script.

“My family moved from the deep south out to Las Vegas to be the porters, the maids, the cooks, the housekeepers, and then, eventually, dealers, in the casinos,” he explained. “My grandmother was a housekeeper, and my dad was a bartender, and I’ve been fortunate to rise in the ranks to general manager.

Alex Dixon

Alex Dixon, seen here in MGM’s nerve center in Monarch Place, says that if Mike Mathis is the face of the company and its casino, he is the ‘pulse’ or ‘heartbeat.’

“I remember the burgeoning of the casino industry before my eyes,” he went on. “In 1990, the Mirage was the first really big facility built with institutional capital. You can imagine what it’s like growing up in Las Vegas as a young boy and seeing this great volcano coming up in the middle of the Las Vegas desert; I thought that was really cool.”

When he was a senior in high school, and student body president, he recalls the theme for his senior year being “Viva Las Vegas,” with each class decorating its hallway in the theme of one of the resorts operating at the time.

But while casinos were in most ways the backdrop for his childhood, his passions were business and government, and he went east, to Washington, D.C., to pursue a degree in Finance at Howard University’s School of Business.

There, he caught what he called the “investment banking bug,” and did his first internship at J.P. Morgan, gaining an introduction to Wall Street and the world of mergers and acquisitions.

He had a second internship at Goldman Sachs and its Energy & Power group, and took a job there upon graduation in 2003. Later, he had the opportunity to join the company’s international operation and spent the better part of 2005 in London, before moving on to the Los Angeles office, where, still focused on M&A, he was a member of the team that advised Disney on its $7.5 billion acquisition of Pixar.

He and his wife would gravitate to Las Vegas to raise a family, though, and upon returning, he made a number of phone calls as he pursued various opportunities. One of them was to Bill Hornbuckle, currently president of MGM Resorts International, who at the time was president and COO of Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino.

“Bill put the sell on,” Dixon recalled. “I don’t even remember what the role was, but at the time it just wasn’t the right fit; it was too steep of a financial decline after Wall Street and with the new family and everything else.”

I was very fortunate to learn the business by sitting at the feet of people who had built some of these great facilities in Las Vegas. I had a great number of mentors — people who were able to coach me and inspire me, really.”

Instead, he joined Silver Pacific Advisors, LLC, a boutique investment bank in Vegas that raised capital for developers seeking to build casinos. And it was in that setting that he gained what he considers his first real exposure to general management.

“The developers would put together a management team, the head of slots, the head of table games, and so on,” he recalled. “And in working on the deal as a financial associate, I said, ‘hmmm … that’s what I want to be when I grow up.’”

Odds and Ends

That epiphany, if you will, compelled him to leave Silver Pacific and join Caesars Entertainment, starting as a director of Planning & Analysis and eventually rising in the ranks to vice president and executive associate in Enterprise Shared Services. Along the way, he said, he had the opportunity to learn from some of the best in the business.

“I was very fortunate to learn the business by sitting at the feet of people who had built some of these great facilities in Las Vegas,” he told BusinessWest. “I had a great number of mentors — people who were able to coach me and inspire me, really.”

In 2013, he became assistant general manager of the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, developed by a group that includes Caesars Entertainment. Like MGM Springfield, the Baltimore operation is an urban casino, one with roughly 1,500 employees, 2,200 slots, and 150 tables.

There, he was in charge of day-to-day activities, and doing pretty much what he will be doing in Springfield, an opportunity that came about by happenstance and, more specifically, a dinner meeting with Mathis.

Dixon interviewed for the position last fall, prevailed over what he assumes was a large field of candidates — he believes his experience with an urban casino on the East Coast certainly helped his cause — and officially joined the team in February.

But he didn’t really put his boots on the ground in Springfield until several weeks later, because there was first a substantial learning curve involving MGM and how it ran its facilities.

“I spent a lot of time getting to know MGM,” he explained. “I was coming from outside the company, and before coming here, I spent a lot of time in Detroit, in Las Vegas, in National Harbor [Maryland], really making sure I got the ethos of the company before coming here to Springfield.”

When asked for a quick synopsis of his job description as general manager, Dixon said it comes down to essentially replicating what he saw at those MGM locations, while also giving the company’s newest casino its own, unique flavor, or culture.

At the Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, Dixon joined the management team roughly two years before the facility opened, a timeline similar to that unfolding in Springfield. And as he talked about what will happen between now and the fall of 2018, he said there is a series of formal and informal timelines, with many of them involving the formation of a team.

Indeed, while there a number of strategic initiatives taking place at once — from the actual buildout of the various facilities to bringing together components of the retail piece, including the restaurants, to the critical work in marketing to get the message out about this facility — the process of assembling a team is paramount.

“In this pre-opening phase, we’re responsible for bringing the facility to life, and that is done by people, so we are going through the interview process for all the roles here,” Dixon said, noting he was on a tight schedule that morning, with several of those interviews also on his calendar.

Much of the focus now is on that senior management team, Dixon went on, using some of those new-to-the-region job titles to explain who might eventually earn them, what goes into those top posts, and how he goes about selecting a candidate.

The vice president of Table Games, for example, is a big job, one to be held down by an individual who will eventually lead a team of several hundred people, he said. Candidates will need to bring an extensive résumé to the table, one that reflects experience at all levels of this gaming division, if you will, as well as leadership abilities.

There will be candidates from within the MGM family, and from across the industry — what Dixon called a “very small world,” despite its seemingly large size — as well, common denominators for each of these top-level jobs.

“You have a new facility that you’re opening in a new town … I had the opportunity to interview for a role, and through a meritocratic process, that’s where I landed,” he said. “So I’m committed to making sure that we give our internal MGM team members a great opportunity, but that we’re also willing to look to the outside to get a great benchmark of how we can infuse talent.

“The VP of Table Games … this is an individual who started at the ground level, as a table-games dealer, and worked their way up,” he explained. “From a game-protection standpoint, as well as how you teach and how you coach — it’s such a technical job that you pretty much have to have done it at all levels to take on this job.”

The table-games employees will comprise the single largest group on the property, Dixon said, adding that there are several layers of administration within that sphere, and the individual at the very top will have a number of responsibilities.

These include working with the area community colleges and other partners to establish a so-called ‘dealers school.’

“He or she will need to identify the location, work with the community colleges on the curriculum, find the instructors who will teach people how to not only count to 21, but ultimately do it with a smile,” Dixon explained. “He or she will be supported by several layers of people — shift managers, assistant shift managers, pit bosses, table-games supervisors, and more.

“The table-games operation will employ upwards of 500 people,” he went on. “And there will be an entire organization, from the people in suits helping to oversee the games to the actual dealers.”

Team-building Exercises

As for the positions several levels down, the ‘front-facing’ team members, as Dixon called them, as opposed to those working behind the scenes, strategies will be put in place for those mass hirings.

When asked about them and the philosophies that will drive the hiring process, Dixon summed it all up by saying, “overall, we hire for attitude, but we train for aptitude,” before elaborating.

“When we go to market and we try to find people, we’re really looking for people who want to smile, who want to learn, who have a great hustle about them to be able to serve guests,” he explained. “We can teach you how to deal cards, we can teach you how to fix a slot machine, we can teach you how to make a great meal, but you have to have that desire on day one, and our hiring process is geared toward finding those people, cultivating them, and getting them into the right roles.”

Dixon acknowledged that he won’t be involved with interviewing and selecting each of the 3,000 people who will eventually wear an MGM Springfield name tag. But he did say that he will “touch” them in some respect, which was his way of saying that he will get to know them whenever possible, and at the very least come to understand every nuance and challenge of the job they perform.

And this brings him back to his track record of donning various uniforms and taking on the corresponding roles for several hours at a time, but also taking the time to listen whenever and wherever he can.

“A big part of my role is to help facilitate and build a culture,” he explained. “And the only way you can do that is by touching people and having an opportunity to not only impart the vision, but listen.

“Part of my job is to understand what impacts the day-to-day role of the front-line employee,” he explained. “So if they’re having trouble getting to work because of a bus drop-off, or if they want to talk about the uniforms they wear or the food in the cafeteria, or about how they can grow and develop outside of work, we need to listen, and we need to provide a workplace that’s best in class.”

As he elaborated, he went all the way back to high school in Las Vegas and his experiences as student body president.

“I had to get to know the nerds, the geeks, the freaks, the jocks, the cheerleaders, and everyone else,” he explained. “And in many respects, it’s the same in this role. “You have the dealers who sit at this table, you have the slot attendants there, and they come in at different times, and because we’re open 24 hours, it’s important to get to know people on all those different shifts; it’s not a Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5 kind of job.”

