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Executive Director Ben Quick

Executive Director Ben Quick

 

Ben Quick recognizes that the Connecticut River, particularly the stretch that runs through Springfield, has what he calls a “checkered past” as … well, not the cleanest riverway, and perhaps a negative reputation in some corners, based on that past, that lingers today.

But those who actually use the river for recreation on a regular basis — and Quick, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club, certainly counts himself among them — tell a much different story.

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’” Quick said.

It’s a message he likes to share. “The mission of our organization is to bring guests, visitors, and residents of Greater Springfield to the riverfront for some healthy, outdoor, fun recreation. The river itself has got a checkered past, and part of our job is to enlighten people with proper information, safe experiences, and a positive takeaway, so they go home and tell their friends, ‘hey, you know what? The Connecticut River in Springfield is absolutely gorgeous, and there’s all kinds of fun stuff you can do there. Why not check it out?’”

“People who come to our riverfront here in Springfield for rowing or dragon boating and see what we have, between the quality of the water and the views and the infrastructure, say, ‘why aren’t there 10 clubs here? Why isn’t everybody out on this water? Why aren’t more people enjoying it?’”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club (PVRC) was established by a small group of rowing enthusiasts in 2009 to promote river-based recreational activities, sporting activities, and river access in general.

“They got together on a patch of grass a little further downstream from us and organized as a rowing club,” Quick noted, adding that they put a proposal together to occupy what is now the club’s home, at North Riverfront Park on the river’s shore, in a building that dates back to 1901.

“Since then, we have grown our organization from a small group on a patch of grass to about 50 kids, about 60 adults, and hundreds of visitors every year who participate in our programs,” he told BusinessWest. “We started off as a rowing organization … in fact, PVRC originally stood for Pioneer Valley Rowing Club. But soon after we were organized, we expanded and offered dragon boating, which is the fastest-growing water sport in the world. And we realized that we had much more to offer than rowing. So that’s where Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club came from.”

Speaking of dragon boating, the 10th annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival is coming up on July 20, and has become the club’s premier event (more on that later).

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River

A dragon boat team navigates the Connecticut River in the 2023 event.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“The rowing and dragon-boating programs have just blossomed,” Quick said. “They are kind of niche sports … not a lot of people know about these sports.”

But he considers it his mission to make sure more people find out every year.

 

Stern Challenge

Quick’s involvement in the PVRC began with a connection through one of his sons, who is 24 now, but discovered rowing while attending a Springfield middle school that had a connection to the club.

“One day, he came home from school and said, ‘Mom, Dad, my school has rowing, and I’m doing it.’ My wife and I were like, ‘this sounds great. Who knew we even had that?’ And as he started to get involved, we as a family got more involved too, saying, ‘this is a wonderful thing. More people need to hear about this.’”

At the time, the PVRC was volunteer-driven, with very few full-time, paid employees, and Quick and his wife, Julie, became active in the organization. A few years later, in 2015, when the club was looking for an executive director, he was encouraged to throw his hat in, and was offered the job.

“I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

“It was a big family decision,” he recalled. “I had no nonprofit experience; I had corporate-world experience, but no one could question my passion for the organization, my passion for the sport, and my passion for seeing the thing grow. And my family was behind me because, when you move from the corporate world to the nonprofit world, you’ve got to make some sacrifices. But for us, it was a great opportunity.”

The club has also become an ideal opportunity for people of all ages to get in the water and learn a new pastime.

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat

A dragon boater paints the head of her team’s boat.
(Photo by D. John McCarthy)

“Kayaking is a wonderful first experience for on-water recreation,” Quick said. “For so many of the kids and adults from Springfield who come down here for kayaking, this is their first experience with a boat on the water, ever. And we’re super proud of that. I think having a positive first experience certainly sets people on a trajectory that we’d like to see them continue on. And kayaking is the easiest way for us to help people have a fun time.”

Kayaking is offered on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays, and throughout this summer, kayak rental — normally $20 per hour — is free, thanks to a grant from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation & Recreation, though donations are accepted.

The club offers rowing programs, including one called SAFARI, which stands for Summer of Activity, Fun, and Rowing Instruction, which is for kids age 12 and up.

“It’s kind of like a summer camp, but only a couple hours a day,” Quick explained. “We get them out in boats, we teach them safety, we teach them instruction, and on a rainy day we’ll stay on land and play some games. It’s just a two-week program to get kids interested in rowing.

“From there, the sky’s the limit,” he added. “We have a competitive racing team comprised of a few middle schoolers and a bunch of high schoolers. They race in the spring and the fall athletic seasons, as well as in the summer. We travel as far away as Philadelphia to race other programs. It’s a really cool sport, and these kids learn things that no other sport is going to teach them. They say rowing is the ultimate team sport.”

Then, of course, there’s dragon boating.

“Dragon boating is a lot like canoeing, except you’re in a dragon boat with 19 other paddlers, plus someone steering and someone drumming. So it’s a party barge, but for canoeing,” Quick said. “And we can teach someone how to dragon boat pretty quickly. It’s a short learning curve, but it’s a lifelong pursuit toward perfection. We have a wonderful dragon boating team that meets in the evenings because it’s an adult program.”

The Springfield Dragon Boat Festival, which is free for spectators, draws hundreds of people to the riverfront each summer to watch teams race, while enjoying entertainment, food trucks, face painting, crafts, and other activities. Team registration (at pvriverfront.org) ends July 10, and this year’s event will be held Saturday, July 20.

“Anyone can do it. We had a group one year that was a family reunion,” Quick said, adding that teams of inexperienced dragon boaters — companies, organizations, families — compete in an all-neophyte division. “They get one practice session, and then we throw them in a boat.”

The other division is comprised of teams of people who compete in dragon boating as a sport. “They train all winter, they lift weights, they get strong, and then they hit the water and race each other. So you don’t have those teams competing against the community teams, but they are amazing to watch. The intensity of a race is incredible. They only last one minute — the fastest times on the race at our festival will be sub-60 seconds.”

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club offers rowing activities for all experience levels.

In addition to the races and family fun, Quick noted, “we have a cultural presentation because there’s a side of the festival that doesn’t get spoken about much, but we hope will get spoken about more, which is that a dragon boat festival is an important cultural holiday in China. It’s a celebration of patriotism, and of longevity, and of life. So there is a cultural aspect of the Dragon Boat Festival that is shared by our dear friends at the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts.”

 

Pulling Together

The Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club presents other events as well, including youth and adult regattas, and recently, for the second straight year, it hosted the 1.2-mile swimming portion of an Ironman triathlon, which also includes a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.

“I was told that, last year, 40% of the participants were local, and I think, for 60% of the participants, it was their first time,” Quick said. “So let’s hope that trajectory continues. It’s certainly positive for the business community, for the economy here.”

He’s also gratified that the river’s health — and reputation — have come such a long way since the 1970s and 1980s, when raw sewage was regularly dumped into the water. These days, it’s much cleaner, he noted, and when sewage spills into the river after a storm, it’s generally safe to swim or row within a day or two.

“Every time there is a spill of sewage into the river, it gets reported. And that’s a wonderful piece of legislation — I think transparency is really important to improving quality. But we do have safety protocols, and we are aware of river quality. I give a lot of credit to the Connecticut River Conservancy for spending the money and providing the resources to do weekly water quality testing.”

Beyond enjoying a healthier river, Quick simply enjoys the tranquility of the pastime.

“When you’re on the water, even right here in Springfield, and you look to the shores, and all you see are green trees, and a few buildings poking over it, you could be in Vermont. It is amazing how tranquil the river is.

“I’ve been a lifelong athlete, but I haven’t been rowing for that long; I’ve been rowing for maybe 10 years. When I came to the sport with other men and women my age, I realized this is something we can do. You know, we don’t have to have been playing this sport since we were 4 years old in order to have a fun, competitive experience. So I realized, ‘hey, this is great.’”

It’s also a lesson in teamwork and pulling together toward a common goal, which is certainly a positive experience in these often-discordant times.

“If you are not moving in complete harmony with the person in front of behind you, you’re going to bump into each other. And that can lead to some aches and pains and bruises,” he added. “But if you work together, it is such a thrill. It is such a rewarding experience.”

Cover Story

A Look Back — and Ahead

What’s Changed — and What Hasn’t — in 40 Years

1984. That’s the title of an epic George Orwell novel, written 36 years earlier, that takes a look into the future and describes a world ruled by a televised ‘Big Brother.’

The real 1984 was a thankfully cheerier year. Ronald Reagan won a second term in office, the Boston Celtics won an epic NBA Finals series over the Los Angeles Lakers, gymnasts including Mary Lou Retton and West Springfield’s own Tim Daggett dominated the Summer Olympics in LA, and the Basketball Hall of Fame was soon to open its doors on Springfield’s riverfront.

That May, a new publication first appeared in businesses across the region. It was called the Western Massachusetts Business Journal, and the monthly magazine was something new and completely different — a publication devoted entirely to the region’s business community.

A few years later, the name was shortened to BusinessWest, which was not the only change to have taken place over the past 40 years. The magazine has since added a second issue each month, a strong digital presence, a daily news blog, a podcast, and several annual recognition programs and accompanying events.

Yet, as BusinessWest turns 40, we’ve dedicated this commemorative issue not to the changes that have taken place here, as significant as they are, but on the sweeping changes that have taken place in the workplace and in our business community.

They have included advances in computer technology that have transformed virtually every sector; a few memorable recessions, including one so profound it was called Great; a pandemic that shut down much of the world for months and may have permanently altered the way people work; a slew of state-of-the-art healthcare projects; a dramatic wave of contraction and acquisition in fields ranging from banking to insurance; a continued focus on entrepreneurship; and even brand-new sectors, most notably cannabis, and still-murky developments like artificial intelligence.

These sweeping, profound changes have impacted just about every sector, from education to law to construction, and have altered how we work, where we work, when we work, and even what we wear to work. In short, it’s been an eventful four decades, which has more than justified Publisher John Gormally’s decision to chronicle all of it on the pages of this magazine.

There’s no way to sum all that up in one issue, but we hope the articles below, brought to life by interviews with some of this region’s most prominent business leaders, at least begins to paint the picture of an economy, and region, ever in flux.

 

In this special section, 40 years of:

Click on each story to read more

or go HERE to view the entire BusinessWest 40th Anniversary issue

Banking

Commercial Development

Construction

Financial Planning

Healthcare

Higher Education

Manufacturing

Nonprofits

Professional Services

Technology

The Workplace

 

Cover Story Creative Economy

Taking Center Stage

Angela Park and Dan McKellick stand in the balcony at 52 Sumner.

Angela Park and Dan McKellick stand in the balcony at 52 Sumner.

 

Angela Park was originally looking for a home for her business, one that specializes in after-school programs for young people.

And she essentially found one in a portion of Faith United Church on Sumner Avenue in Springfield, a 125-year-old landmark that had recently come on the market amid declining church membership.

As she and other partners moved forward with the acquisition, an obvious question arose — what to do with the nave, altar, and even the balcony of the structure?

The eventual answer to the question — and it took some time for it to be answered — has become one of the more intriguing cultural developments in Springfield for quite some time.

Indeed, Park and others have created a nonprofit called Springfield Performing Arts Ventures Inc. (SPAV) and, in the church sanctuary, a new venue for the arts called 52 Sumner — the structure’s street address.

“We are committed to breaking down barriers, ensuring that everyone, regardless of background, can access, participate in, and be inspired by the arts.”

After more than a year’s work to renovate the hall, remove its pews, and install a new sound and lighting system, the venue officially opened earlier this year. There are several events on the schedule, and the obvious goal is to add more, said Park, executive director of SPAV, and attorney Dan McKellick, a member of the agency’s board of directors.

But its broad mission goes much further than merely staging concerts and other forms of entertainment in a unique environment that many potential patrons can walk to.

“Our mission is to spark the artistic spirit within our urban community, providing a haven for creative expression, cultural enrichment, and personal growth through the arts,” said McKellick, quoting the agency’s mission statement but adding emphasis to those stated goals. “We are committed to breaking down barriers, ensuring that everyone, regardless of background, can access, participate in, and be inspired by the arts. Through education, performance, and outreach, we strive to foster a more vibrant, connected, and culturally enriched city, promoting unity and understanding among all our residents.”

Elaborating, McKellick said the agency, with this venue, is focused on bringing many different types of performing arts to Springfield and the region — not just specific acts, but cultural experiences, as we’ll see.

52 Sumner

52 Sumner has already hosted several events and has many more on the calendar.

“This is a unique opportunity to bring all different sorts of arts,” he explained. “It’s not just limited to musical performances; we look forward to being able to host everything from acting clubs — there are many drama clubs around — to different types of music. I like to say that we’re providing an experience.”

As was the case late last month, when the Irish band the Screaming Orphans gave a performance at the venue, along with students from a local Irish step-dance school as an opening act.

And later this month, a Latin Fusion band called DAR & the Rebel Monks, based in Hartford, Conn., will be performing.

“They have a Grammy Award-winning artist in their band, and they have two members of their band who are backup band members for Jose Feliciano,” McKellick said, adding that this performance will follow a salsa instructor, and there will be Latino-themed finger foods.

“When you come out and buy a ticket, you’re not just seeing a band, having a couple of drinks, and going,” he said. “You’ll have the opportunity, in this case, to immerse yourself in the culture and connect a little more with that culture.”

“When you come out and buy a ticket, you’re not just seeing a band, having a couple of drinks, and going. You’ll have the opportunity, in this case, to immerse yourself in the culture and connect a little more with that culture.”

Meanwhile, these acts will provide working capital to the agency, said McKellick, adding that the proceeds will be used to bring community programming to the venue, such as performances for young people, art lessons, drama workshops, pottery lessons, and more.

This is part of the mission and a big part of what makes this venue and what’s happening there unique, said Park, adding that the agency is “trying to let out line slow,” as she put it, while putting together a slate of performances and drawing people from across the 413, and well beyond, to a very different kind of performance venue.

“There are a lot of people who want to get involved and have things here,” she said, adding that there is a high level of anticipation about what this venue can become in the years to come.

For this issue and its focus on the creative economy, we’ll look at how 52 Sumner came to be, how it plans to carry out its unique mission, and why it is a provocative addition to the cultural landscape in the region — for many different reasons.

 

Sound Decisions

It’s called the Edgar Allan Poe Speakeasy.

And it’s described thusly: “Over a century and a half after Edgar Allan Poe’s death, this cocktail experience brings the most beloved works of Poe to life off the page and onto the stage. Our immersive evening pairs four tales with a dash and history and heavy libations.”

Those presenting the program are among the many varied groups who have reached out to SPAV about performing at 52 Sumner, said Park, noting that the strong interest to date, which comes from several local bands, theater groups, and more, speaks to just how quickly this new venue has captured the imagination of the arts community. And held it.

An undated picture of Faith United Church.

An undated picture of Faith United Church.

Looking back, those with the original vision said this is what they had in mind — sort of. From the beginning, they thought they had something unique, something special. It took some time to see just how special.

Our story begins in 2019, when Faith United Church closed amid declining membership. The property became one of several houses of worship to come on the market in recent years for essentially that reason.

The church, designed by renowned architect William Van Alen, noted for his design of New York’s Chrysler Building, was on the market for a few years when it came to the attention of Park and her business partner, who were looking for another location for their after-school programs. They eventually acquired it for $525,000.

With those programs and a daycare facility as tenants, the overriding question, as noted earlier, involved what to do the sanctuary portion of the building. Soon, plans for a performance venue started to develop, and over the course of a year they came together, along with the nonprofit Springfield Performing Arts Ventures Inc. and its broad mission.

The needed renovations were fairly extensive, said McKellick, noting that the floors had to be refinished and the hall repainted, a large project requiring specific expertise because of the height of the hall. Acoustic panels were added as well as sound and lighting systems, he went on, noting that the work was completed late last year.

Meanwhile, the necessary permits were obtained. Working with the city, parking was secured at a long-closed Friendly’s (now owned by the city) across the street from the church, with additional parking on the street and in a small lot behind the church.

An open house to showcase the space, which doubled as a fundraiser for Toys for Tots, was staged on Dec. 7, with the first actual performance on Feb. 17, featuring two local groups, Moses Sole and the 413s. Those performances, which drew more than 400 people, served as an opportunity to test all the systems and make sure all was in in order, said McKellick, adding that those tests were passed.

Overall, the goal is to bring live performances to the area, but at an affordable price — $17 for the performance in March involving the Screaming Orphans and the Irish dancers, and $20 for DAR & the Rebel Monks — although there’s an early-bird price of $15.

“You can come in for $15, get a salsa lesson, dance a little bit, enjoy a band that has all these really talented artists, dance some more, enjoy some food … that’s a pretty good value,” he said, adding that, as a nonprofit with a mission of breaking down barriers to the arts, affordability is an important aspect of this venture.

 

Art and Soul

Equally important is the resolve to create community programming for various audiences, but especially young people, said Park and McKellick, noting that this is why the schedule includes an important fundraiser, set for May 28.

Organizers have received a commitment from Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram, a Grammy-winning blues artist, to play at that event, who was secured through “a cold call, lots of follow-up, and lots of horse trading.”

“I noticed that he was passing through,” said McKellick, noting that Kingfish — Ingram’s stage name — was playing an event in Boston and then heading to Vermont for a string of performances.

He will headline the fundraiser, which will hopefully raise $100,000 and thus help defray the cost of several summer programs that SPAV is planning, which speaks to the group’s larger mission: to go well beyond being a performance venue and instead become a vehicle for introducing constituencies, and especially young people, to the arts and immersing people in them.

Indeed, as noted earlier, the stated goal is to use the proceeds from various performances, and fundraising efforts, to fund community programs, from pottery classes to drama workshops, McKellick said.

“If we can find the instructor and we can figure out how to do it, we want to create affordable access to the arts for the kids in our community, because it’s super expensive, just like everything else — a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs … everything has gone up in price, and it’s really hard.

“To try to pull them away from wherever they are and keep them inspired by the arts, whether it’s the music side, the performing-arts side, or the artistic side, the hands-on side … that’s what we want to do,” he added.

To that end, those at SPAV are working to book some “symphony-like concerts” for young people as well other types of performances, including one involving someone called ‘Father Goose.’

This would be Wayne Rhoden, a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, and music producer, said McKellick, adding that SPAV is trying to book him for several shows, what he called “field-trip” performances.

Meanwhile, the space is available to rent for corporate outings, nonprofit fundraisers, various types of performing arts (including dramatic productions), and other events, and it has already staged several, said Park, adding that there are several revenue streams that will help the agency carry out its mission.

Overall, SPAV and 52 Sumner are writing the early chapters of an intriguing story that has brought new life to a Springfield landmark and the promise of not just art, but the ability for diverse audiences to enjoy it, take part in it, and, hopefully, become immersed in it.

In short, it’s a work in progress, and a work of art — or the arts, to be more precise.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Suspense Is Building

Evan Plotkin shows off the new offices

Evan Plotkin shows off the new offices of the Department of Children and Families, one of several new tenants at 1350 Main St. in Springfield.

Evan Plotkin can look out the windows of his offices on the 14th floor at 1350 Main St. and see many signs of progress, and momentum, in downtown Springfield.

Across neighboring Court Square, the renovated hotel at 31 Elm St. that had been vacant and deteriorating for years is getting set to welcome its first residential tenants. Meanwhile, the park itself is undergoing a much-anticipated, $6 million facelift.

Further south on Main Street, Plotkin, president of the real-estate company NAI Plotkin, referenced the so-called Clocktower Building and, behind it, the Colonial Block, two more mostly vacant, underutilized properties that are being targeted, like the former Court Square Hotel, for market-rate housing that is expected to bring more people, vibrancy, and opportunities for retail and hospitality businesses to the downtown.

Gesturing in a different direction, he referenced the new parking garage rapidly taking shape where the dilapidated Civic Center garage once stood. That garage and accompanying facilities are expected to provide another jolt of energy downtown, he noted, and be much more than a place to park cars.

“There’s new energy coming into the city,” he said, noting that he met with the Chicago-based group named the preferred developer of the Clocktower Building and Colonial Block project, and came away impressed with their enthusiasm for doing something in Springfield. “I think we’re really turning a corner; I think we’re at a tipping point.”

“There’s new energy coming into the city. I think we’re really turning a corner; I think we’re at a tipping point.”

For other signs of progress, momentum, and turning the proverbial corner, Plotkin doesn’t have to look outside his windows. Instead, he can get in the elevator outside his suite of offices and ride in either direction.

Going down a few floors, he can point out the new offices of the Department of Children and Families (DCF), which now occupies the seventh and eighth floors, which had long been vacant. Going down to the sixth floor, he can show off the new digs of the Committee for Public Counsel Services.

And by pushing the button for the lobby, Plotkin can show off many intriguing new developments, including Keezer’s Classic Clothing, the oldest second-hand fashion store in the country. The store, which opened in late November, is one of several new women- and Latino-owned incubator businesses now located in former bank offices transformed into what’s known as 1350 Market, a program oversen by the Latino Economic Development Corp. He also pointed to what had been a Santander Bank branch at the front of the property facing Main Street, space now being considered for a new restaurant. There’s even a new gym on the ninth floor.

