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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.

Cover Story

The Next Steps for Springfield

Tim Sheehan, who succeeded Kevin Kennedy as Springfield’s chief Development officer in July, may be new to the job, but he’s certainly not new to the city. He grew up there, and later worked for two different mayoral administrations. In recent years, he’s seen the city go from the depths of receivership to what many are calling a renaissance. Looking to build off created momentum, he said there is still considerable work to do.

Tim Sheehan left Springfield, and a job with the state agency MassDevelopment, in 2002 to become director of the Redevelopment Agency in Norwalk, Conn.

But he didn’t exactly leave his birthplace behind.

Indeed, with a number of family and friends still living in and around the City of Homes, he returned frequently — at least once a month, by his estimate — and thus was keeping pace with all that happened in the city over that time.

That’s a lengthy list that includes everything from receivership to the opening of MGM Springfield to the revitalization, decades in the making, of Union Station, a project he’s quite familiar with because, starting in 2017, he took the train to Springfield for those visits.

So Sheehan didn’t have to reacquaint himself with the city, its challenges, and its opportunities when he accepted Mayor Domenic Sarno’s proposition to succeed Kevin Kennedy as Springfield’s chief Development officer.

In this important role, he has some big shoes to fill — Kennedy played a huge part in bringing more than $4 billion in development to the city since that tornado touched down in June 2011 — but also some momentum to build on and opportunities to add new chapters to an ongoing success story.

Indeed, while noting that considerable progress has been made with everything from vitality in the central business district to jobs to the city’s fiscal health, Sheehan concedes that much work remains to be done.

“There’s a very positive perception regarding where the city has positioned itself as a city within Western Mass.,” he said. “But there’s still room to grow on that, and I think Springfield can become a real leader in urban development.”

“The casino has met us a long way in the objective of encouraging people to go out from the casino and explore the city. What we need to do is take the next step so that there’s some sense of equivalence between what’s at the casino and what’s outside on Main Street.”

In no particular order, he listed the city’s many neighborhoods and needed work to revitalize the ‘Main Streets,’ if you will, of Indian Orchard, Forest Park, Six Corners, Boston Road, and even 16 Acres, where he grew up, as well as the need to create more market-rate housing in the city, a realm where he enjoyed success in Norwalk.

Sheehan also mentioned some specific projects that most might think of when they hear the term ‘economic development’ — 31 Elm St. was at the top of that list — and some initiatives they might not connect with that term, such as job training and assistance to small businesses, which are the backbone of the city’s economy.

“There are some studies that looked at employment and job-training initiatives in the city and discussed ways they could be improved,” he noted. “And there are studies that looked at how we could expand and assist the industrial and manufacturing sectors that exist here, and still others that look at the importance of the small-business sector within Springfield’s larger economy, the role it plays, and what government could provide to strengthen small business.

“As much as the large-scale development in the city has been fantastic and they’re a beacon to attract people,” he went on, citing MGM, CRRC, and other eight- and nine-figure projects, “we can’t lose sight of the fact that the smaller businesses — employers with fewer than six people — are the vast majority of the businesses, and they contribute significantly to the economic health of the city.”

And then, there’s MGM Springfield, or what’s happening across the street from it, to be more precise. Actually, it’s what’s not happening that needs to be addressed moving forward, said Sheehan, citing the need for balance or ‘equivalence,’ as he put it.

“The casino has met us a long way in the objective of encouraging people to go out from the casino and explore the city,” he explained. “What we need to do is take the next step so that there’s some sense of equivalence between what’s at the casino and what’s outside on Main Street.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sheehan about his return to Springfield and how he intends to help build on the positive energy that’s been created and take the city to a still-higher plane.

Tracking Results

Looking out the windows of the train during those trips from New Haven, Sheehan said he could certainly see progress coming to the city he grew up in — and not just in the gleaming casino taking shape in the South End.

He noted improvement in everything from the entertainment district to parks; from public safety to job creation.

But, as noted, there is still considerable work to do, he said, adding that the prospect of leading such efforts was enticing enough to make ‘chief Development officer, city of Springfield’ the next line on an already-intriguing résumé.

And, as mentioned, some of the earlier lines involve Springfield as well. Indeed, he worked for two mayors — Richard Neal (before he become Congressman Neal) and his successor, Mary Hurley, in the Community Development and Planning office.

From Springfield City Hall, Sheehan moved to work for the state at the Executive Office of Communities and Development, and later at MassDevelopment, both at that agency’s Boston office and its first regional office in Springfield, which he directed.

He enjoyed the work, but eventually he desired a return to working on the municipal level and in development work.

“At the time, MassDevelopment was doing a lot of community-development lending, and I was doing projects on the North Shore and Lawrence, and then projects in the Berkshires,” he recalled. “One of the problems, from my perspective, is that I was drifting toward being more of a banker and less of a hands-on community-development/economic-development person.”

While MGM is thriving, Tim Sheehan says, one of the challenges facing the city is the need to achieve what he calls ‘equivalence’ on the other side of Main Street, seen here.

He found an opportunity to get back to the latter in Norwalk, and its Redevelopment Agency, a broad, one-stop shop for planning, housing, and economic development.

In Norwalk, a city roughly half Springfield’s size (85,000 people), one of his biggest achievements involved increasing the number of market-rate housing units in and around downtown, thus growing the population in the central business district.

The city had a number of factors working in its favor as it went about this assignment, he noted, especially its proximity to New York and status as a bedroom community for Gotham.

“It’s an hour by train to Grand Central Station, and 45 minutes to be in Manhattan proper,” he said, adding that these numbers translate into a fairly attractive commute, thus making such projects doable from an economic perspective in terms of the prices developers could charge for such properties.

Springfield doesn’t have such geography working for it, he went on, adding quickly that it can take advantage of some demographic shifts, especially retiring Baby Boomers and Millennials both becoming more drawn to walkable cities and the amenities of urban living.

What’s more, the city has a large stock of older buildings, many of them architectural gems, that could be converted to market-rate housing, perhaps with retail or other uses on the ground floors.

“The architecture in Springfield is far beyond what new development would be able to accomplish today,” he noted. “What we would like to see is a dedicated effort to look at repurposing those buildings with residential uses.”

Still, the numbers have to work for developers to move forward with projects like the one now underway at the former Willys-Overland building, and in some cases, it might be challenging to make them work.

“Springfield has the capacity to absorb more market-rate housing, but I think there’s going to have to be some level of government support for that,” he said, citing statistics showing that, while Worcester added more than 600 new housing units between 2013 and 2017, Springfield added 230. “But these projects have to pencil out from an economic standpoint. That was a challenge in downtown Hartford, but both the state and the city stepped up to understand that.”

“The importance of having a downtown residential population is critical to the long-term economic viability of your municipality,” he went on, underscoring the importance of such initiatives. “This is one of the challenges that Springfield needs to address.”

Overall, the city needs to create much more of a balance downtown between market-rate housing and the large amounts of subsidized housing that still exist in the central business district, he said, adding that this has been a long-standing issue for Springfield and a key to continued revitalization.

“You can’t have all or mostly subsidized housing — that’s not good for your downtown,” he went on, adding that Springfield’s housing stock downtown has been out of balance for some time.

Down on Main Street

But housing is just one of the issues and challenges facing the city, said Sheehan, who returned to the subject of MGM Springfield and the work needed to match the glitter on the west side of Main Street with some on the east side.

At the moment, there is little if any glitter there, he said, noting that there are several vacant or underutilized properties in the shadow of the casino, and this is a situation that needs to be addressed if the property is to reach its full potential and become even more of a catalyst for development.

“You have to give a nod to MGM in terms of the architectural design of the casino — it was meant to be porous, and that’s atypical of casino design, but a net positive for Main Street in Springfield,” he noted. “But in order to have people traversing between Main Street and the casino, there needs to be a sense of equivalence on both sides of the street.

“If I didn’t necessarily want to stay on the casino floor and wanted to come out and see what downtown might have to offer, I’m inhibited from doing that by coming to the front door on Main Street, looking across the street, and seeing that there’s no ‘there’ there for me,” he went on. “I’m going to turn around and go back into the casino.”

Creating a ‘there’ will require private investment, he continued, adding that a consortium of investors have expressed some interest in taking on properties that are “not meeting their full potential.”

And while downtown and the blocks around MGM are certainly a priority for the city, Sheehan said, Springfield’s other neighborhoods need some attention as well, especially their main commercial districts.

“If you look at the neighborhood commercial corridors, there is a lot of work to be done,” and strengthening those corridors is a priority moving forward, he told BusinessWest, listing Main Street Street in Indian Orchard as one such corridor, the ‘X’ in Forest Park as another, and Boston Road, which he grew up near, as still another.

“If you look at Boston Road, there is significant vacancy there,” he said, referring not only to the Eastfield Mall and the exodus of stores there but the full length of that commercial thoroughfare. “It’s not the Boston Road I used to remember as a kid; there are some challenges there.”

Six Corners is another neighborhood corridor where improvement is needed and work is in progress, he said, noting the infrastructure work taking place there, especially a new roundabout designed to ease traffic flow in that area.

The hope is that such civic improvements there and elsewhere will generate private-sector investments, he went on, adding quickly that revitalization of neighborhoods such as Six Corners requires collaborative efforts among a number of parties — and healthy doses of imagination.

We’ve made a big investment in the public infrastructure there,” he said. “Now, we need to look at the sustainability of the businesses that exist there; we’re doing some early planning activity with regard to what commercial activity is appropriate for there.

“We’re also trying to get more engagement in these centers from the institutions that surround them,” he went on. “How can we engage better with AIC and Springfield College to ensure that the businesses that surround them are made more healthy by their populations?”

These projects are often much more difficult to undertake because they do involve private investment, he went on, adding that the public (government) side has to inspire such investments and make them easier through planning and a roadmap for the future.

“In order to entice the private developer to come to those areas, from the city’s perspective, you need to have a plan as to what you want to happen there, and you have to have everything aligned with that plan, so that, if I’m making the investment after reading your plan, I don’t have to deal with zoning in terms of having to change something to fit your plan; it’s already been done,” he explained. “I’ve read the plan, I understand what the city wants, and the city’s done all the heavy lifting to get my project approved.”

Along for the Ride

Talking about the train he took into Springfield, Sheehan raved about everything from the price of the ticket to how full the cars were — at least to the Hartford stop.

“The train is fantastic; the ability to go from Springfield to Hartford or Hartford to Springfield or New Haven to Springfield for $6 or $12 one way … that’s a bargain and a very convenient form of transportation,” he said, adding that the train has become a very attractive alternative to those not looking to battle the traffic on I-95 or I-91 on a Friday afternoon, or any afternoon, for that matter.

It’s not his official job description, but as chief Development officer, Sheehan’s goal is putting even more people on those trains coming into Springfield — professionals, tourists, and those, like him, coming to visit family and friends.

It’s also his job to give them not only more to see out the windows, but more to experience once the train pulls in.

It’s a challenge he certainly embraces, and one that brings his career full circle in many respects — back to the city he grew up in, and back to the city he wants to take the next level.

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

Super 60

Recognition Program Marks 30 Years with Oct. 25 Event

Now in its 30th year, the Springfield Regional Chamber’s Super 60 program celebrates the success of the fastest-growing privately-owned businesses in the region. Businesses on the Total Revenue and Revenue Growth categories for 2019 represent all sectors of the economy, including nonprofits, transportation, healthcare, technology, manufacturing, retail, and hospitality. Some have been named to the Super 60 once or many times before, and some are brand-new to the list.

