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Strong Signals

By Mark Morris

When the pandemic arrived early last year and many companies adjusted to remote work for their staff, it was IT professionals who got everyone up and running from their homes.

Now, as the world begins to move away from the pandemic and companies begin bringing employees back to the office, the demand to hire IT pros is even higher than it was before COVID-19 emerged. And that poses challenges for employers.

In a normal year, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, the company sees about 10% turnover of people leaving and new staff being hired. During the pandemic, there was no turnover, as every one of the 50 Paragus employees stayed in their job.

In the last four months, however, as the economy has improved and COVID restrictions have eased, Bean has seen a “tremendous transition” among the IT labor force.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic,” he said. “Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

Bean cited a number of reasons for the high demand for IT talent. During the pandemic, nearly every company increased their use and dependence on technology, which requires more people to keep systems up and running. As the economy improves, companies are pursuing more projects and thus increasing their need for IT talent. The pandemic also made it acceptable to hire people who work only remotely, creating even more opportunities for IT pros.

“With the increased dependence on technology, an improved economy, and the ability to work remotely, we’re seeing employers do things they would not have done before,” he said.

Joel Mollison, president of Northeast IT Systems, noted that, unlike others in IT support, his 18-person company does not have high worker turnover. He credits that to attracting IT staff who enjoy working with Northeast’s varied client list, which covers sectors from insurance and healthcare to manufacturing, municipalities, and even cannabis.

“Many of those who are leaving are pursuing remote-work opportunities that didn’t exist before the pandemic. Most of these companies are not local and would never have interviewed or offered jobs to these workers in the past.”

One notable challenge to retaining his workforce involves companies such as banks, manufacturers, and other industries that are looking to bring their IT support in-house, he said. “As a service provider in Western Mass., we’re competing against much larger institutions in the region who can pay IT professionals more.”

As security issues receive prominent news coverage, companies worry more about ransomware attacks and similar threats. Mollison believes this is part of the reason firms are increasingly looking for in-house IT staff.

“The larger the business, the more complex their systems are, and the more they need IT professionals to manage them,” he explained.

Bean agreed that IT security issues have increased the pressure for companies to be proactive in preventing major disruptions, pointing out that much of the job growth is the result of companies expanding their internal IT staff both regionally and on a national level.

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

Delcie Bean says an IT workforce that was remarkably stable in 2020 has entered a time of “tremendous transition.”

“All these companies are doing this because the growing economy gives them a little more money and it can be a luxury to have your IT support in-house.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, agrees, but believes that, after companies build up their internal IT staffing, they usually return to outsourcing with an external service provider once they realize that internal IT is less cost-effective.

“Instead of paying full-time employees to show up every day, companies can hire an IT firm that knows all the technical details and address specific problems when they arise,” Beaudry said. “It would be similar to bringing a plumber on staff. Why would you do that?”

In fact, he predicts that the hiring surge for internal IT will shake out to one or two positions to oversee the main systems augmented by an outside IT service provider.

Bean said it’s common for companies to have an internal person handling technology issues as well as an outside IT service company. “Our biggest source of new business right now involves partnering with internal IT departments to round out what they are doing and give them supplemental assistance.”

 

Here and There

Like many industries right now, technology is grappling with a job market that significantly favors job seekers. Bean told the story of an employee who had previously worked in the defense-contracting industry 10 years ago.

“Because this employee’s name was still in the defense system, a contractor called him to make a job offer, sight unseen and without an interview,” he said. “They literally e-mailed him an electronic salary offer without meeting him, and it was for $35,000 more than he was making here.”

A company located in a large metro area interested in hiring remote workers will offer salaries that are competitive in their market. This can often lead to small-market workers getting big-city paydays.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life.”

“Usually, when someone makes a salary that’s attractive in Boston, it comes with the high cost of living in the metro Boston area,” Bean said. “When someone with a Western Mass. cost of living makes that same amount, they can see a 30% net increase in their salary.”

