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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti says the addition of a Spanish-speaking accelerator program will enable EforAll Holyoke to become an even more impactful component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

It’s been more than three years now since Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told a TV reporter, tongue in cheek (or not), that he wanted to rename Holyoke ‘Rolling Paper City,’ in a nod to its past — and its potential future as home to businesses in the cannabis industry spawned by a ballot initiative in the fall of 2016.

Things have moved slowly as the city has looked to take full advantage of both its red-carpet treatment for the cannabis industry and vast supply of old mill space — ideal for cultivation as well as other types of businesses in this sector — more slowly than most would have anticipated.

But by most accounts, 2020 should be the year this sector begins to, well, light things up in Holyoke.

Indeed, while Green Thumb Industries, better known to most as GTI, is the only cannabis-related business operating in Holyoke at the moment, that is certain to change soon. True Leaf is ready to commence cultivation operations in the large building on Canal Street that was formerly home to Conklin Office, said Morse, and there are other businesses moving ever closer to the starting line.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry,” said Morse, who, while filling his role as CEO of the city, is also running for Congress this fall. “We’re looking at hundreds of jobs between cultivation and dispensing, and we’re seeing the growth in commercial property values as a result of these investments.”

Meanwhile, there are large tracts of real estate either sold to or under option to a number of other cannabis-related businesses, said Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development.

“We have about 20 companies that have approached us for a host-community agreement; a few of those are no longer proceeding, but we have probably close to a dozen that are still in some part of the process, and we expect a couple to open at some point this year,” said Marrero, who noted that, for decades, Holyoke’s problem was that it had far too much unused or underutilized old mill space. It’s certainly not there yet, but some are starting to think about the possibility of actually running out of that commodity.

But cannabis is certainly not the only promising story in Holyoke at the moment. Indeed, progress is evident on a number of fronts, from the development of several co-working spaces in the city to a thriving cultural economy; from the prospects for a new retail plaza in the vicinity of the Holyoke Mall to Holyoke Community College’s culinary-arts center in the heart of downtown; from Amazon’s new distribution center just off I-91, which has brought more than 100 jobs to the city, to Holyoke Medical Center’s recently announced proposal to build a new, standalone inpatient behavioral-health facility on its campus.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry.”

Then there are the city’s efforts to foster entrepreneurship, especially through the agency known as EforAll Holyoke, which last year cut the ceremonial ribbon at its facilities on High Street.

The agency, originally known as SPARK, will graduate its third accelerator class on March 26, said Executive Director Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, adding that EforAll will soon be expanding with a Spanish-language accelerator, something that’s definitely needed in this diverse community.

“Many people can understand English, but to learn in the language you’re comfortable with … that makes such a difference,” she noted, adding that other EforAll locations have offered programs in Spanish. “There is a need for this here.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on what is still known as the Paper City, a community that has greatly diversified its economy is looking to continue that pattern in the coming years.

In Good Company

Murphy-Romboletti says she won’t be leading the Spanish-speaking accelerator — she’ll be hiring someone to assume that responsibility — but she is taking steps to be better able communicate in that language.

“I’m using Rosetta Stone, and I’m basically telling the people in my life who speak Spanish that they should only speak Spanish to me so I can learn,” she said. “Just growing up in Holyoke, I feel like I understand it fairly well, but I’m still struggling to communicate.”

These language lessons are just one of many items on her plate, including final preparations for the March 26 graduation ceremony, at which accelerator participants will showcase their businesses and many will receive what Murphy-Romboletti refers to affectionately as “those big giant checks” — facsimiles in amounts that will range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, as well as some seed money.

Those awards may not sound significant, but to small-business owner, they can provide a huge boost, she went on, adding that they can cover the cost of forming a limited liability corporation (LLC), buy a new copier, or perhaps purchase some insurance.

“Those are the little things that a startup often has a hard time attaining,” she said. “That money is very important to them.”

As for the seed money, provided by an array of sources, it is awarded based on how well businesses meet stated goals for growth and development.

“We have them set goals for each quarter, and the entrepreneurs keep meeting monthly with their mentors,” she explained. “We survey them before we meet, and there’s a peer-ranking process based on the progress they’ve made toward the goals they set at the beginning of the quarter. It’s a combination of mentor feedback and peer feedback, and it’s a good way to keep the momentum going.”

Summarizing the breakdown of the first several cohorts, Murphy-Romboletti said there has been a good mix of businesses, including several food-related ventures, some professional services, a few nonprofits, and some construction-related endeavors. None are large in size or scope, but most all of them have promise, and many are already contributing to vibrancy in Holyoke by leasing real estate, buying goods and services, and providing them as well.

“When an entrepreneur is getting started, it can be a very lonely process, and we want people to know they don’t have to go through this whole thing alone,” she said. “And I think we’re starting to see the impact this has on the local economy, when there’s new businesses registering and they’re getting bank accounts for their business, and they’re doing things the right way so they can be legitimate businesses that will contribute to the economy.”

Marrero agreed, noting that the companies fostered by these efforts to promote entrepreneurship have created more than 100 jobs, most of them in Holyoke.

“Not everything is a home run — there are a lot of singles, but that’s another way of getting into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “We’re continuing our efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship, and we’re starting to see some results.”

Thus, promoting entrepreneurship is an economic-development strategy in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that, while it’s good to attract large corporations like Amazon, growing organically by fostering small businesses is usually a more reliable path to growth.

But there are several other growth strategies being executed, and the cannabis industry, and the city’s pursuit of it, could certainly be considered one of them.

Indeed, while some communities were somewhat cautious in their approach to this sector and others (West Springfield, for example) decided they didn’t want such businesses within their boundaries at all, Holyoke has, seemingly since the day the ballot initiative was passed, been quite aggressive in pursuit of cannabis businesses — and jobs.

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back. The plans are still coming together.”

