Home 2006 July
Departments

Branching Out

STCU Credit Union recently cut the ribbon on its new branch in Westfield. Doing the honors are, from left, directors Robert Mulcahey, Sidney Snegg, Rosmarie Mazza-Moriarty (with her son, Jake), Kenneth Ketchum, Chairman Ronald Joyal, STCU President and CEO Gary Fishlock, and directors Awilda Chaban-Colon, Erin O’Leary, and Norman Halls.

Grade Expectations

Rotary Scholarship Chair Foy Miller (left), presents the Longmeadow Rotary Scholarship award to the 2006 winner, Amanda Marsh, a senior at Longmeadow High School. (picture by Kevin Lonergan)

Grand Opening

Staff at Keystone Woods celebrate the grand opening of Grayson House, an assisted living facility. Back row: Deanna Lawrence, executive director; Angie Thornton, assistant director of Marketing; Leslie Pallante, assistant Health & Wellness leader. Front row: Beth Cardillo, director of Marketing; Brad Wood, vice president of Operations; Christine Denault, Business Operations leader.

Cutting the Ribbon

Westbank celebrates the grand opening of its new Southwick branch office on June 10.

Departments

The following bankruptcy petitions were recently filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Readers should confirm all information with the court.

Benoit, Randall K.
227 Franklin St., Apt. 8B
North Adams, MA 01247
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/15/06

Benson, Thomas J.
29 Bates St.
Westfield, MA 01085
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/14/06

Carroll, Sheilah
64 Myrtle St., #209
Indian Orchard, MA 01151
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/11/06

Daniels, Judith
P.O. BOX 242
Bondsville, MA 01009
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/15/06

Harvey, Winston
62 Endecott St.
Springfoeld, MA 01118
Chapter: 13
Filing Date: 05/15/06

Levardi, Kurt A.
199 Fort HIll Ave.
Pittsfield, MA 01201
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/12/06

Parizo, David
Parizo, Robin
24 Zabek Dr.
Easthampton, MA 01027
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/12/06

 

Parker, William R.
Parker, Barbara A.
60 Oaklawn Ave.
Orange, MA 01364
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/11/06

Read, Martha L.
199 Fort Hill Ave.
Pittsfield, MA 01201
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/12/06

Robillard, Lori Ann
40 Sunset St.
South Hadley, MA 01075
Chapter: 13
Filing Date: 05/15/06

Salamon, Victoria A.
132 North St.
Agawam, MA 01001
Chapter: 13
Filing Date: 05/11/06

Samataro, Paul F.
16 Burt Ave.
East Longmeadow, MA 01028
Chapter: 7
Filing Date: 05/15/06

Sections Supplements
Baystate, Noble Craft Plans to Affiliate

After years of thinking and talking about it, Noble Health System and Baystate Health have entered into an agreement that could lead to a formal affiliation. Administrators are optimistic about the plan, which could bring new services and capital to the Greater Westfield region.

Baystate Noble Hospital.

That name could become part of the regional health care landscape by this fall, following an agreement between Baystate Health and Noble Hospital in Westfield to formally explore affiliation of the two entities.

The Boards of Trustees from both Noble Health Systems and Baystate Health voted on June 13 to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to affiliate. The MOU approval will allow the two entities to enter into a period of due diligence, during which all aspects of the new relationship – from capital improvements to services to staffing – will be explored.

According to George Koller, president and CEO of Noble Health Systems, which serves as an umbrella for Noble Hospital, the Noble Health Alliance, the Noble VNA and Hospice, Westfield Medical Corp., and the Silvermill Realty Corp., the period of due diligence will last approximately four to five months. At the close of that period and following the attainment of necessary state and regulatory approvals, Baystate Health and Noble Hospital are expected to sign a formal affiliation agreement.

Koller told BusinessWest that the prospect of affiliating with Baystate Health has been a very real one for some time, and the success of some recent initiatives between the two health systems further bolstered the idea of a formal affiliation.

“Discussion regarding this partnership with Baystate began more than six years ago,” said Koller, noting that the idea had been considered even prior to that point. “In our most recent strategic planning process, which started last August, we spent some time looking in particular at developing new relationships with Baystate. We zeroed in on the fact that partnering with Baystate on a more serious level would be essential for Noble moving forward.”

Go West

In terms of Baystate Health’s interest in affiliating with Noble, Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of Baystate Health, said the system’s priority is to act in the best interest of patients, partners, and communities to ensure the future of quality health care throughout Western Mass.

“Combining hospital services and resources furthers the charitable mission to the communities we serve,” he said, “and provides benefits that include furthering our joint missions to provide quality health care, and providing a physical presence for Baystate in Westfield; one that is sought by the residents of the area.”

Tolosky explained that through market research conducted by both Noble Hospital and Baystate Health, the health systems were able to identify strong brand recognition of the Baystate Health name and logo, further bolstering the notion of viability of a Baystate affiliate in the Greater Westfield region.

“Through updated market research, we found that brand recognition of the Baystate name is stronger than ever before in the area,” he said, adding that solidifying the positive referral relationship between the Baystate system and Noble Hospital, and providing economies of scale for the health system’s resources and services, are also key objectives of the system in entering the partnership.

“We’ve been on very good terms with Noble Hospital for close to 14 years,” he said. “We’ve enjoyed excellent referral business and very positive physician-to-physician relationships. As we enter this period of due diligence, what we’re looking for is simply a win-win: we’ll continue to look at the market and at products and services that will translate into good business practices that make sense for Baystate and for Noble, and will also be cost-effective and consistent with our missions.”

Koller added that he expects affiliating with Baystate will be a largely positive change for Noble. He cited capital improvements and the availability of a greater number of specialty services among the most important changes that could come to the facility.

Currently, Noble partners with Baystate Health on two specific initiatives in women’s health and emergency medicine. One contract allows area women to receive outpatient primary care at Noble’s Women’s Center OB/GYN practice, while still delivering their babies at the birthing center at Wesson Women and Infants’ Unit at Baystate Medical Center, while a second allows Baystate residents to complete a portion of their training with Noble physicians in the emergency department.

Noble also currently partners with UMass Memorial Medical Center, however there is no word as to what role UMass could play in the coming months, if any.

“Because of their interest in Noble, Baystate Health brings a number of new, beneficial things to the Westfield community,” Koller said. “With a formal affiliation, we will have access to capital markets that we currently don’t have access to, and that will lead to new capital equipment and enhanced technology, ranging from new CT, MRI, and PET scanners to a new EMR (Electronic Medical Records) system. These are things that we’ve been moving toward slowly on our own, because we have to. Now, these development will be in place much sooner.”

Noble Concept

Koller said that the addition of new subspecialty programs and clinics will also have a marked effect on Noble’s roster of community-oriented services.

