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WASHINGTON, D.C. —The construction industry registered 388,000 job openings in November, according to an Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, which defines a job opening as any unfilled position for which an employer is actively recruiting. Industry job openings declined by 2,000 in November but were up 22,000 from the same time last year.

“Once again, good news is bad news,” ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu said. “The economy-wide number of job openings remained elevated at approximately 10.5 million in November, virtually unchanged from October’s revised estimate. That’s the key takeaway in a still-red-hot labor market, as many employers continue to aim for expanded capacity to satisfy unmet demand. That is the good news.

“The bad news is obvious,” Basu continued. “Despite raising interest rates during the last 10 months, the Federal Reserve is still grappling with an excessively tight labor market associated with rapid compensation cost increases. To return inflation to its 2% target, the Federal Reserve needs a looser labor market with fewer job openings, higher unemployment, and slower compensation growth. The implication is that interest rates will continue to rise, adding to construction project financing costs and potentially setting the stage for sharp declines in activity in many privately financed construction segments.”

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AGAWAM — Farmers in Western Mass. are invited to apply for Local Farmer Awards of up to $2,500. These awards are for capital/infrastructure improvement projects related to growing, harvesting, and processing that will help farms compete in the marketplace. The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, in partnership with Big Y and with the support of other funders, is entering the ninth year of the awards program, which has helped more than 235 farmers carry out a total of 474 projects.

Some examples of how the awards have been used include electric fencing, no-till equipment, irrigation improvements, frost-free water systems, feed troughs, and shade cloth for greenhouses.

“Farmers don’t typically ask for help,” philanthropist and project founder Harold Grinspoon said. “They are genuinely appreciative of these awards and use the money in creative ways for projects to help their farms grow.”

To be eligible, farms must have gross sales of $10,000 or above and either be a member of buy-local organizations Berkshire Grown or Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) or farm in one the four counties of Western Mass. For a full list of eligibility requirements and application information, farmers are encouraged to visit www.farmerawards.org. The deadline for applying is Jan. 31.

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WESTFIELD — Westfield State University will host a virtual information session for the master of science in accounting (MSA) program on Wednesday, Jan., 25 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.

The graduate program is designed to foster leadership skills and prepare students for successful careers in public and private accounting. It allows students to complete the additional 30 credit hours necessary to fulfill the educational requirements for the , (CPA) license in Massachusetts and several other states.

The program offers a foundation curriculum for students who have an undergraduate business degree but lack the necessary coursework in accounting to complete a series of prerequisite courses as part of the master’s program. The advanced curriculum is for students with an undergraduate major or concentration in accounting. It is comprised of 10 courses (the majority are offered in a hybrid format, and certain courses are 100% online) that can be completed in only two semesters. The MSA program offers students flexibility and affordability to achieve a greater degree of sophistication in accounting.

Information-session attendees will have an opportunity to speak with faculty and members of the outreach team about the program and its application process. The $50 application fee will be waived for all attendees. To RSVP, visit www.gobacknow.com. For more information, call (413) 572-8461 or email [email protected].

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SPRINGFIELD — After 13 years of ownership, MassDevelopment announced it has sold 1550 Main in Springfield to Mittas Holdings, LLC and DGP Properties, LLC, owned by Vidhyadhar “Vid” Mitta and Dinesh Patel, respectively. 1550 Main is a 130,000-square-foot building with a highly visible public plaza and 103 parking spaces below grade, with physical connections via skywalks to adjacent garages.

“Revitalizing underused commercial properties helps bring additional jobs, foot traffic, energy, and economic growth to a neighborhood,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who chairs MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “MassDevelopment’s stewardship of 1550 Main has sparked new life in a prominent building in downtown Springfield and demonstrated the value of investing in and modernizing properties to meet the needs of communities today.”

MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera added that “working with tenants, partners, and the city of Springfield over the years allowed us to cultivate this property to its best and highest use. This type of focused teamwork is how long-lasting redevelopment takes root. It is what makes converting an old federal courthouse into a stunning multi-tenant office building possible.”

In 2009, MassDevelopment purchased 1550 Main from the federal government. On arrival, the property was 70% occupied and in need of significant upgrades. After exceeding all goals, including reaching a current occupancy level of 98%, MassDevelopment put the property up for sale to the CRE market through a disposition process to allow the agency to refocus its investment efforts elsewhere. Current 1550 Main tenants include the Springfield School Department, Baystate Health, the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and regional offices for U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey. The new ownership group will assume all existing lease agreements.

“I want to thank MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera and his dedicated team for their continued belief and investment in our Springfield,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said. “The property at 1550 Main Street is a key piece to the economic stability of our downtown. Dinesh Patel, Vidhyadhar Mitta, and their team have a proven track record of property ownership, management, investment, and economic development, as they are also the owners of our Springfield Tower Square property at 1500 Main Street since 2018, and oversaw the grand reopening of our iconic Marriott Springfield Downtown Hotel. All of this makes them the ideal owners to continue the advancement and oversight of this important and vital economic-development property. I have the full confidence that they will continue to enhance our downtown Springfield footprint while providing the same quality of investment and management to the existing tenants of 1550 Main Street, including our Springfield School Department.”

Said Mitta, “I thank all public officials and local communities for supporting us to make such investments in Springfield. We will continue to do our best to match MassDevelopment’s role.”

Added Patel, “I am very excited to continue the fantastic job done by the MassDevelopment team. As a local real-estate developer, I also greatly appreciate Mayor Sarno’s support and trust in continuing the success at 1550 Main.”

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Udderly Innovative

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David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz

David Barstow and Denise Barstow Manz are part of the sixth and seventh generations now carrying on traditions — and creating new ones — at the family farm in Hadley.
Staff Photo

While she grew up on her family’s dairy farm in Hadley and enjoyed that lifestyle, Denise Barstow Manz had no intention of making the 200-year-old operation a career.

“The farm was a place that was fun, and I had a really good time playing with my cousins, being around large animals, and being around nature — it was an amazing way to grow up,” she recalled. “And then, as I got older and I started to see the numbers and realized that the farm was a lot of hard work and not an easy path to wealth, I thought that maybe I should go and do something else.”

She attended the University of New Hampshire — in part because of its renowned dairy program, although she chose a different major — and would later move west and work for the National Park Service, with stints at Yellowstone and Glacier National Park in Montana. And it was while on these assignments that she began to rethink what she would do with her life — and why.

“It finally hit me when I was in Glacier,” she said. “I was a trail guide, and I saw these people donating money to preserve these places. And I thought, ‘if everyone’s giving to places like this, who’s taking care of the places we come from?’ I thought about who was taking care of the place I came from that has been in my family for more than 200 years — and I wanted to be part of that story.”

And with that decision, Barstow Manz would also become part — and she stressed that word part early and quite often, because this is truly a family affair — of one the region’s more intriguing business stories: Barstow’s Longview Farm.

“This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

It’s a story that includes most of the elements shaping the growth, evolution, and resilience of the local economy today. That list includes entrepreneurship, innovation, technology, clean energy, tourism and hospitality, and sustainable agriculture.

They all come together in an impossibly beautiful, picture-postcard setting, the historic Hockanum Village, framed by the Connecticut River and the Holyoke Range, scenery that belies the myriad and ever-more severe challenges facing dairy farmers — and all those in agriculture — today.

It was these challenges — and especially very trying times roughly two decades ago that prompted the sixth and seventh generations of the Barstow family to take the motto that has defined this business — ‘looking forward since 1806’ — to new dimensions.

Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Evolution and diversification have been hallmarks of Barstow’s Longview Farm since 1806.

Indeed, a family that has always embraced change and diversification (much more on that later) has taken some dramatic new turns in recent years, first with Barstow’s Dairy Store and Bakery, and later, through a partnership with Vanguard Renewables to build one of the first farm-powered anaerobic digesters in New England. Meanwhile, the 450-acre dairy farm produces 19,000 pounds of milk daily and is a member of the Cabot Creamery/Agri-Mark Cooperative; almost all of the farm’s milk is supplied to the Cabot/Agri-Mark facility in West Springfield and is made into Cabot butter and other products.

