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After the Fire

The top of Courniotes Hall is covered with plastic

The top of Courniotes Hall is covered with plastic now while AIC leaders discuss both short-term winter preparations and a long-term strategy for the building.

When a lightning strike set fire to Courniotes Hall at American International College (AIC) on July 27, the safety of everyone in the building was the paramount concern; fortunately, no one was hurt.

The longer-term concern is for the future of the heavily damaged building, and that process has only begun.

In between was one key question: what to do with all the health programs based at Courniotes and all the students and faculty who typically work and learn there — and do it before the fall semester, which was only a few weeks away.

That process has not been easy, and it’s far from over, said Karen Rousseau, dean of the School of Health Sciences at AIC. But with no programs or classes curtailed (though many have been relocated), the experience has been a valuable lesson in pivoting — and may pose opportunities to “reimagine” the design of the building once it’s repaired and renovated.

“The night of the fire was pretty devastating, but immediately the next morning, we got to work trying to figure out where to put classes that were housed in that building and how we would function,” Rousseau told BusinessWest, listing challenges from replacing the nursing program’s simulation-lab equipment to relocating cadavers and identifying new space for physical and occupational therapy labs and a large number of classrooms.

Part of the solution was finding temporary space in the Colaccino Center for Health Sciences, across State Street from Courniotes Hall, as well as other buildings on campus. Meanwhile, most of the nearby colleges and universities (and some from across Massachusetts) reached out offering space.

AIC took up one offer: from UMass Medical School – Baystate, located in Tower Square in downtown Springfield, which offered not only classroom and faculty space, but also storage for equipment and free parking for students.

“The night of the fire, we had students come to watch it, and they were concerned and sad. But we said, ‘we’re going to make sure it’s business as usual. We don’t know what it is right now, but we will make sure it’s OK for you.”

“UMass fortunately had this space that they weren’t using a tremendous amount; they use it for their accelerated baccalaureate program, but they’re mostly out on clinical placement in the fall,” Rousseau said. “So it was serendipitous that we were able to work around their schedule; primarily, it’s our junior nursing class that needed labs in the fall.”

AIC also quickly rehabbed the basement of its Amaron Hall to use as classrooms and storage for occupational therapy and physical therapy, and it will begin renovating the Lissa Building, which is attached to Courniotes Hall and also sustained damage in the fire, with the goal of opening it to students this spring; meanwhile, a building next to Lissa will be renovated to become an occupational therapy lab and training room where OT students learn how to work with patients on activities of daily living.

In short, the entire health sciences curriculum felt the weight of the fire and its aftermath, but AIC’s leaders made sure all students were able to continue their education this fall.

“I don’t want to make it sound like it was easy,” Rousseau said. “And it’s not all perfect, but it’s good. I mean, the students are receiving their education, and the faculty are happy they all have their own offices. To be able to say that, when we lost all those offices, is a miracle. And a lot of equipment from the labs had to be replaced.”

Karen Rousseau

Karen Rousseau says it hasn’t been easy, but students have been able to continue their studies following the July 27 fire.

They got creative, Rousseau added, because … well, because they had to.

“All of our [health sciences] students flowed through there. The majority nof the faculty for physical therapy was over there, and occupational therapy, and all of the nursing faculty. So all the nursing, PT, and OT students walked through there all the time. A lot of people were affected.”


No Interruptions

The reason AIC had to act quickly, and the reason so many other institutions reached out, was a shared feeling that interrupting the students’ education was unthinkable.

“This was devastating to the students,” Rousseau said. “The night of the fire, we had students come to watch it, and they were concerned and sad. But we said, ‘we’re going to make sure it’s business as usual. We don’t know what it is right now, but we will make sure it’s OK for you.’ That’s what we keep telling students: ‘it’s been OK, and it’ll continue to be OK. It will get better and better as we have more time to roll out our plans.’ But they were really nervous.”

In the longer term, AIC has engaged the services of an experienced project manager to navigate the logistics of assessment and reconstruction of Courniotes Hall.

“We haven’t had a final ruling from insurance, but it’s sounding like we will renovate and restore, maybe not in the same exact configuration, but within that same footprint — but, again, that’s not official,” Rousseau said, noting that the top of Courniotes is now covered in plastic, but some kind of temporary roof will likely need to be erected before winter sets in.

AIC’s much-discussed strategic plan for 2022-27 is called “AIC Reimagined,” and AIC President Hubert Benitez has taken to calling the future of the fire-damaged structure “Courniotes Reimagined,” sensing an opportunity to determine if the building’s current design and layout best serve students and faculty, and making changes as needed.

“He wants to pull faculty together and plan what would be appropriate for the future for that building and whether that means more space, whether we’d look to expand, and address any needs we might have,” Rousseau said. “This was OK when it was built in the ’90s, but if we had to rebuild it, we wouldn’t build it the same way. So, what would it look like? Do we want to replace it exactly the same, or do we need to make some changes? This is an opportunity. You can always use more space than what you had.”

AIC leaders are seeking engagement from students and faculty about what the building should look like for the future, she said, but stressed that the long-term planning process has only begun.

“Our focus right now is on the interim piece for the nursing lab and the occupational therapy lab; that has to come first because we want to get our students back on campus as soon as we can — hopefully for spring. We need more space for OT than what we have right now. We’re making do right now, but we need more.

“And then, with nursing, we don’t want them to have to go downtown to do their simulation and their nursing-practice skills,” she added. “And that is a bigger need in the spring for students. There are a lot more students that have to go through the lab in the spring. It’s important to us that they’re back home.”

