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Opinion

Editorial

 

As he talked with BusinessWest recently about the prospects for the region in 2023 and beyond, Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, stressed the need for creation of a growth strategy for Western Mass.

And he’s right. A region that has become notorious, if that’s the right word, for its lack of growth over the past several decades needs a strategy for bringing more jobs, more businesses, and more vibrancy to the 413.

What goes into such a strategy? Many different things, but it starts with identifying areas where a region can grow and then putting specific strategies in place for making it happen. After all, growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum — it happens where there are opportunities, be it through developable land, location, a large and talented workforce, comparatively lower costs of doing business, an existing infrastructure and critical mass of businesses in specific sectors, a high quality of life, and … did we mention a talented workforce?

These elements have led to profound growth in areas ranging from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle in North Carolina; from Cambridge to countless towns in Mexico.

The region has several of these attributes, including quality of life, a comparatively lower cost of living (for now, anyway); some available land; a solid workforce trained for some specific sectors, especially manufacturing; a location that provides easy access to Boston, New York, and other major cities; and emerging sectors such as cybersecurity, green energy, and even so-called water technology.

But is this region ready to grow? Can it accommodate more businesses and provide them with the workers they need?

That is a harder question to answer. On the surface, it would seem that, based on the fact that almost every business in every sector, especially healthcare, is struggling to find good help, the answer is ‘no.’ But throughout history, regions have found that, if you create jobs, people will come to that area.

Moving forward, the region needs to take some steps to enable growth to happen. It needs to build its workforce by keeping more young people here and prompting more young people to come here. To do that, there must be jobs, as in good jobs, and places to live. Right now, the region doesn’t have enough of either, which is a problem.

But while creating jobs is important in this new age, the jobs don’t necessarily have to be in the 413. With the advent of remote work, the jobs can be in New York, Boston, or elsewhere, and people can live here.

Either way, this region will need more housing, specifically affordable housing. It will also need a larger and more skilled workforce, which means more training programs and better utilization of one of the region’s best and perhaps least-appreciated assets — its four community colleges.

Meanwhile — and we know you’ve heard this before — it needs to do a better job of telling its story and marketing itself to businesses in other regions of this state and well beyond.

None of this is new, really. The region has known it needs to take these steps and others for years, if not decades now. What would help would be to formalize all this, put a plan together, and take steps to implement it.

Because growth doesn’t happen by accident.

Architecture

Blueprinting a Succession Plan

new leadership team at Dietz & Co.

From left, the new leadership team at Dietz & Co.: Kevin Riordan, Tina Gloster, Jason Newman, and Lee Morrissette.

As he talked about the transition in ownership, and leadership, taking place at Springfield-based Dietz & Co. Architects, Jason Newman used the phrase ‘ease-in, ease-out mentality’ to describe the process.

By that he meant that Kerry Dietz, founder of the firm and its principal, has been easing out of the many responsibilities involved with leading this company of nearly 30 employees and its many projects, while a team of four leaders — architects (and principals) Jason Newman, Lee Morrissette, and Kevin Riordan, and CFO Tina Gloster — have been easing into them.

That’s a simple yet efficient way of describing what’s been happening at the Dietz firm for roughly the past two years now as it transitions from a single owner to one with an employee stock-ownership plan, or ESOP, which is a form of employee benefit plan, similar in many ways to a profit-sharing plan.

“Kerry didn’t want to just hand us the keys and walk away, and we didn’t want her to do that either,” said Newman, who studied under her while earning his degree in architecture at UMass Amherst. “We’ve been in our new roles and taking on new responsibilities as principals in the firm, but we also have the comfort, and benefit, of Kerry being here on a limited basis to help guide us and mentor us and still bring all the positive energy she brings to the office, which will sorely be missed when she finally steps away.”

And with Dietz, who is now working just a day or two a week, set to fully retire at the end of this year, the transition process is now pretty much complete, said Newman, adding quickly that those involved are still easing in or out in many respects, but settling into their new roles.

For Dietz, that means the next stage of her life after a more than 40-year career in architecture that saw her make her mark not only in her field, but in the city of Springfield, where she moved her firm into the renovated Union Station; and in the community, where she has been active and philanthropic, and made sure her company and its employees were as well. For this strong combination of business success and involvement in the community, Dietz became a member of BusinessWest’s inaugural Women of Impact class in 2017.

For those succeeding her in leadership positions, it’s a time to write the next chapter for a company that has changed the landscape in the region, literally, designing buildings across many different sectors, from housing to education; office to gaming (it designed many of the spaces at MGM Springfield).

 

Transparent Approach

As they start writing those new chapters, those we spoke with said the ESOP model, one in which ownership of the firm is essentially shared by all employees, will work well at Dietz, and for a number of reasons.

“It’s a very interesting way to look at a business, especially in the design industry, where so much of what we do is teamwork,” said Newman, adding that the ESOP model dovetails nicely with the company’s operating structure in ways that were not really anticipated, or fully understood, when the concept was first proposed in late 2020.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee. If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

Another factor is the high level of transparency that has defined Kerry Dietz’s management style and now characterizes the company, said Morrissette, an experienced architect who came to Dietz in 2019 after working at firms in the Boston area.

“One of the things that is most remarkable to me, coming from other firms in the Boston area and elsewhere before that, is the level of business transparency that the Dietz company has offered from the very first meeting I came into,” he explained. “The quarterly performance of the company and our business initiatives are clear to all the employees, and we have an open-book policy when it comes to everything but salaries, and that’s very uncommon in our industry.

“There has been a very consistent approach to sharing the business of architecture with the entire staff,” he went on. “It’s an education for everyone; it was for me when I first came here — I learned a lot about the business of architecture, and it’s made it a lot easier to do this transition, because we were included the whole time so we could take on more and more understanding and more and more responsibility.”

Riordan, who has been with Dietz for nearly 20 years, agreed.

“Kerry was one person running the firm, and that was a huge responsibility, with a lot of tasks and pieces attached to that,” he said. “It’s been really great to see everyone step into those roles in their own way and actually make a better process for running the firm, because there’s no one person trying to manage it all, plus run projects. There are four of us that are actually taking on the tasks and developing our own initiatives for how we make those tasks better.”

Still, there has been a sharp learning curve with this transition, said Newman, adding that it’s still ongoing.

“It’s definitely a completely different way to run a business,” he said. “Many of the aspects of being an ESOP are quite positive; we have a lot more opportunities for our employees to engage and reap the benefits of being a company owner, from the financial side as well as the cultural side. It’s not one person at the top who has full authority on decision making and the strategic direction of the company.”

Elaborating, he said that, in addition to the four in the four leadership positions, there is also a board of directors charged, in essence, with making sure the company is being run fairly and that all voices are heard.

“The ultimate authority at the company is the employee,” Newman went on. “If we’re not running the company in a way that is benefiting, or for the benefit of, the employees, then we’re not doing our jobs.”

With the transition in leadership, the three principals have taken on new responsibilities. Morrissette said he will be working on marketing, alongside Marketing Coordinator Ashley Solomon, while also directing the many housing projects the firm takes on, as well as municipal projects. Meanwhile, Newman said he will be working closely with Gloster and focusing on the business side of the company — “talking with our lawyers, corporate governance, contracts, insurance, all this stuff you love to do as an architect.”

Riordan, meanwhile, said he will be focused on “quality control” and developing systems to enable the firm to operate better and more efficiently, adding that all three principals will be involved in several aspects of management, including the recruitment and hiring of talent and building the book of business.

 

Branching Out

Moving forward, those we spoke with expect some changes at Dietz. One of them involves a broadening of the firm’s reach and getting closer to clients — quite literally, said Morrissette, adding that, with the firm doing consistently larger amounts of work in the Boston area, it will open an office in that city in the near future.

With the pandemic and the manner in which it allowed firms to connect with and work for clients remotely, he explained, the firm has taken on more projects outside the 413 and in areas like Boston, a trend that will continue into the future.

“We’re reaching out, geographically, more than we have in the past, and that’s very exciting,” he said. “This [remote] interaction is something we’re getting very comfortable and familiar with, and it has allowed us to reach much farther than we have before … that’s a big step forward, and it’s something we definitely gained from the pandemic.”

What won’t change, though, is the high level of commitment to the community, and giving back, that Kerry Dietz made part of its fabric of doing business.

“We have a long and strong history in affordable housing and in serving the organizations and the nonprofits that serve our communities,” Newman said. “And our passion to continue to fill that role has not wavered in the slightest. When Kerry was running the company herself, she had a very generous charitable-giving strategy, which we have looked at, revisited, and ramped up.

“We pride ourselves on being an architecture firm that supports the people who support us,” he went on. “And that won’t change.”

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

They cut the ribbon at the new Marriott Springfield Downtown last week.

It was a lavish ceremony that was more than three years in the making. That’s how long it has taken serial entrepreneurs Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, owners of Springfield Hospitality, to transform the property in Tower Square, which lost the Marriott flag several years ago amid serious decline, into one of the state’s best hotels west of Boston.

A host of local, state, and national elected officials, area business leaders, and representatives of the Marriott chain turned out to celebrate the transformation of the property and the return of the Marriott flag to Springfield. There were speeches, tours, music from the Springfield Sci-Tech band, and more.

The ceremony marked more than the official ribbon-cutting for the hotel, though. It commemorated a triumph over extreme challenge — this renovation, or re-imagination, of the property was undertaken during the pandemic and thus had to overcome a series of stern challenges — and a raising of the bar, if you will, in Springfield and its downtown.

Indeed, like MGM Springfield before it, the new Marriott sets a new standard for imagination and quality in the city, and it is our hope that it will inspire others to reach higher and think bigger as they contemplate what can be done in Springfield and its downtown.

From the beginning, not just with the hotel but with the larger Tower Square property, Patel and Mitta have thought outside the box — relocating the Greater Springfield YMCA to the property is perhaps the best example — and never settled for ‘good enough’ as they have remade the landmark that opened in the late ’60s and set the tone for a period of building higher and better in the city’s downtown.

It is our hope that, more than 50 years later, the renovated Marriott and Tower Square complex can have a similar impact.

Indeed, while there has been some real progress in downtown Springfield over the past several years with MGM Springfield, the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel (still ongoing), the construction of a new parking garage (set to begin), and other initiatives, many other properties remain vacant or very much underutilized.

This is especially true farther south on Main Street in the area across from the MGM complex. But there are other properties as well that are awaiting new life.

The Marriott project, and the larger Tower Square initiative, have shown what can be done. They’ve shown what’s possible when people are willing to commit to Springfield and, as we said, think big. It is our hope, and expectation, that it will be a big success from a business perspective as well.

It is also our hope that this project, and some of the others now taking shape, like Court Square, will inspire other developers to look at Springfield as a city worth investing in.

All this, in addition to a grand new hotel, is what people were celebrating at that ribbon cutting.

 

Cover Story

Making Progress

The Latino Economic Development Council recently opened the doors to its new facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More importantly, it is off to a fast and impactful start as it works to open doors — and keep them open — for business owners and entrepreneurs, especially those in the large, and growing, Latino business community. It will offer microgrants and facilities for meetings and co-working opportunities, but most importantly, it will provide much-needed coaching in subjects ranging from finance to human resources to mental wellness.

 

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

 

Andrew Melendez says he’s led a number of tours of the new Latino Economic Development Council headquarters facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More than he can count, actually.

He said the comments from those taking those tours vary, but there is a common, and very important, theme. Most say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — but wish they had.

Indeed, the Latino EDC, or LEDC, as it’s called, an affiliate of Partners for Community, is different. It is not a chamber of commerce, although it has some of those qualities and it partners with those institutions. It’s not an incubator, but it has some of those qualities, and it partners with those critical components of the entrepreneurship ecosystem as well.

It is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners — especially those within the large and growing Latino business community, looking to take the next step with their venture, whatever that might be — and share what they know.

The council will also provide microgrants of a few thousand dollars or even less to assist with startup costs, while also providing co-working space and facilities — the PeoplesBank Business Lounge — that the business community can use for meetings and teleconferences.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level.”

In short, what the LEDC wants to do is convert employees into employers, spark the growth and development of new businesses, and change the landscape on Main Street — and many other streets — in area communities, said Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC.

It will do this not necessarily with microgrants — although they can certainly help a microbusiness or startup buy a sign, secure a new piece of equipment, or do some social-media marketing, perhaps — but with a combination of those grants and training programs from those coaches on how to qualify for a business loan, workforce training, mental wellness, and much more.

“We’ll be able to offer ‘Finance 101,’ ‘Accounting 101,’ ‘Building Wealth,’ ‘How to Lead by Example,’ and so on,” said Melendez, adding that the LEDC is partnering with a host of entities and agencies, from the state to the U.S. Small Business Administration in its efforts to build a larger, more sustainable Latino business community.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

Overall, he said, the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get to where they want to go: coaching, capital (those microgrants, but also counseling and technical assistance that might help them secure loans from area banks and credit unions), and connections to other business-development and economic-development-related agencies on the local, state, and national levels.

Adriano Vaccaro, CEO of Culture Redesigned, a culture strategist by trade and a workforce training coach for the LEDC, agreed.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the agency is putting together a comprehensive catalog of training programs. “And we’re attaching key performance indicators to the coaching sessions, so we can not only provide the skills and fill the gaps, but make sure we’re producing the results that are needed. It’s not just training — it’s training connected to a particular result.”

That’s an important distinction, she said, noting that the coaches are results-oriented and emphasize measuring — and sustaining — those results.

“It doesn’t mean that every business needs everything,” she went on. “We will do a needs assessment and make sure every business gets whatever they need, from where they’re starting their journey with us.”

Melendez concurred. “We want to make sure that, whether it’s a small business making $3 million or a microbusiness making $300,000 or an entrepreneur just starting up, they all have access to the same resources; that’s the fairness,” he said. “In January of 2020, Joe Biden said it’s not fair that some people get to pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer or an HR professional or someone to guide them in a workers’ comp claim, and other people don’t. This is us ensuring that our community — and I want to define our community as this whole community; anyone can come to the LEDC — has access to resources.”

As for the microgrants, made possible by federal ARPA funds awarded to Springfield and funneled to the LEDC, Melendez said there have already been more than 125 applications for such grants, and he expects that number to go much higher in the weeks to come.

BusinessWest recently sat down with Melendez and several of the coaches that are part of the LEDC to get some perspective on how this unique agency will work, how it will address stated goals, and, perhaps most importantly, how it will measure success.

The quick answer, as we’ll see, is that there will be many ways to do just that.

 

Getting Down to Business

It’s called the ‘imposter syndrome,’ and most business owners and professionals are by now quite familiar with that phrase.

It connotes persistent feelings that one isn’t … well, entirely comfortable in their own skin, professionally, and not fully credentialed, either literally or figuratively, to be worthy of the title on their business card.

Dr. Edna Rodriguez, director of Behavioral Health at Mercy Medical Center, one of the coaches at the LEDC (and one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2022), said that many within the minority community fall victim to imposter syndrome.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

“Many doubt if we have the level of skill, the ideas, and the tools … they struggle with confidence and knowing that that they can do and achieve the things they are good at,” she explained. “And that can really create a lot of anxiety and other issues that can definitely impact the mental health of an individual.”

And that’s just one of the matters she addresses with those she counsels as a mental-wellness coach for the LEDC.

“Our culture is beautiful and colorful and very integrated, but with that comes a lot of burden, especially when we’re talking about taking on everything that happens both at work and to home,” she noted. “Often, our Latino folks find a hard time managing stress and taking care of their physical and mental health, especially when they’re in the role of being a business owner.

“So my role is to individually help people understand how they can care for themselves, how they can find balance, and how to communicate their needs in an assertive way to both the people around them and the people who can help them,” she went on. “Sometimes it’s hard to just take that first step and open up and seek help.”

Helping business owners — and, again, especially those within the Latino community — cope with such issues is just one of the many focal points of the LEDC, which grew out of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce and continues and expands upon its work, Melendez said.

Latino Economic Development Council

From left, Jose Hernandez, restaurant coach; Deborah Roque, accounting coach; Adriano Vaccaro; workforce training coach; Gilberto Amador, professional-development coach; Jesse Santos, finance and loan coach; Andrew Melendez; and Dr. Edna Rodriguez, mental-wellness coach.

And its model is unique, he went on, both in what it offers and that the services it provides are free.

“We want this to be free to the community, and I’m committed to that,” he said, adding that the LEDC was created to provide critical coaching and insight to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who may otherwise not be able to access such expertise.

Which brings him back to those tours he mentioned at the top and the comments from those who take them.

“I’ve taken dozens of people through the doors — people from Boston, Holyoke, Springfield, all over,” he said. “They’ve seen incubators with various businesses … but to walk in, and right where you walk in, there’s a marketing agency; an accountant; a psychologist; a professional-development trainer on safety; a professional-development trainer on diversity, equity, and inclusion; someone who can write a loan for you from beginning to end for free and send it to our partner banks … they haven’t seen that before.”

This is the essence of the LEDC, which Melendez likened to a credit union that doesn’t exclude anyone from membership. And the heart of the agency is its coaches, 28 of them at last count.

People like Rodriguez, the mental-wellness coach; Gilberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional development coach for the LEDC; Deborah Roque, owner of Affordable Accounting Services & Tax Preparation and an accounting coach for the agency; Jose Hernandez, owner of Palete Latin Cuisine in Springfield and the restaurant coach for the LEDC; Carlos DeLeon, a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, who provides guidance on personal finance; and Jesse Santos, a business finance and loan coach and officer with Latin Financial.

They and many others offer specific areas of expertise and, more importantly, a willingness to share it, that Amador summed up this way: “we bring something important to the table — experience, drive, and vision. And with the young people today, there’s going to be a generational gap if we don’t bring this information to them.”

 

Getting a Leg Up

Like Melendez and others we spoke with, Santos said capital is obviously critical to the advancement of any business venture, and is also an area many need help navigating, which is why he is now part of the coaching lineup at the LEDC.

“I’m here to guide those in the Latino community, and others as well, to get alternative funding, equipment financing, lines of credit — just help them get some funding,” he explained. “If the conventional banking system doesn’t help them or the rates are not to their favor or what they consider fair, they can come to me and we can broker it to other banks and other vendors to see what other opportunities we can get them.”