“These are things that the community could benefit from several times a week,” he said, explaining that while no specific needs for programming have been identified, he’s hopeful that a long list of new services will be mulled in the coming months. “What we’ll be adding is not defined yet, but there is essentially an alphabetical list that we’re looking at, which will also be a large part of the process of developing our medical staff.”

While specifics have yet to be nailed down, however, Tolosky noted that as plans move forward, a few general concerns will be kept at the forefront of discussions, among them the potential for new services and an ongoing focus on providing high-quality care closer to home.

“We believe very strongly in regional, integrated systems of care,” he said, “and all of our business decisions will be made with that in mind, as well as the understanding of how complex the health care environment has become. Sometimes, people still think of small community hospitals as quiet nonprofits, but they still need very clear, standard business practices in place to survive.”

Baystate Health currently includes Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, Baystate Mary Lane Hospital in Ware, and Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, the largest acute care hospital in western New England. If the move to affiliate is still deemed viable by the board of trustees of both health systems, Koller said a definitive agreement will be signed with Baystate that will necessitate Noble’s name change to Baystate Noble.

That progression is contingent upon not only state approval and the completion of a determination of need by the Department of Public Health, Koller noted, but also on the findings of a comprehensive study of operations, staffing, administration, and capital needs, to be completed at Noble.

“These things are going to move pretty quickly,” Koller said. “At this point, we’re not aware of any staffing or administrative changes, but those are two things that we’re going to be looking at very closely through this period.”

Koller added that he’s hopeful the trial period Baystate and Noble have entered will lead to affiliation smoothly and quickly.

“I’m really excited. We always want to be on the cutting edge of medicine, and now I think we’ll be busier providing services we have not before. Whenever we’ve conducted community surveys, this area has always rated Baystate Health’s services extremely high. Bringing Baystate to us will be a great thing for this community.”

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
Balancing Risk with Caution has Carried Forish Construction through 60 Years
Eric Forish

Eric Forish at the site of the Amelia Park Children’s Museum in Westfield

Forish Construction in Westfield has blended perseverance, diversity, and some calculated risk-taking to script a 60-year success story. As it moves forward from that milestone, it will continue to seek new business opportunities — real estate development may be the next frontier — while expanding its geographic reach.

Eric Forish and his father, Leonard, are risk takers.

Both decorate their offices at Forish Construction in Westfield with mementos from their unusual hobbies – extreme skiing and aviation, respectively – in addition to photos of completed projects and plaques given in recognition of community service.

In some ways, those pastimes are reflective of the passion and drive it takes to run a successful business. But in other ways, they are a departure from the solid presence Forish Construction maintains in this, its 60th year in business.

The younger Forish, who spoke recently with BusinessWest, said even with daredevil streaks running in the family, consistency and longevity are two mainstays at Forish Construction. His father, 86, is proof, Forish added: he still reports to work every day, rain, sleet, or snow.

“Our personal lives have elements of risk and managing risk,” he said, “but running a construction business is all about minimizing that risk, in terms of project management, safety, and finances, and maintaining a reputation for reliability.”

Building Moguls

Forish Construction emerged in Western Mass. in 1946, after Leonard Forish returned from WWII a decorated Marine. He began building homes, and continued to do so until the early 1960s when he spearheaded a shift to the commercial market.

Eric Forish explained that the transition was successful due in part to his father’s attention to diversifying techniques as well as customers.

“Dad always had the latest and greatest tools for his time,” he explained, “and for a long time, servicing the paper industry was a mainstay for the company. But as paper companies like Strathmore and Southworth began to close, the diversity of our skills and clients helped us move onto other things without feeling a major hit.”

Forish has been involved with the company since the age of 16, when, at his mother’s request, he began working summers with his father.

“My mom suggested – insisted – that I go to work for my dad during the summer,” he said, noting that his mother’s foresight paid off; after two summers in the trenches, Forish decided to pursue construction as a career.

Today, Forish Construction specializes in a mix of commercial and industrial construction projects, both public and private. Its offices are located in the same place they have been since the ’60s, on Mainline Drive in Westfield, but over time, the company has extended its reach within about a 60-mile radius.

“Western Mass. is a highly competitive marketplace,” said Forish. “We had to look at creating a larger geographic base. Our main presence is still Western Mass. and Connecticut’s capitol district, but we’re always focused on maintaining a variety.”

An Uphill Battle

He explained further that to achieve that diversity, the company must also maintain high levels of customer service and employee retention, and constantly reinvest in new equipment and technology to remain current and competitive.

“There’s always going to be room for growth in this industry,” he said, “but companies only survive if they meet the challenges that constantly arise.”

One of those challenges is the rapid pace at which the very tools of the construction trade are changing.

“The ruler and tape aren’t necessary anymore,” said Forish. “Now we’re investing in GPS systems, digital measurement tools, and lasers. It allows us to transfer information from the office to the job site more readily, and allows us to work from virtually anywhere.”

But new equipment is expensive, Forish countered, adding that the easiest mistake any construction company can make is to overspend. To flourish, outfits such as Forish Construction must “run lean and mean,” he said.

“Regarding growth, we are conservative Yankees at heart,” he said, returning to the idea of avoiding unnecessary risk. “We like to minimize risk and manage our projects successfully, and we have a series of checks and balances in place to ensure that we’re staying within the costs of the projects.

“Purchases are made based on long-term plans and needs,” he added. Those capital items include heavy equipment – bulldozers, payloaders, backhoes, and trucks. The other items include the software and hardware that are upgraded on a continual basis.”

That’s the balance, Forish said, that is essential to controlled growth in a competitive marketplace, adding that both consistency and acceptance of new ideas and technology are crucial to surviving in the industry.

“One of my dad’s favorite sayings is ‘watch the pennies, and the dollars will follow,’” he said. “Reinvestment in new technology is really key, but proceeding with caution is just as important.”

Plowing Through

That’s not exactly the case when Forish is climbing an icy ledge atop France’s Mont Blanc, strapped to five other people, each wearing clunky ski boots in search of a new, exciting trail. It’s the careful management of his business, though, that he said has allowed him to leave the comforts of Westfield behind, just for a few days, in exchange for a zoom down some of the world’s most treacherous peaks.

More importantly, however, with six job superintendents on the payroll, the company also needs to maintain at least that many projects simultaneously at all times, and also stay busy enough to keep every employee (there are about 40) working. A conservative approach has also helped in that endeavor, as has filling slow months with whatever work is necessary to keep the company’s momentum strong. Sometimes, that means taking on ancillary jobs, such as snowplowing – a service that remains part of the Forish repertoire.

With a quick glance out the window though, Forish said that, thankfully, all of the company’s vehicles are not in the parking lot, but out on construction sites.