And, as the mayor noted earlier, 2020 is shaping up as a year when many of the businesses that have been putting down roots, to use an industry phrase, will start to see their efforts bear fruit.

True Leaf has been aggressively building out its massive space, said Marrero, and it is expected to employ more than 100 people when it that cultivation and processing operation opens later this year. Other similar businesses are also in the process of readying spaces, including Boston Bud Co., Solierge, and Canna Provisions, which will soon be opening a dispensary in downtown Holyoke.

“Once they open, that will create a lot more economic activity, including hiring, and as soon as they have sales, that will also generate income for the city,” he went on, adding that there will be a ramp-up period for the cultivators as the first crops grow. But when these companies are fully operational, he expects that more than 200 jobs will be added.

Meanwhile, mill space continues to be absorbed by this sector, he said, adding that 5 Appleton St. was recently acquired for cannabis-related uses, bringing the total amount of real estate sold or under option to roughly 500,000 square feet, by his estimates, thus creating speculation, and even concern, that no one could have imagined even a decade ago.

“Eight years ago, the concern was that there was too much empty space,” said Marrero. “The long-term proposition and concern for someone in my position is that we might be running out of inventory, which is funny to think, but it could happen.”

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, retail is also an economic-development strategy, or at least a key contributor to the city’s tax base and overall vibrancy. It remains so, but that sector is changing, primarily because of the city’s new corporate citizen, Amazon, and others like it. The landscape is changing — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Evidence of this change is evident at Holyoke Mall Crossing, a retail center just off I-91 at the intersection of Holyoke Street and Lower Westfield Road. Actually, it’s more a former retail center, said owner Ned Barowsky, who acquired the property in 1996. Indeed, a number of former retail spaces now have different uses, as homes to professionals, healthcare facilities, and service providers, as evidenced by the current tenant list.

It includes Baystate Dental, Rehab Solutions, Ross Webber & Grinnell Insurance, ServiceNet, Vonnahme Eye, Great Clips, and H&R Block. It doesn’t include Kaoud Oriental Rugs and Pier 1, two long-time tenants that became the latest retail outlets to leave that location, leaving 13,000 square feet of contiguous space on the ground floor that Barowsky is now working aggressively to lease with ads touting this as “the best location in Western Mass.” And he expects that there will be more healthcare and professionals in this space instead of traditional retailers.

“Slowly but surely, I’ve been converting my building, which was once 100% retail, into office and medical uses,” he said, adding that he expects this trend, which started roughly a decade ago, to continue. “The only true retail left is Hunt’s Photo and Video, which is doing very well.”

Because of the location at the junction of the turnpike and I-91, he said, the site would be ideal for medical practices and other healthcare-related businesses, and he’s already talked with several interested parties.

While spending most of his time and energy working to fill Holyoke Mall Crossing, Barowsky is in early-stage work on a new retail development on a five-acre parcel adjacent to that property that he acquired from the mall. His primary motivation was to create more parking for the healthcare and service-oriented businesses now populating the Crossing, and he will keep one acre for that purpose. As for the rest, a vision is coming into focus.

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back,” he told BusinessWest. “The plans are still coming together.”

Meanwhile, at the Holyoke Mall, which recently marked 40 years of dominating the local retail landscape, the landscape is shifting there as well, from traditional retail — although there is still plenty of that — to family entertainment and recreation.

“They’re been very savvy about remaining relevant, not like other malls,” said Marrero, citing recent additions such as a Planet Fitness and bowling alleys, as well as new theaters now under construction in the site once occupied by Sears. “They’re integrating a lot more lifestyle entertainment.”

Barowsky, who, as noted, has been a neighbor of the mall for a quarter-century, said that facility is still thriving because of its ability to adjust and put emphasis on entertainment at a time when traditional retail is struggling.

“They’re doing a lot of entertainment-related things to get people in, and hopefully people will shop while they’re there,” he said. “They’re doing a great job of adjusting — the parking lot is still full all the time.”

While the mall is evolving, so too is the downtown area, said Marrero, adding that several new businesses have opened in recent months and more are in the planning stages, including a restaurant, Jud’s, along the Canal Walk; a high-end salon called the Plan, which describes itself as a “sustainable, mission-driven beauty company” and “a force for positive change”; and the Avalon Café, a lounge and game café expected to open soon on Dwight Street.

Most of the growth involves small businesses, said those we spoke with, noting that this organic growth will likely inspire additional vibrancy across many sectors.

“When a forest burns, the forest doesn’t grow back by planting a giant oak tree in the middle of it,” said Marrero. “You have to organically grow an economic ecosystem that feeds off of itself and allows bigger businesses to come in; it’s the small businesses that start putting together the foundation for a place where people want to work and live and enjoy the surroundings.”

Building Blocks

This is what Holyoke has been building toward, said all those we spoke with — building that economic ecosystem that feeds off itself.

There are, as noted, a number of moving parts, from cannabis-related ventures to the small businesses in the accelerator cohorts at EforAll, to the new entertainment options at the Holyoke Mall.

As with the cannabis sector itself, the pieces are coming together slowly but surely. And 2020 is shaping up as a year when it all comes together.

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

Features

All the Right Moves

Fran Arnold and his wife, Rosemary, have guided the family business through consistent growth and evolution over the past four decades.

Conklin Office recently completed the consolidation of its various operations into the former Ampad factory on Appleton Street in Holyoke. The new space tells a story about how this company has evolved over the years — and also about the modern office and what it should look like.

The back wall of the massive showroom at Conklin Office Furniture’s complex on Appleton Street in Holyoke is decorated in a somewhat unorthodox but quite meaningful way.

There, Fran Arnold, owner and president of this multi-faceted, family-run operation, has arranged some of the signs that have hung on the company’s facilities over the years, including one from when he bought the venture in 1981; it says ‘Conklin Office & School Supply Company.’