This year’s Super 60 Celebration event will take place on Friday, Oct. 25 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam. Sheila Coon, founder of Hot Oven Cookies, will be the keynote speaker at the event, which is presented by Health New England and sponsored by People’s United Bank, Wells Fargo Bank, the Republican, MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, and Zasco Productions.

Hot Oven Cookies began in 2015, when Coon started baking cookies for her children while she was in culinary school. She started her business as a cookie-delivery service. With business education from Valley Venture Mentors and SPARK EforAll in Holyoke, the delivery business expanded to a food truck, from which Coon began selling cookies from her repertoire of more than 100 recipes, inspired by her children, at farmers’ markets and other events. When her food truck constantly sold out of cookies, Coon knew there was potential for more.

Coon is also a graduate of the first cohort of RiseUp Springfield, a seven-month, intensive, hands-on program for established and small business owners, powered by Interise’s StreetWise ‘MBA’ curriculum in collaboration with the city of Springfield, the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals, and the Springfield Regional Chamber.

In just four short years, Coon has found sweet success with Hot Oven Cookies. In 2018, she and her husband, David, opened the brand’s first retail location at 1597 Main St. in Springfield. She has plans to open a production facility in Agawam to accommodate her current business as well as plans for a wholesale business and an online store with national shipping of Hot Oven’s uncooked frozen cookie dough.

“Hot Oven Cookies is an example of a true entrepreneurial story about how an idea, a passion, or a hobby can become a thriving business with dedication and taking advantage of the small-business resources available in Western Massachusetts,” said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber. “We are thrilled to have a graduate of the first cohort of RiseUp Springfield take the stage at Super 60 to share her success story.”

The event costs $60 for chamber members and $75 for general admission. Reservations may be made for tables of eight or 10. The deadline for reservations is Wednesday, Oct. 16. No cancellations are accepted after that date, and no walk-ins will be allowed. Reservations must be made online at www.springfieldregionalchamber.com or by e-mailing [email protected]

Total Revenue:

1. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.*
2. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
3. Tighe & Bond*
Arrow Security Co. Inc.
Baltazar Contractors
Bob Pion Buick GMC Inc.
Center Square Grill (Fun Dining Inc.)
Charter Oak Financial
Commercial Distributing Co. Inc.
Con-Test Analytical Laboratory (Filli, LLC)
Court Square Group Inc.
David R. Northup Electrical Contractors Inc.
The Dowd Agencies, LLC
E.F. Corcoran Plumbing & Heating Co. Inc.*
Freedom Credit Union
Governors America Corp. / GAC Management Co.*
Haluch Water Contracting Inc.
Holyoke Pediatrics Associates, LLP
JET Industries Inc.
Kittredge Equipment Co. Inc.
Lancer Transportation / Sulco Warehousing & Logistics
Louis and Clark Drug Inc.
Maybury Associates Inc.*
Paragus Strategic IT
Rediker Software Inc.
Rock Valley Tool, LLC
Skip’s Outdoor Accents Inc.
Tiger Press (Shafii’s Inc.)
Troy Industries Inc.
United Personnel Services Inc.

Revenue Growth:

1. The Nunes Companies Inc.
2. Brewmasters Brewing Services, LLC
3. Christopher Heights of Northampton
A.G. Miller Co. Inc.
Adam Quenneville Roofing & Siding Inc.*
American Pest Solutions Inc.
Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
Burgess, Schultz & Robb, P.C.
City Enterprise Inc.*
Courier Express Inc.
EOS Approach, LLC / Proshred Security International
Gallagher Real Estate
GMH Fence Company Inc.
Goss & McLain Insurance Agency Inc.
Greenough Packaging & Maintenance Supplies Inc.
Kenney Masonry, LLC
Knight Machine Tool Company Inc.
L & L Property Service, LLC
Ludlow Heating and Cooling Inc.
Michael’s Party Rentals Inc.
Oasis Shower Doors (EG Partners, LLC)*
Pioneer Valley Financial Group, LLC
R.R. Leduc Corp.*
Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
Springfield Thunderbirds (Springfield Hockey, LLC)
Summit Careers Inc.
United Industrial Textile Products Inc.
Villa Rose Restaurant (Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc.)
Webber & Grinnell Insurance Agency Inc.*
Westside Finishing Co. Inc.*

*Qualified in both categories

Total Revenue​

1. Whalley Computer Associates Inc.*
One Whalley Way, Southwick
(413) 569-4200
www.wca.com
John Whalley, President
WCA is a locally owned family business that has evolved from a hardware resale and service group in the ’70s and ’80s into a company that now focuses on lowering the total cost of technology and productivity enhancement for its customers.

2. Marcotte Ford Sales Inc.
1025 Main St., Holyoke
(413) 536-1900
www.marcotteford.com
Bryan Marcotte, President
The dealership sells new Ford vehicles as well as pre-owned cars, trucks, and SUVs, and features a full service department. Marcotte has achieved Ford’s President’s Award multiple occasions over the past decade. It also operates the Marcotte Commercial Truck Center.

3. Tighe & Bond*
53 Southampton Road, Westfield
(413) 562-1600
www.tighebond.com
Robert Belitz, President and CEO
Tighe & Bond is a full-service engineering and environmental consulting firm offering myriad services, including building engineering, coastal and waterfront solutions, environmental consulting, GIS and asset management, site planning and design, transportation engineering, and water and wastewater engineering.

Arrow Security Co. Inc
124 Progress Ave., Springfield
(413) 732-6787
www.arrowsecurity.com
John Debarge Jr., President
This company provides security for all types of clients and issues, including industrial plant security, patrol services with security checks for homeowners, free security surveys, and more provided by a management team that consists of a diverse group of professionals with law enforcement, private-sector security, and military backgrounds.

Baltazar Contractors
83 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-6160
www.baltazarcontractors.com
Frank Baltazar, President
Baltazar Contractors is a family-owned construction firm specializing in roadway construction and reconstruction; all aspects of site-development work; sewer, water, storm, and utilities; and streetscape improvements in Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Bob Pion Buick GMC Inc.
333 Memorial Dr., Chicopee
(413) 206-9251
www.bobpionbuickgmc.com
Rob Pion, General Manager
Bob Pion Buick GMC carries a wide selection of new and pre-owned cars, crossovers, and SUVs, and also offers competitive lease specials and a full service department.

Center Square Grill (Fun Dining Inc.)
84 Center Square, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0055
www.centersquaregrill.com
Michael Sakey, Bill Collins, Proprietors
Center Square Grill serves traditional American food, with hints of classically prepared French sauces, Latin-inspired fish dishes, and standard Italian repertoire. The facility also has a catering service and hosts events of all kinds.

Charter Oak Financial
330 Whitney Ave., Holyoke
(413) 539-2000
www.charteroakfinancial.com
brendan naughton, general agent
Charter Oak’s services include risk management (including life insurance, disability income insurance, and long-term-care insurance), business planning and protection, retirement planning and investments, and fee-based financial planning.

Commercial Distributing Co. Inc.
46 South Broad St., Westfield
(413) 562-9691
www.commercialdist.com
Richard Placek, Chairman
Commercial Distributing Co. is a family-owned business servicing more than 1,000 bars, restaurants, and clubs, as well as more than 400 package and liquor stores. Now in its third generation, the company continues to grow by building brands and offering new products as the market changes.

Con-Test Analytical Laboratory (Filli, LLC)
39 Spruce St., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-2332
www.contestlabs.com
Tom Veratti, Founder and Consultant
Con-Test Inc. provides industrial-hygiene and analytical services to a broad range of clients. Originally focused on industrial-hygiene analysis, the laboratory-testing division has expanded its capabilities to include numerous techniques in air analysis, classical (wet) chemistry, metals, and organics.

Court Square Group Inc.
1350 Main St., Springfield
(413) 746-0054
www.courtsquaregroup.com
Keith Parent, President
Court Square is a leading managed-services company that provides an audit-ready, compliant cloud (ARCC) infrastructure for its clients and partners in the life-sciences industry.

David R. Northup Electrical Contractors Inc.
73 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 786-8930
www.northupelectric.com
David Northup, President
This is a family-owned, full-service electrical, HVAC, and plumbing contractor that specializes in everything from installation and replacement to preventive maintenance, indoor air-quality work, and sheet-metal fabrication.

The Dowd Agencies, LLC
14 Bobola Road, Holyoke
(413) 538-7444
www.dowd.com
John Dowd, President and CEO
The Dowd Agencies is the oldest insurance agency under continuous family ownership, and one of the most long-standing, experienced insurance agencies in Massachusetts.

E.F. Corcoran Plumbing & Heating Co. Inc.*
5 Rose Place, Springfield
(413) 732-1462
www.efcorcoran.com
Charles Edwards and Brian Toomey, Co-owners
E.F. Corcoran is a full-service plumbing and HVAC contractor. Services include 24-hour plumbing service, HVAC system installs, design-build services, energy retrofits, system replacements and modifications, gas piping, boilers, and more.
Freedom Credit Union
1976 Main St., Springfield
(800) 831-0160
www.freedom.coop
Glenn Welch, President and CEO
Freedom is a full-service credit union serving a wide range of business and consumer clients. Freedom has its main office on Main Street in Springfield, with other offices in Sixteen Acres, Feeding Hills, Ludlow, Chicopee, Easthampton, Northampton, Turners Falls, Greenfield, and Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy.

Governors America Corp. / GAC Management Co.*
720 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-5600
www.governors-america.com
Sean Collins, President
GAC is a leading provider of engine-governing and system controls to a worldwide list of equipment manufacturers and power providers. The engine-control products are used in a wide range of industries, including generator set, material handling, marine propulsion, mining, locomotive, and off-highway applications.

Haluch Water Contracting Inc.
399 Fuller St., Ludlow
(413) 589-1254
Thomas Haluch, President
Haluch Water Contracting’s main lines of business include sewer contracting, underground utilities, and water-main construction.

Holyoke Pediatrics Associates, LLP
150 Lower Westfield Road, Holyoke
(413) 536-2393
www.holyokepediatrics.com
Kathy Tremble, Adair Medina, Care Coordinators
HPA is the largest pediatric practice in Western Mass., providing primary-care services as well as lactation counseling, behavioral-health services, and patient education. HPA has a medical laboratory drawing site and also provides in-hospital support for new mothers.

JET Industries Inc.
307 Silver St., Agawam
(413) 786-2010
Michael Turrini, President
Jet Industries manufactures aircraft engines, parts, and equipment, as well as turbines and turbine generator sets and parts, aircraft power systems, flight instrumentation, and aircraft landing and braking systems.

Kittredge Equipment Co. Inc.
100 Bowles Road, Agawam
(413) 304-4100
www.kittredgeequipment.com
Wendy Webber, President
Kittridge Equipment is a $57 million equipment and supply giant. It boasts 70,000 square feet of inventory and warehouse, handles design services, and has designed everything from small restaurants to country clubs to in-plant cafeterias.

Lancer Transportation & Logistics / Sulco Warehousing & Logistics
311 Industry Ave., Springfield
(413) 739-4880
www.sulco-lancer.com
Todd Goodrich, President
Sulco Warehousing & Logistics operates a network of distribution centers. Lancer Transportation & Logistics is a DOT-registered contract motor carrier providing regional, national, and international truckload and LTL delivery services.

