Home Posts tagged Mass.
Cover Story

Fair Amount of Intrigue

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.

 

In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.

Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.

This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.

Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”

As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.

The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.

People like Sharon Berthiaume.

The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.

“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”

But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E, but because of the pandemic and fears among some people about being in crowds, he’s not expecting to set any attendance records this year.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.

Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.

“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”

And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.

 

The Ride Stuff

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.

“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.

It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”

And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.

“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”

Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E, and they are among the many people happy to have the 17-day fair back on the slate.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”

At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.

“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.

But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.

“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”

Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.

“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.

“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”

While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.

Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.

However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.

“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”

 

Impact Statement

While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.

As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.

“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E, which is seeing record numbers of advance ticket sales for the 2021 fair.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.

Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”

Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.

“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.

She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”

Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.

“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.

“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”

 

Fair Weathered Friends

Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.

He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.

The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.

Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.

 

He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.

 

—George O’Brien

Travel and Tourism

Better Late Than Never

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force entertain the crowd at the Green River Festival in 2018. (Photo by Douglas Mason)

Since its inception in the late 1980s, the Green River Festival had never been canceled. Until last year.

And Jim Olsen wanted to give it every chance to return in 2021, even if it meant moving the date from mid-July to Aug. 27-29 — which turned out to be unnecessary, but hey, better safe than sorry.

“It was definitely a challenge to plan on so many levels,” said Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, the Northampton-based company that produces the annual festival in Greenfield.

“It became apparent in January that July wasn’t going to fly — at least, it didn’t seem that way at the time,” he went on, a perception that speaks volumes about how far the state and the nation have come with COVID-19 case rates and a massive vaccination effort. At first, the move seemed prescient, especially after Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state would fully reopen, without gathering restrictions, on Aug. 1.

No one knew the governor would eventually shift that date to May 29, but Olsen doesn’t mind an extra month to get the Green River Festival right, even if the planning got a little thorny.

“We had already booked all the musicians for July, and we had to scrap that and start over again for August,” he said — a feat in itself, since musicians tend to book a series of shows in succession, and it’s not always easy to shift dates around.

“These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

But shift they did, and this year’s festival features about 30 bands, headlined by the likes of Jon Batiste, Shakey Graves, Ani DiFranco, Valerie June, and Drive-By Truckers over the event’s three days. Check out greenriverfestival.com for the full lineup and plenty of other information.

Speaking of changes, the festival also had to find another venue after 33 years at Greenfield Community College, which announced earlier this year it would be closed for the summer. The new host is the Franklin County Fairgrounds, which actually offers more space, Olsen said. “It’s a great site, and we’re really excited about it. I feel it’s going to be a new and exciting chapter for us.”

He’s not the only one who’s excited. Musicians have struggled badly during the pandemic like few businesses have — and, make no mistake, music is a business, one that relies on live performance.

“These days, you really don’t make much money recording,” Olsen said of a market that has radically de-emphasized physical product in favor of streaming. “It’s all in the live shows. These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

While they’re enjoying this year’s stop along that road — the event will feature music on three different stages throughout the weekend — the festival will also feature plenty of what fans have loved in the past, from Berkshire Brewing Co.’s beer and wine tent to food trucks hailing from across the Northeast to the Makers Market, a collection of regional artisans selling handmade crafts, jewelry, clothing, and more.

“We’ve worked very hard building a world-class crafts market,” Olsen said. “We like to represent the best of Western Mass. at the Green River Festival. That’s why we continue to do so well.”

Tickets cost $139.99 for the weekend, but patrons can attend Friday only for $44.99 or Saturday or Sunday for $69.99 each day. Camping is available, but RV passes are already sold out.

“Our ticket sales have been very, very strong, from the minute we announced it,” Olsen said. “There’s so much anticipation among people to get back to life, to get back out and enjoy the stuff we love. I’ve always felt like this was a big community party — and this year, it’s going to be supersized.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the state of emergency in Massachusetts, we continue to take steps on our path forward.

Last week, legislators reached agreement on a COVID-19 package to support our business community as it begins to recover from the pandemic. The package would include two items that the Springfield Regional Chamber has been aggressively advocating for: unemployment-insurance rate relief and tax relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan proceeds.

The agreement calls for a freeze in the unemployment insurance (UI) rate at the current Schedule E rate for 2021 and 2022, limiting the increases employers will see. Without passage, employers could see the unemployment insurance rates increase from an average of $539 to $866 per employee. This legislation would hold the average UI rates to $635 per employee in 2021 and $665 per employee in 2022.

The agreement would also exclude PPP loan amounts forgiven in 2020 from taxable gross income for those small businesses that are organized as pass-through entities. While Congress excluded these loans from federal taxation, without legislative action, these loans would have been taxed as income at the state level.

The agreement would also guarantee paid leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19, required to quarantine, or need to take time off to get the vaccine. As well, it will allow for state borrowing, through a temporary employer assessment, to ensure the solvency of the UI trust fund, which is projected to have a $5 billion deficit by the end of 2022, triggering higher increases in unemployment-insurance rates to remain solvent.

We applaud the Legislature for recognizing the long-term economic impact this pandemic has had on our employer community and to take these steps to support its recovery.

The federal government also recently took action, with the Senate approving a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. One item your chamber supports in this package is the state and local aid to help our region’s cities and towns as they deal with their own economic hardships resulting from the pandemic. As specific details around this aid remain to be seen, we will continue to watch this closely, as we believe this funding is critical to the fiscal health and stability of our communities.

The CDC has also issued much anticipated guidance for individuals who are fully vaccinated. As of last week, more than 715,000 people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, ranking Massachusetts first among states with 5 million people or more for total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered. Massachusetts is currently in phase 2 of its vaccination plan, with teachers becoming eligible last week.

We have been through the wringer, and we know we have a ways to go, but these are all significant steps on our road to recovery and, we hope, the first of many more to come.

Stay safe and stay well. We can — and will — get through this together.

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Nacht

Jennifer Nacht says a heavy focus on outdoor experiences last year helped Lenox weather the economic impact of the pandemic.

For the past year, the town of Lenox showed what happens when uncertainty meets a can-do attitude.

Despite the formidable challenges of COVID-19, Town Manager Christopher Ketchen said, Lenox residents and businesses have been remarkably resilient.

“Throughout the pandemic, our residents demonstrated how much they love our town,” Ketchen said. “They make their homes here, and our businesses are invested in their customers and their community.”

What began as a normal year of planning events at the Lenox Chamber of Commerce was suddenly derailed in March. Once they realized the pandemic was going to last more than a couple months, Executive Director Jennifer Nacht said, chamber members and town officials quickly met to put together a plan to salvage at least some activity for Lenox.

“We went through each season and developed a general outline of things we could do,” Nacht said. “Even though we did not know what the year was going to look like, we were able to turn around some great activities.”

Like many towns, Lenox encouraged restaurants to offer tented outdoor dining and allowed them to expand outdoor seating into public parking spaces. The town also added covered dining terraces in public spaces around town.

“The select board lifted alcohol restrictions so people could bring a bottle of wine to Lilac Park, for example, where we had set up a dining terrace,” Nacht said.

“You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

Some developments last spring were rough. In May, the town learned that, due to COVID-19 concerns, Tanglewood had canceled its 2020 season. For some perspective on the importance of Lenox’s largest summer attraction, a Williams College study in 2017 estimated the economic impact of Tanglewood to Berkshire County and Western Mass. at nearly $103 million annually.

Because they didn’t know what to expect when Tanglewood called off its season, Nacht said everyone concentrated their efforts on making Lenox a welcome and inviting place. Outdoor dining was a first step that helped to establish a more vibrant atmosphere, and it inspired further activities.

For example, the Lenox Cultural District and the chamber organized Lenox Loves Music, an initiative that featured live music performed at the Church Street Dining Terrace for seven straight Sundays in August and September. It was a hit.

“Because we were able to turn on a dime and get everything set up, we were able to make the outside experience fun,” Nacht said. “As a result, we were better able to weather the financial impact of the pandemic.”

 

Hit the Road

If entry points to walking and biking trails are any indication, Ketchen said the pandemic helped many people discover the town’s outdoor attractions for the first time. “You couldn’t get a parking place at the trailheads in town. Even obscure trailheads that were once known only to a handful of locals were crowded.”

For more than 40 years, Lenox has held Apple Squeeze, a harvest celebration that takes over much of the downtown area with 150 food and craft vendors. The event was canceled for 2020 because of concerns that, even with restrictions, too many people would gather, leading to unsafe crowd sizes.

Lenox Loves Music

Lenox Loves Music was a hit during a time when live music was in short supply.

As an alternative, the chamber and American Arts Marketing developed the Lenox Art Walk and scheduled it for the late-September weekend when the Apple Squeeze would have taken place. Forty artists set up in different areas around town in ‘artist villages,’ which were arranged so no more than 50 people could be in one area at a time. Foot-traffic flow was also designed to keep people moving through the exhibits.

Nacht said the Art Walk received great feedback, and the artists involved loved exhibiting their work. The event also led to phone calls from event organizers from several Eastern Mass. towns who wanted to know how to stage a similar event.

The old adage about necessity being the mother of invention definitely has proven true for Lenox. “We just tried some different things that we probably would have never attempted, or done so quickly, had it not been for the pandemic,” Nacht said.

In the beginning of the summer, traffic in town was about half of what it would be during a normal season. As the weather became warmer and travel restrictions eased around the state, both traffic and business picked up.

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way,” Nacht said, adding that good weather in the summer and fall extended the outdoor season nearly to Thanksgiving.

While lodging in the area was restricted by the number of rooms that could be offered, she noted, from September through November, inn and hotel rooms were booked to the capacity they were allowed.

As the owner of the Scoop, a Lenox ice-cream store, Nacht was one of many business owners forced to move customer interactions outdoors. She found a fun way to adjust.

“We did it sort of Cape Cod style, where people order at one window and pick up their ice cream at a second window,” she explained, adding that, while 2020 was not as successful as previous years, the Scoop still saw steady business throughout its season. Even non-food stores, inspired by all the outdoor activity, set up tents in front of their shops to add to the vitality.

In a normal year, Lenox Winterland is a tradition to kick off the holiday season that features a tree-lighting ceremony and Santa Claus meeting with children. In this very-not-normal year, Winterland was forced to cancel.

Instead of losing their holiday spirit, however, the Cultural District and chamber presented a creative alternative. Local businesses and artists teamed up to decorate 30 Christmas trees, which were displayed in a tree walk through town. Nacht said the inaugural Holiday Tree Walk was so well-received, plans are in the works to expand and make it an annual event.

“Despite the obstacles of COVID, we had a decent tourism business,” she said. “We’ll continue to offer more fun events to keep the vibrancy of the town going and improving.”

 

Passing the Test

Lenox has always been proud of its cultural amenities, such as Tanglewood, Edith Wharton’s house at the Mount, Shakespeare and Co., and others. As those were scaled back, Ketchen said, the town’s outdoor amenities gained exposure they might not have otherwise.

“Once we are allowed to enjoy our cultural institutions to their fullest again, people will also have more awareness of all the recreational opportunities Lenox has,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s a big positive for us as we look to the future.”

While Nacht hopes to see Tanglewood up and running, at least in some form, in 2021, she admits the past year was quite the learning experience. “We are so dependent on Tanglewood, it was an interesting test to see what we could do without Tanglewood there.”

Despite the challenges put on municipal budgets, Ketchen said Lenox was able to pursue several modest infrastructure projects in 2020, such as maintaining roads and public-utility infrastructure. “When folks are ready to come to Lenox for the recreation and the culture, the public utilities and infrastructure will be waiting for them.”

“We began seeing more day trippers, many from the Boston area who had never been out our way.”

In short, Lenox is not only weathering the COVID-19 storm, it’s finding ways to come out stronger on the other side. Indeed, when this community, which depends on cultural tourism, was challenged to find creative solutions to stay afloat, it answered the call. Nacht credited Lenox businesses for making quick and significant adjustments in their operations.

“It was really inspiring to see our businesses make the best out of a not-so-great situation,” she said. “It says a lot about their commitment to our town.”

Undaunted by the near future, Nacht noted several businesses are planning for April openings. And she looks forward to the new year knowing that Lenox can present all the outdoor events that worked well in 2020.

“With knowledge, you just learn to do things better, and we learned a lot last year,” she added. “Once the tulips come out, that’s when we start to see everything come alive again.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
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

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

As the world looks to generate energy from different sources and reduce waste, a new facility just opened in Agawam that contributes to both efforts.

What looks like a plain green building on Main Street is actually a plant that converts food waste into natural gas and fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables, based in Wellesley, approached Agawam Mayor William Sapelli about locating an organics-recovery facility in Agawam. After addressing some initial concerns about truck traffic and potential odor from the plant, the town gave the go-ahead.

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this,” Sapelli said, noting that this is only the second plant of its type in Massachusetts.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the nearby Hood dairy plant has a pallet of yogurt that does not meet specifications or has expired. Hood can bring that pallet to the Agawam facility, where large extracting machines separate the packaging from the yogurt. The packaging gets bundled and brought to a recycling facility, while the yogurt is mixed with other food waste and water. This forms a slurry, which is then delivered by tanker truck to an anerobic digester, a large, dome-shaped structure. (The closest digesters to Agawam are located on farms in Deerfield and Hadley.)

The slurry is mixed with farm-animal waste in the digester, where two things happen. First, biogas rises from the mix and gets converted to renewable natural gas for heating and cooling. Then, the remains of the slurry, known as digestate, are used as low-carbon fertilizer for area farmers.

“In the past, all this waste was incinerated or dumped into a landfill, but now it’s being turned into energy and fertilizer,” Sapelli said, calling the process “amazing.” As the Agawam facility ramps up to full capacity, it will be able to process 250 tons of food waste per day, according to Vanguard.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this.”

That’s just one project that has Agawam officials excited as they move past a challenging 2020 for all municipalities. While the pandemic is still a daily reality, they say this town is focused on growth as a new year dawns.

 

Bridge to Tomorrow

For the past couple of years, the largest infrastructure project in Agawam has been the rebuilding of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam and West Springfield. The original completion date was scheduled for May 2022. After Sapelli met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to incentivize the project contractor, Northern Construction, to work overtime and weekends to shorten the deadline, the date was moved to August 2021.

Once the pandemic hit and fewer people were out and about, bridge construction accelerated further. Favorable weather, as well as lighter traffic from both vehicles and pedestrians, allowed crews to get more done every day. Then, the Big E canceled its 2020 fair.

“By contract, the crews had to stop work during the Big E,” Sapelli said. “When the fair was canceled this fall, it gave them an extra 17 days to work on the bridge.” While noting that he is not putting pressure on the construction crews, he predicted the bridge may now be completed by June 2021.

The mayor is also pleased that many of the headaches and traffic jams that usually occur with a major construction project have not materialized. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “You don’t hear a mayor say that very often.”

Like every community, Agawam has had to deal with COVID-19. In fact, the mayor himself had a false alarm after testing positive on a quick test. After going into self-quarantine for several days and not experiencing any symptoms, he took a PCR test (referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing), which revealed he had never been infected with coronavirus.

the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June

With the pandemic reducing traffic and accelerating the pace of work last year, the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June.

“I asked if I was asymptomatic or if I’d had it a week before, and the answer to both was, ‘no, it was a false positive,’” he said.

While state mandates have limited public access to Town Hall, Sapelli explained that, even if it were open to the public, the building’s layout just doesn’t work well with COVID-19 mandates.

“For example, the public area in the Collector of Taxes office measures about five feet by eight feet,” Sapelli said. “With social distancing, that means no more than one person can stand there; anyone else would have to wait in the hall, which is also cramped.”

Still, with an emphasis on safety first, Sapelli said Town Hall is open for business for anyone who calls ahead for an appointment.

In order to reduce COVID-19 risks and still encourage in-person education, Agawam’s public schools have adopted a hybrid model. Students whose last names begin with the letters A-K attend class on Monday and Tuesday, while those with L-Z last names attend Thursday and Friday. On the three days they are not scheduled in person, students attend class remotely.

The Department of Health and the superintendent of schools are employing the hybrid model as long as COVID-19 cases within the education community remain low compared to the community as a whole. As a former Agawam school superintendent, Sapelli supports this direction.

“The hybrid approach has been working for Agawam. First, we’re making sure everyone is safe so we can get our students in front of teachers,” he said, adding that parents who are uncomfortable with the hybrid model may choose remote learning full-time.

Bars and restaurants everywhere have greatly suffered during the pandemic from mandated closings, limited seating, and other restrictions. To support those businesses in Agawam, the City Council and the mayor have co-sponsored a resolution to waive the $1,500 liquor-license fee in 2021 for all bars, restaurants, and banquet halls.

“We recognize they’ve lost a lot of revenue and have not been able to host the types of events and gatherings they normally do,” Sapelli said. “Waiving the fee is one thing we can do during the pandemic to help local businesses in these tough times.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

The fee waiver is just one of the ways the City Council and the mayor are working together to help local businesses, he added. “We are business-friendly. When a new business wants to locate in Agawam, we try to expedite the permitting process by having a team meeting that includes everyone from our fire and police departments to the health inspectors and building inspectors. They all meet together with the business owner, so it becomes one-stop shopping.”

 

House Calls

That cooperative attitude makes life easier for Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development in Agawam, who told BusinessWest about several projects in the area of South Westfield Street in the Feeding Hills section of town. One of the most anticipated projects is the Villas at Pine Crossing, an over-55 community that will add 44 units of senior housing to the market.

“Our office frequently gets calls from residents who are looking to downsize, but they want to stay in Agawam,” Strange said. “The designs at the Villas are more friendly for an aging population, something that is desperately needed in Agawam and everywhere else.”

He said he’s grateful the developer chose Agawam for the Villas, and welcomes similar projects. “We’re hoping this will trigger future developments for 55-plus communities in Agawam.”

The land parcel that was once the Tuckahoe Turf Farm sits adjacent to the Villas at Pine Crossing. After years of considering new uses for the property, Agawam officials are now looking at a solar-energy installation for part of the site. “The revenue from the solar field will allow us to develop the rest of the property for recreational uses, such as walking trails and such,” Sapelli said.

Agawam also completed a project in 2020 to convert all its streetlights to LED fixtures, which emit brighter light but also help the city reap potential savings of $220,000 every year. “Agawam is looking to save about $100,000 per year in energy costs and nearly $120,000 per year in streetlight maintenance,” Strange said.

During construction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, crews are using two desirable land parcels to stage and store equipment. Once the bridge is complete, those two parcels will be available for development as well.

“To be clear, as exciting as it is to market prime commercial sites, the new bridge will have an impact on the town that goes well beyond those two parcels,” Strange said.