“I kept them — and I thought this would be good place for them,” said Arnold as he offered a tour of the sprawling facility. “They tell a story, really — they tell how far we’ve come over all these years.”

Indeed, they do.

The ‘Office & School Supplies’ part of the operation was scrapped a long time ago as Staples and businesses like it took over that part of the world. And the ‘office’ part of the equation has evolved tremendously into a company with a host of moving parts — from sales of new and mostly used furniture (including lines the company has developed itself) to recycling and reconditioning of furniture of all kinds, to an office-design component.

It’s all under one roof now — one very large roof — after the company moved its showroom and offices from a facility on Canal Street (sold to one of the many entities now looking to cultivate cannabis in Holyoke’s vast portfolio of old paper and textile mills) last fall. It was quite a move, as one can imagine, and the company is in many ways still catching its breath after that lengthy and logistically complex undertaking.

“We decided to do it like a Band-Aid; we just pulled it off quickly,” he said, noting that the move came in one large stage that ended in October rather than several, and the moving-in process is still ongoing in some respects.

But the new space seems to be well worth all the cost and trouble. And it gives the company an opportunity to not only display all that it sells, but also put the modern office — or the emerging interpretation of the modern office — on full display.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up. That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

Indeed, the office/welcome area at Conklin employs many of the current trends, said Arnold, from the glass walls that surround his own office to the wide-open spaces, distinct lack of cubicle walls, modern lighting, and sit-stand desks being used by employees.

Meanwhile, the items on the floor, especially new benching models and smaller workstations, speak to how businesses are maximizing the square footage they’re willing to pay for.

The signs on the back wall of the new showroom help tell how far this business has come over the years.

“Everything is moving toward efficiency and budget,” he explained. “The individual workspace is getting smaller, but that’s necessary — office space in New York and these other major cities costs a fortune today, so companies are reducing the size of the footprint the person sits in, but the spaces are open and more conducive to collaboration.”

Conklin’s product lines, and its own offices, speak to these trends, said Arnold, adding that, while the company responds to these movements, it is also living up to the motto seen on many of those aforementioned signs: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

That’s a nod (and a play on words) to the recycling and re-manufacturing aspects of the business — huge components of the operation — but also to its very ‘green’ mindset (right down to the 2,600 solar panels on the roof) and the way the company does business with a wide range of businesses in sectors ranging from education to financial services to manufacturing.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited the Conklin complex in Holyoke and talked with Arnold about office furniture, the modern office and how it continues to evolve, that motto and all that it reflects, and those signs along the wall in the showroom and how they really do tell a compelling story.

News Desks

While office design and office furniture are obviously serious businesses, Arnold said it’s quite OK — and actually quite necessary, in his mind — to have a little fun with it all.

Hence the names on many of the chairs he showed BusinessWest in one of the showrooms.

There’s the ‘Nellie,’ named after one of his granddaughters; the ‘Roxie,’ named after Conklin’s office manager; the ‘Brode,’ named after one of his grandsons; and the ‘Vito,’ named after … him; that’s what his grandkids call him. There’s also the ‘Junior Vito,’ a slightly smaller version of the original.

Conklin’s new facilities were designed to reflect the changes that have come to the modern office.

These chairs, all on the cutting edge of ergonomic trends, are part of the Gateway line of furniture the Conklin company has developed itself. The products — everything from chairs to benching to laminate furniture — are made in China, said Arnold, and they’re selling well as companies large and small look for value, quality, and chairs that are ergonomically friendly.

‘Fun’ isn’t a word that word that would be used to describe Conklin’s recent move — Arnold shook his head as he thought back on all that was involved — but it was necessary in some ways, and now that it’s over, the company is in a better place than it was — figuratively but also quite literally.

Arnold was able to take advantage of the soaring interest in Holyoke real estate, and the company, as noted, is now able to put everything together under one roof.

And as the tour clearly showed, it is a huge roof, and there is a lot under it.

The many components have come together over the past 39 and a half years, and there has been constant evolution, said Arnold, noting that, as that sign said, the Conklin company he bought in 1980 sold office supplies.

“I don’t think the ink on the contract was dry when Staples opened up,” he recalled. “That put such pressure on all the old, local office-supply dealers that many of them went of business. I took a turn toward used office furniture.”

And that has been the company’s main focus for most of its existence — buying and reselling used furniture, often refinishing, refurbishing, or ‘remanufacturing’ it (the term the company prefers to use) before it lands in the showroom or the warehouse. This mindset is captured succinctly in another one of those old signs hanging on the back wall: Beside the company name and logo, it reads ‘Don’t Monkey Around with the High Cost of New Office Furniture.’

Companies of all shapes and sizes have heeded that advice, and Conklin has taken full advantage, growing into one of the largest operations of its kind, with other offices in Red Bank, N.J., Philadelphia, and Chicago.

The company’s showrooms are filled with furniture bought across the country from a variety of sources. Very often, it arrives via liquidations — large companies either closing or moving from one space to another and selling the furniture it leaves behind.

“You can’t move more than 100 people over a weekend and move the furniture at the same time,” Arnold explained. “They need to move into furniture that was already set up.”

The Conklin company spent the ’80s and a good part of the ’90s building up the vast amounts of capital needed to properly run a business like this one and expanding operations. The company was located on Lyman Street in Springfield for a number of years, and also operated out of property on Warwick Street.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor. And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas.”

In 2005, Conklin moved its headquarters to the massive facility on Canal Street that was formerly home to American Thread and one of the first factory buildings built in Holyoke, and later moved the showroom (still on Lyman Street) there as well.

“We never thought we’d fill up Canal Street, but we did,” he Arnold went on, adding that the company eventually needed additional space and found it, ironically enough at the former Ampad facility on Appleton Street (Ampad made the legal pads and other office products the Conklin company once sold), which it purchased in 2008.

