Brownfield Coalition of the Northeast, April 15, 2021
By Steve Dwyer
How does a young brownfield industry practitioner climb so far up to the mountaintop — and do it so quickly?
At 33 years old, Melina Ambrosino, Executive Vice President of Newton, Mass.-based Cherrytree Group LLC, will let you in on a little secret: be a sponge and become an expert. And, that dynamic process starts by surrounding yourself with great people.
The ritual started with the influence from her parents. “I come from a family that owns a small successful business. My parents started their own HVAC [heating ventilation and air conditioning] company out of our basement,” she says. In time, a strong work ethic enveloped her as well, inspired by the family work ethos. It extended into college and post-grad law school, and continues to this day in both her duties at Cherrytree and as a recent member of the BCONE board of directors, a post she secured in January 2020.
Wise beyond her years, Ambrosino says: “My strongest qualities are connecting with people.”
After Ambrosino graduated from college, she dove head-long into pursuing a law degree with a specialty in real estate transaction law.
When it came time to think about starting a career in the family business or choosing her own path, she selected the latter. “I answered a Craigslist ad for an administrative assistant position for Warren [Cherrytree president Warren Kirshenbaum]. It was a quick interview — maybe 30 minutes. Afterwards, I wasn’t sure how it went.”
But the session lasted so quickly because Kirshenbaum already saw enough, and in 2011 Ambrosino secured the job as the President’s executive assistant, while also chasing a law degree by attending law school at night.
Back in 2011, Ambrosino assisted Kirshenbaum on various tax credit work. “He once asked me to help him on a brownfield deal, and it [the tax credit process for brownfields] started to click for me. I became a sponge. Sitting right outside Warren’s office allowed me to be within earshot of his business calls. I was nosy and I really like [the brownfield industry and the financial part of it.]
In 2013, Ambrosino realized she had arrived at a crossroads: continue with law school or stay at Cherrytree with an expanded role. “(Warren) told me that ‘there’s something about you that can’t be taught.’ So I opted not to become a lawyer but used my post-graduate college experience to study tax law.”
Things started to take off for Ambrosino incrementally. For several years, she attended an array of workshops and seminars dealing with tax credit strategies applied to brownfield sites. “It was at this time that we were expanding the organization toward tax credits other than the brownfields tax credit, such as the historic tax credit and the renewable energy tax credit,” she said. “I was confident I could bring in new [brownfield developer] business within our core areas of expertise being renewable energy, historic preservation and low-income and affordable housing. I had been learning that this industry had been dominated not only by long-timers but there were not a lot of women representing it.”
By 2016, Cherrytree hired Jacob Vezga as its Tax Credit Manager, and Kirshenbaum handed Ambrosino oversight of the brownfield redevelopment side of business. “Warren would get new business inquiries for brownfield tax credits and pass them directly to me and Jake.”
Wait, there’s more: a financial services consulting firm that once provided guidance for brownfield redevelopment financing deals measured in the “hundred-thousands” was on an upward trajectory for far more: Cherrytree, in 2018, closed $25 million in client financing via tax incentives/credits. And, the small financial services consultant soon became recognized as the top firm to partner with when it involves the tricky strategies of brownfield tax credit allocations and smaller historic rehabilitation and renewable energy projects.
“I became an expert — we worked so hard and did numerous deals. I think the thing about what we do here, our mission, is to advocate for the small, populist developer first and foremost — the art facility or the non-profit group. We [at Cherrytree] will never lose our souls, will always be transparent and clients will always know the trust factor is there.”
Industry of Change
U.S. EPA encourages brownfields developers to learn about and take advantage of the variety of financial and technical assistance resources available to support a brownfield project—to enhance their ability to craft a financing package that leverages numerous sources of funding available from a variety of sources.
Taking advantage of federal, state and local tax incentives and credits allows a brownfield developer to use resources normally spent to pay taxes for other purposes. This can help site redevelopers save the cash needed to address contamination issues. The extra cash flow resulting from a tax break also can improve a project’s appeal to lenders.
