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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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith and Sue Bunnell say one of the biggest projects going on in Wilbraham is a renovation of Route 20.

Revival by its very definition suggests an improvement in the condition or strength of something. It means giving new life to what already exists, an upgrade of sorts.

This is what elected officials in Wilbraham plan to do in several places around town, for a number of reasons.

One of the most valuable assets the town of Wilbraham has to offer both residents and visitors is the array of businesses and attractions on Route 20, and Jeff Smith says that artery is getting a serious upgrade.

“We have a lot of real estate that could be developed,” said Smith, chairman of the Planning Board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities for businesses to locate here.”

And some already have.

What was known as the Wilbraham Light Shop many years ago was closed up until recently, and friends of the previous owner are reopening it as a new and improved light shop, something that came as a bit of a shock to Smith and other town employees, seeing as it was vacant for about 20 years, but good news for the town nonetheless.

Sue Bunnell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, added that Wilbraham boasts an excellent track record when it comes to bringing businesses into town.

“Wilbraham has a good reputation of being business-friendly and among the easier places to get a business up and running,” she said.

Part of this is due to zoning flexibility, Smith said. “We have boards and committees that are willing to not only work within the existing zoning laws, but present new zoning laws to the town to ratify so that new businesses can locate here.”

This has happened recently, when Iron Duke Brewing was looking to move from Ludlow Mills to Wilbraham. Zoning laws were changed, and Iron Duke is now one of two breweries in town.

Still, there is work to be done. And at this point, the Route 20 renovation plan is at 25% completion, which marks the start of public hearings.

“We’ve seen preliminary drawings,” said Bunnell. “Those will be made available to the public, and they will be going from the Friendly’s corporate location to the Palmer line with that redo of the highway.”

What was once meant to include solely road work has become a much more involved process, and town officials recognize the need for all the work being done to make this project happen.

“It started off as what we thought was a repaving, but it really seems like it’s expanding now to more of a redesign,” said Planning Director John Pearsall.

Wilbraham’s town officials hope this redesign, coupled with a progressing marketing strategy and few other things on the agenda, will continue to make it a place people want to live and spend their money.

Driving Momentum

Like Pearsall said, what was supposed to be a fairly simple project has now turned into a plan to revive Route 20. This includes making adjustments to some of the problematic intersections, widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more.

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

Most importantly, town officials hope to capitalize on the space and buildings available along the road, and are already taking some options into consideration, including mixed-use developments.

Actually, while the term ‘mixed use’ has been thrown around a lot for Route 20, Pearsall said, a better phrase would be ‘multiple use.’

Recently, Delaney’s Market opened in a building that was redeveloped into a multiple-use project. In addition, a proposal for a Taylor Rental property that has been vacant for a while is under review. Also in the works for that property, a Connecticut developer recently filed an application to create another multiple-use development on those grounds.

“I think pedestrian access to a lot of these businesses is going to increase because they’re talking about running proper sidewalks up both sides of Route 20,” Smith said. “It will be a huge help to the existing businesses and future ones.”

The bigger picture of Boston Road is that it was, at one time, all exclusively zoned for commercial activity. But over the years, the town has been trying to introduce residential uses there, including the Woodcrest Condominiums and a new active-adult community that’s being developed off Boston Road.

Route 20 isn’t the only part of town that will be utilizing mixed-use communities. Smith noted that they also hope to revive the town center.

“In our town center, there are a few buildings that are slated for demolition, and we’re working on redevelopment of the site,” he said. “We recently decided at a town meeting at the beginning of this year to allow a mixed-use development on this site.”

For this specific development, the term ‘mixed use’ is appropriate. According to Smith, there will be retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. This, he said, is part of a bigger picture concerning town redevelopment being worked on behind the scenes.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“Our expectation is to identify someone to explore how delivering fiber along the Boston Road corridor could create opportunities for businesses,” said Bunnell.

Using Entry Point, a company that has worked with other municipalities to develop and build out their own fiber networks, Wilbraham hopes to give businesses along the Route 20 corridor this opportunity.

Smith is also a business owner of New England Promotional Marketing alongside his wife, Amy, and has been a guinea pig of sorts for the fiber network.

“It was critical for our business; it’s a great system,” he said. “If you’re choked down by your internet, it just becomes slow and difficult to do, and it can really put a damper on your business. Opening up to that fiber-optic pipeline was huge for us, and we want to provide that opportunity all the way down Route 20.”

Welcome Mat

With quite a few items on the to-do list, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of excitement in Wilbraham in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of older buildings that have been kind of run down for a long time, and they’re being turned around,” said Smith. “There are a lot of properties that have been dormant or underutilized, and there’s a big push to rehabilitate these and find new uses or, in some cases, existing uses.”

As for any new businesses looking to make Wilbraham their new home, they can sleep well knowing this is a top priority in Town Hall, Bunnell said. “I think the goal is to make Wilbraham even more attractive and accessible to businesses that are looking to come into town.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Center of Attention

Nikki Burnett, seen here in one of the Educare center’s outdoor play areas, says the facility is a showcase of what early education should be — and what all young children deserve.

Nikki Burnett says Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood and those surrounding it certainly need the gleaming new $14 million Educare facility constructed next door to the Elias Brookings Elementary School on Walnut Street.

More to the point, though, she told BusinessWest, they deserve this facility, which can only be described with that phrase state-of-the-art when it comes to everything from its programs to its play areas to its bathrooms.

“Mason Square, Old Hill, McKnight, Bay, all those neighborhoods … they’re so rich in history, so they’re rich in great success stories that have come out of here and are still coming out of here,” said Burnett, the recently named executive director of the 27,000-square-foot facility, who should know; she grew up there herself. “People like Ruth Carter, who just won an Oscar for the costume design in the movie Black Panther — she’s from Springfield.

“We have to celebrate those things, and we have to model those things for our children so they can see that they have greatness in them,” she went on. “One of the very important things about Educare is that it aligns potential with opportunity. I believe all children are born with immense potential, but many do not have the same opportunity to realize that, so Educare will give them that push — it will help readjust their trajectory.”

That’s why this area of the city, traditionally among the poorest neighborhoods in the state, deserves this Educare facility, just the 24th of its kind in the country and the only one in Massachusetts, she continued, adding quickly that this building, and the Educare model itself, were designed to show decision makers and society in general what all young children deserve and what has to be done so that they can all enjoy a similar experience.

Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to bring the Educare facility to fruition, agreed.

“The message being sent here is that it costs money to do this work well,” she said. “It costs money to fund quality at the level that children in this community and others deserve, and we can’t expect outcomes that we want from children if the investment is not there at the front end.”

