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Going the Extra Mile

AST

AST President Billy Kingston, center, with his sons, Chris, left, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services.

Billy Kingston says the global shipping business has historically been an ultra-challenging, often-misunderstood sector of the economy, one defined by heavy competition, demanding customers, unseen twists and turns, and a landscape that can, and does, change quickly and often.

And that was before COVID and the manner in which it eventually turned the supply chain on its ear, inflation, the war in Ukraine, higher tariffs on many goods, a workforce crisis, soaring fuel prices, remote work, and everything else that has happened over the past few years.

Summing it all up, Kingston, president of All States Transport, better known as AST, said this has certainly been a tumultuous and very difficult time for this industry, one that AST has withstood because of all it can bring to the table, especially (in his case) a half-century of experience, but also a deep, talented core of employees, connections around the globe, and, most importantly, a commitment to delivering for customers and going the extra mile.

Those are both industry terms, sort of, but they help explain why AST, a domestic freight broker and international freight forwarder, terms that are self-explanatory, is able to stand out in a sea of competitors, both domestically and globally, in a business where firms are tasked with getting things from here to there — or there to here — in a timely fashion.

Elaborating, he said the keys to success for any company in this business are flexibility, the ability to move quickly and effectively, establishing trust with customers, and amassing a track record for success in delivering for clients, in every sense of that phrase.

“We arrange for transportation of goods to and from our customers anywhere in the world,” said Kingston, offering a simple explanation for work that is anything but simple. “The domestic side of the business is how we started way back, and that side of it is very active. The international side has been growing over the years and doing well; we move freight internationally by land and water.”

“We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.”

“It’s a rugged business with real issues, and we live them,” continued Kingston, who leads a staff of 20 along with his sons, Chris, vice president of International Services, and Tim, vice president of Domestic Services. “Through all of the ups and downs of the economy, fuel issues, and supply-chain woes over the past few years, it has just been very challenging.

“For us as a company, it has been our best period of time, business-wise,” he went on. “But it’s also been the most difficult to operate in.”

In a wide-ranging interview, the Kingstons pulled back the curtain on an industry that few outside really know, one that is settling back into something approaching what was happening before the pandemic, although no one came close to using the word ‘normal.’

To put things in perspective, Billy Kingston said that, before the pandemic, the cost for a shipping container coming in from China was $4,000 to $5,000. At the height of the pandemic, that cost had soared to $25,000 to $30,000.

“The spike was just amazing, and at that price, you were bidding, and hoping, to be able to get a container, and then hoping to get a spot on a ship to come this way,” he said, adding that the impact of the many issues within the shipping industry on inflation and the general economy cannot be understated.

 

Train of Thought

As he talked about the global shipping business, Chris noted that, like other sectors of the economy, this one has a language all its own, with an alphabet soup of acronyms.

These include TL (truckload), LTL (less than truckload), DAP (delivered at place), DPU (delivered at place unloaded), and myriad others.

Learning this language and helping clients understand it is just one of the many nuances of the global shipping business, said Billy, who got his start in it back in the mid-’70s, working in sales for several different national trucking companies as well as an international freight forwarder.

After working in the business for many years, he decided he knew it well enough, and had enough solid connections, to strike out on his own. He started All States Transport in the basement of his home in the Forest Park section of Springfield in 1985.

The global shipping industry is highly competitive and ever-changing, and the pandemic only added several additional layers of challenge.

For the first year or so, it was a one-person operation that eventually moved into a small office in Market Square in downtown Springfield, adding employees as it continued to grow and expand its portfolio of clients, many of which have stayed with the company through its history.

The company had a few different homes — as well as its own small trucking company, which it operated out of property on Avocado Street in Springfield for several years — before settling into its current location on East Columbus Avenue, the former home to the Leonard Gallery and Sam’s Glass.

For the past 15 years, AST has also operated a small office in Miami. At one time, it also housed a trucking operation there, but that, like the one in Springfield, became difficult to manage. So, in both locations, the company has returned to its roots — and its routes — as a freight broker and forwarder.

“When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time.”

As he explained the operation, Billy said that, in a nutshell, AST goes about finding global shipping solutions for its many kinds of clients, most of them manufacturers. About 80% of the company customers are based in Western and Central Mass., Northern Connecticut, and Rhode Island, he said, with the rest spread out over the country.

As a broker, AST will work with a client to secure the shipping of goods to or from their business. To do so, it works with trucking outfits across the region and around the country, as well as rail-service providers and sea and air carriers. What separates the many (as in thousands) of competitors in this field is their ability to make and maintain connections with carriers, know and understand the market, move quickly (many clients want same-day service), and deliver on both price and quality of service.

And all this requires an experienced, talented workforce. “You need a staff that is familiar with the marketplace and has all the tools and technology they need to succeed,” Billy explained. “It’s a fast-moving, time-sensitive, rate-conscious industry — that’s what it’s about.

“We have other customers that we’ve done business with for years and years … they don’t ask us for rate on every load,” he went on. “In many cases, we have the ability with those customers to move up or down as we need to, to service their needs and ours. And that only comes from years of good faith and years of trust, built up between us and our customers because they know that if we need to add extra dollars to a rate, there’s a good reason for that. They also know that if we can reduce that rate, we’re going to do that, and we do this as often as we can.”