Plotkin pushed all those buttons during a recent tour of 1350 Main, a building that has had several vacant or mostly vacant floors in recent years but is rapidly filling in those spaces, with the promise of more. Indeed, he said a party has expressed strong interest in the top two floors of the property, once the corporate headquarters for Bank of Boston.

These developments obviously bode well for this office tower, he noted, adding that he and his business partners recently acquired the first five floors from its previous owners and now own the entire property.

Wenting Jia, left, has partnered with Dick Robasson

Wenting Jia, left, has partnered with Dick Robasson, owner of two Keezer’s locations in Cambridge, to bring the concept to Springfield.

But they also bode well for the downtown area, he said, noting that the new tenants mentioned earlier bring a combined 400 or so workers to the central business district on a daily basis, providing a boost for restaurants and other businesses.

They also help what has been a somewhat sluggish office market in the downtown, Plotkin explained, noting that these new leases take space off the market, creating better demand for existing vacant space and potentially higher lease rates, even as questions linger concerning the long-range impacts of remote work and hybrid schedules on the overall office market.

“To have that kind of absorption in the downtown office market helps everyone in the downtown,” he said. “It’s all about supply and demand; there’s been a lot of vacancy in the downtown, and when there’s vacancy, we have to be very cost-effective and competitive in our pricing; when there’s that much space in the market, there’s downward pressure on lease rates.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, we talked at length with Plotkin, who played multiple roles on this day, from tour guide to analyst, addressing what all these developments mean and what might come next because of them.

 

Dressed for Success

As the tour stopped at Keezer’s, Plotkin first pointed out artwork crafted from recycled plastic and took a moment to look over a table loaded with vintage sweaters, a small part of a much larger collection that also includes shirts, suits and sport jackets, overcoats, shoes, designer jeans, and more.

He said his sons tell him these threads are trendy and in-demand, and he’s seen some evidence that they are correct in that assessment.

“They have one-of-a-kind items you can’t find anywhere else,” he said. “And I didn’t realize the draw of that kind of retail, but according to my kids, who are in their 20s and 30s, that’s what they love, because it is one of a kind; you can find something there that no one else has. So it’s a big draw for young people.”

The arrival of Keezer’s — this is the third store for the Cambridge-based retailer — and the other businesses in the incubator, which range from a nail salon to a business specializing in cryotherapy, is just one of many developments that have brought new vibrancy to 1350 Main, a property that has been lagging other office towers in the downtown when it comes to occupancy rates.

1350 Main

A pending deal could bring 1350 Main to 80% occupancy.

But those numbers are much improved through the absorption of more than 60,000 square feet of space, most of it through the arrival of those two state agencies mentioned above.

DCF, formerly located on High Street in the former Wesson Hospital, now occupies two full floors, seven and eight (last occupied by Unicare and vacant for more than 15 years) and a large part of the 13th floor as well.

Meanwhile, the Committee for Public Counsel Services and its Public Defender division, Children and Family Law unit, and Youth Advocacy division now occupy the entire sixth floor, space that had not been occupied since 2012.

Overall, Plotkin and his partners invested nearly $4 million to renovate those spaces and turn the lights back on, he said, adding that these investments have paid off in long-term leases (10 years in each case) from both of those agencies.

Their arrival brings overall occupancy in the building to roughly 70%, a nearly 20% jump, he said, adding that the number could go higher still if a promising lead to lease the top two floors, 16 and 17, comes to fruition.

“Arguably, it’s the nicest space in the city,” he told BusinessWest. “There are outdoor balconies — you can see Hartford from there — and it’s all furnished; there’s even a separate elevator for those two floors and a winding staircase that connects the two floors.

“And we have a very interested party that we’re talking to now that wants the entire two floors; that’s another 30,000 square feet,” he said, adding that the space was most recently occupied by Disability Management Services, which left to take a smaller footprint in Tower Square in 2022. “I have a very good feeling that this is going to work.”

 

Space Exploration

If the deal comes to fruition, that will bring the building to 80% occupancy and take 90,000 square feet of class-A space off the market in roughly a year, both impressive developments at a time when the office market has been struggling and there has been speculation, from Plotkin and others, about whether some office facilities could or should be retrofitted for other uses.

“Everyone’s looking at how you reposition office properties when you have so much vacancy coming on the market,” he said. “So these have been very important and meaningful steps for this market.”

“To have that kind of absorption in the downtown office market helps everyone in the downtown. It’s all about supply and demand; there’s been a lot of vacancy in the downtown, and when there’s vacancy, we have to be very cost-effective and competitive in our pricing; when there’s that much space in the market, there’s downward pressure on lease rates.”

And he projects that the overall commercial real-estate market will continue to fare well in 2024. Indeed, he said the market is showing positive signs in most major categories, including office, retail, and industrial.

The recent new additions at 1350 — and the promise of more — inspired Plotkin and his partners to bring valet parking back to the property.

It was initiated several years ago but rendered unnecessary at the height of COVID because few were to coming to the building — or any of the surrounding properties, for that matter.

The return of the valet service was made more necessary, he noted, by the demolition of the Civic Center parking garage, which made it necessary for tenants of 1350 Main, new and old, to park in lots further from the property.

When the new garage is open, the valet service will continue, he went on, adding that it will benefit not only his property, but others around it, including City Hall, Court Square, the MassMutual Center, and others.

Likewise, the new employees now coming to the building every day, as well as the agencies’ clients and customers of establishments like Keezer’s, should help existing and potential new businesses in the downtown, he noted, adding that the developments at 1350 Main are just part of a surge in momentum he’s seeing downtown.

Elaborating, Plotkin, who has worked downtown for more than 40 years and has long been a champion of the city and its central business district, said the needed ingredients for a successful downtown are coming into focus. These include people, places to live, things to do, and hospitality-related businesses such as restaurants and clubs.

People are perhaps the biggest ingredient, he said, adding that this means residents, workers, and visitors. Workers have been in shorter supply since COVID, he noted, and downtown businesses have certainly felt the pinch.

“That’s why what’s happening here at 1350 Main is so exciting to me,” he said. “All those new employees will patronize restaurants, businesses, banks, and stores. It’s an opportunity for a lot of good things to happen.”

Or more good things, to be specific.

Special Coverage Women of Impact 2023

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community, and created the Women of Impact program in 2018 to further honor women who have the drive and ability to move the needle in their own business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

The nine stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, advocates for people in need, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2023 features:

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Opinion

Editorial

 

“Honestly, this was one of our busiest years I can remember.”

“It’s been a very challenging year.”

Those are two quotes from this issue of BusinessWest, one from the world of construction, the other from hospital administration.

And if you asked leaders of other sectors — from education to auto sales; from real estate to insurance — how things are going, you’d probably encounter the same range of answers.

Because these are unusual times. In some ways, the economy is strong, with historically low unemployment, real wages rising, and energy prices falling. But in other ways — indeed, the ways in which people feel it most immediately — things are not getting better: inflation is still too high, housing is increasingly unattainable, and employers are struggling to find talent.

But even by those negative measures, the U.S. has seen improvement over the past year, and in many industries, business is steady. We hope for even more improvement in 2024, of course, and while we do, here are four other developments we wouldn’t mind seeing, both locally and nationally.

• Lower interest rates. Not only has it been a terrible year for banks on that front, but consumers have been struggling with the dual issues of housing availability and higher mortage rates. Now that inflation is easing, mortgage rates are expected to make a slow decline throughout 2024. Realtor.com forecasts that rates will be 6.8% on average for 2024 and 6.5% by the year’s end, following a high of 7.79% earlier this year.

• Movement on east-west rail in Massachusetts. Obviously, any movement here will be painfully slow, but there has been some progress toward connecting Springfield (and even Pittsfield) with Boston. This fall, the federal government awarded a grant of $108 million to Massachusetts for infrastructure upgrades, and Gov. Maura Healey signed off on $12.5 million in DOT funding in the state’s FY 2024 budget toward the effort.

• Federal cannabis decriminalization. Well over half of U.S. citizens live where cannabis is legal in some way statewide, that number is rising every year, and about 60% of Americans want the drug legal for recreational use. But the federal government’s continued categorization of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — and the related Section 280E issues in the Internal Revenue Code — continue to hamper the industry in many ways, from banking and taxes to security and transportation. Descheduling marijuana seems to have bipartisan support in Congress, but there has been little movement.

• More momentum in downtown Springfield. The good news is plentiful: MGM posted some of its best-ever months this year. The Thunderbirds generate a $126 million effect on the local economy, according to a UMass Donahue Institute study. The market-rate housing development at the former Court Square Hotel has been taking applications, with the promise of bringing more foot traffic to the area. All the downtown office towers report new tenants or progress toward that goal. Downtown may never attain the energy of its mid-20th-century heyday, but the progress has been encouraging.

Cover Story

Creature Comforts

Executive Director Meg Talbert

Executive Director Meg Talbert
Photo by Danielle Cookish

The statistics, frankly, are striking.

In 2021, Dakin Humane Society cared for 2,740 animals; in 2022, that number was 3,071.

The 2023 figure is 4,124 — and that’s just through mid-November.

“Our intake has been up nearly 60% over the past year,” said Meg Talbert, Dakin’s executive director, noting that the upward trend is due to several factors, but especially economic trends that have made everything less affordable for families, pets being no exception.

“Right now, people are being impacted by housing availability, housing loss, the high cost of living,” she said. “So they’re making some choices about their pets and coming to Dakin for help when they can no longer care for their pets.”

But Dakin has been in the animal-saving business in Springfield for almost 55 years and isn’t stopping now.

“We have an incredible community here in our region, people that want to adopt, people that want to help those animals and provide them new homes,” Talbert told BusinessWest. “So, from the sadness and loss we have to support people through comes the joy of making new adoptions and finding those animals new homes.”

“Right now, people are being impacted by housing availability, housing loss, the high cost of living. So they’re making some choices about their pets and coming to Dakin for help when they can no longer care for their pets.”

Yet, Dakin isn’t only rehoming dogs and cats; it has developed an array of services — from low-cost spay and neuter services to a pet-supply thrift shop — designed to help people struggling economically to keep their beloved animals in their homes.

“Many people know Dakin for having adopted an animal from us, coming in and getting a cat or a dog or a small animal from us throughout the years,” she said. “But we’re doing incredible work with our communities. About a year and a half ago, we opened our pet health center, which is a new, accessible veterinary-care clinic. We have programs like our kitten street team that does trap-neuter-return in the community. We have a pet food bank for community residents who might be going through some economic struggles, and they need some help with food for their pets.

“So we’re just at a place of growth,” she continued, “and I think what we’re finding at Dakin — and what we try to message with people — is we really are in the human-service business as well as the animal-welfare business, supporting people and their pets through all sorts of highs and lows in their lives.”

Talbert is no stranger to the nonprofit-management world, serving most recently as chief Development officer for Way Finders, a housing and human-services agency, before landing at Dakin in October 2022. Before Way Finders, she was executive director of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers, a national service-animal organization founded to provide in-home assistance to people living with spinal-cord injury or other mobility impairments that now focuses on providing lifelong care for the animals in retirement.

Dakin staff member Eliza Fischer

Dakin staff member Eliza Fischer greets a patient at a recent parvovirus vaccine clinic.
Photo by Danielle Cookish

In those roles and her current one, she has led with a specific philosophy.

“Understanding the community, understanding people, being compassionate, listening to people, and having an open heart are incredibly important,” she said. “And that’s what we have here: the staff, the volunteers, the people that show up to Dakin every day are just incredible individuals who support not only the animals in our community, but the people as well.”

Some people, she added, are surprised to learn that Dakin also offers a support group for people dealing with pet loss — a universal experience for anyone who has opened their home (and heart) to an animal.

“That’s been an incredible resource,” she said. “Everything is online. It’s a free service for people to come and attend if they’ve lost a pet. We have people from all over the country — actually, other countries, too — dialing in for that. It’s a relatively new service for us, but it’s something that people have really appreciated; they’ve found comfort through speaking with people about their loss.”

 

Tails of Triumph

With the need to find homes for animals — Dakin handles cats, dogs, and even small animals like rabbits and guinea pigs — so heightened these days amid limited space and resources, Talbert stressed the multiple benefits of adoption.

“People who are considering adoption know that they’re really saving two lives: they’re saving or improving the life of the animal, bringing them into a new home, and they’re also making room for the next animal that needs to come in with us for care and adoption. So it’s such an important choice that people make when they’re considering bringing a pet into their home.”

Potential adopters can always visit Dakin’s website, dakinhumane.org, to check out animals who need homes; the selection changes every day. And it helps that the shelter is now open for walk-in visits Tuesday through Saturday from 12:30 to 3 p.m.; during the pandemic, adoptions were by appointment only.

“So we want to welcome people to come by, take a look, and talk to our staff, who are just amazing resources,” Talbert said. “They know all of these animals individually. They know how to make a great match for every individual home.”

She understands that many people don’t consider shelter adoption as a first choice, preferring, for any number of reasons, to buy pets through breeders or stores. And she tries to dispel some of the hesitancy families feel about rescuing an animal.

“They need to know that these animals have gone through a routine health check. All of our animals will be spayed and neutered prior to their adoption. And we know all about them. If they have any particular health concerns that have been identified upon intake, we certainly talk about that with a potential adopter.

“We really are in the human-service business as well as the animal-welfare business, supporting people and their pets through all sorts of highs and lows in their lives.”

“We have animals of all ages as well,” she continued. “People that are interested in a kitten or a puppy can find one here, but we have a lot of middle-aged dogs, some older dogs that need care. We have a lot of people whose hearts really go out to the older animals that come in, and they need a special type of care for their lives. So we have adopters of all types that come to us.”

She appreciates everyone who feels moved to adopt a pet at Dakin.

From left, Medical Director Dr. Rebecca Carroll with Dakin staff members Lorie Benware and Betsy Bernard

From left, Medical Director Dr. Rebecca Carroll with Dakin staff members Lorie Benware and Betsy Bernard during a parvovirus vaccine clinic.
Photo by Danielle Cookish

“I always joke that, every time people come in, they’re like, ‘my wife is going to kill me if I bring home an animal,’” she said, but they’re moved to adopt one anyway. “We had a fire alarm go off a few months ago; we didn’t have any trouble, just a false alarm. One of the firemen said, ‘I’m thinking about adopting a cat or a kitten.’ I said, ‘come on back.’ And he did. He came back, and he adopted.”

Those stories are gratifying to the staff and volunteers who work at Dakin, Talbert said, but so is the day-to-day care they provide to animals and the support they offer to families who want desperately to hang onto their own pets.

“It’s just a great place to be. I think it’s an incredible organization,” she told BusinessWest. “Walking through these doors and meeting our staff and volunteers will warm your heart. We love showing off what we do and teaching people people about the needs in the community and how they can get involved in helping not only the pets, but the people as well.”

That staff currently totals about 60, supported by more than 300 volunteers. “There’s a variety of different ways to get involved as a volunteer. Some people come in to help with daily animal care and walking dogs and enrichment programs for the animals while they’re here in the adoption center. Some people help us with office work and help our development team and our marketing team do their work.”

And that’s not all. Other volunteers are part of the morning wake-up crew, and others come in for enrichment activities with the cats in the afternoon. Some work in the thrift shop or at events, and others volunteer only on weekends. “You have people that come in every Sunday to walk dogs, and that’s meaningful to them.”

Dakin also maintains a wide network of foster homes who take care of animals prior to adoption, Talbert said, noting that more than 60% of the animals the organization adopted out last year spent time in foster care.

“We have a lot of people whose hearts really go out to the older animals that come in, and they need a special type of care for their lives.”

“What an amazing difference that makes for those pets to have that home environment. We’re learning a lot about them. We’re learning if they can get along with other pets, how they’re doing on their housetraining, obedience skills, all those things. So our foster caregivers are an incredible asset,” she said. “Our foster families also help with our marketing of animals because they’re taking photos, they’re taking videos, they’re telling fun

stories about their interactions with their foster pets.”

Dakin is always looking for more foster families, she added. “It doesn’t need to be a terribly long-term commitment. Some people say, ‘you know, gosh, I only have a one-month window that I can foster.’ We will work with anybody in whatever situation and try to make a good match.”

 

Ruff Times

Dakin is far from alone in dealing with an uptick in need. Shelters across the country, especially down south, have been overrun, and many have had to euthanize more adoptable animals than ever. Compounding the issue is a shortage of veterinary professionals to run much-needed spay and neuter clinics.

“It’s definitely been difficult in the veterinary community as a whole throughout this country,” Talbert said. “Fewer people are entering the veterinary field, whether that’s veterinarians or technicians or other people coming to animal welfare. There really is a shortage of veterinary staff. So we are very lucky here to have our staff and our veterinarian to run this spay-neuter clinic. It is designed to help people who may be struggling to access other veterinary care because of location or cost.”

In short, it’s a time of great challenge for facilities like Dakin, but also one of opportunity.

“It’s an amazing place to be,” she added. “I told people about a year ago, when I took this job, I felt like I won the job lottery. It’s been wonderful to come into an organization where I’ve been welcomed, where people want to teach about their experiences, where there’s really good communication and incredible teamwork, not only internally here, but with our partners in the region as well. It’s just an amazing place to be.”

Talbert encouraged people to get involved in the organization, either through adopting an animal, volunteering, getting involved in the foster program, or donating money, pet food, or pet supplies; information about all that is available at dakinhumane.org.

“I just want to thank the community for their support of Dakin,” she added. “We could not do the work that we do without the generosity of others, whether it’s a philanthropic gift, a supply drive, or people giving of their time. It really is what makes Dakin work.”

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Go HERE to view all episodes

Episode 188: November 20, 2023

Joe Bednar Interviews the owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, Ashley Kohl

It’s no wonder Ashley Kohl has adopted a philosophy of author Gabby Bernstein: “obstacles are detours in the right direction.” Because Ashley, the owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts, has encountered more than her fair share of obstacles. But by turning them into triumph, she’s created a growing space for people of all ages and abilities to discover dance — and themselves — in a safe, uplifting environment. On the next episode of BusinessTalk, Ashley talks with BusinessWest Editor Joe Bednar about her career journey, the importance of creating positive experiences through dance, and where Ohana is headed next. It’s must listening, so tune in to BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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Features

Degrees of Progress

 

John Wells, left, and Joe Bartolomeo

John Wells, left, and Joe Bartolomeo say UWW continues to expand and evolve while remaining true to a mission forged more than a half-century ago.

The University Without Walls program at UMass Amherst, or simply UWW, as it’s known to so many, last year marked its 50th anniversary of changing lives at a ceremony at the Old Chapel on the UMass campus.

And there was certainly much to celebrate.

Indeed, while the world of higher education, the world of work, and UWW, for that matter, have changed in profound ways since the early ’70s, the program’s basic mission, and reason for being, have not. It exists to help non-traditional students (and they come in many categories and with diverse needs) earn degrees, certificates, or even a few credits that can help them advance professionally and perhaps take their careers in a different direction.

As it has carried out that broad mission, UWW has been defined by two words that speak volumes about what it’s all about: accessibility and flexibility. And both are keys to those non-traditional students getting to where they want to go, said John Wells, senior vice provost for Lifeline Learning at UMass Amherst.

The accessibility comes in many forms, from the ease of entry into programs to the availability of courses online — in this case, decades before COVID made it standard operating procedure. The flexibility, meanwhile, also comes in different forms, but especially the ability to shape degrees to fit specific needs.

While the mission and some of the basic programs haven’t changed much since Richard Nixon was patrolling the White House, UWW has certainly evolved and expanded to meet the needs of non-traditional students, fill gaps, and go well beyond the degree-completion programs for which it is most known.

“Not only is it a non-traditional home, it’s also an innovative home for looking for new ways to educate. And that’s one thing that UWW is — it’s an incubator for change and innovation.”

“Instead of just adult degree-completion programs, UWW offers pre-college and professional programs,” said Wells. “We felt like we could provide a legitimate academic home for students who weren’t coming down that traditional pathway.

“And not only is it a non-traditional home, it’s also an innovative home for looking for new ways to educate,” he went on. “And that’s one thing that UWW is — it’s an incubator for change and innovation.”

Joe Bartolomeo, associate provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at UMass Amherst and also a professor of English, agreed.

He said UWW’s degree-completion offering, the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, remains its flagship program. But it now also offers what’s known as a BDIC, or bachelor’s degree with individual concentration, which is for residential undergrads, he noted, “but residential undergrads who don’t want to follow a traditional major path — they want to create their own degree to best reflect their own interests and goals.”

There is also an IT program, a minor program that now boasts more than 500 students, as well as other IT-related initiatives, such as a computer-competency course and a public-interest technology certificate; an ‘interdisciplinary exploratory track’ for incoming UMass students who haven’t decided on a major or think they might want to pursue an interdisciplinary track; pre-college; professional development; summer programs; and more.

For this entry in BusinessWest’s ongoing series exploring professional-development programs at area colleges and universities, we take an in-depth look at UWW, its long history of excellence, and its ongoing tradition of expansion and evolution to meet the changing needs of students — and the region.