Considering those comments, Educare is certainly much more than a building, and those who visit it — and many will in the weeks and months to come — will come to understand that.

Indeed, the facility set to open later this year, supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and to be operated in partnership with Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, is, for lack of a better term, a standard — or the new standard when it comes to early-childhood education.

And it is, as Burnett and Walachy noted, a model — hopefully to be emulated — that incorporates everything science says young children need to flourish. This includes data utilization, high-quality teaching practices (three teachers to a classroom instead of the traditional two), embedded professional development, and intensive family engagement.

All this and more will come together at the much-anticipated facility, which will provide 141 children up to age 5 (already enrolled at a Head Start facility in that neighborhood) and their families with a full-day, full-year program that Burnett projects will be a place to learn — and not just for the young children enrolled there.

The Educare facility in Springfield is just one of 24 in the country and the only one in Massachusetts.

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model,” she explained. “We understand that 141 children is not every child; however, what we learn here, we’re going to be able to send out — others can do what we’re doing. And on a policy level, it’s my hope that legislators can see the success of this and realize that, when they’re making out the budget, it needs to be funded so everyone can enjoy Educare quality.

“Educare is not going to be on every corner,” she went on. “But that doesn’t mean that the quality of Educare cannot be beneficial to all children.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Educare facility and talked with Burnett and others about what this unique early-education center means for Springfield and especially those young people who walk through its doors.

New School of Thought

Janis Santos, the longtime director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, recalled that, when she toured the Educare facility recently as construction was winding down, she became quite emotional.

“I have to be honest, I started crying,” said Santos, honored roughly a year ago by BusinessWest as one of its Women of Impact for 2018. “One of the construction-crew members said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘because I’m so happy.’

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model.”

“This is a dream come true,” she went on, adding that the facility provides dramatic evidence of how far early-childhood education has come during her career — it was considered babysitting when she got her start — and how important it is to the overall development of young people.

Tears of joy have been a common emotional response among those who have toured the site, especially those involved in this initiative from the beginning, but there have been others as well. Indeed, Burnett told BusinessWest, when the staff members assigned to the Educare center visited the well-appointed teachers’ room, many of them started clapping.

These reactions provide ample evidence that the six-year journey to get the facility built and the doors open was certainly time and energy incredibly well-spent.

By now, most are familiar with the story of how an Educare facility — again, one of only 24 in the country — came to be in Springfield. It’s a story laced with serendipity and good fortune at a number of turns.

It begins back in 2014 when an early-childhood center on Katherine Street in Springfield closed down abruptly, leaving more than 100 children without classroom seats, said Walachy, adding that the Davis Foundation began looking at other options for early education in that building.

One of them was Educare, she went on, adding that officials with the Buffett Foundation and other agencies involved, as well as architects, came and looked at the property. They quickly determined that it was not up to the high standards for Educare centers.

“Their model is ‘make it a state-of-the-art, unbelievable building to send a strong message that this is what all kids deserve,’” said Walachy, adding that, after those inspections and being informed that a new facility would have to be built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Educare concept was essentially put on the shelf.

And it stayed there for the better part of two years until an anonymous donor from outside the Bay State who wanted to fund an Educare facility came into the picture.

“This individual pledged to pay for at least half the cost of building an Educare somewhere in the country, and she was willing to do it here in Springfield,” she said, adding that the donor has written checks totaling more than $9 million for both the construction and operation of the facility.

With this commitment, those involved went about raising the balance of the needed funds — the Davis Foundation and another donor committed $2 million each, and state grants as well as New Market Tax Credits were secured, bringing the total raised to more than $20 million — and then clearing what became another significant hurdle, finding a site on which to build.

Indeed, the Educare model is for these facilities to be built adjacent to elementary schools, and in Springfield, that proved a challenging mandate. But the tornado that ravaged the city, and especially the Old Hill area, in 2011, forcing the construction of a new Brookings School, actually provided an answer.

Indeed, land adjacent to the new school owned by Springfield College was heavily damaged by the tornado, making redevelopment a difficult proposition. Thus, the college became an important partner in the project by donating the needed land.

But while it’s been a long, hard fight to get this far, the journey is far from over, said both Burnett and Walachy, noting that another $500,000 must be raised to fund an endowment that will help cover operating expenses at the school.

And raising that money is just one of many responsibilities within Burnett’s lengthy job description, a list that also includes everything from becoming an expert on the Educare model to attending regular meetings of Educare facility directors — there’s one in New Orleans later this year, for example.

At the moment, one of the duties assuming much of her time is acting as a tour guide. She even joked that she hasn’t mastered the art of walking backward while talking with tour participants, but she’s working on it. To date, tours have been given to city officials, funders and potential funders, hired staff members, like those aforementioned teachers, and, yes, members of the media.

BusinessWest took its own tour, one that featured a number of stops, because items pointed out are certainly not typical of those found in traditional early-education centers.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment.”

Starting with what Burnett and others called the “outside-in” of the building’s design, which, as that phrase indicates, works to bring the outside environment into the school to provide continuity and the sense that the school is part of the larger world. Thus, green, grass-like carpeting was put down in the entranceways, and green carpet prevails pretty much throughout the facility. Meanwhile, the brick façade on the exterior is continued inside the building.

Throughout the building, there are generous amounts of light and state-of-the-art facilities throughout, from the well-equipped play areas inside and out to the two sinks in each of the classrooms — one for food preparation, the other for hand washing — to the restrooms designed especially for small people.

In addition, each classroom is equipped with small viewing areas with one-way mirrors so that so-called ‘master teachers’ and others can see and evaluate what’s happening.

In all, there are 12 classrooms, seven for infants and toddlers and five for preschool. As noted earlier, they will be places of learning, and not just for the students.

Model of Excellence

Returning to that emotional tour of the Educare facility she took a few weeks ago, Santos said that, as joyous and uplifting as it was, she’s looking forward to the next one even more.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment,” she told BusinessWest, putting almost a half-century of work in early childhood behind those words.

She can’t wait because students will be learning and playing in a facility that really was only a dream a few years ago — a dream that came true.

It’s a facility that those students truly need, but as Burnett and all the others we spoke said, it’s one they deserve — one that all students deserve.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Russell Fox (left, with Karl Stinehart) says Southwick’s slate of 250th-birthday events will be family-friendly and honor the town’s past while looking to a promising future.

Nov. 7 will be a big day in Southwick — and the start of a big year.

Starting that day, a year-long series of events — including holiday festivals, history tours, parades, concerts, and more — will culminate in the Taste of Southwick Gala on Nov. 7, 2020, the 250th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan this broad slate of birthday events for some time, much of the planning guided by the nonprofit Southwick Civic Fund.