Louis and Clark Drug Inc.
309 East St. Springfield
(413) 737-2996
www.lcdrug.com
Skip Matthews, President
Louis & Clark provides prescriptions for individuals and institutions and helps those who need home medical equipment and supplies. The company also provides professional pharmacy and compounding services, medical equipment, independent-living services, and healthcare programs.
Maybury Associates Inc.*
90 Denslow Road, East Longmeadow
(888) 629-2879
www.maybury.com
John Maybury, President
Maybury Associates has more than 80 employees and is a distributor for about 1,300 manufacturers. The company designs, supplies, and services a wide variety of handling equipment throughout New England, and provides customers in a wide range of industries with solutions to move, lift, and store their parts and products.
Paragus Strategic IT*
112 Russell St., Hadley
(413) 587-2666
www.paragusit.com
Delcie Bean IV, President
Paragus has grown dramatically as an outsourced IT solution, providing business computer service, computer consulting, information-technology support, and other services to businesses of all sizes.

Rediker Software Inc.
2 Wilbraham Road, Hampden
(800) 213-9860
www.rediker.com
Andrew Anderlonis, President
Rediker Software has been providing school administrative software solutions for more than 35 years. Rediker Software is used by school administrators across the U.S. and in more than 100 countries, and is designed to meet the student-information-management needs of all types of schools and districts.

Rock Valley Tool, LLC
54 O’Neil St., Easthampton
(413) 527-2350
www.rockvalleytool.com
Elizabeth Paquette, President
Rock Valley Tool is a precision-machining facility housing both CNC and conventional machining equipment, along with a state-of-the-art inspection lab. With more than 40 years of experience, the company provides manufactured parts to customers in the aerospace, commercial/industrial, and plastic blow-molding industries.

Skip’s Outdoor Accents Inc.
1265 Suffield St., Agawam
(413) 786-0990
www.skipsonline.com
John and Scott Ansart, Owners
Skip’s Outdoor Accents specializes in a wide range of outdoor products, including storage sheds, gazebos, swingsets, and outdoor furniture, offering installation and delivery to sites with limited or no access. Skip’s shed and gazebo delivery is free to most of Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Tiger Press (Shafii’s Inc.)
50 Industrial Ave., East Longmeadow
(413) 224-2100
www.tigerpress.com
Reza Shafii, Jennifer Shafii, Owners
TigerPress is a sustainable, eco-friendly printer, using green technology and operating in a 100,000-square-foot manufacturing plant. The company offers digital printing, commercial printing, and custom package printing all under one roof.

Troy Industries Inc.
151 Capital Dr., West Springfield
(866) 788-6412
www.troyind.com
Steve Troy, CEO
Troy Industries is an industry leader that designs and manufactures innovative, top-quality small arms components and accessories and complete weapon upgrades. All products are American-made and designed to perform flawlessly under intense battle conditions.

United Personnel Services Inc.
289 Bridge St., Springfield
(413) 736-0800
www.unitedpersonnel.com
Tricia Canavan, President
United provides a full range of staffing services, including temporary staffing and full-time placement, on-site project management, and strategic recruitment in the Springfield, Hartford, and Northampton areas, specializing in administrative, professional, medical, and light-industrial staff.

Revenue Growth

1. The Nunes Companies Inc.
658 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 308-4940
www.nunescompanies.com
Armando Nunes, President
The Nunes Companies offers services such as sitework, road construction, and roll-off dumpster rentals, relying on leadership, quality, and cutting-edge technology to get the job done.

2. Brewmasters
Brewing Services, LLC
4 Main St., Williamsburg
(413) 268-2199
Dennis Bates, Michael Charpentier, Owners
Brewmasters Brewing Services is a small craft brewery offering a wide variety of services, including contract brewing and distilling.

3. Christopher Heights
of Northampton
50 Village Hill Road, Northampton
(413) 584-0701
www.christopherheights.com
michael taylor, executive director
Christopher Heights is a mixed-use community located in a natural setting that features scenic mountain views and walking paths. Residents and staff each bring their own experiences and talents, which are recognized and often incorporated into social activities and programs.

A.G. Miller Co. Inc.
53 Batavia St., Springfield
(413) 732-9297
www.agmiller.com
Rick Miller, President
A leader in the metal-fabricating industry, the company’s services include precision metal fabrication; design and engineering; assembly; forming, rolling, and bending; laser cutting; punching; precision saw cutting; welding; powder coating; and liquid painting.

Adam Quenneville Roofing & Siding Inc.*
160 Old Lyman Road, South Hadley
(413) 536-5955
www.1800newroof.net
Adam Quenneville, CEO
Adam Quenneville offers a wide range of residential and commercial services, including new roofs, retrofitting, roof repair, roof cleaning, vinyl siding, replacement windows, and the no-clog Gutter Shutter system. The company has earned the BBB Torch Award for trust, performance, and integrity.

American Pest Solutions Inc.
169 William St., Springfield
(413) 781-0044
www.413pestfree.com
Bob Russell, President
American Pest Solutions is a full-service pest-solutions company founded in 1913. With two locations, the company serves residential and commercial customers, offering inspection, treatment, and ongoing protection.

Baystate Crushing and Recycling Inc.
36 Carmelinas Circle, Ludlow
(413) 583-4440
www.baystateblasting.com
Paul Baltazar, President
Baystate Blasting Inc. is a family-owned drilling and blasting firm that provides a full range of rock-blasting and rock-crushing services, including sitework, heavy highway construction, residential work, quarry, and portable crushing and recycling. An ATF-licensed dealer of explosives, it offers rental of individual magazines.

Burgess, Schultz & Robb, P.C.
200 North Main St., South Building,
Suite 1, East Longmeadow
(413) 525-0025
www.bsrcpa.com
Andrew Robb, Managing Partner
Burgess, Schultz & Robb, P.C. is a professional certified public accounting firm providing audit, tax, business-advisory, and business-management services to private businesses, trusts, tax-exempt organizations, and individuals.
City Enterprise Inc.*
52-60 Berkshire Ave., Springfield
(413) 726-9549
www.cityenterpriseinc.com
Wonderlyn Murphy, President
City Enterprises Inc. is a general contractor with a diverse portfolio of clients, including the Groton Naval submarine base, Westover Air Reserve Base, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Park Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, and many others.

Courier Express Inc.
111 Carando Dr., Springfield
(413) 730-6620
www.courierexp.com
Eric Devine, President
Courier Express is committed to providing custom, same-day delivery solutions for any shipment and a courteous, prompt, and professional delivery agent. The company ships everything from a single envelope to multiple pallets.

EOS Approach, LLC / Proshred Security International
75 Post Office Park, Wilbraham
(413) 596-5479
www.proshred.com
Joe Kelly, Owner
Proshred specializes in the secure, on-site information destruction of confidential and sensitive documents, computer hard drives, and electronic media. It is an ISO 9001:2008 certified and NAID AAA certified mobile shredding company.
Gallagher Real Estate
1763 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 536-7232
www.gogallagher.com
Paul Gallagher, Owner
Gallagher Real Estate is an independent brokerage that operates in Hampshire and Hampden counties in Massachusetts and Hartford County in Connecticut. The company specializes in both residential and commercial properties and has offices in Holyoke, South Hadley, East Longmeadow, and Springfield.

GMH Fence Co. Inc.
15 Benton Dr., East Longmeadow
(413) 525-3361
www.gmhfence.com
Glenn Hastie, Owner
GMH Fence Co. is one of the largest fence companies in the region, offering fence installations from a selection of wood, aluminum, steel, and vinyl fencing for residential and commercial customers.

Goss & McLain Insurance Agency Inc.
1767 Northampton St., Holyoke
(413) 534-7355
www.gossmclain.com
Deborah Buckley, President
Goss & McLain is an independent insurance agency offering a diverse portfolio of personal and business property and liability insurance, as well as life and health insurance. It also insures homes, cars, and businesses and protects against personal and business liabilities.
Greenough Packaging & Maintenance Supplies Inc.
54 Heywood Ave., West Springfield
(800) 273-2308
www.greenosupply.com
Craig Cassanelli, President
Greenough is a distributor of shipping, packaging, safety, breakroom, janitorial, cleaning, and facility-maintenance supplies. It also offers custom solutions to customers, such as printed bags, cups, and napkins, as well as custom packaging, including printed tape, boxes, stretch wrap, and strapping.

Kenney Masonry, LLC
P.O. Box 2506, Amherst
(413) 256-0400
www.kenneymasonry.com
Sarahbeth Kenney, Owner
Kenney Masonry is a family-owned company with more than 150 years of combined construction experience working with brick, block, stone, and concrete on commercial, institutional, public, and residential projects.

Knight Machine Tool Company Inc.
11 Industrial Dr., South Hadley
(413) 532-2507
Gary O’Brien, Owner
Knight Machine & Tool Co. is a metalworking and welding company that offers blacksmithing, metal roofing, and other services from its 11,000-square-foot facility.

L & L Property Service, LLC
582 Amostown Road, West Springfield
(413) 732-2739
Richard Lapinski, Owner
L & L Property Services is a locally owned company providing an array of property services, including lawn care, snow removal, sanding, excavations, patios and stone walls, hydroseeding, and more.

Ludlow Heating and Cooling Inc.
1056 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 583-6923
www.ludlowheatingandcooling.com
Karen Sheehan, President
Ludlow Heating & Cooling is a full-service energy company dedicated to providing quality heating and cooling product services including new system installation, oil heat delivery, and maintenance to an existing system.

Michael’s Party Rentals Inc.
1221 South Main St., Palmer
(413) 589-7368
www.michaelspartyrentals.com
Michael Linton, Owner
Michael’s Party Rentals operates year-round, seven days a week. Its 9,000-square-foot warehouse holds more than 100 tents of all sizes, tables, chairs, dance flooring, staging, lighting, and an extensive array of rental equipment for any type of party.

Oasis Shower Doors
(EG Partners, LLC)*
646 Springfield St., Feeding Hills
(800) 876-8420
www.oasisshowerdoors.com
Thomas Daly, Owner
Oasis is New England’s largest designer, fabricator, and installer of custom frameless glass shower enclosures and specialty glass, offering a wide array of interior glass entry systems and storefronts, sliding and fixed glass partition walls, back-painted glass, and switchable privacy glass for bedrooms, offices, and conference rooms.

Pioneer Valley
Financial Group, LLC
1252 Elm St., Suite 28, West Springfield
(413) 363-9265
www.pvfinancial.com
Joseph Leonczyk, Charles Myers, Senior Partners
PV Financial helps clients pursue their goals through careful financial planning and sound investment strategy. Services include retirement planning, asset growth, business planning, college funding, estate planning, and risk management.

R.R. Leduc Corp.*
100 Bobala Road, Holyoke
(413) 536-4329
www.rrleduc.com
Robert LeDuc, President
Since its inception in 1967, the R.R. Leduc Corp. has been a family-owned business that specializes in precision sheet metal and custom powder coatings. The company produces a variety of products for the communication, military, medical, electronics, and commercial industries.

Sanderson MacLeod Inc.
1199 South Main St., Palmer
(413) 283-3481
www.sandersonmacleod.com
Mark Borsari, President
From breakthrough brush innovation projects to supply-chain integration, Sanderson MacLeod leverages its experience and know-how in ways that produce high-quality twisted-wire brushes for its customers.

