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Community Spotlight

Woodlawn Shopping Plaza

An architect’s rendering of the housing project planned for the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

Rocco Falcone acknowledged that, when he and fellow partners Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly acquired the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza on Newton Street in South Hadley in 2016, they were making that sizable investment at a time when the world of retail was changing — and shrinking.

And they knew then that the plaza, dominated by a closed Big Y supermarket, might not look like it did years down the road — not that they didn’t try to find a strong retail anchor to fill the role that Big Y played.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international,” said Falcone, manager of South Hadley Plaza LLC, the entity created to acquire the property, and perhaps better known as president and CEO of the Rocky’s Ace Hardware chain. “When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

And the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza will, indeed, take on a new look — and role that goes beyond shopping — with the announcement of plans to build 72 mixed-income apartments on a three-acre portion of the plaza where the Big Y once stood; a public hearing is slated on the proposal for June 26 at the South Hadley library.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, former mayor of Holyoke, sees the proposed housing project as an opportunity for the community, one that could change the face of an underperforming property (the plaza), perhaps spur new business development at the site and elsewhere, and even boost enrollment at the town’s schools, which have seen their numbers declining in recent years.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international. When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

The announced plans for the plaza comprise one of a number of intriguing developments in South Hadley, a community of nearly 18,000 people that has always been an attractive place to live and has been working for decades to balance its strong neighborhoods with new business opportunities.

Others include progress toward an update of the community’s master plan; introduction of a new option for ultra-high-speed internet service, called FiberSonic, to town residents; efforts to work with neighboring Granby to bring more order to a hodgepodge of zoning on the Route 202 corridor; apparent progress in bringing the town’s long-underperforming municipal golf course, the Ledges, to self-sustainability; and even a new dog park on the Ledges property.

“Dog parks have become somewhat of a recreational amenity in many communities, including Northampton, Granby, and many other cities and towns,” said Sullivan. “It’s surprising how many people are really into their dogs; this is a quality-of-life issue, and at least this will put another 100 to 200 South Hadley residents onto property that they’re paying for. They don’t golf, but they have a dog.”

For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various developments in South Hadley and how they are part of ongoing efforts to make the community a better place to work, live, and start a business.

Getting out of the Rough

Golf courses, especially municipal golf courses, usually don’t generate many headlines.

The Ledges has been a notable exception to that rule. Since it opened at the start of this century, it has been in the news often — and for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, conceived and built as Tiger Woods was rocketing to stardom and golf was booming as a sport and a business, the picturesque Ledges, with breathtaking views of the Holyoke Range, was projected to a be a strong revenue generator for the community.

Suffice it to say things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the course has been a financial drain, racking up deficits of more than $1 million some years, and into six figures most years.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan says new high-speed Internet service, called FiberSonic might spur more young professionals to move to South Hadley.

Sullivan, who inherited this problem, took the aggressive step of outsourcing not only maintenance of the course, but overall management of the facility, with the goal of turning things around and making the Ledges self-sustaining.

Mike Fontaine, the course’s general manager and an employee of Lakeland, Fla.-based International Golf Maintenance (IGM), which manages more than 30 courses across the country, is optimistic that some kind of corner has been turned at the Ledges. He noted that the shortfall was smaller last year (Sullivan pegged it at roughly $35,000) — despite unrelenting rains that made 2018 a difficult year for every golf course — and that, even with more rain early this year, the course is on track to improve on last year’s numbers and continue on an upward trajectory.

He said IGM’s efforts comprise work in progress, but added that a number of steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience and, thus, generate more revenue for the town. Work has been done to build a management team, place more emphasis on customer service, and give the 19th hole, an important revenue stream for all golf operations, a new look and feel. And even a new name.

“We gave the whole place a facelift, especially the restaurant,” he explained. “It was time for a fresh coat of paint, work behind the bar, new pictures of the golf course on the walls, moving the TVs, changing the name from Valley View restaurant to the Sunset Grille, and going with a whole new brand and marketing campaign.”

The new name highlights one of the course’s hallmarks — dramatic sunsets — and attempts to capitalize on that asset, said Fontaine, who said was inspired by what he saw in Key West, which is famous for its sunsets and people turning out to watch them.

He said the course has generally done well with visitation — 25,000 rounds last year — but needs a break from Mother Nature as well as a break from the negative publicity that hasn’t been good for business.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $20.15 (Fire District 1); $20.55 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

“We’re beating the numbers from last year, and we’re hitting our revenue goals despite losing three weekends in a row, including Mother’s Day weekend, due to rain — money we’ll never get back,” he said. “We’ll have a much better understanding of where we’re at when this year is over.”

While the picture seems to be improving at the Ledges, the picture is changing on Newton Street, especially at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

While there is still significant retail there — the plaza is home to a Rocky’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dollar General, the Egg & I restaurant (a recent addition), the Parthenon restaurant, Mandarin Gourmet, and more — the former Big Y site was proving difficult to redevelop, said Falcone, noting that, after efforts to find a replacement supermarket were exhausted, the building was razed in 2018 with the goal of bringing more options to the fore, including residential.

