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Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.

By George O’Brien

The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.

Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”

These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”

Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.

The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.

 

Space Exploration

Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.

What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.

“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.

“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.

Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.

As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.

Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.

The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.

And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.

The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.

“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.

Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.

The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.

The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.

As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.

“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.

“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”

And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.

“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”

 

Bottom Line

These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.

This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.

Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.

 

George O’Brien 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

The Cannabis Industry

Sustaining a Plan

Chris and Helen Andrews

In Holyoke, Chris and Helen Andrews found a cannabis-friendly city that shares their passions for entrepreneurship and sustainability.

Helen Gomez Andrews and her husband, Chris Gomez, have been, as she tactfully put it, “cannabis enthusiasts for longer than we haven’t.”

But when their 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2015 — and became one of the first medical-marijuana cardholders in New York — their interest in cannabis became intensely personal.

At the same time, Helen was starting to feel uninspired in her finance career; she spent 13 years growing a career in private wealth management at Lehman Brothers, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley.

Inspired by the triple-bottom-line approach to impact investment she had become increasingly aligned with, she was looking for a different sort of investment — and found it in cannabis, where the High End, a cultivation, production, and retail enterprise now under development in Holyoke, became the first cannabis company in Massachusetts to be certified as both a minority business enterprise and a women business enterprise.

During her last few years at Morgan Stanley, “I was looking for passion in my work life, and not finding it,” Andrews said. “The confluence of that and my daughter’s diagnosis, and my husband itching to do something different, really pushed us to take the plunge.”

To call it a major leap would be an understatement; the couple sold their home in Brooklyn to buy the historic Eureka Blank Book building on Winter Street in Holyoke and begin the long process of renovating it. A second site on Dwight Street will become the retail face of the business, as well as a coffee shop.

Oh, and they’re not taking any shortcuts, aiming to use a sustainable growing process known as organic living soil.

“People told us we’re totally crazy to do something so labor-intensive when there’s so much great technology around automatic cultivation, focused on the highest THC and highest yield,” she told BusinessWest. “But that’s a departure from what’s really important to us, which is low impact to the environment and the sustainable, clean growing of a plant, staying away from synthetic nutrients. We’re trying to create as natural an environment as we can.”

 

Feels Like Home

In seeking out a host community with abundant real estate and a business-friendly attitude toward cannabis, Holyoke was an obvious choice.

“It was five times cheaper the next-cheapest town — and then we discovered the history of Holyoke; it was so amazing how it was the first planned industrial city in the country, largely built by Irish immigrants,” Andrews said, which was appealing to her Irish husband. Now, this multi-cultural couple — Helen was born in the Philippines — is feeling right at home.

Also appealing is the city’s abundance of carbon-neutral energy generation. “It makes perfect sense in the cannabis industry, and perfectly aligns with our values. We’re building a truly sustainable company in a welcoming city.”

“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation. So we pursued the full vertical.”

Chris’ background is in restaurants and retail, and the couple’s initial vision centered on marijuana edibles, but has since expanded significantly.

“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation,” she said. “So we pursued the full vertical.”

As for the spacious former mill, “we put all our eggs in this basket,” she said. “We’ve been in Holyoke since January 2019, working to build this business and really embedding ourselves into the Holyoke community, which has such a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”

Indeed, Andrews serves on the EforAll Holyoke advisory board, helping other budding entrepreneurs find their way. “There’s such a rich, diverse history here, and Chris and I both feel very grateful to be a part of this community, and have found this to be a great city to build our business.”

The economic impact of COVID-19 certainly set the project back, but the extended timeline helped the couple streamline and become more “laser-focused” about their priorities. They’re licensed for 30,000 square feet of cultivation, as well as manufacturing and retail, and plan to apply for a research license as well.

“Last year was rough, but it’s finally starting to pick up some momentum,” Andrews said, adding that the hope is to open the dispensary and coffee shop by the end of 2021, and the cultivation and production facility later in 2022, with the first harvest arriving months later.

