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Cover Story

Making His Case

Louie Theros

Louie Theros


Louie Theros is a trial lawyer by trade. In fact, his wife has told him on numerous occasions that she has never seen him happier than when he’s in the courtroom trying a case.

He would agree with that assessment wholeheartedly.

“I loved the strategy of it and sitting down with my colleagues and working themes of cases,” he told BusinessWest. “How we were going to deal with the opposite side’s parries, changes in strategy, and how we had to learn and deal with the jury and get them to like us and our case. I loved everything about it.”

But while he’s energized by the various elements of a courtroom fight, he acknowledged that his current challenge is probably the biggest and most intriguing of his career.

Indeed, Theros has seen his most recent career aspiration come to fruition with his appointment as president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, succeeding Chris Kelley, who held that role for four challenge-laden years (he arrived not long before the pandemic descended on the region) before departing at the end of 2023.

Prior to his arrival in Springfield, Theros served MGM as vice president, legal counsel, and assistant secretary at MGM Grand Detroit, and then in those same roles for MGM’s Midwest Group, which also included a casino in Ohio. In those various positions, he said he learned all aspects of the casino business, and especially what he called the “human-resources side,” a natural byproduct of working in employment law for 25 years before joining the casino giant and then continuing that type of work.

“I’ve told people here during my first few weeks that I’m sort of a ‘culture person,’” he said. “I’ve been on the human-resources side my entire career, working with a variety of companies, spanning Fortune 10 corporations to single-person entities, and I’ve learned a lot about the human element. So one of my goals here is to drive culture among employees and between our hourlies and our managers.”

“When we designed this … we didn’t design a glass, Vegas-like place; this fits into the community. Corporate-wise, we really felt the vibe of Springfield, and we really paid a lot of attention to this fitting into the community.”

That’s one of many goals he brings with him to MGM Springfield, where he becomes the third president and COO of that facility. He acknowledged that his predecessors, Mike Mathis and then Kelley, had specific assignments.

Mathis’s was to open the facility — a four-year process that ended in August 2018 — and then put it on solid ground. Kelley was then charged with ramping up, he said, adding that this process was complicated by COVID and then dominated by the introduction of sports gambling.

Generalizing, Theros said his assignment is to build on the foundation that’s been laid and simply try to improve on every aspect of the operation, a long list that includes the gross gambling revenue (GGR) generated at the facility, the entertainment shows at various venues, and the broad impact MGM Springfield has on the surrounding South End area and the region in general.

There are already some items on his to-do list — reactivating the former church that was home to a Kringle Candle outlet but has been vacant for several years, energizing the hotel’s spa, and adding to the entertainment calendar, for example — but mostly, at this early stage, he’s still watching, learning, getting to know the region, and, overall, setting the bar higher for the casino complex.

casino complex

As Louie Theros takes the helm at MGM, he senses growing momentum, both at the casino complex and in Springfield’s South End.
(Photo by Jose Figueroa)

“This should be the best that Springfield has to offer — we have the resources to have the best steakhouse, the best Italian restaurant, the best food court, the best experience for someone who’s looking for something exciting to do on any night of the week,” he said, adding that, in most respects, the casino is already there, and with the others, it’s his job to get it there.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Theros about everything from the path he took to Springfield to what he wants to do with this opportunity to oversee his own casino.


Odds Are…

Theros is certainly no stranger to Springfield and its casino. Indeed, he came here during the pandemic to help prepare the facility for its reopening and was also part of the large team that opened the facility five and half years ago.

“I spent two weeks here then,” he said, gaining during that brief stint an appreciation for the property, what it meant to Springfield and the region, and the role it would play in helping to transform that section of the city.

“I’ve always loved this building,” he said, adding that his affection reflects both what the property is and what it isn’t. “When we designed this … we didn’t design a glass, Vegas-like place; this fits into the community. Corporate-wise, we really felt the vibe of Springfield, and we really paid a lot of attention to this fitting into the community.”

Overall, his role is to continually improve that ‘fit,’ and to build on a general sense of momentum at both the casino and the area surrounding it, punctuated by everything from solid GGR numbers to the recent naming of a preferred developer — Chicago-based McCaffrey Interests Inc. — for three properties across Main Street from the casino that have long been vacant or mostly vacant and in most ways eyesores.

Theros, who officially took the helm on Jan. 2, navigated a winding and somewhat unusual path to casino management.