Those projects are proof of a diverse mix of clients; right around the corner from Forish’s offices, the company is completing work on the new Amelia Park Children’s Museum (formerly the Westfield Children’s Museum), while across the region in Wales and Holland, construction of two senior centers is underway, and in Ludlow, work has begun on a facility owned by Pods, a storage company that blends the capacity of self-storage with the mobility of a moving service, providing ground-level storage containers to customers and then offering a transportation service of the ‘pods’ to anywhere in the U.S.

“Our typical jobs vary from $1 million to $5 million, but we are glad to do smaller or larger projects if it makes sense,” he said. “We’ve also done buildings for several car dealerships,” he said, adding that healthcare and light manufacturing are also current strong spots.

The company’s next direction, said Forish, will likely be real estate development in the industrial and warehousing sectors, within the next four years.

Snow Doubt …

Other than that, Forish said he’s focused on maintaining a strong presence in existing areas of expertise within Western Mass. and Connecticut, and with 60th anniversary celebrations still underway, he also has another date rattling in his mind.

“If I can get to the same age as my dad and still be working here,” he joked, “I’ll be around for our 100th anniversary. Imagine that.”

That’s contingent, of course, upon Forish’s prowess on the slopes as well as behind the desk.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Features
The Majestic Theatre Marks 10 Years of Running Lines and Renovation

The ongoing success of the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield certainly wasn’t scripted. Instead, it’s been the product of determination, dedication, and imagination exhibited by a team of managers who understand that, in the theater industry, there is no such thing as business as usual.

It’s the climactic scene of the second act of the musical Miss Saigon.

A helicopter — or something approximating one — is lowered to the stage and then raised again as the last Americans are evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy as the city falls to the Vietcong in 1975.

Large theater houses often struggle with the logistics of the demanding scene, and management at the Majestic Theatre in West Springfield, a small but popular venue, certainly had their doubts about whether they could pull it off. But like many of the other fears and concerns raised during the Majestic’s first decade of operation, this one proved unwarranted.

Indeed, the helicopter scene went off without a hitch, and Miss Saigon, staged just last season, would go on to become the theater’s highest-grossing show to date, pulling in more than $190,000 after extending its run for a week to meet audience demand.

“There hasn’t been a season when we haven’t wondered about a particular show or decision,” said Todd Kadis, the Majestic’s treasurer. “But it seems as though we’re always wrong; shows we’re not sure about always find an audience, and that helps us build our base.”

Like the shows it stages, the Majestic’s history is a compelling story, one with many plot twists and intriguing characters, including the theater’s founder, Danny Eaton. An actor, director, playwright, and entrepreneur, Eaton formed a theater troupe, known as The Theater Project, in 1993.

It began staging shows at the Church of the Good Shepherd in West Springfield, just down the street from its current home, the former Majestic Theater movie house, which the troupe moved to in 1997, adopting that name in the process. After first renting the 78-year-old landmark, The Theater Project (still the formal name for the non-profit corporation) purchased the property from United Bank in 2003 for $400,000.

Eaton said the venture’s first decade has been filled with challenges, triumphs, a hugely successful classic car raffle fundraiser — and plenty of sweat equity.
“It would be nice to have just one typical, standard year,” he said, “But we haven’t had one yet.”

The Play’s the Thing…

Indeed, the theater industry is one that requires constant upgrades in terms of technology and infrastructure, as well as diligent attention to cultural trends and audience preferences, to ensure that seats remain filled.

Marie Susen, the Majestic’s company manager, said a number of elements contribute to theater experience, and the devil is in the details.

“There are so many factors,” she said. “Everything factors into whether or not a ticket is purchased for the first time and into whether or not a person comes back — how they’re treated on the phone, if they are greeted at the door, the service at the cafe, the ambience … people are predisposed before they ever see anything on stage.”

Eaton agreed that all aspects of the Majestic, from the ticket price to the freshness of the popcorn, create the overall experience that the theater is trying to sell to a public that, unlike other regions, doesn’t already have a strong cultural undercurrent.

“Finding new audiences is tough,” said Eaton. “Western Mass. doesn’t have a cultural tradition like Boston or New York. We have to first sell people on the fact that theater isn’t necessarily a departure from the rest of their lifestyle. Then, it’s on to choosing shows that will appeal to wide audiences, while not requiring technical aspects that we can’t handle.”

The Majestic has already proven, through the helicopter scene in Miss Saigon, that it can clear logistical hurdles that some may have originally thought beyond its reach. But Eaton said the focus is always on the next challenges, not those in the past tense.

“I certainly recall when we first opened, how many people commented on how our dreams had just come true,” said Eaton. “But that suggests that we had reached the end of a long road, when in actuality, opening a theater is the easy part. Keeping it open is the real challenge.”

The Majestic has several plot points in its history that speak to that concern and its ability to address it through proactive steps designed to boost revenues and keep the venture financially sound.

Shortly after the Elm Street property was purchased, a cafe was added to the space for use during shows and to rent for private functions. And in addition to its current venue, Eaton said The Theater Project also purchased a second property on Baldwin Street in 2004 for use as a set shop, rehearsal space, and living quarters for actors.

The theater has also seen its share of renovations and upgrades each year, all geared toward continuous improvement of the space and the theater experience.
Kadis said most of those improvements come with large price tags.

A new sound system, for instance, recently cost the theater $60,000. The current challenge facing the Majestic is the installation of a new sprinkler system, mandated by the state, which has necessitated major construction on site at a price tag that is expected to exceed $115,000 when completed.

It’s not just these larger expenses that add up, however; regular operation of the theater and staging of its five shows each season also necessitates a number of expenses. These include rental fees for scripts and music scores, and salaries for actors and stage hands — all of the Majestic’s staff members are paid, Eaton said. And in the case of equity actors (those who are unionized), a minimum salary of about $380 each week is required for each, as is health insurance and living quarters.

“There are all of those things to take into account, as well as the prevailing goal of producing top quality theater,” said Kadis. “To offset costs, ticket sales are number one.” The theater’s season subscribers number approximately 3,800, and individual ticket sales usually fall between 22,000 and 25,000 annually. But Eaton added that box office sales alone aren’t nearly enough to cover expenses, and although sales have remained mostly steady for the Majestic, they are a source of revenue for all theaters that never holds a guarantee.

“The line-up is the line-up,” he said, “and we’re not going to win over every single audience with every play we do; people have different tastes and preferences. People’s time is worth so much more than that $26 ticket, and if we ever get to the point where people feel their time is being wasted, we’re in trouble, and we’re very conscious of that.”

Rewriting the Script

The theater actively seeks corporate sponsors each season, offering advertising in programs and on billboards throughout the year. However, it’s the theater’s largest fundraiser, a classic car raffle that began 11 years ago, that does the most to keep the Majestic in the black.

