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Business of Aging Special Coverage

House Calls

While the pandemic may have challenged the home-care industry, it certainly didn’t suppress the need for such services. In fact, demographic trends in the U.S. — where about 10,000 Baby Boomers reach age 65 every day — speak to continued, and growing, demand for care services delivered in the home. That means opportunities both for agencies who specialize in this field and job seekers looking for a rewarding role and steady work.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

Michele Anstett says business was like “falling off a cliff” when COVID hit, but client volume has returned to normal.

By Mark Morris

In early 2020, Michele Anstett, president and owner of Visiting Angels in West Springfield, was pleased because her business was doing well. As a provider of senior home care, she managed 80 caregivers for 50 clients.

“We were going along just fine,” she said. “And when COVID hit, it was like falling off a cliff.”

The business model for companies like Visiting Angels involves interacting with people in their homes, so when early mandates encouraged people to keep away from anyone outside their immediate ‘bubble,’ it hit the industry hard.

Even though caregivers were designated as essential workers, Anstett saw her numbers shrink to 39 caregivers who were now responsible for only 19 clients. In order for her business to survive, she continued to provide services for her clients who needed personal-care services around the clock and for those who had no family members in the area.

“Where possible, we asked family members to step in to help out,” she told BusinessWest. “At the beginning of the pandemic, there was less risk to everyone when a family member could be involved with their loved one’s care.”

Anstett also incorporated a detailed checklist of risk factors for each caregiver to review to prevent COVID-19 from spreading to them or their clients.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier. As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

“We talked with caregivers about the people in their circle,” Anstett said. “It was similar to contact tracing, but we did it beforehand, so people would understand what they had to consider to protect themselves, their families, and their clients.”

A Better Life Homecare in Springfield runs two home-care programs. In one, it provides personal-care services such as helping seniors with grooming, cooking, laundry, and more. The other program provides low-income patients with medical care in the home, such as skilled nursing services, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

On the medical side of the business, licensed practical nurses (LPNs) handle many of the home visits, while certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and patient care assistants (PCAs) are the main frontline workers on the personal-care side. A Better Life also employs case workers to supervise PCAs and CNAs and to set up other resources a patient may need, such as Meals on Wheels and support groups.

When COVID hit, said Claudia Lora, community outreach director for A Better Life, she and her staff made patient communication a top priority.

Claudia Lora

Claudia Lora says communication with clients was key to navigating the pandemic.

“We implemented daily phone calls to our patients that also served as wellness check-ins,” she recalled. Because a majority of the company’s clients are Spanish speakers, A Better Life employs many bilingual staff. At the beginning of their outreach efforts, Lora became concerned when some patients didn’t seem to follow up and respond to communications.

“I thought patients weren’t following up because of a language barrier,” she said. “As it turns out, they weren’t responding because they didn’t understand the severity of the situation.”

On the other hand, she said some patients temporarily stopped their home-care service out of concern about interacting with anyone in person. The system of daily phone calls helped address patient concerns and keep them current on their treatments. In addition, patients received whimsical postcards to lift their spirits and care packages of hygiene products and food staples.

“The pandemic opened our eyes in different ways,” Lora said. “It made us aware that we needed a system of daily phone calls in both programs, which we will continue even after the pandemic is no longer a concern.”

 

Growing Need

The lessons home-care agencies learned from the pandemic — some of which, as noted, will lead to changes in how care is provided — come at a time when the need for home-based services is only increasing.

That growing need is due in part to people living longer, of course. According to government data, once a couple with average health reaches age 65, there is a 50% chance one of them will live to age 93, and a 25% chance one of them will see age 97. With the increased longevity, there is also a greater chance these seniors will need some type of assistance with daily chores or treating a malady.

Receiving care at home, with an average cost nationally of $3,800 per month, is less expensive than moving into a nursing home (approximately $7,000 per month), and nearly everyone would rather stay in their home. When seniors need assistance, Anstett said, they often rely on family members out of fear of having an outside person come into their home.

Now that concerns about COVID are easing, she reports that people are increasingly more willing to have someone come in to their home to help, but there are still some who resist. “I wish they could understand we are not there to take away their independence, but to give them more independence.”

Lora said some of her patients were reluctant to allow people to come into their homes until they considered the alternatives.

“The only other option for people receiving medical care would have been checking into a skilled-nursing facility or a nursing home,” she noted. “I knew that was the last place they wanted to go.”

She added that the extensive news coverage of high rates of COVID in nursing homes and the high case rate locally at the Holyoke Soldiers Home convinced most people that care at home was a wise choice.

Anstett and Lora both pointed out that their companies always make sure anyone providing home care wears appropriate personal protective equipment and follows the latest guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID. Anstett said she encourages her caregivers to get vaccinated, but doesn’t force the issue because she recognizes some people have health issues.

“However,” she added, “I make it clear to the unvaccinated folks that the pool of clients willing to see a caregiver who is not vaccinated is fairly small.”

While the pandemic may have slowed down business in the short term, demographic trends still remain strong for the years ahead. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, about 10,000 people reach age 65 every day. This trend is expected to continue until 2030, when all living Baby Boomers will be at least 65 years old.

 

Looking Ahead

Fifteen months after the chaotic early days of the pandemic and with many people now vaccinated, Lora said A Better Life is busier today than before the pandemic.

“In the last six months, admissions have increased by around 50%,” she noted. “That’s more than I have seen in the past three years; it’s been insane.”

She added that her company is now short-staffed because of the rapid growth it is seeing and has been offering incentives to try to bring more CNAs and PCAs on board.

Anstett said her client numbers and caregiver numbers are back to where they were before the pandemic and noted that she has not had any problem filling open positions.

“I just cut 80 paychecks, and we are anticipating even more growth,” she said, adding that her secret to hiring is treating caregivers with respect and encouraging them to grow in their careers. “I stay in touch with every one of our caregivers. They’re the reason I’m working, so I treat them with the utmost respect.”

While many professions look to push out older workers, Anstett said she appreciates more seasoned workers and looks forward to hiring them. “Caregiving is an opportunity to keep working for those who want to, and we welcome their experience.”

Pointing out that she hired another case manager last week, Lora added that, while her organization is expanding, it has not forgotten its mission.

“Even with our growth,” she said, “we see our patients as part of a family and a community, not just a number.”

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Play Time

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Sarah Blais says it’s good to hear activity again at Spare Time Bowling.

Among the industries battered by the pandemic and the ensuing economic shutdown, indoor recreation centers — from bowling alleys to trampoline rooms to roller rinks — took a massive hit last year, forced to close for longer than most other businesses and then tasked with navigating a very gradual ramp-up to normal operations. Now, a month after the final restrictions were lifted, the owners and managers of these businesses are grateful to be fully open, with a renewed understanding of the value of play in people’s lives.

By Mark Morris

After a successful 2019, Jeff Bujak looked forward to 2020 as a chance to further grow Prodigy Mini Golf and Game Room in Easthampton. Then the pandemic hit.

“In the beginning, we were told to shut down for 15 days, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do it,’” Bujak recalled. When two weeks stretched to four months, however, he became worried about his business surviving.

He wasn’t alone. Every business that offers indoor entertainment was affected by the lengthier-than-expected, state-mandated shutdown to control the spread of coronavirus. Rob Doty, managing partner at Bounce! Trampoline Sports in Springfield, said his doors remained closed just two weeks short of a full year.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments. I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

“We had just installed a laser-tag arena,” Doty said. “We were getting it up and running for the season when we had to shut down.”

Like Bounce!, Interskate 91 North closed the roller-skating rink at Hampshire Mall in March 2020 but was allowed to reopen in October. Management held off opening until after Thanksgiving, but then had to shut down again when COVID-19 infection rates began to climb.

“To follow the guidelines, we stayed closed for a few more months and opened again in late March,” said Sarah O’Brien, sessions manager.

Meanwhile, Sarah Blais, general manager of Spare Time Bowling in Northampton, said her facility remained closed until late July 2020, and then, by mandate, could only operate at 25% capacity.

Jeff Bujack

Jeff Bujack is happy that customers can once again access his collection of vintage video games at Prodigy.

“We spaced everyone out by using every other lane,” she said. “It was slow in the beginning, and we didn’t even hit our 25% capacity numbers.”

Once the calendar turned to 2021, Blais said business began to pick up, and Spare Time began to reach its limited capacity. As more employees returned, she held an orientation for them on how to operate during a pandemic that’s not yet over.

“In short, it involved much more work than usual, and my team was all in for it,” she said. Much of the extra work concerned lots of sanitizing, including every bowling ball in the place.”

While extra cleaning was part of the mandate to reopen, all the managers BusinessWest spoke with agreed that the emphasis on cleaning went a long way toward helping customers feel safe.

“For the most part, we were doing our normal cleaning, but we did it more often,” O’Brien said. “People loved seeing us constantly cleaning.”

Doty concurred. “Now that hyper-cleaning has become second nature, I don’t see us changing things,” he said, adding that his crews use a fogger/mister to clean the trampoline courts as well as additional handheld sprayers to clean other areas.

“It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

It’s yet another step in emerging from what has been a challenging 16 months, to say the least. But with the state lifting all pandemic restrictions on gathering sizes and mask wearing at the end of May, this is also an optimistic time for these facilities that are eagerly welcoming back families grateful for something to do.

 

Leveling Down

Prodigy doesn’t easily fit into a business category because it offers its customers the chance to play mini-golf, vintage video games, and even board games. Located in the Eastworks mill complex, Prodigy occupies 8,000 square feet, with 14-foot high ceilings, industrial fans, and windows that open to the outside.

While disappointed that his business was considered an arcade by state standards, Bujak was able to open last summer because indoor mini-golf courses were allowed to operate. He could not offer play on the video games, however, due to limits on arcades.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

Rob Doty is expecting a big rebound at Bounce! Trampoline Sports.

While nearly breaking even during the during the warm months, by November, the losses began to pile up, and Bujak was desperate.

“At that time, there was huge fear about going near anyone and staying away from enclosed environments,” he recalled. “I was concerned that people might stay afraid forever and not come back.”

With plenty of spacing and cleaning protocols in place, he reached out to his social-media followers to at least try the new layout and give their feedback. He said his spacious location eased concerns about social distancing and air flow.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place. The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

“Gradually, friends, family, and our regular customers came in,” Bujak said. By January, business had returned, and February was the most successful month in Prodigy’s history.

“I don’t know if all these efforts with masks, distancing, and cleaning actually made people more safe,” he said. “It was more important that people felt safe in the environment and felt good about their choice to come in.”

As to why February was a banner month for Prodigy, Bujak said people had begun to figure out they could go out as long as they wore masks and distanced. People were also becoming more hopeful as access to vaccines received news coverage. “Most people were not ready for a concert or bar atmosphere, so this was a good middle ground of being social but still low-key.”

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

The disco lights are on again at Interskate 91, and Sarah O’Brien is expecting the crowds to return.

Blais credits a simpler rationale. “I think everybody just met their quota of staying at home,” she said with a laugh.

For the better part of a year during which Interskate 91 opened and closed a couple times, O’Brien found herself sidelined, without work, for the first time since she was 14 years old.

“I was home for nearly a year, and I missed not being here,” she said. “It was awesome when we reopened because my bosses and co-workers are like a second family to me.”

At the height of the pandemic when nearly everyone was advised to stay home, many used their time to clean out garages and basements to get rid of things that were no longer useful. Bujak benefited greatly from the COVID cleanout as many people donated old video-game consoles, video games, and board games to him.

“I might have doubled my amount of games just from people cleaning out their basements,” he said.

While most managers said they used the closed time to deep-clean their locations, O’Brien said Interskate 91 installed a new carpet and created a dedicated area where food is sold and eaten. “In the past, we let people eat anywhere. By keeping it all in one area, we can offer more food choices than we did before.”

As of May 29, people who had been vaccinated no longer had to wear masks in retail settings, and bounce houses, roller rinks, bowling alleys, and similar businesses could once again operate at full capacity.

“On the first weekend where people didn’t have to wear masks, we had lots of families and kids come in,” O’Brien recalled. “ Our regulars were so excited that we were open again.”

Blais admits seeing the return of people bowling was an emotional experience. “It’s very nice to hear bowling balls hitting the pins again.”

Doty is looking forward to finally getting use out of the laser-tag room. “Now that we’re fully open, we’re getting the word out about our laser tag and our expanded arcade,” he said, adding that he’s also looking forward to booking birthday parties and other group events.

To recognize the challenging 16 months everyone has gone through, Spare Time has begun offering weekly Service Industry Nights to workers in the restaurant industry.

“I’ve been talking with the restaurants in town, and we offer them free bowling from 9 to 11 p.m., and they have the place to themselves,” Blais said. “We are extending our service nights to our police and fire departments as well.”

 

Replay Value

Bujak said the experience of the past 15 months has made him a different person. At the start of the pandemic, he saw himself as an individual business owner who worried about losing his dream. He didn’t realize that Prodigy was bigger than just him.

“There was a community of people who said, ‘you can’t close, I need this place,’” he told BusinessWest. “The pandemic proved that it’s not just about me, it’s about hundreds of people who use Prodigy as a place to get away and play the games they can’t play anywhere else.”

Now that he can operate at full capacity, Bujak is grateful his business has survived and he can once again take care of his regular customers and introduce Prodigy to new ones.

“Here we are,” he said, “back to normal-ish.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Opinion

Editorial

 

As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, another battle — yes, we can call it that — is emerging on just how the state should spend more than $5 billion in federal stimulus money coming it’s way.

Actually, there are different fronts to this conflict, the first being a large disagreement over who should control this windfall, with both Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature believing that they know, better than the other, how this money should be allocated.

We’re not sure either is fully qualified, but that’s another matter.

Let’s get back to the money — $5.3 billion of it, to be exact. This is the state’s share of the proceeds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). It is, indeed, a windfall, a rare opportunity to take money with no real strings attached to it and put it to some good.

So, naturally, there has to be disagreement over who should control the money and how it should be spent — should we really expect anything else? We hope these differences of opinion can be worked out quickly (probably not, but we can hope), and that the state can commence allocating this money in ways that will create opportunity and address long-standing problems. It appears likely that the proceeds will be divided in some way, with the governor controlling a large portion and the Legislature deciding how to spend what’s left.

Already, the governor has indicated several priorities, including everything from the housing crisis to battling opioid addiction; from infrastructure work to funding the state’s announced vaccine lottery sweepstakes.

While these are worthy causes, to be sure (although we certainly believe there are better ways to spend $6.5 million than a lottery), money needs to be set aside to help the businesses of this state, many of which are still battling to fully recover from the pandemic. While many business sectors are starting to rebound, especially the hospitality industry after a brutal 15 months of stagnancy and then several levels of reopening, many individual businesses are struggling to get all the way back.

One big obstacle is workforce. Companies across all sectors are struggling to find good help, and an infusion of funds into training programs would certainly help address the ongoing labor shortages. As economic-development leaders have said for years, the problem isn’t necessarily with the numbers of people in the workforce, but the skills they possess.

Meanwhile, we share the business community’s disappointment that the governor remains opposed to allocating some of the money from the American Rescue Plan to pay for the huge deficit in the state’s unemployment insurance fund caused by the deep and very sudden job losses during the pandemic; more than 30 states have already committed to using some ARP funds for this purpose.

Baker has instead signed legislation that spreads the hike in the so-called solvency assessment over 20 years and covers $7 billion in unemployment payments tied to pandemic-related job losses.

We don’t believe that simply spreading the payments over 20 years is a real solution to this problem. The pain remains — it’s just dispersed over two decades instead of all at once. While the payments will be smaller, they will still be a burden to businesses that are, as we noted, still struggling to fully recover from the pandemic and don’t need to pay for a problem that was not of their doing.

When it comes to the ARP windfall, the phrase ‘good problem to have’ certainly comes to mind. Indeed, deciding how to allocate $5.3 billion is a test for which there are few truly wrong answers.

