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Episode 125: August 15, 2022

George Interviews Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien has a lively discussion with Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The two discuss everything from the city’s new parking garage, to COVID-relief efforts, to a number of new developments — in the city’s downtown and its many neighborhoods. It’s all must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest  and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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Thinking Outside the Big Box

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

The emergence of online shopping giants like Amazon and changing shopping patterns have spelled doom for giant retailers while also hastening the demise of indoor shopping malls across the country. The Eastfield Mall in Springfield is part of this trend, and so is the ambitious plan for its next life — as a so-called ‘community within a community.’

Chuck Breidenbach says the term ‘de-malling’ — or the verb ‘de-mall’ — while still not officially in the dictionary, has been part of the business lexicon for quite some time now.

That’s because, ever since they started building large, enclosed shopping malls more than 50 years ago, some have occasionally failed and had to be repurposed. This region has witnessed the phenomenon a few times, starting with the so-called ‘dead mall’ in Hadley, which went silent more than 30 years ago, and the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee, which succumbed at the start of this century.

But the pace of de-malling has picked up in recent years, as everyone knows, thanks to Amazon and other online retailers, as well as changing shopping habits, especially among the younger generations. And with those trends, old shopping malls have found new lives as everything from homeless shelters to apartment complexes to mixed-use facilities blending residential, retail, and entertainment elements.

Which brings us to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, near the border with Wilbraham. The facility is historic, sort of, because it is the first enclosed mall in the region, opened in the mid-’60s. But it is also typical of recent trends, because most all of its big box stores — Sears, JCPenney, and Macy’s — have closed, leaving hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant retail space looking for a new purpose.

Finding one has been Breidenbach’s day job (or one of them) for some time now, in his role as managing director of MDC Retail Properties Group, a division of New Jersey-based Mountain Development Group, which has owned the mall since 1998.

Mountain Development recently hired the real-estate brokerage firm Cushman and Wakefield to market a joint-venture partnership opportunity for the property’s mixed-use development. The solution taking shape on the drawing board — a work in progress, to be sure — is called Eastfield Commons, a $200 million, mixed-use development that Breidenbach likes to call a “community within a community.”

That’s because it will be just that, a community, a place where — theoretically, but also realistically — if all goes as planned, someone can live, work, shop, eat, take their children to daycare, go to the gym, see a movie, and more, all while walking a few hundred yards at most.

“You want to develop this as a tightly knit, walkable community,” he explained, adding that just what shape this community will take remains to be seen.

At many converted malls, the inclination is to go vertical, with multi-story developments. But at Eastfield, the tact may well be to go horizontal, with one or two levels.

The concept plan taking shape (see rendering on page 8) calls for 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of commercial space (remodeled and new construction) and 23 residential buildings with 12 units each (276 total units). The cinemas will remain, as will the existing food court.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall,” he said, adding that this has been the trend nationally, by and large.

“Our vision is to put in a number of restaurants of different types and price points so people have their choice,” he went on. “And to also have some specialty retail, a mix of national and local, so we can give this center its own local flair.”

Flair of any kind has been a missing ingredient at the sprawling site off Boston Road, but as the art and science of mall conversion continues to mature — and Springfield continues its economic recovery — there is considerable optimism that Eastfield can do what it did 50 years ago and get the region buzzing about something new and different.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Breidenbach about mall redevelopment in general, and repurposing Eastfield in particular. He noted that, with these projects, the market will dictate what can be done, but imaginative, outside-the-box — or in this case, outside-the-big-box — thinking is always needed.

Setting Sale

Breidenbach has had a long career in retail — long enough to have seen malls come to what amounts to full circle, meaning from being in demand to being in serious decline.

“I’ve seen a lot of things come and go; I’ve lived through the golden years of shopping centers, when you couldn’t put them up fast enough,” he told BusinessWest. “And now, we’re in the gray years of shopping centers, where you can’t redevelop or convert them into something else fast enough.”

The latest cycle — of conversion, or de-malling — began early in this century, he went on, adding that, as was noted earlier, Fairfield Mall, now the site of a Home Depot and other retail outlets, was part of that early wave.

But the pace of conversion really picked up roughly a decade ago, he said, as the Great Recession, coupled with the emergence of online retailers and some changing shopping patterns, took a huge toll on traditional retailers, a trend that continues today.

“There was a change in generations,” he explained. “The Baby Boom generation was and still is, in many ways, a very shopping-oriented culture. The Millennials and Generation-X folks are not.”