Indeed, more companies than ever are embracing remote or hybrid workforces (see related story on page 25). That means IT service providers face the same dilemma confronting many of their clients: continue to work from home or go back to the office.

Mollison tells a slightly different story. Before COVID, he said, Northeast IT was outgrowing its space in Westfield, so he suggested that staff work remotely as a short-term solution. He was surprised when almost no one wanted to work from home.

“Nearly everyone wanted to work in the office,” he recalled. “We have a kind of think-tank environment where our staff enjoy working on problems together.”

However, the pandemic forced nearly everyone to work from home for the last 16 months, a situation Mollison called stressful because many felt less connected to their co-workers. He added that a change in venue is coming. “We purchased a building in West Springfield and will be moving in at the end of August. We’ll have plenty of space to bring everyone back with social distancing; our people are really looking forward to returning.”

At Paragus, employees have been ramping up their return to the office by coming in one day a week in June, two days a week in July, and three days a week starting in August. Bean said he won’t require more than three days a week in the office, but felt that some time in the office was important.

“We have intentionally designed our office to promote collaboration,” he said. “We don’t have walls or offices, so people can listen to each other and overhear what’s going on. You can replicate some of that online, but it’s not the same as hearing what’s going on around you.”

At Bloo Solutions, Beaudry has allowed his four full-time and several part-time employees to stay remote except for occasional trips to the office or when visiting a client’s location. Collaborative messaging tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams allow him and his staff to stay in touch with each other and stay on top of client concerns.

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT

Jeremiah Beaudry says even companies that have built up internal IT staffing often come to see the value in outsourcing that work.

“We have channels dedicated to each client so any one of us can jump in and take care of any concerns,” he said. “Because we all have access to these messages, the same information is available to all of us without being next to each other.”

Whenever possible, Beaudry makes working from home an option for his staff.

“If you’re at home and take five minutes between tasks to turn around to pet your dog or do the dishes real quick, that time becomes meaningful and helpful in your life,” he said. “When you are in the office and not near anything you need to do, that same five minutes is wasted.”

Therefore, as long as his staff are productive, he doesn’t care if they work from home or at the office.

Another reason Bean cited for having people in the office at least some of the time is to help with their professional development and to identify when a staff member might need help. He worries that IT professionals who have chosen full-time remote work won’t have the same chance to grow or develop their careers.

“They will probably be fine doing the job they were hired for, but they will be relatively unengaged and potentially stagnant,” he said. “I don’t see how they can grow or develop much in an environment where they never see their co-workers or be around other people.”

Mollison credits his low staff turnover to seeking out people who like variety in their work and have an interest in personal and professional growth.

“Because IT folks tend to be introverts, we try to help them grow personally so they can become more comfortable working with clients and developing relationships with them,” he said.

While finding people in Western Mass. with technical skills isn’t so tough, Beaudry makes his hiring decisions based on a candidate’s emotional intelligence.

“I’ve learned over time that clients would rather feel good about a conversation they had rather than having an expert solve the problem who makes them feel bad about themselves,” he said.

 

Change Can Be Good

Another reason the demand for IT professionals is increasing has to do with the growing economy. Bean said the sales pipeline for new projects has never been fuller. “In terms of new business, we’re booking clients out to October because we only book so much at a time.”

In addition to hiring temporary contract workers, he has found another way to make up worker shortages: acquisitions. Paragus recently acquired one IT-support company in Worcester and is looking at two other acquisitions.

“In the past, the goal of an acquisition was to acquire clients and market,” he said. “Now it’s about acquiring talent.”

Would Bean like to see less disruption in the labor force? Sure. He also understands that this time of transition is part of the bigger picture.

“Everybody is moving around, so we’re on the receiving end of this as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The good news is we haven’t seen a shortage of any new résumés coming in.”

While it’s tempting to dwell on the employees leaving, however, Bean has gained some perspective.

“After some reflection,” he said, “we realized that a lot of the innovation and fresh approaches we get are driven by new people coming in with new ideas.”