Until the cultivation and production sides of the business come online, Helen and Chris are pursuing “a very differentiated, curated inventory according to our core values of ethical and sustainable cannabis,” she said. “So we’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half building relationships with individual farmers and small businesses. By the time our doors open, we’ll have some products from some amazing businesses that we can introduce to this market.”

Those products will include commonly sought-after items like cannabis flower to edibles. In regard to the latter, “the plan is to make some things everyone likes — chocolates, gummies, and mints — but also do something more elevated,” Andrews noted. “My husband has a network of culinary talent partners working on limited-edition chocolates. And, of course, we’ll have vapes and pre-rolls and all those other things.”

 

Have a Seat

Another reason for opening a coffee shop, she said, is to avoid the scenario she’s noticed at many dispensaries, with lines of customers circling the building, waiting patiently to get in.

“We thought we wanted to change that experience and be more welcoming with the coffee shop, to give folks in line somewhere welcoming and comfortable to wait, but also provide education.”

She wants the shop to be a place people can find information, as well. “They can stop by, collect some literature, and have a great cup of coffee or a delicious pastry — and Holyoke needs a coffee shop.”

It’s a city that also wants to continue growing its reputation as one of the region’s most cannabis-embracing communities, and this couple is happy to oblige, Helen said. “We’re excited and eager to go.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Retail

Editor’s Note: Retail was among the sectors most impacted by the pandemic. Some businesses were forced to close, while all others had to make sweeping changes to how they did things to keep customers and employees safe. BusinessWest asked Charlie D’Amour, president of CEO of Big Y, to put 2020 in perspective and look ahead to what might come next.

 

BusinessWest: 2020 was certainly a tumultuous year for retail — and business in general. No one has a crystal ball, but what do you project for the year ahead, in terms of the economy and Big Y?

 

D’Amour: 2020 has certainly been fraught with challenges. Keeping our employees and customers safe while providing essential services has been foremost in our efforts. One of the biggest challenges has been supply chain, and that has been compounded in a number of ways.

First, panic buying ensued, and safety stock that is usually kept in reserve evaporated overnight. Many manufacturers and food suppliers facing their own COVID challenges, from staffing to supply, have not been able to keep up. Distribution centers have also felt these impacts, along with transportation, etc. Going forward, I do not expect that these areas will see a complete return to normal operation until late into 2021 or even into 2022. The recent uptick in COVID cases has put a lot of pressure on transportation and distribution. I anticipate that once we get through the holidays and the winter months, things will slowly improve.

Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions. We’ve adapted our training protocols to keep everyone safe yet provide adequate training.

Though I’m optimistic about the economy starting to bounce back in 2021, it is clear that government help will be needed, especially for those who have lost their jobs and for businesses that are struggling. There may be some longer-term systemic changes to the economy that could continue to linger. From my conversations with other supermarket operators both in China and in Europe, it seems that people are still reluctant to venture into inside venues. This has had an ongoing impact on restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, travel and hospitality, etc. As the vaccine takes hold, I believe that this will improve and folks will begin to travel again, and ‘experiences’ will become foremost in returning to some normalcy.

Charlie d’Amour

Charlie d’Amour

“Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions.”

How and where people work, I think, will be forever changed. Even in our own offices, more and more folks are working remotely. We are communicating more with video and virtual meetings. We continue to adapt and adjust. And, though I think the supermarket will continue to be the primary way people get their food and groceries, the growth of online shopping is here to stay. In 2021, we are excited to be opening our first micro-fulfillment center, which was planned and begun before the pandemic hit but which we believe will have an ever-increasing role in the way people shop in the future.

 

BusinessWest: Big Y has been on a path of steady expansion over the past several years. Will this pattern continue in 2021, and how and where will this growth take place?

 

D’Amour: We have been pleased that, despite the pandemic, we’ve actually had an exciting year of growth. We have opened two new gas and convenience stores, a new supermarket, completed our new Fresh & Local Distribution Center, and remodeled over 16 supermarkets. We’ve accomplished a lot. We have two new supermarkets planned for next year, several new gas and convenience stores, and, as I mentioned, the opening of our online ordering and micro-fulfillment center in Chicopee.