Springfield Thunderbirds (Springfield Hockey, LLC)
45 Bruce Landon Way, Springfield
(413) 739-4625
www.springfieldthunderbirds.com
Nathan Costa, President
The Springfield Thunderbirds are a professional ice hockey team and the AHL affiliate of the NHL’s Florida Panthers. Since the team began to play in the area in 2016, it has formed the T-Birds Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity that benefits causes in Springfield and surrounding Pioneer Valley communities.
Summit Careers Inc.
85 Mill St., Suite B, Springfield
(413) 733-9506
www.summitcareers.inc
Bryan Picard, Owner
Summit Careers is a full-service staffing and recruiting firm that provides temporary, temp-to-hire, and direct-hire services for clients in a variety of sectors, including light industrial, warehouse, professional trades, administrative, accounting, and executive.

United Industrial Textile Products Inc.
321 Main St., West Springfield
(413) 737-0095
www.uitprod.com
Wayne Perry, President
UIT is a family-owned manufacturer that has been making high-quality covers for commercial, military, and industrial applications for more than 60 years. Craftsmen at the company specialize in the creation of custom covers that are manufactured to each client’s unique specifications.

Villa Rose Restaurant (Tavares and Branco Enterprises Inc.)
1428 Center St., Ludlow
(413) 547-6667
www.villaroserestaurant.com
Tony Tavares, Owner
Nestled across from the Ludlow reservoir, the Villa Rose offers fine dining in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. The restaurant offers a private room with availability for weddings, receptions, showers, anniversaries, and any other banquet function from 30 to 175 people.

Webber & Grinnell
Insurance Agency Inc.*
8 North King St., Northampton
(413) 586-0111
www.webberandgrinnell.com
Bill Grinnell, President
Webber and Grinnell has provided insurance protection for thousands of individuals and businesses throughout the Pioneer Valley for more than 150 years. The agency is balanced between business insurance, personal insurance, and employee benefits.

Westside Finishing Co. Inc.*
15 Samosett St., Holyoke
(413) 533-4909
www.wsfinish.com
Brian Bell, President
Westside Finishing is a family-owned business specializing in a wide array of services, including pre-treatment/cleaning, conveyorized powder coating, batch powder coating, silk screening, pad printing, masking, packaging, and trucking.

Opinion

Editorial

Most would agree that Springfield has come a long way over the past decade or so and especially since the 2011 tornado touched down on Main Street.

But most would also agree there is still considerable work to be done in the City of Homes to bring it back to the prominence it enjoyed decades ago. And while no one would dare suggest that what has accomplished to date has been easy — although MGM Springfield might have been the easiest $1 billion project anyone has ever seen — the work to be done falls into the ‘much harder’ category.

Indeed, over the past decade, city officials, working in collaboration with a host of public and private partners, have succeeded in giving people more reasons to come to Springfield — to work, play, and, yes, live — and they’ve also made it somewhat easier to get here through new rail service and extensive work on I-91.

Collectively, the city has made progress and created momentum, but hard work remains to build on what could be called a foundation, while also making sure that MGM Springfield, Union Station, and other developments are put in a position to succeed.

Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s recently appointed chief Development officer, touched on some of these points in an extensive interview with BusinessWest (see story, page 6). Slicing through his comments, he notes that, while Springfield is now a more attractive place to visit, in many respects, it must focus even harder on creating more opportunities for people to live here, launch businesses, and see them succeed.

Most recently employed by the city of Norwalk, Conn. and its Redevelopment Agency, he said he saw first-hand what can happen when a city succeeds in attracting a larger population of professionals through new market-rate housing initiatives.

Norwalk, roughly an hour’s commute to New York city via train, benefited from its location and developed more housing that in turn brought energy, disposable income, and, yes, business opportunities to the city.

Springfield, doesn’t have the same advantage of geography — although hopes remain for east-west rail that would certainly change that equation — but there is still vast potential to create more market-rate housing in its downtown and the neighborhoods beyond. And tapping this potential is perhaps the number-one priority for the city moving forward.

That’s because, while the city can certainly benefit from people coming to gamble or see an Aerosmith concert or visit the Basketball Hall of Fame or take in the Dr. Seuss museum, true vibrancy comes when people live in your community. Brooklyn, N.Y. is perhaps the best example of this, but there are many others.

The assignment, then, becomes giving people a reason (or a good number of reasons) to live in your community.

Springfield is making progress there, but it has to do more to entice private investors to build here. And this brings us to another priority on Sheehan’s to-do list — the city’s many fine neighborhoods. We can still use that adjective, although all of them have seen better days, especially when it comes to their commercial districts.

Sheehan mentioned Boston Road, which is still a vibrant commercial artery but not what it was decades ago, especially at the Eastfield Mall end of the street. The ongoing demise of traditional retail certainly plays a part in what’s happening along these stretches, but Sheehan is right when he says the city needs to develop new plans for these areas, create buy-in from neighborhood institutions, and, overall, inspire investors to what to be part of something.

All this falls into the category of taking Springfield to the next stage. As we said, this is in many ways harder work than what has been undertaken to date, but it’s work that has to be done if Springfield is to enjoy a real renaissance.

Healthcare Heroes

‘There’s a Magic Here,’ Built on Dedication, Innovation, and Culture

H. Lee Kirk Jr. was speaking at a public event recently, when a woman stood up to tell him about her 3-year-old grandson’s experience at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

“She said, ‘when we take him to the doctor’s office or another healthcare provider, he cries going in, and he’s sprinting out the door to get back home. When he comes to Shriners, he’s sprinting on the way in and happy to be coming, and he’s kicking and screaming when he has to leave,’” he related. “There’s a magic here that’s really hard to get your arms around.”

But Kirk, administrator of the 94-year-old facility on Carew Street in Springfield, tried to explain it the best he could over the course of a conversation with BusinessWest after the hospital was chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2019 in the Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider category.

“This is a special healthcare organization because of the mission,” he said. “The culture is unlike any other I’ve been involved in. We want to be the best at transforming the lives of kids. And we get the privilege of seeing that every day here.”

It’s a culture that employees find attractive, said George Gorton, the hospital’s director of Research, Planning, and Business Development, adding that consulting physicians from other hospitals say, after visiting, that it’s the happiest place they’ve ever worked.

“It’s a palpable difference,” he went on. “As employees, we love that caring, family feeling of being employed by an organization that aligns with our own personal mission. That’s just not seen anywhere else.”

Last year, the hospital produced some short videos with employees to celebrate the opening of its inpatient pediatric rehab unit. In one of them, a nurse hired specifically for that unit talked about how she’s wanted to be a nurse at Shriners since being treated there for a rheumatology issue when she was a child.

“She was in tears, expressing the joy and positivity she had, to be able to take that experience of receiving care and become the person who provides that care to other people,” Gorton said. “It was a really touching moment to hear her express that.”

Then there’s the boy Gorton — who’s been with Shriners for more than a quarter-century — examined decades ago in the motion-analysis center; he’s now a physician assistant at the hospital.

Gorton said it’s impossible to single out any individual person responsible for creating the generational success stories and culture that makes Shriners what it is. The judges for this year’s Healthcare Heroes program agreed, making a perhaps outside-the-box choice in a category that has previously honored individuals, not entire organizations.

Yet, the choice makes sense, said Jennifer Tross, who came on board two years ago as Marketing and Communications manager, because of that unique culture that draws people back to provide care decades after receiving it, and that has kids shedding tears when they have to leave, not when they show up.

“The day I arrived,” Tross said, “I went home and said, ‘I knew this place would change my life, and it has.’”

Countless families agree, which is why Shriners is deserving of the title Healthcare Hero.

Step by Step

When a boy named Bertram, from Augusta, Maine, made the trek with his family to Springfield in February 1925, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history. But he did just that, as the hospital’s very first patient. The Shriners organization opened its first hospitals primarily to take care of kids with polio, but Bertram had club feet — a condition that became one of the facility’s core services.

After the first Shriners Hospitals for Children site opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., 10 other facilities followed in 1925 (there are now 22 facilities, all in the U.S. except for Mexico City and Montreal). Four of those hospitals, including one in Boston, focus on acute burn care, while the rest focus primarily on a mix of orthopedics and other types of pediatric care.

As an orthopedic specialty hospital, the Springfield facility has long focused on conditions ranging from scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida to club foot, chest-wall deformities, cleft lip and palate, and a host of other conditions afflicting the limbs, joints, bones, and extremities — and much more.

While many of the hospitals overlap in services, each has tended to adapt to the needs of its own community. In Springfield’s case that includes pediatric specialties like rheumatology, urology, and fracture care, as well as a sports health and medicine program that includes three athletic trainers and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with training in sports medicine.

H. Lee Kirk (left, with Jennifer Tross and George Gorton) says Shriners is a special healthcare organization because of its mission.

The latter, Kirk said, includes services to kids without medical problems, as the hospital works with schools, clubs, and leagues help provide more preventive and conditioning services and follow up when injuries occur.

Meanwhile, the BFit exercise program targets kids with neuromuscular problems who normally don’t participate in physical activity, sports, or even gym class. The program aims to improve the physical activity of this group, and does it by involving students from area colleges who are studying fields like physical and occupational therapy, exercise science, sports medicine, and kinesiology.

“They volunteer as personal coaches,” Gorton said. “The child learns to adapt their environment and become physically active, and those students learn what it’s like to care for children. Many have gone into pediatric healthcare to do that kind of training because of their experience here. They see it here, and it spreads like a good virus through the population.”

Then there was the 2013 community assessment determining that an inpatient pediatric rehabilitation clinic would fill a persistent need. That 20-bed clinic opened last year following a $1.25 million capital campaign that wound up raising slightly more — reflective of the community support the hospital has always received, allowing it to provide free care to families without the ability to pay (more on that later).

Still, more than 90% of the care provided in Springfield is outpatient — in fact, the facility saw 12,173 visits last year, a more than 40% expansion over the past several years.

The care itself, the clinical component, is only one of three prongs in the Shriners mission, Kirk said. The second part is education; over the past 30 years, thousands of physicians have undertaken residency education or postgraduate fellowships at the various children’s hospitals. In Springfield, residents in a variety of healthcare disciplines — from orthopedics to nursing, PT, and OT — have arrived for 10- to 12-week rotations.

The third component of the mission is research, specifically clinical research in terms of how to improve the processes of delivering care to children. That often takes the shape of new technology, from computerized 3D modeling for cleft-palate surgery to the hospital’s motion-analysis laboratory, where an array of infrared cameras examine how a child walks and converts that data to a 3D model that gives doctors all they need to know about a child’s progress.

More recently, a capital campaign raised just under $1 million to install the EOS Imaging System, Nobel Prize-winning X-ray technology that exists nowhere else in Western Mass. or the Hartford area, which enhances imaging while reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation. That’s important, Kirk said, particularly for children who have had scoliosis or other orthopedic conditions, and start having X-rays early on their lives and continue them throughout adolescence.

Averting Disaster

It’s an impressive array of services and technology, and collectively, it meets a clear need — and not just locally. While about 60% of patients hail from a 20-mile radius, the hospital sees young people from across New England, New York, more than 20 other states, and more than 20 countries as well.

Yet, only a decade ago, the hospital was in danger of closing. At the height of the Great Recession, the national Shriners organization announced it was considering shuttering six of its 22 children’s hospitals across the country — including the one on Carew Street.

In the end, after a deluge of very vocal outrage and support by families of patients and community leaders, the Shriners board decided against closing any of its specialty children’s hospitals, even though the organization had been struggling, during those tough economic times, to provide its traditionally free care given rising costs and a shrinking endowment.