 

Grade Expectations

A snapshot of those in attendance at the 50th-anniversary celebration, delayed a year because of the pandemic, helps convey how this aptly named program has provided students at all stages of life with flexible learning opportunities and a chance to turn their work experience into credits toward a degree. Current and former mayors of area communities who attended UWW were on hand, as was Kate Hogan, speaker pro tempore of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, another alum, and business owners and managers from across the broad spectrum of the regional economy.

Tracing the history of UWW, Bartolomeo said it was created to help adults who had started college but not finished their degrees. At the heart of the program is the ability of students to take their work experience and convert it into college credits to be put toward a degree — in some cases, dozens of credits, thus expediting their degree-completion work.

At present, there are roughly 200 students in the BDIC program and another 500 in Interdisciplinary Studies, said Bartolomeo, adding that they are pursuing degrees, and minors, in many different areas.

“A lot of them work in education, many of them work in social work, a lot are in business and economics,” he noted. “But they can also create their own, and many of them come to us with considerable experience — they just didn’t finish their degrees.”

Wells agreed, noting that, while some have a specific major, or set of skills, in mind, others don’t, which is fine, because work is changing rapidly, and so are the job market and the skill sets needed to succeed in specific jobs and fields.

In UWW, he said, students are more free from the pressures of declaring a major and, in most respects, have more ability to fine-tune a degree to match their needs.

“In traditional education, there’s always that pressure, or emphasis, on declaring a major and figuring out what you’re studying,” he told BusinessWest. “We like to think of UWW as being a place where it’s OK to say, ‘I’m exploring a little bit more,’ or ‘I have a variety of interests.’

“Today, the world is moving fast enough where it’s hard to define education down to the letter,” he went on. “A lot of times, people are getting a degree, and by the time they’re done, the skills they’re acquired are out of date. We like to think of UWW as an incubator because we need to change our thinking about education, and this has always been a safe space to try things.”

While degree-completion offerings remain the heart of UWW, there are many different programs being offered, everything from summer offerings to graduate-degree programs to professional development.

In that last category, there are a number of non-credit and for-credit professional and continuing-education programs for those looking to gain new skills and knowledge in areas ranging from leadership to music; from writing to turf management.

“A lot of times, people are getting a degree, and by the time they’re done, the skills they’re acquired are out of date. We like to think of UWW as an incubator because we need to change our thinking about education, and this has always been a safe space to try things.”

Indeed, the UMass Winter School for Turf Managers, which was established in 1927 and was the first program of its kind, continues today, and is a top source for turf-industry professionals.

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, UWW has expanded into other realms beyond degree completion, including pre-college and summer programs, said Bartolomeo, adding that these are designed to help improve students’ chances of succeeding when they get to college.

There are several pre-college initiatives, including summer programs; ‘research intensives’ — six-week, immersive lab experiences alongside UMass Amherst research faculty; college-prep workshops, and even a week-long College Application Bootcamp.

Another related initiative is called Jump In, a summer program for newly admitted UMass students who want to get a jump on their college education, Wells noted, adding that they take a course online — a general-education course, an introductory major course, and/or a ‘student success’ course.

“It’s an opportunity for them to get a head start and see what a college course is like,” he explained, adding that more than 100 signed up for classes this past summer.

At the same time, and in keeping with that notion of UWW being an incubator, the university is using it to test-drive concepts and even proposed degree programs.

As an example, he cited a certificate program called Innovate, which, as that name suggests, is focused on innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Most of the professional schools are contributing courses to that, and it was originated by faculty in Engineering,” he explained. “But they didn’t want it to reside in one of the traditional STEM colleges because they wanted it to be open to students around campus. The provost’s office referred them our way, and we’re going to provide it with an academic home.”

Another example is called Commonwealth Collegiate Academy, a systemwide initiative for dual enrollment for high-school students, he said, explaining that this is different from pre-college and focuses specifically on public high schools that tend to be underresourced and have larger underrepresented, minority populations.

“It’s an opportunity for them to take courses live, online, during their school day,” Wells explained. “And we’re working now with various high schools on plans to start it next year; this is a priority of the president’s office, and even the governor’s office.”

 

Bottom Line

And it’s yet another example of how UWW continues to evolve and broaden the mission that it took on more than 50 years ago.

Those letters have become part of the academic landscape in Western Mass. — and well beyond. And, more importantly, they connote pathways (in the plural, because one size definitely does not fit all) to success in the workplace and in life.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

It’s Business, Not Nostalgia

 

Jeb Balise, left, and Jack Dill

Jeb Balise, left, and Jack Dill

 

Jack Dill likes to say he’s been involved with the building at 1441 Main St. in Springfield since “before it was a hole in the ground.”

Indeed, Dill, now a principal with Colebrook Realty Services, was an employee at Colebrook back in the late 70s, when it was the real-estate arm of Springfield Institution for Savings (SIS), and was assigned to take the plans for building the bank a new headquarters at that address — plans that had been on the drawing board for some time but unable to move forward — and make something happen.

Dill looks back at that assignment, given to him by the bank’s then-President and CEO John Collins, with fondness, pride, and a large amount of self-deprecating humor.

“I don’t know how they ever let me do this,” he recalled. “John said, ‘look, we’ve spent a lot of money on this; we don’t think it’s going to work. We’re not paying you very much; take six months … before we throw the plans away, see what you can do.”

Long story short, he made it all work.

Dill recalls that the city of Springfield wanted some retail at that location (that sector was still a huge force in the downtown at the time, although not for much longer, as we’ll see), and the bank, as noted, wanted a headquarters building. He conceived something that served both masters.

And with the help of a $4 million Urban Development Action Grant from the Carter administration, the $20 million project did move off the drawing board. When finished, the complex boasted several stores and a few restaurants. Meanwhile, SIS had a large presence, and there were dozens of other business tenants in the office ‘tower.’

“I don’t know how they ever let me do this. John said, ‘look, we’ve spent a lot of money on this; we don’t think it’s going to work. We’re not paying you very much; take six months … before we throw the plans away, see what you can do.’”

Dill, as a principal at Colebrook, which became a private company in 1999, would go on to manage and lease the property for decades, steering it through changes in the business and commercial real-estate landscapes. And today, he does largely the same, but through a different lens and with a much-different title: co-owner.

Dill, his partners at Colebrook (Mitch Bolotin and Kevin Morin), and Jeb Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales (soon to be based in Springfield, on the third floor at 1441 Main St.) partnered to acquire the 12-story office building in early 2022.

The ‘birdcage,’ erected in 1986 to camouflage closed retail at 1441 Main St.

The ‘birdcage,’ erected in 1986 to camouflage closed retail at 1441 Main St., will soon be coming down, one of many changes coming to the downtown office complex.

They came together, they said, to bring the property under local ownership and make some changes to bring more vibrancy. The fact that Balise’s company has a new home for much of its operation (and roughly 55 employees) was always on the table, he said, but not a deciding factor in his participation in this venture.

“I went in with an open mind, and it was enticing, but I really had to do my homework, and one of the things I did was move my own office here and do a test drive,” he said, borrowing a term from his industry. “And what we found is that the location is incredibly convenient to all the places we go, between banks, attorneys, accountants, architects, and engineers that we deal with locally.”

That convenience extends all the way to Riverdale Street in West Springfield, where Balise has a handful of dealerships, he went on, noting that, because Riverdale is a divided street, employees can get to many of those dealerships from 1441 Main St. as quickly as they could from the current headquarters at Doty Circle, just off Riverdale.

Since taking ownership, the partners have undertaken several initiatives, including improvements to the elevators and recruitment of a new restaurant — Mykonos, one of the displaced tenants in the Eastfield Mall — with more in the planning stages, including replacement of an escalator (a remnant of sorts from the building’s retail roots) and extensive renovations to the mezzanine level, specifically the removal of its wooden façade and what Dill not-so-affectionately refers to as the ‘birdcage’ (more on that later).

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Dill and Balise about their acquisition of this downtown stalwart and what will likely come next for the property.

 

Building Momentum

Dill recalls with some fondness, and more of that humor, the first time he met Jeb Balise.

It was in 1976. Dill was 24 and looking for a new car, specifically a Camaro, a four-speed with a V8 engine. Balise was 17 and in his second year working as a salesman at the family’s Chevy dealership on East Columbus Avenue.

Dill liked the car, and the car liked him, but the sticker price was beyond his means at the time. So he stayed in his Volkswagen, the one with 112,000 miles on it and no heater.

Four and a half decades later, he did buy a car from Balise — a Volkswagen GTI, one of the few cars still on the market with a manual transmission, he noted. (Jeb stayed on the sidelines for that transaction.)

Over the years, Balise Motor Sales has been a client of the Colebrook company, and the parties have worked together on several projects. Meanwhile, at 1441 Main St., a succession of banks that had come into ownership had looked into selling the building, but ultimately decided not to, said Dill, because of the relatively low cost of owner occupancy; in short, being in that building was cheaper per employee than leasing space elsewhere.

But ultimately, TD Bank decided to sell what was the last building it owned, said Dill, adding that it went on the market in the spring of 2021. Soon thereafter, a unique and decidedly local buying group came together.

“Jack and his team approached me and said, ‘TD is probably going to put the building on the market, and we think it’s a great opportunity,’” Balise recalled. “I remember them being specific: Jack’s vision was, ‘we’d like to see it be Springfield-owned, and we’d like you to be a part of it.’”

It was at that point, he went on, that he first learned the story of how Dill had been involved in the building of SIS’s new home as a young employee of the bank.

“It was a great history lesson for me, and a fun history lesson, because I was reliving where I was at that time, and where Springfield was,” he went on. “So the way I would sum it up is … Jack, as the consummate sales pro, romantically lured me into wanting to be Colebrook’s partner.

“Jack and his team approached me and said, ‘TD is probably going to put the building on the market, and we think it’s a great opportunity. I remember them being specific: Jack’s vision was, ‘we’d like to see it be Springfield-owned, and we’d like you to be a part of it.’”

“I think it’s a timeless, beautiful building,” Balise added, “and I loved the notion of keeping it locally owned and jointly doing our part to help Springfield grow and prosper.”

Dill agreed, and stressed repeatedly that, despite his long history with the building, nostalgia was not a factor in this decision. Ultimately, this was a business deal.

“Obviously I’ve been involved with the building for a very long time, but we tried not to have an emotional decision,” he recalled. “We thought that having a good and reliable partner was a real plus; we’ve been in business a long time, and we’re friends; he’s a great partner.”

Elaborating, he said those at Colebrook and Balise were of one mind with regard to the property — that this would not be a buy-to-flip scenario, and that they were in it for the long haul, with Jeb Balise providing an invaluable “new set of eyes,” as Dill put it.

 

Signs of the Times

As he looked back on those 45 years of involvement with the property at 1441 Main, Dill jokes that there have been many times when he wished that he was in the sign business.

Indeed, the name over the front entrance and high on the façade has changed many times, usually taking on the name of the bank that owned the property. And that’s a long list, courtesy of a continuing wave of mergers and acquisitions in the financial-services industry that started in the early ’90s.

“I’m pretty sure we’ve had at least five or six signs on this building,” he said, listing Family Bank, First Massachusetts Bank, Banknorth, TD Banknorth, and then TD Bank. He admitted that it was hard to keep track, even for someone who managed the property.

But the letters on the building are not the only thing to have changed over the years.

Indeed, the retail component of the building collapsed, as it did across the street at Tower Square, a byproduct of the malls, especially the one at Ingleside in Holyoke, said Dill. The property’s owners adjusted, converting a mezzanine that was retail into back-office space for the bank and erecting, in 1986, the ‘birdcage’ — a wooden façade that looks like … well, a birdcage — as “camouflage, so it wouldn’t look like closed retail,” he explained.

A framed portrait of John Collins

A framed portrait of John Collins, the man who gave Jack Dill the assignment of making 1441 Main St. a reality, is now displayed in the lobby of the building.

The Colebrook team answered an RFP, and the property eventually became the home of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) soon after it was created in 1996. Meanwhile, space formerly devoted to retail — a Falcetti Music store and a CVS, among others — was soon occupied by several agencies, ranging from the Springfield Regional Chamber to the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau to the entity now known as MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board.

Over the years, it also became home to several prominent nonprofits, including the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

The office tower, meanwhile, has become home to several federal and state agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Office of the Attorney General, and others.

When the Colebrook/Balise partnership acquired the property, the occupancy rate was roughly 85%, said Dill, adding that it is now closer to 90%, with additions including a temporary office for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, the general contractor for construction of the parking garage taking shape across Harrison Avenue.

That number won’t change when Balise moves its headquarters to the property early next year, but the number of people working in the building will, Dill said, noting that the 55 or so employees from Balise will bring more vibrancy to the property and more foot traffic to downtown service businesses, bars, and restaurants.

That includes Mykonos, which will occupy space on the first floor, Dill noted, adding that additional restaurants are certainly possible.

Meanwhile, on the second floor, to attract more office tenants, the new owners are opening up the back of the space, which faces the park where the Steiger’s department store once stood, by putting in a bank of large windows. There are also plans to remove the ‘birdcage’ and take out the escalator and replace it with a new staircase.

“With these new windows and the removal of the birdcage, we’ll have a lot more natural light on the second floor and first floor,” he said. “And we have some other ideas on new design and a new visual identity for those two floors.”

Looking long-term, both Balise and Dill believe they can retain current office tenants and add new ones, even at a time when work is in flux and the future of office buildings is more clouded than at any time in recent memory.

“Work is a social activity, and we’re seeing a lot of companies bringing people back,” said Dill. “Maybe not five days a week, 40 hours, but they’re coming back to the office, because work is a social activity.”

 

Bottom Line

Not long after the acquisition of 1441 Main St., Dill placed two portraits on easels in the building’s lobby, one of Richard Booth, another former president and CEO of SIS, and the other of John Collins; he considers both mentors and major influences in his life and career.

It was Collins who handed Dill the assignment to build a new headquarters building all those years ago. It led to what amounts to a lifetime of work stewarding the building through decades of change and positioning it for the decades to come.

Now, this work takes on new meaning and new urgency, because he has ownership of the matter — both literally and figuratively.

 

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Finding Their Place

From left, Walter Kroll, Mark Healy, and Demetrios Panteleakis

From left, Walter Kroll, Mark Healy, and Demetrios Panteleakis stand in front of the recently opened Big Y store at Tower Square.

Demetrios Panteleakis has talked often about the interview he and his partners at the Macmillan Group had with the new owners of Tower Square when they were searching for a leasing agent.

He remembers it vividly, and he refers to it often because … five years later, he’s still shocked they ultimately won the contract.

That’s because they, and especially Panteleakis, were candid — as in candid — when it came to their assessment of the state of the building, its future, and what the new owners (and future BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs) Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel could and should do with it. Or not do with it, as the case may be.

Indeed, the brokers who came to the interview table were telling the owners they couldn’t lease the office and retail spaces that were vacant or soon to be vacant, Panteleakis recalled, adding that Mitta and Patel were looking seriously at turning the property into multi-family housing.

“I thought I was brutally honest with them, and I had a list of 10 things they must do if they wanted to make this viable again in downtown Springfield,” he said. “It encompassed the totality of the space, how they looked at it, and how they approached it. It was one of those calls where you get off the call and say, ‘this is never going to happen — we just went in there and punched these guys in the mouth; there’s no way they’re calling us back.’”

But they did, and Panteleakis believes that’s because he and his partners, Walter Kroll and Mark Healy, didn’t tell Mitta and Patel what they wanted to hear — even if they didn’t seem too happy to hear it at first.

“With most of the responses, they didn’t like it — they didn’t like what Demetrios was telling them,” said Kroll, managing director of the firm. “They were not appreciative of the plan, but they listened.”

That strategy, if it can be called a strategy, is how the firm operates, said Panteleakis, adding that this mindset applies to clients of all sizes and questions of all kinds, especially those heard most often in commercial real estate, including ‘can you buy/lease my building?’ and ‘how much can I sell my building for?’

Too many people asking those questions are drawn to people and firms who will tell them what they what to hear, Panteleakis said, adding quickly that what they should be looking for is a firm willing to partner with them on the matter on hand, be it selling a property or leasing out the vast spaces within Tower Square.

“I have lost opportunities because I am rigid on giving the correct number to someone, more than I am giving the number that the client wants to hear and has been given to them by another broker,” he told BusinessWest.

The Macmillan Group is the latest incarnation, if you will, of the brokerage and property management firm known as Macmillan & Son. When the third-generation president of that firm, Doug Macmillan, ultimately lost his battle with cancer in 2016, the firm was in limbo, Panteleakis said, adding that he was told by Macmillan’s mother, Pat, who passed away in 2002, that Doug’s wishes were for Panteleakis to take the helm and ultimately write new chapters to the Macmillan story.

At first, he was somewhat reluctant to take that course — he already had a job working for MassMutual in its real-estate arm, and was fond of it.

He was more fond, though, of the opportunity to essentially run his own firm. And his eventual partners — Kroll and Healy — were of that same mindset.

“I have lost opportunities because I am rigid on giving the correct number to someone, more than I am giving the number that the client wants to hear and has been given to them by another broker.”

“I knew right away that I couldn’t do it myself,” Panteleakis said. “So I approached Mark and Walter, two of my closest friends, and we came together on this; we pretty much run a co-op here.”

Today, this co-op boasts a growing portfolio of clients and properties — topped by Patel and Mitta, Tower Square and the neighboring 1550 Main St., also acquired by those two serial entrepreneurs — in Western Mass., but also well beyond, as we’ll see.

Looking toward the future and what’s in the business plan for the Macmillan Group, the partners said the simple and direct goal is to continue growing the firm and the portfolio by convincing more property owners (and potential property owners) to become partners with the firm, in the same vein as those who own Tower Square.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, we talked with the partners about their firm, the real-estate market in the region, and what is likely to come next for both.

 

Space Exploration

As they walked with BusinessWest from their offices on the mezzanine level at Tower Square to the ground floor and the ‘Dunk’ (Dunkin’ Donuts) for a coffee, the three partners pointed out many of the changes that have come to this important piece of real estate over the past five years.

These include the return of the Marriott flag to the hotel after it was lost for several years amid profound deterioration of the structure and the service provided in it, and the facility became known as Tower Square Hotel; the arrival of Big Y’s scaled-down supermarket next to the ‘Dunk’; White Lion Brewery; the Greater Springfield YMCA’s fitness center and daycare operation; and new tenants in the office tower, including Farm Credit Financial Partners, Wellfleet, and others.

Overall, Tower Square boasts a wide array of different types of tenants, which makes it ideal for the Macmillan Group and its partners, who bring different areas of expertise to the table. Panteleakis offers a diverse background, including work in succession planning, development, and construction management, but especially a strong focus on the office market through his work with MassMutual. Kroll, meanwhile, brings expertise in the retail market, while Healy has focused on the office market as well as industrial and medical.

And all three brought an understanding of this market and relationships with the brokerage community to the ‘new’ firm, as well as that mentality of partnering with clients rather than simply trying to sell or lease out their building.

This was especially true with Patel and Mitta, who were taking on a huge risk with Tower Square. Indeed, in addition to losing the Marriott flag from the hotel, MassMutual — the original owner of the building, and the primary tenant — was preparing to move out of several floors of the office tower. Panteleakis recalls that most of the talk, and speculation, was about converting the hotel, and perhaps parts of the complex, into multi-family housing.

It was with this backdrop that those two partners commenced their search for a brokerage firm.

“They interviewed every brokerage firm in Western Mass., and then it was our turn; we were the last ones,” Panteleakis recalled, adding that Kroll and Healy were face-to-face with the entrepreneurs, while he joined on a conference call. And they, and especially Panteleakis, were brutally honest.

“They didn’t like what they were hearing, but they listened,” Healy said. “And that’s why I give these guys a ton of credit.”

Kroll agreed. “With a lot of people, you talk to them and say, ‘you have to do this,’ or ‘what about this?’ and they’re insulted by it. These guys, they listened, and I think it’s because we were the first people not to tell them what they wanted to hear.”

Among other things, Panteleakis advised them to be creative when it came to leasing out the retail and office spaces, and also to be patient, and not chase tenants with attractive offers on rates, even with MassMutual set to vacate large amounts of space.

“I thought it was the most valuable building in Springfield, and I still think that,” he said. “Where others came in and told them to lower their prices, I did the opposite; I told them they needed to appropriately value the building against the competition and not chase tenants with rental rate. I advised them to establish their rate and strengthen it.”

This mindset of being honest and getting clients to listen has helped the firm grow its portfolio of clients and properties with Macmillan signs. These include Hadley Park Plaza, Palmer Plaza, the office complex at 877 South St. in Pittsfield, the Laurin Publishing Building at 100 West St. in Pittsfield, 20 Maple St. in Springfield, industrial land in Agawam, and many others.

It’s a diverse portfolio, Panteleakis said, adding that the obvious goal moving forward is to broaden and deepen it by being honest with clients and potential clients, and partnering with them to achieve whatever goals they’ve set.

Which brings Panteleakis back to those comments about numbers and projections that he and his partners give to clients, and not telling them what they think they want to hear.

“Some brokers will take the attitude, ‘don’t worry about what it actually sells for — just get the listing first, and then Mother Nature will take care of itself,” he said. “Here, we have a philosophy that this is not the kind of business we want to do. We rate success on how close we came with our assessment and analysis. Did we give that client the right information?”