 

BusinessWest: Over the course of the past several months, we have seen a number of changes when it comes to how work is done and where. How has Big Y responded to these shifts, and will some of them be permanent?

 

D’Amour: Obviously, in our supermarkets, distribution centers, gas and convenience stores, and at Table & Vine, a physical presence is required. We very quickly realized in our physical locations that we needed to keep our employees safe, and to that end, we jumped on making sure that the appropriate cleaning procedures were in place and that PPE was available. We were one of the first retailers to install plexiglass shields at our registers, among many many other things. We have made sure to accommodate not only our frontline workers, but everyone with flexible schedules, leaves of absence if required, and continuing to pay employees who had to quarantine or care for a loved one.

We have continued to provide our employees with ‘thank-you’ pay, first as an hourly bump and now through a monthly bonus which will continue into the first part of 2021. We have also provided a holiday bonus to all full-time, part-time, and casual employees to reward and thank them for rising to the challenges we have all faced with this pandemic.

In our offices, we have definitely moved from a company that favored in-person meetings and collaboration to embracing new technologies and remote working. Here, again, flexible schedules and accommodating employees with childcare issues, etc. has been our focus and will likely continue. One area that has been accelerated because of the virus has been our use of virtual meetings and video communications. As our geographic territory has spread, bringing our store folks to our Store Support Center has presented more and more of a challenge. As a result of the virus, we have been forced to explore more avenues to connect, which have, for the most part, been effective and well-received by our employees.

 

BusinessWest: As the leader of a major corporation, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has impacted your ability to plan long-term, or if it has?

 

D’Amour: The supermarket business is very dynamic, and, as such, we are always in a state of change and flux. We are also in a business where our customers give us almost instant feedback to what’s new and changing. Our leadership team gets together every year to focus on our strategies and how we are adapting and evolving as our customers are adapting and evolving. As such, we are maintaining our current course of action, and our long-term plans and strategic initiatives have not changed. Every year, there are minor course corrections and adjustments, but our overall direction is the same, and that has not changed because of the pandemic.

 

BusinessWest: Speaking of leadership, talk about your experiences leading a company through these most challenging of times.

 

D’Amour: For me, first and foremost was the importance of communication. Being present, being authentic, and regularly communicating with our employees, customers, and other stakeholders was especially important early on when things were changing rapidly and coming at us a mile a minute. While I couldn’t get out to our stores as frequently as I usually like to, being able to find other ways to connect with our stores was essential.

Our employees especially were appreciative that we were visible, even virtually, and that we were genuinely concerned. Though we did shut down our offices for all but the most essential employees, I tried to be in our offices as much as possible to show a physical presence and to connect with our leadership team and others that were in the building. I believe that all of these things helped to inspire confidence within our organization. We tried to push decisions down to the lowest level and trusted in our employees and our teams. We established a crisis management committee, now dubbed the pandemic response committee. As such, we were able to quickly and effectively respond to a very fast-paced and changing dynamic.

Another area that underscored a point of focus for us this past year was in regard to redoubling our efforts regarding diversity and inclusion in our company. While we have made progress over the years, it was clear that we needed to do more. To that end, we have refocused and engaged our efforts, developed a new employee-resource group called “Y You Belong,” and created a steering committee of senior leaders and outside advisors from the community. We also conducted a half-day seminar for our leadership team with the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley to better understand our role in healing racism in our company and our community.

Throughout this past year, the role of leadership was and continues to be an important linchpin in our ability to deal with the challenges of this pandemic.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Step Inside

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford

Jade Jump and Nate Clifford, owners of Cornucopia in Northampton.

For Dave DiRico, the forced shutdown of retail outlets across the Commonwealth in March could not have been more ill-timed.

After all, late March is when many golfers, a good number of them armed with gift certificates from the holidays, start filing into his store in West Springfield, DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, and reload for the coming season. They come in looking for new clubs, balls, bags, shoes, and other accessories.

And they keep coming in through the spring, said DiRico, noting that, aside from the holidays, March, April, and May are by far his busiest months.