Some facilities — Breidenbach calls them super-regional malls, or fortress malls (the Holyoke Mall is one of them) — have been more resilient to the forces of change, because of sheer volume of stores, location (the Holyoke Mall certainly has that), and other factors.

“Holyoke has multiple levels, multiple anchors, parking decks … it’s made to do a massive amount of business,” he explained. “And retailers have pulled back into those fortress malls really as a means of protection.”

Meanwhile, those same retailers are leaving smaller facilities such as Eastfield, he went on, adding that the handwriting was pretty much on the wall for many of these malls years ago. And major real-estate companies, such as the Rouse Co., which developed and owned Eastfield for many years, saw that handwriting and sold off many of those properties.

Today, Eastfield’s huge parking lots fronting Boston Road are barren wastelands. Cars, and not many of them, are clustered near one of the main entrances where a few retailers still do business, such as Old Navy, the 99 Restaurant, O’Donnell’s Restaurant, and others.

Changing this landscape is an involved process, said Breidenbach, adding that, when it comes to how malls are converted these days, it’s generally a function of what the market in question wants, needs, and will support. In other words, while there are models that be studied and perhaps borrowed from, each property is unique, and so is its conversion.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall. Today, it is part of an ongoing trend that is seeing these facilities put to new and imaginative uses.

“Your market studies will lead you to specific strategies and different amounts of space devoted to different types of uses,” he explained. “Those studies will determine how much you need for multi-family rental, multi-family condominium-style properties, retail uses, restaurant uses, entertainment uses, personal services, medical uses, health and fitness — it all depends on what the market will bear, what’s missing in the area, and what people are leaving the area to try and find because they’re dissatisfied with what they get, or it’s not being supplied.

“We have to follow the numbers very closely,” he went on, adding that market studies are followed up with surveys of various constituencies (including residents, small-business owners, and restaurateurs) in the area in question asking people what they want to see and what they’ll come to that location for.

At Eastfield, the emerging solution is a what Breidenbach calls a ‘live, work, play’ atmosphere, one that is seemingly internet-resistant.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

In other words, one can’t live on the internet, or eat a meal there, or have their haircut there, or take dance lessons there.

And that’s the general idea as one goes about repurposing a mall, he went on, adding that the goal is to create a destination that will hopefully appeal to all generations, but especially those who seem to like this model — empty-nesters and the younger audiences that are less inclined to shop than their parents or grandparents.

“These younger generations would much rather pay for an experience than an expensive pair of jeans,” said Breidenbach, adding that ‘experience’ is a broad term that covers everything from a movie to a meal out to laser tag.

And these sentiments are reflected in some of the statistics relayed to attendees at the latest Shopping Center Convention in Las Vegas, a massive gathering Breidenbach has attended religiously for decades now.

“We heard that restaurant sales in the U.S. had surpassed grocery stores for the first time in history,” he said. “That means more people are eating out — they’re spending their time and money in that direction, as opposed to eating at home and then buying things.”

The Shopping Center Convention, staged annually in May, has seen discussion gravitate in recent years toward the internet and, more specifically, how to survive it, with a big focus being on just what to do with traditional malls, like Eastfield, that have been marginalized (Breidenbach’s word) by the fortress malls and online shopping.

Mixed-use developments — vertical and horizontal alike — have become the answer in many cases, with individual components varying, as stated earlier, with identified need and demand.

Breidenbach believes there will be a need for housing at that site, particularly the multi-family variety, because there haven’t been any new developments of that type in that area in decades, and there is apparent need for such a product.

“We see a huge a huge opportunity there for up-do-date multi-family housing,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also see a need for up-to-date, current retail space, meaning junior anchors, stores up to 20,000 to 25,000 square feet; this is an opportunity to think differently.”

Registering Results

Or to think outside the box — the big box, he said in conclusion.

Such thinking is necessary at Eastfield, a once-vibrant shopping area that has become part of an ongoing trend in this country — one that is seeing the enclosed shopping mall turned into a relative ghost town.

Now, Eastfield wants to be part of another trend — bringing new life to these deserted or nearly deserted areas.

If things go as planned, a property that made some history a half-century ago can make some more.

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

Sales and Marketing

Putting the Focus on Innovation

The team at GCAi

The team at GCAi: from left, John Garvey, Quinn Garvey, James Garvey, Mary Shea, and Darcy Fortune.

John Garvey isn’t shy about noting that he never worked for a large ad agency, or a ‘traditional’ ad agency, as he calls them.