All of which promises a brighter future for Agawam — literally and figuratively.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — On the heels of the recent retirement of Joan Kagan, Square One has named Dawn Forbes DiStefano its new president and chief executive officer.

The announcement follows an extensive national search lead by the agency’s board of directors, staff and members of the community.

Following a 25-year career with the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, DiStefano joined the Square One team in January 2016 to lead the agency’s grant research, grant writing, and program-compliance efforts. She was quickly promoted to chief finance and grants officer, where she added oversight of the agency’s financial team to her list of responsibilities. In 2019, she was promoted to executive vice president where she took on oversight of the agency’s early-education and care programs and family-support services, and management of operations, including transportation, food service, and IT.

“We received nearly 60 applications and interviewed impressive candidates from across the country for this position,” says Peter Testori, board chair. “Not surprisingly, Dawn rose to the top of the list. Her breadth and depth of experience in the non-profit sector, her outstanding reputation throughout the Commonwealth, and her extensive knowledge of Square One’s programs, services, and staff make her the ideal person to continue to build on the success of Joan Kagan’s leadership.”

“Just as we pride ourselves on developing the leaders of tomorrow through our own programs and services, I am privileged to have experienced the leadership of Joan Kagan. “It is an honor for me to continue to navigate the path that Joan and those before her have paved.”

Kagan, who led the agency for 17 years, announced her retirement plans last summer. She continues to serve as an advisor to the leadership team during the transition.

“There is no one better suited for this role than Dawn,” says Kagan. “Square One has an amazing history of responding to the changing needs of our community through our programs, services and partnerships. I have every confidence that Dawn’s great determination, passion for serving children and families, and the tremendous respect that she has earned will allow her to continue that legacy.”

DiStefano serves on the boards of directors for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming Health, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield Regional Chamber, Baystate Community Benefits Advisory Committee, and Businesses to End Human Trafficking. She also serves as a Commissioner on the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management from Westfield State University.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

the new Ludlow Senior Center

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, the new Ludlow Senior Center could begin hosting some indoor programs by February.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the town of Ludlow keeps building and improving.

As coronavirus rates continue to rise across Massachusetts, Manuel Silva, chairman of the Ludlow Board of Selectmen, said officials in town are closely monitoring the number of cases there.

A long-time selectman who served an earlier term as chairman, Silva said the pandemic has brought more challenges than a typical year. Like most places, Ludlow Town Hall is closed to the general public except by appointment. Silva said some town functions, such as the town clerk and tax collector’s offices, are conducting limited public business from the rear of the building, where they can offer service through a window. “It almost looks like an ice-cream stand,” he said with a laugh.

While Ludlow Mills features several ongoing projects (more on that later), Silva wanted to talk to BusinessWest about a few prominent municipal projects that are nearing completion.

For example, construction on Harris Brook Elementary School is progressing, with a good chance that students will begin attending next fall. Harris Brook is being built to replace Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, with the new school located on what used to be playing fields for the adjacent Chapin School.

It’s possible the old buildings may be repurposed and given a second life, Silva said. “We are looking at doing a study on both Chapin and Veterans Park to see what other use the town might have for them.”

He and other town officials are scheduled to tour Harris Brook and inspect the progress that’s been made on it. Once the new school is complete, Ludlow will receive reimbursement from the state for nearly half the cost of the $60 million project.

Another project nearing completion involves road improvements to Center Street, a main artery in Ludlow. Because the street is also part of Route 21, a state highway, the Commonwealth paid for most of the $5.6 million in improvements.

Harris Brook Elementary School

Construction continues on Harris Brook Elementary School, which will replace both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools.

Perhaps no one in Ludlow is more enthusiastically looking forward to opening the new Ludlow Senior Center than Jodi Zepke. As director of the Council on Aging, she and her staff plan to move out of the basement of the former high school on Chestnut Street and into the new building on State Street. While staff will be taking occupancy of the new building in mid-December, the Senior Center will remain closed to the public because of COVID-19 concerns, a situation that Zepke said poses both pros and cons.

“We’re excited to get into the building. It will give the staff an opportunity to get comfortable in their new surroundings before we have seniors come back,” she said. “At the same time, we know how excited everyone is to visit the new building as soon as they can.”

In what she called a “perfect world” scenario, the Senior Center could begin hosting some of Council on Aging programs indoors at the new facility in February. Throughout the warmer months, the council’s popular exercise and social programs were held outdoors at the park adjacent to the current senior center. As the weather became colder at the end of October, the outdoor programs wrapped up for the season.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart.”

“The outdoor programming was a great opportunity for people to see each other, get out of the house, and do some exercising,” Zepke said, noting that said groups took part in yoga, tai chi, and discussion groups, all socially distanced. Several of the exercise programs are available on local cable-access TV. While the broadcasts can help keep people active, she recognizes that people still need the socialization such programs provide for seniors in town.

“The most important thing is to remain connected to people, otherwise the social isolation is terrible,” she said. “We’re pushing for at least some indoor programming because we’re already seeing the mental-health effects of staying home all the time.”

Before COVID-19, the Senior Center hosted a popular daily lunch program. When coronavirus hit and it was no longer possible to bring people to the center, Zepke said her staff switched gears overnight and converted the daily lunch to a thrice-weekly grab-and-go meal where people drive up and receive a box lunch from center staff who are dressed in appropriate PPE. Zepke calls it one of the best things her organization has done since the pandemic hit.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.62
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“It’s an opportunity for us to see people and take a few minutes to chat with them,” she said. “It’s the highlight of my day.”

 

Milling About

One of the brightest spots in Ludlow’s economic development for the last several years has been the redevelopment of a series of old mills located on the banks of the Chicopee River. The Westmass Area Development Corp. owns the mills and works closely with the town to bring new vitality to the entire area. Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the partnership between Ludlow and Westmass is a win-win.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart,” he said. “Instead, they are developing state-of-the-art projects that enhance the whole State Street corridor.”

Notable tenants in the mill project include businesses such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts and Iron Duke Brewing, but Stefancik also pointed to a successful housing development known as Residences at Mill 10, which added 75 units of senior housing to Ludlow when it opened in 2017.

Looking forward, plans are in the works to develop the clock tower, also known as Mill Building 8. WinnDevelopment, builder of Residences at Mill 10, has proposed a plan for 95 units of senior housing in the building, with 48,000 square feet on the first floor dedicated to retail space. Stefancik said the project is in the early stages, and the next steps include site-plan approval and a public hearing.

“We’re fortunate that WinnDevelopment is coming back to work on Mill Building 8 because their work is first-rate,” he said. “They completed Residences at Mill 10 three years ago, and since its opening, it has been wildly successful.”

As more residents move to the area, Stefancik said the Ludlow Riverwalk, located behind the mill complex, is growing in popularity. “It’s becoming a walkable neighborhood area, and we like to see that.”

Earlier this year, a key infrastructure component in the redevelopment of the mills was approved. The Riverside Drive project is a proposed roadway that replaces an old access road in the mill complex. The project is currently out for bid, with construction expected to start next year on 4,130 feet of roadway that runs through the mill complex from East Street to First Avenue. When complete, Riverside Drive will improve access to all areas of Ludlow Mills.

The revitalization of the mills has become a major asset for the town of Ludlow.

“It’s been one of the areas where we’ve seen massive growth for economic development and housing opportunities,” Stefancik said, adding that potential exists for even more growth in the years ahead — something that’s true not only for the mill complex, but for the town itself.

Cover Story

A Turnaround Story

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, in the old stockhouse at Ludlow Mills that will remain home to his venture.

Nick Morin says he and his team are looking forward to the day when they can devote all their time and energy to just brewing beer and working on the business plan.

They’re getting closer all the time.

Indeed, after several years of court battles involving their lease at the Ludlow Mills complex and another legal fight Morin is trying to avoid involving Duke University and the name currently over the brewery — Iron Duke — there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

And it is certainly a welcome sight.

“We’re looking forward to being less legal-focused and doing all the fun things for our business here and out in the world that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

It’s been more than eight years since Morin, a mechanical engineer by trade who made brewing beer his hobby and then decided to make it his vocation, started walking along the banks of the Chicopee River with his wife after relocating to Ludlow and remarking how the mostly vacant Ludlow Mills would be the ideal place to start and then grow his business.

The Iron Duke name

The Iron Duke name will have to change soon in an effort to avoid another legal battle — this one with Duke University — but the bootprint, and the mailing address, won’t.

He’s now there, expansion plans are on the table and on his computer, and the brewery is positioned to be a permanent, and important, part of the landscape. But getting to this point didn’t exactly go according to plan.

Not even close.

Instead, as mentioned, what seemed like a good story on every level turned dark in many ways as Iron Duke and landlord Westmass Area Development Corp. first had a disagreement over terms in the lease, and then fought for 18 months in court over just what the language in the contract meant.

When a judge eventually ruled that Iron Duke could finish out its lease, which expired earlier this month, what that did was eventually buy everyone some time and allow them to write what two years ago would have seemed like a very unlikely story.

Long story shorter, the two sides came to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay, but be a vital cog in the ongoing efforts by those at Westmass to make the mills not simply a home for small businesses — and residents as well — but a destination of sorts.

How did this stunning turnaround happen? Morin sums it up this way.

“We found that, although the lawyers served their purpose, just having a person-to-person conversation and understanding where each party was coming from was huge; we found some common ground,” he explained. “It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

Jeff Daley, who was named executive director of Westmass roughly a year ago and picked up these negotiations from Bryan Nicholas, who served as interim director after the sudden passing of Eric Nelson in the spring of 2019, agreed.

“There were some bitter feelings, but Nick and I quickly agreed to operate without rear-view mirrors,” Daley explained. “We put the seatbelts on, moved forward rapidly to get them in there long term, and have an understanding that we’re going to work together to get the best for the tenant and the landlord.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Morin grabbed his laptop and clicked his way to an architect’s images of a two-story, permanent structure that will reside where a tented beer garden, erected last summer, now sits. He expects work to start soon and be completed by next spring or summer.

As for Duke University, Morin is in the final stages of changing the company’s name to avoid another expensive court fight, this one with a university with very deep pockets and the willingness to protect its brand — that word ‘Duke’ — from any and all infringement (more on that later).

About the only thing standing in the way of Iron Duke now is COVID-19. And while it poses a series of challenges and has reduced draft sales of the company’s products by roughly 70% because bars and restaurants are not open or have cut hours way back, Morin believes the company can ride out that storm as well.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look back at what has been a rough ride for Iron Duke — and ahead to what promises to be, as they say in this business, a smoother pour.

 

Ale’s Well That’s Ends Well

As he talked with BusinessWest at the bar in Iron Duke’s taproom on a quiet Wednesday, Morin, a safe six feet away, referenced the one place at that end, officially outlined with blue tape, at which one could sit because of social-distancing measures forced by COVID-19.

“That space over there is too close to those tables,” he said, gesturing with his hand to another portion of the bar. “And this space here is too close to people sitting over there; it’s a no-fly zone. This is only place you can sit at. It can be a little lonely, I guess, but people still like it.”

The fact that this conversation was taking place where it was — and that there were lines of blue tape all over the bar — could be considered remarkable. And maybe 18 months ago, it would have been, well, pretty much unthinkable.

Back then, it seemed as if what started as a good marriage was going to end up in a messy, very public divorce, with Iron Duke brewing beer in Wilbraham, and Westmass looking to fill a vacancy and move on from what had become a public-relations problem.

And then … things changed.

As we retell the story of how we got here, and where we go from here, we need to go back a little further, to those walks Morin had with his wife along the river.

“My wife and I started a family about a half-mile from here,” he noted. “We used to walk our dog back here and talk about — as most in Ludlow did at the time — how it was a shame that this whole property was in the shape it was. When we put together our business plan, it just made sense to grow it here, in the town where we lived and close to our house.”

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck and tented beer garden at its Ludlow location, and soon will commence work on a permanent, two-tiered beer garden that will overlook the Chicopee River.

He initiated talks with the previous owner of the sprawling complex in late 2012, and discussions accelerated after Westmass acquired the property, because with that purchase came ambitious talk of redeveloping the mills into a multi-purpose destination that would include residential, business, healthcare, and other uses.

“We wanted to be part of it because we had big plans for our small business,” said Morin, adding that what would eventually become a highly scrutinized and much-debated seven-year lease agreement was inked in late 2013.

What followed was a year and a half of construction in one of the many so-called stockhouses on the property, the century-old, high-ceilinged, 6,000-square-foot facilities in which raw materials — jute plants — were hung and dried for production in the mill complex.

The brewery officially opened on Thanksgiving Eve in 2014.

“We hit the ground running — that first year is a bit of a blur,” he recalled, noting that he quit his job that month as a mechanical engineer and made brewing his vocation — and his passion. The company steadily grew, drawing customers to its taproom in the mill and also putting its various products in cans and bottles, which were available at bars, restaurants, and some package stores.

Things were going pretty much according to the script laid out in the business plan until 2015, when the company started hitting some speed bumps, as Morin called them.

They came in for the form of differences of opinion regarding just what the lease allowed at the premises.

“We found ourselves being backed into a corner regarding our business and a disagreement over what we could do here and what we were doing here at our Ludlow location,” said Morin. “That’s how lawyers got involved — the interpretation of the lease itself.”

Elaborating, he said it all came down to one paragraph and its two sentences regarding the use of the premises and consumption of beer on and off the property. Cutting to the chase, he said Westmass held the view that such consumption would be limited — or at least more limited than what Iron Duke had in mind and needed for its venture to succeed.

“It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

“That escalated from a conversation to litigation once the lawyers got involved,” he went on, adding that the court fight lasted from January 2016 to the summer of 2017. Westmass wanted Iron Duke evicted from the property, a fate that would have effectively scuttled the business, Morin said.

“We had already leveraged everything we had to open here in Ludlow the first time around,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re self-financed; myself and my family, we put everything we had into this. To build a brewery once was everything we had — to build it twice was something we couldn’t afford.

“We were only left with closing or fighting this thing out to save our business, so that’s what we did — we fought for a good chunk of time,” he went on, adding that the protracted and very expensive legal fight pushed Iron Duke to the very brink financially, and it only survived because of the strong and constant support from its customers.

 

Lager Than Life

That fight ended with a judge ruling that Iron Duke could essentially ride out its lease operating as it was, Morin recalled, adding that, not long after that decision, he bought property in Wilbraham with the intention of moving the company there when the lease expired — right around now, actually.

Instead, the company is staying put in Ludlow. After the passing of Nelson in the spring of 2019, discussions ensued with his immediate successor, Nicholas, who was with Westmass when Iron Duke originally signed its lease in 2013 and played a role in those negotiations. And those talks continued with Daley.

They weren’t easy negotiations, Morin said, noting that there was still considerable baggage to contend with. But, as noted above, both sides concluded they had more to gain by coming together on another lease than they did by parting ways and letting the next chapters of this story develop in Wilbraham.

“We came to common ground realizing that we’re better off with each other than we are apart,” Daley said. “It’s a great relationship now, and I think it’s going to be an even better relationship going forward; I’m excited for their future, and I’m glad they stayed at the Ludlow Mills.”

Morin agreed. From the beginning, he noted, the company wanted to be an integral part of the growth and development of the Ludlow Mills complex, and this mission, if it can be called that, had been somehow lost in the midst of the protracted legal battle.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost,” he explained. “And once we had the opportunity to show them the plans that we had — we were going to spend millions of dollars in Wilbraham to build a showcase facility — both sides started asking, ‘why not just stay where we are?’”

So now, the company is just about at the point where it always wanted to be — focused entirely on business and its expansion plans.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost.”

There is still the matter of Duke University and its demands that the brewery change its name. Morin has decided that, even though he has a good amount invested in ‘Iron Duke’ — literally and figuratively — this is not a fight he’s willing to wage at this time.

“It’s a common thing among these universities that they protect their mark,” he said with some resignation in his voice. “So there’s not a lot of negotiation on that front.”

So instead, he will rebrand. He’s working with a firm to come up with new name, and expects to announce it within the next several weeks. While offering no other hints, he did say the word ‘Duke’ could not be part of the equation, but he expects to be able to work the company’s very recognizable bootprint logo into what comes next.

Meanwhile, since the start of this year, the company has essentially doubled its space within its stockhouse by taking down a wall and expanding into square footage that had been unused since the mid-’90s — something it has long desired to do but couldn’t because of the litigation.

Ongoing changes at the site

Ongoing changes at the site will essentially transform it from a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.

It also erected the tented beer garden and added a food truck, said Morin, noting that construction of the permanent, two-tiered beer garden, which will overlook the river, is set to commence this coming winter.

“There will be a nice concrete patio, along with the food truck we purchased in June,” he noted. “All this will enable us to essentially transform from just a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.”

COVID-19 has certainly thrown the brewery some curve balls — the business was closed to on-premise business during the shutdown last March and relied entirely on distribution, delivery, and curbside purchases of its canned products until July — but Morin believes that, after all the hard fights this company has been through, it can handle a pandemic as well.

“We’ve found that, because we’ve been through so much in the past six years, we’re able to handle these larger problems pretty effectively,” he said. “We’ve got a nice, hard callus around us, and we’re pretty flexible about our business.”

 

What’s on Tap?

At the height of the legal battle that ensued between Iron Duke and Westmass, the brewer put out a product called Eviction Notice IPA (India Pale Ale).

It became an immediate hit and one of its best sellers — in part because it was a quality ale with good flavor, but also because drinking it became a way to show support for the company in its quest to stay where it always wanted to be.

“We bring it back every now and then because it is a crowd favorite, but it’s not as bitter of a beer as it once was,” he explained. “It’s a fun beer to tell our story, but we always try to finish off the story on a positive note, rather than a negative one.”

Only 18 months ago, few would have thought this story could possibly sound a positive note, but things changed quickly and profoundly — and both sides seem poised to benefit from this collective change of heart.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

John Page and Claudia Pazmany

John Page and Claudia Pazmany say the chamber has stepped up its role this year in many ways to help businesses, including those in Hadley.

Before the pandemic, up to 80,000 cars would travel on Route 9 in Hadley each day, bringing workers, students, and customers to and through the town.

Known for its agriculture, proximity to the Five College community, and a robust retail corridor along Route 9, Hadley has been challenged, like all towns, since the arrival of COVID-19. But efforts by a group of town officials are meeting those challenges to keep Hadley viable today and well into the future.

David Nixon, deputy town administrator, said area colleges play an important role in the local economy. Hadley’s location is central to the Five College community, but Nixon actually sees it as a 30-campus community because that’s how many colleges are within an hour’s drive of Hadley.

While some campuses are open, others have stayed closed, and some are taking a hybrid approach, mixing on-site classes with distance learning.