And once the doors open at MGM Springfield, they won’t ever close, said Dixon, which is why the next 15 months are so critical to this operation in terms of everything from hiring the right people to putting that culture in place.

“Once we flip on our lights, it’s not like we go home on the weekends,” he explained. “When we flip on to welcome our guests, we don’t close our doors. So once you get on that hamster wheel, you need to be a well-oiled machine.”

Elaborating, he drew an analogy to a marathon, which is what operating a casino is — a long race that, in this case, never really ends.

“If you look at it from the standpoint of a long-distance runner, we’re getting ready for the marathon,” he told BusinessWest. “At this point in the process, we’re in training for this big race that we’re going to run.”

Bottom Line

As part of that training, Dixon is willing to put on — and probably will put on — almost every uniform that will be worn by someone working for MGM Springfield.

He’ll probably have his ‘Alex Dixon’ name tag on, too, complete with his hometown listed underneath — a factoid designed to generate conversation and make connections.

That’s all part of the culture that Dixon was essentially hired to create. It’s a huge job, one that will come with a host of challenges and rewards.

He’s looking forward to all of it — especially the part about being the ‘pulse,’ or the ‘heartbeat,’ of this billion-dollar operation.

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

Banking and Financial Services Sections

West Side Story

A rendering of the new Florence Bank branch in West Springfield.

A rendering of the new Florence Bank branch in West Springfield.

After recording impressive growth during his 22-year tenure as president, John Heaps Jr. says Florence Bank is ready to take the next strategic step, by opening its first branch in Hampden County later this summer. The move comes at an opportune time, he said — a time when many Greater Springfield banks are being bought up and merging with institutions based well outside the region. A community-focused bank like Florence, he believes, is well-positioned to fill the gap.

John Heaps Jr. has deep roots in Hampden County. A 37-year resident of East Longmeadow who attended Cathedral High School and started his career at Valley Bank & Trust Co. in Springfield, he has personal reasons to celebrate Florence Bank’s first Hampden County branch, set to open in West Springfield in August.

“For me, it’s like coming home,” he said. “I grew up here in East Forest Park, and I’ve lived here all my life. So this is home to me, and coming here is just something that feels like coming back home, even though I live here.”

But as much as the move means to him personally, it says more about the bank’s growth, and the opportunities available to a community-focused institution in the midst of industry consolidation that has left the region without a Springfield-headquartered bank.

“The first part of my career with Florence Bank was focused on expanding within Hampshire County, and now it just makes sense to expand into Hampden County,” said Heaps, who has served as the bank’s president since 1995. “Because of the significant consolidation, many of the independent players are gone. There’s a real need for a community bank. People want banking decisions made locally, by local people and for the right reasons. That’s what we do.”

Bank President John Heaps Jr. visits the construction site.

Bank President John Heaps Jr. visits the construction site.

Construction is nearing the final stages at what will be a 9,000-square-foot plaza at 1010 Union St., one-third of which will house Florence Bank’s new Hampden County Banking Center, scheduled to open this summer.

All Florence Bank services will be offered through the new center, including deposits and loan products, mobile services to provide 24-hour access to accounts, mortgage-application services, debit-card issuance, commercial-loan capacity, and investment services. The center, which will also offer a drive-up ATM and night depository, will be staffed by eight employees, led by Branch Manager Maureen Buxton.

Heaps said the recent spate of mergers — United Bank was acquired by Rockville Savings Bank in 2014; the following year saw Hampden Bank acquired by Berkshire Bank, First Niagara Bank sold to Key Bank, and NUVO Bank & Trust acquired by Merchants Bancshares; and Westfield Bank acquired Chicopee Savings Bank in 2016 — creates an uncommon opportunity for a mutually-held bank that makes decisions about what’s best for customers and the community without input from stockholders.

“The Springfield area needs our kind of independent institution,” he said, and the bank has already found success in Hampden County following its opening, in 2007, of a loan-production office in West Springfield. It’s success helped boost the bank’s total commercial-loan portfolio to more than 36% from Hampden County-based businesses.

In fact, between the loan center, an ATM in Springfield, a relationship with the Basketball Hall of Fame, and employees — like Heaps — who live in Hampden County, the bank already boasts nearly 3,000 retail customers and more than 400 commercial clients in the Greater Springfield region. The bank also has a relationship with 97 nonprofits in Hampden County that have received over $300,000 in grants and gifts in the past five years.

In short, Heaps said, the time was right for the West Springfield branch.

Steady Growth

Florence Bank, headquartered in its namesake town, has long been a Hampshire County institution, with branches in Amherst, Belchertown, Easthampton, Granby, Hadley, Northampton, and Williamsburg. Heaps has seen the bank grow in his tenure from a $250 million institution with two branches to $1.3 billion and 10 branches. But growth didn’t mean abandoning the community culture.

“It was clear the bank wanted to stay mutual and wanted to grow, and quite frankly, we did that in Hampshire County,” he said. “Our capital has grown from $25 million to $135 million, which is really nice growth, so we’ve been extremely profitable while still being able to keep our focus on what we wanted, which was to stay mutual.”

From left, John Heaps Jr., West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt, developer Frank Colaccino, and West Springfield Fire Chief Bill Flaherty

From left, John Heaps Jr., West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt, developer Frank Colaccino, and West Springfield Fire Chief Bill Flaherty were among those who attended a recent hard-hat tour of the site.

Another goal was to stay current with technological trends, he added. “We’ve got the best of both worlds; we’ve been able to keep the focus on customer service, but we’ve also added technology that has allowed us to keep up with the Bank of Americas. There’s nothing you can get there that you can’t get at Florence Bank, things like mobile management to get into your bank account, stop a debit card, pay bills, things like that.”

In fact, in the past five years, the percentage of customers using the bank’s mobile services has risen from about 5% to around 40%, and it’s still on the rise, among all demographics.

“Sometimes it’s just a matter of showing people,” he said. “If you come in the branch to talk about mobile banking, we’ll give you a $5 deposit check, and we’ll ask you to deposit it to set up your account. You wouldn’t believe how many people thank us for that.”

Customers aren’t the only ones with questions, however. “Strategically, other senior managers and even the board asks about bricks and mortar, why we continue to build branches when transactions have gone down in the branches,” Heaps said. “Clearly, the number of transactions has gone down significantly in the past five years — to around 60% of what it was. That obviously has an impact.”

But a physical branch still plays a critical role in the communities where a bank operates, he went on, not only because the majority of customers still do business there, but because it shows commitment to a city or town.

“Do you need 10 tellers? No, but you certainly need the branch,” he said, adding that branches of the future are likely to be smaller than in the past, and division of roles between tellers and customer-service professionals at Florence Bank will be blurred, with employees able to handle either task, so the teller window, or pod, will be a one-stop shop of sorts.

John Heaps Jr.

John Heaps Jr. stands before what will be the teller pod area in the new West Springfield branch.

“That’s the teller of the future, and it allows you to have a smaller footprint, and to do everything with much fewer people,” he said. “With remote capture, customers don’t even need to go to the bank to make deposits.”

The result, he said, has been a streamlined workflow, so as the bank has grown in size, it hasn’t added many employees, instead shifting roles to boost efficiency. A branch like the one in West Springfield, had it opened a decade ago, would have required more staff and a larger footprint, he noted.

Branching Out

To create the new space, the Colvest Group of Springfield is developing the new building where St. Ann Roman Catholic Church was once located, at the intersection of Union Street and Memorial Avenue.

The building’s exterior will feature stone wainscoting on the first few feet near ground level and tan siding and multiple windows across the front. Florence Bank will occupy one-third — or 3,000 square feet — of the new plaza, and up to three additional commercial tenants will fill the remaining space, said developer Frank Colaccino.

“We certainly think it’s a high-quality location, and the building is very attractive, he added. “We’re excited to have Florence Bank as our anchor tenant, and we’re confident we’ll have some good-quality tenants in addition to Florence Bank.”

It’s the same promise Heaps sees in the site and, more importantly, in the Greater Springfield region.

“There’s just so much happening in Hampden County,” he said, adding that the region’s economic vibrancy is reflected in Florence Bank’s steadily growing loan activity there. He noted that, at a time when mergers and acqusitions are the order of the day, retail and business customers are still looking for a community-bank experience and a financial partner across all aspects of life. “Eighty percent of our mortgage customers have checking accounts with us; that’s an amazing statistic.”

Which is why West Springfield is just the first stop along the way to the bank’s goal to become much more than a Hampshire County institution.