In fact, he’s rather proud of that background — as are the rest of the members of the team at the agency he formed more than 30 years ago known as Garvey Communication Associates Inc., who didn’t work for a traditional agency either.

They’re all fond of saying they didn’t follow any model in creating and then shaping the firm known as GCAi, but instead created their own model.

“None of us come from an agency background,” Garvey explained. “So we put this together on our own; we didn’t throw away the book — we just didn’t really know the book was there; so we invented our own book.”

“There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising.”

As they talk about this book, the company’s main players — Garvey; his son, James, the social-media marketing analyst; Mary Shea, vice president of Digital Strategy; and Darcy Fortune, digital PR analyst — collectively wear out the word ‘innovation’ as they discuss evolving technology, what the company can do with and for clients with regard to this technology and using it to reach targeted audiences, and, perhaps most importantly, how they do all that.

Indeed, they’ve all become involved with MassChallenge Boston, the group that helps accelerate startups, and they’ve also assisted Valley Venture Mentors (through donations of money and expertise) in its efforts to mentor startups and expand its mission. And such work has fostered a true spirit of innovation within GCAi itself as it partners with clients to help them navigate a changing landscape within marketing and with everything from understanding and maximizing social media to corporate reputation management.

“Innovation is a stick that you have to sharpen continually,” John Garvey explained. “You literally cannot be innovative unless you have your eyes wide open and you’re looking and you’re learning and you’re challenging yourself. Being around startups … that entrepreneurialism, that innovation, is absolutely contagious. So we find ourselves thinking and acting in new and different ways.”

Such an operating mindset is necessary for a marketing firm today, said Shea, because change is constant, it’s coming from every direction, and the pace of change is only accelerating. Also, in this era of conversion, marketing firms are increasingly being judged not on their ability to garner exposure, but on sales generated by a specific campaign or strategy.

Which brings Shea to the subject of data and access to it.

“One of the most profound changes to come to marketing is marketers’ ability to use data,” she said, while summing up how the landscape has been altered by technology and why innovation is important. “It’s a seismic change in terms of our ability to get our work done.”

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event

James Garvey, seen here presenting at a MassChallenge event, says companies have more access to data than ever before, and they must take full advantage of that opportunity.

Elaborating, she said Google AdWords, Facebook, and other vehicles enable marketers to send specific messages to targeted audiences in ways that simply weren’t possible decades or even a few years ago.

James Garvey agreed.

“It’s a fascinating time to be involved in social-media marketing since Facebook is in the headlines daily,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of misconception out there about how Facebook works, especially with regard to advertising. We develop messaging for clients, and we use Facebook as a means of delivering the message in a way that people can consume it, but also delivering it directly to the audience we need to reach — meaning very specific groups of people.

“For example, you can reach men or women ages 25 to 35 who live within two miles of downtown Springfield who are interested in home ownership,” he went on while elaborating. “That’s how specific you can get.”

GCAi, which boasts clients across virtually all sectors of the economy, including financial services, healthcare, transportation, and more, is a certified Google Partner (the only firm in the region to gain such status), and its qualified AdWords professionals are independently tested and certified in several different aspects of online advertising each year.

Meanwhile, the company specializes in what it calls the ‘ideation’ approach to working with clients to identify needs and challenges, map out a marketing strategy, and determine the most effective methods of getting a message across.

To explain, Shea and Fortune pointed to the whiteboards on all four walls of the GCAi conference room. Over the course of an ideation session, they will become covered with writing in the form of answers to questions asked and thoughts about what to do, strategically, with that information from a marketing and branding standpoint.

For this issue and its focus on sales and marketing, BusinessWest talked with members of the GCAi team about marketing, technology, and social media — but mostly about innovation, and how it enables the company and its clients to stay on the proverbial cutting edge of progress.

Data Driven

On the day BusinessWest visited GCAi, the whiteboards in the conference room were covered with what amounts to a bullet-pointed chronology of the firm.

Noted milestones included everything from the elder Garvey’s first work in public relations, back in college for the U.S. Youth Games, to the arrival of each staff member (Shea started as an intern in 2004, for example); from the reminder that Garvey needed a loan from his grandmother to stay afloat after the dot-com bubble burst at the start of this century and business dried up, to his self-proclaimed 15 seconds of fame when he captured a dramatic photo of the tornado that tore through downtown Springfield on June 1, 2011, an image that went viral within minutes after it was taken.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board. So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.”

