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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.

Women in Businesss

Urban Oasis

mani-pedi area

Leanne Sedlak (right) and Kim Brunton-Auger renovate the mani-pedi area of their new location.

When spas were allowed to reopen several months ago following a statewide economic shutdown, clients of SkinCatering, LLC were happy to return — even if booking became a little trickier.

“I haven’t been able to meet the demand,” owner Leanne Sedlak said, noting that some staff couldn’t return during a raging pandemic because they or a family member were immunocompromised, while fewer clients than normal were allowed in the space, and extra time had to be added in between appointments for cleaning and sanitizing.

“I feel like we’ve been limping along in a way,” she added. “It is frustrating for the client, and it’s hard to tell them, ‘no, we’re booked up for the next three weeks because we have two people working.’”

Meeting that demand will be easier now that SkinCatering has moved downstairs to the main level of Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in a larger, renovated space offering massage, skin care, hair and nail treatments, among other services.

“It’s nice coming down here,” she said. “We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

Sedlak and Kim Brunton-Auger, a licensed aesthetician who joined the company in 2012 and now serves as vice president of skin-care development, celebrated the move downstairs with a VIP event last week, taking time amid the bustle to recognize the challenge of keeping their enterprise not only alive, but thriving during a year of unprecedented challenge for small businesses.

“We’re definitely blessed because we know other businesses had the opposite experience, so our heart goes out to them for sure,” Sedlak said. “We’re very grateful; we know how fortunate we are in that regard.”

 

Hit the Road

Like many who start down the path of entrepreneurship, Sedlak did so out of necessity. In 2010, the U.S. was dealing with a different sort of economic crisis, the Great Recession, and both she and her husband were laid off from their jobs.

So, when she finished her time in massage school, she went into business for herself with a venture she would call SkinCatering. At first, it was a traveling enterprise, with Sedlak taking her massage table door to door.

“We can offer them more relaxing experiences, and we have a little more space as well to keep everybody spread out, so we can have more services happening at the same time.”

“I’d load up my Tahoe with all my stuff and drive to my first appointment of the day, and that would pay for my gas the rest of the day,” she recalled. “To be in this space now, to build something like this, and to be in business for 10 years, feels validating.”

Since opening a salon in Tower Square toward the end of 2013, the company — mainly focused on massage and skin care — has grown significantly over the years, and the new space will allow for a salon and nail services, which had been a dream of Brunton-Auger’s for some time.

These days, SkinCatering offers massages, body wraps, waxing, Reiki, facials, an infrared sauna, and more. The company formulates its own line of skin-care products that don’t use harsh chemicals and are vegan, gluten-free, and ‘cruelty-free,’ meaning they’re not tested on animals.

“That’s been the mission all along,” Sedlak said of the company’s ‘clean’ products. “It’s a big trend now, and I hate using the word ‘trend’ because it’s not going away; it’s a way of life now. I love it when other estheticians discover our products and their clients have great results.”

Indeed, SkinCatering sells its products in other salons, and is also commissioned by other companies to create private-label products. Both Sedlak and Brunton-Auger would like to see the skin-care line grow in the future.

While retaining its original location upstairs for offices and a product-development laboratory, the new space downstairs is completely dedicated to client services, including four rooms for massages — including always-popular couples massages — and skin care, as well as two hair stations, two stations for manicures and pedicures, and an infrared sauna for one or two people. The latter is perfect, Sedlak said, for people who might want to try a sauna experience, but are intimidated by a larger, group sauna at a gym.

Equally important is a comfortable, subtly lit ‘tranquility area’ where clients can sit between appointments for multiple services, or while waiting on a friend, while sipping tea or water — a more important amenity now that each piece of furniture and surface must be well-sanitized between treatments. “It’s part of the spa experience now instead of there being an awkward pause,” Sedlak said.

“We have to take extra time to super-sanitize,” Brunton-Auger added. “Back-to-back isn’t what it used to be.”

As for other COVID-related changes, staff wear masks, aprons, goggles, and — except in the case of massage — gloves, all of which are changed out between appointments.

The pandemic led to other pivots as well, including a switch to making hand sanitizer in the lab back in the spring. It was hard to find materials and containers at times, Sedlak said, but a small salon like SkinCatering was able to make the production switch more quickly than a large company could. In the meantime, even when the shop was shut down, product orders soared, as people still wanted to treat themselves.

“We had more skin-care orders in the first two weeks of the shutdown than we ever had in the pre-COVID days,” Brunton-Auger said. “It saved the business in some ways.”

 

Moving On Down

She and Sedlak both expect the move downstairs to boost their business further, especially after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, whenever that might be. For one thing, they can stay open seven days a week; because the upstairs space was tucked amid offices, the floor essentially shut down on the weekends, and they would have to call to security to turn on the lights every Saturday; they kept it closed on Sundays.

Now, with a shop right next to the hotel entrance that draws more foot traffic, SkinCatering will be open seven days a week.

“We have been working on this project for almost two years, so to see it finally realized and ready to open is a great feeling of accomplishment, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Sedlak said. “Tower Square has a history of being a hub of activity for Springfield, and we’re very excited to be a major part of why people are coming back into the city.”

And perhaps, eventually, not just the city, as the partners have explored the possibility of franchising their model.

“It’s a duplicatable system that works,” Sedlak said, especially in conjunction with hotels. “It’s an amenity for the hotel and the rest of this tower. It’s convenient, but I don’t want to be known as a convenience spa. I mean, I want it to be convenient, but when you come in, you also have an incredible luxury experience.

“And I don’t mean luxury like stuffy,” she was quick to add. “We want you to be relaxed. It’s the idea of lush, but you feel so comfortable here, you want to stay for a long time. The theme is an urban oasis. Modern, clean, funky, cool, but comfortable.”

While expanding a business during a pandemic may not be the most comfortable move for a small business, so far, Sedlak and Brunton-Auger are proving it’s the right one.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, 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.

Episode 41: Nov. 30, 2020

George Interviews Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce

Nancy F. Creed

BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien talks with Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce. The two discuss the pandemic, the recent surge in cases, its impact on the local business community, and what might come next. They also discuss the lingering impact of the pandemic  on area chambers of commerce as well as the growing notion that changes brought about by the pandemic may position this region as a home for businesses currently headquartered in major urban areas. It’s must listening, so join us on BusinessTalk.

 

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A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

The wall opposite Nate Costa’s desk is covered in a wrap depicting action from the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Classic, played at the MassMutual Center in January 2019 — probably the high point of the five-year re-emergence, and renaissance, of professional hockey in Springfield.

Costa pointed toward that wall several times as he tried to explain just how the Springfield Thunderbirds, which he serves as president, might place spectators so they are at least six feet apart — if, and it’s mighty big if, the governor, the city, and whoever else might need to sign off on such a plan gives the proverbial green light. And he also pointed while talking about the many subtleties and challenges that go into such an exercise.

“It’s almost like a puzzle,” he explained. “We have 6,700 seats, and our season-ticket holders are typically jammed into the best seats. All our center-ice seats are completely taken … so what do you do in a six-foot distancing model? — everyone can’t get the seat they would normally want to have, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

As he talked with BusinessWest on Oct. 15, five days after the 2020-21 season was supposed to start, Costa acknowledged that trying to put together this puzzle is just one of the myriad questions and challenges he and a now considerably smaller staff are working to address.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

Indeed, Costa admitted he has no real idea if or when he might be able to put such a plan into action. In reality, he has no idea when or under what circumstances hockey might again be played on Main Street. He was told in July by the National Hockey League, parent to the AHL, that games might be able to commence by early December, but he’s very doubtful about that date.

He believes January or even February is a far more likely start time. But beyond that, he cannot say with any degree of certainty how — and how many — games might be played, and how late into 2021 the season might go. Instead, there are only question marks — many of them, involving everything from if and how many fans can sit in the stands to if and how this team can travel to away games in other states, let alone Canada.

All these questions, most of them difficult if not impossible to answer at this juncture, make this a difficult, very frustrating time for Costa and all those involved with a franchise that had become one of the feel-good stories in Springfield over the past several years.

games might be played in early December

While the AHL is expressing hope that games might be played in early December, Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds, believes January or early February is a more likely target for a return to action at the MassMutual Center.

Under Costa’s stewardship and the backing of a large, committed ownership group, Springfield had gone from a city without hockey after the Falcons departed for Arizona more than five years ago, to one with a franchise that was not only filling the MassMutual Center with increasing regularity, but also becoming part of the fabric of the region.

Turning the clock back just seven months or so, although it seems like an eternity, to be sure, Costa said the team was clicking on all or most cylinders, meaning everything from ticket and merchandise sales to creating strong partnerships with a number of area businesses.


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


“We were, fortunately, in a really good position when the season ended last year,” he noted. “We were ahead of budget, we were on track to make a profit, which was three years in the making. We were in great shape — we had nine sellouts through March last year, which was our previous record, and we had three weekends left and were expecting three more sellouts. The business was in great shape.”

In the proverbial blink of an eye, though, everything changed. The season, and the MassMutual Center, were shut down. Initially, the Thunderbirds, like most businesses closed down by the pandemic, thought it might be a matter of several weeks before things went back to something approaching normal. As it became clear this wouldn’t be the case, the team — again, like many other businesses — had to make some hard decisions and eventually furlough several employees; once a staff of 19, it is now down to seven.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point. You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

Those who remain are trying to carry on as they did seven and half months ago — selling season tickets, planning events, working within the community, and building the team’s foundation. But it’s all different. For the most part, the staff is trying to prepare for contingencies, plan what can be planned, and, perhaps above all, work tirelessly to remain relevant while waiting for games to commence and the pandemic to run its course.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere,” Costa said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

 

Setting Goals

When asked about how he’s apportioning his time these days, Costa said he spends much of it on the phone.

Many of those calls are to and from other team executives in the AHL — he knows most of them going back to the days when he worked for the league — who are looking to compare notes and share thoughts on how to deal with a situation unlike anything they’ve encountered.

“I’m seeing what other teams are doing, what they’re hearing from their states, and what the temperature is for us to play in the upcoming year,” he explained. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about how we can pull this off and how we can do it the right way. It’s a challenge that none of us have faced in our careers, and there’s no way to really plan for it.”

In addition to other AHL officials, Costa and others within the league are also talking with leaders from other sports, including the National Football League. From these conversations, they’re learning it’s been difficult to sell even those comparatively few tickets that states like Florida, Texas, and Missouri are allowing teams to sell.

Indeed, while the popular notion might be that there is considerable demand for those few seats, and that teams would struggle to figure out who might be awarded them, that is certainly not the case.

“They’re having a hard time selling the limited inventory that they have because people are just not mentally ready for it yet,” Costa said. “Even the Cowboys are facing challenges; they’ve had to comp a lot of tickets. The Dolphins, the same thing. That’s what we’re seeing.”

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

Signage outside the MassMutual Center still displays the 2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule because the slate for this year remains clouded by question marks.

This harsh reality brings yet another layer of intrigue, and questions, to the discussion concerning just when, if, and under what circumstances the AHL might be permitted to carry out its 2020-21 season. Indeed, while the league wants to commence action and get fans back in the arenas, if they start too early, fans will not be eager to come back.

And the harshest reality of all is that this league — and the NHL as well — simply cannot operate for any length of time without fans in the stands.

The AHL is a league with no national television contracts and only some smaller, regional deals. The vast majority of revenues come from sponsorships and sales of tickets, concessions, and merchandise. And without fans in the stands … well, it’s easy to do the math.

Meanwhile, the inability to play in front of fans is also presenting a major challenge to the parent league, the NHL, whose franchises own the bulk of the teams in the AHL, with a dozen or so, including the Thunderbirds, being independently owned.

“Even though the perception is that the NHL is this huge entity that can just sustain losses, with them not having the ability to put fans in the stands, that impacts everything,” he explained. “That’s the trunk to the revenue tree. If you don’t have fans, it’s hard to sell sponsorships, and you can’t sell merchandise and concessions. And at our level, that’s what really drives our business — it’s butts in seats.

“In this league, it’s crucially important to have fans in the arena,” he went on. “And that’s what we spent four years doing — rebuilding the fan base and packing this arena so that our business would be much more financially solvent.”

But playing games without fans in the stands remains one of the options moving forward, said Costa, calling it a last resort, but still a possibility, especially if he can negotiate with one of the local TV stations to televise some of the games. And talks along those lines are ongoing, he told BusinessWest.

The hope, though, is that, by January or February, the state will allow fans in the arenas with a six-foot-distancing model, he said, referring again to that image on his wall.

“It’s not going to be a ton of people, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 people from what we’re doing with our modeling,” Costa continued. “But at least it would get us started, and then the hope would be that, as the spring would move along, we’d be able to bring more bodies into the building.”

That’s the hope. But Costa and his team, as noted, are preparing, as best they can, for a number of contingencies.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point,” he said. “You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

 

Knowing the Score

Next spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the Calder Cup championship run authored by the team known then as the Springfield Kings, the minor-league affiliate of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Kings.

Costa said the team has been making plans to honor that squad and its accomplishment with a throwback game featuring the Kings’ colors and logos, an on-ice ceremony featuring surviving members of that team, and other events.

Now, most of those plans, as well as those to mark the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds themselves, are in limbo, like just about everything else concerning the 2020-21 season.

Indeed, even as Costa and his team try to prepare for the new season, there are still so many things beyond their control, especially the virus itself. By most accounts, a second wave has commenced, with cases on the rise in a number of states. Some of those states, and individual communities, have already put a number of restrictions in place as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, and there may be even more in the weeks and months to come.

