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Daily News

NORTHAMPTON — Colebrook Realty Services Inc. announced the sale of the 33,228 square-foot retail building on Main Street in Northampton between Main Street, LLP and 175 Main Street, LLC — a subsidiary of Redstone. The property is located at 175 Main St. in Northampton.

Redstone is a property management and development company based in Burlington, Vt. It has been investing in properties that inspire pride and interaction for nearly 30 years, with a particular focus on commercial real estate, multi-family, and student housing throughout New England. The acquisition of 175 Main St. represents Redstone’s affinity for the former Faces building and Northampton’s strong downtown area, said Joe Engelken, Senior Vice President of Acquisition & Development for the company.

“Redstone is delighted to have the opportunity to acquire a prominent piece of Northampton’s Downtown and become a part of the community,” he said. “We are excited for the coming years and will strive to recreate the sense of destination that Faces once had.”

Half of the property has remained vacant since the iconic Face’s store shut down in April, 2019. TD Bank leases space at the building across from Thornes Marketplace. The sale of the property was handled by Mitch Bolotin and Jack Dill of Colebrook. “The Faces building is an important landmark for Northampton’s Main Street,” said Mitch Bolotin, “and Redstone is the right development group to manage the property growing forward.”

The Cannabis Industry

Hire Calling

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

 

Charlotte Hanna calls it “moving from bullets to buds.”

That’s how her company, Community Growth Partners (CGP), has characterized the renovation of the former Yankee Hill Machine plant in Northampton, once used to manufacture rifle silencers and accessories, into a cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facility.

But it also signifies something even more powerful, she said — an ongoing partnership between CGP and Roca, an agency that helps young men traumatized by urban violence to build emotional and workplace skills and forge a new path.

CGP has been employing Roca clients for more than a year at its flagship cannabis retail store in Great Barrington known as Rebelle, and will create about 50 more such jobs at the 23,000-square-foot building on Ladd Avenue in Northampton later this year.

It’s a way, Hanna said, to create pathways into a fast-growing industry for populations that were negatively impacted by the marijuana laws of the past.

“I like to call it just and equitable capitalism,” she added. “It’s a for-profit venture, but we’re trying to do things in a way that positively impacts people. I think the cannabis industry is the perfect industry for that. Our country put a lot of people in jail because of cannabis; a lot of wrongs need to be fixed. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to build this social experiment to see if we can have a company that does well, but also does good.”

 

Growth Opportunity

Hanna was seeking a career change when she began researching opportunities in the cannabis field.

“I’m a relative newcomer to the business,” she said. “I started exploring the industry in 2018, figuring out where the licensing opportunities may be. I’m based in New York City, and my home state, at the time, was very restrictive, with no opportunities to get into the business — so I turned my attention to the closest state to my hometown, where licensing was just opening up.”

Early in her career, she worked with grassroots organizations on social-justice issues, but found it difficult to live in New York on a nonprofit salary, so she pivoted to Wall Street, where she worked in finance with Goldman Sachs for a decade, followed by ventures in real-estate development.

Cannabis is what she calls the third phase of her career — and one in which she can once again work for social justice, this time in the form of social equity through employment. She was familiar with Roca from time spent in Boston, but didn’t know the organization was active in Western Mass. until, while driving in downtown Holyoke one day, she spotted a man wearing a Roca T-shirt, pulled over, and asked him about it. As it turned out, Roca had recently opened an office in Holyoke, and she stopped by.

“I’m excited to be very transparent about what we are and what we do, and I hope we find values-driven consumers who want to buy from a company that’s trying to do good.”

“I said, ‘how about entrusting your young people with me to work in the cannabis industry?’” she told BusinessWest. “I was surprised with how enlightened they were. They said, ‘we can’t believe no one has come to us before. We think it’s a great idea for our young people; we don’t have a problem with cannabis.’ That’s how I found them, by coincidence. No, kismet — it was meant to be.”