Beyond rates, successful freight brokers and forwarders need to have a thorough understanding of the players in the shipping field, where they operate, and how, said Tim Kingston, adding that AST works with trucking companies across the country.

“And we need to, because trucking companies, by their nature, and by their history, generally service certain sections of the country,” he explained. “Some will go anywhere, but a lot of them carve out a part of the country that they want to service for their business needs. You learn those, and when you have freight moving to South Carolina, you know where to start.”

Chris agreed, and said one constant for the company through the years has been to apply an established set of values and principles and to effectively partner with clients and communicate with them — another must in this business.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases. You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot.”

“If you have good news for a customer, give them good news; if you have bad news, something’s gone wrong, let them know early, communicate that, and try to work through problems,” he said. “We have so many great customers … if you’re upfront with them, they’re going to be upfront with you. That way, you can work through things, because transportation is nothing if not problems that have to be worked through.

“Sure, 60% of your loads are going to go without a hitch,” he went on. “The other 40% … that’s where the real work is, so we try to apply the same values across all our different sectors.”

 

Plane Speaking

This combination of experience, built-up trust, and ability to adjust to rapidly — and often profoundly — changing conditions, has enabled AST to not only thrive for the past four decades, but also persevere through this recent, and ongoing, period of heavy turbulence.

Indeed, as noted earlier, this challenging business has become more so — make that even more so — over the past several years with the profound changes to the landscape brought on by the pandemic.

At the top of this list were supply-chain issues that could only be described as historic, said all three Kingstons, noting that the industry was seeing explosive surges in prices for shipping containers and backups at ports around the globe. It didn’t happen overnight, but almost.

Billy explained how it all happened. “When the pandemic hit, because there was so much uncertainty in the general economy, you saw companies all over the world closing down and canceling orders that had been in place for a long time,” he said. “Manufacturers then began cutting back, as well as transportation companies — steamship lines parked vessels all over the world because the demand wasn’t there. No one had an idea when it was going to come back, and that really kicked off the fluctuation in the supply chain.”

Chris agreed, and noted that, three or four months into the pandemic, an array of colliding forces made the situation much worse.

“A lot of people were at home, and they weren’t doing the things they always did in terms of discretionary income,” he explained. “People were at home, and they bought many more things than they normally buy. And then, you had the stimulus programs, which gave people more spending money. Then … you had a lot less international shipping capacity, but a giant surge in demand. Meanwhile, you had empty containers in the wrong places that took forever to get repositioned.

All this created a messed-up supply-and-demand curve, which would have resulted in a container coming in from China for $25,000, just for the cost of the container, never mind the tariff,” he went on. “It created a lopsided supply-and-demand curve, which pushed prices out of sight.”

This phenomenon, which has eased considerably in recent months but is still an issue, is just one of many that has contributed to this being what is considered the most volatile period ever for an industry known for volatility.

On top of everything else, the global shipping industry, like virtually every other sector, has been impacted by an ongoing workforce crisis, Billy said, adding, again, that success in this business is directly related to the quality and consistency of the people doing the work.

“It’s a super-competitive, time-sensitive, money-sensitive industry that changes on a dime in many cases,” he told BusinessWest. “You need to have a staff that’s dedicated; you need to have a staff that’s used to hearing the word ‘no,’ because they hear it a lot; you need to have a staff that understands customer needs and understands which customers can be a little more flexible and more reasonable at times, and which customers can’t be because of the nature of their business. They need to be thick-skinned because it’s not always pretty.”

Indeed, many in this business, including AST, are looking for help right now, he went on, adding that, over the past several years, and essentially from the beginning, AST has made itself into what he considers a good place to work — and grow.

“In this environment, especially, we take care of our staff in every possible way,” he said. “We have some benefits that are quite outstanding, especially for a company our size, and we’re proud of that. As a result, generally, our people are with us for a very long time; very few people leave, and we’re proud of that, too.”

Elaborating, he said that, because of tight deadlines and the need to deliver, there is pressure on employees, something the company’s managers work to alleviate as best they can.

“We have some fun every day — at different times, you never know when it’s going to happen,” he went on. “And there are days when the fun doesn’t come very quickly or very often because you’re right to the wall, morning ’til night. But we try to lighten things up when we can and in whatever way we can.”

Economic Outlook

Talking the Talk

As part of its annual Economic Outlook, BusinessWest put together a roundtable of area business leaders to discuss the issues facing the region and its business community and the outlook for the year ahead. The panel represents several sectors of the economy, and both small and large businesses. It includes: Harry Dumay, president of Elms College in Chicopee; John Falcone, director of Merchandising for Rocky’s Ace Hardware; Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center; Susan Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine in Westfield; Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm and co-owner of Brew Practitioners; and Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank. They were candid and, overall, cautiously optimistic in their answers to a series of questions about the economy and what comes next.

Watch the video of the roundtable here:

 

 

BusinessWest: What is your outlook for 2023?

 

Kasa: “We’re excited for 2023; we’ve really seen an uptick in military and defense work, so we’re really excited about where our year is going to go.”