The ones already in place create a number of logistical concerns.

“Rhode Island has a 14-day mandatory quarantine, so if we play Providence, how does that work?” he asked rhetorically. “Meanwhile, the Canadian border is closed; we have Canadian teams, including one in our conference, Toronto. And then, there’s the challenge of air travel — Charlotte is in our division, and we would normally go there once or twice a year. How do you do that, and how do you do it safely?

“There’s a lot of things that we as a league have to work through,” he went on, and while coping with these day-to-day questions and challenges, he stressed the need to think and plan for the long term. He said the pandemic will eventually be something to talk about with the past tense, and he wants to properly position the franchise for that day, even while coping with the present challenges.

This mindset has dominated the team’s actions with regard to everything from refunding tickets sold but not used last season to managing the partnerships that have been developed over the years with corporate sponsors.

“We reached out to every season-ticket holder and gave them a number of options,” he said in reference to the seven games they missed at the end of last season. “They could roll the credit over to the following year, they could donate to our foundation, or, if they didn’t want to do any of those, we would be happy to give them a refund because, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

“None of us planned for this, so from a business perspective, we thought that any sort of pushback or anything like that is not the way to be,” he went on. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the people who have supported us from the start, and we’ve been proactive and honest because, at the end of the day, it’s so important for us to be authentic through this process because we’re not the only ones dealing with this — everyone has their own challenges.”

This approach, coupled with the team’s strong track record over the past several years, has helped the organization maintain its strong base of support, said Costa, adding that the Thunderbirds have been able to retain roughly 85% of their season-ticket sales from last year, despite the question marks hovering over the upcoming season.

“It’s been incredible to see the level of support we’ve been given,” he said. “I think people were really seeing what we are able to do in the community and how much of an impact we were having. We’ve been given commitments by people that they’re going to be here when we’re back.”

Looking ahead to the day when the pandemic is over and he can once again focus on selling out the MassMutual Center, Costa is optimistic about his prospects for doing just that.

“I think it’s going to take some time — it might take until the summer for those people who aren’t diehards to come back to our arena, but I think that, by next fall, we’ll be able to pack this place again,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand, and I think we’re positioned well. I think that, when people are ready to get back in the arena again, they’re going to think twice about driving to Boston and paying $300 to $400 for a ticket when they can get the same experience and see really good hockey right here in our area for a fraction of that price.”

 

Taking Their Best Shot

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest while showing off some of the many other wraps adorning the team’s offices on Bruce Landon Way, Costa stopped and reflected on the fact that last year’s schedule is still posted on the wall outside those facilities.

That schedule has become symbolic of how the NHL and the Thunderbirds have become frozen in time in some respects. No one can say when there will be new games on the slate, how the games will be played, or where.

What Costa does know is that, sometime soon — just when, he doesn’t know — there will be a new schedule in that space. Things will be different for some time to come, and the team is certainly not going to pick right up where it left off when the music stopped last March.

But he firmly believes that the solid foundation laid before the pandemic entered everyone’s lives has the team in a good place for when we’re all on the other side of this crisis.

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

You can look in any direction you choose during this pandemic and find developments that are disappointing, sad, and, in some cases, heartbreaking. It’s hard to single out specific stories from all the others.

But in the case of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise that plays in the MassMutual Center, we find a story that is particularly poignant and frustrating — one that shows just how much this crisis has taken from us.

Indeed, this team had become one of the great symbols of Springfield’s renaissance, one of the very bright lights in a city that was once quite dark, figuratively if not literally, one of the reasons why people working downtown had to pay attention to their arrival or departure time because, if they didn’t, they might get caught in a traffic jam — a somewhat annoying, but, for those rooting for Springfield, almost joyous traffic jam.

Yes, the Thunderbirds were a feel-good story, a team that was selling out the MassMutual Center on a regular basis, bringing luminaries like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and even Ric Flair to the city, and setting the bar ever higher when it came to strategies for attracting fans, creating visibility, and involving the franchise in the community.

This is a management team and ownership group that even took home BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur prize in 2018.

And now? This is a team in limbo, a franchise that doesn’t know if, when, or under what circumstances it can again play games. So much is up in the air, and almost everything is out of the control of a management team led by President Nate Costa.

In a way, the T-Birds have become a metaphor for this pandemic. In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

The team is symbolic of the pandemic’s impact on the business community in another respect — a team that did a great job building itself up, literally from scratch, will now have to rebuild. It won’t have to start from scratch, but it won’t be able to just turn the clock back to pre-pandemic days, either.

In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

It will have to work hard to get fans back, build up its presence, and, hopefully, regain everything that’s been lost over the past eight months — and counting.

In many respects, most every business in this region will have to do the same thing. Eventually, although no one knows when, the pandemic will ease, and life will start to return to normal. Companies will have to rebuild what they had and regain the customers and business lost.

And as they do that, they can look to the Thunderbirds for inspiration, a team that built itself up the right way, and will no doubt rebuild itself in similar fashion — using imagination, best practices, and a passion for continuous improvement to set and reach new goals.

What’s happened to the T-Birds is unfortunate on many levels. This team did seemingly everything right; it did everything a forward-thinking company is supposed to do to thrive in the moment and prepare for the future. But in a moment, it lost control of its fortunes and its fate — at least for the short term.

We have little doubt this team will bounce back, eventually, and be part of Springfield’s efforts to rebuild from this crisis. In five short years, it has become a symbol of excellence and perseverance. And moving forward, we hope it becomes a model for how to survive the pandemic and become even better and stronger for it.

Healthcare Heroes

Dedicated Team Rose to the Occasion and Took Care of Those in Need

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

Several areas at the Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc. facility on Industry Avenue in Springfield are still sporting St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

They were put up early last March, and they remain there … well, because those who put them up haven’t been back to take them down.

Indeed, as the pandemic closed in and the state-ordered shutdown went into effect just before that holiday, the vast majority of GSSSI’s 250 employees began working remotely — and they have remained off site. But for some, working at home simply wasn’t an option. That’s because it’s their job to essentially provide nutritious home-delivered meals, or HDMs, as they call them, each day.

This small team of 10 essential employees stayed on and weathered the storm, if you will, and devised and executed a comprehensive plan to ensure those who need these meals get them, even though the senior-dining sites that were in operation had to shut down due to restrictions on large gatherings, and all meals have to be delivered to the home or picked up at designated ‘grab-and-go’ sites.

The creation of that new grab-and-go program underscores just how quickly — and effectively — the Nutrition Department at GSSSI was able to respond to this crisis situation.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind. There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Indeed, the initiative involved everything from securing new caterers, including one that could prepare medically tailored meals, to establishing the sites; from partnering with the PVTA to deliver the meals to putting in place the protocols needed to ensure that meals were picked up safely.

Doing all that might normally take four to six weeks, said Heather Jolicoeur, community coordinator for GSSSI and a member of that team. Instead, they did it all in under two weeks.

All that sounds difficult enough, but remember, this was carried out in the middle of a pandemic, so there additional challenges and assignments on top of those one might expect:

• One of the food resources was shut down due to COVID-19, forcing those at GSSSI to track down a reliable and appropriate food source for Kosher meal recipients;

• A corps of volunteers had to be assembled, with CORI checks run on each individual due to the nature of the work;

• Temporary Meals on Wheels drivers had to be hired to fill in for regular drivers who had pre-existing conditions and couldn’t safely deliver meals every day;

• New policies for delivering meals with the least amount of contact from the drivers were put in place, further complicating the process; and

• As the crisis continued, new needs emerged, and HDM recipients were soon also receiving toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items, supplied by those in ‘chase cars’ following those delivering meals.

Jill Keough

Jill Keough

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another. So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

“Every day, there are emergencies; every day, the conditions change; every day, new policies and procedures are developed, implemented, and changed,” said Jolicoeur, putting the accent on the present tense. “Every day, all 10 of us work together calmly and focused on serving as many seniors as possible.”

As they talked about their experiences and what it meant to be part of this effort, those who are involved gave some unique perspective on all that has transpired over the past seven months, and underscored why this group is part of the Healthcare Heroes class of 2020.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind,” said Jill Keough, executive director of GSSSI, as she summed up the situation that unfolded in mid-March and the Nutrition Department’s detailed, and imaginative, response to the problem — or problems, to be precise. “There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Before getting to this plan, though, Mary Jenewin Caplin, the now-retired Area Agency on Aging director, set the stage. Before COVID-19, she explained, GSSSI served more than 900 clients who rely on HMDs each day. Prepared by caterers each day, the meals were delivered to some homes, but also to 14 senior-dining sites across the region, where clients could not only dine, but enjoy one another’s company and camaraderie.

When the pandemic struck, those dining sites had to close, for obvious reasons, but the need remained, and now, meals had to be delivered to the home, requiring the hiring of more volunteer drivers and new ways to get meals into the hands of those who needed them.

The plan that emerged came together very quickly, out of necessity, said Mike Young, an HMD supervisor, and it would have to incorporate a number of changes to how things had been done, but could no longer be done in the age of COVID.

“The biggest concern was that clients didn’t even want to open their doors anymore,” he explained. “We had to worry about how we would see them, how we would get them the meals, how would we keep the clients safe, how would we keep the drivers safe. Our drivers were used to going into someone’s house, putting the meal in the refrigerator, giving it to them on the couch, or putting it on the kitchen table. Now, we’re trying to get a driver to give them a meal, stay six feet apart, and maybe not even have the door open; there were a number of challenges to overcome.”

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car. We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space”

Tracy Landry, another HMD supervisor, agreed, noting that, to keep both drivers and clients safe, a series of new protocols were put in place, including single-use plastic bags for deliveries, masks, hand sanitizer, and other steps.

“We had more meetings than you can imagine when we first this started,” she recalled. “Every day was different, and each day it seemed that there was a new challenge.”

Indeed, and as new challenges emerged, this small but dedicated team found ways to meet them. At the top of the list of challenges was keeping everyone safe, and for this team of 10, that meant taking extraordinary measures themselves.

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another,” said Keough. “So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

As noted, one of the real concerns for the Nutrition Department team was keeping the drivers — most all of them older and in the high-risk category — out of harm’s way.

“My concern the whole time was the drivers — they’re all in that danger zone,” Young said. “Every day, they were asking, ‘what’s going on?’ You could tell they were concerned, and I was concerned for them. The last thing I wanted to see was someone catch something. To me, they’re the real heroes in this; they were out there every day doing it.”

At the height of the crisis, additional volunteer drivers had to be hired to handle what became larger deliveries, said Landry, noting that those at GSSSI were determined to help seniors stock up on frozen meals to make sure they had enough food in the home.

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car,” she explained, adding quickly that these efforts to help clients stock up were more than successful. “We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space.’”

And, as noted, the help being provided soon extended beyond food. Indeed, as calls came in from the public asking how they could volunteer and help serve the seniors, some were pressed into service following the food-delivery vehicles in so-called chase cars stockpiled with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items the client might need.

But food was the primary focus, said Kate Senn, Nutrition program director, adding that the creation of a grab-and-go program certainly helped GSSSI effectively meet that growing need. To put the matter in perspective, she noted that, in January, prior to COVID-19, GSSSI was providing 3,352 meals for congregate dining sites. In August, it was providing 4,581 meals via the grab-and-go program.

Those numbers help tell the story, but only a little. The tireless work and dedication to serving clients — while also keeping everyone safe at a time when similar programs in other states and other parts of this state had to shut down because of positive cases — are what really make this story happen.

The 10 that stayed behind have left the St. Patrick’s Day decorations up, perhaps thinking they will be appropriate in a few months again anyway. But more to the point, they just haven’t had any time.

They’ve been too busy getting HDMs to all those who need them. They’ve been too busy doing the work of true Healthcare Heroes.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

While This Shelter’s Protocols Changed, Its Mission Never Did

The metaphor is an easy one to draw.

“If COVID was the invading army, all of us here — every one of us — had to set the wall and hold the wall and make sure folks were going to be safe,” said Keith Rhone, Operations director at Friends of the Homeless in Springfield, a program of Clinical & Support Options (CSO).

The reality, however, was much more complex. In its dorms, its kitchen, and places where clients meet therapists, clinicians, and other staff one on one, FOH was tasked, back in March, with implementing social distancing and a host of other protocols aimed at keeping everyone safe — both those delivering a broad range of services and those receiving them — while never shutting those services down.

That they did so, and how, makes the entire team true Healthcare Heroes.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that.”

“In some ways, we can’t do anything differently,” Clinical Director Christy O’Brien told BusinessWest. “We’re never going to shut down; we’re never not going to be here. Despite the social distancing we had to do, we’re never not going to be close to our people — not necessarily physically, of course, but we still need to know how they’re doing, how we can help, all those things. Where other places were forced to move to telehealth, that’s never going to work for us. The needs are still the needs.”

Those needs encompass not only shelter, but clinical services, such as mental-health and substance-abuse recovery coaching and therapy; housing — FOH has a number of lease-holding tenants; three meals a day; clothing and toiletries as necessary; transportation and delivery services; prescription pickups; case management … as Rhone put it, “the job here is whatever it takes.”

COVID-19 didn’t arrive at an ideal time, said Bill Miller, vice president of Housing and Homeless Services — not that there’s ever a good time for a global pandemic.