And in that 233,000-square-foot facility, the company greatly expanded its reconditioning and remanufacturing operations, adding a powder-coating operation, reupholstering, and more. Eventually, it was decided that operations needed to be moved there as well.

“I thought that the building on Canal Street was not really conducive to what we do,” he said. “We need higher ceilings and big areas to move in, and I started thinking about selling Canal Steet.”

Those thoughts coincided with the start of the cannabis era in Massachusetts and broad interest in Holyoke’s old mills for a number of possible reuses — cannabis in particular, but also condominiums and apartments.

“There were two or three serious possibilities in play working with condominiums or apartments,” he recalled. “But, lo and behold, cannabis was legalized, and they came after the building.”

‘They’ is True Leaf, a Florida-based medical-marijuana dispensary, he went on, adding that things moved quickly after that, with Conklin having to move out 150,000 square feet of space cram-packed with furniture.

Space Exploration

And eventually move it into space Arnold described as “totally raw” and, like much of the used furniture that comes his way, in need of some refurbishing. His staff now occupies the former administration area of the Ampad operation, space that looked like offices used to look, with enclosed private offices against the windows and tall cubicle walls outside — “people really couldn’t see much further than eight or 10 feet away from where they were.”

That has all been replaced with what most are saying the modern office should look like, said Arnold, who, as he talked about trends in modern office furniture and design, abruptly stopped talking and started walking toward a showroom area at the front of the store where the ‘Roxie’ and ‘Nellie’ are on display.

Talking again as he walked, he said offices everywhere, but especially those in large cities where real-estate prices are soaring, are getting smaller, and every square foot is being put to efficient, meaningful use.

Many people are doing some work at home, he went on, and companies are encouraging more people to join those ranks. For those who do come to the office, their employers are seemingly in a mood to trade more of those aforementioned wide-open spaces for smaller actual workspaces.

“You used to be able to put 100 8-by-8 cubicles on a floor; today, you can put 250 people on that floor,” he said. “And what the employees are getting back by having so little space are big open areas to continue their productivity — areas for collaboration, coffee bars, and just communal areas where they can be themselves. And windows are being left open, so they can see what’s going on outside.”

To get this point across, he referenced a product the company is selling a lot of these days — benching. These are small workstations — a desk with a drawer or two underneath — arranged in rows, or benches, with fabric screens separating the workers on either side of these benches.

While some of these workspaces measure 30” by 72”, said Arnold, many companies have moved to 60” and others to 54” or even 48”. The goal, as he said, is to put more people into a smaller amount of space, knowing they only spend some of their time at these spaces, with the rest in those collaborative areas mentioned earlier.

The Conklin website now lists a number of benching options, many part of what it calls its Stretch line, as well as what would be considered today’s ‘private’ office — a desk (often one that can be raised or lowered), credenza, and pedestal, all of them small in comparison to what was popular years ago.

And while staying at the forefront of these trends, with its Gateway line and items on the showroom floor, Conklin is working hard to respect that motto and be ‘green’ in every way it can — from the solar panels, which produce enough power for roughly 125 homes, to every aspect of the recycling operations.

“When we take a [cubicle] panel apart, all the fabric gets sent down south; it gets ground up and recycled,” Arnold said. “The shrink wrap gets baled and sent to a local company that makes oil from it. All the cardboard is baled … very, very little goes to the landfill.

“We’ve been ‘green’ from the very beginning,” he went on. “It’s a big part of who we are.”

Chair Man

As he walked around the office area at the new headquarters building, Arnold noted that all it might be missing, that’s might, is a large aquarium — a touch he might look to add in the near future.

Other than that, it represents all that the modern office is — or should be — in terms of space, light, glass, work areas, amenities for employees, and space-saving strategies for employers.

It also represents change and evolution for this company, which has come a long way since it sold office and school supplies on Lyman Street.

Like Arnold said, those signs on the showroom wall tell a story — one of ongoing growth, evolution, being ‘green,’ being proactive, and introducing products like the ‘Vito’ and the ‘Junior Vito.’

A story with a number of intriguing chapters still to be written.

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

Daily News

HOLYOKE — Ten early-stage businesses and nonprofits have been selected to participate in the Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Winter Accelerator program in Holyoke. This cohort was evaluated by more than 50 community leaders, EforAll Mentors, industry experts, and entrepreneurs through a rigorous application review and interview process. The startups selected represent both products and services from a variety of industries.

This year-long program is comprised of 70% of the startups having at least one founder of color and 80% of the startups having at least one female founder. This is representative of EforAll’s mission to accelerate economic development and social impact through inclusive entrepreneurship in gateway communities. As part of the 2020 cohort, entrepreneurs will have access to expert mentorship, tailored curriculum, co-working space, and opportunities to win prize money.

The finalists are:

  • Liam Malone, Holyoke: Greens for Good. Aims to open a year-round farmers market and aquaponic production facility to provide the absolute best in locally sourced food at affordable prices for all of Holyoke and beyond.
  • Carlos Rosario, Springfield: Rosario Asphalt Company. Specializing in residential asphalt and paving services
  • Dioni Soriano & Nayroby Rosa, Holyoke: Soriano Baseball Academy. A baseball camp that provides one-on-one coaching and guidance to youth ages 8 to 16, creating a safe environment where they can practice their skills and improve them all year around.
  • Erika Matos, Indian Orchard: Top Flight Nutrition. A nutrition club recently opened in Holyoke at 594 Dwight Street that offers fitness classes, healthy shakes and smoothies, and health-related programming for the community. 
  • Jessica Rivera, Chicopee: Bet on Our Youth Travel Camp. Bet on Our Youth is centered toward providing services and opportunities to enlighten them through positive experiences.
  • Heather Labonte, Granby: The Estate. An outdoor event venue for weddings, corporate parties, showers and special occasions. 
  • Nicole Ortiz, Chicopee: Crave Food Truck. This HCC Culinary Student plans to open a food truck that has a variety of food with an emphasis on local ingredients and breakfast.
  • Sandra Rubio, Easthampton: Totally Baked 413. This Holyoke-based startup offers custom 3-d, gourmet cakes for every, and any occasion, mouth melting pastries, and fresh baked goods.
  • Jessika Rozki, Springfield: Rozki Rides. Children transportation services providing safe and reliable transportation for working parents. 
  • Sarah Kukla, Holyoke: Cupcakes, Pupcakes & More. Baked goods and delicious sweets for both humans and dogs.