 

Senecal: “Increased business confidence is the biggest thing, I think, with all the negative press we hear on the economy. Increased confidence is big, and in my industry, and with the people we do business with, lower interest rates will have a significant, positive impact on our environment.”

 

Cannon-Eckerle: “We’re excited about some of the fallout that we got legally from COVID; it has started to settle down a little bit — we’re starting to see those issues become isolated, and opportunities for us to create some guidance and counsel about preventive measures. On the employment side, instead of seeing people float from job to job, I think we’re going to see a little more staying power.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa says the war in Ukraine, while bringing hardship to many, has helped the fortunes of her company, Boulevard Machine, which specializes in work for the defense, military, and aviation industries.

 

Falcone: “We really track consumer sentiment, and what we’re expecting is a really soft Q1, but then when Q2, Q3, and Q4 hit, we’re expecting that consumer sentiment will increase slightly, and that we’re going to have some sort of recovery come the back half of the year.”

 

Hatiras: “With ARPA funds drying up, we’re going to have pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. So our emphasis is on closing the staffing gap. If we can do that, and not bleed money on the expense side, I think we’ll be OK; I think we’re poised to have a good year, as long as we’re able to attract nurses here.”

 

BusinessWest: What are the major challenges facing businesses in the year ahead?

 

Kasa: “For us, it’s the same old, same old — trying to get people into manufacturing. We’ve dealt with the generation gap for years, and are getting more involved with the vocational schools and getting parents to understand that manufacturing is a viable option for young people. It’s not just manufacturing; they can be their own entrepreneur in plumbing or electrical, whatever it might be. Also, holding onto folks; ever since COVID came through, it just seems harder and harder to find people who want to work, and want to work the extra hours that we’re giving them. Workforce is key for us — building on the workforce.”

 

Hatiras: “In healthcare, there is a great deal of concern, and the most concerning part is the continuing shortage of personnel, which has created this market for temporary staffing at rates that are truly outrageous. To put things in perspective, we have about 20 nurses on temporary staff that we get through agencies. Those 20 nurses, on an annual basis, cost us $5 million; each nurse costs us $250,000, because the rates are exorbitant — the nurses get a lot of money, but there’s also a middleman that makes untold amounts of money from this crisis.

“As a nation, the federal government is doing a lot of things — they did some things with railroad workers, they’re helping Ukraine, they’re talking about a lot of things. They should have stepped in and regulated this and said, ‘the pandemic created a tremendous amount of shortage; we cannot allow private companies to go out and profit from that shortage of staffing and bring hospitals to their knees.’ With all this, it’s going to be very difficult for hospitals to cope, and that’s why all our strategy centers around finding a way to attract nurses here.”

 

Falcone: “Number one would be interest rates; we keep seeing interest rates increase, and not increasing at a rate that we would expect compared to supply chain. The supply chain is still not fully intact, so we’re still struggling to find those products that we want to make strategic investments in. Also, the job market is going to be difficult for us, primarily on the service, retail, restaurant industry. We very much struggle with our workforce.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal notes that the Fed’s actions to boost interest rates have not yielded much improvement on the inflation front, something to watch in 2023.

Senecal: “I would agree with Susan on the labor force. We’re all in different industries, but we’re seeing the same challenges, whether it’s manufacturing, skilled labor, retail labor, banking and financial services … COVID killed the participation rate of how people want to work or, quite frankly, don’t want to work. It seems like it’s across all industries — the participation is so low, and people just don’t want to work. That’s a huge challenge for next year.

“Another one is inflationary pressures; the Fed has raised rates at unheard-of levels, and it’s having very little impact, which is kind of scary. The last increase wasn’t as high as the others, but it’s still unprecedented. They used to be a quarter-point; three or four 75-basis-point raises is a shock to the system, and it’s not having the immediate impact you might think it would have. That’s going to be a challenge for a lot of business, as well as for us in the banking industry.”

 

Dumay: “In higher education, there are many challenges related to enrollment and finances; we’ve been talking for a while about what is known as the ‘demographic cliff,’ which is the fact that there are fewer high-school graduates, fewer 18-year-olds that are ready to enroll in college, and this has been exacerbated during the COVID years. This is creating enrollment challenges for all higher-ed institutions. On the finance side, everyone here has mentioned the challenge of inflation, as well as the tight workforce. Higher education is also challenged by the fact that some of the stimulus funding that has helped during COVID is no longer available. All of these are going to create challenges for the higher-ed sector in general, and Elms College in particular. But they also present opportunities.

 

BusinessWest: What are the forces that will determine what will happen with the local and national economies in 2023 and what we’re all talking about a year from now?

 

Kasa: “For us, what’s happening in the world politically and the war in Ukraine; we’re really seeing an increase in military spending and orders for the military and defense. That’s going to be very helpful for us, and I do see that continuing. There’s a tremendous amount of talk about upgrades to engines, the F-35 … and being in the aerospace alley and having so many of these large OEMs right in the corridor, in the Hartford area, is beneficial for us. I do foresee things continuing to move up and onward for us.”

 

Cannon-Eckerle: “One of the things bubbling up in the legal sphere is something they call ‘litigation investment,’ which is essentially large companies investing in litigation against larger corporations that normally they wouldn’t be able to afford. It’s like a venture-capital-like investment, and we’re starting to see large companies spread their wings. I think that might have an effect on litigation down the line.”