She’s a believer in supporting diversity in the cannabis business for the same reason the state established social-equity guidelines intended to bring opportunities in the industry to populations hard-hit by the U.S. government’s war on drugs that began in the 1970s.

Charlotte Hanna and members of Roca celebrate

Charlotte Hanna and members of Roca celebrate the start of construction at CGP’s Northampton facility.

“The war on drugs disproportionately impacted people of color,” Hanna said. “Great Barrington isn’t the most diverse place in the world, but I think we have good people who come from all backgrounds.”

For some of the Roca workers, it’s a long commute to that corner of the Berkshires, and some don’t have cars, so Hanna pays the agency to drive them back and forth. Northampton, as a second CGP site in Western Mass., may provide some flexibility in that regard. “The commitment at Roca runs deep,” she said. “They feel good about what we’re doing.”

So does Northampton, she said, praising the city for being especially friendly to cannabis businesses and not requiring a special-use permit as an additional layer of bureaucracy, simply a host-community agreement and a building permit. The site is also located in an opportunity zone, which confers additional tax advantages to businesses that invest economically in low-income neighborhoods.

“We’re going to be creating a lot of jobs here,” she said. “We’ll be staffing up with a lot of entry-level jobs from Roca, but also opportunities for management jobs; we’ll be building up our skilled extraction and manufacturing and processing teams as well.”

 

Taking Control

Hanna said she’s a fan of the Roca model of training, one that puts clients in lengthy, simulated work experiences and stresses job-readiness skills, so they’re ready to enter any work environment for further training in that field. In other words, Roca is teaching young people how to learn and be adaptable, so their opportunities are unlimited.

Cannabis seems to be an industry of unlimited growth as well — or, at least abundant growth, if the continuing proliferation of cultivation, manufacturing, retail, and other types of businesses is any indication.

While COVID-19 slowed the pace of fundraising and business development last year, Hanna said, she’s looking forward to opening the next phase of the CGP network. Besides the Northampton expansion, current growth initiatives include a wholesale and delivery license in Massachusetts, a pending craft-grow license in Illinois, and Rebelle’s new lifestyle-focused line of cannabis products and accessories that will launch in 2021.

“We always wanted to be vertically integrated,” Hanna said of the ability to control her own products from seed to sale. She pointed to the pandemic-fueled supply shortages in many industries last year as a good reason to take control of her own supply chain.

She added that opening the retail side of the business before the production side also helps the company learn what types of products customers want before they start making them.

“We live in a more transparent world than ever, and I hope consumers are more educated than ever,” she said. “I’m excited to be very transparent about what we are and what we do, and I hope we find values-driven consumers who want to buy from a company that’s trying to do good.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Budding Connections

Stephanie McNair (left)and Nicole Desjardins say they want customers to stay, learn something, and enjoy the experience of buying cannabis.

It’s called Budstock.

As the first major community event staged at Turning Leaf Centers in Northampton, Stephanie McNair believes the three-day event — slated for April 16-18 and boasting the cheeky tagline ‘stock up on your favorite bud before 4/20’ — will help raise the new dispensary’s profile in a city that has rolled out the welcome mat for numerous cannabis enterprises.

Saturday will feature several music artists, as well as a food truck, in the large parking lot behind the King Street building, while inside, local artist Rodney Madison will display his works, and at the dispensary’s ‘craft bar,’ a series of workshops over the three days will teach visitors the finer points of concentrates, edibles, vapes, joint rolling, and more.

In short, it’s about education, entertainment, and community, said McNair, who opened Turning Leaf along with co-owner Mary Anne Gonzalez last month with the goal of not only inviting customers in, but asking them to stay a while.