His work is an example of how the LEDC will work to provide guidance where and when it’s needed, and fill in gaps — in service, opportunities, and knowledge. And the coaches gathered around the conference room table at the LEDC said there are many such gaps, especially when it comes to the intricacies of running a business or simply taking an idea and transforming it into a business.

There are the basics — writing a business plan, deciding on a business classification, obtaining a doing-business-as certificate, and more, said Melendez, and coaches can help with all that. But then, there are the day-to-day, year-to-year matters, such as training staff, creating a culture, and handling HR matters. And the LEDC’s coaches can assist in these areas as well.

Amador, a serial entrepreneur himself but also an educator, said he’s been working with entrepreneurs for many years now and understands that many need help not only with their business, but with balancing business and life.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of these basics is simple financial literacy.

“A lot of them have ideas for starting a business, but they don’t realize that the financial piece is very important,” he said. “What does your profit-and-loss statement mean? What does you balance sheet mean? What is your cash flow? There are things that many in this [Latino] community don’t understand about business because we’ve been doing it a certain way, and we need to change that thought process. If we learn about investment and if we learn about how numbers work, then that makes it easier.”

While some coaching is broad in scope, it can also be specialized in its nature as well. Such is the case with Hernandez, who brings his experience in owning a restaurant, and in presenting Latin cuisine, to the forefront, and leads by example while also coaching others.

“I brought something different to the table and raised the bar with it,” he said of his eatery, located on Boston Road in Springfield. “A lot of people took notice, and you’re beginning to see where other restaurants are beginning to change the way they present the food, and I’m really happy about that.”

Overall, Amador echoed the thoughts of Melendez and others we spoke with when it came to seeing more individuals within the Latino community, which is entrepreneurial by nature, make the often-challenging leap from being an employee to being an employer.

“If there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s,” he said. “I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

Such sentiments, and such goals, are what prompted PeoplesBank to want to become involved with the LEDC, said Matt Bannister, the institution’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, adding that the bank became sold on the concept and its place in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“Other groups have a mentor of two that can help you,” he said. “But they have specialists in whatever your issue is, and I think that’s a smart business model; it’s not one generalist who may or may not have experience with what you’re trying to do — they have a whole team of people, and it’s right in downtown Springfield.”

The bank’s participation started with the business lounge that now bears its name, he went on, adding that involvement may go to a higher level, perhaps by matching, or partially matching, the microgrants awarded to businesses by the LEDC.

 

Connecting the Dots

Summing up what the LEDC is and want he expects it will become in the months and years to come, Melendez said the agency strives to build individuals into “leaders, business owners, and change makers.”

That’s a tall task, he went on, but the ingredients are there for the agency to become transformative when it comes to the Latino business community and the overall economic landscape in Western Mass.

That’s why those who take the tour say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — and why they wish they had. u

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Century Unlimited

 

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

President and CEO Glenn Welch (center) with some of his team.

When asked what might come next for Freedom Credit Union, Glenn Welch said simply, “we’re going to continue doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

By that he meant … well, a whole lot of things, from continued growth and innovation to embracing new technology; from growing the base of customers to extending the institution’s geographic reach; from finding new ways to serve members to giving back to the community.

There will be more of all of that, said Welch, president and CEO of Freedom, who offered what amounted to a ‘state of the credit union’ report for BusinessWest on the occasion of its 100th birthday.

The milestone (July 22 was the official birthday) has been marked in various ways — from a 100-day summer food drive that raised $4,100 for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and collected 930 pounds of food for the Gray House, to a week of ice cream at all the branches in late July for members and employees; from raffles and giveaways for members to specials on loans and CDs.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long,” Welch said. “So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Mostly, though, the institution has been quietly continuing those patterns of behavior listed above, he added, noting that he and his team are being both innovative and entrepreneurial as they go about writing the next chapter in a history that began with an institution known as the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union, formed when Warren Harding was patrolling the White House.

“It’s a big milestone these days for a financial institution to be around that long. So we wanted to celebrate with the community.”

Listing examples of both, he said Freedom will soon be introducing its first interactive teller machine (ITM) as well as credit cards and a new debit-card product. Meanwhile, it is continuing and broadening its push into Connecticut with the opening of a loan-production office on Elm Street in Enfield. Also, the credit union, which now boasts roughly $650 million in assets, more than 32,000 members, and 10 branches across Western Mass., has been making some inroads to service companies in the broad and ever-expanding cannabis industry in Western Mass., while continuing to aggressively pursue more business on the commercial-lending side of the ledger.

With the cannabis sector, the credit union recently started providing deposit and cash-management services for businesses in different kinds of businesses, said Welch, adding that this could become a vehicle for growth at Freedom.

“We have several clients that have signed on with us and we have a pretty good backlog of businesses that are looking to come on board with us,” Welch said, noting that the credit union is working with its regulator to make sure it is complying with guidelines for doing business with those in this sector.

It is certainly not the only institution looking to garner cannabis customers, he went on, adding that, as competition mounts, Freedom will work to remain competitive and secure market share in a sector where new businesses open every month, if not every week.

Cannabis was recently made legal for recreational use in the Nutmeg State, he went on, adding that this could be another avenue for growth in that market. “We think we’re in a good position with our expansion into that market.”

Overall, Freedom is still finding its footing in Connecticut, he said, adding that, over the next few years, it will explore opportunities to branch out south of the border, literally and figuratively.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says the basic strategy at Freedom is “to keep doing what we’ve been doing for the past 100 years.”

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there,” he explained. “There could be a possibility of branching down there; we signed a two-year lease in Enfield, and we want to explore the market with the loan production first; we thought that was a good way to get a good foothold.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked at length with Welch about the first 100 years for Freedom Credit Union, and what is on tap for this Western Mass. institution.

 

Answering the Call

Tracing the history of the credit union, Welch said it started in a small office in the telephone-company building on Worthington Street, serving only employees of that large and fast-growing industry.

In 1978, the institution relocated to a new home on Main Street in Springfield’s North End, which still serves as its headquarters today. In 1987, the Western Massachusetts Telephone Workers Credit Union merged with Monarch Credit Union. As demand for the benefits of a credit union grew, the institution applied for a community charter. In January 2001, membership eligibility was expanded to include anyone who lived or worked in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire county, and in early 2020, further expansion of membership eligibility included Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut.

In 2004, the institution merged with FHBT Credit Union, and the name of the larger entity became Freedom Credit Union. And with that new name came geographic expansion, with new branches in Chicopee, Northampton, and, later, Turners Falls, Greenfield, Feeding Hills, Easthampton, the Sixteen Acres neighborhood in Springfield, Ludlow, West Springfield (after a merger with West Springfield Credit Union in 2019), and then Connecticut.

Throughout its history, Freedom has consistently sought out new opportunities to expand and bring its products, services, and mission to new zip codes, said Welch, while also looking for new and better ways to serve its members, said Welch, adding that these trends continue today.

Especially with its push into Connecticut, but also with its work to attract residents and businesses in its service area that are looking for options in the wake of a seemingly endless string of bank mergers, the latest being M&T’s absorption of People’s United Bank.

“We’re going to explore our options in Connecticut as we get a foothold there.”

Connecticut has become the next frontier for many banks and credit unions based in Western Mass., and so it is with Freedom, said Welch, adding that the new office in Enfield, which opened earlier this month, will include both a commercial-lending officer and a mortgage originator.

“We had a lot of people in Connecticut who wanted to bank with us, so that’s why we expanded our charter in 2020,” he said, adding that COVID obviously slowed the pace of progress into that state, but with the pandemic easing in most all respects, the credit union is expecting to see growth in the numbers of members from across the border.

Meanwhile, Freedom will continue and escalate what has been an aggressive push into the commercial-lending market on both sides of the border, another initiative that has been slowed somewhat by COVID.

“We’re trying to expand on the commercial side, but obviously not ignoring consumers,” he told BusinessWest. “We did hire a new hire lender for the Connecticut market; we believe there is a lot of opportunity there — on both the commercial and consumer side.”

Overall, the credit union began its push into the commercial market roughly seven years ago, he said, adding that it has been making good inroads since, with two lenders in this market and now the one in Connecticut.

Its legal lending limit is $7 million, with a large sweet spot of $2 million to $5 million, Welch explained, adding that this range leaves plenty of growth potential in a region dominated, on both sides of the border, by small businesses.

“We have a very experienced lending team — we’ve been in the market in a long time,” he said, adding that Freedom will be rolling out some new products in the next few months that will make it easier for companies to obtain small-business loans.

“We’ve partnered with a credit-union service organization with an online app where people can go, and they will make the credit decision for us, based on our guidelines in place,” he explained. “That’s how we hope to help the small businesses in the area.”

Another new service soon to be unveiled by Freedom will enable area retailers to offer financing for purchase of their products through the credit union, an initiative that he believes will help small businesses while also creating potential new members for the credit union on the consumer side.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

The credit union’s headquarters have been located on Main Street in Springfield since 1978 — before it was called Freedom.

Overall, growth in membership has been steady, at perhaps 1% a year on average, which is typical of credit unions in this market, he said, adding that Freedom is trying to capitalize on the ongoing consolidation of the banking market and mergers like the one involving M&T and People’s United, which, by most accounts, did not go smoothly.

“I think that’s our biggest opportunity, especially in Connecticut, with M&T and People’s United being such big players in that market,” he said, adding that the credit union is conducting some marketing targeting customers of those institutions.

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, the credit union will soon roll out its own credit card as well as a new debit-card product, its first ITM, and other products and services aimed at making banking easier and more convenient for members.

“We just keep automating things as we try to make it easier for our members to do business with us,” Welch explained. “A lot of things are being done online, and I think we have very competitive products for that; if people want to apply for loans or open accounts, they can do it on their own time, but certainly we have the branch system in place to support them when they need help.”

 

By All Accounts

Looking at the business plan for the next several years, Welch said Freedom is looking at a number of growth opportunities — in Massachusetts, Connecticut, within the cannabis industry, in commercial lending, and with several new consumer products.

It is moving on several different fronts at once, with the goal of expanding its membership base, providing new and better products and services, and taking its mission in new directions.

These initiatives are new in some respects, but overall, they’re simply a continuation of what the institution now known as Freedom has been doing for a century.

 

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

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 132: October 10, 2022

George Interviews Andrew Melendez, director of Operations, Latino Economic Development Council

Turning employees into employers. Turning consumers into producers. Those are two of the broad goals behind creation of the Latino Economic Development Council. For the next installment of BusinessTalk, BusinessWest editor George O’Brien talks with Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for this agency, about its unique model and mission and the many ways it will measure success. It’s must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest  and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

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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 131: October 3, 2022

George Interviews Ann Kandilis, Springfield Works and the Working Cities Challenge Initiative

Creating opportunities to thrive. That’s the underlying goal of Springfield Works and the Working Cities Challenge Initiative. Ann Kandilis leads that program, and she is the guest on the next installment of BusinessTalk. Kandilis and BusinessWest Editor talk about Springfield Works, a $400,000 Community Empowerment and Reinvestment Grant, and ongoing work to address the needs and goals of those who are justice-system involved. It’s must listening, so join us for BusinessTalk, a podcast presented by BusinessWest  and sponsored by PeoplesBank.

Sponsored by:

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Features Special Coverage

School of Thought

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano, founder and executive director of Veritas Preparatory Charter School, shows off one of the classrooms in the recently opened high school.

Rachel Romano says she started Veritas Prep Charter School after becoming frustrated as a middle-school teacher in Springfield with just how ill-prepared students were to succeed — at the next level in their education, and in general.

She called it “unfinished learning,” and it was occurring at many levels, especially with reading.

“They really hadn’t made that shift from learning how to read to reading to learn, which should happen around third or fourth grade,” she explained. “But if it hasn’t happened and they come into the middle school, most middle schools are not designed to keep teaching that, so students really fall behind. When your foundation is weak, there is nothing to build on.”

It was with a desire to provide middle-school students with a better, stronger foundation so they would not fall behind that Romano started Veritas Prep Charter School, opening the doors in a former nursing home on Pine Street nearly a decade ago. And almost from the day it opened, parents and students alike were asking, ‘when are we going to start a high school?’

It took several years, considerable planning, the transformation of what was manufacturing space on Carando Drive, and many other pieces to fall into place, but that high school opened its doors late last month.

As Romano, an educator but also a true entrepreneur (and BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013), put it, in some ways, the new Veritas facility is high school reimagined. This is a career-focused, early-college model designed, like the middle school, to enable students to succeed at the next level — whatever that might be.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree.”

For many, it will be college, she said, but higher education is not the goal of every child.

“But every kid should have the choice,” she said. “And if they’re prepared for college … then they have options open to them; the doors are not closed to them.”

The early-college model is just what it sounds like, she noted, adding that students can take college courses while in high school and could even have an associate degree upon graduation.

Having a track record of success in college even before walking across the stage to pick up their high-school diploma instills confidence in students and a mindset that they can accomplish anything they might dream, she said, adding that this model also brings great advantages when it comes to the overall cost of a college education.

“To get two years of college under their belt while still in high school … it just compresses their timeframe to earn a degree,” she explained. “That can be a huge help when they decide to go and get their degree.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Romano about the new high school, but also the broader mission to provide students with that stronger foundation and the tools to build upon it.

 

Grade Expectations

As she offered BusinessWest a tour of the new high school, Romano started in the gym.

The gym is an important part of this equation, she said, noting that the middle school doesn’t have one, and students, parents, and others involved in the design process of the high school identified it as priority.

The gym thus represents an example of how a vision became reality, one that officially started with 90 students (many of them being graduates of the Veritas middle school), teachers, and staff gathering on opening day in late August.

The student demographic at the high school essentially mirrors the grade 5-8 enrollment, said Romano, adding that 70% are Latinx and another 20% are Black. Meanwhile, 83% have what she called ‘high needs,’ and 77% are economically challenged.

The plan is to add a grade a year and build enrollment to roughly 400 students by 2025, she said, adding that for Veritas to realize that size and scope (800 students across nine grades) is something she could not have imagined when she first started conceptualizing this concept.

Indeed, to appreciate where Veritas Prep is now, we need to go back to the beginning, and that’s where we find Romano, a frustrated middle-school teacher, looking to find something better for the city and its young students.

Actually, the story starts in New York, where Romano was working in advertising sales in 2001, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which essentially left her homeless and heading back to Western Mass. and her parents’ home in South Hadley. She took a job substitute teaching to essentially get out of the house — “my mom kept nagging me about what I was going to do next” — and wound up loving the work.

She applied for a full-time teaching job in Springfield for the following year and wound up at Duggan Middle School, where she worked for six years and experienced what could be called a stern reality check.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself,” she explained. “And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.

“And when I began teaching in Springfield, I realized that this just wasn’t true for everyone,” she went on. “My eyes were really opened to the inequity that exists in our public education system.”

What stood out to her — and eventually compelled her to start a new charter school — were the expectations for students and the system’s inability to prepare students for success.

“The expectations for students in Springfield were not that high,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this is how and when the seeds were planted for a new charter school.

“I didn’t have traditional training as an educator, so I came in with the expectations that had been set for me as public-school student myself. And I sort of believed that education was the great equalizer; everyone got a public education, and if you worked hard enough, you could go on to college and do whatever you wanted.”

She started by looking at urban settings with similar demographics but different results when it came to student performance and success.

“We went to New Haven and Boston, where we found schools serving similar populations of students and getting very different results,” she said. “These kids were outperforming their neighboring wealthy districts, like kids in East Boston outperforming kids in Wellesley, and we saw the same in New Haven, and we went and looked at those schools and said, ‘wow, what are they doing?’ They were charter schools.”

The schools were different in some ways, but a common denominator was a needed level of autonomy to “actually respond to the needs of the kids in front of them and create the kind of school and systems that could generate different results.”

Fast-forwarding significantly — getting a charter school off the ground is a lengthy, complicated ordeal — Romano set about creating Veritas, a middle school that would “reset the bar,” as she put it, one that borrowed (‘stole’ was the word she used) best practices from high-achieving schools, set high standards for its students, and prepared them for high school.

And, as noted earlier, it wasn’t long before parents and students alike were asking if the same model could be used to create a high school, questions that grew louder as the first classes of Veritas students were graduating and moving on to the city’s schools.

The cafeteria in the new high school

The cafeteria in the new high school is one of the many aspects of the facility that are state-of-the-art.

Eventually, the chorus became too loud to ignore, she went on, adding that she went to the Veritas board of trustees with the concept of a high school, and the ambitious concept was greeted with enthusiasm.

A request for expansion was submitted to the state Department of Education in 2019, and, upon approval, what became a two-year planning process commenced. With that time, a design team comprised of former students (those now in high school or their first year of college), current students, families, teachers, staff members, representatives of area colleges, and community partners put together for a blueprint for a high school.

 

Course of Action

And by blueprint, she meant not just the actual design of the school — and its gym. Rather, she meant a plan for helping to make sure that graduates of the school would not have doors closed to them.

“We looked at different models, and we looked into what was happening — where is the innovation in high schools now,” she said, putting the accent on ‘we.’ “We focused on what we could do better and what we could do that was different.”

And the chosen model was early college, or EC, as it’s called, she said, adding that it is a somewhat unique model for this region.

“There’s not a lot of it in happening in Massachusetts,” Romano went on. “There’s a lot of talk now in the Legislature and the Department of Education about early college, but there are some great examples in other states.”

Elaborating, she said this is certainly not a new concept — many area school districts have dual enrollment, with students talking college courses while in high school. But this model is different in that it’s “wall to wall” early college and not merely for exceptional students in accelerated programs, as it is in many schools.

“Every student will be able to earn 12 college credits — it’s not for a subset, but for everyone,” she said, adding that, while some might earn as few as 12 credits, some may actually garner two full years of college credits while at Veritas.

“They can literally walk across the stage with a high-school diploma, and an associate degree awarded by Springfield Technical Community College,” she said, adding that STCC and Worcester State University have both signed on partners in the initiative.

“The cool thing about this model is that it really just breaks down the barrier that it’s really tough for a first-generation college student to access college,” she told BusinessWest. “So our kids will actually have a college transcript; they’ll have a track record of success in college when they graduate.”

And, as she noted, having that head start brings advantages on many levels, from a student’s confidence level to the cost of a college education.

