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The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

As high-school graduating classes continue to get smaller and the competition for those intensifies, many smaller independent colleges are finding themselves fighting for their very survival. One of them is Hampshire College in Amherst, which, because of its unique mission, alternative style, and famous alums (including Ken Burns), has in many ways become the face of a growing crisis.

Miriam Nelson says she became a candidate to become the seventh president of Hampshire College — and accepted the job when it was offered to her last April — with her eyes wide open, fully aware of the challenges facing that Amherst-based institution and others like it — not that there are many quite like Hampshire.

Then she clarified those comments a little. She said she knew the school was struggling with enrollment and therefore facing financial challenges — again, as many smaller independent schools were and still are. But she didn’t know just how bad things were going to get — and how soon.

She became aware through a phone call on May 2 from the man she would succeed as president of the school, Jonathan Lash.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned,” she recalled, with a discernable amount of understatement in her voice.

Indeed, with that phone call — and the ensuing fight for its very survival — Hampshire became, in many ways, the face of a changing landscape in higher education, at least in the Northeast.

That’s partly because of the school’s unique mission, alternative style, and notable alums such as documentary filmmaker Ken Burns. But also because of heavy media coverage — the New York Times visited the campus earlier this month, one of many outlets to make the trip to South Amherst — and the fact that the school is really the first to carry on such a fight in an open, transparent way.

In some ways, Hampshire is unique; again, it has a high profile, and it has had some national and even international news-making controversies in recent years, including a decision by school leaders to take down the American flag on campus shortly after the 2016 election, while students and faculty members at the college discussed and confronted “deeply held beliefs about what the flag represents to the members of our campus community,” a move that led veterans’ groups to protest, some Hampshire students to transfer out, and prospective students to look elsewhere.

But in most respects, Hampshire is typical of the schools now facing an uncertain future, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), adding that those fitting the profile are smaller independent schools with high price tags (tuition, room, and board at Hampshire is $65,000), comparatively small endowments, and student bodies made up largely, if not exclusively, of recent high-school graduates.

That’s because high-school graduating classes have been getting smaller over the past several years, and the trend will only continue and even worsen, said Brittingham, citing a number of recent demographic reports.

Meanwhile, all schools are confronting an environment where there is rising concern about student debt and an increased focus on career-oriented degrees, another extreme challenge at Hampshire, where traditional majors do not exist.

“He let me know that our target number for enrollment this year was significantly lower than what was expected; I think he knew, and I knew, at that time that my job this year was going to be different than what I’d planned.”

None of these changes to the landscape came about suddenly or without warning, said Brittingham, noting that the storm clouds could be seen on the horizon years ago. Proactive schools have taken a variety of steps, from a greater emphasis on student success to hiring consultants to help with recruiting and enrollment management.

But for some, including several schools in New England, continued independence and survival in their original state was simply not possible. Some have closed — perhaps the most notable being Mount Ida College in Newton, which shut down abruptly two months before commencement last spring — while others have entered into partnerships, a loose term that can have a number of meanings.

In some cases, it has meant an effective merger, as has been the case with Wheelock College and Boston University and also the Boston Conservatory and the Berklee College of Music, but in others, it was much more of a real-estate acquisition, as it was with Mount Ida, bought by UMass Amherst.

What lies ahead for Hampshire College is not known, and skepticism abounds, especially after the school made the hard decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019. But Nelson remains optimistic.

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus, which has been in the national media spotlight since it was announced that the school was looking to forge a partnership with another school in order to continue operations.

“Hampshire has always been innovative, and we’re going to do this the ‘Hampshire way,’” she said during an interview in the president’s off-campus residence because her office on the campus was occupied by protesting students. “We’re thinking about our future and making sure that we’re as innovative as we were founded to be. We need to make sure that our financial model matches our educational model.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Nelson and Brittingham about the situation at Hampshire and the changing environment in higher education, and how the school in South Amherst has become the face of an ongoing problem.

New-school Thinking

Those looking for signs indicating just how serious the situation is getting within the higher-education universe saw another one earlier this month when Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker filed legislation to strengthen the state’s ability to monitor the financial health of private colleges.

“Our legislation will strengthen this crucial component of our economy, but most importantly, it will help protect students and their families from an abrupt closure that could significantly impact their lives,” Baker said in a statement that was a clear reference to the Mount Ida fiasco.

The bill applies to any college in Massachusetts that “has any known liabilities or risks which may result in imminent closure of the institution or jeopardize the institution’s ability to fulfill its obligations to current and admitted students.”

And that’s a constituency that could get larger in the years and decades to come, said Brittingham, adding that demographic trends, as she noted, certainly do not bode well for small, independent schools populated by recent high-school graduates.

She cited research conducted by Nathan Grawe, author of Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, which shows that, in the wake of the Great Recession that started roughly 11 years ago, many families made a conscious decision to have fewer children, which means the high-school graduating classes in the middle and end of the next decade will be smaller.

“Things are going to get worse around 2026,” she said. “The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

As noted earlier, Nelson understood the landscape in higher education was changing when she decided to pursue a college presidency, and eventually the one at Hampshire, after a lengthy stint at Tufts and then at the University of New Hampshire as director of its Sustainability Institute.

She told BusinessWest that Hampshire offered the setting — and the challenge — she was looking for.

“Hampshire was the one where I thought there was the most opportunity, and the school that was most aligned with more core values and my interests,” she explained, adding that she was recruited by Lash for the post. “This school has always been inquiry-based, and I always like to start with a question mark. To be at Hampshire means you have to have imagination and you have to be able to handle ambiguity when you have an uncertain future; that’s one of the hallmarks here at Hampshire.”

Imagination is just one of the qualities that will be needed to help secure a solid future for the school, she acknowledged, adding that, while the current situation would be considered an extreme, the college has been operating in challenging fiscal conditions almost from the day it opened in 1970 — and even before that.

“We started out under-resourced, and we’ve had different moments during almost every president’s tenure where there were serious concerns about whether the college could continue,” she said. “We’ve always been lean, but we’ve managed.”

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

“Things are going to get worse around 2026. The decline that is there now will only get more dramatic, especially in New England.”

However, this relatively thin ice that the college has operated on became even thinner with the changing environment over the past several years, a climate Nelson put in its proper perspective.

“Higher education is witnessing one of the most disruptive times in history, with decreasing demographics, increased competition for lower-priced educational offerings, and families demanding return on investment in a college education in a short period of time,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of factors involved with this; it is a crisis point.”

A crisis that has forced the college to reach several difficult decisions, ranging from layoffs — several, effective April 19, were announced last month involving employees in the Admissions and Advancement offices — to the size and nature of the incoming class.

Indeed, due to the school’s precarious financial situation — and perhaps in anticipation of the governor’s press for greater safeguards against another Mount Ida-like closing, Hampshire has decided to admit only those students who accepted the school’s offer to enroll via early admission and those who accepted Hampshire’s offer to enroll last year but chose to take a gap year and matriculate in the fall of 2019.

Nelson explained why, again, in her most recent update to the Hampshire community, posted on the school’s website, writing that “our projected deficit is so great as we look out over the next few years, we couldn’t ethically admit a full class because we weren’t confident we could teach them through to graduation. Not only would we leave those students stranded — without the potential for the undergraduate degree they were promised when they accepted Hampshire — we would also be at risk of going on probation with our accreditors.”

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools challenged by shrinking high-school graduating classes and escalating competition for those students.

While reaching those decisions, leaders at the college have also been working toward a workable solution, a partnership of some kind that will enable the school to maintain its mission and character.

Ongoing work to reach that goal has been rewarding on some levels, but quite difficult on all others because of the very public nature of this exercise, said Nelson, adding that her first eight months on the job have obviously been challenging personally.

She said the campus community never really got to know her before she was essentially forced into crisis management.

And now, the already-tenuous situation has been compounded by negativism, criticism (Nelson has reportedly been threatened with a vote of no confidence from the faculty), and rumors.

“There’s a lot of chaos and false narratives out there,” she explained. “So I’ve been working really hard both in print and in many assemblies and meetings to get accurate information out. This is a world with lots of false narratives and conspiracy theories; we heard another one yesterday — they’re really creative and interesting. I don’t know how people think them up.”

Textbook Case?

As she talked about the ongoing process of finding a partnership and some kind of future for Hampshire College, Nelson said she’s received a number of phone calls offering suggestions, support, and forms of encouragement as she goes about her work in a very public way.

One such call was from a representative of the Mellon Foundation.

“He said he’s never seen a college do this in a transparent way like we are,” she said. “He’s right, and when you’re doing it in real time, and transparently, it’s going to be clunky; it’s not like you’ve got every detail worked out and figured out right at the very beginning. We’re doing the figuring out in a public way and engaging with the community and our alums and the broader community and the higher-ed community as we do this.

“It’s a very different way to do it, and no one has ever done it; it is a very Hampshire way,” she went on. “But that makes it really hard, and I can see why every other president who has been in this place has not done this in an open way. I understand it.”

Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson says Hampshire College is determining the next stage in its history in real time, which means the process will be “clunky.”

Elaborating, she said there are no textbooks that show schools and their leaders how to navigate a situation like this, and thus she’s relying heavily on her board (in the past, it met every quarter; now it meets every week), the faculty, students, and other college presidents as she goes about trying to find a workable solution.

And there are some to be found, said Brittingham, adding that several effective partnerships have been forged in recent years that have enabled both private and public schools to remain open.