“The cannabis industry in Western Mass. is evolving at a record pace, and with more and more cannabis retailers entering the market, it’s time to ‘turn the leaf’ to more of an experience, instead of the cattle-in, cattle-out type of doing business,” McNair told BusinessWest. “That’s why we have the craft bar, which is a place where customers can take time to educate themselves about our ever-changing products, gather with their friends, attend demonstrations, have rolling parties, and so on.”

As more dispensaries and other cannabis-related business spring up throughout Western Mass., McNair said it’s increasingly important for new enterprises to set themselves apart through price, product quality, and in other ways.

“We wanted to create a place where everyone can feel comfortable and have a good time and stay a while.”

At Turning Leaf, that means an emphasis on community and local connections, from events and craft-bar experiences to partnering with local growers and manufacturers to bring products to customers they can’t get at every shop.

“We’ve gained strong relationships with local craft growers and innovators, who are making more elevated products every day,” she said. “We’ve taken the time to cultivate a very eclectic menu with every product category, at every price point, with every type of cannbis consumer.”

It also means bringing needed exposure to local musicians and artists through indoor and outdoor performances and exhibits.

“Supporting our local community is something that is very important to us as a company,” she added. “We are looking to display and promote local artists and have event demonstrations and educational seminars in our space.”

 

Comfort Level

With a background in real estate and community-relations marketing, McNair found a business partner in Gonzalez with a similar vision for a cannabis business. “Being a Western Mass. native, I knew this was a place I wanted to be. It was just an easy fit for me.”

Central to that vision is a highly personal approach to product sales. “We wanted to create a place where everyone can feel comfortable and have a good time and stay a while. We have great parking, it’s easy to find, you can go sit at the craft bar and talk with our dispensary staff, and we want to make sure every customer leaves feeling completely satisfied with the products they’ve purchased.”

Nicole Desjardins, marketing manager at Turning Leaf, said they want to demystify cannabis use and, for newcomers, take away any anxiety.

“A lot of it is addressing the stigma through community — to find out what you don’t know with other people and have fun,” she said. “You don’t know how to roll a joint? We make that accessible in a fun way. Instead of just walking away with what you purchased, why not walk away with knowledge from some people you shared an experience with?”

McNair said her own experience with the city of Northampton has been a positive one.

“They’ve just been so welcoming for us as a local business coming in, giving us their support,” she said, adding that Mayor David Narkewicz and city boards have been extremely helpful, as has the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. “Our host-community agreement and our outreach with the city was just a really happy experience for us. Everybody in Northampton really wants to help you make your business successful, and it shows.”

Meanwhile, customer support has come from all over, including visitors from Connecticut and New York, McNair added. “They’re intrigued by looking at our craft bar and our space, talking to us about cannabis and local art … we’ve been well-received in the past few weeks.”

She’s not worried about the number of businesses setting up shop in Northampton and neighboring communities; in fact, she sees it as a plus, generating a growing energy in the local cannabis trade that promises to lift all boats.

“Northampton is definitely making its mark, just as they did with the restaurant industry. More is better, and people want choices. They’re making Northampton a destination for cannabis.”

Desjardins agreed. “Every business has a different profile, a different flavor. I think Stephanie is absolutely right — I don’t see it as competition; there’s enough for everyone. Northampton is a destination city.”

 

What’s on the Menu?

McNail said Turning Leaf will continue to hone its product offerings, always with an eye toward an eclectic menu of options culled largely from area producers — again, in an effort to build a local-first model.

“We’re really committed to supporting our local community,” she noted. “We want to highlight local growers as well as live music and artists, and we also have made a commitment to have all of our sales associates certified with responsible vendor training before day one, which is no small task. And we continue to provide them with education so they can give you the very best service when it comes to what exactly it is you’re looking for, or perhaps not looking for.”

And if you’re not sure, just belly up to the bar and ask.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year — because advocacy is needed, and events are few.

For the past four years, Amy Cahillane has led the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) in its many efforts to boost vibrancy in the city’s center.

The DNA typically handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales.

Note that word ‘typically.’ Because this hasn’t been a typical year.

