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Opinion

Editorial

 

Back in 2015, those of us at BusinessWest decided it was time to build on what was already a pretty good thing — our annual 40 Under Forty compilation of rising stars in this region.

That decision was to add another layer of recognition, and another layer of intrigue, to the equation by creating a new award, one that would acknowledge a previous 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to build on the accomplishments that earned them membership in one of the region’s more prestigious clubs.

Originally, we called this the Continued Excellence Award, which works, but doesn’t tell the whole story. So in 2019, we changed it to the Alumni Achievement Award, which does a better job of explaining what this is about.

It’s about achievement — in one’s profession and with work in the community to address the many issues and challenges facing those who call this region home. And sometimes, one’s profession is addressing those aforementioned challenges.

Such is the case this year, with at least two of the five finalists for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award, but we’ll get to them in a minute. First, more about the award and what it’s about.

It’s about calling attention to people who are setting the standard when it comes to making a difference and serving as role models for other young people in this region — individuals who continue to find ways to impact quality of life for the better.

There can be only one (or two) winners of this award annually, but we call attention to all the finalists — and really all those nominated for this award — because of the way these stories can, and should, inspire everyone to keep reaching higher and find new ways to give back.

The five finalists this year (see profiles HERE) are:

• Tara Brewster, the “recovering entrepreneur” (former co-owner of the clothing store & Connor) who is now the vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank and extremely active within the community, with groups ranging from the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce to the YMCA to the Downtown Northampton Assoc. And she’s recently added another line to her résumé — radio personality, as the new host of the Western Mass. Business Show on WHMP;

• Gregg Desmarais, another banking executive — he’s vice president and senior private client relationship manager for TD Private Client Group, a business of TD Wealth — who has made it his business to get involved in the community. Much of that involvement is with Revitalize Community Development Corp., which he has served as chair and helped bring to new levels of success with revitalizing area neighborhoods;

• Anthony Gulluni, district attorney for Hampen County, who has introduced a number of new programs since first being elected to office in 2015, initiatives that include everything from a cold-case unit to an addiction task force; from a campus-safety symposium to a human-trafficking task force; from a youth-advisory board to one of the nation’s first courts focused specifically on high-risk young adults;

• Eric Lesser, the state senator representing the communities that comprise the First Hampden and Hampshire District. Since first being elected in 2014, Lesser has worked tirelessly within the broad realm of economic development, but especially toward the goal of leveling the playing field between east and west in Massachusetts and bringing new opportunities to those who live, work, and own businesses in the 413; and

• Meghan Rothschild, president and owner of Chikmedia, who has steadily built on a résumé of success of business and giving back to the community. In addition to growing her company, she has become an advisor and mentor to many women in business while also donating time and her considerable talents to a number of area nonprofits, volunteering for everything from help with social-media marketing to emceeing an event.

The winner of the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced at the 40 Under Forty Gala on Sept. 23 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House. But in our view, all five of this year’s finalists are truly winners. They exemplify all that this award is about, and, more importantly, they set the standard when it comes to being a leader in this region.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s only July, just a few months after the governor essentially reopened the state and things started returning to normal. We have a long way to go before we can even begin to know the full impact of the pandemic on the local business community and individual communities.

But to many, it’s already apparent that new and intriguing uses will have to be found for spaces in the office towers and some of the other buildings in downtown Springfield. It seems clear that many of those already in those office towers will be downsizing or moving out when their leases expire. Meanwhile, there are few if any signs that retail can stage any kind of meaningful comeback, as the current vacancies along Main Street clearly show.

These indicators make it clear that creativity, with a generous amount of patience as well, will be needed when it comes to bringing new life to the properties downtown. Old answers and traditional ways of thinking won’t work. People should be thinking not about what these properties were designed to be — office spaces, for the most part — but what they can be.

If the pandemic has done anything, it has probably only accelerated a process that has been in place for years now. Indeed, downtown vacancy rates have been consistently, and somewhat disturbingly, high, with new inventory, at locations like 1550 Main Street and Union Station, only adding to the challenges facing those owning and managing property in and around Main Street.

There has been some movement in recent years when it comes to office-space absorption — Wellfleet Group moving into several floors in Tower Square, the Community Foundation moving out of Tower Square and onto street-level offices on Bridge Street, and the Dietz architecture firm moving into Union Station — but much of it is the kind of ‘musical chairs’ action that has defined the commercial real-estate scene for years now.

Looking forward, there is certainly potential for downtown to become more of a destination when it comes to office space, especially with regard to the manner in which the pandemic has shown business owners that they don’t necessarily have to be in downtown Boston or New York, paying sky-high lease rates, to conduct business. They can work from anywhere — including Springfield.

Unfortunately, every city in the country is sending out that same message, including communities with larger, deeper workforces, better climate, and more vibrant central business districts.

There are steps being taken to try to convince elected leaders to move some state offices to Springfield, again in recognition that they don’t need to be in Boston or even the Boston area. There is some optimism regarding these efforts, and the argument makes a great deal of sense, but we wonder if there can be any meaningful movement when it comes to agencies that have been headquartered in the eastern part of the state forever — and when it might come.

Beyond these initiatives, it’s clear that some real creativity in the form of imaginative new uses will needed. We’ve seen some already downtown with the YMCA of Greater Springfield, two colleges, and now White Lion Brewing moving into Tower Square, but we’ll need more.

That’s because traditional office-space users — law firms, accounting firms, insurance agencies, financial-services firms, and even nonprofits — will almost certainly need less of that space in the years to come. It’s time to look at a host of options, including residential, hospitality, healthcare, education, and others. Perhaps a live/work type of facility, such as the type being proposed for 1350 Main Street, can be one of the answers.

We’re not sure what the future will look like, but we’re reasonably sure it won’t look like what we have now. So something else will be needed. Something creative.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, another battle — yes, we can call it that — is emerging on just how the state should spend more than $5 billion in federal stimulus money coming it’s way.

Actually, there are different fronts to this conflict, the first being a large disagreement over who should control this windfall, with both Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature believing that they know, better than the other, how this money should be allocated.

We’re not sure either is fully qualified, but that’s another matter.

Let’s get back to the money — $5.3 billion of it, to be exact. This is the state’s share of the proceeds from the American Rescue Plan (ARP). It is, indeed, a windfall, a rare opportunity to take money with no real strings attached to it and put it to some good.

So, naturally, there has to be disagreement over who should control the money and how it should be spent — should we really expect anything else? We hope these differences of opinion can be worked out quickly (probably not, but we can hope), and that the state can commence allocating this money in ways that will create opportunity and address long-standing problems. It appears likely that the proceeds will be divided in some way, with the governor controlling a large portion and the Legislature deciding how to spend what’s left.

Already, the governor has indicated several priorities, including everything from the housing crisis to battling opioid addiction; from infrastructure work to funding the state’s announced vaccine lottery sweepstakes.

While these are worthy causes, to be sure (although we certainly believe there are better ways to spend $6.5 million than a lottery), money needs to be set aside to help the businesses of this state, many of which are still battling to fully recover from the pandemic. While many business sectors are starting to rebound, especially the hospitality industry after a brutal 15 months of stagnancy and then several levels of reopening, many individual businesses are struggling to get all the way back.

One big obstacle is workforce. Companies across all sectors are struggling to find good help, and an infusion of funds into training programs would certainly help address the ongoing labor shortages. As economic-development leaders have said for years, the problem isn’t necessarily with the numbers of people in the workforce, but the skills they possess.

Meanwhile, we share the business community’s disappointment that the governor remains opposed to allocating some of the money from the American Rescue Plan to pay for the huge deficit in the state’s unemployment insurance fund caused by the deep and very sudden job losses during the pandemic; more than 30 states have already committed to using some ARP funds for this purpose.

Baker has instead signed legislation that spreads the hike in the so-called solvency assessment over 20 years and covers $7 billion in unemployment payments tied to pandemic-related job losses.

We don’t believe that simply spreading the payments over 20 years is a real solution to this problem. The pain remains — it’s just dispersed over two decades instead of all at once. While the payments will be smaller, they will still be a burden to businesses that are, as we noted, still struggling to fully recover from the pandemic and don’t need to pay for a problem that was not of their doing.

When it comes to the ARP windfall, the phrase ‘good problem to have’ certainly comes to mind. Indeed, deciding how to allocate $5.3 billion is a test for which there are few truly wrong answers.