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay says COVID provided many important lessons that are serving Elms College well as it moves on from the pandemic.

Dumay: “I think some of those challenges that I spoke about that are related to enrollment will lead to some of the forces and trends that will shape things in 2023. I expect institutions to tailor their pricing and courses accordingly; there is a trend in higher education to look for shorter types of certificates to help max the credentialing needs of the workforce. I expect we’ll see that. But also, the workforce issues are providing a lot of opportunities for institutions to partner with businesses to address some of these workforce issues, and I expect that we’ll see more collaborations and partnerships between higher-ed institutions and businesses to address some of these workforce challenges.”

 

Senecal: “I see two things. One is supply chain; I think the pressure seems to be coming off, and if that trend continues, that will have a really positive effect on the economy. Two, I think higher energy prices are not going to go away. With the war in Ukraine and Russian energy and what is being supplied to Europe and all … many people don’t think it impacts us. I think it will have a huge impact going into 2023. When you look at the supply of energy in Europe, they have enough to get through the winter to sustain themselves. What they don’t have is the ability to replenish those supplies by next winter, and I think Russia knows this, and I think their strategy is to put a huge amount of pressure on to get to next year, because when you get to next winter, there’s not going to be any energy-supply reserves, and that’s going to have a huge impact worldwide on energy supplies, and that trickles throughout the economy.”

 

Falcone: I very much agree with Tom. The overall political and economic environment created by that war has affected our business dramatically, whether it’s fuel costs, energy costs that directly impact the supply chain and lead to inflation, or interest rates, because the overall cost of carrying our inventory is higher, and the cost of the product we’re procuring is higher. So with that, our overall cost of business has increased.”

John Falcone

John Falcone says supply-chain issues have improved in recent months, one of many reasons for optimism heading into 2023.

Kasa: “I agree with John. In manufacturing, our supply chain has really been impacted by this war; we’re not able to get material as we did some time ago, and those costs continue to rise. Being in manufacturing, we’re held to long-term agreements, master agreements, and it just continually squeezes the small guy.”

 

BusinessWest: How has your business or institution coped with the recent workforce challenges? Do you have a success formula?

 

Senecal: “Before COVID hit, we would never let an employee work from home; from a security perspective, from a collaborative perspective, it just wouldn’t work. Two weeks into the pandemic, we had 80% of workforce working from home without a hitch. I still think the collaboration, or culture, side of it has to occur within the office, but we’ve pivoted from that perspective, and we’re pushing the ability to work from home a whole lot more.

“To tackle the workforce issue and spread our wings and look beyond Western Mass., we are advertising positions as ‘80% work from home,’ something you would have never thought of or heard of in years past. We have an employee now who works 100% out of Chicago. As a local community bank, we would have never considered that. It’s increased our ability to attract talent, and we’ve found some success, but I know it’s still going to be a challenge moving forward.”

 

Kasa: “We’re looking for exposure, and being in our bright new building certainly helps. So does using social media to attract young machinists; we’re using Instagram and Facebook … it really does work with the young people that follow you. And being a family-owned business also resonates with many people; there have been so many capital acquisitions in recent times in this area.

“We spend a lot of time talking to parents about manufacturing and the opportunities that are available to young people. Manufacturing is coming back, and now parents are realizing that not everyone is meant for a college degree, and they don’t have to spend $100,000 or $200,000 on education; they are coming into machining and electrical and plumbing. The parents are really starting to see us as a viable option.”

 

Dumay: “We’re paying a lot of attention to employee morale and employee satisfaction, and being flexible where we can. Part of the promise of Elms College as a small, liberal-arts institution is that students will be in contact with people and one another, so having a presence on campus is important. But we’re trying to work creatively to include flexibility for employees in terms of where they can work and the time they can work, to the extent that this can be done.”

 

Hatiras: “We’re doing OK because we had to respond to what was going on in the market by creating even more attractive reasons for coming here — we raised our rates, we’re enhancing benefits, and at the same time, we’re looking at economic assistance for the lower-earning employees. Where it’s more difficult is with the professionals, because the dollars are significantly more, so competing just on price is difficult. The key for success — what keeps people here and makes them come here — is the culture of the place, so we put a tremendous amount of effort in the 10 years I’ve been here on creating a good culture. Now, it’s become a differentiator, and we’re pushing it even more. We’re an employer that listens to employees, responds to their needs, and cares. That’s what people want.”

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says the “truly outrageous” cost of agency nurses is one of the many stern challenges facing all hospitals today.

Falcone: “We put a big focus on our company culture. Right in our strategic plan, it says ‘invest in people, personally grow, and have fun.’ There’s no doubt about it … the people we have are our biggest asset, so what we want to do is make sure that we’re taking care of them. In this ever-competitive job market, it’s really easy to jump jobs for an extra dollar or two an hour, but for us, we really want to focus on employee engagement and employee satisfaction.”

 

BusinessWest: Provide us with at least one, and maybe a few, reasons for optimism regarding the year ahead.