He graduated from Vanderbilt University Law School in 1989, returned to Michigan, where he grew up, and soon thereafter began practicing civil-rights law on the defense side, handling human-resources and labor issues for clients of all sizes, including, eventually, MGM Resorts, which had opened a casino in Detroit in July 1999.

He handled work for the company for several years before joining MGM as one of its in-house lawyers in 2015, eventually becoming vice president, legal counsel, and assistant secretary, first for the Detroit casino and then for the Midwest Group.

Prior to joining MGM, though, he served on the board of the Detroit-based law firm he was with, Butzel Long, getting a taste, as he put it, of operating a large business.

“This was an $80 million to $90 million law firm at that time, and now, it’s much bigger,” he noted. “I really like operations, and I always have.”

Indeed, he said that, from the days he would bus tables for some of the Greek restaurant owners in town who counted his parents as their accountants, he’s always had a fascination for the operational side of companies and knowing and understanding every facet of a business.

“People have put their trust in me to lead this organization and lead this property into the future, and I really feel privileged to do this.”

And this fascination continued with MGM’s Detroit casino, he said, adding that he chose to stick his nose, as he put it, in places generally not frequented by in-house lawyers.

“I was very deliberate in educating myself about all aspects of a casino during my eight-plus years in Detroit,” he told BusinessWest. “I spent a lot of time socializing, whether it was having a cup of coffee with someone from table games or the slots department. And the food and beverage leader and VP of Hospitality were right next door to my office, so I spent a lot of time talking about that aspect of the business.”

And many others as well, he went on, adding that, as he acquired this broad base of knowledge, he arrived at a place where he believed himself ready to lead his own casino. He applied for such a role at MGM’s Ohio facility, and while he didn’t get the job, he said he certainly sharpened his teeth through the lengthy interview process and then “did some more learning.”

And when Kelley, with whom he worked at MGM’s Detroit casino, announced he was leaving his role in Springfield late last year, Theros applied again, and this time won the position. It’s a role, and a challenge, that he embraces.

Springfield’s newest gaming option: sports betting.

One of Louis Theros’s challenges will be to build on MGM Springfield’s newest gaming option: sports betting.

“People have put their trust in me to lead this organization and lead this property into the future, and I really feel privileged to do this,” he said. “I would most likely have run my law firm if I had stayed there, if I had not come to MGM — I was one of the top two or three people running the firm when I was there — and I’ve always felt the desire to lead some organization, and when I got to MGM and learned the business and got more involved in it, a few years in, I said to myself, ‘I know I can do this.’ I’m honored that they picked me to do this.”


Betting on Himself

When asked to informally write his own job description for the president and COO of MGM Springfield, Theros said there are two sides to that equation — internal and external.

With the former, he said his job is to set a positive tone for the staff, something he believes comes naturally. “I’ve always been a ‘set a positive tone at the top’ person,” he said. “And I would never ask my employees to do something I would not do, and I expect my leaders to set that same tone.

“And I want people to feel, as I do, that this is an absolutely fantastic place to work — I love coming to work every day,” he went on. “So, my job is to come in, make sure our employees like coming here and treat everyone with respect, and make sure they have an opportunity, much like I’ve had, to move up in the company.”

On the external side of the equation, he said his job description involves creating an experience for the guest and prompting them to put MGM Springfield top of mind when it comes to gatherings and ways to celebrate occasions and milestones in their lives — or just or a random Saturday evening.

“When they’re thinking of a special event — an anniversary, a birthday party, whatever it is — we want them thinking, ‘we should go to MGM Springfield because it’s a wonderful place to go, we get great service, and we could get great food.’ My job is to deliver that.”

Theros said it’s also his job to get involved in the community, and to inspire others to get involved as well.

Overall, he’s encouraged by what he sees, both at his casino and in the community, citing everything from apparent progress on the properties across Main Street, including the Clocktower Building and the Colonial Block, and the rapid leasing of the apartments in the revitalized former Court Square Hotel (a project MGM has taken part in), which is a source of pride but also some frustration for Theros, who has been looking for a place a live.

“At 31 Elm, they have 74 units; they rented them all in 30 days,” he said. “I couldn’t find a place, even across the street. That’s fantastic; that shows me that the city and the surrounding area are really robust.”