“It’s an ambitious plan for a smaller community,” said Russell Fox, who chairs the town’s Select Board. “We’re actively raising money, not just from businesses but residents also. And we have some very generous residents — one resident gave us $1,000. So it’s coming along. We’d like these events to be kid-oriented. We want young people to feel like they’re part of the community and learn something about the history of the community and have a good time.”

And there’s a lot to celebrate, as Southwick continues to grow its business base, housing options, and especially its reputation as a recreation destination, Fox said. That Taste event alone speaks to what he calls a recent “restaurant renaissance” in town, with recent additions like Crepes Tea House and Wok on Water, the conversion of Chuck’s Steak House to Westfield River Brewing (which hosts concerts during the summer), and new Crabby Joe’s Bar and Grill owner Mark O’Neill’s plans to tear down that establishment and rebrand it as a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery that may use wind turbines for electricity.

A 250th-anniversary celebration is an opportunity for a town like Southwick to show how far it has come in the realms of history, population growth, economic development, and cultural and recreational draws, said Karl Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer.

On the latter front, Southwick has become a mecca for recreational offerings, like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park, and a well-traveled rail trail frequented by bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.

As for its population, Southwick still boasts around 10,000 residents, and work continues at two significant new neighborhoods, a 26-home subdivision off Vining Hill Road called Noble Steed, and Fiore Realty’s project to develop about 65 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site. Meanwhile, the town made zoning changes near that site to expand commercial developments along College Highway, including a possible medical facility.

On the infrastructure front, the town is planning to improve sidewalks on Depot Street to provide easier access to downtown, and is currently improving the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds.

“When that’s done, it’ll have a bike lane and sidewalk, and connect the neighborhood both to Gillette’s Corner and to the rail trail,” Stinehart said. “There are businesses that abut the rail trail, and if you go there on certain days, on the weekend, you’ll see people on the trail using those businesses.”

Stinehart noted that the town’s single tax rate of $17.48 continues to be a draw for new businesses, which is good considering the potential development opportunities along College Highway and at the Southwick Industrial Park on Hudson Drive.

“We try to balance residential growth and the business sector, which is an important thing because it keeps our tax rate competitive,” he said. “When you’re a businessman looking to site in a community and you see you’re going to be treated equally as every other taxpayer, you take notice of that.”

Fox agreed. “We try to keep that balance. We’ve got a graying population, with more people on fixed incomes. So the tax rate is a big deal to us. We don’t want to tax people out of the community they grew up in or want to retire in.”

He recalled a business owner looking to move into town from a neighboring community a couple decades ago. He was offered some tax incentives but was angling for more, but instead Fox reminded him of the town’s quality schools, low traffic, reasonable tax rate, and recreational opportunities, and that sold him. “He’s been in Southwick 20-plus years, doing very well.”

Those selling points have only expanded since then, Fox said, and that’s reason enough to celebrate 250 years.

Fun in the Sun

There’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy in Southwick, including three golf courses (Edgewood, the Ranch, and a par-3 track at Longhi’s) and the aforementioned 6.5-mile-long rail trail that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border.

“People in town love the bike trail — it’s just a beautiful area,” Fox told BusinessWest. “When that first started, there were some naysayers, but I think most of those people have gone away.”

“Or they’re on the trail using it,” Stinehart quickly added.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue last year, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion.

The town also recently acquired a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust conducted a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Even before that, Stinehart said, Southwick had preserved more than 1,000 acres of open space, not including the lakes themselves, and has been active in buying up development rights to farmland, ensuring that they can’t be developed, but must remain agricultural land.

“We’re proud of our agricultural roots, and we still have a lot of farms,” Fox said. “Now we have farms protected in perpetuity.”

Also in the realm of preservation, the town’s Cemetery Commission continues its work to restore the Old Cemetery, which dates to 1770, and the town recently sold its old library, built in 1891, to an investor who intends to partner with the Southwick Historical Commission to preserve it while putting it back on the tax rolls.

Change Is Good

The town’s modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — have also been a draw for new residents, and they have the capacity to house a growing student population, Fox said.

All this has contributed to Southwick being honored this year by the Republican’s Reader Raves program as the best area town to live in.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point,” Fox said of the award. “Some people don’t like change at all, but not all change is bad. This is a community we can be proud of. I think we doing a good job of keeping things in balance — commercial, industry, and residential.

“We’re not sitting back; we’re growing,” he went on. “We know people want to move here, and we’re proud of that. We’re going to make sure Southwick remains the town it always has been.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Barriers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Broader Purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking to the Future

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

The Real Dirt

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson)

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson) says his passion for the Wick 338 stems from his own participation in the sport of motocross.

Motocross in Southwick is nearly a half-century-old tradition. It’s also a business and a well-tuned economic engine. Like the sport itself, this local enterprise has endured some ups and downs, twists and turns, but, thanks to a father-son team, it is now hitting on all cylinders.

When Rick Johnson relates the history of the Wick 338 motocross track in Southwick, he notes that he never thought he’d be managing the production of a national championship — let alone four of them.

But that’s what has transpired in what can only be called the latest chapter in the story of motocross in this town, perhaps best known for other forms of recreation, specifically those involving the Congamond Lakes, which give the community so much of its character.

It’s a story that, like the sport itself, features a number of twists and turns, ups and downs. With that, Johnson, track manager for the facility, flashes back almost a half-century, to 1972. That’s when the very first Southwick motocross race was held, just a few miles from the location of the Wick 338 track on Legion Road in Southwick, as in American Legion Post 338. Hosted by the New England Sports Committee (NESC), the race was held to benefit the Jimmy Fund and other town charities.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town.”

The event was a huge success, and members of the Legion quickly developed an appetite for more motocross.

Fathers of NESC racers set their minds on building a track of their own and constructed the first version of what now stands at the Wick 338. Led by Bernie Yelin, Pat Smith, Ray Peebles, Dante Molta, Clovis Goyette, and many more, the Wick, as it would come to be called, would bring races, and then a national championship, the first in 1976, to the community. But it also brought much more, including large crowds of people and support for many kinds of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector.

Then came some of those twists, turns, and dips. Indeed, after the 2012 national championship, the race was taken from the Wick because the track’s condition had deteriorated. Soon, the entire operation was in danger of being closed.

That’s when Mike Grondahl stepped into the picture; he worked out a lease with the American Legion to put it back in business.

The former Planet Fitness CEO had a great love for the sport of motocross, but due to a business investment he made prior to his deal with the track, he did not have the time to maintain it properly, and the track lay dormant.

Luckily for him, he knew a family who also loved the sport.

“He called me, and we agreed to do it — but not with the intent of having a national championship here,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “We just wanted to build the best track for the Northeast.”