“We were coming out of a winter where we served more people and were more full than we had ever been in our history,” he recalled. “So it was a tough winter, and what the pandemic required was a complete shift in our mindset because our inclination and our mission has always been the same: how do we serve as many people as possible? So we wanted to continue to serve in the same way, but we had to adopt a whole new style.”

Among the changes, picnic tables and tents were erected outdoors — spaced apart — to accommodate distanced meal lines. Volunteers, who are instrumental in the service of FOH meals and other activities, were temporarily suspended. In the dormitories, some beds were removed, with overflow space employed in the dining room. Partitions went up, and guests were arranged head to toe when sleeping.

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless, who had to quickly figure out new protocols in the spring while continuing to serve clients at the same level as before.

Additional temporary staff were hired to more regularly and thoroughly sanitize spaces, and hand-sanitizer stations were mounted throughout the campus. Dozens of donors and staffers designed and sewed homemade cloth masks so that each shelter guest would have reusable, washable masks.

Meanwhile, from the pandemic’s earliest days, before on-site testing became available, temperature screenings and interviews were conducted to alert the team to early signs, and as the situation progressed, Baystate and Mercy medical centers were quick to work with FOH on testing.

CSO also staffed and managed large tent facilities, which were erected in partnership with the city of Springfield and served as emergency accommodations in the event of positive cases (see the related story of another Healthcare Hero, page xx). When another shelter in the city needed to close due to guests testing positive, the CSO team was able to quarantine those who had been at risk and refer those who ended up testing positive to state-run MEMA isolation sites. FOH further assisted many of those individuals once their isolation periods were completed.

Why was all this critical? Simply put, while COVID-19 has swept through homeless populations in Boston, Worcester, and other cities, homeless individuals in the Greater Springfield region have been largely spared, thanks to the quick — dare we say heroic — work of the team at Friends of the Homeless.

“People have to gather here, so we’re potentially a hot spot. All the credit goes to the people who kept it from being that,” Miller said, adding that “there wasn’t one person who backed out, who wasn’t going to show up for work. We have a dedicated team who have been here for a long time. It was just incredible how everybody showed up.”

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people.”

It wasn’t lost on Miller that many people working at Friends of the Homeless fall into high-risk categories when it comes to COVID-19. “To have people come into work anyway is just striking.”

“Everyone came in and suited up and did the work,” added Delphine Ray, manager of Case Management Services. “They didn’t hesitate. This is our home away from home, and, by the grace of God, we managed to pull through.”

Dave Ware, men’s shelter manager, said he had many concerns about to manage the social-distancing aspect of the pandemic at FOH. “They really came together to figure out how to manage that in the dorms and kitchen. They came up with a good strategy to handle the social-distancing part.”

It wasn’t always a top-down strategy, Miller added. “There was a fad in business management some years ago — idea-driven organizations. That meant the ideas came from staff at all levels. That’s what we saw here. ‘What if we try this?’ ‘OK, let’s do that.’ Because this was something we’d never seen before, and we didn’t know what to do. And it ended up going well. Everybody was on high alert, and everyone had ideas.”

O’Brien also praised clients of Friends of the Homeless for taking the pandemic seriously and getting tested in the early days, before much was known about the virus and they were already preoccupied with some very real concerns, from mental health to lack of housing. “COVID wasn’t a primary concern for a lot of people. But they jumped on it when informed.”

He recalled warm moments, too, among upsetting ones — “incredible moments of humanity, seeing people come together in a time of crisis and fear. It was very genuine.”

That said, the need for the broad array of services provided by Friends of the Homeless to hundreds of people every day remains persistent, as does COVID-19 itself, as the cold weather approaches — not that those needs go away in the warmer months, Miller said.

“There may be peaks and valleys of needs; it’s not predicated only on cold weather. We used to see more of a lull in summer, but not so much anymore. And when times are hard economically…”

He didn’t have to finish that thought to register his point, which is, the tougher a community’s social and economic challenges, the more necessary FOH becomes.

“I like the fact that we work in an environment that cares about people,” Ware added. “When you look nationally and globally, you see so many people suffering, homeless, without food. We’re just a small place that takes care of those needs, but nationwide, so many people are suffering in this way. I’m proud to work in a place that takes care of people who need it. We’re one of the only places around here that does it on the level we do.”

As noted earlier, this is not an organization that can just shut its doors to the ‘invading army’ of COVID-19.

“We’re home for many people,” Miller said.

“And if we don’t do it,” O’Brien added, “who will?”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — Reading Success by 4th Grade (RS4G), Springfield’s community-wide early literacy initiative, is launching a new literacy project in Springfield, Springfield Story Walks, and will kick it off with a socially-distanced event at the site of its first installation on Oct. 13 at 12:30 p.m. at Gardening the Community, 200 Walnut St., Springfield.

The event will feature a ribbon cutting and brief program, with remarks from Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno; Chrissy Howard, Reading Success by 4th Grade manager; Ibrahim Ali, director of Agriculture and Youth Programs at Gardening the Community; Jesse Lederman, RS4G Leadership Advisory Group member and Springfield City Councilor; Zee Johnson, owner of Olive Tree Books-n-Voices in Springfield; and Molly Fogarty, Springfield City Library director.

There will also be a read-a-loud by Tyeshia Weir and Melissa Blissett, Family Literacy Advocate leaders.

The Gardening the Community Story Walk, located at the organization’s Community Farm Store, will feature local author Grace Lin’s The Ugly Vegetables.

The Springfield Story Walks project will feature original full-color pages from children’s books installed in outdoor community settings, where families can walk along a path and read together. Families are encouraged to view the Story Walk, which will be up at 200 Walnut St. through the fall. The StoryWalk concept was created by Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont and developed in collaboration with the Kellogg-Hubbard Library. StoryWalk is a registered services mark owned by Ferguson. Reading Success by 4th Grade will be opening more across the city in the coming weeks, and again in the springtime.

Earlier this summer, the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading announced that Springfield was recognized as one of just 21 communities nationwide to be recognized with national Pacesetter Honors for supporting early school success in 2019, with exemplary work in Big Tent Collaboration and Messaging and Communications. Springfield was also named a Pacesetter Bright Spot for School Readiness.

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Wealth Management

Shared Expertise

Empower Retirement and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. (MassMutual) announced they have entered into a definitive agreement for Empower to acquire the MassMutual retirement-plan business. The acquisition will capitalize on both firms’ expertise, provide technological excellence and deep product capabilities, and create scale to the benefit of retirement-plan participants and their employers.

Based on the terms of the agreement and subject to regulatory approvals, Empower will acquire the retirement-plan business of MassMutual in a reinsurance transaction for a ceding commission of $2.35 billion. In addition, the balance sheet of the transferred business would be supported by $1 billion of required capital when combined with Empower’s existing U.S. business.

The MassMutual retirement-plan business comprises 26,000 workplace savings plans through which approximately 2.5 million participants have saved $167 billion in assets. It also includes approximately 2,000 employees affiliated with MassMutual’s retirement-plan business who provide a full range of support services for financial professionals, plan sponsors, and participants.

“Empower is taking the next step toward addressing the complex and evolving needs of millions of workers and retirees through the combination of expertise, talent, and business scale being created,” said Edmund Murphy III, president and CEO of Empower Retirement. “Together, Empower and MassMutual connect a broad spectrum of strength and experience with a shared focus on the customer. We are excited about the opportunity to reach new customers and serve even more Americans on their journey toward creating a secure retirement.”

“We believe this transaction will greatly benefit our policy owners and customers as we invest in our future growth and accelerate progress on our strategy.”

The transaction, expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2020 pending customary regulatory approvals, will increase Empower’s participant base to more than 12.2 million and retirement-services record-keeping assets to approximately $834 billion administered in approximately 67,000 workplace savings plans.

“In Empower, we are pleased to have found a strong, long-term home for MassMutual’s retirement-plan business, and we believe this transaction will greatly benefit our policy owners and customers as we invest in our future growth and accelerate progress on our strategy,” said Roger Crandall, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO. “This includes strengthening our leading position in the U.S. protection and accumulation industry by expanding our wealth-management and distribution capabilities; investing in our global asset-management, insurance, and institutional businesses; and delivering a seamless digital experience — all to help millions more secure their future and protect the ones they love.”

The MassMutual retirement-plan business has grown substantially over the past decade, with the number of participants served doubling to more than 2.5 million and assets under management more than quadrupling from $34 billion to more than $160 billion.

The combined firm will serve retirement plans sponsored by a broad spectrum of employers. These include mega, large, mid-size, and small corporate 401(k) plans; government plans ranging in scale from state-level plans to municipal agencies; not-for-profits such as hospital and religious-organization 403(b) plans; and collectively bargained Taft-Hartley plans. The transaction will also bring MassMutual’s defined-benefit business under the umbrella of plans Empower serves.

Empower and MassMutual intend to enter into a strategic partnership through which digital insurance products offered by Haven Life Insurance Agency, LLC3, and MassMutual’s voluntary insurance and lifetime income products will be made available to customers of Empower Retirement and Personal Capital.

Empower today administers $667 billion in assets on behalf of 9.7 million American workers and retirees through approximately 41,000 workplace savings plans. Empower provides retirement services, managed accounts, financial wellness, and investment solutions to plans of all types and sizes, including private-label record-keeping clients.

In August, Empower announced it had completed the acquisition of Personal Capital, a registered investment adviser and wealth manager. The Personal Capital platform offers personalized financial advice, financial planning, and goal setting, providing insights and tools for plan participants and individual investors. In addition, Empower’s retail business provides a suite of products and services to individual retirement-account and brokerage customers.

Opinion

Editorial

Mayor Domenic Sarno is certainly confident that Springfield will rebound from all the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at it the past seven months or so.

As BusinessWest spoke with him recently, he said at least a few times that he expects the City of Homes to bounce back — and quickly — when COVID is over (whenever that is). This isn’t surprising, obviously; this is what mayors do. And he bases that optimism on the many projects currently in progress, new initiatives likely to move onto and then off the drawing board, and the considerable amount of momentum the city had created before the pandemic changed the landscape back in late winter.

We share his optimism to some degree, but the future of Springfield right now is a giant question mark. And before we go any further, we need to say that most all urban areas, even Boston and New York, are in the same boat and facing the same daunting question.

Which is … what will things look like when this is all over?

In Springfield, the hope is that things will look a whole lot like they did in mid-January. Back then, there were events happening, like Red Sox Winter Weekend. The Thunderbirds were packing them in at the MassMutual Center, while MGM was drawing decent crowds at the casino and bringing people to the city for concerts and shows, benefiting the downtown restaurants and bars. The downtown office towers weren’t full, certainly, but there were plenty of people working in the central business district — enough to support the retail and hospitality businesses in that area.

Now … none of that is happening as the city tries to hang on and fight its way through this. The question is, can Springfield turn back the clock to start of this year and essentially pick up where it left off?

Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. And a big factor in this equation is the commercial office space downtown. Right now, the larger towers are mostly quiet as companies continue to have many of their employees work remotely. And there is speculation that they will remain mostly quiet as businesses adapt to a new way of doing things and considerably downsize their space.

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to Springfield. Boston is facing the same problem, and, to a large extent, so is New York.

But having a critical mass of workers in a central business district is one of the key ingredients in any success formula for such an area. The others are having people live in that district and having them come to visit. All three are important, and without one, more pressure gets put on the other two.

There are housing projects coming together in the broad downtown area — at Court Square and at the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street, to name a couple notable efforts — with the promise of more to come. And there are strong hopes that the vibrancy seen when there were shows at MGM and Symphony Hall and hockey games at the MassMutual Center will return once the pandemic is behind us — again, whenever that is.

But will this be enough to make the downtown area — and the city as a whole — thrive and regain the momentum lost to the pandemic?

Again, perhaps — but it seems logical that the city will not simply be able to turn back the clock; instead, it will likely have to turn the clock forward and find new and intriguing uses for the office space downtown and for the commercial spaces vacated by businesses that didn’t survive COVID-19.

Seven months into the pandemic, we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we have to somehow regain. The question for Springfield — and all urban areas — is ‘what can we expect when all this over?’ And right now, no one really knows.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — A host of city, state, and national leaders were on hand at the former Court Square Hotel property Thursday to mark the official start of a long-awaited $51 million project to convert the long-dormant landmark into apartments and retail space.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Congressman Richard Neal, and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno were among the many dignitaries to address those gathered to commemorate the launch of the initiative, which will bring 59 market-rate apartments, 15 workforce apartments, and more than 20,000 square feet of retail to the center of Springfield.

The project is the result of a partnership involving a number of players, including developers Winn Companies of Boston and Opal Real Estate of Springfield, as well as MassMutual, MGM, and the MassHousng’s Workforce Housing Initiative. More than $11 million in state and federal historic tax credits have also been secured for the project.

Initial work on the property involves $4 million worth of demolition and hazardous materials cleanup, expected to completed by November. Actual construction is expected to take 18-24 months.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD Freedom Credit Union (FCU), headquartered in Springfield and serving members in the four counties of western Massachusetts and Hartford and Tolland counties in Connecticut, is warning the public of emerging sweetheart scams.

According to data from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Network, more than $200 million was reported lost last year by 20,000 individuals falling victim to online schemers. In comparison, 8,500 people filed claims of $33 million in losses in 2015.

Sweetheart scammers, also commonly referred to as romance scammers or catfishers, prey on individuals looking for love or companionship online. By creating phony online profiles and backgrounds, these individuals forge relationships by gaining trust and then seeking monetary gain. Often, an emergency will be fabricated; creating a storyline and opportunity to request money from the unsuspecting victim.