The proposed 72-unit apartment complex will fill a need within the community for both affordable and market-rate housing, said Falcone, adding that this reuse is consistent with how many malls and shopping plazas are being repurposed at a time when stores are closing at an alarming rate and malls — and communities — are forced to be imaginative in a changing retail landscape.

“We looked at options to possibly subdivide the Big Y property, but we couldn’t get any junior anchors,” said Falcone, adding that the owners spent roughly the past year and half looking for smaller tenants, but to no avail.

“Retail is changing — people are getting away from retail and putting more focus on service and entertainment,” he said, adding that the town created an overlay district within the Newton Street area that allows for mixed-use development and residential space, which brings us to the plans currently on the table.

“We thought this would be a good option and a good opportunity,” said Falcone, adding that research revealed demand for such housing. “If you look at Village Commons, those apartments are always full, and my understanding is there’s a waiting list to get in there. So we think South Hadley is a great community for some additional housing.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’re a vibrant community for condominium development, and there’s considerable demand for them — we have condominiums on the riverfront selling for more than $400,000,” he noted. “But we think this proposed development balances things out; it provides another option for housing.”

The Gig-speed Economy

They’re called ‘fiberhoods.’

That’s the name the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) has given to areas, or neighborhoods, in the community that will be provided with FiberSonic, which will make gigabit-speed internet available to residential homes; the service is already available to South Hadley businesses.

SHELD is starting in the Ridge Road area — the service will be available there in July — and will proceed to the Old Lyman Road fiberhood in August, and the Hollywood Street area in September. By year’s end, 700 homes should be covered by the project, and the 32 identified fiberhoods will be added in phases over the next five years, said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager.

“Establishing fiber-optic internet service throughout the town will bring added convenience and, more importantly, will accommodate the ever-growing bandwidth need for South Hadley customers,” said Fitzgerald, who described FiberSonic as “home-grown, gig-speed Internet.”

This service should help make South Hadley a more attractive option for a growing number of professionals who essentially call the office home, even as they work for companies in Boston, New York, and Seattle, said Sullivan.

“When you can access a high-paying job in New York City, Boston, Montreal, or even Los Angeles, and you might have to only go to the home office once a month or once a week and the rest of the day work at home, your housing costs are lower and quality of life is higher in Western Mass.,” he explained. “We’re seeing more of this in South Hadley, and the new internet service will make this community even more attractive.”

As the overall pace of change accelerates, the town looks to anticipate what the future might bring — and be prepared for it — with an update to a master plan drafted roughly a decade ago.

That document, the town’s first master plan in more than three decades, included no less than 200 recommended actions, said Town Planner Richard Harris, noting that this represents an obviously unachievable number, although many have been implemented, especially in the realms of housing, recreation, and creation of growth districts.

He expects that the updated plan, to be completed by year’s end, will be more strategic in nature.

“While it will still be broad, because the nature of a master plan is broad, we’re expecting it to be more strategic in focus and more related to the current organizational structure and long-term needs of the community,” he told BusinessWest. “I wouldn’t expect as much focus on zoning and land use as the last plan, and instead more on how to capitalize on what we have done.”

There have been a number of community forums staged to solicit commentary and input about the plan and what it should include, as well as smaller, more informal sessions within neighborhoods called “meetings in a box,” said Harris, adding that a draft of a new plan should be ready for additional review by the fall and a final document in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the town isn’t waiting for the new plan to address a long-term concern and probable hindrance to growth — the hodgepodge of zoning along the Route 202 corridor, roughly from Route 33 into Granby Town Commons.

“Both towns have the leftover remnants of a ’60s regional road,” he explained, noting that there are homes next to dinosaur-track stops next to other forms of business. “It’s not very well-organized; there’s a weird mix, and we think there is a real need for conformity.

“If we could get that conformity, there’s enough business traffic going into Belchertown, Ware, and, beyond that, Amherst — and we can harness that traffic,” he went on, adding there have been discussions with officials in Granby about zoning and also infrastructure and perhaps tying properties along that corridor into South Hadley’s sewer system, a development that would benefit both communities.

“We hope this will bring more investment to those commercial properties along 202 in South Hadley,” Harris explained. “That will result in more tax dollars — and it would be great to have more people to share the tax burden with.”

Bottom Line

Those last sentiments accurately reflect a goal, and an ongoing challenge, spanning decades: creating more opportunities to share the tax burden.

South Hadley has always been a great place to live — and now also play golf and walk your dog. Greater balance in the form of new businesses and better use of existing and potential commercial property has always been a goal and priority.

And between the proposed new housing project, faster internet service, and progress along the Route 202 corridor, the community is making more headway toward realizing that goal.

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

Daily News

BOSTON The state’s May total unemployment rate is up one-tenth of a percentage point at 3.0%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Friday.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 3,600 jobs in May. Over the month, the private sector lost 4,000 jobs, although gains occurred in professional, scientific, and business services; information; and manufacturing sectors. The jobs level in ‘other services’ remained unchanged over the month. Government added jobs over the month.

