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Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelley says MGM Springfield is ready and waiting for the state to give the green light to sports betting.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest for this issue’s focus on travel and tourism, Chris Kelley was lamenting a huge opportunity lost.

He was talking, of course, about March Madness, the college basketball tournaments that grab and hold the nation’s attention for two weeks. Even more specifically, Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, was referring to the gambling and related activity that goes with that madness — everything that can’t happen at his facility because Massachusetts has yet to legalize sports gambling while most all the states surround it have.

“It’s the largest sports event, bar none, around the country, and to be now literally surrounded by states that offer that experience — most poignantly, in the case of MGM Springfield, Connecticut — is just an extraordinary challenge for the city, for our workforce, for our guests, and for the property,” he explained, adding that, while he continues to have conversations with state legislators about passing a sports-betting bill, when it comes to March Madness, he can only wait until next year.

Fortunately, though, that is not the case with most other aspects of his multi-faceted business.

Indeed, there are plenty of positive developments at the casino complex on Main Street that are creating an optimistic outlook for 2022 as the tourism sector and the region in general look to put COVID in their collective rear view.

For starters, there was the Massachusetts Building Trades Council’s annual convention, staged a few weeks ago at MGM. This was the first large-scale gathering of its kind at the resort casino since before the COVID, said Kelley, adding that there are a number of other events on the calendar as businesses, trade groups and associations, and other entities return to in-person events.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life.”

Such events are a big step in the return to normalcy and, of course, comprise a huge revenue stream for the casino operation.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life,” he explained.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment side of the ledger, there are similar steps toward normalcy, or what was seen prior to the pandemic, said Kelley, noting there are a number of shows slated at the casino, the MassMutual Center, and Symphony Hall, featuring performers such as Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, John Mulaney, Brit Floyd, and many others.

“Entertainment is coming back in a much bigger way in 2022 than we saw the past few years,” said Kelley, adding that, in addition to those events at the larger venues, MGM Springfield is bringing back its popular Free Music Friday in the casino’s plaza, something that was started last summer.

“It was an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to folks and give the community a reason to come back together, but it was such a success that we’re going to bring it back again. And, obviously, the price is right,” he said, adding that program provides an opportunity to showcase local talent.

Overall, the past two years have been a difficult, often frustrating time for all those in casino industry, which had to pivot and adjust to new ways of doing business during the pandemic, said Kelley, adding that it was also a learning experience, one that is yielding dividends and will continue to do so as MGM eases back to something approaching normal.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride in every sense of the word,” he said in summing up the past 24 months. “Our ability to adjust quickly and be agile in the way that we operate, as well as our ability to provide an environment for health and safety that our guests felt comfortable engaging with — those were all unique challenges relative to a business that is not accustomed to closing and had never really experienced the types of changes that COVID required, whether it was six-foot-high pieces of plexiglass or the inability to serve drinks on the floor, or a face-mask policy.

“But all of that being said, I think we’ve come out of this a stronger operation than we were when we went into it,” he went on. “Just look at technology … we’re now able to offer everything from digital menus to digital check-in, our guests’ ability to interact with us through technology has increased exponentially, and that’s just one example of what I mean by coming out of this stronger. We’ve become a much more agile team now, and that’s to the benefit of the guest experience.”

As for sports betting, Kelley said the conversations are ongoing, and he’s optimistic that something can get done — hopefully before March Madness 2023. In anticipation of such a measure, the casino has added new amenities, including a large viewing area, a sports lounge on the floor of the casino, and a VIP viewing area in TAP Sports Bar.

“We’re ready to move forward the minute we see a green light on this issue,” he said, adding that he’s hoping, and expecting, that the light will change soon.

 

— George O’Brien

Education Special Coverage

Challenge Accepted

Linda Thompson, the 21st president of Westfield State University.

Linda Thompson had never applied for a college presidency position before a recruiter called and invited her to pursue that post at Westfield State University. She listened, and agreed it was time to take a 40-year-career in healthcare, public policy, and healthcare education to a new and much higher plane. She becomes WSU’s 21st president at a challenging time, especially as schools large and small return to something approaching normal after 16 months of life in a pandemic. But with her diverse background, she believes she’s ready for that challenge.

 

Linda Thompson remembers not only the call from the headhunter, made to gauge her interest in applying for the president’s position at Westfield State University, but the words of encouragement that accompanied it.

“She said, ‘Linda, I think you’re ready to think about being a president,’” said Thompson, who at the time was dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UMass Boston and hadn’t pursued a president’s position before. “She said, ‘you’re a dean now … look at the work deans do; they raise money, they create new programs, they create partnerships, they work with the board. The things you do as a dean are the things you’ll do as a president.”

More important than the recruiter thinking she was ready for the post at WSU, Thompson knew she was ready, even if she needed a little convincing.