“Internet dating sites have become increasingly popular, especially during the early spring months, with people spending more time inside and with more free time,” explained FCU President Glenn Welch. “With so much at stake, we want to raise awareness to protect members of our community from falling prey.”

Welch offered the following signs of a potential scam. The individual:

  • Professes love or affection quickly;
  • Asks to move the conversation off the chat or dating website;
  • Requests money or gifts to handle an emergency medical bill or travel expense;
  • Offers to meet in person, but always offers an excuse as to why they must cancel plans.

“It’s never wise to send gifts or money to someone you’ve never met,” warned Welch. “While it’s possible that online relationships can develop into real life relationships, it’s best to be cautious of individuals who seem too good to be true, or who ask for gifts of money for situations that seem outlandish.”

Consumers who believe they’ve been a victim of a sweetheart scam can report the incident to the FTC at ftc.gov/complaint. For the latest updates from Freedom Credit Union, visit freedom.coop.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Museums will distribute 500 Smithsonian Spark!Lab Activity Kits to Springfield children to help emphasize the fun of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

“The Museums are open, but we know not everyone is able (or ready) to visit in person,” said Larissa Murray, Director of Education at the Springfield Museums. “So we decided to bring our wonderful Spark!Lab hands-on invention learning directly to the children in our city!”

The Springfield Museums, in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution and with funding from the MassMutual Foundation, assembled 500 Spark!Lab Activity Kits, which they will begin to distribute this month.

“Usually during the summer, we would visit libraries with our hands-on activities,” said Murray. “Because of the pandemic, we had to think of another plan.” Instead the Museums educators are partnering with local organizations and distributing Spark!Lab Activity Kits.

Spark!Lab is an innovation space, where all visitors are encouraged to explore because anyone can be an inventor! The Spark!Lab Activity Kits share the same encouraging theme. The kits are filled with materials for STEM activities, plus invention challenges in both Spanish and English. Among the supplies are bendy straws, carpenter pencils, a protractor, lacing cords, craft sticks, cardboard coaster, the list goes on!

“The goal of the program is to help families learn together with engaging, dynamic activities,” Murray said. “These are challenging times for families, all needing to learn from home. We hope the Spark!Lab activities will be both entertaining and informative.”

This project is made possible thanks to the partnership of the Smithsonian and funding from the MassMutual Foundation.

“It’s been so much fun to partner with the Springfield Museums and the MassMutual Foundation to create these kits,” said Jennifer Brundage, National Outreach Manager for Smithsonian Affiliations. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to share the Smithsonian’s hands-on, bilingual learning experiences, regardless of students’ access to the internet or computers. Everyone has the potential to be an inventor and we are excited to see what Springfield’s kids invent.”

Daily News

WASHINGTON, N.J. Washington One-Stop, a family-owned-and-operated business since 1969, has been acquired by Soringfield-based Rocky’s Ace Hardware, one of the country’s largest family-owned Ace Hardware dealers, now with 35 locations in eight states.

Washington One-Stop, previously owned by Gary Hicken, was purchased in April of this year by Rocky’s, which will now manage the location under the name Rocky’s One-Stop at the existing location of 288 Route 31 South in Washington.

“My grandfather opened our first location in Springfield in 1926, and we’ve been in continuous operation under the same family ownership for three generations,” said Rocky’s Ace Hardware President Rocco Falcone. “We plant roots in each of our neighborhood locations and intend to maintain the community focus established by the previous owners.”

Rocky’s One-Stop plans to host a grand opening celebration for the community next spring. In the meantime, the store will undergo renovations while retaining much of the existing inventory.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

Kay Simpson says the top priority before reopening Springfield Museums was making sure both visitors and staff would be safe.

“Kissing Through a Curtain” is an exhibit of 10 contemporary artists, dealing with communicating and translating across borders, how people interact, and the meaning behind words. It was hung at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in March, a few days before the museum closed due to COVID-19 — and there it has hung, dormant, ever since.

“The curator of that exhibit recently changed the introductory text to note that the questions the exhibit asks feel even more urgent now than they did three or four months ago when the exhibit was originally scheduled to open,” said Jodi Joseph, the museum’s director of Communications.

Visitors have agreed, she added, citing a conversation she had with a family of regulars from Boston the week museums were allowed to reopen to the public.

“Heading out, the mom in the group said, ‘oh, gosh, it has so much more meaning now,’” Joseph told BusinessWest. “That’s truly contemporary art. It reflects our time and what we’re going through.”

What museums have been going through is nothing to celebrate. Shutting down for almost four months is a financial strain for any cultural attraction, no matter how large or small.

“For many smaller museums, the financial impact has really been catastrophic,” said Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums, adding that her organization was fortunate to receive not only a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, but generous contributions from a private donor and a foundation to help get through the past four months.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that.”

“It was an agonizing decision to shut down. At the beginning, we thought it would be for three weeks, and we’d be able to reopen,” she said, adding that conversations with other museums, followed by Gov. Charlie Baker’s shutdown order in late March, made the actual picture much clearer.

“It was really hard. It has just been an experience like no other,” she said. But thanks in part to the PPP loan and those donations, “we were able to sustain our operation through the closure. And now we’re reopening, but it’s on a limited basis. We’re very, very concerned about making sure this is a safe environment for our employees and our volunteers, as well as our visitors.”

It’s important they feel safe and return, Simpson added, if only because of what this set of museums means to the city and region.

“They’re unique and can’t be replicated at other settings — it’s an incredible complex that has served the city of Springfield for more than 160 years and is constantly evolving,” she said. “It attracts people of all ages and all backgrounds, engaging in learning experiences alongside each other — it’s a place where people come together, and it’s joyful and also educational.”

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

Not that it was easy getting to that point, of course. Museums across Massachusetts had to adhere to very specific guidelines outlined in phase 3 of Baker’s economic reopening plan, as well as their own sense of what visitors needed to feel comfortable enough to return.

Both Simpson and Joseph outlined measures at their facilities ranging from signs reminding people to wear masks, wash their hands, and stay six feet apart to plexiglass barriers and one-way directions at certain areas.

“One of the things people loved is all the interactive exhibits we provided, both permanent and traveling. Of course, now, we’ve had to be very careful about that,” Simpson said, noting that one nod to the new reality is the Yop, a Dr. Seuss character but also a new cell-phone app packed with maps, scavenger hunts, and self-guided tours that lend some interactivity to the museums in a safe way.

“We anticipate families will be among first visitors, and older adults will follow once they feel more comfortable,” she added, noting, of course, that what we know about COVID-19 has evolved, and is no longer recognized as dangerous only to older people.

MASS MoCA

Jodi Joseph says the wide spaces at MASS MoCA make physical distancing easier than at many places where people gather.

“We took COVID-19 very seriously, and we’ve engaged in months of planning,” Simpson said. “Even though we were closed, our staff worked very hard behind the scenes. We had staff talking to other museums, sharing best practices, attending webinars and conference calls, reading CDC guidelines — all to understand how we can safeguard our environment. It’s not like a classroom setting; it’s not like a retail setting — it’s a very different set of physical environments that we needed to think about very carefully.”

In addition to the basic rules around masks and distancing, MASS MoCA visitors who experience fever-like symptoms while at the museum are asked to self-identify to staff, and to enable contact tracing, should that be necessary, all ticket buyers are required to provide contact information and names of everyone in the party — both ways to prevent isolated infections from becoming community problems.

That said, the galleries themselves are massive — “we measure our gallery space by the acre here,” Joseph said — but high-traffic areas like stairwells are now one-directional, the entrance and exit have been separated, and the admissions desk has moved outside, accepting no more than 75 timed tickets every half-hour to keep crowds at state-mandated levels.

The museum, at one point, was considering five different scheduling plans for those galleries, which were gradually whittled down to one plan as the reopening date became more crystallized. Joseph credited state Sen. Adam Hinds and Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, for keeping the museum abreast of what was happening at the state level.

“As guidance about the hospitality and tourism sectors started to come down in late spring, we had a pretty good sense of when we’d be open, and we were able to come up with an exhibition calendar that made sense,” she explained.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences.”

Like many museums, MASS MoCA has a long exhibition cycle that’s planned out well in advance, so most installations were ready to go this month. Meanwhile, the museum staged its first concert last week, for an audience limited to 100 — including staff — in a space that can typically pack in 4,000.

For the region’s live-music scene, it’s a welcome start. MASS MoCA alone usually hosts performing-arts events 40 weekends per year, and about half its resources go toward supporting the performing arts, mostly emerging artists.

In short, it’s tough when everything shuts down.

“MASS MoCA is a landlord — we have between 30 and 40 tenants on our 16-acre, 28-building former factory campus,” she noted, and a core group of employees remained on site to manage them, but also reach out virtually with daily ‘art moments’ — “like a greatest hits of MASS MoCA, some fan-favorite exhibitions. We wanted to remind people how great it would feel to be back here, walking these halls, reflecting in the galleries, taking in performances on our stages all across campus.”

It was in many ways “an excruciating few months,” she added, yet the museum staff was inspired at times, too.

“Visitors kept in touch not just with donations, but with deeply felt personal messages telling us how much MASS MoCA means to them, or sharing landmark memories from their own lives that have taken place within these walls,” she told BusinessWest. “As our hearts were aching from being closed and dealing with all the daily troubles of the world, we were also reassured by all the gratitude and appreciation folks were showing the institution, even though we weren’t able to welcome them inside.”

That said, Joseph was thrilled to see more than 1,000 people arrive on opening weekend. “Everyone who showed up said things like ‘thank you, I’m so glad you finally opened’ and ‘I’ve been dying to get back here.’”

Virtual Lessons

Springfield Museums stayed connected to fans as well by bolstering its virtual museum offerings online, Simpson said, from online classes to video demonstrations of collections and exhibitions, to staff videos showing parents how to do activities with their kids at home.

“We learned lessons from the closure; we came to understand we need this online presence, and it needs to be developed on a parallel track with our on-site experiences. So there is innovation that has come out of this,” Simpson said. “Out of something that no one wanted came positive results that can help shape what we do in the future and help us be better.”

That said, she was quick to add that “we strongly believe having people come down to the museums and engage in on-site experiences is really what we do well, and it’s our greatest contribution to our community and people who come to us from all over the region — and across the country and all over the world.”

She’s confident they will come from afar again, though it might take some time. “We might need a vaccine or successful treatments before people feel really confident about being together in the way they were before the pandemic.”

Joseph knows they’ll return, too, whether it’s to see art, like “Kissing Through a Curtain,” that shines a light on today’s world, or, conversely, to get away from reality, especially when that reality has been living in isolation for months on end.

“We want our institution to be a place of respite and a place where people can reflect on their shared experiences — and a place to escape, if that’s what they need. Leave the cares of the world behind and take a moment to be with art. That was our great hope when we reopened the doors.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

If you read between the lines when scanning or listening to the comments made by MGM Springfield officials in the run-up to the reopening of the facility this week, it’s easy to see that they have some real concerns about whether the restrictions they’ve been placed under will enable them to succeed.

“We’re excited to be here in this moment,” Chris Kelley, president and COO told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities. “We have significant occupancy constraints that the business will be opening with, but we approach this moment with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our guests and this community again.”

We’re not sure how much gratitude, but we are sure that these occupancy constraints and other restrictions, put in place to keep guests and employees safe, are going to present stern challenges for the casino operators.

Roughly two-thirds of the slot machines will be disabled in the name of social distancing; many table games, including roulette, craps, and poker, will be shut down; capacity in the restaurants will also be limited, again in a nod to social distancing; the bars will be closed and drinking will be limited to those playing the games that are still open; large gatherings, such as concerts and shows, are still prohibited.

Add it all up, and then add in the cost of retrofitting the casino for play in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s fair to wonder whether opening is even a sound business decision given the high overhead at such facilities. That question remains to be answered.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is whether the city and the region need this facility open for business. To that question, there is a resounding ‘yes.’

Indeed, the tourism industry has been absolutely battered by the pandemic, perhaps harder than any other sector. Hotels, restaurants, bus companies, tourist attractions, and other businesses, have been crippled by this. And the announcement that there will be no Big E this fall dealt that sector another huge blow.

We’re not sure how much reopening MGM Springfield will help those businesses — many visitors to the casino don’t make any other stops before or after they do their gambling — but any help would certainly be appreciated.

There’s also the support the casino provides to other businesses, especially its vendors. We’ve written much over the past few years about how important MGM’s business is to these vendors — from the sign makers to the dry cleaners — and the trickle-down, while limited in some respects, is very real.

And then, there’s the psychological factor. Much of Main Street in Springfield was shut down by the pandemic, from shops to restaurants to businesses in the office towers. It’s starting to come back somewhat, with outdoor restaurants on Fort Street, Worthington Street, and by One Financial Plaza, and the office towers slowly (as in SLOWLY) but surely coming back to life.

MGM is another, very important, piece of the puzzle. With the casino again welcoming guests, Springfield, the region, will seem all the more open for business after a dreadful spring.

We’re under no delusions here. Reopening MGM is not going to dramatically alter the fate of many of the businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic. But it might provide a spark — another spark to be more precise — as the region tries to fight its way out of a disaster unlike anything it’s ever seen.

MGM’s managers are certainly not thrilled with the hand they’ve dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it, show they can operate safely, and eventually build their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Sections Special Coverage

A New Reality

The massive federal stimulus that took shape last week brought some clarity to how the government would address troubling impact of COVID-19 and the large-scale economic shutdown that has emerged in response to this public-health crisis. Other efforts on the state and local levels aim to help businesses and families struggling with job loss and the suspension of livelihoods. Of course, the true relief will come when this viral threat subsides and businesses ramp back up. But no one knows exactly when that will be.