“For some of our kids, they may go straight to college, while others will have to go to work, and they’re going to have to finish college at night and on weekends,” she explained. “This just gives them such a leg up because they’re halfway done — they’ve already got it, they’re on a roll, they’ve built some momentum.”

Building needed momentum was just one of the goals for Romano, the Veritas board, and other supporters as they went about conceptualizing the new high school. The overall mission is to eliminate barriers to success, open doors, and provide that leg up that she talked about, and it shows enormous promise for doing all that.

Returning to that question of why and how a high school came to be reality, she said that she and others at the middle school simply didn’t want to let go of their students.

“Many of our students come in not loving school, for whatever reason,” she explained. “School and learning hasn’t been an experience they’ve really enjoyed and felt that they’re really good at; we’ve kind of turned that around for them in the middle grades. By eighth grade, they’re really invested in their education.”

And now, they can continue investing at another important level.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Landmark Decision

The historic Alexander House

The historic Alexander House

Amy Royal first started taking notice of the Alexander House in Springfield when she was a high-school student at nearby MacDuffie, and soon became taken in by its beauty, 200 years of history, and place in the city. Later, she started viewing the property in a different light — as a potential home for her growing law firm. Earlier this year, that dream came true.

Amy Royal says she’s long had an affection for the historic Alexander House in Springfield.

She first took hard notice of it when she was in high school at MacDuffie, located a mile or so away from the home’s former location on State Street. Back then, she recalled, it was a beautiful home with a lot of history, and she’s always had a fondness for structures that fit that description and now lives in a home that is nearly 250 years old.

Later, after beginning her career as an employment-law attorney and eventually starting her own firm, she started looking at the 6,000-square-foot home, built in 1811, in a much different light — as a place to locate her business.

Amy Royal, seen at the grand staircase of the historic Alexander House, has long had her eye on the landmark as a home for her business.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building,” she told BusinessWest. “Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

These thoughts only intensified after the Alexander House was moved from its long-time location around the corner to Eliot Street to make way for the new federal courthouse in Springfield that eventually opened its doors in late 2008. Royal had business in the courthouse, and eventually found parking a few hundred yards down Eliot Street, necessitating a walk past the Alexander House.

“At that point in time, it was beautiful, but you could tell that it needed a lot of help — even though it had been moved by the federal government, it needed a lot of love,” she recalled. “I remember thinking ‘I wish I could buy that building; I wonder if that building is for sale?’”

Today, Royal is living the dream, literally — the one about moving her growing business, the Royal Law Firm, into the Alexander House’s 14 rooms, and the basement as well.

She’s needed a new home almost from the day she moved into her now-former home, leased space in the large office building at 819 Worcester St. in Indian Orchard. She looked at both options, leasing and owning, and decided that the latter made far more sense.

But owning the Alexander House? Like she said, this was a long-held dream come true.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building. Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked with Royal about how her affection for this historic home became a quest — and eventually a dream realized. We also got a tour, one that quickly revealed why this landmark has been a career-long pursuit for Royal.

 

At Home with the Idea

Royal said she’s looking forward to being able to walk to the federal courthouse when she has business there, especially when she considers the large amounts of paperwork she traditionally brings with her when she’s in court.

Which … isn’t very often at all, she told BusinessWest.

One of the 14 rooms at the Alexander House

One of the 14 rooms at the Alexander House has become home to the Royal Law Firm’s main conference room.

“We’re civil litigators … if I don’t see the inside of a courthouse in a year, that’s not unusual,” she said, adding that location, location, location, the driving force in many decisions concerning real estate, was only a minor factor in this case. It was the property that drove this decision.

Since launching her own law firm, Royal has had lengthy drives to that federal courthouse. After starting in a small office on Center Street in Northampton, she relocated to larger quarters on Pleasant Street, and remained there until moving her headquarters office — she has satellite locations in several other cities — to a suite of offices in the building on Worcester Street in March 2020, just after the pandemic found its way to Western Mass.

She wasn’t expecting to be looking for a new home so quickly, but rapid growth — traditionally put in the ‘good problem to have’ category, although it does present challenges — made a change necessary.

“I knew we were outgrowing our space where we were — I just didn’t expect to outgrow it as quickly as we did,” she explained. “I just casually started looking for something.”

In a nice twist of fate, this casual search coincided with the Alexander House being put on the market in June 2021, signaling the start of a new chapter for a home that had seen plenty of history and had become historic in its own right.

Designed by the prominent architect Asher Benjamin and built by noted builder Simon Sanborn, the Greek revival home draws its name from its fourth owner, Henry Alexander Jr., a mayor of Springfield who acquired the property in 1958. But it has another, less-known known name, the Miss Amy House, derived from Alexander’s daughter, Amy, who lived in the house for many years and was quite active in the community on a number of philanthropic fronts.

Rooms at the Alexander House have been converted into a small conference room and lawyers’ offices.

The home has had a relatively small number of owners over the years, said Royal, who has come to know the history of the property — she learned in high school that one of the dorms there was designed to reflect the Alexander House — and is always seeking to learn more about it.

When a search was commenced for a home for a new federal courthouse at the start of this century, those involved, and especially U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, became determined to find a location on State Street, long the cultural and historic thoroughfare in the city and home to several schools, churches, and government buildings.

The property on which the Alexander House stood became the preferred location, and to make it happen, a short but complicated — because of the size, age, and condition of the home — move had to undertaken, one that was well-chronicled and captured the attention of the city.

After the move, the home became to several small businesses, including an architect and an attorney, but much of it was unoccupied. As noted, it came on the market in the summer of 2021, and soon after, Royal commenced her pursuit of the home.

Because of that aforementioned move, the home now has a new foundation, one of many features that caught her eye when she toured the property after it went on the market.

“The foundation they put in is incredible — there must be 10-foot ceilings there,” she told BusinessWest, adding that her firm will use that space as a filing center but may eventually build it out.

“I’ve always really, really loved the building. Everything about it — the design, its place in the city’s history … it’s magnificent.”

But there was so much more, obviously.

“I thought it was magnificent — the spiral staircase alone just stood out to me,” she recalled. “But every facet of the architecture — the crown molding, the ornate craftsmanship in all of the trim work, the grand ceilings, the chandeliers, the fireplaces … to me, it just spoke of having a law-firm practice inside; it’s a magnificent place to have a law firm.”

Royal said she heard anecdotally that there were a number of other suitors for the Alexander House when it came on the market. She believes she prevailed because her passion for the property quickly became evident, and she convinced then-owner Thomas Schoeper that she would be a good custodian of the landmark.

“He really wanted someone who would be a good steward of the property and really cared about its history and character and the integrity of the building itself,” she noted. “I spent a lot of time talking with him about all that.”

Royal closed in February of this year and has spent the past several months giving the property that ‘love’ she said it needed. Improvements have included a new HVAC system, an alarm system, remodeling the kitchen, installing IT wiring throughout, and painting many of the rooms, she said, noting that the property is subject to historic covenants and monitored by Historic New England, and also subject to an annual inspection and historic preservation.

The firm moved in a few weeks ago and is still settling in, Royal said, adding that, with a property of this vintage, there will always be work to do.

“That’s going to be a never-ending project,” she said. “That’s the way it is with historic buildings.”

Meanwhile, her new mailing address is everything she hoped it could be and would be when she first started thinking about it as a future home all those years ago.

“Everyone here just loves it — it’s a great place to work,” she said.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Noting the continued growth of her law firm, Royal was asked if the Alexander House provides the requisite space for additional team members.

She said it did, but in a more emphatic voice, she noted that she would not be moving again — soon or probably ever.

“We may grow in other regions — that’s the plan — but this will be our headquarters building,” she said. “This is home.”

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

Looking at Springfield’s Union Station today, a bustling facility with trains, buses, businesses, and people, it might be easy to forget there was a time when just about everyone in this city had given up the dream of ever revitalizing the long-dormant station.

It was 15 years or so ago. The city was in receivership, at the very early stages of climbing out of a deep and persistent funk. There was progress on some fronts, but still myriad challenges to overcome and a long list of priorities that did not include the historic but mostly forgotten station.

The suggestion from those running the city at the time was to mothball Union Station, try to protect it from the elements, move onto other, more manageable projects, and maybe get back to the train station another day.

Kevin Kennedy wasn’t buying any of that. Then an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, he wasn’t going to let the congressman’s long-held dream of revitalizing the station, which had been dormant since the early ’80s, lose whatever momentum it had.

So he kept at it, meeting with a small group of officials on a weekly basis to keep the project on some kind of roadmap and pulling the myriad details, from funding to design to logistics, into alignment. It was a monumental task, and most would have given up in frustration early on in the process.

But Kennedy never did, and today we have a revitalized Union Station, thanks to Neal — but, really, the thanks go to Kennedy. He’s the one who got it done.

And Kennedy, who passed away late last month, was able to get a lot of things done, as an aide to Neal and also as chief Development officer for the city, a job he assumed in 2011.

That lengthy list includes the new federal courthouse on State Street and the State Street Corridor project, MGM Springfield and the many components of that project, recovery from the 2011 tornado and the 2012 natural-gas explosion, and many other important initiatives.

These projects were all different, but they were similar in that they were extremely difficult and required high levels of coordination and cooperation, as well as a point person who was able to navigate whitewater and stay on track.

Kennedy was that point person.

When asked by BusinessWest why he wanted to leave the post with Neal and take the development position, Kennedy said simply, “I’ve proven I can get things done — and we have a lot of work to do in this city.”

He was right on both accounts. Looking back, Kennedy was the right person in the right position at the right time, and Springfield is now in a much better place because he was.

 

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Urban Pioneers

Colin D’Amour says the planned downtown store is unlike anything Big Y has created before

Colin D’Amour says the planned downtown store is unlike anything Big Y has created before and is, in many respects, a pioneering endeavor.

 

Big Y Foods will soon begin the process of transforming the former CVS location in Tower Square into its latest market. The chain has been operating for nearly 80 years now and has expanded its footprint well beyond its roots at that now-famous intersection in Chicopee where the converging roads formed a ‘Y.’ But this venture is something completely different in terms of scale — and just about everything else.

 

In many respects, the new store that Big Y is planning for the space in Tower Square formerly occupied by CVS constitutes pioneering — for the company and the city.

Indeed, what is proposed, a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket in an urban setting — the heart of downtown Springfield — hasn’t been tried before, as far as anyone knows. And it certainly hasn’t been tried by Big Y, the chain of supermarkets started by brothers Paul and Gerry D’Amour in 1936.

“To the outside observer, they see us operating supermarkets and say, ‘this is just a smaller format,’” said Colin D’Amour, senior director of Big Y Express and point person on this project. “But it’s really a completely new venture for us, everything from distribution to operations to trucking … we’ve never operated a downtown, urban-format market before, so there are a whole lot of unknowns for us.”

So while there is a great deal of anticipation and excitement about the company’s plans — downtown Springfield has been a food desert for decades now, and the need for a supermarket in that area has long been a recognized need — there is also a great deal of uncertainty about just how this will all play out.

So much so that determining just what constitutes ‘success’ at this new and decidedly different location is a difficult assignment.

“We are flying the plane as we build it in many respects,” D’Amour explained. “We know how to operate a supermarket, and we’re constantly tweaking that model, but when we open a new store, we have a very good idea of what success in that store will look like and what we need to do to achieve it. With this model, we’re trying to be a lot more flexible, even from our design standpoint.

“To the outside observer, they see us operating supermarkets and say, ‘this is just a smaller format.’ But it’s really a completely new venture for us, everything from distribution to operations to trucking … we’ve never operated a downtown, urban-format market before, so there are a whole lot of unknowns for us.”

“We don’t fully know what our lunch business is going to be like in the area; we don’t fully know what our after-work, prime-time, rush-on-the-way-home-from-work business is going to be like,” he went on. “We’re trying to build in some flexibility that’s going to allow us to adapt, once we do open, to what the customers’ needs are.”

Overall, this story is an intriguing one on a number of levels. For starters, there is the obvious need for a grocery store being filled. Meanwhile, the recruitment of Big Y marks another imaginative reuse of space in Tower Square by owners Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, who previously landed the YMCA of Greater Springfield and White Lion Brewery, among others, as tenants. And this new development was made possible by federal COVID-relief funds, making this is an example of how those monies have been put to work by the city to improve specific neighborhoods, including downtown (more on that later).

For now, the plan is to have the store open by next spring, said D’Amour, adding that there are some challenges to meeting that timeline, including supply-chain issues that make getting needing materials and equipment, like shelving, somewhat of an adventure.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new  Big Y market in Tower Square.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new
Big Y market in Tower Square.

As for the store itself, it will feature most of the same departments as a typical Big Y World Class Market (there will not be a pharmacy), but, obviously, a smaller volume of items.

As for customers, Big Y believes it will draw from several different constituencies, including those living downtown, those working in both Tower Square and other surrounding office buildings, those coming to Tower Square on other business, such as daycare services at the Big Y, and others.

“We think there’s going to be a good mix,” he noted. “Tower Square is a pretty robust facility, and there are a lot of people who work there who may be living in Springfield or commuting from outside the city who may be looking to grab something after work for dinner or grab something to help fill the fridge, and it saves them a trip to a traditional supermarket. There’s also a good number of residents that live right downtown as well. We think there will be a healthy mix.”

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest talked at length with D’Amour about how this concept came together and why the initiative represents pioneering on a number of levels.

 

Location, Location, Location

D’Amour said Big Y has been looking at downtown Springfield with an eye toward possibly opening some type of store there for some time now.

“It’s fair to say that it’s been decades,” he noted, adding quickly that, while the company hasn’t been actively pursuing something all that time, it has long understood that there is both need and opportunity involved with such an undertaking.

“We’ve had a very long, positive relationship with the city of Springfield, being headquartered here, and we’ve got a great relationship with the mayor’s office,” he went on. “So there’s just been a constant dialogue about what opportunities are there.”

“We’ve tried to take little bits of what we like from some different markets out there. But we think downtown Springfield is a bit unique, and we think that we understand the Western Mass. customer and the Springfield customer, and we’re trying to blend our brand with what we’ve seen other folks do in other environments and come up with something we think will work in this setting.”

Matters moved beyond the dialogue stage thanks to a number of puzzle pieces coming together, he went on, noting that the first was the location that became available when CVS vacated its longtime home in Tower Square for a location about a half-mile south on Main Street.

“The new owners of Tower Square came to us with this opportunity — everything just came together at the right time,” said D’Amour, noting that the company not only recognized an opportunity, it was prepared to take full advantage of it. “We were able to pull it together and make it work.”

Prepared, yes, but still moving into what would be uncharted territory for this company — and many supermarket chains, for that matter. Indeed, the location would be in the middle of the city’s downtown, with no on-site parking and certainly no loading dock.

The new market will serve people who work in the office towers

The new market will serve people who work in the office towers, as well as residents who live downtown.

These unknowns, along with uncertainty about just how much traffic this site will generate, made it enough of a risk that the project required an investment from the city, said D’Amour, adding that this investment has come in the form of $1 million in federal COVID CARES Act funding.

“That funding allowed us to answer some of those unknowns,” he said. “It solved some unsolvable challenges around distribution and issues like that, and it allowed us to see a pathway to a financially viable market in this location. I don’t think we would have been able to get there — what with rising construction costs and trying to figure out an entirely new model — without that federal money.”

Elaborating, he said the traditional Big Y model, one seen across this region and now far beyond, into Connecticut, Central Mass., and now Eastern Mass., is the suburban World Class Market, usually in a larger shopping center, with acres of parking; the company just unveiled its latest plans to build a store in Middletown, Conn. The Tower Square store is a much different model, one that, as noted, comes with a large supply of unknowns.

“There’s nothing close to this in terms of the urban setting, and there’s nothing close to this in terms of size,” he said. “This is maybe one-fifth the size of one of our traditional supermarkets. Obviously, all of our stores are unique in size and layout, but this is certainly an outlier.”

Thus, the team at Big Y has looked at models that would be considered similar in other urban markets, including New York and Boston, as well as some smaller cities in upstate New York, he said, adding that the chain is essentially creating its own model with this initiative.

“We’re having supply-chain challenges everywhere, and we’re working through them as best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

“We’ve tried to take little bits of what we like from some different markets out there,” he explained. “But we think downtown Springfield is a bit unique, and we think that we understand the Western Mass. customer and the Springfield customer, and we’re trying to blend our brand with what we’ve seen other folks do in other environments and come up with something we think will work in this setting.”

The plan, as noted, is to offer most of what would be found in a traditional Big Y market, he said, adding that patrons can do what he called a “full shop” at the downtown location, with fresh meats, bread, produce, and other items, just not in the variety to be found in the larger-model store.

Work has yet to begin on site, he said, but the plan is to open the store late in the first quarter of next year, and he believes that timetable can be met, despite those aforementioned challenges, including construction lead times and simply getting needed materials and equipment.

“Supply chain continues to be a challenge, both from a construction standpoint as well as from a product standpoint,” D’Amour explained. “But it’s nothing we’re not tackling, like everyone else in this late-pandemic, post-pandemic world, whatever we’re calling it these days. We’re just continuing to try to find innovative ways around it and fill our stores.

“With respect to this Tower Square downtown location, it’s really no different than what we’re tacking in all of our stores,” he went on. “We’re having supply-chain challenges everywhere, and we’re working through them as best we can, and we think we’re doing a pretty good job with it.”

 

Food for Thought

As D’Amour noted, it is difficult to make projections for the planned new market, and equally difficult to get a firm grasp on just what will constitute success.

But in an area that has been devoid of anything like this for as long as anyone can remember, there are great expectations and high hopes that the new store will be an important addition to the mix in Tower Square and the central business district as a whole.

In short, there is a good deal of anticipation about what’s in store for this location — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Features

Painting the Past

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Khali Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it.

John Simpson (left) surveys the new mural as it nears completion, along with Susan Riano and Kahli Hernandez, two of the artists who worked on it. (Photos by Mark Murray)

Kahli Hernandez descended the wall, stood back, and reflected on his long day’s work.

“This mural is more than just a mural because of the things that are associated and attached to it,” said Hernandez, a local painter who got involved with the mural painting at 241 Worthington St., facing Stearns Square. “A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

The idea for a new mural reflecting Springfield’s history came about almost a decade ago when Union Station was about to be completed and the area around Duryea Way had just been revamped. Evan Plotkin, president and CEO of NAI Plotkin Commercial Real Estate, has been a key player in the mural’s conception and production.

