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Rick Sullivan says the region has considerable momentum carrying over in 2019, and it comes from most all sectors of the economy.

Rick Sullivan says the region has considerable momentum carrying over in 2019, and it comes from most all sectors of the economy.

Momentum.

Webster defines that word in several ways, including this one: ‘strength or force gained by motion or through development of events.’

Over the past few years, and especially in 2018, there was a good deal of motion and quite a few singular and ongoing events that have made this region stronger and created quite a bit of momentum, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC).

And this movement has been across a number of sectors and most all area communities, not just Springfield, although that’s where it is easily most visible and palpable.

“We’re seeing a great deal of momentum across the region,” he said. “And it’s across the board — manufacturing, healthcare, higher ed, tourism.”

Elaborating, he cited just a few examples of this momentum, starting with the most obvious:

• MGM Springfield opened its doors on Aug. 24, but it began to impact the regional economy long before that, through the filling of more than 2,000 jobs, proving a boost for area hotels (see related story, page 27), inspiring movement toward additional market-rate housing projects in and around the downtown, and even awarding life-changing vendor contracts with several area businesses, from a bus company in Chicopee to a dry cleaner in the Forest Park section of Springfield.

• Eds and meds. The region’s two main economic drivers, education and healthcare, are thriving and becoming ever-larger contributors to economic development in the region, he said, noting, on the education side, that the region’s community colleges continue to find ways to step up and help meet workforce needs and provide specific skills needed in the workplace.

• The cannabis industry. This intriguing new era in Massachusetts history is impacting everything from the commercial real-estate market to traffic in downtown Northampton, where a dispensary became just one of two sites in Massachusetts selling marijuana for recreational use.

• A host of other forces are at play in downtown Springfield, ranging from new tenants on Bridge Street to the revitalization of Stearns Square; from a new Starbucks (actually, two of them; there’s also one at MGM) to soaring interest in new housing projects; from new train service coming into Union Station to the opening (soon) of the Innovation Center.

“When I’m out downtown, I generally have to wait in line to get lunch — and I’m happy to do it. That’s a good thing; it means the economy is doing well.”

• Progress continues with developing new sources of jobs in fields such as cybersecurity (Bay Path University and UMass Amherst are becoming regional and even national leaders in that field) and water technology — a $3.9 million demonstration center is set to open at UMass Amherst within the next two years.

• The construction industry, usually a bellwether for the economy, remains sound, with many companies reporting they have ample jobs on the books for the coming. “The phones have been ringing — and that’s always a good sign,” said Tim Pelletier, president of Ludlow-based Houle Construction.

Sullivan has another, far more personal measure of progress and momentum. “When I’m out downtown, I generally have to wait in line to get lunch — and I’m happy to do it. That’s a good thing; it means the economy is doing well,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there is considerably more foot traffic in the central business district, and many businesses are benefiting from this.

Yes, there are some challenges to contend with, and even a few possible storm clouds on the horizon; workforce issues are impacting most all sectors, and they could stifle the growth of some companies (see related story, page 22), and most economic analysts are predicting a slowdown (but not a recession) in 2019.

But for the most part, there is momentum and continued cause for optimism, even as question marks grow in number.

‘Stable’ is the word Tom Senecal uses when he talks about the local economy, and in most ways, ‘stable’ is good.

‘Stable’ is the word Tom Senecal uses when he talks about the local economy, and in most ways, ‘stable’ is good.

“Several sectors are doing very well — education, construction, multi-family housing, green energy, and others,” said Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, who spoke from the perspective of his own bank, which saw roughly 8% growth this calendar year, and what he’s seen and heard anecdotally.

Senecal said he’s seen a noticeable slowing of residential real-estate business over the past month to six weeks, after a strong start to the year — a development probably linked to rising interest rates — but overall, as he said, the local economy is chugging along nicely.

Keith Nesbitt, vice president and Commercial Banking Team leader at Community Bank’s Springfield location, agreed.

“I would describe what’s happening in Western Mass. as transition against a backdrop of real stability,” he said, using ‘transition’ to mean many things, from the beginning of the casino era to the passing of many businesses from one generation to the next. “There’s a lot of certainty around those well-established, mature businesses that we have in this region. And those businesses that haven’t been around as long but are growing … they’re pretty solid, and they’re pretty confident.”

Banking on It

Both Senecal and Nesbitt put that word ‘stable’ to use early and quite often as they talked about the local economy and what they’re witnessing.

And in most all respects, ‘stable’ — and ‘steady’ and ‘predictable,’ words that were also used — is good, Senecal noted, adding, as many others have over the years while analyzing the local market, that while this region hasn’t soared like some others, including Boston, where the commercial and residential markets are white hot, that means it isn’t susceptible to the dramatic falls that those cities and regions also see.

“Fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, we don’t see the highs and lows economically; we’re sheltered a little bit,” he explained. “We have a very stable economy when it comes to healthcare, education, and our nonprofit sector — those are three stable industries that keep Western Mass. insulated from the highs and lows.