But not this year, obviously, as he was closed completely until early May and then open for curbside sales only — something this business isn’t really suited for — for several weeks.

But when he did reopen … well, the surge in business might not make up for everything that was lost during the shutdown, but it has been significant and in many ways surprising. Indeed, in addition to what could be called pent-up demand — people who needed to reload and had to wait until he was open to do so — the pandemic has actually created a mini-explosion of interest in golf, because it’s one of the few sports that can still be played under the current restrictions and advisories on social distancing.

“Things took off … it’s been crazy,” DiRico told BusinessWest. “One of the few outdoor activities you can have right now is golf; we have kids who were supposed to do internships and can’t, and they’ve taken up golf. We have kids who played baseball and summer sports and couldn’t play those, so they’ve taken up golf. We have spouses who’ve never played the game who have taken up golf.

“Couple that with our regular business,” he went on, “and June and July have taken off like a rocket ship.”

Nate Clifford has also navigated the ups and downs of shutting down and reopening at Cornucopia, the natural-foods store he and his wife, Jade Jump, own at Thornes Marketplace in downtown Northampton. They were among many shop owners who had to shift their business model on the fly to survive the past few difficult months.

“Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

In fact, March 15, the day they and all the other Thornes stores shut down, was the couple’s one-year anniversary of buying the 40-year-old establishment. Though sales of food and wellness products may have made Cornucopia an essential business in the state’s eyes, Thornes made a decision to shutter the whole complex, and that meant Cornucopia, too.

“We understood, but we made an impassioned plea to the landlord to give us some access for pickup and delivery, with the goal of helping people, especially the older population around here who need us,” Clifford said. One day later, on March 16, they were back in business with that new model.

“We put a simple order form up on the website and told people, ‘you shop here; you know what’s here — what’s your wish list, and we’ll get the best possible order for you.’ We delivered, or you could pick it up and we’d run it out to you, put it in your trunk or in the passenger window, whatever you were comfortable with. We did that for three months, and we were overwhelmed with the support we got.”

That support was certainly reflected on June 15, the first day shoppers were allowed back in the store itself. “We had such a rush of people, I had to step into the back room to shed a few tears,” Clifford said. “I thought, ‘we’re going to be OK.’”

Unfortunately, not all retailers can say the same thing. They’ve seen some pent-up demand, to be sure, but 2020 is turning into a very challenging year as many shoppers are staying home, cutting back on their spending (or both), and doing most of their buying online.

Still, retailers are happy to be open again, even if the long-term outlook is mixed, and consumer confidence remains uncertain.

One Step at a Time

Sharon Cohen, who has owned Footbeats for Women at Thornes for the past four years, noted that, without college students and tourists from out of town, business is slower than is typical for this time of year, but customers are returning steadily. She’s happy to see them, especially after instituting the safety measures mandated by the state — and by common sense.

“We’ve revamped the way the store is laid out to promote social distancing,” Cohen said. “Shoppers are saying, ‘I just wanted to shop with somebody locally.’ We’re hearing a lot of that. I think that’s awesome.”

After Thornes was shut down in mid-March, Cohen launched a website so customers could still purchase her shoes, and, like Clifford, she delivered to peoples’ homes. Every Friday afternoon, she used Facebook Live to talk about shoes in stock and offer commentary on trends and new styles.

“I’d pick them off the displays on the wall and talk about them. Customers would text and ask questions about cost or size,” she said, noting that she will likely continue that practice. “We tried new, inventive ways to meet the customers.”

In the store, she tries to strike a balance between customer needs and safety; for example, when customers try on a pair of shoes, if they are leather and cannot be sanitized, the shoes are put in quarantine for 24 hours, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says a mini-explosion in the popularity of golf has helped offset some of the huge losses incurred when his shop was shut down by the pandemic during the spring.

Thornes management has instituted many new protocols and equipment, including iWave ionizing air filters that heighten air quality, foggers that sanitize the building nightly, and door monitors at each of the two open entrances to ensure that people entering wear masks and sanitize their hands. The complex also installed hands-free door openers on bathroom doors.