Perhaps the most noted recent example is Wheelock and Boston University, although it came about before matters reached a crisis level.

“Wheelock looked ahead and felt that, while they were OK at that moment, given the trends, given their resources, and given their mission, over time, they were going to be increasingly challenged,” she explained. “So they decided that sooner, rather than later, they should look for a partner, which turned out to be Boston University, which Wheelock essentially merged into.

“That’s seen as a good arrangement, it was handled well, and they were able to preserve the name of the founder in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University,” she went on. “They were able to transition a large number of faculty and staff to Boston University, it was geographically close … it’s been a smooth transition.”

Another partnership that fits that description is the one between two small public colleges in Vermont — Johnson State College and Lyndon State College.

“They had compatible missions — one of them was more liberal-arts-oriented, and the other was more focused on career programs — so they merged and became Northern Vermont University,” she said, adding that the merger allows them to share central services and thus gain efficiencies in overall administration.

Whether Hampshire can find such an effective working arrangement remains to be seen, but Nelson takes a positive, yet realistic outlook.

“I continue to be optimistic because Hampshire is an exceptional place with a great reputation,” she said. “But it’s not easy facing layoffs and things like that. But I believe this year, 2019, will be the toughest year, and then things will get better.”

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

The decision not to admit a full class for the fall of 2019 is seen by some as a perhaps fateful step, one that will make it that much harder to put the college on firmer financial ground moving forward.

But Nelson, as noted, is optimistic that the ‘Hampshire way’ will yield what could become a model for other schools to follow in the years and decades to come, as the higher-education landscape continues to evolve.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Schindler

Diana Schindler says it’s key for Deerfield to balance the town’s rural character with needed economic growth.

Deerfield boasts numerous draws for businesses looking to relocate, Diana Schindler says, from its reasonable property-tax rate to its proximity to Interstate 91, Route 116, and Routes 5 and 10.

But there’s also been some pushback against some of those businesses, which reared its head when residents recently spoke out against a proposed Dollar General store in town. The Planning Board listened and turned down the project, said Schindler, Deerfield’s interim town administrator.

“There’s been a feeling in the community that they want that at arm’s length — that big-box retail development, drive-thrus, things they don’t feel are part of the culture of old Deerfield. It’s meaningful to them,” Schindler told BusinessWest.

“On the flip side, it creates more of a burden on the residential tax base,” she went on, noting that more than 80% of the town’s tax base is residential. “There’s a cost to the citizens in their tax rate and the sustainability of that tax rate. Deerfield has always readily paid for the level of service its citizenry wants and expects, but at the expense of not doing some major projects.”

For instance, the town is looking at a $1 million cost to replace a tank at the South Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needed work at the facility over the next decade or two. Then there are plans to expand the Tilton Library and develop a shared senior center with surrounding communities.

“Seniors are asking for that. But all this adds up to millions of dollars, and you have the pressure of limiting development — or, rather, wanting development that will fit into the culture, which does limit it to some capacity,” Schindler said. “Less than 20% of the tax base is commercial/industrial, which is not a lot considering the viability of the property we have along 5/10 and a couple other areas. It’s going to become a question for the citizenry — is it sustainable?”

She’s one of many in Deerfield who believe economic development — in whatever form residents may want — is critical to the future of a town known for its tourist draws, including Yankee Candle’s flagship store, Mount Sugarloaf, Historic Deerfield, and Magic Wings, but needs to diversify and broaden its commercial portfolio.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

“The ideal would be to get everybody together and integrate it all. We’re spread out geographically, and there’s a dichotomy between Old Deerfield and South Deerfield. We’re working toward making sure the town is the town, and everybody recognizes that if the town does well and comes together, then all of the components, all of our events, could do better.”

A veteran of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Hampshire Council of Governments, Schindler has some regional government experience, and she believes there’s value in taking a regional view of economic development. But she’s more concerned with Deerfield’s residents, agencies, and organizations working together to forge a common vision for community development.

“If we could come together,” she said, “especially as we come to our 350th-anniversary celebration, we could build energy off of each other.”

Forging a Path

That celebration rolls around in 2023, which should be enough time, Schindler said, to see some real development progress in town, particularly in the Elm Street corridor, the main commercial area in South Deerfield.

Town leaders know that to attract new businesses — in hospitality and other sectors as well — they need to make the downtown area more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, and they’re eyeing a host of potential improvements in the Elm Street center, which may include work on sidewalks, lights, and storefronts.

For a year before taking on her current role last month — one she is interested in pursuing on a permanent basis — Schindler was a special projects consultant in town, and one of the big projects she embraced right away was Complete Streets, mostly geared toward the South Deerfield center.

South Deerfield center

Town leaders see plenty of potential in the South Deerfield center corridor.

“We’re in the process of putting that plan together. We want to create more walkability, more accessibility, and that includes for folks in wheelchairs, people with children, people of all abilities,” she said. “We’re also looking at ways to make South Deerfield’s center more aesthetically pleasing — light it, put in streetscapes, put in wayfinding, finish the municipal parking lot we have down there; all that is being discussed as part of the plan. We want it to stay a viable downtown.”

The area is not particularly expansive, she pointed out, spanning just a few blocks, but in some ways, that presents a more enticing opportunity, by ensuring that development and improvement efforts are tightly focused. There’s some land-use complexity as well, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation owns a small part of the corridor, and the state owns Conway Street, home to Town Hall.

“But that’s an opportunity,” she said, “because the state is also excited about Complete Streets, and we could see a wonderful economic center down here, which I’m sure the state would support in a variety of different ways.”

The downtown has seen some business change recently, with longtime restaurant Jerry’s Place closing last year, and a café called Leo’s Table setting up shop in the location, with proprietor Jennifer Howard specializing in made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch fare. The building itself — which is also home to Ciesluk’s Market, Giving Circle Thrift Shop, the Tavern, and a Subway sandwich location, as well as 19 apartments on the second floor, has new owners, Jason Kicza and Justin Killeen, who plan to touch up the property this spring.

“I would consider that the anchor building on that side,” Schindler said, “and it’s doing great.”

Cumberland Farms’ move from South Deerfield’s center to the main road — specifically, the corner of Elm Street and Routes 5 and 10 — may not have been as great for the downtown’s prospects.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,400
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $16.34 (Deerfield), $18.14 (South Deerfield)
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

“They have a bigger business down on the corner, but it’s not necessarily a draw into the center; now people can just pop into Cumby’s for gas and keep going,” she said. “So we are looking at ways to basically create more stability in the center of South Deerfield by doing a variety of things. Obviously, part of that is keeping businesses and attracting more businesses.”

These days, the corridor can be oddly empty at certain times of the day, she noted, but well-trafficked during morning and evening rush hours. The goal, she told BusinessWest, is to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly center at all hours, rather than a thruway.

The Complete Streets plan will be a big part of that. By the time the 350th rolls around, she’d like to see significant physical and infrastructure improvements to make the downtown more of a destination. “The sidewalks will look different, maybe more green space, and hopefully we’ll see more people down there.”

High Times

Like many area communities, Deerfield has embraced the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, recently approving two site plans, one for a cultivation facility at Pioneer Gardens on Mill Village Road, and the other for a dispensary run by Harvest Inc. on State Road.

“The culture has changed,” Schindler said, noting that, when communities were first exploring the economic possibilities of marijuana businesses, many Deerfield residents — most of them older — were staunchly opposed. But that opposition has died down to a large degree in many towns, to the point where communities might begin to locate such businesses in more central areas.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

Meanwhile, Schindler and other Deerfield leaders will continue to think outside the box — even if big boxes aren’t in the cards — by examining where pockets of land already devoted to commercial and industrial businesses might have some infill potential, and continue to take pressure off the residential tax base.

“The thing I think is so tremendous about Deerfield is the huge opportunity it offers,” she said. “It’s wide open, and it’s got resources — financial resources, natural resources, culture, art, access to main roads. I get excited about it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Come as You Are

Jeremy Goldsher

Jeremy Goldsher says Greenspace CoWork melds modern amenities with a distinctly Greenfield vibe.

Co-working spaces — hives of business where members share office space — have taken root in many Western Mass. communities over the past several years, for a number of reasons, from the efficiency of sharing resources to opportunities to network and be inspired by other professionals. In the past year and a half, two have cropped up a block apart in downtown Greenfield, with different types of clientele but the same goal: to help enterprises develop and grow, and have fun doing it.

The way people work has changed dramatically since the last century, Jeremy Goldsher says — and so has where people work.

“There are so many intelligent people doing incredible things here, and they don’t feel like they have to go to Boston or New York or Hartford or wherever to flourish,” said Goldsher, who launched Greenspace CoWork about 18 months ago with business partner Jeff Sauser. “No, you don’t have to do that anymore. You can do it from locations all over the place.”

But why not just work from home, as so many companies encourage their employees to do? To Goldsher — and others who believe in the value of co-working spaces — it’s about culture, energy, and especially connection.

“In the great rush to connect people with technology, we’ve forgotten one of the most important things that connects people, and that’s human interaction,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we get a lot of really brilliant people who move out here to get away from the cities and raise families, but there’s not a lot of opportunities to interact, congregate, and meet their neighbors.”

That’s why more people are taking advantage of the co-work model. In some cases, he said, they’ve moved to Greenfield specifically because co-working was an option.