The anaerobic digester (AD), installed in 2013 and expanded in 2016, converts cow manure — the herd at the farm produces some 9,000 tons of it annually — and food waste into electricity, heat, and fertilizer.

It has become an important revenue source for the farm, but it also makes a statement about what the sixth and seventh generations of this family — and those that came before them — stand for.

“The AD speaks to what we believe in as a family — that we need to lower our carbon footprint and play a role in mitigating climate change,” Barstow Manz said, adding that, for this family, sustainability comes in many forms and means many things, including work to ensure that this business will be there for the next generations.

Her father, David Barstow, director of special projects at the farm, agreed. He said that, while many things have changed at this location — in general, but especially during his lifetime — what hasn’t changed is that concept of preserving, and persevering, for those who will continue the tradition.

“My father and grandfather used to talk about working with horses,” he said, adding that change and advancement are constants on the farm; the key is to embrace that change and be at the forefront of it. “This is a good place to raise a family in a multi-generational business — everyone can see how life works; the goal has always been to leave something for the next generation.”

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely.”

All of the various components of Barstow’s Longview Farm make for an intriguing tour — one that usually includes lunch on site — and Denise and other family members offer many of them, all year long. More than that, these elements collaborate to create an inspiring new chapter to a story that began when Thomas Jefferson was patrolling the White House — and even a century before that, as we’ll see.


Herd It Through the Grapevine

They call it Pasture Day, and it is celebrated the first Saturday in May.

As that name suggests, this is the day when the cows, which have spent the winter in barns, get to head back into the pasture. It’s the unofficial start of spring, and a community event — many visitors, including several families living in the area, will come out, watch the heifers celebrate their first taste of fresh grass, enjoy live music, and have some ice cream.

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm

An aerial view of Barstow’s Longview Farm in the historic Hockanum Village.

“People kick up their heels and have a good time; they sit on the hill and watch,” said Barstow Manz, who doesn’t have a formal title, but serves as the farm’s marketing director. She also handles the farm tours, manages the dairy store and bakery, handles outreach, and acts as the main grant writer. She used to feed the calves, but the farm now has an automated calf feeder, one of many examples of innovation at this institution.

She said Pasture Day is just one of the many traditions that have lived on at this property since Septimus Barstow, originally from Wethersfield, Conn., acquired the property on the bank of the Connecticut River that was first farmed at least 100 years earlier by the Lyman family.

Originally a crop farm that focused on asparagus, as many farms in Hadley did, as well as squash, corn, tobacco, and other staples, the Barstow’s operation eventually evolved into a dairy farm after the advent of refrigeration, which provided an avenue for selling milk wholesale.

By the 1930s, dairy was the primary focus at the farm, she went on, adding that, with a herd of 300 cows, this is small to mid-sized operation, one that is dwarfed by huge operations in this country and overseas.

It’s one of a dwindling number of dairy farms both in Massachusetts and across the U.S., she said, citing statistics showing that this country loses five dairy farms every day.

“And when you lose those farms, you’re losing a lot,” she went on. “You’re obviously losing food and food security for that community. But you’re also losing open space, which is good for wildlife habitat, groundwater, climate resilience, and food security. And you’re losing that heritage and that connection to your past.”

The reason for such attrition is simple. This is a very difficult business to be in, she said, adding that the federal government controls milk prices, and margins have historically been paper-thin.

“Even though it’s very perishable, milk is marketed on a global scale, so we’re competing against New Zealand, we’re competing against California … and it’s kind of a broken system,” Barstow Manz explained. “The only real way for dairy farmers to make more money is to make more milk, which doesn’t always line up with demand. And we have no control over the price of the product we produce.”

There are only 115 dairy farms left in the Bay State, and there probably wouldn’t be any were it not for the Massachusetts Dairy Tax Credit, which enables them to remain competitive, she said, adding that there are six operations in Hadley alone, a concentration that testifies to the quality of the soil in that region.

In the early years of this century, the milk market essentially collapsed, primarily because of oversupply, she said, calling this a scary time for the Barstow farm and all the others in this market.

David Barstow

David Barstow says his family lives by the farm’s motto, ‘looking forward since 1806.’

“The milk market crashed like no one had ever seen or felt before in this country; we were getting $12 per hundred pounds of milk, when our break-even was $22,” she explained, adding that it was a critical time in the history of the farm, or another critical time, to be more precise.

“We got together as a family and decided that we needed to either diversify or get out of farming completely,” she recalled. “And that’s when we started talking about how we wanted to diversify and who we wanted to include. And we knew that we wanted to be thoughtful of what the next generation was interested in doing and what our strengths are.”


A Process of Evolution

Over the next several years, diversification would come in several forms, starting with the dairy store and bakery in 2008, an operation inspired in many ways by Denise’s cousin, Shannon Barstow, who does most of the baking. It’s an operation that would transform the farm into a true destination.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system.”

“We understood that people were going to have to drive here if we were going to get the support and the revenue we needed,” she recalled. “So we did lunch, and we started probably too big for our britches. But we’ve definitely settled into who were are, and we have a really supportive community.”

The dairy-store operation and bakery offers both breakfast and lunch as well as a number of prepared foods — and ice cream. The bakery serves up pies, cupcakes, brownies, turnovers, croissants, scones, muffins, breads, and much more. The facility handles private functions, porch parties, and catering. Meanwhile, visitors can buy Barstow’s beef — everything from tenderloin steaks to ground beef — on site. There’s even a drive-thru for those who want or need to grab and go.

The facility draws visitors from around the corner, but also from across the state and beyond, said Barstow Manz, adding that it has become a real destination and a way to take the Barstow name and products well beyond Hadley.

“Most of our regulars are from Hadley and South Hadley,” she explained. “But we have people who come to us from Eastern Mass. because they love our beef, and from the Berkshires because they love our pies; we draw from all over.

Shannon Barstow

Shannon Barstow does most of the baking at the dairy store and bakery, which opened in 2008.

“We opened this place to save the family farm, and it’s had so many other amazing qualities to it that we didn’t really expect,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s become this time capsule for all these family recipes — most of the stuff that’s in the dairy case is Grandma [Marjorie] Barstow’s recipes. And it’s also a neighborhood gathering space — it’s a space where people can work close to home and also be part of a family farm and a local economy on a small scale.”

Indeed, the dairy story and bakery now employs 15 people and has provided many area young people with their first jobs.

The anaerobic-digestion system, launched at a cost of roughly $6 million, is not a supplier of jobs, but it is, as noted earlier, a supplier of electricity, heat, fertilizer — and also pride for a family that has, through its long history, been innovative.

The conversations about installing such a facility began around the same time the family was opening the dairy store and bakery, she said, adding that the system is another important step toward diversification.

Explaining how it works, she said the system takes the energy potential (methane) out of cow manure and food waste and converts it into enough electricity to power 1,600 homes. The food waste comes from local food producers, including Cabot/Agri-Mark, Whole Foods, the Coca-Cola plant in Northampton, and local restaurants.

The food waste and cow manure, both treated and in liquid form, are put into the digester, which Barstow Manz equated to a large stomach, with the gas from the ‘digestion’ process rising to the top of the nine-story facility. That collected gas combusts in an engine and turns a generator, thus creating electricity.

Heat, one of the byproducts of this process, is used to heat that system, provide hot water in the barns, and heat the eight homes on the property, she went on.

“It’s pretty cool that the system has lessened our reliance on fossil fuels as a business, but also on a personal level in our own homes — we don’t have to pay for oil anymore,” she noted. “We’re also getting a chemical-free fertilizer; that’s because most of what we put in we get back; we just need the gas.”