The news came in quickly — and landed hard.

Last Thursday morning, the Department of Labor issued its first unemployment-claims report since much of the country began implementing, in various ways and at various speeds, some form of economic shutdown to slow the spread of coronavirus and the respiratory illness it causes, known as COVID-19.

The news was not good. The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits skyrocketed to a record-breaking 3.28 million for the week ended March 21 — nearly doubling expectations of 1.64 million claims. The previous record was 695,000 claims filed during October 1982.

It’s a big problem — and sometimes, big problems require big solutions. Which is why lawmakers in Washington spent much of last week hammering out a $2 trillion stimulus package aimed at helping families facing sudden job loss, small-business owners trying to survive, and entire battered industries ride out what is increasingly looking like a severe disruption to America’s economic way of life.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth,” Scott Foster, a partner with Bulkley Richardson, said the morning after details of the stimulus became known.

Among its many provisions, the Keeping American Workers Paid and Employed Act appears to apply to every for-profit business with fewer than 500 employees, including sole proprietors, Foster noted. The act would allow these businesses to obtain a loan — at 4% interest with a 10-year repayment term — to cover payroll costs, including healthcare premiums and paid time off, rent, utilities, mortgage payments (interest, not principal), and interest on other pre-existing loans for any eight-week period falling between Feb. 15 and June 30.

“To summarize, if you are a business and are willing to keep your employees on the payroll, pay your rent or mortgage, and stay in business, the federal government is prepared to pay your rent, your utilities, and your payroll — for employees making under $100,000 annually — for eight weeks, and the payment is tax-free,” Foster said. “It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

Unlike most other loans, this one will be forgiven in an amount equal to the sum of payroll costs, payments of interest on any covered mortgage, payments on any covered rent obligations, and covered utility payments. And to encourage businesses to retain their employees, the amount to be forgiven would be reduced if the business reduces its workforce.

“Business owners … will be receiving a lifeline from the federal government that is unprecedented in scope, speed, and breadth.”

Families will receive a simpler but shorter-term fix — a tax rebate totaling $1,200 for most adults and $500 for each child — which will be distributed as checks in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, states will get help in the form of a $150 billion grant fund, to be distributed proportional to population size, with a minimum of $1.25 billion for states with the smallest populations.

For many of the impacted, it’s a start, at a time of unprecedented anxiety — after all, the country has never voluntarily shut down activity on a massive scale due to a health threat, or for any other reason. This issue of BusinessWest details many of the ways businesses and families are coping, and plenty of advice from local professionals on the best ways to do so. It’s a story that changes by the day, but read on for a snapshot of where we are now.

Targeted Assistance

For many, the COVID-19 threat really hit home the morning — March 23, to be exact — when Gov. Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring all businesses and organizations that do not provide “COVID-19 essential services” to close their physical workplaces and facilities to workers, customers, and the public at least until April 7, while continuing to operate remotely when possible.

Those ‘essential’ businesses include healthcare and public health; law enforcement, public safety, and first responders; food and agriculture; critical manufacturing; transportation; energy; water and wastewater; public works; communications and information technology; financial services; defense industry base; chemical manufacturing and hazardous materials; and news media.

Everyone else is being asked to work at home, and most area companies were already moving in that direction before Baker’s mandate. The Springfield Regional Chamber polled its members last week about how the order impacted their operations. Almost two-thirds — 62% — said their employees were already working remotely, 27% said they began remote work after March 23, and 11% said they temporarily closed all operations because they cannot work remotely.

The threat of a longer shutdown looms, and may be foreshadowed by the governor’s order last week to keep all schools and most childcare programs closed at least until May 4, while requesting that educators gear up for the long haul by developing and enhancing online-learning capabilities.

“It sounds too good to be true, but the public policy is sound — the easiest and best way to get financial support to the most Americans is through their employers.”

In the meantime, a number of relief efforts have popped up at the federal, state, and local levels. For example, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) will offer low-interest federal Economic Injury Disaster Loans for working capital to Massachusetts small businesses suffering substantial economic injury as a result of COVID-19. Applicants may apply online at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela.

This week, the Baker-Polito administration also announced economic support for Massachusetts small businesses with the Small Business Recovery Loan Fund, a $10 million fund that will provide emergency capital up to $75,000 to Massachusetts-based businesses impacted by COVID-19 with under 50 full- and part-time employees, including nonprofits. The application is at empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

Meanwhile, Common Capital offers a Fast Track Loan Program to address the needs of local businesses that need quick access to capital. Applicants seeking funding from the program to help mitigate the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can contact Kim Gaughan, loan fund manager, at (413) 233-1684 or [email protected] for more information.

The Baker-Polito administration also announced steps last week to keep vulnerable families in their homes, preserve the health and safety of low-income renters and homeowners, and prevent homelessness due to reduced or lost income. Specifically, the Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) will temporarily suspend terminations of federal and state rental vouchers under its purview, while MassHousing is transferring $5 million to the DHCD for a COVID-19 Rental Assistance for Families in Transition fund to assist families facing rent insecurity.

In addition, the state Division of Banks has issued new guidance to financial institutions and lenders urging them to provide relief for borrowers — several banks have already committed to do so — and will advocate for a 60-day stay on behalf of all homeowners facing imminent foreclosure on their homes. Finally, affordable-housing operators are being urged to suspend non-essential evictions for loss of income or employment circumstances resulting in a tenant’s inability to make rent.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts will delay the collection of sales tax, meals tax, and room-occupancy taxes in the restaurant and hospitality sector for up to three months, while waiving all penalties and interest. And, of course, the IRS has informed all taxpayers that this year’s filing deadline has been moved forward three months to July 15.

Nonprofits are being squeezed by the crisis as well. In response, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) established the COVID-19 Response Fund for the Pioneer Valley with a lead gift of $1 million from MassMutual and contributions from a number of area businesses. The fund will provide resources to Pioneer Valley nonprofits serving populations most impacted by the crisis, such as the elderly, those without stable housing, families needing food, and those with health vulnerabilities. To make a gift, visit communityfoundation.org/coronavirus-donations or e-mail [email protected].

Meanwhile, Berkshire United Way and Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation have established the COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund for Berkshire County to rapidly deploy resources to community-based organizations as they respond to the impact of the coronavirus in Berkshire County. Numerous corporate funders have already emerged. To donate, visit berkshireunitedway.org/donate. Nonprofits can request funds at berkshireunitedway.org.

Finally, to help individuals in need, the United Way of Pioneer Valley established the COVID-19 Recovery and Relief Fund to provide aid and resources to those affected by the current public-health emergency. Funds collected will help families and individuals impacted by the pandemic to meet their basic, childcare, housing and financial needs. Visit www.uwpv.org for more information.

Hunkering Down

Resources such as these are critical because there’s really no telling when the region and country can return to some semblance of economic normalcy. Judging by what the medical community knows about how aggressively coronavirus spreads, the health costs of emerging from this collective cocoon too soon are too great — the healthcare system would simply be overrun. That’s why ‘flattening the curve; has become the watchword of the day.

Unfortunately, many businesses feel overrun in a different way. The Springfield Regional Chamber conducted a different poll recently, asking members what level of impact they expect the COVID-19 crisis have on their business.

More than four-fifths have major concerns; 34% say the crisis may put them out of business, while 47% say it will significantly impact their financials. Another 15% say they’ll be impacted financially but expect to weather the storm, while 4% say it’s too early to know.

In many ways, it’s too early to predict many things related to COVID-19 and its impact. Meanwhile, a nation increasingly shelters in place, seeking relief and solutions where they can find them, and hoping for the best.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Meetings & Conventions

Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

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

Features

Blast from the Past

Todd Crossett and Sonya Yetter

It’s a small business, but it might just be a big part of a significant movement. Granny’s Baking Table, which opened just a few months ago, speaks to a different age in Springfield’s history, when small, locally owned businesses dominated Main Street and the roads around it. And in many ways, it operates in a way consistent with that age — there’s no wi-fi and, instead, a focus on conversation. It’s a blast from the past, but those behind it hope they represent the future.

Todd Crossett remembers how it all started — and especially how his chapter in this story began.

Then a faculty member at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, he was making beignets, a French pastry featuring dough and powdered sugar, as a hobby more than anything else. His son told him they were so good that he could sell them from a bicycle.

So he did. In downtown Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he’s lived in the Mason Square area for more than 25 years. “But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’

“But it didn’t end that way, did it?” he went on, with a hearty laugh, gesturing to his current business partner.

That would be Sonya Yetter, who, While Crossett was selling his beignets on his bike, was in business for herself with a soup and sandwich shop in the Forest Park section of the city.

After years spent cocktail waitressing, bartending, and other assorted jobs, she decided to attend culinary school in Europe. Upon returning to the States, she lived and worked in Maryland and Florida before returning to her hometown of Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot. But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’”

Through a series of circumstances that will be detailed later, the two have come together in a new venture called Granny’s Baking Table, a name that reflects what goes on there, but doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Granny’s is a blast from the past, and in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. It’s a nod to a day when the streets of downtown Springfield were teeming with small, locally owned businesses like this one. And it’s a nod to the small bakery, with this one combining the baking traditions of the American South and Northern Europe.

It’s all summed up — sort of — in this line from the eatery’s website: “It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

The menu, like many other aspects of Granny’s Baking Table, is simple, direct, and a nod to the past.

That table — and there is, for the most part, just one large one that sits in the middle of the room — is indeed just for those purposes. There is no wi-fi, so one could do some work, theoretically, but if they wanted to read the morning paper, they would likely have to do it the old-fashioned way and crack open the print edition.

Speaking of old-fashioned, there’s more of that on display at this venue, from the simple menu displayed on a chalkboard — items include the ‘Oh Lawdy’ to the ‘Goodness Gracious’ to the ‘Not Too Fancy,’ a phrase that describes pretty much everything in the place — to the pictures on the wall; some are of family members, others of random individuals that reflect the diversity of the city and its downtown being celebrated at this establishment, to the holiday cookie exchange staged in mid-December (more on that later)

Overall, Granny’s is a nod to the past, and so far, to one degree or another, it seems to be working. The partners acknowledge that, three months after opening, they’re seeing both newcomers and repeat customers, and a good supply of both. But they acknowledged that it’s difficult going up against national chain coffee shops and other forms of competition. And they also acknowledged that times have indeed changed, and operating a business based on small-batch baking is far from easy.

The scope of the challenge they’re facing is reflected in the skepticism they encountered as they went about securing a site, putting a business plan in place, and getting the doors open. It came from family, friends, and even the broker that showed them the property.

“People didn’t like our concepts; they didn’t like the one table, they didn’t like the no wi-fi — there was so much that people were averse to,” Crossett explained. “But we believed in what we were doing, and we still believe in it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this unique new venture and how its principals are undertaking a noble but nonetheless daunting assignment — bringing the past into the present and making it work.

To-Dough List

Returning to the story of how these two came together — a story they share often because they’re asked often — that chapter really began when Crossett was serving as food-vending recruiter for the Springfield Jazz Festival, and knocked on the door to Yetter’s business in Forest Park.

He successfully recruited her for the event, and they kept in touch. “And here we are,” she said while bypassing several subsequent chapters as the two talked with BusinessWest at that large table in the middle of the room — actually, it’s several smaller tables pushed together.

Filling in the gaps, Crossett said he was looking for a space in downtown Springfield — specifically some square footage in the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — a from which to sell beignets and other items. Unbeknownst to him, Yetter, a UMass graduate who grew up Springfield, had signed a lease for the property almost across the street — one that had most recently been home to the Honey Bunny’s clothing store but had seen a number of uses over the decades — as a second location for her business.

The Innovation Center plans essentially fizzled as the development of that property changed course, Crosset recalled, adding that he left the last discussions on those plans quite dejected. He was on a cross-country tour with his son when he started thinking about how he and Yetter would not be in competition with one another, so maybe they should become partners.

Some of the pastries available at Granny’s Baking Table.

“He texted me and said, ‘we should talk,’” Yetter recalled, again zooming through subsequent steps for another ‘and here we are.’

That text was sent roughly a year ago; the months that followed were spent converting the space into a bakery — ceilings had to be raised, and a kitchen had to be built — as well as overcoming the skepticism of others around them and getting the venture off the ground.

They were fueled by the desire to make downtown less boring and to be a part of ongoing efforts to restore the vitality that Yetter remembers from her childhood.

“I grew up here, so I remember what downtown once was,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was in one of the last classes to graduate from Classical High School, which closed in 1986. “I spent a lot of time in Johnson’s Bookstore and Steiger’s — it was a booming, booming town.”

By the time she returned to the city, it was no longer booming, she said, adding that she believes the large shopping malls, now struggling mightily themselves, sucked much of the life out of the central business district. The best hope for the future is small businesses moving into the downtown, she said, adding that Granny’s is part of that movement.

“My hope, and my belief, is that there are more people who are interested in becoming small-business owners now and perfect a craft they might have,” she said. “It’s my hope that this will revitalize the downtown area.”

The communal table, designed to stimulate conversation among patrons.

Today, Yetter splits her time between the Super Sweet Sandwich Shop in Forest Park and Granny’s, with more time at the latter because it’s just getting off the ground. Both she and Crossett said they are off to a solid start and they expect to gain momentum as more people find out about them and perhaps change some eating habits — specifically getting away from fast food, not only at lunch but breakfast as well.