But it is incumbent on the governor and the Legislature to come up with the best answers, and some of these involve a business community that is far from out of the woods when it comes to this pandemic and the many challenges that remain.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Going back to the start of the pandemic, we expressed concern for the survival of not only the businesses in Springfield and across the region, but also the institutions that contribute to the quality of life we all enjoy here.

That’s a broad category that includes a number of museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Thunderbirds and other sports teams, and arts venues ranging from Jacob’s Pillow to Tanglewood to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. All of them are part of the fabric of this community.

Among all those, perhaps the one we feared for the most was the symphony, which has seen several changes in leadership over the past decade and has seemingly struggled to attract younger and broader audiences. If there was an institution that couldn’t afford to be on the sidelines, out of sight, and in many cases out of mind, it was the SSO.

“Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.”

These fears gained some legitimacy last week when musicians who play for the orchestra issued a press release that doubled as both warning and call to action. These musicians, some of whom have been playing for the SSO for decades, raised questions about how committed the SSO’s board is to everything from giving long-time maestro Kevin Rhodes a new contract to a 2021-22 season for the SSO. They asked for “an encore, not a curtain call.”

The SSO’s interim executive director, John Anz, responded by saying many of these issues are intertwined, and the orchestra cannot proceed with a new contract for Rhodes or a 2021-22 season until negotiations with the musicians’ union are resolved.

Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.

We sincerely hope the SSO is able to rebound from what is certainly the greatest challenge of its existence. Springfield needs these institutions to become the destination that we all hope that it can be.

Indeed, many things go into making a community livable — jobs, neighborhoods, schools, a thriving downtown, and, yes, culture. Springfield has already lost CityStage; it simply cannot afford to lose another thread of its fabric.

This is especially true as the state and the nation emerge from this pandemic. We’ve heard the talk that large urban areas are now less attractive to some segments of the population, who are now looking more longingly toward open spaces and less crowded areas. And we’ve seen dramatic evidence of this in our own real-estate market.

Springfield is to emerge as a player in this new environment, a true destination, then it will need institutions like the SSO to create that quality of life that both the young and old are seeking out as they search for places to call home.

The SSO has certainly been rocked by this pandemic. Emerging from it will be a stern test. We certainly hope it can move forward and be part of Springfield and this region for decades to come.

Opinion

Editorial

The light at the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for is essentially here.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he was eliminating virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend, puts Massachusetts in the final stage of the reopening plan he announced almost exactly a year ago, which he dubbed the ‘new normal.’

But while this announcement is certainly cause for celebration and optimism, the local business community is, in many ways, still in the tunnel. COVID is not to be referred to in the past tense yet, and there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including some new ones.

Indeed, as the story on page 10 reveals, the governor’s announcement brings some anxiety to go along with the joy and relief that most business owners are certainly feeling. That anxiety comes in many forms, from finding adequate supplies of good help (a challenge confronting those in virtually every sector of the economy) to tackling the daunting task of bringing employees back to the office, to dealing with loosened restrictions on masks, which are causing confusion and considerable doubt when it comes to the ‘honor system.’

In many ways, as welcome as the governor’s announcement was and is, it’s a fact that many businesses are simply not ready to turn back the clock to the fall of 2019, when the world had never heard that word COVID.

What makes things even more complicated is that no one knows just how ready the consuming public is to turn back the clock and pick up where things left off 15 months ago. It’s safe to say it might take a little time for both constituencies to feel comfortable within the realm of the new normal.

Here’s what we do know: this region’s business community has shown remarkable resilience since the pandemic arrived in this region. We’re all tired of hearing and uttering that word ‘pivot,’ but that’s exactly what business owners and managers did, whether they’re in hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or any other sector.

The new normal means pivoting again. In some cases, it will actually mean simply returning to how things were in late 2019, and that can be challenging enough given the abundance of ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring: $250 sign-on bonus’ signs we’re seeing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as the skyrocketing price increases involving everything from food products to lumber to gasoline (see story on page 6).

For most businesses, though, things won’t ever be just as they were before COVID. They’ve learned new and, in many instances, better ways of doing things — out of necessity. Meanwhile, many employees will continue to work remotely, changing, perhaps forever, the dynamic of the modern office.

As we said, the region’s business community will have to pivot once again. Based on how well it did the past 14 months, we believe it will adjust quite well to the new normal. We’re not out of the tunnel yet, but the light is very, very close.

Opinion

Opinion

 

Going back a full year now, when Gov. Charlie Baker first started reopening this state in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has taken a slow (some would say too slow) and cautious (many would say overly cautious) approach to the process.

And this pattern continues with his recent announcement that restrictions on many types of gatherings and businesses will be eased later this month, and that they will be lifted completely on Aug. 1.

From a glass-half-full perspective, this is the news all those in the business community have been waiting for — movement back to something approaching normal when it comes to where people can go and what they can do. In the class-half-empty category, ‘normal’ is coming to other states much sooner.

Indeed, many states (Florida and Texas have led the way) have been fully open for some time now. And in the Northeast, states like New Hampshire have lifted most, if not all, restrictions and are fully open for business. Even New York, which has been as slow and cautious as Massachusetts, will fully reopen for business on July 1.

While, in many respects, cautious is good, we hope the governor will look at the data and the trends when it cases to cases, hospitalizations, and vaccinations, and move up his timetable for fully reopening Massachusetts. For many businesses, especially those in the tourism and hospitality sector, summer is their time to shine. Losing another full month or more when other neighboring states are wide open is just one more heavy burden to bear.

Meanwhile, for restaurants, yes, the announced easing of restrictions will help, but they are still handicapped by the rules in place at a time when many are still struggling to keep the doors open.

But … getting back to the glass being half-full, businesses in Western Mass. can now clearly see a light at the end of the tunnel. They can see ‘normal’ — and not with a telescope. It’s right around the corner.

We can see a normal Big E coming in September. We can see tourists flocking back here for foliage season. We can see businesses in the area’s many college towns — the hotels, restaurants, and bars — turning back the clock to 2019. We can see the Thunderbirds playing to a packed house at the MassMutual Center. We can see the Bright Nights Ball and a host of other events in MGM’s ballrooms.

It’s a nice picture, and it won’t come together as easily as we might like. We have to hope people find the confidence to go back out and do all the things they did before COVID altered the landscape; recent evidence suggests they will. And businesses have to hope they can find the hired help — and everything else they need, from chicken to lumber to steel — to accommodate the surge in business they hope is coming their way, or is already here.

Aug. 1 is still more than two and a half months away. That’s an eternity for struggling businesses. We’re hoping that ‘normal’ might come sooner — and the governor says he might adjust his timetable if there is enough science to warrant it) — but at least we can now see it on the horizon.

Opinion

Editorial

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in the spring of 2007, there were many goals attached to that initiative.

First and foremost, we wanted to introduce 40 rising stars to the business community here in Western Mass. Second, we wanted to tell some really inspiring stories about people doing incredible things — both at their jobs and in their community. Also — and this was not an official goal, to be sure — we wanted to assure the sometimes cynical members of the older generations that there were strong leaders in place for this region for the years and decades to come.

As we introduce the class of 2021, all these goals come to the forefront. This is a tremendous class of young leaders, one that speaks volumes about our region. Indeed, Western Mass. is diverse, and its business community is also diverse, with a strong mix of ventures across all sectors, from technology to healthcare; hospitality to agriculture. Its up-and-coming leaders have chosen a number of different paths; some are entrepreneurs, others lead nonprofits, still others are professionals in fields ranging from law to accounting; marketing to financial services. Some are professionals who are also entrepreneurs.

The class of 2021 reflects all this. It reflects something else, as well — the willingness of these young leaders to step forward, serve their community, and address the many issues confronting our region, including homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, access to healthcare, and more.

The 40 remarkable stories starting on page 25 illuminate all this. They tell of young people excelling in their chosen field, and people who are making it their business to give back.

People like Dr. Jessica Bossie, the highest scorer among the nearly 200 nominees, who serves as the primary-care doctor for a program called Health Services for the Homeless and brings medical care and large doses of compassion to that population.

Or Claudia Quintero, who turned her passion for social justice — and her gratitude for U.S. citizenship — into a legal career advocating for the rights and well-being of migrant farmworkers.