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

While Grondahl originally reached out to Johnson’s son, Keith, now president of the Wick 338 Promotions LLC, the father-and-son duo agreed that the best way to maintain the track was to work together. Rick would help with the business plan and work with the town, acting as the front man, and Keith would take care of things at the track.

Together, their goal was to bring the track — and the business — back to the high level of success enjoyed decades ago. And, generally speaking, they’ve succeeded in those goals, as evidenced by the national championship staged there just over a week ago. The seventh round of the 2019 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship put an exclamation point on what would have to be called a comeback for motocross racing in Southwick.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Johnsons and others within the community, and learned that motocross is more than a popular spectator sport; it’s also a driving force when it comes to economic vibrancy in Southwick.

Beyond the Track

The national race at the Wick 338 proves to be one of the most physically grueling races for those competing, each twist and turn more challenging than the last.

But this is not the only event that happens at the track.

Rick Johnson said the site hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, each one bringing between 500 and 3,000 people to town.

“It’s great for the town, not just because of the national, although it brings in 15,000 people in that one day,” said Keith. “For the most part, the town is a huge supporter of the entire facility.”

He noted that many business owners even plan around the track’s events.

“When I give my presentation to the town and give them my schedule, there are so many local shop owners there to learn what the schedule is all about so they can plan,” he told BusinessWest.

Southwick Selectman Joe Deedy can attest to this, and said the town simply wasn’t as vibrant when motocross races weren’t staged for a few years. “When motocross went away a couple years back, you could see a ton of people were so disappointed overall.”

Deedy also recalled that, in the old days, competitors would just show up and enjoy the race. Now, a race team might have five or six promoters they are dealing with, bringing in even more business to the local community.

“Every local little mom-and-pop business or even bigger facility that does catering, chances are, they are there catering to one race team or another,” he said.

Deedy and other town selectmen, Doug Moglin and Russ Fox, spoke highly about the track and the effect it has on Southwick, noting that everything from gas stations to breakfast shops do better business when there is a race in town.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town,” said Fox, who has been a selectman, off and on, for nearly 40 years.

Among those people who came to town for this year’s national was a large crew from NBC, which broadcast the race nationally. This exposure, said Fox, helps bring in more people and shines a light on Southwick, home to about 10,000 people.

The Wick 338

The Wick 338 hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, from small races to the recent national event that brought 15,000 people to town.

A national race like the one on June 29 brings in a crowd larger than the community’s population, drawing some traffic and maybe a few headaches, but any negatives are far outweighed by the positives, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, Moglin said, even during an event like the national, someone passing through Southwick wouldn’t know the event was going on, making the track a good neighbor.

Because the town has hosted the event several times before, the accumulated experience helps all those involved put on an event with minimal negative impact within the community, Moglin said, noting that the hour before the event and when it finishes are the only times traffic gets backed up, and additional law-enforcement services are not needed on the streets to help manage the crowds.

More Than Moto

While things may be quiet on the road, the track is always bustling.

Referred to as the Fenway Park of motocross, the Wick 338 hosts everything from open practices to Rugged Maniacs to an event known as Southwick Day. Track managers even volunteer their starting line to light off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Before Rick and Keith hosted their first national event, they knew they needed to upgrade the track in order to make it the best of the best. This included installing new tunnels under the track, trimming trees to make the facility more viewer-friendly, close to 3,000 feet of fencing, a new irrigation system, a brand-new scoring and announcing tower, and more. Four days before the 2019 national, 20 truckloads of dirt were brought in.

These are just a few of the things it takes to run a successful track — and they aren’t cheap. Rick said he knew that, if the Wick charged for general admission only, it would be difficult to generate the revenue needed to pay for the upkeep of the track.

That’s why he got creative and introduced VIP seating.

“We looked and found areas of the track that weren’t being utilized, and we invested in those areas to create VIP sections,” he said, adding that these areas around the track allow ticket holders to get a whole new experience and greatly increase revenues; VIP tickets range from $90 to $375 compared to the general-admission price of $45.

All these investments have led to a four-year run of nationals for the father-and-son duo.

Before Rick and Keith took over at the Wick 338, chain-link fences stood six feet high, and tall trees made it difficult for viewers to truly feel like they were a part of the action. Now, motocross fans have the opportunity to see the dirt flying up-close and personal.

“Those were the things that we felt took away from the character of the New England track,” said Rick. “It was our intent to bring it back as it was back in the ’70s that everybody loved so much, and make it safe.”

They’ve succeeded in that mission, and in the process, they’ve helped rev up the local economy — literally and figuratively.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Painting the Town

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.

After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.

Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.

Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.

Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.

“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”

He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.

The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”

“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”

Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.

Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.

But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.

While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”

Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.

Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.

“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”

In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.

Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.

“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”

As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.

“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”

Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.

“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Community Spotlight

There’s a stunning new aerial photo of downtown Springfield gracing the wall outside Kevin Kennedy’s office in the municipal complex on Tapley Street.

The panoramic image captures the view from above the Connecticut River looking east, with the new MGM Springfield casino prominent in the foreground. Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, is quite proud of the photo and all that it shows, but regrets that it was taken in the very early stages of the elaborate work to renovate Riverfront Park, and thus doesn’t include that important addition to the landscape.

He joked about Photoshopping something in to make the image more current, but then acknowledged that, at the rate things are changing, he would be doing a lot of Photoshopping — or swapping out that photo for a new one on a very regular basis.

Those sentiments speak volumes about the pace of development in the city over the past decade or so, and especially the past five or six years, as Springfield has rebounded dramatically from the fiscal malaise — and near-bankruptcy — that enveloped it only 10 years ago.

Indeed, Kennedy said he doesn’t have to ‘sell’ Springfield to potential developers anywhere near as much as he did when he assumed this office in 2011 after working for many years as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s aide. Nor does he have to tell the city’s story as much — people seem to know it by the time they’ve entered the room. And many are certainly entering the room.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated.”

“We don’t have to explain ourselves — when people walk through the door, they know what’s happened over the past five or seven years,” he explained, adding that, overall, he doesn’t have to convince people that the city is a good investment — most are already convinced, which, again, is a marked change from attitudes that prevailed at the start of this century and even at the start of this decade.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Kennedy equated Springfield’s progress over the past several years to a large jigsaw puzzle, with many of its pieces falling into place. These include everything from the casino to a renovated Union Station; from a restaurant district now taking shape to restored and expanded parks, such as Steans Square, Riverfront Park, Pynchon Plaza, and Duryea Way.

