Johnny Appleseed Visitors’ Center Set to Reopen

After being closed for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Johnny Appleseed Visitors’ Center officially reopened to the public on Tuesday, June 9, 2020.

New health and sanitization protocols have been implemented to assure the safety of all guests, volunteers and staff. Highlights of the new protocols include:

  • Masks will be required at all times for everyone entering the facility – including staff and the public;
  • One Way Entry/Exit – guests will enter only through the front doors facing Route 2, and exit through the back entrance;
  • Hand sanitizer stations have been installed throughout the building;
  • New touchless paper towels dispensers, faucets and soap dispensers have been installed;
  • Restrooms will be professionally cleaned to sanitation protocols twice daily;
  • Countertop shield guards have been installed;
  • The front counter and the “touchless” credit card machine will be wiped after each customer service interaction;
  • All “touch” surfaces will be cleaned frequently throughout the day by staff;
  • Signs and floor markers have been added throughout the building to mark social distancing of at least six feet.

Visit North Central Massachusetts hopes the increased safety measures will inspire confidence in visitors, speeding the recovery process for the local travel and hospitality industry.

“Reopening the Johnny Appleseed Visitors’ Center is an important step forward for our region,” said Diane Burnette, manager of the center. “We are being very careful and taking the necessary precautions to protect the traveling public, so they feel more comfortable in getting out to support our local restaurants, hotels, shops and attractions.

Since 1997, the Johnny Appleseed Center has showcased the twenty-seven communities of North Central Massachusetts and is home to the Big Apple of New England (which is nearing it’s one-year anniversary of its unveiling). The visitors’ center also proudly displays historical artifacts including a bronze sculpture of the young Johnny Appleseed that greets visitors outside the doors of the Visitors Center and 91 apple trees located on the premises, including three Rambo trees that are direct descendants of the last remaining tree known to be planted by Johnny Appleseed. Each year the Johnny Appleseed Visitors’ Center sees upwards of 165,000 visitors from all over and plays a significant role in the tourism efforts of North Central Massachusetts.

You can visit the Johnny Appleseed Center Monday through Friday from 9am to 5pm. It is located 1000 RT. 2 W, Lancaster, MA 01523.

Economic Recovery in North Central Massachusetts

Fidelity Bank hasn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop them from serving customers with care and safety.

Sheila King-Goodwin

While operations may look and feel different now and for the foreseeable future, Sheila King-Goodwin, Senior Vice President and Chief Retail Banking Officer with Fidelity, said the financial institution has learned to adapt quickly.

And she said many of those changes will likely continue as the Massachusetts economy starts to reopen.

“We’re finding new ways to be flexible and innovative so clients can receive a caring service that provides clarity and confidence regarding their banking,’’ she said. “We’re taking a thoughtful but forward-thinking approach to the short term and long term.’’

She said that this may mean continuing to offer drive-up services for client needs like obtaining a new debit card or closing quickly on a loan. It also may mean scheduling more appointments as opposed to walk-ins to enable clients to have a designated time to meet with a Life Design Banker. We’re also finding that many of our clients are using our convenient digital banking services such as mobile and online banking which provides bank access at any time or anywhere. 

Gov. Charlie Baker announced a four-phase reopening plan on May 18 that outlined how and when Massachusetts businesses can reopen.

While there is still much uncertainty about the future, local leaders are hopeful.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,’’ said Roy Nascimento, president and chief executive officer of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “I think the region is well positioned because it has a very diverse regional economy.’’

Nascimento said the chamber has been working to help businesses manage the crisis with guidance, loans, and resources. He said the chamber had already hired a consultant to develop an economic development plan for the region, which will now serve as a blueprint for recovery.

“We’re being proactive and working tirelessly to support our businesses,’’ he said. “Recovery will be front and center to help those hit the hardest.’’

The chamber has formed a committee of 30 business and municipal leaders to help guide the development of the recovery plan.

Nascimento said he’s hopeful the region’s manufacturing and health care base will survive and even thrive as there becomes a greater need for some of the products and services they provide.

The sectors he’s most concerned about are those that have been most devastated by the pandemic – retail, hospitality and tourism.

“Those are the ones I worry about,’’ he said. “Those are the hardest hit and will be the last to recover.’’

The chamber hired RKG Associates, Inc. earlier this year to complete an economic development plan for North Central Massachusetts. And while it will still look at areas of growth for the region, a large component will now focus on recovery.

Eric Halvorsen

RKG had already started work and spent the last few months documenting the existing conditions in the region. This included identifying trends in the different industry sectors, such as which were growing, shrinking and had the potential for expansion; surveying commercial space and lease prices; and analyzing housing stock and prices, said  RKG’s Eric Halvorsen.

