A Passion for the Job · and the Community
Rick Sullivan Takes the Long View as Westfield’s CEO
When Rick Sullivan first ran for mayor of Westfield in 1993, he never dreamed he would be at the job for six terms — with a seventh set to start in January (he’s running unopposed this November).
“I remember the discussions we had back then,” he said, referring to talks with his wife, Lisa, and other family members. “The plan was to run, and if we were lucky enough to win that race, to look at a second term and then that would be it, because you can’t really change much in two years.”
No, but you can in a dozen, and Sullivan has a lengthy list of accomplished goals to mark his tenure at City Hall, starting with his desire to improve the school system that he and Lisa believed had declined from the days when they shared classes at Westfield High School.
In a wide-ranging Q&A session, Sullivan, now the dean of mayors in the Pioneer Valley and one of the longest-serving chief executives in the state, talks about his passion for the city he grew up in, his accomplishments, and the work still left to do.
In the course of doing so, he weighs in on everything from the qualities that make an effective mayor — “you have to know how to really listen, and not just take up a chair in the room” — to Gov. Mitt Romney’s policies and practices — “he has no respect for the operation of municipal government and what local officials and public servants do in order to provide services that impact people’s lives on a daily basis.
BusinessWest: You said you had no intention of serving for mayor as long as you have. What keeps you in what many people would consider a difficult, often thankless job?
Sullivan: “I could have embarked on some things that were certainly more lucrative financially, but it’s really very satisfying to be in service to a community and look back and say, ‘we made a difference.’ And we is everyone who works here (City Hall) and also my family, who made a lot of sacrifices over the years.
“Let’s just say that I have a passion for the this community, and also for the practice of government.”
BusinessWest: How long do you want to keep doing this?
Sullivan: “We take it two years at a time; that’s how we’ve always approached it. Two years from now we’ll assess where we are professionally and personally.”
BusinessWest: What makes someone an effective chief executive in a city like Westfield, or any community?
Sullivan: “You have to be visible, and you need to be able to listen well. And you must have a lot of patience.
“Being visible is a crucial element. I don’t have things going on every night, but most nights — and many weekends — there’s some event I need to be at, and I try to be at as many as possible. Why? Because it’s important when a church has its annual festival, and it’s important when a classroom of students wants to learn about civics first-hand. Local government is the most personal form of government there is.”
|“I could have embarked on some things that were certainly more lucrative financially, but it’s really very satisfying to be in service to a community and look back and say, ‘we made a difference.’ And we is everyone who works here and also my family, who made a lot of sacrifices over the years.|
BusinessWest: How do you approach the job of being the city’s chief executive? In other words, describe your management style?
Sullivan: “The most important thing is to be honest people; don’t tell them that you can get something done tomorrow when you know you can’t; I’d rather give someone all the information they need, even if it’s something they don’t want to hear.
“One of the first people I talked with after I got elected was Carol Mazza (publisher of the city’s daily newspaper). She said that the hardest thing I was going to face — and I think her exact words were that she was worried about whether I could do it or not — was the fact that I was going to have to say ‘no’ a lot more than I could ‘yes.’
“I think about that a lot, because she was right; even though this is a $100-plus million corporation known as the city of Westfield, and that’s a lot of money, it’s not enough to do everything you want to do or that everyone wants to see done; you have to live with having to say ‘no,’ and understand that it’s part of the job.”
BusinessWest: Let’s shift gears and talk about the challenges facing Westfield and all communities. The state’s budget situation is improving, but cities still seem to be struggling fiscally. What are the primary challenges?
|“I think our basic mission has been to achieve economic diversity, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about funding basic services. No community should be dependent on one big employer or even one industry group.|
Sullivan: “The biggest one, plain and simple, is providing basic services when you’re limited to the regressive property tax. So I think there has to be recognition at the state level that there must be another way to fund these programs, because you can’t keep going back and having the cost of property taxes and other services at the local level become so expensive that people can’t afford to live here
“Take schools for example; the cost of education is always a concern. Everyone wants better MCAS scores, better achievement, and more accountability through the school system in terms of how they are spending each dollar and getting the absolute best product that we can. But you also need to have the ability to pay for those things. That is going to be an ongoing problem for communities now.”
BusinessWest: Do you see the state — and specifically the Romney administration — responding to this situation in the way that you and other mayors would like?