And still more pieces are coming into place — everything from a CVS on Main Street to a Cumberland Farms at the site of the old RMV facility on Liberty Street; from market-rate housing at the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street to a new home for Way Finders at the site of the former Peter Pan bus station in the North End; from new schools to improved traffic patterns.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy stands next to the new panoramic photo of Springfield outside his office, the one he’d like to Photoshop to keep up with recent changes to the landscape.

But there are a number of pieces still missing, Kennedy acknowledged, adding that they’re missing for a reason — these are the hardest ones to fall into place because of their complexity.

Among the items on this list are a replacement for the decrepit Civic Center Parking Garage, which is literally crumbling as you read this; 31 Elm St., an all-important component to the downtown’s recovery because of its location and historical importance; the Paramount Theater project, equally important for all the same reasons; CityStage, now dormant for close to a year; and redevelopment of what has become known as the ‘blast zone,’ the area directly impacted by the natural-gas explosion in late 2012.

To explain their complexity, Kennedy started by making a simple yet poignant observation about development in a city like Springfield.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated,” he explained, adding quickly that there are signs of progress with each of those initiatives, and some may be moved over the goal line in the months to come.

Mayor Domenic Sarno agreed, noting that, among those missing pieces, the top priority at this point is probably a new parking garage, primarily because it is essential to realizing many of the other items on the to-do list, such as a deeper restaurant district, more new businesses, and, overall, greater vibrancy downtown.

“The garage is a mainstay for our business community, and the MassMutual Center is a state facility — the garage is an integral part for the programming that goes on there, whether it’s MGM, the Thunderbirds, or college commencements,” said Sarno, adding that he’s already had discussions with both state and federal leaders about potential funding sources for such a facility. “We’re looking to move on this ASAP.”

For this, the latest installment its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at the jigsaw puzzle that is Springfield — meaning the pieces that have fallen into place and those that are still missing.

Rising Tide

‘The New Wave.’

That’s the name those in the Planning office and the Springfield Regional Chamber gave to what has become an annual presentation detailing planned and proposed projects in the City of Homes.

And ‘wave’ fits, said Kennedy, because new developments have been coming in waves, one after another, and there is a new one making its way to shore.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them. I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight. They also know that we know how to connect the dots.”

It follows previous waves that brought MGM Springfield, CRRC, a revitalized Union Station, and a repaired I-91 viaduct, projects that were of the nine-figure variety (MGM was almost 10) or very close — the final price tags for CRRC and Union Station were just under $100 million.

The newest wave has just one initiative of that size, and it’s a municipal project — a new pumping station to be built on part of the land once occupied by the York Street Jail. But while many of the projects are smaller, eight- and seven-figure endeavors, they are equally important, said Kennedy, adding that they represent a mix of expansion efforts by existing companies, or ‘legacy businesses,’ as he called them, and relative newcomers.

Together, the projects touch many different sectors of the economy, include both new construction and renovation of existing structures, and total several hundred million dollars in new development. The lengthy list includes:

• MassMutual expansion. The financial-services giant is relocating 1,500 workers to Springfield, increasing the workforce in the city to 4,500. A $50 million project to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield is slated to be completed by 2021;

• Big Y, with a 232,000-square-foot expansion of the current distribution center in Springfield, bringing the total to 425,000 square feet. The $46 million project is due to be completed later this year;

• Way Finders, which is constructing a new, $16.8 million headquarters building at the location of the Peter Pan bus terminal. The 23,338-square-foot structure, to house roughly 160 employees, is slated to open in the spring of 2020;

• Willys-Overland development, a planned 60-unit, market-rate housing project in the one-time auto showroom. Construction is slated to start soon on the $13.8 million project;

• Innovation Center. Grand-opening ceremonies for the $7 million facility on Bridge Street were staged in February. Work continues on the façade, and a new restaurant is planned for the ground floor;

• CVS. Work is set to commence shortly on a new CVS to be constructed at the corner of Main and Union streets. The $2 million facility, to feature what developers are calling an ‘urban design,’ is slated to open this fall;

• Redevelopment of the former RMV site. The location on Liberty Street will be converted into a Cumberland Farms. The $3 million project will benefit a neighborhood that city officials say is underserved when it comes to convenience and gas;

• The Springfield Performing Arts Academy, specifically a $14 million project to relocate the academy in the former Masonic Temple on State Street;

• Tower Square. The office/retail center is the site of several new developments, including renovations to the hotel (which will be rebranded back to Marriott), a new White Lion brewery, and relocation of the YMCA of Greater Springfield into several locations within Tower Square; and

• Educare. A $14 million, 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art early-education facility is currently under construction in the Old Hill neighborhood. The project, a joint partnership between Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and Springfield College, will serve 141 children and is slated to open this fall.

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage on what’s known as parcel 3, the parking lot behind the TD Bank tower. City officials say a new garage is a must for Springfield.

That’s quite a list, said Kennedy, adding that it’s come about largely because of renewed confidence in the city and its future, an attitude far removed from the one that existed even a decade ago, when there were far fewer businesses willing to bet on the City of Homes.

Getting Down to Business

Indeed, today, as evidenced by all the projects in progress or on the drawing board, there is renewed interest in Springfield across many sectors of the economy — from tourism and hospitality to startups looking for a place to launch, to those looking to be part of the burgeoning cannabis industry in the Bay State.

The city has a message for all these constituencies — that it’s open for business and willing to work with those who would make Springfield their home.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them,” said the mayor. “I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight.

“They also know that we know how to connect the dots,” he went on. “We know how to work with all the players — federal, state, and on the local level, all the way down. And they know that we’re willing to put skin in the game, too, and that’s been very advantageous.”

Kennedy agreed, and said that, overall, the city has become what he called a “reliable, predictable partner,” something every business is looking for as it considers locating or relocating in a specific community.

“They don’t need showhorses, they don’t need a lot of glitz,” he told BusinessWest. “They simply want to do their business and know they have a good partner, and I think that’s what we’ve done from the start, and when we sit down to negotiate with people, I think they understand that, and they feel comfortable.”

Kennedy traces this growing sense of comfort to the lengthy and involved process of bringing a casino to the area.

“I think the thing that showed people we were serious was the whole casino process — not necessarily MGM, but the whole process,” he explained. “How we did it, and how upfront with everyone we were. People talk about being transparent, and that’s a jargony-type of a word, but we see it that way … and I think that, by virtue of having a billion-dollar investment come your way, a lot of other companies externally took a look at it, and internally said, ‘look what’s happened.’”

That was a reference to those legacy companies he mentioned, including MassMutual, Big Y, Balise Motor Sales, which is planning another major project in the city’s South End, and many others.

This ability to connect the dots, and be a reliable partner, is creating some progress with some of those aforementioned missing pieces to the puzzle, and will hopefully generate momentum with other initiatives in that category, said Kennedy, who started by referencing two important projects downtown — Elm Street and the Paramount project.