Each year, Kadis explained, raffle tickets are sold for a chance to win one of two classic cars or motorcycles, which are purchased by the theater from a variety of sources — from private sellers as close to home as Springfield or from dealers as far away as El Paso, Texas.

“Originally, the raffle was tied into the first show we held at this location — The Buddy Holly Story,” said Kadis. “We were selling tickets before the theater had even opened. It was such a hit, that we kept going. The raffle gave us the cash flow to open the Majestic, and now it helps us grow consistently every year.”

And that growth has allowed the Majestic to take some important creative leaps in the last few years. While its distinction as a professional theater (as opposed to an amateur operation) has its downsides, such as increased fees for script use based on box office revenue, it also holds some cache in the theater world, and sets the Majestic apart from other venues in the area — few hold such a distinction and employ largely local talent, as the Majestic does.

In turn, that reputation for quality has allowed the theater to stage some original shows without sacrificing audience turnout. Eaton has written three plays — titled Winds of Fashioning Time, inspired by the letters of Ethel Rosenberg; The Ride, which details a cross-country motorcycle trip of Vietnam veterans, traveling to the Washington, D.C. memorial; and Anthem, a musical co-written with Kadis.

Eaton would like to stage more of these original shows, perhaps by rehabbing a portion of the Baldwin Street property in the future to serve as a studio theater, or black box, space for additional performances. “That would make for more flexibility,” he said.

Such an endeavor would necessitate more grunt work for Majestic staff. There would be more concrete to pour, more cement blocks to place, and twice as many sets to paint. But a smaller venue would likely negate the need to cable a helicopter to the ceiling.

Maybe.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Cover Story
July 10, 2006 Cover

July 10, 2006 Cover

Knowledge Matters is Making Inroads in the Field of Educational Simulation

Knowledge Matters in Northampton could make history as a company that helped make the textbook obsolete in American schools. Indeed, the educational software outfit has changed the way many classrooms operate by introducing simulations that teach everything from profit margins to crowd control — and can actually enable users to rewrite history.

In a small office suite in downtown Northampton, hundreds of Egyptians are harvesting grain in preparation for an impending flood.

That’s not a metaphor for the latest team-building craze in corporate America, and it’s also not an uncommon occurrence at Knowledge Matters Inc. (KM), an educational software developer and publisher. Rather, those intrepid field workers are the subjects of KM’s latest project, which teaches the history of ancient Egypt by placing students — virtually speaking — on the banks of the Nile.

KMI began developing computer-generated simulations (sims) for use as learning tools in 1997, after founder and CEO Peter Jordan, a software developer who previously worked with McGraw-Hill, the text and educational materials publisher, received a grant from the Federal Department of Education to further explore the feasibility of sims as educational models for classrooms across the nation.

Essentially, sims create virtual environments that a user can manipulate to create an unlimited number of end results. The software gained some notoriety in the gaming world in the late 1990s, when computer programs such as ‘SimCity’ and ‘Roller Coaster Tycoon’ first hit the market, however KMI has long been focused on producing purely educational programs, with the goal of proving that a multi-media approach to learning could eventually replace, and not merely supplement, the textbook.

“We’ve found that properly designed simulations are a ‘dominant’ technology in education,” said Jordan. “By that, we mean they surpass the main alternative (textbooks) on every important purchase criterion. They are easier to teach with, increase the amount learned, are more enjoyable for students, and actually cost less.

“We’re 99.9% educational,” he added. “We’re not making games, and we’re not in the ‘edutainment’ industry. We’re very focused on doing one thing and doing it well, and after we introduced our first sim to our first school, we knew we were on to something big.”

Isn’t that Convenient

KM’s first product, Virtual Business – Retailing, released in 1999, was created in response to a growing need for business-related, college preparatory products for high school students, and teaches basic business principles. It puts the student in the role of convenience store manager and maker of all the decisions that would be made in a real environment – from stocking to pricing; hiring to firing – that affect the store’s profitability.

Since that time, the company has expanded the Virtual Business line to include programs centered on management and supervision and sports management (students manage a football franchise). The programs have been used by more than 500,000 students in 3,500 schools around the world, prompting a 50% increase in revenue for KMI last year. They are the subject of national competitions among teams of high school students across the country; students take the management of their virtual environments so seriously, Jordan said, they hold their coats open to shield their ‘trade secrets’ from other teams.

It’s a precaution he can understand. Although KMI has quietly grown to become one of the leading providers of educational software in the country from its small base in downtown Northampton, coupling virtual technology with the education sector – not known for strong or easily navigable funding streams – has been a challenge for the privately-held company and its core staff of six.

“It could cost other companies working in different areas $3 million to $5 million to develop products similar to ours,” he said, “but you’re never going to make that back in education, so early on we had to build completely different cost models.”

That means being very selective about what is included in each program and what hits the cutting room floor, explained Eric Olsson, KM’s vice president, who joined the company shortly after Retailing entered the market. That, along with employing some trade secrets of their own and continually testing the sims within schools – including local high schools, middle schools, and community colleges – has resulted in a suite of computer programs that are steeped in the educational process and very light on frivolity.

Simulated characters may get unruly at sports arenas, or shoplift, but each action eventually affects the bottom line, and very few actions are included for the sake of cool animation.

“We design everything from the bottom up as learning tool,” said Olsson. “We worked through all of the state standards to find common spots, and we work with teachers to understand what is expected of them. There are no gimmicks; we’re focused on translating several concepts, and making sure students understand the connections between them.”

Taught Like an Egyptian

With the goal of further capitalizing on what they firmly believe is the future of education, KMI is about to launch its newest sim line, called Virtual History, tailored to middle school social studies classrooms, with hopes of similar success.

Slated to reach classrooms by September, KM’s first foray into virtual history will tackle the lessons and concepts of ancient Egypt, using the same villagers currently milling about at the KMI offices, baking bread and fending off violent Nubian tribes.

Olsson said Virtual History – Ancient Egypt will be followed by programs centered on early settlements in America, ancient Greece, and westward expansion.

“With the continued development of the company’s original line of business sims,” he said, noting that a personal finance model is currently in the works, “we have a target of 10,000 schools using our programs within the next five years.”

Even with a three-fold increase in use anticipated for the business and history sims, however, Olsson, a former teacher himself, explained that the company’s products are part of a still-fledgling cultural change in the educational sector. Still, he said it’s a movement that is gaining momentum and pointing schools toward more interdisciplinary approaches to teaching and non-traditional teaching tools.

He said schools are being pressed more often to offer lesson plans that touch on multiple disciplines simultaneously, and simulations are helping teachers create comprehensive lesson plans that are also engaging for students.