Theros’s personal car didn’t arrive in Springfield until late last month, but he made use of the casino’s limo to visit various communities in the region — and even one of his competitors — while also walking to events ranging from a few Thunderbirds games to Red Sox Winter Weekend at the MassMutual Center.

“At 31 Elm, they have 74 units; they rented them all in 30 days. I couldn’t find a place, even across the street. That’s fantastic; that shows me that the city and the surrounding area is really robust.”

Returning to his casino property and the multi-faceted operation there, Theros said that, to date, he’s mostly been observing and making notes as he compiles a more comprehensive to-do list. He stressed that the operation is maturing and reaching, if not exceeding, many of the expectations the city and region had when the casino opened to considerable fanfare on that hot August day in 2018.

“Chris [Kelley] has gotten us to a nice place; the whole team has,” he told BusinessWest. “My goal, quite simply, is to build on that.”


Bottom Line

When asked what he’d rather be doing — trying a case or managing a casino — Theros paused briefly before answering.

“For pure adrenaline, trying a lawsuit, trying a case in front of a jury — that’s an adrenaline rush,” he said. “When someone high-fives you after you’ve cross-examined someone — I had one of my associates do that — that’s a big rush.

“For personal satisfaction, though, it’s running a casino,” he went on. “I have more direct impact on an outcome here than I do at a trial because the jury is the arbiter at the end of the day.”

Still, he’s hoping to create something approaching those cross-examination rushes at the casino on Main Street as he takes on what he called the “cherry on the top of his career,” and an opportunity to really make a case for MGM Springfield.

Home Improvement Special Coverage

A Lifetime of Lessons

Curio and Frank Nataloni

Curio and Frank Nataloni

One great thing about opening a business, Curio Nataloni said, is that no one can lay you off.

Oh, sometimes businesses fail, but entrepreneurship means everything is in the owner’s hands, which can be scary, but has mostly been rewarding — for more than 50 years.

After returning from service in Vietnam in the early 1970s, “I was working on construction, and I kept getting laid off,” Nataloni told BusinessWest just a few days after his company, Kitchens by Curio, celebrated a half-century in business. So he took a cabinetry job for a homeowner in Longmeadow, and after some solid word of mouth in the neighborhood — resulting in other kitchen projects — even after his former employer summoned him back, he decided he’d rather venture out on his own.

“I did most of the bathrooms and kitchens that have ever been remodeled on that street; it was all referrals,” he said. “Did I make a lot of money? No. But I never got laid off again. That’s the bottom line. And that’s what my goal was.”

From there, he opened a showroom in Ludlow, which was open from 1 to 9 p.m. each day. “The next morning, if I sold anything, I would go out and install it — vanities and stuff like that. And that’s how I got started. Then I got another helper, and I kept on being consistent.”

Consistent enough to weather an economic downturn in the mid-’70s that saw 14 businesses in the kitchen sector shut their doors in a single year.

“I did the best I could,” Nataloni said. “I didn’t waste any money. A lot of people that would get some money, they’d go buy a new car. I didn’t buy a new car; I just reinvested in the business. Because that’s what it’s all about. Having a business is just like having a fire. You always have to put another log on.”

After 10 years in business, in 1984, Nataloni moved to his current location on Boston Road in Springfield. Around the same time, his brother, Frank Nataloni, who had worked with Curio part-time during summers, came on board full-time, and the two of them have steered Kitchens by Curio to consistent sales and growth for the next four decades, joined in recent years by Curio’s son, Michael Nataloni, who intends to continue to lead and grow the company whenever his father and uncle decide to take a step back.

Early on, Frank said, “cabinets were our core product. Prior to the big boxes, we would do a fair amount of retail sales, but most of it was install sales and renovation; that was the core part of the business and still is. Then, as the big boxes became more prevalent, our contractor business sort of started to disappear, so we just focused on doing our renovation work.”

Frank became one of the few designers in the area who is not only a certified kitchen designer (CKD), but also a certified bath designer (CBD). He also taught interior design classes at Bay Path University (then Bay Path College). Among the duo’s accolades, they are five-time national award winners in the CKD competition, two-time CKD award winners (Maytag and Wilson Art), and recipients of House Beautiful’s Kitchen of the Year honor.

Kitchens by Curio

Kitchens by Curio moved from Ludlow to its home on Boston Road in Springfield about 40 years ago.