“This has had an impact on local businesses,” he said, noting that less activity at the colleges, most notably UMass Amherst, which borders Hadley, adds to the struggles many businesses are facing as they try to comply with pandemic restrictions and stay afloat. “Right now, we are doing as much as possible to keep people safe and to support our businesses.”

Hadley officials have reduced licensing fees and expedited the process for businesses that are adapting to state COVID-19 guidelines. For example, when restaurants had to amend their food and liquor license permits to allow outdoor service, Nixon said the town was quick to respond to get the changes made.

“We’ve also expedited the inspections that are necessary when a business changes the footprint of their building,” he added, noting that cooperation among the town’s Planning Board, building inspectors, Fire Department, and Select Board ensured an easier process for the businesses involved.

Hadley is also one of seven communities benefiting from a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Easthampton is the lead community on the grant, which allows businesses with five or fewer employees to apply for up to $10,000 in grant money.

David Nixon

David Nixon

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9. By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Also pitching in to help businesses is the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which covers Hadley and other surrounding towns. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the chamber, said the area has been fortunate in that the number of COVID-19 cases is lower than most parts of the state. To keep it that way, the chamber is now providing PPE, as well as printed posters and floor decals, that reinforce messages of social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. Available at no charge to chamber members, the signage is just one of the ways to help businesses get back on their feet.

“These are not business-saving techniques by themselves, but we hope to help our members reduce their costs as they open back up under the new guidelines,” she told BusinessWest.

 

Lines of Communication

The chamber has stepped up its role during the pandemic in other ways as well. “Our ability to advocate for and to market our businesses has become even stronger since COVID-19,” Pazmany noted, adding that it’s one of the few “silver linings” of these times.

The town and the chamber have been working together on a series of Zoom meetings with local businesses to hear their concerns and offer whatever help they can, she said. “We’ve been hosting these meetings to keep an open conversation between the town and businesses.”

One of the popular topics in the meetings has been the widening of Route 9, which is expected to start next year. The $26 million project will add travel and turning lanes to the road.

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9,” Nixon said. “By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Pazmany said the Route 9 widening has been in the planning phase for years, and once complete, the improvements will benefit all who use the roadway.

“Many people use the bus to go to work and school. Among other things, the widening project will provide much safer bus stops and allow buses to get more people moving in an efficient manner.”

The widening project will begin at Town Hall and go east for 2.6 miles to the intersection of Route 9 and Maple Street.

Business owners located along Route 9 have expressed concerns about the loss of business due to COVID-19 being followed up by a loss of business due to road construction. To alleviate that concern, the town has applied for an economic-development grant to market the Route 9 corridor. John Page, the chamber’s marketing and membership manager, said the idea is to position Route 9 as a great place to open a business.

“The grant would be about marketing and planning the future of Route 9 post-COVID,” he explained. “Hopefully, that’s coming sooner rather than later.”

As plans for the future of the town come into focus, Pazmany reminded everyone that Hadley has a great deal to offer right now.

“For those looking for a day trip, this is the time to come and visit,” she said, adding that, with the arrival of autumn, “Hadley will be at its most beautiful and picturesque in the next few weeks.”

She noted that many local restaurants participate in farm-to-table efforts with Hadley farms supplying many of the vegetables.

And, as more people take part in outdoor activities, the Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path has seen more riders than ever before, she said. The path runs completely through Hadley and features scenic views of farms and neighborhoods.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.78
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Nixon said the rail trail gives people another perspective on his town. “I often talk about the view of Hadley from Route 9 and the view from the bike path. They look like two completely different communities.”

 

Moving On

Two out of three building projects started last year in Hadley have been completed. The new Senior Center is complete and providing remote programs for residents. The new fire substation is also up and running, and the town library is close to completion.

As those projects conclude, Nixon is planning to wrap up his 15-year career with Hadley and retire on Dec. 31. To transition out of his role as town administrator, he has assumed the title of deputy town administrator while he helps Carolyn Brennan, the recently hired town administrator, transition into the job.

As someone who has been involved in municipal governments for more than 30 years, Brennan’s experience ranges from working with councils on aging in Amherst, Hampden, and East Longmeadow. She remains active as a selectman in Wilbraham, where she lives. Back when Brennan was a student at UMass, she lived in Hadley and worked at the Shady Lawn Rest Home.

Brennan said she’s glad to be back and described Hadley as being in great shape thanks to the town employees and Nixon’s management. “Having worked in other municipalities, I’m impressed with the all of the employees; they are real stakeholders in their community.”

She also appreciates having Nixon work with her while she gets acclimated to the job. “With David staying on until the end of the year, you couldn’t ask for a better transition plan for the town and for me.”

As for Nixon, he reflected on his career with Hadley and spoke of how rewarding it was to serve the town for 15 years.

“I’ll definitely miss the people,” he said. “I’m glad I was part of advancing our community a little further down the road.”

Wealth Management

Shared Expertise

Empower Retirement and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual) announced they have entered into a definitive agreement for Empower to acquire the MassMutual retirement-plan business. The acquisition will capitalize on both firms’ expertise, provide technological excellence and deep product capabilities, and create scale to the benefit of retirement-plan participants and their employers.

Based on the terms of the agreement and subject to regulatory approvals, Empower will acquire the retirement-plan business of MassMutual in a reinsurance transaction for a ceding commission of $2.35 billion. In addition, the balance sheet of the transferred business would be supported by $1 billion of required capital when combined with Empower’s existing U.S. business.

The MassMutual retirement-plan business comprises 26,000 workplace savings plans through which approximately 2.5 million participants have saved $167 billion in assets. It also includes approximately 2,000 employees affiliated with MassMutual’s retirement-plan business who provide a full range of support services for financial professionals, plan sponsors, and participants.

“Empower is taking the next step toward addressing the complex and evolving needs of millions of workers and retirees through the combination of expertise, talent, and business scale being created,” said Edmund Murphy III, president and CEO of Empower Retirement. “Together, Empower and MassMutual connect a broad spectrum of strength and experience with a shared focus on the customer. We are excited about the opportunity to reach new customers and serve even more Americans on their journey toward creating a secure retirement.”

“We believe this transaction will greatly benefit our policy owners and customers as we invest in our future growth and accelerate progress on our strategy.”

The transaction, expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020 pending customary regulatory approvals, will increase Empower’s participant base to more than 12.2 million and retirement-services record-keeping assets to approximately $834 billion administered in approximately 67,000 workplace savings plans.

“In Empower, we are pleased to have found a strong, long-term home for MassMutual’s retirement-plan business, and we believe this transaction will greatly benefit our policy owners and customers as we invest in our future growth and accelerate progress on our strategy,” said Roger Crandall, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO. “This includes strengthening our leading position in the U.S. protection and accumulation industry by expanding our wealth-management and distribution capabilities; investing in our global asset-management, insurance, and institutional businesses; and delivering a seamless digital experience — all to help millions more secure their future and protect the ones they love.”

The MassMutual retirement-plan business has grown substantially over the past decade, with the number of participants served doubling to more than 2.5 million and assets under management more than quadrupling from $34 billion to more than $160 billion.

The combined firm will serve retirement plans sponsored by a broad spectrum of employers. These include mega, large, mid-size, and small corporate 401(k) plans; government plans ranging in scale from state-level plans to municipal agencies; not-for-profits such as hospital and religious-organization 403(b) plans; and collectively bargained Taft-Hartley plans. The transaction will also bring MassMutual’s defined-benefit business under the umbrella of plans Empower serves.

Empower and MassMutual intend to enter into a strategic partnership through which digital insurance products offered by Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC3, and MassMutual’s voluntary insurance and lifetime income products will be made available to customers of Empower Retirement and Personal Capital.

Empower today administers $667 billion in assets on behalf of 9.7 million American workers and retirees through approximately 41,000 workplace savings plans. Empower provides retirement services, managed accounts, financial wellness, and investment solutions to plans of all types and sizes, including private-label record-keeping clients.

In August, Empower announced it had completed the acquisition of Personal Capital, a registered investment adviser and wealth manager. The Personal Capital platform offers personalized financial advice, financial planning, and goal setting, providing insights and tools for plan participants and individual investors. In addition, Empower’s retail business provides a suite of products and services to individual retirement-account and brokerage customers.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

On the Right Track

Jeremy Levine

Jeremy Levine says Pioneer Valley Railroad and Railroad Distribution Services have a unique business model that has led to decades of success and steady growth.

When it comes to moving freight, Jeremy Levine says, many business owners believe it comes down to a choice between rail — if it’s available — or trucks.

But in many cases, he believes, the best answer might be rail and trucks.

And this is the answer that has enabled Westfield-based sister businesses Pioneer Valley Railroad (PVRR) and its wholly owned subsidiary Railroad Distribution Services (RDS) — both Pinsly Railroad companies — to thrive for the past 35 years and remain on a steady growth trajectory.

“Railroads and trucking … they have their lobbyists in D.C. on opposite sides of the aisle trying to argue against one another,” said Levine, who is awaiting new business cards that will identify him as the company’s business-development coordinator. “But the truth is, for a short-line railroad like us, we use trucking all the time — we’re sending out hundreds of trucks a year to do the last-mile transit for our customers, either here in Westfield or all across the Northeast.”

As a short-line railroad, PVRR, as it’s known to many in this area, moves on 17 miles of operable track running north from Westfield, said Levine, the fourth-generation administrator of the company started by his great-grandfather, Samuel Pinsly. There is a branch running roughly four miles in Westfield and another branch running 13 miles into Holyoke.

The company interchanges with two class-1 railroads — Norfolk Southern and CSX — and takes freight that last mile, as Levine put it, referring to the last leg of a journey that might begin several states away or even on the other end of the country.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car. So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

“If you want to get lumber from Louisiana, a large class-1 railroad such as CSX will bring that up, interchange with us at our yard in Westfield, and we’ll take it the last mile or miles to our customers, if they’re located directly on our line,” he explained, adding that, for customers not on the line — those without a rail siding — RDS will take it the last leg by truck via two warehouses it operates in Westfield.

And in some cases, that last leg might be dozens or even hundreds of miles, he noted, adding that rail is a less expensive, more effective way to move material, and RDS enables customers to take advantage of it, at least for part of the journey.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car’s worth of capacity,” he explained. “So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

This has been a successful business model since 1982, and the company continues to look for growth opportunities in this region, he noted, adding that such growth can come organically, from more existing companies using this unique model, or from new companies moving into the region to take advantage of its many amenities — including infrastructure. And Pinsley Railroad owns several tracts of land along its tracks that are suitable for development, he noted.

For this issue and its focus on transportation, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at PVRR and RDS, and how those letters can add up to growth potential — for the company and the region itself.

Train of Thought

Levine told BusinessWest that, while he didn’t work at what he called the “family business” in his youth, he was around it at times, well aware of it, and always intrigued by it.

“When my grandmother was running the business, that’s when they moved the headquarters from Boston to Westfield,” said Levine, who grew up in nearby Granby. “You grow up going to the rail yard, and you’re around these people; you’re definitely going to be inclined to the business.”

But he didn’t take a direct route, as they might say in this industry, to PVRR’s headquarters on Lockhouse Road. Indeed, after graduating from George Washington University in 2015, he stayed in D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill, specifically on transportation policy. He later moved to the private sector and worked at a firm advocating for railroads.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to be a part of the family’s business and relocated to Western Mass. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said while borrowing more language from the industry, noting that he started at PVRR and RDS roughly a year ago.

He came to a company that had a small, steady, and diverse group of rail customers, some that receive thousands of rail cars of material a year and others merely a handful of cars, and more than three dozen RDS customers.

He said his new job description is essentially to generate new business, and he believes there is enormous potential to do just that — again, because of the unique business model these companies have developed and the benefits that rail (or a combination of rail and trucks known as ‘transloading’) brings to potential customers.

As Levine talked about the sister companies and how they operate together, one could hear the drone of forklifts operating in the warehouse outside his office, which led to an explanation of how it all works.

“We have some rail cars here this morning,” he explained. “They got dropped off by CSX late last night; early morning, or 3 a.m. crew [at PVRR] dropped them off here. The crews have been unloading them, staging them, and placing them outbound on trucks to head off to our various customers.”

There are other operations like this, or somewhat like this, in the Northeast, he explained, but what sets this operation apart, beyond the interchange with the two class-1 railroads, is the fact that the company owns both its railroad and distribution services.

“There are companies like our Railroad Distribution Services that are directly on CSX’s line,” he noted. “But the difference there is they don’t control the trains; I can pick up the phone and call the train operator and ask him when he’s going to be here with my rail cars, and with that comes a lot of security that your stuff is not going to backlogged or jammed up and that your deliveries are going to come on time.”

It is this security — and these benefits — that Levine is selling to potential customers. And as he goes about that task, he has the Pinsly team, if you will, focused solely on the Westfield operation and its future. Indeed, the company, which operated short-line railroads in Florida and Arkansas, has divested itself of those operations, with PVRR and RDS being the only holdings in the portfolio.

“What that has allowed us to do is reinvest and recalibrate,” he explained. “We had a very large team throughout the years and a lot of focus on Florida, where we had 250 miles of track; we can now take that talent and focus on our operations here.

“My go-to line is that ‘even you don’t have rail siding, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from railroading,’” he continued, adding that he can back up those words with numbers, and he intends to use them to build the company’s portfolio of customers.

PVRR owns a 1930s-era passenger rail car that it calls the ‘dinner train.’ As that name suggests, it’s used for fundraising events, a customer-appreciation gathering, and even as a means to transport Santa Claus to Holyoke Heritage State Park for annual festivities there.

It hasn’t been out of the yard much in the era of COVID-19, but U.S. Rep. Richard Neal recently used it as a backdrop for an event, said Levine, adding that the dinner train has become a highly visible part of this company for decades now.

But the bottom line — in virtually every respect — is that PVRR and RDS are about getting freight, not people, from one place to another.

It’s a moving story, and one that could well add a number of new chapters in the years to come as the company tries to get customers on the right track when it comes to freight — literally and figuratively.

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

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — A host of city, state, and national leaders were on hand at the former Court Square Hotel property Thursday to mark the official start of a long-awaited $51 million project to convert the long-dormant landmark into apartments and retail space.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Congressman Richard Neal, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno were among the many dignitaries to address those gathered to commemorate the launch of the initiative, which will bring 59 market-rate apartments, 15 workforce apartments, and more than 20,000 square feet of retail to the center of Springfield.

The project is the result of a partnership involving a number of players, including developers Winn Companies of Boston and Opal Real Estate of Springfield, as well as MassMutual, MGM, and the MassHousng’s Workforce Housing Initiative. More than $11 million in state and federal historic tax credits have also been secured for the project.

Initial work on the property involves $4 million worth of demolition and hazardous materials cleanup, expected to completed by November. Actual construction is expected to take 18-24 months.

Daily News

HOLYOKE — The Holyoke Community College Foundation has received a second grant in as many months to help students facing financial emergencies because of COVID-19.

In its latest round of grants, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts awarded $40,000 to HCC from its COVID-19 Relief Fund. In July, the Community Foundation awarded the HCC Foundation $35,000. All $75,000 went into the President’s Student Emergency Fund, which is managed by the HCC Foundation.

“Every week, we are seeing more and more applications from students in need of emergency support,” said Amanda Sbriscia, vice president of Institutional Advancement and executive director of the HCC Foundation. “Each student applicant hopes to begin the fall semester on the right foot, and it’s our job to keep them focused on their academic success.”

Thanks to CFWM’s first grant to HCC, 67 HCC students received emergency funding with an average disbursement of $522. Already, in the past two weeks 15 additional students have received emergency aid.

“We anticipate disbursing the full $40,000 to students in need before the end of September,” Sbriscia said.

Typically, students request help paying for basic needs, such as food, rent, utilities, childcare and transportation.

“Relief Fund dollars are making it possible for HCC students throughout our region to achieve their educational goals,” Sbriscia said. “I’m so grateful to the Community Foundation for enabling us to respond to our students with good news. This funding tells them, your community is here for you, and we’re committed to your success.”

Daily News

GREENFIELD — The Greenfield Business Association announced the award of funding for its ‘COVID-19 Business Re-opening Outdoor Equipment Micro-Grant’ program through MassDevelopment’s Commonwealth Places: Resurgent Places grant program.

Through this program, MassDevelopment has granted the GBA an immediate $10,000, and potentially, an additional matched $5,000 to be re-granted to Greenfield businesses toward outdoor equipment needed for re-opening under COVID-19 restrictions.

MassDevelopment’s ‘Commonwealth Places’ is a competitive granting opportunity to advance locally driven placemaking in downtown and neighborhood commercial districts in eligible communities throughout Massachusetts. Placemaking is a collaborative process through which people in communities work together to improve public spaces and maximize their shared value. The aim of Commonwealth Places COVID-19 Response Round: Resurgent Places is to help community partners prepare public space and commercial districts to best serve their population during COVID-19 social distancing and the phased reopening of the economy.

The Resurgent Places funding round complements the Mass. Department of Transportation’s (MassDOT) recently announced Shared Streets & Spaces, a grant program that will provide small and large grants for municipalities to quickly launch or expand improvements to sidewalks, curbs, streets, on-street parking spaces and off-street parking lots in support of public health, safe mobility and renewed commerce in their communities. The city of Greenfield has applied and has already been working with city businesses to provide barriers to delineate new usable outside spaces near their businesses.

Greenfield’s Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams and the GBA Coordinator Rachel Roberts have been working to bring these two grant opportunities to Greenfield to facilitate the fastest and most effective ways to help our business community safely re-open after the Covid-19 closures. The city is working toward supplying needed barriers and opening up municipal property while the GBA’s grant provides equipment assistance for businesses expanding outside.

As struggling businesses attempt to modify or expand their previous business models to support social distancing and safety in COVID-19 times, the GBA proposes to re-grant funding for procurement of equipment needed for outdoor expansion including but not limited to any combination of dining, display or point of sale furnishings, shade/weather coverings, signage, or lighting. The micro-grants will require a short application from any Greenfield business for up to $1,200. If a business not located in the downtown corridor is in need of assistance to expand outside as part of compliance to COVID-19 reopening requirements, the request will be considered as funding allows. The application can be found on the Greenfield Business Association’s webpage at https://greenfieldbusiness.org/x/12/COVID-19-Resurgent-Places-Micro-Grant.

Daily News

HOLYOKE — Tens of thousands of voters in recent consumer polls have named PeoplesBank a winner in several categories.

PeoplesBank, the largest community bank employer headquartered in Western Mass., was a second-time winner of the Best Place to Work in one area poll.

“We are a strong work family with goals and values,” explained Christine Phillips, First Vice President, Human Resources at PeoplesBank. “Making sure our associates’ professional and personal needs are met, that’s what being a family is all about. We value them, the work that they do, and this award would not be possible without them.”