“It’s not just going to be one branch, just sticking our toe in the water,” he told BusinessWest. “Over the next three or four years, we’ll be adding between three and four new branches as part of a strategic move. I think Hampden County is ready for us, and we’re ready for Hampden County.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 The Class of 2017


Scenes from the Class of 2017 June Event

The Log Cabin in Holyoke was once again bursting with energy and excitement as more than 700 people packed the house to celebrate the 40 Under Forty class of 2017 — the 11th class of successful young professionals so honored by BusinessWest since the program’s inception in 2007.

Photos by Leah Martin Photography


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Fun in the Sun

summertimedpartSummertime is a great time to get away, but in Western Mass., it’s also a great time to stick around and enjoy the many events on the calendar. Whether you’re craving fair food or craft beer, live music or arts and crafts, historical experiences or small-town pride, the region boasts plenty of ways to celebrate the summer months. Here are 35 ideas to get you started, in a region that’s home to many more.


Pioneer Valley Beer & Wine Festival
300 North Main St., Florence
Admission: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
July 1: Hungry — or thirsty — for something to do as the summer months take hold? Look Park presents its second annual Beer & Wine Festival at the Pines Theater from noon to 5 p.m. Attendees will get to sample local beer and wine from the Pioneer Valley, live music, and a host of local food vendors. Non-drinkers (designated drivers and under 21) may purchase tickets for $10 in advance, $15 at the door.

Berkshires Arts Festival
380 State Road, Great Barrington
Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10
July 1-3, Aug. 17-20: Ski Butternut may be best-known for … well, skiing, of course. But the property also plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 16th year. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 200 artists and designers, inclouding more than 40 exhibiting for the first time.1berkshiresartsfestival

Fireworks Shows
Various Locations
July 1-4: The days surrounding Independence Day are brimming with nighttime pageantry throughout the Pioneer Valley. Holyoke Community College kicks things off on June 30. July 1 brings a display at Beacon Field in Greenfield and Szot Park in Chicopee, while on July 3, Michael Smith Middle School in South Hadley and East Longmeadow High School get into the act. July 4 will bring the spectacle to Riverfront Park in Springfield, McGuirk Stadium at UMass Amherst, and Six Flags New England in Agawam.

Old Sturbridge Village Independence Weekend Celebration
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 1-4: At this celebration of America, visitors can take part in a citizens’ parade, play 19th-century-style ‘base ball,’ march with the militia, make a tri-cornered hat, and sign a giant copy of the Declaration of Independence. Children and families will enjoy the friendly competition of the Farm Yard Games, and a reproduction cannon will be fired. On July 4, a citizen naturalization ceremony will take place on the Village Common.

2monsonsummerfestMonson Summerfest
Main Street, Monson
Admission: Free
July 4: In 1979, a group of parishioners from the town’s Methodist church wanted to start an Independence Day celebration focused on family and community, The first Summerfest featured food, games, and fun activities. With the addition of a parade, along with booths, bands, rides, and activities, the event has evolved into an attraction drawing more than 10,000 people every year.

Dog Shows
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
Admission: Free
July 5-9, Aug. 24-27: The Eastern States Exposition fairgrounds certainly haven’t gone to the dogs, but it will seem that way for five days in July, when Yankee Classic Cluster Dog Shows shows take over the Better Living Center. On tap are dog shows from the Kenilworth, Holyoke, Farmington, and Naugatuck Kennel Clubs. Then, in August, the fairgrounds will host dog shows from the Newtown, Ox Ridge, and Elm City Kennel Clubs.

Made in Massachusetts Festival
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
Admission: $20 general admission, $35 for admission plus tasting combo ticket
July 8-9: The Eastern States Exposition will host this festival featuring craft vendors and products unique to Massachusetts. The event will showcase the state’s top breweries, wineries, local food, live entertainment, specialty crafts, and much more. In addition, kids will enjoy a mobile arcade full of games, a laser-tag arena, huge obstacle courses, bounce houses, an inflated soccer ball arena, face painting, and more.

Brimfield Outdoor Antiques Show
Route 20, Brimfield
Admission: Free
July 11-16, Sept. 5-10: After expanding steadily through the decades, the Brimfield Antique Show now encompasses six miles of Route 20 and has become a nationally known destination for people to value antiques, collectibles, and flea-market finds. Some 6,000 dealers and close to 1 million total visitors show up at the three annual, week-long events; the first was in May.

1021 West St., Amherst
Admission: Festival pass, $236; tickets may be purchased for individual events
July 13-16: Boasting an array of concerts, lectures, and workshops, Yidstock 2017: The Festival of New Yiddish Music brings the best in klezmer and new Yiddish music to the stage at the Yiddish Book Center on the campus of Hampshire College. The sixth annual event offers an intriguing glimpse into Jewish roots, music, and culture.

Post #351 Catfish Derby
50 Kolbe Dr., Holyoke
Admission: $10 entry fee
July 14: The American Legion Post #351 touts its 37th annual Catfish Derby as the biggest catfish tournament in the Northeast. Fishing is open to the Connecticut River and all its tributaries. The derby headquarters and weigh-in station are located at Post #351. A total of $1,425 in prize money is being offered, with a first prize of $300. Three trophies are available in the junior division (age 14 and younger).

Green River Festival
One College Dr., Greenfield
Admission: Weekend, $119.99; Friday, $34.99; Saturday, $64.99; Sunday, $64.99
July 14-16: For one weekend every July, Greenfield Community College hosts a high-energy celebration of music; local food, beer, and wine; handmade crafts; and games and activities for families and children — all topped off with four hot-air-balloon launches and a spectacular Saturday-night ‘balloon glow.’ The music is continuous on three stages, with more than 40 bands slated to perform.

Glasgow Lands Scottish Festival
300 North Main St., Florence
Admission: $5-$16, free for children under 6
July 15: Staged at Look Park, this 23nd annual festival celebrating all things Scottish features Highland dancers, pipe bands, a pipe and drum competition, animals, spinners, weavers, harpists, Celtic music, athletic contests, activities for children, and the authentically dressed Historic Highlanders recreating everyday life in that society from the 14th through 18th centuries.

Positively Holyoke Summer Concerts
221 Appleton St., Holyoke
Admission: Free
July 19, July 26, Aug. 2, Aug. 9: The Holyoke Rotary Club  will present a series of four Wednesday night concerts at Holyoke Heritage State Park, featuring, in order, Darik & the Funbags, Out of the Blue, Union Jack, and Trailer Trash. The concerts begin at 6 p.m., but a beer garden and grill will open at 5:30. Parking is free, and the rain date for each concert is the following day.

Franklin County Beer Fest
66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont
Admission: $25 in advance, $30 at the door
July 22: Join fellow brew enthusiasts for an afternoon of food, music, and drink. The second annual Franklin County Beer Fest will be held at Berkshire East Mountain Resort and will feature beer from several local breweries, local ciders, and local mead and libations. ID required. Online ticket buyers before July will receive a souvenir glass.

3oldsturbridgecraftbeerOld Sturbridge Village Craft Beer & Roots Music Festival
1 Old Sturbridge Village Road, Sturbridge, MA
Admission: $14-$28; free for children under 4
July 23: OSV’s craft beer festival is back, with more brews, bands, and bites than ever before. More than 30 craft breweries from across New England will offer an opportunity to sample and purchase some of the region’s top beers, ciders, and ales, while local chefs prepare farm-to-table fare. At five indoor and outdoor stages, more than a dozen musical artists will bring the sounds of Americana, bluegrass, country, folk, and roots music.

Hampden County 4-H Fair
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
Admission: Free
July 29: More than 200 young people from Hampden County, and 4-H members from Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, and Worcester counties, will showcase projects they have made, grown, or raised during the past year. Events include a horse show and other animal exhibitions, a fun run, a talent show, a fashion revue, a lead line and wool competition, and more.


West Side Taste of the Valley
Town Common, West Springfield
Admission: Free
Aug. 10-13: This community event annually draws over 30,000 people from all over the Pioneer Valley to sample various dishes from a diverse mix of restaurants. The weekend is also highlighted by family-friendly entertainment, live musical acts, a midway of rides and games for kids and teens, animal rides, a petting zoo, and Saturday’s class car cruise, a display of classic, antique, and special-interest cars owned by local residents.

Middlefield Fair
7 Bell Road, Middlefield
Admission: TBA
Aug. 11-13: The Highland Agricultural Society was established in 1856 for the purpose of holding the agricultural fair in Middlefield. In those days, it was known as the Cattle Show, and the grounds were filled with local farmers’ prized cattle. Although the fair has changed in its 150-plus years, it retains that tradition, adding food, a truck pull, a petting zoo, animal exhibits, rides, games, and live including Ray Guillemette Jr.’s Elvis tribute, “A-Ray of Elvis.”