Like the dairy store and bakery, the AD, the second such system in the state and one of the first in the nation, is a reliable revenue stream at a time when such sources of income are needed in the wake of those razor-thin margins in dairy farming, she said, adding that it became reality through partnerships, such as the one with Vanguard Renewables, and grants from several entities, including the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, the Center for EcoTechnology, and other entities.


A Butter Alternative

Looking ahead, Barstow Manz said she and others working at the farm have a simple mission — to live up to their motto and continue looking forward.

“We’re always trying to be mindful and committed to what’s going to be best for our herd, and also for our land, our workforce, our community, and our food system,” she said. “Among the dairy farms I’m aware of, we’re been pretty open to accepting new technology and trying new things. We’re always reading and learning and talking to our vets and to our soil agronomists about what we can be doing better.

“I also think it’s cool that the sixth generation has always been focused on the seventh,” she went on, “and the four of us that work here are constantly thinking about what we’re going to leave our kids — what’s in it for the eighth generation.”

If history is any guide, it will be something that can grow and thrive and be sustainable — in every way imaginable.

Law Special Coverage

Processes, Procedures, Practices, and Protocols Are Kings

By Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq.

In this new, enlightened era of increased employee rights and employee shortages, many employers are scared to terminate employees in fear of litigation — or of not having enough staff to enable the company to produce at the desired level.

The second question we can save for later, but I will mention now that additional widgets will most likely never justify the havoc that a toxic employee will create.

In my opinion, the answer to the first question is simple: do not fear what you cannot control. You cannot control who goes down to the courthouse to file a complaint. Just be prepared for the battle. So, yes, you can fire that guy (or girl, or them). The question is, should you?


Don’t Shoot Before Aiming — Consider Your Goal First

Don’t respond emotionally or consider someone else’s emotional response. Stop and think. Ask, why is this employee on the chopping block (i.e., what did they allegedly do)? How did they get there (was the proper process followed)? Who placed them there (who is bringing this up? Does the person have the authority to raise this issue? Anything nefarious here)?

Notice that I did not ask ‘who’ this employee is. We don’t assess the ‘who’ on the chopping block. It doesn’t matter who did it. It matters what was done, why it was done, whether it was actually done, and whether it rises to the level of termination.

Essentially, assess the conduct. What do you hope to attain by terminating this employee? A safer workplace? Good. To stop disruptions in operations or the beginnings of a hostile work environment? Good. Now prove it.


Prove It (in Preparation for the Battle)

If you can’t prove it, abort the mission. Go back to the drawing board. Go to plan B. Joking aside, preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.

Consistent application of the ‘four Ps’ over time may take an investment of time and money into creating them if you don’t already have them, and training managers and supervisors in the art of holding employees accountable.

“Preparing for appropriate employee terminations is a long game. It starts with consistent application of procedures, processes, policies, and practices. Probably the most important thing is documentation.”

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Among other things, there should be consistent application of all conduct and performance-related policies. There should be consistent application of all of the policies, procedures, and practices associated with managing human-resources functions such as leaves of absence and request for accommodations, as well as employee complaints made and investigated.

All of these should contain a component that enables tracking the underlying data and providing the ability to obtain and distribute the underlying information that supports assertions made. So you want to terminate an employee because he has been to work only seven out of 19 days, and on the seventh day he violated a safety policy and then stole your candy bar? You should be able to show documentation of these occurrences that were created in real time — including, of course, when the company had the initial conversation with him for being absent the first few times, checking to make sure it wasn’t actually a protected leave of absence.

Once you have the documentation, sit him down and tell him that he is being terminated from the job because of his inability to perform and because of his violation of the attendance policy. Have a witness. If you don’t have the documentation, sit him down, put him on notice that he is in the line of fire, and start documenting. Provide him with expectations, and then document it thereafter. Most likely, this will just delay the inevitable, but you never know. Regardless, at least you will have something to take with you into battle.

Make the Business Decision Informed by the Data, and Document It

Please know, you can terminate an employee for any reason at any time so long as it is not an illegal reason. That means you cannot terminate because of an employee’s protected status or activity or in a manner inconsistent with a collective bargaining agreement or other employment agreement.

As such, if you want to terminate a person for business reasons that have nothing to do with the person and everything to do with your business needs, that is OK too. But you should prove it. Do you have the data to back up your decision? You don’t have to have it, but if that person files a complaint, you will want it, and you will want to be able to attest that the business analysis was done prior to the termination. Otherwise, they will scream ‘pretext,’ meaning you just made that up. Plus, doing the analysis first may help you assess the risks of terminating an employee for business reasons.

There are always risks. Is it cheaper to keep him after assessing those risks, or not? That is a legitimate fiscal business concern. There are risks associated with not terminating employees as well. Be sure to document those, too — not just in the business case (e.g., budget concerns), but also in the ‘do I have enough to terminate this employee for conduct?’ case. Some examples: if I don’t terminate, there will be allegations that I did not maintain a harassment-free workplace; or, I terminated another employee for this same behavior last year, and there is no legitimate reason distinguishing this employee from being terminated for the same; or, he keeps violating safety procedures, and someone may get hurt.


Terminate with Grace and Pay What You Owe

Be respectful to all employees, including those who are coming and going. He knows what he did to get terminated (if you have done it right). There is no legitimate reason to be rude about it.

Terminating with dignity or grace does not mean that you should not terminate an employee. Once an employee gets to termination, he should have already had an opportunity to cure the conduct or behavior for which he is getting terminated. As such, by the time the writing is on the wall, he should not be surprised. If he is, that might partly explain why he is getting terminated.

Next, make sure you reach out to your employment counsel for assistance with properly preparing a termination package (necessary correspondence, pay requirements, and timing considerations). A misstep here can get you in hot water — triple hot water. Failure to pay an employee what is due at termination has no defense, and the remedy to the employee includes three times the wages due. Call your counsel before terminating.

I know this article is not going to make me popular among some folks. I am not trying to be cold. I am just being practical. Your employees are your life force. I get it. I am one. But they are also human capital. If you manage your human capital like you manage your non-human capital, then you should be able to terminate employees without fear.

Processes, procedures, practices, and protocols are kings. Remember, keeping a toxic employee is more costly, in a variety of ways, than the cost of defending a claim — that is, if you have your ducks in a row. So get your ducks in a row. Plus, the remainder of your staff will appreciate the decision. Heck, the terminated employee may appreciate it in time; sometimes it just isn’t a good fit. Cut them free to find their better role. In the case of the business decision, your shareholders or business partners will appreciate your fiscal responsibility.


Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, Esq. is chief legal and administrative officer for the Royal Law Firm; (413) 586-2281.

Health Care Special Coverage

Riding Out a ‘Tripledemic’

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Two years ago, flu took a vacation.

Dr. Mark Kenton remembers those days — but they were no vacation for emergency doctors, who had dealt with almost a year of COVID-19 and the hospitalizations and deaths that it caused, with vaccines just beginning to emerge.

But influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus, also known as RSV? There was almost none to be found, mainly because masking and isolating had become the norm, cutting off the potential for spreading these common viruses.

“With COVID, we had people masking, home from school, and we had no flu; there was no RSV,” said Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield. “In fact, Mercy didn’t have one ICU case of flu. Then, when we started to normalize, these viruses made their way back.”

So much that the prevalence of flu and RSV this year, combined with a still-lingering COVID threat — albeit one that has been muted by vaccinations — has combined for what has been called a ‘tripledemic’ this winter.

“It seems like the RSV population this year is much larger than in the past, which complicates things,” Kenton said. “We’re definitely seeing a lot of influenza, even in patients who have been vaccinated, and we’ve actually been seeing a lot of pneumonia. There are a lot of respiratory complaints this time of year, because it spreads through schools with kids at the end of the term, and parents may not want to keep the kids home.”

Because COVID still has a presence, he explained, when somebody comes in with a respiratory complaint, they’re tested for that as well as for influenza and RSV, a common respiratory virus that usually causes mild, cold-like symptoms, but can be more severe in certain patients.