“Teachers are being pushed through (the federal program) No Child Left Behind to create interdisciplinary lessons, and in some cases our sims are being used as the backbone of the curriculum,” Olsson said, noting that through the ancient Egypt sim, for instance, students in grades five through eight are charged with the task of managing a virtual village by applying knowledge of ancient Egyptian life and culture.

Taught through a series of mini-tutorials within the sim (a student must pass a three-question quiz before moving on), these historical facts touch on economic variables, technological advances, and available resources, among others, and lead to specific benchmarks that must be achieved. Students must successfully farm and refine grain to make bread and consequently feed the village, for example, but must also avoid the destruction of crops and the loss of lives to the annual flood of the Nile. And in the final level of the sim, students can only successfully construct a pyramid after they have secured the necessary manpower, tools, and materials.

“Students can employ different strategies to achieve goals and address problems,” Olsson explained, noting that they can even change history with the right set of decisions. “These programs are more about teaching concepts, and if a student’s decisions lead to an outcome that is different than what really happened, that’s fine – it’s then up to the teacher to underscore that their decisions made happen what could have happened, but didn’t.”

Leveling the Field

That notion of ‘what if’ teaching models is one that is pervasive in all of KM’s products, and is also one that has shown promise as a teaching tool for students who have difficulty with more traditional teaching methods.

“Sims have a very real leveling effect,” said Jordan, likening the work students put in to increase their convenience store’s profits or tame unruly fans at their arena to a game of golf. “It doesn’t matter how pretty you look getting the ball in the hole, as long as it goes in. It’s the same for these kids … it doesn’t matter how they increased their profits, it just matters that they did.

“From our earliest customers on,” he added, “we’ve heard reports of a phenomenon that we never even really planned for. Simulations are a remarkable tool for students who don’t fit the normal school mode.”

This list includes those with attention deficit disorders, those who have become withdrawn from the school experience, and those with behavioral problems, among others.

“There’s no teacher evaluating an essay … it’s just them against the logic and they love the battle,” he said. “You do well with sims when you are able to see how everything fits together and interacts, and the kids who may not be so good at regurgitating ‘knowledge piece number one’ and ‘knowledge piece number two’ seem to be very good at putting the whole picture together.”

Overall though, the most notable phenomenon Jordan and Olsson have recognized within schools using their sims is the ‘flip factor.’

“Because the programs are interactive with students, kids aren’t passive listeners in the classrooms,” said Olsson. “They’re engaged in the program and will work for hours, including on their own time, to move forward in the program. In turn, that flips the teacher role – instead of teachers constantly trying to draw information from the students, the students are starting to draw knowledge out of the teacher.”

Closing the Book

And as roles reverse, Jordan added, the role sims are playing in modern education is expanding.

“Textbooks die hard,” he said, “but it does look pretty ominous for them in the long run. Today, simulations are still largely seen as ‘supplemental’ tools with the textbook as a core, but the trend is toward reversal.

“Sims have proven to be much more engaging, especially when used by reluctant and emerging learners,” he continued.

Indeed, hundreds of tiny Egyptians can’t be wrong.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]

Sections Supplements
New Program at STCC Expected to Yield More Construction Managers
Ted Sussmann

Ted Sussmann says STCC’s new program in Construction Management should help ease a shortage of qualified help now challenging the industry.

The bulletin board outside the Civil Engineering Technology office at Springfield Technical Community College tells the story — or at least a good part of it.

It is nearly covered with letters from construction companies — the letterheads reveal some of the best-known firms in the region — all looking for help. The specific needs vary, but most operations are looking for individuals versed in what is known as construction management — the art and science of coordinating the various aspects of a specific project, from scheduling to tracking equipment rentals.

There is a consistent shortage of such individuals, said Joe Marois, president of South Hadley-based Marois Construction — one of the firms now posting job openings on that bulletin board — and for a number of reasons. Chief among them is a discernable shift in opinion about construction as a career, he said, adding that more young men and women are looking instead at the technology and health care sectors, among others.

“People are migrating to the less-physical fields,” said Marois, adding that, by doing so, individuals may be overlooking some fairly attractive career options in construction, ones with starting salaries of $40,000, $50,000, or more. The process of changing perceptions and attracting more people to the field requires exposure to the industry and an understanding of the opportunities it presents, said Marois, who is among those expressing optimism about a recently launched program at STCC that is expected do all that and thus put more talent in the construction pipeline.

An associate’s degree option in Construction Management completed its first semester of operation in May. There are just a handful of students in that program at present, said Ted Sussmann, chair of the school’s Civil Engineering and Architectural Technology program. But that number could grow to 20 or more in the future, and if it does, more matches can be found for the jobs posted on the bulletin board.

“Right now, there are about twice as many jobs as people to fill them,” he explained. “Look at the board — just about every construction company in the area is on there; everyone is looking for help, and right now I have to tell people, ‘sorry, everyone’s placed.’”

This issue, BusinessWest looks at what is becoming a fairly acute shortage of construction managers in the region, and how the STCC program may help close the gap.

Hammering out the Details

A quick look at the some of the required courses in the Construction Management program — ‘Business Law,’ ‘Principles of Management,’ and ‘Organizational Behavior’ have been added to such staples as ‘Construction Estimating’ and ‘Reinforced Concrete Analysis’ — reveal both the nature of the work such individuals now handle and also how construction has changed in recent decades.

“Everything is much more complex now; there is much more regulation of the business and a lot more paperwork,” said Marois. “It takes a talented individual to keep a job flowing properly.”

Jim Whalen, chief engineer for Daniel O’Connell’s Sons in Holyoke agreed. And in addition to the mounting paperwork, employment-law matters, and other bureaucratic issues, he said, construction itself is becoming increasingly elaborate and complex in terms of design and materials.

Citing the new federal courthouse taking shape on State Street in Springfield, an O’Connell project, as one example, he said the facility is curved, built almost in a semi-circle, posing a host of challenges for sub-contractors and the construction managers and project supervisors who coordinate their work.

“Everyone is using computers to make buildings much more complex, and not only in aesthetics and structure,” said Whalen, adding that while the courthouse is an extreme case, construction at all levels is more complicated and technology-driven, making it more difficult to attain the skills required of a project manager through merely on-job-training, as was possible years ago.

And this phenomenon coincides with that shift among young people toward less-physical careers, as Marois described them.

This confluence of challenges was part of the motivation for the Construction Management program, said Sussmann, adding that it was a blend of needs — construction companies looking for help and area residents seeking new career opportunities — that accelerated the process.

Sussmann said graduates of the new program will likely move on to four-year degrees in Construction Management, a step that is nearly a pre-requisite for employment with firms like O’Connell, which handles mostly large, complex projects. But the new option is not merely preparation for a baccalaureate degree.