The finished work, formally unveiled during the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival on Aug. 12, restores the wall’s faded 1950s advertising art to vibrant life.

“John Simpson and I have been involved with most of the things that are public-art-related downtown, one way or another,” he said, noting that he and Simpson, a noted local artist, co-founded both the Springfield Cultural Council and City Mosaic, a nonprofit with the goal of changing lives and bringing people together, as well as changing the direction and conversation about Springfield from negative perceptions to something positive.

“There would be no City Mosaic without John Simpson. We formed it because we thought we could transform this city. We don’t want people to be afraid to come to downtown Springfield. We want people to enjoy what’s down here,” Plotkin said. “I think this is making a huge contribution of immense proportions. This is a gathering space down here. Everyone should be able to come and enjoy good food and good drinks with the company of friends.”

Through a movement called tactical urbanism, Plotkin and Simpson are trying to reignite a sense of community in the downtown business district. Tactical urbanism, also known as DIY urbanism, is all about action — an approach to neighborhood building using short-term, low-cost, and scalable interventions to catalyze long-term change.

“A big part of history is being plastered on this wall. Essentially, what’s happening is the legacy of Springfield is being visually painted, whether people know it or not. You can pick out iconic things that people know about around the world. Springfield is the birthplace of greatness.”

A two-year study released by researchers from the School of Social Policy & Practice at the University of Pennsylvania revealed a relationship between the presence of cultural resources in a neighborhood and key aspects of social well-being, particularly in less advantaged neighborhoods.

Specifically, low- and middle-income residents with more access to cultural resources experience better education, security, and health outcomes compared to residents of neighborhoods with similar economic profiles, but with fewer cultural resources.

When controlling for factors including economic status, race, and ethnicity, the higher presence of cultural resources in lower-income neighborhoods is linked with several health, safety, and education benefits. These include a 14% decrease in indicted investigations of child abuse and neglect, an 18% decrease in felony crime rate, and also an 18% increase in the number of students scoring at the highest level on standardized math and English tests.

“I think art is really transformative for a lot of things,” Plotkin said. “It’s transformative to people and their spirits — whether it be visual art or music, art is beauty, and it helps change people.”

Simpson added that “there’s a woman that lives on this street that has told me she’s seen people stopping in the parking lot to look at the mural — they linger a little and take photos. She thinks it’s good because everyone is really excited to see the finished product, too.”

 

‘Puzzle of Ghost Images’

Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst, said he was flooded with ideas for the mural when sitting with the City Mosaic council. He told BusinessWest there were plenty of ideas about historical figures and events showing Springfield’s pride, but the wall had a different idea, in the form of faded vintage advertisements.

“I said, ‘yeah, I know you want all of this stuff on the wall, but there are also the ads. We want to restore some of them, so I reserve the right to do whatever I want here,’” Simpson said. “When I started, I felt like the wall was going to dictate what it should be. So whatever can be saved, will be saved. Then we thought there was so little to be saved, but eventually, when you get one thing, you’d start to see another.”

He explained the process: research and stare. Then relax. Simpson compared the mural to a “puzzle of ghost images” they were hoping would fall into place. It was beyond the scope of his usual work, but he took it all in and got to work.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

The new mural brings a moment in Springfield’s history back to vibrant, colorful life.

“We got addicted to finding what was there previously and recreating it,” he said. “Evan encouraged me to work on the design. I tried to keep changing it, but it led me here. There has been such great teamwork that it feels like only one person is working on it.”

Artist Susan Riano was also impressed by the work that has gone into the mural on Worthington Street.

“Going in, we all thought it would be a huge project, but we didn’t let the thought of getting overwhelmed bother us. We just went at it and things went pretty naturally, organically. Looking at it now is kind of crazy, but amazing to see how much we were able to accomplish through the whole process,” she said. “It was really cool to see the work of another artist and figure out their process, and see the way they did things — it was a learning experience for us as well.”

Some of the images painted on the wall are meant to represent Springfield and its community through the years. For instance, Simpson and the artists painted a Rolls-Royce with Prestley Blake, co-founder of Friendly’s, driving it.

When community members see themselves reflected in social spaces, they feel a sense of respect, ultimately allowing for people to identify with the place they are from, live in, or are visiting. Cultural assets are part of a neighborhood ecology that promotes well-being.

Simpson told BusinessWest about another mural he had worked on and how it connects to his overall goal. “It says, ‘there’s no place like Springfield’ because there is no place like home. That’s for every kid to think about, instead of things they’re hearing from other towns. Springfield is home — there’s history here with beautiful people, art, and architecture.”

Khali Hernandez puts the final touches

Kahli Hernandez puts the final touches on one of the mural’s small sections.

Plotkin agreed. “Springfield has an incredible history. To have something as big and beautiful as this spurs the imagination of those bygone days and recognizes a city that was once another Springfield.

“I think that’s why I do it,” he went on. “John is the artist, and I think that I wouldn’t be able to do what he does; physically, I don’t have the talent. I just really get off on the impact it has on the community and the responses people are giving. I’ve lived and worked here for many, many years. I’ve seen some great times here, and I’ve seen some bad times here when the city wasn’t flourishing as much. We’re on the rise again, and we’re coming back strong. This is going to help us reach the point where we have a commercially viable district here. We want to recreate that.”

 

Tapestry Through Time

Clearly, the mural on Worthington Street is more than just a mural. It is a physical representation of what Springfield has to offer, and a reminder that the past impacts the future, and the future always reflects the past.

“We want the wall to show a little bit of the past, some of the present, and eventually the future,” Hernandez said as he surveyed his day’s work. “It’s a tribute to the overarching narrative that is a part of Springfield.”

 

Kailey Houle can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Developing Story

 

architect’s rendering

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new courthouse, apartment complex, and marina for Springfield’s riverfront.

As he talked about the many real-estate development projects he’s been involved with over the years and how they’ve come to the drawing board and then off it, Peter Picknelly said simply, “they develop … and then they happen.”

That was a very simple explanation for what is often a very complex process, especially with some of the projects he and his team at the OPAL Real Estate Group have taken on over the years, many of which have involved public-private partnerships and have taken years, if not decades, to become reality.

What he meant was that each project starts with a concept, or a vision — the marriage of a location or an existing building with a new use, or uses, often with higher goals, such as sparking additional development in a given area or neighborhood, or bringing new life to dormant, sometimes historic properties.

This has been the case with many projects in the OPAL portfolio — from the transportation and education center in downtown Holyoke to the conversion of the former Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton into luxury apartments, to a similar but much more complicated effort to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing.

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront, and especially the stretch north of the Memorial Bridge, is an untapped resource and the ideal location for a new courthouse.

And this is the same general formula being applied to the most ambitious project yet undertaken by Picknelly and his team at OPAL Real Estate — the transformation of land on Springfield’s riverfront, north of the Memorial Bridge, into a home for a new Hampden County courthouse and, perhaps, an apartment complex and marina, a concept that comes with a price tag just under $500 million.

Plans for this concept were unveiled at an elaborate press conference last month, with Picknelly and others, including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, touting the proposed project as a potential economic catalyst for both the riverfront and Springfield’s North End.

And as a solution to what has become a huge health hazard in Springfield — the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse, which has been beset with problems ranging from mold and ventilation issues to alarming reports of employees getting sick and in some cases dying of cancers and other diseases linked to environmental concerns.

Indeed, a recent report by the state Trial Court’s Environmental Advisory Committee, made up of courthouse employees, said the courthouse is linked to more than 50 cancer diagnoses and five employees who have died of ALS.

Headlines announcing these reports and the state’s ongoing efforts to clean and perhaps renovate a building that people don’t want to go in — the Hampden Registry of Deeds and the district attorney’s office have relocated staff out of the building — prompted those at OPAL to create that vision that was announced last month, said Picknelly.

“It’s pretty clear to me that there is something wrong, very wrong, with that building,” he said. “There are 25,000 people who have been diagnosed with ALS; five have died in one building! That’s an amazing number. And 60 people have some form of cancer? We need a new courthouse, and anyone who cares about Springfield would have that on their radar.”

But there are very few spots in the city that can accommodate a new courthouse. Picknelly says he has one — or can assemble one.

The land in question has been considered for everything from a casino to a site for a UMass Springfield campus to the possible home for a minor-league baseball stadium. But it remains undeveloped and needs a spark to become a real asset for the city.

The proposed courthouse, a true public-private endeavor, could become that spark, he said, adding that this project, if it comes to fruition — and there are many hurdles to clear, as we’ll see — could lead to additional development along the riverfront and in the North End.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities,” said Picknelly, who called the Court Square initiative a ‘legacy project,’ and believes the same term could be applied to the courthouse endeavor. “We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at Picknelly’s impressive development track record and how this latest project would become an intriguing next chapter.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Picknelly said OPAL is an acronym, with those letters starting the names of his four children — Olivia, Peter, Alyssa, and Lauryn.

Over the years, it has become synonymous with large-scale, often difficult projects that often involve public-private partnerships. The Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center on Maple Street in Holyoke, which houses bus services on the ground floor and Holyoke Community College’s Adult Learning Center on the upper floors, is one example, while the Court Square project, which boasts an array of partners, including the state, MGM Springfield, Winn Development, and OPAL itself, is another.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities. We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

Picknelly said that he and his team at OPAL look for development opportunities across the region, often responding to requests for proposals for specific buildings and properties, as in Holyoke and Court Square, but often by being proactive, sometimes with property owned by Picknelly or Peter Pan.

Such is the case with the existing Hampden County courthouse and the need to find a solution to the ongoing health problems there.

Picknelly and his team at OPAL first became involved with the goal of perhaps finding a temporary home for the courthouse to be used while the existing property is cleaned and renovated. But amid the headlines about illness and death and the high costs of making the building safe, the thought process shifted to finding a permanent solution in the form of a new home.

“The more you looked into it, the worse it got,” he said. “So we asked, ‘where can you build a new one and keep it in the downtown area?’ Because this is important to Springfield.”

The solution that presented itself is the 14.5-acre parcel on the riverfront owned by Picknelly — as well as an adjoining parcel owned by the Republican Co., which is the planned location of the new courthouse; Picknelly is seeking to purchase that parcel.

The land owned by Picknelly is currently home to Peter Pan’s Coachbuilders repair and maintenance facility as well as a number of billboards, which are generating some revenue from lease deals.

As noted earlier, it has been considered for several different uses, including a baseball park — several different proposals for such a facility have been forwarded over the years. And Picknelly said UMass Amherst considered the site before it eventually located its downtown Springfield campus in Tower Square. It then became part of the parcel pieced together for a proposed Western Mass. casino, which was eventually built in the South End.

While the site has remained mostly idle, it has always had vast potential to bring life and business not only to an attractive stretch of the riverfront, but to the North End of the city, which has Union Station, but has long needed a catalyst that can attract different kinds of development.

A new courthouse could be that catalyst, said Picknelly, adding that, while such facilities are generally not thought of as economic development, they are worthy of that description, and for many reasons.

Start with the number 1,600. That’s how many people typically visit the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on a daily basis — or would visit it if they were not afraid to venture inside, said Picknelly, adding that this kind of visitation, which includes those with business in the courts, court employees, jurors, and lawyers, could spawn different types of development, from restaurants to office buildings housing lawyers who want to be close to the courthouse.

“Your development is literally right on the water. Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

“I don’t think people realize how much activity a courthouse brings to a community,” he said. “It’s an economic-development driver.”

Ultimately, Picknelly believes the courthouse and apartment complex can do for the riverfront north of Memorial Bridge what the Basketball Hall of Fame complex has done for the area south of the bridge — in short, make it a destination.

“Before the Hall of Fame, there was essentially nothing there,” he said, referring to the collection of industrial properties that stood where the Hall is now. “Now, you have restaurants and vibrancy … the courthouse can do the same for the north side of the riverfront.”

It could potentially do even more, he went on, because on the south side of the bridge operating railroad tracks stand between the Hall of Fame and other businesses and the river itself. That problem doesn’t exist on the north side.

“Your development is literally right on the water,” he noted. “Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

While the proposed site — and the project envisioned for it — makes sense on many levels, said Picknelly, a number of pieces need to fall into place, especially at the state level.

 

Courting Opportunity

At present, the state and its Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is still weighing whether to renovate the existing courthouse or move into a new one; a deep cleaning of the facility is currently underway.

Sarno and Picknelly have both questioned the wisdom of investing what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in a building that has reportedly been linked to serious illness and death.

“We think cleaning it is great, but ultimately, a new courthouse is needed in Springfield,” said Picknelly, adding that there are several options moving forward for the project and this parcel, with the best, in his view, being the property developed by OPAL and then leased by the state.

“It would be much faster if that was the chosen route,” he told BusinessWest. “Just the procurement process for securing the land would take two years; we can have shovels in the ground quickly. Ultimately, we believe the project can be done, start to finish, in four years.

“Right now, they’re talking about cleaning the building and renovating the current building — that will take seven years and probably cost $200 million when you factor in the cleaning of the facility and what they would have to do to move to the courts to a temporary facility for several years. That’s 70% of building new, and even if you do clean it, people are going to be very reluctant to go into it.”

former Court Square Hotel

OPAL Real Estate has become part of a number of ambitious public-private development initiatives, including the ongoing work to transform the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate housing.
Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Picknelly noted an additional benefit to building new is that Springfield gains an additional development site — the current courthouse location, in the heart of downtown and across State Street from the MGM casino complex.

If the courthouse moves to the riverfront, you then have that property to be developed for some other activity,” he said. “There are all sorts of opportunities; it’s great land that could be developed for other public purposes.”

When asked to give a timeline for the courthouse project, Picknelly said there are many factors that will play into if it happens and when it happens, from whether the current administration wants to address this problem or pass it on the next one, to how quickly DCAM can study and then weigh the costs and benefits of building new versus renovating what currently exists.

But he expects something — he’s not sure what — to happen within the next year, because of the severity of the health concerns in the current courthouse and the need to find a solution.

Much of his development activity over the past few decades falls into that category of ‘finding solutions,’ and this would certainly be another legacy project for the portfolio.

It is a developing story — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

From the day he took the helm with the fledgling Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team, Nate Costa, now the president of the franchise, talked about the importance of winning to the ultimate success of a team.

Indeed, Costa, who came to Springfield following management roles with several minor league sports operations, often spoke about the importance of presentation and the overall experience when it came to how well a team could capture the hearts and minds of a region or community — and thrive financially. But ultimately, he said there is no real substitute for winning. A team can have endless promotions, bring in big names as guests, and offer special prices on hot dogs and beer, he implied, but in the end, it would have to win to really break through.

The events of the past few several months, and especially the past few weeks, have proven Costa right.

As the Thunderbirds made their way to the Calder Cup finals against the Chicago Wolves, the team moved to a new and much higher level in terms of visibility and presence, for lack of a better term, in the Greater Springfield area. While T-Birds ultimately lost the series, four games to one, including the last three at home, it was a clear winner on every other level.

Let’s start with the games themselves. The downtown area was electric on game nights. Some fans would arrive an hour or two before the game started. There was some tailgating in some of the parking lots and larger crowds in many of the area restaurants.

The weekend games that closed out the series were sell-outs, and there were high levels of energy in the MassMutual Center.

Overall, the Thunderbirds were front of mind for the past month or so as they progressed in the playoffs to the finals. They were the lead story on local sports pages and the local news shows, but there was more than that.

People were talking about them — at the office, in coffee shops, and at the many events that have been staged in the region over the past several months as the long-awaited return to normalcy from the pandemic has moved to a different level. And they are still talking about them.

And while people were talking about this team, they were reminiscing about championship teams from 30 and 50 years ago. Hockey, for at least a little while, became king.

The best news is that interest in the T-Birds has moved well beyond talk. Season-ticket sales are far ahead of the pace for previous years, and they, as everyone knows, are one of the key cornerstones to success. More corporate support is certain to follow.

While the Thunderbirds have always had a presence in Springfield and the region, they have now officially arrived. And this bodes extremely well for a city that will need this team to play a big role in its full recovery from the pandemic and ongoing efforts to make downtown a place to not only work, but live.

The T-Birds did not bring home the Calder Cup in 2022. But they may have succeeded in an even bigger game, if one can call it that.

They have broken through and truly captured the attention of the region. That makes them big winners.

Conventions & Meetings Daily News

SPRINGFIELDDowntown Springfield Toastmasters kicked off its 25th anniversary year by announcing its officers for 2022/23. They are:

President: Steve Lanning (eight-year member);

• Vice president, Education: Andrew Watt (nine-year member);

• Vice president, Membership: Mechelle Decouteau (one-year member);

• Vice president, Public Relations: Shera Cohen (18-year member);

• Secretary/Treasurer: Dave Anderson (14 year member);

• Sergeant-at-Arms: Steve Lanning (eight-year member)

Toastmasters is not a course that is graded, but a club in which members give impromptu and planned speeches. It is an opportunity to learn, practice, and be evaluated in a non-threatening setting.

Conventions & Meetings Daily News Women in Businesss

HOLYOKE — The Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield (YPS) welcomed Elizabeth Hillis, business development associate at WWLP 22 News, to its Board of Directors.

“I’m excited to share my skills with the board and learn new things about the area,” Hillis said. “I’m thrilled to be able to help with the amazing events our organization has to offer. Being a Springfield YPS member is a great way to develop your network, meet other professionals, and become more involved in your community. I can’t wait to get started!”

Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Crews working on the $64 million initiative to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing say the project takes them back in time. Actually, it takes them to several different periods of time — from the property’s days as prominent hotel to more recent days, when it hosted a popular tavern and several other businesses. While doing this time-traveling, these same crews are living in the present and confronting a number of challenges as they usher in the next chapter in this property’s intriguing history.

Dave Fontaine Jr. calls it a “cool memento.” Actually, it’s turned out to be more than that.

He was referring to a bid package submitted by his firm, Fontaine Bros. Inc., for redevelopment of the former Court Square Hotel in the heart of downtown Springfield. The date on the three-ring binder, crammed with interior and exterior photographs and other materials, is 2000.

And that wasn’t the first — or only — time the company had submitted a bid on a project to transform the property, now vacant for more than 25 years, for a different use — endeavors that never saw the light of day for one reason for another.