 

Looking Ahead

As they survey the commercial real-estate landscape, and especially the local office market, the three partners at the Macmillan Group take what would be considered the optimistic view about the present and foreseeable future.

“We are past this concept of working from home — it’s losing traction,” Panteleakis said with a strong dose of conviction in his voice. “People are understanding that the productivity of their workforce is just not the same; whether it’s J.P. Morgan, Google, Apple … the trend now is ‘you have to be in the office,’ which is certainly a positive for the office market.”

Elaborating, he said corporations large and small are veering toward bringing their workers back the office, if they haven’t already, on the premise that teams of workers don’t work as effectively when some or all their players are working from home.

Persistently lower occupancy rates for office space in cities ranging from Boston to San Francisco notwithstanding, Panteleakis and his partners believe the office market locally, and especially in downtown Springfield, will withstand this post-pandemic environment and the trend toward remote work.

“What I see right now is the 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot users just starting to emerge,” Healy said. “This year has been incredibly slow, but I’m beginning to see people look to next year, for what space is available. And I think it’s going to be that way for the next 24 months.”

Meanwhile, Panteleakis noted that Regus, a leading provider of office space, co-working environments, shared space, and other products will be creating such opportunities on one floor in Tower Square, roughly 16,000 square feet, bringing more options to business owners in the wake of the pandemic and other shifts within the workplace.

Still, COVID and other factors have brought some changes to the landscape, Panteleakis said, citing law firms, a huge force within the local office market, especially in downtown Springfield, as one example. He noted there are fewer large firms, and the larger firms are getting smaller as Baby Boomers retire. Meanwhile, fewer clients are actually coming to the firms’ offices to meet with lawyers, some of whom are, in fact, working remotely. All this adds up to this segment absorbing less office space in the years to come.

Meanwhile, an even bigger challenge moving forward might be the growing number of businesses, across all sectors, that are not surviving the current generation of ownership.

Indeed, Panteleakis notes with concern that the pandemic convinced a number of Baby Boomer business owners to call it quits. Meanwhile, an alarming number of those still slugging it out have no real succession plan in place.

“They’ve put 40 years into a business, and COVID taught them that life’s too short and they really can find something else to do with their free time,” he said. “Their children don’t want their business, or they’re doing their own thing. And if they go to put the business up for sale, first you have to have entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk and have access to capital … and when you add that kind of formula to what has happened with bank lending and interest rates, we’re seeing a lack of continuity with businesses.

“Initially, you say, ‘great, there’s so much for us to sell,” he went on. “The question is … who’s going to buy it?”

Opinion

Opinion

 

While significant progress has been made in downtown Springfield in recent years, several issues and challenges remain, and many of them come together at the corner of State and Main streets and other properties near that intersection.

Indeed, this is the site of several mostly vacant and underutilized buildings in the shadow of MGM Springfield that were a big part of the city’s past, but have become an eyesore in the present and a huge question mark for the future.

Last week, that future became much brighter when the city named a preferred developer for a project to redevelop the so-called Clock Tower Building at State and Main, the Colonial Block just south on Main Street, and a smaller office building on Stockbridge Street.

McCaffery Interests Inc. plans to create more than 90 market-rate apartments in the three buildings, a $68 million project that, if it comes to fruition, could go a long way toward addressing some of those issues alluded to earlier.

One of them is housing.

At the local, state, and federal levels, this is the word you hear most often, and with good reason. There is a huge need for housing, and especially market-rate housing, in almost every community in Western Mass., especially Springfield. And while an additional 90 units won’t solve the problem, they will certainly be a huge step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, this project will bring new life to properties that stand in stark contrast to the gleaming casino across Main Street and to the progress seen at other addresses, especially Court Square, where another huge mixed-use project focused on housing is taking shape.

As mentioned earlier, these properties have played a big role in the city’s past, as home to both residents and businesses of all kinds, but they have been left behind, if you will, by neglect and huge changes in the office market.

Indeed, there is a now what amounts to a glut of office space in Springfield and questions about what will become of that space. McCaffery Interests has put some ambitious plans on the table to answer that question for at least three properties.

While helping to address the housing crisis and bring new life to these once-proud properties, this project will also bring additional momentum to the efforts to revitalize downtown Springfield and likely trigger efforts to redevelop many other vacant or underutilized properties in that area.

As we’ve written many times, there are several ingredients to the success of any downtown. The first is people. The second is businesses to support and serve those people. And one brings more of the other. More people means more restaurants, retail, and other service businesses, and these businesses, in turn, attract more people.

The ambitious project to redevelop these three properties should help generate this kind of chain reaction of progress.

It’s another big step forward for Springfield.

Features

Getting a Refresh

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal says the Springfield Regional Chamber is refreshing many of its events, including Super 60 and its Rise & Shine breakfasts.

349.

That’s how many ‘engagements’ Diana Szynal estimates she had during her first year as president and CEO of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce (SRC).

By this, she means in-person meetings, Zoom sessions, phone calls, emails, talks at networking events, and more. These engagements were with a number of different constituencies — chamber members, elected officials, economic-development leaders, directors of others chambers, and more.

And while she believes that’s an accurate number, it’s really just an estimate.

Whatever the total might be, it adds up to a lot of talking — and especially a lot of listening. Through all that listening, Szynal has determined a least a few things. The first is that there is a good deal of momentum concerning the chamber and many of its programs and events, as evidenced by the addition of 45 new members over the past fiscal year. The second is that there is room for change and, in some cases, improvement to better serve members as well as the region and its business community.

So, as Szynal begins her second year at the helm, changes are coming to everything from the chamber’s logo to its nearly 40-year-old Super 60 program; from its slate of breakfasts to its website.

Let’s start with Super 60, since it’s almost that time of year. Actually, it is that time of year, with nominations being sought for a revamped program that will honor businesses and institutions across five categories, not merely the traditional ‘Revenue Growth’ and ‘Total Revenue.’

The new categories are ‘Nonprofits,’ ‘Startups,’ and ‘Givebacks,’ a measure of how much a business gives back to the community. These additions, said Szynal, should provide new layers of intrigue and excitement for a program that hasn’t seem much change over its existence, while also bringing some new businesses to the podium for the awards ceremony.

“What we want to accomplish with these new categories is recognition that there are different measures of success,” she explained. “And it’s a way to award more members across various sectors for their success.”

Beyond Super 60, the chamber will be changing its look with a new logo and tagline, retiring ‘Connect2Commerce,’ she said, adding that this initiative is a work in progress, as is work on the website to make it more user-friendly. Meanwhile, the slate of events for the 2023-24 calendar year has been finalized, and there will be something of note each month, including themed Rise & Shine breakfasts to highlight different sectors of the business community, including sports-related ventures, hospitals, nonprofits, and manufacturers.

“Housing is really a challenge here in the Commonwealth, and particularly in Western Mass. When you think about the barriers to success, oftentimes, the roads lead back to a lack of housing.”

On the legislative side, the chamber will continue its strong track record of advocacy with its legislative steering committee, she said, adding that a housing subcommittee has been added to address an issue identified as a priority by the governor, state legislators, and all of the region’s mayors.

“Housing is really a challenge here in the Commonwealth, and particularly in Western Mass.,” she said. “When you think about the barriers to success, oftentimes, the roads lead back to a lack of housing.”

Overall, Szynal said, the chamber is focused on working to better serve, promote, and connect members, while also forging new and stronger partnerships with other area chambers and economic-development agencies, especially the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC).

For this issue and its focus on Springfield, we take an in-depth look at the many ways the SRC is getting a refresh, and what these changes mean for the agency and the region’s business community.

 

Progress Report

When she talked with BusinessWest just after taking the helm at the chamber last summer, Szynal said her first year in that position would be a time to listen and learn.

And is has been exactly that.

The listening, as noted earlier, has been a constant, involving voices with many different constituencies. The learning, meanwhile, has been about Greater Springfield — Szynal, while from this region, has lived and worked mostly in Franklin and Hampshire counties — but also about chambers, this chamber in particular, and what it should be doing to better serve both its members and the region.

What has emerged from this listening and learning is a strategic plan of sorts, one with many components, starting with a focus on collaboration and building partnerships, especially with other chambers in this region, but also other agencies focused on business and economic development.

Szynal said the leaders of the Hampden County chambers now meet every other month. Collectively, they’re piecing together plans for a multi-chamber event — details to come — to take place next March.

“We’re forming really good relationships and seeing how we can work together to each provide better value to our members,” she said, adding that SRC is also working more closely with the EDC on several fronts, especially legislation and advocacy, with Szynal now chairing the EDC’s legislative committee.

“The chamber really hangs its hat on its legislative advocacy and the structure we’ve built around that,” she noted. “But then, forming a bond with the EDC and working together with them on some things will be really great for both of our memberships.”

Meanwhile, the SRC and the EDC are both involved with the recently launched Massachusetts Chambers of Commerce Policy Network, comprised of 10 members from across the state, with plans to expand to include other chambers in 2024.

“The chamber really hangs its hat on its legislative advocacy and the structure we’ve built around that. But then, forming a bond with the EDC and working together with them on some things will be really great for both of our memberships.”

The network is designed to leverage the existing impact and on-the-ground knowledge of these local chambers to provide solutions to policy challenges that hinder the success of the state’s residents, employees, and businesses, Szynal said, adding that one recent issue it addressed was the need to rebuild trust in the state’s unemployment-insurance system after an audit found that $2.5 billion in federal money had been wrongly used by the Department of Unemployment Assistance.

Changes will also be coming to the SRC’s calendar of events, aimed at freshening some traditional programs and gatherings while also boosting participation. And the full slate has been finalized at a relatively early date, giving businesses more opportunity to plan.

The Rise & Shine breakfasts, which have seen a surge in attendance over the past year, have been expanded from four to five and, as noted, will now spotlight different sectors of the economy, starting with the one in September, which will put the focus on what Szynal called the ‘business of sports,’ which is becoming a steadily growing force in the reginal economy.

“We have a quite a few sports-related members, so we’re going to really paint a picture of the impact that sports have on a city,” she said, adding that other breakfasts will turn the spotlight on Springfield-area hospitals and their wide-ranging economic impact (October), nonprofits (January), business focused on the aging of the population (February), and Hampden County manufacturers, with a focus on how things are made (April).

Overall, there will be something every month, Szynal said, listing traditional events such as Super 60 (November), the annual Government Reception (December), the Outlook lunch (March), and a bulked-up Mayors Forum, with nine individuals taking part (May), as well as the annual Fire and Ice cocktail event in May and the annual meeting in June.

Getting back to Super 60, a program with a great deal of history and tradition (it started as the Fabulous 50 and was later expanded), Szynal said that, after more than three decades, it was certainly time for a refresh.

This year’s program will still feature 60 honorees, but, as noted, they will be in five categories, not the traditional two, with the additions designed to identify different ways to recognize excellence and “performance,” she said.

The Startups category will recognize newer, growing businesses, she noted, adding that revenue growth will be the yardstick. The Nonprofits category will be based on the percentage of an agency’s budget spent on programs.

The third addition, Givebacks, will be the most subjective of the five categories, she told BusinessWest, adding that a committee of three will weigh several factors — from the estimated value of what was donated (products, services, and more) to employee engagement — and assign a score.

There will be 12 winners in each category, she said, adding that the changes, which include a streamlined nomination process that allows the work to be done electronically, should breathe some new life into the program and bring new companies and nonprofits into the spotlight.

“We’re excited about these changes and think the business community will be excited as well,” she said, adding that nominations are due Sept. 8, and the annual recognition lunch will take place on Nov. 9 at the MassMutual Center.

 

Bottom Line

Returning to the matter of those estimated 349 engagements from her first year at the helm of the SRC, Szynal said the number is surely higher than that.

Whatever the total is, it represents a great deal of talking and listening, conversations that have translated into a number of action steps designed to make the chamber even more visible, impactful, and responsive to the needs of its members and the community, she said, adding these initiatives are a work in progress, in every sense of that phrase.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Natasha Dymnicki, assistant manager of Big Y’s Tower Square location, shows off the new facility, which is off to a solid start, according to company officials.

As he reflected on 16 years in office and his intention to serve another four, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said that, while much has been accomplished during his tenure in the corner office — the longest in the city’s history — “there is still considerable work to be done.”

And that assessment covers many different fronts — from public safety to revitalization of the city’s downtown; from working with the state to design and build a replacement for the troubled Roderick Ireland Courthouse to continuing efforts to improve neighborhoods; from schools to hospitality and tourism.

But it’s especially true when it comes to the broad issue of housing, which has been identified as a both a pressing need and a key ingredient in a formula to revitalize neighborhoods, including the downtown, and spur economic development.

Indeed, housing is at the heart of a number of projects at various stages of development in the city, from the long-awaited restoration of the former Court Square Hotel to the reimagining of the former Knox manufacturing building in the Mason Square neighborhood to the redevelopment of the former Gemini site in the South End.

“It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

And housing will be at least part of the equation with several other initiatives, from the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall on Wilbraham Road, which closed its doors last month, 55 years after it opened, to Sarno’s preferred resolution of the question of how best to replace the courthouse (more on that later).

“When you listen to Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, every other word out of their mouth is housing,” the mayor said. “So, a lot of projects we’re pitching, including Eastfield Mall, have a housing component.”

Beyond housing, though, there are a number of intriguing and mostly positive developments in the city, said Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, offering a list that includes:

• New restaurants in the Worthington Street/Bridge Street corridor;

• The new Big Y market in Tower Square, a unique addition to the landscape made possible by ARPA money;

• New additions to the outdoor marketing menu, also made possible by ARPA money;

• Some real momentum at MGM Springfield almost five years to the day since it opened; the past three quarters have been the best recorded by the facility when it comes to gross gaming revenue;

• An ambitious infrastructure project involving the ‘X’ in the Forest Park neighborhood, one that is designed to improve traffic flow in that area but also spur business development;

• A project to replace the Civic Center parking garage, a state-funded project that will not only provide needed parking, but also activate neighboring space and create an area outside the MassMutual Center similar to Lansdowne Street outside Fenway Park;

• Considerable response from the development community to a request for proposals to redevelop the vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield; and

• Vibrancy downtown, highlighted by a weekend in June when the IRONMAN competition coupled with performances by Bruno Mars and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler brought 50,000 people to MGM Springfield facilities.

“Downtown was alive, it was electric … you had to wait to get a seat at restaurants; this is the kind of vibrancy we want downtown,” Sarno said, adding that there have been many weekends like this over the past several years, and more to come.

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square is one of many properties in the city being converted to housing, or to feature a housing component.

As for MGM, the mayor said the casino, the city’s largest taxpayer, has become a partner on many levels — with the city and state on projects like Court Square, and with area nonprofits on several different initiatives — and a key contributor to the vibrancy downtown. “They’ve been critically important to the nightlife of the city, and they’ve been a good corporate citizen.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the latest developments in the City of Homes, which is focused on many initiatives, but especially creating … well, more homes.

 

What’s in Store?

Reflecting on the few first months the Big Y Market has been open in Tower Square, Clair D’Amour-Daley, the company’s vice president of Corporate Affairs, said it’s going to take more than a few months for this picture to come fully into focus and this unique model to fully develop.

By that, she meant this concept is something totally new, not just for Big Y, but in the broad grocery-store realm itself — at least as far as she and others at the company can determine.

“We have nothing like it, and I’m not sure we’ve been able to model anything quite like it,” she said, adding that this is, in many respects, a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket, maybe one-fifth the size of a traditional store, offering many but certainly not all of the items available in one of the larger markets. It was conceptualized to address the food desert that exists downtown, and also meet the identified needs of downtown office workers, as well as people coming into the city for various events and gatherings.

“There are three basic constituents for customers,” she said. “There’s the downtown workers, and there is obviously some ebb and flow there, but we’re coming to understand that market. The second part is the tourism piece, and it has its own cadence. And then, we’re still really learning to tap into the residential community downtown, and that’s significant; we have a lot of customers tell us that they no longer have to walk or otherwise get to our store on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing.”

“We’re learning all those things and learning what types of products to put in, although we’re trying not to make radical changes just yet,” D’Amour-Daley went on. “It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

Thus far, the store is off to a solid start, she said, adding quickly that, because the model is so different, Big Y is still trying to figure out how to accurately gauge results.

“There are so many variables, and we didn’t want to jump to conclusions right away,” she said. “But it’s been steady; we’re happy with where we are, and we’re just in a wait-and-see mode, waiting for things to settle.”

The Big Y project is one of many ARPA-funded initiatives aimed at helping businesses and, in this case, spurring economic development and improvements within specific neighborhoods, Sarno said, adding that, while most cities have dedicated the bulk of their ARPA funds to infrastructure work (and Springfield has done some of that), certainly, most of the more than $123 million has gone to help small businesses and individuals.

“More than 80% of the ARPA funds we’ve put out have gone to minority- and women-owned businesses,” he said. “We moved very quickly to help prime the pump and help businesses that wanted to stay open at the start of the pandemic and, in many cases, reinvent themselves.”

 

At Home with the Idea

As noted earlier, perhaps the biggest priority for the city moving forward, from the standpoint of both neighborhood improvements and economic development, is housing, the mayor said.

Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, agreed, noting that housing is either being planned for, or at least contemplated, at a wide range of sites. That list includes the former School Department building on State Street as well as another project at 310 State St.; the Mardi Gras property on Worthington Street, recently sold by its owner, James Santaniello, for $2.3 million, and other properties on Worthington; the Eastfield Mall site; the properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield, including the Clocktower Building and the Fuller Block; the former Gemini Corp. factory site on Central Street in the South End; a former warehouse building on Lyman Street; and others.

This is in addition to the 90 units being built at the former Knox Automobile factory at 53 Wilbraham Road, a project being undertaken by First Resource Development Corp., which has developed a number of properties in the city, including the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility across Wilbraham Road from the Knox property, as well as the Court Square development (75 units), a project at 169 Maple St., and the completed redevelopment of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street as the Overland Lofts.

This housing comes in many different forms, from ownership housing at the Eastfield Mall site to various types of apartments, including affordable units and another category that is called “workforce-development housing,” Sarno explained.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing,” he noted, referencing housing that, in the case of the Court Square project, is limited to tenants making 80% of the region’s median income. “That’s an important component of what we’re doing, and we need to do this because there’s a housing crisis in the Commonwealth and across the country.”

The mayor went on to say that these housing projects and other types of developments, including new restaurants in the downtown area, convey confidence in the city, its leadership, and its future.

“When I first came into office, people weren’t interested in Springfield — we were second, maybe third on their list,” he recalled. “People would say, ‘what can you expect from Springfield?’ Now, people say, ‘why not Springfield?’”

Sheehan concurred, noting that housing is the preferred reuse for those vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the casino.

The city recently issued a request for proposals for redevelopment of those properties and received what he categorized as a very solid response from the development community.

“There were five companies responding — two locals and three nationals,” he said, adding that the city expects to name a preferred developer by the end of this month.

The even better news, he said, is that the nationals were “looking for more” — as in more properties around that area to develop. And there are plenty of them.

“There is a significant amount of underutilization of property in that area,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “There are portfolios of properties that haven’t been fully utilized for quite some time. The owners have put out pieces of their portfolios to their market, but there is much more to be developed.”

 

A Developing Story

Beyond housing, one of the more pressing issues confronting the city is the fate of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse, the 47-year-old structure that has taken on the name the ‘sick courthouse,’ by employees and others, because of intense breakouts of mold and other issues.

The state has vowed to address these issues, and in June, Gov. Maura Healey announced that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward replacement of the courthouse, a project that will carry a price tag of $400 million to $500 million and could take several years to resolve.

At present, there is no clear path forward, Sheehan said, noting that, also in June, the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Management issued a report identifying 13 properties (11 of them in Springfield and most of them in the downtown area) as potential sites where a new courthouse may land.

The sites were ranked according to factors like proximity to downtown Springfield, access to public transportation, and the physical capacity to accommodate the operations of several courts, and the address topping the list is 50 State St., where the courthouse currently stands. That ranking would appear to favor a plan to move the court to a temporary facility, spend whatever is necessary to renovate the existing structure (or, more likely, build a new one its place), and then move the court back to that address.

Sarno told BusinessWest that considerable time, expense, and aggravation could be saved if the state would embrace a site owned by developer — and Peter Pan Bus Chairman — Peter Picknelly, who has forwarded a proposal for a multi-use development along the riverfront that would include the courthouse, office space, housing, and a marina. The site, which combines property on East Columbus and West Columbus avenues and Clinton and Avocado streets, is on the state’s list of ranked properties, but quite far down: ninth, in fact.

“That’s a game changer,” Sarno said of the Picknelly proposal, which he believes will not only simplify the process of creating a new courthouse, but also spur new development in the city’s North Blocks area. “When I talk to the people at the court, they want to move once, not two or three times. We think we have a very viable proposal in the Picknelly site, and we’re going to continue to pursue it.”

Sheehan said the Picknelly site — or any other site other 50 State St. — would afford the city the opportunity to also redevelop the current courthouse property, which sits across State Street from MGM Springfield and is just a few hundred feet from I-91.