With 21 offices, including its new Ludlow office, which will open in October, another area poll named the bank  Best Local Bank for the eighth time.

“It’s not enough for us just to operate here, we are a part of the community and a part of what makes our local community vibrant and successful,” Jacqueline Charron, Senior Vice President & Chief Risk Officer at PeoplesBank. “I’m out in the community at the grocery store, and people stop me to say ‘you’re from PeoplesBank’ and it’s a great feeling for someone to say that…it really makes you proud to work here.”

Also, innovative services like mobile banking and a complete, contactless mortgage application process earned PeoplesBank the Best Mortgage Lender for the ninth time in that same poll.

Nadine Maggi, Consumer Lending Operations Manager at PeoplesBank commented, “I think it’s our focus on service and our commitment to the community. Our mortgage lenders are out doing first time home buyer seminars. We have a digital mortgage process, so if a customer wants to work with a mortgage lender they can or they can go online to their own personalized portal. At the end, they close faster, and we do what we can for the customer because it’s all about them.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD Freedom Credit Union (FCU), headquartered in Springfield and serving members in the four counties of western Massachusetts and Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut, is warning the public of emerging sweetheart scams.

According to data from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network, more than $200 million was reported lost last year by 20,000 individuals falling victim to online schemers. In comparison, 8,500 people filed claims of $33 million in losses in 2015.

Sweetheart scammers, also commonly referred to as romance scammers or catfishers, prey on individuals looking for love or companionship online. By creating phony online profiles and backgrounds, these individuals forge relationships by gaining trust and then seeking monetary gain. Often, an emergency will be fabricated; creating a storyline and opportunity to request money from the unsuspecting victim.

“Internet dating sites have become increasingly popular, especially during the early spring months, with people spending more time inside and with more free time,” explained FCU President Glenn Welch. “With so much at stake, we want to raise awareness to protect members of our community from falling prey.”

Welch offered the following signs of a potential scam. The individual:

  • Professes love or affection quickly;
  • Asks to move the conversation off the chat or dating website;
  • Requests money or gifts to handle an emergency medical bill or travel expense;
  • Offers to meet in person, but always offers an excuse as to why they must cancel plans.

“It’s never wise to send gifts or money to someone you’ve never met,” warned Welch. “While it’s possible that online relationships can develop into real life relationships, it’s best to be cautious of individuals who seem too good to be true, or who ask for gifts of money for situations that seem outlandish.”

Consumers who believe they’ve been a victim of a sweetheart scam can report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. For the latest updates from Freedom Credit Union, visit freedom.coop.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Museums will distribute 500 Smithsonian Spark!Lab Activity Kits to Springfield children to help emphasize the fun of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

“The Museums are open, but we know not everyone is able (or ready) to visit in person,” said Larissa Murray, Director of Education at the Springfield Museums. “So we decided to bring our wonderful Spark!Lab hands-on invention learning directly to the children in our city!”

The Springfield Museums, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and with funding from the MassMutual Foundation, assembled 500 Spark!Lab Activity Kits, which they will begin to distribute this month.

“Usually during the summer, we would visit libraries with our hands-on activities,” said Murray. “Because of the pandemic, we had to think of another plan.” Instead the Museums educators are partnering with local organizations and distributing Spark!Lab Activity Kits.

Spark!Lab is an innovation space, where all visitors are encouraged to explore because anyone can be an inventor! The Spark!Lab Activity Kits share the same encouraging theme. The kits are filled with materials for STEM activities, plus invention challenges in both Spanish and English. Among the supplies are bendy straws, carpenter pencils, a protractor, lacing cords, craft sticks, cardboard coaster, the list goes on!

“The goal of the program is to help families learn together with engaging, dynamic activities,” Murray said. “These are challenging times for families, all needing to learn from home. We hope the Spark!Lab activities will be both entertaining and informative.”

This project is made possible thanks to the partnership of the Smithsonian and funding from the MassMutual Foundation.

“It’s been so much fun to partner with the Springfield Museums and the MassMutual Foundation to create these kits,” said Jennifer Brundage, National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to share the Smithsonian’s hands-on, bilingual learning experiences, regardless of students’ access to the internet or computers. Everyone has the potential to be an inventor and we are excited to see what Springfield’s kids invent.”

Daily News

WASHINGTON, N.J. Washington One-Stop, a family-owned-and-operated business since 1969, has been acquired by Soringfield-based Rocky’s Ace Hardware, one of the country’s largest family-owned Ace Hardware dealers, now with 35 locations in eight states.

Washington One-Stop, previously owned by Gary Hicken, was purchased in April of this year by Rocky’s, which will now manage the location under the name Rocky’s One-Stop at the existing location of 288 Route 31 South in Washington.

“My grandfather opened our first location in Springfield in 1926, and we’ve been in continuous operation under the same family ownership for three generations,” said Rocky’s Ace Hardware President Rocco Falcone. “We plant roots in each of our neighborhood locations and intend to maintain the community focus established by the previous owners.”

Rocky’s One-Stop plans to host a grand opening celebration for the community next spring. In the meantime, the store will undergo renovations while retaining much of the existing inventory.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the top priority before reopening Springfield Museums was making sure both visitors and staff would be safe.

“Kissing Through a Curtain” is an exhibit of 10 contemporary artists, dealing with communicating and translating across borders, how people interact, and the meaning behind words. It was hung at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in March, a few days before the museum closed due to COVID-19 — and there it has hung, dormant, ever since.

“The curator of that exhibit recently changed the introductory text to note that the questions the exhibit asks feel even more urgent now than they did three or four months ago when the exhibit was originally scheduled to open,” said Jodi Joseph, the museum’s director of Communications.

Visitors have agreed, she added, citing a conversation she had with a family of regulars from Boston the week museums were allowed to reopen to the public.

“Heading out, the mom in the group said, ‘oh, gosh, it has so much more meaning now,’” Joseph told BusinessWest. “That’s truly contemporary art. It reflects our time and what we’re going through.”

What museums have been going through is nothing to celebrate. Shutting down for almost four months is a financial strain for any cultural attraction, no matter how large or small.

“For many smaller museums, the financial impact has really been catastrophic,” said Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, adding that her organization was fortunate to receive not only a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but generous contributions from a private donor and a foundation to help get through the past four months.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that.”

“It was an agonizing decision to shut down. At the beginning, we thought it would be for three weeks, and we’d be able to reopen,” she said, adding that conversations with other museums, followed by Gov. Charlie Baker’s shutdown order in late March, made the actual picture much clearer.

“It was really hard. It has just been an experience like no other,” she said. But thanks in part to the PPP loan and those donations, “we were able to sustain our operation through the closure. And now we’re reopening, but it’s on a limited basis. We’re very, very concerned about making sure this is a safe environment for our employees and our volunteers, as well as our visitors.”

It’s important they feel safe and return, Simpson added, if only because of what this set of museums means to the city and region.

“They’re unique and can’t be replicated at other settings — it’s an incredible complex that has served the city of Springfield for more than 160 years and is constantly evolving,” she said. “It attracts people of all ages and all backgrounds, engaging in learning experiences alongside each other — it’s a place where people come together, and it’s joyful and also educational.”

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

Not that it was easy getting to that point, of course. Museums across Massachusetts had to adhere to very specific guidelines outlined in phase 3 of Baker’s economic reopening plan, as well as their own sense of what visitors needed to feel comfortable enough to return.

Both Simpson and Joseph outlined measures at their facilities ranging from signs reminding people to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay six feet apart to plexiglass barriers and one-way directions at certain areas.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that,” Simpson said, noting that one nod to the new reality is the Yop, a Dr. Seuss character but also a new cell-phone app packed with maps, scavenger hunts, and self-guided tours that lend some interactivity to the museums in a safe way.

“We anticipate families will be among first visitors, and older adults will follow once they feel more comfortable,” she added, noting, of course, that what we know about COVID-19 has evolved, and is no longer recognized as dangerous only to older people.

MASS MoCA

Jodi Joseph says the wide spaces at MASS MoCA make physical distancing easier than at many places where people gather.

“We took COVID-19 very seriously, and we’ve engaged in months of planning,” Simpson said. “Even though we were closed, our staff worked very hard behind the scenes. We had staff talking to other museums, sharing best practices, attending webinars and conference calls, reading CDC guidelines — all to understand how we can safeguard our environment. It’s not like a classroom setting; it’s not like a retail setting — it’s a very different set of physical environments that we needed to think about very carefully.”

In addition to the basic rules around masks and distancing, MASS MoCA visitors who experience fever-like symptoms while at the museum are asked to self-identify to staff, and to enable contact tracing, should that be necessary, all ticket buyers are required to provide contact information and names of everyone in the party — both ways to prevent isolated infections from becoming community problems.

That said, the galleries themselves are massive — “we measure our gallery space by the acre here,” Joseph said — but high-traffic areas like stairwells are now one-directional, the entrance and exit have been separated, and the admissions desk has moved outside, accepting no more than 75 timed tickets every half-hour to keep crowds at state-mandated levels.

The museum, at one point, was considering five different scheduling plans for those galleries, which were gradually whittled down to one plan as the reopening date became more crystallized. Joseph credited state Sen. Adam Hinds and Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, for keeping the museum abreast of what was happening at the state level.

“As guidance about the hospitality and tourism sectors started to come down in late spring, we had a pretty good sense of when we’d be open, and we were able to come up with an exhibition calendar that made sense,” she explained.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences.”

Like many museums, MASS MoCA has a long exhibition cycle that’s planned out well in advance, so most installations were ready to go this month. Meanwhile, the museum staged its first concert last week, for an audience limited to 100 — including staff — in a space that can typically pack in 4,000.

For the region’s live-music scene, it’s a welcome start. MASS MoCA alone usually hosts performing-arts events 40 weekends per year, and about half its resources go toward supporting the performing arts, mostly emerging artists.

In short, it’s tough when everything shuts down.

“MASS MoCA is a landlord — we have between 30 and 40 tenants on our 16-acre, 28-building former factory campus,” she noted, and a core group of employees remained on site to manage them, but also reach out virtually with daily ‘art moments’ — “like a greatest hits of MASS MoCA, some fan-favorite exhibitions. We wanted to remind people how great it would feel to be back here, walking these halls, reflecting in the galleries, taking in performances on our stages all across campus.”

It was in many ways “an excruciating few months,” she added, yet the museum staff was inspired at times, too.

“Visitors kept in touch not just with donations, but with deeply felt personal messages telling us how much MASS MoCA means to them, or sharing landmark memories from their own lives that have taken place within these walls,” she told BusinessWest. “As our hearts were aching from being closed and dealing with all the daily troubles of the world, we were also reassured by all the gratitude and appreciation folks were showing the institution, even though we weren’t able to welcome them inside.”

That said, Joseph was thrilled to see more than 1,000 people arrive on opening weekend. “Everyone who showed up said things like ‘thank you, I’m so glad you finally opened’ and ‘I’ve been dying to get back here.’”

Virtual Lessons

Springfield Museums stayed connected to fans as well by bolstering its virtual museum offerings online, Simpson said, from online classes to video demonstrations of collections and exhibitions, to staff videos showing parents how to do activities with their kids at home.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences. So there is innovation that has come out of this,” Simpson said. “Out of something that no one wanted came positive results that can help shape what we do in the future and help us be better.”

That said, she was quick to add that “we strongly believe having people come down to the museums and engage in on-site experiences is really what we do well, and it’s our greatest contribution to our community and people who come to us from all over the region — and across the country and all over the world.”

She’s confident they will come from afar again, though it might take some time. “We might need a vaccine or successful treatments before people feel really confident about being together in the way they were before the pandemic.”

Joseph knows they’ll return, too, whether it’s to see art, like “Kissing Through a Curtain,” that shines a light on today’s world, or, conversely, to get away from reality, especially when that reality has been living in isolation for months on end.

“We want our institution to be a place of respite and a place where people can reflect on their shared experiences — and a place to escape, if that’s what they need. Leave the cares of the world behind and take a moment to be with art. That was our great hope when we reopened the doors.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County Special Coverage

View from Main Street

Diana Szynal

While economic activity is still slow, Diana Szynal says, she senses a resilient spirit in Franklin County.

Diana Szynal is encouraged by what she sees on Main Street in Greenfield as restaurants and retail continue to emerge from months of closed doors.

“I certainly see people making the changes they need to make,” she said, referring to Gov. Charlie Baker’s guidance for how — and at what capacity — to open businesses safely. “We’ve seen these business making the effort to reopen and get their staffs back to work and welcome back their customers.”

But no one is fooling themselves into believing everyone is ready to go out again, said Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet,” she told BusinessWest.

“Realistically, things have slowed down, but I feel a very resilient spirit here,” she continued. “People in Franklin County are tough. And you see that not only in Greenfield’s downtown, but the area as a whole — downtown Deerfield, downtown Shelburne … I think you’re going to see them bounce back for sure.”

What will make the difference, she and other economic leaders increasingly say, is consumer confidence, which is being driven right now almost exclusively by health concerns — and that’s a good thing, considering that Massachusetts is one of the few states in the U.S. consistently reducing instances of COVID-19.

“For the typical consumer, making decisions about going out for the day or just going to a restaurant or retail shop, creating confidence is the key,” Szynal said. “And focusing on those [infection] numbers is really critical. That’s really how we’ll build confidence. Some people will take a little longer than others because they have different health concerns. But I think, if we can stay the course, we’ll be heading in the right direction economically as well as from a public-health standpoint.”

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) polls its 3,500 members each month to produce a Business Confidence Index that was firmly entrenched in positive territory for years — until it suffered the largest one-time decline in its history a couple months ago. However, it began to rebound slightly last month as Baker announced the four-phase process for re-opening the state economy under strict workplace-safety guidelines, and in the report due this week, it’s expected to creep up again amid positive news regarding infection rates.

“What makes this whole situation unique — and a little bit mystifying for employers — is that the economic situation is still being driven by a public-health situation,” said Chris Geehern, AIM’s executive vice president of Public Affairs and Communications. “Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

“Certainly it seems like businesses are open — like restaurants with outdoor seating or limited indoor seating — and I think there are people really wanting to get out there, but some people aren’t ready yet.”

That said, he told BusinessWest, “our members have been satisfied with the state process. It has certainly been a challenge to meet all the requirements, but for most employers, the big issue isn’t what the government tells you to do, but what you know you have to do to ensure that employees, vendors, and customers feel comfortable coming in. It’s going to be a slow recovery whether the government requires these steps or not because people won’t come to your restaurant if you haven’t taken the appropriate safety steps.”

Growing Optimism

Employers hope a timely return to business will allow them to re-hire some of the 1.2 million Massachusetts residents who have filed for unemployment since the onset of the pandemic.

“From a broad perspective, I’m not getting a super pessimistic view from anyone I’ve spoken to,” Szynal said. “Certain people are concerned — they’ve had to make some changes, and they’ve had some struggles. People don’t expect those struggles to end instantly. But people are pretty optimistic for the long term.”

Again, that likely depends in part on the public-health data remaining on a positive track.

“Employers are encouraged that Massachusetts has been able to moderate the number of new COVID-19 cases. We have said all along that the current economic crisis is being driven by the public-health crisis, and that’s what we see here,” Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors, noted in the latest business-confidence report.

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

“Typically in an economic downturn, business people know exactly what to do. Now, it’s wholly dependent on what the daily numbers are from the state and nationally. I think that’s been a big challenge.”

AIM President and CEO John Regan added that Baker’s deliberate, four-phase plan has so far been an effective way to reopen the state economy in a safe and efficient manner.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim many lives a day in Massachusetts,” Regan said, adding that employers, “will in many cases need to reconfigure workplaces for social distancing and determine how to implement other safety measures, such as the wearing of protective equipment, continuing work-from-home policies, and ensuring the health of workers and customers.”

While AIM employers have been satisfied with the pace of the rollout, Geehern told BusinessWest, there was some frustration early on, particularly in the retail, restaurant, leisure, and hospitality sectors, which weren’t included in phase 1. “Some thought we should be moving faster. To be honest, I think the events going on down south persuaded most people that slow and safe is still the best way to do all this.”

He conceded that many AIM members are manufacturers, and they were able to return to work in phase 1 — and many were deemed essential workers from the start and never shut down operations. That partly explains why their business confidence has been slightly higher than non-manufacturers.

“They were, in fact, dealing with issues of workplace safety right along — processes like how to create six-feet separation, sanitize common areas, and monitor the health of people coming in,” he said. “This is something they’ve had a lot of experience with. For our group of manufacturers, it’s been a fairly smooth process.”

All Eyes on the Numbers

That said, Geehern noted that if COVID-19 cases began spiking and the governor paused or slowed the reopening, business confidence would clearly suffer.

“It’s still volatile and changeable, but I think it’s fair to say companies in general are satisfied with the pace of the rollout. Believe me, every employer in Massachusetts wishes Governor Baker could wave a magic wand and everything would go back to the way it was, but everyone knows that’s not the case.”

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence. That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

How schools handle students’ return this fall — and what that does to the child-care picture — is a factor as well, he said. “There are a bunch of different elements to the whole picture. They’ll all eventually become clear.”

Part of that clarity is the sad reality that some businesses will be left behind. According to one AIM survey, slightly more than half of companies that furloughed employees will want them all to return when they’re able to bring them back, but some said they won’t be taking any of them back, because they’re planning on going out of business or running a skeleton staff for a while.

“It’s going to be a slow recovery, but our members still think the fundamentals of the economy that existed in February still exist, and I think that’s going to help us,” he noted, adding, however, that leisure and hospitality, as well as mom-and-pop shops of all kinds — two types of businesses that are important to the Franklin County economy — are especially vulnerable right now.

Knowing all of this — the tentatively good health news and the more uncertain economic outlook — Szynal chooses to take the glass-half-full view.

“The numbers are fairly optimistic, and I think the most important thing right now is confidence,” she said. “That’s what’s going to help those businesses bounce back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

A New Reality

The massive federal stimulus that took shape last week brought some clarity to how the government would address troubling impact of COVID-19 and the large-scale economic shutdown that has emerged in response to this public-health crisis. Other efforts on the state and local levels aim to help businesses and families struggling with job loss and the suspension of livelihoods. Of course, the true relief will come when this viral threat subsides and businesses ramp back up. But no one knows exactly when that will be.

The news came in quickly — and landed hard.

Last Thursday morning, the Department of Labor issued its first unemployment-claims report since much of the country began implementing, in various ways and at various speeds, some form of economic shutdown to slow the spread of coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, known as COVID-19.

The news was not good. The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed to a record-breaking 3.28 million for the week ended March 21 — nearly doubling expectations of 1.64 million claims. The previous record was 695,000 claims filed during October 1982.

