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Columbia Gas Files New Rates with DPU

WESTBOROUGH —  Columbia Gas of Massachusetts, a subsidiary of NiSource Inc., recently filed a petition with the Mass. Department of Public Utilities (DPU) to increase annual revenues by $24.1 million, representing a 3.9% increase in current operating revenues. If approved by the DPU, the change would impact the annual gas bill for a typical residential heating customer by an average of $4.95 per month, or 3.6%. The revised rates take effect March 1, 2019. In the first year after the rates take effect, the $9.1 million refund due to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will reduce the customer bill impact to an average of $2.80 per month, or 2%. The request addresses increases in operating and maintenance costs incurred to comply with increasingly stringent federal and state regulatory mandates and capital costs incurred to upgrade gas infrastructure since the last time Columbia Gas changed its rates in 2016. The DPU decision is expected by Feb. 28, 2019, with rates taking effect March 1, 2019.

Farmington Bank Offers Assistance to Homebuyers

FARMINGTON, Conn. — Farmington Bank announced it has been selected to participate in the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston’s Equity Builder Program (EBP), which assists local homebuyers with down-payment and closing costs as well as homebuyer counseling and rehabilitation assistance. The EBP provides grants to financial institutions to assist households at or below 80% of the area median income. Farmington Bank is eligible to receive up to $110,000 in 2018 through the EBP, depending on availability of funds. Farmington Bank borrowers are eligible to receive up to $11,000 in assistance for homes located in Massachusetts and Connecticut on a first-come, first-served basis. Buyers must also complete a homebuyer counseling program.  In addition, Farmington Bank offers a variety of affordable lending programs that have lower down-payment requirements and closing costs, including special mortgage financing for first-time homebuyers and veterans. Since 2003, the EBP has awarded more than $35 million in EBP funds, assisting 3,150 income-eligible households to purchase a home.

Grant to CHD Improves Opportunities for Children with Disabilities

SPRINGFIELD — The ATI Foundation recently present CHD’s Disability Resources program with a $5,000 check. The program offers barrier-free recreational and competitive opportunities for people of all skill levels and age groups, as well as their family and friends. The program emphasizes access and ability. Rock climbing, waterskiing, sled hockey, dance, wheelchair basketball, and other programs and services designed for individuals with physical and/or intellectual disabilities are offered to more than 500 children, teenagers, and young adults each year. According to Sharon Franceschini from the ATI Foundation, when the possibility of funding CHD’s Disability Resources program was presented, it was a quick decision. “The CHD Disabilities Resources program was brought to our attention by the therapists and staff who live and work in the Greater Springfield community,” she said. “The mission of the ATI Foundation is directly aligned with what CHD’s Disabilities Resources is doing for kids every day. We are thrilled to support the Springfield community in this way and hope that the resources make a big difference in the lives of physically impaired children for years to come.”

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Employer Confidence Falls Slightly in March

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index (BCI) declined a point to 63.5 in March, retreating from a 17-year high in February. The BCI has gained 1.1 points during the past 12 months and remains comfortably within the optimistic range. But virtually every element of the March confidence survey lost ground, led by a 1.7-point drop in the U.S. Index of national business conditions. Several employers blamed the Trump administration’s decision to level tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other products for their uncertain outlook.

Pioneer Valley Receives Grant to Pursue Healthcare Access Solutions

SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) announced that it, in partnership with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), has been selected as one of seven regions in the country by the National Center for Mobility Management to develop and test ways to increase community members’ access to healthcare services. Through this grant, the project team will be looking at barriers that patients face when trying to access healthcare for chronic conditions or sudden, non-emergency health needs. With missed appointment rates of up to 25% at some healthcare facilities, this project seeks to improve patient health outcomes, improve cost efficiency for healthcare providers, and optimize transportation systems for non-emergency healthcare. The project team, which includes representatives from PVTA, PVPC, Baystate Medical Center, Health New England, Stavros, Greater Springfield Senior Services, and the New North Citizens Council, represents a variety of stakeholders and perspectives to address this issue. The ultimate goal of this project, slated to conclude in October 2018, is to come up with a ‘pitch’ for a solution to the problem of missed appointments. In order to develop its pitch, the project team is going to host a series of focus groups, conduct surveys, and do on-site observations with the people involved in the medical scheduling and transportation process.

Single-family Home Sales in Valley Soar in February

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales rose by 27.4% in the Pioneer Valley in February compared to the same time last year, posting big gains in all three counties, while the median price rose 8.3% to $194,900, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were up 36.4%, while the median price shot up by 45.8% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 23.6%, while the median price was up 7.9%. In Hampshire County, sales rose by 27.7% from February 2017, while the median price was up 16.8%.

Chamber Board Votes to Endorse Pledge Against Human Trafficking

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber board of directors voted unanimously to publicly endorse the Western Massachusetts Businesses Against Human Trafficking Pledge and encourage members of the chamber to take the pledge. Convened by MGM Springfield, the chamber joined a coalition of businesses and organizations in 2017 to support the work already being conducted by law enforcement, community organizations, and faith-based groups across the region and to lend its assistance to help eliminate the scourge of human trafficking. Since then, the chamber has formalized its support by endorsing a pledge to increase awareness of and protect against human trafficking in its places of business, and to collaborate broadly across the community and region to address the issue. Coalition members include MGM Springfield, Peter Pan Bus Lines, the Springfield Regional Chamber, East of the River Five Town Chamber, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (owner of Union Station), Sheraton Springfield, and Springfield/Worcester Hilton Garden Inns.

Amherst Chamber Moves to Volunteer Management

AMHERST — The Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce will transition to an all-volunteer team structure for several months in order to better serve its members and leverage its robust network of volunteers. Peter Vickery, president of the chamber’s board of directors, said the change will also help the membership-based organization dedicate more resources to member-to-member services, networking, and advocacy. As part of the transition, interim Executive Director Jerry Guidera will step down from his organizational support role. The chamber will maintain a presence at the Visitor Information Center in downtown Amherst, co-located with the Amherst Business Improvement District.