Upcoming phases of the plan will compare North Central Massachusetts to other regions in the state in areas like housing, schools, safety, transportation, development potential and existing jobs.

The report will also identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and try to identify what sectors the region should be trying to attract.

“They want to spend their time and money in a strategic way,’’ Halvorsen said. “We want the rifle shot, not the buck shot.’’

Other aspects of the plan will look at the workforce and determine what skills it must have to meet future job demand.

The plan will also look at some key sites in the region, such parcels of land or areas that could support future development and potential obstacles like zoning or infrastructure. And then outline specific strategies and recommendations.

“The overall goal is to provide the chamber with a roadmap for the next five to 10 years for what they should focus on from an economic development standpoint and how to best use the resources they have to advance economic development goals in the region,’’ Halvorsen said. “To some degree, some of this will pivot more to recovery – how do you ensure you don’t take five steps backwards?’’

The plan is expected to be done this fall.

Halvorsen is hopeful that a good portion of the jobs in North Central Massachusetts may be insulated from the pandemic to some degree. These include manufacturing, health care, social services, and possibly local and state government and education.

One other potential benefit for North Central Massachusetts is its location outside of Boston.

“If more people switch to working from home and don’t need to live so close to Boston, places like Fitchburg that have lower housing costs but access to commuter rail may start to see some activity,’’ he said.

On the flip side, there are also many jobs in restaurants, retail and hospitality, which may be the hardest to get back. Outdoor seating, for example, is a great option but the New England weather makes that challenging in the long term. Those employees also tend to make less, he said.

“The impact is compounded for those employees,’’ he said.

Henry Tessman

The Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg is a business that falls into several categories of hard hit industries – entertainment, lodging, retail and food service – making it a challenge to plan for reopening.

The Fitchburg-Boston lodge, one of 18 nationwide, features water parks, an arcade, rock wall, bowling, miniature golf, shops and restaurants, all sectors that have specific reopening guidelines.

But reopening plans are now in full swing, said Henry Tessman, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge New England.

Tessman said lodges throughout the country are working together to develop a reopening playbook. The company has also hired an industrial engineering firm that is assisting to develop policies for physical separation, personal protective equipment and flow patterns.

“We’re working with all directors at all properties and building best practices,’’ he said. “We have multiple states opening so we can see the good, bad and ugly of what states are doing and pull the best practices where we can.’’

Tessman said the Fitchburg location will be among the last in the country to reopen with a tentative target date of late June. Tessman said the lodge falls under Phase 3 of Baker’s reopening plan, similar to that of a casino.

“With the amount of time, money and work everyone’s put into these plans, I feel comfortable we will be in a good spot when we reopen,’’ Tessman said.

Among the changes –all employees will have temperatures checked each day and they will wear masks and gloves. The company is developing training videos for employees that will explain all new protocols.

“When we do open up, we will be very prepared to run what the new normal will be,’’ Tessman said.

Initially, Great Wolf will operate at 25 percent capacity, Tessman said, later ramping up to 50 percent and hopefully 100 percent by the end of September.

He said new technology is being installed in the Waterparks to track the number of people so he will know at all times how many people are in each park.

What the experience will be guests is still under consideration and will be dictated by state and company guidelines, Tessman said. However, the number of people allowed on towers and in pools will be limited. Some areas may be off limits, such as the hot tub.

“The biggest thing we have to focus on is social distancing in the pools, seating areas and towers,’’ he said.

Tessman said they won’t be issuing day passes this summer and the buffet will not be open. New policies will also be in place for payment in the restaurants.

So far, Tessman said bookings show customers are eager to get back.

“We’re seeing very good demand up front,’’ he said. “I think local travel will be quicker to return that cruises or airline travel so we may see better demand than other traditional vacation spots.’’

One area of uncertainty is education. North Central Massachusetts is home to both Fitchburg State University and Mount Wachusett Community College.

Dr. Jim Vander Hooven

MWCC President James Vander Hooven said there is no way to predict if colleges will allow students back on campus and how students will respond to those decisions.

But he said MWCC has and will continue to do everything it can to provide a safe environment for students and staff.

He said the Mount quickly moved all its classes online for the spring semester and continues to hold remote classes for the summer. Plans for summer camps and the fall are still uncertain.

Vander Hooven said many of the Mount’s students have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Many of their students have children at home and work in places like the restaurant industry but were laid off.