The former, the six-story block at 13-31 Elm St., has been mostly vacant for the past three decades. Plans to convert it into market-rate housing received a significant boost earlier this year when MGM Springfield announced it would was willing to invest in the project as part of its commitment to the city and state to provide at least 54 units of market-rate housing in the area near the casino.

“We’re hoping that we have a development deal struck in a matter of weeks,” said Kennedy. “We’re waiting for the last one or two pieces to fall into place. It’s a tough project, but it’s a necessary project.”

Meanwhile, the $41 million Paramount project — renovation of the historic theater and the adjoining Massasoit Hotel — is moving forward, with preservation work on the roof and façade slated to begin later this year.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno has a healthy collection of ceremonial shovels in his office, one visible sign of the progress the city has made over the past several years.

Another large missing piece is activity in the so-called blast zone, he said, referring to the area from Lyman to Pearl streets and from Dwight to Spring streets. He said the Willys-Overland development, in the heart of this zone, may be a catalyst to more development there.

“Once that project gets going, I’m hoping it will give some push to further development in the blast area, which is probably the next horizon for Springfield,” he noted. “Some property owners have done things — there’s been some clearing and demolition — but others are just waiting and being patient. That’s why this [Willys-Overland] development is important; you have to get that first one in the ground and hope things happen from there.”

Still another missing piece is aggressive marketing of the city and its many assets, said Sarno, adding that may not be missing much longer. Indeed, the city, working in conjunction with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council and a number of area media outlets, is getting closer to launching a marketing campaign for Springfield and the region.

It will focus on a number of audiences, he said, including residents of this region, many of whom need to know about the many good things happening locally, and businesses owners far outside it, who also need to know.

“We have a lot to offer in Springfield — and in Franklin County, Berkshire County, and across Hampden County, and we have to do a better job of telling our story,” the mayor said “When you’re making a sauce, you put in the ingredients; we have all the ingredients here — we just need make a push and send out a clarion call. We need a push locally — sometimes we’re our own worst enemy — but then we need to make a regional push.”

But perhaps the biggest missing piece isn’t actually missing — though it will be soon — and that’s a working parking garage downtown.

Spot of Trouble

Which brings us to a downtown property known as ‘parcel 3.’

That was the name affixed to a number of assembled parcels of land that eventually became the surface parking lot behind the TD Bank office tower on Main Street, an initiative that was part of the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan, drafted nearly 40 years ago and amended several times since.

And that name has stuck — well, at least with city development leaders. To the rest of the world, it’s ‘the parking lot behind the TD Bank building.’ But ‘parcel 3’ is becoming part of the lexicon again as discussions concerning the Civic Center Parking Garage and the glaring need to replace it heat up — out of necessity.

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building — could give rise to a modern parking garage — and open up a development opportunity on the site of the current, deficient garage across the street.

“The garage is on borrowed time,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), quickly adding that this sentiment certainly represents an understatement. The garage probably has only a few years of useful life left, he went on, noting that there are areas on several floors that are currently unusable for parking, thus heightening the need for action.

The SRA, which owns parcel 3, currently leases it to an entity called New Marlboro Corp., which owns the TD Bank facility, a.k.a. 1441 Main St.

That lease, originally 30 years in duration when signed in the early ’80s, was extended several years ago to 2028. And this lease and the fine print within it will obviously become the focal point of discussion in the coming months, said Moskal, as the city tries to move forward with plans to replace the Civic Center Parking Garage with a 1,400-spot facility on the most obvious site for such a facility — parcel 3.

Kennedy agreed, and noted that this is a complex project, in terms of both financing — the projected pricetag is $45 million, and several funding sources would likely be involved, from the Springfield Parking Authority (SPA), which owns the current, failing garage, to the state and the federal government — and the number of players involved, from the SRA to the SPA to TD Bank.

“But just because it’s complicated, we can’t walk away from it,” he said. “A new garage is necessary for downtown; that parking facility at the Civic Center is the main commercial-district parking facility.”

And a new parking garage downtown not only secures a replacement for a long-deficient facility, said Kennedy, but it creates a new and intriguing development opportunity in the central business district — the current garage site.

“You have not only MGM here, but a rehabbed Pynchon Plaza, a burgeoning museum district, especially with the new Dr. Seuss Museum, and other things happening downtown,” he said. “I think we could have a nice mixed-use residential complex there with some indoor parking.”

The mayor agreed. “That’s a very valuable piece of property,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while it while it might become a surface parking lot for the short term, there are a number of more intriguing possibilities for the long term.

While the city continues to reshape and revitalize the downtown, progress is taking place outside it in the many neighborhoods that define the community, said both Sarno and Kennedy.

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $19.68
Commercial tax rate: $39.30
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

They noted a number of projects, including the planned new Brightwood/Lincoln School, a $70.2 million facility that would replace both the Brightwood and Lincoln elementary schools, and be located adjacent to the existing Chestnut Middle School on Plainfield Street; the new branch of the Springfield Library in East Forest Park, due to be completed this fall; expansion of the residential complex in the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing complex in Mason Square (60 new affordable units are planned); a new Pride store at the corner of State Street and Wilbraham Road; several park projects; a redesign of the troublesome ‘X’ traffic pattern; reconfiguration of the Six Corners intersection; and renewed efforts to reinvent the Eastfield Mall into a community with a mix of housing, retail, and other components.

“We’re making a lot of progress in our neighborhoods,” the mayor said. “People are focused on downtown, but our neighborhoods are important, and we’re making great strides there, too.”

The Big Picture

Getting back to that picture on the wall outside his office, Kennedy acknowledged that, as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t tell the full story of all that’s happened in Springfield over the past several years.

And it will only become less accurate, if that’s the proper word, in the months and years to come.

But that, as they say, is a good problem to have. A very good problem.

For years, Springfield was the picture of stagnancy. Now, it’s the picture of motion and continued progress.

There are still some missing pieces, to be sure, but the puzzle is coming together nicely.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
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

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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

Health Care

On the Front Lines

VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Early aerial photo of the VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Gordon Tatro enjoys telling the story about how the sprawling Veterans Administration facility in Leeds came to be built there.
The prevailing theory, said Tatro, who worked in Engineering at what is now the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System for 20 years and currently serves as its unofficial historian, is that the site on a hilltop in rural Leeds was chosen because it would offer an ideal setting for treatment and recuperation for those suffering from tuberculosis — one of its main missions, along with treatment for what was then called shell shock and other mental disorders.