But it is incumbent on the governor and the Legislature to come up with the best answers, and some of these involve a business community that is far from out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic and the many challenges that remain.

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (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

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Going back to the start of the pandemic, we expressed concern for the survival of not only the businesses in Springfield and across the region, but also the institutions that contribute to the quality of life we all enjoy here.

That’s a broad category that includes a number of museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Thunderbirds and other sports teams, and arts venues ranging from Jacob’s Pillow to Tanglewood to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. All of them are part of the fabric of this community.

Among all those, perhaps the one we feared for the most was the symphony, which has seen several changes in leadership over the past decade and has seemingly struggled to attract younger and broader audiences. If there was an institution that couldn’t afford to be on the sidelines, out of sight, and in many cases out of mind, it was the SSO.

“Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.”

These fears gained some legitimacy last week when musicians who play for the orchestra issued a press release that doubled as both warning and call to action. These musicians, some of whom have been playing for the SSO for decades, raised questions about how committed the SSO’s board is to everything from giving long-time maestro Kevin Rhodes a new contract to a 2021-22 season for the SSO. They asked for “an encore, not a curtain call.”

The SSO’s interim executive director, John Anz, responded by saying many of these issues are intertwined, and the orchestra cannot proceed with a new contract for Rhodes or a 2021-22 season until negotiations with the musicians’ union are resolved.

Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.

We sincerely hope the SSO is able to rebound from what is certainly the greatest challenge of its existence. Springfield needs these institutions to become the destination that we all hope that it can be.

Indeed, many things go into making a community livable — jobs, neighborhoods, schools, a thriving downtown, and, yes, culture. Springfield has already lost CityStage; it simply cannot afford to lose another thread of its fabric.

This is especially true as the state and the nation emerge from this pandemic. We’ve heard the talk that large urban areas are now less attractive to some segments of the population, who are now looking more longingly toward open spaces and less crowded areas. And we’ve seen dramatic evidence of this in our own real-estate market.

Springfield is to emerge as a player in this new environment, a true destination, then it will need institutions like the SSO to create that quality of life that both the young and old are seeking out as they search for places to call home.

The SSO has certainly been rocked by this pandemic. Emerging from it will be a stern test. We certainly hope it can move forward and be part of Springfield and this region for decades to come.

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says his customers, and not the governor, will determine how quickly and how profoundly he increases capacity at the venues within the Federal Restaurant Group.

Ralph Santaniello says he’s read the language contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to bring the state into the final stage of his reopening plan at least a dozen times.

And each time, he came away with the conclusion that the phrase ‘no restrictions’ means … well, no restrictions.

“That means no more mask requirements, no more tables being six feet apart, no barriers, no restrictions on capacity,” said Santaniello, director of Operations for the Federal Restaurant Group, which includes the Federal in Agawam, Vinted in West Hartford, and Posto in Longmeadow.

But just because it’s there in black and white doesn’t mean this restaurant group has to go as far and especially as fast (the date for full reopening was moved from Aug. 1 to May 29, as everyone knows by now) as the governor says it can.

And it won’t.

Indeed, Santaniello — several times, in fact — said it will be customers, the buying public, and not the governor who ultimately determines the pace at which these restaurants work their way back to where they were in the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 reached Western Mass.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things,” he noted. “What we’ll probably do is eliminate the barriers and slowly introduce more seating so the guests get comfortable. We’ll start to ramp up and ease our way back and see how things go.”

For example, while the requirement that tables be six feet apart has been lifted, the three restaurants in the group won’t immediately turn back the clock on such spacing, and will likely start with tables four feet apart and gradually reduce that number, again, with the pace of change and distance set by the public and its perceived comfort level with the surroundings.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things.”

Overall, as his group ramps up in the wake of the reopening announcement, Santaniello is projecting a solid balance to 2021, although projecting numbers is somewhat difficult. He noted, for example, that last summer was very strong for the three restaurants, all of which had outdoor dining, and one reason was because far fewer people were able to vacation out of the area. This summer, more might be able to, but most spots on the Cape and elsewhere are sold out.

“If spring is any indication, our reservations are up — they’re up to even 2019 levels,” he said, adding that the calls for reservations and booking events started picking up several weeks ago as the number of COVID cases started declining and the number of people vaccinated kept increasing.

Santaniello is projecting a strong fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important three months for most restaurants, and especially the one he was sitting in while talking with BusinessWest, the Federal in Agawam, located in an historic home built just before the Civil War.

It has become a popular gathering spot year-round, he said, but business peaks during the holidays, and he is expecting a hard run on dates in December for holiday parties, especially after most companies, and families, went without last year.

But the next several months will feature a number of challenges, said Santaniello, noting rising food prices and especially the ongoing labor shortages as the two most pressing items on the list. The latter is the one keeping most restaurateurs up at night, he noted, adding quickly that he’s certainly in that group counting sheep.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees,” he said. “A good percentage of our employees have not come back yet, or some have left the industry; some are not ready to come to work for any of a number of reasons. Everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

He noted that the problem will actually limit the amount of business he can take on for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees.”

Indeed, while the Federal has historically been open six nights a week (Sundays are reserved for events), it will go down to five and possibly to four (Wednesday through Saturday, with events on Sunday), in large part due to the staffing situation.

Overall, though, the outlook for 2021 is obviously much better than 2020, he said, adding that he’s optimistic that the employment situation will eventually stabilize, probably by the fall, and overall business, by most projections, will continue to improve as customers feel more comfortable with being indoors and around other people.

“I think we’re going to have a great summer, and it’s going to be an even better fourth quarter,” Santaniello said. “The second quarter is shaping out great, the third quarter will be good, and the fourth quarter and the holiday season will be really, really good.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

After a year when everyone got used to pivoting — and got sick of that word — Chicopee Mayor John Vieau is happy to be pivoting in a different direction.

Specifically, he made some adjustments to a standing meeting with his staff — but this time for a more positive reason. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Vieau met three times a week with a COVID-19 task force made up of city department heads. He’s still meeting with the group, but their focus has now shifted from COVID to reopening Chicopee. Among the agenda items are reinstalling basketball hoops and opening essential city buildings.

“For the last year, anyone needing services at City Hall, the library, or the Council on Aging had to make an appointment, so we’re excited about welcoming the public again,” he said.

Vieau pointed with pride to municipal employees for all their efforts during the pandemic, noting that the city made it through the last 14 months without having to furlough or lay off even one employee. “The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Moving forward, proper training and advancement of city employees is a priority for the mayor. Noting that both the fire and police chiefs worked their way into the top jobs in their respective departments, Vieau wants the same opportunities for those who follow. “I want to make sure there is always a success ladder available for employees and the right training is available for them.”

Like every community, local businesses in Chicopee were hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why the city contracted with the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce to offer free grant application assistance to any Chicopee business.

“The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Julie Copoulos, executive director of the chamber, noted that, because her organization has such a large network, it’s able to get information out quickly and to find out what a small business might need.

“Many business owners just needed someone who could say, ‘hey, I think this grant application fits you and would be a good one to apply for,’” Copoulos said. “These programs can save a person’s business, but the application can be complex, so it really helps to have a person who has been through the process, to sit with you and get it done.”

 

Positive Shifts

Two Chicopee chamber members did not see a slowdown during the pandemic, but instead ramped up their efforts. Universal Plastics shifted its production to make COVID testing machines and face shields, while Callaway Golf manufactured the company’s top-end Chrome Soft golf ball in a year when the golf business jumped 8%.

“Universal Plastics is an excellent example of what great companies do,” Vieau said. “During a time of uncertainty, they modified their production to meet current demands.”

Copoulos credits Chicopee businesses for being resilient and adaptable during a challenging year. “It was amazing to see these folks turn on a dime and change their business model,” she said. “Now they are in the process of changing it back.”

A new Chicopee Center project conducted in partnership with MassDevelopment is designed to bring more business to downtown and support the businesses already there, the mayor noted. “I’m excited about the future of downtown. It will be a thriving area with a small-town feel, and it will be one of the coolest downtowns you’ll see.”

Chicopee officials recently selected a developer for the last parcel of the former Facemate property. Plans for the site include a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing is expected to locate.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site, showing the athletic-field complex and the renovated Baskin building.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park and plans to move all its operations from its longtime location in Hadley. The Food Bank is making the move to expand its warehouse space and locate closer to major highways. “We’re going to be right at the center of the effort to solve food insecurity,” Vieau said.

In addition to businesses reopening, new ones are locating in Chicopee. On the day BusinessWest spoke with the mayor, he had just attended a ribbon cutting for La Diaspora, a new art consignment store. Vieau also noted that the pandemic did not slow down construction of a new Florence Bank branch that recently opened on Memorial Drive.

Like communities everywhere, home sales in Chicopee are booming. Copoulos said Chicopee has an advantage over neighboring communities by offering some of the lowest residential real-estate prices in the Pioneer Valley.

“Chicopee has huge opportunity right now because young families are getting priced out of towns like Easthampton and Northampton,” she said. “Chicopee is accessible for first-time homebuyers, and I look forward to young families locating here.”

 

Back to School

Vieau also looks forward to Chicopee students returning to their schools.

“Nearly all our classrooms are air-conditioned,” he noted, “and we’ve enhanced the air quality in all the school buildings as well.”

Both Vieau and Copoulos spoke of a general feeling of optimism now that COVID-19 is more under control and the economy is opening back up statewide. Both were excited to talk about the Center Fresh Farmers Market starting in June. Hosted by the chamber, Center Fresh represents a chance for people to get together again.

“I’m excited that we will be able to see people on the street again, face to face,” Copoulos said.

Added Vieau, “efforts like this help reignite downtown. We’ve been on pause far too long.”

While he admits the pandemic was a true test for Chicopee, the mayor pointed out that the city is finishing strong. In addition to hosting a regional vaccination site at the Castle of Knights, the city has partnered with Holyoke Health Center and its mobile vaccine clinic. Overall, he believes Chicopee’s success in weathering the coronavirus is due to efforts by people all over the city.

“It has been a team effort with different people stepping up to help,” Vieau said, citing examples like library staff who made comfort calls to check in on people and help them sign up for vaccines, and the Council on Aging providing up to 300 to-go lunches five days a week. “People all over Chicopee were willing to redefine their roles and their jobs because they wanted to do the right thing.”

Opinion

Editorial

The light at the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for is essentially here.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he was eliminating virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend, puts Massachusetts in the final stage of the reopening plan he announced almost exactly a year ago, which he dubbed the ‘new normal.’

But while this announcement is certainly cause for celebration and optimism, the local business community is, in many ways, still in the tunnel. COVID is not to be referred to in the past tense yet, and there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including some new ones.

Indeed, as the story on page 10 reveals, the governor’s announcement brings some anxiety to go along with the joy and relief that most business owners are certainly feeling. That anxiety comes in many forms, from finding adequate supplies of good help (a challenge confronting those in virtually every sector of the economy) to tackling the daunting task of bringing employees back to the office, to dealing with loosened restrictions on masks, which are causing confusion and considerable doubt when it comes to the ‘honor system.’

In many ways, as welcome as the governor’s announcement was and is, it’s a fact that many businesses are simply not ready to turn back the clock to the fall of 2019, when the world had never heard that word COVID.

What makes things even more complicated is that no one knows just how ready the consuming public is to turn back the clock and pick up where things left off 15 months ago. It’s safe to say it might take a little time for both constituencies to feel comfortable within the realm of the new normal.

Here’s what we do know: this region’s business community has shown remarkable resilience since the pandemic arrived in this region. We’re all tired of hearing and uttering that word ‘pivot,’ but that’s exactly what business owners and managers did, whether they’re in hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or any other sector.

The new normal means pivoting again. In some cases, it will actually mean simply returning to how things were in late 2019, and that can be challenging enough given the abundance of ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring: $250 sign-on bonus’ signs we’re seeing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as the skyrocketing price increases involving everything from food products to lumber to gasoline (see story on page 6).

For most businesses, though, things won’t ever be just as they were before COVID. They’ve learned new and, in many instances, better ways of doing things — out of necessity. Meanwhile, many employees will continue to work remotely, changing, perhaps forever, the dynamic of the modern office.

As we said, the region’s business community will have to pivot once again. Based on how well it did the past 14 months, we believe it will adjust quite well to the new normal. We’re not out of the tunnel yet, but the light is very, very close.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sean Hogan

 

As COVID-19 winds down and we begin to go back to our normal lifestyle, I find myself asking what is next.

Let’s look back and see what has changed in the business world over the last year. The economy came to a halt, there was a major strain on the supply chain, restaurants and bars were closed, and business stopped. Certain industries, including IT, thrived, but COVID affected everyone; it missed no one.

We at Hogan Technology had to embrace meeting, selling, and collaborating over videoconferencing. This was a major shift in our protocol. We were hesitant at first, but there was not much of an option. We, like everyone else, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon. I quickly realized that Zoom had some security issues, and we moved all our collaboration to Microsoft Teams. Teams has been easy to use and efficient, and it had integration with our current voice platform. In the beginning, we were limited to viewing four participants; thankfully, MS made some changes and improved the capacity for our Teams meetings.

I have been managing and selling for more than 34 years, and shifting to video meetings with clients at first was clumsy. I was conditioned to prepping for my meetings, driving to the client site, waiting in the lobby, and then meeting face to face with my client. It took a few video calls to get into a process, but then I started to see how efficient and productive they could be. The ability to bring in my team to collaborate with my clients has worked exceptionally well.

Our sales and discovery process has completely changed, and this old dog has learned some new tricks. We now send out invites that allow our prospects and clients to log into our videoconference, and I can introduce my team and our vision. I then hand over the presentation of any software or applications to my tech team. Once the presentation is done, I can share or review any proposals or quotes though a screen share. This allows me to go line by line and make sure the client completely understands our solution.

This new style of sales has worked very well. We are printing far less, engaging the client more productively, and saving fuel and time by not driving to the site. We will still gladly meet on site, but if the client is open to meeting online, that will be our first step. Video collaboration and presentations are here it stay, and we welcome and embrace the cost-savings technology.

There were lots of new terms thrown about during the pandemic, but the two that made me think were ‘new normal’ and ‘pivot.’ The new normal, in my mind, is constant change. I like to think we all embraced the new normal, seeing that we are engaged in technology, which is constant change.

I think ‘pivot’ is what we have always internally termed ‘nimble.’ One of the advantages of being a small business is that it does not take much for us to turn our ship; we are not a large tanker, but more of a go-fast boat. We can turn on a dime, we can make changes without having to get board approval, and we can move fast when we need to get out of our own way. COVID taught us all how to be nimble and how to change the way we do business. I am amazed and proud to look at the business community and see how people have pulled together and toughed out a brutal year.

Yes, we all pivoted, and we all learned to deal with the new normal, but, most importantly, we all got up, went back to work, and supported each other.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

As essential businesses that couldn’t shut down operations during the pandemic, banks and credit unions met some daunting challenges over the past year — both logistical and in meeting the needs of customers, many of whom were navigating difficult financial times. While things are starting getting back to normal now, the definition of ‘normal’ has shifted — and area banking leaders say they’ve learned some lessons they will certainly bring into the future.

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank’s call-center activity tripled over the past 14 months.

By Mark Morris

Winston Churchill gets credit for first remarking, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

For bankers in Western Mass., the COVID-19 crisis was in many ways a chance to learn what works best for their customers and their workers.

While branch offices for most banks have reopened, they were ordered closed to the general public at the beginning of the pandemic, opening to customers only by appointment. As a result, many customers relied on online banking to handle routine transactions.

For those who needed to open an account, it was no longer necessary to visit a branch, as the entire process can be done online, said Aleda De Maria, senior vice president, Retail and Operations for PeoplesBank, who noted that new account applications doubled in the past year, and the use of mobile deposits is up nearly 40%.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them,” she added. “We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

Because customers had plenty of questions amid the uncertainty of the past 14 months, De Maria reported a significant increase in activity on the bank’s phone lines. “Our call center tripled the volume of activity we would normally see. Now we’re back to what I would call a busy, but more normal level.”