“Thornes has done a lot to prepare for our opening, and we continue to stay educated and follow safety protocols,” said Richard Madowitz, the marketplace’s co-president. “We are receiving consistent positive feedback from shoppers on the cleanliness of the building and their comfort. We are providing a safe environment.”

All shared tables and chairs on the building’s second and third floors have been removed, and directional arrows on the floors separate traffic and promote social distancing.

“Signage is everywhere,” Madowitz stressed. “Each store is managing its state-mandated capacity count, and Thornes itself is managing the state-mandated capacity counts for its common spaces without shops.”

“I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Mask compliance is high, at 99%, he noted, adding that “masks are not required for those with medical conditions that prevent them from wearing one.”

Despite what he calls a “vocal minority” making waves nationally about mask wearing, Clifford said his customers have been respectful of the mandate.

“We’re dealing with people who have health issues, and I’d say the average customer spending big amounts is over 50, getting supplements, taking to our expert staff. We want them to feel safe,” he told BusinessWest. “For those folks who don’t want to wear masks, even for legitimate reasons, we still have pickup and curbside. But I make sure people who come into the store feel safe. I’m doing what I feel is right by my customers and staff. That’s my focus.”

Visitors to Holyoke Mall are greeted with a similarly wide range of mandates, from face coverings and six-foot distancing to directional arrows and guidance to wash hands, use sanitizer, and avoid touching products unless purchasing them, said Lisa Wray, the mall’s director of Marketing.

In return, the mall has enhanced its cleaning and sanitizing of the common areas and numerous touch points, restrooms, seating areas, and food court, and the cleaning team is utilizing new electrostatic sprayers, leveraging the same technology used to clean hospital rooms, using an approved disinfectant recommended by the CDC. In addition, Holyoke Mall employees, security, housekeeping staff, and contractors undergo daily health screenings.

Sharon Cohen

Sharon Cohen says she used online outreach and a sales website to stay afloat during the shutdown.

All those steps were necessary, Wray said, to not only bring customers back, but make them feel safe upon return.

“Having our tenants close with thousands of employees and their livelihoods impacted is certainly difficult; however, the safety and well-being of our guests, employees, and tenants is of primary importance,” she told BusinessWest.

“We have been seeing guests steadily return to the shopping center, and even with reduced occupancy, tenants have been seeing strong sales,” she added. “With the back-to-school season upon us and the sales-tax holiday weekend at the end of August, we’re hopeful the months ahead will continue to trend positively. We’re cautiously optimistic that the fourth quarter will continue to ramp upward, as guests adapt to this new way to shop.”

Warning Signs

That optimistic view isn’t shared by the entire retail industry. Just last week, two businesses at the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — announced they were closing, unable to stay afloat after the forced pandemic closure and an inability to procure business aid from either the federal Paycheck Protection Program or the city’s Prime the Pump grants.

Meanwhile, on a national level, Tailored Brands, which owns suit sellers Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank, is closing hundreds of stores and drastically reducing its corporate workforce as the pandemic continues to decimate the retail industry.

GlobalData Retail recently noted that year-over-year sales of men’s formal clothing fell by 74% between April and June, and not just because stores were closed. “While this deterioration will ease over time, demand will remain suppressed for the rest of 2020 and well into 2021 as office working, business meetings, and socializing are all reduced.”

Fortunately for DiRico, the pandemic has done the opposite in the golf sector, creating some opportunities in the form of new players who need equipment — with many of them using stimulus checks to buy it. But there are challenges as well, starting with shortages of stock caused by closure of factories and then restrictions on capacity.

“Our biggest problem right now is getting equipment,” he explained. “That’s because most of our manufacturers are based in California, where only 40% of the factory is open, which means they can only produce ‘X’ amount of clubs for the world; it’s slow in getting equipment.”

Other challenges include the many the new rules and protocols regarding social distancing and sanitizing, he went on. Still, for the customer, things are pretty much business as usual, meaning they can still try on shoes or gloves and take a few practice swings with a driver in the simulator.

