The W.O.W. Factor
Westfield on Weekends Brings Some Energy to the City’s Streets
That’s what Bob Plasse, president of Westfield on Weekends, says is the group’s most important mission.
“We’re making connections between people, businesses, and neighborhoods,” he said. “The overriding goal is to market the city as a great place to live, work, and play, and we’re employing some new, innovative concepts to do so.”
Westfield on Weekends, or W.O.W. for short, is a non-profit organization dedicated to spearheading and promoting the arts, entertainment, and culture in its home city and creating a more cohesive community feel among its many neighborhoods.
To do so, W.O.W. hosts and promotes arts and culture-based events in Westfield, both independently and in conjunction with other organizations in need of assistance.
It’s an entirely volunteer-staffed non-profit organization, currently gleaning the bulk of its funding from miscellaneous grants and contributions. But despite small beginnings, some notable developments are sprouting in Westfield with the ‘W.O.W.’ name attached, adding further weight to the notion of the arts as an effective economic driver.
The W.O.W. board of directors is a diverse, lively bunch made up of area professionals, business owners, and leaders in arts, culture, and community planning. Each member says they got involved with W.O.W. at various times and for different reasons, but agree that the organization’s primary role is to improve the arts, culture, and entertainment profile of Westfield, which had been waning in recent years, by creating unique, branded events that involve all sectors of the community.
Plasse said he was planning a series of holiday events with the Western Hampden Historical Society when he crossed paths with Chris Dunphy, senior planning manager with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission and now treasurer for W.O.W.’s board of directors, who was trying to initiate a performing arts series in town.
The duo joined forces, and soon after, additional members began to add themselves to the fold – many already active members of the community, including Lisa Blouin, a psychology professor at Mount Holyoke College, Jeff Bradford, a sales manager, Kathi Palmer, a school teacher, Kate Pighetti, a Noble Hospital employee, Carl Quist, executive director of Stanley Park, and Chris Lindquist, director of the Westfield Atheneum.
“The opportunity came at the perfect time,” said Lindquist. “There were a few things going on in town that came together, and everyone seems to bring a different set of interests to the table that click together, and work.”
The Buzz Patrol
The group formalized themselves in 2003 with the help of the Westfield Community Development Corp., serving as a committee within the CDC before incorporating and securing its own non-profit status last year.
“That relationship opened us up to funding sources we wouldn’t have found on our own,” said Plasse, noting that W.O.W. continues to collaborate with the CDC.
The boost W.O.W. got from the affiliation also led to greater interest and membership, and created a backbone – and a board of directors – to strike out as an independent entity.
Gary Midura, for instance, was already involved with event planning with the Westfield High School football team, and saw an opportunity to extend his volunteerism, and that of Westfield’s students, into the greater community.
Pamela White, owner of the With Heart and Hand vintage, gift, and home décor shop on Court Street, said she was “strongly urged” by Plasse to join, and Karen Eaton, an attorney, said she’d been living in Westfield for only two months when she began volunteering, now serving as the board’s assistant clerk.
“We were looking to create broad themes, which in turn could serve as vehicles for all kinds of groups to market their events,” said Plasse. “Out of that evolved the greater mission of marketing Westfield, and out of that grew our board.”
W.O.W. secured its non-profit status and incorporated last year, and has since embarked on an extensive branding campaign.
The board enlisted the help of TSM Design in Springfield to create a cohesive identity, including a logo. To separate the new entity from the Pioneer Valley’s logo, which also used the word ‘wow,’ the group designed on a graphic treatment of just the letter ‘W’, followed by some multi-colored rectangles.
“It’s exactly what we were hoping to convey,” said Dunphy. “A spirit of movement, of a jumping, lively place.”
That logo is now the icing on the cake that is W.O.W.’s Web site, www.westfieldonweekends.org, which includes a calendar of events, a description of the many events W.O.W. has either created or participated in collaboratively, a growing list of area businesses that support W.O.W., maps and driving directions around Westfield, and a listing of places to eat, stay, and shop.
Plasse said the site is attracting a steady stream of visitors and is beginning to spread the arts and culture news of the city across the region.
“We’re really seeing the Web site take off,” he said. “When we hear of people coming in from other cities and towns to check out our events, that’s the greatest reward. That’s when we feel as though we’ve arrived.”
Dunphy said it’s also proof that the work W.O.W. has done to market Westfield as a leisure destination among its residents as well as potential visitors is beginning to take hold.
“The idea is to provide a sort of one-stop shop for non-profits, businesses, and individuals to promote their events, or to receive some assistance in planning one,” he said. “Through that process, some ideas will grow, some will change, and some might be shelved. But we welcome anyone to come to the table with an idea that, in turn, we can help to develop.
“It’s all geared toward generating interest in Westfield,” he continued, “and promoting the community as another alternative for entertainment, dining, or the arts.”
But there are a number of ancillary benefits emerging from W.O.W.’s work that also have an impact on Westfield’s overall community and cultural development.