“I thought I had the right background at this point in time to make a difference at this specific university,” she said, adding that it’s much more than the 35 years in higher education in various positions within nursing and health-sciences programs that gave her the confidence to enter and then prevail in the nationwide search for the school’s 21st president. It was also experience in public policy, working with a host of elected leaders to address a wide range of health and public-safety issues and, essentially, problem-solve.

“Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people.”

“Most of my career, I’ve worked with children and youth, trying to develop programs and policies to promote healthy outcomes for children, youth, and families,” she explained. “I started out, like most people in nursing, in a hospital and moved to community and public-health work. I really became interested in high-risk children just based on my work in public health, seeing how children who grew up in poverty, children who grew up in less-than-fortunate environments, were impacted by those circumstances.”

She points to her own family as an example, and noted that her two older sisters both died young, one from a gunshot wound at age 21 and the other from complications from diabetes during her second pregnancy as a teen.

“I always thought that the reason I thrived was education,” she told BusinessWest. “Education, to me, is a ticket out of poverty; it’s a ticket for creating wonderful solutions for society and for people. I’ve been blessed; I’ve not only had the opportunity to work as a nurse, I’ve also had the opportunity to work to develop programs for children who were in the justice system, people who were in state custody. I did work all over the country looking at ways we can promote good outcomes for people who had the misfortune to be engaged in the criminal-justice system.

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic

Linda Thompson says Westfield State University learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, and it will apply them as the school, its students, faculty, and staff return to something approaching normal this fall.

“I worked for the governor of Maryland for five years and developed programs and policies for children and youth statewide,” she went on. “We looked at how we could develop inter-disciplinary or trans-disciplinary programs, starting with education, all the way to how we need to work with housing and economic development to create good outcomes for families and for children.”

Thompson arrives at the rural WSU campus at an intriguing time for all those in higher education. Smaller high-school graduating classes have contributed to enrollment challenges at many institutions, and even some closures of smaller schools, and the soaring cost of a college education has brought ever-more attention to the value of such an education and how schools provide it.

Meanwhile, institutions will be returning to something approaching normal this fall after enduring two and a half semesters of life in a global pandemic, an experience that tested all schools in every way imaginable and also provided learning experiences and opportunities to do things in a different, and sometimes better, way.

Thompson acknowledged these developments and said they will be among the challenges and opportunities awaiting her as she takes the helm at the 182-year-old institution, founded by Horace Mann, whose pioneering efforts in education — and inclusion — are certainly a source of inspiration for her.

“He wanted to look at how education is important to a new society — a society that was going to be self-governed and where people needed to understand how to engage in civil society. I was very intrigued with this history, the inclusive nature of his approach to higher education, and how he looked back at some of the historical development of what I will call democracies in ancient Greece and the importance of an educated community to support democracies and health societies.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Thompson about Horace Mann, the challenges facing those in higher education, and why she believes WSU is well-positioned to meet them head-on.

 

Grade Expectations

As noted earlier, Thompson brings a diverse portfolio of experience to her latest challenge.

Our story begins in 1979, when she began her career as a clinical nurse specialist in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Soon thereafter, she would begin interspersing jobs in education with those in the public sector.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

Linda Thompson says the timing was right for her to pursue a college presidency, and Westfield State University was the ideal fit.

In 1987, she became assistant dean at the School of Nursing at Coppin State College in Baltimore, and two years later took a job as director of the Office of Occupational Medicine and Safety in Baltimore. In 1993, she joined the school of Nursing at the University of Maryland, where she would hold a variety of positions between 1993 and 2003, with a four-year diversion in the middle to serve as special secretary for Children, Youth & Families in the Maryland Governor’s Office.

In 2003, she became dean of Nursing at Oakland University in Troy, Mich., and later returned to the East Coast, where she would join the staff at North Carolina A&T State University, first as provost and vice chancellor for Academic Affairs, then as associate vice chancellor for Outreach, Professional Development & Distance Education.

“I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

In 2013, she became dean of the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and a professor of Nursing at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, and in 2017, she came to UMass Boston, serving as dean of the College of Nursing and Health Services.

Slicing through all that, she said she’s had decades of experience working collaboratively with others to achieve progress in areas ranging from student success to diversity with staff and faculty; from forging partnerships with private-sector institutions to creating strategic plans; from creating new academic programs to securing new philanthropic revenue streams for faculty research.

And she intends to tap into all that experience as she leads WSU out of the pandemic and into the next chapter in its history.

As she does so, she intends to lean heavily on Horace Mann, considered by many to be the father of public education, for both inspiration and direction. In many respects, they share common viewpoints about the importance of education and inclusion.