Please join us at the 2019 Holyoke Medical Center Annual Gala at The Log Cabin in Holyoke, MA on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

This year we’re featuring ACE Awards at the event for Best Caregiver, Best Supporting Employee, Best Leader, and Best Physician, along with a Lifetime Achievement Award of M. Saleem Bajwa, MD.

The evening’s event will begin at 5:30pm and will include:

· Complimentary cocktail reception

· Silent auction

· Seven-course chef’s dinner with wine pairings

· Award presentations

· Dancing to The O-Tones

Also, discounted hotel rooms are available at the D. Hotel Suites & Spa by calling 413-533-2100 and mentioning code HMC126 before October 23, 2019.

For more information email the Development Office at [email protected] or call 413-534-2579.

Education

Breaking Barriers

Rose Egan was inspired to work at the CEP because she had a long and difficult journey to education and wants to be able to give the gift of learning to others.

For many people, going to school and preparing to enter the working world is the norm. Unfortunately, for many members of the Latino community in the city of Holyoke, this is easier said than done. The language barriers faced by those who do not speak English are often burdensome and prevent people from getting an education or finding a job. The Community Education Project provides classes to give individuals the tools they need to become successful and move forward with their lives.

Imagine that your one and only barrier to success was not speaking the language you need to speak in order to move forward in life.

This intimidating scenario is all too real for many people in the city of Holyoke. In the Paper City, 30% of the population age 18 and older does not have a high-school diploma, while 18.4% speak with limited English proficiency.

This language barrier creates setbacks for much of the Latino community, but the Community Education Project (CEP) is working to change that.

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities. A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

The CEP provides adult-literacy and language-education programs in an effort to achieve social and economic justice by contributing to the development of the Latino community in Holyoke. The organization offers two levels of native language literacy in Spanish to prepare students for HiSET and GED exams in Spanish, three levels of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and adult basic education for transition to college and careers.

It is the only provider in the region that offers native language literacy, or GED preparation in Spanish, and all classes are provided for free to anyone who walks in the door.

Executive Director Rose Egan said most people come in because they desire a better quality of life and want to be more independent.

From left, Edith Rodriguez, and Sonia Girón Peña de Aponte take their first English class with Angelika Bay, lead instructor in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL).

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities,” she noted. “A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

People come to the CEP at all levels, including adult learners with grade-level equivalency of age 3 to high school. Some students haven’t stepped in a classroom in 20 years. Some must bring interpreters to doctors’ appointments. Some are parents who want to be able to talk to their kids’ teachers and other school personnel without having an outsider in the mix, because they feel like they cannot develop a solid relationship.

“They want to be able to advocate for themselves,” said Egan. “The issue we see is that people can get along in their daily life fine in this area because everyone around here speaks Spanish, but then when they try to step out of that zone, they find barriers due to their lack of English-language skills.”

CEP classes run throughout the day and at night, and summer classes are offered as well. Egan said about 110 students participate daily across all programs, and seven staff members make it all happen — a “small but mighty” team, as she calls it.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life. My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

One staff member in particular, Vida Zavala, made a positive impact on student Ingrid Arvelo’s life, and put her in the right direction to accomplish her goals.

Arvelo — an immigrant from Venezuela and a 40-year-old mother of two — has plenty on her hands, but still found time to take level three ESOL classes, including the hardest, most immersive class in the program.

“It worked for me because now I’m taking classes to go to college in January,” she said.

Arvelo is currently enrolled in the college-transition course with CEP, and wants to attend Holyoke Community College next year, hoping to study law or education to become a teacher. She is thankful to the CEP for helping give her the confidence to learn English.

From left, Maria Vasquez, Nydia Rodriguez, and Stephanie Trinidad take their first English class at the CEP.

“If they see that you are in trouble or struggling, they help,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the program.”

Broader Purpose

Putting on programs like this isn’t easy, but when things get tough, Egan says she remembers her journey through education and how much she wants to give that to others.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life,” she said. “My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

Egan is also a single mom and sent her daughter off to her first day of kindergarten recently. She recognizes — and is grateful — that her daughter will probably never experience what it’s like to not know what education is. Her job at the CEP is her way to make sure others can grow and learn every day.

“This is an opportunity for me to be able to come to work every day and feel like I’m not coming to work,” she said. “I’m doing what I love to do, which is sharing the gift of education with other people.”

And she has plans in motion to help support the classes the CEP offers.

The Community Education Project is a 501(c)(3) organization and is classified as a public charity. After attending an innovation accelerator program with Paul Silva, Egan came up with a few programs to expand its revenue streams.

The first is a document-translation service the CEP has been providing for 30 years, but recently opened up to nonprofit organizations in the area. She explained that document translation is very costly, and the CEP is able to come in about 20% below competitors, helping other local nonprofits get their documents translated into Spanish.

“It helps us because it provides us some unrestricted revenue so that we can focus on our core services, which are serving our students and providing them with native language literacy, English-language skills, transition to college and careers, things like that,” Egan said, adding that this is very difficult to do with a limited budget.

“We find the biggest barrier to people coming in our door is they didn’t know we existed,” she said, adding that conducting more outreach in the community and incorporating marketing strategies into the mix are also on her to-do list.