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Local River Advocates Join
National Trend with EPA Lawsuit
GREENFIELD — Last fall, the Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) joined the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance and eight other watershed groups from across Massachusetts to file suit against the EPA and Administrator Scott Pruitt in Boston’s federal district court. Their request of the court is simple: reject EPA’s one-year delay in implementing Massachusetts’ new stormwater permit because stormwater is one of the greatest threats to clean water in Massachusetts. This lawsuit is part of a growing national trend in suing the EPA in order to protect the environment. The CRC argues that Pruitt and the EPA have been hastily rolling back environmental regulations, but mistakes have been made in their haste and disregard for legal process, such as failing to hold required public comment periods or provide rationale for a repeal or delay. Now, environmental groups across the nation are going to court and using these mistakes to successfully halt environmental rollbacks. For example, the courts have prevented the suspension of rules to curb methane emissions and the delay of tougher standards on air pollutants and lead in paint. River advocates fear the updated stormwater permit could be delayed much longer than one year. “We think the EPA’s legal case is fundamentally flawed,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Conservancy. “Pruitt and the EPA have asked for this delay while permit appeals are being decided, but then in the same breath also asked the court to delay judicial review of the appeals. It is clear that EPA is looking at every maneuver they can find to stop doing the right thing for the public’s water.” The river groups are represented by Kevin Cassidy of Earthrise Law Center and Access to Justice Fellow Irene Freidel. Of particular concern is the public-health issue of harmful bacteria flowing to rivers when it rains. About one in five water samples collected by CRC and partners in 2017 from the Connecticut River and tributaries in Massachusetts showed bacteria levels too high for recreation (swimming and/or boating). “Delaying the implementation of this updated permit puts our rivers and our water at risk, which also put our citizens and local economies that use and rely on our rivers at risk,” Fisk continued. “The EPA is charged with implementing the Clean Water Act for the benefit of the public, yet it did not weigh the public’s interest when it slammed the brakes on the MS4 Permit.” That permit regulates stormwater pollution under the federal Clean Water Act. The current MS4 permit was issued in 2003 and was set to expire on May 1, 2008. Instead, it has been administratively continued and remains in effect. A multi-year, multi-stakeholder process for updating the expired permit began in 2008. In April 2016, the EPA issued the updated MS4 permit after many rounds of public comment. The updated permit was set to go into effect on July 1, 2017 but was abruptly delayed by Pruitt and the EPA just two days before that date. The delay will cause existing stormwater projects to move forward with outdated stormwater controls, forcing costly upgrades in the future rather than the lower-cost option of adding updated controls at the time of construction, river advocates say. The delay also ignores the time and money invested by cities and towns that have already implemented new stormwater protection measures in preparation for the new permit to take effect last July. Stormwater is generated from rain and snowmelt that does not soak into the ground. Instead, it flows over land or impervious surfaces, such as paved streets and driveways, parking lots, and building rooftops into storm drains. During heavy rains, stormwater can flow directly into rivers. Common pollutants in stormwater runoff include antifreeze, detergents, fertilizers, gasoline, household chemicals, oil and grease, paints, pesticides, harmful bacteria, road salt, trash such as plastics and cigarette butts, ammonia, solvents, and fecal matter from pets, farm animals, and wildlife.

Creative Community Fellows
Accepting New England Applications
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — National Arts Strategies (NAS) announced that applications for the Creative Community Fellows program are now open to those living and working in the New England region. NAS is looking for artists, community organizers, administrators, and entrepreneurs who are driving positive change through arts and culture in their communities. Applications are due Sunday, April 22. Creative Community Fellows brings together a group of 25 creative change makers across New England. Fellows will jump-start the program by living and learning together in Vermont for one week in an incubator-like environment, building their skills in strategy, leadership, and design thinking. Over the course of five months, they will take monthly online courses in topic areas such as community development, finding capital and support, budgeting, and more. Together, they will share updates on their projects and meet with leaders in the field who will serve as mentors. Fellows are curious, open, collaborative, and interested in learning new skills and sharing their expertise. They are already doing this work and looking to create and even greater impact. The Barr Foundation has brought this program to New England in order to support creative leaders in the region. Thanks to its support, participation in this program is completely underwritten. “Arts and creativity can play a vital role in engaging communities to spark positive change. It’s our privilege to partner with National Arts Strategies to network and support the development of New England change agents who are artists and leaders across sectors,” said San San Wong, director of Arts & Creativity at the Barr Foundation.

Massachusetts Adds
13,700 Jobs in February
BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate remained at 3.5% in February, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts added 13,700 jobs in February. Over the month, the private sector added 13,100 jobs as gains occurred in education and health services; construction; trade, transportation, and utilities; professional, scientific, and business services; other services; and financial activities. The jobs level remained unchanged in leisure and hospitality. From February 2017 to February 2018, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 39,100 jobs. The February unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta noted that “2017 was the first time since 2000 in which the monthly unemployment rate remained below 4% for the entire year in the Commonwealth. Our low unemployment rate, coupled with over-the-year job and labor-force gains, all point towards the continued strength of the Massachusetts economy.” The labor force increased by 10,000 from 3,659,600 in January, as 9,500 more residents were employed and 500 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased four-tenths of a percentage point from 3.9% in February 2017. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — is up one-tenth of a percentage point at 65.4%. The labor-force participation rate over the year has decreased by two-tenths of a percentage point compared to February 2017. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; leisure and hospitality; professional, scientific, and business services; and other services. The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development also announced that, compared to February 2017, unemployment rates dropped in 22 labor-market areas, increased in one, and remained the same in one labor-market area. Twelve of the 15 areas for which job estimates are published added jobs from February 2017 to February 2018, with the largest percentage gains in the Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, Leominster-Gardner, and Lynn-Saugus-Marblehead areas.

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Employer Confidence
Strengthens in February

BOSTON — Massachusetts employer confidence strengthened during February as optimism about long-term economic growth outweighed a volatile month in the financial markets. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 0.4 points to 64.5, setting another 17-year high. The Index has gained 2.4 points during the past 12 months as confidence levels have remained comfortably within the optimistic range. Enthusiasm about the U.S. and Massachusetts economies, along with a bullish outlook on the part of manufacturers, fueled the February increase. At the same time, hiring remained a red flag as the BCI Employment Index fell 4 points between February 2017 and February 2018. Almost 90% of employers who responded to the February confidence survey indicated that the inability to find skilled employees is either a modest, large, or huge problem. “Fourteen percent of respondents said finding employees represents a huge problem that is hampering their company’s growth. One-third of employers see employee recruitment as a big problem, while 29% see it as a modest issue,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “For the short-term, however, the state and national economies remain strong, and the recent announcement by Amazon of a major expansion in Boston indicates that the trend should continue.” The survey was taken before President Donald Trump roiled the financial markets by pledging to impose stiff tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. It has remained above 50 since October 2013. The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mixed during February. The most significant gains came in the Manufacturing Index, which surged 3.9 points to 66.2, and the U.S. Index, which rose 2.1 points for the month to 66.9 and 8.0 points for the year. The Massachusetts Index fell 0.4 points to 68.5, but was up 5.3 points for the year and still higher than the national outlook for the 96th consecutive month. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, rose 2.4 points to 64.1. The Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, declined 1.6 points to 65. The Current Index has risen 4.2 points and the Future Index 0.6 points during the past 12 months. The Company Index, reflecting employer views of their own operations and prospects, was essentially flat, gaining 0.1 points to 62.4. The Employment Index also rose 0.1 points, to 56.4, versus 60.4 in February 2017. Manufacturing companies (66.2) were more optimistic than non-manufacturers (61.9). Large employers (69.8) were more bullish than medium-sized (62.0) or small businesses (62.7).

Single-family Home Sales
in Pioneer Valley Up in January

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales rose by 17.2% in the Pioneer Valley in January compared to the same time last year, while the median price rose 1.0% to $197,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were up 27.0%, while the median price fell 2.1% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 26.2%, while the median price was up 8.8%. In Hampshire County, sales fell by 5.6% from January 2017, while the median price was up 1.2%.