“The pandemic changed it completely,” said Cahillane, the DNA’s executive director. “We usually focus heavily on events — it’s sort of our centerpiece. In light of COVID, I’d say 98% of our events were unable to happen. Arts Night Out is a monthly gathering where we invite lots of people into a small space to share food and drinks. That was one of our first COVID casualties — there’s no way to do that safely.”

But the DNA’s second major role is advocacy, making sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall and that people feel their voice is heard, through public meetings and community forums on issues that impact businesses. That function was magnified in this unusual year.

“As everything changed, we were forced to change our focus because our small-business community is in desperate need of help, as is every other downtown in this area,” she told BusinessWest. “Even had our events not been canceled, it became clear pretty quickly we’d have to change our focus to advocacy at both the state and local levels, just to keep businesses afloat.”

Much of that advocacy came in the form of pushing for state and local aid, while other efforts were narrowly targeted, like making sure downtown parking was altered so restaurants could expand outdoor seating — “anything we could think of that could help them carry on through this trying to time, until we see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And the city’s leaders have been responsive, Cahillane said, from a round of direct emergency grants to the business community to making the changes needed to bolster restaurants.

“They stepped up right away to work with our organization and downtown restaurants to make it possible to have outdoor seating, and make it last as long as possible. They got that up and running pretty quickly, and the License Commission was very fast turning around approvals for those who wanted to serve liquor outside.”

Debra Flynn, who owns Eastside Grill, was among the first downtown restaurateurs to pivot to curbside takeout and delivery once eateries were forced to shut down in early spring. “We had no idea how to do it,” she said, adding that it was important to buy the right containers to keep food warm and make sure meals were presented with care, even in the boxes.

“I can’t complain right now; we’ve had such wonderful support from our community,” she said, noting that she was able to set about 30 seats outside and eventually bring patrons back inside as well. “But I’m nervous going forward.”

“It’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

That’s because the weather is getting colder, and while regulars are comfortable with the safety protocols being taken inside, she worries that folks who haven’t visited recently might not want to do so during flu season. And while the governor’s new mandate that businesses need to close by 9:30 p.m. doesn’t affect Eastside, it does impact the operations of other downtown restaurants. “They’re very nervous and upset about this whole thing,” she noted.

 

Shifting Winds

Alana Traub, who owns Honey & Wine, a clothing shop in Thornes Marketplace, has had a worrisome time this year, too.

“Everything changed for my business with the pandemic, when all businesses closed for quite a while,” she told BusinessWest. “When it finally did reopen in June, it was extremely slow going; I think people were really nervous to go out, and maybe they didn’t even know if we were open or not.

“Since then, it’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

If there’s a downtown that’s well-positioned to rebound after the pandemic, Cahillane said, it’s Northampton.

“Even among my circle of friends, we are dying to go back out to restaurants, go bar hopping,” she said. “I think these businesses downtown are doing everything they can to hang on.”

Perhaps the economic shakeup — and some business closures that have followed in its wake — will present opportunities for some new faces to enter the downtown scene, she added. “A pandemic seems an odd time to start a business, but we’ve seen several open up; we might see a new round of creative, exciting businesses downtown.”

Lindsay Pope made the jump over the summer, purchasing Yoga Sanctuary, also at Thornes, from former owner Sara Rose Page on Aug. 1. A former member at the studio, Pope said she decided to become a business owner in this uncertain time because she feared Page may not have found another buyer.

“I feel like this time is incredibly liberating,” Pope said. “What do I have to lose? The alternate was that we could have lost this space, and instead, we’re going to give it another shot.”

With the times in mind, she launched not only reinvigorated studio programming in September, but also new online programming and an online video-library platform. “We’re going to try to evolve to meet the needs of the times and the next generation. That’s what we’re all being called to do right now in the chaos that’s happening.”

Cahillane said many other businesses have pivoted as well — although she admitted she’s a little sick of that word.