From May 2018 to May 2019, BLS estimates Massachusetts added 26,700 jobs. 

The May unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 3.6 percent reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Massachusetts continues to experience a strong economy with a low unemployment rate of 3.0% percent and over 60,000 more employed residents and 17,500 fewer unemployed residents in the last year. Also, the Commonwealth’s labor force participation rate remains at a near 15 year high and is 5 points above the US rate.”  Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said.

The labor force increased by 600 from 3,840,400 in April, as 1,100 fewer residents were employed and 1,700 more residents were unemployed over the month.

Features

Hopes Are High

After recreational marijuana use became legal in Massachusetts in 2016, the expectation was that retail stores would pop up quickly within a couple of years. That hasn’t happened, as the state — and host communities — have taken a deliberately measured approach to permitting. But with early returns strong from a few shops, and towns reporting solid tax benefits and no real community disruption, the pace of openings should begin to increase — and so will the economic benefits of this new industry.

If Western Mass. was full of people who thought the sky was falling when recreational marijuana was legalized, well, Mark Zatyrka thinks fewer of them are saying the same thing now.

“I knew it would change. But I feel like it’s changed at a more rapid pace than I would have expected,” he said of public perceptions about the new access to cannabis products in the Bay State. “When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Take the location of INSA, the cannabis dispensary he owns in Easthampton, which has sold marijuana for medical purposes since February 2018, but began selling for recreational, or adult, use in December. Tucked beside Eastworks at the rear of the Keystone Mills building on Pleasant Street, he said some may have worried about INSA’s proximity to a nearby park where people hike.

“But, really, we bring more people to the area, we have cameras all over the place, it’s well-lit, so it’s actually a safer place to be,” Zatyrka said. “If the perception was that customers are hoodlums who come in, go out back, and get high and do crime, well, look around — we serve almost every demographic you can imagine, from seniors to millennials, rich and poor, and they’re not violent criminals. They’re not here to cause trouble. Yeah, the perception has changed pretty rapidly.”

Perceptions — pro and con — of this new industry have undoubtedly shaped a permitting process, on both the state and local levels, that has moved more slowly than first expected when recreational use became legal in 2016. The state’s first adult-use retail shops were expected to be open last July, but instead, the first two opened in November, and the pace of new shops since then has been leisurely at best.

But they’re coming. And the ones that are open are changing those worst-case perceptions.

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

Mark Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers since starting recreational sales in December.

Take New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton, the Bay State’s first retailer of cannabis products for recreational use.

“For us, it’s been a positive experience,” Northampton Mayor David Narcewicz told BusinessWest. “We’re starting to see some of the economic benefits in terms of taxes, and I know our local businesses have been creative in embracing the new industry. Businesses back in November were offering specials to people who came into town and showed a receipt for shopping at NETA. If anything, I think the business community has been receptive.”

He noted that Northampton’s voters were among the most enthusiastic in their support of legal cannabis, both during the 2012 statewide vote to legalize medicinal marijuana, then for adult use in 2016. As mayor, he said, his approach has been to respect the community’s voice.

“So we’ve been very open and proactive; we created zoning regulations that essentially treat this new industry like any other business, and we did not impose caps on the number of retailers like many communities did.

“We also had the experience of having one of the first medical dispensaries in the state,” he added, speaking of NETA’s original business plan. “We had a track record of seeing how they had operated and had the chance to see what the potential impacts were. They’ve been a good member of our business community; they worked with us to make sure their opening went smoothly, and have been working with surrounding businesses to make sure there’s no disruption.”

Stories like this are why, despite the slow rollout of pot shops so far — and state tax revenue well under early projections — proponents are confident that the trends toward greater public acceptance of this industry, and tax revenues to match, will soon accelerate.

“As an industry, we’ve done a good job to ensure that things are done correctly, and the state’s done a good job putting measures in place to help ensure it is a safe industry and people are getting a safe product and it’s dispensed in a safe way,” Zatyrka said. “The state did a lot of things right, which is why we’re seeing a successful rollout. I know some people wish it moved quicker, but I understand why it didn’t. There are thousands of applications, a lot of inspections, a lot to oversee. It takes time. It’s a new industry for everybody.”

Green Growth

As part of its new marijuana laws, Massachusetts imposes a 17% tax — a 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax — on cannabis businesses, while cites and towns take another 3%, plus whatever else they may choose to impose as part of their host-community agreements.

In Northampton’s case, that’s an additional 3%, called a ‘community-impact fee.’ The city received two checks recently: $449,825 from the Department of Revenue representing the 3% tax rate for recreational marijuana sales in November, December, and January, and $287,506 from NETA itself, reflecting the 3% community-impact fee on recreational sales for December and January.

“When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Other towns are seeing their coffers benefit as well. Theory Wellness opened in Great Barrington in December, paying $90,000 in taxes to the town in its first month.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the town’s Select Board, told BusinessWest last month. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems.”

