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Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Past Due

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

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Finishing Work

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

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

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

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

 

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Improvement

Cover Story

Karen Belezarian-Tesini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the team at Best Tile

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

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

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

 

Off-the-wall Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Flooring Their Customers

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Opinion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News


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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

The 50 finalists are: 

Accommodations 

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

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

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

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

 

Attractions 

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl Wesley, ranger, Springfield Armory, Springfield; and 

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

 

Banquets 

Shanique Fair, catering sales manager, MGM Springfield; 

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

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

 

Beverage 

Terry Ryan, bartender, Collins Tavern, West Springfield; 

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

Jessica Santinello, bartender, Maple Leaf, Westfield; 

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

Amanda Reed, bartender, the Ranch Pub House, Southwick 

 

Food Casual 

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

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

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

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

 

Food Tableside 

Kelsi Donohue, server, Bnapoli Italian, West Springfield; 

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

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

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

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

Benny  Beans, server, Lattitude, West Springfield; 

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

Michael Moriarty, server, Villa Napoletana, East Longmeadow. 

 

Public Service 

Serena Curley, concierge, Baystate Medical Center, Springfield; 

Latrina Haynie, phlebotomist, Baystate Lab, Springfield; 

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

Heather Wyman, office manager, Cordes Orthodontics, Westfield; 

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

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

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

 

Retail 

Yates Greenhalgh, cashier, Big Y, Wilbraham; 

Kerri O’Connor, manager, Athleta, Longmeadow; 

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

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

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

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

Carolyn Owens, cashier, Walgreen’s, Springfield; 

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

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

 

Transportation 

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

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

Tom McLeer, PVTA bus driver, PVTA, Springfield 

 

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

 

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

Daily News

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

— George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

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

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will certainly be missed.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Blast from the Past

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

At top, the Trolley Barn sign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pulling Out All the Stops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Before-and-after shots of the office area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Past Is Prologue

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

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

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

 

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

Manufacturing Special Coverage

The Shot Heard ’Round the Region

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State Sen. Eric Lesser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Targeted Response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another Shot at Employment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Loaded and Locked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sullivan agreed.

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

 

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Features

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—George O’Brien

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ingredients for Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Location, Location, Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pressing On

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

Lots of them.

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

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

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

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.

By George O’Brien

The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.

Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”

These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”

Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.

The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.

 

Space Exploration

Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.

What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.

“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.

“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.

Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.

As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.

Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.

The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.

And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.

The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.

“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.

Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.

The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.

The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.

As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.

“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.

“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”

And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.

“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”

 

Bottom Line

These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.

This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.

Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

When everyone gathered on Main Street that hot August day back in 2018 to mark the opening of MGM Springfield, no one really knew what to expect or what the future would bring.

Certainly, no one could have predicted what the scene would be like two and half years later.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic took a resort casino that was ‘ramping up’ — that’s the phrase we kept hearing over and again from past and present leaders — and knocked it completely off the ramp. The casino was shuttered for several months, and when it reopened, it was only at a fraction of its full capacity. Until very recently, the hotel and most of the restaurants were closed, and the event venues were quiet and dark.

These days, the capacity is not quite half and destined to keep inching higher. The hotel is open on weekends, and the sports bar has reopened its doors as well. But huge question marks surround just when and under what circumstances the casino complex will again be able to host concerts, shows, and other large-scale gatherings.

In some ways, we’re all back where we were almost 32 months ago … wondering what will happen and just what the casino will mean for Springfield and this entire region. That’s where we are as MGM Springfield tries to get the ramping-up process back to something approaching the plane it was on before the world stopped almost exactly a year ago.

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again … this region needs MGM to make a solid comeback from all that COVID has tossed at it. It needs to come, well, roaring back and play an important role in restarting, if that’s the right word, the renaissance that Springfield was enjoying before the pandemic made Main Street a quiet, almost depressing, place to be.

And a lot will have to go right for such a comeback to happen. First, people will have to regain the confidence needed to gather in large numbers. In other parts of the country, and especially Las Vegas, where the casino business is coming back to life, the signs are quite positive. ‘Pent-up demand’ is the phrase we’re hearing a lot these days, and the hope — the expectation — is that there will be large quantities of it.