“I would equate ‘stable’ to ‘predictable,’” he went on. “And for a small business, predictability is a huge part of job growth and just economic growth in general for small business.”

His own business moved forward with several initiatives in 2018, including the acquisition of First National Bank of Suffield and the start of work to convert the former Yankee Pedlar restaurant into a new and intriguing branch. And he said many businesses had the requisite confidence to move ahead with their own growth initiatives, be it through workforce expansion, new facilities, or new business lines.

And he expects this stability to continue into 2019, although possible, if not probable, additional interest-rate hikes (the Fed was set to vote on one as this issue went to press) could bring uncertainty, and therefore greater cautiousness, to the fore.

“Anything that stays stable and is predictable is good for economic development, and anything that is unpredictable is a slowdown in economic development,” he said, adding that there is uncertainty regarding everything from interest rates to the trade war.

“I would equate ‘stable’ to ‘predictable.’ And for a small business, predictability is a huge part of job growth and just economic growth in general for small business.”

Like Sullivan, though, Senecal said MGM has provided a boost to the local economy in several ways — through the jobs it has created and its contribution to greater vibrancy downtown. And it is just one of the many factors contributing to the improved picture locally.

Others include the steady performance of education and healthcare and movement toward creating new sources of jobs.

Sullivan cited the work being done at Bay Path and UMass Amherst in cybersecurity — Bay Path recently entered into a partnership with Google, for example — and creation of the water-technology demonstration center as developments to watch.

“Those are jobs of the future, and there’s real excitement about what can develop,” he noted. “There are now some partnerships with large companies, like Google, and tremendous promise.”

Elaborating, he said that, across the region, colleges and universities are playing key roles in providing individuals with the hard and soft skills to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy, and thus, they’re playing a major role in economic development.

Examples abound, from Holyoke Community College’s new culinary-arts facility, which is helping to meet the needs of individual employers like MGM and a growing field in general, to Greenfield Community College and its efforts to train workers for the manufacturing sector, to Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College working together with MGM to create the Casino Career Training Institute.

“What it comes down to is that economic development for this region, and across the country, for that matter, is all about workforce — developing, finding, and retaining talent,” he said. “And the good news for us is that we have a very robust higher-ed presence — four-year public and private, and the community colleges as well — and the future is bright.”

Returning to the subject of downtown Springfield, he said that, in addition to that waiting in line for lunch, he’s seen other signs of vibrancy and, most importantly, interest on the part of developers in investing in that area.

“We’ve had a number of investors express interest in possible hotels and potential housing, both market-rate and workforce-housing projects,” he noted. “And those are discussions that may not have beem happening in … pick a time period — five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this.”

Keith Nesbitt describes what’s happening in this region economically as “transition against the backdrop of stability.”

Keith Nesbitt describes what’s happening in this region economically as “transition against the backdrop of stability.”

Nesbitt concurred, and noted that, while the multi-family housing segment of the commercial real-estate market is heating up — it has been for some time — there is movement across the spectrum, much of it fueled not only by MGM, but by a promising outlook for the future.

“Long-time property owners are realizing that now is the time to realize value, so they’re putting those properties on the market,” he said of multi-family units but also other holdings. “And those that are speculating on the future are generally thinking that now is the time to get into the market based on some of those other transitions that are going on. So the commercial real-estate market has been very consistent.”

Steady As She Goes

“Consistent.’ ‘Stable.’ ‘Predictable.’ ‘Steady.’

Those are the words you hear most often in discussion of the local economy today and what is likely to happen in 2019.

There is a good amount of uncertainty in the air regarding everything from trade balances (or imbalances, as the case may be) to interest rates to the political scene in Washington.

But locally, stability and momentum seem to be the prevailing forces.

And they should enable the region to build on that momentum in the year ahead.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

Margaret Kerswill has a couple of good views of Stockbridge’s business community. One is as president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce. The other is from her storefront window on Main Street.

“I think there’s a real appeal that’s well-defined in our town’s tagline, which is ‘a quintessential New England town.’ It feels small; it feels intimate,” said Kerswill, co-owner with her wife, Laureen Vizza, of Mutability in Motion, a downtown store that sells crafts handmade by artisans from across the U.S., many of them local.

“There’s a connection between people in town,” she went on. ‘When you walk through town in the morning, just about everyone says ‘good morning’ to you. There’s a very nice atmosphere about Stockbridge.”

Still, outsiders often peg the community as a tourist destination — which is certainly is — and not much else, and are surprised to find a bustling local economy that doesn’t shut down during slow tourism seasons.

“I know being in my shop, a lot of the visitors who come, who have never been here, are often surprised to see businesses stay open year-round,” Kerswill said. “When they visit other tourist areas at the beginning and end of the season, a lot of those restaurants and shops close down. We’re a small town, so most of our foot traffic is in the summer season, but we’re still here year-round, serving local regulars.”