“Our students are already challenged in many ways and everywhere we turned, it was another hit for them,’’ he said.

Even in the best case scenario, he said the Mount is not rolling back into normal operation.

“It’s going to be a while before we’re back to our typical normal and we’ll have to redefine our normal,’’ he said.

One of the biggest difficulties facing the school is trying to plan for uncertainty. He said many colleges won’t know for a while whether classes will be held in person.

“We could find out as late as Aug. 1 whether we end up with a bunch of students who decided to come to the Mount or we could be down 15 percent,’’ he said. “I’m not even looking at current enrollment projections because it’s not worth the stress. It’s a great unknown.’’

But he too is confident.

“We’ll get through this,’’ Vander Hooven said. “The community here really has a strong backbone. I’m seeing interconnected communities supporting one another. When you can approach a crisis of this magnitude from that perspective, you have a good shot of getting through it together.’’

Dr. Mark Melnik

In the past, Massachusetts has been able to weather downturns because the state was insulated by some anchor institutions – hospitals and universities, said Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute.

But this time, those sectors may be hit, making the state more vulnerable this time around.

In the short term, Melnik said his biggest concerns are retail, tourism, entertainment and restaurants. Those sectors have a high percentage of small businesses that aren’t able to easily weather a downturn.

Unemployment numbers for North Central Massachusetts showed the largest spike in claims from those in the construction, food services and administrative support sectors.

But the manufacturing base in North Central Massachusetts may give the region an advantage, Melnik said.

“They have a really strong manufacturing sector,’’ Melnik said. “It’s one of the most significant manufacturing industries in the state.’’

Melnik said communities can’t sit back but need to be proactive in planning, seeking out state and federal planning dollars and working together.

That’s where the chamber can play a role, Nascimento said.

“We have several advantages that will help us weather this better than other regions,’’ Roy said. “We have a diverse economy, strong partnerships in the business community and with our municipal leaders, and the development of a recovery plan already in the works.’’

Nascimento also said he has confident in the region’s businesses.

“There will be some negative consequences for a while but our business community is resilient and will continue to be creative and adapt,’’ Nascimento said. “We’ve been through recessions before and this will pass over time.’’

In her role at the bank, King-Goodwin deals with many sectors of the economy. And while she acknowledges that there will be significant hardships in the short term, she is hopeful about the future.

“Businesses are redefining their operating model in new and creative ways she said, “It’s certainly causing angst and concern but I do have confidence that looking back, we will find there were innovative ideas that came out of this crisis that makes our businesses and communities better.’’ We were fortunate to support over 400 businesses most recently with needed Paycheck Protection Program funds and this has helped businesses bring employees back to work and provide them the confidence and capital needed to run their businesses.  

New North Central Massachusetts Economic Recovery Fund Launched to Support Small Businesses

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and its economic development arm, the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC), have launched an Economic Recovery Fund to provide loans to eligible small businesses that have been negatively impacted by the disruption. The idea for this new fund came from several financial institutions in the region that approached the Chamber with this concept of a recovery fund supported by financial institutions and other prominent businesses in the region.

This new recovery fund will help supplement the NCMDC’s existing efforts to provide emergency support to local businesses. This fund will fill gaps in the existing framework of SBA and other loan resources and provide access to financing to vulnerable and underserved small businesses. Once the immediate crisis has passed, then the remaining funds will be used to support long term efforts that will be needed to help the local economy recover.

Berkshire Bank, Fidelity Bank and Digital Federal Credit Union were the founding sponsors of this fund and have each contributed $100,000 to help capitalize the recovery effort. In addition, the NCMDC contributed $100,000 of its own money to the new fund. Workers’ Credit Union and BankHometown have also signed on to support the initiative with contributions of $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.

“Berkshire Bank believes it is very important to support Central Massachusetts and its smaller businesses. We are so pleased to assist the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce with its efforts to support small businesses with critical financing and technical assistance during this unprecedented crisis,” said Paul Kelly, Regional President of Berkshire Bank. “We applaud them for always supporting our small business community, especially underserved populations, as they are the economic lifeblood of our community.”

“Small businesses are the backbones of our local cities and towns. DCU is honored to contribute to the NCMDC’s economic recovery fund and help put working capital in the hands of community business owners in need of our support during this unprecedented and challenging time,” said Paul Carey, DCU’s Vice President of Commercial Lending. “DCU is committed to helping impacted local businesses find their financial footing, so that they can continue to make a meaningful difference in the lives of their customers and communities.”