To make it possible to keep the facilities open, in 2011, Shriners — for the first time in its nearly century-long history — started accepting third-party payments from private insurance and government payers such as Medicaid when possible, although free care is still provided to all patients without the means to pay, and the hospital continues to accommodate families who can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles that are now required by many insurance plans.

“It was a wise decision to accept insurance — but it was a controversial decision,” Kirk said. Yet, it makes sense, too. A very small percentage of patients in Massachusetts don’t have some kind of coverage, yet 63% of care at Shriners is paid for by donors — a disconnect explained by the fact that Medicaid doesn’t pay for care there, and gaps exist in other insurance as well.

So, if a family can’t pay, the hospital does not chase the money, relying on an assistance resource funded by Shriners and their families nationwide.

“Donor support allows us to provide free care,” Kirk said. “We don’t send families to collections and contribute to the number-one cause of personal bankruptcy in America, which is medical care. It’s a very unique model, and a unique healthcare-delivery system.”

And one that, as Kirk noted, treats a patient population that can be underserved otherwise. For instance, the cleft lip and palate program — a multi-disciplinary program integrated with providers from other hospitals in the region and serving about 30 partients at any given time — begins assessing some patients prenatally, and most need care throughout adolescence and even into young adulthood.

Those consulting relationships are critical to the success of Shriners, which doesn’t seek to compete with other providers in the region, but supplement them while striving to be, in many cases, the best place for young people to receive specialized treatment, whether for orthopedic conditions or a host of other issues.

When Kirk arrived in 2015, the hospital underwent a comprehensive self-assessment process that made two things clear, he said: that there’s a real need for what it does, and that it needs to reinvest in its core.

“And that’s what we did. And that’s about people, not bricks and mortar,” he went on, noting that the facility has added about 70 positions since that time.

“We’re a completely different place today than we were in 2009,” Gorton added, noting that the hospital is stronger in leadership, internal communication, and external connections. Among the 22 Shriners specialty hospitals, Springfield ranks second in the proportion of the budget offset by donations. “Why? Because we have a great relationship with the community. We’ve become more outward-facing, and we’re integrated everywhere in the community.”

The Next Century

Getting back to that 3-year-old who doesn’t want to leave when he visits Shriners, surely the hospital’s child-friendly playscapes and colorful, kid-oriented sculptures and artwork help create a welcoming environment, but those wouldn’t make much difference if the people providing care didn’t put him at ease.

That environment begins with employees who love what they do, Kirk said, and this Healthcare Hero award in the Provider category is definitely shared by all of them. Other families feel the same way, as the facility regularly ranks in the 99th percentile on surveys that gauge the patient and family experience.

“We have happy employees who love being here, who love working with kids, who love delivering the mission — and the patients and families sense that and respond to that,” Gorton said.

That’s why the hospital’s leaders continue to examine the evolving needs of the pediatric community and how they can continue to deepen its clinical relationships and expanding services most in demand — always with the philosophy of “mission over model,” Kirk said.

“We are always thinking about the future,” he added, “so we can sustain this healthcare system for the next 100 years.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

MGM Looks to Step Things Up in Year Two

It’s been nearly a full year since MGM Springfield opened its doors in Springfield’s South End. It’s been a year of learning — for both the casino’s team and the consuming public as well. As the headlines have announced, the casino has fallen well behind projections for gross gaming revenues (GGR), but in most all of the other ways to measure the success of the operation, it has not underperformed.

Mike Mathis started by stating what has become obvious — and also addressing the topic on the minds of most everyone in this region when it comes to MGM Springfield.

Gross gaming revenues (or GGR, an acronym that is increasingly becoming part of the local lexicon) are not what they were projected to be for the first year of operation, which will end August 23.

Those projections, made several years ago during the licensing process for the $960 million facility in Springfield’s South End, were for roughly $400 million this first year. Instead, the resort casino is on pace to record closer to $275 million, as the chart on page 8, which includes numbers through the end of July, makes clear.

“In the context of a three-year ramp, which is how we view it, we’re off to a slower ramp-up than we’d like,” Mathis, president and COO at MGM Springfield, admitted. “The gaming revenues are less than we hoped for, and the work is understanding where we are performing well and where we are underperforming.”

With that, Mathis hit upon ongoing work that began literally within days of the casino’s opening. And it continues in earnest today, with the expectation that those numbers can and will improve in year two.

Repeating what he said at the six-month mark for MGM Springfield, Mathis noted that new casinos generally go through a lengthy ramp-up period (three years is the timeframe he repeatedly mentioned) before fully hitting their stride. And that this ramping process involves some learning curves, especially when gaming is being introduced to a region, as is the case in Massachusetts.

And much was learned, said Mathis, referencing everything from Super Bowl watching habits — it became clear that most people would rather watch at home than go to the casino, although Mathis still hopes to change that — to the bands that people will come out to watch (it appears locals really like local groups rather than imports), to the casino games people like to play.

A promotion to give away a Mercedes Benz each week for a month is one of many strategic initiatives to drive visitation to MGM Springfield.

Looking ahead to year two, which will kick-off with four performances by Aerosmith and a host of other birthday-celebration events, Mathis said MGM Springfield will enter it with considerable acquired knowledge, as well as what appears to be some momentum.

Indeed, while June’s GGR numbers were the worst for any full month since the facility opened — Encore Boston opened that same month and probably had something to do with that performance — July’s numbers were better, said Mathis, and slots GGR has been generally higher over the past several months.

“There are many examples of facilities that have taken their first year to figure out what the customer is going to react to, what the competition is doing, and achieve real growth,” he said, adding that he firmly believes MGM Springfield will join that list.

He’s pinning those hopes on everything from changes and additions to the casino floor (more on those later) to the possible introduction of sports betting within the Commonwealth, an addition to the gaming landscape now being considered by the Legislature, to the ‘growing-the-pie’ impact of Encore Boston’s opening earlier this summer.

But while the focus has been on GGR, as it should be, said Mathis, there are many other means by which to measure success during MGM’s first year. And with most all of these, the casino has been on target.

These include overall visitation (more than 6 million by the end of the first year); non-gaming revenues (the restaurants and hotel, for example); impact locally in terms of providing a boost to other businesses, especially those in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality; bringing people to the region; boosting the business of meetings and conventions; and employment, especially with regard to hiring Springfield residents and promoting people through the ranks.

“We’re very excited about all the visitors and tourists and eyeballs we’ve brought to the downtown — I know I’ve met many customers who have said ‘this is my first time in Springfield,’ or that they’ve brought their families from other areas to the downtown to show it off,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “One of the emotions I have is a huge sense of pride in what we’ve done here; we’ve given the people of Springfield and Western Mass. a headquarters tourist destination that they can show off to friends and family.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, agreed. Using yardsticks as unscientific, but still effective, in his view, as waiting times for a table at restaurants in the downtown area, he said the Casino has brought more vibrancy to the central business district. Also, it has deeply broadened the region’s tourism portfolio, prompting not only greater visitation, but longer stays.

Mike Mathis says year one has been a learning experience on many levels for all those on the MGM team.

“The biggest impact MGM has had in the year it’s been open, and the biggest impact it will have going forward, is that you now have gaming and increasing entertainment opportunities to marry to the other tourist attractions that we can be more than just a one-day travel destination,” he said.

Raising the Stakes

Mathis calls it ‘keeping the floor fresh.’

That’s an industry phrase — one of many that are new to people in this region — and one that refers to the need to constantly change, or freshen, the casino floor to bring both more new business and more repeat customers, said Mathis.

“You can’t get complacent about continuing to earn customers’ loyalty in a highly competitive market,” he noted, adding that efforts to freshen the floor at MGM Springfield include the construction of a new bar just inside the Main Street entrance to the casino — what Mathis calls the ‘back corner,’ because most people enter from the parking garage side — as well as some new electronic table games, some ‘stadium gaming,’ described as a mix of table games and slot machines, and special promotions.

“There’s a whole new zone in that corner, where we’re trying to bring some energy to what would otherwise be the back of the building,” he explained. “We’re trying to drive more business to the back; it’s a heavy investment but part of our work to improve the product.”

These steps are part of the ongoing efforts to improve GGR, said Mathis, but also part of what would be considered normal ramp-up of a casino facility as it adjusts to customers’ wants and needs, and the ebb and flow of the competitive landscape.

“I’ve said this in the past, and our competitors have the same view, which is that you need three years to get to a normalized operation,” he said. “And we’re seeing that ourselves; there are holidays and certain events we think are going to be some of our busiest, and for whatever reason they’re quieter. And then we’ll have a random day in the middle of the week that exceeds a weekend day.

“It’s really about trying to understand the patterns and being nimble and reacting to the patterns,” he went on. “Obviously in a market like this, weather is a factor, and we’re learning what the impact of weather is — good and bad.”

Local sports teams are a factor as well, he said, adding that while they have huge followings, this support doesn’t necessarily extend to viewing at the casino, as was learned during the first Super Bowl of the casino era in Massachusetts.

“In this case, business was less than we would normally see in one of other operations — although it was still a really strong day,” he said, “I think there’s a tradition of going to a house party because of the success they’ve had; we’ve got to figure out how to make MGM Springfield the regional house party for the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got great relationships with all the franchises, and we have strategies on how to activate the space and make it fun and interesting, fun and familiar,” he went on. “It’s a fun challenge; it’s not what we expected, but it’s a good problem to have because there’s a huge opportunity there.”

This process of watching, listening, learning, and responding to trends that were not expected extends to every aspect of the operation, he said, including entertainment and that aforementioned affinity for local acts.

“There are some acts that we think that would traditionally do well as they route the country, that don’t perform as well here,” he explained, “And there were other acts where we were pleasantly surprised by the response; country is popular here, so we’re going to look at country a little more.

“Thematically, there are really great regional bands that have a following here that aren’t national and that we’ve had a lot of success with,” he went on, mentioning Trailer Trash, a ‘modern country band,’ as one example. “Anyone in a new market has to figure out what are those great local bands that drive big crowds, local crowds.”

GGReat Expectations

Of course, there are many other things to figure out as well, said Mathis, adding that the broad goal, obviously, is to bring more people to the casino and inspire them to do more (and spend more) while they’re there.

This explains the freshening of the floor, as well as the four Aerosmith shows (now nearly sold out) and a number of other initiatives designed to bring people to the casino — and bring them back repeatedly.

These are the simple forces that drive GGR, said Mathis, who returned to that ongoing work to identify areas where the casino is underperforming, and addressing them.

Overall, he said the broad assignment is to build loyalty, not merely a visit or two to the resort and its casino floor.

“Part of the first year is gaining new visitors and customers who are seeing it for the first time and building loyalty,” he explained. “And in this market, because of the existence of some pretty strong competitors, there’s already strong loyalty and traditions and gaming habits that, quite frankly, we have to disrupt, and that takes some time.”

Meanwhile, there are some lingering patterns when it comes to where customers are coming from — or not coming from — that still need to be addressed.

Indeed, while MGM Springfield is overperforming, in Mathis’s view, when it comes to drawing customers from along the I-91 corridor, “north-south,” as he put it, things are different when it comes to east-west flow.

“It’s been a challenge to get folks to go west within the Commonwealth and give the facility a chance,” said Mathis adding that bookings like Aerosmith are designed to address that specific problem, and he believes there have been some inroads.

As for those efforts to disrupt current gaming patterns and loyalty with other casinos, Mathis noted that there are several arrows in that quiver, including everything from some new games to be introduced in the coming weeks, to a new promotion that involves giving away a Mercedes each week for several weeks, to a recently concluded program called MGM Millions, a lottery-like game that enabled players to win a wide variety of prizes including bonuses and loyalty privileges.