Or Crystal Maldonado, who never gave up on her dream of writing a book, and, in doing so, shared her own life and perspective with teenage readers who don’t often see themselves reflected in mainstream media.

Or Matthew Kushi, an administrator at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst who also grows hot peppers and chairs Hadley’s Agriculture Commission.

Or Julissa Colón, who struggled to finish college after having her first child and now helps others achieve their dreams through Holyoke Community College’s Gateway to College program.

Or Brendon Holland, who brought a cutting-edge skillset to regional public-access television and helped keep a city and its residents connected during the critical months of the pandemic.

Or Chris Thibault, the first-ever posthumous winner of this award, who will be remembered for using his camera to help others tell their stories, but especially for how he shared his own — a courageous battle with cancer.

There are nearly three dozen more stories of this nature involving the class of 2021, a class that showcases all that is good about this region — and all that is good about the young leaders now making their mark.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Let’s start by saying there is no debating that most of the economic-stimulus programs created by local, state, and federal governments have been extremely effective in helping businesses of all sizes and moving the economy forward at a time of extreme — as in extreme — duress.

Indeed, programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan initiative have provided an absolutely vital lifeline, without which many small businesses in this region and across the country would simply not be here. Other programs have benefited healthcare providers, specific sectors of the economy, and municipalities.

That said, some stimulus has actually backfired on business and the economy, and that’s especially true when it comes to federal unemployment benefits — checks that were designed to help those who lost their jobs to the pandemic, but have had serious unintended consequences in the form of people who are simply staying out of the job market because they can make more money by not working and are making the no-brainer decision to do so.

This is not a news flash; it has been going on for roughly a year now. What is a news flash — sort of — is the extent to which these unemployment benefits are stifling the economy just as the ingredients are there for it to start really taking off again.

Indeed, as the story on page 6 relates in great detail, businesses across a number of sectors are struggling mightily to find the help they need. And for some, the inability to find this help could threaten their ability to expand and take on work that could come their way.

Stories abound about pool-installation companies already booked solid for this season and simply unable to take on any more projects, even though they are there for the taking; home-improvement companies having to turn down lucrative projects because they just don’t have the workers; and restaurant owners looking ahead to better times with a mix of anticipation and dread, with the latter involving great uncertainty about whether they will have enough bodies to handle the surge in volume they hope — and believe — is coming.

Not all of this is the result of the unemployment payments contained in the federal stimulus package. Indeed, many employers were struggling to find adequate supplies of help before anyone had to think about hanging a mask from the rear-view mirror of their car. But these benefits have made the situation exponentially worse.

And it’s not just the benefits, especially the additional $300 per week contained in the stimulus package, that are causing the problem; it’s the inability, or the unwillingness, of state unemployment divisions to enforce the simple rules that pertain to unemployment benefits.

Unemployment was designed to help those who have lost their job and cannot secure another one. Those who receive these benefits are expected to maintain a vigilant pursuit of new employment opportunities, and accept one when a proper fit is found.

These days, that is simply not happening. People are staying on unemployment because, well … why wouldn’t they? Especially when they could earn as much, if not more, by not working.

Many employers are already counting down the days until September, when these benefits expire, thinking matters might then return to normal. This is wishful thinking — this Congress may well extend the benefits again, given the way things are going — and not where their energies should be placed.

Instead, business leaders should be lobbying those in power — both in Washington and Boston — to do something about this problem now, before things get worse and before the recovery from COVID becomes further stalled.

As we said at the top, most of the federal, state, and local stimulus has done what is was designed to do — help people hurt by COVID weather the storm. The unemployment benefits were designed to do the same, but the unintended consequences have now greatly overshadowed the good that’s been done.

This is a case of stimulus gone awry, and something has to be done.

Opinion

Cannabis Business Is Riding High

Back in November — only two years after adult-use marijuana became legal in the Commonwealth — the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission reported sales had surpassed $1 billion, and the state had collected some $200 million in taxes from the adult-use windfall. At the time, employment in the adult-use cannabis field in Massachusetts was approaching 6,000. It’s likely significantly higher now.

The COVID-19 impact? Not much, really. Except during those weeks from March through early May 2020, when most businesses of all kinds were closed to the public, dispensaries have reported steady revenues right through the pandemic. While the supply-chain issues and other economic impacts that followed in the wake of COVID did slow the pace of progress at some projects in various stages of development, customers are still lining up to get into the shops currently open.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides — and public-health emergencies, it turns out — than others, and cannabis has proven, so far, to be one of them.

One lingering question, however, is how the rapid proliferation of dispensaries and other cannabis businesses will impact sales at each individual shop — in other words, will supply begin to outstrip demand and make this a riskier or less desirable industry to enter than it was a year ago?

To hear the business owners themselves tell it, the answer is no. Take Northampton, for example. Both Noho-based business owners we spoke with for this issue’s cannabis focus say that city has become such a destination for cannabis that each new enterprise just adds a little more texture to a robust ecosystem — and draws in even more customers from outside.

After all, if a city is known for its restaurants, no one ever says there are too many, or that it’s a bad idea to open another.

The heightened competition has, of course, forced new business owners to think critically about how to best stand out from the crowd, and the stories starting on page 29 are good examples of how they’re doing exactly that.

Cannabis has been a boon for the state’s coffers, no doubt about it. But it continues to be a strong driver of employment as well, one with a still-undefined ceiling. And it’s begun to add real vibrancy to the economy and lifestyle of communities that have been welcoming hosts.

In short, this is still fertile soil. After a year of economic news that hasn’t always been bright, that’s something to celebrate.

Opinion

Editorial

Every sector of the economy, and every business, large or small, has been impacted by this global pandemic. But this region’s large and important hospitality and tourism sector has easily been the hardest-hit.

The hotels, restaurants, tourists attractions, event venues, and cultural institutions have been pummeled by this crisis. Some have not survived; those that have are battered and bruised, and that goes for small mom-and-pop operations, the $1 billion MGM Springfield resort casino, and everything in between.

As the calendar turns to April, though, there can finally be sentiment that the very worst is behind this sector and that better times are to come — though myriad challenges remain.

First, the good news. As various stories in this issue reveal, there are positive signs and ample amounts of optimism about what’s in store for this sector. Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and other renowned cultural institutions have announced that, after canceling everything (or staging only virtual performances) in 2020, they will have schedules of live offerings this year — although they will be different.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of talk of pent-up demand, and new terms working their way into the lexicon like ‘revenge spending’ and ‘vacation retaliation.’ All this points to a summer — and a year — when people who spent their time off in 2020 (if they had any) on the back deck, might instead be spending some money taking in all that Western Mass. has to offer.

This good news is tempered by the hard reality that we just don’t know what this year portends when it comes to people getting back in the water — literally and figuratively. There is pent-up demand, yes, and many people certainly have money to spend. But when the time comes, will people be willing to gather in large numbers? Will there be a Big E, and if so, how many people will attend? Will people return to the casino? And when can MGM again stage the live events that bring so many people to downtown Springfield? Can the Basketball Hall of Fame bounce back from a dismal year? Will people have an appetite for crowded (or more crowded) restaurants? When will conventions return?

These are just some of the questions that will determine the short-term fate of the region’s tourism and hospitality industry. For the long term, we know the health and well-being of this sometimes-overlooked sector is absolutely critical to the economy of this region, and to its quality of life.

Thankfully, there are many signs that it’s ready to officially roar back to life.

Opinion

Editorial

When everyone gathered on Main Street that hot August day back in 2018 to mark the opening of MGM Springfield, no one really knew what to expect or what the future would bring.

Certainly, no one could have predicted what the scene would be like two and half years later.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic took a resort casino that was ‘ramping up’ — that’s the phrase we kept hearing over and again from past and present leaders — and knocked it completely off the ramp. The casino was shuttered for several months, and when it reopened, it was only at a fraction of its full capacity. Until very recently, the hotel and most of the restaurants were closed, and the event venues were quiet and dark.

These days, the capacity is not quite half and destined to keep inching higher. The hotel is open on weekends, and the sports bar has reopened its doors as well. But huge question marks surround just when and under what circumstances the casino complex will again be able to host concerts, shows, and other large-scale gatherings.

In some ways, we’re all back where we were almost 32 months ago … wondering what will happen and just what the casino will mean for Springfield and this entire region. That’s where we are as MGM Springfield tries to get the ramping-up process back to something approaching the plane it was on before the world stopped almost exactly a year ago.