As cars lined up at drive-up windows during business hours, many banks increased their use of video tellers to extend the hours tellers can be available. A video teller looks and functions like a standard ATM, but the customer can also reach a live professional when they have a more complex transaction.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them. We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

“It’s as if you are standing in front of a teller,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “We had six of these in place before COVID, and they really worked well for us during that time when we could not allow people to come into the branches.” The bank has since added six more of its Teller Connect video tellers.

De Maria said video tellers made it possible to expand beyond normal business hours to even include Sundays.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says credit-union CEOs have been discussing the future of hybrid work arrangements, since employees will expect that flexibility.

“We can now offer banking services seven days a week without us having to keep our banking centers open seven days a week,” she noted, adding that the pandemic made one point crystal clear: customers want options, now more than ever. “Customers want the flexibility to either interact with someone or not to interact.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with several executives from local banks and credit unions about how they have weathered the past year, what lies ahead, and what they — and their customers — have learned.

 

From a Distance

In addition to new ways of serving customers, banks were challenged to become more flexible with their employees, many of whom were forced to work from home.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, recalled that, at the height of the pandemic, 30 employees worked exclusively from home while another 30 split their time between home and the office. Now, 47 employees are taking a hybrid approach of splitting their work time between the office and home.

“Going forward, employees are going to expect to have an option for some kind of hybrid between working at home and the office,” Welch said, adding that an online forum of credit-union CEOs recently discussed how a hybrid approach might work. “The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

“The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said 176 of his employees work from home right now, and he has no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office.

“In fact, we are so confident in the success of the work-from-home model that we are consolidating one of our branches with a nearby operations center,” Bissell said. While Greylock has no plans to permanently close branches, it is looking into shared-space arrangements to increase efficiency and save on future real-estate investments.

All the bankers agreed that, when possible, they prefer personal interactions with their employees and customers. When that’s not possible, they are grateful for advances in technology that have made it easier to work from home. Sometimes it results in seeing certain jobs in a different light.

John Howland

John Howland says some positions, such as those in loan processing, are more suited for a remote setup than others.

“I never thought I’d say this, but there are some situations where the business and the task is better suited to work remotely,” Howland said, citing certain loan-processing positions as one example. “Because all the documents are electronic, it’s easy to measure a person’s productivity without looking over their shoulder.”

Bissell admits this past year has helped him understand how the pandemic affects employees in different ways.

“Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder,” he said. “We must pay close attention to employee needs and build in opportunities to meet them where they are.”

Whether employees worked in the office or from home, they all stayed busy with mortgage applications for people buying new homes and for those looking to refinance at historically low interest rates.

“Our mortgage business was up nearly 65% last year,” Welch said. “As fewer houses are available for sale, we’re making up some of that slack in the refinancing area.”

He predicts slower growth could loom on the horizon, however. “There are only so many people who can refinance, and when you have less housing inventory to sell, it suggests a slowdown in the mortgage business may be coming.”

While the mortgage market is still active, Bissell pointed out there is a greater demand than housing supply, so Greylock is trying to help increase the supply. “We are partnering with local leaders to look at ways to stimulate development of more housing across the pricing spectrum,” he said, with the goal of a healthy housing market that is accessible to all members of the community.

On the flip side of new mortgages, job losses during the pandemic made staying current on mortgage payments a burden for many.

“We anticipated that people would have trouble when COVID hit,” Howland said, “so we allowed people to defer their mortgage payments without having to substantiate they had a need.”

 

By All Accounts

The pandemic — and the economic shutdown it ushered in — challenged business-banking clients as well, and for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Greenfield Savings Bank created a task force of 43 employees to help local businesses process their loan applications. Employees often made calls on the weekend to clarify any point that might slow down the process. Several applicants received calls from Howland himself.

“It was amazing that no one complained for calling them at 8 p.m. on a Saturday,” he said. “They were all just happy we were working on their behalf.”

In the first round of PPP, Greenfield Savings processed 720 loans totaling around $60 million, and followed up with nearly the same amount in the second round. Meanwhile, the business-banking team at Greylock secured $30 million in PPP loans, which Bissell said helped save nearly 4,000 jobs in the Pittsfield area.

As everyone tries to figure out what lies ahead, bankers remain optimistic. Like every institution, Freedom Credit Union saw a surge in deposits after $1,400 pandemic-relief checks began landing in accounts, Welch noted. “People have only spent about 25% of their government checks, so there’s lot of pent-up demand out there.”

While banks had been increasing their use of technology anyway, industry data suggests COVID accelerated that shift by at least five years. Based on that trend, Welch sees bankers moving toward more of a consulting role.

“I think, eventually, people will visit a bank or credit-union branch when they need financial advice such as buying a home or a car,” he said. “Increasingly, they will handle their routine transactions online.”

Video teller machines are another example of the increased use of technology for everyday transactions.

“I think the pandemic made customers more willing to try new technology that we hadn’t offered before,” De Maria said. “We’ve seen some real success in their adoption of tools like our video banker.”

Still, while bankers are pleased with how well customers have adjusted to making technology part of their banking routine, they all look forward to the time when in-person banking becomes normal once again.

“When you get down to the basics, we provide relationship-based financial services,” Bissell said. “It’s really about personal relationships.”

In addition to engaging customers again, Howland said the camaraderie and collegiality of the staff being together is also essential.

“I’m a big believer in the small talk around the water bubbler,” he said, adding that the pandemic robbed people of those everyday social interactions that were taken for granted in the past.

“We are looking forward to a routine where we see our customers on a regular basis and we can have that friendly conversation once again,” he went on. “Everyone in our company is looking forward to that happening.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Cover Story COVID-19

Help Wanted

Long before COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., businesses across many sectors were struggling to find adequate supplies of good help. But now, just as the economy seems ready to surge, the problem, fueled increasingly by unemployment benefits that are conspiring to keep workers on the sidelines, is getting considerably worse, with no real end in sight.

 

Steve Corrigan has been in the landscaping business for more than 40 years now, and for most of that time, finding good help has been a challenge — to one degree or another.

But he says he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Between our Chicopee location, a small branch we have in Wilbraham, and the office we have in Manchester, Conn., we probably have 12 to 15 positions we could fill tomorrow if we could find the people,” said Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare, adding that this is a mighty big ‘if’ at the moment. “It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

Indeed, his company is one of countless businesses across virtually every sector of the economy that are struggling mightily to fill positions, even as unemployment remains somewhat high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons for this imbalance between open positions and adequate supplies of qualified help, but the main culprit comes in the form of federal unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly bonus that is part of the American Rescue Plan. These benefits, say area employers, are serving as a strong deterrent to putting people back into the workforce.

“When you do the math, if you took a person making $20 an hour … with their normal unemployment, they’d be getting $500 to $600 a week,” said Corrigan. “Throw another 300 bucks on top of it … and why would you go to work for $20 an hour? It doesn’t make sense.”

Employers have been posing similar questions since the first stimulus-related unemployment benefits — complete with a $600 weekly bonus — were approved roughly a year ago. But the situation is even more precarious now, because the economy, after a slow to very slow 2020, depending on the sector of the economy, is starting to rev up again. And just as companies are looking forward to consumers going back out again and spending some of the money they’ve been saving over the past 14 months, businesses are being hit with pervasive hiring issues — and deep concerns about if and when the situation might improve.

As noted, the problem exists across the board — with landscapers, home-improvement companies, and pool installers; restaurants and banquet facilities; golf courses and local farm stands; manufacturers and service businesses.

In response to the problem, employers have tried a number of strategies — from sign-on bonuses to higher wages to rewards for referrals that lead to new hires. Meanwhile, most all forms of marketing for businesses in a variety of sectors now include references to looking for help, being a great place to work, or both.

For the most part, these strategies seem to be generating lukewarm results, with those unemployment benefits being just one of many issues to contend with. Another is the inability, or unwillingness, on the part of most states, including this one, to enforce the basic rules pertaining to unemployment eligibility.

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield, says his company has responded to the ongoing challenge of finding workers by hiking wages above the average for this region.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work,” said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, which has seen its hotline handle a number of calls related to this matter and a host of related issues. “In pre-pandemic times, if people were on unemployment, they had to prove that they were physically out there looking for work — applying for jobs, looking at the help-wanted ads, and actively seeking work. And those with the state would occasionally ask them to prove that they were doing all this. With the pandemic, the employment offices have been overrun, and states took away that requirement that you were looking for work.”

Perhaps the best hopes for area employers are that returning college students and area high-school students soon to be off for the summer might increase the pool of applicants — and that the unemployment benefits are due to expire in September.

But even those hopes are tempered by the realization that September is a ways off, and the benefits may well be extended by elected officials who have already shown a willingness to do that.

“It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

So companies, some of them with the help of EANE and even area marketing companies, are honing their messages and updating their hiring strategies in the hope they will have enough warm bodies to take advantage of what is expected to be an uptick — if not a surge — in the economy.

For this issue, we look at what they’re up against and what they doing in the face of this growing challenge to their ongoing success.

 

Labor Pains

As they talked with BusinessWest about the hiring challenges they’re now facing, business owners, almost with one voice, said that COVID has simply exacerbated a problem that has existed for some time now.

Indeed, the phrase ‘skills gap’ has been a part of the local lexicon for years now, with many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, but in other sectors as well, struggling to find adequate supplies of help, with the degree of difficulty varying with the relative condition of the economy.

Chad Jzyk, HR business partner for Charter Next Generation (CNG), a Turners Falls-based manufacturer of plastic blown film for the medical industry, said the company has been challenged to find help for several years now. But the problem has reached a new level in recent months.

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent,” he noted, adding that the company has been running with one and a half to two open positions monthly on an almost constant basis for some time now. COVID has made the situation worse, at a time when the opposite might be expected because of the number of people out of work, and for several reasons, he said.

“With the stimulus checks and unemployment extension, the availability of workers has been impacted in a negative way,” he said, referring to both the number of applicants in the pool and their willingness to accept an employment opportunity.

“We’ve tried to engage with a couple of temporary agencies,” he went on. “In the past, it was common that you would have an applicant pool of temporary workers of between 15 and 20 people that were already pre-screened and ready to go — you’d call the employment agency and, pretty much on the spot, get someone in 24 hours. Working with a few local agencies that we’ve traditionally worked with … there’s no applicant pool; they’re seeing the same thing.”

Jzyk said the company’s hiring challenges have yet to directly impact production or limit its ability to take on new orders. However, he said it does limit CNG’s ability to be more “proactive,” as he put it, and do more when it comes to training and flexibility with employees’ responsibilities.

For other employers, the shortage of workers represents a real threat to day-to-day operations and especially the ability to handle the larger volumes of business expected as the region returns to something approaching normal as vaccinations rise and consumers venture back out to restaurants, bars, museums, stores, and more.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill in downtown Springfield, said he’s looking forward to the return of shows to the MassMutual Center and other forms of vibrancy, but he quickly, as in very quickly, changed to the subject of staffing and his ongoing concerns about whether he can find enough help to handle whatever surge comes.

Meredith Wise says the escalating challenges facing employers looking to hire are prompting wage skirmishes in some sectors.

“I hesitate to get too excited because one of the things we’re dealing with right now is the lack of people who want to work,” he told BusinessWest, gesturing to a lighted message board behind the bar. Among the many messages being delivered is that help is wanted — and that display is just one of many ways that point is being made.

“We have created a commercial that focuses on how our patio will be open soon,” he said. “But it also notes that we’re looking to hire people — we need to keep letting people know that.”

Fran Beaulieu, second-generation president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, said the hiring crunch, which is certainly nothing new for that sector, has resulted from a number of factors, with COVID-related issues being only the latest additions.

Overall, fewer people have been getting into the trades, he said, and this has left the region with a shortage of carpenters and other specialists.

“You basically have an entire generation that didn’t get into the trade,” he noted, adding that, despite a wide-ranging effort involving social media and other strategies, the company has a workforce that is 30% short of what is needed. And this harsh reality is certainly impacting the firm’s ability to take on jobs — at a time when jobs are plentiful, again, due to COVID and people home so much and often of a mind to improve their surroundings.

“Finding projects has never been the problem; the problem has been managing your labor in accordance with how many projects you have sold,” Beaulieu said. “You almost have to stop selling after a while because you just don’t have the help.”

 

Hire Power

In the wake of the ongoing struggle to find adequate supplies of help, area businesses are taking a number of steps, with aggressive marketing of their staffing needs being just one of them.

Indeed, companies have initiated hiring bonuses and rewards for those who refer candidates who eventually sign on. Meanwhile, others are hiking wages, said Wise, adding that, in some sectors, wage skirmishes have arisen, the likes of which have not been seen in some time, if ever.

“What we’re seeing happening, and it’s a little scary, is that, for some positions, wage battles have ensued,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour to come work for me because I need the help,’ and the employee goes back to his employer and says, ‘they’re willing to give me $2 more an hour; will you give me $3 more an hour to stay here?’

“There are some positions where people are willing to pay a premium to get individuals to come to work,” she went on. “And it’s starting to affect different kinds of businesses.”

One of them is the broad landscaping and lawncare sector, she noted, which has historically faced challenges to maintaining adequate staffing and is now seeing its problems escalate due to the many aspects of COVID.

Greg Omasta, owner of Hadley-based Omasta Landscaping Inc., said this has certainly been a trying year.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work.”

“The government incentives allow people to stay home and get paid more than if they actually went to their job on a daily basis — so some of the problems small businesses are facing in this country are inflicted by our government,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of those the company had to lay off at the end of last season have opted not to come back when offered the chance, instead choosing to collect unemployment. “But there’s a general lack of people out there in the labor force who want to work hard, like in the trade we’re in, the landscaping business. A lot of people want to sit beyond a computer screen and punch a keyboard all day.”

Historically, the company, like others in this sector, has relied heavily on legal immigrants, many from Mexico and Guatemala, he said, adding that even this pipeline has become less reliable in recent years.

As a result of this ongoing challenge, he said the company has changed the way it compensates employees, with the goal of attracting and retaining better candidates. By and large, it’s a strategy that has worked, although this year, given the many additional COVID-related challenges and responses within the industry, it is certainly being tested.

“We’re probably one of the higher-paying landscape contractors in the area,” said Omasta, whose company handles a number of large commercial accounts and municipal facilities, such as the recently reopened Pynchon Plaza in downtown Springfield, as well as residential customers. “We do that because we try to attract better people and keep those people here. Paying that higher hourly wage makes a difference in the people that we’re able to find, keep, and employ.”

Corrigan, who can certainly relate to all that, said his company hired someone to handle recruiting full-time just before COVID hit. To say her job has become difficult, and frustrating, in the wake of the pandemic and the various stimulus packages would be an understatement.

“She’s at her wit’s end with people right now,” he said, adding that, between a hesitancy to work among many people and drug tests often standing in the way of those do want to work, the talent pool has become increasingly smaller.

Chad Jzyk

Chad Jzyk

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent.”

And this shrinking pool has definitely impacted Mountain View’s ability to expand the commercial side of its business and grow.

“We’ve had discussions — heated discussions — in our budgeting processes,” Corrigan said. “We ask ourselves, ‘how can you grow if you can’t get the help?’ And the obvious answer is, ‘you can’t.’”

 

The Job at Hand

It is that obvious answer that is keeping many business owners and managers awake at night.

Indeed, at a time when the challenges seem to be mounting for businesses of all sizes and in most all sectors — Omasta referenced the rising cost of materials such as lumber, still-escalating fuel prices, the specter of inflation, and the very real possibility of higher corporate taxes — finding good help is the one that poses the biggest threat to companies at a time when many are poised to break out from pandemic-induced doldrums.

What will happen between now and September, and even after September, remains to be seen, but it seems clear that these scary times, as Wise and others called them, are certainly far from over.