 

Falcone: “The supply chain is becoming more intact. Two years ago, our fill rates as a company were about 60%; December marked the first time our fill rates recently broke the 80% mark. They’re still not back to 2019 levels of roughly 90%, but it’s slowly getting better, and I think the numbers will continue to increase. For the consumer, it’s the availability of product at a reasonable price. Also, we’re starting to see a little bit of deflation … I think we’re still going to have inflation, but it is going to level off.”

 

Kasa: “The war, which is terrible for the world, and the politics going on are only going to make more work for us because we’re military and defense-heavy. Meanwhile, space is another huge one for us, because it’s been years since the U.S. has gone to space. And with all the competition going on for space travel now between Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others … it’s a a market the U.S. hasn’t been involved in for years, and it bodes well for us.”

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle says many converging forces will bring change to the employment-law scene in 2023.

Cannon-Eckerle: “Now that COVID is a little bit behind us … we have some clarity. I think there was a period of time when employers, employees, people who don’t work, everyone in this world went through a period of time when they just didn’t know what the future would hold. Now, people can start making decisions and moving forward, in whatever direction that might be. Also, green technology. I think that technology is getting a huge boost, even moreso than it had before, and I think we’re going to start making some big strides in green technology, and I’m really excited about that.”

 

Hatiras: One of the good things for Holyoke, and this is one of the reasons I’m optimistic about our path here, is that we have this new waiver in Massachusetts, a five-year waiver with Medicare, which puts a lot of emphasis on safety-net hospitals. So, despite the many challenges I mentioned — and we’re going to have to meet those challenges — I think we’re going to be in a very good position to continue to provide the services we do now, and even better; it’s a good deal for Massachusetts and safety-net hospitals.”

 

Dumay: “We had a Christmas party at the college recently, and everyone was shaking hands — no one was fist-pumping, no one was six feet apart. It’s easy to forget where we were a year ago. I’m encouraged when I look at what happened during the past semester, when students were happy to be with one another; this is the generation where students finished their high school on Zoom and already had some difficulty with social skills. This ability to come back together … people are appreciating that.

“Another reason for optimism is that we learned a lot of lessons during COVID. We endured considerable hardships, but we also learned some valuable lessons as well. In higher education, for example, we learned about online learning and providing students with maximum flexibility. This is something we were forced into by COVID, but now, those lessons are settling down and providing both flexibility and efficiency in terms of teaching and learning. From a human-relations perspective, we’ve learned some lessons that are becoming part of our operations, and for the better.”

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Rick Sullivan

Over the past decade, the city of Springfield has made many advancements towards the goal of job formation and opportunity. We have continued the trend of job development, now with an added focus on technology. In an effort to bring the Pioneer Valley’s largest city into the forefront of the cyber realm, the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) has been facilitating the development of this industry over the years, which has successfully led to a new, on-the-ground investment project, now spearheaded by Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), with an emphasis on careers in technology.

Located at Union Station directly in downtown, this state-of-the-art technology center will offer education and hands-on job training to individuals looking to seek careers in the tech field. This initiative provides an opportunity to grow and develop a workforce that will ensure long-term job stability and meet the ever-growing cyber needs of community businesses.

Four components will drive this project and allow the community at large to not only benefit, but contribute to its success in meaningful ways:

• Educational offerings: Colleges and universities in the region such as STCC, Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, Elms College, and Springfield College will provide training opportunities to students, leading to jobs in the future.

• Municipality involvement: Technology experts are always in demand and rarely available within governmental sectors. This program will provide access to trained and skilled individuals, ready for hire.

• Military support: Westover and Barnes Air Force bases have already expressed interest in being able to train their workforce in the ever-growing field of technology. Both employers plan to support and hire from within the program.

• Small-business benefits: Manufacturing and other sectors are constantly seeking individuals with cyber certification. This new center will provide the much-needed resources to bring cutting-edge technologies to local businesses.

This project has significant state financial backing, having just received its first $1.5 million in grant funding. The design stage of the project has begun, and the center is slated to be open and accepting participants during the fall of 2023. This center is an essential economic-development strategy to modernize and innovate the business infrastructure. We expect to see substantial growth in the cyber-industry arena, benefiting the financial and economic vitality of the region.

For more information on this project and its progress, visit www.westernmassedc.com.

 

Rick Sullivan is president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

 

Women in Businesss

Dishing Out Something Different

 

Nosh’s colorful menu boards

Nosh’s colorful menu boards offer plenty of options for vegans, vegetarians, and carnivores alike.

Growing up in Monson, with a father who worked in auto-body services, a young Teri Skinner occasionally visited downtown Springfield with her mother to pick up parts or paint, and they’d make time to stop by Johnson’s Bookstore and other bustling shops.

“I remember loving downtown Springfield,” she said. “Coming from a small town like Monson, there were so many things to do here.”

In the early days of running her restaurant, Nosh, in the Shops at Marketplace — just a few steps from the former Johnson’s site — she recalls the streets downtown being much quieter than they were in her childhood.

Then, a few years ago, she noticed a change.

“It didn’t happen overnight, but leaving here, I started thinking, ‘wow, there are people downtown, just walking around.’ And it wasn’t just MGM, which is great asset, but a lot of community people who wanted to see Springfield become viable. And I just enjoy being down here — I love everything about it.”