“That was very successful,” said Mathis, “and what we learned is that people like the lottery, and they’d rather have a smaller chance of winning a larger giveaway than a higher chance at smaller gifts — and that’s part of the learning curve.”

It also includes the addition of Symphony Hall to MGM’s portfolio of performance venues (the casino recently assumed management of that facility), which enables the team to book acts such as Steve Martin & Martin Short, coming Sept. 12, Boyz II Men (Sept. 22), and Smokey Robinson (Oct. 18).

“It’s another great venue that fills a niche we didn’t have previously,” he said, noting the hall’s 2,500 seating capacity. “That’s something in the tool shed we didn’t have our first year, especially since we can program into it, so we’re excited.”

He’s excited also by the prospects of sports betting.

“We’ve seen in our other markets that it can provide as much as a 10% lift to the overall business, not just the sports-betting component,” he said. “People will tend to stay longer, they’ll eat in the restaurants, they’ll place a bet, and spend some time on the casino floor on the machines or on the tables. So it’s an important initiative for us, especially in a market like Springfield and New England where people are passionate about their sports; we think it’s a manner of when, not if, this will happen.”

And, moving forward, Mathis said that while Encore Boston might impact MGM negatively in some ways, overall it will grow the pie when it comes to gaming, as evidenced, he believes, by the Springfield casino’s improved numbers for July.

“That demonstrates what we’ve always said — that there’s an ability to grow this market; there’s different customers for different experiences,” he said. “I like to think that the people in Boston will grow the market.”

Beyond the Floor

While much of the focus has been on the casino floor and GGR, Mathis said there are many other facets to this business, and he’s pleased with, and somewhat surprised by, the performance of some of these operations.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by how well-received our non-gaming amenities have been,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “The hotel is far above our projected occupancy rates, and the rate we’ve been able to charge is above what we project as well.”

He said the hotel has been generating a wide mix of business, from casino guests, to families visiting the area, to convention and meeting groups.

“We’ve done entire hotel blocks for different corporate groups that have come in and let us host their annual meetings or their incentive meetings for top salespeople,” he noted. “On every given day there are different types of customers in the hotel. We’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the amount of cash business we’re driving, the occupancy; that’s translating into the restaurants, exceeding our expectations on the amount of business overall.”

So much so that the MGM team is looking at perhaps adding more offerings, on top of the Wahlburger’s restaurant due to open next spring according to the latest estimates (groundbreaking will be within the next few weeks).

Meanwhile, business at the casino’s many bars has also exceeded expectations.

“We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the amount of night life and bar business we’ve been doing,” said Mathis. “New Englanders enjoy their local IPAs and enjoy our nightlife lounges, so we’ve built some extra bars, such as the plaza bar to support our outdoor entertainment, and it’s been very successful.”

While generally pleased with what’s been happening within the casino complex itself, Mathis said the first year has shown that MGM Springfield’s impact extends beyond those four walls — and also that block in the South End.

As an example he points to the Red Rose restaurant abutting the property. Already a mainstay and hugely popular eatery, the restaurant has clearly received a tremendous boost from the casino.

“I was talking to the owner, Tony Caputo, on a Friday night recently,” Mathis recalled. “And he talked about business being up considerably since our opening, and how it actually started before we opened, during the construction process.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that many of the restaurants are up 20%, based on the overflow visitation we’re bringing — there’s more people than we can lodge and more people than we can feed,” he went on. “That was part of the strategy intentionally, and it’s bearing out.”

Rick Sullivan agreed.

“There’s more activity downtown now, there’s more people walking around,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not like you can’t get a seat at a lunch place, but it is busier and that’s good; I never mind waiting a little longer to get a table — that’s a good thing.”

An even better thing, he went on, is MGM’s apparent ability to ‘extend the stay,’ as those in the tourism business say. Elaborating, he said there is some anecdotal evidence building that the addition of the casino is prompting more people to look to the region as something more than a day trip.

“People are looking to match a day at the casino and the Seuss Museum, or the Basketball Hall of Fame, or Six Flags, or the Big E,” he said. “People will do the Big E for the day and the casino for a day; we’re starting to see that.”

Likewise, he and others are seeing people visiting the region for special events and happenings make a point of also visiting the casino and, therefore, downtown Springfield.

He said he witnessed this first-hand when it came to teams that came from out of town for a sled hockey tournament at Amelia Park ice rink in Westfield, and he expects the same for the Babe Ruth World Series, also to take place in that city.

“It’s a place to take people,” he said, adding that as more of this happens, the overall impact of the casino will only grow.

Toward Year Two

As he talked about what’s coming up for the casino’s first birthday party — Aerosmith, a huge cake, the Patriots cheerleaders, and more, Mathis flashed back 350 days or so to when he and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno rode down Main Street in a Rolls Royce manufactured in Springfield during a parade that preceded the formal ribbon cutting.

The year that followed that triumphant moment has been one of intrigue and learning, for many constituencies, and one where expectations have mostly been met.

In year two, the focus will be on maintaining the current course, but also achieving progress with those expectations that haven’t been met. u

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

Commercial Real Estate

Painting the Town

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.

After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.

Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.

Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.

Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.

“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”

He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.

The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”

“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”

Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.

Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.

But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.

While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”

Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.

Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.

“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”

In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.

Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.

“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”

As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.

“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”

Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.

“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Striking a Chord

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.  Photo by Ed Cohen

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.
Photo by Ed Cohen

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.  Leah Martin Photography

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.
Leah Martin Photography

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures .

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music.

“That,” he added, “is where a wall becomes a bridge.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Opinion

Editorial

When Kevin Kennedy took over as Springfield’s chief Development officer after a lengthy stint as aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the city was in a much different place — a much darker place.

It was only a year or so removed from being in receivership and only a few months into the complex, and quite overwhelming, task of rebuilding after a tornado roared through the heart of the city. The casino era was just beginning, and no one really dared dream that one might be built in Springfield. No one had ever heard of a Chinese company called CRRC, and the city’s downtown was, for the most part, living in the past.

Flash forward nearly eight years, and Springfield is a much different, much brighter, much more vibrant place, with a billion-dollar casino and, overall, more than $4 billion in new development over the past several years.

Kennedy, who announced Monday that he will be retiring late this summer, didn’t do it all by himself, obviously. But he set a tone, an aggressive tone, a set-the-bar-higher-than-most-people-would-dare tone.

And it has produced results. MGM is the most obvious example, but there are many others, including Union Station (a project Kennedy worked on for more than 25 years), progress on creating much-needed market-rate housing, growth of the entertainment district, and the start of work to redevelop the so-called ‘blast zone.’

At the press conference to announce Kennedy’s retirement, Mayor Domenic Sarno described him as a “nuts and bolts guy,” and that’s a fairly apt characterization. He knew how to bring a project from the starting line to the finish line, and that’s exactly what the city needed at this critical stage in its history.

It was said that he knew how to get things done, and during his tenure, he proved that repeatedly.

These will be big shoes to fill, and the assignment falls to Timothy Sheehan, currently director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in Connecticut. It will be his job to build on the momentum Kennedy has helped create. There is still considerable work to do in Springfield; yes, many significant pieces have been added and the outlook is much brighter, but the city must be able to seize this moment in its history.

We can only hope that Sheehan can continue Kennedy’s pattern of getting things done.

Cover Story

Community Spotlight

There’s a stunning new aerial photo of downtown Springfield gracing the wall outside Kevin Kennedy’s office in the municipal complex on Tapley Street.

The panoramic image captures the view from above the Connecticut River looking east, with the new MGM Springfield casino prominent in the foreground. Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, is quite proud of the photo and all that it shows, but regrets that it was taken in the very early stages of the elaborate work to renovate Riverfront Park, and thus doesn’t include that important addition to the landscape.

He joked about Photoshopping something in to make the image more current, but then acknowledged that, at the rate things are changing, he would be doing a lot of Photoshopping — or swapping out that photo for a new one on a very regular basis.

Those sentiments speak volumes about the pace of development in the city over the past decade or so, and especially the past five or six years, as Springfield has rebounded dramatically from the fiscal malaise — and near-bankruptcy — that enveloped it only 10 years ago.

Indeed, Kennedy said he doesn’t have to ‘sell’ Springfield to potential developers anywhere near as much as he did when he assumed this office in 2011 after working for many years as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s aide. Nor does he have to tell the city’s story as much — people seem to know it by the time they’ve entered the room. And many are certainly entering the room.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated.”

“We don’t have to explain ourselves — when people walk through the door, they know what’s happened over the past five or seven years,” he explained, adding that, overall, he doesn’t have to convince people that the city is a good investment — most are already convinced, which, again, is a marked change from attitudes that prevailed at the start of this century and even at the start of this decade.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Kennedy equated Springfield’s progress over the past several years to a large jigsaw puzzle, with many of its pieces falling into place. These include everything from the casino to a renovated Union Station; from a restaurant district now taking shape to restored and expanded parks, such as Steans Square, Riverfront Park, Pynchon Plaza, and Duryea Way.

And still more pieces are coming into place — everything from a CVS on Main Street to a Cumberland Farms at the site of the old RMV facility on Liberty Street; from market-rate housing at the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street to a new home for Way Finders at the site of the former Peter Pan bus station in the North End; from new schools to improved traffic patterns.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy stands next to the new panoramic photo of Springfield outside his office, the one he’d like to Photoshop to keep up with recent changes to the landscape.

But there are a number of pieces still missing, Kennedy acknowledged, adding that they’re missing for a reason — these are the hardest ones to fall into place because of their complexity.

Among the items on this list are a replacement for the decrepit Civic Center Parking Garage, which is literally crumbling as you read this; 31 Elm St., an all-important component to the downtown’s recovery because of its location and historical importance; the Paramount Theater project, equally important for all the same reasons; CityStage, now dormant for close to a year; and redevelopment of what has become known as the ‘blast zone,’ the area directly impacted by the natural-gas explosion in late 2012.

To explain their complexity, Kennedy started by making a simple yet poignant observation about development in a city like Springfield.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated,” he explained, adding quickly that there are signs of progress with each of those initiatives, and some may be moved over the goal line in the months to come.

Mayor Domenic Sarno agreed, noting that, among those missing pieces, the top priority at this point is probably a new parking garage, primarily because it is essential to realizing many of the other items on the to-do list, such as a deeper restaurant district, more new businesses, and, overall, greater vibrancy downtown.

“The garage is a mainstay for our business community, and the MassMutual Center is a state facility — the garage is an integral part for the programming that goes on there, whether it’s MGM, the Thunderbirds, or college commencements,” said Sarno, adding that he’s already had discussions with both state and federal leaders about potential funding sources for such a facility. “We’re looking to move on this ASAP.”

For this, the latest installment its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at the jigsaw puzzle that is Springfield — meaning the pieces that have fallen into place and those that are still missing.

Rising Tide

‘The New Wave.’

That’s the name those in the Planning office and the Springfield Regional Chamber gave to what has become an annual presentation detailing planned and proposed projects in the City of Homes.

And ‘wave’ fits, said Kennedy, because new developments have been coming in waves, one after another, and there is a new one making its way to shore.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them. I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight. They also know that we know how to connect the dots.”

It follows previous waves that brought MGM Springfield, CRRC, a revitalized Union Station, and a repaired I-91 viaduct, projects that were of the nine-figure variety (MGM was almost 10) or very close — the final price tags for CRRC and Union Station were just under $100 million.