Advertising Club Seeks
Nominations for Pynchon Award

SPRINGFIELD — The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts is seeking nominations from throughout Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties for the Pynchon Award, which recognizes citizens of the region who have rendered distinguished service to the community. The Order of William Pynchon was established by the Advertising Club in 1915 to recognize and encourage individuals whose lives and achievements typified the ideals of promoting citizenship and the building of a better community in Western Mass. Past recipients include war heroes, social activists, teachers, volunteers, philanthropists, historians, clergy, physicians, journalists, public servants, and business leaders — a diverse group, each with a passion for the region and a selfless streak. A complete list of recipients since 1915 can be found at www.adclubwm.org/events/pynchonaward. To nominate an individual, submit a one-page letter explaining why the nominee should be considered. Include biographical information, outstanding accomplishments, examples of service to the community, organizations he or she is or has been active in, and the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least three people who can further attest to the nominee’s eligibility for induction into the Order of William Pynchon. All nominees will be considered and researched by the Pynchon Trustees, comprised of the current and five past presidents of the Advertising Club. Nominations must be submitted by Friday, March 30 to: William Pynchon Trustees, Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, P.O. Box 1022, West Springfield, MA 01090 or by e-mail to [email protected] Pynchon medalists are chosen by unanimous decision of the Pynchon Trustees. 2018 recipients will be announced in June 2018, with an awards ceremony scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 18 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke.

Unemployment Rate Holds
at 3.5% in Massachusetts

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate remained at 3.5% in January, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 6,100 jobs in January. Over the month, the private sector lost 4,200 jobs; although gains occurred in professional, scientific, and business services; information; and other services. From January 2017 to January 2018, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 29,000 jobs. The January unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Massachusetts continues to experience a low unemployment rate and labor force expansions,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said. “While the overall health of our economy remains strong, and 2017 marked the eighth consecutive year of job growth, persistent skills gaps remain. That is why our workforce-development partners remain committed to ensuring that those who are still unemployed or underemployed have access to the training resources they need to access high-demand jobs.” The labor force increased by 2,200 from 3,657,300 in December, as 3,900 more residents were employed and 1,700 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased four-tenths of a percentage point from 3.9% in January 2017. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — remained at 65.3%. The labor force participation rate over the year has decreased by 0.2% compared to January 2017. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; leisure and hospitality; professional, scientific, and business services; and other services.

Hampden County Bar Assoc.
Offers Two Law-school Scholarships

SPRINGFIELD — The Hampden County Bar Assoc. is now accepting applications for the John F. Moriarty Scholarship and the Colonel Archer B. Battista Veterans Scholarship. The John F. Moriarty Scholarship is available to any Hampden County resident who has been admitted to or is attending a certified law school for the 2018-19 academic year. Applicants must have been residents of Hampden County for at least five years. The application deadline is May 25. The Colonel Archer B. Battista Veterans Scholarship is available to any veteran with an honorable discharge or a current member of the U.S. military who has been admitted to or is attending a certified law school in New England for the 2018-19 year. The application deadline is May 15, 2018. Both scholarships are based on merit and financial need. Both applications and additional information are available by contacting the Caitlin Glenn at the Hampden County Bar Assoc. at (413) 732-4660 or [email protected], or by visiting www.hcbar.org/news/scholarships.

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Tighe & Bond Publishes 2017 Water and Sewer Rate Survey Results

WESTFIELD — Tighe & Bond published the results of its most recent Massachusetts Water and Sewer Rate Survey. Since 1997, Tighe & Bond has gathered and published Massachusetts water and sewer user rate data that municipal government and private water suppliers can use as a benchmarking tool for comparing their rates against other suppliers in the state. The survey, conducted across the state during 2017, includes typical annual homeowner water and sewer costs for most systems throughout Massachusetts. It also provides information regarding rate structures and billing cycles. This can be particularly useful information when suppliers are considering adjustments to their current rates or rate structures. Tighe & Bond is now teaming with the Environmental Finance Center at the University of North Carolina School of Government to present the results of the firm’s rate study using a free, online rates dashboard developed, hosted and maintained by the center. This gives users more flexibility in examining the survey data. Users can adjust the assumed annual usage the comparison is based on, review conservation and affordability metrics, as well as compare annual bills. They can also compare rates by utility size, river basin, geographic area, and median household income. The 2017 water survey indicates that annual water costs in in Massachusetts range from a low of $123 to a high of $2,025. The 2017 average is $595, and the median is $568. Sixty-five percent of survey respondents have increased their rates since the 2014 survey. The 2017 sewer survey indicates that annual sewer costs in in Massachusetts range from a low of $229 to a high of $2,316. The 2017 average is $862, and the median is $838. Three-quarters of survey respondents have increased their rates since the 2014 survey. Anyone can access the online rates dashboard, or request a copy of these survey results, by visiting www.tighebond.com/category/rate-surveys.

Opioid-related Overdose Deaths Fell by More Than 8% in 2017

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts declined in 2017 by an estimated 8.3% compared to 2016. This is the first time in several years there has been a year-over-year decline, according to the quarterly report released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. This is the third consecutive quarterly report where the number of estimated and confirmed opioid-related deaths declined. The total number of estimated and confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017 was 1,977, which is 178 fewer deaths than the 2,155 estimated and confirmed deaths in 2016, or an 8.3% decrease. In previous years, the year-over-year comparisons showed increases in opioid-related overdose deaths; the estimated opioid-related overdose death rate in 2016 increased by 22% from 2015, there was a 30% increase in 2015 from the prior year, and in 2014, there was a 39% increase from 2013.

Bradley Airport to Introduce Non-stop Service to St. Louis

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — The Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) announced the debut of new daily, non-stop service between Bradley International Airport and St. Louis Lambert International Airport on Southwest Airlines. The service will commence on Aug. 7, utilizing a Boeing 737, with an average of 143 seats. The daily departure from Bradley International Airport is scheduled for 11:10 a.m. (Eastern Time), with an arrival at St. Louis Lambert International Airport at 12:45 p.m. (Central Time). The inbound flight is scheduled to leave St. Louis at 4:25 p.m. (Central) and arrive at Bradley at 7:50 p.m. (Eastern). This route will be Southwest’s 10th non-stop destination out of Bradley International Airport. The airline currently offers non-stop service from Bradley to Baltimore, Chicago, Denver, Ft. Lauderdale, Ft. Myers, Las Vegas, Orlando, Tampa, and West Palm Beach. The airline first started flying out of Bradley in 1999.

State Announces Grants to Restore Rivers, Boost Climate Readiness

BOSTON — The state recently announced $97,397 in state grant funds for priority projects in the city of Northampton and the towns of Duxbury, Middleton, and West Boylston to remove dams, aid in the restoration of rivers to their natural state, and increase climate readiness. Benefits of river restoration include increased habitat for fish and wildlife, flood management, landscape development, and an increase in recreational opportunities and access. The grant funds are administered by the Massachusetts Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Ecological Restoration (DER). Locally, work will include the Upper Roberts Meadow Brook restoration and the Upper Roberts Meadow Brook dam removal in Northampton, to be funded with a $25,000 state grant. The brook is a cold-water stream with a resident trout population. Removal of the 30-foot-high dam will provide numerous environmental benefits, including conversion of the dam impoundment back to a free-flowing reach, reconnection of approximately nine miles of upstream habitat for fish and other aquatic organisms, and repair of ecological processes that support a healthy stream system, including the movement of sediment and organic matter. This grant will support the city in completing the permitting phase, conducting the bid phase, and beginning the project implementation phase. Priority projects are evaluated by DER on their ecological benefit, cost, size, practicality, feasibility, contribution to climate readiness, opportunity for public education and recreation, available program resources, and partner support.