Nosh, which just celebrated its sixth anniversary on Black Friday, wasn’t something Skinner planned to operate long-term when she started selling breads and pastries at Marketplace during the summer of 2016.

At the time, she was running a small catering operation out of her home, following a stint at a catering company in Worcester that had burned her out with 70- to 80-hour work weeks.

“What caught my eye was this big wall, and I could picture a menu on it. And I was like, ‘yeah, I can do something with this.’ I had no idea what the menu was going to be; I just knew I could pull it off.”

The owners of Simply Serendipity, a clothing boutique at the Shops, approached Skinner about selling her baked goods at a farmers market on Market Street, the alley that runs behind Main Street between Harrison Avenue and Bruce Landon Way.

“As the summer progressed, people were saying there’s not enough places to eat downtown, so I started bringing sandwiches and salads. Then, as the weather cooled off, I was bringing soups. It was basically a pop-up restaurant every week, with a little table and a tent outside. The BID provided us with small café tables, so people could actually sit out here and eat, which was nice because it’s such a cool space back here.”

She thought that would be the end of that enterprise, but as the cool weather approached, a small space opened up in the Shops, and one of the property owners approached Skinner about it. “She opened up this door, and it was a closet. But what caught my eye was this big wall, and I could picture a menu on it. And I was like, ‘yeah, I can do something with this.’ I had no idea what the menu was going to be; I just knew I could pull it off.”

Two weeks later, Nosh was born, with little equipment other than a commercial refrigerator and a panini press. “That’s how I built my menu, with those two items. I was making soups and sandwiches for the holidays. And during the holiday market, it was successful enough that I said, ‘all right, maybe we can do something with this.’ So we stayed.”

Six years later, Skinner is glad she did, not only growing and expanding her establishment, but getting ready to open up a second location in Gasoline Alley on Albany Street (more on that later).

 

Broader Palate

The expansion happened in 2018, when a pair of divided spaces became available, and Skinner contacted the property owner about taking over both sides.

“My small staff and I worked during the day, then worked at night tearing down walls and stuff. We opened a week before MGM opened,” she said. “It’s been great. The business continues to grow, even though we are so hidden back here. I still get people who come in and say, ‘I’ve lived in Springfield all my life, and I didn’t know this space existed, this whole street.’”

The larger space gave Skinner a chance to expand her culinary offerings, which still center on sandwiches, salads, soups, and baked goods, but a much broader variety of each.

“There were some good original eateries down here, like Nadim’s and the Fort, but not a lot of variety, or something that was our niche at that point,” she said, before recalling her stint working for a restaurant at the veterinary school at Tufts University when her former catering-company employer got the contract there.

“I’ve gotten some pushback on things; I got a one-star review because somebody didn’t like what was written outside. But I don’t want to put on a pretension that these aren’t things I hold dear to my heart. Sometimes, something triggers me, and it’s like, enough is enough.”

“A lot of first-year students would come in who were vegetarians or vegans, and that’s where I honed in on that aspect of the cuisine I present. We also had large-animal doctors who were carnivores, so I had to cook everything. And I felt a restaurant shouldn’t be limited to one cuisine, but should be able to serve all different palates. That’s what my vision was for this space.”

The restaurant has expanded over the years to Saturdays and a couple of evenings each week, but weekday traffic, especially foot traffic from the downtown office towers and surrounding businesses, have long been her bread and butter, as well as people visiting the MassMutual Center for events.

The pandemic posed challenges to all restaurants, but Skinner’s sister-in-law designed an online ordering platform, and Nosh switched to a delivery model, with the small staff doing all the deliveries themselves rather than use an entity like DoorDash. It also partnered with an intern from Baystate Health on a hospital-worker program, whereby people could donate $10 toward a meal for a local healthcare provider, which Nosh matched.

As restaurants reopened, patrons were once again able to enjoy Nosh’s decidedly funky interior design, bedecked in local art, antiques purchased by Skinner’s son and girlfriend, tables built by her husband, and the handiwork of a local woodworker who created countertops and the Nosh sign from reclaimed wood.

“I don’t like buying new things; I think we have enough abundance of things we can reuse and recycle,” she said. “So we try to be as mindful as we can in this industry about what we’re using for products and how they’re packaged and how they leave our establishment and what you can do with them afterward.”

The other dominant visual feature are the colorful, descriptive menu boards and the chalkboard paint covered with the staff’s thoughts — some amusing, some serious, especially around feminist values.

“I wouldn’t want a restaurant that looked like every other restaurant,” Skinner said. “I want my personality in here, and I think my personality is in here, as well as many of the people who work for me. It’s all coming through. We’re a team, so I want them to share their ideas.”

Outside Nosh, facing the alley, is a board that has been used for deadly serious messaging, from the transcript of the 911 call from the Uvalde, Texas elementary school to an angry quote from U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

“These are frustrating times we live in, and I just don’t think we can be quiet about it any longer,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve gotten some pushback on things; I got a one-star review because somebody didn’t like what was written outside. But I don’t want to put on a pretension that these aren’t things I hold dear to my heart. Sometimes, something triggers me, and it’s like, enough is enough. Obviously, when Roe overturned, that was just devastating.”