The newest wave has just one initiative of that size, and it’s a municipal project — a new pumping station to be built on part of the land once occupied by the York Street Jail. But while many of the projects are smaller, eight- and seven-figure endeavors, they are equally important, said Kennedy, adding that they represent a mix of expansion efforts by existing companies, or ‘legacy businesses,’ as he called them, and relative newcomers.

Together, the projects touch many different sectors of the economy, include both new construction and renovation of existing structures, and total several hundred million dollars in new development. The lengthy list includes:

• MassMutual expansion. The financial-services giant is relocating 1,500 workers to Springfield, increasing the workforce in the city to 4,500. A $50 million project to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield is slated to be completed by 2021;

• Big Y, with a 232,000-square-foot expansion of the current distribution center in Springfield, bringing the total to 425,000 square feet. The $46 million project is due to be completed later this year;

• Way Finders, which is constructing a new, $16.8 million headquarters building at the location of the Peter Pan bus terminal. The 23,338-square-foot structure, to house roughly 160 employees, is slated to open in the spring of 2020;

• Willys-Overland development, a planned 60-unit, market-rate housing project in the one-time auto showroom. Construction is slated to start soon on the $13.8 million project;

• Innovation Center. Grand-opening ceremonies for the $7 million facility on Bridge Street were staged in February. Work continues on the façade, and a new restaurant is planned for the ground floor;

• CVS. Work is set to commence shortly on a new CVS to be constructed at the corner of Main and Union streets. The $2 million facility, to feature what developers are calling an ‘urban design,’ is slated to open this fall;

• Redevelopment of the former RMV site. The location on Liberty Street will be converted into a Cumberland Farms. The $3 million project will benefit a neighborhood that city officials say is underserved when it comes to convenience and gas;

• The Springfield Performing Arts Academy, specifically a $14 million project to relocate the academy in the former Masonic Temple on State Street;

• Tower Square. The office/retail center is the site of several new developments, including renovations to the hotel (which will be rebranded back to Marriott), a new White Lion brewery, and relocation of the YMCA of Greater Springfield into several locations within Tower Square; and

• Educare. A $14 million, 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art early-education facility is currently under construction in the Old Hill neighborhood. The project, a joint partnership between Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and Springfield College, will serve 141 children and is slated to open this fall.

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage on what’s known as parcel 3, the parking lot behind the TD Bank tower. City officials say a new garage is a must for Springfield.

That’s quite a list, said Kennedy, adding that it’s come about largely because of renewed confidence in the city and its future, an attitude far removed from the one that existed even a decade ago, when there were far fewer businesses willing to bet on the City of Homes.

Getting Down to Business

Indeed, today, as evidenced by all the projects in progress or on the drawing board, there is renewed interest in Springfield across many sectors of the economy — from tourism and hospitality to startups looking for a place to launch, to those looking to be part of the burgeoning cannabis industry in the Bay State.

The city has a message for all these constituencies — that it’s open for business and willing to work with those who would make Springfield their home.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them,” said the mayor. “I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight.

“They also know that we know how to connect the dots,” he went on. “We know how to work with all the players — federal, state, and on the local level, all the way down. And they know that we’re willing to put skin in the game, too, and that’s been very advantageous.”

Kennedy agreed, and said that, overall, the city has become what he called a “reliable, predictable partner,” something every business is looking for as it considers locating or relocating in a specific community.

“They don’t need showhorses, they don’t need a lot of glitz,” he told BusinessWest. “They simply want to do their business and know they have a good partner, and I think that’s what we’ve done from the start, and when we sit down to negotiate with people, I think they understand that, and they feel comfortable.”

Kennedy traces this growing sense of comfort to the lengthy and involved process of bringing a casino to the area.

“I think the thing that showed people we were serious was the whole casino process — not necessarily MGM, but the whole process,” he explained. “How we did it, and how upfront with everyone we were. People talk about being transparent, and that’s a jargony-type of a word, but we see it that way … and I think that, by virtue of having a billion-dollar investment come your way, a lot of other companies externally took a look at it, and internally said, ‘look what’s happened.’”

That was a reference to those legacy companies he mentioned, including MassMutual, Big Y, Balise Motor Sales, which is planning another major project in the city’s South End, and many others.

This ability to connect the dots, and be a reliable partner, is creating some progress with some of those aforementioned missing pieces to the puzzle, and will hopefully generate momentum with other initiatives in that category, said Kennedy, who started by referencing two important projects downtown — Elm Street and the Paramount project.

The former, the six-story block at 13-31 Elm St., has been mostly vacant for the past three decades. Plans to convert it into market-rate housing received a significant boost earlier this year when MGM Springfield announced it would was willing to invest in the project as part of its commitment to the city and state to provide at least 54 units of market-rate housing in the area near the casino.

“We’re hoping that we have a development deal struck in a matter of weeks,” said Kennedy. “We’re waiting for the last one or two pieces to fall into place. It’s a tough project, but it’s a necessary project.”

Meanwhile, the $41 million Paramount project — renovation of the historic theater and the adjoining Massasoit Hotel — is moving forward, with preservation work on the roof and façade slated to begin later this year.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno has a healthy collection of ceremonial shovels in his office, one visible sign of the progress the city has made over the past several years.

Another large missing piece is activity in the so-called blast zone, he said, referring to the area from Lyman to Pearl streets and from Dwight to Spring streets. He said the Willys-Overland development, in the heart of this zone, may be a catalyst to more development there.

“Once that project gets going, I’m hoping it will give some push to further development in the blast area, which is probably the next horizon for Springfield,” he noted. “Some property owners have done things — there’s been some clearing and demolition — but others are just waiting and being patient. That’s why this [Willys-Overland] development is important; you have to get that first one in the ground and hope things happen from there.”

Still another missing piece is aggressive marketing of the city and its many assets, said Sarno, adding that may not be missing much longer. Indeed, the city, working in conjunction with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council and a number of area media outlets, is getting closer to launching a marketing campaign for Springfield and the region.

It will focus on a number of audiences, he said, including residents of this region, many of whom need to know about the many good things happening locally, and businesses owners far outside it, who also need to know.

“We have a lot to offer in Springfield — and in Franklin County, Berkshire County, and across Hampden County, and we have to do a better job of telling our story,” the mayor said “When you’re making a sauce, you put in the ingredients; we have all the ingredients here — we just need make a push and send out a clarion call. We need a push locally — sometimes we’re our own worst enemy — but then we need to make a regional push.”

But perhaps the biggest missing piece isn’t actually missing — though it will be soon — and that’s a working parking garage downtown.

Spot of Trouble

Which brings us to a downtown property known as ‘parcel 3.’

That was the name affixed to a number of assembled parcels of land that eventually became the surface parking lot behind the TD Bank office tower on Main Street, an initiative that was part of the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan, drafted nearly 40 years ago and amended several times since.

And that name has stuck — well, at least with city development leaders. To the rest of the world, it’s ‘the parking lot behind the TD Bank building.’ But ‘parcel 3’ is becoming part of the lexicon again as discussions concerning the Civic Center Parking Garage and the glaring need to replace it heat up — out of necessity.

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building — could give rise to a modern parking garage — and open up a development opportunity on the site of the current, deficient garage across the street.

“The garage is on borrowed time,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), quickly adding that this sentiment certainly represents an understatement. The garage probably has only a few years of useful life left, he went on, noting that there are areas on several floors that are currently unusable for parking, thus heightening the need for action.

The SRA, which owns parcel 3, currently leases it to an entity called New Marlboro Corp., which owns the TD Bank facility, a.k.a. 1441 Main St.

That lease, originally 30 years in duration when signed in the early ’80s, was extended several years ago to 2028. And this lease and the fine print within it will obviously become the focal point of discussion in the coming months, said Moskal, as the city tries to move forward with plans to replace the Civic Center Parking Garage with a 1,400-spot facility on the most obvious site for such a facility — parcel 3.

Kennedy agreed, and noted that this is a complex project, in terms of both financing — the projected pricetag is $45 million, and several funding sources would likely be involved, from the Springfield Parking Authority (SPA), which owns the current, failing garage, to the state and the federal government — and the number of players involved, from the SRA to the SPA to TD Bank.

“But just because it’s complicated, we can’t walk away from it,” he said. “A new garage is necessary for downtown; that parking facility at the Civic Center is the main commercial-district parking facility.”

And a new parking garage downtown not only secures a replacement for a long-deficient facility, said Kennedy, but it creates a new and intriguing development opportunity in the central business district — the current garage site.

“You have not only MGM here, but a rehabbed Pynchon Plaza, a burgeoning museum district, especially with the new Dr. Seuss Museum, and other things happening downtown,” he said. “I think we could have a nice mixed-use residential complex there with some indoor parking.”

The mayor agreed. “That’s a very valuable piece of property,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while it while it might become a surface parking lot for the short term, there are a number of more intriguing possibilities for the long term.

While the city continues to reshape and revitalize the downtown, progress is taking place outside it in the many neighborhoods that define the community, said both Sarno and Kennedy.

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $19.68
Commercial tax rate: $39.30
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

They noted a number of projects, including the planned new Brightwood/Lincoln School, a $70.2 million facility that would replace both the Brightwood and Lincoln elementary schools, and be located adjacent to the existing Chestnut Middle School on Plainfield Street; the new branch of the Springfield Library in East Forest Park, due to be completed this fall; expansion of the residential complex in the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing complex in Mason Square (60 new affordable units are planned); a new Pride store at the corner of State Street and Wilbraham Road; several park projects; a redesign of the troublesome ‘X’ traffic pattern; reconfiguration of the Six Corners intersection; and renewed efforts to reinvent the Eastfield Mall into a community with a mix of housing, retail, and other components.

“We’re making a lot of progress in our neighborhoods,” the mayor said. “People are focused on downtown, but our neighborhoods are important, and we’re making great strides there, too.”

The Big Picture

Getting back to that picture on the wall outside his office, Kennedy acknowledged that, as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t tell the full story of all that’s happened in Springfield over the past several years.

And it will only become less accurate, if that’s the proper word, in the months and years to come.

But that, as they say, is a good problem to have. A very good problem.

For years, Springfield was the picture of stagnancy. Now, it’s the picture of motion and continued progress.

There are still some missing pieces, to be sure, but the puzzle is coming together nicely.

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

Opinion

Editorial

We’ll probably never know how far the talks went between Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts concerning the acquisition of the $2 billion casino in Everett supposedly ready to open any time now.

We’ll just say that we’re glad — and the state should be glad, and the city of Springfield should be glad, and Everett should be glad — that those talks are over, and that MGM will stand pat (yes, that’s an industry term) and not pursue that property.

Had those talks continued and a sale been forged … well, let’s just say we don’t want to go there. And, again, we’re glad the state doesn’t have to. The status quo is working quite well in Springfield, thank you, and if there’s one thing the state and its Gaming Commission don’t need to bring to the picture right now, is question marks — or more question marks, to be more precise.

In case you missed it — and it was hard to miss — word leaked that Wynn Resorts, which is now licensed to operate a casino in Everett under the Encore brand, was in what were called “very preliminary discussions” about a sale of that property to MGM.

Media outlets across the Commonwealth then printed stories laden with conjecture about whether the sale should take place and what might happen if it did. Most of those quoted blasted the concept and projected that it would create something approaching chaos at a time when the state needed just the opposite from its still-fledgling casino industry.