 

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

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

 

Let’s start by saying there is no debating that most of the economic-stimulus programs created by local, state, and federal governments have been extremely effective in helping businesses of all sizes and moving the economy forward at a time of extreme — as in extreme — duress.

Indeed, programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan initiative have provided an absolutely vital lifeline, without which many small businesses in this region and across the country would simply not be here. Other programs have benefited healthcare providers, specific sectors of the economy, and municipalities.

That said, some stimulus has actually backfired on business and the economy, and that’s especially true when it comes to federal unemployment benefits — checks that were designed to help those who lost their jobs to the pandemic, but have had serious unintended consequences in the form of people who are simply staying out of the job market because they can make more money by not working and are making the no-brainer decision to do so.

This is not a news flash; it has been going on for roughly a year now. What is a news flash — sort of — is the extent to which these unemployment benefits are stifling the economy just as the ingredients are there for it to start really taking off again.

Indeed, as the story on page 6 relates in great detail, businesses across a number of sectors are struggling mightily to find the help they need. And for some, the inability to find this help could threaten their ability to expand and take on work that could come their way.

Stories abound about pool-installation companies already booked solid for this season and simply unable to take on any more projects, even though they are there for the taking; home-improvement companies having to turn down lucrative projects because they just don’t have the workers; and restaurant owners looking ahead to better times with a mix of anticipation and dread, with the latter involving great uncertainty about whether they will have enough bodies to handle the surge in volume they hope — and believe — is coming.

Not all of this is the result of the unemployment payments contained in the federal stimulus package. Indeed, many employers were struggling to find adequate supplies of help before anyone had to think about hanging a mask from the rear-view mirror of their car. But these benefits have made the situation exponentially worse.

And it’s not just the benefits, especially the additional $300 per week contained in the stimulus package, that are causing the problem; it’s the inability, or the unwillingness, of state unemployment divisions to enforce the simple rules that pertain to unemployment benefits.

Unemployment was designed to help those who have lost their job and cannot secure another one. Those who receive these benefits are expected to maintain a vigilant pursuit of new employment opportunities, and accept one when a proper fit is found.

These days, that is simply not happening. People are staying on unemployment because, well … why wouldn’t they? Especially when they could earn as much, if not more, by not working.

Many employers are already counting down the days until September, when these benefits expire, thinking matters might then return to normal. This is wishful thinking — this Congress may well extend the benefits again, given the way things are going — and not where their energies should be placed.

Instead, business leaders should be lobbying those in power — both in Washington and Boston — to do something about this problem now, before things get worse and before the recovery from COVID becomes further stalled.

As we said at the top, most of the federal, state, and local stimulus has done what is was designed to do — help people hurt by COVID weather the storm. The unemployment benefits were designed to do the same, but the unintended consequences have now greatly overshadowed the good that’s been done.

This is a case of stimulus gone awry, and something has to be done.

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Buy the Buy

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says many people who discovered or rediscovered golf in 2020 are coming back to buy new equipment in 2021.

Dave DiRico says his shop is usually busy in late March and early April as golfers gear up for a new season.

This year, the look and feel have been different, and for many reasons. Golf got an unexpected and much-deserved boost last year when it became one of the few organized sports people could take part in. And it’s received another boost from the fact that Americans have been saving money as perhaps never before, and many of them have also been receiving stimulus checks from the government.

Add it all up, and March and April have been even busier than normal, said DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, adding that, for now, he doesn’t see many signs of slowing down.

“We’re seeing it at all levels, all age groups, starting with the seniors,” he said. “They didn’t travel as much over the past year. They haven’t gone out to dinner; they didn’t go on their spring golf trip to Florida. And we’re seeing more of those people buying clubs — and that’s generally not our soft spot.”

That soft spot would be younger professionals and junior golfers, he went on, adding that these people are buying clubs, too, often with the help of the government.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people took up the game last year, or found it again after drifting away from it for whatever reason. Many of these people bought used equipment last year — so much that inventories dwindled significantly — and this year, they’re coming back for new clubs.

“Most of them are deciding to continue to play — they enjoyed it,” DiRico said. “And they’re trading in their used equipment for new stuff — because they intend to stay with it.”

The surge in play and its impact on the retail side of the game is reflected in the numbers. In the third quarter of 2020, for example, retail sales of golf equipment exceeded $1 billion for the first time ever for that period, according to Golf Datatech, an industry research firm. Meanwhile, Callaway Golf Co., which manufactures golf balls in Chicopee, reported a 20% surge in sales in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The problem some players are encountering, though, is limited inventories of new equipment. Indeed, the golf manufacturers, like those who make cars and countless other products, are experiencing supply-chain issues and difficulties getting the materials they need. This has led to sometimes lengthy waits for ordered clubs to be delivered.

“There’s such an increased demand with new golfers across the country that they’re all running out of equipment,” he explained. “They can only manufacture so much, and the demand is far more then they projected. Some companies can’t get shafts, others can’t get grips — you can’t make a golf club unless you have all the components.

“We have a few companies that are great — they’ve managed to stay ahead of this, and they’re doing very well,” he went on. “But then, we have some other companies … you have to wait 15 weeks to get a set of irons.”

Doing some quick math, DiRico said this will translate into delivery sometime in June, far longer than golfers anxious to get their hands on new irons or a new driver want to wait.

But, overall, this would have to be considered a good problem to have — if such things actually exist in business.

Only a few years ago, the golf industry was in a sharp decline, with membership down at most clubs, tee times readily available at public facilities, and racks full of new equipment for which there wasn’t strong demand. Things have changed in a hurry, and DiRico and others hope most of these trends — not the current supply-and-demand issues, certainly — have some permanence to them.

 

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

A Simple Mission

Just over a year ago this time, Jesse Menachem and his staff at the Massachusetts Golf Assoc. (MGA) were fighting — and fighting hard — to convince the state simply to let golf-course owners maintain their property.

Despite some intense lobbying by his group, Gov. Charlie Baker made golf courses part of his broad shutdown of non-essential businesses in March 2020, and for weeks, the industry lingered in a sort of limbo, not knowing when, if, and under what circumstances courses would be allowed to reopen.

When they did, in mid-May, a number of limiting restrictions kept play at modest levels. But then … the lid came off, and the industry found itself in an enviable position. Indeed, golf was one of the few activities people could take part in during the pandemic, and people started taking it up — or taking it up again, as the case may be, a development that benefited public and private courses alike.

“I’ve heard from clubs that recorded anywhere from a 20% to 50% increase in rounds, which is incredible, because capacity was limited due to the longer intervals between tee times, as mandated by the state,” said Menachem, president of the MGA. “You couldn’t find tee times on weekends at many facilities; with people working from home, working remotely, not traveling, not having family activities like Little League and soccer, golf became number one in a lot of people’s minds, and the game really benefited.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

“If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Now, as the 2021 season gets set to begin in earnest (some courses have already been open for several weeks), the golf industry has a simple, yet also complex, mission that Menachem summed up directly and succinctly: “make it sticky.”

By that, he meant those managing the state’s courses have to take advantage of this huge opportunity they’ve been granted and compel those who took to golf last year, because there were few attractive options, stay with the game now that other options exist.

“That’s our job; that’s what we’re up against — we have to make sure it’s sticky, and that’s something we have not been very good at,” he explained. “If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Indeed, as they go about this mission, courses will have advantages and selling points they didn’t have last year, said Menachem, especially when it comes to their 19th holes, many of which were closed in 2020, while those that were open faced a mountain of restrictions on what they could serve, when, and how. They have also learned some lessons from last year, including how those longer intervals between tee times improved pace of play, reduced logjams on the course, and improved the overall player experience.

But golf will also be facing far more competition in 2021 when it comes to the time, attention, and spending dollars of those who found the game a year ago. Indeed, as restrictions are eased, individuals and families can return to restaurants, museums, the cottage at the beach, and more.

For course owners and managers, the emphasis must be on providing a solid experience, one that prompts a return visit — or several. This has always been the emphasis, he said, but now even moreso, with courses being presented with what would have to be a considered a unique opportunity.

“It’s really our obligation to make sure that experience is favorable,” Menachem told BusinessWest. “For those who are being reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, we’ve got to invite them back; we have to make them feel comfortable and cater to what their desires are. We have to do everything within our power to make sure that golfer on site has the best experience possible and keep them coming back.”

 

—George O’Brien

Estate Planning

Staying Ahead of the Scams

By Julie Quink

 

With the continued intensity created by the COVID-19 pandemic, business owners and individuals have continued to be victims of fraudulent activity as the scams and schemes are continually changing and increasing in number.

At a time of significant economic stress and uncertainty, the barrage of ever-changing fraudulent attempts and attacks becomes increasingly difficult to manage and prevent. Fraudsters have also become very creative in their methods of gathering sensitive information to commit fraud, so it becomes increasingly difficult to predict what might be coming next in the form of an attack.

Since the onset of the pandemic, these schemes have continued to include filing fraudulent unemployment claims. As practitioners, we have also noticed an increase in stolen identities, whether it be by the interception of documents containing personal information or through online access.

As professionals who work with clients to implement best practices and detection techniques, we fall victim to fraud attempts as well. The most recent fraud attempts include continued false unemployment claims and theft of identities through mail interception.

 

Fraudulent Unemployment Claims

The filing of fraudulent unemployment claims is not a new fraud scheme. However, the repeated attempts at compromising employee data and filing of fraudulent claims in other states has increased.

Fraudsters have taken to heart the saying, ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ Some businesses have seen repeat attempts at fraudulent claims filed against the business using the same employees but citing different reasons for filing for unemployment, such as break in service or lack of work.

Further, claims are being filed for employees in different states. The fraudster is using an employee’s information to file in a state in which the employee does not live or work to gain access to unemployment benefits in the state where they live. It has become a vicious cycle.

“The most recent fraud attempts include continued false unemployment claims and theft of identities through mail interception.”

States have tightened controls and verifications to try to manage these fraudulent claims, but the tightening of controls comes with a cost. Employees who have been victims of fraudulent claims in the past may have a more challenging time filing for unemployment as their account has now been flagged. The ease of filing online for these people has now become complicated and time-consuming as they try to navigate the unemployment system.

The continued monitoring of a business unemployment account to prevent and detect fraudulent activity and responding to fraudulent claims can be time-consuming. If fraudulent claims are paid against an employer account, it can impact the employer’s experience rate and unemployment account if not identified quickly.

This is not a new area of fraud, but the methods that fraudsters use to gain access and apply is ever-changing.

 

Identify Theft

Fraudulent unemployment claims are an example of identity theft. It is believed that some of the personal information used in filing fraudulent unemployment claims has come from data breaches. However, creative methods of accessing personal information have now encompassed intercepting hard documents.

Another area of data interception, with which we have had personal experience, is through the mail. If a fraudster is not able to access personal information through electronic means, why not try the good old-fashioned way, through the U.S. Postal Service or another carrier?

Intercepting mail is a scheme that seems to be on the rise. In one such case of which we are aware, information was intercepted prior to arrival at its intended location. Between the time it was initially mailed and the time it finally arrived at its location, the sender’s identity was stolen, and a loan was opened in their name, unbeknownst to them. The fraudster intercepted tax documents, which had personal identifying information, and secured a fraudulent loan. Ultimately, the fraudster, realizing that the mail was in a tracked envelope, secured the package with significant amounts of tape and forwarded it to the final destination.

The Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service is diligent in investigating suspected mail theft, from both internal and external sources. Because of its commitment to finding and detecting mail fraud, the office has devoted the Office of Investigations to handle complaints and fraud.

The impacts of identity theft for a business owner or an individual can be far-reaching. Significant impacts can include compromising credit and financial hardship, compromising legal relationships and documents, and compromising tax filings.

Perhaps one of the most significant impacts may be the feeling of violation, distrust, betrayal, or even embarrassment created by the theft of identity. The unwinding and unpacking of identity theft can be a time-consuming and emotional process for business owners and individuals.

 

Takeaways

What we know is that fraud schemes are changing faster than business owners, individuals, and technology can keep up. Whether the fraud scheme is a recurring scheme or a new and improved scheme, the importance of diligence, communication, and monitoring should not be discounted.

Communication with employees about fraudulent schemes involving unemployment and mail, along with continued monitoring, are best practices in keeping information safe and secure.

 

Julie Quink is managing partner with West Springfield-based Burkhart Pizzanelli; (413) 734-9040.

Health Care

Mental Block

The health anxieties, economic stresses, substance abuse, and feelings of isolation exacerbated by COVID-19 aren’t exactly new, Dr. Barry Sarvet says. And they won’t fade when the pandemic does.

“Prior to the pandemic — and it’s easy to forget this now — we had an enormous amount of stress in our communities related to poverty, homelessness, economic struggles … people just facing an enormous amount of stress in their lives,” said the chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health. “We had underemployment, unemployment, an opioid epidemic. It’s a very distressed community with a lot of long-term struggles, a lot of psychosocial stress. Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better. We need to pay more attention to them after the pandemic.”

Well before COVID-19, Sarvet noted, the region’s mental-health needs laid bare a shortage of inpatient beds for patients who need more help than outpatient visits can provide. It’s why Baystate announced a joint venture with Kindred Behavioral Health last summer to build and operate a $43 million behavioral-health hospital for the region, set to open in 2022. The hospital will be located on the former Holyoke Geriatric Authority site on Lower Westfield Road in Holyoke.

Dr. Barry Sarvet

“Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better.”

Holyoke Medical Center (HMC) had revealed a similar proposal in March 2020 to build a $40.6 million, 84-bed behavioral-health facility on its campus. But when Baystate’s plans came online, and the threatened closure of 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital were saved by a change in ownership, HMC reverted to an earlier plan, to repurpose two of its existing units for behavioral health.

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds,” said Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of HMC and Valley Health Systems.

The process of converting two units to behavioral health — an adult unit and one with a likely geriatric focus — began in October and will be finished by late April, and will add 34 new beds to the existing 20 at the hospital, more than doubling the total to 54. In doing so, it provides a more immediate solution to regional bed shortages, avoiding the need for a lengthy construction period (HMC’s new hospital was also expected to open in late 2022).

The internal repurposing of units had been conceived as a stopgap measure, but when Trinity Health announced the sale of Providence to Health Partners New England (HPNE), which committed to keeping inpatient beds open — and Baystate moved forward with its project — the stopgap made sense as a longer-term solution, although HMC could revisit a standalone behavioral-health hospital at some point in the future, Hatiras said.

Baystate’s project, meanwhile, will include 150 beds — 120 of them part of the original plan. The system has also contracted with the state Department of Mental Health to operate a 30-bed, long-term continuing-care unit for chronically mentally ill people who need a longer time in the hospital to stabilize before returning to the community, Sarvet explained.

This state-funded program, not accessible to regular referrals, was launched after the closures of Northampton State Hospital and other facilities like it. “Some patients need longer-term care, and this offers a length of stay to support people who don’t benefit from short-term hospitalization,” Sarvet said, adding that the DMH unit will be physically connected to the new hospital, but offer its own unique resources.

“New beds will be needed over the long term,” he said, speaking of the project as a whole. “We have had quite a shortage for many years, prior to the potential closure of Providence and prior to the pandemic. This substantial increase in needs is reflected in emergency-room visits from patients with a mental-health crisis. And we certainly see evidence that this isn’t a short-term blip, but part of a longer-term trend that predated the pandemic.”

 

Multiple Pivots

The prospect of any additional behavioral-health beds in the region is certainly a turnaround from a year ago, when Trinity Health announced it would close 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

However, two months ago, the health system sold Providence to HPNE, which provided some management services at the facility from 2011 to 2014, and will operate the facility under the name MiraVista Behavioral Health. In doing so, it will resume operations of numerous outpatient programs, as well as including up to 84 inpatient psychiatric beds.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds.”