New Energy-efficiency Program Offers Opportunities and Rebates

BOSTON — A new pilot program funded by the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER) is making incentives for energy-efficiency upgrades in residential buildings with one to four units available to Massachusetts residents, including those serviced by municipal lighting companies. DOER, established to develop and implement policies and programs to further the energy-related goals of the Commonwealth, has created the Home Energy Market Value Performance (MVP) pilot program to test innovations to residential energy-efficiency program delivery. This program is designed to be custom-built around a home’s individual needs instead of a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all process, relying on the participating contractors’ expertise in building science and advanced modeling software used during the energy audit. The incentives and rebates available for energy-efficiency upgrades are based on the reduction of annual energy consumption of the home. The initial audit will model the current annual energy usage, and the energy specialists will create a plan to reduce that usage. Together with the energy specialists, homeowners can make decisions about what measures to install or upgrade based on their homes’ particular needs and the projected incentive paid by the program. A site visit will be conducted after the upgrades have been completed to confirm their installation and approve the customer’s rebate package. The MVP pilot will run until November 2019 or until all funding is spent, which is estimated to cover 600 projects statewide. Massachusetts residences up to a four-unit building that meet health and safety standards are eligible for participation, including condominiums and rentals with written agreement from the landlord. Currently, homes that heat with Berkshire Gas or that are on a reduced rate code or heating assistance are not eligible for the program. The pilot consists of just eight participating contractors across the state. Locally, the Energy Store, an Easthampton-based Building Performance Institute Goldstar Contractor, was chosen as a participating contractor. Inquiries about the DOER MVP pilot can be directed to the Energy Store at [email protected]

Advertising Club Accepting Scholarship Applications

SPRINGFIELD — The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts scholarship committee announced that scholarship applications are now available online at adclubwm.org. Applications will also be available through guidance departments at high schools in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, or by contacting the Ad Club at (413) 736-2582. In 2018, one $1,000 scholarship will be awarded. Western Mass. seniors who plan to attend an accredited college or technical school to study advertising, communications, marketing, or graphics arts and will be attending in September 2018 are encouraged to apply. The scholarship must be applied against tuition and fees at the school. Candidates will be judged on academic performance; extracurricular activities; community service and/or work experience; a demonstrated interest in advertising, communications, marketing, or graphic design; personal recommendations; and a letter of introduction outlining future plans. Completed scholarship applications and all support materials must be submitted to the Ad Club and postmarked by Friday, March 30. Scholarship decisions are made by the scholarship committee of the Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, and are considered final. The scholarship will be awarded at the Ad Club’s Creative Awards show in May.

HCC Foundation Offers More Than $200,000 in College Scholarships

HOLYOKE — More than $200,000 in scholarships is available for new, current, and transferring Holyoke Community College (HCC) students for the 2018-19 academic year. Students must be currently enrolled at HCC or have been accepted for the upcoming academic year to be eligible for scholarships, which are awarded through the HCC Foundation. Last year, for the 2017-18 academic year, the HCC Foundation awarded scholarships to more than 200 students. For more information or to fill out the online application, visit www.hcc.edu/scholarships. The application deadline is Wednesday, March 21. For more information, call the HCC Foundation scholarship office at (413) 552-2182 or visit the Institutional Advancement office in Donahue 170 on the HCC campus, 303 Homestead Ave., Holyoke.

Briefcase Departments

Employer Confidence Begins 2018 with Increase

BOSTON — Massachusetts employers began 2018 much the way they ended 2017 — with growing confidence in the economy and optimism about their own business prospects. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose a half-point to 64.1 during January, setting another 17-year high. The Index has gained 2.7 points during the past 12 months as employer confidence levels have remained comfortably within the optimistic range. Growing enthusiasm about the Massachusetts economy and a brightening outlook on economic conditions six months from now fueled the January confidence increase. At the same time, the hiring outlook remained muted as low unemployment and demographic shifts continued to impede the ability of employers to find the workers they need. The survey was taken prior to major declines in global financial markets during the past several days. “Rising confidence is not surprising in a state with 3.5% unemployment and an economy that grew at a 3.3% annual rate during the fourth quarter,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Economic output, job growth, and spending all rose at a healthy clip in Massachusetts during the final three months of the year, and economists expect modest growth to continue during the first half of 2018.” The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. It has remained above 50 since October 2013. The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mixed during January. The most significant gain came in the Massachusetts Index assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, which rose 1.3 points to 68.9. The Massachusetts Index has gained 3.7 points in the past two months, 5.5 points year over year, and now stands at its highest level since November 2000. The U.S. Index of national business conditions also continued a yearlong rally by gaining 0.6 points to 64.8. January marked the 95th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, decreased a point to 61.7, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, surged 2.1 points to 66.6. The Current Index has risen 2.1 points and the Future Index 3.3 points during the past 12 months. The Company Index, reflecting employer views of their own operations and prospects, rose slightly, gaining 0.2 points to 62.3. The Employment Index was essentially flat, leaving it 2.1 points below its level of January 2017. Non-manufacturing companies (66.6) were more optimistic than manufacturers (62.3). Large employers (67.2) were more bullish than medium-sized companies (62.7) or small businesses (63.5). “The strong Future Index readings signal that employers anticipate steady growth during the first two quarters of 2018. The only fly in ointment remains the prospect that labor shortages may constrict the ability of companies to grow and expand,” said Paul Bolger, president, Massachusetts Capital Resource Co., and a BEA member. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also BEA member, said 2018 brings with it significant risk for employers as progressive groups push ballot questions that could create a $1 billion paid family and medical leave program, impose a punitive tax on many small businesses, and raise the state minimum wage to $15 per hour. “The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court will today hear arguments in a challenge that I and four other business leaders filed to the constitutionality of the income surtax question,” Lord noted. “Meanwhile, the business community is seeking common ground on a compromise paid-leave proposal that will not harm the economy.”

Home Sales in Pioneer Valley Post Gains in 2017

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales posted gains in both volume and price last year, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley, with total sales up 1.7% from 2016 to 2017, and median price up 4.5%. In Franklin County, sales were up 3.0% in 2017, and median price up 2.3%. In Hampden County, sales rose 3.6%, and median price saw a 5.5% gain. However, in Hampshire County, sales were down 3.4%, though median price rose 4.1%.