It’s a big problem — and sometimes, big problems require big solutions. Which is why lawmakers in Washington spent much of last week hammering out a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at helping families facing sudden job loss, small-business owners trying to survive, and entire battered industries ride out what is increasingly looking like a severe disruption to America’s economic way of life.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth,” Scott Foster, a partner with Bulkley Richardson, said the morning after details of the stimulus became known.

Among its many provisions, the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act appears to apply to every for-profit business with fewer than 500 employees, including sole proprietors, Foster noted. The act would allow these businesses to obtain a loan — at 4% interest with a 10-year repayment term — to cover payroll costs, including healthcare premiums and paid time off, rent, utilities, mortgage payments (interest, not principal), and interest on other pre-existing loans for any eight-week period falling between Feb. 15 and June 30.

“To summarize, if you are a business and are willing to keep your employees on the payroll, pay your rent or mortgage, and stay in business, the federal government is prepared to pay your rent, your utilities, and your payroll — for employees making under $100,000 annually — for eight weeks, and the payment is tax-free,” Foster said. “It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

Unlike most other loans, this one will be forgiven in an amount equal to the sum of payroll costs, payments of interest on any covered mortgage, payments on any covered rent obligations, and covered utility payments. And to encourage businesses to retain their employees, the amount to be forgiven would be reduced if the business reduces its workforce.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth.”

Families will receive a simpler but shorter-term fix — a tax rebate totaling $1,200 for most adults and $500 for each child — which will be distributed as checks in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, states will get help in the form of a $150 billion grant fund, to be distributed proportional to population size, with a minimum of $1.25 billion for states with the smallest populations.

For many of the impacted, it’s a start, at a time of unprecedented anxiety — after all, the country has never voluntarily shut down activity on a massive scale due to a health threat, or for any other reason. This issue of BusinessWest details many of the ways businesses and families are coping, and plenty of advice from local professionals on the best ways to do so. It’s a story that changes by the day, but read on for a snapshot of where we are now.

Targeted Assistance

For many, the COVID-19 threat really hit home the morning — March 23, to be exact — when Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public at least until April 7, while continuing to operate remotely when possible.

Those ‘essential’ businesses include healthcare and public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; critical manufacturing; transportation; energy; water and wastewater; public works; communications and information technology; financial services; defense industry base; chemical manufacturing and hazardous materials; and news media.

Everyone else is being asked to work at home, and most area companies were already moving in that direction before Baker’s mandate. The Springfield Regional Chamber polled its members last week about how the order impacted their operations. Almost two-thirds — 62% — said their employees were already working remotely, 27% said they began remote work after March 23, and 11% said they temporarily closed all operations because they cannot work remotely.

The threat of a longer shutdown looms, and may be foreshadowed by the governor’s order last week to keep all schools and most childcare programs closed at least until May 4, while requesting that educators gear up for the long haul by developing and enhancing online-learning capabilities.

“It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

In the meantime, a number of relief efforts have popped up at the federal, state, and local levels. For example, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will offer low-interest federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans for working capital to Massachusetts small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. Applicants may apply online at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

This week, the Baker-Polito administration also announced economic support for Massachusetts small businesses with the Small Business Recovery Loan Fund, a $10 million fund that will provide emergency capital up to $75,000 to Massachusetts-based businesses impacted by COVID-19 with under 50 full- and part-time employees, including nonprofits. The application is at empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Meanwhile, Common Capital offers a Fast Track Loan Program to address the needs of local businesses that need quick access to capital. Applicants seeking funding from the program to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can contact Kim Gaughan, loan fund manager, at (413) 233-1684 or [email protected] for more information.

The Baker-Polito administration also announced steps last week to keep vulnerable families in their homes, preserve the health and safety of low-income renters and homeowners, and prevent homelessness due to reduced or lost income. Specifically, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will temporarily suspend terminations of federal and state rental vouchers under its purview, while MassHousing is transferring $5 million to the DHCD for a COVID-19 Rental Assistance for Families in Transition fund to assist families facing rent insecurity.

In addition, the state Division of Banks has issued new guidance to financial institutions and lenders urging them to provide relief for borrowers — several banks have already committed to do so — and will advocate for a 60-day stay on behalf of all homeowners facing imminent foreclosure on their homes. Finally, affordable-housing operators are being urged to suspend non-essential evictions for loss of income or employment circumstances resulting in a tenant’s inability to make rent.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts will delay the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes in the restaurant and hospitality sector for up to three months, while waiving all penalties and interest. And, of course, the IRS has informed all taxpayers that this year’s filing deadline has been moved forward three months to July 15.

Nonprofits are being squeezed by the crisis as well. In response, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) established the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with a lead gift of $1 million from MassMutual and contributions from a number of area businesses. The fund will provide resources to Pioneer Valley nonprofits serving populations most impacted by the crisis, such as the elderly, those without stable housing, families needing food, and those with health vulnerabilities. To make a gift, visit communityfoundation.org/coronavirus-donations or e-mail [email protected].

Meanwhile, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation have established the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County to rapidly deploy resources to community-based organizations as they respond to the impact of the coronavirus in Berkshire County. Numerous corporate funders have already emerged. To donate, visit berkshireunitedway.org/donate. Nonprofits can request funds at berkshireunitedway.org.

Finally, to help individuals in need, the United Way of Pioneer Valley established the COVID-19 Recovery and Relief Fund to provide aid and resources to those affected by the current public-health emergency. Funds collected will help families and individuals impacted by the pandemic to meet their basic, childcare, housing and financial needs. Visit www.uwpv.org for more information.

Hunkering Down

Resources such as these are critical because there’s really no telling when the region and country can return to some semblance of economic normalcy. Judging by what the medical community knows about how aggressively coronavirus spreads, the health costs of emerging from this collective cocoon too soon are too great — the healthcare system would simply be overrun. That’s why ‘flattening the curve; has become the watchword of the day.

Unfortunately, many businesses feel overrun in a different way. The Springfield Regional Chamber conducted a different poll recently, asking members what level of impact they expect the COVID-19 crisis have on their business.

More than four-fifths have major concerns; 34% say the crisis may put them out of business, while 47% say it will significantly impact their financials. Another 15% say they’ll be impacted financially but expect to weather the storm, while 4% say it’s too early to know.

In many ways, it’s too early to predict many things related to COVID-19 and its impact. Meanwhile, a nation increasingly shelters in place, seeking relief and solutions where they can find them, and hoping for the best.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Meetings & Conventions

Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

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

Features

Blast from the Past

Todd Crossett and Sonya Yetter

It’s a small business, but it might just be a big part of a significant movement. Granny’s Baking Table, which opened just a few months ago, speaks to a different age in Springfield’s history, when small, locally owned businesses dominated Main Street and the roads around it. And in many ways, it operates in a way consistent with that age — there’s no wi-fi and, instead, a focus on conversation. It’s a blast from the past, but those behind it hope they represent the future.

Todd Crossett remembers how it all started — and especially how his chapter in this story began.

Then a faculty member at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, he was making beignets, a French pastry featuring dough and powdered sugar, as a hobby more than anything else. His son told him they were so good that he could sell them from a bicycle.

So he did. In downtown Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he’s lived in the Mason Square area for more than 25 years. “But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’

“But it didn’t end that way, did it?” he went on, with a hearty laugh, gesturing to his current business partner.

That would be Sonya Yetter, who, While Crossett was selling his beignets on his bike, was in business for herself with a soup and sandwich shop in the Forest Park section of the city.

After years spent cocktail waitressing, bartending, and other assorted jobs, she decided to attend culinary school in Europe. Upon returning to the States, she lived and worked in Maryland and Florida before returning to her hometown of Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot. But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’”

Through a series of circumstances that will be detailed later, the two have come together in a new venture called Granny’s Baking Table, a name that reflects what goes on there, but doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Granny’s is a blast from the past, and in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. It’s a nod to a day when the streets of downtown Springfield were teeming with small, locally owned businesses like this one. And it’s a nod to the small bakery, with this one combining the baking traditions of the American South and Northern Europe.

It’s all summed up — sort of — in this line from the eatery’s website: “It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

The menu, like many other aspects of Granny’s Baking Table, is simple, direct, and a nod to the past.

That table — and there is, for the most part, just one large one that sits in the middle of the room — is indeed just for those purposes. There is no wi-fi, so one could do some work, theoretically, but if they wanted to read the morning paper, they would likely have to do it the old-fashioned way and crack open the print edition.

Speaking of old-fashioned, there’s more of that on display at this venue, from the simple menu displayed on a chalkboard — items include the ‘Oh Lawdy’ to the ‘Goodness Gracious’ to the ‘Not Too Fancy,’ a phrase that describes pretty much everything in the place — to the pictures on the wall; some are of family members, others of random individuals that reflect the diversity of the city and its downtown being celebrated at this establishment, to the holiday cookie exchange staged in mid-December (more on that later)

Overall, Granny’s is a nod to the past, and so far, to one degree or another, it seems to be working. The partners acknowledge that, three months after opening, they’re seeing both newcomers and repeat customers, and a good supply of both. But they acknowledged that it’s difficult going up against national chain coffee shops and other forms of competition. And they also acknowledged that times have indeed changed, and operating a business based on small-batch baking is far from easy.

The scope of the challenge they’re facing is reflected in the skepticism they encountered as they went about securing a site, putting a business plan in place, and getting the doors open. It came from family, friends, and even the broker that showed them the property.

“People didn’t like our concepts; they didn’t like the one table, they didn’t like the no wi-fi — there was so much that people were averse to,” Crossett explained. “But we believed in what we were doing, and we still believe in it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this unique new venture and how its principals are undertaking a noble but nonetheless daunting assignment — bringing the past into the present and making it work.

To-Dough List

Returning to the story of how these two came together — a story they share often because they’re asked often — that chapter really began when Crossett was serving as food-vending recruiter for the Springfield Jazz Festival, and knocked on the door to Yetter’s business in Forest Park.

He successfully recruited her for the event, and they kept in touch. “And here we are,” she said while bypassing several subsequent chapters as the two talked with BusinessWest at that large table in the middle of the room — actually, it’s several smaller tables pushed together.

Filling in the gaps, Crossett said he was looking for a space in downtown Springfield — specifically some square footage in the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — a from which to sell beignets and other items. Unbeknownst to him, Yetter, a UMass graduate who grew up Springfield, had signed a lease for the property almost across the street — one that had most recently been home to the Honey Bunny’s clothing store but had seen a number of uses over the decades — as a second location for her business.

The Innovation Center plans essentially fizzled as the development of that property changed course, Crosset recalled, adding that he left the last discussions on those plans quite dejected. He was on a cross-country tour with his son when he started thinking about how he and Yetter would not be in competition with one another, so maybe they should become partners.

Some of the pastries available at Granny’s Baking Table.

“He texted me and said, ‘we should talk,’” Yetter recalled, again zooming through subsequent steps for another ‘and here we are.’

That text was sent roughly a year ago; the months that followed were spent converting the space into a bakery — ceilings had to be raised, and a kitchen had to be built — as well as overcoming the skepticism of others around them and getting the venture off the ground.

They were fueled by the desire to make downtown less boring and to be a part of ongoing efforts to restore the vitality that Yetter remembers from her childhood.

“I grew up here, so I remember what downtown once was,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was in one of the last classes to graduate from Classical High School, which closed in 1986. “I spent a lot of time in Johnson’s Bookstore and Steiger’s — it was a booming, booming town.”

By the time she returned to the city, it was no longer booming, she said, adding that she believes the large shopping malls, now struggling mightily themselves, sucked much of the life out of the central business district. The best hope for the future is small businesses moving into the downtown, she said, adding that Granny’s is part of that movement.

“My hope, and my belief, is that there are more people who are interested in becoming small-business owners now and perfect a craft they might have,” she said. “It’s my hope that this will revitalize the downtown area.”

The communal table, designed to stimulate conversation among patrons.

Today, Yetter splits her time between the Super Sweet Sandwich Shop in Forest Park and Granny’s, with more time at the latter because it’s just getting off the ground. Both she and Crossett said they are off to a solid start and they expect to gain momentum as more people find out about them and perhaps change some eating habits — specifically getting away from fast food, not only at lunch but breakfast as well.

Granny’s features an array of pastries — each day the lineup is different — that include danish, scones, sticky buns, muffins, beignets, and more. The lunch menu, as noted, is rather simple and focused on the basics; for example, the Not Too Fancy is pulled pork with homemade barbecue sauce, the Oh Lawdy is sweet-tea-brined fried chicken with pimento cheese and spicy peach jam served on a biscuit, and the Goodness Gracious is a mustard-infused, buttery croissant with black forest ham and smoked cheese.

Thus far, there’s been a lot of grab and go, especially with the businesspeople working downtown, said Crossett, but there have been many who have sat down to eat as well.

“It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

Which means that most have had to adjust some other habits as well, the partners acknowledged, noting again that there is no wi-fi here, and there is that ‘communal table.’

“We have a space where we want people to come in and talk and have a conversation,” Yetter explained, “and hopefully get to know anyone else who’s at the table with them — that’s our goal.”

It’s a goal that’s being met in many respects.

“Sometimes you’ll see a full table, and other times you’ll see a few people there,” said Yetter. “What we’ve noticed is that they talk to each other now, which is what we wanted — getting people to talk that normally wouldn’t.”

What’s Cooking

When asked about the success formula to date, Crosset said there are some interesting ingredients.

“We got into the space together, we both have a good sense of humor, we’re both patient, and we’re both really, really finicky about our product,” he explained. “And those things hold us together.”

Yetter agreed, and said another big factor was successfully creating “the feel and the vibe” they were looking for — which together speak to another age, another time, as reflected in that mission statement on the website and the reference to simpler times and baking from scratch.

Time will tell if the skeptics were right or if these somewhat unlikely partners can actually turn back the hands of time. But for now, they seem to be taking some of the boring out of downtown and giving people something new to talk about — whether it’s at that communal table or back in their office.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mark Avery, co-founder of Two Weeks Notice Brewing, says the company is working hard to build its brand.

Mark Avery says he doesn’t tell the story as much as he used to — maybe because so many people have heard it by now — but he still gets asked on a fairly regular basis.

And he never tires of telling it, because it’s a good story — and, perhaps more importantly, it’s good marketing.

As he recalls, he was out driving one day and thinking about how great it would be to finally give his two weeks notice at work and start making a living doing what had become his passion — brewing beer.

“And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head,” he said, “and Two Weeks Notice Brewing was essentially born. I Googled it to see if anyone else had it, and luckily no one else did.”

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year.”

Today, Avery and business partner Derrick Upson — the individual to whom he left those two weeks notice — are brewing a number of labels at their location on Bosworth Street in West Springfield, across Memorial Avenue from the Big E. They include everything from ‘Resignation IPA’ to ‘Casual Friday,’ a pale ale; from ‘West Side Big Slide,’ another IPA that features the Big E’s famous yellow slide on the label, to ‘Bumby Love,’ an imperial stout. Meanwhile, the tap room the partners opened soon after labeling their first can has become an increasingly popular venue, as evidenced by the large crowd on a recent Saturday.

Thus, Two Weeks Notice has become one of many intriguing development stories in West Springfield in recent months. Or redevelopment stories, as the case may be. Indeed, while this community of 29,000 lies on the crossroads of New England, literally — both I-91 and the Mass Turnpike have exits in it — there isn’t much undeveloped land left. Thus, most of the new-business stories involve redevelopment of existing property.

City Planner Allyson Manuel says many of the business projects in West Springfield involve redevelopment of existing properties.

In the case of Two Weeks Notice, it was a comprehensive renovation of the former Angie’s Tortellinis property, a complicated undertaking, as we’ll see. And there have been several others in recent years, said City Planner Allyson Manuel, listing everything from a new seafood restaurant taking the site of the old Bertucci’s on Riverdale Street to remaking an old junkyard operation into the Hot Brass shooting and archery range just off Memorial Avenue.

And now, the city is looking to write more of these stories, especially at two landmark restaurants on or just off Memorial Avenue that are now sporting ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

One is the site that most still refer to as the Hofbrahaus, even though that restaurant closed several years ago, with 1105 Main (also the address) opening in that same space. The other is the small but nonetheless significant White Hut, an eatery with a very loyal following that closed abruptly a few weeks ago.

The site has been in the news almost constantly since, with TV film crews seen getting close-up shots of that aforementioned sign, with most of the news centered on exploratory efforts by Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, principals of the Bean Restaurant Group, to launch another rescue operation.

The first, of course, was a reopening of another culinary landmark, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, after it closed briefly in 2014. At press time, the partners were still essentially crunching numbers, said a spokesperson for the Bean Group, adding that a decision on the fate of the beloved burger restaurant would be coming “soon.”

Two landmark restaurants in West Side — the White Hut, above, and 1105 Main (formerly the Hofbrauhaus), now have ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

Meanwhile, there are other properties awaiting redevelopment, said Manuel, listing the former home to United Bank on Elm Street and a mill property off Front Street that was gifted to the city by Neenah Paper Co. in 2018, among others.

But the more pressing news involves infrastructure, she told BusinessWest, adding that the city, and especially businesses along Memorial Avenue, eagerly await the completion of what amounts to the replacement and widening of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects the city to Agawam; the latest target date is late summer 2021, an improvement over the original timetable due to incentives being offered by the state for early completion. The other major project is an upgrade to Memorial Avenue itself, a comprehensive project that calls for reconfigured lanes and a bike lane and promises improved traffic flow.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest tells West Side’s story, which is increasingly one of redevelopment.

Feeling a Draught

Avery told BusinessWest that the Angie’s Tortellinis property — it actually had other uses after Angie’s moved to Westfield several years ago — had been vacant for some time when he and Upson first looked at it.

By then, at least a few other brewers had been through and decided that the property would be too difficult to convert for that use. They thought otherwise, although they conceded it would be a stern challenge.

“There were drop ceilings everywhere, the heat hadn’t been on in more than a year, probably … it was a dump when we got it,” he recalled, adding that a number of refrigeration units had to be ripped out and the area that is now that tap room required almost complete demolition and rebuilding.

Backing up a bit, and returning to that story about the name now over the door, he said Upson was his boss at a company called Pioneer Tool Supply, which was located in West Springfield when he started and eventually relocated to the industrial park in Agawam. When not working, Avery was spending most of his time home brewing — and thinking about taking that from a pastime to a career.

After that lightbulb moment noted earlier, he had a name, and he also had several recipes. He was set to partner with another individual and open a brewery in Westfield, but the two eventually concluded that the partnership wasn’t going to work. That’s when Upson, who by then was big into craft beers, entered the equation, and Avery eventually did give his two weeks notice.