“At the time we put forth the plan to build a new behavioral-health hospital, everyone else had pretty much abandoned any behavioral-health expansion,” Hatiras told BusinessWest. “People were shrinking programs; Providence was closing down their campus, and Baystate had put their plans on hold indefinitely. We decided we needed to do something to service the region. Since then, Baystate resurrected their plan to develop the old Geriatric Authority site.”

The recent moves come as no surprise at a time when state health officials have been incentivizing hospitals to open up behavioral-health beds in the wake of a sharp increase in cases due partly to the pandemic.

However, “we had a concern that what seemed like no beds could potentally become too many beds,” Hatiras explained. He disagrees with Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth, who has said there can never be too many beds because the state has so many needs. Rather, he noted, “demand may be greater now than it will be a year from now as we move away from the pandemic spike; we might see demand go down.”

Two other factors, both geographic, also played into the decision to scale down HMC’s behavioral-health expansion. One is that HMC, Baystate, and Providence would have been providing around 225 beds within a three-mile radius of each other, and though the need for services is great statewide, there’s only so far patients and families will be willing or able to go to seek access to treatment — not to mention the difficulty of recruiting more physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff to such a concentrated area.

“We might find ourselves very quickly in a situation where we might not be able to staff those beds. Can we attract staff to this area? That’s always been difficult for Western Mass.,” Hatiras said, another reason why a smaller-scale project makes sense right now.

“I’m optimistic about the units we’re building coming online quickly and providing some relief,” he said. “It’s a good project, and we have a good track record in behavioral health. We know we can run it well, and the state has been very enthusiastic about it. I think we’re in really good shape.”

While the standalone hospital proposal is ‘parked’ for the moment, not abandoned completely, HMC has to be sure something of that scale would be both necessary and practical before moving forward, Hatiras added. “We’re a small community hospital. A project can’t be something that may or may not succeed financially; we can’t take a $45 million risk.”

Baystate currently has 69 behavioral-health beds at three of its affiliate locations: 27 at Baystate Wing Hospital, 22 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, and 20 at Baystate Noble Hospital. When the new facility opens next fall, these three locations will close. A fourth location, the Adult Psychiatric Treatment Unit at Baystate Medical Center (BMC), which accommodates up to 28 medically complex behavioral-health patients, will remain open. Kindred Healthcare will manage the day-to-day operations of the behavioral hospital.

Sarvet firmly believes Baystate will able to fully staff the new venture.

“We do have a nursing shortage, so this will present a challenge, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ll work very hard to include people from the region and hire locally, but we might need a wider net to bring people in. We are very confident we’ll be able to be successful.”

 

Not Waiting Around

In fact, all the local players in the inpatient realm of behavioral health need to be successful, Sarvet noted. For example, suicide rates are increasing, as are instances of anxiety and depression, including in young people (see story on page 4). Meanwhile, the workforce of psychotherapists and clinicians in outpatient settings haven’t been operating at full capacity — again, partly due to the pandemic and the shift to remote treatment settings.

Like HMC, Baystate isn’t waiting for a new building to expand certain aspects of behavioral care. It will open a 12-bed child unit at Baystate later this month, which will expand to a 24-bed unit in the new hospital next year, in response to a shortage of beds specifically for that population. “We see a large number of kids taken care of on medical floors, waiting for beds, up to several weeks,” Sarvet said.

All this movement is positive, Hatiras noted, though he does wish that leadership from HMC, Baystate, and Providence had engaged in deeper conversations about the region’s long-term behavioral-health needs and how to meet them before the recent rush of project launches and changes, bed closings, and ownership transitions.

“Let’s talk as a regional team and determine what makes sense for the region,” he said. “That still has purpose now. Let’s decide what makes sense in these areas before we build 250 beds and can’t staff them, or half of them sit empty.”

For his part, Sarvet agrees that the meeting the region’s inpatient behavioral-health needs is not a solo effort. “We don’t want to win the battle; we want all hospitals to be staffed. We’re in a friendly competition, and we want everyone to win.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Modern Office Special Coverage

Weathering the Storm

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky says flexible leases, as offered in the co-working world, will be more in demand in the future, and rigid, long-term leases less so.

Since launching Click Workspace a decade ago, Mary Yun has seen nothing but growth in one of the region’s first co-working ventures.

That growth led her to abandon her original 1,000-square-foot facility in 2015 and develop a 9,000-square-foot building in downtown Northampton, which, at its peak prior to the pandemic, hosted 80 members and a host of community arts and cultural events.

“That was a good number for us, where we could operate with a full-time member advocate and myself as executive director overseeing all the operations and also working on events,” she said. “We’re mission-driven, bringing in the community through art shows and music; that was my wheelhouse.”

With 80 members, all the private offices and dedicated desks were filled, as was the shared open space, for the most part, while a meeting room holding 24 people was regularly put to use by the community. In short, Click was … well, clicking.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

“We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

“When the closures happened, we closed down like all businesses, and we still had members supporting us, paying their monthly dues for a while. We had members who were now working remotely from home,” Yun said.

But the erosion began almost immediately.

“We had always maintained a good number of members who had private offices that were being funded by their companies. At their businesses, they were the remote workers,” she went on. “But, because everything was now remote, that benefit went away for a lot of our members, so we lost a handful.”

When Click reopened at the end of May, around 55 members were still supporting the space, paying their dues, even though not everyone was coming in regularly — usually, no more than a dozen at a time through last summer. A few members actually joined during the pandemic — some with their career situations in flux, others who needed a place to work because their homes were suddenly too crowded by partners and kids working and learning remotely.

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels after the pandemic fades, but it may be a gradual process.

But it wasn’t enough. “Right now, we’re down to less than 30 members, which is a huge drop in revenue,” Yun said. “Right now, our membership is lower than when we first moved into this building almost six years ago.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

The pandemic has impacted the model in the short term, but the people operating area co-working spaces believe it’s a model with plenty of potential in the long term, and perhaps even more than before COVID-19.

“Like most businesses, we definitely lost some business,” said Jeff Sauser, who co-owns Greenspace CoWork in downtown Greenfield with Jeremy Goldsher. “No one knew what to expect, and we managed to be as flexible as possible with members; those relationships are important to us. We gave every opportunity to pause membership and make changes.

“We lost a chunk of memberships — not everybody; some stayed on, even though they weren’t coming as often — but we were able to stay afloat and survive,” he went on. “We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

As a consultant for a Boston-based company that used to have four offices there and now maintains just one, Sauser sees first-hand the way workplaces are evolving — and in a way that may benefit co-working facilities.

“People don’t come into work every day anymore. We expect more people will have more flexible working arrangements with their employees.”

Yun agreed, noting that many of Click’s members left because their kids were learning at home — which is sure to be a temporary situation; in fact, many schools have already invited students back to campus. She believes an increase in membership at Click is inevitable, though it may take some time.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job.’ I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

“I think what’s going to happen is, when kids go back to school in the fall full-time, parents will be like, ‘maybe I can make it work at home,’ and continue to work at home, and in a couple months, they’ll start to get lonely — professionally lonely — and start to come back, which is why they came here in the first place,” she told BusinessWest. “Really, I’m hopeful and optimistic.”

Stroke of Inspiration

Ned Barowsky was certainly optimistic when he launched a franchise of the national co-working company Venture X in Holyoke, right next to the Holyoke Mall.

He’s owned the retail and office complex at 98 Lower Westfield Road for 25 years, and faced a series of vacancies over the past couple of years the departures of Pier One Imports, Kaoud Oriental Rugs, and a series of mattress stores. For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies, to no avail. That’s when Barowsky was inspired to by the co-working model.

“I had done a couple franchises in the past; I was familiar with franchising, so I started looking at co-working spaces,” he said. “I just knew that everything was being shut down, and when people come back out, they’re not going to go back to these five-year leases, 10-year leases. People aren’t going to do that anymore. They’re going to want flexible plans — ‘I want to be here for a month, three months, six months, a year, and with a smaller footprint.’”

When he started researching a few companies, he was “blown away” by Venture X, which tags itself “the future of workspace.”

“That’s our tagline, but it literally is the future of workspace. It’s flexible — you decide how many of each kind of office you want,” he said, noting that some franchisees opt to emphasize shared space, but his facility includes fewer shared stations and about 65 offices, in several sizes, to house any number of workers. “I wanted more offices, so that’s what I did — I put in more offices.”

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say robust co-working spaces can be economic drivers for communities.

Sauser sees the potential, too, in companies downsizing their space and offering more flexible arrangements to workers — partly because of what they learned during the pandemic, when they saw how productive employees could be while working remotely. And that has implications for entire communities.

“I think co-working spaces are very well-positioned to receive those people,” he said. “I’m an urban planner — I’ve been thinking about this stuff long before the pandemic hit. A lot of trends show that, if people can work more flexibly, and make decisions about where they live based on lifestyle and not where the jobs are, people can move where they want to.”

He pointed to surging real-estate sales in Western Mass. and in the suburbs outside large cities like Boston.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job,’” Sauser said. “I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

A lot of towns in Western Mass. offer that already — Greenfield has a walkable downtown, with opportunities to work in a co-working space, so it can be more competitive attracting new residents,” he went on. “I think of it as economic development for communities, not just for businesses like ours.”

Several years ago, Sauser and Goldsher met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City. They say members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, meeting space, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

The pandemic actually revealed new opportunities for co-working spaces, Sauser added, from remote workers who live in rural communities with poor broadband access to college students who needed the space when campuses were closed, to working parents who craved a break from their suddenly bustling house.

“And we were honored to see a lot of members choose to stick with us and extend their membership even when they weren’t using the physical space,” Goldsher added. “Before this, the concept of co-working was a novelty, but we brought an urban concept to a smaller community and showed the model does translate in a different way. Now a lot of other opportunities are presenting themselves.”

Bills, Bills, Bills

Yun had a broader vision as she grew Click — one centered around the arts as an economic driver, with gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like, to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space. That aspect of the complex has been wiped out during the pandemic.

“It’s been a hardship for the people who have been coming in — there’s very little community left right now with so few coming in,” she said. “We’re eking by, but we’re going to make it. I think a lot of it is because we operate as a nonprofit, so we had reserves built up, and we’re dipping into those reserves now.”

PPP loans, a Massachusetts small-business grant, and rent reduction have helped, but the complex will eventually need to boost its membership back up.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have one person here or 50; you have all these fixed expenses,” Yun said. “There may be a little bit of give in the rent, but we have to pull in fiber-optic internet — that’s a huge cost for us, almost $900 a month. All the utilities are fixed. Last summer, I said to myself, we need to be able to sustain ourselves until the summer of 2022 because I felt like that was going to be when the recovery was in full swing for us.”

That timeline seems more accelerated now, but she feels like the return to normalcy will still be a gradual one. “Do all the former members come back? A lot have moved on, and co-working is such that people come and people go all the time.”

The pandemic saw an influx of residents from New York to Western Mass., but many of them have purchased large homes with home offices, so it’s unclear what effect that migration will have on co-working. “It seems daunting, but we’ve been open for over five years here now, and I feel like we’re here to stay. Who knew we’d have a pandemic?”

To counter that still-active pandemic, Click, like every other workspace, has launched a series of safety protocols, from requiring masks when moving about to regular sanitization to pumping in fresh air.

Air quality was a big concern for Barowsky at Venture X as well. “During COVID, I was very cognizant of air-filtration systems. I spent well over $100,000 on seven rooftop units,” he said, in addition to investments in touchless bathrooms, numerous hand-sanitizer stations, and a keyless entry system.

Greenspace takes safety seriously as well, Sauser said. “From a COVID safety standpoint, we follow all the state guidelines and have protocols in place — cleaning, masks, sanitizers.”

Goldsher added that the state’s rules early on made little sense, noting that Greenspace was not designated an essential business, but — unlike Click — stayed open throughout the pandemic anyway because one of the companies it houses was deemed essential, and had to continue using the space.

“While I think we proved that we are a very necessary asset in the community, there’s this strange dichotomy being open for essential business and not being considered an essential business ourselves.”

Here to Stay

But those who own co-working spaces in Western Mass. — other prominent centers include AmherstWorks, 734 Workspace in Longmeadow, and Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, to name just a few — say they are indeed an essential part of the 21st-century economy.

“I think the future of the workplace is very much up in the air. There’s no way to predict what the open concept will look like in five years time, but we have some good ideas,” Goldsher said.

Sauser agreed that the future of the workplace is in flux, but suggested that the office of the future might look much like co-work spaces of today, “where flexibility is the emphasis, in part because office managers and companies dedicate less space to individual employees when employees are not coming in every day.”

Yun added that companies have decisions to make about whether to extend their traditional leases or move toward more flexibility and smaller footprints. That, in turn, could drive the next surge of growth in co-working, and she welcomes more such facilities, because each new complex will raise awareness of the model and its benefits.

“We don’t know how all this will shake out,” she said. “But the more co-working spaces exist, the better.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

Every sector of the economy, and every business, large or small, has been impacted by this global pandemic. But this region’s large and important hospitality and tourism sector has easily been the hardest-hit.

The hotels, restaurants, tourists attractions, event venues, and cultural institutions have been pummeled by this crisis. Some have not survived; those that have are battered and bruised, and that goes for small mom-and-pop operations, the $1 billion MGM Springfield resort casino, and everything in between.

As the calendar turns to April, though, there can finally be sentiment that the very worst is behind this sector and that better times are to come — though myriad challenges remain.

First, the good news. As various stories in this issue reveal, there are positive signs and ample amounts of optimism about what’s in store for this sector. Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and other renowned cultural institutions have announced that, after canceling everything (or staging only virtual performances) in 2020, they will have schedules of live offerings this year — although they will be different.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of talk of pent-up demand, and new terms working their way into the lexicon like ‘revenge spending’ and ‘vacation retaliation.’ All this points to a summer — and a year — when people who spent their time off in 2020 (if they had any) on the back deck, might instead be spending some money taking in all that Western Mass. has to offer.

This good news is tempered by the hard reality that we just don’t know what this year portends when it comes to people getting back in the water — literally and figuratively. There is pent-up demand, yes, and many people certainly have money to spend. But when the time comes, will people be willing to gather in large numbers? Will there be a Big E, and if so, how many people will attend? Will people return to the casino? And when can MGM again stage the live events that bring so many people to downtown Springfield? Can the Basketball Hall of Fame bounce back from a dismal year? Will people have an appetite for crowded (or more crowded) restaurants? When will conventions return?

These are just some of the questions that will determine the short-term fate of the region’s tourism and hospitality industry. For the long term, we know the health and well-being of this sometimes-overlooked sector is absolutely critical to the economy of this region, and to its quality of life.

Thankfully, there are many signs that it’s ready to officially roar back to life.

Cover Story

But MGM Springfield Leader Optimistic About the Next Chapter

Chris Kelley had just arrived in Springfield and was still getting acclimated to the region when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived almost exactly a year ago.

Then, he had to get acclimated to something else — something no one in the casino industry had ever seen or been forced to endure before.

“These facilities just weren’t meant to be closed,” said Kelley, president of MGM Resorts’ Northeast Group, which includes MGM Springfield. But they were, of course — for four long, brutal months, before finally reopening in July, but only at one-third capacity and with a number of restrictions in place. Later, the state’s casinos had to reduce hours and close at 10 p.m. as a late-year surge in cases moved the goalposts again.

Now, some restrictions are being eased, and later this month, the state will enter what is known as step 1 of phase 4, prompting Kelley to glance toward the future with optimism in his voice. But in all ways, and by all accounts, the ‘ramping-up’ period for MGM Springfield — the one we all heard so much about in the months before COVID dramatically changed the landscape — has been turned on its ear.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back.”

In some ways, it will be like starting over for this operation, which recently reopened its hotel for weekends and also its sports bar, and is waiting with what can only be called bated breath to see if and to what degree patrons will return to the blackjack tables, slot machines, bars, and, eventually (but no one really knows when) large-scale events like concerts, shows, and fundraising galas.