“You would want to have development on that site that is directly related to the anchors around it,” Sheehan said, referring to not only MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center, but also the housing being built at Court Square and other locations, as well as the Old First Church at 50 Elm St. Built in 1810, the historic structure was sold to the city in 2008 and is currently rented out for weddings and other events.

As Springfield waits for the state to make up its mind on the courthouse, other intriguing projects are moving forward, including the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall.

The last tenants in the facility moved out in early July, and demolition of the complex is set to begin as early as later this month, Sheehan said, adding that a mix of retail, housing, and support businesses are planned for the site.

 

X Marks the Spot

Meanwhile, in Forest Park, plans have emerged for major infrastructure work at the ‘X,’ the intersection of Belmont Avenue, Sumner Avenue, and Dickinson Street. This is another historic area, and a dangerous intersection, said Sheehan, noting that it has been the site of numerous accidents over the years.

The planned improvements will include modification of traffic patterns, updates to signal equipment, updates to signal coordination, the addition of five-foot bicycle lanes, reconstruction and reconfiguration of sidewalks and pedestrian facilities, accessibility upgrades, the conversion of the Belmont Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue intersection into a roundabout, and more.

“Ultimately, we’re creating a better pedestrian environment, while also looking at how those infrastructure improvements can spur more commercial activity in the area,” Sheehan said, adding that, while there are already a significant number of retail, service, and hospitality-related businesses in that area, there are obvious opportunities for more in each category.

As there are throughout the City of Homes, which stands at its own crossroads of challenge and promise.

Nonprofit Management Special Coverage

Building on a Legacy

aerial photo shows the former Square One property

This aerial photo shows the former Square One property, at lower right, the day after the tornado ripped through Springfield’s South End in 2011.
Photo by John Suchocki The Republican

While early-education provider Square One has a presence in several Springfield neighborhoods and serves residents city-wide, it has always been associated with the South End.

That’s where it’s been headquartered since the beginning, in 1883, when it was founded as Springfield Day Nursery by Harriett Merriam, the daughter of Charles Merriam, of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame, to meet a critical need for childcare among the city’s working families, said Dawn DiStefano, the agency’s president and CEO.

“We’ve always been anchored in the South End,” she said. “And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”

The bond with the South End was — and is — so strong that, when the agency’s facilities at 947 Main St. were heavily damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado that devastated a large swath of that neighborhood and eventually razed, then-President and CEO Joan Kagan quickly pledged that the agency, which soon started leasing space at 1095 Main St., would rebuild in that section of the city.

But fulfilling that pledge has proven to be an enormous challenge.

“We’ve always been anchored in the South End. And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”

Indeed, although other options were looked at early on, it quickly became clear that, if the agency was going to rebuild in the South End, it would have to be on the property it owned, DiStefano said. And this property is fraught with challenges because of its small size, odd dimensions, contamination in the wake of the tornado, and other factors.

But, in a measure of its commitment to the South End, the agency is taking on all those challenges and moving forward with plans for a 26,000-square-foot, $12 million, three-story facility that will be built on the east end of the property that fronts Main Street.

Dawn DiStefano

Dawn DiStefano stands at the site on Main Street where Square One had a facility — and will again.

Plans call for erecting a Butler-style building on the property, one that features a number of pre-fabricated elements, which serves to reduce the overall cost of designing and building a structure, DiStefano said.

“We’re savings millions of dollars because we’re not doing a traditional brick-and-mortar building,” she explained, adding that the agency is working with One Development & Construction LLC in Westfield, which specializes in Butler-style construction, on the project.

The current timetable calls for construction to begin late this year, probably November, with the new facility slated to open its doors in the fall of 2024.

The agency is in the early — also known as the ‘quiet’ — stage of a capital campaign for the new building, with nearly $3 million committed to date — $950,000 from the city in the form of ARPA money, and a $2 million commitment from the state.

DiStefano said early indications suggest a strong measure of support for Square One’s initiative, and she expects the nonprofit will be able to open its facility with little, if any, debt.

“It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”

“The most enjoyable, and most encouraging, part of this project has been how many people and institutions are compelled to give or have shown promise,” she explained, adding that the agency undertook a feasibility study on the campaign, one that surveyed 42 individuals and companies and revealed “100% intent to support the project.”

For this issue and its focus on the region’s nonprofit sector, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Square One’s building plans and how they reflect a nearly century-and-a-half-old commitment to a city and especially one of its proudest, and neediest, neighborhoods.

 

Building Momentum

As she talked about the many challenges with building a new home for Square One, DiStefano said it’s good to keep things in their proper perspective.

Indeed, while there has been nothing easy about this building project, and it has a long way to go, the overall degree of difficulty pales in comparison — in most respects, anyway — with coming back from the twin disasters of 2011 and 2012 — and coping with the pandemic of 2020, for that matter.

The agency was completely displaced by the 2011 tornado; staff, teachers, and students were forced from the building and never allowed to return before engineers determined that it had to be demolished. In 2012, a natural-gas explosion downtown extensively damaged another Square One learning facility, to the point where it had to be abandoned. And early in the pandemic, Square One was forced to close its childcare facilities, as well as its operations on Main Street, before having to completely revamp operations after it was allowed to reopen to meet a huge need for childcare services.

Square One’s facility

An architect’s rendering of Square One’s facility to be built in Springfield’s South End.

The agency managed to push on and meet its broad mission — it provides early-learning services to more than 500 infants, toddlers, and school-aged children, and also offers an array of support services to more than 1,500 families each year — through all of that, DiStefano said, adding that the ability to do so offers strong testimony to the imagination and resiliency of its staff.

Those same qualities have been necessary for this building project, she went on, adding that, while rebuilding in the South End has always been the goal and the promise, it has proven to be a daunting challenge.

Indeed, the property that was ultimately destroyed by the tornado in 2011 was wedged into a narrow but deep lot, said DiStefano noted there was an administration building fronting Main Street and a two-story, L-shaped school building that extended eastward a few hundred feet. In a perfect world, or at least in a neighborhood with several alternatives when it comes to buildable lots and available property, Square One almost certainly wouldn’t rebuild on its former site, she added.

But this isn’t a perfect world. And Square One is building here only because there are few if any other options, she said, adding that she tried to purchase the brick property adjacent to former home of the agency, a move that would have provided considerably more frontage on Main Street, but was unsuccessful in that effort, just as her predecessor was unsuccessful in her efforts to secure other lots on which to build.

So the agency then focused its attention on building on its former home — an undertaking made challenging by the size and shape of the property as well as contamination from the demolition of the structures that once occupied the site.

“The bricks and all the materials from the homes that were razed obviously have asbestos and lead and other chemicals that have now seeped into the ground,” the explained, adding that the agency is currently working with a remediation company to determine just what is in the ground and what needs to be done to make the property ready for its intended use — as a home for programs for children.

Before even getting to that point, though, the agency had to conduct some due diligence to make sure it was feasible to build what it wanted to build on that parcel.

“This land is so awkward and small and weird that we didn’t want to buy it if we couldn’t build a building on it,” she explained, adding that Square One engaged in discussions with One Development to determine if its plan, its dream, was, in fact, doable.

Brad Miller, senior project manager with One Development, said that he and others ultimately determined that the answer to that question is ‘yes.’

“It is a challenging site because of its narrowness — it’s wedged between Hubbard and Williams streets,” he explained. “We only have so many options as far as the building footprint goes. The agency also needs a certain number of parking spaces, which we have to find a location for on that site, as well as a playground. It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”

The plans, still to be finalized, call for those parking spaces to be located on the Main Street end of the property, with the playground and building located toward the rear of the site, on a combination of the original site and a few smaller parcels acquired by the agency, DiStefano explained.

The planned structure will give the agency far more space than it has presently in the South End, she said, adding that the facility destroyed by the tornado had more classrooms than the currently facility.

Miller described what is planned for the site as a ‘Butler-hybrid’ building, a combination of conventional steel structure, with Butler components on the interior.

“This will a be steel-framed building with insulated metal panels on the outside, as well as some masonry on the first floor of the building,” he explained, adding that it will have a glass entranceway.

This pre-engineered building will ultimately save on design costs, he went on, adding that this is a design-build project, with One Development managing a large portion of the design as well as the construction.

While work continues on design aspects of the building project, Square One is proceeding with its capital campaign to raise funds to build the new facility.

As noted earlier, the agency has entered the quiet phase of the campaign, focusing on major grants from foundations and other donors, DiStefano said, adding that, by the start of 2024, she anticipates the process will enter the public phase.

 

Bottom Line

Returning to that feasibility study on the capital campaign and the resounding support it revealed, DiStefano said those results validate the agency’s determination to clear a long row of hurdles and ultimately build in the neighborhood where it was founded back when Chester A. Arthur was patrolling the White House.

“Those results make it enjoyable — that pushes you when you’re ready to say that this piece of land is too difficult to build on and it’s going to cost too much to do this,” she said, adding that this vote of confidence provides another dose of determination.

And even more commitment for Square One to build on a legacy that’s been 140 years in the making.

 

Creative Economy

Creating a ‘Time Machine’

 

The mural on Bridge Street

The mural on Bridge Street remains a work in progress.

You’ll need more than a glance to take in, and fully appreciate, the mural being created on the south-facing wall of the old Skyplex Building on Bridge Street in Springfield.

You’ll probably need at least 10 minutes to fully absorb all the images on the 100-foot-long wall. There are dozens of them, large and small.

But you’ll also need a cheat sheet of sorts (a few different ones will be created — more on that later) and probably easy access to Wikipedia.

That’s because, while some of the people can be easily identified (Muhammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, and even Peter L. Picknelly, among them), most of them are far more obscure and need some explaining, at least when it comes to their connection to, and importance to, the City of Homes.

And that’s part of the charm, if that’s the right word, of this project, which is one of the more ambitious projects to date of City Mosaic, a nonprofit organization that has brought many colorful and, in some cases, informative murals to downtown Springfield — and, in the process, reactivated a number of properties and made them conversation pieces.

Such was the case with another huge work of art just around the corner on Worthington Street. That project involved the recreation of wall advertising that was on the building more than a half-century ago, as well as a few images of personalities from the past and present.

John Simpson, the lead artist on that project, said some have referred to it as a “time machine,” and asked that he create another one at the Skyplex building, another somewhat underutilized property that is slated to become home to another brewery.

Susan Riano, Madden Sterrett, and John Simpson.

And he a team of artists, including Madden Sterrett and Susan Riano, have done just that.

“We wanted to blend many of the city’s historic firsts with historical figures, and modern community members, such as Mayor [Domenic] Sarno,” Simpson said. “We want to have the past connect with the present — and have it connect with the future.”

While the wall, which is a work in progress that should be completed “soon,” according to Simpson, features some well-known personalities and landmarks (such as the Puritan statue in front of the library) that need no explanation as to why they are pictured, many of them do.

Let’s start with Abraham Lincoln. According to local legend, the name ‘Republican Party,’ the party of Lincoln, originated in Springfield. Meanwhile, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is said to have taken in shows at the Paramount Theater. As for Ali, he had connections to a mosque in the city, and is said to have visited it while training in Chicopee for his first fight against Sonny Liston.

Frederick Douglass also has a presence on the wall. Simpson said he visited Springfield several times, at least once to meet with fellow abolitionist John Brown about his raid on Harper’s Ferry, which started the Civil War.

There’s also the artist James Whistler, famous for the composition known as Whistler’s Mother. While born in Lowell, he did live in Springfield for a time, Simpson said. There are a few images of Eleanor Powell, a dancer and actress (she was in a few movies with Fred Astaire) who was also born in Springfield.

As was the actor Kurt Russell. There’s a small image of him portraying the character he is perhaps best known for, Snake Plissken, from both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

Former NBA star Travis Best, another Springfield native, is on the wall, as is Gwen Ifill, the journalist, television newscaster, and author, who was born in New York but later relocated with her family to Springfield and graduated from Classical High School.

There’s also June Foray (born June Lucille Forer), who grew up in Springfield and later became the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and a host of other characters.

There aren’t many — if any — people who would recognize Foray from the image on the wall. And that’s why there will be a plaque, or key, to the images, explaining what they are, Simpson explained, adding that there are plans to print flyers to hand out at the restaurants — Granny’s Baking Table and the Osteria — that have windows facing the mural.

“Already, people are asking the waiters and the owners of these establishments who the people are on this wall,” he said, adding that this is one of the main objectives of this project — to get people talking and asking questions — about the wall, and about the city depicted on it.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, collaborator with Simpson on several art-related projects in and around downtown, and leader of efforts to reactivate properties in that area, agreed.

“They’ve captured a moment in time, and the history and character of the city,” he said of the artists. “And while doing so, they’ve brought this property back to prominence; people are talking about it, and in the present and future tenses. That’s what these murals do.”

There is still some work to do on the mural, especially in and around the letters that spell out SPRINGFIELD, Simpson said, noting that many more characters, firsts, and landmarks will be added before the wall is officially finished. He mentioned an image of the Basketball Hall of Fame and perhaps something depicting the M-1 rifle, produced at the Springfield Armory, and its inventor, John Garand, as likely additions.

But already, those behind the project are accomplishing their primary mission. They’re creating that time machine, and they’re prompting people to stop, look, point, maybe ask some questions, get some answers, learn about Springfield, and celebrate the city and its history.

That’s a lot to ask from a mural, but this one does all that and more.

 

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Eastfield Mall has officially passed into history.

And this passing certainly prompts some reflection — on what has been and what is to come at the sprawling site on Wilbraham Road.

As for what has been … well, the mall was something of a marvel when it opened back in 1968. This region hadn’t seen anything quite like it. The indoor mall was new and totally captivating.

Someone could park the car once and go shopping, get a meal at one of several restaurants (including the famous Flaming Pit), get a haircut, watch a movie, take a walk, do some people watching … all of that and more.

Before Eastfield, people went downtown to shop, be it in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, Chicopee, Amherst, or Northampton, visiting a host of different stores and buildings as they did so. This was a completely different kind of experience, and the mall drew people from all across the region.

Eastfield ceased being a wonder in relatively short order. Other malls, which collectively doomed the region’s downtowns, save for Northampton’s (and even it struggled until the early ’80s) were built in downtown Springfield (Tower Square, then known as Baystate West, was a center for retail), Chicopee, Hadley, and Holyoke. It was the Holyoke Mall, which was much bigger and featured many more stores, that pushed Eastfield to second-tier status.

Still, Eastfield persevered on the strength of its anchors and an eclectic mix of national and local stores and remained a destination.

Until … the retail world started to change dramatically, especially with the advent of online shopping. One by one, the anchors, including Sears and JCPenney, disappeared from Eastfield — and many other sites as well. Then, the theaters closed, and some of the smaller shops did as well. While other malls found new uses for their retail spaces — everything from trampoline parks to bowling alleys — Eastfield struggled to do so.

Eventually, its massive, all-but-empty parking lot became a symbol of a changing retail landscape.

For years, there has been talk about what will come next at the site — a 21st-century facility that will be mixed-use, blending a residential component with retail, hospitality, and support businesses. Work on demolition will begin soon, and construction on what is expected to be a $65 million to $85 million facility will commence soon after.

Meanwhile, most of the 40 or so businesses and nonprofits that were in the mall have found new homes. Many have relocated to other sites in Springfield, but others have put down roots in surrounding communities, including Wilbraham, Ludlow, and Holyoke.

This is a developing story, and an intriguing chapter in the Eastfield story, one in which the businesses that gave the mall its character and charm will live on.

As for the mall itself, it will live on in memories. Like old ballparks, malls (most of them anyway) can’t become something else. They have to be destroyed because their useful life is over.

This was a sad but predictable, and inevitable, end for what had been, and still is in some ways, a landmark.

Rest in peace, Eastfield Mall.

 

Opinion

Opinion

 

While it might be considered dangerous to get into a discussion concerning the quality and relative merits of a particular piece of art, when it comes to the new mural taking shape at the former Skyplex building off Stearns Square in downtown Springfield, we’ll make an exception.

This is an intriguing and masterful work (and it’s not even done yet) that celebrates the city, its history, its personalities, its landmarks … all of that.

But it does more than that. It activates a space, and it gets people talking. Overall, it takes a nondescript wall on an underutilized building and turns it into a conversation piece and part of a larger effort to bring more vibrancy to that part, and other parts, of Springfield.

It’s a small piece, but an important piece nonetheless.

If there’s anything to complain about with the mural, it’s that there’s too much going on. The entire wall is covered, and with many, if not most, of the ‘characters,’ one needs to ask, ‘who’s that?’ and ‘why is that person on this wall?’

That’s true of Abraham Lincoln and Muhammed Ali (you know who they are), but also Ted Shawn, the dancer and choreographer who created Jacob’s Pillow in Becket (and lived in Springfield for a time), and also June Foray, a Springfield native who became the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, among other notable characters. You might not know who they are.

That’s the beauty of this mural. People get to take in something creative and learn about a city and its history at the same time.

It takes quite some time to take in the entirety of this mural, and another one like it just around the corner on Worthington Street, one that recreates advertising images put on the wall of a former camera store more than 50 years ago. But it’s worth taking the time, because these works tell a story, and they really do link the past, present, and future.

And at the same time, they bring new life to buildings, and an area, that needed a spark.

It is said that art can be captivating, powerful, and, yes, inspirational. This mural is a good example of how it can be all that and more.

Women in Businesss

A Legacy of Caring, Getting Involved

 

Dora D. Robinson

Dora D. Robinson

It’s been more than 30 years since the incident just outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Springfield, but Nate Johnson says he won’t ever forget what happened that Halloween afternoon.

Or the woman who committed what he described not as an act of kindness, but rather as “heroism.”

A group of teenagers had gathered outside the MLK Center, he recalled, and a fight broke out among them — a “real fight.”

He was in the middle of it, he said, adding that, from seemingly out of nowhere, Dora D. Robinson, the director at the center, grabbed him and pulled him out of the fracas.

To this day, he doesn’t know why she picked him from among all the others. He’s just grateful she did, because that was simply the beginning of her influence on his life.

“She’s my superhero that came to rescue me,” he said, making a point to use the present tense, adding that Robinson, who passed away last month at age 71, essentially “adopted” him at that point and became a mother figure, mentor, inspiration, and someone who helped open doors and compel him to walk through them.

Opening doors and guiding people through them … that might be a concise yet effective way to at least start to sum up a remarkable life and career in public service that included a lengthy stint at the MLK Center, a tenure as president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), and many other leadership roles.

But her passion for serving the community, creating opportunities for others, and battling social injustice continued long after she formally retired, said those who knew and worked with her.

Indeed, Helen Caulton-Harris, commissioner of the Division of Health and Human Services in Springfield, who worked with Robinson on a number of initiatives and was her close friend, remembers that, just a few days before she fell ill, Robinson was working on a maternal health program in Indian Orchard and had called her asking if she would write a support letter so Robinson could secure funding for the initiative.

“Dora started her life in Elmira, New York, but Springfield was her heart and soul,” Caulton-Harris said. “She put everything she had into this community. Her leadership was critical. Even after she retired from her formal job, she still felt her passion to be a leader and to make sure she was creating opportunities and leaving a legacy of supporting nonprofits.”

Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, agreed. She said Robinson chaired one of the committees setting up the agency’s Young Women’s Initiative, one of many endeavors she was passionate about.

“She felt strongly about empowering young women of color,” Haghighat noted, adding that she eventually convinced Robinson to join her board. “What was compelling to her was that this initiative was mentoring young women of color, teaching them about philanthropy, which was very close to her heart. They learned about nonprofits that were doing work in the areas that they identified as barriers to their own prosperity in Springfield. So it was a wonderful way to learn that philanthropy can be a tool of social justice.”

Robinson learned that lesson early on in her career, and one of her many passions, said those we spoke with, was to impart that lesson on others.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we reflect on the life and career of Dora D. Robinson, who certainly was an influential woman in business, with her business being the community she lived and worked in and her tireless efforts to bring about equity and opportunities for everyone.

 

Passion Play

Born in Elmira, Robinson made a lifetime commitment to social and racial justice starting with her participation in the Poor People’s March on Washington as a teenager in 1968.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, completed graduate studies at Smith College, and earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

She put those degrees to use in a number of leadership roles with area nonprofits and on countless boards. She served as vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield and corporate director and vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.”

Starting in 1991, she served as the inaugural leader of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and as a member of the MLK Community Presbyterian Church, and actively supported the Project Mustard Seed campaign to raise funds to build a community center to serve as a place for youth and family in the Mason Square neighborhood to thrive. Nearly two decades later, she had established MLK Jr. Family Services, a multi-service agency with a $3 million operating budget, 75 full- and part-time employees, and more than 100 volunteers with services delivered at three program sites located across Greater Springfield.

Robinson took the helm at the UWPV in 2009 as the first woman to serve as its CEO. Under her leadership, the agency launched several new strategies to diversify revenues contributing to education, homelessness initiatives, basic needs, and financial-security programs. She also led the founding of the UWPV Women’s Leadership Council (now renamed the Dora D. Robinson Women’s Leadership Council in her honor) to engage local women leaders in supporting financial literacy and health initiatives for women and girls.

She retired from the United Way in 2017 but continued to work on passion projects, including the Indian Orchard Citizen’s Council, the Black Behavioral Health Network, and many others.