Inside the eatery are other messages promoting acceptance of all individuals. “All people, no matter what your beliefs are, should be accepted, no matter who you are and who you love,” she said, adding that the bathroom is dotted with still more messages. “We’ve had people erase them. Then we just go back and write it again.”

 

Take Two

Speaking of redoing things, Nosh will soon open a second location on Albany Street, part of a collective called Urban Food Brood that includes Monsoon Roastery, Corsello Butcheria, Urban Artisan Farm, and Happy Man Freeze Dried. The overall concept is part café, part food manufacturing, and part retail, Monsoon Roastery owner Tim Monson recently told MassLive, adding that he expects the operation to open before the end of the year.

A new commercial kitchen is being built for Nosh, which will offer a similar slate of offerings as the downtown location, starting off with breakfast and lunch menus. In the evening, Skinner plans to bring in guest chefs to cook dinner and show off their talents.

“It will have a market feel, with a lot of businesses in there, and we’ll take new businesses just starting off and incubate them, get them going,” she said. “The property owner here did the same for me when I opened up my closet — gave me good rent and was super supportive. Someone might have a great idea or a product they want to sell, but can’t afford a brick-and-mortar place yet. So we’re trying to create that sort of space there.”

And perhaps help someone else who has always loved Springfield find long-term success in the City of Homes.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Music Heals the Soul

Vanessa Ford (left) said CMSS provides more than just singing

Vanessa Ford (left) said CMSS provides more than just singing opportunities to students, but life skills as well.

After the pandemic, one in 10 people under the age of 18 experienced a mental-health condition, and one in five young people reported that the pandemic had a significant negative impact on their mental health.

Research dating back to ancient Greece has demonstrated that music and the arts can have valuable benefits in reducing distress and mental-health concerns, and Community Music School of Springfield (CMSS) is doing everything it can to provide that safe space for youth.

“We love the idea of the beloved community. It was Dr. Martin Luther King who talked about that, but we really want to be the embodiment of the beloved community that helps Springfield and the community support each other and itself and sort of uplift our city in a way that’s not gentrification, but through the arts,” said Sierra Simmons, associate director of CMSS.

She went on to explain that the school and its staff have always been dedicated to access and inclusion when it comes to musical and artistic opportunities, as well as improving the well-being of the community by bringing people together.

“We have classical, contemporary, pop music, hip-hop, gospel, jazz … it pretty much runs the gamut. We try to be really inclusive and relevant to the culture of people that are in our community.”

CMSS was founded in 1983 as a nonprofit and still operates as one today. Around the end of 1999, it moved to its current location, a 1933 Art Deco building in the heart of downtown Springfield, comprising more than 33,000 square feet of studios, classrooms, offices, and performance areas across five floors.

While touring the space with BusinessWest, Rachel Rivard, director of Faculty and Education at CMSS, noted that the performance hall is her favorite area in the building. The Robyn Newhouse Concert Hall used to house a bank, and it’s still adorned with old teller boxes and deposit-slip tables. On the wall hangs an original 1933 mural of the American urban landscape by Carroll Bill.

Today, the building serves more than 2,000 students annually. The music school provides a variety of programs, including music therapy, a preschool of the arts, a children’s chorus, and more. Among the private lessons and ensembles, students have the capability of learning almost 33 different instruments.

“Pretty much any instrument you can think of, we have someone who can teach it. We have a staff of about 84, and about 65 of those people are musicians,” Simmons said. “And we teach all different sorts of genres. We try to honestly include everything you can think of. We have classical, contemporary, pop music, hip-hop, gospel, jazz … it pretty much runs the gamut. We try to be really inclusive and relevant to the culture of people that are in our community.”

One of the programs offered through CMSS is the Sonido Musica program, back in 31 different Springfield and Holyoke public schools this year to support musical learning, social-emotional growth, and leadership development for youth. Students participate in weekly ensemble music classes during school, led by CMSS faculty. This opportunity is available to students in grades K-12, at any experience level, in schools that have agreed to partner with CMSS. Sonido Musica provides instruction and an instrument to each student at no cost to their family.

Rachel Rivard

Rachel Rivard was hired through the Sonido Musica program before moving to CMSS.

When the program was created in 2014, Julie Jaron, director of Visual and Performing Arts for Springfield Public Schools, connected with CMSS Executive Director Eileen McCaffrey, sharing the problem that there wasn’t an unbroken continuum of music education in the school system leading from elementary school all the way through high school.

“The idea was that we would provide teaching artists through state funding, and we would provide music instruction for schools that didn’t have music in their school, with the agreement with the principal that, at the end of three years, they would hire at least a part-time music teacher,” explained Rivard, who was hired as a teacher through the Sonido Musica program before making her way to CMSS. “So that started creating this snowball effect where more and more people were wanting music in their schools; we expanded Sonido to more schools throughout the years, and now, at the end of that, principals are starting to hire music teachers.”

In fact, Rivard noted, in 2019, the Springfield School Committee decided to require at least a part-time music and art teacher in every school throughout the city.

During the pandemic, the Sonido Musica program was made virtual to adapt to the changing world. As students were able to congregate in classes again, the music program was needed more than ever, said Vanessa Ford, vocal faculty member and director of the Trust Transfer Project and the Culture RX program (more on those later).