Hampshire County

Growth Market

Elly Vaughan

Elly Vaughan with some of the trees that will blossom with life — and fruit — when the weather warms up.

Elly Vaughan knows a lot about the global food system — and the myriad problems it has posed over the decades.

“Local food is so important for so many reasons,” she said. “The global food system has a lot of issues — environmental issues, workers’ human-rights violations, the way the global agricultural food system tends to strip people of their water rights in some countries.

“Globalized food — a large, centralized food system — can really damage the environment and communities, and when we buy local, we break that cycle,” she added. And, as owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, she’s certainly doing her part.

“We’re delivering money directly from the consumer to the farmer, so that eliminates the middleman — the consumer gets a fresher product, and the farmer gets a better price point,” she said. “The farmer can pay their workers living wages and can be conservative about environmental resources, which affects climate change, while offering affordable, high-quality food to local communities and families. That’s what a local food system does.”

Taking notice of how Vaughan has grown and diversified Phoenix since purchasing the property in 2017, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce gave her the Leader in Innovation Award at its 2020 A+ Awards, “for being instrumental in cultivating relationships with other local businesses to improve the economic climate of Belchertown.”

That’s gratifying for someone whose business motto is “fruit with a conscience.”

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years,” she told BusinessWest. “You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.

“But I think that local food is a model for an alternative to that,” she went on. “Producing food and feeding people doesn’t like to look like this. It does not have to be actively harming the environment; it does not have to be actively exploiting workers and excluding low-income families from being able to afford healthy food. Small farms don’t have to struggle to compete in a wholesale marketplace when they can deliver directly to their community.”

 

Community Focus

Vaughan became interested in farming as a career while in college, and she worked on various organic vegetable farms for about a decade before becoming the orchard manager for Phoenix, which was then owned and operated by Amherst-based Atkins Farms.

When Atkins decided to sell the Belchertown property, Vaughan bought it, and renovated the 1935 horse barn on the property as her residence.

“When I first bought it, it was apples and peaches — and those are still my largest crops,” she said. “But I have replanted and started diversifying.”

New crops include more varieties of apples, as well as table grapes, strawberries, and other fruits. In 2018, she planted new blocks of peach, nectarine, and pear trees, and she’ll see the first harvest of peaches and nectarines from those trees this spring, with the pears coming along in subsequent years. She’s also begun planting more vegetables, including asparagus, tomatoes, kale, onions, and basil. “I want to ramp all that up, now that I have a store and an outlet for a diverse market garden.”

The nearby store on Route 181 was a dilapidated garage with no foundation, plumbing, or … well, much else, actually, when she decided to turn it into a country store.

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years. You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.”

“It was just a shell of a garage,” Vaughan said. “It was a major, major undertaking to get it to where it is now. But it’s really starting to catch on, I think.”

Since opening in July 2019, the store sells locally produced fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, bread, baked goods, and coffee, as well as prepared foods, like grab-and-go wraps, side dishes and soups to heat up at home, and plenty of pantry staples. “You can grab everything you need to make a meal for your family in the store.”

That’s been a plus for patrons who don’t want to go in supermarkets these days; in response to COVID-19 anxieties, the store launched curbside pickup last year and expanded its product lines — with items like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and more staple foods — to minimize the need for shoppers to visit large stores.

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store has been growing in popularity since its opening in July 2019.

“It was an effort to create a more comprehensive, one-stop grocery experience. They could get a lot of what they needed from us,” Vaughan said. “I think people really appreciated that.”

While offering an outlet for other local food producers, the country store is a critical element — along with a growing business in pick-your-own apples and peaches — in selling Phoenix’s own products directly to customers.

Vaughan wholesales apples to Big Y and a couple of smaller stores, for about $30 a bushel, because she produces too many — on more than 20 acres of apple trees — to sell on her own.