‘Normal’ is not a word that comes to mind when describing operations or this year in general, but overall, the surge the game has seen will certainly help make 2020 less forgettable, DiRico went on, and it offers considerable hope for the future — if those who have taken up this difficult, expensive, and time-consuming game can find a way to stay with it.

“For the past 15 years or so, golf has been on the decline,” he said, listing cost and time among the big reasons. “Now, some of the pros I’ve talked with say they’re booked solid; they have tee times from 6:30 to 4. And membership at the country clubs is up. If these clubs can retain just 15% of these new golfers, they’ll be in good shape.”

For Cornucopia, the pandemic offered an opportunity to build an online, pickup, and delivery presence it might not have otherwise, Clifford said — one it will continue to maintain, opening up new business avenues.

“We were thrilled to be able to pivot to that quickly. That’s one thing Jade and I do well, being flexible and doing whatever we need to survive. We’re resilient, and now that we have a strong foundation, if we were ever to experience another shutdown, we’ll be able to continue the cash flow.”

These days, sales volume isn’t what it was on reopening day on June 15, and won’t be until colleges are back in session. “That’s when you normally see more foot traffic; July is not a busy retail time,” Clifford noted, adding that a weakened tourism season isn’t helping, as even visitors to the Berkshires often make their way to downtown Northampton for an afternoon. “That’s not happening right now.”

But he’s cheered that all the Thornes businesses are open seven days a week. “That has caused a lot more consistency in the shopping experience, when the stores are open and welcoming people and wanting them to come in and physically shop.”

And hoping that extended shutdown is a thing of the past.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

The headlines came in rapid succession, and they juxtaposed each other nicely.

The site in South Hadley’s Woodlawn Plaza that was once home to a Big Y supermarket is the proposed location of a mixed-income apartment complex. Meanwhile, in Westfield, plans were announced to convert the former Bon-Ton department store location in the Westfield Shops into a 50,000-square-foot trampoline park, complete with dodgeball courts, an American Ninja Warrior-style course, and climbing walls.

These headlines, and they’re only the latest of this nature — highlight how the retail landscape is changing, and also how this region and individual communities within it will be challenged to find new and imaginative uses for the hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space now vacant or likely to be vacant.

This is not a local problem or a regional problem. Indeed, it’s a national problem and probably an international problem: just what do we do with all that space once assigned to retail?

It’s a question that needs to be answered because, from everything we’ve gathered and from everything the experts are saying, the pendulum is simply not going to swing back the other way on this issue. Traditional retail is shrinking, and it is vanishing.

In fact, the world of retail started to change perhaps a full decade and a half ago, and the process of change has only accelerated. Fewer people are shopping in actual brick-and-mortar stores, while many of the brands that once dominated this industry — like Sears and JCPenney — have been closing stores in large numbers.

These two forces have collided in places like the Eastfield Mall, which now boasts some of the largest and most barren parking lots to be seen anywhere. Plans are being developed to turn the mall, this region’s first real suburban shopping mall (it opened more than a half-century ago), into what is being called a ‘village,’ one where people can live, work (perhaps), drop off their children at day care, see a movie, work out at a gym, eat at a restaurant, and maybe even get on a trampoline. This sounds ambitious, but it is also reality. The Eastfield Mall can never again be what it once was, so it has to become something else.

And this same phenomenon is happening all across the region. The former Big Y supermarket in South Hadley was simply not going to become another supermarket, not that the owners of the property didn’t try to lure one there. So it has to become something else. Tower Square in Springfield is never going to be the thriving retail hub it was in the ’70s ever again, so it has become the home of two colleges — and soon it will be home to a YMCA and a brewery. The Bon-Ton site was not going to house another department store — in a year or 10 years. Hence, a trampoline park.

Let’s hope there is need for other things as well, because, as we said, this trend will only accelerate. More department stores will close, more mom-and-pop stores will close, and eventually the need for large auto dealerships will subside, and we’ll need to find new uses for them. (One auto dealership in Westfield has already been converted into a gym, a restaurant, and indoor batting cages.)

This kind of imagination is going to be needed moving forward, because there are now vacant stores in malls, strip malls, and Main Streets across the region. And there will only be more of them.

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