She’s also hoping to expand Spanish-language classes to both children and adult learners, such as those regularly tasked with interacting with Spanish-speaking employees.

“We’re targeting local employers so that we can train their staff to speak Spanish so they can develop a better relationship with people they are serving without having to have a middle person interpret,” Egan said. “Launching those classes will really help us worry less about how we’re going to fund our classes and our core program. We want to make sure we have the funds we need to continue providing the services that will better our community.”

Looking to the Future

With all these services, Egan is confident CEP will be able to help even more students like Arvelo reach their goals.

“This country gives you the opportunity to be a better person, a better professional, and a better worker,” Arvelo said. “But if you don’t speak English and if you don’t put in the effort, you can’t make it. So English is the first step.”

With that in mind, Egan and the staff at the CEP continue to look for new ways to support those who want a better quality of life and have big plans for the future, one step at a time.

“Education is such a gift, and without it, we don’t even know what we’re missing,” Egan said. “If I can be that conduit to just make education accessible to those who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, then I’m more than happy to step into that role.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

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

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

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

Sports & Leisure

More History to Write

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt stand in the main ballroom at Wyckoff Country Club, one of its many facilities that have undergone a facelift.

None of the members of the new ownership team at Wyckoff Country Club in Holyoke had spent any time on the golf course — or in the golf business — prior to their acquisition earlier this year.

But they did know a few things about what they were getting into. Actually, more than a few.

They knew how to run a business — Bob VanZandt Sr. has operated American Tire Sales & Service in Springfield for nearly 40 years, and Charlie Arment has been at the helm of Charlie Arment Trucking in Springfield, a 65-year-old family business, since 1978.

Beyond that, well, they knew that there was still some history to be written at Wyckoff, originally known as Mount Tom Country Club, a Donald Ross design that has seen many changes over the decades and, like most all clubs, has suffered greatly in recent years as interest in the game has waned.

Most importantly, the new owners — VanZandt and his wife, Elizabeth, and Arment and his brother, William — who acquired the property from long-time owner Clarence “Clarky” Wojtowicz, understood that the golf business isn’t really the golf business anymore. Instead, it’s the entertainment and hospitality business, with golf as a big part of the equation, and they believe that Wyckoff, after some renovations and additions to the landscape, could certainly thrive in that environment.

“It’s more than the golf here — you have to diversify, which we did,” said VanZandt. “We’ll be able to make it because of the banquet facilities upstairs and downstairs, the kitchen, and the golf shop; it’s an attractive package.”

But it’s a package that needed some work, to be sure, and the new owners are supplementing their original purchase of the property — roughly 120 acres in total —with additional investments in both the course and, especially, the clubhouse, in an effort to capitalize on what they consider an attractive location (just off I-91 roughly halfway between Springfield and Northampton) and a solid foundation on which to build.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away. While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted.”

Elaborating, VanZandt said the course — altered significantly by the construction of I-91 in the mid-’60s — is a hidden gem to many but certainly appreciated by members. Meanwhile, the main banquet facility is one of the largest in the region and can seat 470 for weddings and other events.

“There aren’t many rooms like that in this region — not many places where you can have a wedding or Christmas party or other event and host nearly 500 people,” he noted. “And there’s another room downstairs that holds 130 for bridal showers, brunches, and other events.”

Describing the work done inside to date, VanZandt and Arment said it involves modernizing and improving many of the facilities while also making some needed additions. Regarding the former, VanZandt started with a reference to a hallway on the lower level.

“This was all covered with green wallpaper — I think it was from the ’80s, but it might have been the ’60s; I’m not sure. Anyway, it needed to go,” he said, pointing to the bright white paint on the wall.

Meanwhile, a major renovation of the smaller, lower-level banquet room is underway, replacing wood paneling from several decades ago with a much more modern look. And just off a 19th hole that has been given a minor facelift, work is set to begin on a large patio that will be used by members and event attendees alike.

There are a number of events, said Elizabeth VanZandt, referring to everything from a recent St. Patrick’s Day dinner to planned brunches on Easter and Mother’s Day; from a Friday-night winter concert series to a tradition at Wyckoff known simply as ‘Wednesday Burger Night,’ a name that tells you all you need to know.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

A sign of the times —

A sign of the times — literally; clubs like Wyckoff are now hosting a number of non-golf events to maximize revenues from their various facilities.

Meanwhile, on the course, Charlie Arment Trucking, which has done work on several area golf courses, has started on a number of projects at Wyckoff. Plans call for repairing sand traps, cleaning up ponds, renovating cart paths, clearing overgrown brush and trees, and restoring the ‘Wyckoff Country Club’ sign visible from I-91.

“The course was in pretty tough shape, but we’ve had people out cleaning it and getting it ready,” said Arment, adding that, while there was a soft opening in late March, the course will not be officially open until the end of this month, with the first tournaments scheduled for early May.

Summing up their plans, the new owners said they plan to continue things as they have been for the past 60 years or so — but, as noted, also make some much-needed improvements and additions. They knew considerable work was needed, but wanted to hear from members about what they thought, and received generous amounts of feedback at a meeting early this past winter.

“We asked them what they wanted, and we’re fulfilling what they wanted, and that’s what bringing membership back up,” said VanZandt, adding that the list of requests included everything from much-needed work on the sand traps to new lighting and carpeting in the 19th hole.

Moving forward, the new owners plan to be aggressive in getting the word out about Wyckoff through some targeted marketing, and they said that word-of-mouth marketing has already generated a solid response.

Membership that once exceeded 400 is now closer to 150, and the new owners obviously hope their investments and ongoing work to get the message out will bring that number considerably higher.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away,” Arment said. “While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted. We’re seeing very positive feedback — a lot of past members are very interested in getting involved again.”