Granny’s features an array of pastries — each day the lineup is different — that include danish, scones, sticky buns, muffins, beignets, and more. The lunch menu, as noted, is rather simple and focused on the basics; for example, the Not Too Fancy is pulled pork with homemade barbecue sauce, the Oh Lawdy is sweet-tea-brined fried chicken with pimento cheese and spicy peach jam served on a biscuit, and the Goodness Gracious is a mustard-infused, buttery croissant with black forest ham and smoked cheese.

Thus far, there’s been a lot of grab and go, especially with the businesspeople working downtown, said Crossett, but there have been many who have sat down to eat as well.

“It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

Which means that most have had to adjust some other habits as well, the partners acknowledged, noting again that there is no wi-fi here, and there is that ‘communal table.’

“We have a space where we want people to come in and talk and have a conversation,” Yetter explained, “and hopefully get to know anyone else who’s at the table with them — that’s our goal.”

It’s a goal that’s being met in many respects.

“Sometimes you’ll see a full table, and other times you’ll see a few people there,” said Yetter. “What we’ve noticed is that they talk to each other now, which is what we wanted — getting people to talk that normally wouldn’t.”

What’s Cooking

When asked about the success formula to date, Crosset said there are some interesting ingredients.

“We got into the space together, we both have a good sense of humor, we’re both patient, and we’re both really, really finicky about our product,” he explained. “And those things hold us together.”

Yetter agreed, and said another big factor was successfully creating “the feel and the vibe” they were looking for — which together speak to another age, another time, as reflected in that mission statement on the website and the reference to simpler times and baking from scratch.

Time will tell if the skeptics were right or if these somewhat unlikely partners can actually turn back the hands of time. But for now, they seem to be taking some of the boring out of downtown and giving people something new to talk about — whether it’s at that communal table or back in their office.

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

Meetings & Conventions

Making a Match

Mary Kay Wydra (left) and Alicia Szenda say the region’s recent momentum and new attractions have made it a stronger sell to event and convention planners.

Conventions are good business for a city like Springfield. But they don’t exist in a vacuum.

“We’ll ask if they have time for things outside their program,” said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB). “Are they bringing spouses? Will they have time, either pre-event or post-event, to go to Yankee Candle, or Six Flags, or the Seuss museum?”

“That’s part of their convention experience as well,” added Alicia Szenda, the GSVCB’s director of Sales. “They might be at the MassMutual Center for three or four days, but they might do a couple off-site events, too. We can help them — ‘OK, do you want to do the Springfield Museums? The Hall of Fame? What is it that your group is interested in?’ Because we do want them to have a good experience and feel welcome.”

Both Wydra and Szenda share a philosophy that, while conventions and major sporting events positively impact the region during the weekend or week they’re around, they also pose an opportunity to draw convention-goers back in the future — either as a group for future events, or individually, as leisure travelers.

That’s why attracting convention business focuses not just on the venue, lodging, and amenities involved in the event itself, but on the entire region.

“Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer,” Wydra told BusinessWest. “Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

And when they’re here, they’ll spend money, from hotels and restaurants to gas stations and recreation destinations, Szenda added. “We’re really lucky we have great attractions, and that’s enough to keep people entertained while they’re here and get them to come back.”

The convention and event mix in 2020 is a diverse agenda, one featuring newcomers and repeat business alike. The city recently hosted the New England Fence Assoc., which the GSCVB had been trying to bring in for years, as well as the New England Region Volleyball Assoc. (NERVA). In its sixth straight year here, the latter event filled 2,000 hotel-room nights over the course of a weekend.

The city will also host the Amateur Athletic Union volleyball super-regional in March — partly because someone who took part in the NERVA event liked what he saw from the city. “We’re hoping that becomes annual as well,” Szenda said.

Other upcoming events include the largest collegiate fencing competition in the country and a First Robotics event at the Eastern States Exposition, both in April; a gathering of the National Assoc. of Basketball Coaches in May; and Hooplandia in June. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In all cases, Szenda said, the goal is to match what an organization needs with what a venue — and the city and region — have to offer. Take the International Jugglers’ Assoc., which convened in Springfield last year.

“This group was looking to go anywhere in the country, so we looked at their parameters and put together a proposal. They needed a convention center, two full-service hotels within walking distance, a historic theater, and a fun kind of bar atmosphere with a stage. I read that and was like, ‘that fits perfectly here,’” she recalled, noting that Symphony Hall was an ideal theater, and Theodores’ fit the bill for the bar.

Our goal is always to expose them to more of what we have to offer. Sometimes we whet their appetite, and they come back as a leisure visitor. That’s a goal. If we do our job right, they’ll come back again.”

The GSCVB will also suggest gathering options that planners might not know about — perhaps a cruise outing on the Lady Bea, or an outdoor reception at the Springfield Museums. “You can have a unique dinner event on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nowhere else in the world can you do that event. We try to be creative, and try to really hype the assets we have.”

Rising Interest

The GSCVB has seen an uptick in conventions in recent years, and Szenda is constantly talking with hotels, asking them to quote rates and block off a certain inventory of rooms, sometimes three years out. Then she gets to work finding the aforementioned local connections, setting up reasonably priced hotel options and assembling tourism information about the region.

The bureau also boasts a hospitality program that many similar-sized cities don’t offer, which includes everything from airport pickups and hotel greeters to downtown maps and goodie bags.

“At the end of the day, it’s about sales,” she said. “We go to trade shows, but we also get leads from locals who live around here who might be part of national associations or hobby groups or special-interest groups who want to bring the event they travel to every year here. Once we make that initial contact, the process becomes pretty streamlined. We want to get all the information we can from them — how many room nights do they need? What kind of venue do they need?”

Organizations based in New England already see Greater Springfield as a convenient location, with interstates 90 and 91 intersecting here, and they might be aware of its recreational and hospitality options. Those from far away, though, may need some convincing, and that’s what Szenda does when she attends those industry trade shows, where she may schedule appointments with up to 30 meeting planners or sporting-event organzers to talk about how this region suits their needs.

“We’re Western Mass. — we don’t have the cachet of a first-tier city, like Boston or Chicago,” Wydra said. “With national groups, a lot of times, that’s where a local person comes into play.”

For instance, the National Square Dance Convention, a national gathering of Daughters of the Nile, and a large insurance convention all landed in Springfield in recent years because a local member got the ball rolling. “I think the local tie to national groups is a really important and powerful one for us.”

One selling point is that national groups that hold conventions in the Pioneer Valley get plenty of local attention — everyone knows they’re here, and are often excited about it.

“We tell the event planner, ‘you’re going to be a big fish in a little pond,’” Wydra said, noting that Daughters of the Nile held its convention in Orlando the year before coming to Springfield. “I don’t know if the local people knew they were in Orlando. But when they came to Springfield, there was a story or photograph in our mainstream media, talking about this group, every day they were here. You kind of take over our city, our region.”

Another plus? Springfield is a different city than it was five years ago, with MGM Springfield, the Seuss museum, and ongoing Basketball Hall of Fame renovations among the recent major stories.

“I go to these trade shows, and all they want to know is what’s new,” Szenda said. “With some cities, they sit there and say, ‘we’ve got the same stuff,’ but we’ve been able to go every year and say ‘this is what’s new, this is what’s new.’”

Wydra agreed. “That makes our job so much easier and more exciting. The sell is easier when we can say we’ve added these things.”

Key Connections

‘It takes a village’ is a bit of a cliché, Wydra admitted, but in the GSCVB’s case, it really is true, especially when it comes to booking events and providing the kind of experience that will bring people back.

“It does take a village to host a group of people. Everyone’s got to work together,” she said, adding that the region is fortunate to have assets like Eastern States, a campus-like setting with plenty of parking and room for large equipment, not to mention a modern convention center in the heart of Springfield and a couple of anchor hotels downtown complemented by a growing roster of lodging options around the region.

“Anyone who lives here and belongs to a group or goes to an event they want to host, they should contact me,” Szenda said, putting that sales hat back on for a moment. “If we get the site visit, we have a better shot of landing that event.”

“We do the work for them,” Wydra added. “We try to make it as easy as possible, but those local leads are so important.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

Opinion

Editorial

A few weeks back, we referenced that massive public hearing conducted to provide an update on the ongoing study of rail options for the Commonwealth. At that time, we focused on the high degree of skepticism concerning the state’s projections for cost and especially ridership (Western Mass. planners project almost 500,000 riders annually, while MassDOT has estimated roughly half that number and now promises to take a second look at the projections) and, overall, the many expressed opinions that the state wasn’t being sincere in its approach to this study.

All this is problematic on many levels. But there was one comment that was troubling on another level. It had to do with repeated use of the phrase ‘east-west rail,’ which has been used in most of the discussions and is even the formal name of this ongoing initiative — the ‘East-West Passenger Rail Study.’ The comment was made that it should be called ‘west-east rail’ because this is the region that would be benefit, and — we’re paraphrasing here — it’s essentially a Western Mass. project.

This line of thinking is flawed in a number of respects. Let’s start with the whole Western Mass. inferiority-complex thing — and it is a thing. Many out here have that complex, and it manifests itself in a number of ways, including jokes — if they’re even jokes — about how this region would be better off if it seceded and became part of Vermont. But to suggest that labeling a study ‘East-West’ as opposed to ‘West-East’ is a slight, and an indication of the state’s indifference to all the real estate west of Worcester, is take things too far and miss the far bigger point.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

But there’s something else that’s wrong with this line of thinking — something far more important. This isn’t a Western Mass. project, and it can’t simply be a Western Mass. project. Why? Because it will never sell if it is. The state just isn’t going to spend $25 billion or $5 billion or even $2 billion — the various price tags attached to the options outlined at the meeting last month — on a Western Mass. project.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

We get it. This project is mostly, if not entirely, being pushed by Western Mass. lawmakers and especially state Sen. Eric Lesser from Longmeadow. And one of their arguments is that this rail line would likely provide a huge boost to many of the cities and towns that are not seeing the same kind of economic prosperity being enjoyed by communities inside Route 128. It would provide a lifeline to communities that are seeing their populations age and decline because young people don’t have enough incentives to live in these places. It would, according to those proposing it, help level the laying field between east and west.

But that’s not the only argument, and it can’t be the only argument if this thing is ever going to move beyond the study phase and stand any chance of being approved by the Legislature.

For this to work, it has to be a project that will benefit not only Chester and Palmer, Pittsfield and Springfield, but also Boston and its suburbs, which are seeing congestion, traffic, and overall cost of living rise to almost untenable levels.

We understand that a name is not a big deal, and it’s mostly about semantics. Why not call it the ‘West-East Rail Study’? We could, if it would make people out here feel better (it wouldn’t make us feel better). But we should instead call it the ‘Commonwealth Rail Study,’ because it’s a project to benefit those living or working on both sides of the state.

If it wasn’t, it would never get off the ground.

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written in the past that it’s wise to be wary about a good many of these ‘top 10’ or ’50 best’ lists that come out regularly, charting everything from the most attractive places to retire to the ‘most unsafe’ cities in the country.

It’s always best to take them with a grain of salt.

But sometimes, these lists can provide food for thought, and that is certainly the case when it comes to Springfield finding a home — let’s hope it’s a permanent home — on Inc. magazine’s list of the 50 Best U.S. Cities for Starting a Business in 2020, or its ‘Surge Cities Index.’

The City of Homes is right there at No. 46, one spot behind Houston, one ahead of Tulsa, Okla., and 45 behind Austin, Texas. Beyond that general ranking, there are other measures, and Springfield, according to Inc., ranks 14th in wage growth, 22nd in early-stage funding deals, and 28th in net business creation.

These lists are incredibly subjective and wholly unscientific, and no one can really say if Springfield is the 46th-best place to start a business or the 43rd, or the 52nd. But what’s more important than the number is what Inc. had to say about the city and what’s really behind that ranking.

Let’s start with the headline. “In the Pioneer Valley, founders are made, not imported.” That’s an accurate description of what’s going on in this region — businesses get started here and, hopefully, grow here — and a very telling one. Indeed, Western Mass. is trying to grow its base of businesses organically, primarily out of necessity.

Here’s what Inc. had to say:

“This Pioneer Valley city benefits from its proximity to the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, which serves as an incubator for startup talent. Founders in this Massachusetts town can develop further with Valley Venture Mentors, a grant-fund mentorship organization, and innovation center TechSpring. The latter organization focuses primarily on latter-stage startups in healthcare, while the former has helped more than 300 startups since its founding in 2011. ‘We don’t have a bias toward high tech. We have a bias toward the people who live here,’ says Valley Venture Mentors CEO Kristin Leutz. ‘[People here] see anyone as a potential high-growth entrepreneur.’”

Slicing through this commentary, it is now evident that Greater Springfield’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is not only gaining some momentum, it is gaining some attention. We’re quite sure the region was already on the proverbial map when it comes to startups and innovation, and this ranking provides still more evidence.

Such an ecosystem involves a lot of moving parts — incubators, mentorship groups, colleges and universities with entrepreneurship programs, angel investors, venture-capital groups, and more — and they have to work in unison to create startups, nurture them, get them to the next stage, and, hopefully, keep them in this region.

Springfield has a long way to go before it has a startup environment like Austin, Salt Lake City, Durham, N.C., Denver, and Boise, Idaho — the top five cities on Inc.’s list — but it’s making its presence known, both to the editors at Inc. and hopefully with people looking to launch a business.