“In the great rush to connect people with technology, we’ve forgotten one of the most important things that connects people, and that’s human interaction.”

“We offer the same amenities you’d get in New York or Boston. But you can do it in a rural setting where you can leave work, go down to the river, swim, come back, jump back on your computer, and Skype with someone in Dubai. We have people here whose companies are spread out all over the country or all over the world, yet they can congregate in the kitchenette, talk over coffee, talk about each other’s kids, and maybe grab a beer after work. It’s just wonderful to see these people enrich their own lives.”

A block away in downtown Greenfield, Pat King, executive director of Another Castle, told BusinessWest that he and Paul Hake, CEO of HitPoint Studios, opened their co-working space, which caters to video-game developers and designers, a little over a year ago after the pair recognized its potential.

Pat King says Another Castle

Pat King says Another Castle helps bring together the region’s large and far-flung game-design community through a number of programs.

King worked with Hake for many years, both with HitPoint and its precedessor, Paul Hake Productions, before striking out on his own about four years ago. During that time, he started a group called Pioneer Valley Game Developers, a networking community that now boasts about 300 members, many of whom gather for monthly meetups and events.

King started talking with Hake about the potential of a co-working space specifically geared for this crowd, especially considering that many are small and solo outfits that could benefit from the networking and shared resources Another Castle offers.

“About two years ago, I realized we have such a vibrant community, and a close community that’s really active and wants to get to know each other, so it made sense to look for a space,” King explained. “We’d looked at other models in other cities that have done similar co-working spaces for video-game developers. We had enough people that expressed interest, and thankfully Paul was also interested in moving to a new location and wanted to go in with me on a co-working space for game developers.”

Michael Crigler found, in Greenspace CoWork, an ideal spot for his digital marketing agency, Bueno Social.

Michael Crigler found, in Greenspace CoWork, an ideal spot for his digital marketing agency, Bueno Social.

With just four members now — HitPoint is the anchor tenant, with about 12 employees — Another Castle has plenty of room to grow, despite the specific challenges of this niche-specific model (more on that later). But King, like Goldsher, is excited about the way the co-working environment encourages professionals to come together in the heart of Greenfield, rather than working alone.

Back to Life

Four years ago, Goldsher’s family bought the four-story building on the corner of Main Street and Court Square out of bankruptcy and rebranded it the Hawks & Reed building, after a former clothing store on Main Street. They have since brought new life — and many more events — to the arts and music space on the first floor, while Goldsher and Sauser worked to develop Greenspace CoWork on the upper floors.

The two met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City.

“I was seeing co-working really starting to take off there, and it was something I wanted to see here. This is the wave of the future in workspaces for my generation, to address the modern needs of workers wherever they are,” said Goldsher, noting that the space has been designed with a Franklin County aesthetic in mind, with original wood floors, reclaimed materials, and greenery. “We didn’t want to throw a bunch of stuff into a space and say ‘done.’ It’s not overproduced, and it reflects Greenfield.”

His biggest challenge right now is building out more space in a building that could eventually house about 150 workers — although, like all co-work spaces, they’re typically not there all at once. About 30 individuals and companies call Greenspace home right now. Open 24/7, the facility has two secured entrances, and one of its conference rooms has access directly from the street without having to walk through the rest of the co-working space, which appeals to lawyers who meet with clients there.

Michael Crigler, who heads up digital marketing agency Bueno Social, is one of the original Greenspace clients, and is currently working with Goldsher to create a new logo and branding and redo its website.

“We had our own office down the street,” Crigler said. “It was nice, but my business partner and I were on the road a lot, meeting new clients, and we have a pretty big remote workforce; employees can work from anywhere. When just one or two people were in that big office, it felt empty, and didn’t feel like there was a lot going on, and we wanted to be more part of a community, where we can collaborate with people.”

When he heard about Greenspace, he was immediately intrigued.

“That week, I was like, ‘we’re going to get rid of our office and move in here.’ So far, our employees love it,” he noted. “I’ve never felt a sense of ease like I feel working here. Jeremy’s vision, and the way he’s built out the space, are warm and inviting, and the people it attracts are very cool. I’m really excited about the next few years in Greenfield.”

“About two years ago, I realized we have such a vibrant community, and a close community that’s really active and wants to get to know each other, so it made sense to look for a space.”

Members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, Goldsher said, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, conference rooms, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

Members range from stay-at-home fathers who show up in the wee hours to get some work done in a professional setting to Australis Aquaculture, an international fish-farming operation headquartered in Vietnam. When its fish farm in Turners Falls was shuttered and the farming operations consolidated overseas, the company needed a place to house eight employees who focus on sales and distribution to large food retailers in the U.S.

“I think it’s a great concept,” said Jackie Galvis, an administrative, financial, and human-resources assistant with Australis. “And it’s cool because this is a historic building.”

Goldsher said it was beyond his expectations to have a company of that size as a member, but at the same time, it makes sense.

“They were downsizing their space but wanted to upgrade in the amenities and the culture,” he noted. “We’re just lucky to have people from the community believe in what we’re building here and invest in our dream. You hear these stories about the synergy that happens in a co-working space, but it’s actually happening.”

Game On

It’s happening at Another Castle as well, though perhaps at a different pace. Besides the 10 HitPoint staffers who work there, Vermont Digital Arts utilizes the space, while the rest of the current members include a 3D artist, a software engineer, and an electrical engineer.

Greenspace CoWork’s private, soundproof phone booths

Greenspace CoWork’s private, soundproof phone booths were designed and built in house.

“It’s a slightly different beast than a general co-working space,” King said, noting that only about half the game developers and designers in the region are making money in this field, making it difficult to afford even the reasonable rates co-work spaces charge.

“I’ve seen numerous success stories of people who have been able to get work through the community, either from HitPoint or word of mouth,” he noted. “So people are definitely interested, but it can be a challenge making pricing work because it’s a hobbyist community. People want to support the space but can’t necessarily join.”

That’s why he and Hake are exploring the possibility of adding incubator space at even lower cost, to attract more startups who might benefit from the synergies, guidance, and networking opportunities available, as well as the 24/7 access and shared resources — not just the wi-fi, conference rooms, and flexible membership plans common to most co-working spaces, but a wide array of cutting-edge computer hardware to be used for testing, playing, or just for being productive.

And the events, too. Another Castle often serves as a community space for events like last month’s Global Game Jam, which drew about 50 participants who designed games for a frenzied 48 hours, producing 15 games by the end of the weekend.

“That was amazing to see a packed space, all people working on different projects,” King said. “We also host monthly educational events and a few workshops here, and we’ve led a couple at GCC and other institutions.”

Greenspace CoWork hosts community meetings as well, Goldsher said, just another way he hopes the venture connects professionals to the city and region around them.

“We want our members to be able to accomplish what they would in a corporate setting, but we also want them to go out into the community and enjoy all the resources and the natural beauty here,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he dreamed of something resembling a co-working environment when he was a kid, even though he had no idea they actually existed, or what they were called.

“This is just a child bringing his dream to life,” he said. “I’ve created a comfortable space that’s open 24/7, and anyone is welcome to join.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Complex Equation

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Both the office/retail complex known as Tower Square and the hotel that sits on the property would be considered somewhat risky investments, given their recent history. But the investment group Springfield Hospitality believes otherwise — in both cases. The new ownership group has announced an ambitious plan to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, and it is confident about gaining a wide range of new tenants on the retail side of the equation.

As they talked about their plans for Tower Square, the downtown Springfield landmark they acquired last year, and the hotel that is a prominent part of the complex, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel had to be careful, even cryptic, with some of their comments.

Especially when it came to the long-rumored signing of the YMCA of Greater Springfield as a major new tenant. That deal has not been finalized, said the partners as they talked with BusinessWest following a press conference late last month on their plans for the complex. And when it is, that news will be announced by the Y.

But also when it came to the small park across Main Street from Tower Square. They hinted quietly that this acreage — dubbed the ‘Little Park for a Little While’ after the Steiger’s department store that sat on the site was torn down (yes, that was 24 years ago now) — will likely become the site of another “hospitality-related business,” probably a boutique hotel.

“We really can’t say anything about that at this time; that’s for … later; that will be phase two,” said Mitta, president and CEO of Mitta’s Group and a partner with Patel and also Rohit Patel and Kamlesh Patel of Maine in the Tower Square project.

As for what’s happening now, Mitta and Patel were not at all cryptic or even careful as they talked about Tower Square, the hotel, their plans for both, and their optimism when it comes to achieving progress and profitability at the office/retail complex that has certainly seen better days.

Peter Marks

Peter Marks says a long list of renovations and upgrades must be undertaken to get the Marriott flag back over the hotel, and the new ownership group is committed to making them.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t,” said Patel, owner of the Hampton Inn on Columbus Avenue in Springfield, a Quality Inn in Chicopee, and other hotels across the region, adding that, while there is a good deal of vacant space in the complex, especially on the retail side, there is a solid foundation on which to build, with two colleges, UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, assuming large footprints in the building.

And there are already some new building blocks in place, including White Lion Brewing, which is constructing a brewery and tasting area in the long-vacant Spaghetti Freddy’s space along Bridge Street.

As for the hotel, the press conference was called to announce that the ownership group is on schedule and on target to get the ‘Marriott’ name back on the façade. It was removed and replaced with ‘Tower Square Hotel’ in the summer of 2017 as the complex’s former owner, MassMutual, was putting the property on the market.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t.”