“But when I sell them in my store, I can get $50 to $60 for that same case because I’m eliminating the middleman, selling direct to the consumer, all while giving them a reasonable price point; it’s not a super expensive apple,” she explained. Direct consumer sales, in fact, are “the difference between me paying my bills and not paying my bills. As a medium to small-sized farm, it’s important to be able to market directly to people in a community-based system like this.”

Not that people should abandon the supermarket, she added. “You need to go to the supermarket for some things. You need paper towels; you need a big case of ramen noodles or whatever. But if you go to a local farmstand and get as many items as you can there instead of the store as part of your weekly or monthly routine, that makes a huge difference. And I wish people knew how much impact they can have just by including more locally oriented shopping in their routine.”

One benefit, of course, is fresher produce; while local chains like Big Y do buy from local farms, many of the fruits and vegetables they sell are not local, and, in many cases, not even in season in Massachusetts. So people are eating produce that’s been in transit for a week or two.

Switching exclusively to local produce requires some changed habits from consumers, she added, and occasionally some sacrifice.

“Part of it is people learning to eat in season and not expecting to have strawberries year-round and not expecting to have perfect, flawless-looking fruit if they want to eat organic; something grown with less chemicals is not going to look as picture-perfect,” she explained. “There needs to be somewhat of a shift with the way that people view what kind of produce they should have, and in exchange for making that shift, they can have high-quality, locally grown food that doesn’t break the bank and can support local farmers.”

While that education process is ongoing, it’s a culture that has taken root (literally and figuratively) in Western Mass. more than in many regions of the country.

“I think we are very fortunate in this community — people are really hip to local foods, and we have so much great local food in this region, and you don’t have to look very far to find everything you need to feed your family just with food produced in the Pioneer Valley,” Vaughan said. “There’s such a wealth of really great, locally produced foods around here. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

 

Looking Ahead

Now in her fourth year running the farm, Vaughan has no intention of slowing down. As she waits for the first harvests from those new peach, nectarine, and pear trees and diversifies into vegetables, she’s also looking into new business opportunities, like making hard cider. For that, she’s been gathering equipment and trying to nail down the right recipe.

The store continues to grow, too. “It typically takes a few years for a business like that to optimize and settle into what it’s going to be like,” she said, adding that she also wants to expand the pick-your-own business.

“That’s another necessary piece of the business. Our fruit is the difference between being in the red and being in the black. We need direct markets through the store and pick-your-own to survive, and we’re still building those things up. Both need to continue to grow if the business will be sustainable.”

But, as evidenced by that A+ Award and, more importantly, the growing number of locals heading to Phoenix for something fresh, she’s on the right track.

“We’re not there yet,” Vaughan said. “It’s going to be a lifelong journey, shaping this place into what it’s going to be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Holiday Gift Guide Special Coverage

Shopping Local

Do you have Amazon fatigue, or just want to support some great local shops? Thankfully, Western Mass. provides myriad gift-giving options this holiday season, all of which support the region’s business owners during an especially difficult year. On the following pages are just a few suggestions. COVID-19 has altered the experience at many businesses, so check the websites for hours, operations, and how to purchase and enjoy their products and experiences. Gift cards are available from most. Happy holidays!

 

The Artisan Gallery

162 Main St., Northampton

(413) 586-1942; www.theartisangallery.com

After 36 years in business, the Artisan Gallery is closing in January, but should have plenty of eclectic items in stock before the holidays. Its collection includes handmade ceramics, creative clothing, a fun children’s section, unique accessories, and jewelry, and features artists who reside and work in the Pioneer Valley and the hills that surround it.

Black Birch Vineyard

155 Glendale Road, Southampton

(413) 527-0164; blackbirchvineyard.com

One of several wineries in Western Mass. that offer vineyard tours, Black Birch — whose owners call the vineyard “a family that moves wine and the nuanced process of creating it” — provides a number of gift-giving opportunities, from wine-tasting events to enrollment in a wine club that includes 12 seasonal bottles throughout the year at a 15% discount.