What Ambrosino keeps top of mind is the fact that in the brownfield industry there’s a lot of fluidity and constant change with tax credit regs and policies. “When state tax credit provisions change, I change with them — I adapt. One of the secrets I learned is to surround yourself with great people. So here I am [at 33 years old] very confident [in operating in this business environment].”
To foster success within a complex piece of the puzzle, “my strongest qualities in the context of business development is connecting with people. Covid meant that I couldn’t attend live events. In August 2020, Warren and I needed to figure out what would be the best way for us to overcome the hurdles that the pandemic had thrown our way and keep business running strong.”
So Cherrytree pivoted toward solar. In 2020, the firm closed $8 million in renewable energy deals that were actually processed during the last couple months of 2020, a prolific performance. In one decade’s time, Cherrytree has secured and placed state and federal tax credit for developer clients totaling $100 million—all done with a four-person shop. And, this client base has been spread across the U.S.
“I think that were able to do it—expand our portfolio—by stepping out of our comfort zone to make it happen. We call it Cherrytree 2.0, and the evolution was led by a new unique platform that Warren created to establish a niche [in federal tax credits across the three specialized areas of end use]. We became successful because nobody else was touching [smaller federal tax credit deals].”
She also became fluent in areas where she had no past experience, such as an affinity for environmental consulting and engineering—just so she could learn and expedite the process for clients. “I had to learn engineering language,” Ambrosino says.
One blind spot of many developers in this space is the unawareness of their eligibility for state and federal tax credits, which just heaps extra financial stress on their project budgets—perhaps even killing their chances for success.
Prior to the pandemic, Cherrytree, under Ambrosino’s watch, hosted a series of workshops on the way tax credits can defray costs. “We provided great tools for them to be successful—educating people in this industry about the fact that there are incentives out there: some are unaware of the way it works.”
The work that Ambrosino does isn’t grounded in reacting to developers and their project fortunes, but the firm is proactive about becoming very fluent in the tax credit marketplace, both in Massachusetts and nationally where they literally scout for a particular developer who might be ideal to pursue a particular project—matchmaking, if you will.
Ambrosino sums it up this way: “Tax credits to some developers is almost like witchcraft: they do not realize what they have in front of them to assist in capitalizing their projects. Our job is educating them about what is available.”
On the historic preservation project front, Cherrytree practices what it preaches: At its own headquarter location in Newton, they applied and did the ground work to secure the available tax credits for what is an older legacy building. “My dad owns Total Temperature Control in Wakefield, Mass., and he actually helped to work on the renovation that was required.”
These days, Ambrosino is settling into her role as one of 15 BCONE board members. About how it came to pass, she says” I called Sue [Boyle], and she sold me on it—to be a part of the organization. I submitted an application to be nominated for the board and was voted in during the January 2020 meeting: I have been involved in the Mass. Expansion Committee, and the NSCW conference in June.”
To advance the fortunes of BCONE as well as those at Cherrytree, Ambrosino says that getting involved with developers who advocate for projects in urban opportunity zones (OZ) is a very compelling way to turn around blighted, abandoned and dilapidated parcels of property and, in turn, be eligible for double benefits. “In our industry, there are always problems where it’s mandatory to find creative solutions to bring areas back to life—ones that have become eyesores. You can make a space great, and spark job growth across many areas—hospitality, residential such as luxury condos, schoolhouse renovations for affordable apartments.”
She is also very attuned to the community support that is so “vital to make projects go forward—we can’t do it without them.” On the effort to find cohesion with local public-private partnerships, she calls it “similar to putting together a puzzle.”
Yes, this young professional who fancies herself a “sponge” is sure to find new and creative ways to champion the brownfield redevelopment cause throughout the Northeast and beyond. She has time on her side.
Read the article at brownfieldcoalitionne.org