Indeed, the advisory board that gauged need for the program and offered insight on its scope and direction, insisted that it provide “employable skills,” said Sussmann. “These graduates will be workforce-ready.”

And graduates of the two-year program should find ample job opportunities in this region and beyond, said Whalen. He noted that while most project managers at O’Connell have four-year degrees, the company has, when need and supply have dictated it, hired those with an associate’s. Meanwhile, each project the firm handles has ‘assistant managers,’ a job for which most STCC graduates would be qualified, and many smaller firms in this region are hiring individuals with two years of schooling — usually in civil engineering — for managers’ positions.

“There’s a need for project managers at all the various levels of construction,” he said. “Programs like this are valuable because they expose people to the construction industry, and they can see that, while this is demanding work, it’s also very rewarding.”

Exposure to the field is one of the main goals for the new degree program, said Sussmann, who, like Whalen and Marois, believes more young people would pursue work in construction if they fully understood the number and variety of opportunities now available.

To shed some light on the subject, Whalen and others at O’Connell hosted a series of visits to the courthouse site late last winter and spring. The visits, which featured discourse on the various stages of the project and the challenges involved with keeping the $55 million venture on time and on budget, was required of Construction Management and Civil Engineering Technology students, but some were also attended by others at the college.

The initial courthouse visit and the press it generated produced spikes in both interest and applications for the program, said Sussmann, noting that through such events, some advertising in construction industry journals, and news stories about the construction field and job opportunities in it, he expects steady enrollment in the Construction Management option.

Which is good, because both Marois and Whalen see no quick or easy resolution to the current need for qualified people.

“Looking down the road, I don’t see this problem solving itself,” said Marois. “In all the trades, it’s getting harder and harder to find people.”

Paving the Way

As he pulled one posting off the top of the bulletin board outside his office, Sussmann said the company requesting help hasn’t stopped with that letter.

“They’ve called at least three times … they really need someone,” he said, adding that he would like to help the firm but currently can’t connect it with a graduate or current student — they all either have a job or need more education to meet the need.

If the Construction Management program succeeds in putting more talent into the pipeline, as its organizers and area construction company owners hope and expect, then the phone may eventually ring less often.

But for now and the foreseeable future, need will outstrip supply — and that adds up to both challenge and opportunity for the region and its construction community.

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

Sections Supplements
Northampton Chamber Launches New Web Site

The Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce has a new home, virtually speaking.

Earlier this month, the chamber launched its new Web site, explorenorthampton.com. Suzanne Beck, executive director of the Northampton chamber, said the new site has been in the planning stages for some time, and brings several benefits to the chamber, its members, and the community.

“We’ve been talking about redeveloping the site for two or three years,” said Beck, “because we have been aware for some time how important a tool the Internet is in terms of travel and tourism.”

But because the site is self-funded by the Chamber, Beck said it took some time to raise the necessary capital.

“Last year was when we started getting specific with our plans,” Beck added. “We knew from the beginning that we wanted a major emphasis to be placed on promoting our members and their services, but we needed to start thinking about how we were going to highlight those businesses.”

Some of the features incorporated into the site to do just that include an itinerary function, which, similar to the ‘shopping cart’ aspect many retail sites use to assist shoppers with making purchases, will allow visitors to add exhibits, restaurants, shops, or other points of interest to a list, then view or print out the list in preparation for a trip.

In addition, a revamped online directory has been created, which allows businesses and organizations to update their listing online as needed, ensuring the most current information is viewed by visitors.

Beck explained that the Chamber’s online directory was already averaging about 7,500 hits a month, and the new format will make the service even more relevant for those seeking information about Northampton. Chamber members (membership stands at about 750 members) can also take advantage of on-line registration for events, display company press releases, and utilize exclusive ad space on the site – two ad spaces on every page of the site reserved for use by Chamber members only

“Thousands of referrals stem from the Web,” she said, “and the primary purpose of the site will be to maximize that for our businesses.”

The site will also include a calendar that any community organization can contribute to, by filling out a simple form and posting upcoming events and fundraisers.

Beck said the calendar will also be updated daily.

“This feature is as valuable to people who live here as it is for tourists,” she said. “Plus, any area business can publicize its events on this calendar for free, by submitting the information from any page on the site by clicking on ‘Submit to Calendar.’

As that gets used more, it will have more value,” said Beck, “and the overall site will have more value. It will make events and exhibits more available to people, both visitors and those living in the area.”

Beck explained that the site was developed through the efforts of several local firms and individuals. Three chamber committees spearheaded the process — the membership and tourism committees and an ad hoc Web site committee — and Dot Inc. Solutions of Hadley served as the site developer, while Novak Advertising of Northampton created the site’s page design.

Several area photographers were also tapped to provide art for the site, including members of the Pioneer Valley Photographers Assoc.

“The photographers were very generous with their work,” said Beck, noting that the site features original photographs taken by local photographers on nearly every page, rather than stock photos.

The site has been added to the chamber’s repertoire of services aimed at chamber membership development, tourism in Northampton, and economic development of the region. Some primary objectives of the overall chamber campaigns include promotion of the area as a destination; the development of new travel and tourism markets, and of new infrastructures to support tourism; expansion of the commercial base in Northampton; and the development of the town’s economic development priorities in terms of regional initiatives.

Features
New Program Takes Business- Retention Efforts to the Next Level
Ann Burke

Ann Burke describes HomeField Advantage as a proactive, team-based approach to business retention.

Ann Burke called it “a new way of looking at business retention.”

She then paused for a second and declared that she didn’t really like that word retention, or at least she didn’t think it worked properly in this context.

“It sounds too static, like we’re just preserving the status quo — and it’s much more than that,” she said, referring to a new program created by the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC) called HomeField Advantage. Describing it, Burke, vice president of the EDC, said it’s all about effective portfolio management — meaning the region’s portfolio of businesses.

HomeField, based on a model used in Louisville, Ky. and other cities, was created to help retain those businesses, Burke explained, noting that keeping existing companies in the 413 area code is an important part of the EDC’s broad mission. But it will also assist individual business owners with efforts to change, grow, and become more competitive.

How? By essentially enabling area economic development leaders and supporting agencies to become much more proactive in their approach to business-retention efforts.

“In the old days, you’d wait for business owners to come to you and say, ‘I’m getting ready to move out of town,’ or ‘my lease is up, and someone from North Carolina is recruiting me,’ or ‘I have to move because I can’t find a workforce,’” she explained. “What we’re hoping to do is be more proactive and develop relationships with these companies so we can help them for the long term.”

HomeField is a team approach, she said, meaning that affiliates of the EDC, including the Regional Technology Council, Affiliated Chambers of Commerce, and the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, other agencies, such as the Regional Employment Board, and legislative leaders are brought together to solve problems and create opportunities.