“Restaurants that never did curbside were nervous to try it, but our community showed up and started ordering curbside. Stores that never did local deliveries wondered if people would take advantage of it, but they did. People definitely have been incredibly supportive of downtown — the question is whether that’s enough.”

 

Holding Pattern

Before the pandemic struck, the DNA — which cites beautification among its top goals, along with programming and advocacy — was coming off a couple of years that saw a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade to make the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

To say 2020 has been a different sort of year is an understatement, although traffic has returned to some degree in recent months, and many businesses, including those in the retail marijuana trade, continue to do well. But anxiety lingers for many.

“I think everyone is concerned,” Cahillane said. “There is certainly more traffic than there was in March, April, or May, for sure. But winter is coming. It’s easy right now to park your car and walk outside, or enjoy some coffee on the sidewalk, when it’s sunny and pretty and the leaves are changing.

“But I think the first sign of snowfall will change that picture pretty dramatically,” she went on. “Are people going to be comfortable shopping indoors in the winter? I don’t know. Or sit inside a restaurant in the winter? I don’t know. And because so much is unknown about COVID, are people going to be extra anxious during flu season, when they don’t know if the person next to them has a cold or something more? There are so many unknowns. People are definitely concerned.”

Yet, Traub senses optimism from other business owners in Thornes and downtown in general, not because the pandemic is close to ending, but because Northampton is a strong enough business community to fully rebound once it does.

“That’s the general consensus,” she said. “I think everyone is also being realistic because no one knows what’s ahead. This is so unprecedented.”

Still, she moved her five-year-old business here from Franklin County for a reason. “I would call this the shopping destination in Western Mass. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and I’ve been happy with my move to Northampton.”

And waiting for a time when the city is truly on the move again.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

HADLEY — Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley, part of the TommyCar Auto Group, will move from South Deerfield to its new location at 48 Damon Road in Northampton on Sept. 1.

“This is an exciting change for us as Northampton is such a wonderful community and has been incredibly welcoming,” said TommyCar co-owner Carla Cosenzi. “The dealership will be more conveniently located for our customers, right off the highway. They will still get the same outstanding service they have come to expect from us, along with a greater inventory and a more spacious showroom and service department.”

TommyCar Auto Group already has three dealerships in Northampton — Country Hyundai, Genesis of Northampton and Northampton Volkswagen — as well as Country Nissan in Hadley.

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]

Sports & Leisure

Striking a Chord

Ruth Griggs’ passion for jazz music and a desire to give back to the community is what inspired her to reboot the festival.

One of the many things that is most loved about the city of Northampton is its walkability, allowing both residents and visitors to appreciate the uniqueness of this eclectic community with ease. On Oct. 4, jazz music will radiate from several corners of the city, signaling the start of the annual Northampton Jazz Festival.

Founded in 2011, the festival was conceived by five people who wanted to find a way to combine their passion for jazz with their love for Northampton. So they put together an event complete with food trucks, vendors, and, of course, lots of jazz.

But their operating model became too expensive to maintain, so the festival was discontinued after its 2015 show.

After a two-year hiatus, however, a team of dedicated individuals determined to bring it back, and thus, the Northampton Jazz Festival 2.0 was born.

Thanks to the hard work of a small but dedicated team, a beloved event is back and better than ever, they say, and in a more sustainable way to make sure the festival is here to stay.

“We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

Indeed, when Amy Cahillane, director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., approached Ruth Griggs about bringing the festival back, Griggs considered the proprosition a no-brainer. Now president of the festival, Griggs said Cahillane presented a model that offered everything that was lacking before, including strong relationships downtown and with city government.

When Cahillane told her she could help with these missing pieces, Griggs recalled, she said, “you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“I knew one of the things that was lacking in the former iteration of the jazz festival was the kind of support they needed to make this viable,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

She said the idea for this new model is for people to enjoy Northampton and encourage those attending the concerts to stop at the shops downtown.