Southern Berkshire County communities that embrace the cannabis trade are sure to benefit from the continued illegality of the drug in both Connecticut and New York, though leaders in both states have been talking about whether that should remain the case. Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, told the New York Post last week that about 15,000 New Yorkers have made purchases there since its Jan. 11 opening.

“I’d say we get dozens, if not hundreds, a day from the greater New York City area,” he noted. “We get people coming up in Zipcars, people carpooling, people who say they hardly ever drive at all — but will drive to purchase cannabis.”

That sort of consumer response is intriguing to towns that see this industry as a new economic driver.

“Some cities have been great to work with, some a little more difficult to work with,” Zatyrka said. “Easthampton is very progressive city, and early on it was very obvious they wanted us here.”

That’s important from a competition perspective, he said, because the application process is already time-consuming, and communities that want to make it even more difficult to move through permitting and craft a host-community agreement can tie up a project for years, while other shops in more amenable towns are opening and picking up crucial market share and customer loyalty.

“Easthampton was great,” he went on. “Everyone wants to find a solution instead of putting up roadblocks. They want us to be successful, to get their name on the map, and they saw the benefits early on.”

He’s seeing a gradual shift, too, in where proposed projects will be located, noting that, when INSA started cultivating marijuana for medical use, most such outfits were setting up in old mill buildings or industrial parks. “Now it’s not so restrictive — people can open up on Main Street, and wind up in locations that are made for retail use, for people to come visit.”

That’s certainly the goal in Northampton, which is looking at myriad applications from cannabis manufacturers, cultivators, testing labs, and retail establishments, Narcewicz noted. It welcomes them because it sees value in how NETA, which isn’t even located downtown, has impacted business.

“NETA has created good-paying jobs in the community, and it’s an important way to expand our tax base and grow our local economy,” he said. “We have a local economy focused on retail, dining, entertainment, and a very vibrant cultural economy. And I think this complements it.”

There have been traffic and parking challenges, he added, “but if you talk to most retailers, downtowns having too many visitors is never a bad thing. We’re kind of equipped to handle a lot of visitors. And NETA has been very responsive in terms of renting additional parking from neighboring businesses, which helps them as well by providing an income stream. So far, it’s been a very positive experience, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.”

Making a Name

BRIGADE has certainly benefited from this new industry. The Hadley-based brand-services company has worked with INSA extensively, including the creation of the designs for all its products and marketing.

“Everyone calls cannabis the wild west, and it is from a branding and design perspective, too,” said Kirsten Modestow, BRIGADE’s owner and executive creative director. “The rules for a whole category are being written overnight. That’s challenging, but it’s also some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever worked on.”

With some cannabis businesses coming out with 100 or more products, it presents a unique branding challenge, she added, because the goal is not only to create a memorable look, but to help customers, many of whom have little experience with marijuana, navigate the products.

“One of the upsides of this industry is the impact it’s having on our communities, and it’s providing a lot of new opportunities and jobs,” she said. “It’s providing a lot of work for people, even tapping into farmers and other people who have services to offer and know what they’re doing.”

The education aspect Modestow touched on is one that continues in the store, Zatyrka said. The sales associates — he prefers that title to the flip industry term ‘budtenders’ — are the same ones who have worked with medical patients for a long time, and they have the training to dig deep into the science behind the products, so they can effectively explain them.

“We understand it’s a product that needs to be consumed safely, and we take that seriously,” he said. “We don’t want to be liable for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and eats an entire chocolate bar and has to go to the ER. We do all in our power to prevent that from happening.”

The coming months and years will see more education (and more tax revenues) as pot-shop openings pick up the pace — including Evergreen Strategies, LLC, which recently inked a host-community agreement with Belchertown to bring a facility to that town as early as this fall.

The Boston Globe recently cited industry analysts who say Massachusetts has a much slower local approval process and a more complex system to navigate than other states, and the state Cannabis Control Commission has placed a premium on an adult-use regulatory structure that supports public health and public safety. The measured pace ensures that stores pass inspections, sell lab-tested products, hire vetted workers, and track their products.

“It’s a growing industry, and will continue to grow,” said Zatyrka, who plans to open an adult-use dispensary in Springfield and has a cultivating and manufacturing license in Pennsylvania as well. Meanwhile, INSA is doubling its cultivation — located directly above the Easthampton store — and is looking to triple it in the future. “We’re still a few years out before we can meet the demands of the state. So it’s going to be hard work until then to keep up our supply with demand.”

The work is rewarding, though, especially for someone who treated his chronic pain for more than 15 years with oxycontin, oxycodone, morphine, and methadone, and suffered side effects that drastically outweighed the benefits.

“Thanks to cannabis, I was able to stop taking them,” Zatyrka said. “Cannabis helped with the withdrawals, and now I only use cannabis to treat my chronic pain, and it works 100 times better than all the opioids. I know firsthand the power of cannabis versus painkillers.”