“This whole idea of looking at healthy communities and using education to strengthen communities resonated with me,” Thompson explained. “And it resonated with me given some of the things we’re starting to see with our divided country; how do we get people educated so that they’re able to know how to be critical thinkers, how to separate fact from fiction, and how to begin looking at the importance of creating communities where everyone is healthy? To me, healthy is more than physical health — it’s emotional and social and environmental, this whole way that we look at values that really enable people to thrive and survive in society.”

Looking forward, she said she has many goals and ambitions for the school, with greater diversity and inclusion at the top of the list. She pointed to UMass Boston, which she described as one of the most diverse schools in the country, as both a model and a true reflection of the demographic changes that have taken place in the U.S.

“Those diverse populations are the future of higher education in this country,” she told BusinessWest. “We are becoming a majority minority population, and there are opportunities to reach out to communities of color and stress the importance of education to be part of a lifestyle where we’re constantly looking at ways to engage with people and give them tools to thrive.”

 

Course of Action

Thompson arrived at the WSU campus at the start of this month. She will use the two months before the fall semester begins to make connections — both on campus and within the community.

She said the calendar was quickly filling up with appointments with area civic, business, and education leaders, at which she will gauge needs, come to fully understand how the university partners with others to meet those needs, and discuss ways to broaden WSU’s impact and become even more of a difference maker in the community.
The discussions with business leaders will focus on the needs of the workforce and how to make graduates more workforce-ready, she said, adding that the school has been a reliable supplier of qualified workers to sectors ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

Meanwhile, the meetings with those in education focus on widening and strengthening a pipeline of students through K-12 and into higher education, and also on finding paths for those who can’t, for various reasons, take such a direct path.

“For those who are not able to go to college right after high school, how do make it easy for these adults to come back to school?” she asked, adding that she will work with others to answer that question.

And some of the answers may have been found during the pandemic, she went on, noting that, out of necessity, educators used technology to find new and different ways to teach and engage students. And this imagination and persistence — not to mention the direct lessons learned about how to do things, especially with regard to remote learning — will carry on into this fall, when the campus returns to ‘normal’ and well beyond.

“For us, moving forward, I’ll think we’ll never go back to the way we educated people before,” she told BusinessWest, “because people have learned to do this work in a different kind of way, and the public has learned that this is an option moving forward to give people an opportunity to return to college.”

When asked about what she brings to her latest challenge, Thompson reiterated that it’s more than her work in higher education, as significant as that is. It’s also her work in public policy, and, more specifically, working in partnership with others to address global issues.

She counts among her mentors David Mathews, former president of the University of Alabama and secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Ford. She worked with him when he was leading the Kettering Foundation.

“I spent time with him learning about the way he approached leadership and the way he approached democracy,” she noted. “I’ve been a dean, and I’ve had experience as a provost; overall, I believe I have the right set of skills to use the lessons I’ve learned to help develop the next set of community leaders in all fields.

“We need to look at a way that we can create curriculum and graduate people who are innovative, who are critical thinkers, who know how to research on their own, who know to look at problems and how to work in teams with other people in order to create solutions,” she went on. “These are things I’ve learned in my life, and those are things I want to impart to the students who come to this campus.”

As for her leadership style, Thompson described it this way: “I look at creating a vision and an idea and working with and through people — people who are above me, people who work alongside me, people who are younger — and learning from people at all levels and ages and stages of their development.

“I tend to see myself as someone who is transformational,” she went on. “I see myself as a servant leader, a person who tries to see how I can help another person maximize their opportunity to dig deep inside themselves, and identify their strengths and bring those strengths out.”

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Aaron Vega

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growth Opportunities

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

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

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street

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

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

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

 

On a Roll

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

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

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

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

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

Holyoke at a glance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

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

 

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

Education

More Than a Head Start

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

Architects rendering of the $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield.

The new $14 million Educare Center now under construction in Springfield is focused on education, obviously, but parental involvement and workforce development are key focal points within its broad mission.

Mary Walachy calls it “Head Start on steroids.”

It’s a term she has called upon often, actually, when speaking to individuals and groups about Educare, an innovative model for high-quality early education that’s coming to Springfield next year — only the 24th such center in the country, in fact.

“You have to work with a Head Start partner. That’s a requirement in every Educare site across the country,” said Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. & George A. Davis Foundation, one of the lead partners in the effort to launch the local Educare school. “The base program meets the Head Start national requirements. But then there’s a layer of extensive higher quality. Instead of two adult teachers in the classroom, there needs to be three. Instead of a six-hour day, there needs to be eight or 10. There are higher ratios of family liaisons to families.”

Then there are the elements that Educare centers have really honed in on nationwide: Parental involvement and workforce development — and the many ways those two concepts work together.

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful,” Walachy said. “However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

The takeaway? Early-education programs must engage parents in their children’s learning, which is a central tenet to Educare. But the second reality is that families often need assistance in other ways — particularly Head Start-eligible families, who tend to be in the lower economic tier.