“When you have an opportunity to share music in the lives of kids, that’s the motivation to get them to even come to school sometimes,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s not like they’re super motivated to go to school right now, especially after the pandemic. Where do you fit in? How do you fit in? What do you do? How do you complete your day? If there’s music involved, most of the time, that’s the motivation to get the kids to show up. And showing up is all we need sometimes.”

 

Music, Mental Health, and Extra Needs

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), bringing out emotions and thoughts through methods of verbal and non-verbal expression and exploration — such as dance and body movement, music, art, and expressive writing — may deactivate the avoidance mechanism and enable the elaboration of emotions and distress. CMSS has created programs to offer just that to its students, including representation in correctional facilities and special-needs classrooms.

The Adaptive Music Program (AMP) connects music education and special education to improve students’ lives, impacting their social/emotional, academic, and artistic development.

The Prelude Preschool

The Prelude Preschool offers music and arts throughout the day as well as the regular school routine.

More than 20% of the student population in Springfield is identified as having disabilities that impact their learning. Music is a proven and effective tool to unlock learning potential in students with disabilities, yet the majority of these students have historically not had access to music instruction adapted to their needs. AMP partners with 14 public schools and education centers throughout the Pioneer Valley, providing adaptive music classes for youth in preschool through high school in their typical classroom setting during the school day.

Another program CMSS offers is the Culture RX program, funded through the Mass Cultural Council, to link partnerships between a cultural organization, like CMSS, and a health clinic or other partner in the Springfield community. Baystate Health and Behavioral Health Network (BHN) have partnered with the school and have prescribed their clients ‘social-healing sessions’ that steer away from, or at least complement, the traditional model of prescribing medication.

“It’s primarily focused on giving the patient an opportunity to be prescribed something that gives them hope and healing, energy, social activity, togetherness — bringing them out of their homes from isolation into really stepping forward into places where they can connect with people on a very human level to do something fun,” Ford explained.

“You talk to doctors, lawyers, scientists, people involved in very, very difficult, challenging work. Rocket scientists, when they’re not working, are involved in some type of music experience.”

Meanwhile, the school’s Trust Transfer Project mobilizes youth, artists, faith leaders, educators, health professionals, and other community influencers to create works of artistic messaging that lead to improved public-health outcomes. This project leverages Springfield’s cultural assets to increase access to evidence-based public-health information (particularly around COVID-19 and vaccines), promote positive health choices, and foster hope and healing.

Ford told BusinessWest that the pandemic has made many groups rethink what works and what doesn’t. In the case of CMSS, it is exploring more holistic and interactive ways of dealing with mental health. Ford explained that “it’s a whole new mindset,” and the music school is doing things that haven’t been done before.

Not only was the pandemic isolating, but the world was watching racial injustice happen in real time, through constant television coverage and instant access on social media. When serving a community of mostly Black and Brown people, CMSS took the time to pause and focus on the structures and systems in place in the organization.

“Our enrollment did take a little dip, and it gave us time to think so we can try to be as equitable and inclusive and accessible as possible to our community,” Rivard said. “So we are recovering, absolutely, but I think we’re recovering so strongly because we had a chance to really examine the system that exists here and build it with community members involved in the process, so that it’s moving forward in a way that’s healing and caring rather than ‘let’s just hop right in and jump higher and move faster.’

NAMI research shows that music is influential in a person’s life

NAMI research shows that music is influential in a person’s life, regardless of age and demographics.

“We’ve really listened to ourselves, to the faculty here working with us who live in this community, and to the people within our community that see changes that need to be made,” she added, “and I think that’s why we’re recovering so well — because we use that as an opportunity to listen and to come back to the ground.”

Ford agreed. She used the metaphor of a bus, and “everybody comes out at different stops.” The spillover and residual effects of COVID have shown that music may not be the most important thing in someone’s life, but it can be among the most powerful.

Youth mental health is a main focus for the music school this year, and the staff are doing everything they can to support their students socially and emotionally. And for good reason — according to research by NAMI, patients diagnosed with mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia have shown a visible improvement in their mental health after general music and music-therapy interventions. Moreover, studies have demonstrated other benefits of music and music therapy, including improved heart rate and motor skills, stimulation of the brain, and enhancement of the immune system.

 

Learning for Life

Simmons called social-emotional learning an important part of the educational programs at CMSS.

“It’s huge in Sonido Musica,” she said. “It’s all about gaining skills and competencies for kids that sort of helps them succeed socially, academically, and even onward into their careers and their lives. These are skills like self-regulation, community collaboration, working together for a common goal, confidence, agency, resiliency — skills that really help them everywhere they go.”

Ford added that learning music and arts early in life make young people better readers and strengthens their reading-comprehension skills, math aptitude, and more.

“You talk to doctors, lawyers, scientists, people involved in very, very difficult, challenging work. Rocket scientists, when they’re not working, are involved in some type of music experience,” she said. “Whether they love listening to music or love actually playing music or singing, or they studied a whole life of music and then ended up doing these extraordinary, really difficult careers, music is the backdrop. So when we see the potential for music to really calm and be a stepping stone to positions like being president of the United States, you’re like, ‘OK, we just need it.’”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

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