“We are inspired by the way the Chamber and other community organizations are helping our North Central Massachusetts neighbors in need get through this crisis.” said Edward F. Manzi, Jr., Chairman and CEO of Fidelity Bank. “During times like this it is more important than ever for Fidelity Bank to live up to our Caring LifeDesign promise and provide critical support to our community, clients, and colleagues.”

Small businesses and non-profits in the NCMDC’s lending area are eligible for loans of up to $50,000 through the Economic Recovery Fund. To qualify under this program, they must be an existing organization and be able to provide two years of tax returns, as well as demonstrate a direct financial impact from the COVID-19 pandemic on their operations. The loan terms are flexible to fit the situation of the business.

For more information on the Economic Recovery Fund or to inquire about a loan, please contact Sandie Cataldo, Economic Development Manager at 978.353.7600 or email scataldo@northcentralmass.com. Businesses or organizations interested in supporting the new Economic Recovery Fund should contact Roy Nascimento, President & CEO at rnascimento@northcentralmass.com

 

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) is the non-profit economic development arm of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce with the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy. NCMDC is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program. The NCMDC works in partnership with local banks, credit unions, chambers of commerce and area nonprofits to support emerging microenterprises, small businesses, and community projects in 76 communities in Worcester, Middlesex and Franklin Counties with loans and business assistance.  Since 1996, the NCMDC has granted over $7,000,000 in loans to small businesses to help grow jobs and the economy in the region.

North Central Massachusetts Chamber Welcomes Bea Lee to its Professional Staff

The North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce is pleased to announce the addition of Yiongchiasider (Bea) Lee to its professional staff in the position of Economic Development and Loan Administrator.

In this new position, Ms. Lee will be responsible for the administration of the diverse portfolio of programs and initiatives of the Chamber’s economic development arm, the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation.

“We are excited to welcome Bea to our team,” said Roy M. Nascimento, President & CEO of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation. “Bea will be a great resource to the business community as we look to support new and existing small businesses in the region.”

Bea joins the Chamber from the Panther Group in Boston where she worked as a Client Relationship Manager. In this role she managed multiple projects for clients in the HR sector. Prior to that role she worked for Rollstone Bank & Trust in Fitchburg as an Assistant Branch Manager. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Fitchburg State University and an Associates Degree in Business from Mount Wachusett Community College. She is a resident of Fitchburg and active in the community, including serving on the board of the Fitchburg East Rotary Club and as a volunteer for the United Way of North Central Massachusetts, the Fitchburg Public Schools and Habitat for Humanity of North Central Massachusetts.

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) is a non-profit economic development corporation with the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy. NCMDC is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program. The NCMDC works in partnership with local banks, credit unions, chambers of commerce and area nonprofits to support emerging microenterprises, small businesses, and community projects in 76 communities in Worcester, Middlesex and Franklin Counties with loans and business assistance.  Since 1996, the NCMDC has granted over $7,000,000 in loans to small businesses to help grow jobs and the economy in the region.

Businesses or community members interested in learning more about the micro-loan program through the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation can reach Bea at 978.353.7600 ext. 228 or via email at blee@northcentralmass.com.

North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation Receives Federal Loan to Recapitalize Microloan Program

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation has received a $500,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration to bolster its micro-lending program and expand its lending efforts to support small businesses in the region. The loan must be repaid over a ten year period. Grant dollars the NCMDC received from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts were also used to help support the SBA’s requirement for matching funds for a Loan Loss Reserve. 

With these funds, the NCMDC can continue to provide SBA loans of up to $50,000 to small businesses in the region.  The U.S. Small Business Administration provides funds to specially designated intermediary lenders, which are nonprofit community-based organizations with experience in lending as well as management and technical assistance. These intermediaries administer the Microloan program for eligible borrowers. This is the third such SBA loan that the NCMDC has received since being approved as an SBA Microloan Intermediary in 2015. These loans have allowed the NCMDC to grant nearly $1,000,000 in SBA microloans to start ups and expanding businesses.

“Access to capital is a major issue for many small businesses, who are struggling to survive amid the unprecedented economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 public health crisis,” said Roy M. Nascimento, President & CEO of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce and the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation. “This infusion of much needed capital will help shore up our lending capacity and allow us to continue to support small businesses who need financing but are unable to secure it through traditional means.”

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) is the non-profit economic development arm of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce with the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy. NCMDC is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program. The NCMDC works in partnership with local banks, credit unions, chambers of commerce and area nonprofits to support emerging microenterprises, small businesses, and community projects in 76 communities in Worcester, Middlesex and Franklin Counties with loans and business assistance.  Since 1996, the NCMDC has granted over $7,000,000 in loans to small businesses to help grow jobs and the economy in the region.