 

Catamount Mountain Resort

78 Catamount Road, Hillsdale, N.Y.

(518) 325-3200; www.catamountski.com

Catamount offers some of the most varied ski terrain in Southern New England. Family-oriented, close to both Great Barrington and the Hudson Valley, Catamount is oriented towards all skier types, and has expanded its menu of year-round offerings with the 2019 addition of the Catamount Zip Tour, featuring the longest zipline in the U.S. at 5,523 feet.

 

Cooper’s Gifts

161 Main St., Agawam

(413) 786-7760; coopersgifts.com

Cooper’s is not just a store — it’s a destination,” shopkeeper Kate Gourde has said, calling her facility a shopper’s oasis featuring trendy clothing, window fashions, distinctive home furnishings, and exquisite gifts. “We are serious about style, yet you will find this shop unpredictable, quirky, and alluring. We want to be something exciting and new every time you visit.”

 

Front Porch Charcuterie

29 Evergreen Road, Vernon, Conn.

(860) 916-1658; www.frontporchcharcuterie.com

Front Porch gathers cheeses, produce, and honey from local farms, farmers’ markets and shops to provide customers with fresh local specialties, including charcuterie boards, trays, and boxes of different sizes for myriad occasions. “I hope we take what we have learned from this pandemic and make family and friends our priority,” its owner, Michele Martinez, says. “I am here to help you make your gatherings special.”

 

Granny’s Baking Table

309 Bridge St., Springfield

(413) 333-4828; www.grannysbakingtable.com

Proprietors Sonya Yelder and Todd Crosset say their mission is to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation. The bakery combines two baking traditions: American South and Northen European, with a singular commitment to authentic small-batch baking.

 

Hope & Olive

44 Hope St., Greenfield

(413) 774-3150; hopeandolive.com

Hope & Olive’s owners, siblings Jim and Maggie Zaccara and Evelyn Wulfkuhle, call their establishment an “everyday-special restaurant” that sources much of its menu with nearby farm products. “We serve inspired cocktails, have an eclectic by-the-glass wine menu, and 12 great beers on tap. We invite you to come and have lunch, brunch, dinner, or maybe just drinks, snacks, or a housemade dessert.”

 

Michael Szwed Jewelers

807 Williams St., Longmeadow

(413) 567-7977; michaelszwedjewelers.com

As a master IJO (Independent Jewelers Organization) jeweler, Michael Szwed Jewelers keeps up with the latest fashions and trends in fine jewelry and every other aspect of the industry, including innovative technologies. As a result, the owner notes, “we are able to offer the finest diamonds in the world at the best value.” The website features a searchable catalog.

 

Jackson & Connor

150 Main St., Northampton

(413) 586-4636; www.jacksonandconnor.com

This small, unique menswear specialty shop offers a selection of eye-catching goods, from stylish suits to cozy sweatpants, ties, T-shirts, socks, vests, sport coats, accessories, shoes, hats, jewelry, care products, colognes, and more. The store also provides full tailoring services, and frequently tracks down hard-to-find items for customers through special and custom orders.

 

Odyssey Bookshop

9 College St, South Hadley

(413) 534-7307; odysseybks.com

Over its 57-year history, Odyssey Bookshop has earned a reputation as an eclectic spot to look for books, and also also features a full-service website for ordering. In addition, according to its website, “we strive to provide a hospitable and nurturing environment to encourage the healthy exchange of ideas by hosting numerous readings, book groups, panel presentations, and online discussions.”

 

Off the Beam Woodworking

www.offthebeamwoodworking.com

Local artist (and full-time nurse) Sheri Lee handcrafts unique woodworking pieces, including cheese and serving boards, picture frames, cribbage boards, knife racks, and lanterns from domestic and exotic woods — and all proceeds are donated to a number of nonprofit organizations on Cape Cod that work to preserve, educate, and foster conservation.