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Unemployment Rate Drops to 3.5% in Massachusetts

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 3.5% in December, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts lost 300 jobs in December. Over the month, the private sector lost 200 jobs; gains occurred in construction, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, and financial activities. The November estimate was revised to a gain of 7,800 jobs. From December 2016 to December 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 63,000 jobs. The December unemployment rate was six-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force decreased by 500 from 3,647,500 in November, as 1,900 more residents were employed and 2,500 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased four-tenths of a percentage point from 3.1% in December 2016. There were 17,900 more unemployed residents over the year compared to December 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — decreased one-tenth of a percentage point to 65.3% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased by 0.7% compared to December 2016. The largest private sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; other services; and leisure and hospitality.

Union Station Wins Prize for Brownfields Redevelopment

WESTFIELD — Springfield Union Station has won the prestigious Phoenix Award grand prize for the best brownfields-redevelopment project in the nation. Announced during the December National Brownfields Training Conference in Pittsburgh, the Union Station project also won the Region 1 Phoenix Award. Both awards recognize exemplary brownfield redevelopment and revitalization. These awards highlight the critical environmental cleanup phase at Springfield Union Station, as well as the demolition and removal of a massive baggage warehouse and the remediation of the former site of the Hotel Charles. It also celebrates the redevelopment of a long-vacant historic train station into a state-of-the-art intermodal transit center. Built in 1926, the original Union Station was boarded up for 44 years before taken over by the Springfield Redevelopment Authority in 1989. After many fits and starts, the $94.1 million redevelopment project was funded by numerous federal, state, and local sources. This included grants from the EPA Brownfield Assessment and Cleanup program, MassDevelopment, the Federal Transit Administration, state transportation bond funds, a state parking grant, and more. Tighe & Bond provided extensive hazardous-building-material evaluations, abatement monitoring, building demolition design, and the assessment and remediation of widespread areas of subsurface contamination. After almost 10 years, Union Station has been transformed and repurposed into a LEED-certified building that opened last June, and is the new headquarters for Peter Pan Bus Lines. It has also spurred a new, adjacent, $15 million, 265-unit housing redevelopment. Besides the Phoenix Award, the project has already won other statewide awards for historic preservation, including the Preservation Massachusetts Paul & Nikki Tsongas Best Then & Now Award for 2017.

Expedia Names Lenox ‘Best Place to Escape in Massachusetts’

LENOX — The Lenox Chamber of Commerce announced that travel-booking website giant Expedia has named Lenox as the “Best Place to Escape in Massachusetts.” Expedia released its “Best Place to Escape in Every State” feature on Jan. 3. These places made the list for being ideal for a relaxing getaway where visitors can recharge, take a breather, and revel in serene solitude. “From quaint small towns to quiet nature preserves, this country is full of places to escape to, and we’ve chosen our favorite in each state, highlighting the perfectly restful things to do there. So, sit back, relax, and start dreaming of better times ahead — these calm places are calling your name,” Expedia author Lily Rogers wrote. Lenox and Berkshire notables highlighted in the article included Blantyre, Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, the Mount, Edith Wharton’s Home, and Berkshire Grown.

Study Examines Veterans’ Addiction Risk Related to Childhood Adversity

AMHERST — Results of a national study led by public health scientist Elizabeth Evans at UMass Amherst, along with others at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and UCLA, suggest that risk for alcohol- and drug-use disorders among U.S. military veterans is increased by childhood adversity, and in ways that are different between women and men and different compared to the civilian population. According to Evans, assistant professor of Health Promotion and Policy at UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, in the general population, fewer women than men have an alcohol- or drug-use disorder. “Veterans are different in that there is no gender difference in the prevalence of these problems,” she explained. “Among veterans, a similar proportion of women and men — about 37% — have ever had an alcohol or drug-use disorder. This finding that women veterans are similar to men veterans, and are so different from civilian women, is unexpected. Also surprising are the high rates of childhood adversity among veterans, especially among women; 68% of women veterans report some childhood adversity, and they have the highest rates of childhood sexual abuse.” The study results appeared in a recent early online edition of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology and will be in print this year. “One of the implications of this study is the need to assess for childhood adversity, to help people recognize its relationship with substance use and cope with its health impacts,” Evans noted. “When people join the military or when veterans access healthcare at the VA or in the community would be good times to assess and treat childhood adversity, and we’re often missing those opportunities now.” The researchers found that, with increasing exposure to adversity in childhood, risks of alcohol-use disorder among civilian men and women grew more similar, but for drug-use disorder, the gender differences in risk widened. By contrast, among veterans, more childhood adversity elevated men’s alcohol risk and increased women’s drug risk. “In general right now, we don’t assess for childhood adversity until there’s a problem, in particular with alcohol or drugs, or attempts to harm oneself or others,” Evans said. “However, we know that childhood adversity is an early life experience that is associated with anxiety, depression, and other risk factors for later health and social problems. We in public health, along with others in the community, can do more to prevent childhood adversity altogether. Also, more can be done to assess and address childhood adversity when it does occur so that we mitigate or undo its harmful effects. The need for such efforts is especially critical now given the devastating impacts of the current opioid epidemic on families and communities.”

Nominations Open for Ubora and Ahadi Awards

SPRINGFIELD — The African Hall subcommittee of the Springfield Museums is seeking nominations for the 27th annual Ubora Award and the ninth annual Ahadi Youth Award. The African Hall subcommittee is a volunteer group comprised of educators, business people, and community leaders from the African-American community. The nomination deadline for both awards is March 31. The Ubora Award is presented to an African-American adult who has demonstrated a commitment to the Greater Springfield area and exhibited excellence in the fields of community service, education, science, humanities, or the arts. The Swahili word ‘ubora’ means ‘excellence.’ Named for the Swahili word for ‘promise,’ the Ahadi Youth Award is presented to a young African-American who has excelled in academics and performed admirable service to the Greater Springfield community. Eligible candidates must be age 19 or younger, live in or have strong ties to the Greater Springfield area, and be currently enrolled in grade 10, 11, or 12. The Ubora and Ahadi Awards will be presented at a ceremony at the Springfield Museums in September. Nominations forms can be downloaded by visiting springfieldmuseums.org/ubora. For additional information, call (413) 263-6800, ext. 325, or e-mail to [email protected] Nominations may be e-mailed to [email protected] or mailed to African Hall Subcommittee, c/o Valerie Cavagni, Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St., Springfield, MA 01103.