In a wide-ranging interview, Kelley, who has remained mostly quiet, from a press perspective, since arriving in this region, talked with BusinessWest about the past year, but mostly about what comes next for this highly visible, nearly $1 billion business that opened to great expectations 32 months ago.

That look back was understandably painful, although he said the past year has certainly been a somewhat beneficial learning experience on many levels (more on that later) and a time when changes coming to the industry were greatly accelerated.

As for the future … it is obviously clouded by question marks that involve everything from how much pent-up demand there will be for everything a casino has to offer, to the fate of sports gambling in the Bay State.

Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over

In some ways, Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over at MGM Springfield.

Kelley is optimistic about both.

He said Las Vegas has recently returned to its 24/7 character and something rapidly approaching conditions that existed pre-COVID — and the early indications are certainly positive.

“With vaccine distribution ramping up around the country, there’s good reason for cautious optimism as we look at our ability to gather in larger numbers, and for our industry, in the broader sense, to see improvement as opposed what it was experiencing only a few months ago. As we look at the calendar year 2021, I think we see significant opportunities for improvement, especially as we move into the second half of the year.”

As for sports betting, he said several bills are in various stages of talk and progression through the Legislature, and he’s optimistic that the state will ultimately pass one, especially with other states already doing so, with revenue flowing to them as a result. More important than simply approving a bill, though, is passing legislation that will enable the state to effectively compete and ultimately become an industry leader in this realm. Such a bill might bring $50 million in additional tax revenues to the state annually, he projected.

“We’re looking for Massachusetts to be able to compete with all of the surrounding states that have or soon will have sports betting,” he said, noting that Connecticut will soon be in that category. “A level playing field for MGM and the other casinos in the state is very important, as is giving our customers an amenity, and an experience, that they’ve been asking for now for years.”

 

Doubling Down

Reflecting on the past year, what it was like, and even what he’s learned as a manager, Kelley started by flashing back to what were the darkest of days — when the casino was closed and there was no indication of when it might open again.

“It’s a very uncomfortable experience to walk through these facilities when they’re dark and there’s no activity and action — the sights and sounds that ultimately drew us all into this industry,” he told BusinessWest, noting, again, that once a casino cuts the proverbial grand-opening ribbon, its doors are never locked.

The fact that they had to be locked was just the first in a string of unprecedented steps that defined the next several months, from the shuttering of the hotel and restaurants to the cancellation of scores of events that were on the books, to ultimately laying off two-thirds of the employees working at the casino before the pandemic arrived.

Overall, Kelley said, this has been a humbling experience in some ways — a challenging time, to be sure, but also a learning experience and an opportunity to accelerate, out of necessity, some changes that were coming to the industry anyway.

“No business model for any company will be exactly the same, post-COVID,” he explained. “We have innovated along the way, adopting best practices, and many of those will remain, to the benefit of the guests,” he told BusinessWest. “Digital innovations are an area I would point to; MGM Resorts and MGM Springfield were already headed toward many digital innovations pre-COVID, but the pandemic really accelerated the implementation of those efforts — things like digital menus, the use of QR codes, mobile check-in, and digital keys; those things will remain, and those are a positive part of the guest experience today and moving forward.”

Elaborating on what was learned and how the casino and its staff responded to the rapidly changing landscape, Kelley said some valuable experience was gained that should benefit his team moving forward, especially when it comes to — here’s that word again — pivoting.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

“When the pandemic hit, it was a huge learning experience for everyone in this industry,” he said. “We all had to create new ways of operating and coping with restrictions that we had never experienced before. We put an emphasis on internal communications and external communications with our guests, and we found ways to stay in contact with our teams virtually. And through this process, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with our state and local officials and our community partners to weather this experience with the strength and support of each other. That ability to come together as a community during times like this is the silver lining to a very difficult period.

“As a team, we recently discussed the importance of leadership agility,” he went on, “because we have had to learn how to be very nimble and adjust to ever-changing conditions, which I believe will ultimately benefit the business in coming out of all this.”

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life during the pandemic at MGM Springfield.

In recent months, business — and gross gaming revenues — have steadily improved, said Kelley, and this has been while the hotel and some restaurants have been closed. Looking forward, he expects this trend to continue and for there to be a good amount of pent-up demand for casino-style entertainment.

“It remains to be seen what the reaction of our communities will be to a vaccinated population, but we’re optimistic that we’ll see the return of guests to our property,” he said. “We had seen resiliency even during this time.”

The hotel reopened on a limited basis the first weekend in March, he went on, with the goal being to gauge guest demand and comfort levels and then adjust the business model accordingly. He said initial bookings have been positive, and he expects improvement to come gradually.

As for events in the casino’s various venues — gatherings have brought people and energy to the downtown area and business to a number of hospitality-related ventures — Kelley said it is too early to know when this aspect can resume.

“Ultimately, that will be up to the state to determine,” he noted. “What we can do is make sure that we’re as prepared as possible for that day; we do discuss those things frequently, and we’re actively engaged in planning for the return of those amenities.”

 

Plenty of Wild Cards

Speaking of being prepared … this is exactly what the casino is striving to do when it comes to another key focal point moving forward — sports betting.

New Hampshire became the 16th state to legalize such betting (there are now 22) in July 2019, and officially went live in late December that year. Meanwhile, Connecticut has taken huge steps in this direction, although some complicated negotiations remain between the many parties involved when it comes to where venues will be located, how many there will be, and who will operate them.

As for the Bay State, Kelley counts himself among those who believe it’s a question of when — not if — sports betting gets the green light, and he obviously considers that step pivotal if the state’s casinos are going to going to tap the full potential of what has long been considered an attractive market.

But he stressed repeatedly that his focus is not simply on working with state legislators to pass a bill, but to create a playing field on which the state’s casino can effectively compete. And this is the consistent message he and others with MGM have been delivering to state officials.

“We’re encouraged by the number of sports-betting bills that have already been introduced, and each of the bills that has been drafted has been tailored to the unique interests of the sponsor,” he explained. “So we’ve been focused on advising lawmakers on what our experience has shown us.”

Elaborating, he said this experience has shown that the lower the tax rates are on sports-gambling revenues, the better one’s odds are of effectively competing against what he called the “illegal markets,” and also against the growing number of neighboring states already in or soon to get in this game.

“We want to create a competitive operating model, and so a tax rate that is on the lower side is helpful in creating the best payouts for the guests, and also helpful in competing against the illegal markets, and it’s helpful in competing against border states,” he went on. “And we believe that, ultimately, it creates the best guest experience as well.”

He said the casino has a plan in place and has the ability to move “very quickly” when state legislators decide to pull the trigger.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the property and where a sports book makes sense, and also at how to create an experience that would really be a market leader and that will benefit the community at the same time,” he explained, adding that there is a good deal of experience in this realm within the MGM corporation that he and his team can benefit from. “We’ll have many resources to draw upon, and we’re excited about that.”

Reflecting again on those dark times that coincided with his arrival in Springfield, Kelley said those memories linger, even as many can see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. And they make him appreciate a return to something ‘normal’ even more.

“To see us moving back in the direction of offering those positive moments, those positive milestones, those positive experiences for our guests, is extraordinarily gratifying, and part of what I love about this business,” he said, adding, again, that while question marks still dominate the landscape, he remains optimistic about not only turning back the clock to pre-COVID levels of revenue and progress, but setting the bar higher.

Ultimately, this story is still in the early chapters, he told BusinessWest, and the ones to come will hold plenty of intrigue.

 

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

Law Special Coverage

A Challenging Docket

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve and create new opportunities, even during the pandemic.

It’s been a challenging year for businesses of all kinds, and the profession of law is no exception.

But in many ways, the pandemic set the critical role of lawyers in even sharper relief, says Sudha Setty, dean of the   (WNEU) School of Law.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial,” she told BusinessWest, and it extends far beyond business disruptions.

“The pandemic has hit very unevenly in a lot of communities, including Western Massachusetts, and you have issues of trying to get unemployment benefits or ensuring against foreclosure of homes or eviction,” she noted. “A lot of legal needs have come out of all that. Those needs existed previously, of course, but the pandemic has exacerbated them. So the need for lawyers to help in those capacities has increased exponentially in the past year.”

Or take the growing (literally and figuratively) field of cannabis; a course on “Cannabis and the Law” is hugely popular, Setty said, because students see legal opportunities in an industry that still has plenty of room to expand.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial.”

“It’s a new field, and it’s not going away. It’s a way to think about new opportunities as a lawyer, but you’re also learning nuts and bolts you can apply to other fields as well, like regulatory law and how to navigate state bureaucracy and a lot of other pieces that will be helpful even if your practice isn’t in cannabis law in the long run.”

In short, the world will always need lawyers, and after a very uneven past two decades when it comes to the job market and law-school enrollment, colleges across the U.S. have reported an uptick in applications over the past few years, one that hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic.

WNEU welcomed an incoming class of 130 last fall, well over the 88 who started classes in the fall of 2018, Setty’s first year as dean. While the fall 2021 numbers won’t be finalized until the summer, she hears from Admissions that applications are still strong.

“Nationwide, I know most law-school applications are up significantly,” she added. “In this region, it’s up about 20%, and we’re about the same. So I feel cautiously optimistic.”

Programs she has shepherded have only made WNEU a more attractive destination — for example, the Center for Social Justice, launched in the spring of 2019, has offered a robust series of community conversations, pro bono opportunities, and other initiatives aimed at giving students real-world experience in making a difference, even while in school.

“Students have always been interested in that mission, but now we have this focal point and can shepherd students toward job opportunities, toward scholarships, toward career paths, thinking about what they need to be a social-justice lawyer,” she said, noting, as one example, the Center’s Consumer Debt Initiative, which helps area individuals who are unrepresented in debt collection, sometimes over a few hundred dollars, sometimes a few thousand.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

“They can make a difference in someone’s life. It’s a way for students, faculty, and lawyers from the greater community to address this economic-justice issue. We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

Add it up, and the WNEU School of Law hasn’t slowed down its pursuit of building a program that will remain relevant in the ever-changing field of law, well after life — and the educational experience — return to something resembling normal.

 

Back to School

Like every college and university, WNEU had to scramble last spring to get students learning remotely, and faculty and staff spent the summer raising their online competencies to make sure courses would be even more effective in the fall.

“Some of them were already ahead of the curve,” Setty said. “For some of us, including me, it was a lot of learning, a lot of training, a lot of mock classrooms we did with each other to build up our ability. This place is about good teaching, and that was the really important thing to drive home — that, by the time we got back in August, everyone had to continue this excellence in teaching as part of the ethos of the law school — in a hybrid format, if they had to.”

The 2020-21 year has, indeed, taken a hybrid form, with students alternating between learning remotely and in classrooms at the Blake Law Center, due to social distancing and capacity limits. “The largest classrooms normally hold more than 100, and now they’re at 40-something. So the students are rotating through,” she added. “Some students, for health reasons, can’t come at all, so they’re fully remote. That’s the way we’ve been operating.”

The law school has long been known for its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.

Those clinics are still operating, Setty said, but they now feature a strong remote component as well.

“Lawyering these days is largely remote,” she noted. “Client counseling is remote. Witness interviews are remote. We have remote hearings in front of judges. So there’s a separate and related set of competencies that our students are learning, which deal with remote client presentation. It’s very different than what they’ve had to do before, and it has its challenges.”

However, she continued, “the flip side is that this is going to be a part of lawyering going forward. Everything’s not going back to fully in person after the pandemic fades. There are going to be some elements of remote trial work and remote client counseling, so I feel like our students are on the cutting edge of learning this stuff, so when they’re out looking for jobs, they can say, ‘not only do I have this skill set, I also have remote competencies in client representation; I’ve been a remote mediator, I’ve represented people in a criminal proceeding remotely.’ These are remarkable experiences they’re having — they’re very different, but absolutely what we need to do.”

Those graduates are entering a job market that has proven resilient during the pandemic, Setty said, noting that the contraction of law-school enrollment nationally a decade ago has gradually increased demand for talent.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work.”

“The employment piece for the folks graduating during the pandemic, I think there’s still uncertainty around that,” she said. “But for the most part, our graduates have kept their jobs.”

The school has added some faculty members in the past two years, most recently Jennifer Taub, who specializes in white-collar crime, criminal procedures, and other business-law subjects, and authored the book Big Dirty Money: the Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime.

“We’re on a positive swing,” Setty said. “The energy of our students, our faculty, and our staff has been terrific. Working through a pandemic requires a lot in terms of navigating the uncertainty and the need to adapt, but also all the hours it takes for faculty and staff to dig in and collectively make this work so we can have in-person education here.”

 

Community Focus

Setty took the reins as dean of the School of Law in 2018 after 12 years as a professor at WNEU. She first joined the faculty in 2006 as a professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life, and has produced notable scholarship in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security.

Through her career, she has maintained that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole. The Center for Social Justice has been an important part of that philosophy over the past two years.

“I really wanted to establish this center and get it off the ground, and it has been terrific,” she said, crediting grants from MassMutual, individual law firms, and other entities to help fund its programming. “Not only is it a way to help our students and meet the social-justice mission of the law school, but it does such good work in the community. It’s great for attracting new students, but it’s also great for the work it does.”

Areas of focus have included economic justice, racial justice, and a recent effort, funded by a WNEU alum, to create an LGBTQ speaker series and support summer work in that realm for two students each year.

“It draws people in with a lot of interests,” she said of the center. “People come to law school wanting to make the world a better place, and they’re wondering how to do that — this speaks to them in a way that’s really profound.”

In fact, the law school as a whole has taken a hard look at its own efforts toward racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, Setty said, from the coursework to how it connects with the outside community on issues like police practices.

“We have made an effort to think more about this and integrate it into our curriculum and how we engage in the larger community, but I want to do it in a sustained fashion so it’s not like, ‘oh, that was the focus for 2020; we don’t have to think about it anymore.’ The idea is to integrate it into who we are as a law school and focus on it going forward as well. It shouldn’t be a flavor-of-the-month issue, and then we move on.”

Setty is, however, more than ready to move past the pandemic and welcome students back on campus full-time, but she’s proud of what has been accomplished during the past unprecedented year.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work,’” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ve been relatively successful. I continue to be really grateful to be the dean — particularly at a time when it’s required so much collective effort to make this happen.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Special Coverage Technology

A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Learning on the Fly

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors

Kimberly Quiñonez says her professors encouraged her to overcome the challenges of online learning and succeed.

Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) had a long-term plan to ramp up online and digital learning.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced staff working at STCC’s Center for Online and Digital Learning to move faster than they ever imagined. The staff includes instructional designers who assistant faculty in online teaching methods they incorporate into the classroom experience.

To maintain the safety of students, faculty, and staff, STCC moved classes to remote instruction last March. Instructional designers worked with faculty over the summer to prepare for fully online teaching in the 2020-21 academic year.

Faculty and administrators acknowledge the abrupt change to remote learning created great challenges and, for some, led to a less-than-ideal learning environment last spring. The sudden need to vacate campus resulted in the use of a slew of digital tools to communicate with students, including e-mail, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and teleconferencing by phone and Zoom.

“Many faculty had been using online tools for the delivery of their face-to face classes. However, for those faculty who were not familiar with the digital space or whose courses required hands-on instruction, the ‘lift’ to online was great,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs at STCC. “Since the summer, STCC invested in tools and training to assist faculty in developing the best truly online experience possible, including the hiring of a third instructional designer. Today, all online instruction occurs in a single platform, supplemented by class discussions using tools such as Zoom.”

The college anticipates spending nearly $800,000 through May 2021 helping faculty develop hundreds of online classes and labs, de Berly said. Today, more than 80% of the credits are offered online, a jump from 12% prior to the pandemic. Over the coming year, STCC also expects to expand its online-only options in addition to its existing in-person and hybrid degree programs.

STCC English Professor Denise “Daisy” Flaim has years of experience teaching students on campus in classrooms, so converting to the online experience was a big adjustment. But she worked closely with the online team at STCC to prepare for the transition, and now feels confident.