He tells that story not because it’s unique, but because it’s representative of many people he comes across, with stories about how cannabis has helped them with seizures, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. And if legal adult use is helping to tear down the last bits of stigma around cannabis, he’s all for it.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear the stories and how grateful people are,” he said. “They’re able to get benefits from cannabis, and don’t have to hide it like they once did.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
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
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment

Understanding PFML

John Gannon says there are always hot topics within the broad realm of employment law. And sometimes — actually quite often these days — there are what he called “sizzling hot” topics.

The state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law certainly falls in that latter category. Provisions of the bill, specifically the contributions to be paid by employers, go into effect on July 1. The actual law itself doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2021, but the time between now and then will go by quickly, said Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, adding that employers should do whatever they can to be ready. And there are things they can do, which we’ll get to in a minute.

First, the law itself. Gannon used the single word ‘scary’ to describe it, and he was referring to the reaction of employers large and small who simply don’t know how this piece of legislation, which makes the acronym PFML a new and important part of the business lexicon, will affect their business but have a good right to be scared because of how generous it is.

“This is a payroll tax at its core. So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

Gannon is expecting the Paid Family and Medical Leave Law to be among the main focal points of conversation at the firm’s annual Labor and Employment Law Conference, set for May 21 at the Sheraton Springfield. The conference is staged each year to help local businesses stay abreast of laws and regulations relating to labor issues, said Gannon, and this year there will certainly be a number of issues to discuss. Indeed, breakout sessions are slated on a host of topics, including PFML; wage-and-hour mistakes; harassment, discrimination, and why employers get sued; a labor and employment-law update, how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations (there will be a panel discussion on that topic); and how to conduct an internal investigation.

But Gannon told BusinessWest that paid family and medical leave will likely be the focus of much of the discussion and many of the questions, primarily because the law represents a significant change in the landscape, and business owners and human resources personnel have questions about what’s coming at them.

The first of these questions concerns the contributions to start July 1.

“This is a payroll tax at its core,” he explained. “So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

A 30-page set of draft regulations was recently released by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development’s Department of Family and Medical Leave, and that same office has issued a toolkit for employers with information on everything from remitting and paying contributions to notifying their workforce to applying for exemptions.

There’s quite a bit to keep track of, said Gannon, adding that, under the new law, Massachusetts employees will be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave (up to 26 weeks in certain circumstances) and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. In most cases, leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced-schedule basis.

Family leave can be taken to bond with a new child, for qualifying exigency related to a family member on (or called to) active duty or to care for a family member who is in the service, or to care for a family member with a “serious health condition.” Medical leave can be taken for the employee’s own “serious health condition.”

 

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated. How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

In most cases, the annual cap for family leave is 12 weeks, 20 weeks for medical leave, and 26 weeks total cap for both, if needed.

The employee must give at least 30 days notice of the need for leave or as much notice as practicable. The weekly benefit amount maximum is $850 to start; in future years, it will be capped at 64% of state average weekly wage. The weekly benefits will be funded by contributions from payroll deductions into a state trust fund. The initial rate will be 0.063% of the employee’s wages. Employers may require employees to contribute up to 40% toward medical leave and up to 100% for family leave. Employers with fewer than 25 employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the contributions.

Employers must continue employee health-insurance benefits and premium contributions during any period of family or medical leave, said Gannon, and they must restore employees who return from leave to their previous, or an equivalent, position, with the same status, pay, benefits, and seniority, barring intervening layoffs or changed operating conditions.

There are many other conditions and bits of fine print, he told BusinessWest, adding that, while Jan. 1, 2021 is a long seven business quarters away, business owners and managers can and should start to prepare themselves for that day.

They can start by asking questions and getting answers, he said, adding that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have not had to deal with federal family medical leave regulations and thus are treading into uncharted waters.

“They’re going to have to start thinking about how they’re going to manage this from a staffing perspective,” he said, adding that he is expecting a number of queries along these lines at the May 21 conference and the months to follow.

“Employers have to start thinking about this and getting ready for this now because of how generous the leave portion of this is,” he explained. “This is going to be a real challenge for employers.”

But overall, it’s just one of many challenges facing employers in the wake of the #metoo movement and other forces within employment law, all of which can have a significant impact on a business and its relative health and well-being.

Handling requests for reasonable accommodations is another area of concern, he noted, and that’s why the conference will feature a panel of experts addressing what has become a somewhat tricky subject for many business owners and managers.

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated,” he explained. “How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

For more information on the conference, visit skoler-abbott.com/training-programs.

— George O’Brien

Insurance

Culture of Coverage

Gov. Charlie Baker announced that the Massachusetts Health Connector completed Open Enrollment with the highest membership in the 13-year history of the state’s health-insurance exchange, covering more than 282,000 people with health insurance.

“The Health Connector just completed its most successful Open Enrollment since the start of the Affordable Care Act, signing up more than 65,000 new people with health insurance coverage,” Baker said. “Massachusetts leads the way with the best insured rate in the country, with over 97% of our residents covered due in part to the Health Connector’s strong efforts to create a culture of coverage in the Commonwealth.”