For more information about applying for a microloans or the other loan programs available through the NCMDC, please contact Sandie Cataldo, Economic Development Manager at 978-353-7600 ext 232 or visit https://www.choosenorthcentral.com/lending/.

Everything You Need to Know About CARES Act II

Late last week, Washington passed its fourth stimulus bill since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic less than two months ago. This $483.4 billion legislation is meant to serve as a bridge between the CARES Act- issued just a few weeks ago- and a larger, yet to be drafted bill currently being negotiated between Democrats and Republicans. Though it is only intended to serve as a stop gap until a more comprehensive aid package can be agreed upon, there remain a number of important points you should be made aware of.

Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) Amongst small businesses, this program proved incredibly popular. Unfortunately, demand far outstripped supply and the funding provided by the CARES Act was quickly depleted. Adding to the frustration was a sense that larger banks- such as Citizens or Wells Fargo- had prioritized applications from established, more financially savvy clients.

To address this, the new bill allocated an additional $321 billion towards the program, with $60 billion set aside for smaller lenders. This allocation will be split between two categories, with half allocated to banks with less than $10 billion in assets and the remainder to institutions with between $10 billion and $50 billion in assets. It is hoped that by targeting regional or local lenders, a greater share of these funds would be directed to small or otherwise disadvantaged borrowers. Banks began accepting new PPP applications on Monday, April 27th, with funding anticipated to last roughly two weeks. To learn more about this program, visit the SBA’s website. You can also find a list of locally participating banks by clicking here.

Economic Injury Disaster Loan Program (EIDL) Another highly popular program which quickly ran out of funding was the EIDL. These flexible, low interest loans could be coupled with forgivable advances of up to $10,000 depending upon the number of individuals a business employed. Unfortunately, in its initial iteration, this program was unavailable to farmers and ranchers with less than 500 employees.

Last week’s legislation amends this, enabling a vital program to assist critical agricultural businesses across the nation. It also refinances the program, infusing it with $50 billion in new lending capital and an additional $10 billion for the aforementioned advances. As with the PPP funding however, these resources are only expected to last for a limited time. According to its website, the SBA intends to review existing requests for assistance from the previous round of funding before opening the program up to new applications. Once the application portal is reopened, the Chamber will act to alert you. Interested businesses can learn more by visiting the SBA’s EIDL page here.

Testing and Other Priorities Beyond these assistance programs, Congress and the White House allocated funding to address the public health crisis directly. The new bill commits $75 billion to assist the nation’s hospitals and healthcare providers cope with this pandemic, and provides an additional $25 billion to maintain and expand testing efforts. This last allocation will prove particularly important as the nation and the Commonwealth work to reopen.

In a conversation with the Chamber the day President Trump signed this act into law, Congresswoman Trahan and House Rules Chairman McGovern repeatedly emphasized the importance of testing to responsibly bringing the quarantine to an end. As businesses reopen and people resume their normal routines, the ability to identify new coronavirus cases and contact those who may have come into contact with them will be crucial to guarding against a resurgent epidemic or “second wave”. This legislation divides that responsibility between state and federal authorities.

Of the $25 billion, $11 billion is to be distributed amongst the states and indigenous peoples. Two billion dollars of this will be issued relative to the Health Emergency Preparation Grant Formula with another $4.25 billion distributed relative to the number of cases within a given area. The remaining $14 billion will be overseen by the federal government. This includes allocations for contract tracing, test production, expansion of lab capacity, and $1 billion for testing uninsured individuals. Significantly, it specifically allocates $825 million towards community health centers and clinics in rural areas.

As events continue to take shape, the Chamber’s staff will remain on hand to provide assistance and keep you informed of the latest developments. You can find additional resources by visiting the Chamber’s website at www.northcentralmass.com/coronavirus. If you have questions or concerns about this legislation- or other government efforts to address this crisis- please contact Christopher McDermott, Public Affairs Manager, at cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com or (978) 353-7600 ext. 224. Now- more than ever- we want to hear from you!

North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation Accepting Limited Number of PPP Applications

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation, the economic development arm of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce, is now accepting applications for the SBA Paycheck Protection Program. Applications are limited to small businesses, sole proprietorships, independent contractors, self-employed persons, and non-profit organizations who are unable to apply through a local bank or credit union and located within our service area. The NCMDC is also limiting its PPP loans to under $50,000. Businesses and entities with an established banking relationship or with requests larger than $50,000 are encouraged to contact their bank or credit union first to apply. 