Still, Stockbridge relies heavily on tourism and visitorship for economic development. With a population of just under 2,000 — ranking it in the bottom sixth in the Commonwealth — the community doesn’t have a deep well of residents or businesses from which to draw tax revenue, but it does boast a widely noted series of destination attractions, from Tanglewood to the Norman Rockwell Museum; from the Berkshire Theatre Festival to Berkshire Botanical Garden.

Other attractions continue to emerge as well, including the oft-delayed Elm Court project by Travaasa Berkshire County, which will turn the historic Elm Court Estate into a resort featuring 112 hotel rooms, a 60-seat restaurant, and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

The property, which sits on the border of Stockbridge and Lenox on Old Stockbridge Road, was constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt, completed a series of renovations in 1919, and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The project to renovate it began six years ago when Front Yard purchased the estate from the Berle family, who had run a boutique, wedding-oriented hotel there from 2002 to 2009. Eight neighbors appealed the 2015 approval of the resort by the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, but the Massachusetts Land Court eventually ruled in favor of the developer, Front Yard LLC. This past summer, Front Yard asked the Stockbridge Select Board for — and received — an extension of the permit which would have expired last month. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is developing a $33 million construction project at Tanglewood, a four-building complex that will house rehearsal and performance space for the Tanglewood Music Center as well as a new education venture known as the Tanglewood Learning Institute — the first weatherized, all-season structure at Tanglewood, which the BSO plans to make available for events beyond the summer months.

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts,” Kerswill said. “We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts. On one hand, we have the feel of country living, but we have the convenience of Manhattan two hours away, Albany 45 minutes away, Boston two hours away, and all the culture in our immediate area. It’s remarkable. That’s why I’m here — the culture and the arts.”

Community Ties

As chamber president, Kerswill leads a member base that’s smaller than most chambers, but “strong and loyal,” as she called it.

“We do some chamber-related functions to connect,” she said, “and we also have tri-town chamber mixers with people from Lenox and Lee, where we get together and share experiences in an informal setting over cocktails for a couple hours.”

Margaret Kerswill

Margaret Kerswill

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts. We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts.”

The chamber also presents an annual event to honor members and businesses, alternating between an individual one year and a company the next. On top of that, it puts on two major events. One is the three-day Main Street at Christmas festival — slated this year for Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 — which brings thousands of people into town with activities for families and children, concerts, caroling at the Red Lion Inn, and self-guided house tours. On Sunday, Main Street closes down for several hours, antique cars are brought in, and the strip transforms into a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

That follows a summer arts and crafts fair each August, a weekend-long event that always sells out its vendor capacity, she said. “There’s no entry fee for patrons, and people freely walk around and come and go as they please. That brings a lot of people to town, at a time when summer is winding down and there’s less traffic.”

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947 (2010)
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.76
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.76
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels when it comes to its status as a desirable town for tourists and residents alike, a visionary project committee was formed by Stockbridge officials several years ago to develop recommendations that could be implemented over the next 20 years. The committee issued a report in 2016 titled “Planning a Way Forward.”

That report noted that residents value the town’s cultural institutions and historic buildings; its open space, recreation sites, and walking trails; and its downtown (although many would like to see additional shops and services, as well as more parking). Meanwhile, they want to see smart housing growth that takes into account the community’s aging population, as well as additional transportation options and better accommodation of walkers and bicyclists.

As a result, the document envisioned a Stockbridge in 2036 that mixes the traditional strengths of tourism, culture, and creative economy with green- and technology-based businesses, food production from local farmers, and agri-tourism. The ideal community would also be less auto-reliant, expanding pedestrian networks, bicycle infrastructure, and regional bus and ride-sharing services.

The report also predicts a socially and economically diverse population that provides equally diverse housing options, from apartments and condominiums to smaller single-family homes, co-housing projects, and historic ‘Berkshire cottages.’ These include a mix of sustainable new construction and repurposed buildings, including the preservation of older homes, along with an increase of people living close to the town center, including mixed-use buildings with apartments over shops to support downtown businesses.

While the overall vision may be ambitious, it encompasses the sorts of goals a town of Stockbridge’s size can reasonably set when looking to move into its next era.

Blast from the Past

Kerswill, for one, is happy she and Vizza set up shop in Stockbridge — right next to the Red Lion Inn, in fact, which is in many ways the heart of the downtown business culture.

“It’s a great experience being in downtown in Stockbridge,” she told BusinessWest. “We don’t have any chain stores or restaurant franchises. We are all independently owned, and the chances are good, when you pop into one of our stores, that you’re going to be meeting the owner. It becomes a very personal experience because of that.”

As for the Red Lion itself, “it’s cozy and intimate,” she went on, “and they’ve modernized with things that people expect, like wi-fi, but you still get a real, old-fashioned experience, and I think people really crave that. I know I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]