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added that “the Health Connector plays an important role in ensuring communities across the Commonwealth have access to affordable, high-quality healthcare. Over the last four years, the Connector has worked tirelessly to transform the exchange into a functional and reliable service, as is evident by its current milestone enrollment figures.”

“Massachusetts shines as a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to getting people enrolled in health insurance — and maintaining coverage. That success is built off outreach and education efforts that effectively and efficiently target the state’s underinsured communities and get more people covered. This year, the Connector made inroads in these tough-to-reach uninsured groups.”

The Health Connector held Open Enrollment from Nov. 1 to Jan. 23, twice as long as the federal government’s Nov. 1 to Dec. 15 open period, to ensure Massachusetts residents had as much time as possible to shop for affordable coverage. Throughout Open Enrollment, Massachusetts residents were encouraged to get covered or stay covered, provide security for their health and financial well-being, and comply with the state’s individual mandate. Assistance was available through community-based health navigators around the state.

“Massachusetts shines as a model for the rest of the nation when it comes to getting people enrolled in health insurance — and maintaining coverage,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, the Connector board chair. “That success is built off outreach and education efforts that effectively and efficiently target the state’s underinsured communities and get more people covered. This year, the Connector made inroads in these tough-to-reach uninsured groups.”

As of March 1, 282,114 people were enrolled in health insurance, including 209,973 people in ConnectorCare, the state’s innovative affordability program, through which state subsidies are made available on top of federal tax credits, resulting in lower premium costs for members — including $0 premiums for the lowest-income enrollees — while also offering no or low co-pays and no deductibles. Overall, Health Connector membership rose 13%, compared to a 4% enrollment decrease through the federal healthcare.gov platform. In addition, 18,000 individuals receive dental insurance through the Connector.

“With stable operations and a clear message to get covered and stay covered, this was our most successful Open Enrollment to date, with high retention rates and strong new enrollment,” said Louis Gutierrez, executive director of the Massachusetts Health Connector. “We are going to keep working to ensure that everyone in Massachusetts is covered.”

The Health Connector placed extra focus on outreach and public education about affordable coverage options in communities with higher rates of uninsurance and worked to raise public awareness about coverage generally. At the close of Open Enrollment, the Connector had enrolled more than 65,000 people who did not have coverage at the start of Open Enrollment, about 22% more than last year.

Employment

Ready or Not…

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq. and Daniel C. Carr, Esq.

Paid Family and Medical Leave is on the way in Massachusetts.

In order to implement the new program, the newly created Department of Family and Medical Leave has released drafts of the regulations that will govern this new type of leave. Public listening sessions are now being held to allow members of the public to provide input on the draft regulations.

Timothy M. Netkovick

Timothy M. Netkovick

Daniel C. Carr

Daniel C. Carr

Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.

All employers will be covered by the new Massachusetts law. Although there are some similarities between the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the new Massachusetts law, some provisions of the new Paid Family and Medical Leave will require all employers to modify elements of their current practices. For example, if your company already qualifies for federal FMLA, it will also qualify for Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave.

However, you should not assume that your company will automatically be in compliance with the new law just because you already have policies and practices in place to comply with the federal FMLA. You will need to review your policies now because employers required to make contributions must begin doing so on July 1, 2019.

On Jan. 1, 2021, all employees in the Commonwealth will be eligible for Paid Family and Medical Leave. Paid leave will be funded by employee payroll contributions and required contributions from companies with an average of 25 or more employees.

If you are a seasonal business with a fluctuating workforce, how do you know if your company has an average of 25 employees for purposes of this law? The current draft regulations make it clear that the average number of employees is determined by counting the number of full-time, part-time, seasonal, and temporary employees on the payroll during each pay period and then dividing by the number of pay periods. If the resulting average is 25 or greater, your company will need to pay into the Family and Employment Security Trust.

“Although there will undoubtedly be changes to the current draft before they are officially adopted, Massachusetts employers should be aware of the draft regulations so they can start planning for the implementation of Paid Family and Medical Leave now.”

In one major variation from federal FMLA, Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave will be administered by the state, unless an employer applies for an exemption to use a ‘private plan’ to administer the leave themselves or through a third-party vendor. If an employer wants to utilize a private plan, the employer will need to apply, and be granted the exemption, annually.

At this point, the only requirement for a private plan is that it must provide for the same or greater benefits than the employee would have if the program was being administered by the state. The required logistics of implementing a private plan are unclear. The logistics of implementing a private plan will likely be addressed in the final regulations and advisory opinions as the 2021 start date draws closer.

In addition to paid leave, there are also several other major variations from federal FMLA law. One major variation is the amount of leave available to employees. While federal FMLA allows for a total of 12 total weeks of job-protected leave during a 12-month period regardless of the qualifying reason, the Massachusetts law differentiates between types of leave.