The U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program offers favorable financing for small businesses to help keep their workforce employed during the Coronavirus/COVID-19 crisis. Portions of the loans are eligible to be forgiven by the SBA when used for payroll costs, interest on mortgages, rent and utilities. 

The North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation (NCMDC) is a non-profit economic development corporation with the mission of creating jobs and improving the economy. NCMDC is certified by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), and the U.S. Department of the Treasury under the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Program. The NCMDC works in partnership with local banks, credit unions, chambers of commerce and area nonprofits to support emerging microenterprises, small businesses, and community projects in 76 communities in Worcester, Middlesex and Franklin Counties with loans and business assistance.  Since 1996, the NCMDC has granted over $6,900,000 in loans to small businesses to help grow jobs and the economy in the region.

For more information or to apply for a PPP loan through the North Central Massachusetts Development Corporation, please contact Bea Lee, Economic & Loan Administrator at blee@northcentralmass.com or Sandie Cataldo, Economic Development Manager at 978.353.7600 x232 or via email at scataldo@northcentralmass.com.

INNOVATION AND PHILANTHROPY IN THE WAKE OF COVID-19

How Four Businesses Are Serving North Central Massachusetts

While non-essential business have been forced to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies in North Central Massachusetts are stepping up with innovative and philanthropic solutions to support the community, health care institutions and those in need, while also taking measures to protect their employees.

From making hand sanitizer, to building temporary nurses’ stations, to setting up a drive-through window for food pickup, or donating storage containers and masks, local businesses are doing whatever it takes.

“We are proud and privileged to play a small role in helping our communities fight this fight,’’ said David Reilly, president of United Solutions in Leominster. “We are in regular contact with many state and local organizations, and our team here will continue to seek out ways to support our communities and the country.’’

United Solutions, a leading manufacturer of plastic totes, trash cans and storage organization solutions, donated Rubbermaid Roughneck Totes and Rubbermaid Action Packers to the Fitchburg Fire Department, Leominster Fire Department, Leominster Emergency Responders, Hopkinton Fire Department, and donated PPE masks to UMass Medical Center.

Reilly said their team is focused on keeping employees safe and healthy while working to meet the demand for products needed by families, essential businesses, first responders, healthcare professionals and military personnel on the front lines of this critical effort.

“At the same time, where we can help, whether it’s by getting our Rubbermaid storage or United Solutions sanitation and other products quickly to local organizations or donating excess PPE or PPE we can procure through our supply chains to organizations, we will do our best,’’ Reilly said.

Leominster-based AIS, a leading manufacturer of commercial office furniture and seating, has also taken several measures to support the community. 

The company acquired and donated 4,000 KN95 mask to first responders in Leominster and Fitchburg, said Bruce Platzman, president and chief operating officer. He said the company is now also manufacturing and donating two different types of masks – a cloth mask made of three layers of fabric including a antimicrobial layer to help kill and repel germs and one less complex. 

Platzman said he has converted an area of the company typically used to make seating just for masks. Production takes place 16 hours a day.

“If I had a million mask to donate, I could find people to take them,’’ he said. 

In addition to the masks, AIS has adapted its manufacturing to provide equipment most needed by essential industries like hospitals. 

Platzman said about 95 percent of its orders are going to organizations that need to stay open – an emergency nurses station for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and projects for the FBI and the Pentagon, to name a few.

“If we get an order from a triage center in Brooklyn, which we did, and don’t deliver the chairs and desks they need, that triage center doesn’t open up,’’ Platzman said. “It’s as simple as that.’’ 

AIS  has also taken many steps to protect its 700 workers. 

The company is:

  • Using 10 cleaners instead of the usual two, 
  • Requiring employees to take breaks and lunch outside the building.
  • Taking temperatures of employees three times a day.
  • Mandating the use of masks.
  • Circulating air through its ventilation system more often.

“If everyone keeps workers safe and finds a way to keep the workforce moving, we’ll all get through this sooner rather than later,’’ he said. 

Another local company that has adapted its manufacturing to help meet the needs of the community is Garden Remedies. 

Garden Remedies, which operates three marijuana dispensaries in Massachusetts, has its cultivation center in Fitchburg. 

Seeing an immediate need to keep its facilities clean during the pandemic, the cultivation center started producing its own sanitizer, said Dr. Karen Munkacy, the founder and president.

A team member of its topical department immediately switched gears into measuring and sewing face masks for dispensary staff members.

As the need for sanitizer increased, Garden Remedies joined with the Commonwealth Dispensary Association’s program to make 5 gallon jugs of sanitizers sold at cost for hospitals and first responders in the state.