There have been so many in fact, that Fontaine, vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather and his brother, had some humorous material for use when he was asked to say a few words at one of the many ceremonies to mark milestones for the project that actually made it off the drawing board — a $64 million initiative to convert the property into 71 units of market-rate housing.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project,” he told BusinessWest, adding that both his father, Dave Sr., and grandfather, Lester, were involved with similar proposals. “We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

More than a quarter century after the first such bid, Fontaine is finally at work in Court Square, with one of its banners hanging on the front of the property. It’s an intriguing project, said Fontaine, one of many the company has handled that falls in the broad category of historical restoration. Others include the transformation of Classical High School into condominiums, Berkshire Hall at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the public libraries in Holyoke and Shrewsbury, and even the conversion of 95 State St., visible out the windows of the Court Square property, into the home of MGM’s headquarters in Springfield.

Work at Court Square began early this year, he said, noting that the first phase involved weatherizing the property and making it structurally sound, significant steps for a building that was, in his words, in “terrible shape” when crews arrived and set up shop.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

Actually it was in terrible shape in 2000, as photos in that bid package reveal, he said, adding that conditions only worsened over the past two decades as the elements took their toll on the structure.

“It had been vacant for 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “When we got there, the envelope needed work — and there are still areas where water gets into the building when the weather is poor — and historically there has been no heat in the building in the winter. The building was really on its last legs.”

Repairing and renovating what Mother Nature has damaged is just one of many challenges on this project, said Fontaine, noting that, like all construction projects undertaken at this time, this one has had to contend with everything from supply-chain issues to often dramatic increases in the prices of materials and labor.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project. We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

So much so that the Springfield City Council approved an 11th-hour request for $6.5 million in emergency funding to handle cost overruns for the project which came to fruition through a public-private partnership that includes a number of players, from the state, to Wynn Development and Opal Development, to MGM Springfield.

Another challenge is implied in that phrase ‘historical renovation.’ Indeed, the property, which dates to the 1890s, is on several lists of historic properties, said Karl Beaumier, on-site superintendent for the project, adding that, in many respects, crews from Fontaine are dismantling what was in place in the old hotel rooms and other spaces, storing those pieces, and putting them back after mechanicals, equipment, and appliances are installed and finishing work is completed. Everything that goes into the renovated structure, including new windows (600 of them) must be reviewed by the National Park Service.

“We salvaged a tremendous amount of the wainscoting on the corridors — some of it was left here, some of it came off and it’s going back on,” said Beaumier. “All of the doors were salvaged, the door frames, the door cases, the window cases on all the exterior windows, the baseboard, the chair rail, the crown molding — all of that stuff got saved; there are 10 40-foot conex boxes (shipping containers) completely full of salvaged woodwork that has to go back in the building.

“It’s been carefully removed, catalogued, and stored,” he went on. “It will all go back as part of the historical renovation.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest took a hard-hat tour of the property, and talked with Fontaine and Beaumier about the massive undertaking and the steps still to come.

 

Past Due

As they started their tour on the ground floor of the property, most recently home to several storefronts and eventually to be the site of a restaurant, Beaumier and Fontaine said that for the on-site crews, going to work each day also means going back in time.

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

This view out one of the windows on the sixth floor explains why there has always been interest in converting the property for residential use.

Indeed, on the ground floor, the areas housing the storefronts bear evidence of their former uses, especially the space that was home to the tavern known as the Bar Association, a name chosen to reference the many clients from the legal community, many with offices within a block or so from the courthouse just south of the Court Square property.

“It was like things were stuck in time from the late ’80s,” said Fontaine, noting such items as the stained-glass window in the Bar Association and a door that still had the ‘R’ from owner Tony Ravossa’s name. “It’s cool seeing the old storefronts.”

From the ground floor, Beaumier took BusinessWest to the basement, where collected water provided evidence of still-ongoing work to shore up the property, and then to the second floor, where the next use of the property is starting to come into focus.

There, and on the remaining floors, long rows of what used to be hotel rooms —most all of them with doors to the rooms on either side — have been essentially gutted, with the masonry walls that divided them (see photo, page 30) taken down and the groundwork laid for what will become one- and two-bedroom apartments. In one hallway, rows of shower units were waiting for eventual installation.

While the property will have a completely different use than it did a century ago, it will look, in almost all respects, as it did back then, Beaumier explained.

“When we’re done, and we look down this corridor, it’s supposed to look just like it did in 1900,” he told BusinessWest as he gestured down the narrow hallway of the wing of the property that runs north-south toward State Street. “All these doors that went into the individual hotel rooms … we’ve opened up the spaces, so there will probably be two dummy doors for each unit; the doors that we took off have to get pinned back in the wall so that when you look down this corridor, it looks the same as it did historically; every third door will actually open into a unit, the rest will be dummy doors.”

Elaborating, he said that the actual walls to the units were pushed back a foot from where they stood originally, because the original corridor is too narrow for a wheel chair to turn in, an example of how some adjustments have to be made to enable a century-old building to comply with modern building codes and state and federal regulations.

The tour then provided more glimpses into the past as it went to and then down one of the original staircases to what was the lobby area of the former hotel, complete with the remains of a revolving door, marble-covered walls, and a ceiling, now in an advanced state of decay, that will be restored.

“Right now, we’re getting the building structurally back to where it needs to be so we can do the mechanicals and other systems,” said Fontaine adding that the initial phases of this project have involved demolition, structural work, and salvaging a number of features. When these have been completed, crews will move onto installation of those mechanical systems, replacing hundreds of windows, building out the individual apartments, and putting the salvaged items back in.

When the tour reached the sixth floor, Beaumier pointed out one of the north-facing windows to dramatic views of Court Square (see photo, page 26), looks that help explain why there has always been interest in redeveloping the property for housing, and why there has been a high level of interest in this project.

As they walked and pointed out specific areas of note in the sprawling property, Fontaine and Beaumier talked about everything from the significance of the project to Springfield and its central business district to the many challenges involved with undertaking a project like this at this time of soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis that has affected all sectors of the economy including construction.

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Work to convert the property into a mix of residential and retail spaces is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023. Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Fontaine, whose family has developed or redeveloped many properties downtown, from the aforementioned State Street project to the expansion of what is now known as the MassMutual Center, to the creation of MarketPlace, said the Court Square is an important next step in the revitalization of that area.

“That downtown area means a lot to us, we’ve handled a lot of projects in that area,” he said. “I grew up in this area, we’ll stay in this area; I want my daughters to be able to stay around here and work and live here if they choose to, and I this is a big step toward making downtown attractive to working professionals and people who want to be downown.”

As for the many challenges that come with building at this time, Fontaine said there have been some adjustments to make.

That includes the emergency funding from the City Council, he said, adding that the amount allocated should cover the escalating cost of the project. But it also includes longer lead times for items and, in some cases, having to use different products or materials because the lead times are too long.

“As with every construction project going on right now, there have been a lot of items with long lead times — significantly longer than normal,” he explained. “We’ve been working through that with the designers to use some products that do what we need them to do, but also get here within the lead times. With the mechanical systems, one of the manufacturers that was specified for the unit heaters had a 52-week lead time; we found something we could get in the time frame in which we needed them.”

 

Finishing Work

The elaborate project is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023, said Fontaine.

There will certainly be an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony at that time, one that will close the book on the long, often-frustrating efforts to create a new life for the historic property, and usher in the next chapter.

Fontaine can also close the book — figuratively but also quite literally — on more than 25 years of bidding on projects to transform the property.

That binder from 2000 is, as Fontaine said, a cool memento, but it’s also a symbol of this property and how long its fate has been a critical issue in Springfield.

 

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

Daily News

MONSON — In the spirit of its 150th Anniversary, Monson Savings Bank announced earlier this year that it will be launching its 150 Build-a-Bike campaign. The community bank has purchased more than $20,000 worth of bikes to donate to local children and they have partnered with various non-profits in the area to host Build-a-Bike events throughout the year. Most recently, Monson Savings delivered 10 bikes and 10 helmets to YWCA of Western Mass. 

Elizabeth Dineen, executive director of YWCA of Western Massachusetts Executive Director, and her team, welcomed Monson Savings Bank members to the YWCA campus. She expressed gratitude for the bank’s generosity and commented on the impact they are making in Western Massachusetts. 

“We are so happy Monson Savings Bank reached out to invite us to be a part of this wonderful campaign,” she said. “We are so thankful that Monson Savings is giving us bikes for our YWCA campus, allowing children using our services to enjoy some carefree time riding a bicycle. The continued support that the bank provides to Springfield and the surrounding communities is truly amazing.” 

Members of the Monson Savings team delivered the bikes that they helped to assemble with Ray Plouffe, owner of Family Bike Shop in East Longmeadow. Many members of the team expressed feelings of gratitude and a sense of fulfillment after building and delivering the bikes. 

“All of us were very excited to come together for the YWCA Build-a-Bike event. Our team had a great time getting to know the YWCA team and confirming our knowledge about all of the incredible ways they help those in need,” said Dan Moriarty, President and CEO of Monson Savings Bank. “Plus, it was wonderful to deliver the bikes and hear how the YWCA plans to make a safe, designated area for children to enjoy the bikes as they receive support from the organization.” 

Throughout the summer, Monson Savings Bank will also partner with I Found Light Against All Odds and the Springfield Housing Authority, South End Community Center, and Educare Springfield to host more 150 Build-a-Bike events, continuing to spread happiness to children and families throughout the area. 

To learn more about Monson Savings Bank’s 150th anniversary, the bank’s historical timeline, and to view a full schedule of events visit www.monsonsavings.bank/anniversary 

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Easy Company Brewing will be launching Springfield’s newest brewery Thursday at the Student Prince in downtown Springfield.  

Easy Company Brewing (ECB) is a veteran-owned business that is committed to donating 100% of its profits to veterans, first responders, and their families. The name and its mission are inspired by the men of Easy Company from WW II, made famous by the book and mini-series Band of Brothers. 

Following in the footsteps of the men of Easy, ECB is committed to brewing drinkable European style beers with “a little bit of American boldness and edge,” while honoring the men and women who serve or have served our country. All of ECB after-tax profits, will be donated through its companion foundation to a number of charities that do work on behalf our nation’s heroes.  

Founders Jeff St. Jean and John DeVoie served together in the Air National Guard, and have teamed up to create this new beer brand in the City of Homes. St. Jean is still serving, and DeVoie is one of the co-founders of Hot Table, a Springfield based fast casual restaurant company.  

ECB beers are currently contract brewed locally in Western Mass., but DeVeVoie and St. Jean hope to build a brewery and tap room in Springfield at some point.  

The ECB launch party will happen Thursday, 5-8 p.m. at the Student Prince & Fort, 8 Fort Street, Springfield, MA. Their beers are currently available for sale at Table & Vine in West Springfield. Other retailers will follow this summer.  

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The MassMutual Centerrecently collaborated with Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company that measures local economic impact in local markets, to research the economic impact the venue had in Springfield and surrounding markets from July 2018 through June 2019 (FY19). Findings show that the MassMutual Center’s gross economic impact as well as Incremental Impact were significant. 

Tourism Economics found that in FY19, the MassMutual Center had more than 300,000 total attendees in the arena and convention center events, resulting in a total gross economic impact of $47.1 million, which generated 555 total jobs in the market and contributed $4.4 million in total state and local tax revenues.   

Of the total event attendees, 147,000 were out-of-town attendees, resulting in a total incremental impact of $34.9M, which generated 443 total jobs in the market and contributed $3.2M in total state and local tax revenues.   

Gross economic and incremental impacts were measured by money spent by the venue in the local economy to sustain operations, including spending on payroll, marketing costs, legal services, and professional services, as well as money spent by event attendees while attending events at the MassMutual Center and at off-site establishments, including local restaurants, hotels, retailers, and recreation/entertainment venues. Gross economic impact shows impact made by all event attendees, while incremental impacts focuses on the out-of-town event attendees. 

“We love being a part of the Springfield community and are thrilled at seeing the results of these reports.  We look forward to continuing our successful impact on local businesses and growing our partnerships throughout Springfield and Western Massachusetts,” said Sean Dolan, general manager of the MassMutual Center. 

“The MassMutual Center continues to be a positive catalyst for economic activity in Western Massachusetts and the success of the venue and the results that have been achieved are a direct result of the outstanding work Sean Dolan and his team have done to increase the quality of events at the facility to deliver real results for the community,” said David Gibbons, executive director of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority. 

Daily News


SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber has named Evan Plotkin, president, and owner of NAI Samuel D. Plotkin and Associates, as its 2022 Richard J. Moriarty Citizen of the Year. The award, established in 2007, is given annually to honor the memory of Richard J. Moriarty, a long-time active participant in the Chamber and individual who gave his time, talent, and personal and professional resources to the local community. 

“Evan reminds me of Rick in so many ways,” said Patrick Leary, who helped establish the award and was Rick’s partner at Moriarty & Primack, P.C., now MP CPAs. “Evan’s involvement in the community and its prosperity was evident both during his personal and professional relationship with Rick when they sat on the Board of Directors for the Center for Human Development. Just like Rick, Evan is involved in the community not because it is something that is expected of him, but because he believes it is the right thing to do.” Leary continued, “Like Rick, much of his involvement is done quietly without seeking accolades or recognition. I think Rick would be very pleased with Evan as our Citizen of the Year.” 

Plotkin will be honored at the Springfield Regional Chamber’s Annual Meeting and Celebration on June 15, from 5:30-8 p.m. at the Springfield Sheraton. In addition to honoring Plotkin, the chamber will recognize the graduates of its 2022 Leadership Institute, commemorate outgoing President Nancy Creed, and welcome incoming Chamber President Diana Szynal.  

Longtime advocate and champion of Springfield, Plotkin has made it his mission to make the city a more attractive place to live and work, both literally and figuratively. A Springfield native, he is one of the lead organizers of the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival and is the force behind Art & Soles, the project that saw sculptures of colorful sneakers placed around the city. Additionally, Plotkin, named a Difference Maker by BusinessWest spearheaded the City Mosaic project, overseeing the conversion of the ninth floor of 1350 Main St. into what’s known as Studio 9, a community gathering space. By also using the front lobby of 1350 Main St. as a gallery space, he forged a partnership with artist James Kitchen to bring many of his metal sculptures to the downtown area. 

Plotkin was also a catalyst behind bringing art to life on Court House Walk, one of the city’s most charming landmarks that was restored by the Junior League of Greater Springfield in 1979. The walk brought giant murals into fruition on the Court Square property with images of iconic celebrities such as Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and others. 

Plotkin’s involvement with the community has given him the opportunity to serve as a member of the board of directors for many organizations throughout the years, including as the chairman of The Center for Human Development, and as a board member for various civic organizations including Holyoke Community College and Springfield Business Improvement District. Additionally, Plotkin served six years on the SRC’s board and was a longstanding active board member of the former Springfield Chamber of Commerce. Plotkin was an instrumental part of the group that launched the SRC’s economic development tools in 2021, helping businesses and developers recognize and understand key indicators that encourage informed business decisions.  

When he’s not beautifying or enhancing Springfield through his artistic endeavors and volunteer initiatives, he’s assisting in its revitalization through his company, NAI Plotkin, which services commercial real estate in areas such as property management, consulting, construction management, condo/HOA management, and brokerage services. Plotkin’s portfolio includes the management of more than 6 million square feet of commercial and retail space and approximately two million square feet of residential units with clients ranging from institutional to regional in scope and include such entities as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts State Office Building, the U.S. Postal Service, and Staples, Inc. Through his role as president, Plotkin serves on the NAI Asset Services Council along with 30 other esteemed members globally, encouraging a collective wealth of knowledge, including best practices and new technology for effective property management.  

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber shared her admiration for Plotkin by stating, “His steadfast efforts to enhance Springfield even in the face of tribulation, including the pandemic and his battle with cancer, are inspiring. He continues to navigate challenges with great leadership and poise — consistently showcasing his remarkable strength as a community leader.”  

Reservations for the Annual Meeting and Celebration are $75 for members in advance, and $85 for general admission. Reservations may be made online at the Annual Meeting webpage or by contacting Nancy Creed at [email protected]. 

Home Improvement

Cover Story

Karen Belezarian-Tesini

Karen Belezarian-Tesini says the mood in the ‘coverings’ industry is one of cautious optimism.

Karen Belezarian-Tesini recently returned from Coverings 2022, the largest trade show for the ceramic tile industry in North America.

The four-day event was staged at the Las Vegas Convention Center roughly a month ago, and while there was a good crowd, things weren’t quite back to what they were in 2019, attendance-wise and otherwise, observed Belezarian-Tesini, who has been to quite of few of these as manager of Best Tile’s Springfield location on Belmont Avenue.

Summing up the show, she said that, as always, there were hundreds of thousands of square feet of new products on display, and an opportunity for her and other attendees to get a clear understanding of the latest trends and innovations — which include everything from tile products that “look like wallpaper,” as she put it, to ever-larger sizes of tile for walls and floors — up to 60 inches by 120 inches in some cases, to growing options in porcelain, marble, and glass mosaic products.

“When I started in this business. 8-by-8 was the nominal size, then it was 12-by-12, then 12-by-24,” she explained. “Now, we’re looking at 24-by-24 and 24-by-48; that’s what’s in demand now; it’s not a need, it’s a want, and there’s a lot of want.”

As for the mood at the show … Belezarian-Tesini, described it as one of caution laced with large doses of optimism. The caution part is understandable, she said, given the stories dominating the news lately, everything from runaway inflation and its impact on prices to ongoing supply chain issues; from war in Ukraine to recent talk about the possibility of recession. And then, there’s the stock market and its precipitous decline. In short, there are many colliding factors that may certainly impact large purchases.

“People are cautiously upbeat,” she said. Everyone was so concerned and consumed with COVID — it’s all anyone talked about,” she said. “Then, the economy started to crazy and inflation started to go crazy — so there is caution about what all this means.”

“Overall, 2020 was up and down, but 2021 … was very, very busy. From Jan. 2 on, people were just constantly coming in and calling because they were remodeling. They were stuck at home looking at their four walls. It started picking up in the fall of 2020, and then in 2021, we did crazy business — it was fantastic.”