“With COVID, we had people masking, home from school, and we had no flu; there was no RSV. Then, when we started to normalize, these viruses made their way back.”

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“We were seeing a lot of RSV a few weeks ago, but it seems that may be tapering off now,” Kenton added, noting that Mercy has seen both children and adults with RSV, a condition that can be especially precarious for infants. “We worry about them getting RSV; a lot of local hospitals have been inundated with pediatric RSV.”

Indeed, RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and viral pneumonia in children under age 1. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that approximately 58,000 children under age 5 are hospitalized each year with the infection. Most infants are infected before age 1, and virtually all children have had an RSV infection by age 2. RSV can also affect older children, teenagers and adults.

Spiros Hatiras says he’s not sure who came up with that phrase ‘tripledemic.’ He’s quite sure, though, it wasn’t someone in healthcare.

“It had to be someone in the media — they’re the ones who like to attach names to things like this,” said Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center.

But it’s as good a term as any to describe a convergence of COVID, flu, and RSV. In some parts of the country, this convergence is filling hospitals and putting additional strain on staffs already taxed by shortages of nurses and other healthcare professionals. But Hatiras told BusinessWest he hasn’t really seen much of any of the above at his hospital — from the individual ailments to the additional strain on people and resources.

Indeed, he reported very few, if any, COVID cases, noting that there isn’t anyone in his hospital solely because of COVID, though some are there for another reason and test positive for COVID. Meanwhile, he reports few cases of RSV, and flu numbers that are similar to previous years and nothing out of the ordinary.

The Emergency Department is crowded, he acknowledged, but not because of this tripledemic; rather, it’s because fewer staff members — a result of the ongoing workforce crisis, especially in healthcare — are tending to what would be considered a normal amount of patients.

“Because there were so few cases of RSV in the first two years of the pandemic, most infants and toddlers did not get the natural immunity that their body would have produced if they had natural illness. That left a larger number of children more vulnerable to getting RSV illness, which is what we are seeing now in the community.”

Dr. John O’Reilly

Dr. John O’Reilly

Kenton has observed the same phenomenon in the workforce. “So many nurses in this profession are either retired or gone on to something else,” he said. “This is everywhere, across the board. Every hospital is dealing with staffing issues. Even with [patient] volumes overall being down, when you get the tripledemic, it’s become a significant strain on resources within the hospital.”


What Is RSV?

Flu is a common term, and most people are now well-versed in COVID, but not everyone knows what RSV is, and how it deviates from other respiratory ailments.

While RSV results in mild, cold-like symptoms for most — a runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, and fever — for some, especially infants and older adults, it can lead to serious illness, though only a small percentage of young patients develop severe disease and require hospitalization, said Dr. John O’Reilly, chief of General Pediatrics at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“Those hospitalized often have severe breathing problems or are seriously dehydrated and need IV fluids. In most cases, hospitalization only lasts a few days, and complete recovery usually occurs in about one to two weeks,” he explained.

Those who have a higher risk for severe illness caused by RSV include premature babies, very young infants, children younger than age 2 with chronic lung disease or congenital heart disease, children with weakened immune systems, and children who have neuromuscular disorders. Other at-risk groups include adults age 65 and older, 177,000 of whom are hospitalized and 14,000 of whom die from RSV each year in the U.S.; people with chronic lung disease or certain heart problems; and people with weakened immune systems, such as from HIV infection, organ transplants, or certain medical treatments, like chemotherapy.

The COVID pandemic has had a big impact on the normal pediatric respiratory illness cycles, O’Reilly noted. “Early in the pandemic, masking and social distancing helped to limit the spread of respiratory viruses such as RSV. Because there were so few cases of RSV in the first two years of the pandemic, most infants and toddlers did not get the natural immunity that their body would have produced if they had natural illness. That left a larger number of children more vulnerable to getting RSV illness, which is what we are seeing now in the community.”

There is no vaccine yet to prevent RSV infection, but there is a medication, called palivzumab, that can help protect some babies at high risk for severe RSV disease, O’Reilly noted. Healthcare providers usually administer it to premature infants and young children with certain heart and lung conditions as a series of monthly shots during RSV season.

“Don’t go out or attend gatherings if you are sick. Take COVID-19 tests if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms. Frequent hand washing can also help prevent the spread of respiratory infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and consider carrying a hand sanitizer with you at all times. Open windows for ventilation. Practice proper cough etiquette. And, because there is more sickness at this time of year, refrain from sharing utensils or drinking cups.”

The severity of symptoms can vary depending on the age of the child and whether he or she has any chronic medical problems, such as asthma or premature birth. Bacterial infections such as ear infections and pneumonia may develop in children with RSV infection.

At first, it’s all about symptom management for young children with RSV, O’Reilly said, including keeping the child hydrated and the fever under control. “If a child is having high fevers without relief for multiple days, or increased difficulty with breathing, such as wheezing, grunting, or ongoing flaring of the nostrils is observed along with a child’s runny nose and cough, then a call to your pediatrician is warranted.”

Part of the reason why RSV is a common virus in children is the fact that it can be easily transmitted. It can spread directly from person to person — when an infected person coughs or sneezes, sending virus-containing droplets into the air, where they can infect a person who inhales them, as well as by hand-to-nose, hand-to-mouth, and hand-to-eye contact. The virus can be spread indirectly when someone touches any object infected with the virus, such as toys, countertops, doorknobs, or pens, and can live on environmental surfaces for several hours.

The CDC’s advice on limiting the spread is the same as any virus-prevention measure: covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve, washing hands often with soap and water, avoiding touching one’s face, disinfecting surfaces, staying home when sick, and avoiding close contact with sick people, as well as kissing, shaking hands, and sharing cups and utensils with others.

“The good news,” O’Reilly said, “is that most infants and children overcome RSV infections without any long-term complications, as RSV infections can often be relatively asymptomatic and even go unnoticed.”


Safety First

After almost three years of COVID, it’s easy to push those common-sense cautions aside, but that would be a mistake, said Dr. Vincent Meoli, Massachusetts regional medical director at American Family Care, which operates urgent-care clinics in Springfield and West Springfield.

“We know there is a significant amount of COVID fatigue as we enter our third year of the pandemic, but vigilance is still important, both to protect those most at risk of developing complications and to minimize the impact on our healthcare system,” he said, noting that area hospitals saw high rates of RSV admissions early in the season.

“We saw a tremendous reduction in flu cases during the height of the pandemic because people were wearing masks and isolating,” Meoli said. “Now that society has opened up again and masks are no longer required in most places, we anticipate the number of flu cases to increase.”

Kenton emphasized that, while flu and RSV might be more prevalent now, COVID hasn’t gone away. According to the CDC, about 350 people in the U.S. still die every day from COVID, and about six out of every seven of those are unvaccinated.

“I always say, vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. It’s been proven that, with vaccination from COVID, you’re still able to get COVID, but you’re less likely to die,” he told BusinessWest. “Are you going to feel sick? Yes, absolutely. But you’re less likely to be hospitalized and die from it. It’s still present, unfortunately. I think it’s always going to remain present for us in combination with the flu and RSV. So definitely get the flu vaccine every year, too.”

Dr. Armando Paez, chief of the Infectious Disease Division at Baystate Health, said vaccination is a must, but it’s important to maintain other precautions as well during the tripledemic.

“Don’t go out or attend gatherings if you are sick. Take COVID-19 tests if you think you have COVID-19 symptoms,” Paez said, adding that, during the holiday season and after, people are traveling and potentially spreading viruses. “Frequent hand washing can also help prevent the spread of respiratory infections. Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 15 seconds and consider carrying a hand sanitizer with you at all times. Open windows for ventilation. Practice proper cough etiquette. And, because there is more sickness at this time of year, refrain from sharing utensils or drinking cups.”