“We must assist them to begin the trajectory toward financial security,” Walachy said, and Holyoke Chicopee Springfield (HCS) Head Start has long done this by recruiting and training parents, in a collaborative effort with Holyoke Community College, to become classroom assistants, who often move up to become teachers. In fact, some 40% to 50% of teachers in HCS Head Start are former Head Start mothers.

“So they already have a model, but after we get up and running, we want to put that on a bit of a steroid as well,” she noted. That means working with the Federal Reserve’s Working Cities program, in partnership with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to steer Head Start and Educare families onto a pathway to better employment opportunities. “It’s getting on a trajectory for employment and then, we hope, financial security and success for themselves and their families.”

“The research is clear — if kids get a good start, if they have a quality preschool, if they arrive at school really ready to be successful and with the skills and language development they need, they can really be quite successful. However, at the same time, it’s extremely important they go home to a strong family. One is still good, but both together are a home run.”

She noted that early education evolved decades ago as a workforce-support program, offering child care so families could go to work or go to school. “We’ve shifted in some ways — people started saying, ‘wait a minute, this isn’t just child care, this is education. We are really putting them on a pathway.’ But now we’ve got to circle back and do both. Head Start was always an anti-poverty program. More recently, it’s really started focusing on employment and financial security for families.”

By making that dual commitment to parent engagement and workforce training, she noted, the organizations supporting the Educare project in Springfield are making a commitment to economic development that lifts families — and, by extension, communities. And that makes this much more than a school.

Alone in Massachusetts

The 24th Educare school in the U.S. will be the only one in Massachusetts, and only the second in New England, when it opens next fall at 100 Hickory St., adjacent to Brookings School, on land provided by Springfield College.

The $14 million project was designed by RDg Planning & Design and is being built by Western Builders, with project management by O’Connell Development Group.

Mary Walachy

Mary Walachy says that while it’s important to educate young children, it’s equally important that they go home to strong families.

Educare started with one school in Chicago and has evolved into a national learning network of schools serving thousands of children across the country. An early-education model designed to help narrow the achievement gap for children living in poverty, Educare Springfield is being funded locally by a variety of local, state, and national sources including the Davis Foundation, the Gage Olmstead Fund and Albert Steiger Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the MassMutual Foundation, Berkshire Bank, MassDevelopment, the MassWorks Infrastructure Program at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, the George Kaiser Family Foundation, Florence Bank, Capital One Commercial Banking, and the Early Education and Out of School Time Capital Grant Fund through the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care in collaboration with the Community Economic Development Assistance Corp. and its affiliate, the Children’s Investment Fund. A number of anonymous donors have also contributed significant funding.

Educare Springfield will offer a full-day, full-year program for up to 141 children from birth to age 5, under licensure by the Department of Early Education and Care. The center will also serve as a resource in the early-education community for training and providing professional development for future teachers, social workers, evaluation, and research.

Just from the education perspective, the local need is certainly there. Three years ago, the Springfield Public Schools Kindergarten Reading Assessment scores revealed that preschool children from the Six Corners and Old Hill neighborhoods scored the lowest among city neighborhoods for kindergarten reading readiness, at 1.1% and 3%, respectively. On a broader city scale, the fall 2017 scores showed that only 7% of all city children met all five benchmarks of kindergarten reading readiness.

Research, as Walachy noted, has proven time and again that kids who aren’t kindergarten-ready are at great risk of falling further behind their peers, and these same children, if they’re not reading proficiently by the end of third grade, are significantly less likely to graduate high school, attend college, or find employment that earns them a living wage.

Breaking that cycle means engaging children and their parents — and it’s an effort that could make a multi-generational impact.

Come Together

That potential is certainly gratifying for Walachy and the other partners.

“I think we’re really fortunate that Springfield got this opportunity to bring in this nationally recognized, quality early-childhood program,” she said, adding that the Davis Foundation has been involved from the start. “There has to be a philanthropic lead partner in order to begin to explore Educare because it does require fundraising, and if you don’t have somebody already at the table, it makes it really hard to get anybody else to join the table.”

The board of Educare Springfield, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, will hold Head Start accountable for executing the expanded Educare model. Educare Springfield is also tackling enhanced programs, fundraising, and policy and advocacy work associated with the model. A $7 million endowment is also being developed, to be administered by the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, revenue from which will support operating costs.

“We did not want to develop a building that we could then not pay to operate,” Walachy noted, adding that Head Start’s federal dollars will play a significant role as well. “We want to develop a program kids in Springfield deserve. They deserve the best, and we think this is one of the best, and one this community can support.

“No one argues that kids should have a good experience, and that they begin learning at birth,” she went on. “But nothing good is cheap. And I will tell you that Educare isn’t cheap. But it sends a policy message that you’ve got to pay for good programs if you want good outcomes.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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