“I don’t think there’s an appreciation for what cities are towns are facing. He (Romney) keeps talking about how he hasn’t raised taxes. In fact, what he’s done is shift all the burden back to the local communities. And in those communities, the biggest share of that has to be picked up by property taxes, and it often falls on the backs of people on fixed income, those who work two jobs, and others who are struggling to make ends meet.
“There’s a real disconnect between his policies and how they’re impacting people in our cities and towns.”
BusinessWest: How is Westfield, and the region as a whole, impacted by the many challenges facing Springfield, the capital, if you will, of Western Mass.?
Sullivan: “We see and feel it a number of ways. For example, we see it with teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other municipal servants who are leaving Springfield and trying to come over here. They see this as a much more stable environment. In some ways, that’s good, because it allows communities like Westfield to hire the best and the brightest. But this will be a real hardship on Springfield, and it will be a long time before that city recovers, because it will also be a long time before people there believe that’s a stable community.
“As for the importance of a healthy Springfield, of course that’s important to the entire region. But I’ve always been a firm believer that, while we need a healthy Springfield, we also need a healthy Holyoke, a healthy Easthampton, and a healthy Westfield; we’re in a regional economy; there are no walls around any of those communities.
BusinessWest: Let’s talk about that regional economy for a minute. Regionalism is the main goal of the Economic Development Corporation. Is this approach working?
Sullivan: “It is. Even before the formation of the EDC, area mayors were getting together on a fairly regular basis; there was Chris Johnson in Agawam, Rich Kos in Chicopee, Mike Albano in Springfield … we were working toward taking a more regional approach then, looking at the bigger picture and not thinking parochially.”
BusinessWest: There were some turf wars in the ’90s, like the competition between Westfield and Northampton for a Coca Cola bottling facility. That was a fight, if you can call it that, which Westfield lost; were there lessons learned from it?
Sullivan: “That episode went a long way toward changing some attitudes; we learned that pitting one community against another like that is not healthy for the region. I can’t tell you that we weren’t disappointed that Coke didn’t come here, because we were. But that whole thing showed us that we shouldn’t be doing things at the expense of Northampton, and vice versa.
“We will always try to be competitive when someone is looking to move into the area, but we can’t let companies leverage one community against another. What I learned from the Coke saga was that I don’t want my competitor to be Holyoke, Chicopee, Northampton, or Springfield; when Mike Sullivan in Holyoke has a chance to bring in a new business, that’s good for us and for the whole region — we need a healthy Holyoke.”
BusinessWest: Can you describe your administration’s main economic development strategy for Westfield?
Sullivan: “I think our basic mission has been to achieve economic diversity, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about funding basic services. No community should be dependent on one big employer or even one industry group. Who would have thought that GE would leave Pittsfield or that Digital would be gone from Westfield? And recently, we’ve seen many large businesses leave the Palmer area and move south. If you’re relying on one employer or one sector, your local economy is put in jeopardy.
“So we’ve spent a lot of time and energy here working on achieving that diversity. We still have a backbone of strong manufacturers — our tool and die base is the unnoticed foundation of that sector, but we have other kinds of manufacturers as well — and we have a commercial base and a retail sector we’re trying to expand. You need to watch that mix all the time.
“If you look at Westfield’s 10 biggest taxpayers and employers, they’re all either new in the past 10 years or have done some significant expansion in that time. And when you have discussions with rating agencies on Wall Street in terms of what your bond rating is, these are the things they look at; they look to see if you’re economy is diversified and they ask how your 10 or 20 largest employers are doing. And there is a direct correlation between those things and the rating you receive.
BusinessWest: Downtown remains perhaps the one area that has escaped the progress seen across the rest of the city. What does the future hold for that area?
Sullivan: “I’ve said for years that the only thing that doesn’t reflect our economic healthiness is downtown, but I firmly believe that will change in the years ahead. We’ve already seeen some significant improvement with several new restaurants and clubs, and there will be more.
“We have a $50 million public works project set to start (a second bridge over the Westfield River in the downtown area) and a $20 million hotel project that’s moving forward; these developments will produce some dramatic changes in our downtown.”
BusinessWest: Beyond the many aspects of downtown revitalization, are there are any other major goals for the future?
Sullivan: “Only to simply continue what we’ve been doing — listening to people
and trying to make this a better community.
“I remember what my dad said after we won that first election for mayor and came to
see the office for the first time; he said, ‘don’t forget where you came from.’ I wasn’t born here, but in my mind, I came from Westfield, and I have never forgotten that.” ?
George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]