To get that brand name back, the owners must complete a comprehensive renovation and upgrade, said Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, adding that plans have been blueprinted, considerable infrastructure work has already been completed, and the owners are committed to spending “tens of millions of dollars” to return the hotel to prominence and make it a vital cog in the ongoing resurgence in downtown Springfield.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Marks and members of the ownership team about Tower Square and its future (or at least the subjects they could talk about at this time) and why they believe this was a solid investment for them, and the city.

New Lease on Life

Mitta acknowledged that, to the casual observer, anyway, the glass at Tower Square probably looks more half-empty (at least) than half-full.

But the total amount of vacant space (perhaps 20% of the complex) is less than most would think, and there has been, as noted, some progress made toward bringing that number down further.

White Lion will make Tower Square its mailing — and brewing — address, he said, adding quickly that a staffing company and AT&T have come on as tenants recently.

And there is that solid foundation of education facilities on which to build, he said, adding that there are a number of different ways the space may be repurposed in the future.

This is what the new ownership group — operating under name Springfield Hospitality Group — saw when it began looking at Tower Square as a potential investment in 2018. The group paid $7 million for the 25-story office tower and attached retail space, parking garages, and the Steiger’s parcel. The hotel, a separate purchase, was acquired for $10.5 million.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location,” he told BusinessWest. “We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

As an example, he said the complex could become an ‘educational hub,’ or a bigger one, given that there are already two institutions with classrooms and other facilities there.

“We’re working with two other local colleges,” he said, adding that he could not disclose their names because the talks were very preliminary. “Meanwhile, we want to bring in some basic amenities such as a nail salon or a massage parlor or banking. Overall, there are many ways we can fill the available spaces, and we have already started implementing them.”

By that, he meant the AT&T store, the new staffing agency, and the fitness center and daycare components of the YMCA’s operation, which, as noted, have not been finalized.

Overall, flexibility will be the watchword moving forward, he said, and while there are certain visions that have developed for what might the Tower Square complex might look like in a year, or five years, the shape it takes will ultimately be determined by the marketplace and the types of opportunities that present themselves.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location. We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

“We didn’t have a full plan for Tower Square, because as a businessman, you have to take what is available and turn it into opportunity,” Mitta noted, adding that the business plan calls for being profitable “from day one,” and more so with each passing quarter and year.

As for the hotel, it was “unflagged” — yes, that’s the industry term — when Marriott presented a long list of needed renovations and upgrades to the previous owner, MassMutual, which decided those expenditures were not worth making.

As with Tower Square itself, the Springfield Hospitality Group saw things differently, said Patel, adding that he and his partners believe the sizable investment — whatever it will be — will ultimately translate into enough room bookings, weddings, meetings, and other events to justify the expense of getting the Marriott name back over the front desk.

Mitta agreed. He said new construction of a Marriott would require an investment of between $200,000 and $300,000 per room, based on where this building project was taking place. Between the acquisition price of the hotel and the cost of the planned renovations and upgrades, the Springfield Hospitality Group is in that ballpark and probably just below.

“And if those new construction projects are going to work, why not renovations at this prestigious landmark?” he asked, before answering that question himself, in the affirmative.

Plans call for what Marks called an ‘inside-out’ concept, where elements of the city are incorporated into the design and décor of the renovated hotel. Specific improvements call for renovations to each room and the addition of one room, a suite, bringing the total to 266, said Marks. Also, the sixth floor, familiar to most area business owners and managers because it’s home to the banquet space and conference rooms, will get a makeover that includes a new fitness center with glass walls overlooking the rooftop garden.

A new, much larger bridal suite will be added, he went on, noting that the lobby will be given a new look as well.

“There are a lot of exciting changes,” he said, adding that the hotel will become part of what’s called the ‘Reimagined Marriott World,’ a comprehensive survey of customers and potential customers to determine what they want in a hotel — and a Marriott.

“The feedback was, ‘we want more than a place to sleep,’” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we want a place where we can connect, relax, entertain, and do all the things we want to do.’”

And this led to the conceptualization of what he called a ‘great room’ in the lobby.

“The entire great room is the one place to be,” he said. “There’s a bar there, you can eat anywhere in that whole great-room area, and technology will allow our staff to deliver unsurpassed hospitality in the market by going out and greeting the customer with tablet in hand and checking them in the lobby.”

Model rooms will be available for viewing this spring, he went on, adding that construction, already underway on infrastructure systems, will move to more visible areas in the coming weeks.

Staying Power

“We’re going to be the number-one, most prestigious hotel in Western Mass.,” said Mitta, adding that the planned renovations and improvements should position the hotel to fully capitalize on the momentum being seen in downtown Springfield.

He noted that the arrival of MGM Springfield, as well as the performances and events it will bring, add up to considerable opportunity for a name-brand hotel located in the heart of downtown.

“Usually, a casino like this has 1,000 rooms, and some have 1,800 or 2,000 rooms,” Mitta explained. “This one has 250 rooms. That’s not enough when you bring events like Stevie Wonder and Cher to your city. This creates opportunities. If we make this hotel business-friendly with a lot of amenities, people will stay downtown.”

That was the thinking behind this large investment, and the partners who made it are confident their investment will soon start paying real dividends.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

The phrase ‘4/20-friendly’ has been around a while now.

April 20 las long been an international counterculture holiday of sorts, when people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. In recent years, it was also a day to call for legalization of the drug, and even more recently, as legalization spread, the term has morphed into a form of acceptance and, yes, business-friendliness when it comes to the many types of ventures within this industry.

Greenfield could now be considered 4/20-friendly, said M.J. Adams, the city’s director of Community Development and Economic Development, adding that there is already a medical marijuana dispensary, Patriot Care, located within the community, and it is poised to become a recreational dispensary next month. And there are many other parties expressing interest in establishing different forms of cannabis-related businesses within Franklin County’s largest community.

“Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight [cannabis] icenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest from people that want to grow and do recreational retail,” said Adams, noting that Greenfield’s efforts to build a cannabis cluster, if you will, are bolstered by its status as one of the 29 communities across the Commonwealth designated as “an area of disproportionate impact,” as defined by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Such communities — Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, West Springfield, and Pittsfield are among some of the others — have been deemed “disproportionately harmed by marijuana-law enforcement,” according the commission, and therefore, priority review is given to applicants who can meet several criteria involving these areas, including residency.

“We’re quite 4/20-friendly,” she went on, adding that this has become code for communities that are “pretty OK” when it comes to marijuana use. “Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight licenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

But cannabis and the prospect of more businesses in that intriguing industry is just one of positive forces shaping the picture in this community of 18,000 people.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Others include the opening of a long-awaited parking garage on the west end of downtown; the arrival of many new restaurants and clubs downtown, punctuated by the emergence of the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center as a force for attracting diverse audiences to Greenfield; emerging plans to expand the city’s industrial park amid heightened interest in space for manufacturing and warehouse ventures; some new ventures, including the conversion of a Roadway Inn into a 90-bed Marriott Grand Hotel and plans for UMassFive College Federal Credit Union to build a branch within the city; ongoing redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property; and perhaps some forward progress in efforts to forge a new life for the long-dormant First National Bank building on the stretch known as Bank Row.

Meanwhile, from the big-picture perspective, the broad economic-development strategy for the city involves making the community, and especially its downtown area, more of a destination for many constituencies, including tourists, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and families.

That’s the assignment for the city, but also for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said its new executive director, Diana Szynal, who takes the reins in somewhat ironic fashion. Indeed, she succeeds Natalie Blais, who was recently sworn in as the state representative for the First Franklin District. Szynal, meanwhile, was the long-time district director for the late Peter Kocut, long-time state representative for the First Hampshire District, and was unsuccessful in her bid to win that seat last fall.

She inherits a chamber that will celebrate its centennial this year, and while a good deal of her time will obviously go toward marking that milestone, another priority will be helping to get the word out on all that Greenfield and Franklin County have to offer.

“One thing we have to do is spread the word about all the things that happen here and some of the opportunities that are here,” she said. “And Franklin County is a place that young people and young professionals just starting out and looking for a place to put down roots should consider; this is the perfect place for that.”

For this, the latest installment in our ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Greenfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

Getting Down to Business

Szynal told BusinessWest that she worked in downtown Greenfield a quarter-century ago, and that moving into the chamber’s office on Main Street is like coming home again.

“I just came from lunch at Taylor’s [Tavern] and was at Wilson’s [department store] recently,” she said, mentioning two mainstays in the downtown for decades and noting that there are many more that fit that category. “Downtown has many of the same businesses it had years ago; it hasn’t lost its charm — it has that same old feeling.”

But there are also many new ventures in the city that are giving it a somewhat new and different feeling as well, she said, especially in the broad realm of hospitality and entertainment.

“There’s Indian food, there’s Thai food, there’s some fabulous Mexican food,” she noted. “So in a way, it has that perfect balance; things you can count on like Wilson’s, combined with new places.”

Building upon this balance and creating an ever-more diverse mix of businesses in the downtown is one of the main strategic initiatives for the city, said both Szynal and Adams, adding that that there are many components to this assignment.

“There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

They include everything from efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to more neighborhoods within the community — a prerequisite for attracting many types of businesses — to formal and informal efforts to help spread the word about all this city and this region have to offer; from making the most of that “area of disproportionate impact” designation when it comes to cannabis to making the First National Bank building a fitting final piece to the puzzle that has been Bank Row.