They started selling cans in the fall of 2018 and haven’t looked back. The company’s various brands are now on tap in a number of area bars and restaurants, including several in West Springfield and Agawam, and loyal followers can buy cans at the brewery. On the Saturday we visited, Avery had just finished brewing a batch of what he called Performance Review 13 — and, yes, there were a dozen versions before it.

“These are the beers where I kind of play around with different hops, different yeasts, and different styles if I want to,” he explained. “It gives me a little creativity to break up the monotony of production.”

The tap room is now open Thursday through Sunday, and while business — and growth — have been steady, Avery says more aggressive marketing, and just getting the word out, is perhaps the company’s top priority at the moment.

“We’re working to get our name out — we’re still fairly unknown at this point,” he explained. “People will come in and say, ‘this is the first time we’re been here,’ or ‘we’ve never heard of you guys’ — even people in West Side. So we need to change that and grow the brand. For the most part, it’s just doing interesting and fun events.”

While Two Weeks Notice Brewing goes about building its brand, there are other things brewing in West Springfield, pun intended. Especially those infrastructure projects.

Like its neighbor to the west, Agawam, West Side has struggled during the lengthy but very necessary project to replace the 70-year-old Morgan-Sullivan Bridge. Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, which worked with officials in both cities to minimize the impact of the bridge work during the fair’s 17-day run, said businesses along Memorial Avenue have definitely been affected by the project, which began roughly 18 months ago.

“In the late afternoons, traffic gets backed up all the way to our to our main entrance,” he said, noting that it is several hundred yards from the bridge. “Many businesses are struggling, and people are going elsewhere to do business.”

He praised the state for incentivizing the contractor handling the work, Palmer-based Northern Construction Service, thus pushing up the closing date and making this fall’s Big E hopefully the last that will have to cope with the bridge work.

But not long after that project is over, another much-anticipated project, the redesign and reconstruction of Memorial Avenue, will commence, said Manuel, noting there is no timetable at present, but the target date is the spring or summer of 2022 — after the bridge project is done.

When asked to summarize the scope of the project, she summoned the phrase ‘road diet’ to describe what will take place before elaborating.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.65
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

“This is the new best practice, and it involves reducing the amount of pavement while at the same time incorporating amenities or facilities for transportation other than personal vehicles, such as bikes, pedestrians, and buses,” she explained. “By designing it more efficiently, especially when it comes to the intersections and turning areas, you ideally need fewer lanes — that’s what is meant by road diet.

“The plans are not finalized,” she went on. “But it will have a bike lane and new sidewalks and trees; in addition to trying to improve traffic flow, it’s also a beautification project.”

Thus, there will be significant change to a thoroughfare that is already in a seemingly constant state of motion, not only with vehicular traffic, but also with businesses coming and going.

That’s certainly the case today, with a new, larger Planet Fitness opening in the Century Plaza, and the fate of both the White Hut and the Hofbrauhaus property still unknown.

Both landmarks date back to the 1930s, and they have become part of the landscape on Memorial Avenue, said Manuel, adding that the hope is that both will soon have new names over the door, or, in the case of the White Hut, perhaps the same name but with new ownership.

As for the Hofbrauhaus property, it presents both challenges and opportunities.

“The size of the facility is a bit daunting for another restaurant,” she noted. “But the location is so good that I’m sure that something will happen there.”

Meanwhile, movement is also a constant on the other major thoroughfare in the city, Riverdale Street, where the new seafood restaurant is set to open soon, said Manuel. It’s not far from a recently opened Marriott Courtyard, which was built on the site of the former Boston Billiards, yet another example of redevelopment in this city.

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year,” she said, adding there are many other examples of this, including the ongoing expansion of Titan Industries on Baldwin Street, Hot Brass, and the Holyoke Creative Arts Center moving into one of the mills vacated by Neenah Paper.

Lager Than Life

The hope, and the expectation, is that this pattern will continue, Manuel said, adding that, while the city is indeed land-poor, it is opportunity-rich given its location, easy accessibility, and inventory of properties that can be redeveloped.

Sometimes it takes some imagination and determination — as was certainly the case with Two Weeks Notice and the former tortellini factory — but West Springfield has generally proven to be a mailing address worthy of such diligence.

Avery noted the same while finishing that batch of Performance Review 13, which will hopefully become yet another positive chapter in a business story written in a city where more such sagas are penned each year.

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

Meetings & Conventions

Making a Match

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the region’s recent momentum and new attractions have made it a stronger sell to event and convention planners.

Conventions are good business for a city like Springfield. But they don’t exist in a vacuum.

“We’ll ask if they have time for things outside their program,” said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Are they bringing spouses? Will they have time, either pre-event or post-event, to go to Yankee Candle, or Six Flags, or the Seuss museum?”

“That’s part of their convention experience as well,” added Alicia Szenda, the GSVCB’s director of Sales. “They might be at the MassMutual Center for three or four days, but they might do a couple off-site events, too. We can help them — ‘OK, do you want to do the Springfield Museums? The Hall of Fame? What is it that your group is interested in?’ Because we do want them to have a good experience and feel welcome.”

Both Wydra and Szenda share a philosophy that, while conventions and major sporting events positively impact the region during the weekend or week they’re around, they also pose an opportunity to draw convention-goers back in the future — either as a group for future events, or individually, as leisure travelers.

That’s why attracting convention business focuses not just on the venue, lodging, and amenities involved in the event itself, but on the entire region.

“Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer,” Wydra told BusinessWest. “Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

And when they’re here, they’ll spend money, from hotels and restaurants to gas stations and recreation destinations, Szenda added. “We’re really lucky we have great attractions, and that’s enough to keep people entertained while they’re here and get them to come back.”

The convention and event mix in 2020 is a diverse agenda, one featuring newcomers and repeat business alike. The city recently hosted the New England Fence Assoc., which the GSCVB had been trying to bring in for years, as well as the New England Region Volleyball Assoc. (NERVA). In its sixth straight year here, the latter event filled 2,000 hotel-room nights over the course of a weekend.

The city will also host the Amateur Athletic Union volleyball super-regional in March — partly because someone who took part in the NERVA event liked what he saw from the city. “We’re hoping that becomes annual as well,” Szenda said.

Other upcoming events include the largest collegiate fencing competition in the country and a First Robotics event at the Eastern States Exposition, both in April; a gathering of the National Assoc. of Basketball Coaches in May; and Hooplandia in June. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In all cases, Szenda said, the goal is to match what an organization needs with what a venue — and the city and region — have to offer. Take the International Jugglers’ Assoc., which convened in Springfield last year.

“This group was looking to go anywhere in the country, so we looked at their parameters and put together a proposal. They needed a convention center, two full-service hotels within walking distance, a historic theater, and a fun kind of bar atmosphere with a stage. I read that and was like, ‘that fits perfectly here,’” she recalled, noting that Symphony Hall was an ideal theater, and Theodores’ fit the bill for the bar.

Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer. Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

The GSCVB will also suggest gathering options that planners might not know about — perhaps a cruise outing on the Lady Bea, or an outdoor reception at the Springfield Museums. “You can have a unique dinner event on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nowhere else in the world can you do that event. We try to be creative, and try to really hype the assets we have.”

Rising Interest

The GSCVB has seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and Szenda is constantly talking with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out. Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options and assembling tourism information about the region.

The bureau also boasts a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“At the end of the day, it’s about sales,” she said. “We go to trade shows, but we also get leads from locals who live around here who might be part of national associations or hobby groups or special-interest groups who want to bring the event they travel to every year here. Once we make that initial contact, the process becomes pretty streamlined. We want to get all the information we can from them — how many room nights do they need? What kind of venue do they need?”

Organizations based in New England already see Greater Springfield as a convenient location, with interstates 90 and 91 intersecting here, and they might be aware of its recreational and hospitality options. Those from far away, though, may need some convincing, and that’s what Szenda does when she attends those industry trade shows, where she may schedule appointments with up to 30 meeting planners or sporting-event organzers to talk about how this region suits their needs.

“We’re Western Mass. — we don’t have the cachet of a first-tier city, like Boston or Chicago,” Wydra said. “With national groups, a lot of times, that’s where a local person comes into play.”

For instance, the National Square Dance Convention, a national gathering of Daughters of the Nile, and a large insurance convention all landed in Springfield in recent years because a local member got the ball rolling. “I think the local tie to national groups is a really important and powerful one for us.”

One selling point is that national groups that hold conventions in the Pioneer Valley get plenty of local attention — everyone knows they’re here, and are often excited about it.

“We tell the event planner, ‘you’re going to be a big fish in a little pond,’” Wydra said, noting that Daughters of the Nile held its convention in Orlando the year before coming to Springfield. “I don’t know if the local people knew they were in Orlando. But when they came to Springfield, there was a story or photograph in our mainstream media, talking about this group, every day they were here. You kind of take over our city, our region.”

Another plus? Springfield is a different city than it was five years ago, with MGM Springfield, the Seuss museum, and ongoing Basketball Hall of Fame renovations among the recent major stories.

“I go to these trade shows, and all they want to know is what’s new,” Szenda said. “With some cities, they sit there and say, ‘we’ve got the same stuff,’ but we’ve been able to go every year and say ‘this is what’s new, this is what’s new.’”

Wydra agreed. “That makes our job so much easier and more exciting. The sell is easier when we can say we’ve added these things.”

Key Connections

‘It takes a village’ is a bit of a cliché, Wydra admitted, but in the GSCVB’s case, it really is true, especially when it comes to booking events and providing the kind of experience that will bring people back.

“It does take a village to host a group of people. Everyone’s got to work together,” she said, adding that the region is fortunate to have assets like Eastern States, a campus-like setting with plenty of parking and room for large equipment, not to mention a modern convention center in the heart of Springfield and a couple of anchor hotels downtown complemented by a growing roster of lodging options around the region.

“Anyone who lives here and belongs to a group or goes to an event they want to host, they should contact me,” Szenda said, putting that sales hat back on for a moment. “If we get the site visit, we have a better shot of landing that event.”

“We do the work for them,” Wydra added. “We try to make it as easy as possible, but those local leads are so important.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

Opinion

Editorial

A few weeks back, we referenced that massive public hearing conducted to provide an update on the ongoing study of rail options for the Commonwealth. At that time, we focused on the high degree of skepticism concerning the state’s projections for cost and especially ridership (Western Mass. planners project almost 500,000 riders annually, while MassDOT has estimated roughly half that number and now promises to take a second look at the projections) and, overall, the many expressed opinions that the state wasn’t being sincere in its approach to this study.

All this is problematic on many levels. But there was one comment that was troubling on another level. It had to do with repeated use of the phrase ‘east-west rail,’ which has been used in most of the discussions and is even the formal name of this ongoing initiative — the ‘East-West Passenger Rail Study.’ The comment was made that it should be called ‘west-east rail’ because this is the region that would be benefit, and — we’re paraphrasing here — it’s essentially a Western Mass. project.

This line of thinking is flawed in a number of respects. Let’s start with the whole Western Mass. inferiority-complex thing — and it is a thing. Many out here have that complex, and it manifests itself in a number of ways, including jokes — if they’re even jokes — about how this region would be better off if it seceded and became part of Vermont. But to suggest that labeling a study ‘East-West’ as opposed to ‘West-East’ is a slight, and an indication of the state’s indifference to all the real estate west of Worcester, is take things too far and miss the far bigger point.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

But there’s something else that’s wrong with this line of thinking — something far more important. This isn’t a Western Mass. project, and it can’t simply be a Western Mass. project. Why? Because it will never sell if it is. The state just isn’t going to spend $25 billion or $5 billion or even $2 billion — the various price tags attached to the options outlined at the meeting last month — on a Western Mass. project.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

We get it. This project is mostly, if not entirely, being pushed by Western Mass. lawmakers and especially state Sen. Eric Lesser from Longmeadow. And one of their arguments is that this rail line would likely provide a huge boost to many of the cities and towns that are not seeing the same kind of economic prosperity being enjoyed by communities inside Route 128. It would provide a lifeline to communities that are seeing their populations age and decline because young people don’t have enough incentives to live in these places. It would, according to those proposing it, help level the laying field between east and west.

But that’s not the only argument, and it can’t be the only argument if this thing is ever going to move beyond the study phase and stand any chance of being approved by the Legislature.

For this to work, it has to be a project that will benefit not only Chester and Palmer, Pittsfield and Springfield, but also Boston and its suburbs, which are seeing congestion, traffic, and overall cost of living rise to almost untenable levels.

We understand that a name is not a big deal, and it’s mostly about semantics. Why not call it the ‘West-East Rail Study’? We could, if it would make people out here feel better (it wouldn’t make us feel better). But we should instead call it the ‘Commonwealth Rail Study,’ because it’s a project to benefit those living or working on both sides of the state.

If it wasn’t, it would never get off the ground.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A $50 million renovation will transform Elm Court, on the Stockbridge line, into a new resort.

Historic properties are getting a second act in Lenox these days.

Take the $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and has transformed it into a high-end wellness resort, called Miraval Berkshires Resort & Spa, featuring 102 guest rooms and suites, and a luxury, 46-room hotel, Wyndhurst Manor & Club.

Set to open in May, the complex known as Miraval Berkshires is the third Miraval property nationwide, following its flagship in Tucson, Ariz. — named among the top 20 destination spas in the world last year by Condé Nast Traveler readers — and a second location in Austin, Texas, which opened last year. Hyatt acquired Miraval in 2017, and Wyndhurst Manor & Club is part of Hyatt’s Destination Hotels brand.

The 29,000-square-foot spa in Lenox “was conceived to excite all five senses and encourage mindfulness and introspection,” according to the company, and will include 28 treatment rooms, an indoor/outdoor lounge pool, separate relaxation rooms for women and men, a salon, a sauna, a steam room, a retail boutique, and a courtyard that evokes “a sense of harmony with nature.”

The neighboring Wyndhurst Manor & Club, a renovated Tudor-style mansion built in 1894, will offer a more traditional hotel experience, but guests there can purchase day packages for Miraval.

“We are excited to continue the Miraval brand’s expansion with the upcoming opening of Miraval Berkshires, as well as to welcome Wyndhurst Manor & Club to the Hyatt family,” said Susan Santiago, senior vice president of Miraval Resorts, in a release. “These two properties will offer distinct and memorable travel experiences, and we look forward to inspiring once-in-a-lifetime, transformative experiences for all guests who visit our Miraval and Wyndhurst resorts in the heart of the Berkshires.”

Then there’s the Elm Court estate on the Stockbridge-Lenox line, constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt. It 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.

These days, Travaasa Berkshire County is working on a $50 million renovation of the property to develop a new resort there, featuring 112 rooms, including 16 existing suites in the Gilded Age mansion. After a series of starts and stops, including a holdup in land court in Lenox and a pause for infrastructure improvements to the roadway and water and sewer lines, the project is now moving forward.

“Travaasa Berkshire County’s plan preserves and protects a beloved historic property, respects community character, conserves open space, and contributes to the hospitality culture of the region,” the project website notes. “A tasteful, responsible commercial use of this property by a financially healthy organization will revive a dormant estate, create living-wage hospitality jobs at all skill levels, and maintain the property on town tax rolls.”

Even the Mount, Edith Wharton’s English manor-style home during the early part of the 20th century, is making news these days. Her classic novel The Age of Innocence is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and to mark the occasion, the Manor is displaying Wharton’s personal copy of the book.

“We have many, many of her works that either have bookplates or her signature — or both, as with this copy — and so, to finally have her own copy of The Age Of Innocence join this collection of her work, it’s amazing. It’s incredible,” Nynke Dorhout, the Mount’s librarian, told Northeast Public Radio recently.

Looking Ahead

Lenox is much more than its historical properties, of course. It’s also long been renowned for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But the business community has seen new energy in recent years as well, with projects like a Courtyard by Marriott that opened in 2017 and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space; the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years; an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies; and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Lenox at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,205
Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.10
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.78
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms
* Latest information available

To address an aging population, town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, and this town of just over 5,000 is looking decidely to the future, while continuing to celebrate and restore its rich past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Changing the Landscape

An aerial drone shot of the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center on Atwood Drive.

Ken Vincunas says he started getting into drone photography years ago — well before most practitioners.

There was a lengthy learning curve, and in some ways it’s still ongoing, he acknowledged, but overall it’s been a fun, intriguing experience as the technology has improved and its capabilities have grown. Meanwhile, it’s become a very practical — and much-needed — work tool for Vincunas, president of Development Associates, the Agawam-based commercial real-estate management firm and developer.

Indeed, he uses drone shots to help market the myriad properties in the company’s portfolio from Greenfield to East Granby, Conn.; shots from above often provide a unique perspective.

Shots like the one on this page, which Vincunas took last fall — probably in the early morning, by the looks of the parking lot and the lack of traffic on nearby I-91. Perhaps better than any thousand words could — even these — the picture tells how the development on Atwood Drive in Northampton, known officially as the Northampton/I-91 Professional Center, has changed the landscape in that area, once home to the Clarion Inn and Conference Center (Vincunas told BusinessWest he has some powerful drone shots capturing the demolition of that facility).

Today, the site has become home to a wide range of businesses and institutions, including the Massachusetts Trial Court, now a major tenant in the third building to be developed on the property, known as 15 Atwood, the large one in the center of the picture.

But Cooley Dickinson Hospital (CDH) is the dominant tenant on the property, with facilities in all three buildings and a presence summed up with the collective ‘Atwood Health Center.’

The hospital, a Massachusetts General Hospital affiliate, has its name on 22 Atwood (Cooley Dickinson Health Care), which houses a number of facilities, from Atwood Internal Medicine to Hampshire Cardiovascular Associates; from integrated behavioral-health services to women’s health. Meanwhile, at 8 Atwood, the first building developed, CDH has located its occupational-therapy, physical-therapy, and speech-language facilities, and in 15 Atwood, opened last spring, CDH has placed general surgical care and infectious-diseases facilities and Oxbow Primary Care.

Thus, the facility has become a true healthcare destination, similar to the Brightwood section of Springfield’s North End, although, as Vincunas noted, it is home to a wide variety of tenants, including an engineering firm and an accounting firm slated to move into 15 Atwood later this year (buildout on the latter is much further along than the former).

Which means the parking lot generally doesn’t look anything like it does here. And it’s likely to become even more full in the coming months as Vincunas looks to fill the remaining spaces in 15 Atwood, roughly 8,000 square feet in total.

“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space,” he said while sitting at a table in one section if it. “We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”

But he’s already looking beyond those spaces — both literally and figuratively — to the undeveloped property at the back of this parcel, adjacent to the highway. There is room for additional development there, he said, and already a search is underway for the anchor tenant or tenants needed to greenlight new construction.