The Jeremy Turgeon Quintet performs at the Jazz Strut. (Photo by Bobby Davis)

What remains from the old model, however, is the core goal that was established when the festival began: to expose people of all generations, ethnicities, and orientations to jazz music, while also bringing more visitors to the city.

“We want people to walk from concert to concert and get a cup of coffee at the Roost or have lunch at Paul and Elizabeth’s or one of the many restaurants in town,” Griggs said. “We want them to enjoy Northampton and enjoy the jazz.”

More than 2,000 people took in the 2018 festival, coming from across Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut to see locally, regionally, and nationally recognized musicians perform. Twenty jazz performances took place at 17 different venues around downtown Northampton over the course of four days, another twist on the new version of the festival. Previously, the event was staged behind Thornes Marketplace in a parking lot, but Griggs said the new model encourages people to explore the city and gives them a chance to patronize all the shops and restaurants.

With the opening of MGM Springfield in August 2018, one of the stated goals of the festival was to help mitigate the impact of the casino on Northampton, which has, for four decades now, boasted the region’s most vibrant downtown.

In 2018, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allocated $100,000 to the city to develop and implement marketing strategies to keep Northampton a well-known and popular destination for arts and entertainment, shopping, and dining.

“One of the challenges that merchants are facing all around the country is a lack of foot traffic because people are shopping online,” Griggs said. “There’s nothing that’s more important to a retailer than people walking by their store.”

This is especially true for many of the mom-and-pop shops that rely on local business to stay open. Griggs maintains that jazz music lifts people’s spirits and often encourages them to go into a store.

“When you either have music playing in the store or right outside the store, it makes people stop and look and listen and walk into the store in many cases,” she said. “I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”

She also said merchants were happy with the festival last year and thought the festival brought business to the downtown area.

“It exposes Northampton to people that may not have otherwise known about the town, and it reinforces for the community downtown how wonderful it is to be there,” Griggs said. “It’s walkable, it’s friendly, it’s accessible, it’s beautiful. It reinforces what is unique about Northampton.”

Indeed, the show is carefully orchestrated to do just that. Organizers deliberately leave time in between each set of acts so people have an opportunity to walk around and enjoy the city. Beginning with the Jazz Strut on Friday, Oct. 4, free jazz performances will be staged from 5 to 10:30 p.m. at seven Northampton restaurants, bars, and pubs. Each performance lasts two hours and starts at half-hour intervals so festival-goers can walk a short distance and see all the acts if they choose.

“We want people to have an hour to kill in Northampton,” said Griggs. “We build that into the schedule.”

Saturday features jazz musicians at several different venues across town beginning at noon and ending at 6:30 p.m. The headliner, the Kurt Elling Quintet, will perform from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Academy of Music to close out the performances.

Sunday is reserved for the Jazz Brunch at the Delaney House in Holyoke, which serves as a fundraiser for the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program at JFK Middle School.

All this planning is conducted by a team of locals with a passion for jazz. Griggs and Cahillane are joined by Al Blankenship, Mary Lou Rup, Kathy Service, Carol Abbe Smith, Paul Arslanian, Frank Newton, George Kaye, and a dedicated group of volunteers to get the new show on the road.

And since the inaugural run of the new festival went so well last year, Griggs said there was no need to rethink it in any kind of major way.

“I like this festival for Northampton because it’s doable … it’s not too huge, it’s not too complicated, it’s not too expensive,” she said. “I think it’s more important to have a festival that is right-sized for the community so that it can be sustained, rather than having something that’s growing and getting more complicated and this and that. Before you know it, it becomes top-heavy, and you can’t handle it anymore.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year’s festival, there is little doubt that the 2019 festival will once again prove to be an outstanding event for this unique city.

“That combination of the good feelings that music can engender, combined with being in a town like Northampton … that ultimately has an economic impact,” Griggs said. “You’re setting the stage for success.”