 

Pioneer Valley Food Tours

www.pioneervalleyfoodtours.com

This enterprise creates walking food tours that explore local flavors from Northampton and around the region. It also creates gift boxes sourced from the unique natural resources of the region’s fields and farms, as well as Pioneer Valley picnic baskets of selections ready to bring on an outdoor adventure. Choose a pre-set tour itinerary, or create a custom tour to suit your tastes.

 

Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

10 West St., West Hatfield

(413) 446-7845; pioneervalleykarting.com

The 1,000-foot track at Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting is capable of racing up to eight karts at once, with the fastest on-track speeds in Massachusetts, featuring a combination of straightaways designed for speed and sweeping corners for technical driving that will challenge everyone from beginners to experts. The track is equipped with a state-of-the-art timing system to record the individual lap times of each kart.

 

Renew.Calm

160 Baldwin St., West Springfield

(413) 737-6223; renewcalm.com

For the past two decades, Renew.Calm has offered an array of both medically based and luxurious spa treatments, with services including skin care, therapeutic massage, nail care, body treatments, yoga, hair removal, makeup, and lashes. The 4,000-square-foot facility also hosts educational events, fitness classes, and more. Multi-treatment packages make great gifts.

 

Ski Butternut

380 State Road, Great Barrington

(413) 528-2000; www.skibutternut.com

Skiing and snowboarding definitely make those New England winters more tolerable. This family-oriented ski area in Great Barrington provides 110 acres of skiing spread across 22 trails. If you are shopping for someone who loves the outdoors, a gift certificate to Ski Butternut may open the doors to a new passion. If they’re already hooked on skiing, a lift ticket may be most appreciated.

 

SkinCatering

1500 Main St., Suite 220, Springfield

(413) 282-8772; skincatering.com

SkinCatering offers a release from the hectic holidays — and, let’s be honest, from the stress of 2020 in general — so an extra-special, very personal gift may be just what the doctor ordered. Pamper someone special with a massage, facial treatment, spa and sauna package, or any number of other options. Membership packages are available at several different levels.

 

Tea Guys

110 Christian Lane, Whately

(413) 303-0137; www.teaguys.com

It all begins with hand-blended tea recipes, crafted in small batches daily in the humble tea factory built out of an old train station in Whately. This local success story offers loose tea, 100% plant-based tea bags, matcha (both pure and flavored, mixed in house), tea concentrates, and now sparkling teas — more than 100 tea varieties in all.

 

The Toy Box

201 North Pleasant St., Amherst

(413) 256-8697; www.facebook.com/thetoyboxamherst

The Toy Box is “the family fun store of Amherst,” encouraging kids and adults to play and explore. “Parents are being required to stay home and work and be parents at the same time,” owner Liz Rosenberg recently said about doing business during a pandemic. “That’s a challenge beyond all challenges. To be able to assist with that … that’s my job. I’m lucky to be in a position where I can bring some joy.”

 

WEBS

75 Service Center Road, Northampton

(800) 367-9327; yarn.com

A second-generation, family-owned business, WEBS, has been a destination for knitters, weavers, and spinners for more than 40 years. This Western Mass. mainstay with a national reach is known as America’s Yarn Store for a reason, with a 21,000-square-foot retail store, a robust online presence, as well as comprehensive classes and events for all skill levels.

 

Westfield Homeless Cat Project

1124 East Mountain Road, Westfield

(413) 568-6964; www.facebook.com/westfieldhomelesscatprojectadoptions

The Foundation for TJO Animals

66 Industry Ave., Suite 3, Springfield, MA 01104

(413) 306-5161; www.tjofoundation.org

 

Instead of buying someone a gift, why not make a donation in their name to an animal-welfare nonprofit? The Westfield Homeless Cat Project is a no-kill cat rescue completely staffed by volunteers. It does not discriminate against age or illness provided that vet care is manageable. Meanwhile, the Foundation for TJO Animals provides financial assistance and veterinary care for the animals at the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center, which serves the cities of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee.