This unusual year in AIC’s health sciences programs comes at a time when the medical world is still experiencing staffing shortages in many fields, particularly nursing, Rousseau said, but colleges nationwide have weathered a dip in enrollments in those programs.

“But enrollment across colleges in general is down for all professions, so I think it’s a symptom of the times,” she added. “A lot of people are worried about college debt, and you can go to work right away and still make an OK living wage because unemployment has been so low. There’s also the fact that we’re at that cliff where the birth rate has dropped off, so we’ve just got less people coming out of high school.”

And while nursing opportunities are still soaring — the profession has seen many older entrants who are changing careers to take advantage — there’s also lingering burnout from the pandemic, she added.

“You heard a lot of negativity around anything in healthcare. So I think that’s impacted healthcare. But it’s starting to rebound again — because then people heard about how much travel nurses make.”


Grit and Gratitude

Benitez recently expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support from the community following the fire. “I want to acknowledge the remarkable resilience and unity displayed by our faculty, staff, and students. It is this collective effort from our community that gives me confidence that we will overcome this adversity together.”

Rousseau agreed. “We wanted to reassure our students that we’re still open for business. We’re going to figure it out. And we’re trying to listen to them when there are issues.

“There are some things we can’t control, you know,” she added. “They don’t really want to be in class in a different building and not having their usual space. And the nursing faculty are farther across campus. The biggest struggle is that we’ve lost a large parking lot, so we’ve got some growing pains around figuring that out, making sure it’s OK before we start having snowbanks to deal with, too.”

But all those issues pale in comparion to the main one: ensuring that life continues at AIC, and so do the college careers of its nursing, PT, and OT students.

“We’ve tried to be thoughtful, to make sure this had the least amount of impact on students,” Rousseau said. “We’ve tried to reassure students that AIC is still here, and that we’re an equal partner in their success.”


Picking Up the Pieces

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire that ravaged the Maple Center shopping plaza.

Alexis Vallides has some experience bouncing back from disaster.

Actually, it was her bother who had that experience. His business, Latino Food Distribution, was one of many in West Springfield that were leveled by the tornado that tore through many area communities in 2011.

Vallides has been leaning hard on her brother, and certainly gaining inspiration from his comeback, as she embarks on one of her own.

Indeed, Vallides is one of many business owners who were left homeless by the massive fire just before Thanksgiving that engulfed the plaza in Longmeadow that unofficially took of the name of her business, Armata’s Market.

She was called early in the morning on Nov. 23 to let her know about a fire in the neighboring liquor store. Less than a few hours later, her store was almost completely leveled.

Like others impacted by the blaze, she is starting to write the next chapter in her business story, and, while there are many emotions attached to this rebuilding process, she is, well, very businesslike about it.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks,” she said. “Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

That’s what her team did the morning of the fire — she recalls employees standing and watching the fire, and also conceiving ways to prepare and distribute prepared meals for customers.

Armata’s was one of five businesses impacted by the fire at the Maple Center shopping plaza, which left 74 people unemployed initially. The others are the Bottle Shop liquor store, Iron Chef Asian Cuisine, Longmeadow Salon, and Dream Nail and Salon. Most, if not all, have expressed a desire to reopen — in Longmeadow if they can, said Lyn Simmons, town manager, noting, as others did, that there isn’t a large inventory of retail space, and especially vacant space, in this mostly residential community.

One business, the salon, has already reopened in East Longmeadow, she said, adding that, as these business owners grapple with the many challenges facing them, the town, the state, and several area business and economic-development-focused agencies are bringing resources to bear aiding in the recovery process, and connecting impacted business owners with grants, loans, and whatever else is needed to start anew.

Grace Barone, who leads one of those agencies, the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, knows firsthand what it’s like to claw back after a fire has destroyed a business and left dreams in a state of perilous limbo. Indeed, she owned Bridal Reflections, one of 20 ventures left homeless by a massive blaze in a retail plaza in Palmer.

She told BusinessWest that, in the wake of such a disaster, business owners go through a wide range of emotions, from the initial shock to what amounts to grief concerning their loss, to the frustration that comes from dealing with insurance companies and the myriad other issues related to getting back on one’s feet.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks. Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

“This is a challenging time, and it can be so overwhelming,” she said, adding that, in such a situation, the best her agency and others can do is stand by those impacted by it and provide whatever support they can.

“You go through the shock of ‘oh my gosh, everything I’ve worked for is gone; what do I do next?’” she said. “You try to formulate a plan and determine whether you’re going to rebuild and where you will conduct business in the meantime. And you go forward from there. But every time you think you’ve taken a few steps forward, there’s always something that pops up, and then you have a setback. We want to make sure we’re there for our members when those times come.”

As for Vallides, she is moving forward with plans to find both a temporary location and, if the Maple Center owners rebuild, as she expects they will, return to Shaker Road in the future.

“I’m checking out places in Longmeadow and Enfield for a temporary location, but, unfortunately, Longmeadow doesn’t seem to have anything quite big enough for our needs,” she said, noting that the operation requires roughly 5,000 square feet. “There are a few potential landing spots in February, and maybe by February we can get something up and running.

“We’re in it for the long run, and if we can set up something temporarily, close to our customers, we’ll do that,” she went on. “But, ultimately, we want to be back on Shaker Road.”

As for what she learned from her brother’s experience and is using to help her in her comeback efforts, she said there were many lessons from that story.

“It’s important to be strong and hang in there, not just for myself, but my employees as well,” she said. “Everyone counts here.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone impacted by that fateful fire.


—George O’Brien