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again … this region needs MGM to make a solid comeback from all that COVID has tossed at it. It needs to come, well, roaring back and play an important role in restarting, if that’s the right word, the renaissance that Springfield was enjoying before the pandemic made Main Street a quiet, almost depressing, place to be.

And a lot will have to go right for such a comeback to happen. First, people will have to regain the confidence needed to gather in large numbers. In other parts of the country, and especially Las Vegas, where the casino business is coming back to life, the signs are quite positive. ‘Pent-up demand’ is the phrase we’re hearing a lot these days, and the hope — the expectation — is that there will be large quantities of it.

But Springfield’s casinos — and all the state’s casinos — could use some help as they proceed back up the ramp. And the state Legislature could deliver some in the form of sports betting.

Lawmakers have been dragging their feet on this issue for years now, and we cannot understand why. Sports betting, if done right, would provide another, potentially huge revenue stream for the state’s casinos at a time when they really need it.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island now have sports betting, and Connecticut is poised to join the fray. Much-needed tax dollars are going to other states or the illegal-betting arena, and Massachusetts simply cannot afford to keep sitting on the sidelines. To borrow still another sports phrase, it needs to get in the game, and soon.

Reflecting once more on that day in August 2018, the expectation among many was that MGM Springfield would not solve all the region’s ills and would not magically transform the region overnight. Instead, it would be a player — a large and important player — and an economic engine.

The pandemic has certainly altered the timeline, but hopefully it hasn’t changed those expectations, or the probability they can be realized.

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

As we mark the one-year anniversary of the state of emergency in Massachusetts, we continue to take steps on our path forward.

Last week, legislators reached agreement on a COVID-19 package to support our business community as it begins to recover from the pandemic. The package would include two items that the Springfield Regional Chamber has been aggressively advocating for: unemployment-insurance rate relief and tax relief from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan proceeds.

The agreement calls for a freeze in the unemployment insurance (UI) rate at the current Schedule E rate for 2021 and 2022, limiting the increases employers will see. Without passage, employers could see the unemployment insurance rates increase from an average of $539 to $866 per employee. This legislation would hold the average UI rates to $635 per employee in 2021 and $665 per employee in 2022.

The agreement would also exclude PPP loan amounts forgiven in 2020 from taxable gross income for those small businesses that are organized as pass-through entities. While Congress excluded these loans from federal taxation, without legislative action, these loans would have been taxed as income at the state level.

The agreement would also guarantee paid leave to employees who are sick with COVID-19, required to quarantine, or need to take time off to get the vaccine. As well, it will allow for state borrowing, through a temporary employer assessment, to ensure the solvency of the UI trust fund, which is projected to have a $5 billion deficit by the end of 2022, triggering higher increases in unemployment-insurance rates to remain solvent.

We applaud the Legislature for recognizing the long-term economic impact this pandemic has had on our employer community and to take these steps to support its recovery.

The federal government also recently took action, with the Senate approving a $1.9 trillion federal stimulus package. One item your chamber supports in this package is the state and local aid to help our region’s cities and towns as they deal with their own economic hardships resulting from the pandemic. As specific details around this aid remain to be seen, we will continue to watch this closely, as we believe this funding is critical to the fiscal health and stability of our communities.

The CDC has also issued much anticipated guidance for individuals who are fully vaccinated. As of last week, more than 715,000 people in Massachusetts have been fully vaccinated, ranking Massachusetts first among states with 5 million people or more for total COVID-19 vaccine doses administered. Massachusetts is currently in phase 2 of its vaccination plan, with teachers becoming eligible last week.

We have been through the wringer, and we know we have a ways to go, but these are all significant steps on our road to recovery and, we hope, the first of many more to come.

Stay safe and stay well. We can — and will — get through this together.

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Opinion

Editorial

In some ways, it seems like it just yesterday. In other ways, it seems like years ago.

That’s what the last 12 months of COVID-19 — 12 months unlike anything any of us have experienced before — have been like. They’ve gone by fast, but it’s been a long, as in long, year.

As with the Kennedy assassination (for those of us old enough) and with the morning of 9/11 for those who are younger, everyone remembers where they were and what was happening when the governor put his stay-at-home order in effect. For many, it meant packing up (if they hadn’t already packed up) and leaving the office for what we all thought might be a few weeks, or a few months at most.

We soon learned that those projections were way off base and that we would be living with the pandemic and all the hardships that came with it for a long time.

In the months that followed, we would learn much more, as our roundtable discussion with six area business leaders (see story on page 6) reveals. We learned that we didn’t have to be in the office, necessarily, to get our jobs done. We learned new ways of doing things. We learned to embrace technology — well, because we didn’t have a choice. And we all wondered why we didn’t embrace it earlier.

We learned some other things, as well. We learned that life is hard, and not just during a pandemic. But COVID, by exacerbating things, made it clear that work/life balance isn’t just a buzz phrase; it is a serious, serious challenge and something that employers now understand better than they ever did before.

As our panelists indicated, we all learned to listen a little more than we used to, and we learned how to more empathic to the needs and challenges of employees. Many of us learned how to be better managers because, in short, that’s what had to happen. We learned that making sales quotas, hitting deadlines, and reaching quarterly goals are not the only things that keep people up at night.

We also learned how to pivot — again, because we had to — and look for new ways to carry out our missions, make payroll each week, keep people employed, and keep the doors open.

In short, we’ve learned a lot — about pandemics, business, life, and ourselves. This is not a silver lining to this horrible crisis — there are none of those. It’s simply reality.

What’s also reality is that the hard decisions and the myriad challenges are not over — not by a long shot. Now, we have to determine how we’re going to execute all these things we’ve learned when life and work go back to normal, or something approaching it.

We have to decide how our businesses will function when it’s safe for everyone to come back to the office or the classroom or the restaurant. We’ve learned that people can work from home, but is that the best place to work — for the company and the employee? And there are other questions, including those related to how we can continue to listen, understand, and be empathic when we’re no longer in crisis mode.

These are just some of the things we need to think about as we mark a dubious milestone — a year of coping with a global pandemic.

It’s been a year to learn, reflect, adapt, and change. And we’re far from being done with any of those things.

Opinion

Opinion

Make no mistake about it, when it comes to the tragic COVID-related deaths at the Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke almost a year ago, there are no silver linings. There is nothing that can fill the void left by lost loved ones, and nothing that can relieve the anguish visited upon staff members who had to endure that catastrophic sequence of events that led to the deaths of at least 76 veterans.

But sometimes, such tragedies eventually lead to progress, to improvements, to new and better ways of doing things. And it appears that this may well be the case with the Soldiers’ Home.

Indeed, out of the ashes of the calamity of last spring have emerged plans for a new, eight-story Holyoke Soldiers’ Home that will replace the 70-year-old facility that is, in many ways, inadequate and obsolete. Last week, the Baker-Polito administration filed a $400 million bond bill to move forward with the construction of the new home, the next big step in the process of making a new facility reality.

While the need for a new Soldiers’ Home has long been understood and embraced, there is no doubt that the events of last spring — when the virus overran the facility amid a series of questionable decisions that ultimately led to resignations and, later, indictments for criminal neglect — have helped pave the way for a proper, modern, 235-bed facility that will serve veterans for generations to come.

This project still has a long way to go before it becomes reality. There are stern deadlines to meet and more important votes to take place in the state Legislature. But there certainly appears to be sufficient momentum to see this initiative to the finish line. It has been generated by caring people who want to do right by future generations of veterans — but also, we believe, by a deep desire to “make things right” for the families of those who died last spring and the for the staff members who have long endured inadequate facilities, said the chairman of a coalition of former Soldiers’ Home administrators, families, and veterans advocates who have embraced plans for a new home.

Truthfully, nothing will really make things right. But this is huge step in the right direction.