Mostly, though, the walls tell the story of a company responding to rapid, constant change in technology, especially within the realm of digital marketing, and using innovation to help clients make sense of it all — not an easy task in any respect — and make the very most of their marketing budgets.

Indeed, the team likes to say that GCAi, unlike many businesses today, has social media figured out, and it has created a niche of sorts as it specializes in helping clients large and small figure social media out and put all that data that is now available to good use.

“There is a lot more data available today, there’s easier access to it, it’s instantaneous, and you can use it quickly and easily to make adjustments to a campaign,” said Shea, adding that, not long ago, companies would have to spend a lot of money to access such information, which essentially limited that access.

“What social-media marketing and Google AdWords has done is essentially democratize the use of data for businesses across the board,” said John Garvey. “So it is a seismic shift. This is profound data; it’s not just likes and clicks.

But having access to data is just part of the equation. Knowing what to do with it and how to present a message to the audience being targeted … that’s the other side. And the team at GCAi has become specialists in such work, handling both aspects of this work — creating content and a message (work that falls more to Fortune and John Garvey), and devising the most efficient, cost-effective means of disseminating it, work assigned to Shea and James Garvey.

And the watchword in all aspects of this work is relevance.

“That’s the church we go to pray at,” said John Garvey, referring to that team. “If the message isn’t relevant, meaning the target audience we spoke of doesn’t react to it in a positive way, find it useful, and find it interesting, then we get penalized as marketers; it’s the modern-day equivalent of hanging up a bad ad that no one gets.”

To keep clients and their messages relevant, the GCAi team focuses on innovation, said Fortune, adding that the company’s involvement with Valley Venture Mentors and MassChallenge has helped it in a number of ways, from getting in touch with what’s happening within specific business sectors to sharpening presentation skills, to mentoring startups on the best ways to reach their audience.

“We sit with them and talk with them for maybe 10 minutes, and you can see the light go off,” said Fortune. “They’re excited to have that tidbit of information from us on how to reach people. And you get to meet people from around the world; it’s very exhilarating.”

John Garvey agreed, and noted, again, that when you hang around entrepreneurs all the time, there is a trickle-down, or rub-off, effect.

“We’re much more attuned to new and different ways of getting results,” he explained. “Our secret sauce is comprised of ingredients like energy, innovation, and ideas, and the cake that we’re trying to make is to create really meaningful and measurable results, and the only way that’s possible is through a continual search of the means and methodologies of these platforms, but also an appetite for data, the ability to digest it, break it up, understand it, and make it relevant to the client.”

James Garvey agreed, and said his technical background — he’s a graduate of BWM of North America’s STEP program and has worked for both BMW and Mercedes-Benz in the Boston and New York City markets — has helped him, and thus the firm, grasp the importance of data and measuring results.

“Having that engineering background, or training, and working with data are very similar,” he explained. “They’re very precise, measurable, and granular.”

Together, those involved with content and those focused on dissemination work together to create an overall strategy, said Shea, adding that, collectively, the team works to find the right channels to get the message across.

“You can’t fit a round peg into a square hole,” she said, adding that each platform, or channel, is different, and it’s critical to devise content that is appropriate for each one and not ease into a one-size-fits-all mentality.

John Garvey agreed. “All those platforms are arrows in our quiver, and Mary and James help us figure out the right means and methodologies to take this to market.”

And finding the right ones is now critical, said James, noting that marketing firms like GCAi are now more accountable, if that’s the proper term, when it comes to sales — or the conversion of leads into sales — than ever before.

“Marketing firms are more responsible further down in the sales funnel than we were even a few years ago,” he explained. “Before, we were measured by our ability to generate top-of-mind awareness; now, our clients hold us responsible for a full and trackable conversion, meaning that we can prove that our campaign led to a particular conversion. That responsibility totally changed.”

The Last Word

There’s been a recent addition to the décor at the GCAi suite of offices in Monarch Place — an old manual Underwood typewriter that the senior Garvey found “somewhere.”

It’s an example of where technology and this industry were a long time ago, said Fortune, and therefore a reminder of how quickly and profoundly things change.

So quickly and profoundly that trying to project a few years, or even a few months, into the future is a largely futile exercise. There’s no better way to explain why an effective marketing firm today must, or should, have an operating philosophy grounded in innovation — in constantly finding new and better ways to do business and help clients succeed.

And there’s no better way to explain why GCAi continues to grow and prosper.

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

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