Creative Economy

Behind the Curtain

Debra J’Anthony says the Academy of Music

Debra J’Anthony says the Academy of Music’s history speaks to the commit-ment of its community to the arts over the decades.

During a decade of renovations at Northampton’s Academy of Music, few proved more surprising than the sailcloth canvas that lined the theater’s century-old curtain.

“We’ve put a lot of attention on maintaining the historic integrity of this building,” said Debra J’Anthony, the facility’s executive director since 2008. “There’s a lot of mindfulness and thought in this space. We’ve tried to get state-of-the-art technical equipment and at the same time preserve the historical integrity of the space.”

The sailcloth, as it turned out, was actually a massive landscape painting of nearby Paradise Pond. It was restored by a Vermont company called Curtains Without Borders, which specializes in preserving historic stage scenery, and now hangs high in the Academy’s rafters upstage.

As historical fragments go, it’s actually a relatively minor one in the 127-year-old facility’s rich story. Edward H.R. Lyman opened the theater in 1891 as a building “suitable for lectures, concerts, opera, and drama for the public good.” Remarkably, the Academy’s priorities have changed very little since then.

“There has been a mix of activity, but depending on the year, there has been a weight toward one medium or another,” J’Anthony said. “In the beginning, it was just performing arts and lectures; then, starting in the 1930s, it was weighted more heavily toward film. We actually had a film distributor out of Boston that leased the building for about 10 years, so the Academy actually did quite well during the Depression because they had a renter in here.”

During the first few years of J’Anthony’s tenure, she led another transition, from what was largely a first-run film house, with occasional live performances, to what it is today, a performing-arts venue that hosts scores of shows — national touring acts, presentations by local companies, and sometimes the Academy’s own productions — throughout the year.

Efforts to fill that calendar have been boosted by a series of renovations to the theater, from shoring up the envelope of the building — including new roofing and replacement of leaky windows and doors — to launching the organization’s first-ever capital campaign to pay for a major renovation of the theater space itself.

“There were seats upstairs dating from 1947, and there were seats downstairs that were bought used during the 1960s,” J’Anthony said, noting that the Academy worked with Thomas Douglas Architects to re-establish a period look, and received a Preservation Award from the Massachusetts Historical Commission for its efforts. “We’re hoping to continue to renovate, finish the renovations in the hall, then go out into the lobby areas. We’re hoping to receive some Community Preservation Act funds soon to complete the opera boxes and add architectural lighting.”

In addition, because the Academy had mainly been a film house during the tenure of Duane Robinson, who ran it for more than 35 years before J’Anthony’s arrival, there wasn’t much modern theatrical equipment on hand. So the theater recently installed a new sound system, replaced some outdated theatrical lighting with LED lighting, and installed new flooring for theatrical productions.

Those efforts have helped make the Academy of Music a more attractive venue for national touring acts. The theater’s relationship with Signature Sounds led to a relationship with Dan Smalls Presents, which represents many of the the national touring bands that come through Northampton.

“We’ve got the attention of AEG and Live Nation as well,” she added. “The model is definitely working. There’s usually somebody in here most days. We have a wide range of offerings, from hip hop to ballet, from opera to Americana music, film, comedy, dramas, musicals — so there’s something for everybody.”

Rich History

Looking back to the beginning, Lyman had the foresight to purchase a lot of land on Main Street that would eventually be one of Northampton’s main crossroads. Working with well-known architect William Brocklesby of Hartford, Lyman had the two-story Academy built for $100,000, plus $25,000 for interior decoration and equipment.

It opened in 1891 with a sold-out concert featuring four solo artists backed by the Boston Orchestra. But Lyman’s fondest interest, opera, never really caught on at the center.

He eventually gifted the theater to the city, and it remains the only municipally owned theater in the U.S. — and a largely self-sufficient one. Aside from occasional help from the city to make needed repairs, the facility has never had a line item on the Northampton budget, surviving on box office and donations.

Throughout its first 15 years, the Academy became a popular stop for drama troupes and traveling road shows, attracting some of the top talent of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt and Ethel Barrymore.