Indeed, while significant progress has been made in rehabbing and repurposing the buildings along that stretch across from City Hall — the so-called Abercrombie building, now home to the Franklin County district attorney, being the latest — the former First National Bank remains a stern challenge, said Adams.

So much so that the city applied for, and received, a technical-assistance grant from MassDevelopment that will fund a consultant charged specifically with blueprinting a reuse plan for the structure.

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Built in 1929, the building has been essentially unoccupied for the better part of 40 years, said Adams, adding that the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the property in 2017 with the goal of determining the best reuse option.

“We’re waiting for the consultant that’s been assigned to us to come aboard, and we expect that to happen later this month, and have that individual work through this spring on a potential-reuse study of the building,” she said, adding that she expects this work to be completed by June. “We’re also spending some funding on some engineering to take a look at the building envelope — the structure, the fire-protection systems, and more — and then doing some preliminary cost estimates for getting a clean shell that can be developed.”

The project is important, she said, because the property has a prominent place in the city’s history and a prominent location as well. Its redevelopment could act as a catalyst for other investments and make the city more of a destination.

Speaking of catalysts, the cannabis industry could become one as well, Adams went on, adding that retail operations could help create still more vibrancy in the downtown, and the cultivation businesses could help fill various types of commercial properties, including old mill buildings.

Overall, the goal downtown, and just outside it, is to attract a diverse mix of businesses, said Adams, adding that, while there are have been some new arrivals, there are still many vacant storefronts in the central business district — more than city officials would prefer.

“We did an inventory about two years ago that looked at the properties downtown and especially the ground-floor retail spaces,” she noted. “There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

As for the chamber, as it celebrates its centennial, it will focus on a number of initiatives, including efforts to support and promote not only Greenfield but the entire county. One key to doing so is through collaboration with other entities involved in promoting business and economic development, said Szynal.

“There’s an active business association for Shelburne Falls, there’s one for Greenfield, Nortfield has a business association … there are several of these organizations,” she said. “One of my top priorities is to figure out how to work collaboratively to promote more business growth and keep our businesses strong county-wide.”

One challenge to overcome is enabling Greenfield, and the rest of the county, to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status.

“We have some incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in Franklin County, and that’s something we’re looking to highlight in the coming year,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economy, and it can be even bigger; there are some people who don’t know that these opportunities are here in Franklin County and that you don’t have to drive far to experience them.”

Balancing Act

Reflecting upon her return to downtown Greenfield a quarter-century since she last worked there, Szynal said she is impressed by, and increasingly enamored with, its mix of old and new.

“To some extent, Greenfield is growing and changing, but it’s also staying true to its roots,” she explained. “There’s a familiar feeling as you walk down the street, but there is exciting change as well.”

Moving forward, the goal is to create … well, much more of that, and there has been considerable progress in that regard as well as the promise of more.

Some might result from being 4/20-friendly, as the saying goes, but the bulk of it will come from being plain old business-friendly and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that develop.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz say Amherst benefits in many ways from its reputation as an academic hub.

Amherst is a community in transition, Paul Bockelman says — in some positive ways.

The most notable change, obviously, was the seating of Amherst’s first Town Council last month; 13 members were elected following a change in the town charter last March that included a move away from the town-meeting form of government.

“Some people who advocated for the charter change felt the representative town meeting wasn’t fully representative of the town and wasn’t nimble enough to address the issues that were facing the town on a daily basis,” said Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. Other people, he added, were angry after the town meeting failed to fund a new school building.

Either way, he went on, “they’re building a government from scratch. Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting. A lot of issues were put on hold during the transition period. Now that the council’s in place, there’s this backlog of things people want them to do, so those will start pouring through the system during the course of the year.”

But that’s not the only way Amherst is changing, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s Economic Development director. He cited activity in the restaurant scene, which has welcomed a number of new names, including Asian eateries Chuan Jiao and Kaiju, Jake’s at the Mill in North Amherst, Share Amherst, and Shiru Café, an intriguing coffee shop and study space that offers free coffee to area students in exchange for their personal information, which is sold to job recruiters and advertisers.

“Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting.”

“For college students, it’s an interesting model where they get a cup of coffee every hour,” Bockelman said. “It’s really designed for college students to hang out and do their homework, and the only requirement is that you give them some data that you otherwise would give to Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s not just for marketing,” Kravitz added, “but for recruiting for jobs out of college. Recruiting is really the model.”

Other restaurants are on their way as well, he added, and vacant properties, especially downtown, don’t remain unfilled for long.

“It’s not a stagnant town; it’s a town of transitions, and not just because we have a new form of government,” Bockelman added. “It seems that every time a restaurant moves out, a new restaurant comes in.”

Building on Progress

There’s plenty more activity on the development front as well. In September, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst opened One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

“That whole complex rented up very quickly and is full,” Bockelman said, noting that Archipelago has developed a handful of other properties in Amherst, and is planning another mixed-use project at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are moving forward with North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use development under construction in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space.

Amherst is also among the Western Mass. communities enthusiastically exploring the marijuana industry as an economic driver. That’s not surprising, considering the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana by a 3-to-1 margin. RISE Amherst, a medical-marijuana dispensary, is currently in operation, with three other businesses working their way through the local and state licensing process.

With 33,000 students attending UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town has also worked on educational efforts around adult-use marijuana, and has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.

From a municipal perspective, the town has long been studying the potential renovation of the North Common/Main Street parking lot, Kravitz noted.

“There’s been a parking lot in front of Town Hall since at least the ’70s, if not earlier, and we’re trying to redesign it from both a drainage and ecological perspective,” he explained. “It’s sort of sloped oddly, so when it rains, all the rain coming off the streets washes it out; that was the primary purpose of looking at it.”

What to do with the space will be one of the Town Council’s issues to tackle in 2019, Bockelman added. “The biggest question coming up relatively soon to the Town Council will be, do you want to work on this project or leave it as is?”

Meanwhile, the overall vision for Amherst has long involved arts and culture. The Amherst Central Cultural District aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions, and some of those efforts bleed into the downtown area as events, such as ArtWeek, a statewide effort taking place from April 26 to May 5.

Amherst at a Glance:

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“We want to create more excitement about being downtown,” Bockelman said. “Downtowns today are less about retail, brick-and-mortar shops and more about entertainment and cultural events. Some of them can be sponsored by the town, but a lot of them come from individuals.”

Many of Amherst’s museums and cultural institutions have statewide, even national reputations, and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are two of fewer than two dozen ‘living buildings’ worldwide — structures that meet strict standards for hyper-sustainability and net-zero energy use.

All these factors, plus the colleges and UMass, create a buzz and energy that attracts both new businesses and families to Amherst, Kravitz said.

“From a business perspective, there are very few communities of our size that boast three institutions of higher education,” he told BusinessWest. “I think that we have an incredibly educated population. People want to be around other people who have big ideas, so I think that’s part of the draw for some of the businesses — to be around other smart people. You saw that happening in Boston and Cambridge, you saw it happen in Silicon Valley, and I think that all starts with the academic institutions, whether it’s Stanford or MIT or UMass here.”

It’s Academic

The recent mixed-use developments are a welcome start to meeting housing needs in a growing town, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple of decades. In fact, a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units.

Still, Bockelman said, “I think it really is a place where people want to come to raise their family, for lots of different reasons.”

Last week, he met with a man who teaches two days a week in Washington, D.C. “He says he can leave his house at 6:15 in the morning, be in Washington by 10, and stays overnight. When he comes back, he takes the 5:00 and is back home at 8 to put his kid to bed. He chose to live in Amherst because he wanted a multi-cultural community with people who care about education, with excellent schools and an academic environment, and he found all that, plus easy access to open space. So he’s willing to make that weekly commute from Bradley. That’s kind of amazing to hear.”

That’s why it’s heartening, he added, to see how UMass Amherst has raised its profile in recent years as an internationally recognized research institution.

“It’s a big economic engine; thousands of people come in every day to work there,” he said. “Amherst is the largest community in Hampshire County, but it doesn’t read that way because it doesn’t look like Northampton, like a city. And in terms of our population, some people say the students are inflating that, but they’re here eight to nine months a year. And what that number does not count is the number of people who come into town every day because they’re employed by the two colleges or the university.”

In short, he concluded, “it’s a very vibrant community, even though it retains a certain college-town atmosphere that so many people love about it.”

That characteristic is one he and Kravitz both expect to remain steady, no matter what other transitions Amherst has in store.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Warming Trend

A confluence of factors — from the opening of MGM Springfield to the dawn of the cannabis era in Massachusetts — have fueled heightened interest in real estate in downtown Springfield. Brokers report that the level of activity — inquiries, showings, leases, and sales — is the highest they’ve seen in recent memory.

Freddy Lopez Jr. says there’s a rather complex algorithm, as he called it, when it comes to locating a cannabis dispensary in Springfield.

Such a facility can’t be within 500 feet of a school, he noted. Or within 300 of another dispensary. Or within 50 feet of a Class A residence. And there are many other restrictions, as well as a host of hurdles to clear locally and with the state, just to get the doors open.

But this rather high degree of difficulty doesn’t seem to be stopping many people from trying to get in the game in downtown Springfield — and at other locations within the city, said Lopez, a broker with Springfield-based NAI Plotkin.