4springfieldjazzrootsSpringfield Jazz and Roots Festival
Court Square, Springfield
Admission: Free
Aug. 12: The fourth annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will offer a festive atmosphere featuring locally and internationally acclaimed musical artists. More than 10,000 people are expected to attend and enjoy featured performers including Lizz Wright, Miles Mosley, Rebirth Brass Band, Sarah Elizabeth Charles, Christian Scott, Zaccai Curtis & Insight, Natalie Fernandez, and Community Grooves.

5westfieldairshowWestfield International Airshow
175 Falcon Dr., Westfield
Admission: Free; upgraded paid seating available
Aug. 12-13: The first airshow at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport in seven years will feature the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a team of F-16 fighter jets that fly in close proximity. Other displays include the Geico Skytypers, a team of six pilots who create aerial smoke messages in the sky, as well as the Third Strike wingwalking act, the the Black Daggers U.S. Army Parachute Team, and a host of others.

Westfield Fair
137 Russellville Road, Westfield
Admission: $6-$8, free for children under 12
Aug. 18-20: One of the earlier late-summer agricultural fairs that proliferate across Western Mass., the 90th edition of the Westfield Fair promises traditional fare like livestock shows, an antique tractor pull, live music, rides and games, an animal auction, a craft barn, a petting zoo, midway rides, and, of course, lots of food.

Cummington Fair
97 Fairgrounds Road, Cummington
Admission: $5-$12, free for children under 10
Aug. 24-27: The Cummington Fair was initiated in 1883 as the Hillside Agricultural Society. Today, it lives on as a showcase for agriculture and livestock in the region, in addition to a robust schedule of entertainment, featuring live music, magic, a demolition derby, a lumberjack show, the Kenya Acrobats, a square dance, crafts, games, food, and much more.

Downtown Get Down
Exchange Street, Chicopee
Admission: Free
Aug. 25-26: Now in its third year, Chicopee’s downtown block party, which drew 15,000 people to the streets around City Hall last year, will feature live music from nine bands, as well as attractions for children, local food vendors, live art demonstrations, and, for the first time, a 5K race.

Celebrate Holyoke
Downtown Holyoke
Admission: Free
Aug. 25-27: Celebrate Holyoke is a three-day festival that made its return in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus, drawing an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people downtown over the course of the weekend. This year’s festival will include live musical performances, food and beverages from local restaurants, activities for children, and goods from local artists and makers.


Stone Soul Festival
1780 Roosevelt Ave., Springfield
Admission: Free
Sept. 1-3: New England’s largest African-American festival offers family-oriented activities, entertainment, and cultural enrichment, and is a vehicle for minority-owned businesses to display their wares and crafts. Entertainment at Blunt Park includes gospel, jazz, R&B, and dance. Sunday’s free picnic includes ribs and chicken cooked by talented pitmasters, backed by live gospel music performed by local and regional choirs.

Three County Fair
41 Fair St., Northampton
Admission: $8-$10
Sept. 1-4: For almost 200 years, the Hampshire, Franklin & Hampden Agricultural Society has promoted agriculture, agricultural education, and agricultural science in the Commonwealth. The purpose remains the umbrella under which the Three County Fair is presented to the public. But the fair also includes carnival rides and games, thoroughbred horse racing, crafts, and, of course, plenty of food.

Blandford Fair
10 North St., Blandford
Admission: $5-$10, free for children under 6
Sept. 1-4:
Not much has changed in almost 150 years of the Blandford Fair, but that’s what makes it so charming. Fairgoers can witness the classic rituals of the giant pumpkin display, the pony draw, and the horseshoe tournament, plus more modern additions, like the fantastically loud chainsaw-carving demonstration and the windshield-smashing demolition derby.

Franklin County Fair
89 Wisdom Way, Greenfield
Admission: $7-$10, free for children under 9
Sept. 7-10: Named one of the “10 Great New England Fairs” in 2015 by Globe magazine, the 169th edition of the Franklin County Fair will roll into the Franklin County Fairgrounds with every type of fair food imaginable, midway rides, and entertainment ranging from bands and roaming clowns to a ventriloquist, demotion derby, livestock shows, horse draws, a truck pull, and much more.

22 St. George Road, Springfield
Admission: Free
Sept. 8-10: Every year, St. George Cathedral offers thousands of visitors the best in traditional Greek foods, pastries, music, dancing, and old-fashioned Greek hospitality. In addition, the festival offers activities for children, tours of the historic St. George Cathedral and Byzantine Chapel, vendors from across the East Coast, icon workshops, movies in the Glendi Theatre, cooking demonstrations, and more.

Hilltown Brewfest
837 Daniel Shays Highway, New Salem
Admission: $35 in advance, $40 at the door
Sept. 9: The ninth annual Hilltown Brewfest is a fund-raiser for local fire departments. The event at Cooleyville Junction promises a relaxing afternoon featuring some 30 brands and 100 brews of beer, wine, cider, and Berkshire Distillery products. Selections include products by both local craft brewers, winemakers, and distillers in the Quabbin and Pioneer Valley regions as well as similar craft producers across New England.

8mattoonstreetMattoon Street Arts Festival
Mattoon Street, Springfield
Admission: Free
Sept. 9-10: Now in its 45th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination.

FreshGrass Festival
1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams
Admission: $48-$110 for three-day pass
Sept. 15-17: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the Fresh Grass festival is among the highlights, showcasing more than 50 bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Brandi Carlile, Railroad Earth, the Del McCoury Band with David Grisman, Shovels & Rope, Del & Dawg, Bill Frisell, and many more.

9bigeThe Big E
1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield
Admission: $8-$12; 17-day pass $20-$40
Sept. 15 to Oct. 1: It’s still the big one, and there’s something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses or the parades, the local vendors and crafters or the live music — this year featuring Cole Swindell, the Village People, Martin Sexton, Sheila E., the Sugarhill Gang, Fastball, the Lovin’ Spoonful, and many more.

Belchertown Fair
Main Street, Belchertown
Admission: Free
Sept. 22-24: This community fair, which draws more than 30,000 visitors every year, celebrates the town’s agricultural roots as well as its active growing community. The weekend features a wide variety of family-friendly activities, from an exhibit hall and animal exhibitions to a parade, plenty of live music, pumpkin decorating for kids, a balloon twister, and an old-time beautiful baby show.

Old Deerfield Craft Fair
10 Memorial St., Deerfield
Admission: $7, free for children under 12
Sep. 23-24: This award-winning show has been recognized for its traditional crafts and fine-arts categories and offers a great variety of items, from furniture to pottery. And while in town, check out all of Historic Deerfield, featuring restored, 18th-century museum houses with period furnishings, demonstrations of Colonial-era trades, and a collection of Early American crafts, ceramics, furniture, textiles, and metalwork.


Curtain Call

An architect’s rendering of what a renovated Massasoit Block might look like.

An architect’s rendering of what a renovated Massasoit Block might look like.

Like all those who have fond memories of taking in movies and shows at the Paramount Theater, Herbie Flores has long dreamed of the landmark’s revival. But nostalgia has never been enough of a force to generate a rebirth. What’s needed is a viable plan, financing, and a vibrant downtown that can fuel such an ambitious venture. Flores, who calls himself “a realist, not a dreamer,” believes the needed pieces to the puzzle are falling into place.


Herbie Flores doesn’t have to look far to find some inspiration as he moves forward with ambitious plans to restore the historic Paramount Theater complex in downtown Springfield.

All he has to do is glance across Main Street.

With a slight turn of the neck, one can see the parking garage attached to the massive, nearly $100 million renovation of Union Station, which has been enjoying a nearly two-month-long coming-out party this spring.

“How long did it take them to get that done?” he asked in reference to the station, knowing the answer was four long decades marked by doubts, conjecture, and countless starts and stops. “They didn’t give up on it … they kept at it, and they got it done.”

I’m a realist, not a dreamer. I know what it takes to make something like this a reality.”

For more inspiration, he can look farther north on Main Street and a project in his own portfolio. That would be the comprehensive, $14 million rehabilitation of the Memorial Square Apartments completed this spring.

But Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers Council, which owns the Paramount property among a host of others along that stretch of Main Street between Fort Street and the Arch, has never really lacked for inspiration when it comes to the Paramount and adjoining Massasoit Hotel.

Indeed, he has long been motivated to revitalize this landmark steeped in history, only he’s understood from the outset that proper motivation isn’t nearly enough.

“I’m a realist, not a dreamer,” he said, before admitting quickly that one probably has to be both when it comes to this project. “I know what it takes to make something like this a reality.”

the Paramount project

Herbie Flores says that, with the Union Station project completed and MGM Springfield set to open in 2018, the Paramount project takes on greater significance.