If this trend continues, then a course with some rich history can continue adding new chapters to that discourse for decades to come.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke

GTI’s cultivation facility in Holyoke has been operating since last summer, and many new ventures could be opening in the years ahead.

Alex Morse says his phone was already ringing — quite frequently, in fact — before he was interviewed on CBS This Morning late last June.

But then, it really started ringing. And his e-mail box became even more crowded.

That’s because, with that report, Holyoke’s efforts to roll out the welcome mat for the cannabis industry, pun intended, became a national story rather than a local story — although it was already well-known.

Yes, this was the detailed report where Morse told CBS that the city once known as the ‘Paper City’ might soon be known as the ‘Rolling Paper City.’ His tongue wasn’t in his cheek, and there was a broad smile on his face as he said it.

Getting serious, or more serious, because he was already serious, he told CBS, “it’s legal … people need to wake up; the days of the past are moving forward. Holyoke has embraced the industry, and we acknowledge that this is an economic-development driver for us.”

Morse, and Holyoke, woke up long ago, meaning just after (or maybe even before) recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts in the fall of 2016, and today it is making giant strides toward creating what officials are calling a ‘cannabis cluster.’

And they’re comparing it, in some ways, to the cluster that put this city on the map — figuratively and quite literally (this was a planned industrial city) — the paper and textiles cluster.

As they used that word ‘cluster,’ both Morse and Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Economic Development, said it means more than the creation of a number a number of businesses and jobs in a specific sector, although that’s a big part of it. It also means establishment of an infrastructure of support services that can have a large multiplier effect, if you will.

“With a cluster, it’s more than the sum of its parts,” Marrero explained. “Once you have a cluster, then you have an expertise, just like Holyoke did when it was the Paper City. Just as you have an expertise with paper, you can have an expertise with all the expects of this [cannabis] business.”

Elaborating, he said cannabis-cultivation facilities require highly specialized construction, lighting, anti-contamination, air-movement, and security systems, and all this adds up to opportunities for companies in this area that can handle such work.

In many ways, Holyoke is well on its way to seeing this cannabis cluster become reality, said Morse, noting that one large cultivation facility, Green Thumb Industries (GTI), is currently operating in a former textile mill on Appleton Street. And there are several other businesses across the wide spectrum of this business — from cultivation to retail — moving their way through the involved process of getting permitted to operate and eventually absorbing some of the vast amounts of commercial real estate that are vacant or underperforming.

Holyoke at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1786
Population: 40,341
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.29
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.87
Median Household Income: $36,608
Median family Income: $41,194
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center, Holyoke Community College, ISO New England Inc., PeoplesBank, Universal Plastics, Marox Corp.
* Latest information available

“For us, cannabis is another form of manufacturing that’s bringing buildings back to life, being a revenue generator and job creator,” said the mayor.

And as they say in the agriculture business, Holyoke is certainly fertile ground for the cannabis industry. Indeed, it boasts, by the mayor’s estimate, 1.5 million square feet of vacant or underutilized former mill properties. Meanwhile, it has, again, by Morse’s calculations, the lowest electricity rates in the state (Holyoke has its own municipal utility), and it has something just as important as those ingredients — a giant, figurative ‘welcome’ sign when it comes to this business, as will become clear later.

But cannabis isn’t the only positive development in this city. Holyoke is also making great strides in ongoing efforts to attract entrepreneurs and arts-related businesses. It is also convincing more people, especially the younger generations, that this is a place to live as well as work and operate a business. And it’s seeing many of those aforementioned mills being put to creative and momentum-building uses.

Mayor Alex Morse

Mayor Alex Morse, an early supporter of the cannabis industry, says its many components collectively form an economic driver in Holyoke.

All of the above can be seen in one high-profile project known as the Cubit Building, the structure on Race Street that takes that shape. The first two floors are now occupied by the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute, a story that embodies education, workforce development, and economic development, and in the floors above are apartments that were leased out even quicker than the optimistic owners thought they would.

“You drive by at night, and it’s all lit up,” said the mayor. “People are living on the top two floors, and on the first two floors you see students in the chefs’ hats cooking and doing classes; there’s a lot of vibrancy on Race Street.”

Lights are coming on all over Holyoke, and for this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how this has come about and why Holyoke is creating a buzz — in all kinds of ways.

Budding Ventures

As noted, this cannabis cluster is a solid work in progress, with GTI now approaching a full year in business and several other projects in various stages of development.

Conducting one of those ‘if-all-goes-well’ exercises, Morse said he can envision a cluster that generates perhaps 300 to 400 jobs and many types of businesses, from cultivation facilities to cannabis cafés like those in Amsterdam. If that picture comes to fruition, marijuana-related businesses would constitute economic development in many different ways, from jobs to tax dollars; from revving up the real-estate market (aspiring ventures have acquired options on a number of properties) to giving tourism a boost; from creation of support businesses to helping give Holyoke a new brand.

As Morse told CBS — and BusinessWest — cannabis has become an economic driver. And city officials have had a lot to do with this by being so aggressive, welcoming, and accommodating.

As one example, Morse and Marrero cited the host-community agreements that such businesses traditionally sign in order to set up shop. Some communities have been excessive in their requests (or demands), while Holyoke has taken a different tack.

“These agreements have become another choking point for the industry,” said Marrero. “Communities try to negotiate, they go back and forth, and hold you down for a bunch of criteria. We’ve been very transparent and said, ‘we’re going to go for the maximum allowable benefits for the community by law in terms of impact fee, and if you sign here, you have a host-community agreement; we don’t become an impediment in the process.”

Morse agreed. “There have been communities that have tried to go above the state law in terms of percentage of annual revenues or have tried to negotiate for various line items such as a new fire truck,” he explained. “They say, ‘in addition to the percentage, you need to give ‘X’ amount to this nonprofit every year.’ We have a standard document, so it’s not intimidating in that sense; the burden is really on the companies to get through the state regulatory process — the local process shouldn’t be an additional burden to bear.”