Berkshire Bank Launches $52,500 Scholarship Program

PITTSFIELD — Berkshire Bank announced it will honor 35 high-school seniors across Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for their volunteer service with Berkshire Bank scholarships. The scholarships recognize students who excel academically, have a financial need, and share the bank’s commitment to community service. Additionally, students must attend a high school that is located in a county with a Berkshire Bank or Commerce Bank office. The recipients will share in $52,500 in scholarship funds. Through the program, 35 $1,500 scholarships will be awarded to high-school seniors who will be attending a two-year or four-year college in the fall. Applications are evaluated based on the student’s record of volunteerism in the community, academic standing, and financial need. Applicants must have a minimum GPA of a 3.0 and a family household income under $100,000 to be eligible to apply. A team of 200 bank employee volunteers will review the applications and select this year’s recipients. Recipients will include 15 students in Massachusetts, nine in New York, three in Connecticut, three in Vermont, three in New Jersey, and two in Pennsylvania. Students can apply online at www.berkshirebank.com/scholarships. To be considered, all applications must be submitted online by Wednesday, March 21 at 4 p.m. Additional information about this year’s program can be obtained through the bank’s website or by e-mailing the Berkshire Bank Foundation at [email protected]

Briefcase Departments

Employer Confidence Closes 2017 at 18-year High

BOSTON — Surging optimism about the state and national economies left Massachusetts employers with their highest level of confidence in 18 years as 2017 drew to a close. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose one point to 63.6 during December, its highest level since November 2000. The BCI gained 3.2 points during a year in which employer confidence levels remained comfortably within the optimistic range. Every element of the overall index increased during 2017 except for the Employment Index, which dropped a half-point. Analysts believe low unemployment and demographic shifts are impeding the ability of employers to find the workers they need. “Massachusetts employers maintained a uniformly positive outlook throughout 2017, and passage of the federal tax bill only added to that optimism,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the 12-month decline in the Employment Index reminds us that the persistent shortage of skilled workers has reached an inflection point for the Massachusetts economy. Massachusetts companies have postponed expansions, declined to bid for contracts, or outsourced work because they simply can’t find people.” The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. It has remained above 50 since October 2013. The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were mostly higher during December. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, surged 2.4 points to 67.6, leaving it 5.8 points better than a year earlier. The U.S. Index of national business conditions continued a yearlong rally by gaining two points to 64.2. December marked the 94th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, decreased 0.7 points to 62.7, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 2.7 points to 64.5. The Current Index gained 3.6 points and the Future Index 2.8 points during 2017. The Company Index, reflecting employer views of their own operations and prospects, declined 0.2 points to 62.1. The Employment Index rose slightly to 56.7, but still ended the year 0.5 points below the 57.2 posted in December 2016. Manufacturing companies (64.3) continued to be more optimistic than non-manufacturers (62.6). Another unusual result was that employers in Western Mass. (64.6) posted higher confidence readings than those in Eastern Mass. (62.7).

UMass Team Reports Gambling Research to Gaming Commission

AMHERST — Results of a baseline study on gambling behavior in Massachusetts that establishes how people participated — or not — in gambling prior to the opening of any casinos were reported this week to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) by epidemiologist Rachel Volberg and colleagues at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences. It is the first major cohort study of adult gambling to be carried out in the U.S. Volberg and colleagues were selected by the MGC in 2013 to conduct a first-of-its-kind, comprehensive, multi-year study on the economic and social impacts of introducing casino gambling in the state. The Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) team is examining an array of social and economic effects. As part of MGC’s research agenda, the results are from the separate Massachusetts Gambling Impact Cohort study of factors critical to developing strategic and data-driven problem-gambling services. Cohort studies survey the same individuals over time and provide information on how gambling and problem gambling develops and progresses, and how individuals may experience remission. “This has significant value as it can highlight risk and protective factors important in developing effective prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery-support services,” Volberg noted. Before beginning this research, she predicted the state’s sweeping research initiative would change the intellectual landscape and knowledge base about gambling, and she said the results released this week support that view. “This tells us new things, but it is nuanced. Based on this new study, researchers will think about gambling behavior in new ways.” One interesting finding is “the apparent ease with which people move in and out of problem-gambling status within a given year,” the lead author pointed out. “It’s pretty clear that people phase in and out of the problem gambling group. This movement is different than the way problem gambling has been characterized in the past. Until recently, the general orientation has been that disordered gambling is an unremitting chronic condition.” According to the report, only 49.4% of individuals who were problem or pathological gamblers in wave 1 were in this same category in wave 2, with sizeable numbers transitioning into at-risk gambling and recreational gambling categories. At-risk gamblers were the most unstable members of the cohort, with only 37.5% being in the same category in both waves. Most of them transitioned to recreational gambling, but a significant minority transitioned to become problem or pathological gamblers, the researchers reported. Added Volberg, “we’ve seen this movement in studies done in other jurisdictions, but this will be news to some researchers who are used to thinking of problem gambling as a progressive and chronic disorder.” An important aspect of all physical and mental disorders is incidence, she noted. That is the proportion of a population that newly develops a condition over a specified period of time. The study found problem gambling incidence in Massachusetts, at 2.4%, to be high compared to studies elsewhere. The authors pointed out, however, that those other studies have different ‘gambling landscapes,’ used different measures of problem gambling, and had shorter follow-up periods. The report noted that the cause of the high incidence rate is unclear given that there was no significant change in the actual availability of legal gambling opportunities in Massachusetts during this time period. In addition to Volberg and colleagues at UMass Amherst, co-investigator Robert Williams of the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, provided oversight of study design and implementation as well as help with data analysis and reporting.

Springfield Central Cultural District Receives $25,000 Grant

SPRINGFIELD — Morgan Drewniany, executive director of the Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD), announced the receipt of a $25,000 Beveridge Family Foundation grant to help the organization create an artist database, as well as increase internal capacity. Part of the grant from the Beveridge Foundation will be utilized to hire the UMass Arts Extension Service, a nationally renowned thought leader in the arts field, to help create a grassroots network of artists. This network will increase the economic growth of the creative-economy sector in Springfield by connecting artists to paid opportunities, as well as making it easier for local businesses, nonprofits, and individuals to find an artist of a specific discipline. The mission of the Beveridge Family Foundation is to preserve and enhance the quality of life by embracing and perpetuating Frank Stanley Beveridge’s philanthropic vision, through grant-making incentives in support of programs in youth development, health, education, religion, art, and environment, primarily in Hampden and Hampshire counties. The Springfield Central Cultural District encompasses an area of the metro center of Springfield, and is membership-based, involving many of the downtown arts institutions. Its mission is to create and sustain a vibrant cultural environment in Springfield.

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts Offers Winter Safety Tips

WESTBOROUGH — As winter continues to have a frigid grip on New England, Columbia Gas of Massachusetts is reminding customers of important safety tips during snowy and icy conditions. To be safe and avoid hazards, customers should:

• Keep natural-gas meters clear of snow and ice to ensure they are visible and accessible at all times for maintenance by Columbia Gas. Keeping natural-gas meters clear also ensures proper venting;

• Remove snow from the meter with hands or a broom. Never use a shovel or kick or hit the meter to break away snow or ice. If the meter is encased in ice, contact Columbia Gas for assistance at (800) 688-6160;

• Keep fresh air and exhaust vents for natural-gas appliances free of snow, ice, and debris to prevent equipment malfunction;

• Use caution when removing snow from flat rooftops, especially on commercial and industrial buildings, as there may be heating and cooling equipment and electric or fuel lines that may not be visible under the snow;

• Make sure all appliances and heating equipment are inspected and operating properly;

• Never use cook tops, ovens, or outdoor grills as a source of heat;

• Check your carbon-monoxide detectors and smoke detectors to ensure they operate properly; and

• As always, if you smell natural gas at any time, leave the area and call 911 or Columbia Gas at (800) 525-8222.

“The safety and comfort of our customers is a high priority,” said Steve Bryant, president of Columbia Gas of Massachusetts. “We ask, during these winter months when temperatures are well below freezing, that you check on your families and neighbors, particularly those that are elderly or need special attention.”