The field of focus is broad, she continued, and includes everything from workforce training to lean manufacturing processes; site and location analysis to internship opportunities with area colleges and universities.

Some of these issues are among those that a Homefield team is currently addressing with one of its first ‘clients,’ East Longmeadow-based Lenox America Saw.

The manufacturer of saw blades and hand tools has no intention of leaving the region, said its president, Bill Burke, but to remain in this area it must take action — and it will need some help as it does so.

Some of the costs of doing business are simply beyond the company’s control, he said, listing the skyrocketing price of steel as one example. But there are other expenses, everything from energy to workforce training to property taxes, that can be controlled (or reduced) through proactive steps.

“The companies that find themselves in trouble are the ones that are not proactive,” he told BusinessWest. “They wake up one morning and realize they have major issues that they can’t overcome overnight. I’m trying to stay ahead of the game and make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”

Ann Burke said HomeField, which had what she called a ‘soft startup’ six months ago, is being used to assist not only individual companies of all sizes, but also entire business clusters, including the region’s precision machining sector. For that group, officials helped secure a $150,000 grant to hire a cluster manager to help identify concerns — in this case, the overriding issue is securing an adequate supply of machinists for the future — and shape strategies for addressing them.

Overall, HomeField was created to bring a stronger sense of organization to business-retention and competitiveness issues, said Burke, “We’re not doing anything that we didn’t do before,” she explained. “We’re just taking a more comprehensive, team-oriented approach to the process.

“We want to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” she continued, using a phrase she would employ early and often as she described HomeField and its many potential benefits for the region.

The Game Plan

The marketing materials being developed for HomeField Advantage are still a work in progress, with some final design elements and fonts to be determined.

But the emerging image is that of interlocked paper clips, and Burke believes it will effectively convey just what this venture is designed to do: make connections.

Specifically, these are connections to resources, she said, which come in a number of shapes and sizes, from individuals to local, state, and federal agencies. A team comprised of several such resources then takes a three-pronged approach to specific cases: assessment of needs and challenges; professional advice on those issues; and linkage to strategic business information that may help in the development of strategic initiatives.

Here’s how it works: It starts with some initial contact, said Burke, noting that sometimes, businesses find HomeField, and other times, it’s the reverse. And there are several points of entry, including referrals from EDC affiliates, a link on the EDC Web site (www.westernmass edc.com), and a phone number — (413) 781-1591, ext. 19. The goal is to make things easier for business owners who may or may not know where and with whom to start with regard to their basic issues or problems.

Once contact is made and the concerns, goals, and challenges to meeting them are outlined, a team is assembled to take on that specific case and develop “customized solutions.”

To facilitate that process, the EDC has acquired a state-of-the-art business-Ann Burke called it “a new way of looking at business retention.”

She then paused for a second and declared that she didn’t really like that word retention, or at least she didn’t think it worked properly in this context.

“It sounds too static, like we’re just preserving the status quo — and it’s much more than that,” she said, referring to a new program created by the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC) called HomeField Advantage. Describing it, Burke, vice president of the EDC, said it’s all about effective portfolio management — meaning the region’s portfolio of businesses.

HomeField, based on a model used in Louisville, Ky. and other cities, was created to help retain those businesses, Burke explained, noting that keeping existing companies in the 413 area code is an important part of the EDC’s broad mission. But it will also assist individual business owners with efforts to change, grow, and become more competitive.

How? By essentially enabling area economic development leaders and supporting agencies to become much more proactive in their approach to business-retention efforts.

“In the old days, you’d wait for business owners to come to you and say, ‘I’m getting ready to move out of town,’ or ‘my lease is up, and someone from North Carolina is recruiting me,’ or ‘I have to move because I can’t find a workforce,’” she explained. “What we’re hoping to do is be more proactive and develop relationships with these companies so we can help them for the long term.”

HomeField is a team approach, she said, meaning that affiliates of the EDC, including the Regional Technology Council, Affiliated Chambers of Commerce, and the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, other agencies, such as the Regional Employment Board, and legislative leaders are brought together to solve problems and create opportunities.

The field of focus is broad, she continued, and includes everything from workforce training to lean manufacturing processes; site and location analysis to internship opportunities with area colleges and universities.

Some of these issues are among those that a Homefield team is currently addressing with one of its first ‘clients,’ East Longmeadow-based Lenox America Saw. The manufacturer of saw blades and hand tools has no intention of leaving the region, said its president, Bill Burke, but to remain in this area it must take action — and it will need some help as it does so.

Some of the costs of doing business are simply beyond the company’s control, he said, listing the skyrocketing price of steel as one example. But there are other expenses, everything from energy to workforce training to property taxes, that can be controlled (or reduced) through proactive steps.

“The companies that find themselves in trouble are the ones that are not proactive,” he told BusinessWest. “They wake up one morning and realize they have major issues that they can’t overcome overnight. I’m trying to stay ahead of the game and make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”

Ann Burke said HomeField, which had what she called a ‘soft startup’ six months ago, is being used to assist not only individual companies of all sizes, but also entire business clusters, including the region’s precision machining sector. For that group, officials helped secure a $150,000 grant to hire a cluster manager to help identify concerns — in this case, the overriding issue is securing an adequate supply of machinists for the future — and shape strategies for addressing them.

Overall, HomeField was created to bring a stronger sense of organization to business-retention and competitiveness issues, said Burke, “We’re not doing anything that we didn’t do before,” she explained. “We’re just taking a more comprehensive, team-oriented approach to the process.

“We want to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks,” she continued, using a phrase she would employ early and often as she described HomeField and its many potential benefits for the region.

The Game Plan

The marketing materials being developed for HomeField Advantage are still a work in progress, with some final design elements and fonts to be determined.

But the emerging image is that of interlocked paper clips, and Burke believes it will effectively convey just what this venture is designed to do: make connections.

Specifically, these are connections to resources, she said, which come in a number of shapes and sizes, from individuals to local, state, and federal agencies. A team comprised of several such resources then takes a three-pronged approach to specific cases: assessment of needs and challenges; professional advice on those issues; and linkage to strategic business information that may help in the development of strategic initiatives.

Here’s how it works: It starts with some initial contact, said Burke, noting that sometimes, businesses find HomeField, and other times, it’s the reverse. And there are several points of entry, including referrals from EDC affiliates, a link on the EDC Web site (www.westernmass edc.com), and a phone number — (413) 781-1591, ext. 19. The goal is to make things easier for business owners who may or may not know where and with whom to start with regard to their basic issues or problems.

Once contact is made and the concerns, goals, and challenges to meeting them are outlined, a team is assembled to take on that specific case and develop “customized solutions.”

To facilitate that process, the EDC has acquired a state-of-the-art business-retention software program called the Synchronist Business Information System, which, according to its makers, provides economic development professionals with a “360-degree view of their economic development portfolio.”