With the economy shifting and top acts harder to come by, the Academy’s trustees went in a different direction in 1912, establishing a resident dramatic company, the Northampton Players. Although their shows were popular, especially with the Smith College crowd, they didn’t make enough money, and the group was disbanded a few years later. Various efforts to revive resident theater were reattempted throughout the 1920s, but none of the companies survived for long.

the Academy of Music’s iconic building

Opened in 1891, the Academy of Music’s iconic building has been a prominent fixture at one of Northampton’s busiest intersections.

That era saw visits to the theater by the likes of Frank Morgan and William Powell, among other names who later made the transition into motion pictures — which would be the Academy’s direction as well.

In fact, it had presented its first moving picture in 1898, shortly after the ‘projectiscope’ technology was introduced to the world. By 1921, the Academy was showing films three times a week, and by 1930, the facility was run primarily as a moviehouse. The trustees made the sea change permanent in 1943 by spending $40,000 to modernize the theater.

During that period, the Academy had a falling-out with the film distributor who leased the building through the 1930s, J’Anthony noted. When theater manager Frank Shaughnessy was called to military service, he recommended that his clerk, Mildred Walker, who had been working alongside him for 16 years, mind the shop while he was serving in the military.

“And the board agreed,” she went on. “She was a local resident and known entity to the organization. However, the film distributors were upset that the board would allow a woman to run the theater. So they took the Academy to court — and the Academy lost. That’s why their relationship discontinued; they didn’t re-up the lease.”

Walker, in the meantime, proposed a new governance model whereby the board would run the building, but would hire a manager. “And she recommended herself,” J’Anthony said. “They agreed to her governance model; however, they hired Clifford Boyd to run the theater.” Decades later, in 2014, following the spate of renovations, the Academy commissioned and presented a new work, Nobody’s Girl, that told Walker’s story.

Boyd, a veteran of the theater industry, oversaw a shift at the Academy of Music to live performing arts. Later, under Robinson’s tenure, from 1970 through the early part of the new millennium, the facility reverted to mostly film, as well as undergoing a series of needed renovations in the ’70s and ’80s. But that business model, too, was set to change.

“Film distribution changed in the 1980s with the rise of the megaplex,” J’Anthony said, “so one-screen venues across the nation had to make changes. Either they turned into megaplexes or became performing-arts centers.” The latter, of course, continues to be the Academy’s path today.

Into the Future

When J’Anthony came on board in 2008, the Academy was primarily renting the hall to community-based organizations, but soon established a series of resident companies and partners that supply regular programming.

“However, we needed to look at producing our own shows during the recession, when many of the opera companies folded, and so we started producing our own shows here, which led us into youth programs.”

Those include three sessions of summer musical theater workshops for ages 7 to 14, and in January, the Academy conducts rehearsals for a youth production in March.

“In addition, we have been producing plays,” she continued. “We started focusing on women’s works — being in Northampton, and being connected to Smith College, that just made sense. And we’ve been adding more presentations and productions each year.”

The theater, with a capacity of just over 800, welcomes some 60,000 visitors each year for performances, so it’s still a cultural force in the city after so many decades of change.

“Certainly, there’s a sense of place within this community for the Academy of Music. It is a place of gathering, of sharing ideas,” J’Anthony said, adding that its blend of big-name attractions and community-based productions make for an intriguing mix. “Somebody can be out in the audience and see a national touring show one night and be on stage the next night.”

That said, the Academy also strives to be sensitive to its market, she noted. “We do things that are a little more edgy than other venues. We keep our ear to the ground in regard to the values of our community, what is relevant to them, and making sure we bring art forms that can engage them in further discussions and offer new perspectives.

“A building like this is a valued asset, and it takes a large community to maintain this building and the programming we have here,” she went on. “So we’ll keep working with the city, the state, and Community Preservation Act funds, as well as individual contributions, to keep this space going. It’s all hands on deck.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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