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UMass, Research Partners Aim to Improve Flu-season Forecasts
AMHERST — Research teams, including one led by biostatistician Nicholas Reich at UMass Amherst, are participating in a national influenza-forecasting challenge to try to predict the onset, progress, and peaks of regional flu outbreaks to aid prevention and control. This year, the Reich Lab is leading an effort to improve the forecasting by increasing the collaboration between groups. “Every year, the Centers for Disease Control host a flu-forecasting challenge,” Reich said. “It’s the most organized and public effort at forecasting any infectious disease anywhere in the world. Our lab is now in our third year of participating, and we find that each year we get a little better and learn a bit more. This year, we wanted to take it to the next level, so we worked with other teams year-round to develop a way that our models could work together to make a single best forecast for influenza. This entire effort is public, so anyone can go to the website and see the forecasts.” While this flu season has started earlier than usual in the northeastern and southern regions of the U.S., according to the most recent data, the forecasts are still showing a fair amount of uncertainty about how big a season it will be, Reich said. “The holiday season is a notoriously difficult time to forecast because typically fewer people go to the doctor, and yet everyone is traveling around spreading or being exposed to infections such as flu.” Reich and colleagues at UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health and Health Sciences collaborate with teams at Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, and a group at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, in a group they have dubbed the FluSight Network. It issues a new flu season forecast every Monday for public-health researchers and practitioners that compares the flu trajectory this year to past years. In a recent publication, Reich and colleagues state that their aim is to “combine forecasting models for seasonal influenza in the U.S. to create a single ensemble forecast. The central question is, can we provide better information to decision makers by combining forecasting models and, specifically, by using past performance of the models to inform the ensemble approach.” Added Reich, “we are working closely with our collaborators at the CDC to determine how to improve the timeliness and relevance of our forecasts.” To prepare for this flu season, he and colleagues spent many hours designing a standard structure that each team needed to use when submitting models. This allowed for comparison of methods over the past seven years of flu data in the U.S. They also conducted a cross-validation study of data from the past seven flu seasons to compare five different methods for combining models into a single ensemble forecast. They found that four of their collaborative ensemble methods had higher average scores than any of the individual models. The team is now submitting forecasts from their best-performing model and are posting them once a week this season to the CDC’s 2017-18 FluSight Challenge. Reich estimates there are about 20 teams this year participating in the CDC challenge nationwide, who produce about 30 different models. Each model forecasts the onset of the flu season, how it will progress over the coming few weeks, when it will peak, and how intense the peak will be compared to other seasons. In a heavy flu season, between 5% and 12% of doctor’s visits are for influenza-like illness, and that number varies regionally in the U.S. This metric is one of the key indicators for the CDC of how bad the flu season is, and it is the measure used in the forecasting challenges. “Certainly for the CDC, there are policy decisions that could be impacted by these forecasts, including the timing of public communication about flu season starting and when to get vaccinated. Models can help with all of that,” Reich said. “Also, hospitals often try to have enhanced precautions in place during a certain peak period for the disease. If you do that too early, or for too long, you run the risk of individuals getting tired of taking the extra time to comply with the policies.” Hospital epidemiologists and others responsible for public-health decisions do not declare the onset of flu season lightly, he noted. In hospitals, flu onset — a technical set of symptoms reported to physicians — triggers many extra time-consuming and costly precautions and procedures such as added gloves, masks, and gowns; donning and doffing time; special decontamination procedures; increased surveillance; and reduced visitor access, for example. There is also healthcare worker fatigue to consider. Hospitals want to be as effective and efficient as possible in their preparations and response to reduce time and money spent and worker burnout. The public-health effort to improve flu season forecasts is relatively recent, Reich said. “There has been tremendous progress in how we think about infectious disease forecasting in just the last five years. If you compare that to something like weather forecasting, which has been going on for decades, we’re in the middle of a long process of learning and improvement. Someday, we might be able to imagine having a flu forecast on our smartphones that tells us, for example, it’s an early season and I’d better get Mom to the clinic to get her vaccination early this year. We’re close, but that’s not here quite yet.”

Massachusetts Adds 6,700 Jobs in November
BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 3.6% in November, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary job estimates indicate Massachusetts added 6,700 jobs in November. Over the month, the private sector added 7,300 jobs as gains occurred in leisure and hospitality; education and health services; construction; professional, scientific, and business services; and manufacturing. The October estimate was revised to a gain of 3,200 jobs. From November 2016 to November 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 65,200 jobs. The November unemployment rate was five-tenths of a percentage point lower than the national rate of 4.1% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Year-to-date the jobs and labor force estimates indicate a strong and stable economy in the Commonwealth. Since December 2016, Massachusetts is estimated to have added 62,200 jobs, 64,300 more residents are participating in the labor force, and the unemployment rate remains low, averaging 3.8%. November also marks the 13th consecutive month of private-sector job growth, with manufacturing adding 1,600 jobs,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said. The labor force decreased by 8,200 from 3,656,000 in October, as 4,000 fewer residents were employed and 4,200 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased five-tenths of a percentage point from 3.1% in November 2016. There were 18,300 more unemployed residents over the year compared to November 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — decreased one-tenth of a percentage point to 65.4% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased by 0.7% compared to November 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; professional, scientific and business services; leisure and hospitality; and other services.

Applications Open for 2018 Local Farmer Awards
AGAWAM — The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF), in partnership with Big Y and a sponsorship team, announced the fourth year of the Local Farmer Awards, supporting local farmers in Western Mass. with funds for infrastructure improvements and farm equipment. Launched in 2015, the awards draw attention to the importance of local farmers to the region’s economy and health. “Big Y has been supporting local farmers since we began over 80 years ago,” said Charles D’Amour, Big Y president and COO. “Through our partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, we are providing one more way to help the local growers to thrive in our community.” Awards of up to $2,500 will be given to each recipient farmer. The 2017 awards were made to 49 of the 116 applicants. Essential to the program’s success has been the ongoing advice and assistance from the two regional Buy Local farm advocates, Berkshire Grown and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). “Local family farms are a part of our culture and economy and the reason we call this area home,” said Philip Korman, executive director of CISA. “This unique farm awards program makes it possible for family farms to strengthen that connection in our communities.” Added Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, “we’re thrilled about the continuation of these financial awards for farmers in Western Massachusetts. This helps build the local food economy in our region.” The application is open through Jan. 31, 2018. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit the website for more information: www.farmerawards.org.

