Heartbeat of Chicopee business community stays strong (Guest viewpoint)

During a somewhat somber Zoom meeting the last week of the year, called to discuss relief grants for small businesses in Chicopee, a high-pitched, Cindy-Lou-Hoo voice shouted from outside the frame, “I love you, and I can’t wait to see you tomorrow!” My colleague’s daughter was bidding farewell to her classmates, having just wrapped up a day of virtual kindergarten, and, for a moment, we laughed, relieved to acknowledge the universal strangeness we experienced in 2020.

As executive director of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, a social network designed to promote business-to-business relationships and advocate for local economic developments, I spent my pre-pandemic days planning large-scale, professional events, making introductions (and a lot of firm handshakes).

The coronavirus pandemic forced us to reevaluate social priorities in our personal and professional lives, dramatically altering the local (and global) business landscape. Today, I work mostly one-on-one with Chicopee business owners and leaders, either virtually, or masked and 6 feet apart.

We complete and submit business relief grants, strategically facilitate business relationships, foster a healthy live-work-play environment in the city of Chicopee and promote the health and viability of industries central to our city.

Western Massachusetts companies have faced disabling disruption due to supply chain issues this year, emphasizing the need to invest in an industry at the heart of Chicopee: domestic manufacturing. Chicopee chamber member manufacturers Universal Plastics and Callaway Golf (to name a couple) have remained in reliably steady production through the coronavirus pandemic.

Universal Plastics pivoted to manufacture COVID testing machines, face shields and more backyard playscapes than ever before. Callaway Golf met the demand for golf goods and apparel in a year where the outdoor industry was up almost 8%.

Both manufacturers were at the forefront of reorganizing floor production to accommodate worker safety; they have named employee health a top priority now more than ever.

Alongside the city and other collaborative partners, the Chicopee chamber is working to create public spaces and activities that encourage residents to get out and support Main Street retail establishments and restaurants, some struggling immensely to keep their doors open.

Expect to see beautiful, outdoor infrastructure that encourages walking, biking and commerce in Chicopee Center. The Chicopee chamber looks forward to hosting “Center Fresh Farmers’ Market,” which will be held every Thursday from 1 to 6 p.m., beginning in May.

Former brownfield site and now remediated 181 Center St. is being transformed into a canopied gathering space with picnic tables. Food truck owners who obtain a city permit will be encouraged to park and sell food to the public. This exciting development was made possible through a grant provided by the TDI Local Program administered by MassDevelopment.

The state of Massachusetts has leaned heavily on chambers of commerce to channel vital information to local business communities throughout the pandemic. Between Paycheck Protection Program updates, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp. grants and more, any business owner can tell you, working to stay up to date on information and relief programs in the time of COVID has been a full-time job of its own.

Chicopee-based businesses are eligible for free grant application assistance through the Chicopee chamber. Appointments can be made by calling 413-594-2101. It is a privilege to be of service to our business community in this capacity. Please do not hesitate to reach out for assistance.

While it seems virtual meetings aren’t going anywhere in the immediate future, I am grateful for the personal moments of planning and relationship building 2021 has provided. Assisting Chicopee business as they grow, pivot and change has illuminated the heart and soul of our Chicopee business community. The beat is strong!

Julie Copoulos is a former small-business owner and the executive director of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. To learn more about the Chicopee chamber and its work, go online tochicopeechamber.org.