Opinion

They’re All Making a Difference

Since BusinessWest started its Difference Makers recognition program in 2009, we’ve told dozens of stories involving individuals, groups, and institutions that are positively impacting life in the 413.
Each one is different, although there are some common threads, and each one is inspiring. And this is the point of this exercise, if you will — to tell these amazing stories, because they need to be told, and to inspire others to find their own way to make a difference in their community.
The Difference Makers class of 2021 certainly continues this tradition. The stories beginning on page 22 convey, in a single word, the passion that these individuals and groups have for helping those in their communities and improving quality of life here. And they all go about it in a different way:

• Kristin Carlson, by becoming the face, or the new face, of manufacturing in this region. And a new voice as well, one that works overtime (that’s an industry phrase) to educate people, and especially young people, about the many opportunities in this field. Her efforts are already reaping dividends, as evidenced by her own shop floor, which now boasts a number of women in machining positions;

• EforAll Holyoke, by becoming another powerful force in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Through its accelerator programs, mentorship initiatives, and other ongoing forms of support, this nonprofit is helping many people, especially those in the minority community, realize their dreams of owning their own business;

• Janine Fondon, by being a constant source of energy and ideas, through initiatives ranging from UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news, to programs like On the Move, which bring women, and especially women of color, together for forums that are designed to engage, educate, and inspire;

• Harold Grinspoon, by being a successful business person, but especially by being a philanthropist who has never stopped asking about how he can help. Over the years, he has launched initiatives to support entrepreneurship at area colleges and universities, assist the region’s farmers, celebrate excellent teachers, and improve Jewish life and culture;

• Chad Moir, by creating the DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, inspired by the experience of his late mother, to help those suffering from this dreaded disease live healthier, more confident lives through various forms of exercise that have proven to slow the progression of symptoms;

• Bill Parks, by not only helping young people and their families access critical programs through the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield, but by using his own experiences to show them that their dreams and goals really are possible. His club’s programs not only impact young people’s lives today, but help them take charge of their future; and

• Pete Westover, for working tirelessly to help preserve and protect this region’s open spaces through a remarkable, decades-long career that featured a lengthy stint as conservation director in Amherst and ongoing work as managing partner of Conservation Works, which is involved in a wide range of preservation, trail-building, and other types of projects across the Northeast.

We salute these members of the class of 2021, and encourage others to read their stories and become inspired to find new and different ways to make a difference here in Western Massachusetts.

Opinion

An Appreciation for Chris Thibault

Filmmakers are storytellers. That’s what they do. They tell stories, and they help others tell their stories.

That’s what Chris Thibault did, and he was very good at it. He started Chris Teebo Films, and he worked with businesses and institutions across this area — from Spirit of Springfield to BusinessWest and its many award recipients and program sponsors Mercedes-Benz of Springfield — to help them communicate and get their messages across.

In recent years, though, the most compelling story Chris told was his own — specifically his long and difficult battle with cancer, which ended this week when he died at age 38. Starting from when he was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Chris used his talents and his desire to help others to take his battle public, through short films, blog posts — including one titled “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — and more.

In the course of doing so, he became an inspiration to many, and in a number of ways. It was more than Jim Valvano’s famous ‘don’t give up, don’t ever give up’ messaging — although there was some of that. His message was more along the lines of never letting cancer run his life or tell him what he could or couldn’t do.

And there was still more to this story. Indeed, even though he was dealt a very bad hand and had every reason to say ‘why me?’ or bemoan his fate, he didn’t. He accepted what was happening to his body, and he never stopped trying to be upbeat, optimistic, and even humorous.

Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about that aforementioned blog post and the subject matter involved, he said simply, “I haven’t figured that one out yet … and to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you would actually start reading the thing.”

Like all good filmmakers, he did grab your attention, and he held it.

His story certainly did not end the way he or all those who loved and admired him wanted, but it was one that left us even more thankful for the time we had with him — and more appreciative of the time we have on this planet. Period.

We thank him for that, and we thank him for the way he inspired us to live life to the fullest, even when serious roadblocks are put in front of us.

The best story he told was his own.

Opinion

Editorial

The story of restaurants during the pandemic has not been a good one.

While that may be the most obvious of observations, it’s still important to keep at the forefront of any discussion of this industry — because restaurateurs will spin the past year as positively as they can. “We discovered a strong market for takeout.” “Outdoor dining was an unexpected success we’ll stick with.” “Our loyal customers tell us they can’t wait to dine out again.”

But don’t confuse those sentiments — which testify to the grit and resourcefulness of the region’s many dining establishments — with good news. There is no good news. Among the restaurant owners we spoke with for this issue, total sales over the past year have been significantly curtailed — in some cases halved, or worse.

Yes, they’ve done what they could to hang onto their dedicated staffs, with much-appreciated help from Paycheck Protection Program loans and state and local grants. And the pivots they made — one told us it was like opening a new restaurant every week — are admirable, as they were willing to change menus on the fly, install takeout and delivery, set up outdoor dining, and take any number of other steps to survive.

Some have not. And even among those that have, no one had a good year, and some are hanging by a thread. That 25% indoor capacity restriction, however needed to keep people safe, is just not going to cut it through a New England winter. That 9:30 p.m. curfew, only recently lifted, might pose an inconvenience to customers, but for a restaurant owner, those extra hours could be the difference between paying their bills and … well, not.

The economic impact on the region is massive; according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc., the Bay State’s restaurants generated $18.7 billion in sales in 2018, while employing almost 350,000 workers. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on table-service dining contributes $1.87 to the state economy. And in a place like Hampshire County, where restaurants are such a key part of the culture and economy of Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and other communities, the damage of 2020 — which is clearly extending into 2021 — is even more dire.

A Pioneer Institute report lists a few steps local and state governments can make to ease the strain a little, from allowing alcoholic-beverage takeout and delivery on a permanent basis to allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce, meats, and other whole foods during the pandemic to compete with grocery stores; from prioritizing local permitting for food trucks owned by restaurants to allowing outdoor seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, as happened last summer in downtown Northampton.

But none of these steps, or the pivots restaurants have already made, will solve the main issue — that, even at reduced capacity, diners aren’t filling tables right now, and might not until they feel it’s safe, and that gets into vaccine distribution, a whole other story.

In the meantime, why not do what you can? Order more takeout. Buy more gift cards. Sit down for a meal if you feel safe doing so; area restaurants have been transparent about their sanitization procedures. And, once the COVID fog lifts and restaurants can open more fully, support them as much as possible.

The loss of more restaurants in Western Mass. would be a blow to our economy and a culture that values good food. But mostly, it would be a blow to some good, smart people who are tired of pivoting — but continue to do so, just to stay alive.

 

Opinion

Editorial

Starting in 1996, ˆ has, at the start of each year, presented something we call the Top Entrepreneur award.

We do this to pay homage to a long — as in three centuries long — tradition of entrepreneurship in Western Mass., and to recognize companies, institutions, and individuals who are carrying on that tradition today. Over the years, the winners have included traditional entrepreneurs — those leading tech companies, multi-faceted corporations, and some family-owned businesses that have been part of the landscape for decades, if not a century or more — and also some non-traditional entrepreneurs — a college president and a hospital CEO, for example.

This broad diversity is by design, and it shows that we’re honoring entrepreneurial spirit as much as we are entrepreneurs.

Which brings us to this year’s honoree — the partners and leadership team at Golden Years Homecare Services, an East Longmeadow-based company that started with home care and has since diversified into staffing, behavioral-health services, and other realms ). An entrepreneurial mindset prevails from top to bottom and in every aspect of this enterprise, and it has enabled the company to set and maintain a torrid pace of growth since.

We salute Cesar Ruiz, Lisa Santaniello, and other partners and managers who are aggressively rewriting the business plan and taking this company to new places and a higher plane.

And while we’re at it, we would like to salute all the entrepreneurs slugging it out across our region. They all deserve some credit at this ultra-challenging time for anyone trying to own and operate a business.

Indeed, running a company has never, ever been easy. But in these times, everything is much more difficult. As we’ve said on many occasions, one of the things that has inspired us during these times has been the manner in which the region’s business community has responded.

In short, it has been entrepreneurial. Business owners and managers have responded to adversity with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new ways of doing business, and new avenues for growth. Examples abound, including everything from outdoor dining at restaurants to manufacturers retooling to make PPE. At Golden Years, the pandemic actually helped fuel a surge in home-care business, as many families came to view the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

Looking back, one might call 2020 the ‘year of the entrepreneur.’ Those at Golden Years stand out, certainly, and they are most deserving of this prestigious honor. But all the entrepreneurs who have bravely battled COVID-19 deserve to take a bow.

Opinion

Editorial

The calendar no longer says 2020.

And that’s a really good thing. Over the past 10 months or so, those four numbers became synonymous with pandemic, challenge, uncertainty, and more challenge. Turning the calendar over helps psychologically, but it doesn’t change the equation. Not yet, anyway.