“We have site-plan approval for another building, which is a significant milestone,” he said, adding that the permit will allow something between 40,000 and 50,000 square feet, somewhat smaller than the 66,000-square-foot 15 Atwood. “We’ll need someone there to be the anchor, as it was with these other buildings.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Atwood Drive complex and how it remains an important work in progress.

A Vision Comes into Focus

Despite how it might look to some, Vincunas stressed repeatedly that this venture was certainly not an overnight success.

Indeed, it’s been more than a decade in the making, he said, and the story really begins when the Clarion property, located on the north side of Atwood Drive, was acquired at auction by the O’Leary and Shumway families in the early ’90s. Other sites on both sides of the street were acquired over the ensuing years, and eventually a vision developed for a professional office complex, said Vincunas, one that would be built in stages as need — and anchor tenants — emerged.

“We’re seeing a good amount of interest in this space. We had one caller interested in the whole thing and several others interested in pieces of it.”

Redevelopment of the south side of the property, undertaken by a partnership of the O’Leary and Shumway families, with Development Associates as leasing agent and construction property manager, began with 8 Atwood, with construction commencing in 2011. It is now home to Clinical & Support Options, several CDH facilities, as noted, and New England Dermatology. The building known as 22 Atwood was built in 2012. It is now home to 17 different CDH services, including the diabetes center, fertility services, geriatrics, podiatry, radiology and imaging, rheumatology, and spine medicine.

Construction on 15 Atwood — led by the O’Leary family as managing partner, again in partnership with Development Associates — began in 2017, with the trial court as the anchor tenant; the facility had been located in cramped quarters in downtown Northampton and needed an upgrade.

Ken Vincunas stands in the space being built out for the construction firm BluRoc in 15 Atwood, the latest addition to the complex just off I-91 in Northampton.

The court, now occupying roughly 22,000 square feet, moved in last February, and since then, a number of additional tenants have signed on, including Cooley Dickinson, which moved in last fall; the state Department of Developmental Services; Assurance Behavioral Health; Staffier Associates, a mental-health clinic; OnaWay, LLC, an accounting firm relocating from Holyoke; and BluRoc, a construction firm now located in Hadley.

This diverse mix of tenants was drawn to the Atwood Drive complex by a number of factors, but especially accessibility (the site is just off exit 19 of the highway), parking, the large footprints available, and the ability to shape these spaces to fit specific needs.

“One of the big draws is the parking — it’s very hard to find a very large space with this kind of parking in Northampton,” Vincunas explained. “And it’s very accessible, which makes it attractive to a wide range of businesses and facilities like the courthouse.”

And also BluRoc, which will soon be occupying more than 6,000 square feet of space on the third floor of 15 Atwood.

“They have three offices in three different buildings in one little area, and they needed a consolidated office; they’re going to have 30 people here,” he said, adding that buildout of the space should be completed by late spring.

With the third and first floors fully leased, there are now just those two spaces remaining on the second floor, he said, adding, again, that there has been a good amount of interest expressed in those footprints.

Looking ahead to the last remaining parcel and development of that space, Vincunas said there is no definitive timeline on construction, but he believes there is solid demand.

Shutter to Think

The accounting firm OnaWay has its own aerial shot of 15 Atwood on its website, accompanied by the words “our new home in 2020 is underway, and we’re stoked to live and work where we call home.”

There’s a growing list of companies saying similar things about this location, which has been completely transformed over the past decade — from unused property and a tired hotel and conference center into a state-of-the-art professional complex and healthcare destination.

As Vincinas said, it wasn’t an overnight success, certainly, but it has developed — yes, that’s a photography term — into one of the better development stories in the region.

As that drone shot clearly demonstrates.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Communty and Economic Development

Let’s get the bad news out of the way. And it certainly is bad news.

Wilson’s department store, an anchor and destination in downtown Greenfield for a century or so, will be closing its doors as its owner moves into retirement, leaving a very large hole to fill in the middle of Main Street.

The store was practically synonymous with the city and its downtown, drawing visitors of all ages who wanted to shop in one of the last old-time department stores in this region and maybe in the state.

“It’s devastating and it’s heartbreaking because it’s part of the fabric of the community,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, headquartered on Main Street in Greenfield. “This will be a serious loss for Greenfield, but…”

That ‘but’ constitutes what amounts to the good news.

Indeed, while unquestionably a loss, the closing of Wilson’s — which was certainly not unexpected by most — isn’t producing anything approaching the hand-wringing such news would have generated a decade or even five years ago.

Redevelopment of this large and highly visible site will certainly pose challenges. But instead of focusing on that aspect of the equation, most are consumed by the other side — the opportunity side, which Szynal referenced as she finished her sentence.

“We are looking at this as an opportunity,” she said. “We know something good will go there, something that reflects a changing landscape in retail.”

Meanwhile, there are enough good things happening and enough positive energy in this city that most are thinking this is something Greenfield can deal with and perhaps even benefit from in the long run as the retail world changes.

Jeremy Goldsher, left, and Jeff Sauser, co-founders of Greenspace co-working space.

As for those good things and positive energy … it’s a fairly long and impressive list that includes:

• New businesses such as the Rise Above coffee shop, and established businesses under new ownership, such as the Greenfield Garden Cinema, another downtown anchor;

• A refocused Greenfield Business Assoc. (GBA), now under the leadership of coordinator Rachel Roberts;

• A burgeoning cultural economy headlined by the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in the heart of downtown, but also a growing number of arts-related ventures;

• Co-working spaces — such as Greenspace, located above Hawks and Reed, as well as Another Castle, a facility that has attracted a number of video-game-related businesses — that are attracting young professionals and bringing more vibrancy to the downtown;

GCET, the municipal provider of reliable high-speed internet, a service that that has made those co-work spaces possible;

The Hive, a makers space now under development on Main Street, just a block or so down from Wilson’s;

• Rail service, specifically in the form of the Yankee Flyer, which brings two trains a day to the city, and enables one to travel to New York and back the same day;

• A new town library, which is expected to bring more vibrancy — and another co-working space — to downtown; and

• A noticeable tightening of the housing market, a tell-tale sign of progress.

“I have some employees who are trying to buy homes in Greenfield, and the inventory is moving so fast, they’re having a hard time getting something,” said Paul Hake, president of HitPoint, a video-game maker and anchor tenant in the Another Castle co-working space. “We have someone who’s trying to buy here from Los Angeles; he’s very excited, but he says, ‘every house I look at is gone by the time I can make an offer.’ The market’s hot, and that’s always good.”

The landscape in downtown Greenfield is changing. Long-time anchor Wilson’s is closing, while new businesses, such as the coffee shop Rise Above, have opened their doors.

These pieces to a large puzzle are coming together and complementing one another, thus creating an attractive picture and intriguing landing spot for entrepreneurs looking for quality of life and an affordable alternative to Boston or Northampton. And they’re also creating momentum that, as noted, will hopefully make the closing of Wilson’s a manageable loss.

“We’re sad to see Wilson’s go,” said William Baker, president of Baker Office Supply, another Main Street staple (pun intended) since the 1930s, and also president of the Greenfield Business Assoc. “But we’re all excited to see what comes next.”

Roberts agreed.

“Downtown is at a crossroads, and we’re working together to see what fits and put the pieces together,” she noted, adding that there is a great deal of collaboration going on as the community hits this fork in the road, an important ingredient in its resurgence. “We support each other, and that’s huge. I’ve lived in plenty of other places where you see isolation and people hitting walls. We don’t hit walls here — we just make a new window and figure out how you’re going to reach across that window to your neighbor and say, ‘how are we going to make this work?’”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest opens a window onto Greenfield, or what could be called a new Greenfield.

Banding Together

Jeremy Goldsher was born in Greenfield and grew up in nearby Conway. Like many other young people, he moved on from Franklin County to find opportunity, but unlike most, he returned to his roots — and found it there, in a number of different ways.

Indeed, he’s now at the forefront of a number of the initiatives creating momentum in Greenfield. He and Jeff Sauser co-founded Greenspace, which bills itself as “flexible, on-demand co-working space in the heart of downtown,” and is part of the ownership team at Hawks and Reed, which is drawing people from across the region, and well beyond, with a diverse lineup of shows, ranging from open-mic night on Jan. 7 to Bombtrack, a Rage Against the Machine tribute, on Jan. 10.

He’s also on a host of committees, including the Downtown Greenfield Neighborhood Assoc. and the GBA, and was active in the push for a new library.

He told BusinessWest there is considerable positive energy in the city, generated by a host of factors, but especially a burgeoning cultural economy, a growing number of young entrepreneurs finding their way to the city (thanks to fast, reliable internet service), and a downtown that is becoming ever more attractive to the younger generations.

What’s made it all possible, he noted, is a spirit of collaboration and a number of groups working together.

“It really does a take a village,” he said. “It’s such a blessed time to be a part of this community; there’s a wave of construction and development happening, and it’s just exciting to be part of it.”

MJ Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for Greenfield, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as a new year and a new mayoral administration — Roxann Wedegartner was elected last November — begins, a number of initiatives launched over the past several years are starting to generate progress and vibrancy.

These include everything from the new courthouse, transportation center, and parking garage in the downtown to GCET’s expanding footprint; from Greenfield Community College’s growing presence downtown — and across the city, for that matter — to redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property into a healthcare campus.

“The city conducted a master-planning process about five years ago that really engaged the community in a robust conversation of what we saw as our future,” Adams explained. “As we come up on the five-year anniversary of that initiative, the community is talking about focusing more specifically on the downtown and downtown revitalization.

“We’ve seen a major shift in how our downtown plays itself out,” she went on. “And I think we’re trying to figure out what role the city should be playing and what’s the role of the various partners in the community as we try to continue moving forward and seeing Greenfield become the robust, vibrant arts and cultural hub of Franklin County.”

There are a number of these partners, starting with GCC, the only college in Franklin County. The school has long had a presence in the downtown, and is working to become more impactful in areas ranging from workforce development to entrepreneurship, said Mary Ellen Fydenkevez, chief Academic and Student Affairs officer.

As examples, she said the college, which is in the midst of its own strategic-planning process, has launched a creative-economy initiative in collaboration with retired Congressman John Olver; put together a ‘Take the Floor’ event, a pitch contest with a $10,000 first prize; and blueprinted a new ideation center to be created in the East Building within the school’s main campus.

“There, we hope to bring together all different kinds of entrepreneurs to work together in a working space,” she explained, adding that the college plans to stage workshops on various aspects of entrepreneurship to help fledgling businesses develop.

Meanwhile, it plans to start a new business of its own, a coffee shop to be managed by student interns.

“One of our focal points is experiential learning,” she told BusinessWest. “And this business will provide that — it will give students opportunities to learn while doing; they’ll be running their own business.”

Meanwhile, on the academic side, the college is looking at new programs to support workforce-building initiatives in healthcare precision manufacturing and other sectors, and it is also blazing a trail, if you will, with a new program in adventure education.

Indeed, the school recently received approval from the state Department of Higher Education for an associate-degree program to focus on preparing individuals to lead businesses in the outdoor-adventure sector, which includes ziplining, rafting, and more.

“We feel that Western Mass. is a great place for such a program,” Fydenkevez said. “And we’re optimistic that we’ll get some good response; this is an important part of the economy here.”

Art of the Matter

The same can be said of the broad arts and entertainment sector that has emerged over the past several years, said Rachel Katz, owner of the Greenfield Gallery, billed as the city’s premier (and also its only) art gallery, and president of the Crossroads Cultural District.

“I’m a big believer in the creative economy driving growth, especially after an industrial exodus, as we’ve seen in so many small New England towns — it’s a model we’ve seen repeated all through the country,” said Katz, who converted the former Rooney’s department store in 2015 with the intention of creating a gallery and leading the way in a creative-economy revival.

“I saw when I came here that there were already a lot of creative people here doing some amazing things,” Katz went on. “There just wasn’t a home for them; I created a home.”

Since then, the arts and music sector, if you will, has continued to grow, said Katz, who believes it is leading the revival now taking place. And another major piece to the puzzle with be added with the Hive makers space.

Like other facilities of this type taking shape in other communities, The Hive will be a membership-based community workshop with tools and equipment — from computer-controlled precision machining equipment to 3D printers to traditional sewing machines — made available to these members.

“This space is critical,” Katz said, “because it provides a bridge between the creative economy and the more traditional technological economy. And the one resource we still have — it’s never gone away despite the closing of all the tap-and-die shops — is the people that are here.

Jeremy Goldsher at Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, the anchor of a growing cultural economy in Greenfield.

“Those people still have skills and ideas; they just don’t have a place to actualize them,” she went on. “The Hive will give these people an outlet, and when you put tools in the hands of people with ideas, only good things can happen.”

Good things also happen when you can give people with ideas reliable, high-speed internet and attractive spaces in which to work, said Sauser, Goldsher’s partner at Greenspace and an urban-planning consultant by trade.

He told BusinessWest that the Greenspace model is to take obsolete or underutilized space and “make it cool again.” He and Goldsher have done this above Hawks and Reed and across the street at 278 Main Street, and they’re currently scouting other locations in which to expand.

Rachel Roberts, coordinator of a revitalized Greenfield Business Assoc.

Their spaces have become home to a diverse membership base, he said, one that includes an anchor tenant, smaller businesses, and individuals. Above Hawks and Reed, the anchor tenant is Australis Aquaculture, a producer and marketer of farm-raised barramundi — with the farm in Vietnam.

“They wanted to move their executive and sales teams from Montague to downtown Greenfield, in part to retain staff, keep people happy, and have people enjoy coming to work — many of their employees now walk to work,” Sauser explained, adding that the other anchor, Common Media, a digital-marketing company, was based on Route 9 in a building people didn’t enjoy coming to.

Both moves speak volumes about Greenfield’s revitalization, he went on, adding that both companies have lower overhead then they had before, and their employees are happier, both strong selling points.

“My observation, and my personal experience, is that Greenfield is great at attracting people who are looking for a certain quality of life and sense of community — and can work wherever they want,” he noted. “And there’s more and more people like that in this world.”

Creating a Buzz

All those we spoke with said that easily the best thing Greenfield has going for it at present is a spirit of collaboration, a number of parties, public and private, working together to forge a new, stronger, and more diverse economy.

This collaborative spirit is being celebrated — sort of — in another intriguing initiative certain to bring more color to the downtown. It’s the latest in a region-wide series of public art-installation projects, initiatives that brought dozens of painted sneakers to Springfield, bears to Easthampton, terriers to West Springfield, and C5As to Chicopee.

Greenfield will soon be populated with giant bees, said Sarah Kanaby, board president of Progress Partnership Inc.

“These bees are a symbol of the collective energy and the buzz — there have been 5 million bee puns to come out of this project — that we’re seeing in Greenfield,” she explained, noting that artists are painting and decorating the bees now, and they are scheduled to be installed in May or June. “We strongly believe, because of Greenfield’s connection to the modern beehive and all that the beehive represents in terms of collectivism and cooperation, that this is the right image.”

Roberts agreed, noting that a revitalized GBA is one of those groups working with other public and private entities to bring more vibrancy to the downtown and the city as a whole.

“We’re trying to work more collaboratively with the town government to create more things to benefit businesses here in Greenfield as well as the greater community,” she said, adding that one example of this is the addition of new holiday lights on the town common and other holiday-season touches throughout the downtown.

“We’re focusing on taking what we’ve already done and making those programs better, and also finding new ways to support the businesses as well as the community,” she said, adding that, while much attention is directed toward new businesses and attracting still more ventures, her agency doesn’t want to look past long-standing anchors, both small and large, that are still a big part of the picture.

Efforts toward securing not only a new library but also a new fire station are part of this work, she said, adding both facilities are desperately needed, and both with contribute toward quality of life and a greater sense of pride in the community.

Baker, the third-generation owner of the family business, one that has been on Main Street since 1936, agreed, and noted that the GBA has given a voice to a business community that historically hasn’t had one, and at a time when its voice is needed.

“The downtown is re-inventing itself right now; we’re in the midst of trying to figure out what a downtown should be in this new day and age,” he told BusinessWest. “And in talking to people, I think we’re on the right track; there are a lot of great new ideas. We just have to continue with the creative economy, the co-work space, the fantastic internet service that we have, and draw people downtown as we try to figure out the next chapter and what a downtown should look like.”

What’s in Store?

This brings us back to the elephant in the room — the closing of Wilson’s and the huge void it will leave downtown — and where we started this discussion.

Yes, this development is a blow to the city and the end of the area in a number of ways. But this is a new era Greenfield and a different time.

Specifically, it’s a time of collaboration and working together to create new and different kinds of opportunities and new uses for existing spaces.

“Wilson’s was an anchor for this downtown for the longest time, for 137 years,” Adams said. “But it’s exciting to think about what’s next; we’re about to turn the page and see what’s next.”

As Roberts said, those working within this collaborative don’t hit walls, they create new windows. And the view from those windows is very promising.

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

Commercial Real Estate

A Tale of Two Cities

Evan Plotkin says congestion and sky-high rents in Boston demand creative solutions. One of them could be incentivizing companies to move west, into Springfield’s downtown.

Evan Plotkin was talking about how “something has to give.”

With that one phrase, he was talking about the commercial real-estate markets in the central business districts of Boston and Springfield.

In the Hub, said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, rents are sky-high and continue to climb — to more than $100 per square foot in some locations and to roughly $63 per square foot on average, with more space being built to accommodate soaring demand. Meanwhile, traffic, congestion, and problems with mass transit are strangling businesses, he said, to the point where meetings can’t start until 10 a.m. and overall productivity is impacted.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, rents are low — less than one-third the average in Boston — and they are flat, as in consistently flat. “They really haven’t gone up at all in maybe 25 years,” said Plotkin, who noted that there are several reasons for this, but especially the fact that there is, by his estimate, roughly 600,000 square feet of vacant class A space in Springfield’s downtown.

Exacerbating this relative stagnancy in the City of Homes has been new and seemingly unneeded inventory coming on the market — especially the 60,000 square feet at Union Station and the redeveloped property known as 1550 Main — and movement among a growing number of businesses to reduce their physical footprint by enabling (or in some cases requiring) employees to work from home.

This is where the ‘something has to give’ part comes in, said Plotkin, in a very candid interview with BusinessWest, noting that things need to change in both cities. And both would seemingly benefit if just some of the state offices now based in the Hub, as well as many different types of private businesses, would change their mailing address from Boston to Springfield when their leases expire.

“There’s 70% rent inflation in Boston, so when these businesses’ leases expire, they’re looking at incredibly high turnover rent,” said Plotkin, who co-owns a portion of the office tower known as 1350 Main St. He noted that class A rents in Boston have climbed $12 to $15 per square foot over the past few years. Meanwhile, in Springfield, property owners are charging $15 to $20 per square foot of class A space.