Kenton said there’s nothing wrong with turning down an invitation to a gathering where people are sick — or if there’s a possibility of introducing sickness into that house. “If someone in your house is sick, don’t go to someone else’s house, especially if they have co-morbidity conditions; getting RSV on top of that can cause them to end up hospitalized or potentially die.”

He also reminds people that COVID has an asymptomatic period between infection and symptoms, so if someone in a household tests positive, not only should the infected individual isolate, but it’s a good idea for others in the house to avoid gatherings for a few days until they know they’re negative, to avoid spreading the virus to someone else.

Meoli noted that, for those who do plan to attend gatherings — especially with people at high risk for COVID, like the elderly, children, or people who are immunocompromised — testing for COVID the day before or the day of the gathering can provide some extra reassurance.

“Talk to a healthcare provider if you have any concerns about vaccines, symptoms, or testing,” he added. “COVID-19, flu, and RSV all have the potential for complications, hospitalization, or death.”

It’s certainly a triple threat, area doctors say, but taking simple precautions can help keep families safe and patients out of the hospital — or worse.

Economic Outlook

Reasons for Optimism — and Concern

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Chris Geehern says there’s been a slight but significant uptick in the Business Confidence Index issued each month by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM).

That increase is one of the many reasons why he and others are … wait for it … cautiously optimistic as the calendar turns to 2023. That phrase has been put to heavy use in recent years and recent months, especially with so much uncertainty regarding the economy due to forces ranging from COVID to inflation to an ongoing workforce crisis.

“If the workforce grows 1.5% and the number of jobs grows by 21% or 22%, as they’re projecting, we have a problem — a big problem.”

Chris Geehern

Chris Geehern

But as the state and region put 2022 in the rear view and focus on a year with even more uncertainty, there are some reasons for optimism, said Geehern, executive vice president of AIM, and that is reflected in the numbers he’s seeing.

“Our members seem pretty confident about the prospects for their own companies,” he said. “And they are reasonably confident about the state and national economies. There are certainly lingering concerns about interest rates and about whether there will be a soft landing or not. But, by and large, we’re finding that Massachusetts companies are resilient, and they seem to be navigating this kind of economic cycle pretty well right now.”

Elaborating, he said unemployment remains comparatively low, and the state’s economy grew in the third quarter, albeit slowly, after two quarters of negative growth — another positive sign. “So, by and large, employers don’t seem to be deeply concerned by the short-term economic cycle.”

Bob Nakosteen, a semi-retired Economics professor at UMass Amherst, agreed. He told BusinessWest that, in addition to growing optimism, inflation is starting to cool, a sign that the Fed’s decision to aggressively raise interest rates may — that’s may — be working. It could also be a harbinger of lower rate hikes in the future, which would certainly help business owners and consumers alike.

“And I think inflation is already a lot lower than is being reported,” said Nakosteen. “The month-to-month figures are pretty low … I think inflation is going to drop, maybe not dramatically, but considerably in the next few reporting periods.”

Elaborating, he said ‘dramatically’ would be a drop to the 2% target set by the Fed (at its height, inflation was closer to 8%), while ‘considerably’ would be to the 3% to 4% range, which is what he expects.

“And if that’s the case, then the Fed is going to ease off on interest rates,” he said, adding that such actions should bolster the stock market and the economy as a whole as the dramatic increases in the cost of borrowing start to ease.

Meanwhile, there are other signs that the picture is improving and the odds for recession in 2023 are moving lower, said Nakosteen, adding that the labor market remains quite strong, and the Atlanta Federal Reserve’s projections for GDP in the fourth quarter are for 3.2% growth — this on top of what has been a strong Christmas season for retailers.

“The signals just aren’t there for a serious recession — or even for a recession at all.”

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

“I think that economic growth is going to slow down, and if we do get into a recession, it will be a mild one,” he said, adding quickly that his track record with projections is decent but not spectacular. “What continues to amaze me is the strength of the labor market; unemployment is still at or just over 3% both nationally and in this state, and in Western Mass. as well. “The signals just aren’t there for a serious recession — or even for a recession at all.”

But while there is cause for some optimism, there are many concerns as well, especially when it comes to the workforce.

Indeed, in 2022, it became obvious to most in business that the problems seen in 2021 when it came to companies being able to fill positions with qualified help were certainly not temporary in nature. They persisted into 2022, and in some cases were exacerbated.

Now, there is what Geehern, summing up the thoughts of AIM’s members, called “deep concern” about what has become a workforce crisis in this state.

“‘I can’t find the people I need to make my business grow’ has become part of the vernacular in this state,” he said, noting that, as part of the Business Confidence Index survey, AIM asks an open-ended question, along the lines of ‘what are you worried about?’

And, increasingly, owners of businesses large and small are worried about workforce.

“I would say that 75% to 80% of the responses to that question every month have to do with talent acquisition, talent retention, and the availability of workers,” he said. “And the concern is that this isn’t the function of an economic cycle; it’s really a deep, structural inflection point for the Massachusetts economy.”

As he explained why, Geehern cited some rather alarming statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Economic Research, which projects that the number of jobs in Massachusetts will grow by 22% between now and 2030. Meanwhile, projections from various economists indicate that the state’s workforce will grow 1.5% by 2030.

“If the workforce grows 1.5% and the number of jobs grows by 21% or 22%, as they’re projecting, we have a problem — a big problem,” Geehern said. “This was going on anyway — it’s partially a function of demographics — but it’s been exacerbated by the newfound independence that remote work has given to employees.”

Given this unsettling math, Geerhern said there are things the state and individual employers must do to make themselves more attractive — not just to businesses, but to workers on all levels.

“Traditionally, we’ve focused on what creates the environment where businesses can start and grow in Massachusetts, and we’re still committed to that,” he said. “But at the same time, we also recognize that you have to create a quality of life that makes people — workers — want to live here in Massachusetts. And that means looking at the cost of living.

“Massachusetts ranks number one in terms of childcare costs, we have the second-highest housing costs, and the fourth-worst traffic congestion — I don’t know how they measure that, but they do,” he went on. “What we’re looking at is a significant outmigration of people from Massachusetts to other areas of the country; a Massachusetts Taxpayers Association report showed that, over the past three decades, there’s been an outmigration of 750,000 people from Massachusetts, and that trend has actually accelerated post-pandemic.”

In some cases, people are leaving the state for lower-cost areas, but keeping their jobs here, a byproduct of the remote-work phenomenon. Moving forward, Geehern said in conclusion, the state has to make itself an attractive place to do business and to live and work — because failure to do so will worsen an already-difficult situation and made it even harder for business owners to sleep at night.



Economic Outlook

Selling Points

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As he surveys the scene in Western Mass., especially the ongoing focus on encouraging entrepreneurship and helping startups get to the next level, Charlie D’Amour says he can see some parallels to when his father, Gerry, and uncle, Paul, were getting started in Chicopee nearly 80 years ago with a venture that would eventually become known as Big Y.

But this current surge in entrepreneurship is different in some respects from than the one in the mid-’30s, he told BusinessWest, adding that it is deeper and more diverse. And it holds enormous promise for the future of the region in terms of job creation and the vibrancy of individual communities.

“I continue to be impressed by the fact that we have a diverse and growing class of new entrepreneurs,” D’Amour noted. “Through the commitment of the EDC, the commitment of other organizations, and the commitment of anchor institutions in the area, if we can continue to grow, develop, nurture, and encourage these entrepreneurs, it’s only going to put us in a great position.

“That’s part of what gives me some optimism for the economy of our region — to see this growth in entrepreneurship,” he went on. “This is an interesting group of young entrepreneurs, and it’s a diverse group, and that speaks to where our future is going to be.”

Entrepreneurship and the prospects for more of it comprise one of many subjects touched on by D’Amour and other representatives of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC) during a wide-ranging discussion of the issues facing the region as the calendar turns to 2023.

“I continue to be impressed by the fact that we have a diverse and growing class of new entrepreneurs. Through the commitment of the EDC, the commitment of other organizations, and the commitment of anchor institutions in the area, if we can continue to grow, develop, nurture, and encourage these entrepreneurs, it’s only going to put us in a great position.”