“This isn’t a Monopoly game,” former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, a key author of the state’s gaming law, told the Boston Globe as news of the talks broke, adding that a sale of the Boston property, which would force MGM to divest itself of the Springfield facility, was far from a slam dunk. Carlo DeMaria, mayor of Everett, went further, saying, “it’s not going to happen.”

Turns out he was right, because amid that wave of negative commentary and gloom-and-doom conjecture, MGM announced that it was playing the hand it was dealt.

Whether that’s the best move for company, we can’t say. But we can say it’s the best move for the state and this region.

MGM is a known commodity, but whichever entity would buy the Springfield casino is not, and while there are plenty of good casino operators out there, we don’t need an unknown commodity at this point.

Especially in Greater Springfield. Communities, businesses, nonprofits, and other constituencies have forged solid working relationships and partnerships with MGM. They haven’t forged them with a casino on Main Street, but instead with a company, one that has come to be a trusted stakeholder in this region.

So we’re glad MGM is not seeking potentially greener pastures in Boston.

But while this threat has passed, we have to wonder about how it materialized in the first place. The fact that Wynn Resorts fought a long, hard, very expensive battle to open a casino in Everett and then explored a sale just as it was set to cross the finish line is a head scratcher, to be sure.

But there is a lot we don’t know about this industry, and maybe a sale makes sense on some levels, especially if Wynn, which desperately wanted into the Massachusetts market, is now intent on getting out.

Just not a sale to MGM.

Now that MGM has backed away, it’s time for the Gaming Commission to determine whether Wynn is still the best fit for the Boston market, and if it isn’t, the state should find another player.

It’s also time to move forward with the next big order of business — sports gambling. As it did with gaming itself, the state is dragging its feet on sports gambling, losing revenue to neighboring Rhode Island with each day that passes.

Thankfully, the state, and Springfield, won’t have to deal with a change of ownership at the casino in Springfield’s South End.

Opinion

Editorial

They called the event ‘The New Wave’ — and that’s an appropriate name for the annual update on Springfield’s business and civic projects.

Staged by the city in partnership with the Springfield Regional Chamber, this annual late-winter event, the latest installment of which was staged recently at the Basketball Hall of Fame, has had several names over the years, most of them rail-oriented — to coincide with the long-awaited revitalization of Union Station and also to provide plays on words such as the city being on the proverbial ‘right track.’

Most just call this the ‘update meeting,’ and they’ve been staged for maybe six or seven years now. That timeline coincides with Kevin Kennedy’s arrival as the city’s chief Economic Development officer and his more aggressive approach to telling the city’s story. It’s also a stretch when there has been a much better story to tell.

Which brings us back to the title of this year’s presentation. What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.

That number conveys the dollar value of business and civic projects since that fateful day in 2011 when a tornado roared through the city. It’s an impressive number that, of course, includes MGM Springfield (almost a quarter of the total), CRRC, and several other nine- and eight-digit projects. But it also includes dozens, if not hundreds, of seven-, six-, and even five-digit projects that all add up — to a wave of positive energy.

“What’s been happening in Springfield over the past several years can truly be described as a wave — a $4.19 billion wave that is gathering momentum, and riders, as it moves.”

And while that number is impressive, perhaps the more meaningful one is $400.4 million. That’s the dollar amount for projects announced since the last of these update meetings, a number that reflects everything from Big Y’s $42 million distribution expansion to MassMutual’s $50 million in investments in Springfield; from the new $14 million Educare facility to the $14 million headquarters for Way Finders taking shape on the site on the old Peter Pan bus station; from the planned renovation of the Paramount ($41 million) to the soon-to-be-announced (we hope) plans to renovate the long-vacant Elm Street block. And we’re pretty sure it doesn’t include a host of cannabis-related businesses now in the talking stages and a planned hotel on the site of the old York Street Jail.

This is what happens when a city gathers momentum and the attention of the development community. People want to be part of what’s happening. People want to ride the wave.

It’s a refreshing change from a dozen years ago when people were talking about the lights going out in this city with doubts about when and if they would go back on.

They have gone back on — and in a big way. And there should be even more evidence of this at the next update meeting.

Features

Complex Equation

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Both the office/retail complex known as Tower Square and the hotel that sits on the property would be considered somewhat risky investments, given their recent history. But the investment group Springfield Hospitality believes otherwise — in both cases. The new ownership group has announced an ambitious plan to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, and it is confident about gaining a wide range of new tenants on the retail side of the equation.

As they talked about their plans for Tower Square, the downtown Springfield landmark they acquired last year, and the hotel that is a prominent part of the complex, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel had to be careful, even cryptic, with some of their comments.

Especially when it came to the long-rumored signing of the YMCA of Greater Springfield as a major new tenant. That deal has not been finalized, said the partners as they talked with BusinessWest following a press conference late last month on their plans for the complex. And when it is, that news will be announced by the Y.

But also when it came to the small park across Main Street from Tower Square. They hinted quietly that this acreage — dubbed the ‘Little Park for a Little While’ after the Steiger’s department store that sat on the site was torn down (yes, that was 24 years ago now) — will likely become the site of another “hospitality-related business,” probably a boutique hotel.

“We really can’t say anything about that at this time; that’s for … later; that will be phase two,” said Mitta, president and CEO of Mitta’s Group and a partner with Patel and also Rohit Patel and Kamlesh Patel of Maine in the Tower Square project.

As for what’s happening now, Mitta and Patel were not at all cryptic or even careful as they talked about Tower Square, the hotel, their plans for both, and their optimism when it comes to achieving progress and profitability at the office/retail complex that has certainly seen better days.

Peter Marks

Peter Marks says a long list of renovations and upgrades must be undertaken to get the Marriott flag back over the hotel, and the new ownership group is committed to making them.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t,” said Patel, owner of the Hampton Inn on Columbus Avenue in Springfield, a Quality Inn in Chicopee, and other hotels across the region, adding that, while there is a good deal of vacant space in the complex, especially on the retail side, there is a solid foundation on which to build, with two colleges, UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, assuming large footprints in the building.

And there are already some new building blocks in place, including White Lion Brewing, which is constructing a brewery and tasting area in the long-vacant Spaghetti Freddy’s space along Bridge Street.

As for the hotel, the press conference was called to announce that the ownership group is on schedule and on target to get the ‘Marriott’ name back on the façade. It was removed and replaced with ‘Tower Square Hotel’ in the summer of 2017 as the complex’s former owner, MassMutual, was putting the property on the market.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t.”

To get that brand name back, the owners must complete a comprehensive renovation and upgrade, said Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, adding that plans have been blueprinted, considerable infrastructure work has already been completed, and the owners are committed to spending “tens of millions of dollars” to return the hotel to prominence and make it a vital cog in the ongoing resurgence in downtown Springfield.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Marks and members of the ownership team about Tower Square and its future (or at least the subjects they could talk about at this time) and why they believe this was a solid investment for them, and the city.

New Lease on Life

Mitta acknowledged that, to the casual observer, anyway, the glass at Tower Square probably looks more half-empty (at least) than half-full.

But the total amount of vacant space (perhaps 20% of the complex) is less than most would think, and there has been, as noted, some progress made toward bringing that number down further.

White Lion will make Tower Square its mailing — and brewing — address, he said, adding quickly that a staffing company and AT&T have come on as tenants recently.

And there is that solid foundation of education facilities on which to build, he said, adding that there are a number of different ways the space may be repurposed in the future.

This is what the new ownership group — operating under name Springfield Hospitality Group — saw when it began looking at Tower Square as a potential investment in 2018. The group paid $7 million for the 25-story office tower and attached retail space, parking garages, and the Steiger’s parcel. The hotel, a separate purchase, was acquired for $10.5 million.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location,” he told BusinessWest. “We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

As an example, he said the complex could become an ‘educational hub,’ or a bigger one, given that there are already two institutions with classrooms and other facilities there.

“We’re working with two other local colleges,” he said, adding that he could not disclose their names because the talks were very preliminary. “Meanwhile, we want to bring in some basic amenities such as a nail salon or a massage parlor or banking. Overall, there are many ways we can fill the available spaces, and we have already started implementing them.”

By that, he meant the AT&T store, the new staffing agency, and the fitness center and daycare components of the YMCA’s operation, which, as noted, have not been finalized.

Overall, flexibility will be the watchword moving forward, he said, and while there are certain visions that have developed for what might the Tower Square complex might look like in a year, or five years, the shape it takes will ultimately be determined by the marketplace and the types of opportunities that present themselves.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location. We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

“We didn’t have a full plan for Tower Square, because as a businessman, you have to take what is available and turn it into opportunity,” Mitta noted, adding that the business plan calls for being profitable “from day one,” and more so with each passing quarter and year.

As for the hotel, it was “unflagged” — yes, that’s the industry term — when Marriott presented a long list of needed renovations and upgrades to the previous owner, MassMutual, which decided those expenditures were not worth making.

As with Tower Square itself, the Springfield Hospitality Group saw things differently, said Patel, adding that he and his partners believe the sizable investment — whatever it will be — will ultimately translate into enough room bookings, weddings, meetings, and other events to justify the expense of getting the Marriott name back over the front desk.

Mitta agreed. He said new construction of a Marriott would require an investment of between $200,000 and $300,000 per room, based on where this building project was taking place. Between the acquisition price of the hotel and the cost of the planned renovations and upgrades, the Springfield Hospitality Group is in that ballpark and probably just below.

“And if those new construction projects are going to work, why not renovations at this prestigious landmark?” he asked, before answering that question himself, in the affirmative.

Plans call for what Marks called an ‘inside-out’ concept, where elements of the city are incorporated into the design and décor of the renovated hotel. Specific improvements call for renovations to each room and the addition of one room, a suite, bringing the total to 266, said Marks. Also, the sixth floor, familiar to most area business owners and managers because it’s home to the banquet space and conference rooms, will get a makeover that includes a new fitness center with glass walls overlooking the rooftop garden.

A new, much larger bridal suite will be added, he went on, noting that the lobby will be given a new look as well.

“There are a lot of exciting changes,” he said, adding that the hotel will become part of what’s called the ‘Reimagined Marriott World,’ a comprehensive survey of customers and potential customers to determine what they want in a hotel — and a Marriott.

“The feedback was, ‘we want more than a place to sleep,’” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we want a place where we can connect, relax, entertain, and do all the things we want to do.’”

And this led to the conceptualization of what he called a ‘great room’ in the lobby.

“The entire great room is the one place to be,” he said. “There’s a bar there, you can eat anywhere in that whole great-room area, and technology will allow our staff to deliver unsurpassed hospitality in the market by going out and greeting the customer with tablet in hand and checking them in the lobby.”

Model rooms will be available for viewing this spring, he went on, adding that construction, already underway on infrastructure systems, will move to more visible areas in the coming weeks.

Staying Power

“We’re going to be the number-one, most prestigious hotel in Western Mass.,” said Mitta, adding that the planned renovations and improvements should position the hotel to fully capitalize on the momentum being seen in downtown Springfield.

He noted that the arrival of MGM Springfield, as well as the performances and events it will bring, add up to considerable opportunity for a name-brand hotel located in the heart of downtown.

“Usually, a casino like this has 1,000 rooms, and some have 1,800 or 2,000 rooms,” Mitta explained. “This one has 250 rooms. That’s not enough when you bring events like Stevie Wonder and Cher to your city. This creates opportunities. If we make this hotel business-friendly with a lot of amenities, people will stay downtown.”

That was the thinking behind this large investment, and the partners who made it are confident their investment will soon start paying real dividends.

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