The accompanying optimism results from ongoing and very upbeat patterns (that’s an industry term) of business, she went on, adding that while the first quarter or two of the pandemic was slow for the broad coverings sector, as both consumers and those in the industry figured things out and waited for some dust to settle, by that fall, things were ‘crazy,’ as she put it. And in many respects, they still are.

“We’re still incredibly busy — things haven’t really slowed down at all,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, despite some gathering clouds, there is general optimism that things will stay this way.

Indeed, the trends, and the mood, on display at the Coverings show in Las Vegas, pretty much echo what Belezarian-Tesini can see and hear at the Belmont Street facility, where the pace of business has been steady since the fall of 2020, when many of those who were essentially trapped at home and not entirely happy with what they were looking at decided to do something about it.

These solid times blend with host of challenges that range from longer wait times for some products to back-ups in the warehouse as ordered products sit and wait as customers wait for other needed items before they proceed with remodeling projects.

Members of the team at Best Tile

Members of the team at Best Tile; from left, Erika Andreson, Ariel Tatsch, Karen Belezarian-Tesini, Alyssa Belanger, and Sarah Rietberg.

“We have some purchase orders that we placed in November, and we still haven’t seen them,” she explained. “But what we have, we have plenty of.”

For this issue and its focus on landscaping and home improvement, BusinessWest talked with Belezarian-Tesini about what she saw in Vegas, what she can see in her own showroom, and what she foresees short and long term.

 

Off-the-wall Comments

The Best Tile location in Springfield is a place where the past, present, and future come together. Sort of. Certainly the past and the present.

This is where Harry Marcus, who, with his wife, Mollie, sold tile out of the back of a car at one point, planted the roots that would eventually grow into a business — known originally as Marcus Tile and eventually as Best Tile — with 28 locations across the Northeast and beyond.

As for the present, this is where those current trends are playing out, and where Belezarian-Tesini and her team are trying to contend with steady demand and those aforementioned challenges mentioned. And as for the future … well, it may not be at this location.

Indeed, Belezarian-Tesini said there has been an ongoing search for a new facility for nearly five years now. It has taken her and other team members across the region and especially to higher-traffic areas, including Riverdale Street in West Springfield and Memorial Avenue in Chicopee.

There have been some “near misses,” as she termed them, especially on Riverdale Street, but a new location has proven elusive. The search continues, because a larger, more modern facility is needed, she said.

Meanwhile, there is also some succession planning going on, said Belezarian-Tesini, adding that she and several other branch managers are approaching retirement, and this proactive, forward-thinking company wants to be ready for that day.

Getting back to the present, and the recent past, Belezarian-Tesini said these are intriguing times for this business and this industry.

Turning the clock back to the start of the pandemic, she said the business managed to stay open, but with some huge adjustments when it came to how business was done.

“We were open, but in the early days, the door was locked,” she explained. “We did everything virtually. Customers would either call in or email; we would gather samples that they saw on our website, we’d put them in a bag, we’d put them outside the front door, the customers would pick up the samples, they’d call in their orders, they’d return their samples back at the door, we’d disinfect everything and put them away, and then we’d start all over.”

Elaborating, she said that because of the reports that COVID could live on surfaces, every piece of tile in the showroom had to be disinfected regularly, at a time when disinfectant was hard to come by. Overall it was a trying time, but unlike many retailers, the company made it through without layoffs and without losing any employees.

“It was crazy,” she went on, adding that by that fall, there would be a different kind of crazy as homeowners, many of them with money to spend because they weren’t spending it on vacations or much of anything else, looked to make some improvements.

“Overall, 2020 was up and down, but 2021 … was very, very busy,” she recalled. “From Jan. 2 on, people were just constantly coming in and calling because they were remodeling. They were stuck at home looking at their four walls. It started picking up in the fall of 2020, and then in 2021, we did crazy business — it was fantastic.”

And, for most part, things have not slowed down to any large degree, she went on, adding that the only thing that has slowed down is the pace of products being shipped from the warehouse to customers, who can’t proceed with a remodeling project until they have everything they need.

“So many of the jobs that we have tile for are sitting in our warehouse, because the customer can’t get the refrigerator or the faucet or tun or the sink or the toilet,” she explained, adding that, overall, this is not a bad problem to have. “The jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time; for a while, it was lumber it was the issue, now it’s things like backer board or the foam board being used for walls now that are on back order. Or, when we get 600 to 700 sheets of it, and within a week, it’s gone — sold out. It’s crazy … we can’t keep up. No one can keep up.”

Because the company is a direct importer, it has not been as hard hit by supply chain issues as some of the smaller companies and stores, she went on, but all players in this industry are being impacted to some extent, whether it’s with delays or the spiraling cost of shipping containers.

“So many of the jobs that we have tile for are sitting in our warehouse, because the customer can’t get the refrigerator or the faucet or tun or the sink or the toilet. The jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time.”

“The cost of shipping has gone through the roof,” she said, uttering each one of those words slowly for emphasis. “What used to cost $4,000 or $5,000 now costs $20,000 to $25,000; it’s crazy.”

Thus far, the company has managed to mostly absorb these increases without passing them on the customer, she said, noting that there has been one increase, while other companies have had several.

 

Flooring Their Customers

As she offered a quick tour of the showroom, Belezarian-Tesini pointed to some of those newer, wall-paper-like patterns, different options in marble and porcelain, and two of those 60-by-120 tile panels that are now in demand — far more on the West Coast than they are here.

‘There are only a few companies around here that could even install something like this,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this may likely change because this is the direction this industry is moving in — or one of them anyway.

For 66 years, Best Tile, and Marcus Tile before that, has been at the forefront of such innovations and trends, she said, adding that this is one pattern that won’t ever change.

As for the rest of them, the company will continue to evolve as it has for the past seven decades and continue to have customers needs … covered.

 

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

Opinion

Opinion

 

Much has been made of Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent endorsement of east-west rail in Massachusetts.

It came at a meeting late last month with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other key stakeholders in the bid to expand east-west commuter rail. And the immediate question on everyone’s minds is ‘what does this mean?’

Well … it could make all the difference in the world.

The governor’s endorsement was one of the key missing piece in this puzzle, and a large piece at that. Baker has said he’s never really been opposed to the concept; rather, he just had questions, primarily about how much this would cost, who would administer the rail system, and how much land would have to be taken to create it.

These questions and others have been answered, or soon will be, leaving fewer of those pieces of the puzzle to fall into place for a project that just a few years ago seemed like a good idea — especially for the western part of the state — but had much too steep a price tag and seemingly too little support statewide to become reality.

Now? On BusnessTalk, BusinessWest’s podcast, Neal said the stars are aligned for east-west rail in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a year ago.

Indeed, funding for the project, seemingly the biggest question mark and hurdle facing this project could be much less of an issue thanks to the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which will, by Neal’s estimate, bring $9 billion to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the federal government put another piece in place when it approved freight carrier CSX’s acquisition of Pan Am Railways — on condition that Amtrak would have access to tracks in and out of Springfield.

And then, there’s Baker’s endorsement. Although he’s in office only eight more months and candidates to succeed him have already announced their support of east-west rail, his support of the plan is critical at this juncture. That’s because things need to start happening this year if funds from the infrastructure bill are to be ticketed for this rail project.

Baker has recommended the establishment of a Massachusetts passenger rail authority to apply for federal funds and administer expanded east-west commuter rail, and he further recommends that it be established before this legislative session ends. His support of the concept might help get that done.

East-west rail still has many, hurdles to clear, and in many respects, it remains a long shot. But Neal is right. The stars seem to be aligned, and a project that was the longest of shots just a few years ago may finally be gaining some needed momentum.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Maifest is a colorful, joyous tradition in Germany. It celebrates the arrival of spring where food is plentiful and spirits flow freely. The tradition unfolds in Springfield with the Maifest Block Party on May 20 and 21. 

The Student Prince & The Fort Restaurant’s Maifest Block Party is an event for the community supported by Liberty Bank. This two-day event will take place outdoors on Fort Street. Live bands will fill the air with music while guests sip beer and dine on delicious Maifest spring delights.  

The festivities will kick off at 6 p.m. on May 20, with the ceremonial keg tapping headed by Peter Picknelly, Edison Yee, and more special guests.  

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — MOSSO, the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, have announced details of their upcoming summer concerts at Symphony Hall. MOSSO will celebrate the music of Stephen Sondheim and John Williams. These concerts mark the first time in almost 20 years that the musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra have performed summer concerts in Springfield. 

On June 23, MOSSO celebrates the music of the late, legendary Broadway composer and lyricist, Stephen Sondheim, who penned the words and music to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods. Conductor Tim Stella will lead the program, joined by Broadway stars Hugh Panaro and Lisa Vroman. Also appearing are Ray Hardman and Kathleen Callahan-Hardman. 

Stella conducted The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway, and before that, Jesus Christ Superstar, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella, Hello Dolly!, and Legs Diamond. He served as vocal coach to Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler, who portrayed Christine and the Phantom respectively, in the movie version of Phantom. Stella is former resident music director of Goodspeed Musicals, and a conductor at Radio City Music Hall. 

Panaro is best known for having played the role of the Phantom in Broadway’s The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,000 times.  

On July 21, Maestro Kevin Rhodes returns to Springfield to conduct a MOSSO benefit concert, with a program of light classics and music of renowned composer John Williams, whose works include Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List. Rhodes will be joined by guest soloist, violinist Yevgeny Kutik, whose two prior solo appearances in Springfield were met with great acclaim. 

Rhodes served as music director and conductor of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra for 20 seasons, until the SSO paused performances in 2020. 

He continues to serve as music director and conductor of the Traverse Symphony in Michigan, and as principal conductor of Boston’s Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra. In March 2021, Maestro Rhodes made his debut with the Orchestra of the Rome Opera in Italy, recording a live radio broadcast of Maurice Jarre’s score to Roland Petit’s ballet, Notre Dame de Paris. He will conduct productions of Giselle and La Bayadère for their 2022-23 season. 

Kutik, a native of Minsk, Belarus, immigrated to the United States with his family at the age of five, with the help of the Jewish Federations of North America. His 2014 album, Music from the Suitcase: A Collection of Russian Miniatures (Marquis Classics), features music he found in his family’s suitcase after immigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1990. In 2021, Kutik launched Finding Home: Music from the Suitcase in Concert. Kutik’s additional releases on Marquis include his most recent album, The Death of Juliet and Other Tales. 

Tickets for both concerts, priced $60, $45, $25, and $10, will go on sale on May 9. For details, visit: SpringfieldSymphonyMusicians.com. 

MOSSO sponsors (to date) include: The Republican/MassLive, BusinessWest and Healthcare News, WWLP-22News & The CW Springfield, the Sheraton Springfield at Monarch Place, New England Public Media, the Musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Bolduc Schuster Foundation. 

Daily News


The Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) has announced 50 Finalists for the upcoming 2022 Howdy Awards for Hospitality Excellence. 

 

The Howdy Awards, as they are also known, celebrate workers in visitor-facing roles across Western Mass who deliver outstanding guest service, create loyal customers for their businesses and help make a positive impact upon the region’s hospitality economy.  

 

“Every guest interaction is a chance to create quality customer service impressions, which reflect back on Western Mass as a region,” said Howdy Committee Chair Michael Hurwitz from Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill. “We’re tremendously proud to have so many outstanding, hard-working people on our visitor front lines. Customers come back when they are treated well and that’s why we originally created these awards in 1996. We want to recognize the hotel desk clerk who always has a pleasant smile, the food server who gets your order right every time or the bartender who always remembers your favorite beverage, because they’re the ones who create strong, positive reviews and memorable word of mouth impressions.”  

Hurwitz added that the 2022 awards will feature winners in categories including Accommodations, Food Casual, Food Tableside, Beverage, Public Service, Retail, Transportation, Attractions, Banquet, and People’s Choice. 

“Customer service has never been more important in the tourism sector,” said GSCVB President Mary Kay Wydra. “With review apps like Yelp, Expedia and others playing such an important role in how businesses are perceived, it’s vital that customers feel they’ve been welcomed and treated well.” 

The 2022 Howdy Awards will be celebrated on May 16 at 6 p.m. at the MassMutual Center, and will also include the presentation of the Spotlight Award to Nate Costa and the Springfield Thunderbirds ownership group for keeping professional hockey in Western Mass. 

 

The 50 finalists are: 

Accommodations 

Felicia Fernandez, front desk clerk, Hampton Inn and Suites, Hadley; 

Austin Ginman, front desk agent, MGM Hotel, Springfield; 

GenesisRamos, front desk clerk, Residence Inn, Chicopee; and 

Felicia Laurin, housekeeping supervisor, The Inn on Boltwood, Amherst. 

 

Attractions 

David Dunston, show staff, Basketball Hall of Fame, Springfield; 

Laura Litterer, owner, Full of Grace Farm, Hadley; 

Steve Ferraro, director of Operations, Eastern States Exposition, West Springfield; 

Sabrina Brizzolari, director of Event Services, Mass Mutual Center, Springfield;  

Gary Laprade, tour host, Sports Travel and Tours, Hatfield; 

Pearl Wesley, ranger, Springfield Armory, Springfield; and 

Sharon Ferrara, Welcome Center manager, Springfield Museums, Springfield.  

 

Banquets 

Shanique Fair, catering sales manager, MGM Springfield; 

Will Diaz, event planner, Log Cabin, Holyoke; and 

Brenda Lee Glanville, director of Sales & Marketing, Summit View Banquet House, Holyoke. 

 

Beverage 

Terry Ryan, bartender, Collins Tavern, West Springfield; 

Rob Dullea, bar manager, Fitzwilly’s, Northampton; 

Jessica Santinello, bartender, Maple Leaf, Westfield; 

Matthew Jerzyk, bartender, Max’s Tavern, Springfield; and 

Amanda Reed, bartender, the Ranch Pub House, Southwick 

 

Food Casual 

June Leduc, general manager, Delaney’s Market, Longmeadow;  

Silvana Cardaropoli, customer service, Palazzo’s, Springfield; 

Humberto Caro, manager, Starbuck’s, Monarch Place, Springfield; and 

Erica Rosado, breakfast attendant, Tru by Hilton, Chicopee. 

 

Food Tableside 

Kelsi Donohue, server, Bnapoli Italian, West Springfield; 

Donna  Nardi, server, Cal’s Restaurant, West Springfield; 

Matthew Canata, counter clerk, EB’s, Agawam; 

Darlene Robinson, server, Gregory’s Pizza, Wilbraham; 

Bernadette Beaudry, server, Johnny’s Roadside Diner, Hadley; 

Benny  Beans, server, Lattitude, West Springfield; 

Amy Silvestri, general manager, UNO’s Pizzeria & Grill, Springfield; and 

Michael Moriarty, server, Villa Napoletana, East Longmeadow. 

 

Public Service 

Serena Curley, concierge, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield; 

Latrina Haynie, phlebotomist, Baystate Lab, Springfield; 

January Russell, insurance agent, Bluestone Insurance/Horace Mann, Agawam; 

Heather Wyman, office manager, Cordes Orthodontics, Westfield; 

Paul Barden, Meals on Wheels, Greater Springfield Senior Services, Springfield; 

Tricia Zoly, nurse, Holyoke Council on Aging, Holyoke; and 

Harold Anderson, program director, Valley Eye Radio, Springfield. 

 

Retail 

Yates Greenhalgh, cashier, Big Y, Wilbraham; 

Kerri O’Connor, manager, Athleta, Longmeadow; 

Patrick Hamel, service advisor, Gary Rome Hyundai, Holyoke; 

Tiarra Henderson, framing specialist, Michael’s, West Springfield; 

Maria Lepage, sales and leasing consultant, Gary Rome Hyundai, Holyoke; 

Sabrina Pretti, customer service, Insa Inc., Easthampton; 

Carolyn Owens, cashier, Walgreen’s, Springfield; 

Janet Graves, retail sales associate, Yankee Candle Village, South Deerfield; and 

Stephen Ross, sales associate, Yankee Candle Village, South Deerfield  

 

Transportation 

Jose Guzman, valet parker, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield; 

Barbara Eckert, booth attendant, Civic Center Garage, Springfield; and 

Tom McLeer, PVTA bus driver, PVTA, Springfield 

 

The Howdy Awards for Hospitality Excellence are sponsored by Eastern States Exposition, Aladco Linen Services, Mass. Convention Center Authority, Freedom Credit Union, Performance Foodservice, People’s United Bank, MGM Springfield, MassMutual Center, Baystate Health, Yankee Candle Village, Modelo Especial, The Republican, MassLive, WWLP TV-22 and IHeart Media. 

 

The GSCVB, an affiliate of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass, is a private non-profit destination marketing organization dedicated to promoting Western Mass for meetings and conventions, group tours, sports and leisure travel.   

Daily News

 

SPRINGFIELD — Rocky’s Ace Hardware, one of the country’s largest family-owned Ace Hardware dealers, will celebrate the reopening of its Liberty Street, Springfield location on April 23. 

After months of construction, renovations to the store are complete, adding new features for both homeowners and contractors. 

The reopening celebration begins at 10 a.m. and will feature a board-cutting ceremony, raffle prizes, demonstrations, activities for young people and much more. 

“This renovation has allowed us to expand our paint options and cater to both those who make a living in construction as well as weekend warriors tackling home projects on their own,” said Rocky’s Ace Hardware President Rocco Falcone. “Inside the Liberty Street location, we have built a paint store within the store, offering a grander range of products. This new and innovative setup offers high-quality products for all our customers.” 

The new space also offers expanded paint selections for contractors and a separate, more convenient entrance for them. This location also employs a master paint specialist who can help customers select and purchase any paint products they need, offering expert advice on everything from colors to the tools needed for the job. 

The store will also be collecting donations for Children’s Miracle Network to benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital. 

Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelley says MGM Springfield is ready and waiting for the state to give the green light to sports betting.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest for this issue’s focus on travel and tourism, Chris Kelley was lamenting a huge opportunity lost.

He was talking, of course, about March Madness, the college basketball tournaments that grab and hold the nation’s attention for two weeks. Even more specifically, Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, was referring to the gambling and related activity that goes with that madness — everything that can’t happen at his facility because Massachusetts has yet to legalize sports gambling while most all the states surround it have.