Charlie D’Amour

Charlie D’Amour

D’Amour is a long-time member of the EDC and member of its executive committee. Others joining the discussion were Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC; Tricia Canavan, CEO of Tech Foundry and current EDC board chair, and relatively new board member Cesar Ruiz, president and CEO of Golden Years Home Care Services.

Together, they addressed subjects ranging from workforce issues to marketing of the region to the prospects for bringing more jobs to the area.

Overall, as the new year begins, those we spoke with are optimistic about the region and its fortunes, but there are reasons for concern, especially when it comes to workforce (more on that later), an issue touched on by many in this special Economic Outlook section.

“I’ve seen some real opportunities with some investments that I do believe will be coming with the new governor’s administration in terms of broadband and internet access,” Sullivan said. “There is a digital divide, in our urban communities but also in our rural communities, and I think there’s a real opportunity there with a significant investment by the state and federal government to make those final connections and finally bring high-speed broadband to people’s homes and businesses; that’s a real opportunity for us.

“And I also some see some significant investment in the field of cybersecurity, which is an industry that, unfortunately, is probably here for the long run, and we need to be doing a lot of work every single day to stay ahead of the bad guys,” he went on. “With Springfield already being designated as one of the centers of the statewide system … that’s a real opportunity for us in terms of both workforce and working with our municipalities and particularly with our higher-ed institutions, so I’m very optimistic about the opportunities that are going to present themselves for this region in 2023.”

D’Amour agreed.

“The good news is that the economy of Western Massachusetts, with its diversity and whatnot, has proven to be somewhat resilient, from what I’ve seen,” he noted. “Though I anticipate a downturn in the economy, a slowing of the economy, I do expect that we’ll be able to weather it fairly well.”

“We’re all experiencing challenges in hiring — we can’t hire fast enough; we can’t hire quality enough within our workforce. Hiring is certainly going to be a barometer for how successful we’re going to be with expanding our business.”

Cesar Ruiz

Cesar Ruiz

Canavan concurred, noting that the many lessons learned during the pandemic will serve to make the region’s economy and individual businesses stronger and more resilient.

“The silver lining of the pandemic has been some lessons learned,” she said. “I’ve seen people start to integrate these lessons into their businesses and organizations and into their collaboration in the community. I’m really excited about progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts; digital equity and access; and additional community alignment. I think we’ve learned the importance of working together. I’m optimistic about Western Mass. — we are going to be resilient, and we’re going to recover from the pandemic, even if there are some additional bumps coming our way.”


Working Things Out

One of those bumps is likely to be a continuation of very challenging times when it comes to workforce and companies attracting — and then retaining — the talent they need to grow and prosper. Those we spoke with said this is easily the biggest challenge moving forward and perhaps the most difficult problem to solve.

Ruiz, whose industry, home care, has been particularly hard hit by the workforce crisis, said workforce issues are more than an annoyance — they are hindering the growth and progress of companies, including his own.

“In Massachusetts, we have roughly two open jobs for every candidate that’s in the market. This is a great time for people who may not have been able to access those jobs previously to get training, to get education, and to seize those opportunities.”

Tricia Canavan

Tricia Canavan

“We’re all experiencing challenges in hiring — we can’t hire fast enough; we can’t hire quality enough within our workforce,” he noted. “Hiring is certainly going to be a barometer for how successful we’re going to be with expanding our business.”

He said individual sectors and specific businesses are, out of necessity, forced to be creative when it comes to putting more talent into the pipeline. Golden Years, for example, is collaborating with area colleges to help ready them for careers in healthcare.

Still, the problem is acute, and he’s talking with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and others about ways to bring more people from other parts of the world into this country to work.

“Using foreign workers is nothing new — our resort areas bring them in by the hundreds,” Ruiz noted. “They come here for a six-month period, and there are certain obligations as an employer that we have to meet to tap that source. But we have to come with creative ways to tap these resources.”

Canavan concurred, and noted that the current workforce challenge presents a huge opportunity to engage those who are currently not engaged in education or work.

“That’s one of the big opportunities for us at this moment in time,” she said. “In Massachusetts, we have roughly two open jobs for every candidate that’s in the market. This is a great time for people who may not have been able to access those jobs previously to get training, to get education, and to seize those opportunities.”

“Our population has basically been flat, and in some areas, it’s declining. If we’re going to be vibrant, there has to be some growth; you need to grow to survive.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

D’Amour agreed, and said his company has been creative and also diligent in addressing the problem.

“Our staffing has improved — it’s much better than it was a year ago or a year and a half ago,” he noted. “But part of it is because we worked at it — we’ve addressed it proactively. We didn’t just put a sign in the window saying ‘now hiring.’ We’ve been a little bit more deliberate, a little bit more strategic, and a little bit more focused about it, and those are the kinds of things that we’re going to need moving forward.”

Elaborating, he said workforce issues require both creativity and a lengthy time horizon, meaning measures that will fill the pipeline with workers for the long term. And the focus needs to be on education.

“From early education to higher education, we need to make sure that we’re bringing our kids and our young people along so that they can be the workforce of the future,” he told BusinessWest. “If we don’t have that, we can’t do a lot of the things that we aspire to. We need to reach into these various communities and make sure that young people have the skills they’re going to need to be successful; that’s where our workforce is going to come from, and those are the kinds of things we have to do.

“I know that’s an area of focus for the EDC, and I know it’s an area of focus for the anchor institutions and many individual companies,” he went on. “We’re not going to get there in a year, but we need to start now; it’s probably a little bit overdue.”


Being Positive

As noted earlier, those we spoke with could find plenty of reasons for optimism concerning 2023 and beyond in this region. Collectively, they mentioned everything from the Victory Theatre project in Holyoke (Ruiz is among the many involved in that effort) to the growing number, and diversity, of new businesses being started in this region, especially within the Hispanic and African-American communities; from the strong education and healthcare sectors to the quality of life here and the opportunities presented by remote work for people to live in this region and work wherever they desire.

Meanwhile, those we spoke with said there are real opportunities to grow certain business sectors in this region — from cybersecurity to clean energy to water technology — with the area’s higher-education institutions taking lead roles in each one.

Sullivan said another often-overlooked or forgotten sector showing promise is manufacturing, what he called the “invisible backbone” of the region’s economy.

“Most of our manufacturers were classified as essential employers during the pandemic, so they were able to continue operating,” he noted. “They proved to be really flexible and able to pivot, in some cases even manufacturing PPE and other products that were not part of their portfolio before COVID. That flexibility, if you will, served them well, and now they’re well-poised for growth, and you’re starting to see them make significant investments.

“Whether it’s Advance Manufacturing, Boulevard Machine, or Advance Welding in Springfield, they’re making investment in their own facilities and their own people, and they’re creating jobs — and jobs that will exist well into the future because of the work they’re doing and the contractors that they have, whether it’s the Department of Defense or the Department of Transportation or healthcare,” he went on. “And these manufacturers have recognized that, while this region may not be the cheapest in terms of power or the cheapest in terms of taxation, we are the best when it comes to workforce.”

D’Amour agreed, and said another aspect of the local economy that is often overlooked is agriculture.

“We’re the garden of New England here in Connecticut River Valley, and there are a lot of young farmers in this region that are doing great stuff,” he said. “Agriculture and food products are an important part of our economy, and it adds to the diversity of the economy in our region. Having fields and orchards is also why many people like to live here; it leads to the whole genus of our community and what makes Western Mass. so special.”

Another priority for the region, Sullivan said, is to better leverage its many assets in higher education.

“Many of the other parts of the country, and even the eastern end of this state, really market the presence of higher ed,” he said. “And we have world-class institutions here; whether it’s the flagship campus for UMass or Smith or Mount Holyoke or Bay Path, the cohort of higher education we have here is really significant. And when we talk about workforce, the students that are sitting in the classrooms at the Elms and AIC and the other institutions are the workforce that everyone is looking for, and I really believe that economic vitality and higher ed are entwined tighter than they ever have been before.”