And while some of that may be true, politics probably had a lot more to do with the decision than topography.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton,’” said Tatro, acknowledging that he was no doubt paraphrasing the commander in chief, “‘because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Nearly 95 years later — May 12 is the official anniversary date — it is still there. The specific assignment has changed somewhat — indeed, tuberculosis is certainly no longer one of the primary functions — but the basic mission has not: to provide important healthcare services to veterans.

Overall, there has been an ongoing transformation from mostly inpatient care to a mix of inpatient and outpatient, with a continued focus on behavioral-health services.

“We’re more of a managed-care facility now,” said Andrew McMahon, associate director of the facility, adding that the hospital provides services ranging from gerontology to extended care and rehabilitation; from behavioral-health services to primary care; from pharmacy to nutrition and food services. Individual programs range from MOVE!, a weight-management program for veterans, to services designed specifically for women veterans, including reproductive services and comprehensive primary care.

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation and modernization initiative scheduled to be completed by the 100th anniversary in 2024.

“When this facility was established, the mission of the VA was much different than it is today,” McMahon told BusinessWest. “We were a stand-alone campus in a rural part of the state that had 1,000 beds and where veterans went for the rest of their lives.

“Now, we are one facility within a network of eight serving Central and Western Massachusetts. We have this beautiful, 100-year-old campus, but the needs of today’s veterans are changing — they need convenience, primary care, and specialty care, and we’re trying to establish those services in the areas where the veterans live, primarily Worcester and Springfield.”

Elaborating, he said that, as the 100th anniversary of the Leeds facility in 2024 approaches, the hospital is in the midst of a large, multi-faceted expansion and renovation project designed to maximize its existing facilities and enable it to continue in its role as a “place of mental-health excellence for all of New England,” as McMahon put it, and also a center for geriatric care and administration of the broad VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

By the 100th-birthday celebration, more than $100 million will have been invested in the campus, known colloquially as ‘the Hill,’ or Bear Hill (yes, black bears can be seen wandering the grounds now and then), said McMahon, adding that an ongoing evolution of the campus will continue into the next century.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton, because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Round-number anniversaries — and those not quite so round, like this year’s 95th — provide an opportunity to pause, reflect, look back, and also look ahead. And for this issue, BusinessWest asked McMahon and Tatro to do just that.

History Lessons

Tatro told BusinessWest that, with the centennial looming, administrators at the hospital have issued a call for memorabilia related to the facility’s first 100 years of operation. The request, in the form of a flyer mailed to a host of constituencies, coincides with plans to convert one of the old residential buildings erected on the complex (specifically the one that the hospital directors lived in) into a museum.

The flyer states that, in addition to old photographs, those conducting this search are looking for some specific objects, such as items from the old VA marching band, including uniforms and instruments; anything to do with the VA baseball team, known, appropriately enough, as the Hilltoppers, who played on a diamond in the center of the campus visible in aerial photos of the hospital; any of the eight ornate lanterns that graced the grounds; toys made by the veterans who lived and were cared for at the facility; copies of the different newspapers printed at the site, including the first one, the Summit Observer; and more.

Collectively, these requested items speak to how the VA hospital was — and still is — more than a cluster of buildings at the top of a hill; it was and is a community.

The oval at the VA complex

The oval at the VA complex has seen a good deal of change over the years. Current initiatives involve bringing more specialty care facilities to that cluster of buildings, bringing additional convenience to veterans.

“It was like a town or a city,” said Tatro, noting that the original campus was nearly three times as large as it is now, and many administrators not only worked there but lived there as well. “There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.

“In that era, everyone had a baseball team, and we played all those teams,” he said, noting that the squad was comprised of employees. “The silk mill (in Northampton) had one, other companies had them; I’ve found hundreds of articles about the baseball team.”

This ‘community’ look and feel has prevailed, by and large, since the facility opened to considerable fanfare that May day in 1924. Calvin Coolidge, who by then was president (Harding died in office in 1923) was not in attendance, but many luminaries were, including Gen. Frank Hines, director of the U.S. Veterans Bureau.

He set the tone for the decades to come with comments recorded by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and found during one of Gordon’s countless trips to Forbes Library on the campus of Smith College. “President Coolidge has well stated that there is no duty imposed upon us of greater importance than prompt and adequate care of our disabled. And every reasonable effort will be made in that direction. I consider it the duty of those in charge of the veterans’ bureau hospitals to bring about a management and an administration of professional ability in such a manner as to recover many of those whose care is entrusted to them.”

“It was like a town or a city. There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.”

The facility was one of 19 built in the years after World War I to care for the veterans injured, physically or mentally, by that conflict, said Gordon, adding that the need for such hospitals was acute.

“There was a drive in Congress to get the veterans returning from World War I off the streets,” he said. “They were literally hanging around; they had no place else to go. Public health-service hospitals couldn’t handle it, and the Bureau of War Risk Insurance couldn’t handle the cost, and I guess Congress just got pushed to the point where it had to do something.”

That ‘something’ was the Langley bill — actually, there were two Langley bills — that appropriated funds to build hospitals across the country and absorb the public health-service hospitals into the Veterans Bureau Assoc.

The site in Leeds was one of many considered for a facility to serve this region, including a tissue-making mill in Becket, said Tatro, but, as he mentioned, the birthplace of the sitting vice president ultimately played a large role in where the steam shovels were sent. And those shovels eventually took roughly 12 feet off the top of the top of the hill and pushed it over the side, he told BusinessWest.

As noted earlier, the facility specialized in treating veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mental disorders, especially shell shock, or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the early years, there were 300 to 500 veterans essentially living in the wards of the hospital, with those numbers climbing to well over 1,000 just after World War II, said Tatro.

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital, says the facility is not merely a collection of buildings on a hill, but a community.

With tuberculosis patients, those providing care tried to keep their patients active and moving with a range of sports and games ranging from bowling to swimming to fishing in ponds stocked by a local sportsman’s club, or so Tatro has learned through his research.

As for those with mental-health disorders, Tatro said, in the decades just after the hospital was built, little was known about how to treat those with conditions such as shell shock, depression, and schizophrenia, and thus there was research, experimentation, and learning.

This added up to what would have to be considered, in retrospect, one of the darker periods in the facility’s history, when pre-frontal lobotomies and electric-shock therapy was used to help treat veterans, a practice that was halted in the late ’40s or early ’50s, he said, adding that this is one period he is still researching.

Battle Tested

Over the past several decades, there has been a slow and ongoing shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, said McMahon, who, in his role as associate director, is chief of all operations. He added that there are still inpatient wards at the hospital, and it retains its role as the primary regional provider of mental-health services for veterans.

But there is now a much broader array of services provided at the facility, and for a constituency that includes a few World War II and Korean War veterans, but is now dominated by Vietnam-era vets and those who served in both Gulf wars.