In fact, as the experts interviewed for our Economic Outlook section indicated, while there is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel, there is still quite a bit of tunnel to get through. If this is the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), the end is still a ways off.

And, in some ways, there’s a good chance things will actually get worse before they get better, because, as some experts noted, the relief that many companies received through stimulus initiatives will not be there, or there to the same extent, like they were in 2020. So many businesses will be facing a reality check, and a scary one at that.

But if 2021 looks daunting in many respects, we can look back at 2020, not for painful memories, or only painful memories, but also for inspiration.

Indeed, as we’ve written on several occasions, the best thing about 2020, from our respective, was the manner in which the business community responded to a crisis truly without precedent. Going back to the middle of last March, we wrote about how business owners in this region had been through a lot over the past few decades — recessions, including a ‘great’ one; a tornado; the sudden quiet after 9/11; Springfield’s fiscal meltdown; and so much more. We wrote that this pandemic would be unlike any of those and would test the mettle of this region in ways we could not have imagined.

We were right about that, but we were also right when we said this region was up for the fight. It was, and it is, and a look back at 2020 proves this.

Yes, some businesses have been lost, mostly in the retail and hospitality sectors, and the losses have not been insignificant. Meanwhile, a number of mainstay businesses have been battered and bloodied — MGM Springfield, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Symphony, the Thunderbirds, Union Station, UMass Amherst and all the colleges and universities, every restaurant and performance venue in the region … the list goes on.

But they are still standing, and, in the meantime, a large army of small businesses have responded with imagination, perseverance, and the entrepreneurial spirit that has defined the region for more than 250 years.

We’re told many of these stories over the past nine months, and they have been inspirational. Businesses that found themselves struggling, through no fault of their own, discovered ways to pivot, find new revenue streams, and, in some rare cases, actually expand and grow their businesses.

If there was any bright spot to 2020 — and there were not many — watching this collective display of courage and determination was it.

And now that the calendar has turned to 2021, nothing has really changed. The operating environment is as challenging as ever, and even moreso for most hospitality businesses, now that winter has set in.

The next few months may be the most difficult yet, but we are confident that those same qualities that helped businesses ride out 2020 will enable them to continue the ride — until the day when ‘normal’ returns and the predicted pent-up demand will provide a much-needed lift to ventures across all sectors.

As the new year begins, the light at the end of the tunnel is still a ways off. But at least we can see it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stuart Anfang, M.D.

The holidays are supposed to be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ as one song notes. But for some, it may be the most difficult time of the year after the loss of a loved one.

The holiday season can be especially difficult for those who are preparing to spend these joyous occasions for the first time without a spouse, child, or other beloved family member or friend by their side. These feelings of grief are only exacerbated this year by COVID-19, which has taken the lives of so many, plus the general stress of dealing with the pandemic.

It’s only natural to experience a range of emotions such as sadness, loneliness, and even helplessness and hopelessness while navigating the hustle and bustle of the holidays. But you don’t have to suffer alone. Recognize that you are not alone, and that mixed or sad feelings during the holidays are not uncommon. Do not suffer in silence, and watch for the tendency to isolate or withdraw from others. Denying or bottling up your feelings — or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs — are worrisome signs.

As you prepare for the holidays, include activities that are important to you and your family. Share the load and accept offers of help. If some activities are too difficult or draining, set limits or decide to drop them. Remember, it’s OK and not a sign of weakness to ask for help.

It is always important to remember that you have options. You can change routines. Modify past traditions or join your family in creating new traditions. If you wish, you can find a way of formally remembering your loved one who is not physically present with you — for example, serving their favorite dessert and reflecting on the joy that it brought to your loved one in the past. It is stressful to experience the holiday without your loved one, but you can find ways to honor and include them.

Together, you can share a holiday that is different, but still meaningful and hopeful. As a family, you can add a memory ritual into your holiday by including a special activity such as looking at old photo albums or making and displaying a special holiday decoration with significant ties to the deceased. Given the current COVID-19 circumstances, make sure to follow public-health recommendations about masking, social distancing, and gathering in limited numbers.

Many people also find solace in generosity, as this is the ‘season of giving.’ Many people also volunteer during the holidays, such as serving meals at a local shelter or distributing toys to needy children.

For some, the holidays may offer a reprieve from sad feelings, and you may find yourself caught up in the moment as you experience the joy of family and friends around you. But if you are noticing more significant symptoms causing impairment at work, school, or home — problems with sleep, low energy, dramatic change in appetite or weight, inability to concentrate, frequent crying, easy irritability, thoughts of hurting yourself, or wanting to die — that may be time to seek some professional evaluation. A good place to start can be your primary-care provider or a trusted clergy.

The bottom line is, help is available. Do not suffer in silence.

 

Dr. Stuart Anfang is vice chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health.

Opinion

Editorial

As 2020 prepares to come to what we hope will be a merciful end (only if our collective luck changes), it is time to look ahead.

It certainly beats looking back.

And as we look ahead, we need to consider what the world might look like when and if something approaching normal returns, and what it means for us. At both the micro and macro level, it doesn’t mean going back to the way things were before.

The world will have changed, in all kinds of ways, and a good many of these changes will be permanent, as in, there’s no going back to the way we were. This goes for the services we offer to customers, how we do business, and where we do business.

Yes, everyone hates Zoom — or really hates Zoom, as the case may be. But even the most ardent of haters will admit that a Zoom session beats investing the time and energy in a drive to Worcester, Boston, or wherever. A Zoom session beats getting up early — and getting dressed (don’t forget that part) — to go to a morning board meeting or perhaps even a session with a client.

And that’s just one example. The same goes for the modern office. As much as we all hear that businesses will return to the office, that workers need the camaraderie, that teams need to be in the same room to be effective, it’s clear that things simply will not be as they were.

“We’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region.”

Companies have learned they can make do with less office space — or without any office space. Individuals have learned they can do their jobs from home, and that ‘home’ doesn’t necessarily have to be close to the office. Which means it doesn’t have to be a densely populated — and very expensive — area. Businesses owners may gradually ditch the current mindset that they need to be in Seattle, Boston, Cambridge, or the Research Triangle, “because that’s where the workers are.” The workers, at least for some jobs, can be anywhere.

If you’re an optimist, this bodes well for the region, and we like to be optimistic. Which is why we’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region. Groups like the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and the Springfield Regional Chamber appear to moving from ‘we might want to think about this’ to the ‘let’s do something about it’ stage.

By that, we mean they’re moving more assertively when it comes to trying to tell this region’s story and putting information in people’s hands — with the goal of motivating people, small businesses, and maybe major corporations to consider the 413 as a place to put down roots or expand.

It has always been that way — and we have always sold it as such — but we haven’t done well in pitching people on the concept, even as Boston has become more expensive and its roads have become more congested.

Maybe the pandemic and the lessons learned while navigating our way through it will change this equation. Maybe. After all, there will be considerable competition from other cities, states, and regions who have learned the same lessons. Meanwhile, this region has never been able to muster the kind of marketing muscle it takes to get a message across to a broad audience.

But it doesn’t hurt to try, and as we thankfully turn the calendar to 2021, it is time to look back a little, reflect on what we’ve learned, and do what we’ve all been trying to do since March — be in a better position after the pandemic than we were before.

Opinion

Editorial

As the region pauses to celebrate Thanksgiving and start the holiday season, many are counting down the days until this most painful of years comes to a close.

For the business community especially, 2020 has been a year of never-ending challenges, more uncertainty than anyone would ever want, and decisions that only come in two varieties — difficult and really difficult. Nothing has come easy.

And while none of this will magically end when the calendar gets flipped to 2021, it will be good to put this year in our collective rear-view mirror.

As we begin our work reflecting on this year — and there will be a lot of that, even as we brace for times that could be even more difficult, if that’s possible — it is easy to focus on all the negative. And we’ve done enough of that ourselves.

But we want to take another opportunity to recognize and applaud the fighting spirit of the region’s business community and the manner in which it has responded to all that has been thrown at it with imagination and true resolve.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

And there really is a lot that has been thrown at our businesses — including draconian measures taken in the name of flattening the curve and ever-changing guidance and regulations that often make it so what you were doing last week is impossible to do this week. But, as we said, businesses have responded, and in creative, determined fashion.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

Inspired by Willy Wonka, or so we’ve been told, the promotion involves $1,000 golden tickets that enable the purchaser and a companion lifetime entrance to the Big E, along with a number of other perks.