He said he’s lost count when it comes to how many properties he’s shown to various parties, and noted that the interest is constant and only increasing, as desire to be part of the cannabis wave, if you will, intensifies.

“There’s a lot of interest across the area, but the hot spots are downtown, and especially locations near the casino,” said Lopez, who recently brokered the sale of 1665 Main St., once the headquarters of Hampden Bank, to a party (RLTY Development Springfield LLC) interested in converting it into a dispensary. “There’s a lot of competition for good sites.”

1665 Main St., recently sold to a party interested in converting it into a cannabis dispensary. Evan Plotkin, left, and Freddy Lopez Jr. of NAI Plotkin, which brokered the sale.

The Main Street property, located across from the Hippodrome and a block from Union Station, was most recently assessed at $127,600, but sold for $285,000, a clear sign of the times and an indicator of how hot the race to secure locations for cannabis facilities can, and probably will, become.

“People are jockeying for position right now,” said Lopez, adding that some parties are securing options, some are leasing, and others, like RLTY, are going ahead and buying properties in anticipation of winning a coveted license.

But the cannabis industry is only part of the story when it comes to growing interest in Springfield and especially its downtown, said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Colebook Realty, based in the heart of downtown.

MGM Springfield has certainly had an impact as well, spurring interest in various forms of development, from retail to housing. But there have been many other positive developments as well, from the relocation of the Community Foundation of Western Mass. to a location on Bridge Street, to the renovation of Stearns Square, to an improved outlook on the part of many when it comes to public safety.

“There are a number of factors driving this,” said Bolotin late on a Friday afternoon after a day of showing various properties, referring to a surge in interest and activity in Springfield and its downtown. “I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years now, and this is the strongest I’ve ever seen it.”

Mitch Bolotin says MGM Springfield is just one of many factors stimulating the most activity seen in the downtown Springfield market in recent memory.

Mitch Bolotin says MGM Springfield is just one of many factors stimulating the most activity seen in the downtown Springfield market in recent memory.

Demetrius Panteleakis expressed similar sentiments. The president of Macmillan Group LLC, now based in Tower Square, said the last quarter of this year has been extremely busy, and he expects that pattern to continue.

“I haven’t seen an October-November-December period as busy as this one — this is usually a slower time,” he noted. “There is a lot of movement; things are very robust right now.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest looks at why things are heating up in the downtown market and what this warming trend means for 2019 and beyond.

Where There’s Smoke…

Lopez said he has a number of anecdotes that capture the soaring level of interest in Springfield and its impact on the real-estate market.

One of his favorites concerns a party calling to inquire about securing a luxury apartment in downtown Springfield. Lopez explained that the city doesn’t really have any of those, much to the disappointment of the caller.

“This person was looking to do some investing in Springfield, and I think he wanted to use this apartment as a base — he could meet people there,” Lopez explained, adding that this phone call, all by itself, speaks volumes about how the commercial real-estate market is heating up in the city, and also how widespread the interest is.

Indeed, while there are many local parties interested in investment and/or development opportunities, the callers and visitors are also coming from well outside the 413.

“We’re getting calls from developers and investors in Boston, Rhode Island, New York City, and beyond,” he said, noting that many of these calls involve potential housing developments. “People who have never set foot in Springfield now have an interest in the city, and that’s very encouraging.”

That interest comes in many flavors, said those we spoke with, adding that the cannabis industry, and a strong desire to join it, are sparking many of the inquiries.

But these robust times are manifesting themselves in many ways.

Bolotin noted that he recently secured a lease for a new food-service business on Bridge Street. He couldn’t give specifics, but said the deal involved one of the vacant storefronts on that street, damaged first by the natural-gas blast and later by explosions triggered by a water-main break.

It’s an example of the strong interest in the market that he noted earlier, arguably the most activity he’s seen in recent memory.

“We’re seeing a lot of positive signs in the marketplace in terms of activity and interest, leases, and sales,” he said, adding that this vibrancy is reflected in everything from higher occupancy rates in the buildings managed by Colebrook — and there are many in the downtown, including the TD Bank Center and the Fuller Block — to how many showings of properties he’s conducted in recent months.

Overall, Bolotin, like others we spoke with about this, said there is considerably more positive energy concerning the downtown than there has been in some time. MGM deserves some credit for this, he noted, but there are many other factors as well, from the developments on and around Bridge Street to the renovation of the Fuller Block, to less apprehension about public safety. “The attitude is much more positive than it’s ever been.”

He noted that Patricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, who moved her business onto Bridge Street, Katie Alan Zobel, who relocated the Community Foundation to that same area, Tom Dennis, owner of the Dennis Group, who purchased and renovated the Fuller Block, among other buildings downtown, and Martin Miller, general manager of WFCR, who moved his operation from Amherst into the Fuller Block, are all examples of people investing in the downtown, and through, their actions, inspiring others to do so.

Panteleakis has also seen considerable optimism and less apprehension about public safety. “You don’t hear as many concerns about safety,” he said. “Before, safety was a real issue — it kept some people from coming downtown. But you don’t hear that much anymore.”

Meanwhile, housing has become a huge area of interest, in part because of MGM and the needs of its huge workforce, but also because of rising activity levels in general and growing anticipation that the city will soon become, if it isn’t already, a landing spot for younger people and empty-nesters alike.

Evan Plotkin, a principal with NAI Plotkin and long-time champion of downtown Springfield, noted the purchase of the former Willys-Overland building in the so-called ‘blast zone’ by Boston-based Davenport Advisors LLC, and that company’s acquisition of the old Registry of Motor Vehicles site, possibly for the same use, as harbingers of things to come.

“I’m seeing a lot of developers coming in looking to develop residential,” he said. “I see tremendous potential for new developments in parts of our city that have been stagnant for a long time, including areas on the fringes of downtown and in the downtown itself.”

Joint Ventures

While interest in potential housing development grows, the cannabis industry is the source of much of the activity downtown.

The brokers we spoke with said they’ve been showing multiple sites to groups interested in all facets of this business, from cultivation to retail. And while sites across the city are being explored — as many as 15 sites might become licensed in Springfield — the downtown is becoming the focal point.

“Things have been crazy for the past two years when it comes to this business,” he said, adding that he’s brokered the sale of sites for marijuana-related businesses in Holyoke and Easthampton. “Now, the focus is shifting to Springfield and the downtown area; people are trying to line up sites.”

Lopez concurred, noting that there is a broad mix of local, national, and even international companies looking to start a cannabis dispensary or cultivation site in this region, with many focused on Springfield and an initiative known as the Opportunity Zone Program.

Created as part of the U.S. Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, the program provides incentives for investment in low-income communities, like Springfield. Individuals and groups looking to develop in these designated geographic areas can gain favorable tax treatment on their capital gains, said Lopez, adding that he has worked with several owners and investors in the city’s Opportunity Zone.

The purchase of 1665 Main St. falls into this category, he said, noting that the acquisition is a good example of investors jockeying for position through options, leases, or outright purchases.

And the race for cannabis locations should provide a substantial boost for owners of properties downtown, said Plotkin, noting that prices are moving higher as interest grows, in a movement that echoes what happened when MGM Springfield and other casino-industry players jockeyed to enter this market.

“When you were dealing with a casino developer, like MGM or the other parties interested in Springfield, there was what we all referred to as the ‘casino rate,’” he explained. “They’ll pay more for real estate than the average buyer will.

“In the case of a marijuana dispensary, because the business is so lucrative, they will pay a lot more rent per square foot,” he went on, noting that a ‘marijuana rate’ is taking shape. “Rents that may have been $15 a square foot a year ago … for a marijuana shop, we’re taking about $20 to $25 per square foot, and in some cases more, depending on where it is.”

As for what the cannabis industry might mean for Springfield, Plotkin, who has traveled extensively, expressed some hope that the city might someday become somewhat like Amsterdam, a city famous for its culture, nightlife, and countless shops selling marijuana, other drugs, and related paraphernalia.

“I think Amsterdam is a great example of just how the very liberal nature of that city has led to incredible street life in that town that’s very safe,” he said. “Amsterdam is a great city, one of the most vibrant cities in the world, and maybe we can learn from its example.”

Bottom Line

Whether Springfield can become anything approaching Amsterdam — as a tourist destination or cannabis hotspot — remains to be seen.

For the time being, it is a hotspot when it comes to its commercial real-estate market.

There is interest and activity unlike anything that’s been seen in decades, and the consensus is that this pattern will likely continue and perhaps even intensify.

Springfield and its downtown have become the right place at the right time.

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

Economic Outlook

Right Place, Right Time

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

They call it the ‘need period.’

There are probably other names for it, but that’s how those at the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) refer to the post-holiday winter stretch in this region.

And that phrase pretty much sums it up. Area tourist attractions and hospitality-related businesses are indeed needy at that time — far more than at any other season in this region. Traditionally, it’s a time to hold on and, if you’re a ski-related business, hope for snow or enough cold weather to make some.

But as the calendar prepares to change over to 2019 — and, yes, the needy season for many tourism-related businesses in the 413 — there is hope and optimism, at least much more than is the norm.

This needy season, MGM Springfield will be open, and five months into its work to refine and continuously improve its mix of products and services. And there will also be the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Game, coming to Springfield for the first time in a long time on Jan. 28 (actually, there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities). There will be a revamped Basketball Hall of Fame, a few new hotels, and some targeted marketing on the part of the GSCVB to let everyone know about everything going on in this area.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019. Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

So maybe the need period won’t be quite as needy as it has been.