Over the years, she served in a number of regional, state, and national leadership roles with groups including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Springfield Library Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston community advisory board, Springfield Technical Community College, and as a founding member of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Beyond all these lines on a résumé, Robinson is remembered for her boundless passion for the region and especially its underserved, her sense of humor, as well as her willingness to donate her time, money, and leadership to innumerable causes and organizations in this region and well beyond. She is remembered as a dynamic, forward-thinking administrator who led by example and was able to inspire others.

“As an administrator, Dora Robinson was strategic, and to me, that was one of her greatest strengths,” Caulton-Harris said. “She looked at the lanes of her administration, of her leadership, and she was very strategic about who she interacted with and how she interacted.”

Elaborating, she said Robinson understood the role she played as a Black woman in leadership roles and embraced all that came with it.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.

“Dora had a spirit that could not be harnessed. She was an explosive force of love everywhere she went; everyone she interacted with felt that generosity of spirit,” Caulton-Harris continued. “I think her legacy is one of warmth, almost like the warmth of the sun — her rays sort of permeated everything she interacted with.”

Johnson concurred, and said that, to him, Robinson was a more than leader in the boardroom. She was a leader on the streets of Springfield — in his case, quite literally.

“I’m thankful and grateful for her,” he said. “She treated me like I was her son. She stayed with me for the past 30 years, and I stayed with her. And she’s still with me.”

Caulton-Harris agreed, and then spoke for everyone who knew Robinson when she said, “frankly, I’m not sure how I move forward without her. I’ll miss her.”

 

Lasting Legacy

As he talked about Robinson, her legacy, and her influence on him, Nate Johnson said use of the past tense simply won’t cut it.

She remains a large and powerful force in his life and how he lives it, and always will be, he said, adding that the lessons she imparted, the example she set, and her directive to keep reaching higher and find new ways to make the most of his life, while also making a difference in the lives of others, will not only stay with him, but guide him for the rest of his life.

And there are countless people across the region who can, and do, say the same thing.

That’s the kind of impact reserved for superheroes.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Late last month, Gov. Maura Healey announced that that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward the replacement of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, known to many as the ‘sick courthouse,’ and for obvious reasons.

The funding, represented in the next four years of capital-improvement plans, embodies the state’s first real commitment to replacing the tired, unhealthy structure, and is the next big step in a project that might ultimately cost a half-billion dollars.

The announcement came a few weeks after the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) issued a report identifying 11 properties in Springfield, one in West Springfield, and one in East Longmeadow, as potential sites for a new courthouse.

One of those sites is 50 State St., the location of the 47-year-old courthouse, where many illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, have stricken an inordinate number of courthouse employees.

It’s unclear whether the inclusion of 50 State St. on the list means the state is leaning toward rehabilitating the current structure — a massive and expensive undertaking, to be sure — or simply tearing it down and building a new courthouse on that site.

Either way, we hope the state will ultimately look in a different direction for a solution, but not too far.

Indeed, the courthouse project, while defined by, and instigated by, tragedy in the form of the number of people who have become sick while working in it, represents a huge opportunity for the city of Springfield.

Actually, two of them.

The first would be building a new courthouse and thereby revitalizing some vacant or underutilized property, preferably in the city’s downtown (more on why in a minute), while the second would be to redevelop the site of the current courthouse, a property across State Street from MGM Springfield in the heart of downtown.

The huge site, just a few hundred feet from I-91, holds enormous promise, with potential uses ranging from housing, which the city still desperately needs, to office to retail and hospitality. The development community would have no trouble finding some creative and impactful uses for the property.

As for a new courthouse, while the proposed sites in West Springfield (Riverdale Street) and East Longmeadow (Shaker Road) and some of those in Springfield (Allen and Cooley streets and Hendee Street, for example) hold promise, this courthouse really needs to be in downtown Springfield, and for several reasons.

For starters, downtown would directly benefit from the still-considerable foot traffic to the courthouse every day, far more than those other locations. Also, where courthouses go, lawyers follow — it’s a simple matter of logistics; lawyers and law firms need to be close (as in walking distance, preferably) to the place where they still conduct large amounts of business.

Each of the large office buildings in downtown Springfield (and many of the smaller ones) are home to law firms and individual lawyers. If the courthouse were to move to West Springfield or East Longmeadow or even Allen and Cooley streets, some of these lawyers would go with it. We say some, because the need to be in close proximity to the courthouse is not as crucial as it once was.

But moving the courthouse more than a few blocks from downtown would be a blow to the central business district at a time when it has already been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the trend toward remote work and hybrid schedules.

A new courthouse is still several years away, and much has to happen before it becomes reality, including further commitments from the state. As the process unfolds, we hope the state realizes not only the need to replace the ‘sick courthouse,’ but the need for Springfield to make the very most of its opportunity — or opportunities.

 

Cover Story Creative Economy

Playing in Harmony

 

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert

Paul Lambert left a long career with the Basketball Hall of Fame in early 2022 to become interim director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

He said his family has often asked him why. Incredulously. Like … really, Paul, why?

To answer that question, he first notes that he loves music, but that’s only part of why he took over an institution that was still emerging from the pandemic and a long stretch without concerts at Symphony Hall — and embroiled in labor strife with Local 171 of the American Federation of Musicians, which, absent a new contract, had filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

But Lambert, who shed the interim tag and was named president and CEO of the SSO earlier this year, saw the value in righting the ship, working toward labor peace, and re-establishing — or at least re-emphasizing — the organization’s importance to not only downtown Springfield, but Western Mass. in general.

With the announcement on May 4 of a new, two-year labor deal between the SSO and the union — which calls for a minimum of eight concerts per year at Symphony Hall, annual raises for the musicians, and possibly other community and educational concerts around the region as well — Lambert, the SSO board, and the musicians are all breathing easier as they plan the 2023-24 season.

“Everyone had been reading the negative stories in the press about the labor issues. People were aware of the global pandemic issues. People were aware of all the challenges facing the SSO. And we had to rebuild people’s confidence.”

“I was very aware of the talent on stage and a great appreciator, if that’s the correct word, of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra,” Lambert said of his career change last year. “But I also was aware of the fact that it was a very challenging time.”

In fact, even long-time supporters in the community, including corporate sponsors, were growing anxious, Lambert admitted.

“Everyone had been reading the negative stories in the press about the labor issues. People were aware of the global pandemic issues. People were aware of all the challenges facing the SSO. And we had to rebuild people’s confidence that not only would we perform, but perform on a first-class basis, and then come back with a full season, with real concerts and real energy with our musicians working with us.”

Beth Welty, the union’s president, called the past few years a “demoralizing” time in many ways, but said everyone is feeling grateful now.

Union President Beth Welty

Union President Beth Welty said the musicians are relieved to have a new contract but hope to increase the number of performances in coming seasons.

“There are a ton of people throughout the organization that want to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “The musicians want to work with Paul and the staff and the board, and we are working together. We’ve got to come together and put the past behind us and work for a much better future.”

Lambert agreed. “This has been a very challenging time for the SSO on a variety of fronts. Certainly, the labor issues that have been in place for some years, on top of the global pandemic, which shut everything down and badly affected all performing-arts organizations for some time, were very real. And to get ourselves into a new beginning, a fresh start for all concerned around this labor deal, was critically important.”

 

Developments of Note

That said, as in many negotiations, no one got exactly what they wanted. For one thing, Welty said the musicians have been clamoring for more performances.

“When I joined the orchestra 40 years ago, we probably did three times the number of concerts we do now. For years, they’ve been constantly cutting and cutting; it felt like no number was small enough for them. They wanted to keep cutting, and we felt like we had to take a stand on that.”

She said the musicians were looking for more than 10 shows, the SSO wanted to go as low as five at one point, and they settled on eight — six classical and two pops.

“We’re not happy about that, but we’re looking to build back up from eight, and now there are some new board members interested in growth,” Welty noted. “You can cut yourself out of existence; the less we play, the less people know we exist.”

“The idea now is to put ourselves in a safer place to see what we can do together, to see what revenue streams we can create, where we can create new opportunities to play.”

Welty did have appreciative thoughts for Lambert, saying it’s clear he understands where the musicians are coming from. And Lambert told BusinessWest that eight concerts is not a hard ceiling, but only the minimum.

“That was a critical point in the negotiations: let’s see what we can do,” he said. “Let’s see what the market will bear. Let’s see what funding is available and what opportunities present themselves. We have to be very creative and open-minded as we work together to see what’s available.”

Symphony Hall

Symphony Hall will host eight SSO performances in 2023-24: six classical and two pops concerts.

Revenue is the big sticking point, he added, noting that, if the SSO sold every ticket for every performance, it would still be running a deficit without increasing external support.

“The challenges that face the Springfield Symphony Orchestra are hardly unique to Springfield. The industry as a whole — traditional, classical symphonic orchestras — is challenged right now,” he explained. “Those audiences, demographically, are aging and fading, and the folks who go to those concerts on a regular basis, and donors and corporations who support those concerts, have been a shrinking pool around the country. There are a lot of orchestras that are really struggling right now to make ends meet.”

He noted that many cities with wealthier populations and deeper corporate pockets than Springfield don’t even have symphonies.

“The idea now is to put ourselves in a safer place to see what we can do together, to see what revenue streams we can create, where we can create new opportunities to play. The whole idea, of course, is to play, to create opportunities for people to hear the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in a variety of formats.”

To that end, the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO), the organization formed by SSO musicians during the labor unrest to perform smaller concerts across the region, will transition into a newly named entity, the Springfield Chamber Players, and will continue to present chamber-music concerts, including the long-standing Longmeadow Chamber Series.

Performances like these, Lambert said, will help build a larger audience pool. “They allow new people to come in, who, perhaps, have not listened to the music on a regular basis, and will be exposed to the symphony orchestra and say, ‘wow, this is beautiful. I didn’t know they played this.’”

He and Welty noted that the new season of full-orchestra performance at Symphony Hall, and seasons to follow, will feature a healthy mix of what might be called ‘the classics’ and newer works by more recent composers.

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, boasting 67 musicians, is the largest symphony in Massachusetts outside of Boston.
Photo by Chris Marion Photography

“People love the classics, but you have to bring in living composers and composers of color and women composers, and represent everyone at concerts,” Welty said. “We really started to do that this season. It was more diverse and inclusive. In terms of the repertoire we’re doing next year, it’ll be the same type of year; we’re really excited about that programming, which is going to be more diverse and interesting. We’re still going to do a good dose of the classics — we’re not abandoning them — but we are combining them with stuff that was written in our lifetime.”

Lambert was also excited about this broadening of choices. “We want to certainly maintain and nurture our core audience, the folks who have grown up with us for many years, the subscribers and the bedrock of our audience who love the classic repertoire of classical music. But at the same time, there’s all kinds of music.”

He feels like that’s an important element in bringing in younger, more diverse SSO fans, who will continue to support the organization in the coming decades.

“We happen to live in a very diverse community and region,” he said. “So I think it’s really important that we find ways to reach all those audiences, let them know that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra is for everybody, that it’s music for everyone. We really are excited about those opportunities for people to come in and hear this beautiful music and these wonderful musicians.”

 

Sharp Ideas

The other key element in expanding the audience, of course, is connecting with young people. To that end, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno announced that the city of Springfield will provide $280,000 over two years in financial support for SSO to create educational programming for youth.

“As the Springfield Symphony and its talented musicians turn a fresh page of music in our beloved Symphony Hall, I cannot stress enough how important Springfield’s talented youth are to the success of this new beginning,” the mayor said in announcing the grant. “Creating a younger, more diverse, and more inclusive classical-music ecosystem should be a top priority of the symphony organizationally. The success of these efforts will ultimately be reflected in the diversity of the music that is played, those represented on stage, and those in the audience.”

Lambert said outreach to youth had been a big success, but stopped happening over the past few years. “As I talked to folks out in the business community, so many people said to me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra, I was in fourth grade … I remember going to that concert, and it changed how I looked at the symphony.’ So I said to the board on more than a few occasions, ‘that’s just not discretionary, that’s mandatory; we have to start redoing that.’ It opens the door for so many people, for the first time in their life, to hear a symphony orchestra live on stage.”

“As I talked to folks out in the business community, so many people said to me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra, I was in fourth grade … I remember going to that concert, and it changed how I looked at the symphony.”

Welty wants to go beyond those experiences, hoping to not only bring kids to Symphony Hall, but for small groups of musicians to visit area schools.

“We used to go play for kids in the classrooms. We probably stopped doing that in the early 2000s, but we did hundreds of those concerts,” she recalled. “I loved it. We interacted directly with the kids; there were Q&A sessions. I want to get back to that as an educational resource.”

She also fondly recalls the days when the symphony toured New England. “I understand that a lot of financial repair has to happen, and we can’t afford to take the whole orchestra, but we can take a quartet out. We can take a quintet out.”

Such traveling shows, like the two series of performances MOSSO staged at the Westfield Atheneum over the past two years, are another way to grow the SSO’s fanbase, she added. “It’s not just great for the audience, but a great marketing tool for the SSO. We hope to keep expanding that.”

As for corporate sponsorship, Lambert said it was a tough year, scheduling live performances on the fly under the old contract’s terms while building up the staff, negotiating with the union, and keeping supporters on board.

“There was a lot of work being done trying to convince people to trust us and come on board. Some folks started to do that when MassMutual came back and was willing to support us; that was critically important. There are other folks we need to embrace that. We’ve had some really wonderful response from a core group of sponsors — I hope there’s a lot more.”

As for growing new audiences, Lambert is confident that those who attend a concert — whether a full symphony performance in Springfield or a chamber concert in Longmeadow, Westfield, or elsewhere — will be “blown away,” and not only want to attend more shows, but perhaps support the SSO as a sponsor or donor. “We need everybody to work together.”

 

In Tune with the Community

After a couple years of performing concerts under the old contract’s terms, Welty is relieved the musicians can focus on the positive impact of what they do.

“For this community to thrive, it really needs a vibrant art scene. It’s a real economic driver,” she said, noting the impact of downtown events on restaurants and other attractions — not to mention on the ability to grow a business.

“If you’re a CEO or business person looking to be based in the Springfield area, and you want to attract the best talent to come work for you, Springfield has to be an appealing place to live — and the arts are so important to that,” Welty added. “Local sports teams are important, but the arts are just as important. If you think you’re living in a cultural desert, you won’t get the best people to come work for you.”

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, boasting 67 musicians, is the largest symphony in Massachusetts outside of Boston — which is impressive in itself, Lambert said.

“The fact that Springfield, Massachusetts has a symphony orchestra in 2023 is kind of a miracle at this point. There are much bigger places that don’t have this great gift,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it’s really important that we all get together and recognize how this adds to the quality of life here in Springfield, how it adds to the reasons that people might want to live and work here and come downtown.”

Which is why Welty is encouraged by what the new labor agreement promises, and what it may lead to in the future.

“On paper, there’s less guaranteed work, but there’s more energy on the board to create new concerts, new programming,” she said. “I think, in the end, we will start building back and offer more to the community.”

 

Cover Story

What’s in Store?

Brian Kaplan, vice president

Brian Kaplan, vice president of Development for Onyx Partners

 

When Dennis Smith Jr. says the old 99 Restaurant location in the Eastfield Mall is the ideal space for the Empowerment Center operated by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, a facility that provides veterans with everything from food to clothing to referrals for legal help, he means ideal.

Indeed, the site, which became available after the restaurant ultimately failed to regain its footing after the pandemic, boasts plenty of space, a lobby area for greeting vets and presenting them with information, freezers and refrigerators for storage of food, ample parking, location on a major thoroughfare (Boston Road), a stop on a bus route … there’s even warehouse space that’s been made available to the foundation at the Ocean State Job Lot across the street.

As ideal as all this was, Smith, who became the center’s director last July, knew it was only temporary. The mall, opened in 1968 and the first facility of its kind in Greater Springfield, has been targeted for redevelopment for close to a decade now and will officially close its doors in July. The question concerning demolition of the landmark (yes, it can be called that) was always when, not if, said Smith.

So, almost from the day he started at the center, he has been exploring where the facility can go next, and he’s looking for a spot that can check as many boxes as the current site as possible, knowing it is unlikely he will find something quite so ideal.

“Nothing has been finalized as to our exact plan. It could consist of primarily retail, but also other uses such as residential, storage, medical office, restaurants — we’re still looking at a few of those options.”

“I’m looking at a number of sites right now,” he said, noting that he recently toured a former Walgreens location on St. James Avenue in Springfield. “It’s going to be very hard to match what we have here, but we’ll try.”

Where the center and the 40-odd other businesses at the mall eventually land — and most are expected to land somewhere — and when are just a few of the many subplots to a broad and intriguing story that could change the landscape on Boston Road and elsewhere in a number of ways.

Others obviously include the reimagining of the mall itself. This has been an ongoing story, but one that will become real when demolition begins later this year, said Brian Kaplan, vice president of Development with Needham-based Onyx Partners, which is remaking the site into what he expects will be a mixed-use facility featuring retail, restaurants, and other, still-to-be determined businesses and residential uses.

“Nothing has been finalized as to our exact plan,” he told BusinessWest. “It could consist of primarily retail, but also other uses such as residential, storage, medical office, restaurants — we’re still looking at a few of those options.”

Dennis Smith Jr.

Dennis Smith Jr. has been looking for a new home for the Empowerment Center operated by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation almost since the day he arrived, knowing Eastfield Mall’s days were numbered.

Another aspect to the story is the potential impact of the relocation of the tenants on specific retail areas and communities. Indeed, the retail sector has been struggling in general, and especially since COVID. Officials with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), which is coordinating the relocation process for tenants, said the evictions might provide a boost for specific properties and business districts.

The region hasn’t seen many mass relocations like this one, with the most recent one coming when MGM Springfield purchased 95 State St. in Springfield for its own use, displacing a few dozen law firms that found space in several different office buildings within a mile or so of the Hampden County Courthouse.

This process will be different, and for some tenants, it may prove to be challenging, said Xiomara DeLobato, chief of staff of the EDC, adding that many have had very favorable lease rates at the mall and may experience a form of sticker shock as they explore other options.

The EDC is working with Springfield-based Homes Logic Real Estate to create customized solutions for each tenant, she noted. “Our intent is to make sure that we’re providing one-on-one support for each step in the process as they look for vacancies or potential locations to set them up for success.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the many aspects of the Eastfield Mall redevelopment story and what they might mean for the region and its real-estate sector.

 

End of an Era

There is a quiet, eerie feeling at the mall these days.

The massive parking lot off Boston Road is all but empty. Inside, most of the smaller businesses are still open, but there is little foot traffic as the end nears. This sits in stark contrast to the mall’s better days, and there were many of them, when several anchors, including Sears and JCPenney, were thriving; a multiplex theater was operating; and the mall was still a destination.

“Our intent is to make sure that we’re providing one-on-one support for each step in the process as they look for vacancies or potential locations to set them up for success.”

It hasn’t been that for some time, as the anchors and then the theaters closed, mirroring what was happening at malls across the country as consumers increasingly did their buying online and major retailers, like Sears, all but vanished from the landscape.

Today, the mall is experiencing a slow, painful death that comes amid great expectation about what can and ultimately will happen at this site, and a wide range of emotions concerning existing tenants — who will be free of rent and utility charges for these last few months — and what will happen with them.

Let’s start with what’s next for the mall. Kaplan said Onyx often builds new, but it has worked on projects similar to the Eastfield Mall redevelopment initiative in other regions of Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire, and several other states.

He said the Eastfield Mall project was presented to the company last fall, and after extensive due diligence, the decision was made to move forward and acquire the property, with work ratcheting up in recent months on everything from meetings with tenants to filings with the city.

He believes demolition will begin sometime later this year, after local approvals are secured, with a 12- to 18-month construction process to follow.

Redevelopment will take place in stages, he noted, adding that phase one will, in all likelihood, be retail, restaurants, and services, with a mix of national brands and local ventures, similar in some respects to what exists now, but in a far more modern, 21st-century facility.

Eastfield Mall, which will be redeveloped

The clock is winding down on Eastfield Mall, which will be redeveloped into a modern mixed-use facility.

What will follow will be a function of demand and feasibility, Kaplan noted, adding that the canvas will likely be filled in over several years. Residential development is likely to follow, with more businesses to provide services to those living nearby.

The project could include some of the current tenants at Eastfield, he said, adding that it is possible that some will choose to find a temporary home and ultimately return. The others, which include a broad mix of national retailers and local businesses, will settle elsewhere.

Onyx is collaborating with the EDC and working with other stakeholders, including local and state agencies, to come up with a plan for each tenant, he said, adding that each case is different, obviously, and will require a personalized solution.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, said the agency’s mission is broad, and includes work to bring new businesses to the region and also retain existing businesses and jobs. Finding new homes for displaced Eastfield Mall tenants is a somewhat unique assignment, but it fits the EDC’s job description, if you will.

“It fits in with a focus that we have moving forward, which is on small businesses in terms of having them grow and flourish in the region,” he explained. “This is an opportunity where there are about 40 businesses that have been in operation for some time, and in some cases, they’re original tenants.”