“My grandmother taught me a lot of good practices that I still use to this day,” Curio said. “Our concept is very simple: it’s better to make a little bit every day than make a killing once every three months. That means you’ve got to be fair to the customer on price, and you’ve always got to deliver quality.”

Fifty years of success suggests that philosophy has been a sound one.


All in the Family

Like his uncle, Michael Nataloni worked on and off at the family business during his youth, and decided to make a permanent switch after working in college athletics for a decade and deciding that wasn’t for him.

“It wasn’t as fun as it had been,” he told BusinessWest. “So I was looking around at different things. I’ve always been kind of hands-on, and I’ve been doing stuff like this my whole life, so it was a good fit. I came back and I said, ‘wow, this is a great time. I’m going to get out of college athletics at the end of the year, and I’m going to get into this at the beginning of the year.’”

That year was 2020, and as soon as he arrived at Kitchens by Curio full-time, the world shut down.

But it didn’t stay closed in the home-improvement business, which took off in a big way once people started spending more time at home for work, school, and, well, everything.

“The timing was good,” Frank said. “Our business grew quite a bit after the pandemic. And there was no new construction, but there was a lot of renovation. And that always has been our strong suit, so it really played into our strengths.”

As for Michael, “he really doing every facet of the business. Right now, when we get to the end of a project, he’s like our ace reliever; he comes in and finishes any fine details. And he’s great with clients. I mean, we’re trying to find someone who doesn’t like him,” Frank continued. “He has a good attitude, and he wants to do a good job. And he’s always coming up to me saying, ‘well, what about if we do this?’ He’s trying to figure out different ways to do the work.”

Michael agreed that he takes a forward-thinking approach to his burgeoning career.

“Our concept is very simple: it’s better to make a little bit every day than make a killing once every three months. That means you’ve got to be fair to the customer on price, and you’ve always got to deliver quality.”

“One phrase that I’ve never liked is when anybody tells me, ‘well, this is the way we do it; this is the way it’s always been done.’ Well, that’s fantastic. But the world has changed. We’re not still flipping through magazines; we’re on the internet. And you have to follow that progression.”

The business uses a website called Houzz to help identify what customers are looking for, and even customers who walk in for the first time tend to have done plenty of their own online research — or watched a lot of HGTV — so they arrive with more specific ideas than customers in decades past.

Michael Nataloni

Michael Nataloni brings new perspectives and an openness to change to his developing second-generation leadership role.

Meanwhile, the brothers secured a contract to be the only kitchen and bath designer in New England with access to ProKitchen Oculus VR software, with the ability to change cabinet door styles and finishes, flooring, countertops, wall colors, and more in virtual-reality glasses.

“We can put people in the Oculus glasses, and they can walk through their kitchen,” Frank said. “It’s amazing. So we’ve invested in technology.”

Michael appreciates such developments. “You’ve got to be ahead of things. You can’t always be focused on the rearview mirror. So I try to envision down the road and ask, ‘OK, how can we move stuff around, display new things, include certain things that can move us forward and help with sales?’”


Change and Consistency

But Michael emphasizes more than forward thinking; he was also quick to acknowledge that trust is a key element in a successful home-improvement business.

“That’s one thing that I always stress with customers, even at the first meeting. I say, ‘this is a relationship. If you don’t trust me, the job’s never going to work.’”

Once that relationship is built, he added, most customers have no problem going out and leaving the crew at the house.

“Once you reach that point, you know it’s going to be a good fit and everyone’s going to be happy, and that’s the name of the game,” Michael went on. “If you do a good job for a customer, that customer’s going to tell 10 people. If you do a bad job, that customer is going to tell everybody.”

Curio also stressed that trust element. “The only thing we can do is give people a plan, a contract, and a sample of what the kitchen’s going to look like. So in reality, it comes back to people trusting you, and when they place that trust in you, you can’t shortchange them. So regardless of what we do, whether we make money or we lose money, the job has to be done right, period. That’s it.”

Clearly, these are values that have remained consistent over 50 years, even as styles have shifted dramatically in flooring materials, cabinet and appliance colors, and dozens of other elements.

“A lot has changed over the years,” Frank said. “When my brother founded the company in ’74, he was building cabinets in our parents’ basement part-time. The technology has significantly evolved, particularly with appliances. Styles have changed dozens of times over the years, and some of them are starting to come back again. But the two things that never changed were our dedication to quality and customer service.”

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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