“We’re learning technology, just as the students are learning technology,” Flaim said.

Daniel Misco, an STCC alumnus and faculty member in the Digital Media Production program, said he’s well-versed in the online teaching world. Today, he teaches most of his classes online, but misses the face-to-face interactions with students in a classroom.

“I considered myself a face-to-face instructor,” Misco said. “I always excelled in the classroom. I liked being there with students to build a rapport with them.”

The adjustment to online learning can be challenging for some students, but Misco said faculty try to do all they can to help.

STCC student Kimberly Quiñonez, who is studying social work, expressed gratitude for the support from faculty over the past year.

“My experience as an online learner has really been amazing, although there were times I felt like quitting,” she said. “During those times, my professors would reach out and check in with the class. In the very beginning, I must admit that it was quite challenging transferring from an actual classroom to a computer. The classroom brought security to most students because questions were answered immediately. With online learning, you may have to wait for a response through e-mail.”

Aminah Bergeron, a mechanical engineering technology student at STCC, said she found benefits to online learning, noting she has “gotten the hang of it” after a year of studying from home.

“It wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be. It was for sure different, but a ‘good’ different,” she said. “I didn’t have to worry about getting ready, or making sure my house doors are locked, or even thinking in the back of my head, ‘did I leave the faucet running?’ I just had to open my laptop and start my schoolwork, whether at my own pace or scheduled Zoom meetings. I also had much more time to research and not worry about calculating the time I’d lose on commuting from one location to another.”

STCC will return to face-to-face, on-campus instruction when it’s safe to do so, de Berly said, but will continue to offer online options and apply digital tools to enhance the classroom experience.

Cover Story

In Demand

Tanya Vital-Basile

Tanya Vital-Basile with a common sight — a ‘sold’ sign.

Tanya Vital-Basile recently sold a house in Longmeadow to someone who might not have considered buying it a year ago.

But life changed — and so did the residential real-estate market. Considerably, in both cases.

Specifically, the buyer had lived in Boston for many years, and still has a job there, but she has been working remotely, and plans — like so many others these days — to continue doing so.

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it,” said Vital-Basile, who heads a team at Executive Real Estate. “We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

It’s a story BusinessWest heard multiple times from area Realtors.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment,” said Kathy Zeamer of Jones Realty. “A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it. We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

Call it the new normal wrought by a still-raging pandemic.

“COVID has a lot to do with it,” said Lesley Lambert of Park Square Realty. “People are working from home, and they’re realizing their home doesn’t work for their life. I’ve spoken to so many clients who want to continue working from home, even once all this clears, and they’re looking at their space and saying, ‘we thought we wanted a big, open floor plan, but what we actually want is a music room, a study, a home office.’”

All this demand — for a different home, but especially one far outside the metro areas — has created a serious imbalance with supply in Western Mass., creating a seller’s market like few this industry has experienced in recent decades.

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three. It’s crazy,” Vital-Basile said.

The most recent statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. In December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. Hampden County led the way (sales up 32.0% and median price up 11.5% from the previous year), but Franklin County (26% and 10.6%) and Hampshire County (20.4% and 9.1%) weren’t far behind.

Kathy Zeamer

Kathy Zeamer says the current climate is a supply-and-demand issue — with several factors driving that demand.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market, Zeamer said. “It’s all about supply and demand. The inventory is really low, and we have new people coming into the area, so we don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand we’re seeing.”

A few factors play into the supply challenge. Many families who might be thinking about moving out of the region are hunkering down instead because of uncertainties related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

As for demand, “I think people are trying to escape more urban areas,” she added. “We have people coming in from other parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston area. Most of my sales this year involve people from New York, California, Las Vegas, Chicago — more so than ever before. I’ve had several New York sales this year, which is more than I would typically see.”

 

Escaping the City

The lifestyle shifts driven by the pandemic aren’t the only factor driving demand, Vital-Basile said, noting that interest rates are still at historic lows, creeping below 3%.

“The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” she told BusinessWest, adding that sellers from the Hub find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment. A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“We’ve had a lot of buyers from Boston. My last three sales were from Boston — cash buyers. A lot of people are realizing they don’t have to work at their company’s location any longer; a lot of companies are letting them work from home. And this is a cheaper area — instead of a little condo for $700,000, you can get a good-sized house for $700,000.”

Zeamer said she’s also seeing an increased desire for multi-generational living experiences, which typically require a larger home than the buyer currently occupies. “They might have older parents or grown children, and they need more living space or in-law apartments.”

But the main driver for more space is simply the fact that families are spending much more time at home. “Because of the pandemic, they want more space, and different types of space,” Zeamer said. “Some people are moving because they feel cooped up in their existing homes; it’s too tight with the kids being home and partners working remotely from home.”

The pandemic has also generated a desire in some people to live more sustainably — to grow more food at home, for example, instead of relying totally on grocery stores, she noted. “They want to have a nice garden, and they’re thinking more about providing their own food sources.

“And I do think people are looking for more private outdoor space, where they can gather with their people, in their pod, without exposure from the neighbors,” she went on. “A lot of condos are coming on the market, perhaps because people in close living arrangements are looking to be more isolated.”

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale)

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale) says prime properties can get dozens of offers quickly — and over the asking price.

 

Lambert said the Berkshires and the Northampton/Easthampton area are both notable hotspots right now, but all of Western Mass., much like Cape Cod, is being seen as an attractive alternative to life in a metroplex.

“If they want to get out of their cities, it’s a good time, as a lot of companies are going with mobile workers. I think the brick-and-mortar concept is going to take a hit, and we’ll see more people realizing they don’t have to live where they work.”

Zeamer agreed. “I think Western Mass. is really appealing to a lot of urban types of buyers,” she said, noting, as tourism boards and chambers of commerce have for generations, that this region offers an urbane, progressive mindset in many corners, plus the kinds of cultural and recreational amenities city dwellers appreciate, but in a quieter, morte scenic setting with myriad ways to enjoy the great outdoors.

And, as noted, there are more seekers of such homes right now than sellers. As an example, Lambert recalled one house she sold last fall. “It was a lovely house, not a crazy McMansion. I had 50 showings in two days, and 15 offers — all over the asking price. From what I’m hearing from my teammates and fellow Realtors, it’s like that for everybody.”

 

Buying Time

While that makes for an exciting home-selling experience, it can be frustrating on the other side.

“There’s so much competition that people are struggling to secure a home,” Zeamer said. “And that’s keeping them from putting their own home on the market. It’s a great time to sell, but then you have to buy, and that part is very challenging right now.”

One of her colleagues at Jones recently got 18 offers on a property, some with cash in hand. “It’s hard to compete if there’s a cash offer in the mix. In urban areas, people are liquidating properties and have lots of cash in hand, and the prices here look pretty attractive compared to what they’re used to.”

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three .”

Also suppressing supply is the fact that some homeowners eyeing a move simply don’t want people in their houses during the pandemic, so they’re delaying a move, Vital-Basile said. “I ask sellers, ‘what makes you comfortable? Do you want a one-time showing, an open house with three families at a time, and after that, I’ll go and clean everything?’ It depends on the client.” Meanwhile, it can be especially tricky to sell a house with tenants if those tenants don’t want visitors due to COVID-19.

“Very rarely are you seeing open houses anymore. I can’t speak for all Realtors, but I switched to doing 3D home tours, where you can sit at your desktop and ‘walk’ through the house,” Lambert said, noting that in-person walk-throughs are reserved for houses the buyer is especially interested in.

In addition, “we can’t meet with clients like we used to,” she said. “We have to do a lot more remotely, talking on a phone call of Zoom call.”

The challenges of buying a house right now — both logistical and competitive — reinforce the need to have strong representation, said all the Realtors we spoke with. And to use common sense.

For instance, Vital-Basile said, some potential buyers are waiving appraisals and inspections to get a leg up, but she doesn’t recommend that. “I tell everyone, ‘don’t force the buy; you don’t want to be in a bad situation. Even if it’s the right house at the right price, don’t force it. Always have the agent negotiate.”

Lambert is certainly an advocate for the agent-client relationship — and not just any agent. “I tell them they need the strongest buyer’s agent they can find, and not just work with your cousin because he got his license six months ago. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this market, you have to know what you’re doing.”

That includes securing preapprovals and discussing beforehand what a competitive offer should looks like. “If the first time you talk to a buyer is when the boots are hitting the road, they’re going to freak out. It’s got to be a strategy you’ve developed with them regardless of the house they find.”

And it means, in many cases these days, being prepared to offer more than the asking price right off the bat, before someone else invariably does.

“I have a team of trusted affiliates who take great care of my clients, and when my clients listen to my well-erned advice, we have smooth sailing,” Lambert said. “I’m not the only realty team like that, of course. But it’s important to have advocates on your side right now.”

That said, the “crazy prices” sellers are getting don’t seem to be slowing up, Vital-Basile said. “I don’t think the market will tank anytime soon,” she said. “But a $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize. Right now, though, there are too many buyers out there, ready to move.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Uncertainty on the Menu

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

The weekend before March 17, Fitzwilly’s was gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day the Northampton St. Patrick’s Assoc. gathers for its annual breakfast, and then about 200 of them march on down to Fitzwilly’s and spend most of the day there.

“We have Irish bands, and we were sitting on 20 kegs of Guinness beer and a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for a great big party — and it got pulled right out from under us,” owner Fred Gohr said.

Remember March 16? That’s the day restaurants — and most other businesses in the Commonwealth — were forced to shut down, on just two days notice, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It was awful,” Gohr went on. “We had a staff of about 75 people, and I had to tell them all, ‘we’re closed, and you guys have to go on unemployment for a while, and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happened, all across Hampshire County’s robust dining scene, has been a series of starts and stops, hope and despair, and especially two themes that kept coming up as BusinessWest sat with area proprietors: uncertainty, but also evolution.

“We were closed completely for a month or so, then we opened and started doing a little bit of curbside,” Gohr said. “And, honestly, when that’s all you’re doing — at least for us — it’s not very profitable.”

But takeout service, never a major factor in the business, has since morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales. Other restaurants have relied even more on pick-up service, because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has (more on those later).

“Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’”

“It’s been such a whirlwind for small businesses the past 10 months, trying to get our bearings with all the changes,” said Alex Washut, who owns two Jake’s restaurants in Northampton and Amherst. “Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’

That’s because there was no ‘last time’ — no comparable pandemic in the past century, anyway. “Everything was out the window,” Washut said. “We asked, ‘who are we going to be this week?’ Then there was a bunch of changes, and we had to conform to those, and then it was a new restaurant the next week.”

Like Fitzwilly’s, evolving to a takeout model early on was new territory for Jake’s. “We were never a takeout restaurant; maybe 3% of our gross was takeout food,” he said. “So we had no system for it.”

The various systems that area eateries developed, in the weeks last spring when takeout was the only option, involved details ranging from what containers to use to how to present food attractively and, for restaurants that opted for delivery, how to keep it warm in transit.

Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass with some of the supplies used in Galaxy’s takeout business, which has been its dominant model for almost a year.

“We were able to pivot quickly,” Washut noted. “From there, we moved to outdoor dining when that was allowed, but we had never had outdoor dining before” — and questions had to be answered regarding permitting, staffing, health and safety factors.

The positive, he noted, is that, if 2021 follows a similarly bumpy trajectory, “we know what’s expected, and we know how we’ll react in the spring, how we’ll react in the summer, and how we’ll react once the fall and winter come along.”

Indeed, the establishments that survived last year’s storm are, if not stronger for the experience, at least a little wiser, even as many are barely hanging on. The hope, of course, is that 2021 is nothing like 2020. But in this industry, so critical to the economy and cultural life of Hampshire County, nothing is certain.

 

Survival of the Fittest

“We’ve evolved a lot.”

Those were Casey Douglass’ first words when asked what this year has been like at Galaxy, the restaurant he’s operated in downtown Easthampton for the past five years.
The first evolution had to do with meeting customer needs. “We’re part of the food chain,” he said. “We have a lot of customers who don’t go to the supermarket. And we were like, ‘they’re going to be putting themselves at risk going to the supermarket as opposed to getting to-go.’

“So we went to the radio station and created an ad talking about ‘Casey’s comfort food,’” he went on. “And we switched to all a la carte, basic stuff — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, meatloaf — and we were cranking.”

So much that, when he secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, he first thought he wouldn’t need it. “Then a couple weeks went by, and we said, ‘thank goodness we got that.’ It changed so quickly.”

Sales dropped to about 45% of what they once were, but he kept 70% of the labor on board, because that’s the main purpose of the PPP program. That money got Galaxy through the end of June. Then things got rough.

Jake’s owner Alex Washut

Jake’s owner Alex Washut says it might be a while before his two locations (this one in Amherst) are packed with patrons again.

After losing a couple of cooks to unemployment, the restaurant cut back from five days a week to four, and when summer rolled around, fewer customers wanted takeout, but outdoor dining wasn’t a draw, either.

Fall brought a reprieve of sorts, with the milder, less-humid weather boosting outdoor dining, but the winter has been exceptionally tricky. Indoor dining didn’t prove to be a workable option; in a space that seats fewer than 50, the governor’s current 25% capacity mandate is especially onerous, and Douglass and his team also felt indoor dining might not be safe — or, at least, feel safe — for a clientele that skews older than some restaurants.

So as winter wears on, Douglass is pressing on with takeout only — now a hybrid of the comfort-food concept and the creative American meals he’s known for — a bank loan, and plenty of grit.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point,” he said, noting that costs like food, loan interest, utilities, and equipment leases don’t just go away when sales are down. “We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

However, he insisted, “I do think the spring will increase sales a couple thousand dollars a week, and that’s all it takes. We’ll be fine.”

Evolving to a takeout model was jarring at first to Washut, especially since his two locations — an 1800s-era building in Northampton and a new, modern structure in North Amherst’s Mill District — are so different, with a different set of clientele, and not cookie-cutter businesses like quick-service chains.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point. We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

“We didn’t know how to be a takeout restaurant. We were making $50 in sales a day — we were in shock,” he recalled. So he shut things down completely through April, secured a PPP loan and other grant funds, and reopened for takeout in early May, then outdoor seating a couple months later. Armed with the PPP, he was able to bring back the whole staff, and the breakfast-and-lunch establishment added dinners to generate more business. When funds ran dry, dinner went away.

These days, with takeout and limited indoor seating, Washut is bringing in about 30% of typical sales, and the combined staff is down from close to 50 to around 15.

Throughout all the changes, he has prioritized safety. Even if the governor’s 25% seating rule changes tomorrow, he said, “I’m not going to increase my dining room beyond 25%; my staff and I don’t feel that’s appropriate right now. There may be things we’re allowed to do but, in reality, we choose not to do.”

Gohr had a few advantages last year when it came to keeping people safe while generating business. One was a large parking lot next to Fitzwilly’s that he rented from its owner for tented outdoor dining. He could seat 70 there, while the city of Northampton’s decision to turn parking spaces on Main Street into dining space added about eight more tables to the restaurant’s existing sidewalk seating.

“We really had a great summer,” he told BusinessWest. “Through the summer, we had a capacity of 100-plus guests, the majority of them outdoors.”

Gohr’s other advantage is a large indoor space with a normal capacity of 280. The 25% mandate has hurt this winter, for sure, as did Baker’s 9:30 p.m. curfew, which was only recently lifted. But seating 70 — separated by plexiglass barriers — is better than seating a dozen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of room in here, and we’re able to distance people. These places that have even 50 seats — and there’s a lot of places in town with just six tables — but even the ones with 50 seats, now you’re down to letting 12 people in. You can’t survive. So we’re fortunate given the size we have. Seventy people gets us by. We can survive on that if it doesn’t change.”

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return to its go-to dining status in Easthampton once it’s safe to eat out again.

