And Now, A Little Optimism

As 2005 winds to a close, economic analysts are focusing their attention on the year ahead and what it might bring. For the most part, the forecasters aren’t very hopeful.

Indeed, they look at the recent surge in energy prices, the prospects for higher interest rates, and continued losses of population and innovative talent in the Bay State, and generally conclude that ’06 will be a time of slow and unspectacular growth.

That’s one way of looking at things. From a regional perspective, and without discounting what the scholarly analysts have to say, BusinessWest looks more positively toward the year ahead. In some ways, we have to; considering what the past few years have brought Springfield and the surrounding region, things can only get better.

But with a less cynical eye, we can say that the City of Homes, and, to a lesser extent, the entire region, are turning a page. If nothing else, many people feel comfortable saying that the worst is now behind us.

Granted, there is a long way to go, and if Judge Constance Sweeney’s ruling that the Albano administration improperly froze teachers’ wages is upheld, then the city will be faced with an even deeper budget crisis. But there are some signs of progress:

• The MassMutual Center is open for business:Granted, we have yet to see any of the big conventions and shows we’ve been promised, but the center is big, bold, and it has people talking. Better still, it is providing people with new and different reasons to come downtown – from chamber trade shows to the Bright Nights Ball – and this can only help Springfield in the long run.

• Some Movement on the Riverfront:After years of talk, we have a formal, approved plan for development of the old Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s a $9 million sports and fitness complex that the developers and the Springfield Riverfront Development Commission (SRDC) believe will effectively complement the new Hall, its tenants, and neighbors. If they’re right (work is expected to be completed in 12-15 months) then the city will gain some valuable momentum in its efforts to make the riverfront a true destination spot. That’s good, because another development team is looking at a hotel proposal for Riverfront Park, several options for the York Street Jail, and some other parcels along West Columbus Avenue.

• Progress on the Smith& Wesson Property:This is another project that has been years in the making, and the fact that the city is close (or at least much closer) to landing tenants for the property, is a positive sign. Springfield needs many things, but at the top of the list are tax revenues and jobs. The property at Smith & Wesson holds promise for both.

• Strength in the Suburbs:As we’ve noted many times before, other cities and towns in the region are thriving.

Northampton is enjoying explosive growth, and more lies ahead due in part to the longawaited redevelopment of the former Northampton State Hospital site. Westfield is on the verge of adding hundreds of new jobs in the distribution sector, and has an industrial park primed for development. In Chicopee, a city rocked by the indictment of its sitting mayor on extortion charges seems poised to put that sad episode behind and move forward.

•Eds and Meds:Two pillars of the region’s economy – education and health care – are positioned for continued growth. As the Baby Boom generation nears retirement, the already steady health care sector will continue to add jobs across a wide spectrum. Meanwhile, the area’s colleges and universities are continuously adding new programs and services to bolster the economy. From the Virtual Hospital at STCC to the soon-to-open Kittredge Business Center at Holyoke Community College, the schools are developing new ways to spur entrepreneurship and train people for the jobs of tomorrow.

This optimism must be tempered somewhat by the recent ruling on the Springfield teachers contract, which might ultimately wind up costing the city $30 million, undoing all of the budget progress made by the Control Board. Meanwhile, the ongoing epidemic of crime in Springfield must be curbed if the city is to move forward.

If Springfield can manage to somehow navigate that whitewater – and that is a big ‘if,’ then there is reason to believe that 2006 holds the promise of better times.