For one, the events held throughout the year are helping to create a more lively downtown, which Eaton said is beginning to have an effect on the area’s housing market.
“Property values are rising, people are fixing their houses up, and overall it’s becoming a vibrant downtown community,” she said. “We still need to work on bringing Elm Street back to life, but already these new developments are exciting and energizing, and they add intangibles to the area that we didn’t have before.”
Dinner, Dancing, and Dickens
As Westfield on Weekends continues to mature, it’s serving as an increasingly effective umbrella for businesses, non-profit groups, community organizations, and individuals interested in planning or participating in community-wide events throughout the year.
The organization was recently written into the newly-formed Westfield Business Improvement District’s plan for the city, and will serve as a contractor with the BID to plan and host events.
In addition, W.O.W has received a handful of grants, including one from the Mass. Turnpike Authority for $50,000, shared with the city, which funded programming, Web site development, and advertising, among other operations. Sponsorships, membership fees (at different levels, similar to a public television or radio station), and private donations also fund programs, and costs are further defrayed somewhat by ticket sales.
Since its inception, W.O.W has spearheaded a number of arts and culture-inspired events, including:
- Dickens Days, a holiday celebration with a literary feel, and the first month-long event produced by Westfield on Weekends;
- Colonial Harvest Day, which celebrates the colonial history of Westfield as well as the autumn harvest;
- Arts on the Green, a visual and performing arts festival held on Labor Day, now entering its fourth year;
- Westfield in Motion, a series of events that celebrate the city’s contributions to transportation;
- Westfield CommUnityfest, held for the first time last year, which celebrated diversity and local heritage through art, music, and cuisine, and
- Wintergreen Fest, a month-long celebration held in March to mark the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
There are several other events encapsulated within those larger themes, and others that are on the drawing board now, in order to offer at least one themed event per season.
A ‘Great American Picnic’ is now being planned to coincide with Independence Day, for instance, and W.O.W. will also collaborate with the Westfield Wheelmen to host the World Series of Vintage Baseball this July and August.
Already, about two-dozen organizations and businesses collaborate with Westfield on Weekends, as volunteers, sponsors, or event planners. Those groups include churches, historical societies, booster clubs, and a few large employers, such as Noble Hospital, Westfield State College, and the Westfield School Department.
Westfield restaurants and clubs regularly participate in W.O.W. events, often providing live entertainment or menu choices to coincide with an event’s theme. Eaton said those establishments get an advertising boost from the city-wide events, and in turn W.O.W. enlists the help of area businesses to sponsor the events.
“There are also opportunities for the smaller businesses in town, which I think is important,” she said. “There’s a greater sense of inclusion and value when a smaller business can sponsor one event or one part of an event in a low-cost way.”
And in addition to business involvement, Midura, who joined W.O.W. initially to expand his own volunteerism, said the group’s year-round event-planning initiatives have also opened new doors for community service in Westfield, allowing many groups and individuals to contribute on a number of levels, and creating a cross-generation appeal.
“There are so many events in a year that volunteers can give their time during certain months – a little or a lot,” he said. “Any bit of help people can offer, we can use them.”
Midura said that model has also allowed W.O.W. to recruit Westfield students to volunteer, yet another byproduct of the organization that is bolstering its membership and its overall presence in town.
“If kids grow up not forced to volunteer, but rather shown the opportunities that abound, they start to recognize the various community resources that are open to them more quickly,” he said.
White agreed, noting that she plans on entering the schools in the fall in hopes of adding a few more volunteers to the fold, perhaps as part of a W.O.W. off-shoot for kids.
“I know that personally, I’m not just in this for the betterment of Westfield’s businesses or for the adult programming,” said White. “There is also a pride issue that’s important. We’re generating excitement about our community, and that needs to extend to our kids, because they’re the ones who will be running this city very soon.”
The Business of Traditions
Moving ahead, Plasse said W.O.W. will continue to brainstorm new events and to welcome new, partnering organizations and individuals to the fold. He said using technology as a tool is a prime focus – the Web site is updated constantly to remain up-to-date, and the group recently made itself known on the ubiquitous social networking site, MySpace.
Adding to the coffers through grants and donation is another concern, as is eventually adding paid staff to W.O.W. to streamline its many operations.
“Staff, sponsorship, and support are what we need,” said Plasse. “We are all creative, energetic people, but we need new blood to keep things running smoothly.”
Still, that’s not to say that he’s not pleased with the work W.O.W. has done in its short four-year existence. Indeed, it’s the opinions the group has changed over that time of which Plasse is most proud.
“Changing perceptions is a difficult thing,” he said. “Initially, there were some nay-sayers who said we’d never get everyone – or anyone – working together, but now we have a number of businesses working with us, faith-based organizations the boys and girls club, the YMCA, city departments, city government … the city in general has been very supportive.
“And that’s the real success.”
Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]