The company has produced 200+ gallons of sanitizer and expects to continue for several more weeks. 

“The Fitchburg team has done a great job of responding to the important needs of the community,’’ she said. 

Munkacy said the pandemic has had a major impact on how they do business and on their overall business results.  

“Despite all the challenges that the pandemic has brought on, the Garden Remedies team has worked extremely hard in our mission to help patients with safe and legal cannabis products and also to support the community by making sanitizing fluid for Massachusetts hospitals and for first responders in communities in which we operate,’’ she said.

Garden Remedies and places like Wachusett Brewing Company in Westminster continue to serve the public so they have taken additional steps to ensure the safety of their customers.

The timing of the pandemic could not have been worse, said Wachusett Brewing Company President Christian McMahan.

This is typically its peak production period as it ramps up for the summer. Additionally, they had recently opened a new Brew Yard in Worcester and were about to open one in Cambridge.

McMahan said they have had three guiding principles during this time: ensuring employment however possible, providing the safest possible environment for employees and supporting the community.

“When the Brew Yards all closed, we were the first brewery in MA to set-up a local delivery service and offer food and beverages for those who were not comfortable leaving their homes,’’ McMahan said. “We have expanded that to now having a drive-thru/curbside delivery option at our Westminster location, which is growing by the day.  We also added an online ordering service to make it even easier for our customers to tell us what they would like and when they would like it.’’

He said the result as exceeded their expectations.

“I think people are looking to mix things up in their routine and if we can play a role in providing them some level of comfort and service through these crazy times, then certainly will continue to do whatever we can to make a difference,’’ McMahan said. “Our staff has been incredible in adapting to something completely new and different.  There is no roadmap for what we are all dealing with.  We just wake-up each and every day and do the best we can with what we have.’’

UPDATE

Since the writing of this article, Garden Remedies has also contributed $5,000 to the Stand United Covid-19 Relief Fund of North Central Massachusetts   and their friends at the Fireman Family Foundation matched their contribution for a total of $10,000 donated to the worthy cause.

NEW FILING GUIDANCE FOR EMPLOYERS – PFML UPDATE

Since the summer of 2019, the Department of Family and Medical Leave (DFML) and the Division of Insurance (DOI) have engaged the public by holding a series of PMFL private plan standards listening and drafting sessions.

On April 3, 2020, the DOI  released Filing Guidance 2020 – A: Paid Family and Medical Leave. Previously, insurance carriers issued an Insurance Declaration Document (IDD) to employers as proof of satisfying PFML insurance requirements. Coverage through private insurance is required to commence no later than January 1, 2021 (for medical leave insurance) and July 1, 2021 (for family leave insurance). Employers that qualify for an exemption are exempt from remitting contributions to the Family and Employment Security Trust Fund.

This new Filing Guidance includes a Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) Policy Template, which outlines the standard provisions that PFML private insurance policies must contain in order to meet the exemption requirements of M.G.L. c. 175M, § 11. The guidance documents are the result of a collaboration between the DOI, the DFML, and life and accident insurance stakeholders to ensure consistency in PFML insurance products offered in the Massachusetts employer marketplace.

Private Plan Updated Guidance:

  • Insurance carriers will submit their policy forms to the DOI for review on or before June 3, 2020.
  • After the DOI reviews the policy forms using a PFML Policy Forms Checklist, insurance carriers will issue policies to their employer policyholders.
  • Previously approved exemption applicants will be required to verify the use of an approved policy during their renewal period. The DFML will request policy form numbers from employers at the time of exemption renewal and will update its website to describe these procedures at a later date.
  • Employers that have secured PFML private insurance coverage but have not filed an application for an exemption must complete a Request for Exemption using the Department of Revenue’s web-based filing system, MassTaxConnect. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis and specific deadlines and timelines are explained further on our website.
  • For employers filing for a new exemption who have not yet received a policy form number from an insurance carrier, please submit an IDD signed by both a representative of the employer and a representative of the insurance carrier confirming sufficient PFML private plan insurance coverage.
  • For those employers filing for a new exemption that were issued a policy form number from its insurance carrier prior to filing the Request for Exemption, please submit an IDD with the policy form number listed on the document or provide the policy form number when submitting the exemption application on MassTaxConnect.
  • The DOI does not regulate self-insured employers. Self-insured employers should not make submissions to the DOI. However, employers seeking a self-insured exemption may use the standards listed in the PFML Policy Template to ensure that their self-administered PFML private plans comply with the PFML statute and regulations.