Like we said at the top, one has to be careful not to read too much into these ‘best-of’ lists. But we can read something from this one — that all those efforts to encourage and mentor entrepreneurs in this region are starting to pay off. v

Commercial Real Estate

A Tale of Two Cities

Evan Plotkin says congestion and sky-high rents in Boston demand creative solutions. One of them could be incentivizing companies to move west, into Springfield’s downtown.

Evan Plotkin was talking about how “something has to give.”

With that one phrase, he was talking about the commercial real-estate markets in the central business districts of Boston and Springfield.

In the Hub, said Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, rents are sky-high and continue to climb — to more than $100 per square foot in some locations and to roughly $63 per square foot on average, with more space being built to accommodate soaring demand. Meanwhile, traffic, congestion, and problems with mass transit are strangling businesses, he said, to the point where meetings can’t start until 10 a.m. and overall productivity is impacted.

Meanwhile, in Springfield, rents are low — less than one-third the average in Boston — and they are flat, as in consistently flat. “They really haven’t gone up at all in maybe 25 years,” said Plotkin, who noted that there are several reasons for this, but especially the fact that there is, by his estimate, roughly 600,000 square feet of vacant class A space in Springfield’s downtown.

Exacerbating this relative stagnancy in the City of Homes has been new and seemingly unneeded inventory coming on the market — especially the 60,000 square feet at Union Station and the redeveloped property known as 1550 Main — and movement among a growing number of businesses to reduce their physical footprint by enabling (or in some cases requiring) employees to work from home.

This is where the ‘something has to give’ part comes in, said Plotkin, in a very candid interview with BusinessWest, noting that things need to change in both cities. And both would seemingly benefit if just some of the state offices now based in the Hub, as well as many different types of private businesses, would change their mailing address from Boston to Springfield when their leases expire.

“There’s 70% rent inflation in Boston, so when these businesses’ leases expire, they’re looking at incredibly high turnover rent,” said Plotkin, who co-owns a portion of the office tower known as 1350 Main St. He noted that class A rents in Boston have climbed $12 to $15 per square foot over the past few years. Meanwhile, in Springfield, property owners are charging $15 to $20 per square foot of class A space.

“It’s outrageous what’s going on in Boston — and everyone can do the math,” he said. “If state agencies don’t have to be in Boston, they can be decentralized and relocated to office space in Springfield or perhaps Worcester. They’re looking for creative solutions for Boston, and this could be one of them.”

Besides these opinions, all Plotkin really has at this point are those numbers he mentioned earlier (as well as some other statistics) and what appears to be that sound theory — that businesses and state agencies that don’t really need to be in Boston could and should be incentivized to seek other locations, including the 413 and especially downtown Springfield.

He has meetings planned with other downtown property owners as well as Rick Sullivan, present of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., to discuss what can and perhaps should be done to at least raise awareness of what Springfield has to offer and perhaps create some migration west.

Plotkin said he understands there are reasons why state agencies and businesses want to be in Boston — especially because they know there’s a skilled workforce there — and he understands that moving about 90 miles west on the Turnpike is expensive and presents some risks, especially when it comes to workforce issues.

But he says the numbers speak for themselves, and if those paying sky-high rents in Boston could come to understand the numbers in this market, they could become inspired to relocate.

And if high-speed rail between Boston and Springfield becomes a reality, then people could, in theory, live in the Boston area and work in businesses and agencies relocated to the 413 — a decidedly differently spin on how that service might change the business landscape in the Bay State.

That’s a very large number of ‘ifs,’ and Plotkin acknowledges this as well. But as he said at the top, and repeatedly, something has to give in both cities.

Space Exploration

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin continually leafed through the pages on a white legal pad he brought with him.

They contain various notes he’s collected over the past weeks and months on the Boston real-estate market and the overall business climate in New England’s largest city.

There are some statistics he’s collected — such as those regarding average rents in the Hub, the amount of new space under construction (2.5 million square feet was the number he had), and the current vacancy rate in the city — an historically low 6%, according to the New York-based real-estate giant Cushman & Wakefield.

But there were also some general thoughts, observations, and notations from various publications and other sources.

Among them was a quote from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council citing a survey which revealed that 60% of the life-science employees working in Boston would “change their job tomorrow” if they could get a better commute. There was also something he read in another publication (he couldn’t remember which one), noting that many Boston-area residents had simply given up on mass transit because it was so unreliable and were instead driving to work and getting there mid-morning.

“In one report I read, business owners in Boston said they had to add staff to make up for transit delays,” he said, putting a verbal exclamation point behind that comment. “Think about how disruptive that is to your business. We don’t understand that here — there’s no such thing as traffic in Springfield.”

Summing up all he’s read and heard about Boston and possible solutions to its congestion problems — everything from incentivizing employers to let workers telecommute to taxing motorists for using certain roads at certain hours — he said the situation is fast becoming untenable for many living and trying to do business there.

“You have inefficiency, spiraling upward costs, shortages of affordable housing, transportation problems, congestion, and sky-high cost of living there,” he said. “Businesses locate in Boston because they can attract that workforce, which makes sense, but if that workforce can’t afford to live there and can’t deal with the congestion, then what’s the point of being in Boston?”

Which brings him back to Springfield and its downtown. And for this subject, Plotkin didn’t need a legal pad.

He’s been working in, and selling and leasing commercial real estate in, downtown Springfield for more than 40 years. He knows what’s changed and, perhaps more importantly, what hasn’t, especially when it comes to demand for space in the central business district, and what would be called net gains.

Indeed, Plotkin said that what the region has mostly experienced — there have been some notable exceptions, to be sure — is companies moving from one downtown office building to another.

In this zero-sum real-estate game, one building owner loses a tenant, and another gains one — but the city and its downtown don’t gain much at all, he said.

“There’s been negative absorption in the downtown for many years now, and I don’t see anything really changing,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m seeing people moving from one block to another, one office building to another, but not many new businesses moving in. Meanwhile, everyone’s vying for the same tenants, which drives the rental rates down even lower than they have been historically; it’s a tenant’s market here.”

It’s anything but that in Boston, which has seen a surge of new businesses moving in — everything from tech startups to giant corporations, like GE. The real-estate market is exploding, and traffic woes and mass-transit headaches have been consistent front-page news. All this calls for creative thinking — as in very creative — and perhaps looking west, said Plotkin, who did some simple math to get his point across.

“Using the example of a 20,000-square-foot tenant paying $63 per square foot in Boston … if the same tenant came to Springfield and paid $18 per square foot, we’re talking about millions of dollars,” he explained, adding that these numbers should strike a chord, especially when it comes to businesses and agencies that don’t have to be in Boston.

Many of those who think they do need to be in Boston are focused on workforce issues, he went on, adding that he believes the Greater Springfield area can, in fact, meet the workforce requirements of many companies.

And over the past several years, the city has become more vibrant with the addition of MGM Springfield, said Plotkin, adding that there are certainly other selling points, like a high quality of life and a cost of living that those residing in and around Boston might find difficult to comprehend.

Bottom Line

As he talked with BusinessWest, Plotkin all but acknowledged that getting businesses and agencies to trade Boston for Springfield will be difficult, for all the reasons stated above.

But the situation in the Hub could be reaching a tipping point when it comes to affordability, traffic, congestion, and quality of life.

And these converging factors might, that’s might, finally convince some decision makers to seek a very creative alternative.

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

Construction

Beneath the Surface

Jeff Weinman stands on the former York Street Jail site, where a new, state-of-the-art pump station is being built.

The wastewater pump station at Springfield’s riverfront has done its job for more than 80 years, but it’s nearing the end of its useful life and lacks the capacity to keep up with the region’s growth — which threatens the cleanliness of the Connecticut River itself. That’s why the Springfield Water & Commission has launched a $115 million project to build a new station and three new pipelines across the river — a project that comes with some intriguing challenges and equally innovative solutions, including something called microtunneling.

When the wastewater pump station on York Street in Springfield was built 81 years ago, the city’s infrastructure was much different — and so were its sewage-treatment needs.

“The existing pump station is pretty old, though it’s still functional,” said Jeff Weinman, senior project manager Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), the contractor overseeing the construction of a new, much larger pump station at the site. “The capacity is the issue. As the city has expanded over the years, it’s kind of at its capacity right now, so they need to create additional pumping capacity there. In order to that, they needed to build a bigger pump station with bigger pumps, bigger piping, bigger everything.”

The $115 million project will serve 70% of the region’s population by conveying wastewater from Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, and East Longmeadow across the Connecticut River to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island. A new, higher-capacity wastewater pump station will be constructed, as well as three new wastewater-conveyance pipes across the Connecticut River.

The project is a cornerstone of the Springfield Water & Sewer Commission’s efforts to comprehensively plan projects that will meet multiple pressing needs such as combined sewer overflow reduction, climate resiliency, system redundancy, and infrastructure renewal. Construction is expected to last well into 2022.

“It’s part of a capital investment on the part of the commission to both increase their infrastructure and enhance water quality in the Connecticut River,” Weinman told BusinessWest. “It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A rendering shows the future pump station’s footprint both above and well below the ground.

The innovative project, expected to create about 150 construction jobs over the next three years, is designed to address four key issues, including:

• Infrastructure renewal (the new, modern station will replace an aging station nearing the end of its useful life and accommodating future growth in the region);

• Environmental protection (increased pumping capacity will prevent an additional 100 million gallons of combined sewer overflows from entering the Connecticut River in a typical year);

• System redundancy (three new pipes under the Connecticut River will add redundancy and improve service reliability for customers in Springfield, Ludlow, East Longmeadow, and Wilbraham); and

• Climate resiliency (flood-control protection will be increased by repurposing the old pump station).

The project is a culmination of years of planning — specifically through the commission’s Integrated Wastewater Plan (IWP). Adopted in 2014, the IWP was one of the first such plans in the country to integrate project planning for regulatory compliance — specifically, projects that fulfill an unfunded federal mandate to eliminate combined sewer overflows — and for renewal of aging infrastructure.

A Question of Capacity

The new station is being built on the former site of the York Street Jail and will connect to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island through three new, 1,200-foot river crossing pipes. The additional pipes will supplement the two 80- and 50-year-old pipes under the river now, allowing for more regular maintenance and alternatives during emergencies.

“It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A $100 million low-interest loan from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust State Revolving Fund (SRF) is the source of funding for the majority of the project. The SRF is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection with funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and from repayment of past loans.

The project also utilizes an innovative form of construction called ‘construction manager at risk’ (CMAR). Rather than designing a project and then sending it to bid for construction, CMAR incorporates the construction manager earlier in the process to help identify risks that may arise in the construction phase due to design. This garners more price certainty and minimizes project delays due to unforeseen circumstances.

“The delivery method is a little different,” Weinman said. “We did a technical proposal for the job, and based on that we were awarded the contract, then we worked with the design team during the final stages of development of construction documents, providing budgeting support and working with design team as they finalized documents and tailored them to the approach to the work that we thought best.”

The current, 81-year-old pump station is much smaller — and can thus handle much less wastewater — than the one coming online in 2022.

One of the interesting challenges of the project is where it’s sited, shoehorned between West Columbus Avenue and the flood-control wall and the infrastructure on York Street, including the main interceptor pipe for the city of Springfield.

“The pump station needs to be deep enough to work with the existing elevations of the infrastructure and also be able to have the capacity to handle the flow that it needs to handle,” Weinman said. “The bottom elevation of the pump station is 50 feet below existing grade. The site is so small, you have to go pretty much straight down with excavation to build the pump station.”

So, in a move uncommon in Western Mass., DOC will use a slurry wall for supportive excavation. “It’s a type of system usually used in downtown Boston and urban settings where you don’t have a lot of real estate. A concrete wall is built in the ground without using formwork,” he explained. “It’s kind of a unique process — the first time I’ve been involved with a project that employs that system.”

Another challenge involves running the new pipelines under the Amtrak tracks, Weinman noted. “So they’re going to be microtunneling under the tracks. We did a smaller supportive excavation for the launch pit for the microtunneling. That’ll be going on hopefully next summer — boring a hole beneath the flood wall and the railroad tracks out to the other side of the tracks down toward the river.”

Next summer will also see the start of the underwater pipe installation. That phase of the project should take about 12 months, as will DOC’s infrastructure upgrades at Bondi’s Island to expand the capacity of the sewage intake there. The construction of the pump station itself is the most involved part of the project; a groundbreaking took place in the spring, and it should be complete in May 2022.

Water Works

The river-spanning pipe installation — which DOC will subcontract to a firm that specializes in such work — is a relatively straightforward job, but the process of completing the work has become more difficult in terms of the regulatory aspects, Weinman told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot more awareness now of the potential environmental impacts, so the planning of it becomes a lot more intensive. You work with regulators, MassDEP, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulatory agencies involved, making sure you’re tailoring your work in a way that complies with all the regulations and minimizes the impact,” he explained. “It’s an arduous process, and I understand why it’s there.”

Still, the entire project itself will have a major environmental benefit, and that’s keeping the Connecticut River cleaner while better meeting the region’s growing wastewater needs.

“The York Street Pump Station and Connecticut River Crossing Project is a sign of the commission’s smart and future-oriented approach to stewarding the region’s water and wastewater infrastructure,” Commission Executive Director Josh Schimmel said at the spring groundbreaking. “These types of projects may not always be the most glamourous, but they are critical to maintaining public health, service reliability, and environmental protection in the region for the 21st century. We are proud to initiate this project that will maximize ratepayer dollars by meeting multiple needs.”