Work to Be Done

While there are reasons for optimism, there are also some concerns and priorities for the months and years to come, said those we spoke with.

Sullivan noted, for example, that the region — known in the banking sector and many others as a ‘no-growth’ area — certainly needs a growth strategy.

“Our population has basically been flat, and in some areas, it’s declining,” he told BusinessWest. “If we’re going to be vibrant, there has to be some growth; you need to grow to survive. We can absolutely sell our cost of living and quality of life here, but we need to have the housing for people to move into, and they need to be able to work from home or do their coursework from home, which means, again, that we have to make that investment in broadband and the internet across our region so we can take advantage of that opportunity.

“When people discuss work/life balance and what they want for their families, this lands in a sweet spot for us,” he went on. “That’s who we are; we can sell work/life balance and quality of life, as long as we have all the components. They’re not all going to happen in a month or a year, but there needs to a positive trajectory on all of those things.”

D’Amour agreed, noting that the region has a number of sellable assets, from location to transportation infrastructure to relatively inexpensive (and often green) power, as well as higher education. One priority moving forward is to more aggressively sell these assets and market the region.

“Our challenge has always been telling our story,” he said. “We have not participated as fully as we could have or should have in the economic boom that Eastern Mass. has had. How do we get some of the business community in Eastern Mass. to focus on us instead of going to Southern New Hampshire, or Rhode Island, or wherever?”

Canavan agreed. “We are, in some ways, our own worst enemy when it comes to not telling our story — or appreciating where we live,” she said. “And we do have a lot of assets here, starting with diversity; we’re very lucky to have people from all over the world here, people with different perspectives — that is a real asset. I also think we’re small enough to be agile and to pilot things … we’re like the scrappy player who can try new things, and that’s very exciting.”

Lastly, Sullivan said he is hopeful, and confident, that the state’s new governor, Maura Healey, will not just “talk about how we care about Western Mass.,” but make some significant investments in the region.

“And I think you’ll see them, whether it’s vocational education or community colleges, or broadband or cyber or clean energy,” he said. “I think that there’s an opportunity to make very strategic, intentional investments in Western Massachusetts that will allow it to grow.”

Economic Outlook

Talking the Talk

As part of its annual Economic Outlook, BusinessWest put together a roundtable of area business leaders to discuss the issues facing the region and its business community and the outlook for the year ahead. The panel represents several sectors of the economy, and both small and large businesses. It includes: Harry Dumay, president of Elms College in Chicopee; John Falcone, director of Merchandising for Rocky’s Ace Hardware; Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of Holyoke Medical Center; Susan Kasa, president of Boulevard Machine in Westfield; Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm and co-owner of Brew Practitioners; and Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank. They were candid and, overall, cautiously optimistic in their answers to a series of questions about the economy and what comes next.

Watch the video of the roundtable here:



BusinessWest: What is your outlook for 2023?


Kasa: “We’re excited for 2023; we’ve really seen an uptick in military and defense work, so we’re really excited about where our year is going to go.”


Senecal: “Increased business confidence is the biggest thing, I think, with all the negative press we hear on the economy. Increased confidence is big, and in my industry, and with the people we do business with, lower interest rates will have a significant, positive impact on our environment.”


Cannon-Eckerle: “We’re excited about some of the fallout that we got legally from COVID; it has started to settle down a little bit — we’re starting to see those issues become isolated, and opportunities for us to create some guidance and counsel about preventive measures. On the employment side, instead of seeing people float from job to job, I think we’re going to see a little more staying power.”

Susan Kasa

Susan Kasa says the war in Ukraine, while bringing hardship to many, has helped the fortunes of her company, Boulevard Machine, which specializes in work for the defense, military, and aviation industries.


Falcone: “We really track consumer sentiment, and what we’re expecting is a really soft Q1, but then when Q2, Q3, and Q4 hit, we’re expecting that consumer sentiment will increase slightly, and that we’re going to have some sort of recovery come the back half of the year.”


Hatiras: “With ARPA funds drying up, we’re going to have pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. So our emphasis is on closing the staffing gap. If we can do that, and not bleed money on the expense side, I think we’ll be OK; I think we’re poised to have a good year, as long as we’re able to attract nurses here.”


BusinessWest: What are the major challenges facing businesses in the year ahead?


Kasa: “For us, it’s the same old, same old — trying to get people into manufacturing. We’ve dealt with the generation gap for years, and are getting more involved with the vocational schools and getting parents to understand that manufacturing is a viable option for young people. It’s not just manufacturing; they can be their own entrepreneur in plumbing or electrical, whatever it might be. Also, holding onto folks; ever since COVID came through, it just seems harder and harder to find people who want to work, and want to work the extra hours that we’re giving them. Workforce is key for us — building on the workforce.”


Hatiras: “In healthcare, there is a great deal of concern, and the most concerning part is the continuing shortage of personnel, which has created this market for temporary staffing at rates that are truly outrageous. To put things in perspective, we have about 20 nurses on temporary staff that we get through agencies. Those 20 nurses, on an annual basis, cost us $5 million; each nurse costs us $250,000, because the rates are exorbitant — the nurses get a lot of money, but there’s also a middleman that makes untold amounts of money from this crisis.

“As a nation, the federal government is doing a lot of things — they did some things with railroad workers, they’re helping Ukraine, they’re talking about a lot of things. They should have stepped in and regulated this and said, ‘the pandemic created a tremendous amount of shortage; we cannot allow private companies to go out and profit from that shortage of staffing and bring hospitals to their knees.’ With all this, it’s going to be very difficult for hospitals to cope, and that’s why all our strategy centers around finding a way to attract nurses here.”


Falcone: “Number one would be interest rates; we keep seeing interest rates increase, and not increasing at a rate that we would expect compared to supply chain. The supply chain is still not fully intact, so we’re still struggling to find those products that we want to make strategic investments in. Also, the job market is going to be difficult for us, primarily on the service, retail, restaurant industry. We very much struggle with our workforce.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal notes that the Fed’s actions to boost interest rates have not yielded much improvement on the inflation front, something to watch in 2023.

Senecal: “I would agree with Susan on the labor force. We’re all in different industries, but we’re seeing the same challenges, whether it’s manufacturing, skilled labor, retail labor, banking and financial services … COVID killed the participation rate of how people want to work or, quite frankly, don’t want to work. It seems like it’s across all industries — the participation is so low, and people just don’t want to work. That’s a huge challenge for next year.

“Another one is inflationary pressures; the Fed has raised rates at unheard-of levels, and it’s having very little impact, which is kind of scary. The last increase wasn’t as high as the others, but it’s still unprecedented. They used to be a quarter-point; three or four 75-basis-point raises is a shock to the system, and it’s not having the immediate impact you might think it would have. That’s going to be a challenge for a lot of business, as well as for us in the banking industry.”


Dumay: “In higher education, there are many challenges related to enrollment and finances; we’ve been talking for a while about what is known as the ‘demographic cliff,’ which is the fact that there are fewer high-school graduates, fewer 18-year-olds that are ready to enroll in college, and this has been exacerbated during the COVID years. This is creating enrollment challenges for all higher-ed institutions. On the finance side, everyone here has mentioned the challenge of inflation, as well as the tight workforce. Higher education is also challenged by the fact that some of the stimulus funding that has helped during COVID is no longer available. All of these are going to create challenges for the higher-ed sector in general, and Elms College in particular. But they also present opportunities.


BusinessWest: What are the forces that will determine what will happen with the local and national economies in 2023 and what we’re all talking about a year from now?


Kasa: “For us, what’s happening in the world politically and the war in Ukraine; we’re really seeing an increase in military spending and orders for the military and defense. That’s going to be very helpful for us, and I do see that continuing. There’s a tremendous amount of talk about upgrades to engines, the F-35 … and being in the aerospace alley and having so many of these large OEMs right in the corridor, in the Hartford area, is beneficial for us. I do foresee things continuing to move up and onward for us.”