It takes a number of pieces to fall into place, he went on, adding that this is what is finally happening, starting with a City Council vote on June 19 to approve a $3.65 million loan application with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to put a much-needed new roof on the property, replace windows, and undertake façade work, steps that will secure the structure, prevent further deterioration, and put a somewhat new, more modern face on the city landmark.

Another piece falling into place is the securing of private financing for what will likely be a $40 million project when all is said and done, said Flores, who believes the curtain could rise again at the Paramount in early 2019 or perhaps even earlier.

“I’m very confident that we’re going to make this happen — it’s real,” he said. “Over the years, many of Springfield’s older buildings have been torn down and replaced with new ones. But this is in the heart of the city, and we don’t need to tear it down; I think this could be a crown jewel for Springfield.”

As he talked about the Paramount and his plans moving forward, Flores said recent developments in Springfield, including Union Station, MGM Springfield, and others, have raised the stakes for the Paramount project, and in several ways.

Indeed, he said those initiatives underscore the need to get the Paramount project done, and they raise the bar in terms of the scope and character of the project.

“Now that we have this casino and the renovated Union Station, we have to take this project to a higher level,” he explained. “We need a project that reflects all the great things happening in Springfield.”

Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief planning officer, agreed.

“With the bookend projects, MGM and Union Station, now done or nearly done, it only makes sense to move forward with what are arguably the two most difficult projects — the Paramount and 31 Elm Street,” said Kennedy, referring, with the latter, to long-discussed efforts to create new uses for a former hotel adjacent to Court Square.

“With 17,000 people coming to Union Station every day and another 10,000 people visiting MGM each day, it doesn’t make sense to leave that eyesore in its current condition,” Kennedy went on, referring to the Paramount.

Kennedy put the Paramount on the ‘most difficult projects’ list for a reason — actually, several of them. First, the landmark has become greatly deteriorated in recent years, as that leaky roof has allowed water to enter and wreak havoc. Also, the project needs to make sense from an economic perspective, meaning recovery of the huge investment needed to restore the property to its former state.

Flores firmly believes that a hotel/theater complex can and will be viable, especially as Springfield continues to stage its own revival. For this issue, he talked with BusinessWest about how the curtain may soon rise and usher in a new chapter in the history of the Paramount — and the city itself.

Marquee Performance

As he talked about the Paramount project, Flores, who never sits still for very long, got up from his seat and went to retrieve a book someone gave him a while back.

Titled After the Final Curtain, it’s a coffee-table book of sorts crammed with powerful photos of grand old theaters, most of them built a century or more ago during the heyday of such movie palaces, in various — and usually serious — states of decline.

While there are a few stories of successful restoration and reuse in this mix — the $90 million rescue of the Loews Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and revival of the Studebaker Theatre in Chicago may be the best examples — most of the facilities highlighted are beyond the point of return and continue to deteriorate. That list of notable landmarks includes everything from the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia to Loews Canal Theatre in New York.

An architect’s rendering of what might be the new look of the Paramount’s interior.

An architect’s rendering of what might be the new look of the Paramount’s interior.

Springfield’s Paramount is not featured in the book, and Flores, like most area residents who can fondly recall seeing movies and shows there decades ago, doesn’t want it to become one of the theaters now referred to solely with the past tense.

But nostalgia has never been enough of a force to get the Paramount project done — just as in the case of those theaters mentioned above, said Flores, adding that there must be a workable business plan in place to secure not only the needed financing, but a viable future for the endeavor.

In many ways, he’s been working on such a plan — while also taking on a host of other projects, such as the Memorial Square Apartments — since the Farm Workers Council acquired the Paramount in 2011 for $1.7 million.

Since then, the theater has hosted a few shows and events, including a formal announcement in early 2013 of Penn National’s proposal (ultimately not chosen by the city, which favored MGM’s plan) to build a casino in the North End of Springfield. The Paramount was going to be one of the centerpieces of that plan, said Flores, who still has an architect’s rendering of a revitalized theater from that proposal in his conference room.

It’s been joined by a few newer renderings over the past few years as Flores has slowly forwarded what he believes is a workable plan for the landmark.

I’ve worked on enough historical buildings to know the time it takes to do things the right way. In the end, you want to end up with a good product.”

It calls for an 81-room hotel (with options to expand that number to 120) to provide a reliable revenue stream for the theater, which will be renovated and become host to different types of shows and programs.

Over the first 85-odd years of its existence, the Paramount — later called the Julia Sanderson Theater and then the Hippodrome — has played host to everything from rock concerts and boxing matches to ballet performances, and Flores projects the same kind of flexibility in the future.

Extensive renovation work is needed, said Flores and Jose Perez, development consultant for the project, as they provided a tour of the Paramount to BusinessWest. They stopped early and often to point to various areas where water has been coming in through the leaky roof.

Overall, though, the landmark has good bones and a solid infrastructure, they noted, adding that, physically, it can be restored to its original luster.

As for its prospects for once again being a successful business operation — and it’s been decades since it could claim such status — those we talked with said that goal is attainable, especially given the improving climate in the city.

Ultimately, Flores expects the restoration of the Paramount and the entire Massasoit Block, as it’s called, to be a catalyst for further development in what he called “Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” a reference to the other properties and storefronts along Main Street.

“There will be a focus on entertainment — if you have a hotel, you need bars and restaurants,” he said, making one of several references to “building blocks” and how a project of this type usually develops in stages.

“I’ve worked on enough historical buildings to know the time it takes to do things the right way,” he said. “In the end, you want to end up with a good product.”

When asked about a timeline for the project, Flores said the doors to the Paramount might be open in the spring of 2019. He then paused and offered that it might even be ready at about the same time MGM Springfield is set to open in September 2018.

He acknowledged that this was ambitious, but then said, “it’s better to dream big than not to dream at all.”

Those same sentiments could be applied to every aspect of this ambitious project.

Almost Show Time

As he wrapped up his tour of the Paramount, Flores pointed to one of the famous Tiffany chandeliers in the main lobby.

“I’ve been offered $150,000 for that,” he said matter-of-factly, repeating sentiments given to numerous press outlets over the years, adding quickly that he has never seriously entertained such offers.

Instead, he remains focused on the bigger picture, a complete restoration of the Paramount, not selling off its various pieces.

Both the dreamer and the realist in him believe the project is not only doable, but necessary as Springfield continues to add new chapters to its revival story.

Flores remains dedicated to making the Paramount the next chapter in that book, and not the one about majestic theaters still waiting, against all odds, for a chance to raise the curtain again.

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

Employment Sections

Accommodating Attitude

pregnantatworkdpMassachusetts lawmakers are attempting a novel approach to pregnant workers, by requiring employers to offer them accommodations similar to those given to disabled workers. The bill is a popular one and seems assured of becoming law, but some questions about implementation — and what companies will have to do to comply — remain.

Pregnancy is not a disability, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act doesn’t classify it as one.

But if the bill, passed unanimously by the Massachusetts House of Representatives in March and expected to sail through the Senate, becomes law — Gov. Charlie Baker has said he will sign it — employers will be required to offer the same types of accommodations disabled workers are promised under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“While this bill doesn’t technically classify pregnancy as a disability, per se, it does create the requirement that employers treat pregnancy the same way they treat employees with a disability, providing reasonable accommodation and undertaking a dialogue about what those accommodations should be,” said Daniel Carr, an attorney with Royal P.C. in Northampton.

If the bill becomes law, an employer would not be able to fire, demote, or deny a job to a worker due to pregnancy. The employer could not force the worker to accept certain conditions or take a leave from the workplace as long as she were able to perform the essential functions of her job.

While charges of discrimination based on pregnancy or maternity are currently considered an aspect of gender discrimination, the new bill changes the playing field in potentially significant ways, Carr noted.

Daniel Carr says the bill currently leaves several questions unanswered

Daniel Carr says the bill currently leaves several questions unanswered, which he hopes will be addressed by the state Senate before heading to the governor’s desk.

Specifically, employers will be required to engage in an interactive process with pregnant employees to provide reasonable accommodations, such as more frequent and/or longer breaks, modified equipment or seating, job and responsibility restructuring, modified schedules, and private, non-bathroom space to express breast milk — accommodations that, in the abstract, seem like a logical recognition of the need to provide equitable conditions for pregnant women in the workplace.

While this bill doesn’t technically classify pregnancy as a disability, per se, it does create the requirement that employers treat pregnancy the same way they treat employees with a disability, providing reasonable accommodation and undertaking a dialogue about what those accommodations should be.”