“It’s the largest sports event, bar none, around the country, and to be now literally surrounded by states that offer that experience — most poignantly, in the case of MGM Springfield, Connecticut — is just an extraordinary challenge for the city, for our workforce, for our guests, and for the property,” he explained, adding that, while he continues to have conversations with state legislators about passing a sports-betting bill, when it comes to March Madness, he can only wait until next year.

Fortunately, though, that is not the case with most other aspects of his multi-faceted business.

Indeed, there are plenty of positive developments at the casino complex on Main Street that are creating an optimistic outlook for 2022 as the tourism sector and the region in general look to put COVID in their collective rear view.

For starters, there was the Massachusetts Building Trades Council’s annual convention, staged a few weeks ago at MGM. This was the first large-scale gathering of its kind at the resort casino since before the COVID, said Kelley, adding that there are a number of other events on the calendar as businesses, trade groups and associations, and other entities return to in-person events.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life.”

Such events are a big step in the return to normalcy and, of course, comprise a huge revenue stream for the casino operation.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life,” he explained.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment side of the ledger, there are similar steps toward normalcy, or what was seen prior to the pandemic, said Kelley, noting there are a number of shows slated at the casino, the MassMutual Center, and Symphony Hall, featuring performers such as Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, John Mulaney, Brit Floyd, and many others.

“Entertainment is coming back in a much bigger way in 2022 than we saw the past few years,” said Kelley, adding that, in addition to those events at the larger venues, MGM Springfield is bringing back its popular Free Music Friday in the casino’s plaza, something that was started last summer.

“It was an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to folks and give the community a reason to come back together, but it was such a success that we’re going to bring it back again. And, obviously, the price is right,” he said, adding that program provides an opportunity to showcase local talent.

Overall, the past two years have been a difficult, often frustrating time for all those in casino industry, which had to pivot and adjust to new ways of doing business during the pandemic, said Kelley, adding that it was also a learning experience, one that is yielding dividends and will continue to do so as MGM eases back to something approaching normal.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride in every sense of the word,” he said in summing up the past 24 months. “Our ability to adjust quickly and be agile in the way that we operate, as well as our ability to provide an environment for health and safety that our guests felt comfortable engaging with — those were all unique challenges relative to a business that is not accustomed to closing and had never really experienced the types of changes that COVID required, whether it was six-foot-high pieces of plexiglass or the inability to serve drinks on the floor, or a face-mask policy.

“But all of that being said, I think we’ve come out of this a stronger operation than we were when we went into it,” he went on. “Just look at technology … we’re now able to offer everything from digital menus to digital check-in, our guests’ ability to interact with us through technology has increased exponentially, and that’s just one example of what I mean by coming out of this stronger. We’ve become a much more agile team now, and that’s to the benefit of the guest experience.”

As for sports betting, Kelley said the conversations are ongoing, and he’s optimistic that something can get done — hopefully before March Madness 2023. In anticipation of such a measure, the casino has added new amenities, including a large viewing area, a sports lounge on the floor of the casino, and a VIP viewing area in TAP Sports Bar.

“We’re ready to move forward the minute we see a green light on this issue,” he said, adding that he’s hoping, and expecting, that the light will change soon.

 

— George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

It’s been a long, very painful year for all those who love the Student Prince and the Fort restaurant in Springfield.

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff

First, Andy Yee, who acquired the landmark along with several other investors in 2014, passed away in late May after a lengthy battle with cancer. Then late last month, Rudi Scherff, who was owner and host at the establishment for decades, died after his own lengthy battle against the disease.

If Yee will be remembered as one of those who saved the Fort, as it was known, amid trying financial times nearly a decade ago, Scherff will always be remembered as the face of the restaurant. Only, it was more than a restaurant. Much, much more. It was a gathering place, not only for workers downtown, but residents of communities across the region. It was a place to celebrate milestones — birthdays, wedding anniversaries, family reunions — and especially holidays. Spending part of the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving at the Fort was a tradition. It was the same on Christmas Eve, and all through the holiday season

It was the people. It was the place. It was the people and the place coming together.

And Rudi — he was one of those people who needed only a first name — was a huge part of it.

He set the tone. He created the atmosphere. And he gave every single person he touched a story to tell. Usually, many of them. He was a pretty good businessman, but he was a much better ambassador for Springfield and its downtown, always advocating for the city and acting as a cheerleader when one was needed.

His family ran the restaurant, but he was synonymous with it, becoming an almost larger-than-life figure in the process. And while he sold the restaurant to Yee, Picknelly, and other partners in 2014, he remained a fixture there, right up until last week, when he returned to the Fort to lead others in a final singing of “Silent Night.”

There’s an oil painting of Rudi hanging in the restaurant’s Heidelberg Room, and the bar area is now named after him. We have those things to remember him by. But really, we don’t need them.

We have the stories. We have the memories. And that’s more than enough.

He will certainly be missed.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Blast from the Past

Springfield’s Trolley Barn, the property at the corner of Main and Carew streets, has had an important place in the city’s history since it opened back in 1897. It was long home to the Springfield Street Railway Co. and, later, Peter Pan’s Coach Builders operation. Today, it has a new life as home to J.D. Rivet, a roofing and sheet-metal company, thus ensuring that this link to the past will have a place in the city’s future.

At top, the Trolley Barn sign

At top, the Trolley Barn sign is joined by others announcing the newest owners. Above, past and present come together in the second-floor conference room.

Jim Trask says the search took the better part of four years.

That’s because, as he and other members of the leadership team at JD Rivet & Co. Inc., a roofing and sheet-metal company, went about looking for a new home to replace the one on Page Boulevard in Springfield, they had a lot of boxes that needed to be checked.

Chief among them was — and is — location, said Trask, the company’s president, adding that several crews hit the road for jobs each day, and easy access to highways is a major consideration. But there were others, including large open space for a warehouse, parking, and more, as the company, working with a broker, considered a number of options, including property at the Deer Park Industrial Park in East Longmeadow.

Eventually, the search ended at a rather intriguing place, the corner of Main and Carew streets in Springfield, home for nearly 125 years to a building known as the ‘Trolley Barn.’

“That’s a nod to the days when there were actual stables for horses that would pull carriages,” said Trask, adding that the property certainly has seen a great deal of history and change; from the horse-drawn cars to the electrically powered trolleys of the Springfield Street Railway Co., to far more recent uses. These include it being home to Peter Pan Bus Lines’ Coach Builders repair and restoration facility, and, simultaneously, a methadone clinic in the front-office section of the facility.

Trask and Sean Gouvin, the company’s vice president, recalled that, when they were first introduced to the property by Brendan Greeley, a broker at R.J. Greeley Co., they saw both opportunity and challenge, in perhaps equal amounts.

The former was represented by those aforementioned boxes being checked, especially the location part; the property is just a few hundred feet from an on-ramp to I-91, a few blocks from I-291, and a just a few minutes from the Mass Pike. The latter came in the large amount of work that needed to be undertaken to ready the property for the planned new use, especially transforming the portion occupied by the methadone clinic into modern office and warehouse space.

“I liked the building — I could tell it was really strong,” Trask said. “I loved the space in the warehouse, but the office at the time was all broken up and I didn’t really like the office space at all.”

Eventually, though, they decided seizing the opportunity was worth the challenge. Thus commenced more than six months of cleanup and restoration work that yielded some surprises — sheetrock was covering original brick and intricate woodwork in that office area — as well as a few artifacts, and a workspace that speaks to the early 20th century but certainly works in the early 21st century.

At left, from left, Robert Ostrader, Sean Gouvin, and Jim Trask in the new first-floor conference room.

“There are a lot of reasons why we’re here — location, price, everything,” Trask said. “But I love old buildings, and this is one of the most historic buildings around.”

And it provides what the company needs most — a long-term solution to its space needs, he added, noting that JD Rivet has worked through the many hurdles created by the pandemic (although some stern challenges remain, especially supply-chain issues) and is in a growth mode.

Founded in 1960, the company specializes in the installation and maintenance of commercial, industrial, and residential roofing systems. The company has worked on everything from churches to hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

From its new headquarters in Springfield’s North End, it can see the past — and the future as well.

 

Pulling Out All the Stops

As for those artifacts … there are several of them, including old pictures of the trolleys that were once housed there (one now graces the second-floor conference room), a boiler alarm bell (just like it sounds, it’s a bell that would ring if there was a problem with the boiler) that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and some old fire-insurance maps, found on the property, that offer a glimpse of the dramatic growth that came to that section of Springfield in the early 1900s.

These items would be considered a bonus, said Bob Ostrander, JD Rivet’s chief financial officer, adding that what the company really wanted from its new home was a chance to consolidate operations — it was spread out in several different buildings on Page Boulevard — as well as have better, easier access to highways and that room to grow.

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall.”

It got all that and more at an address — Carew and Main — that has seen a lot of history and certainly changed with the times. Indeed, the owner for decades was the Springfield Street Railway Co., which opened in 1870, and originally operated a single line of track — served by four cars and 24 horses — that ran from the North End of the city down Main Street, past State Street.

The original line soon expanded to other parts of the city, and by 1891, the lines were all electrified to run trolleys. By the end of the century, the network had extended to several area communities, and connections were made to other networks in other cities, including Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, and Hartford. To handle all this growth, the company built the facility, named the Trolley Barn, at the corner of Main and Carew.

Like all trolley lines, Springfield’s became obsolete in the 1950s as cars and buses became the dominant modes of transportation. The Trolley Barn would eventually be acquired by Peter Pan Bus Lines to house its Coach Builders operation, which painted and repaired buses.

When the management team at JD Rivet first looked at the property, Coach Builders was still occupying the large area formerly used for housing and maintaining trolleys, and a methadone clinic had recently moved out of the office portion of the property. That later operation required privacy for its clients, said Ostrander, adding that the relatively large area had been carved up into many smaller spaces covered by sheetrock.

Before-and-after shots of the office area show the amount of work needed to restore the historic Trolley Barn to its former luster.

Before-and-after shots of the office area

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall,” he said, adding that their collective imaginations managed to see through all that. And they liked what they saw.

“We had a demolition contractor, Associated Builders, come in and tear down all that sheetrock, and when they did, it revealed all this beautiful wood,” he told BusinessWest, waving his hand across the space that has become his office. “So we decided to restore all that wood — the floors, the wainscoting on the walls, the ceilings, the doors.”

Only small portions of those hardwood floors could not be fully restored, said Ostrander, adding that the company has effectively blended the past — specifically those floors, walls, and ceilings — with the present, including a new, glass-walled conference room created on the ground-floor office area.

Gouvin agreed. “From the beginning, we treated it as historic renovation — every turn was thoughtful,” he said of the efforts to preserve historic qualities of the property (and there are many of them), yet make the property suitable for modern office and warehouse operations.

Elaborating, he said the structure is in a historic district, so any alteration to the building that faces Main Street had to be approved by the Historic Commission. That includes the windows and the front door, which had to be restored and not simply replaced.

The past and present come together in a number of spaces within the building — the warehouse still bears evidence of where trolley cars were kept and maintained, but the there’s now high-efficiency lighting there and elsewhere — but perhaps none better than the second-floor conference room, which takes advantage of large windows, more of that ornate woodwork, and a fireplace (one of several in the building) to provide a unique, homey setting.

“I don’t think we’ve had to turn the lights on in there yet — the windows let in a ton of light,” said Trask, adding that it’s the same throughout the office portion of the property.

 

Past Is Prologue

The business cards for those at JD Rivet list 2257 Main St. as the address.

That’s a location steeped in history, one that brings three different centuries together in the same building.

Those at the company are proud of how they’ve blended the past with the present. But mostly, they’re excited about the future and the opportunities presented by this new facility.

 

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

Manufacturing Special Coverage

The Shot Heard ’Round the Region

Smith & Wesson’s recently announced plan to move its Springfield operations to Tennessee came as a shock to many — the 165-year-old company has been part of the city’s fabric, and the region’s rich manufacturing history, for generations. Amid questions about the gunmaker’s reasons for moving — the company cites proposed state legislation targeting its products, while some elected officials say it’s more a case of corporate welfare and a better deal down south — the most immediate concerns involve about 550 jobs to be lost. The silver lining is that, with some concerted effort, most of those individuals should be able to find other work locally in a manufacturing landscape that sorely needs the help.

 

In the wake of the announcement that Smith & Wesson will be moving its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Maryville, Tenn., questions and discussions have arisen on many levels.

These concern everything from how and when this decision came about to how aggressive Tennessee was in courting this major employer, to whether there were any major deciding factors in that decision beyond what has been stated repeatedly by the company — specifically, proposed state legislation that would ban the manufacture of most of the automatic weapons now made by Smith & Wesson.

But as the dust settles from that bombshell announcement, the lingering questions concern just what the region and the state have lost from the relocation of this company, one that can trace its roots back to 1856.

And the answers to that question don’t exactly come easily.

Western Mass. will lose roughly 550 jobs, according to the information released by the company — a significant number, to be sure, but economic-development leaders are quick to point out that just about every manufacturer has a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, either figuratively or quite literally, and that any one of those Smith & Wesson employees who doesn’t want to relocate to Tennessee can find employment in the 413 quickly and easily (much more on that later).

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce. And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

Meanwhile, the region will also lose a number of C-suite-level employees from the company that were involved in the community, sat on area boards and commissions, and engaged in philanthropic activity.

“They’re tied to the community,” said Richard Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC). “And I think that, sometimes, those aspects of what it means to have a headquarters, the CEOs, and the team at any company get lost; it’s the tieback to the community, because they’re truly vested in the community and want to see it be the best it can be.”

Meanwhile, even though Smith & Wesson handguns and other products will still be made here, and we’re told they will be stamped ‘made in Springfield, Mass.,’ or words to that effect, the region will lose a certain amount of civic pride, if that’s the right term, that comes from having a large employer — and one of the most recognizable brands in the world — headquartered in the City of Homes. Indeed, many would say this company is part of not only the history, but the very fabric of the city.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser says Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations may actually be a blessing in disguise on some levels.

However, those we spoke with said the region and city are unlikely to lose momentum when it comes to attracting employers and jobs, or its reputation as a manufacturing hub.

Indeed, Sullivan used the phrase “one-off” to describe Smith & Wesson’s decision, drawing a distinction between this pending departure and a much larger exodus, headlined by General Electric, that befell Connecticut several years ago.

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce,” he explained. “And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield and several neighboring communities and serves as chair of the state’s Manufacturing Caucus, agreed, and then went further, noting that, amid some obvious losses, there are also some possible benefits to Smith & Wesson’s decision. He even used the phrase “potential blessing in disguise,” mostly to reference opportunities that other area manufacturers may have to stabilize and grow their ventures by hiring displaced S&W workers.

“Sometimes, when one door closes, another one opens, and this may be one of those times,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a very real economic challenge in terms of making sure that those 550 families are taken of. But this is a long-term horizon — they’re not doing this until 2023. Luckily for those families, the manufacturing sector is very hot, and really, almost every company in that sector, including companies right in that immediate neighborhood where Smith & Wesson is located, are looking for people.”

Lesser is one of many elected leaders who are not buying into Smith & Wesson’s contention that it’s moving its headquarters because of the pending legislation. He echoed comments from Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who told the local press that “prudent business people don’t make major decisions, especially a decision that puts hundreds of people out of a job, based on one of the thousands of bills filed each session.”

“The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

Lesser, noting the very attractive deal offered to Smith & Wesson by Tennessee, said the company’s motivation for relocating probably has little to do with Bay State politics. “This is more of a classic corporate-welfare story than it is anything else.”

Which is why it shouldn’t impact Springfield’s reputation as a manufacturing hub or its long-term potential to become more of one, noted Tim Sheehan, the city’s director of Planning & Economic Development.

“In this type of industry, Springfield has had a long history, and the skill levels in this area of manufacturing have been noted throughout the Connecticut River Valley,” he said. “I don’t think this sends a message about the city of Springfield — it’s a broader message.”

 

Targeted Response

The press release arrived in the inboxes of media outlets in this region — and well beyond — at 9:05 a.m. on Sept. 30. The headline over the top read “Smith & Wesson to Relocate Headquarters to Tennessee,” followed by the subhead, “Move includes headquarters and significant portion of operations due to changing business climate for firearms manufacturing in Massachusetts.”

The release went on to quote Mark Smith, president and CEO of the company, saying, “this has been an extremely difficult and emotional decision for us, but after an exhaustive and thorough analysis, for the continued health and strength of our iconic company, we feel that we have been left with no other alternative.”

He specifically cited legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts that, if enacted, would prohibit the company from manufacturing certain firearms in the state. “These bills would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing firearms that are legal in almost every state in America and that are safely used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens every day exercising their constitutional Second Amendment rights, protecting themselves and their families, and enjoying the shooting sports. While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60% of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.”

The path taken — to Tennessee’s Blount County, which proudly describes itself as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” — is similar to the one taken by Troy Industries, the West Springfield-based maker of a wide array of guns and related products, which announced a move to Tennessee back in May.

So while there is precedent and the relocation sounds like part of a movement, many elected officials, including Lesser, were not exactly buying the company’s stated reason for leaving.

In fact, he referred back to that same press release for some evidence. In it, the company said it was also relocating its distribution operations in Columbia, Mo. to the new, $120 million facility in Maryville.

“I don’t believe their rationale why they’re leaving,” he went on. “The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

The bill calling for a ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons, Lesser noted, “has been filed for years and years. And 6,000 bills are filed every year on every conceivable topic; as the speaker said, for a company to make a decision of this magnitude off of one filed piece of legislation doesn’t make any sense.”

Sullivan said there’s no doubt that Tennessee, and probably other, more gun-friendly states and regions, aggressively pursued Smith & Wesson because … this is what they do.

“The states are actively working every day to get companies to move to their state,” he said. “They offer big incentives, and I have no idea what their package was or wasn’t, but they can show a business-friendly attitude, and in this case, they can show an atmosphere that is more comfortable around Second Amendment issues.”

 

Another Shot at Employment

While the company’s reasons for leaving have come into question, the loss of 550 jobs locally is real, and that has become the focus of attention for many elected officials and area agencies, who have pledged to help secure new employment opportunities should these individuals decide not to relocate to Tennessee.

“Our first issue of concern is for the employees, enduring that they have a landing spot, in either a job performing the same task or something that’s similar,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “A number of manufacturing businesses have reached out already, to MassHire and the mayor’s office, about recruitment of those folks.”