From what we hear, the 100 tickets sold in less than two minutes once they officially went on sale.

Realistically, $100,000 is a tiny fraction of the Big E’s annual budget, and this promotion is not going to make a serious dent in the staggering losses the company has suffered this year. But it helps — in this trying year, every single dollar helps. And the golden ticket is a perfect example of how companies have had to look beyond what they’ve done, look beyond what they know — and find ways to generate revenue and keep people employed until that day when the clouds will finally break.

But it’s just one example. There are plenty of others.

We’ve seen restaurants get creative and entrepreneurial in their efforts to use outdoor dining, delivery, and curbside service to somehow keep their doors open. We’ve seen event venues and production companies make the difficult adjustment to hybrid and virtual events. We’ve seen nonprofits pivot and use these virtual events to raise money so they can continue to carry out their missions. We’ve seen manufacturers retool to one extent or another and shift to making PPE and other in-demand items. Getting back to the Big E, we’ve seen it tack and put its large indoor spaces to use as storage facilities for cars, boats, and other items.

There are countless other examples of companies taking a very bad situation and making something of it. And as the year draws to a close, we believe these stories can and must serve as inspiration for what it is to come — probably several more months of challenges and those difficult decisions.

Not that anything was ever easy, but we certainly won’t see anything approaching easy for a while yet.

Which means we’ll need to keep exercising our collective imaginations and coming up with our own golden tickets.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the past decade or so, one of the better stories to emerge in this region has been the development of the Ludlow Mills complex in Ludlow.

Acquired by Westmass Area Development Corp. in 2012, the mostly vacant set of jute mills and storage buildings has become home to an eclectic mix of businesses, and is now the site of a residential complex, a rehabilitation hospital (Encompass), and a host of small businesses that cross several sectors.

But this solid business story had been tempered somewhat by the very public, highly visible discord (there’s a diplomatic term) between Westmass and one of its more popular tenants, Iron Duke Brewing.

A disagreement over language in the lease eventually escalated into a bitter and protracted court fight, one that led to hard feelings, plans to relocate the business in Wilbraham, and a new and popular product — Eviction Notice IPA.

For a while, it looked like this court battle was going to end like so many before it — with no one really winning, despite how the ruling came down. It looked for all the world like both sides were going to be out perhaps hundreds of thousands in legal fees, Westmass would be out a good tenant, and Iron Duke would be saddled with the expense and challenge of essentially starting over in a new town and new brewery.

And then … things changed. Not overnight, but as the story on page 6 recounts, they did change.

Amid the heavy baggage from the lawsuit and the disagreement that led to it, the two sides agreed to sit down and talk. And from those talks came some progress and eventually a path to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay in its home at the mill — one of the century-old stockhouses that stored raw material — but expand within that site and perhaps own it someday.

An agreement that didn’t seem at all possible just 18 months ago.

Maybe there’s a lesson in all this — one about communication and listening and getting to understand both sides of a disagreement, on the theory that the more people know and the more people talk, the better the odds they can work out their problems.

Maybe the lesson is to try to do that before egos take over and before the lawyers get involved because, after that happens, it becomes that much harder.

We’re not sure about the lessons. We are sure that what was a good story for the region is now an even better story. Iron Duke will stay where it is, expand, and make the mill complex a better, stronger destination, one that might help attract more hospitality-related businesses like it.

Iron Duke will soon have to change its name to avoid another expensive lawsuit, this one from Duke University as it seeks to protect its brand. But that’s another story.

This story has what certainly appears to be a happy ending, after a plot twist as welcome as it was — that’s was — unlikely.

Opinion

A Chain Reaction of Impact

Back in 2007, BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty recognition program to celebrate the achievements of the region’s rising stars. A couple years later, it created Difference Makers, which recognizes individuals who are, well, making a difference in their communities. The Healthcare Heroes awards followed three years ago, recognizing high achievers in that important sector.

Clearly, we love identifying and writing about people and organizations that deserve the attention; we’re as inspired writing those stories as you (hopefully) are when you read them.

Plenty of women have been honored by all three programs — in many years, in fact, women comprise a majority of winners. So why did we launch the Women of Impact program in 2018? Is it really necessary?

In a word, yes. First of all, while there are many women of achievement in this region — and have been for a long time — not enough of them have received the recognition they are due.

But another reason, one that has become more clear over the first three cohorts of Women of Impact, is that this program spotlights ways in which honorees not only shine on their own, but help other women do the same.

In this year’s class alone, you can read about Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, who has not only personally mentored many women over the years, but cultivated a management team entirely made up of women — in an industry still dominated by men.

And Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, who has devoted her professional life to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls, and finding proactive ways to address them.

And Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, who understands how critical an affordable college education is to women, including low-income women, women of color, and working mothers, many of whom have been thrown for a loop by the pandemic and recession, and rely on HCC’s support to stay on their degree path.

The stories go on, in many cases echoing the honorees’ desire not only to succeed in life, but to make sure women following behind them have the tools they need to do the same and, in turn, inspire the next generation.

This is not the easiest time for women in the workforce. In fact, in September, about 617,000 women stopped working — about eight women for every man who dropped out, in fact — partly due to competing demands from home, especially young kids who need support with remote learning.

Even during more, well, normal times, BusinessWest has long told the stories of not only women who are helping their peers navigate challenges, but organizations like the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, and so many more who’ve made it their mission to help women succeed, now and in the future.

In short, women in this region are making an impact every day. We’re honored to be able to tell some of their stories.

 

Opinion

Editorial

You can look in any direction you choose during this pandemic and find developments that are disappointing, sad, and, in some cases, heartbreaking. It’s hard to single out specific stories from all the others.

But in the case of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise that plays in the MassMutual Center, we find a story that is particularly poignant and frustrating — one that shows just how much this crisis has taken from us.

Indeed, this team had become one of the great symbols of Springfield’s renaissance, one of the very bright lights in a city that was once quite dark, figuratively if not literally, one of the reasons why people working downtown had to pay attention to their arrival or departure time because, if they didn’t, they might get caught in a traffic jam — a somewhat annoying, but, for those rooting for Springfield, almost joyous traffic jam.

Yes, the Thunderbirds were a feel-good story, a team that was selling out the MassMutual Center on a regular basis, bringing luminaries like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and even Ric Flair to the city, and setting the bar ever higher when it came to strategies for attracting fans, creating visibility, and involving the franchise in the community.

This is a management team and ownership group that even took home BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur prize in 2018.

And now? This is a team in limbo, a franchise that doesn’t know if, when, or under what circumstances it can again play games. So much is up in the air, and almost everything is out of the control of a management team led by President Nate Costa.

In a way, the T-Birds have become a metaphor for this pandemic. In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

The team is symbolic of the pandemic’s impact on the business community in another respect — a team that did a great job building itself up, literally from scratch, will now have to rebuild. It won’t have to start from scratch, but it won’t be able to just turn the clock back to pre-pandemic days, either.

In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

It will have to work hard to get fans back, build up its presence, and, hopefully, regain everything that’s been lost over the past eight months — and counting.

In many respects, most every business in this region will have to do the same thing. Eventually, although no one knows when, the pandemic will ease, and life will start to return to normal. Companies will have to rebuild what they had and regain the customers and business lost.

And as they do that, they can look to the Thunderbirds for inspiration, a team that built itself up the right way, and will no doubt rebuild itself in similar fashion — using imagination, best practices, and a passion for continuous improvement to set and reach new goals.

What’s happened to the T-Birds is unfortunate on many levels. This team did seemingly everything right; it did everything a forward-thinking company is supposed to do to thrive in the moment and prepare for the future. But in a moment, it lost control of its fortunes and its fate — at least for the short term.

We have little doubt this team will bounce back, eventually, and be part of Springfield’s efforts to rebuild from this crisis. In five short years, it has become a symbol of excellence and perseverance. And moving forward, we hope it becomes a model for how to survive the pandemic and become even better and stronger for it.

Opinion

Opinion

The numbers are stark no matter how they’re viewed. When 617,000 women leave the U.S. workforce in one month — about eight women for every man who dropped out — it’s reason for short-term worry.

But the long-term impact may be more concerning.