The national tenants, and they include Old Navy, LensCrafters, Kay Jewelers, T-Mobile, and a host of others, have the resources and staffs to handle relocation efforts, if they choose to move those outlets, said Sullivan, adding that the EDC’s primary focus is the local tenants, ranging from the Mall Barber to Donovan’s Irish Pub to Mykonos, a Greek restaurant that has been at the mall since the very beginning.

Many will choose to try to stay in Springfield, he went on, adding that others are willing to look outside the city and the Boston Road area, which presents opportunities for retail areas that were impacted by the pandemic and the general shifting tide of retail — and there are many of them.

Some would prefer to stay in a mall-like setting, he went on, while others might opt to find their own space. Most are looking to lease space, but some are considering the purchase of real estate, which could bring its own benefits.

“Some are willing to look at downtown Springfield or downtown Holyoke,” Sullivan said. “They may not necessarily need to be in a mall setting or Boston Road — although some of them need to be there because that’s where their client base is.”

 

Up from the Ashes

The demise of the mall certainly has the attention of property owners and real-estate brokers in the region, especially those that specialize in retail spaces.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, has several retail properties in the portfolio, as well as 1350 Main St., the office tower in downtown Springfield that has a significant amount of ground-floor retail space, much if it vacant since the departure of Santander Bank several years ago.

As he walked BusinessWest through that space, Plotkin said it would be an ideal landing spot for some of the Eastfield businesses.

“There are a lot of people who still work downtown or come here for events or to do business,” he said, noting that 1350 Main will soon be welcoming some new office tenants that could generate additional foot traffic. “Some of those mall businesses could do well here.”

Tower Square is another potential landing spot, and Demetrious Panteleakis, a principal with the Macmillan Group, the leasing agent for the office and retail complex, said he has talked with some of the mall tenants about making a move downtown and all that is involved with that decision.

“There’s a potential positive economic spin that goes beyond just the mall investment.”

“We’re very different as it pertains to such things as parking,” he explained, listing just one of the issues being discussed. “Although we have plenty of parking, it’s not typical retail parking; we’re tower parking.”

Overall, he said Tower Square ownership is focused on finding new tenants that can provide needed products and services to tenants of that tower and perhaps those surrounding it. The planned new Big Y market, a scaled-down version of its supermarkets that will go into space once occupied by CVS, is a good example, as are existing tenants, ranging from White Lion Brewing Co. to Dunkin’ Donuts to SkinCatering, a salon and spa. And some of the mall tenants might fit that description.

“We have a spa and hairdresser, a bar, our food court … businesses that support people who work here and don’t want to leave the building,” Panteleakis said, adding that additional hospitality-related businesses that don’t compete directly with existing businesses might be good fits.

As for Smith and his search for a new home for the Empowerment Center, he said there is some “intense work” going on as he tries to find a space that is affordable and checks at least most of the boxes that the old 99 Restaurant does.

“I have a number of great locations that I’d like to go to,” he told BusinessWest. “It comes down to what can be negotiated with the local property owners — that will determine where we go; we’ll just take it step by step.”

Summing up what’s happening on Boston Road, Sullivan said that, while the demise of the mall is regrettable in some ways, there are several bright spots to this ongoing story.

For starters, there is a national developer, Onyx, that has committed to redeveloping the site into something that speaks to the present and future, and not the past, when it comes to retail. Meanwhile, the relocation of the many existing tenants could provide a spark for some communities and their downtowns.

“There’s a potential positive economic spin that goes beyond just the mall investment, and that’s why the EDC is involved,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s potential to grow and amplify that investment in the region.”

Time will tell just how much that investment will be amplified, but the parties involved in this developing story say there are many intriguing chapters still to come.

Cannabis Special Coverage

Growth Pattern

Enlite co-owner Matt Yee

Enlite co-owner Matt Yee

From the start of cannabis legalization in Massachusetts, Northampton was one of the most receptive communities, streamlining the municipal regulatory process and initially setting no caps on licenses. Meanwhile, Springfield posed a more onerous process and set strict limits.

Enlite has experienced both, having opened its first dispensary in Northampton in late 2021 and is getting ready to open a second shop in Indian Orchard this year, Springfield’s fourth dispensary in all.

Matt Yee, one of Enlite’s owners, sees value for business owners in both models.

“Springfield was a longer process getting through special-use permit hearings. Northampton, in comparison, was very, very open and friendly to cannabis businesses, which created the amount of licenses we see here,” he explained. “So in some ways, [Springfield] has been difficult, but that difficulty also creates a bit of a barrier for competition to come in; there’s only a handful of active licenses in Springfield.”

The fact that Enlite is expanding at all is an accomplishment in an increasingly competitive marketplace, one that has exploded with new businesses to the point where the industry is starting to weather its first closures, including the Source in Northampton and Pleasantrees in Easthampton.

And Yee and his fellow owners — who include Matt Cutting, Peter Picknelly, and Nick Yee — aren’t done, with plans to apply for a third license, the maximum allowed by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

“Most customers are shopping with their phone prior to coming in with us, seeing what our menu looks like, seeing what our price points look like, and if they can’t find the specific product that they’re looking for, then they’re going to go somewhere else.”

“We’re still hunting for that third location,” Matt said. “That makes for a more profitable and healthy business model. It’s hard to exist with just one unit. And we chose Springfield because the location fills a niche of demand.”

Specifically, Indian Orchard borders two towns, Wilbraham and Ludlow, with moratoriums on dispensaries, he explained. “We’re very close to both of those. So we saw that location in Indian Orchard as a prime spot.”

Northampton shop’s location right off I-91

Enlite’s owners say the Northampton shop’s location right off I-91, rather than in the congested downtown, has been a plus.

When Enlite opened in Northampton a year and a half ago, Yee and his team saw potential, not only in the state’s legalization of cannabis, but Northampton’s embrace of it. It was the city’s eighth adult-use dispensary, a number which quickly bloomed to 11 and now sits at 10.

“So competition has definitely gone up. But competition is good, especially in this industry. Just like in my former industry, restaurants, competition benefits the customer at the end of the day.”

Considering the experience of the Yee family and Picknelly in that other challenging industry, and Cutting’s business background, the Enlite leadership team felt it had a good chance of success in cannabis, and so far they’ve been proven right. That’s not to say there haven’t been obstacles to overcome, but so far, Enlite is not only staying the course, but setting their sights … well, higher.

 

Rolling Along

Soon after Enlite opened, Yee told BusinessWest that the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts — which now tops 265 retailers, in addition to cultivation, manufacturing, and wholesaling businesses — actually makes it easier for the best-equipped players to succeed, because of the cross-pollination. It’s why Enlite has adopted the model of many area dispensaries of partnering with boutique makers of cannabis products.

“We work with about 65 wholesalers right now,” he explained during BusinessWest’s recent visit. “We try to give priority to those who are producing local here in the Pioneer Valley, and also give priority to minority-owned, woman-owned, and veteran-owned companies, and participants in the social-equity program or the economic-empowerment program of the CCC. Anybody who checks those boxes and has a quality product, we definitely give priority to.”

A wide variety of products is key, he added. “We have about 450 to 500 items on the menu at any given time, which is a burden to control inventory-wise, but we have systems in place and experience with that well enough to handle all those SKUs and provide a wide selection to our customers.

“Most customers are shopping with their phone prior to coming in with us, seeing what our menu looks like, seeing what our price points look like, and if they can’t find the specific product that they’re looking for, then they’re going to go somewhere else,” Yee went on. “Our mentality is, if they can find the item here and maybe try some new items too, then they’ll become a repeat customer with us.”

“To kind of wade through the chaff and find the quality product at the right price point that the customer will enjoy can be a little overwhelming.”

He said many customers settle into buying favorite brands, but still appreciate variety.

“Five years ago, there weren’t very many brands, and quality wasn’t the highest, but now, with the level of competition we’re seeing in the wholesale market, there are brands that are definitely excelling. We have a couple of brands in-house that are excellent performers, and people come back for more.”

With competition forcing retail cannabis prices down to five-year lows in Massachusetts, Yee said his time in the restaurant world, where stiff competition also challenges profit margins, has taught him the value of customer service, as well as product knowledge and customer engagement — all factors that make the experience easier and more enjoyable, especially newcomers to the cannabis world. “That’s something we really pride ourselves on and strive for.”

The other differentiating factor is location — not just the strategic second location in Indian Orchard, where competition in the immediate environs is low, but in Northampton, where the flagship store sits right off the Coolidge Bridge rotary.

“Everybody’s kind of congested in the downtown area, which makes it far more difficult because somebody could just walk next door and find a cheaper price and buy there,” he said. “Here, with our location, situated right by the bridge and off the highway, we provide a convenience for people. It’s easy in, easy out, with plenty of parking that’s tough to find downtown. Our consumers want convenience, so that’s the other aspect we try to excel at.”

 

Highs and Lows

That said, Yee was quick to stress that captivating an audience and generating repeat customers is a constant focus, not something Enlite takes for granted.

“I think the other challenging aspect is the amount of wholesale product that’s becoming available on the market,” he explained. “Something I buy this month may be far less expensive two months from now, which would mean another retailer might pick it up for that price point and sell it for that price. So we’re seeing constant fluctuations in the price points of the wholesale product.

“That, along with the sheer amount of wholesalers that are knocking on our door and calling our phone, is pretty overwhelming,” he went on. “To kind of wade through the chaff and find the quality product at the right price point that the customer will enjoy can be a little overwhelming.”

Some cannabis-industry observers have commented on the experience of other states that followed a similar pattern to what’s happening in Massachusetts — exploding competition sends prices plummeting, and many operators focus on competing on price above all else, including quality and customer experience.

“We’ve always been conscious about that. We’re not trying to race to the bottom,” Yee said. “There are some operators here in Northampton who are dropping their prices, and all the other operators are forced to match those prices, which is difficult. But maintaining a healthy economy here in the Western Mass. market is something that we think about a lot. We’re not trying to drive the prices down too low and hurt everybody’s margin. There are definitely some players in town who are playing that game.”

Enlite will be the second minority-owned dispensary in Springfield, after Six Brick’s, which opened in September 2022. Enlite’s Northampton site was also the state’s first Minority Business Enterprise (MBE) applicant to open its doors, and Yee said the process of getting into the industry is still laden with minefields, especially for smaller entities.

“It’s definitely difficult. The requirements to get through the licensing procedure and then the buildout, inspections, and final licenses … it’s strenuous, and a lot of that knowledge is unknown to those smaller operators,” he explained. “So a lot of money can be burned just going through that painful process and experiencing that learning curve. And for those smaller operators who don’t have the capital of the big, multi-state operators or well-capitalized groups, that can be very difficult and sometimes detrimental to the business.”

As Enlite grows and expands, Yee said he’s still learning new things all the time, whether it’s a new product — from fast-acting edibles to new beverage lines — or a new market opportunity. “There’s something new coming out every month, it seems, and the customers are being introduced to those products with us.”

 

Business in Bloom

Yee has said Enlite’s biggest competitor is the black market, but analysts have pointed out that the leveling out of prices in the legal cannabis market may mitigate the illicit market’s advantage somewhat — while bringing on a whole new set of headaches in an industry where profits are already very tight due to onerous taxes.

He hopes, as consumers find more options in their price range, that stores that focus on quality, education, and customer experience will maintain an edge. And he said dealing with those customers, and hearing their stories, is his favorite part of the job.

“On a daily basis, we have first-time consumers come in, curious about cannabis and wanting to learn more. I have so many stories of first-time consumers coming back in and saying, ‘wow, that really helped me. That got me to go to bed more regularly. I got more sleep. I’m less stressed out. I have more fun with my kids — thousands of stories like that.

“Every day, somebody comes in, and we have a great conversation, and we can introduce them to a new product that they didn’t know existed, and we’ll see them back here a couple of days later. And there are still a lot of people who are just wading into this industry and finding these products.”

And finding them at a shop that continues to navigate an ever-changing, always-challenging landscape for business owners, with not just survival in mind, but continued growth.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Turning Back the Clock

Clocktower Building

The Clocktower Building, above, was home to Masonic Temple more than a century ago (right).

At other times in Springfield’s history, the properties at 113 State St. and 1155 Main St. were prominent players in the vibrancy, culture, and overall tenor of the City of Homes.

The former — long known, for obvious reasons, as the Clocktower Building — was home to the Masonic Temple when it opened in 1893, before a new, much larger facility was built further east on State Street. The latter, the Colonial Block, which opened in 1903, was one of the city’s first real mixed-use facilities, noted Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Development officer, featuring a blend of office and retail space on the lower floors and residential units on the upper floors.

Until fairly recently, meaning before the pandemic, the two properties had still been somewhat vibrant, featuring a wide array of tenants, including nonprofits, small businesses, a bank (at 113 State St.), and a number of various-sized law firms taking advantage of the buildings’ proximity to the Hampden County Courthouse just down State Street. These days, though, they are almost entirely vacant and stand in stark contrast to the progress seen around them, most notably across Main Street at MGM Springfield and across State Street at the MassMutual Center.

City officials have been looking to change that picture, obviously, and are moving forward with a plan to return these buildings, and also 11-21 Stockbridge St., a smaller, better-occupied office property in that same area, to their former status and make them part of the city’s resurgence. After acquiring them as a package in 2021 for $2.75 million, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA) has invited the development community to step up and submit proposals for the properties, separately or perhaps collectively.

Responses to this request for qualifications (RFQ) are due later this month — the deadline was originally late March — and Sheehan and SRA Executive Director Amanda Pham are expecting some imaginative proposals because that’s what will be needed to turn back the clock and make them key players again.

“This will require a responsive, creative developer, someone who has a vision for preservation of these buildings,” Pham said. “They have great potential.”

Sheehan and Pham are expecting proposals that will likely blend office and/or retail with a residential component, noting that what emerges for one, two, or all three properties will likely require a public-private partnership, similar to what was needed to finally move the needle and create a new use — a mix of residential and retail — for the former Court Square Hotel, just a block or so from the three properties in the RFQ.

Finding a preferred developer is a two-step process, said Pham, adding that, after responses to the request for qualifications are received and reviewed, three finalists will move on to a request for proposals.

If all goes well, a preferred developer is expected to be named by June, they said, adding that it may not be long after that when people start talking about these landmarks using mostly the present and future tenses, and not the past.

 

Building Momentum

As she gave BusinessWest a tour of 1155 Main St., Pham referenced some reminders of, well … what it once was, starting with the large directory on a wall in the lobby listing tenants and their suite numbers.

Tim Sheehan and Amanda Pham stand outside the historic structure.

Tim Sheehan and Amanda Pham stand outside the historic structure.

The board still includes the names of dozens of tenants that are no longer there — from the law firm Pellegrini Seeley, Ryan and Blakesley, which once took much of the space on the third floor before moving to the Basketball Hall of Fame complex, to Revitalize Community Development Corp., which occupied a large suite on the second floor. In fact, the 82,000-square-foot property is currently only about 12% occupied.

Later, she pointed to a large bookcase full of law books left behind by one of the departing law firms.

“We have a lot of law books,” she said, adding that, apparently, many of the departing firms located in various-sized offices on the maze-like floors had no use for the books in this age of the internet and simply left them behind.

Thus, these law volumes become part of the dialogue concerning what this property used to be, said Pham, who took the helm at the SRA in 2021, adding that, increasingly, the focus is on what they can be moving forward.

The SRA has taken the matter from the discussion phase to what could be called the discovery phase with the request for qualifications. It includes a link to a six-minute video that features comments from Pham, Sheehan, Mayor Domenic Sarno, MGM President and CEO Chris Kelley, Peter Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines and a key player in the Court Square project, and others, all inviting developers to take advantage of this “Main Street and Convention District development opportunity.”

“This will require a responsive, creative developer, someone who has a vision for preservation of these buildings. They have great potential.”

Together, they talk about the progress made downtown and the progress still to come, with projects like the $74 million parking garage and event space that will replace the facility torn down last fall. They also discuss how much of this progress was the result of public-private partnerships.

“This development behind me never would have happened if not for the cooperation of City Hall and the state of Massachusetts,” said Picknelly as he stood in front of the Court Square property.

The Colonial Block

The Colonial Block was one of the first mixed-use buildings in Springfield, with retail and residential space. It may see a similar blend in the future.

A number of developers, both with local ties and from outside the region, have expressed interest in the properties, said both Sheehan and Pham, noting that the city acquired the properties to move beyond the ongoing speculative nature of previous ownership and take redevelopment to a higher plane.

“We wanted the buildings situated so their redevelopment would ultimately fit the city’s overall planning as it relates to the Main Street Convention Center District Plan,” said Sheehan, adding that this plan, in general terms, calls for building on existing momentum and creating a true destination in the downtown, a place where people can live, work, and (especially with MGM and the MassMutual Center right next door) play.

A developers’ tour conducted several weeks ago attracted several parties, many in person, but some virtually, said Pham, adding that Springfield has managed, through its recent spate of progress, to put itself on the map with regard to regional and national developers looking to expand their portfolios.

There were site tours of the properties and the surrounding area as well, she went on, adding that firms brought full teams with them, including architects, engineers, and planners, to gauge future uses for the landmarks.

Given the current glut of office space, Sheehan said, especially the class B and class C variety that these properties have featured, future redevelopment will likely not focus on that use entirely, although it could be part of the equation.

“There is an overabundance of class B and C space in the office sector, so we’re really encouraging people to look at adaptive reuse to … something else,” he noted. “Developers may want to reduce the amount of office, but not completely eliminate it, either.”

A much larger part of the equation will likely be market-rate housing and activation of the ground floors with retail and hospitality-related businesses that will give downtown visitors more things to do and more opportunities to stay, he went on.

Colonial Block

Above, the directory inside the Colonial Block is quite dated, as most of those tenants have moved out. At right, one of the unique spaces in the building.

“Our planning ultimately calls for extensive ground-floor activation,” he explained. “You have two very strong anchors, in MGM and the MassMutual Center, adjacent to these properties, and we really think there is the ability to activate the ground floors so that it encourages people who want to come to the MassMutual Center or MGM to want to linger and stay in the area.”

As for housing, Sheehan said a recent study identified the need for 1,500 units of additional housing of this type in and around downtown.

And while conversion of such properties to housing is often difficult and expensive, developers need only look a few hundred yards to the south for inspiration, to the massive Stockbridge Court apartment complex, created more than 40 years ago and perhaps the city’s best market-rate-housing success story.

“Stockbridge Court is certainly an example of what can be done,” he said, adding quickly that any residential projects in these properties will likely require a public-private partnership to not only renovate the buildings in question but improve the overall area and its connection to Main Street.

“We’ll need to enhance the infrastructure to make it a much more walkable environment — and a pleasant walkable environment — if we’re going to attract that scale of residential development in this area.”

 

Right Time and Place

Overall, there are some building blocks coming together that could make development of these properties a more attractive and more viable opportunity, said both Sheehan and Pham, noting that leasing activity will start soon at Court Square, and construction is set to commence on the new parking garage. Meanwhile, a new entrance is planned at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

Meanwhile, the two leaders are looking at adaptive reuse of these properties as just part of a larger effort in the city’s downtown.

“We’re looking at these as the first step in the redevelopment of the area,” said Sheehan, noting that that there are several other vacant or underutilized spaces, including the neighboring 1260 Main St., several surface parking lots, and other properties.

As he referenced a photo of the Clocktower Building, from the days before its stone exterior was mostly stripped away — it remains in some places as a reminder of what was — Sheehan waxed nostalgic on its place in city history.

“For a long time, this building has certainly played a major role in downtown Springfield in terms of being a major corner and a huge presence,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the hope is that this property, as well as the Colonial Block — and other properties in that area — can attain that status again.

Time will tell, of course, when and how soon that happens, but this is certainly a developing story — in every sense of that phrase.

Cover Story Education

Taking Themselves More Seriously

Izabella Martinez

Izabella Martinez

At first, Izabella Martinez said, she was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of taking college courses when she was only a freshman in high school.

But then, when she got into it, that apprehension soon melted away and was replaced by a host of emotions and feelings, but mostly pride in accomplishment in taking, and doing well in, courses such as Introduction to Computer Technology, English 101, Art, Philosophy, Public Speaking, and what she considers her favorite thus far — College Writing.

“The teacher gave us a lot of freedom to write about what we felt passionate about,” said Martinez, a student at Discovery Early College High School in Springfield, a unique learning center that opened its doors in 2021. “I was able to improve my writing skills while also having creative freedom.”

Martinez believes she’ll have at least 24 college credits by the end of her sophomore year at Discovery. But she’ll have much more than that. She’ll have a higher level of confidence and perhaps something even more important — higher aspirations when it comes to her career and what’s doable, and the wherewithal to get to where she wants to go.

“One thing that we continued to struggle with was the number of people attending college and who were on a path to a living wage. The usual marker for success is graduation, and we were ringing that bell. But we weren’t seeing students entering into high-paying positions right after college, or who were pursuing college, in the way we wanted.”

And this, is a nutshell, is what Discovery High School (DHS), part of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) — an independently governed nonprofit established in 2015 as a collaboration between Springfield Public Schools, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Springfield Education Assoc. — is all about.

It uses what’s called a ‘wall-to-wall’ model to build viable future career pathways for students by enabling them to take college classes while in high school — and perhaps even earn an associate degree by the time they graduate — without having to pay for the college courses.