“Generally speaking, everyone is in agreement,” Carr said, “but for this bill to become law, there are some issues that need to be ironed out, hopefully before it gets to the governor for his signature.”

Meghan Sullivan, managing partner at Sullivan, Hayes & Quinn, LLC in Springfield, noted that the ADA provides no basis for equating a normal pregnancy with a disability, but Massachusetts lawmakers have, for several years, been discussing the idea that some of the same accommodations available to disabled workers, particularly related to changes in their duties and working conditions, could also benefit pregnant workers.

One of the reasons the bill has found little legislative resistance so far is that it was crafted with significant input from both women’s rights groups and the employer lobby, notably Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

“I sit on the steering committee for AIM, and they took the position that this was not a bill they were going to oppose on behalf of employers,” Sullivan said. “But how do we approach the idea of reasonable accommodation while avoiding issues that are typically problematic for employers?”

Working out many of those issues was key to moving the bill forward, but, as Carr noted, plenty of unanswered questions remain.

Taking Aim

AIM opposed early versions of the bill during the 2015-16 legislative session because employers worried it gave employees unlimited power to reject multiple and reasonable offers of accommodation by an employer. The compromise bill addresses that concern and others, the organization noted. Specifically, it accomplishes the following:

• Provides clarity regarding definitions and terms related to current employees in need of accommodations related to pregnancy;

• Aligns state and federal laws regarding reasonable accommodation as it relates to the essential functions of the job;

• Provides flexibility rather than mandating specific types of accommodations for employers and employees;

• Provides a reasonable mechanism for employees and the employer to achieve a reasonable accommodation by engaging in a defined process, eliminating a concern by businesses that an employee could reject multiple reasonable offers of accommodation;

• Adds language allowing the employer to evaluate undue hardship of an accommodation and the ability of employee to perform the essential functions of the job as it relates to an employer’s program, enterprise or business;

• Provides opportunity for an employer to request documentation for certain cases to ensure that accommodations are reasonable for both employees and employers;

• Limits provisions to current employees instead of employees and job applicants;

• Reduces unnecessary burdens and allows for electronic or other means other than a “poster” for notifying employees; and

• Allows for certain accommodations to be either paid or unpaid.

Employers worry, Sullivan told BusinessWest, about any new legal protections for workers that are different, and sometimes conflicting, with existing laws — conflicts that are typically hashed out through litigation, which companies certainly want to avoid.

Meghan Sullivan

Meghan Sullivan says the bill was crafted after much negotiation and compromise between women’s rights advocates and employer organizations.

“There was an incredibly cooperative approach to drafting the bill passed by the House, an effort to use very similar language and concepts related to the disability laws as we know them,” she noted.

She recalled a summer job she had during her college years, as a bank teller. She was required to stand at her workstation for eight hours, but under the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, an employee would have a strong argument that allowing her to sit while serving customers would not hinder her from getting her work done.

Pretty straightforward, right? Not so fast, Carr said.

“The problem with any legislation is that sometimes the most popular laws are the worst-drafted,” he noted. “I think every reasonable person agrees with the principles of this law, that pregnant employees shouldn’t be discriminated against. No legislator wants to be seen as against it, so no one’s really changing it — but there are issues with this law that come into play.”

Take the coffee shop across the street from Carr’s office, which employs a handful of workers in one open space, with a bathroom. Where, exactly, can that business designate a private, non-restroom space for expressing breast milk? If an employee brought litigation, he argued, the shop would have a strong argument that such a private space doesn’t exist, and it would be an undue hardship to somehow construct one.

“Another issue is job restructuring. If an employee walks into my business and says, ‘we have to restructure my job because the law says so,’ how can I prove that’s an undue burden or financial hardship to do so?” he said. “That’s my concern. It’s not the wisdom of the law in general; it’s the drafting and details that have to be addressed.”

In a recent blog post, Carr went so far as to say the bill, if passed as is, will cause chaos for employers, for a couple of reasons. One is that it has no specified effective date, and would therefore, by default, become law only 90 days after Baker signs it.

Another question is the duration of accommodations. “The lactation provisions imply that the accommodations can continue after an employee has given birth,” he noted. “However, the bill does not address for how long after giving birth an employee is entitled to reasonable accommodations. As drafted, employers have no way of knowing if they must provide modified schedules and/or job restructuring to new mothers for four weeks, four months, or four years. It would be in every employer’s best interest to undertake a self-assessment of their readiness to implement these policies sooner rather than later.”

Working It Out

Carr also noted that the Affordable Care Act — which, despite GOP attempts to kill it, is still the law — already provides for private, non-bathroom space to breastfeed in certain situations, and other protections exist for breastfeeding employees. However, the new bill will apply to more employers in the state, and may be interpreted more broadly.

“The term ‘job restructuring’ worries me the most,” he said. “So if the breastfeeding provisions of this law are interpreted to be consistent with the breastfeeding protections of the ACA, does that mean that job restructuring would continue for a full year? Or, if [the new bill] is interpreted to provide greater duration, how long would that last?”

Sullivan agreed that the vague concept of accommodation could become more significant than employers expect, especially if the worker experiences complications with the pregnancy.

“It’s potentially a new lawsuit, and it’s something employers will have to take note of, but the two sides, as well as legislative officials, worked very cooperatively and diligently to make sure it would be a manageable and workable process,” she noted. “A lot of employers are concerned about any new law being introduced: ‘how do we manage another accommodation on top of all the other ones that already exist, and how do these new legal provisions interact with all of the existing laws?’ Without a doubt, it’s another instance where HR and managers and supervisors are going to need education and training so there isn’t an inadvertent violation.”

If employers will have only a few months to get up to speed with compliance, as appears to be the case, Sullivan said, every employer will have to examine the company’s workplace rules, break-time rules, and other details so they can anticipate what policies might need to be modified if an employee becomes pregnant.

She stressed, however, that employer groups understand the bill’s appeal.

“It is easy to confuse opposition to a draft of a bill with opposition to the issue itself,” AIM President Richard Lord said just before the House passed the bill. “AIM is always willing to work with those seeking honest and effective compromise. That is exactly what happened with this legislation.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy to add another layer of employee protections, of course.

“A common concern is that Massachusetts will not be competitive enough with other states that aren’t as accommodating to employees,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “At what point will Massachusetts create an incentive for businesses to leave? That’s always a concern among employers, the cost of doing business.”

Still, she said, “despite the rhetoric of ‘us vs. them’ that’s so common in the political landscape, so many employers are motivated to do the right thing and do it in the right way.”

Even if they’re still hazy on the details.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Accounting and Tax Planning Sections

A Different Kind of Number Crunching

sixsigmadpart3Since its introduction more than 30 years ago, the data-driven process-improvement methodology known as Six Sigma has been most closely associated with the manufacturing sector. But, as recent initiatives undertaken by the accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka clearly show, this ‘lean’ concept can be utilized by companies in any business sector to improve efficiency and buy employees time — literally.

Melyssa Brown joked that when she earned her green belt in Six Sigma last year, she was disappointed when all that arrived in the mail confirming that accomplishment was a piece of paper, a certificate.

“I was thinking, hoping that maybe there would actually be a green belt — I could use an accessory like that,” she told BusinessWest, tongue firmly planted in cheek, adding quickly that just about everything else about Meyers Brothers Kalicka’s deep dive into this data-driven process-improvement methodology has been about what she and others at the Holyoke-based accounting firm expected.

And then some.

Our interaction with the client is better, and our delivery of services to the client is better. And internally, it has put everyone on the same page; it’s put everyone together behind a commitment to move forward and not stand still, because you can’t grow that way.”

Indeed, they were expecting that incorporation of this lean, quality-control program, developed by Motorola in 1986 and popular within the manufacturing sector, would be intense, time-consuming, and somewhat difficult because it constituted a significant change in how things were done.

They were right.

But they also expected it would achieve real results and provide powerful evidence that Six Sigma can work in the service sector as well as it does in the realm of manufacturing. And they were right again.

“Our interaction with the client is better, and our delivery of services to the client is better,” Brown, a senior manager in the auditing department at MBK, said of the net gains from the firm’s investments in Six Sigma. “And internally, it has put everyone on the same page; it’s put everyone together behind a commitment to move forward and not stand still, because you can’t grow that way.”

Elaborating, Brown said that, through Six Sigma, the company has been able to chart how the all-important time of partners, associates, and others at the firm is spent, with a critical eye toward making processes more efficient, thus essentially providing personnel with more time with which to better serve clients and serve more of them, critical elements in any company’s efforts to increase profits and improve market share.