Cannon-Eckerle: “One of the things bubbling up in the legal sphere is something they call ‘litigation investment,’ which is essentially large companies investing in litigation against larger corporations that normally they wouldn’t be able to afford. It’s like a venture-capital-like investment, and we’re starting to see large companies spread their wings. I think that might have an effect on litigation down the line.”

Harry Dumay

Harry Dumay says COVID provided many important lessons that are serving Elms College well as it moves on from the pandemic.

Dumay: “I think some of those challenges that I spoke about that are related to enrollment will lead to some of the forces and trends that will shape things in 2023. I expect institutions to tailor their pricing and courses accordingly; there is a trend in higher education to look for shorter types of certificates to help max the credentialing needs of the workforce. I expect we’ll see that. But also, the workforce issues are providing a lot of opportunities for institutions to partner with businesses to address some of these workforce issues, and I expect that we’ll see more collaborations and partnerships between higher-ed institutions and businesses to address some of these workforce challenges.”


Senecal: “I see two things. One is supply chain; I think the pressure seems to be coming off, and if that trend continues, that will have a really positive effect on the economy. Two, I think higher energy prices are not going to go away. With the war in Ukraine and Russian energy and what is being supplied to Europe and all … many people don’t think it impacts us. I think it will have a huge impact going into 2023. When you look at the supply of energy in Europe, they have enough to get through the winter to sustain themselves. What they don’t have is the ability to replenish those supplies by next winter, and I think Russia knows this, and I think their strategy is to put a huge amount of pressure on to get to next year, because when you get to next winter, there’s not going to be any energy-supply reserves, and that’s going to have a huge impact worldwide on energy supplies, and that trickles throughout the economy.”


Falcone: I very much agree with Tom. The overall political and economic environment created by that war has affected our business dramatically, whether it’s fuel costs, energy costs that directly impact the supply chain and lead to inflation, or interest rates, because the overall cost of carrying our inventory is higher, and the cost of the product we’re procuring is higher. So with that, our overall cost of business has increased.”

John Falcone

John Falcone says supply-chain issues have improved in recent months, one of many reasons for optimism heading into 2023.

Kasa: “I agree with John. In manufacturing, our supply chain has really been impacted by this war; we’re not able to get material as we did some time ago, and those costs continue to rise. Being in manufacturing, we’re held to long-term agreements, master agreements, and it just continually squeezes the small guy.”


BusinessWest: How has your business or institution coped with the recent workforce challenges? Do you have a success formula?


Senecal: “Before COVID hit, we would never let an employee work from home; from a security perspective, from a collaborative perspective, it just wouldn’t work. Two weeks into the pandemic, we had 80% of workforce working from home without a hitch. I still think the collaboration, or culture, side of it has to occur within the office, but we’ve pivoted from that perspective, and we’re pushing the ability to work from home a whole lot more.

“To tackle the workforce issue and spread our wings and look beyond Western Mass., we are advertising positions as ‘80% work from home,’ something you would have never thought of or heard of in years past. We have an employee now who works 100% out of Chicago. As a local community bank, we would have never considered that. It’s increased our ability to attract talent, and we’ve found some success, but I know it’s still going to be a challenge moving forward.”


Kasa: “We’re looking for exposure, and being in our bright new building certainly helps. So does using social media to attract young machinists; we’re using Instagram and Facebook … it really does work with the young people that follow you. And being a family-owned business also resonates with many people; there have been so many capital acquisitions in recent times in this area.

“We spend a lot of time talking to parents about manufacturing and the opportunities that are available to young people. Manufacturing is coming back, and now parents are realizing that not everyone is meant for a college degree, and they don’t have to spend $100,000 or $200,000 on education; they are coming into machining and electrical and plumbing. The parents are really starting to see us as a viable option.”


Dumay: “We’re paying a lot of attention to employee morale and employee satisfaction, and being flexible where we can. Part of the promise of Elms College as a small, liberal-arts institution is that students will be in contact with people and one another, so having a presence on campus is important. But we’re trying to work creatively to include flexibility for employees in terms of where they can work and the time they can work, to the extent that this can be done.”


Hatiras: “We’re doing OK because we had to respond to what was going on in the market by creating even more attractive reasons for coming here — we raised our rates, we’re enhancing benefits, and at the same time, we’re looking at economic assistance for the lower-earning employees. Where it’s more difficult is with the professionals, because the dollars are significantly more, so competing just on price is difficult. The key for success — what keeps people here and makes them come here — is the culture of the place, so we put a tremendous amount of effort in the 10 years I’ve been here on creating a good culture. Now, it’s become a differentiator, and we’re pushing it even more. We’re an employer that listens to employees, responds to their needs, and cares. That’s what people want.”

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says the “truly outrageous” cost of agency nurses is one of the many stern challenges facing all hospitals today.

Falcone: “We put a big focus on our company culture. Right in our strategic plan, it says ‘invest in people, personally grow, and have fun.’ There’s no doubt about it … the people we have are our biggest asset, so what we want to do is make sure that we’re taking care of them. In this ever-competitive job market, it’s really easy to jump jobs for an extra dollar or two an hour, but for us, we really want to focus on employee engagement and employee satisfaction.”


BusinessWest: Provide us with at least one, and maybe a few, reasons for optimism regarding the year ahead.


Falcone: “The supply chain is becoming more intact. Two years ago, our fill rates as a company were about 60%; December marked the first time our fill rates recently broke the 80% mark. They’re still not back to 2019 levels of roughly 90%, but it’s slowly getting better, and I think the numbers will continue to increase. For the consumer, it’s the availability of product at a reasonable price. Also, we’re starting to see a little bit of deflation … I think we’re still going to have inflation, but it is going to level off.”


Kasa: “The war, which is terrible for the world, and the politics going on are only going to make more work for us because we’re military and defense-heavy. Meanwhile, space is another huge one for us, because it’s been years since the U.S. has gone to space. And with all the competition going on for space travel now between Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others … it’s a a market the U.S. hasn’t been involved in for years, and it bodes well for us.”

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle

Tanzania Cannon-Eckerle says many converging forces will bring change to the employment-law scene in 2023.

Cannon-Eckerle: “Now that COVID is a little bit behind us … we have some clarity. I think there was a period of time when employers, employees, people who don’t work, everyone in this world went through a period of time when they just didn’t know what the future would hold. Now, people can start making decisions and moving forward, in whatever direction that might be. Also, green technology. I think that technology is getting a huge boost, even moreso than it had before, and I think we’re going to start making some big strides in green technology, and I’m really excited about that.”


Hatiras: One of the good things for Holyoke, and this is one of the reasons I’m optimistic about our path here, is that we have this new waiver in Massachusetts, a five-year waiver with Medicare, which puts a lot of emphasis on safety-net hospitals. So, despite the many challenges I mentioned — and we’re going to have to meet those challenges — I think we’re going to be in a very good position to continue to provide the services we do now, and even better; it’s a good deal for Massachusetts and safety-net hospitals.”


Dumay: “We had a Christmas party at the college recently, and everyone was shaking hands — no one was fist-pumping, no one was six feet apart. It’s easy to forget where we were a year ago. I’m encouraged when I look at what happened during the past semester, when students were happy to be with one another; this is the generation where students finished their high school on Zoom and already had some difficulty with social skills. This ability to come back together … people are appreciating that.

“Another reason for optimism is that we learned a lot of lessons during COVID. We endured considerable hardships, but we also learned some valuable lessons as well. In higher education, for example, we learned about online learning and providing students with maximum flexibility. This is something we were forced into by COVID, but now, those lessons are settling down and providing both flexibility and efficiency in terms of teaching and learning. From a human-relations perspective, we’ve learned some lessons that are becoming part of our operations, and for the better.”