Overall, more than 28,000 individuals receive care through the system, which, as noted, includes both Central and Western Mass. and eight clinics across that broad area. The system measures ‘encounters’ — individual visits to a clinic — and there were more than 350,000 encounters last year.

The reasons for such visits varied, but collectively they speak to how the hospital in Leeds has evolved over the years while remaining true to its original mission, said McMahon.

“We haven’t really downshifted in our inpatient mental health — that’s an area of strength for the VA, and we continue to invest in that area,” he explained. “But in geriatrics, we’re looking to expand our nursing-home footprint, and hopefully double the size of those facilities by the time the 100th comes around — we have 30 beds now, and we’re looking to add maybe 30 more.”

McMahon, an Air Force veteran, said he’s been with the VA hospital for more than seven years now after a stint at Northampton-based defense contractor Kollmorgen. He saw it is a chance to take his career in a different, more meaningful direction.

“To get over into this area and serve the veterans … it’s a job that has a mission behind it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s more than a paycheck.”

That mission has always been to provide quality care to those who have served, and today, as noted, the mission is evolving. So is the campus itself, he said, adding that ongoing work is aimed at maximizing resources and modernizing facilities, but also preserving the original look of the campus.

Current projects include renovation of what’s known as Building 9, vacant for roughly 15 years, into a new inpatient PTSD facility, with those services being moved from Building 8, an initiative started more than two years ago and now nearing its conclusion.

The new facility will be larger and will enable the VA hospital to extend PTSD care to women through the creation of a dedicated ward for that constituency.

Meanwhile, another ongoing project involves renovation of a portion of Building 4. That initiative includes creation of a new specialty-care floor, a $6 million project that will include optometry clinics, podiatry services, cardiology, and more.

Set to move off the drawing board is another major initiative, a $15 million project to renovate long-vacant Building 20 and move a host of administrative offices into that facility, leaving essentially the entire ‘Hill’ complex for patient care and mental-health services.

“We’re going to get HR, engineering, and other administrative offices down to Building 20 and expand our mental-health facilities around the oval,” McMahon said, referring to the cluster of buildings in the center of the campus. “There’s $40 million in construction going on at present, and by the end the this year, we expect that number to be closer to $60 million.

“There’s a lot of construction going on right now,” he went on. “But things will look good for the 100th.”

That includes the planned museum. The search goes on for items to be displayed in that facility, said Tatro, adding that he and others are working to assemble a collection that will tell the whole story of this remarkable medical facility that became a community.

Branches of Service

Tatro told BusinessWest he’s been doing extensive research on the history of the Hill since he retired several years ago. He’s put together thick binders of photographs and newspaper clippings — there’s one with stories just from the Gazette that’s half a foot thick — as well as some smaller booklets on individual subjects and personalities.

Including one Cedric (Sandy) Bevis.

There’s a memorial stone erected to him in what’s known as Overlook Park, created with the help of that 12 feet of earth scraped off the top of the hill. Tatro found it while out on one of his many walks over the grounds, and commenced trying to find out who Bevis was (he died in 1981) and why there was a stone erected in his honor.

But no one seemed to know.

So Tatro commenced digging and found out that Bevis was a Marine officer who served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He had been shot down more than once but survived. After attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, he left the service in June 1971, married, and settled in the Florence area. As a Marine Reservist, he got involved with a Vietnam veterans organization called ComVets (short for Combat Veterans) at the VA Hospital and was elected its first president.

“He was honored for his impact on other Marines who were part of ComVets, and they initiated and obtained a plaque for him,” said Tatro, adding that the saga of Sandy Bevis is one of thousands of individual stories written over the past 95 years. And those at the VA facility are going about the process of writing thousands more.

The last line on Bevis’ plaque reads, “He served when called.” So did all those all others who have come to the Hill since the gates opened in 1924. That’s why it was built, and that’s why it’s readying itself for a second century of service.

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

Opinion

Editorial

They called the event ‘The New Wave’ — and that’s an appropriate name for the annual update on Springfield’s business and civic projects.

Staged by the city in partnership with the Springfield Regional Chamber, this annual late-winter event, the latest installment of which was staged recently at the Basketball Hall of Fame, has had several names over the years, most of them rail-oriented — to coincide with the long-awaited revitalization of Union Station and also to provide plays on words such as the city being on the proverbial ‘right track.’

Most just call this the ‘update meeting,’ and they’ve been staged for maybe six or seven years now. That timeline coincides with Kevin Kennedy’s arrival as the city’s chief Economic Development officer and his more aggressive approach to telling the city’s story. It’s also a stretch when there has been a much better story to tell.

Which brings us back to the title of this year’s presentation. What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.

That number conveys the dollar value of business and civic projects since that fateful day in 2011 when a tornado roared through the city. It’s an impressive number that, of course, includes MGM Springfield (almost a quarter of the total), CRRC, and several other nine- and eight-digit projects. But it also includes dozens, if not hundreds, of seven-, six-, and even five-digit projects that all add up — to a wave of positive energy.

“What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.”

And while that number is impressive, perhaps the more meaningful one is $400.4 million. That’s the dollar amount for projects announced since the last of these update meetings, a number that reflects everything from Big Y’s $42 million distribution expansion to MassMutual’s $50 million in investments in Springfield; from the new $14 million Educare facility to the $14 million headquarters for Way Finders taking shape on the site on the old Peter Pan bus station; from the planned renovation of the Paramount ($41 million) to the soon-to-be-announced (we hope) plans to renovate the long-vacant Elm Street block. And we’re pretty sure it doesn’t include a host of cannabis-related businesses now in the talking stages and a planned hotel on the site of the old York Street Jail.

This is what happens when a city gathers momentum and the attention of the development community. People want to be part of what’s happening. People want to ride the wave.

It’s a refreshing change from a dozen years ago when people were talking about the lights going out in this city with doubts about when and if they would go back on.

They have gone back on — and in a big way. And there should be even more evidence of this at the next update meeting.

Education

The Face of a Changing Landscape

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

Hampshire College President Miriam Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An aerial photo of the Hampshire College campus

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

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

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

New-school Thinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbara Brittingham

Barbara Brittingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hampshire College is just one of many smaller independent schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

Textbook Case?

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

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

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

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

Miriam Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charting a New Course

Time will tell whether this projection comes to pass.

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Schindler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forging a Path

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

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

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

South Deerfield center

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deerfield at a Glance

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

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

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

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

High Times

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Come as You Are

Jeremy Goldsher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat King says Another Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

When he heard about Greenspace, he was immediately intrigued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game On

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

Greenspace CoWork’s private, soundproof phone booths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Complex Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peter Marks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Lease on Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying Power

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

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

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

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

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