Getting more specific, Brown said MBK has undertaken a few Six Sigma projects, both involving client interaction, the time spent accumulating needed information for tax and audit work, and efforts to bring more efficiency to those efforts.

Melyssa Brown

Melyssa Brown says MBK’s Six Sigma projects have effectively given employees at the firm more of that most precious commodity — time.

“To do audit and tax work, you clearly need to get information from the client — we need some numbers to work with,” she explained. “It comes down to, when you have that interaction, how it’s done, and how it’s followed up.”

In short, there were inefficiencies with all those steps in the process, she went on, and, therefore, some diligent work was undertaken to mitigate them.

“From these processes, we’ve put structures in place to help us monitor and conduct better interactions with the client, because that’s what’s important to them — and us,” she went on, adding that the goal was and is to make these interactions easier for the client and more productive for the firm.

Fast-forwarding a little, Brown said the firm has created an online portal, or drop box, if you will, for client information that can be accessed by all those servicing that particular client. This innovation has significantly reduced the time, trouble, and anxiety involved with collecting and accessing that data, as will be explained in more detail later.

As noted, the company’s experience shows how Six Sigma can be applied to businesses not traditionally associated with this methodology, said Brown, who was a member of a panel that delivered that very message to assembled members of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast several weeks ago.

“Everyone has a back office,” Brown explained. “And while people think of Six Sigma in terms of manufacturing processes, those back-office functions can be made more efficient as well.”

For this issue and its focus on accounting and tax planning, BusinessWest departs from more traditional discussions about taxes, audits, legislation, and compliance, and takes a hard look at a different form of number crunching.

Time Is of the Essence

Brown told BusinessWest she became the company’s point person on Six Sigma … well, because each senior manager at the firm has a ‘niche,’ as she called it, and at that moment in time, she didn’t have one.

So Six Sigma became her niche.

Backing up a little, Brown said she and others at the firm were in attendance for a presentation on Six Sigma presented by a consultant and hosted by CPA America, a trade organization the firm has belonged to for some time. That seminar came about just as the firm was aggressively exploring methods for achieving process improvement, thus bolstering the bottom line.

“We had tried several other ways to become better at improving efficiency,” she explained. “But we needed that outside person’s view of what the best course of action might be.”

Brown underwent green-belt training, which introduces an overview of the key concepts, in Ohio, and took on a project involving one of her clients to earn that aforementioned certificate in 2016.

Summing up what’s been happening at the firm since, Brown said MBK has essentially embraced ‘lean,’ a concept that, as noted earlier, is usually associated with manufacturing, but can be applied to virtually any business sector.

Lean is a transferable and systematic approach for discovering, analyzing, prioritizing, and correcting time-wasting activities that exist in business processes, Brown told BusinessWest — and her audience at the EANE roundtable in May.

Elaborating, she said ‘lean’ is a mindset, or a culture, to reduce waste, something that exists in every operation and can be reduced — but only, in most all cases, through careful analysis of data and development of new ways to do business.

And, as Brown noted, this approach can generate positive results not only on the factory floor, but also in back-room operations such as billing and accounts receivable, accounts payable, payroll, monthly reconciliations, and financial reporting.

With that, she returned to the projects undertaken by MBK, and specifically that online portal she discussed. It came about through the Six Sigma process of analyzing a specific process or method of doing business, taking it apart, and putting it back together again — without the wasted steps, energy, time, and profit.

To get her points across, she undertook an exercise in ‘before and after.’

“Before, we would send a list of needed information via e-mail, in Word or Excel, and the client would either send us documents via e-mail, save it to a jump drive, or find some other way to get it to us,” she explained. “But it was never really clear if we had a certain piece; we would say, ‘do we have an accounts-receivable list?’ and they would say, ‘yes, you have it,’ and someone here would say, ‘I don’t think I do.’”

Now, with the online portal, such exchanges are a thing of the past, she went on, and so is the time lost looking for information or trying to verify whether the firm has it or not.

The bottom line, as they say in this business, is that the firm can now serve clients better and more efficiently, and use the time saved to serve other clients or solicit new ones.

And all of these things can be measured.

“In the end, our goal in this is to issue financial statements to clients earlier or get tax returns done and out to the client sooner than we used to, and we can measure this,” she explained.

Meanwhile, the system improvements are enabling individual service providers to make better use of their time, she went on, adding that, in many cases, it is now possible to do some audit-preparation work in October or November, thus creating more time during the extremely hectic months and weeks prior to April 15.

“You’re getting a head start on the client,” she noted, “which frees us up during tax season, when we’re all a little stressed.”

The end result, she said, is the creation of more time.

“Before, we may have thought that we needed to hire more people to get the work done,” she noted. “Now, we can get the same amount of work done with fewer hours and the same amount of people — or more work, because you’re taking on new projects with the time that you’ve saved.”

Looking forward, Brown said the firm is looking at other ways to put Six Sigma to use.

Indeed, after projects involving the tax and audit functions, the company is looking at possible initiatives involving billing and administration and making them more efficient.

“There are lots of opportunities — you just have to crack open the shell,” said Brown, who told BusinessWest that this is her general advice to all those who own or manage service businesses.

She noted that too many businesses in this sector are not embracing Six Sigma, in part because they don’t fully understand how it can be applied to their sector. But once educated to the contrary, many are put off by what amounts to a considerable commitment to this culture in terms of time, expense (usually, a consultant must be hired and new technology acquired), and needed buy-in from everyone at the company.

Those willing to make such a commitment, she said, should take the dive.

“This can’t be the flavor of the month,” she explained. “The tone at the top has be, ‘we’re going to make this work — this is our new way of doing business and operating.’”

It All Adds Up

As noted, Brown doesn’t have an actual green belt, like the ones awarded to those engaged in the martial arts.

But through the firm’s implementation of Six Sigma principles, she and others at MBK have something far more meaningful — additional time, the most precious commodity that exists in business today.

It came about through hard work and a deep dive into processes and ways of doing business, with an eye toward continuous improvement.

Historically, such words, phrases, actions, and, yes, results have generally been restricted to the world of manufacturing. But as Brown noted and MBK has shown, any service business can generate the same types of positive outcomes.

They just have to crack open the shell.

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

40 Under 40

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Honoring the 11th class of successful young professionals

The Log Cabin in Holyoke was once again bursting with energy and excitement as more than 700 people packed the house to celebrate the 40 Under Forty class of 2017 — the 11th class of successful young professionals so honored by BusinessWest since the program’s inception in 2007.

SEE: the flipbook of this year’s 40 Under Forty!

Photos by Leah Martin Photography

Presenting Sponsors

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Cover Story

A World of Imagination


By Kathleen Mellen

It’s called the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, and that pretty much says it all. One of Springfield’s favorite sons, the good doctor actually created dozens of amazing worlds through his timeless books. The museum that opened on June 3 pays tribute to many of them, but also to the city that inspired Theodor Geisel to dream, create, and delight generations of children and adults.


There’s so much to tell, and so much to see,
Put your thinking cap on and let yourself be.
Amazed by the world of the good Dr. Seuss,
Keep your eyelids up, and your brainy cells loose.

From murals to statues to wordplay and more,
There are things to delight, and stories galore.
His table, his Emmys, and his bright pencils, too,
Are there to peruse in displays just for you.

It’s all on view now, in a museum, brand-new,
For kids of all ages, and, yes, parents, too.
It’s right here in Springfield, a real downtown treat,
And to think you can see it on old Edwards Street!

Eight years ago, the president of Springfield Museums, Kay Simpson, had the germ of an idea: Why not create a permanent, indoor display featuring the work of the wildly popular Dr. Seuss, author of 44 children’s books that have sold hundreds of millions of copies, and have been translated into more than 20 languages?

After all, the Museums already unveiled an outdoor exhibit in 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, to honor the Springfield native, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel. The sculptures — created by Seuss’ stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates — proved to be so popular, Simpson said, that they helped put the Museums on the map; all of a sudden, there were cars in the parking lot from states across the U.S.

“That was really exciting,” she recalled. “It increased our visitation and changed the demographics. It made us a national attraction.”

As popular as the sculpture garden proved to be, however, 80% of the visitors surveyed indicated they’d like to see an indoor exhibit as well, Simpson said. And she agreed.

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden raised the profile of the Springfield Museums nationally, and a full museum dedicated to all things Geisel was the next logical step.

“We began our thinking about creating a museum based on the response we got from the sculpture garden,” Simpson told BusinessWest just days before the June 3 opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss, as workers put the finishing touches on the museum — painting walls, waxing floors, and mounting displays. “People loved the sculptures, but everyone wanted an indoor museum experience.”