For instance, under the Massachusetts law, employees are allowed up to 20 weeks for an employee’s own serious health condition; up to 12 weeks to care for a family member’s serious health condition; up to 12 weeks for the birth, adoption, or foster-care placement of a child; and up to 26 weeks in order to care for a family member who is a covered service member. While an employee is out on leave, the amount of their benefit is based upon the employee’s individual rate of pay, but with a cap of 64% of the state average weekly wage. This cap will initially be $850 per week.

Employers will need to begin assessing their responsibilities under this program as well as the steps necessary to comply with these requirements. Employers that are required to make contributions to the Family and Employment Security Trust will want to start the process of deciding whether they intend to utilize a private plan, and if so, they should consult with employment counsel as they prepare their plan to insure compliance with the unique provisions of the new Massachusetts law.

Paid Family and Medical Leave will continue to be a hot-button topic for the foreseeable future. It is important for employers to continually monitor the progress of the law as it is being implemented to ensure they will be ready to continue business with minimal disruption on Jan. 1, 2021.

Timothy M. Netkovick, an attorney at Royal, P.C., has more than 15 years of litigation experience, and has successfully tried several cases to verdict. In addition to his trial experience, he has specific experience in handling labor and employment matters before a variety of administrative agencies. He also assists employers with unionized workforces during collective bargaining, at arbitrations, and with respect to employee grievances and unfair labor practice charges; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Daniel C. Carr specializes exclusively in management-side labor and employment law at Royal P.C. He has experience handling a number of labor and employment matters in a variety of courts and administrative agencies. He is also a frequent speaker on a number of legal areas such as discrimination law, employee handbook review, investigation strategies, and various employment-law topics; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Features

High Stakes

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

It’s been an eventful six years since voters first approved marijuana sales to treat medical conditions back in 2012. From that vote sprang New England Treatment Access (NETA) three years ago, and last month, the dispensary became one of just two stores in Massachusetts selling cannabis products for adult recreational use as well. NETA’s co-founder says the company has proven itself to be a good neighbor and an economic driver — and promises to be even more so in what is certainly a bold new era for marijuana in the Bay State.

When Kevin Fisher came to Massachusetts to help launch a medical-marijuana dispensary, he was already a veteran of the industry in Colorado, with plenty of passion to boot.

Fisher’s family, like so many others, has been struck by cancer, he said, and the idea — first as owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado and then, starting in 2015, as co-founder of New England Treatment Access (NETA) — was always to draw in people with chronic and even terminal illness who may consider cannabis a viable therapy.

By the time NETA opened its doors in Northampton and Brookline, the anecdotal evidence for the drug’s effectiveness had been well-established elsewhere, he noted.

“We knew patients were using these therapies for a broad range of conditions,” Fisher told BusinessWest, before praising the law crafted after voters approved legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“In Massachusetts, they got it right. Instead of legislators playing physician, the law granted physicians the freedom to make recommendations as they saw fit. It was important to maintain the sanctity of that patient-physician relationship. And we wanted to make sure we would provide quality products for patients to meet that broad range of conversations with physicians.”

Now, another law has significantly altered NETA’s business model. On Nov. 20, the company’s Northampton site, as well as Cultivate Holdings, LLC in Leicester, became the first facilities in the Northeast to sell marijuana to the public for adult recreational use.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘customer service associates.’ We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

At a press event after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission gave the go-ahead, Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, said the shop is “beyond thrilled to be a part of this historic moment when NETA Northampton finally gets to open its doors to adults over 21 to provide safe, legal, and regulated cannabis to the people of Massachusetts.”

It’s certainly a welcome shift for many in the Valley, but it comes with challenges — concerning consumer safety, public perceptions, even traffic on Conz Street, which backed up significantly at certain times in the days following Nov. 20. But Fisher said NETA has long been preparing to meet them.

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates, with some of the ‘flower’ available for purchase.

Early on, for example, the organization brought in Leslie Laurie, former head of Tapestry Health and a long-time expert in public health in Western Mass., as its regional director. “She had expertise we could benefit from, a perspective on patients’ needs in Western Mass.,” Fisher said.

The founders also assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that the progressive culture in Northampton would prove welcoming to a dispensary that first sold cannabis products to a patients with prescriptions, and, now, to any adult with an ID.

“We felt [Northampton] was the place to go, and the process was pretty smooth,” he added. “I’m thankful for Leslie; she brought a credibility to our organization and the relationships we built with government and law enforcement. And we’ve only continued to build those relationships during the adult-use licensing, because they could appreciate the solid community partners we have been.”

Opening a medical-marijuana dispensary in Brookline, however, was a “whole different beast,” Fisher noted. “There were about 100 meetings required — some open to the media and the public, many with public officials … just meeting after meeting, a lot of hand-holding and reassurance. It was a very rigorous process.”

Despite that tougher road than the Northampton one, NETA felt affirmed when its license with Brookline came up for renewal after the first year. “The town said we didn’t even need to show up for the hearing; it was guaranteed. It made us feel like we had operated in the way we had promised.”