Holyoke’s willingness not to push for every dollar or every concession, on top of its many other selling points, including available mill space and lower utility costs, have certainly caught the attention of the cannabis industry.

“There is political openness and stability to the industry, which is very valuable,” said Marrero. “We were, if not the first, one of the first handful of communities that had a permissive ordinance in place, so we were first to market on the government side to say, ‘we’re open to this business.’

“They saw the mayor’s advocacy, and they saw that the operational costs would be lower, and that is very, very significant,” he went on. “The energy savings alone … you can save 40% on your energy costs.”

This attractive package has attracted a number of interested parties, said Marrero, noting that two additional cultivators, East Coast Farms and Solurge, are working their way through the permitting process. Overall, a total of 15 host-community agreements have been executed, and seven special permits have been issued. Within a year, it is expected that another two or three cultivation facilities could be doing business in the city, and other types of cannabis-related businesses as well.

And as the cluster grows, it gains momentum and recognition, which fuels additional opportunities. Marrero drew some comparisons to Detroit (the car industry) and Silicon Valley (IT).

“The industry has to train a workforce on how to grow these plants and clip these plants, and as that workforce develops locally, other companies know they can locate in Holyoke and they will have an accessible workforce,” he explained. “They will have access to other vendors that know how to provide services or provide goods to cannabis companies.”

Marcos Marrero

Marcos Marrero says a cannabis cluster is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Building Momentum

As noted earlier, though, cannabis is just one of many intriguing economic-development-themed stories being written in what is still called the Paper City.

Others include everything from the culinary arts center and the sum of the Cubit Building’s many parts to ongoing evolution of the Holyoke Mall — one of the city’s main draws and largest employers — in response to a changing retail landscape; from redevelopment of two municipal properties — the former Lynch Middle School and the Holyoke Geriatric Authority building — to entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building efforts that are bringing new businesses, and jobs, to the city.

At the mall, as stores large and small shrink or disappear from the landscape (longtime anchor Sears closed its Holyoke store a few months back) and those that remain operate with a smaller footprint, the facility is changing its look and adding more entertainment-related businesses, said Marrero.

These includes more restaurants, a bowling alley, and a planned movie-theater complex, he said, adding that, overall, the mall is responding proactively to a changing retail scene.

“They’ve been very resilient … retail is changing, and the mall is putting a much greater emphasis on entertainment and making it more of an experience rather than just shopping,” said the mayor. “Whether it’s the escape rooms or the kids’ center or the laser tag and bowling alley, it’s about creating experiences.”

Meanwhile, additional retail will be coming to the city with redevelopment of the former Lynch School, located just off I-91, by the Colvest Group. The property is slated for demolition later this year, and the expectation is that it will become home to several retail outlets.

Reuse of a different kind is slated for the Geriatric Authority property, which closed several years ago. Indeed, Baystate Health and US HealthVest have chosen the site for its planned 70,000-square-foot behavioral-health hospital.

Plans calls for 120 beds in a facility that would represent consolidation of some of the existing beds in the region and creation of new beds as well.

“This is a great story of reactivating a site that had once been a money pit for the city, one that was draining almost $1 million of taxpayer funds,” Morse said of the days when the Geriatric Authority was operating was site. “Overall, we have two large, city-owned properties that are being developed, and that represents real progress.”

There is progress on many different levels in the downtown area and especially the city’s Innovation District, the area around the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which opened in 2012.

On the municipal side, there will be several infrastructure projects undertaken in the area over the next several years, said Marrero, including street work, reconstruction of one of the canal bridges, and other initiatives.

Meanwhile, the city continues to add jobs and vibrancy organically through entrepreneurship-ecosytem-building initiatives such as SPARK, which recently joined forces with the Massachusetts-based program Entrepreneurship for All, or EforAll, to form SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

The new organization offers a number of programs, including a business accelerator, pitch contests, and co-working space currently being built out on High Street that will be available to program members.

Launched four years ago, SPARK has helped a number of ventures get off the ground or to the next stage, and most of them have settled in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that these startups, in addition to some others started organically, are bringing more vibrancy to the downtown.

He listed a catering venture, a salon now under construction, and a microbrewery on Race Street, among others.

“There are things that are happening organically, and I think these businesses are tapping into the momentum happening in the downtown and the ecosystem they feel here and the support they see,” said Morse. “They feel they can be viable here opening up a catering business or a salon or a brewery in downtown Holyoke.”

Marrero agreed. “We’re tilling our own soils, and stuff grows,” he said, referring to organic growth of the business community. “Every now and then, a business moves here, but a lot of this is organic.”

And these businesses are helping to fill more of those vacant or underutilized properties.

“We’re seeing this dynamic where more square footage is coming online,” said Marrero. “It’s being rehabilitated and filled by these businesses.”

As for the culinary arts center and the Cubit Building on the whole, it is bringing many different constituencies to the Innovation District area, adding to this vibrancy there. These include college students, their professors, those attending functions, and, yes, Morse himself, who has signed up for two night classes, one on how to make macaroons, the other involving a chiffon layer cake.

After those, he’ll be even better suited to answer the question, ‘what’s cooking in Holyoke?”

That’s a Wrap

As he was wrapping up his walk through the city with CBS, Morse told the reporter that it would be a good problem to have if the cannabis industry so embraced Holyoke that it found itself running out of commercial space for additional ventures.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon (1.5 million square feet is a considerable amount of inventory), but a cannabis cluster appears to be no longer a goal but a reality. How quickly and profoundly it develops remains to be seen, but Holyoke appears to be well on its way to having history repeat itself on a certain scale.

A name change probably isn’t in the cards — ‘Paper City’ will stick — but a new era in the city’s history is certainly underway.

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