— Kayla Ebner

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A rendering of the rail station expansion and renovation, scheduled to be completed this summer.

A Knowledge Corridor study before the Amtrak Vermonter line opened four years ago projected 28 riders per day at the Northampton station. In fact, the average is 59 for the two trains per day — a southbound run that arrives at 2 p.m. and a northbound train at 4 p.m., noted Masterson, the city’s Economic Development director.

“And that’s inconvenient service, in the middle of the afternoon,” added Mayor David Narkewicz. “If they made it convenient — get on in the morning, go to Manhattan, and come back the same day — it would be interesting to see the numbers. Even now, on the weekend, there’s a line around the parking lot, with students and other folks trying to use the service.”

The proposed broadening of the Vermonter service, which would bring two morning trains to Northampton and two more late in the day, will be supported by the expansion of the rail platform at the station. The project to lengthen it and bring it up to ADA code is expected to be completed this summer.

That’s been complemented by a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade, making the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians, to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

Currently, Valley Community Development Corp. is building a $20 million, mixed-use project called the Lumberyard, which will feature 55 residential units, 3,100 square feet of retail space, and 2,200 square feet of office space.

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon at the opening of Conway School of Landscape Design last fall.

“We’ve seen lots of development on Pleasant around the rail,” Narkewicz said, and with good reason. “Millennials and younger people want to live in a place where they don’t have to own a car — they want Uber, car share, bike share, access to rail, access to good bus service. And businesses and housing developers see that and are interested in locating here.

“The whole entrance to the city has been upgraded and improved,” he went on, “and in a way, it helps grow the downtown and creates another corridor for Northampton.”

It’s just one example, Masterson added, of the ways public and private investment spur each other, pumping new life into a city already known for its vibrant economic and cultural life.

It Takes a Village

Take, for instance, the impressive volume of work that continues in the Village Hill neighborhood, including a new, $4.1 million headquarters for ServiceNet and the $1 million renovation of a long-vacant Northampton State Hospital building that now houses the Conway School of Landscape Design.

“They used to be in Conway,” the mayor noted, “but they basically decided that students that want to go to a landscape school want to be in a more urban environment, so it’s a perfect fit, and we’re excited they’ve moved to Northampton.”

Meanwhile, the $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed another long-dormant hospital structure into a 25-unit residence, with 12 units currently sold, five leased, and eight available. Behind that is Christopher Heights, an assisted-living facility that opened in 2016, and Village Hill Cohousing broke ground last fall.

“So you have this whole diversity of senior living, independent living, and you’ve got some commercial redevelopments, which is very exciting,” Narkewicz said. “And the campus itself has walking trails, open space, community gardens, and it’s only a 10-minute walk from downtown. So, from a sustainability standpoint, it fits the model of not wanting people building subdivisions way out on the edge of town that require roads, services, and more car trips. There’s even a bike-share station there, so you can hop on a bike and go downtown.”

In addition to the usual ebb and flow of small businesses, the Atwood Drive Business Park is fully open just off 1-91 exit 18, boasting a 60,000-square-foot building for the Family Probate Court and other judicial tenants, and two 40,000-square-foot buildings with a host of healthcare tenants, including Cooley Dickinson Health Care and Clinical & Support Options.

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed a long-dormant building into a 25-unit residence, one of many recent developments at Village Hill.

Meanwhile, the venerable Autumn Inn on Elm Street was sold last year for $2.25 million to Saltaire Properties, which specializes in breathing new life into outdated hotels. At 60% occupancy, the 32-room inn — which has been renamed the Ellery — would generate annual guest spending of $500,000 and room revenues of $1.1 million, in addition to $34,000 in property taxes and $66,000 in hotel taxes to the city.