By contrast, Northampton was always a smoother fit, and is currently the only NETA site approved for recreational sales, as the licensing process continues in Brookline.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use,” Fisher said of the Paradise City, adding that NETA has never taken that goodwill for granted. “We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

Time will tell if issues arise, of course, but for now, Fisher is pleased with the business — customers are still waiting in line most days — and NETA’s continued growth as what he calls a true community partner.

The Ayes Have It

In 2016, four years after the similar vote on medical marijuana, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational sales to adults age 21 years and older. If they present a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license, ID card, or passport) for verification, customers may purchase up to 1 ounce of ‘flower’ or 5 grams of concentrate. Certain potency restrictions, including a 5 mg serving-size limit for ‘edibles,’ apply to non-medical products.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use. We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

However, Fisher was quick to note that, with the introduction of recreational sales, NETA’s medical-marijuana patients will remain the shop’s priority. Patients with prescriptions have their own lines, and at least 35% of each day’s inventory is reserved for patients. In short, the customer experience has not changed for people seeking to fill scripts.

As for those waiting in line for recreational sales, Fisher said it typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to get through, but technology is available to shorten the wait NETA uses a reserve-ahead app to view the daily menu, reserve an order online, and have it ready for pickup at a certain time later that day. In addition, for people looking to gauge the wait at any given time, NETA offers continuous live wait-time updates on its website.

It has also doubled customer service staff and remodeled the stores to offer nearly twice as many service stations.

Also ramped up are efforts to educate customers about cannabis products — a key factor, considering that many users are likely to be inexperienced.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘patient service associates,’” Fisher said, noting that he prefers that over the flip industry term ‘budtenders.’ “We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

That training — about two months worth — includes everything from understanding the core components of cannabis products to encouraging new users to ‘start low and go slow.’

“That’s a message we drive home again and again to our PSAs and our customers. There will always be more cannabis. So find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and start easy so you don’t have negative outcomes.”

In addition to the ‘low and slow’ guidance, NETA’s consumer-education materials emphasize elements like a ‘what product is right for me’ guide; advice against driving or using heavy machinery under the influence, public consumption, and traveling across state lines; a potency and tolerance tutorial, safe storage; and recognizing substance-abuse signs and identifying resources for additional help.

Recognizing that some of the opposition to legalized marijuana came from individuals concerned about products getting into children’s hands, all NETA product packaging is child-resistant and labeled with revised warnings and clear information to ensure that people can identify edible products as marijuana-infused and not safe for children.

In addition to training staff to emphasize responsible consumption when interacting with consumers, NETA has retained a full-time training coordinator to continuously develop and manage retail-staff training.

Understanding dosage levels is is important, Fisher said, as are reminders that the effects differ between smoking marijuana and ingesting edibles. In the latter case, “you could see a delayed onset, so don’t eat that whole bag if you don’t feel it’s working. That sounds like simple advice, but it’s a big deal for us.”

As it is for the Cannabis Control Commission, which encourages prospective customers to know the law and consume responsibly.

“This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state,” Chairman Steven Hoffman said last month. “To get  here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections, and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets  up and running. As patrons look forward to visiting Massachusetts stores, we hope they will do their part by first familiarizing themselves with the law and understanding what is required of responsible consumers.”

Growing Concerns

Beyond Northampton and Brookline, Fisher said, NETA’s cultivation facility in Franklin — which has nearly doubled its capacity in anticipation of adult use — continues to invest heavily in research and is developing a pipeline of products designed to improve customers’ experiences and address specific medical conditions and symptoms.

And, make no mistake, even though adults can buy cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription, he added, it still makes sense to receive and renew certification as a patient — not just because of the lessened wait to be served, but because patients also avoid the 20% tax on adult-use sales, and can access a yearly voucher program to help offset the cost of being certified.

He’s also excited about the potential in Massachusetts, considering the scientific and medical resources available locally, to continue researching the benefits of marijuana from a medical perspective. “Clearly, we’re going to get more research; we have some of the brightest minds in the world of healthcare here in Western Mass.”

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

Overall, Fisher is a believer in the benefits of this industry, in terms of healthcare, quality of life, and economic benefits, like taxes paid and workers hired. The company employs close to 600 people, more than 100 in Western Mass. alone.

“Billions of dollars are spent yearly in this country [on marijuana], so by regulating it, there’s economic impact that can be realized, taxes to be paid, safety measures put in place … you’re not in someone’s car in an alley.”

And for adults who have no particular health condition but simply want to partake as an escape from life’s stresses, well, he believes there are far worse alternatives for that.

“That’s not to encourage broader consumption of cannabis, but let’s normalize it so parents can talk to their kids about it,” he told BusinessWest. “In Colorado, where it’s a mature industry, the youth rates have gone down. It’s just less cool for kids. There’s more open dialogue. Parents are having more discussions about it.”

And, he was quick to add, that guy selling pot on the corner, in states where it remains illegal, doesn’t check an ID like a responsible dispensary does.

“We’re bringing it from the darkness into the light and realizing a lot of positive outcomes,” he said. “On balance, this is a good thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — 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 a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $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 plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year 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. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include 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.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
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

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — 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 address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

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.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. 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, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]