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UMass Center at Springfield Looks to Grow Its Influence

Root Geometry

Daniel Montagna says the UMass Center

Daniel Montagna says the UMass Center at Springfield is looking to build on the momentum gained during a solid first year.

Dan Montagna says he can easily quantify the success enjoyed by the UMass Center at Springfield during its initial year, as well as the momentum it gained for the second, which started earlier this month.

Indeed, the number of classes offered at the 26,000-square-foot facility in Tower Square increased from 20 in its first semester of operation a year ago to more than 25 this fall. And while he didn’t have an exact count when interviewed by BusinessWest — the so-called ‘add/drop period’ for many classes was still ongoing — he was quite certain that the number of students enrolled in classes in the state-of-the-art facility had increased markedly as well.

“Going from fall to spring, we saw a sharp increase in both the number of classes and programs, as well as enrollment,” said Montagna, who assumed the role of director of Operations at the center last spring. “And for the fall, it looks like a little bit of an uptick in the number of classes, but a potentially greater number of students who will be attending classes here.”

There were other measures of success, he went on, including the 275 or so community events of varying sizes staged at the center’s diverse facilities.

As for the other assignment put to him by BusinessWest  — qualifying how the center has fared with its mission of helping to bring vibrancy to downtown Springfield and provide new levels of convenience for area students — he said that was slightly more difficult, especially the first part of that equation.

And it will certainly take more than 12 months to effectively answer that question.

But he felt very confident saying that the center has established a firm foothold downtown, forged several strong working relationships with other area colleges, and already become a huge asset for the region.

“From our measures, it’s been a very successful start for the center,” he said, adding that the obvious goal is to build on that momentum. “It’s about growth, expansion of the academics, and seeing what other courses we can bring in and focus on concentration areas.

“As for the other side of the equation, the community-engagement side,” he continued, “the fact that we’ve been able to plant roots in the heart of downtown Springfield and host perhaps 300 community events has been outstanding, and something we continue to build on.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes a quick look back at the UMass Center’s first year in operation, and then puts the focus on how this facility can continue to gain momentum.

Course of Action

Montagna was on hand when the center opened its doors a year ago — and actually well before that — in the capacity of assistant director of operations.

He had taken that role after stints as a project manager for a private consulting firm that specialized in work with nonprofits, and, before that, as a program manager for the so-called Bay State Roads program, a state- and federally funded transportation initiative that provided technical assistance to officials in area communities. He said he joined the team at the UMass Center because he was intrigued by the center’s role with the university — and with the city of Springfield — and wanted to be a part of it.

“What attracted me to it was the concept of UMass bringing a campus to the downtown Springfield area,” he explained. “That immediately grabbed my attention, and as a local native, growing up in Agawam and living in the Pioneer Valley my whole life, I have a personal investment in the surrounding community.

“I’ve always been a cheerleader for Springfield doing better things,” he went on. “And the timing around the developments in the downtown, the revitalization efforts, along with the university making this investment and wanting to bring some of what they’re known for to the downtown area, was really exciting to me.”

He would take on a much bigger part last spring, when William Davila, the center’s first director of Operations, left to take a position with the Center for Human Development.

Montagna said his job description has a number of moving parts — from keeping the proverbial lights on to being a liaison to Tower Square management to being the face of the center within the community — but at its heart it’s fairly simple: to continually broaden the center’s impact in downtown Springfield and within the region’s higher-education sector. And, he said, a successful first year has provided a solid foundation on which to build.

“We want to focus on all aspects of our mission, building not only the scope of academic programs here, working with the campus communities,” he explained, “but also the community-engagement component; we want to be much more than a satellite campus.”

Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that the center can be classified using a number of nouns, starting with ‘facility.’

Indeed, it serves as a central location from which UMass Amherst and other colleges and universities can offer classes and other programs.

That location, as well as the large inventory of facilities — from large classrooms to varying-sized conference rooms to large study areas — also makes the center a resource, another of those nouns, said Montagna, adding that a wide array of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and economic-development groups have staged meetings and other types of events there.

That list includes Springfield Public Schools, the United Way, the Department of Homeland Security (which staged a training program for local law-enforcement officers there), and the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield.

As it carries out those roles, the center also serves as a “partnership,” he went on, adding that UMass Amherst collaborates with Westfield State University, UMass Boston, Springfield Technical Community College, and Holyoke Community College to provide convenient access to courses in a number of fields.

The center now hosts classes for several UMass Amherst programs, including the College of Nursing, which has a large presence there, as well as TEACH 180 Days in Springfield, the Isenberg School of Management’s part-time MBA program, and University Without Walls. Meanwhile, it also hosts UMass Boston’s Addictions Counselor Education Program; Adult Career Pathways, Adult Basic Education, community health training, and workforce-training programs from STCC and HCC; and a Community Planning course, which is a collaboration between the STCC, Westfield State, and UMass Amherst planning departments.

All of the above assures a steady flow of students and instructors into the center, which offers both day and night classes, said Montagna, adding that this critical mass inspires use of another term to describe the facility — catalyst.

And while there may be some objective gauges of the overall impact of the center — such as in the number of additional lattes sold at Dunkin Donuts or paninis at Hot Table on the ground floor at Tower Square — this is more of a subjective analysis at this point, he told BusinessWest, although those at the center continue to look for more ways to measure its impact.

“One of the things I’m really working on with my staff is the quantifying component,” he explained. “We’re trying to measure as much as we can; we’re trying to work toward more cohesive, more comprehensive tracking of our usage and our impact downtown.”

Overall, he believes the center is certainly contributing on the micro level — with receipts at area downtown restaurants, for example — and will eventually be impactful on the macro level as well, being one of a host of new facilities, businesses, and initiatives that make downtown a true destination.

Branching Out

Summing up the UMass Center’s first year of operation, Montanga said the initiative (there’s still another noun used to describe it) returned to that notion of putting down roots, noting that they have certainly taken a firm hold.

What develops from those roots remains to be seen, obviously, but he believes the center will grow into a vital contributor to the region’s economy, its ongoing efforts to create a large, capable workforce for the future, and the vibrancy of a downtown in the midst of a comeback.

In many respects, he said in conclusion, it is already all of the above.

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

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