DevelopSpringfield Sells 700 State St. to Pride Stores for Redevelopment
SPRINGFIELD — DevelopSpringfield announced the sale of property at the corner of Thompson and State streets to Pride Stores for redevelopment. The site had been identified as a priority for redevelopment in the State Street Corridor Redevelopment Program, a plan focused on the economic revitalization of State Street and adjacent neighborhoods. DevelopSpringfield acquired the former River Inn at 700 State St. in 2013 with adjacent lots on Thompson Street to remove a blight on the neighborhood, promote revitalization, and prepare the site for appropriate commercial redevelopment. The organization performed extensive asbestos remediation, demolished the building, and prepared the site for redevelopment. “We listened closely to the interests of community members, including the Springfield Food Policy Council and the McKnight Neighborhood Council, to identify a developer whose project would meet community needs and be a good neighbor to the many residents near the site,” said Nicholas Fyntrilakis, DevelopSpringfield’s chairman. “Pride’s new store will offer fresh food and produce and address the community’s interests for healthier food options.” Added Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, “this is exactly why my administration created this public/private partnership of DevelopSpringfield. This in-question property had been a troublesome area for the neighborhood for many years. I look forward to the redevelopment of this site with a project that will bring jobs, tax revenue, and a quality retail operator who cares about our community.” The sale of the property was complete on Dec. 15. Construction is targeted to begin in the spring. The new store will include a Pride gas station and convenience store and will feature a variety of convenient food items, Pride Café Bakery, local produce, and fresh healthy food offerings. In addition, incubator space will be provided to a local food entrepreneur. “We are excited to bring Pride Markets to this important area of the State Street corridor,” said Bob Bolduc, owner of Pride Stores. “Not only will the store have the amenities our customers traditionally expect, but it will also have fresh local produce available through an innovative collaboration led by local food advocate Liz O’Gilvie, who will coordinate a farmer’s market on the site.”

MassDOT: $1B Invested in Infrastructure in 2017
BOSTON — The Mass. Department of Transportation announced that approximately $1 billion was invested in improving and upgrading roads, bridges, sidewalks, multi-use paths, and intersections across the state in calendar year 2017. This $1 billion in capital investments included repairs and improvements to 386 bridges in 123 communities and improved road conditions in more than 155 cities and towns across Massachusetts. An additional $30 million was programmed through the Complete Streets and Municipal Small Bridge programs in order to support local transportation planning and community bridges not eligible for federal aid. “The Baker-Polito Administration has focused on improving the reliability and resiliency of our transportation infrastructure to ensure that people throughout the Commonwealth are able to drive, walk, bike, or use public transit and reach the places they need to go,” said Transportation Secretary and CEO Stephanie Pollack. “By investing in our roads, bridges, sidewalks, multi-use paths, and intersections, we can provide better options to travelers and allow them to utilize their preferred mode of transportation to reach their jobs, homes, businesses, and places that improve their quality of life.” Among the notable construction project highlights from 2017 are reaching the full beneficial use milestone for the $148 million I-91 viaduct rehabilitation project in Springfield approximately eight months ahead of schedule. The majority of the work has now been completed, and the lanes and ramps on I-91 have reopened.

Briefcase Departments

HCC, STCC Launch Gaming School, Open Registration for Classes

SPRINGFIELD — Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College officially launched the new MCCTI Gaming School, where area residents interested in working as professional card dealers or croupiers at MGM Springfield can start taking training classes early next year. HCC and STCC, through TWO, their Training and Workforce Options collaborative, and MCCTI, the Massachusetts Casino Career Training Institute, will run the gaming school on the ninth floor of 95 State St., Springfield. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission recently issued a certificate to MCCTI to operate the school. “MGM Springfield is inspired by our educational and workforce-development partners’ strong commitment to creating a healthier regional economy through career opportunities,” said Alex Dixon, general manager for MGM Springfield. “We are grateful for their willingness to learn about and adapt teachings for the gaming and hospitality industry. Today, we celebrate this milestone and look forward to hiring the first-ever table-game professionals in the Commonwealth.” The launch event also signaled the opening of registration for training classes, which will begin Feb. 26 in anticipation of the opening of the $960 million MGM Springfield resort casino in September 2018. Jeffrey Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services for HCC, who also serves as executive director of TWO and MCCTI, noted that the MGM International website prominently features two new resort casinos MGM is building that are literally half a world apart, one in Springfield and another in Macau. “There will be a $1 billion facility one block from here,” he said. “The show is coming to Springfield.” A full schedule of training classes, along with course descriptions, prices, and school policies is available on the MCCTI website at www.mccti.org under ‘Gaming School,’ where job seekers can also register and explore other employment possibilities with MGM. “The citizens of the region want to work in positions that provide a livable wage and the potential for advancement,” said Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. “MGM Springfield will provide both, right in the heart of our region in downtown Springfield. I want to thank the community-college presidents for their continued dedication to providing people with the education and skills they need to be successful in the job market.” Robert Westerfield, vice president of Table Games for MGM Springfield, said starting out as a dealer with MGM can truly open up career pathways with the organization. “I started off as a craps dealer,” he said. “I stand before you as vice president of Table Games. Anybody can do it. If you bring the attitude, we’ll give you the aptitude.” In 2012, the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges signed a memorandum of understanding with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to work collaboratively to provide training for casino jobs in each of the state’s three defined casino regions: Greater Boston, Southeastern Mass., and Western Mass. In the Western Mass. region, MCCTI is operated by TWO. “We know that economic development and workforce development are not separate efforts,” said STCC President John Cook. “It is imperative that economic and workforce development are integrated for the benefit of our region’s businesses and citizens. The investment of MGM Springfield will allow many of our citizens to begin the process of getting employed and establishing a career pathway.” Added HCC President Christina Royal, “I particularly appreciate HCC’s historic and continuing partnerships with STCC in support of the workforce needs of area businesses. Both colleges offer a wide variety of educational and training options for job seekers and incumbent workers in industries such as healthcare, manufacturing, engineering, hospitality, culinary arts, and many other fields. MCCTI and events like today reinforce the important role community colleges play in the state and regional economy.” The MCCTI Gaming School will provide dealer training in blackjack, roulette, craps, poker, and other casino games. Participants who successfully complete training programs for at least two different table games will be guaranteed an ‘audition,’ or tryout, for a job at MGM Springfield.

Report: Massachusetts Is Healthiest State in the Nation

BOSTON — Massachusetts is the healthiest state in the nation, according to the 28th annual America’s Health Rankings report. Among the state’s strengths are its low percentage of uninsured people, low prevalence of obesity, and high vaccination rates. The 2017 report also ranked Massachusetts first for the health of women and children. “This report highlights the notable progress that our state is making to improve the health and well-being of every individual living in the Commonwealth,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Massachusetts is proud to have the lowest number of uninsured residents in the country and robust public-health efforts, and our administration will keep working across all levels of government to ensure quality healthcare and a safe, healthy environment for our residents to live, work, and play.” The 2017 report analyzed 35 measures covering behaviors, community and environment, policy, clinical care, and outcomes data. The report serves as a benchmark for states — and the nation — to measure progress, identify emerging trends, and drive action for improving public health. Last year, Massachusetts ranked second, behind Hawaii. “This year’s findings demonstrate that our focus on improving health outcomes is making a real difference in the lives of Massachusetts families and communities,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “Today’s news is a testament to the hard work and dedication of many people working across state and local government, healthcare providers, and at the community grassroots level to make Massachusetts healthier.” Among other categories in which Massachusetts was ranked first were immunizations of children ages 19 to 35 months; immunization of adolescents ages 13 to 17 years with Tdap vaccine, a combination vaccine that protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough); percentage of the population that is uninsured; number of dentists per 100,000 people; and number of mental-health providers per 100,000 people.