It helps, he added that no one is losing their job immediately, with the move not scheduled to be complete until 2023.

“It’s not happening tomorrow, so we have time to plan for this,” he added. “But it’s an unfortunate situation, obviously — they’re good manufacturing jobs that are housed in Springfield, and we would have liked them to stay in Springfield.”

Like others we spoke with, Sheehan said this is a conducive market to find new employment in manufacturing, he doesn’t want the fate of hundreds of workers left to the whims of that market, so a coordinated effort is in order, involving MassHire Hampden County, the EDC, and city officials, to coordinate a response that helps people identify, train for, and succeed in new jobs.

“With any type of upheaval like this, it’s distressing,” he noted. “Our focus is to try to ensure as little economic uncertainty as possible for these employees.”

Dave Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, said his agency is treating Smith & Wesson’s announcement as a reduction in force, or RIF, and not a plant closing, because the plant isn’t closing — 1,000 jobs will remain here in Springfield.

But it’s an unusual RIF in that the jobs won’t officially be lost for roughly two years, until the company builds and moves into its new facilities in Tennessee. At present, Cruise’s agency is awaiting more information from Smith & Wesson on the specific nature of the jobs to be moved before putting in place a formal plan of action to assist those employees impacted by the decision.

“We have a team of people that we deploy whenever we have this type of situation,” he explained. “Right now, we’re looking to gather a little more information — we don’t much more than what we read in the papers — and whenever they sort that out, I’m sure we’ll be able to work with them and see how we come at this.

“It’s hard for us to move forward because it’s still pretty raw,” he went on. “And I’m sure they’re working hard to determine exactly who is being impacted by this. When we know more, we’ll be able to put in motion what we normally do in these situations.”

 

Loaded and Locked

While elected officials and economic-development leaders have voiced concern about the jobs to be relocated and have made assisting those workers their top priority, S&W’s announcement comes at a time when companies across every sector, and especially manufacturing, are struggling to find qualified workers.

In fact, many are already sending inquiries to Lesser’s desk, Cruise’s office, and other destinations about when and how such workers might be become available long before Smith & Wesson departs for Tennessee.

Indian Orchard-based Eastman Corp., a maker of car windshields and a host of other products, issued a statement through Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office announcing it is ready, willing, and able to hire some of those being displaced.

“We appreciate the opportunity through Mayor Sarno and his administration to begin to discuss the possibility of members of Smith & Wesson’s skilled labor force considering positions at Eastman in the future,” wrote Plant Manager Shawn Pace. “When those workers and Smith & Wesson are ready, we want them to know that we are here and want to be helpful. Eastman continually reviews its business and workforce strategies to remain competitive and to ensure our long-term success. Like many, we are still learning about Smith & Wesson’s announcement. Eastman stands ready to offer any assistance that Mayor Sarno, his administration, and Smith & Wesson deem appropriate.”

Many other companies are similarly positioned to absorb workers whose jobs are being relocated to Tennessee, said Lesser, reiterating his thoughts about this possibly being a blessing in disguise for the region and especially its precision-manufacturing base.

“I got a lot of inquiries from people all over the state who are in the private sector who are eager to expand and eager to hire people, including some very fast-growing industries like life science, biotech, and robotics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2023 is two years away, many of the companies looking for help are on a strong growth trajectory, and still will be two years from now.

Elaborating, Lesser cited the tone set the state’s recent Manufacturing Mash-Up event in Worcester late last month, a day-long gathering of those in precision manufacturing.

“We had hundreds of companies from across the state, including a lot from Western Mass.,” he noted. “And they were all saying that they’re busier than they ever have been, business has never been better, and they’re all looking to hire people. And a lot of these companies are in really fast-moving, high-growth areas — robotics, life sciences, medical devices, clean energy.

“We have to react swiftly and make sure those 550 families are taken care of,” he went on. “But it’s also important for people to see the big picture.”

Sullivan agreed.

“I understand that not every manufacturing job can be plug-and-play,” he noted. “But right now, any company that does any kind of manufacturing work is looking to hire. I’m optimistic that everyone who chooses not to move with Smith & Wesson will be able to find a job. That won’t mean that their lives aren’t interrupted, but there are opportunities within this region for them.” v

 

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.

 

He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.

 

—George O’Brien

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

Hot Table, now a chain of panini restaurants, started humbly in 2007 with a small location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield. The brand has come a long way since then, and in many different ways. There are now seven locations, with plans for four more to open this year or early next, including the first free-standing facility. After that … well, the partners talk of having perhaps 50 stores by the end of this decade. What they do know is that growth will be controlled — and strategic in nature.

John DeVoie gestured toward an array of architect’s renderings of Hot Table’s first free-standing facility, complete with a mobile pickup window, planned for Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and said, “that’s our future.”

He then corrected himself and said, “well … that’s a big part of our future.”

Indeed, the future takes a number of shapes and directions for this growing chain of panini restaurants. Indeed, while construction is due to start on that Chicopee location later this year or early in 2022, work will begin before that on new locations within shopping malls in Framingham and West Hartford, with an additional location planned for a development, blueprinted by Pride Stations owner Bob Bolduc, to reshape the land inside the jug handle off turnpike exit 3 in Westfield with Hot Table and Starbucks.

Overall, this chain, which started with one small restaurant in the Breckwood Shoppes across Wilbraham Road from Western New England University and now has seven locations, has aggressive plans to add four more restaurants by the end of this year and reach perhaps 50 by the end of this decade.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England,” said John, who launched the chain with his brother, Chris, and another partner in 2007. “And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

This brand is striving for a mix of free-standing facilities like the one in Chicopee and more locations leased in retail centers, and, overall, a “balanced portfolio,” said Chris, adding that the goal is measured growth.

“We’re very excited to grow, but we want to grow the right way,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t want to add overhead and layers of management just to support a few more stores; we want to be very strategic about how and where we expand.”

Overall, with four new stores on the drawing board, 2021 is certainly shaping up as a milestone year in the company’s history, one that will take it to new markets and in new directions. This growth and territorial expansion come at a time when many restaurants have been fighting to merely survive the COVID-19 — and some haven’t. Hot Table itself was hit hard initially.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue,” John recalled. “We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

But within the fast-casual category within this sector, many chains bounced back quickly and have enjoyed success since, said John, adding that many have benefited from the takeout nature of most business and also from an added delivery component.

Hot Table invested in an app that enables consumers to order from the menu and arrange delivery through Grubhub or another provider, said John, adding that the technology served to introduce the brand to new audiences.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location, slated for a parcel on Memorial Drive in Chicopee.

“That was a silver lining for us,” he explained. “We had a lot of folks discover us who might have just been at home ordering from a third-party platform, who had never been in one of our stores.”

And this is just one of the ways the pandemic has actually benefited Hot Table, he went on, adding that it has made real estate both more available and more affordable.

So much so that the company, which has long considered Boston far out of its reach when it comes to real-estate prices, is being encouraged to take a good look at the Hub.

Whether this chain can actually attain a Boston address for one its locations is one of the many questions that will be answered over the next several years. For now, the company is focused on 2021, and all that it has on its plate — literally as well as figuratively.

For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with the brothers DeVoie and third partner Rich Calcasola, based in Charlotte, N.C., to get a sense for where this brand can go next and how big the portfolio can become.

 

Ingredients for Success

As he referenced those architectural renderings of the Chicopee site, John DeVoie pointed to what could become the ‘golden arches’ for this chain. That would be the tall red signage, or marquee, with what has become the company’s brand — a stylized slice of panini bread with grill marks running across it, with the words ‘Hot Table’ over it.

It’s not really possible to put such large, pronounced signage on the existing locations within shopping plazas, he said, adding that the new look represents another breakthrough for the company and an opportunity to not only sell more paninis, but grow its brand.

“When you build your own building, you have the opportunity to think about what your brand says on the outside — what is the golden arch for us?” he noted. “And it’s a long way from our origins at the Breckwood Shoppes.”

By that, he meant not just the marquee, but the free-standing store concept, locations on both ends of the state, aggressive plans to add four stores in just over a year, and ongoing talk about where to go next.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England. And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

But before talking more about the present and future, let’s recap how we got here.

Our story begins in 2006, when John and Chris, both successful in corporate sales, decided they wanted to make money for themselves, instead of someone else, and started to focus on the restaurant industry.

Blending vast amounts of experience with taking corporate clients with a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship out to eat, they started shaping a concept for the growing fast-casual category of eatery, and followed the advice of their sister, who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table,’ and their parents, who suggested a made-to-order panini concept.

For their first location, the two chose the Breckwood Shoppes, which they knew well because they both graduated from Western New England. The site wouldn’t attract any of the huge players in the fast-casual arena — Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and others — because of the demographics of the surrounding area, but for them, it worked.

It blended the college crowd — students, professors, staff, and administration alike — with a thickly settled neighborhood, large traffic volume, and visitors to other shops in the plaza.

The large players in smart casual wouldn’t have gone where Hot Table went next — Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in 2009 — either. But the brothers, enticed by the large population of office workers in surrounding towers and an attractive offer from then-owner MassMutual, decided to roll the dice. And they essentially rolled a ‘7.’ Indeed, the site has become a popular lunchtime destination — even moreso with recent arrivals such as Cambridge College and UMass Amherst Center at Springfield — and has even thrived during the pandemic without most of those workers and students.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall,” said John, comparing 2020 with 2019. “What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.

“With the new model of how we do business — we have more than 30,000 users of our app, which allows people to order and then utilize a third-party platform for delivery — our business model shifted,” he went on. “So now, we’re way above pre-pandemic sales levels overall.”

After Tower Square, the DeVoie brothers, now partnering with Calcasola, have been focusing on where the large players in fast-casual have put down stakes. In fact, the strategy has been to follow them — on the theory that their research into where to locate is certainly solid — and, in doing so, create more of a critical mass of quality eateries, which creates dining destinations.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue. We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

This was the case with the company’s next locations — in Enfield (2012) and Glastonbury, Conn. (2014), Route 9 in Hadley (also 2014), Marlborough (2017), and Worcester (2019). And that’s also the case, to one extent or another, with the Chicopee (there’s a Chick-fil-A right next door), Framingham, Hartford, and Westfield locations.

“People just drive there to eat, and you get in the rotation,” Chris said. “When Chick-Fil-A and other competitors came to Enfield, our sales went up.”

 

Location, Location, Location

When asked about the chain’s ‘formula’ when it comes to identifying markets they want to be in and then locations within those markets, the partners said it involves a blend of science and intuition, but mostly critical masses of traffic, retail, diners, and, yes, competitors.

All these ingredients are found in Hadley, said Calcasola, noting not only the large college population (there are four colleges within a few miles of the store’s location on Route 9), but also a host of fast-casual competitors and a large and growing cluster of retail that draws people from three counties.

Most of these same essentials can be found in Worcester, in the chain’s site in the the Trolley Yard, a mixed-use development that is also home to Starbucks, Chipotle, Sprint, and other national brands. Indeed, Worcester boasts seven colleges and a growing business base, said Chris, noting that it benefits greatly from being within easier commuting distance from Boston.

Meanwhile, in Marlboro, there are no colleges, little retail, and a less-dense population than in other communities the chain calls home. But there are a number of office parks and hotels, said John, adding that this was the store most impacted by the pandemic — although it, too, has rebounded.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

The Hot Table chain has come a long way since the opening of its first location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield.

In Chicopee, Memorial Drive has been transformed into a retail destination over the past decade, said Chris, noting that the changes have caught the attention of Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chick Fil-A, which made that the address for its first (and still only) location in Western Mass.

Meanwhile, the Framingham store now under construction and set to open in June is in Shoppers World, a large retail complex boasting 27 stores, including Chick-Fil-A, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and Chipotle.

“That whole area is called the Golden Triangle,” said John, referring to the retail district in Framingham and Natick. “And it’s the number-one retail destination in metro Boston. So it’s kind of a big jump for us, but our business model now supports that.”

By ‘big jump,’ he meant, among other things, the rates for the property being leased, which was also the case in West Hartford and a spot in Corbin’s Corner next to Shake Shack, although, as noted earlier, the pandemic has eased some of the sticker shock, while also creating some opportunities as stores — and restaurants — went out of business.

“There are more opportunities in the form of spaces becoming available,” said Calcasola. “Meanwhile, the asking price dropped in some locations, including West Hartford; we’re still paying a good amount of money, but not what they were advertising it for a year and half ago.”

As to the question of where the chain might go next, there are many ways to answer it.

For starters, the company wants to go where those major brands listed several times above are going. In fact, that’s usually the first question being asked, said Chris, noting that, as Hot Table ponders whether to expand into Rhode Island, the presence of other chains is a key consideration.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall. What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.”

“We’ll ask if there are Chick Fil-As and Chipotles around,” he told BusinessWest. “Wherever they’re going, that’s where we want to be. We want to compete with the nationals.”

Availability of real estate is another issue, said John, adding that the company has long sought to be on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, specifically the stretch south of I-91, but has not been able to secure a location because of exclusivity clauses secured by some competitors. Meanwhile, price remains an issue in some areas, including Boston, although the pandemic, as noted, might bring that city into reach.

“We have a consultant that we work with. Before the pandemic, he said, ‘guys, don’t even bother going into Boston; it’s crazy — don’t do it,’” said John. “The last meeting we had with him, he said, ‘you may want to think about exploring opportunities in Boston.’”

 

Pressing On

When and if the company goes down that road remains to be seen. For now, its principals, as noted, have other things on their plate.

Lots of them.

Indeed, this will be a year when Hot Table takes giant strides toward becoming that established brand the partners want it to be, a year when that image of the panini top with the grill marks on it becomes known in new markets and in new ways, like that sign on the property in Chicopee.

That location isn’t the future — but it is a big part of the future, with additional growth and territorial expansion on the menu.

As John DeVoie said, this company has come a long way from the Breckwood Shoppes — and in all kinds of ways.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

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

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

By George O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Space Exploration

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

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

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

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

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s in Store?

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

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

Dave Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bottom Line

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

When everyone gathered on Main Street that hot August day back in 2018 to mark the opening of MGM Springfield, no one really knew what to expect or what the future would bring.

Certainly, no one could have predicted what the scene would be like two and half years later.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic took a resort casino that was ‘ramping up’ — that’s the phrase we kept hearing over and again from past and present leaders — and knocked it completely off the ramp. The casino was shuttered for several months, and when it reopened, it was only at a fraction of its full capacity. Until very recently, the hotel and most of the restaurants were closed, and the event venues were quiet and dark.

These days, the capacity is not quite half and destined to keep inching higher. The hotel is open on weekends, and the sports bar has reopened its doors as well. But huge question marks surround just when and under what circumstances the casino complex will again be able to host concerts, shows, and other large-scale gatherings.

In some ways, we’re all back where we were almost 32 months ago … wondering what will happen and just what the casino will mean for Springfield and this entire region. That’s where we are as MGM Springfield tries to get the ramping-up process back to something approaching the plane it was on before the world stopped almost exactly a year ago.

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again … this region needs MGM to make a solid comeback from all that COVID has tossed at it. It needs to come, well, roaring back and play an important role in restarting, if that’s the right word, the renaissance that Springfield was enjoying before the pandemic made Main Street a quiet, almost depressing, place to be.

And a lot will have to go right for such a comeback to happen. First, people will have to regain the confidence needed to gather in large numbers. In other parts of the country, and especially Las Vegas, where the casino business is coming back to life, the signs are quite positive. ‘Pent-up demand’ is the phrase we’re hearing a lot these days, and the hope — the expectation — is that there will be large quantities of it.

But Springfield’s casinos — and all the state’s casinos — could use some help as they proceed back up the ramp. And the state Legislature could deliver some in the form of sports betting.

Lawmakers have been dragging their feet on this issue for years now, and we cannot understand why. Sports betting, if done right, would provide another, potentially huge revenue stream for the state’s casinos at a time when they really need it.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island now have sports betting, and Connecticut is poised to join the fray. Much-needed tax dollars are going to other states or the illegal-betting arena, and Massachusetts simply cannot afford to keep sitting on the sidelines. To borrow still another sports phrase, it needs to get in the game, and soon.

Reflecting once more on that day in August 2018, the expectation among many was that MGM Springfield would not solve all the region’s ills and would not magically transform the region overnight. Instead, it would be a player — a large and important player — and an economic engine.

The pandemic has certainly altered the timeline, but hopefully it hasn’t changed those expectations, or the probability they can be realized.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — On the heels of the recent retirement of Joan Kagan, Square One has named Dawn Forbes DiStefano its new president and chief executive officer.

The announcement follows an extensive national search lead by the agency’s board of directors, staff and members of the community.

Following a 25-year career with the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, DiStefano joined the Square One team in January 2016 to lead the agency’s grant research, grant writing, and program-compliance efforts. She was quickly promoted to chief finance and grants officer, where she added oversight of the agency’s financial team to her list of responsibilities. In 2019, she was promoted to executive vice president where she took on oversight of the agency’s early-education and care programs and family-support services, and management of operations, including transportation, food service, and IT.

“We received nearly 60 applications and interviewed impressive candidates from across the country for this position,” says Peter Testori, board chair. “Not surprisingly, Dawn rose to the top of the list. Her breadth and depth of experience in the non-profit sector, her outstanding reputation throughout the Commonwealth, and her extensive knowledge of Square One’s programs, services, and staff make her the ideal person to continue to build on the success of Joan Kagan’s leadership.”

“Just as we pride ourselves on developing the leaders of tomorrow through our own programs and services, I am privileged to have experienced the leadership of Joan Kagan. “It is an honor for me to continue to navigate the path that Joan and those before her have paved.”

Kagan, who led the agency for 17 years, announced her retirement plans last summer. She continues to serve as an advisor to the leadership team during the transition.

“There is no one better suited for this role than Dawn,” says Kagan. “Square One has an amazing history of responding to the changing needs of our community through our programs, services and partnerships. I have every confidence that Dawn’s great determination, passion for serving children and families, and the tremendous respect that she has earned will allow her to continue that legacy.”

DiStefano serves on the boards of directors for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming Health, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield Regional Chamber, Baystate Community Benefits Advisory Committee, and Businesses to End Human Trafficking. She also serves as a Commissioner on the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management from Westfield State University.

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