As he talked about the school, why it was created, and its overall mission, Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the SEZP, said the inspiration came in the form of statistics showing that, while Springfield’s high-school graduation rates were improving, the number of students going to college, and succeeding there, were not growing.

Matt Brunell

Matt Brunell says Discovery High School was designed to propel students to achieve a living wage within four years of graduation.

“One thing that we continued to struggle with was the number of people attending college and who were on a path to a living wage,” he explained. “The usual marker for success is graduation, and we were ringing that bell. But we weren’t seeing students entering into high-paying positions right after college, or who were pursuing college, in the way we wanted.”

“Three years ago, we took a hard look at industry and labor trends in the area, and we looked at which businesses were going to be growing over the course of the next several years,” he went on. “And we thought differently about a high-school model that would project and send students on that path to a living wage.”

Elaborating, he noted that DHS was designed to propel students to achieve a living wage within four years of high-school graduation. It does this by providing academic pathways that focus on high-demand careers in technology, computer science, engineering, and teaching.

But mostly it does this by inspiring students to “take themselves seriously.”

There are quotation marks around those words because all those we spoke with at DHS used them early and often.

“What she’s developed is an identity around college, and it’s really sticky.”

Especially Declan O’Connor, executive principal of Discovery, who referenced one student who will have amassed 24 college credits by the end of her sophomore year.

“What she’s developed is an identity around college, and it’s really sticky,” he told BusinessWest. “Kids are just starting to understand that this is real, and they’re looking toward their future, and they’re taking themselves seriously.”

Farrika Turner, assistant principal at Discovery, agreed.

“We’re really excited to see our Black and Brown students not be afraid of college, for their families not to be afraid of college and whether it will be attainable for them, to see parents become interested in returning to college and maybe take some of the classes that their children are taking,” she said. “And to have students see themselves as a college student, not as a high-school student that’s taking a course or two here and there that doesn’t add up to anything — they’re working toward the degree they’re interested in after high school.”

Farrika Turner

Farrika Turner says students at Discovery High are taking themselves, and their prospects for future employment, more seriously.

It will be another two years before DHS graduates a class of students. And it will be several years before those involved can compile real data on the outcome of students. But those we talked with said the early-college model is demonstrating promising results in many settings. Meanwhile, they say it is not too early to say it is succeeding at Discovery — at least when it comes to the very unofficial mission of getting students to take themselves more seriously.

 

Course of Action

As he led BusinessWest on a tour of DHS, O’Connor stopped in one classroom where students were learning how to create a circuit and, ultimately, a very small-scale solar panel, and in another, an Introduction to Digital Media class was ongoing where students were getting their pictures taken and compiling information to create their ‘digital brand.’

As inspiration, they were using a brand created by Ruth Carter, the costume designer from Springfield who has won two Oscars for her work on the Black Panther film franchise.

These are not college courses, he explained, but they are solid examples of how students at the school learn by doing, work together, and gain resolve by creating solutions and solving problems.

And this is what Brunell and others had in mind when they conceptualized this relatively new kind of high school.

“We’re really excited to see our Black and Brown students not be afraid of college, for their families not to be afraid of college and whether it will be attainable for them, to see parents become interested in returning to college and maybe take some of the classes that their children are taking.”

“We wanted to create a very small high school where kids were known, where they were cared for and loved during their time here, and where they could get really personalized attention and see themselves in careers that have been under-represented by Black and Brown folks in this community,” he said.

“Discovery High School is our attempt to take a really critical look at the STEM industries and to get students on a stronger pathway to those jobs,” he went on, adding that the Empowerment Zone board ultimately authorized the school in the spring of 2021, and it opened its doors that fall.

The school has open enrollment and is open to all students, said O’Connor, adding that there is no selection process. Overall, the school boasts a diverse population and draws from across the city. These students represent all levels of academic achievement as well.

“The child who chooses us … they know we are and what we’re about,” he explained. “They choose us mostly because they’re invested in our STEM pathways; they like to game, they like computers, they’re interested in engineering — or at least they think they are — and a lot of our students are those who traditionally didn’t do well in school, but have a big curiosity about technology.”

Now boasting 120 students, with plans to expand to 90 students per grade, DHS, as noted earlier, operates under the Early College model, which, as that name suggests, introduces students to college classes while they are high school. This not only gives them a solid head start when they get to college, said Declan, but it gives them that confidence and pride in accomplishment that Martinez spoke of.

Declan O’Connor

Declan O’Connor, principal of Discovery High School, says students there “gain an identity” by taking college classes.

O’Connor said every student at the school can take college classes, and most of them do, with DHS working in partnership with Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, Worcester State University, and Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. Classes take place at Discovery, online, and on the Quinsigamond campus.

As they take them, they are provided with plenty of support, he noted, adding this is an essential ingredient in this success formula, because they are real college classes, something he needed to be assured about himself.

“When I first started this and as I was learning about early college, I asked, ‘are these real college classes, or are they watered-down college classes that are a version for high-school kids?’” he recalled. “And Worcester State sternly said, ‘these are the same college classes.’ So the expectations didn’t change, but what had to be put in place was just a lot of supports for students.”

And what he’s learned over the past 20 months or so is that the students can handle these classes, academically; it’s the other aspects of that challenge, as they are for actual college students, that prove to be the bigger hurdle.

“These students didn’t have trouble doing the work,” he explained. “The challenge was more just ‘teenager stuff’ — following through, doing your homework, and submitting your assignments. Some of the students will say some of the classes they will take in the colleges are easier than 10th-grade English class.

“It’s really cool to see the shift from when they entered high school — to go from being scared and wondering, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ to start future-planning and talking about their future in ways that make sense, and the feeling ‘I’m going to make some good money.’”

“A lot of it was just executive functioning,” he went on. “But when it came to the actual content of the classes, they were just fine because what we know about all of our kids is that, cognitively, they all have the capacity to learn.”

 

Learning Experiences

The learning at DHS has a stated purpose, said all those we spoke with — to put students on a path to not just a high-school diploma, but that living wage Brunell spoke of.

And this goes back to that notion of the students taking themselves seriously, an undertaking that comes with that confidence gained from taking those college classes, thus making students more ready not only for their actual college experience, but what can come after it.

“Early college for these students is an identity thing,” he explained. “They develop an identity around going to college, and there’s a lot of demystifying of going to college that happens along the way — they no longer have to wonder what college is like. Maybe they’re the first generation in their family to go to college, and in their freshman year, they can break down that psychological barrier of going to college.”

This ability to establish such an identity is one of the ways the faculty and administrators at Discovery are measuring success, more than two full years before anyone is handed a diploma or earns enrollment at a college or university.

Students at Discovery High

Students at Discovery High participate in a project to create a circuit, one of many examples of hands-on learning at the school.

“When the Empowerment Zone surveyed the schools in the entire country that were getting the strongest results for kids, the most predictive quality of the schools that were propelling kids to earn a living wage was whether or not kids were taking college classes in high school,” Brunell said. “It is far more predictive of college matriculation, of college success, of college achievement, of getting the diploma. If they can, during their high school years, actually spend the time in college-level classes and see themselves as being able to take those classes … this is the biggest element for us.”

Brunell said the state recently started compiling data on the salaries earned by the graduates of specific high schools. Looking out five years or so, he projects this data will show that DHS students are faring better than those in high school with more traditional models.

“We see this as the benchmark for whether or not the school is a success,” he said. “When we look at the average number of college credits earned by freshman and sophomores at Discovery High School, we’re incredibly enthused — this is a leading indicator that the school is on the right track.”

Elaborating, he said there will be several ‘winners’ to emerge from the creation of DHS and schools like it, starting with the students, who can earn up to 60 college credits and, as noted, perhaps even a degree in high school, without having to go into debt (those costs are absorbed by the school’s general-fund budget or philanthropy from groups such as the Barr Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, as well as, locally, the Davis Foundation).

Other winners are the participating colleges, who gain enrollment, revenue, and, in some cases, future students, as well as area employers, especially those in technology-related fields, who are struggling, as other sectors are, to attract and retain qualified talent.

Another indicator of early success at DHS is the level of confidence exuded by students like Izabella Martinez, said Turner, noting that she and others can see this confidence build and reflect itself in how students see themselves and talk about the future.

“It’s really cool to see the shift from when they entered high school — to go from being scared and wondering, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ to start future-planning and talking about their future in ways that make sense, and the feeling ‘I’m going to make some good money.’

“We see students come in and say, ‘I just want to graduate from high school, get a job, and help my family,’” she went on. “Now they’re understanding that they don’t have get a job at Geek Squad at Best Buy — ‘I can be a programmer; I can use my skills to go in the military and work in cybersecurity.’ It’s really cool to see that change, that mind shift.”

That’s what happens when young people start to take themselves, and their futures, more seriously.

Banking and Financial Services

Branching Out

Oumkar Tobaran

Oumkar Tobaran says the human element is critical in banking even amid the rise of online and mobile tools.

At a time when a bank’s customers can conduct business from anywhere with a few clicks, dramatic branch expansion may seem outdated.

But it’s not, Ali Zaidi said, explaining why Chase Bank is looking to double its presence in Massachusetts over the next several years, starting with the opening of a downtown Springfield office on March 7.

“When you think about the important life events that customers go through, whether it be retirement planning, buying a house, or the birth of a child, people still have an appreciation for that face-to-face conversation. That makes an impact,” said Zaidi, Chase’s market director for Western and Central Mass. “And about 75% of our customers that have balances with us still come to the branches. So, clearly, the customers are telling us they would love to have that face-to-face interaction, especially with complex life events.”

Oumkar Tobaran, branch manager for the new location in Harrison Place — which has a long history of housing banks, including Third National Bank and, in recent decades, Bank of Western Massachusetts and People’s United Bank — said the human element is critical.

“With all the technology and innovation we have, think of the amount of things that we can go on our phones to do on a daily basis,” he told BusinessWest. “But the minute something doesn’t go right or the minute you need support or additional advice on something, we want to show that customer service matters, with a physical presence.”

The branch is Chase’s 38th in Massachusetts since opening its first Bay State location in Boston in 2018 — an impressive growth trajectory, and a number the institution is looking to double by 2025, including a location to open this spring in the former Silverscape Designs building on King Street in Northampton.

“This is a central point,” Zaidi said of downtown Springfield, noting that Chase has an office a few miles down I-91 in Enfield, but this is technically the first in Western Mass. “There’s definitely a rich history here on Main Street and its local businesses, as well as larger clienteles with MGM and the Hall of Fame. We’re serving clients of different demographics, and I’m very excited that we were able to secure this spot on Main Street.”

Tobaran said he expects plenty of foot traffic downtown, as well as visits from customers who may have been banking in Enfield or branches to the west, while Chase has been conducting outreach to build a larger base of business in the region.

“About 75% of our customers that have balances with us still come to the branches. So, clearly, the customers are telling us they would love to have that face-to-face interaction, especially with complex life events.”

“We wanted to make sure that we have a convenient place for them to visit because it’s important to be able to interact with the community,” he added. “There’s a lot of development happening in Springfield, and we wanted to be part of that momentum as well.”

Zaidi agreed. “Springfield is a key cog that gives us an entry point into expanding into Western Massachusetts and brings convenience to our customers. Springfield is being revitalized, and I feel we can be an integral part of that.”

He also feels there’s an opportunity to add customers who might already be familiar with Chase through its mortgage products and credit cards. “That’s what people know. So one of our consumer-banking priorities is to be a bank for all and make it easy for people to do business with us. And technology-wise, where customers were able to bank with us remotely, this now gives them a physical location to meet their diverse needs.”

Ali Zaidi

Ali Zaidi says downtown Springfield is the first Chase branch in Western Mass. and the springboard to an eventual doubling of the bank’s branches in Massachusetts.

As he showed off the space at 1391 Main St., from the tellers and ITM machines up front to the various offices further back, Zaidi said the new Springfield branch can do all of that.

“We will help our customers with any needs, and we have more licensed specialist bankers to navigate those complex life events — retirement, financial planning, or just navigating your credit-history trajectory if you’re looking to purchase something down the road. We’re so excited to be providing that face-to-face value, and we’re looking forward to continuing the expansion.”

 

Set Up to Help

This first Western Mass. branch is about 3,000 square feet in size and features a modern, bright design with plenty of natural light, quiet meeting areas, and state-of-the-art banking technology, including those ITMs, which allow a higher withdrawal limit than traditional ATMs, as well as access to Chase professionals.

“For customers who have commercial or small-business banking needs, we have our team of experts, partners who will be working out of here and supporting other branches to connect customers. So it’s a one-stop shop.”

A dedicated Chase Private Client team provides premium banking services, personalized attention, and access to the expertise and investment capabilities of J.P. Morgan to help families reach their goals. Customers may also meet with financial and home-lending advisors and business-banking relationship managers.

“Our retail banking operations are here, and we have our licensed bankers to deal with client management,” Zaidi explained, “and for customers who have commercial or small-business banking needs, we have our team of experts, partners who will be working out of here and supporting other branches to connect customers. So it’s a one-stop shop.”

Tobaran said the open layout will help customers easily navigate what they need. “We will have associates in the lobby greeting clients, interacting with them. And then, depending on the transactions they’ll need to leverage, we can go back here and figure out what we need to help them with,” he explained, gesturing away from the front door toward the offices in back.

“But we equip a lot of our associates with tablets,” he added. “So in addition to helping them back there, however we can help support them face to face, sitting down in the lobby area, we will do that with the resources and tools we have.”

Besides banking business, Chase also wants to connect with Greater Springfield in other ways, Zaidi said, through financial-literacy programs and other types of community outreach.

“The idea is to have our branches be community anchors. So when we think about financial-literacy conversations, be it with young professionals or small-business owners, we want to host workshops and assistance in that space as well,” he explained, noting that Chase is working on several community-development efforts around financial literacy, including a partnership with Western New England University. “So this would serve as an anchor for us where we could do before- or after-hours seminars and events. It makes sense.”

Harrison Place

Harrison Place has been home to several banks in the past, from Third National Bank to the Bank of Western Massachusetts and People’s United Bank.

Tobaran added that the bank’s employees also reflect its region, as the branch hired locally, including people who hail from the Latino and Vietnamese communities, among others.

“We want some familiar faces to be representing Chase, saying, ‘hey, these are the resources we have to help you accomplish your goal.’ It was important for us to get local talent, people who had ties to the community, people who are passionate about giving back and who genuinely want to see Springfield succeed.”

 

Only the Beginning

Zaidi and Tobaran know Chase is making an ambitious surge into a region some have called overbanked, and where community banks have long dominated. But they say Chase is committed to local residents and organizations in much the same way locally headquartered banks are, while also bringing vast financial resources to the table.

“When you think about Chase, we have the resources of a large global corporation,” Zaidi said. “And our vision is, how do we take those resources and localize the solutions for our customers? Our technology and data analysis help us strategize and take a more targeted approach, because all the branches are going to operate differently based on the community-specific needs.”

One example is a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, one of the organizations that will be on hand on March 15 for the branch’s official grand-opening festivities.

“That’s one way Oumkar and his team have been making an impact in the community already,” Zaidi said. “We feel that we can be a valued contributor in that space among all the other banks. The competitive edge that we have is not only through our resources, but with the community aspect that we are trying to drive here.”

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Art of the Matter

Evan Plotkin in the 1350 Conference Center.

Evan Plotkin in the 1350 Conference Center.

Evan Plotkin says he decided to call it the ‘Springfield Room.’

That’s because … most all of the paintings on the walls, courtesy of artist John Simpson and his students, depict well-known personalities who either live in the city or have strong connections to it.

It’s a diverse group that includes Herbie Flores, the long-time director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, as well as philanthropist Lyman Wood, White Lion Brewery founder Ray Berry, and even Plotkin himself, who has become well-known for his work in recent years to being more people — and more vibrancy — to the city’s downtown.

The paintings, all of which are for sale, are just one of the selling points of this facility, part of what is now known as the 1350 Conference Center, one of Plotkin’s latest efforts to re-envision, and repurpose, the property at 1350 Main St., which he co-owns.

The center is located on the ninth floor, in space that had served as what Plotkin called “an informal art gallery and event space” that was used occasionally for fundraisers and other gatherings. It was not marketed or really open to the public, he said, adding that it has been given a facelift to bring another amenity to existing tenants, hopefully attract others, and bring new meeting space to downtown Springfield.

And Plotkin believes the timing is right for such an undertaking. After more than two years of COVID, he noted, gatherings of all sizes and types are becoming more prevalent as the region continues to move beyond the pandemic, even at a time when most meetings have at least some type of remote component.

“The artwork in here is spectacular, and combining an event space with a gallery made a whole lot of sense.”

“Most meetings are hybrid now,” he noted. “You have people who can attend the meeting live, and there’s an opportunity to bring in others via Zoom. With such formats, your meetings tend to be better-attended, but most groups are gathering in-person again.”

Plotkin acknowledged that there are several meeting spaces in the region, including others in downtown Springfield, but nothing quite like the one he has created.

Indeed, it is different because of the art, he said, but also the location, in the center of downtown, and the amenities, including state-of-the-art equipment and new furniture.

“The artwork in here is spectacular, and combining an event space with a gallery made a whole lot of sense,” he noted. “And the response I’m getting from social media and the tenants who have been up here has been very positive; people are excited about it.”

Meanwhile, the new conference center is not the only intriguing development at 1350 Main St.

Indeed, Plotkin said he has several new tenants coming in that will turn on the lights on floors that have been dark, or mostly dark, for several years.

art adorning the Springfield Room

Just some of the art adorning the Springfield Room at the 1350 Conference Center.

The long-vacant sixth floor is now home to lawyers and support staff with the Committee for Public Counsel Services. Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families is poised to sign a lease to take the seventh and eighth floors and part of the 15th. In all, roughly 60,000 additional square feet will be under lease by the summer, he said, adding that these new additions should help bring more foot traffic to downtown businesses and help them make a full recovery from COVID.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Plotkin about the new conference center and other developments, literally and figuratively, at 1350 Main St.

 

Drawing Interest

Plotkin told BusinessWest that he recently took a prospective tenant through the building for a detailed look-see. The last stop on the tour was the re-envisioned ninth floor.

“After going through, they said, ‘where do we sign?’” he recalled, adding that the business in question stages training programs on a regular basis and needs such a facility.

A desire to solicit such responses was one of the motivating factors for renovating the space, said Plotkin, adding that, overall, he believes there is room for additional meeting and event space in the region, especially something that falls into the category of ‘different.’

The art makes it so, he said, adding that the works currently on display are mostly from Simpson, a self-described painter, sculptor, muralist, and teacher, whose works can also be found throughout downtown Springfield, on museum and office-building walls and adorning the sides of buildings as well.

But new works from various artists will be rotated in and, hopefully, sold, said Plotkin, adding that the art gives the space a unique, always-changing look.

There are three rooms in the 1350 Conference Center, he said, listing a larger room ideal for presentations and meetings of up to 200 people, and two smaller rooms, including the Springfield Room, that are designed for smaller gatherings, training sessions, team meetings, and more.

“We’re still just moving the pieces around. We need to get some net gains in the downtown, and the region as a whole.”

The space can be used for a variety of different uses, including fundraising events, annual meetings, and even holiday parties, he went on, adding that he only recently opened the space to the public — the sign outside the entrance went up late last month — and has already had a number of inquiries.

“I’m ready now to get the word out to the public and offer it to organizations across the region as another option; I think it’s going to really take off,” he said, adding that the space will be free to tenants of the building, while there will a fee charged to for-profit businesses and a lower fee to nonprofits.

He expects interest to spread through word of mouth, and noted that the space is just one of several intriguing developments at 1350 Main St.

As noted earlier, three long-vacant floors — six, seven, and eight — will have new tenants. The Committee for Public Counsel Services, which includes the Public Defender division, Children and Family Law, and the Youth Advocacy division, will bring close to 100 people to the building. Meanwhile, the Department of Children and Families will bring an additional 200 people to that address.

As they do so, they will do more than activate some long-vacant space, said Plotkin, adding that these additions should help many downtown businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic and the accompanying trend toward remote and hybrid work schedules.

“We’re bringing 320 people downtown — that should make the restaurants happy,” he said, adding that history has shown the importance of the downtown office towers — especially when vacancy rates are low — to the surrounding business community.

With these new additions, 1350 will approach 70% occupancy, said Plotkin, adding that he is exploring all options for the remaining spaces, which include the 16th and 17th floors (the ‘penthouse’), which were occupied by Disability Management Services until last June, and several retail spaces on the ground floor, including the large space last occupied by Santander Bank.

As he goes about trying to fill those spaces, he reiterated his contention that what the city — and the region — need are positive momentum when it comes to absorption, and less movement by existing businesses from building to building.

“We’re still just moving the pieces around,” he said. “We need to get some net gains in the downtown, and the region as a whole.”

 

Imaginative Stroke

Talking in general terms about Springfield, the region, and its business community, Plotkin said there is an ongoing need to be creative and do more to bring people to Springfield and its downtown.

With the new 1350 Conference Center, he believes he’s doing both.

He considers this an exciting new addition to the landscape, event space that is a work of art. Time will tell if it generates the interest he expects it will, but this is certainly shaping up to be an intriguing brush stroke as he fills in the canvas that is 1350 Main.

 

Features Special Coverage

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]