And if the outlook for the traditionally slow winter months is brighter, the same — and more — can be said for the year ahead, said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that expectations, based in large part on the last few quarters of 2018 and especially the results after MGM opened on Aug. 24, are quite high for the year ahead.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019,” she told BusinessWest. “Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

Elaborating, she said MGM is helping to spur new development in this sector — one new hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, opened in downtown Springfield in 2018, and another, a Courtyard by Marriott, is set to open on Riverdale Street in West Springfield — while also filling more existing rooms and driving rates higher.

Indeed, occupancy rates in area hotels rose to 68.5% in October (the latest data available), up nearly 2% from that same month in 2017, and in August, they were up 5% (to 72.6%) over the year prior.

Meanwhile, room revenue was up 4.6% in October, from $113 a night on average in this region to $119 a night, and in August, it went up 7.2%.

And, as noted, MGM is just one of the reasons for optimism and a bright outlook in this sector, Wydra said. Others include the renovated hoop hall, yearly new additions at Six Flags, and the awesome drawing power of the Dr. Seuss museum on the Quadrangle.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

For 2019, the outlook is for the needle to keep moving in the right direction, she said, noting that some new meetings and conventions have been booked (more on that later); Eastec, the massive manufacturing trade show, will be making its biennial pilgrimage to this region (specifically the Big E); the Babe Ruth World Series will again return to Westfield; and the AHL All-Star weekend will get things off to a solid start.

John Doleva, president of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a member of the executive board of the GSCVB, agreed.

“With MGM now in the marketplace and being active, there does appear to be a lift, much more of an excited spirit by those that are in the business,” he noted. “Everybody is saying that, at some level, their business is up, their interest in visitation is up — there is a general feeling of optimism.”

Getting a Bounce

Doleva told BusinessWest that MGM opened its doors toward the tail end of peak season for the hoop hall — the summer vacation months. Therefore, it’s too early to quantify the impact of the casino on attendance there.

But the expectations for the next peak season are quite high, he went on, adding that many MGM customers return several times, and the hope — and expectation — is that, on one or several of those return trips, guests will extend their visit far beyond the casino’s grounds.

“Once people return a few times, they’re going to be looking for other things to do,” he said. “I definitely feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, and I’m definitely looking forward to next summer when it’s the high-travel season, and really get a gauge for what the potential MGM crossover customer is.

“Conversely, there are probably individuals that would probably have the Hall of Fame on their list of things to do,” he went on, “and now that there’s more of a critical mass, with MGM right across the street, I think we rise up on their to-do list.”

But MGM’s arrival is only one reason for soaring expectations at the hall, said Doleva, adding that the facility is in the middle of an ambitious renovation project that is already yielding dividends.

Indeed, phase one of the project included an extensive makeover of the lobby area and the hall’s theater, and those steps have helped inspire a significant increase in bookings for meetings and events.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

“Our renovations have led to a great number of facility rentals for events that are happening in our theater, our new lobby, and Center Court,” he said, adding that the hall was averaging 175 rentals a year, and will log close to 240 for 2018. “Before, the theater wasn’t a hidden gem, it was just hidden; it was like a junior-high-school auditorium — it was dark, it was gray, it had no life. Now, it’s a great place to have a meeting or presentation like a product launch.”

Phase 2 of the project, which includes a renovation of the third-floor mezzanine, where the Hall of Fame plaques are, and considerable work on the roof of the sphere, will commence “any minute now,” said Doleva, adding that the work should improve visitation numbers, but, even more importantly, revenue and profitability.

The improved numbers for the hall — and the optimism there concerning the year ahead — are a microcosm of the broader tourism sector, said Wydra, adding that a number of collaborating factors point toward what could be a special year — and a solid long-term outlook.

It starts with the All-Star Game. The game itself is on a Monday night, but there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities planned, including the ‘classic skills competition’ the night before.

“Even with the average daily rate going up and occupancy growing, we still have that need period — which is true for all of Massachusetts,” she noted. “When you have an event like the All-Star Game in January, that really helps the hotels and restaurants.”

Additional momentum is expected in May with the arrival of EASTEC, considered to be New England’s premier manufacturing exposition. The three-day event drew more than 13,000 attendees last year, many of whom patronized area restaurants and clubs, said Wydra, adding that MGM Springfield only adds to the list of entertainment and hospitality options for attendees.

The Babe Ruth World Series is another solid addition to the year’s lineup, she noted, adding that the teams coming into the area, and their parents, frequent a number of area attractions catering to families.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Meanwhile, the region continues to attract a diverse portfolio of meetings and conventions, said Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, adding that MGM Springfield provides another attractive selling point for the 413, which can already boast a host of amenities, accessibility, and affordable hotel rates.

In June, the National Assoc. of Watch and Clock Collectors will stage its 75th annual national convention at the Big E, she said, an event that is expected to bring 2,000 people to the region. And later in the summer, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts will bring more than 900 people to downtown Springfield.

Those attending these conventions and the many others slated during the year now have a growing list of things to do in this region, said Wydra, who mentioned MGM, obviously, but also the revamped Hall of Fame; Six Flags, which continues to add new attractions yearly (a Cyborg ride is on tap for 2019); and the Dr. Seuss museum, which is drawing people from across the country and around the world.

“The Seuss factor is huge,” said Wydra. “It’s a big reason why visitation is up in this region. Seuss is a recognizable brand, and the museum delivers on the brand, and they keep reinventing that product.”

Staying Power

This ‘Seuss factor’ is just one of a number of powerful forces coming together to bring the outlook for tourism in this region to perhaps the highest plane it’s seen.

Pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place, and together, they point to Western Mass. becoming a true destination.

As noted, even the ‘need period’ is looking less needy. The rest of the year? The sky’s the limit.

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

Law

Navigating Change

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

Amy Royal was taking a calculated risk when she left a stable job in employment law to start her own firm at the start of the Great Recession. But those calculations proved correct, and as her firm marks 10 years in business, she reflects on how her team’s services to clients continue to go beyond legal aid into a business relationship that helps companies — and the local economy — grow.

Many employers, truth be told, don’t think the grand bargain is much of a bargain. And they have questions about how it will affect them.

“Massachusetts tends to be ripe with emerging employment issues, like the grand bargain,” said Amy Royal, referring to this past summer’s state legislation that raised the minimum wage and broadened family leave, among other worker-friendly measures.

“But that’s one of the things I enjoy — the education piece we offer to clients: ‘this is what the grand bargain looks like, and we’re going to help you plan for it. This may not seem so grand, but we’re here to help you navigate this and figure out how you’re going to work within these parameters now.’”

Royal and her team have helped plenty of employers over the 10 years since she opened her law firm, Royal, P.C., in Northampton. Since launching the business as a boutique, woman-owned, management-side-only firm in 2008, that framework hasn’t changed, but the way the team serves those clients has certainly evolved.

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm,” she told BusinessWest. “Is it continuing to market in this very discrete area or expanding beyond that?

“We obviously only represent companies,” she went on, “but in our relationships with clients, we’re being asked to handle other things for those companies apart from employment law.”

“Now that we’re 10 years old, we’re thinking about rebranding, thinking about growth, and how we can provide additional opportunities here at the law firm.”

For example, the firm represents a large, publicly traded company that recently launched a new brand and wanted help creating contracts with vendors and negotiating with other companies it was collaborating with. Another client is a large human-service agency that called on Royal to interpret regulations of its funding sources and help negotiate contracts related to those sources.

“So we’ve organically expanded over time,” she said. “We still represent companies, but we do more for them, because we’re seen as a true advisor to them. So now, at 10 years, I’ve looked at the firm and asked my team, ‘is this something we should now be marketing?’ We still are a boutique firm representing companies, but what we’re going to be rolling out in the coming year is a rebranding initiative — one that’s focused on telling the story of what we are doing here that’s more than just employment law.”

Tough Timing

Royal began her law career working for the Commonwealth, in the Office of the Attorney General, handling civil-litigation matters, which included some employment claims. From there, she went into private practice at a regional law firm that solely handled management-side labor and employment law.

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members, including (top) attorneys Daniel Carr and Timothy Netkovick, and (bottom) Heather Loges, practice manager and COO; and Merricka Breuer, legal assistant.

With that background, Royal sensed a desire to start her own company — which turned out to be a risky proposition, opening up into the teeth of the Great Recession.

“I obviously took a huge leap; I was at an established law firm and had been there for a long time. I had an established job, with a very young family at the time. And it was 2008, when, obviously, the economy wasn’t in good shape.”

So she understood if people thought striking out on her own might not have been the safest move.

“But given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never,” she explained. “I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business. Oftentimes, law firms aren’t thought of as businesses; they’re thought of as practitioners, but not businesses. But I knew I could create a law firm in a strategic way and develop it and make a company out of it.”

At first, Royal’s wasn’t the only name on the letterhead. At first, the firm was called Royal & Munnings, with Amy Griffin Munnings as a partner, helping Royal get the firm off the ground. Later, after Munnings moved to Washington, D.C., the firm was known as Royal & Klimczuk, for then-partner Kimberly Klimczuk, who subsequently departed and currently practices employment law at Skoler Abbott in Springfield.

Currently, Royal employs four other attorneys full-time, in addition to two full-time paralegals and other support staff.

“I really wanted to take the model of a specialized, boutique practice and build upon it with a strong client base of corporations throughout our Valley and beyond — because we do represent companies in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Vermont, as well as national corporations,” she explained.