So, after eight years of planning, refurbishing the former Connecticut Valley Historical Museum (its holdings were moved to the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, also part of the Springfield Museums), fund-raising to the tune of nearly $7 million, and collaborating with Dr. Seuss Enterprises, artists, educators, and members of the Seuss family, the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss opened this month as a three-story, permanent homage to one of Springfield’s icons.

The museum was funded through contributions from area investors, including MassMutual, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, as well as through a capital campaign. To date, the museum has raised $6.5 million of its $7 million goal. It was designed by artist John Simpson, Kay’s husband, who teaches art at the Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst.

The first floor uses colorful, three-dimensional displays with interactive components to explore Geisel’s childhood in Springfield, as well as the characters and stories that sprang from his imagination.

Dr. Seuss’ most famous characters

Museum planners envisioned an educational experience populated with Dr. Seuss’ most famous characters.

The second floor features the collections of Geisel’s stepdaughters, Leagrey Dimond and Lake Grey Dimond-Cates, and Ted Owens, Geisel’s grandnephew, and is curated by the family members under the guidance of Springfield Museums Vice President Heather Haskell, and curatorial staff.

On the lower level is “Cat’s Corner,” a Dr. Seuss-themed educational space for ongoing art and literacy activities, overseen by a full-time Seuss educator.

In short, the world’s only museum dedicated to the life and work of Dr. Seuss is packed with wonders to discover.

Oh, the places he’d go! At life he was winning.
His birthplace in Springfield was just the beginning.
There were points to be scored. There were games to be won.
And now he’s our fair city’s favorite son.

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in 1904 on Howard Street in Springfield’s South End, the grandson of Theodor Geisel, a German immigrant who owned Springfield Brewing Co., and his wife, Christine, and George and Margaretha Seuss, also immigrants from Germany, who ran a bakery on Howard Street, where Ted’s mother, Henrietta, worked.

Ted’s father, Theodor Robert Geisel, was the superintendent of Forest Park, including the zoo, and when Ted was 2, the family moved to a three-story house at 74 Fairfield St. in the Forest Park neighborhood; he lived there until 1921, when he left to attend Dartmouth College.

“We were interested, from the beginning, in really telling the Springfield story. Ted Geisel grew up in this city, spent his boyhood here. That was something Springfield could be proud of.”

The young Geisel visited the zoo often, sometimes bringing along a sketchbook in which to draw fantastical versions of the animals he saw there (his sister Marnie teased her brother because his animal drawings had “mismatched features and were curiously exaggerated,” according to the museum’s website), some of which might well have inspired the illustrations in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo.

“We were interested, from the beginning, in really telling the Springfield story,” Simpson said. “Ted Geisel grew up in this city, spent his boyhood here. That was something Springfield could be proud of.”

Indeed, many of the exhibits refer to what Simpson calls “the Springfield Cycle” — books that were inspired by the sights and sounds of the city. Geisel’s first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937), is based on a real street in Springfield: beer trucks used to barrel along it on their way to his grandfather’s brewery. The heavily traveled road was part of Ted’s stomping grounds, Simpson said, and might have inspired the young dreamer to imagine the likes of a “gold and blue chariot … rumbling like thunder down Mulberry Street.”

Geisel was also inspired by some of the more dramatic buildings in Springfield, like the Howard Street Armory, which resembles a castle, and the Barney Mausoleum in Forest Park, replete with its sphinxes and winding staircases, both of which show up in fantastical form in books like The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938).

“He said that growing up in Springfield had an imprint on him and his creative imagination,” Simpson said.  “He drew his impressions from growing up in a city with a lot of industrial buildings, and Victorian and post-Victorian monuments.”

If the sun starts to shine, or rain’s on the way,
The brand-new museum’s a good place to play.
It’s great to be there. You will like it a lot,
If the outside is cold, or exceedingly hot.

With its vibrant primary colors and murals depicting scenes from And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street and The Cat in the Hat, the entryway sets the stage for this museum about all things Seuss. There to greet visitors just inside the front door is a life-size policeman from Mulberry Street, uniformed in bright blue, sitting astride his motorcycle, perhaps modeled on Springfield’s own Indian brand. Emblazoned on his cap are the words “Police 304, Springfield, Massachusetts.”

Kids are invited to crawl aboard. In fact, every Seussian structure in the museum, like the seven-humped Wump of Gump from 1960’s One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, for example, was fabricated by Symmetry International Inc. in Rhode Island, using a special foam that has been treated for strength and resilience, and is virtually indestructible. “Kids can touch them all,” said museum spokeswoman Karen Fisk. “We can just wash them at the end of the day.”

Other first-floor exhibits include Young Ted in Springfield, which features a replica of the author’s childhood home, where visitors can use a touchscreen to “draw” on the bedroom wall, as Ted famously did as a child. In the Seuss Bakery, tiny visitors can pretend to bake their own pies; at McElligot’s Pool, inspired by the 1947 book by that name, they can play a digital fishing game; and in the Moose Juice and Goose Juice Factory, with its whimsical piping and artisan glasswork, they’ll explore gears and gadgets. In a replica of the Forest Park Zoo, children are invited to construct their own fantastical creatures using Lego blocks, as Seuss’ characters from the fictional McGrew Zoo peek at them from the windows.

The sculptures inside the museum

The sculptures inside the museum are crafted from a virtually indestructible foam substance, so kids can feel free to handle and climb on them.

Also on the first floor is Readingville, devoted to developing reading skills through rhyming, the alphabet, and story games.

“We really tie the museum to literacy,” Simpson said. “Readingville is an homage to all those books he wrote that were about getting kids excited to read. Starting with The Cat in the Hat, he’s using limited vocabulary, rhymes. He’s connecting letters and words with illustrations in a way that helps kids to understand the association between pictures and the words and letters. He’s making reading fun; that’s really what it’s all about.”

From the inception, Simpson said, the museum has worked closely on the content and design of the reading-related exhibits with the Davis Foundation, whose “Read! Reading Success by 4th Grade” initiative promotes literacy in schools in Hampden County, as well as with reading specialists from Springfield schools and experts from Square One, which provides early-childhood education and support services in Springfield and Holyoke.

“We feel that’s especially important for the city of Springfield, where children have a demonstrated challenge with reading,” she said. “We want to help kids overcome that struggle and to become proficient readers, because it’s so important for them in terms of their own achievement, and for the future of Springfield.”

Related exhibits include the museum’s ABC Wall, an interactive, larger-than-life version of Dr. Seuss’s ABC (1963); when children touch a letter, they will hear its phonetic sound, and related artwork from the book will appear on the wall. In Green Eggs and Ham WordPlay, children enter the railroad cave from Green Eggs and Ham (1960) to find word-game stations, based on the rhyming vocabulary of the story. (Think: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.”)

Treasures await on the second floor as well, where memorabilia, gifted to the museum by Geisel’s stepdaughters and grandnephew, are on display, including items that have never been displayed publicly, like the quirky, illustrated notes Geisel wrote to his stepdaughters, whom he nicknamed Snunny and La Groo.

Visitors can imagine the beloved author at work in his studio, recreated here with his drawing table and chair, and the red rotary telephone he used to talk daily to his publisher, Random House, in New York City.

“We even have colored pencils he actually used,” Simpson said. “When I walk in here, it sends a shiver down my spine.”

Next door, guests will see living-room furniture from Geisel’s home in La Jolla, California, where he lived for many years until his death in 1991. Displayed alongside a collection of his books and fanciful hats are his two Emmy Awards (for Halloween Is Grinch Night in 1978 and The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat in 1982) — just a couple of the many honors bestowed upon him, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his lifetime contribution to children’s literature.

Don’t sit in the house and do nothing at all.
It’s open in winter, spring, summer, and fall.
So pack up the kids if it’s rainy or sunny.
To the museum you’ll go, for fun that is funny!

Springfield’s leaders welcomed the opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss with much fanfare. On May 30, Mayor Domenic Sarno read a proclamation on the steps of City Hall, declaring it Dr. Seuss Week, and the museum’s opening was heralded with a parade, called Cavalcade of Conveyances, down Mulberry Street.

Now open to the public, the museum is part of the seven-acre Springfield Museums complex at 21 Edwards St. in Springfield, which also includes the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum, the Springfield Science Museum, the Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts, the Lyman and Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, and the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden. One admission offers visitors access to all the sites. The cost is $25 for adults, $16.50 for students and seniors, $13 for ages 3 to 17, and free for children under 3.

“As a museum, we want to celebrate the artistic and literary achievements of Theodor Geisel, but we really want people to come and have a great time,” Simpson said. “It’s a joy to share all of this with our visitors.”