But Springfield’s casinos — and all the state’s casinos — could use some help as they proceed back up the ramp. And the state Legislature could deliver some in the form of sports betting.

Lawmakers have been dragging their feet on this issue for years now, and we cannot understand why. Sports betting, if done right, would provide another, potentially huge revenue stream for the state’s casinos at a time when they really need it.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island now have sports betting, and Connecticut is poised to join the fray. Much-needed tax dollars are going to other states or the illegal-betting arena, and Massachusetts simply cannot afford to keep sitting on the sidelines. To borrow still another sports phrase, it needs to get in the game, and soon.

Reflecting once more on that day in August 2018, the expectation among many was that MGM Springfield would not solve all the region’s ills and would not magically transform the region overnight. Instead, it would be a player — a large and important player — and an economic engine.

The pandemic has certainly altered the timeline, but hopefully it hasn’t changed those expectations, or the probability they can be realized.

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — On the heels of the recent retirement of Joan Kagan, Square One has named Dawn Forbes DiStefano its new president and chief executive officer.

The announcement follows an extensive national search lead by the agency’s board of directors, staff and members of the community.

Following a 25-year career with the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, DiStefano joined the Square One team in January 2016 to lead the agency’s grant research, grant writing, and program-compliance efforts. She was quickly promoted to chief finance and grants officer, where she added oversight of the agency’s financial team to her list of responsibilities. In 2019, she was promoted to executive vice president where she took on oversight of the agency’s early-education and care programs and family-support services, and management of operations, including transportation, food service, and IT.

“We received nearly 60 applications and interviewed impressive candidates from across the country for this position,” says Peter Testori, board chair. “Not surprisingly, Dawn rose to the top of the list. Her breadth and depth of experience in the non-profit sector, her outstanding reputation throughout the Commonwealth, and her extensive knowledge of Square One’s programs, services, and staff make her the ideal person to continue to build on the success of Joan Kagan’s leadership.”

“Just as we pride ourselves on developing the leaders of tomorrow through our own programs and services, I am privileged to have experienced the leadership of Joan Kagan. “It is an honor for me to continue to navigate the path that Joan and those before her have paved.”

Kagan, who led the agency for 17 years, announced her retirement plans last summer. She continues to serve as an advisor to the leadership team during the transition.

“There is no one better suited for this role than Dawn,” says Kagan. “Square One has an amazing history of responding to the changing needs of our community through our programs, services and partnerships. I have every confidence that Dawn’s great determination, passion for serving children and families, and the tremendous respect that she has earned will allow her to continue that legacy.”

DiStefano serves on the boards of directors for the Massachusetts Council on Gaming Health, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Springfield Regional Chamber, Baystate Community Benefits Advisory Committee, and Businesses to End Human Trafficking. She also serves as a Commissioner on the Hampden County Commission on the Status of Women and Girls.

She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and her master’s degree in public administration and nonprofit management from Westfield State University.

Women in Businesss

Urban Oasis

mani-pedi area

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hit the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moving On Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Talk Podcast Special Coverage

We are excited to announce that BusinessWest, in partnership with Living Local, has launched a new podcast series, BusinessTalk. Each episode will feature in-depth interviews and discussions with local industry leaders, providing thoughtful perspectives on the Western Massachuetts economy and the many business ventures that keep it running during these challenging times.

Episode 41: Nov. 30, 2020

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

Nancy F. Creed

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

 

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A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

games might be played in early December

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

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

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


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


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

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

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

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

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

 

Setting Goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Knowing the Score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking Their Best Shot

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthcare Heroes

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

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jill Keough

Jill Keough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

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

The metaphor is an easy one to draw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the leadership team at Friends of the Homeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Test

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

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

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courses of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Domenic Sarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

View to the Future

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

But then he quickly corrected himself.

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

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

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

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

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

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Court Square project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When We Meet Again

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

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

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

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

Tower Square Hotel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

Wealth Management

Shared Expertise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daily News

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Finding Meaning

Kay Simpson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, at long last, open to visitors.

Safety First

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

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

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

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

MASS MoCA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Virtual Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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