“I believed it didn’t so much matter where we were located because we go out to our clients,” she added. “So I chose Northampton because I have really enjoyed the community — I went to Smith College, and I thought I could have an impact here and throughout the region and beyond in creating employment opportunities for people.”

That is, in fact, how Royal sees her work: by helping clients navigate through often-tricky employment issues, she’s helping those companies grow and create even more jobs in the Valley.

And while many of those thorny issues have remained consistent, they’ve ebbed and flowed in some ways, too.

“Given the employment-law landscape, there becomes hot areas at certain times, and we become sort of subspecialists in those areas,” she explained. For example, early on, she saw a lot of activity around affirmative action and dealing with the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs. Wage-and-hour conflicts have become increasingly prominent in recent years as well, and Royal, P.C. has handled client defense on those issues, as well as general guidance on how to avoid claims altogether.

“I do feel like we can advise clients and help them flourish,” she went on. “I’m so committed to this region, and I know there’s been a lot of work done over the last decade since our birth as a law firm, in the business community and the community at large, on how to make the Pioneer Valley an even more attractive place for people to live and earn a living and feel like they have opportunities here — that they don’t have to be in Boston to have those opportunities.”

Risk Managers

As she continues to grow the firm, Royal says it’s always a challenge to find talented attorneys who are skilled in labor and employment law and also understand her vision for the company.

“Practitioners often think, ‘here’s what the law says.’ We need to be telling clients, ‘OK, here’s what the law says you can do, but this is also a business decision, and everything is about weighing and measuring risk and deciding whether you can bear that risk or not, whether that’s a good practice or not.’”

“Given how long I’d been practicing law at the time, it felt to me like it was now or never. I really wanted to see if I could make a go at it, and I felt like I had the tools to develop a business.”

And challenges to employers are constantly evolving, whether it’s legislation like the grand bargain or issues that arise from new technology. She recalls what a hot topic portable devices, like smartphones and tablets, were in the early part of this decade.

“Now it’s like everyone has one,” she said, “but at that time, it was a huge issue for employers, who were asking, ‘where is our data going? If you’re a portable employee, what’s happening when you leave with that phone?’”

The economy can affect the flow of work as well. In the early days of the firm, as the recession set in, litigation crowded out preventive work such as compliance matters, employee handbooks, and supervisory training. In recent years, she’s seen an uptick in requests for those services again.

Sometimes, employers will call with advice before taking disciplinary action with an employee — just another way Royal aims to be a partner to clients. The firm also conducts regular seminars and roundtables, both for clients and the public, on matters — such as legislative changes and policy wrinkles — that affect all employers.

In some ways, that’s an extension of the way Royal wants the firm to be a presence in the broader community. Another is the team’s involvement with local nonprofits.

“I’ve tried to set that tone,” she said, “but it’s never been met with resistance — it’s always been met with ‘oh, yes, maybe we can do this, maybe we can do that.’ It’s been important to me to have a team that really wants to support their community.”

Meanwhile, that team has been focused, perhaps more than ever before, on what exactly Royal, P.C. is — where the firm has been in the past, what it is now, and what it wants to be going forward.

“We have a strong, viable book of labor and employment business, and what I’ve communicated to my team is, ‘we can keep going for the next 10 years, 20 years, on that book, and achieve growth.’ Or we can look at our brand and say, ‘do we want to grow beyond that? Do we tell the story of the other services we’re able to provide, and create other employment opportunities for people in the Valley?’ There’s a consensus here that that’s really the direction we should be going in.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

Margaret Kerswill has a couple of good views of Stockbridge’s business community. One is as president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce. The other is from her storefront window on Main Street.

“I think there’s a real appeal that’s well-defined in our town’s tagline, which is ‘a quintessential New England town.’ It feels small; it feels intimate,” said Kerswill, co-owner with her wife, Laureen Vizza, of Mutability in Motion, a downtown store that sells crafts handmade by artisans from across the U.S., many of them local.

“There’s a connection between people in town,” she went on. ‘When you walk through town in the morning, just about everyone says ‘good morning’ to you. There’s a very nice atmosphere about Stockbridge.”

Still, outsiders often peg the community as a tourist destination — which is certainly is — and not much else, and are surprised to find a bustling local economy that doesn’t shut down during slow tourism seasons.

“I know being in my shop, a lot of the visitors who come, who have never been here, are often surprised to see businesses stay open year-round,” Kerswill said. “When they visit other tourist areas at the beginning and end of the season, a lot of those restaurants and shops close down. We’re a small town, so most of our foot traffic is in the summer season, but we’re still here year-round, serving local regulars.”

Still, Stockbridge relies heavily on tourism and visitorship for economic development. With a population of just under 2,000 — ranking it in the bottom sixth in the Commonwealth — the community doesn’t have a deep well of residents or businesses from which to draw tax revenue, but it does boast a widely noted series of destination attractions, from Tanglewood to the Norman Rockwell Museum; from the Berkshire Theatre Festival to Berkshire Botanical Garden.

Other attractions continue to emerge as well, including the oft-delayed Elm Court project by Travaasa Berkshire County, which will turn the historic Elm Court Estate into a resort featuring 112 hotel rooms, a 60-seat restaurant, and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

The property, which sits on the border of Stockbridge and Lenox on Old Stockbridge Road, was constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt, completed a series of renovations in 1919, and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The project to renovate it began six years ago when Front Yard purchased the estate from the Berle family, who had run a boutique, wedding-oriented hotel there from 2002 to 2009. Eight neighbors appealed the 2015 approval of the resort by the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, but the Massachusetts Land Court eventually ruled in favor of the developer, Front Yard LLC. This past summer, Front Yard asked the Stockbridge Select Board for — and received — an extension of the permit which would have expired last month. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is developing a $33 million construction project at Tanglewood, a four-building complex that will house rehearsal and performance space for the Tanglewood Music Center as well as a new education venture known as the Tanglewood Learning Institute — the first weatherized, all-season structure at Tanglewood, which the BSO plans to make available for events beyond the summer months.

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts,” Kerswill said. “We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts. On one hand, we have the feel of country living, but we have the convenience of Manhattan two hours away, Albany 45 minutes away, Boston two hours away, and all the culture in our immediate area. It’s remarkable. That’s why I’m here — the culture and the arts.”

Community Ties

As chamber president, Kerswill leads a member base that’s smaller than most chambers, but “strong and loyal,” as she called it.

“We do some chamber-related functions to connect,” she said, “and we also have tri-town chamber mixers with people from Lenox and Lee, where we get together and share experiences in an informal setting over cocktails for a couple hours.”

Margaret Kerswill

Margaret Kerswill

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts. We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts.”

The chamber also presents an annual event to honor members and businesses, alternating between an individual one year and a company the next. On top of that, it puts on two major events. One is the three-day Main Street at Christmas festival — slated this year for Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 — which brings thousands of people into town with activities for families and children, concerts, caroling at the Red Lion Inn, and self-guided house tours. On Sunday, Main Street closes down for several hours, antique cars are brought in, and the strip transforms into a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

That follows a summer arts and crafts fair each August, a weekend-long event that always sells out its vendor capacity, she said. “There’s no entry fee for patrons, and people freely walk around and come and go as they please. That brings a lot of people to town, at a time when summer is winding down and there’s less traffic.”

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947 (2010)
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.76
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.76
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels when it comes to its status as a desirable town for tourists and residents alike, a visionary project committee was formed by Stockbridge officials several years ago to develop recommendations that could be implemented over the next 20 years. The committee issued a report in 2016 titled “Planning a Way Forward.”

That report noted that residents value the town’s cultural institutions and historic buildings; its open space, recreation sites, and walking trails; and its downtown (although many would like to see additional shops and services, as well as more parking). Meanwhile, they want to see smart housing growth that takes into account the community’s aging population, as well as additional transportation options and better accommodation of walkers and bicyclists.

As a result, the document envisioned a Stockbridge in 2036 that mixes the traditional strengths of tourism, culture, and creative economy with green- and technology-based businesses, food production from local farmers, and agri-tourism. The ideal community would also be less auto-reliant, expanding pedestrian networks, bicycle infrastructure, and regional bus and ride-sharing services.

The report also predicts a socially and economically diverse population that provides equally diverse housing options, from apartments and condominiums to smaller single-family homes, co-housing projects, and historic ‘Berkshire cottages.’ These include a mix of sustainable new construction and repurposed buildings, including the preservation of older homes, along with an increase of people living close to the town center, including mixed-use buildings with apartments over shops to support downtown businesses.

While the overall vision may be ambitious, it encompasses the sorts of goals a town of Stockbridge’s size can reasonably set when looking to move into its next era.

Blast from the Past

Kerswill, for one, is happy she and Vizza set up shop in Stockbridge — right next to the Red Lion Inn, in fact, which is in many ways the heart of the downtown business culture.

“It’s a great experience being in downtown in Stockbridge,” she told BusinessWest. “We don’t have any chain stores or restaurant franchises. We are all independently owned, and the chances are good, when you pop into one of our stores, that you’re going to be meeting the owner. It becomes a very personal experience because of that.”

As for the Red Lion itself, “it’s cozy and intimate,” she went on, “and they’ve modernized with things that people expect, like wi-fi, but you still get a real, old-fashioned experience, and I think people really crave that. I know I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]