And, of course, the cannabis trade continues to be an economic driver. Masterson noted that the city’s 0.75% meals tax brought in $171,000 from November 2017 through January 2018, representing taxes on $22 million revenue. Over the same three months a year later, following the launch of adult-use cannabis sales at New England Treatment Access (NETA), the figure was $187,000, a 9.3% increase that reflected $24 million in revenue.

“One can fairly assume that people who came to NETA also spent some money in the city, and a number of store owners recently said they had seen an uptick in business, so we’ll see if that continues.”

The mayor has been quick to temper people’s long-term expectations because, for most of that recent three-month period, NETA was one of only two recreational marijuana retailers in the state. Since then, INSA in Northampton began selling, and other communities, like Amherst and Chicopee, are expecting businesses to open soon.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the market shakes out once there are more available — and Connecticut and New York are moving quickly to legalize, too,” he said. “We definitely see a lot of Connecticut and New York plates.”

What he hasn’t seen is an uptick in crime or other negative impacts. NETA has been diligent in paying police officers to help manage traffic and renting parking from surrounding businesses and property owners to manage the rush, which was especially significant early on.

That bodes well for other cannabis businesses that have approached Northampton, not only on the retail side, but also manufacturers making food products, a testing lab, and a major cultivation facility to be located at a former gravel pit in Florence.

“For whatever reason, Northampton is viewed as a good place for the cannabis industry,” Narkewicz said. “We’ve been very open and welcoming, our zoning is straightforward and not discriminatory toward cannabis, and we did not put any caps on the number of retailers we would allow here, like many communities have.

“I think people feel Northampton has a kind of built-in visitorship and vibrancy and is a regional destination,” he went on, “so I think they feel like cannabis will incorporate well into the rest of the retail and cultural market here in Northampton.”

Show Time

Speaking of culture, Northampton continues to thrive on that front, thanks to successful developments like CLICK Workspace, which has melded co-working with a robust arts calendar at its Market Street location since 2016, and the purchase of 33 Hawley St. by the Northampton Arts Trust, which is spending $6.8 million to convert it into a multi-dimensional arts, cultural, and education center.

“That’s one reason tech entrepreneurs want to be downtown,” the mayor said. “They want to be in a place that has culture.”

Meanwhile, annual visitorship to the Academy of Music, Three County Fairgrounds, the Paradise City Arts Festival, Smith College Museum of Art, WEBS, Thornes Marketplace, the city’s hotels, and its major one-day downtown events totals nearly 1.24 million annually.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.29
Commercial tax rate: $17.29
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

Northampton has seen a number of generational business transactions in recent years, as entrepreneurs who were part of the city’s original renaissance 30 to 40 years ago are retiring and passing their enterprises to family. The downtown also sees continual lateral moves, and vacancies fill quickly.

“We are still viewed as a very vibrant destination downtown where people want to locate their business,” Narkewicz said. “And they’re local businesses. We do have a few national chains, but mostly locally owned businesses.”

They’re drawn by the city’s low single tax rate — $17.29, which falls well below the commercial rate in nearby communities — but also by a culture of local loyalty, he added.

“People here support local businesses. Our neighbors are running these businesses, and the people who work in them are our neighbors, too, and when you spend money in these stores, it has a multiplier effect in the community.”

He said editorial writers have occasionally written the city’s obituary over the years, or at least wondered when the decline will occur, but when he attends conferences with other mayors and municipal officials, the feeling he gets is that everyone wants to be like Northampton.

“We’re proud of what we have here, but we don’t take it for granted, and we don’t rest on our laurels,” he told BusinessWest. “We continue to do what we can to promote local businesses and make strategic investments that will help our local economy grow and thrive, and provide jobs and revenues the city needs to provide the services we want to provide.”

It’s a cycle that keeps chugging along, like the morning trains that could start pulling into Northampton’s station later this summer.

Joseph Bednar 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]

Law

Navigating Change

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tough Timing

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

Amy Royal (center) with some of her team members

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk Managers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]