To Weinman and his team at DOC, it’s another rewarding challenge, particularly in terms of innovative methods like the slurry wall and the trenchless tunneling under the railroad tracks, that promises to lead to a positive outcome.

“That’s the nature of construction,” he said. “There are so many different systems out there, and every job has different challenges and different solutions.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Center of Attention

Nikki Burnett, seen here in one of the Educare center’s outdoor play areas, says the facility is a showcase of what early education should be — and what all young children deserve.

Nikki Burnett says Springfield’s Old Hill neighborhood and those surrounding it certainly need the gleaming new $14 million Educare facility constructed next door to the Elias Brookings Elementary School on Walnut Street.

More to the point, though, she told BusinessWest, they deserve this facility, which can only be described with that phrase state-of-the-art when it comes to everything from its programs to its play areas to its bathrooms.

“Mason Square, Old Hill, McKnight, Bay, all those neighborhoods … they’re so rich in history, so they’re rich in great success stories that have come out of here and are still coming out of here,” said Burnett, the recently named executive director of the 27,000-square-foot facility, who should know; she grew up there herself. “People like Ruth Carter, who just won an Oscar for the costume design in the movie Black Panther — she’s from Springfield.

“We have to celebrate those things, and we have to model those things for our children so they can see that they have greatness in them,” she went on. “One of the very important things about Educare is that it aligns potential with opportunity. I believe all children are born with immense potential, but many do not have the same opportunity to realize that, so Educare will give them that push — it will help readjust their trajectory.”

That’s why this area of the city, traditionally among the poorest neighborhoods in the state, deserves this Educare facility, just the 24th of its kind in the country and the only one in Massachusetts, she continued, adding quickly that this building, and the Educare model itself, were designed to show decision makers and society in general what all young children deserve and what has to be done so that they can all enjoy a similar experience.

Mary Walachy, executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which spearheaded efforts to bring the Educare facility to fruition, agreed.

“The message being sent here is that it costs money to do this work well,” she said. “It costs money to fund quality at the level that children in this community and others deserve, and we can’t expect outcomes that we want from children if the investment is not there at the front end.”

Considering those comments, Educare is certainly much more than a building, and those who visit it — and many will in the weeks and months to come — will come to understand that.

Indeed, the facility set to open later this year, supported by the Buffett Early Childhood Fund and to be operated in partnership with Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, is, for lack of a better term, a standard — or the new standard when it comes to early-childhood education.

And it is, as Burnett and Walachy noted, a model — hopefully to be emulated — that incorporates everything science says young children need to flourish. This includes data utilization, high-quality teaching practices (three teachers to a classroom instead of the traditional two), embedded professional development, and intensive family engagement.

All this and more will come together at the much-anticipated facility, which will provide 141 children up to age 5 (already enrolled at a Head Start facility in that neighborhood) and their families with a full-day, full-year program that Burnett projects will be a place to learn — and not just for the young children enrolled there.

The Educare facility in Springfield is just one of 24 in the country and the only one in Massachusetts.

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model,” she explained. “We understand that 141 children is not every child; however, what we learn here, we’re going to be able to send out — others can do what we’re doing. And on a policy level, it’s my hope that legislators can see the success of this and realize that, when they’re making out the budget, it needs to be funded so everyone can enjoy Educare quality.

“Educare is not going to be on every corner,” she went on. “But that doesn’t mean that the quality of Educare cannot be beneficial to all children.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Educare facility and talked with Burnett and others about what this unique early-education center means for Springfield and especially those young people who walk through its doors.

New School of Thought

Janis Santos, the longtime director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, recalled that, when she toured the Educare facility recently as construction was winding down, she became quite emotional.

“I have to be honest, I started crying,” said Santos, honored roughly a year ago by BusinessWest as one of its Women of Impact for 2018. “One of the construction-crew members said, ‘why are you crying?’ and I said, ‘because I’m so happy.’

“Educare is going to be a demonstration site; we’re going to be able to bring in students of education, social work, counseling and therapy, and other areas from across the state and have them observe and learn our model.”

“This is a dream come true,” she went on, adding that the facility provides dramatic evidence of how far early-childhood education has come during her career — it was considered babysitting when she got her start — and how important it is to the overall development of young people.

Tears of joy have been a common emotional response among those who have toured the site, especially those involved in this initiative from the beginning, but there have been others as well. Indeed, Burnett told BusinessWest, when the staff members assigned to the Educare center visited the well-appointed teachers’ room, many of them started clapping.

These reactions provide ample evidence that the six-year journey to get the facility built and the doors open was certainly time and energy incredibly well-spent.

By now, most are familiar with the story of how an Educare facility — again, one of only 24 in the country — came to be in Springfield. It’s a story laced with serendipity and good fortune at a number of turns.

It begins back in 2014 when an early-childhood center on Katherine Street in Springfield closed down abruptly, leaving more than 100 children without classroom seats, said Walachy, adding that the Davis Foundation began looking at other options for early education in that building.

One of them was Educare, she went on, adding that officials with the Buffett Foundation and other agencies involved, as well as architects, came and looked at the property. They quickly determined that it was not up to the high standards for Educare centers.

“Their model is ‘make it a state-of-the-art, unbelievable building to send a strong message that this is what all kids deserve,’” said Walachy, adding that, after those inspections and being informed that a new facility would have to be built at a cost of more than $12 million, the Educare concept was essentially put on the shelf.

And it stayed there for the better part of two years until an anonymous donor from outside the Bay State who wanted to fund an Educare facility came into the picture.

“This individual pledged to pay for at least half the cost of building an Educare somewhere in the country, and she was willing to do it here in Springfield,” she said, adding that the donor has written checks totaling more than $9 million for both the construction and operation of the facility.

With this commitment, those involved went about raising the balance of the needed funds — the Davis Foundation and another donor committed $2 million each, and state grants as well as New Market Tax Credits were secured, bringing the total raised to more than $20 million — and then clearing what became another significant hurdle, finding a site on which to build.

Indeed, the Educare model is for these facilities to be built adjacent to elementary schools, and in Springfield, that proved a challenging mandate. But the tornado that ravaged the city, and especially the Old Hill area, in 2011, forcing the construction of a new Brookings School, actually provided an answer.

Indeed, land adjacent to the new school owned by Springfield College was heavily damaged by the tornado, making redevelopment a difficult proposition. Thus, the college became an important partner in the project by donating the needed land.

But while it’s been a long, hard fight to get this far, the journey is far from over, said both Burnett and Walachy, noting that another $500,000 must be raised to fund an endowment that will help cover operating expenses at the school.

And raising that money is just one of many responsibilities within Burnett’s lengthy job description, a list that also includes everything from becoming an expert on the Educare model to attending regular meetings of Educare facility directors — there’s one in New Orleans later this year, for example.

At the moment, one of the duties assuming much of her time is acting as a tour guide. She even joked that she hasn’t mastered the art of walking backward while talking with tour participants, but she’s working on it. To date, tours have been given to city officials, funders and potential funders, hired staff members, like those aforementioned teachers, and, yes, members of the media.

BusinessWest took its own tour, one that featured a number of stops, because items pointed out are certainly not typical of those found in traditional early-education centers.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment.”

Starting with what Burnett and others called the “outside-in” of the building’s design, which, as that phrase indicates, works to bring the outside environment into the school to provide continuity and the sense that the school is part of the larger world. Thus, green, grass-like carpeting was put down in the entranceways, and green carpet prevails pretty much throughout the facility. Meanwhile, the brick façade on the exterior is continued inside the building.

Throughout the building, there are generous amounts of light and state-of-the-art facilities throughout, from the well-equipped play areas inside and out to the two sinks in each of the classrooms — one for food preparation, the other for hand washing — to the restrooms designed especially for small people.

In addition, each classroom is equipped with small viewing areas with one-way mirrors so that so-called ‘master teachers’ and others can see and evaluate what’s happening.

In all, there are 12 classrooms, seven for infants and toddlers and five for preschool. As noted earlier, they will be places of learning, and not just for the students.

Model of Excellence

Returning to that emotional tour of the Educare facility she took a few weeks ago, Santos said that, as joyous and uplifting as it was, she’s looking forward to the next one even more.

“I literally cannot wait to see the children in there — that will be a special moment,” she told BusinessWest, putting almost a half-century of work in early childhood behind those words.

She can’t wait because students will be learning and playing in a facility that really was only a dream a few years ago — a dream that came true.

It’s a facility that those students truly need, but as Burnett and all the others we spoke said, it’s one they deserve — one that all students deserve.

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

Opinion

Editorial

As the headlines keep coming about the state’s casinos not meeting their projections for gaming revenues, the announcement last week that the Boston Red Sox will bring their annual Winter Weekend fan event to MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center was well-timed and quite poignant.

We’ve been saying for some time now — and we’ll keep on saying — that, while the revenue projections for the state’s casinos are somewhat disappointing, they are just part of what gaming brings to the state and the communities in which they are located. Do we wish their revenues were more in line with the projections made all those years ago? Sure, but the casinos, and especially the one in Springfield, have brought benefits well beyond additional revenues to the state.

In the City of Homes, it has created momentum and traffic on most Saturday nights. On nights when there are shows, downtown comes alive and looks like … well, it doesn’t look like Springfield, or at least the Springfield of much of the past several decades. And the casino continues to bring energy and benefits in ways that probably couldn’t have been anticipated when officials were signing the host-community agreement drafted several years ago.

Which brings us back to the Red Sox and the Winter Weekend. This is one of the many benefits resulting from the new, multi-year partnership the team inked with MGM as the “official and exclusive resort of the team” early last year.

That designation once belonged to Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, meaning that, for two days in January, a large group of Red Sox players (past and present), officials, and, yes, fans traveled to the Nutmeg State and spent a considerable amount of money there.

Next Jan. 17 and 18, those players, officials, and fans — and that spending money — will instead be coming to Springfield. And they’ll be coming during a time when the tourism sector here could certainly use a boost.

Several thousand fans are expected to come to the festival, which will include a town-hall event, autograph sessions, and photo opportunities with the players from today and yesterday.

This will be a great opportunity for fans of the team to connect with the players and coaches in a way they probably never have before. Meanwhile, those who come to see the team’s stars will also see a rising star in the city of Springfield — which they probably haven’t seen up close either.

Overall, this will be a tremendous opportunity for the city to roll out the red carpet and showcase all the good things that have happened here in recent years.

Some logistically minded people are already wondering, ‘what happens if it snows?’ We’re pretty certain the organizers will figure out. And they’ll also figure out how to make these two days something memorable, not only for Red Sox fans but for those doing business in downtown Springfield.

It all came to be because MGM forged a strong business partnership with the Red Sox. That’s one of the benefits you don’t see when you’re just looking at statistics concerning gross gaming revenue. And it’s one of the many reasons why it’s far too early to discuss whether the gaming industry is off to a disappointing start in the Bay State.

The Red Sox are coming to town. And Springfield is the big winner in this game.

Opinion

Editorial

The CVS in Tower Square in downtown Springfield closed its doors the other day as the chain opened a new facility several blocks to the south, almost across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

While this event isn’t in itself newsworthy on most levels, it is part of what is becoming a trend that is rather … well, disconcerting is too strong a word, but it’s pretty close. It’s a trend we would like to see reversed.

And that’s a trend toward businesses and institutions moving a block or two and having officials and business leaders label such activity ‘economic development.’ It might be that on some level — or in some cases, to be precise. But mostly, it’s just musical chairs that isn’t really helping matters when it comes to the big picture.

Let’s start with that CVS. On some levels, we should consider this part of efforts to revitalize the tornado-ravaged South End of Springfield — and that’s what it’s being called. In fact, MGM’s leaders have mentioned this project early and often when talking about how the $960 million facility is stimulating additional development in and around its campus.

Maybe that’s true. That’s maybe. But moving CVS several hundred yards to the south can’t be interpreted as bringing ‘new business’ to Springfield. And moving that store out of Tower Square can’t be helping the ongoing efforts to revitalize that former business hub and shopping center. In fact, the decrease in foot traffic will certainly hurt efforts to bring new businesses into that once-thriving but long-struggling facility. And it will also hurt the employees in the downtown business towers who frequent that convenient location.

But enough about CVS. We’ve seen this musical-chairs activity with bank branches, small businesses, nonprofits, and more. They move into a new space to considerable fanfare while leaving a vacancy somewhere else.

Sometimes it’s necessary — as when a company needs to move to better or larger space, or when a lease is being terminated, as was the case a few years ago with a number of law firms displaced by the arrival of MGM. And it’s nothing unique to Springfield or this region. Indeed, every time a new office building is constructed in Boston, New York, or any other large city, tenants relocate to it from other facilities in the general area.

And, as we noted, sometimes it’s a good thing, as is the case with Peter Pan moving just a few hundred feet into Union Station. That seemingly unnecessary move cleared the way for Way Finders to build a new facility on the Peter Pan site that might help revitalize the North Blocks area, while also helping to speed development in the South End, in property currently home to Way Finders.

But in most cases, this musical-chairs activity is just that — people moving from one chair to another with no real benefits, other than to those doing the moving.

We don’t know all the reasons why CVS moved three blocks down Main Street, and we’re not sure what kind of impact it will have in the South End. Maybe it will be a catalyst for more development, and maybe it will be a solid start to efforts to balance the glitz on the west side of Main Street with some on the east side.

But overall, such moves don’t generate economic development as much as they just move it around. The real goal should be to have companies change their zip code (to one in the 413) when they move, not keep the same one.

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