A mild winter, weather-wise, helps as well. “If you start getting snowstorms on weekends on top of all the other stuff, then we’d be in trouble. But we’ve had pretty good weekends.”

A PPP loan and other grants also helped, and he’s applied for a second PPP loan, with this round capping the disbursement for certain hard-hit industries, including restaurants, higher than the first, so he’s hopeful for another influx to carry him to the spring. He’s already in talks about renting the parking lot again, and the city has discussed moving outdoor seating into Main Street again as well.

 

Pressing Through

Still, Gohr, like every other restaurant owner, knows 2021 could be another year of upheaval. “We’re hoping everyone gets the vaccine and we get back to normal. But I don’t think it’s going to be real quick.”

He’s appreciative of customers eating in the restaurant, and said gift-card sales were strong over the holidays, although not to the level of a typical year, when more people are out shopping. And he does believe outdoor dining will be a hit again. But it’s harder to pin down when customers will flock to restaurants at pre-2020 levels.

“My gut tells me it’s not going to be in the spring; it’ll be late summer or fall before we get to that point,” he said. “The mindset that I see in the public is all over the place. I know people — friends and some of my regular customers — that have not been anywhere since March. And then there are others, the minute we opened the doors, they were back. Everybody’s obviously more careful, but everyone’s comfort level is completely different. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Douglass senses real community support for Galaxy, noting that some regulars stop by three times a week, and others drop big tips and cheerlead for the establishment among their peers.

“I feel like, at least in this community, [the pandemic] hasn’t hurt on a big scale economically,” he said. “We haven’t had factories shut down. I’ve heard people are paying their rents. And I think, come the spring, people are going to be pouring out. As much as people are still nervous, if the service staff has been vaccinated, if a majority of customers have been vaccinated, people will be coming out in droves. I think people are going to hunker down all February, and then in March, with the outdoor dining, people are going to be like, ‘sign me up.’”

If that’s especially optimistic, Douglass balances the thought by saying he’s had some dark days as well, wondering if it’s worth the effort to stay open right now, and fretting over the possibility of a snowy weekend that could wipe out almost an entire week’s worth of revenues. It’s his staff who have been most enthusiastic about staying open, believing it’s important to stay in the public eye, so that Galaxy is a go-to destination when people start emerging from winter hibernation.

Still, he said, “everyone wants to go back to what normal is, but if this goes on long enough, does normal shift?”

It’s a good question, and one Washut asks himself as well. “Every day, I’m thinking about my business, trying to find that crystal ball,” he said, meaning no one really knows how 2021 will go. But he’s hopeful.

“Once it gets warm again, once the outdoor dining opens up for food-service establishments, I think the initial rush of business will be great. Unfortunately, with restaurants, it’s really hard to be proactive; we’re constantly in a reactive mode.”

Specifically, it’s tough to staff up for a rush that might be around the corner, but restaurants also don’t want to be caught flat-footed if things pick up quickly. And things might not pick up much at all in 2021.

“This will be with us for a lot longer than we want to tell ourselves, and at some level, we have to come to terms with that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be hosting 60 to 80 people in our dining rooms this year; we won’t have that level of business for a while.”

Yes, the combination of warm weather — and outdoor dining — come spring, and the prospect of rising herd immunity from the vaccines, might inject some life into the industry, but next winter could be just as difficult as this one, depending on how the pandemic’s endgame goes — if an endgame even materializes in 2021.

Meanwhile, Washut appreciates any community support he gets. “If you only come in for gift cards, awesome. If you only get takeout, awesome. Maybe we’re not in a financial position to pass that goodwill on in an equal manner, but I’ll be damned if we won’t later on. If we all keep that attitude in every level of our life, we’ll get through this for sure.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Are You Covered?

By Mark Morris

Christine Fleury

Christine Fleury says making alterations to the home — a common sight during the pandemic — could change insurance needs.

Call it the great migration indoors.

When the pandemic first hit, many people were forced to quickly convert their homes into offices, schools, and entertainment centers. Some in the insurance industry predicted this might lead to more homeowners insurance claims. In reality, it didn’t.

Similarly, as people spend more time in their homes, they also depend more on their water, electrical, and heating systems to work. While some insurance claims have been filed due to these systems failing after increased use, the increase has not been notable.

In fact, Christine Fleury, Personal Lines manager at Encharter Insurance in Amherst, said companies have actually seen a decrease in severe claims from homeowners. “As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

Corey Murphy agreed, noting that, because people are home, they are noticing and taking care of seemingly minor problems like leaky gutters.

“As people spend more time at home, they are catching that large loss before it happens.”

“As people pay more attention to fixing the small issues, they prevent the larger problems from ever happening. A little preventive maintenance goes a long way,” the president of First American Insurance Agency in Chicopee noted.

Most homeowners insurance claims are the result of severe weather incidents. When COVID-19 first hit, winter was ending, and warm weather soon followed. Bill Trudeau, executive vice president and partner at HUB International New England in Agawam, said the mild winter this year has helped keep claims down.

“Other than a couple isolated wind events, the weather has behaved itself, and that means claims have tended to be in line with company projections.”

The pandemic has thrown a few wrinkles into the home-insurance picture this year, however.

For instance, many homeowners were motivated to invest in substantial improvements to their homes. Home construction and improvement contractors point directly to being cooped up in the house as the main motivator for people choosing to make improvements to their property.

What impact does all this renovation work have on the homeowners insurance carried on the house? The answer depends on what improvements are made and what kind of coverage is already in place.

Everyone BusinessWest spoke with agreed that, for small or cosmetic improvements, there is no need to contact an insurance agent. Some larger projects, however, may require altering or increasing a home’s coverage.

“Adding square footage to your home, doing a full remodel, or building a garage would all be reasons to consult your agent to make sure you have enough coverage,” Fleury said.

Even if they are not taking on home improvement projects, Trudeau advises people to call their insurance agent at least every couple of years so they understand the coverage that’s in place and whether they may need additional coverage.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator,” Trudeau said. “It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

With the lifestyle changes wrought by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to make sure the home — and everyone in it — are protected. Here are some key factors to consider.

 

Home Work

While they may not have set foot in the office in months, people who work from home are still protected from on-the-job injuries by workers’ compensation coverage. Office workers tend not to get injured on the job, but the coverage is in place if there is an incident.

“There has never been a distinction between whether employee actions emanate from an office at the company or from an office at the person’s home,” Trudeau said. “Because this coverage is broader in scope, COVID did not force us to make changes to workers’ comp plans.”

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says claims have been kept in check recently by a mild winter.

It’s not unusual for people working from home to have a computer, monitor, and even a printer that belongs to their employer. Murphy said some jobs may require employees to have additional business assets in the home, so it might be wise to make sure everything is covered. “Most policies will pay a little toward assets being home, but it’s usually a minimal amount.”

With homes serving as business offices and classrooms, more people — and their pets — are home at the same time. According to Trudeau, homeowners’ insurance policies consider any issues with an animal as a “strict liability event,” meaning there is no way to defend the action.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim,” he explained, adding that, as people acquire more pets, the likelihood of claims increases. Most insurance companies keep a list of dog breeds they will not cover because those breeds have higher incident rates.

“You can work with your agent to run a cost estimator. It’s a software tool that takes the data from your home, including any upgrades, then shows you the current replacement cost if it was all suddenly gone.”

Murphy encourages pet owners to speak with their agent because these restrictions can vary widely among insurers. “Just because one company doesn’t want to cover your breed of dog, check with another company; it’s not a universal list.”

Whether they have pets or not, Fleury advises her clients to carry personal liability coverage, commonly known as an umbrella policy, that supplements both homeowners and auto coverage.

“When we write home and auto policies for a customer, we always recommend buying personal liability coverage as well because it gives you that additional safety net,” she said. A typical umbrella policy costs less than $200 but can provide up to $1 million in additional liability coverage when the limits of homeowners or auto coverage are exceeded.

While dog bites and leaking water pipes are obvious reasons to carry homeowners insurance, it can be much harder to detect a leak when personal data is compromised. A significant increase in identity theft has motivated insurance companies to begin offering identity-theft protection as part of their homeowners policies.

“With everyone at home and increased online activity, it’s more important than ever to safeguard your privacy from someone getting into your system and doing real damage,” Trudeau said.

Apart from identity-theft insurance, he advises everyone to follow best practices such as using multi-factor authentication. For example, when working on an important account online, a code is sent to the user’s personal phone that must be entered to gain access.

Corey Murphy

As people pay attention to small issues in the home, Corey Murphy says, they can prevent larger issues from ever arising.

When fraudsters accesses online bank accounts, they often add a payee into the account. Trudeau advises customers to check with their bank to make sure it uses multi-factor authentication to prevent an outsider from accessing their accounts and to make sure it’s turned on at home.

“If someone has logged into your computer and they don’t have your phone, they can’t get that code,” he said.

Fleury said her agency includes identity-theft coverage in all its homeowners policies. “We feel it is important insurance and recommend at least $5,000 worth of coverage for identity theft.”

 

From a Distance

The pandemic has changed the insurance business in other ways. Typically, when a homeowner files an insurance claim, an adjuster will visit the home and walk through to personally inspect the damage. With COVID-19 concerns, that’s happening much less often.

“In some ways, COVID is moving insurance companies along the digital side of things,” Murphy said. “They are allowing homeowners with a claim to submit photos and even have video calls if the insurer is set up for it.”

The trend toward relying on consumer photos rather than a visit by an adjuster follows what’s been happening on the auto-insurance side for some time.

“If someone knocks on your door and your dog bites them, it generally means the insurance company pays the claim.”

“Many auto insurers have created apps where the person making the claim takes a photo of the damage, uploads it for an adjuster to review, and then the payment is processed,” Fleury said.

The move toward more digital interaction is no surprise to Trudeau.

“Long before COVID, people e-mailed pictures and documents to us,” he said. “Companies have simply accelerated the move to modernization by using many tools they already had.”

Murphy likes to remind customers that every insurance company offers something a little different that their competitors. That’s why it’s important to put some thought into selecting a homeowners insurance policy.

“People need to assess what they have, in terms of their house and what’s in it, and then speak with an agent about what needs to be covered,” he said, adding that it’s about matching a person’s situation with the company that can best provide coverage for their needs — especially at a time when those needs, and demands on the home, are still in flux.

Accounting and Tax Planning

A Tax-planning Checklist

By Dan Eger

 

It is that time again, your favorite and mine, tax season!

As we have made it through hopefully the worst of the pandemic, dealing with all the ups and downs of learning this new normal in life, one thing will remain the same — the IRS still wants our money. At some things have not changed due to COVID-19.

Here are some steps to take now to help make filing for the 2020 tax season easier. Below is a list of items to gather. These are the most common required forms and items. The list is not all-inclusive, as everyone’s tax situation is different. Also included are a few other things for you to consider as you prepare to file your 2020 tax return.

 

Documentation of Income

• W-2 – Wages, salaries, and tips

• W-2G – Gambling winnings

• 1099-Int and 1099-OID – Interest income statements

• 1099-DIV – Dividend income statements

• 1099-B – Capital gains (sales of stock, land, and other items)

• 1099-G – Certain government payments

— Statement of state tax refunds

— Unemployment benefits

• 1099-Misc – Miscellaneous income

• 1099-S – Sale of real estate (home)

• 1099-R – Retirement income

• 1099-SSA – Social Security income

• K-1 – Income from partnerships, trusts, and S-corporations

 

Documentation for Deductions

If you think all your deductions for Schedule A will not add up to more than $12,400 for single, $18,650 for head of household, or $24,800 for married filing jointly, save yourself the time required to itemize deductions and just plan to take the standard deduction.

 

• Medical Expenses (out of pocket, limited to 7.5% of adjusted gross income)

— Medical insurance (paid with post-tax dollars)

— Long-term-care insurance

— Prescription medicine and drugs

— Hospital expenses

— Long-term care expenses (in-home nurse, nursing home, etc.)

— Doctor and dentist payments

— Eyeglasses and contacts

— Miles traveled for medical purposes

 

• Taxes You Paid (limited to $10,000)

— State withholding from your W-2

— Real-estate taxes paid

— Estimated state tax payments and amount paid with prior year return

— Personal property (excise)

 

• Interest You Paid

— 1098-Misc – mortgage-interest statement

— Interest paid to private party for home purchase

— Qualified investment interest

— Points paid on purchase of principal residence

— Points paid to refinance (amortized over life of loan)

— Mortgage-insurance premiums

 

• Gifts to Charity (For 2020, filers who claim the standard deduction can take an additional deduction up to $300 for cash contributions.)

— Cash and check receipts from qualified organization

— Non-cash items, which need a summary list and responsible gift calculation (IRS tables). If the gift is more than $5,000, a written appraisal is required.

— Donation and acknowledgement letters (over $250)

— Gifts of stocks (you need the market value on the date of gift)

 

• Additional Adjustments (Non-Schedule A)

— 1098-T – Tuition statement

— Educator expenses (up to $250)

— 1098-E – Student-loan interest deduction

— 5498 HSA – Health savings account contributions

— 1099-SA – Distributions from HAS

— Qualified child and dependent care expenses

— Verify any estimated tax payments (does not include taxes withheld)

 

Sole proprietors (Schedule C) or owners of rental real estate (Schedule E, Part I) need to compile all income and expenses for the year. You need to retain adequate documentation to substantiate the amounts that are reported.

 

Other Items to Consider

Identity-protection PIN

If you are a confirmed identity-theft victim, the IRS will mail you a notice with your IP PIN each year. You need this number to electronically file your tax return.

Starting in 2021, you may opt into the IP PIN program. Visit www.irs.gov/identity-theft-fraud-scams/get-an-identity-protection-pin to set up your IP PIN. An IP PIN helps prevent someone else from filing a fraudulent tax return using your Social Security number.

 

What If You Have Been Compromised?

How do you know if someone has filed a return with your information? The most common way is that your tax return will get rejected for e-file. These scammers file early. You may also get a letter from the IRS requesting you verify certain information.

If this does happen, there are steps to take to get this rectified:

1. File Form 14039 (Identity Theft Affidavit).

2. Paper-file your return.

3. Visit identitytheft.gov for additional steps.

 

New for 2021: Recovery Rebate Credit

Eligible individuals who did not receive a 2020 economic impact payment (stimulus check), or received a reduced amount, may be able to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit on their 2020 tax return. There is a worksheet to use to figure the amount of credit for which you are eligible based on your 2020 tax return. Generally, this credit will increase the amount of your tax refund or lower the amount of the tax you owe.

 

Who Will Prepare My Return?

Are you going to be preparing your tax return, or will you hire someone to file on your behalf? You might want to plan that out now so you know the required information you will need and the fee structure you can expect to pay for completion of all applicable forms. In addition to all the items listed above, the tax preparer will ask you for a copy of your last tax return that was filed. The IRS offers a ‘file free platform’ to file your tax return if your income is under $72,000. You can find this at irs.gov or the IRS2Go app. There are also some local tax-assistance and counseling programs, depending on your age and income levels (VITA/TCE).

 

Interactive Tax Assistant

The Interactive Tax Assist (ITA) is an IRS online tool (irs.gov) to help you get answers to several tax-law items. ITA can help you determine what income is taxable, which deductions are allowed, filing status, who can be claimed as a dependent, and available tax credits.

 

Be Vigilant

Finally, be especially careful during this time of year to protect yourself against those trying to defraud or scam you. The IRS will never — let me repeat that: NEVER — call you directly unless you are already in litigation with them. They will not initiate contact by e-mail, text, or social media. The IRS will contact you by U.S. mail.

However, you still need to be wary of items received by mail. Anything requesting your Social Security number or any credit-card information is a dead giveaway. Watch out for websites and social-media attempts that request money or personal information and for schemes tied to economic impact payments. You can check the irs.gov website to research any notice you receive or any concerns you may have. You can also contact your tax practitioner for help and assistance.

 

Dan Eger is a senior associate at Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka; (413) 536-8510.