“It’s outrageous what’s going on in Boston — and everyone can do the math,” he said. “If state agencies don’t have to be in Boston, they can be decentralized and relocated to office space in Springfield or perhaps Worcester. They’re looking for creative solutions for Boston, and this could be one of them.”

Besides these opinions, all Plotkin really has at this point are those numbers he mentioned earlier (as well as some other statistics) and what appears to be that sound theory — that businesses and state agencies that don’t really need to be in Boston could and should be incentivized to seek other locations, including the 413 and especially downtown Springfield.

He has meetings planned with other downtown property owners as well as Rick Sullivan, present of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to discuss what can and perhaps should be done to at least raise awareness of what Springfield has to offer and perhaps create some migration west.

Plotkin said he understands there are reasons why state agencies and businesses want to be in Boston — especially because they know there’s a skilled workforce there — and he understands that moving about 90 miles west on the Turnpike is expensive and presents some risks, especially when it comes to workforce issues.

But he says the numbers speak for themselves, and if those paying sky-high rents in Boston could come to understand the numbers in this market, they could become inspired to relocate.

And if high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield becomes a reality, then people could, in theory, live in the Boston area and work in businesses and agencies relocated to the 413 — a decidedly differently spin on how that service might change the business landscape in the Bay State.

That’s a very large number of ‘ifs,’ and Plotkin acknowledges this as well. But as he said at the top, and repeatedly, something has to give in both cities.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin continually leafed through the pages on a white legal pad he brought with him.

They contain various notes he’s collected over the past weeks and months on the Boston real-estate market and the overall business climate in New England’s largest city.

There are some statistics he’s collected — such as those regarding average rents in the Hub, the amount of new space under construction (2.5 million square feet was the number he had), and the current vacancy rate in the city — an historically low 6%, according to the New York-based real-estate giant Cushman & Wakefield.

But there were also some general thoughts, observations, and notations from various publications and other sources.

Among them was a quote from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council citing a survey which revealed that 60% of the life-science employees working in Boston would “change their job tomorrow” if they could get a better commute. There was also something he read in another publication (he couldn’t remember which one), noting that many Boston-area residents had simply given up on mass transit because it was so unreliable and were instead driving to work and getting there mid-morning.

“In one report I read, business owners in Boston said they had to add staff to make up for transit delays,” he said, putting a verbal exclamation point behind that comment. “Think about how disruptive that is to your business. We don’t understand that here — there’s no such thing as traffic in Springfield.”

Summing up all he’s read and heard about Boston and possible solutions to its congestion problems — everything from incentivizing employers to let workers telecommute to taxing motorists for using certain roads at certain hours — he said the situation is fast becoming untenable for many living and trying to do business there.

“You have inefficiency, spiraling upward costs, shortages of affordable housing, transportation problems, congestion, and sky-high cost of living there,” he said. “Businesses locate in Boston because they can attract that workforce, which makes sense, but if that workforce can’t afford to live there and can’t deal with the congestion, then what’s the point of being in Boston?”

Which brings him back to Springfield and its downtown. And for this subject, Plotkin didn’t need a legal pad.

He’s been working in, and selling and leasing commercial real estate in, downtown Springfield for more than 40 years. He knows what’s changed and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t, especially when it comes to demand for space in the central business district, and what would be called net gains.

Indeed, Plotkin said that what the region has mostly experienced — there have been some notable exceptions, to be sure — is companies moving from one downtown office building to another.

In this zero-sum real-estate game, one building owner loses a tenant, and another gains one — but the city and its downtown don’t gain much at all, he said.

“There’s been negative absorption in the downtown for many years now, and I don’t see anything really changing,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m seeing people moving from one block to another, one office building to another, but not many new businesses moving in. Meanwhile, everyone’s vying for the same tenants, which drives the rental rates down even lower than they have been historically; it’s a tenant’s market here.”

It’s anything but that in Boston, which has seen a surge of new businesses moving in — everything from tech startups to giant corporations, like GE. The real-estate market is exploding, and traffic woes and mass-transit headaches have been consistent front-page news. All this calls for creative thinking — as in very creative — and perhaps looking west, said Plotkin, who did some simple math to get his point across.

“Using the example of a 20,000-square-foot tenant paying $63 per square foot in Boston … if the same tenant came to Springfield and paid $18 per square foot, we’re talking about millions of dollars,” he explained, adding that these numbers should strike a chord, especially when it comes to businesses and agencies that don’t have to be in Boston.

Many of those who think they do need to be in Boston are focused on workforce issues, he went on, adding that he believes the Greater Springfield area can, in fact, meet the workforce requirements of many companies.

And over the past several years, the city has become more vibrant with the addition of MGM Springfield, said Plotkin, adding that there are certainly other selling points, like a high quality of life and a cost of living that those residing in and around Boston might find difficult to comprehend.

Bottom Line

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin all but acknowledged that getting businesses and agencies to trade Boston for Springfield will be difficult, for all the reasons stated above.

But the situation in the Hub could be reaching a tipping point when it comes to affordability, traffic, congestion, and quality of life.

And these converging factors might, that’s might, finally convince some decision makers to seek a very creative alternative.

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

Opinion

Editorial

To walk into Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield was to step back in time. And everyone loved to do it.

Wilson’s, a Main Street staple, was the last of the old-time downtown department stores in this region. For the younger generations, a trip there was just something different — as in different from going to the mall (what few are left) and different from shopping online and getting the item delivered.

For Baby Boomers, though, going there was like going into a time machine and back to their youth. Back to the day when the department stores were downtown and you had to go to one floor to find housewares and another to buy a tie. Back to the day when life — and retail — were seemingly much simpler.

Wilson’s, a Main Street staple, was the last of the old-time downtown department stores in this region.

Soon, you’ll actually need a time machine to enjoy such an experience, because Wilson’s, a store that opened nearly 140 years ago, will be closing its doors as soon as its remaining inventory is gone.

Kevin O’Neil, president of the store that has been operated by his wife’s family for roughly 90 years, announced late last month that will be retiring and closing the landmark. He told area media outlets that he could have kept the store going for a few more years, despite radical changes in retail that have made survival much more challenging, but he wanted to retire while he was still in good health.

The closing will leave a very large hole in Greenfield’s downtown — although there are a number of intriguing reuse alternatives in a city that is enjoying a resurgence of sorts — and a hole in the hearts of people who loved this landmark’s unique qualities and old-time charm.

But this closing was in almost all ways inevitable. Retail is changing, and bricks and mortar, especially in downtown settings, are becoming anachronistic.

Across the region and across the country, shopping malls are closing and being converted into what are known as ‘lifestyle centers’ that blend some retail with some residential and maybe some office space; one is being planned for the site of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, this region’s first enclosed mall.

As for downtowns, they have long since ceased being a place where most people shop. In Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, Westfield, and other area communities, downtowns are still places to gather and maybe eat, enjoy a cocktail, see a show, or go to work in a co-working space. But not to shop.

At least not the way people did 50 or even 30 years ago. Those days are gone, and all evidence seems to indicate that they are not coming back.

Which brings us back to Wilson’s.

Yes, this is a sad day. It’s always sad when we lose something we cherish. But while we can and should mourn this loss, we could — and we should — celebrate what we had.

In Wilson’s, that was a trip back in time. And whether you did it every week or once every year, you loved the experience.

It will certainly be missed.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Some of the municipal leaders who spoke with BusinessWest about economic development and progress in Ludlow.

For more than a decade now, the Ludlow Mills project, a 20-year initiative that is changing the face of that historic complex and bringing jobs, new businesses, and new places to live to this community, has been the dominant talking point when it comes to the subject of economic development here.

But municipal officials are quick to point out that it’s just one of many intriguing stories unfolding in this town of around 21,000 people, the sum of which adds up to an intriguing, very positive chapter in the history of this community across the Chicopee River from Indian Orchard.

Indeed, there are a number of both municipal and private-sector commercial projects in various stages of development that are keeping town officials busy, and providing ample evidence that this is a community on the rise — in many different respects.

On the municipal side of the equation, construction of a new elementary school, approved by town voters in the spring of 2018, is underway. The facility, to be called Harris Brook Elementary School, will essentially combine the Chapin Street and Veterans Park elementary schools, two aging structures, under one far more efficient roof. It is being constructed on the playing fields adjacent to the current Chapin school.

“It’s always a balancing act. You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Meanwhile, construction will soon begin on a new senior center that will replace a facility deemed generally unsafe and largely inadequate for the town’s growing senior population.

“We’re in the basement of a 115-year-old building that used to be a high school and junior high school,” said Jodi Zepke, director of the Council on Aging, adding that the long corridors in the structure are difficult for seniors to navigate. “We’ve done a lot with what we have, but it’s time for a new building.”

The town is also implementing a new communication system, a central hub for police, fire, and EMT services, and has embarked on an extensive renovation of Center Street, the main business thoroughfare, a project in the planning stages since 2008 and deemed long-overdue, said Town Administrator Ellie Villano.

“This is a MassDOT state construction,” she said, explaining that the Commonwealth is paying for the changes to the road. “It widens Center Street and adds a center turn, bike lanes, and new sidewalks.”

All this will make Center Street more presentable and easy to navigate for visitors to two new fast-food restaurants that will take shape there in the coming months — a Wendy’s and a KFC.

These various developments present a combination of benefits and challenges — benefits such as tax dollars and additional vibrancy from the new businesses, and challenges when it comes to paying for all those municipal projects. But the former should definitely help with the latter, said Derek DeBarge, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“One of the challenges is that a number of these big projects have all happened at the same time,” added Todd Gazda, superintendent of Ludlow schools. “We’re having to essentially prioritize all of these things, which are all important projects.”

For the latest in its long-running Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with a number of town officials about the many forms of progress taking place and what they mean for the community moving forward.

From the Ground Up

“Revenue, revenue, revenue.”

That’s the word DeBarge repeated several times when asked about the motivating factors behind all the recent municipal projects.

“My concern is obviously trying to do better with our taxes,” he said, adding that a growing senior population, many of whom are living on a single income, is also at the top of the list. “As this revenue is coming in, with the solar, the KFC … it’s all tax-based revenue for us. And the more revenue that comes in, the better we can do for our departments, and that means the better we can do for our tax base, and that’s better for our constituents and for everyone.”

Elaborating, he said that, while town officials have worked hard to secure grants for these municipal projects — and they have received quite a few — the town must bear a good percentage of the cost of each project, which presents a stern budget challenge.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.82
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

Education, and the need to modernize facilities, is just one example of this.

Gazda said the town has been doing a lot of work on the schools recently to improve the quality of educational services provided to students, and one of the top priorities has been to do it in a cost-effective and fiscally responsible manner.

“It’s always a balancing act,” he said. “You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Gazda noted that maintenance costs on both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, both built around 60 years ago, had become exorbitant. So a decision was made to put forth a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“We’re currently under budget and ahead of schedule,” he said of the $60 million project, adding that the new facility is slated to open in the fall of 2021 with an estimated student enrollment of 620 to 640 students.

About 10 minutes down the road on the corner of State Street and First Avenue, the new, 18,000-square-foot senior center is under construction and due to open in roughly a year.

Like the new school, its construction has been prompted by the need to replace aging facilities and provide the community with a center that is state-of-the-art.

“It’s no secret that there’s more people over 60 than under 20, and that population of seniors is only going to continue to grow,” said Zepke. “We just took a hard look at the numbers, and we can barely accommodate what we have now.”

As for the new communications system, Ludlow Police Chief Paul Madera says this will make communication between all town entities and the central hub much easier, using radio rather than having to pick up a phone.

“All of our communication systems are in need of refurbishing, so the most prudent and fiscal approach was to combine them all together,” he said, adding that this project, with a price tag of more than $4 million, includes the implementation of a public-safety dispatch which combines police, fire, and EMS services into one center.

While these initiatives proceed, the town is undertaking a host of initiatives aimed at improving quality of life and making this a better community in which to live, work, and conduct business.

Ludlow CARES is one such effort. A community-run organization, it was launched with the goal of educating children and their parents on drug and alcohol abuse in response to the opioid epidemic. Now, DeBarge says it has spread to become much more than that, and has inspired other towns and cities to adopt similar programs.

“It has gotten huge to a point where it has gotten other communities involved with their own towns in a similar way,” he said.

Another organization, the Michael J. Dias Foundation, serves as a resource and a home for recovering addicts.

All these initiatives, DeBarge, Madera, and other town officials agreed, reflect upon the tight-knit community that Ludlow has become.

It Takes a Village

As nine town officials sat around the table informing BusinessWest about everything going on in Ludlow, they spoke with one voice about how, through teamwork at City Hall and other settings, pressing challenges are being undertaken, and economic development — in all its various forms — is taking place.

“Our staffs are doing a tremendous job,” Madera said. “They’re wearing multiple hats doing multiple jobs. There’s always room for improvement, but the fact is, they have to be given credit because they’re the boots on the ground.”

And they are making considerable progress in ensuring that this community with a proud past has a secure future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Autos

Moving into the Fast Lane

Mike Howard, assistant manager of ATG Westfield, stands by one of the many trucks for sale at the facility on Southampton Road.

John Paulik summed things up by saying that “something had to give.”

That’s how he described some conflicting forces within the truck sales and service industry in the Northeast, specifically an ongoing pattern of consolidation among many of the players, as well as a desire for some of these players to stay independent.

Again, something had to give. And it did.

While in most respects it looks like a merger, he called it a “joint venture,” the coming together roughly a year ago of Tri State Truck Center of Shrewsbury and McDevitt Trucks, which owned the Patriot Freightliner dealership on Southampton Road in Westfield — along with three other dealerships in New Hampshire and one in Vermont — to create Advantage Truck Group, or ATG.

This larger entity, a comprehensive dealer network, is now the largest Daimler Trucks North America (DTNA) dealer network in New England, said Paulik, its senior vice president and general manager, and it uses this size and geographic reach to, well, its advantage as it specializes in sales, service, and support of DTNA’s Western Star and Freightliner branded trucks.

“Merging all these locations under one roof just made a good deal of sense on a number of levels — central management is a great advantage,” he said, noting that there are economies of scale to be gained and other benefits from the sheer size and scope of the operation. “Another advantage is that we’re not competing against one another anymore.”

Paulik said ATG’s customer base is broad and diverse, meaning it includes large fleets, small owner-operators in myriad businesses, and just about everything in between, including municipal vehicles, ambulances, and utility trucks. For entities of all sizes, keeping trucks on the road is the obvious goal, and ATG supports them in this quest in a number of ways.

For example, it has the largest parts network in New England, supported by a fleet of 25 parts-delivery vans that provide daily service to customers. There’s also an on-site maintenance program and on-call access 24/7/365 to emergency roadside assistance.

But while the business keeps rolling — that’s an industry term — and the merger, or joint venture, is working as those who orchestrated it had hoped it would, there are a number of challenges to continued growth, said Paulik, especially the recruitment of a skilled workforce.

“These small businesses can’t afford to have their vehicles down — that’s their livelihood. When their truck is down, we help get it back on the road again.”

And by workforce, he means much more than diesel technicians, although that’s a big part of it. Indeed, the challenge extends to every facet of the business.

“The biggest story for us is finding employees — not only technicians but parts people, warehouse workers, and those in truck sales,” he explained. “It’s all down the line.”

As a result, ATG works with local schools and the state’s workforce system to bring attention to the many attractive career opportunities within the trucking and transportation industry.

“We’re working to help young people interested in the trades and all aspects of this industry,” Paulik went on. “Yes, there is a huge problem with hiring technicians, but a dealership is more than just technicians; a dealership has many job titles.”

Backing up a bit — something else they do in this industry — Paulik said there were a number of forces that brought Tri State Truck Center and McDevitt Trucks together. Primarily, though, it was the size, strength, and flexibility that such a union can provide that made it attractive.

“DTNA has been promoting dealer consolidation for some time — it’s looking for regional rather than individual dealers,” he explained, adding that there were several reasons why such consolidation was somewhat slow to develop in New England — primarily because several of the locations were family owned, well-established in their respective markets, and wanted to stay independent.

But given the current climate, it simply made sense to bring the two companies and their various locations under one central ownership.

“This was the right time to do this — to create a regional truck dealership group,” he told BusinessWest. “This gives the customers a higher level of support, and it aligns the two dealers.”

Thus, the ATG name is now over the door of the sprawling Westfield facility, as well as those in Shrewsbury, Seabrook, N.H., and Westminster, Vt. Affiliated McDevitt dealers in both Lancaster and Manchester, N.H. are also part of the ATG dealer network.

The Westfield location, which, like the others, is well-situated off major arteries (in this case the Mass Pike, Route 20, and Routes 10/202), sells more than 100 trucks on average each year, and will service more than 700 vehicles of all sizes, from 18-wheelers to municipal vehicles, such as DPW and trash trucks.

ATG’s commitment to providing the highest standard of service for its customers is rooted in its dedication to Elite Support, said Paulik, referring to a collaborative initiative between Daimler Trucks North America and its dealers to improve the customer experience at Freightliner and Western Star dealerships. Elite Support certification involves a rigorous continuous-improvement process that covers all areas of customer service, overall quality of workmanship, rapid diagnosis, turnaround times, robust parts availability, and exceptional customer amenities. Both the ATG-Shrewsbury and ATG-Westfield locations are Elite Support-certified, he noted, and the company is taking the necessary steps to achieve certification at its other Freightliner and Western Star dealer locations.

ATG is adding resources and expanding other customer-support initiatives across its dealer network, he went on, including a “warranty on wheels” program for Freightliner and Western Star vehicles that enables warranty work to be performed by ATG technicians on site at customer locations, and service vans in each state that provide on-call access 24/7 to emergency roadside assistance for a wide range of vehicle brands. Meanwhile, dedicated service and support staff at each dealership have access to information systems that have been integrated across all ATG locations to give customers real-time visibility of parts inventory and service and repair status.

These are just some of the advantages that come with this joint venture, said Paulik, adding that the customers, which, again, come in all sizes, are the real beneficiaries.

Elaborating, he said that, while ATG handles a number of large fleets, including those for Stop & Shop, Burke Oil, and Regency Transport, among many others, the majority of its customers are smaller, locally based businesses that rely on their trucks to keep products moving and revenue coming in.

“We focus on local businesses, and we treat smaller businesses like large ones,” he told BusinessWest. “These small businesses can’t afford to have their vehicles down — that’s their livelihood. When their truck is down, we help get it back on the road again.”

Looking down that road, Paulik said the creation of ATG will continue to bring benefits for the dealers in the group as well as the customers they serve.

As he said at the top, something had to give, and what has emerged from this joint venture is a dealership group well-positioned to stay in the fast lane for years, and decades, to come.

— George O’Brien

buy ivermectin for humans buy ivermectin online buy generic cialis buy cialis