For more information please contact Public Affairs Manager, Christopher McDermott, at cmcdermott@northcentralmass.com or VISIT HERE.

An Updated Message From the Chamber President

Dear Member,

I wanted to provide you with another update on the Chamber’s efforts to support local businesses and our communities during the Coronavirus crisis. We understand the tremendous impact that this health crisis is having on our members and communities and have focused all of our efforts and resources on helping you navigate this unprecedented challenge.  At the same time, we are looking ahead and preparing post-crisis recovery efforts to help you recover quickly and get back to business once this has passed, and it will pass!

CARES Act: Last week Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 (CARES). Among its many provisions, the CARES Act will include $377B in loans and loan forgiveness for small businesses. The Act also includes tax relief measures and various grant programs for impacted industries. Click here for a summary of those aspects of the legislation most relevant to our region. More information will be made available in the days and weeks to come as the federal government works out the details. We encourage you to check our website for updates and for upcoming webinars on the CARES Act;

Emergency Loans: Unfortunately, we have seen very strong interest in our Emergency Loan Program. Our team has been working hard to keep up with the requests and move them through the process quickly. To assist businesses, we have reduced our interest rate and have eliminated the closing fee on these emergency loans. We are also structuring the loans with favorable terms. If you need a small loan to get you through this period until stimulus money kicks in, then please contact Sandie Cataldo at scataldo@northcentralmass.com or Brendan Hannen atbhannen@northcentralmass.com. We are in the process of recapitalizing our fund to ensure that we can continue to meet the needs of local businesses. Also, for those of you that may require a larger loan, the SBA Disaster Loan Program can now provide up to $10 million dollars;

Video Message: If you have not seen it, then I would encourage you to view a special video we premiered on March 22 on the Chamber’s Facebook page. You can click here to view it. This short video with its message of hope, community and resiliency was developed by our team in an effort to inspire people and raise spirts. The video has already been shared over 330 times and has had over 37,000 views and growing on Facebook! That doesn’t include the video views on our other social media platforms (YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn) and the Chamber website.  Special thanks to member and motivational speaker Maria Milagros for narrating the video;

Chamber Office: The Chamber is deemed an essential business under the guidelines announced by Governor Baker last week. However, as a safety precaution, we have closed the office temporarily and will limit access to the public. We will be available by appointment at the office to provide services that need to be made in person, such as certificates of export for our manufacturers and insurance related matters. We will also be performing loan closings at the office related to our Emergency Loan Program. Except for these instances, staff will work remotely per the protocols that we have in place. Please contact us if you need to schedule an appointment;

Equipment Donations: All four of our hospital systems – Health Alliance, Heywood, Nashoba Medical and Emerson – reached out to us and requested help securing additional personal protective equipment (PPE).  We have been proactive in our outreach to businesses to secure donations and we have also reached out to most of the region’s manufacturers to inquire if they can modify their production to assist with producing these products. We have received a tremendous response. Thank you to all of you that reached out. It has been very inspiring to see our members rally together to offer any help they could during this time of crisis. Please contact us for more information on how to donate items or if your company is interested in producing PPE items. The state also just established an online portal for PPE donations and procurement that can be found here;

Webinars: We have already conducted several webinars to help businesses, with several more in the works. The webinars were recorded and are available on our website to view. We also have a webinar this week that will review the CARES Act and another scheduled for next week on applying for the new Payroll Protection Program and other grants/loans through the SBA. I encourage you to check out our website and social media for updates;

Coronavirus Information & Resources:  Our Coronavirus Information Page is continuously updated with the latest guidance from local, state and federal authorities. We are committed to keeping our members and the public informed and will continue posting throughout this crisis on our various social media platforms as information becomes available.  If you have not done so yet, please follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram;

Jobs Board: We have been updating our WorkNorthCentral.com online jobs board to help recently displaced workers find new jobs opportunities, as well as help those employers that need immediate help because their needs have changed due to the crisis;

Advocacy & Support: We have been in regular communication with our local, state and federal officials to help with efforts and stay updated on the government’s response. We also continue to collect survey responses from businesses on the impact to their operations. This input from members will be helpful as we communicate with policy leaders, and will help set the stage for recovery efforts;

Finally, I want to extend my thanks to all of those members and their dedicated employees, across all sectors, who are in many cases risking their own safety to respond to this national and global pandemic. These include our health care institutions on the front line, our manufacturers who are playing an important role in the supply chain, our markets and farms who are working to keep people fed, and many more. Stay strong. We will get through this, together.

 

 

 

 

Roy Nascimento, IOM, CCE

President & CEO