The program, which Burke described as one tool to be used by HomeField Advantage teams, enables users to organize, analyze, and report company information. By doing so, they can more easily identify companies with the best growth potential, predict businesses at risk, and create a valuable proprietary database.

Building that database has been one of the primary initiatives of the HomeField program, she said, adding that Synchronist is now being used in dozens of cities and regions and has helped script several success stories.

“It’s being used all over the country to help regions better understand the businesses they have,” she explained, “and to be able to analyze them and work with them to develop solutions.”

Burke said HomeField has already assisted several companies with specific concerns and questions, and expects the volume to increase once more business owners become aware of the program’s existence.

Lenox American Saw represents the best ongoing example of how the program works and why it was created, she said, adding that work to assist the company with a wide range of issues was initiated in the early spring. That list includes workforce training, the possible creation of an Economic Target Area, or ETA, a designation needed to qualify for tax-increment financing, or a TIF, and discussions with officials at Northeast Utilities about strategies to make the company more energy efficient.

The securing of state workforce training grants is at the top of the list, said Bill Burke.

“We’ve hired more people in the past six months than we did in the previous 10 years — we’re running the factory 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he explained. “In doing so we noticed a significant strain on our existing employees and our need to focus on training and providing additional tools like Six Sigma training to ensure that the quality is second to none.”

Other priorities for the company include reducing energy costs — they have risen nearly 40% over the past year — as well as securing ETA status — East Longmeadow currently does not have that designation, and help from town officials and legislative leaders is needed to get it.

“For us, it’s about what’s happening to our business in terms of costs we can’t control like soaring utility costs and raw material costs — things that are just killing us from a competitiveness standpoint,” he said. “So we have to look for other areas to offset that.

“We’re doing well and we’re growing … my objective is to sustain that, and to be able to compete globally we need to have the best cost,” he continued, adding that, overall, he sees real potential in HomeField as an effective way to address business retention issues in the region. “We’re trying to do a lot as a region to recruit new companies, but it’s the businesses that are already here that are often neglected until they have to make a decision that they can no longer stay.”

The HomeField program may improve American Saw’s efforts to meet its goals, said Ann Burke, by better organizing assistance efforts and effectively fast-tracking them. Elaborating, she said that any company facing similar issues would eventually have to meet with such groups as the REB and the Affiliated Chambers. What HomeField does is put them all in the same room at the same time.

“We had one large meeting at the start,” she said, referring to Lenox American Saw. “Their team, which included HR people, the plant manager, and others, met our team, and we were able to make some assignments on specific issues. Our team meets on a regular basis and we communicate as a group back to their team to make sure nothing falls through the cracks.

“This is a way for us to provide assistance to a particular company, and it could be one issue or myriad issues,” she continued. “They have a central point of contact and access to a team of professionals.”

And while many of the HomeField initiatives will be on behalf of individual companies, work will also be focused on industry clusters, she said, returning to the region’s precision machining sector and proactive steps to help it.

Using Synchronist, and working in conjunction with the Regional Competitiveness Council, the EDC interviewed about 50 companies large and small to identify common issues, challenges, and opportunities. The information gleaned was eventually included in a summary given to Gov. Romney on the state of precision manufacturing in the Pioneer Valley, and also incorporated into the application that eventually landed the $150,000 grant from the Mass. Technology Council to hire the cluster manager.

That’s an effective example of how HomeField works, she said, noting that the broad mission
s to make full use of information and effective communication to drive measures that will yield both short- and long-term results.

And hopefully there will be many similar examples in the years ahead.

Box Score

Returning to the more common usage of the phrase ‘portfolio management,’ Burke said that individuals and institutions obviously want to see their investments grow, not remain static, and that’s why they need to be managed.

The same holds true of the region’s portfolio of businesses, she said, adding that simple retention is the baseline goal. Retention and growth are desired, she told BusinessWest, and HomeField provides an effective vehicle for meeting those broad goals.

“This portfolio needs to be managed,” she explained. “And this gives us the tools we need to do that more effectively.”

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

Uncategorized

For the first time in three decades, federal funding for the National Institutes of Health was cut this year. The reduction, which followed two years of level funding, not only imperils the development of lifesaving scientific breakthroughs but also has a detrimental impact on regional economies that are dependent on innovation — and New England is at the forefront.

In numerous areas of scientific advancement, researchers are on the verge of discoveries that will improve health and save lives. But the reduction in federal support could cripple that progress and prompt economic setbacks that have a ripple effect on other industries. That is why Congress should support a 5% increase in NIH funding, which would allow research and development efforts at least to keep pace with inflation and permit some growth to capitalize on the unprecedented scientific opportunities spawned by past federal investments in research.

NIH is the principal federal source of funding for medical research. More than 80% of its funding is awarded through its extramural research program, which supports nearly 50,000 competitive grants at more than 2,800 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions across the country.

With some of the most prestigious research universities and hospitals in the world, New England is a major NIH beneficiary and is at the forefront of medical research. Four New England states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont — score among the top 10 nationally for per-person monetary value of NIH awards received.

From 1998 to 2003, federal investment in NIH doubled, with 15% increases each year. While budget realities make such continued growth unrealistic, NIH funding has been losing ground to inflation for two years, and researchers are already feeling the impact. The number of research project grants has declined each of the last three years, the amount of an average research grant has declined 2%, and grant approvals have declined 19%. Level funding already has forced New England institutions to trim their research programs — setting back research efforts and cutting jobs.

Consider some of the work that NIH funding has supported:

  • The mapping of the human genome was a major advance driving the future of medicine — from predicting risk to preventing illness. Researchers from the Whitehead Institute/ MIT Center for Genome Research, now part of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Massachusetts, contributed about half of the 3 billion letters of the human genome sequence to free public databases.
  • At Yale University School of Medicine in Connecticut, researchers recently developed new diagnostic tests for patients at risk for heart failure and new drug treatment strategies for patients who have suffered it.
  • At the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts, a research team in 2004 discovered that a vaccine can help a patient’s immune system fight advanced melanoma.
  • At Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, researchers recently made progress toward finding a vaccine to prevent ovarian cancer.

NIH funding is also an important part of federal research and development funding, and as such is a major catalyst for New England’s innovation sector. The region performs about 8% of the nation’s total research and development.

New England has become a magnet for students and researchers as well as those seeking to bring ideas to market, giving the six-state area a competitive advantage. The funding cutbacks threaten the viability of the next generation of researchers, many of whom begin their careers in this area, and often remain here.

It’s important to send a clear message to congressional leaders: Don’t let the light dim on this crucial creative community by undermining its resources. Our quality of life is at stake.

James T. Brett is president and chief executive officer of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business organization.