Viewed through the narrow lens of the present, it’s not hard to understand what happened (see story on page 30). Unlike most recessions, the one wrought by COVID-19 battered some of the most female-dominant economic sectors in the country, including restaurants, retail, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. Unfortunately for many women who would rather be working than laid off, some of those jobs will be slow to come back — and some never will.

But the other factor in September’s mass exodus from the workforce is evident from the month itself — the month, specifically, when kids go back to school. Only, most schools never physically opened, leaving kids to grapple with remote learning at home. For most high-schoolers and even many middle-schoolers, that’s fine; it’s not the same as in-person instruction surrounded by their friends, but they can make it work without any supervision.

That’s not true for most elementary-school kids, who tend to need the presence and support, if not the actual help, of a parent to make it through six hours of navigating technology and absorbing information from a screen. And many of those parents have jobs.

It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families.

Now, fewer of them do, because someone has to stay home with the kids. And that someone, the vast majority of time, is the woman, who more often than not makes less income than her male partner.

There’s been plenty of handwringing about the gender pay gap in America. It’s not all based in discrimination — women do tend to work in lower-paying fields than men, on average, and they do often choose to pause their careers to raise families. Why more men don’t choose to stay home so their partners are able to continue working is a discussion for another day, but the fact is, the pay gap, for myriad reasons, is real.

And hundreds of thousands of women leaving their careers at once, even temporarily, will absolutely increase that gap, because any pause in employment, especially one that leads to a company change or even career change, tends to have ripple effects on one’s earnings down the road and over a lifetime. With about half the women who stopped working last month in the prime working age of 35 to 44, the long-term ripples could be staggering.

What’s the answer? On the issue of the pay gap in general, many solutions have been proposed, from raising minimum wage (women make up a disproportionate share of low-wage workers) to promoting schedule flexibility and work-from-home options for mothers; from state- and federal-level actions to improve family-leave laws and invest in childcare to a commitment by employers to ensure their own pay practices are fair.

COVID-19 has laid bare some of those gaps in stark terms, as well as exposing not only how women are being impacted by this economy, but how women of color are being hit even harder. A reopening of schools at some point will no doubt ease these disparities. But it certainly won’t make them go away.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Back in the spring of 2017, as BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, were preparing to launch a new recognition program focused on the region’s large and critically important healthcare sector, the magazines hosted a meeting with members named to an advisory board assembled to help guide the initiative off the drawing board.

The first question asked at that session concerned the name given to the program — Healthcare Heroes. “How do you define ‘hero?’” one panel member asked.

The reply was that the magazines wouldn’t be defining ‘hero.’ That task would fall to those nominating individuals, groups, and institutions, and the judges assigned the task of evaluating those nominations. In short, the answer to that question was ‘heroism is in the eye of the beholder — and there are heroes all across the broad healthcare sector in this region.’

Never has that sentiment been truer than during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, for this year’s program, the magazines opted not to use the traditional categories that have defined this program, such as ‘Caregiver,’ ‘Emerging Leader,’ ‘Innovation in Healthcare,’ and even ‘Lifetime Achievement,’ and instead seek general nominations involving those who in some way stepped up and stood out during this pandemic, on the theory that heroes came in all kinds of categories this year.

And we were right. Nominations were submitted for both individual EMTs and the CEOs of medical centers; for manufacturing companies that shifted their production lines to make PPE and individual home healthcare providers; for entire staffs at local hospitals and specific teams at area service providers.

Everyone nominated this year is a true hero, and the judges had a very difficult time deciding which stories were truly the best. But as the accounts  reveal, these judges did a commendable job.

These stories are, in a word, inspirational, and they clearly convey both the depth of the crisis and the determined, imaginative responses to it. These stories are touching, but they are also powerful in that they reveal the kind of dedicated, creative, and, above all, compassionate individuals working within the healthcare sector in this region.

The stories are all different, but the common theme is individuals, groups, and organizations seeing needs in the midst of this generational crisis, and rising to meet them, such as:

• The staff at Holyoke Medical Center coming together under very trying circumstances to take in residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home at the height of the tragedy there;

• Three patient advocates at Berkshire Health Systems leaving their behind-the-scenes jobs to become frontline nurses at a BHS facility on the other side of the state;

• Home health aide Jennifer Graham, a junior at Bay Path University, volunteering, when few others would, to work at emergency tents set up to care for the region’s homeless population;

• Baystate Health President and CEO Mark Keroack providing needed leadership to not only his institution, but the region and state as the pandemic reached this region last spring;

• The Nutrition Department at Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc., which creating new programs and protocols to ensure that hot meals were delivered to the area seniors who need them; and

• Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, director of Spiritual Life at JGS Lifecare, who stepped into the breach and provided needed guidance and support to residents, family members, and especially the staff members providing services at the height of the crisis.

These are just some of the stories in our special section introducing the Healthcare Heroes of 2020 that will resonate, possibly generate tears, and certainly leave you proud of this region and those individuals and institutions serving it.

Opinion

Editorial 2

Amid a tumultuous presidential election, the contentious plans to fill a Supreme Court seat, and continued upheaval on the broad matter of racial equality, additional stimulus measures to help individuals and businesses weather the pandemic have seemingly been pushed to the back burner, if not off the stove.

Indeed, while there are almost weekly pronouncements of optimism that a stimulus package may soon be passed, overall, there seems to be little actual movement toward getting a deal done, even as the pandemic shows no signs of easing and the announcements of massive job cuts — the latest from the likes of Disney and several of the major airlines — continue to dominate the business news.

In our view — and in the view of untold numbers of owners of businesses both large and small — this is no time to be taking our eyes off the ball. Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures.

That’s because … well, anyone can look at a calendar and see that there’s more trouble around the corner. Fall is here, and winter is right behind it. A second wave of the virus is predicted, and some would say it is already here. And while some states are actually loosening restrictions on what businesses can open and under what circumstances, the threat of another shutdown like the one that crippled this state’s business community looms large.

Despite some protestations to the contrary, COVID-19 is far from over, and help will be needed before there are more business failures

The harsh reality is that many, if not most, businesses have not come close to recovering the losses they’ve sustained over the past six to seven months. We’ve interviewed business owners across virtually every sector of the economy, from printers to restaurateurs to banquet-facility operators, and many are reporting that revenues are down 60%, 70%, or even 80% or more from last year.

And, as we said, winter is coming, which means restaurants that had been holding on, or nearly holding on, with outdoor dining will have to close those areas soon. It also means all events have to move indoors, which means, essentially, there can be no events. It means businesses and individuals that are hunkering down and reducing their spending in every way possible will only ratchet up those efforts even further.

In this climate, businesses, nonprofits, and, yes, individuals will need additional support. Individuals will need stimulus checks and unemployment benefits — perhaps not the additional $600 a week that has hampered efforts to bring people back to the workforce, but some assistance. And small businesses especially will need another round of Paycheck Protection Act support. Those checks bought business owners some invaluable time during the height of the crisis, and from all indications, more time is needed.

No one knows when the pandemic will actually subside and we can return to something approaching normal. What is now clear, at least to most observers, is that this won’t happen anytime soon. This business of printing money and incurring trillions of dollars in debt to help people and businesses through the crisis is at the very least unnerving and perhaps dangerous. But now that we’ve started down this road, we have to stay on this path and do what’s needed to minimize the damage from this generational catastrophe.

 

Opinion

Editorial

Over the years, we’ve written a number of times about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring those trying to start and grow their own businesses.

This component of economic development, one that is often overlooked amid efforts to attract large businesses, open new industrial parks, and grow new business sectors like biotech, is vital because small businesses have always been the key to the growth and vitality of individual communities and regions like Western Mass.

Just as important, these small businesses — everything from restaurants to dry-cleaning establishments; from dance studios to clothing stores — help give these communities their identity and make them more livable.

And that’s why we’ve been a strong supporter of what has become a movement of sorts in this region to encourage entrepreneurship and help those who have made the decision to put their name over the door — figuratively if not, in many cases, literally. Within this movement has been the creation and development of what’s been called the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has many moving parts, from agencies that support entrepreneurs to colleges with programs in this subject, to venture-capital firms that provide the vital fuel to help businesses get to the next stage.

This ecosystem has always been important, but it’s perhaps even more important now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s because — and you know this already, but we need to remind you — a large number of small businesses are imperiled by this crisis. Their survival is not assured by any means, and as the calendar turns to fall — with winter not far behind and no relief in sight from this pandemic — uncertainty about the fate of many businesses only grows.

As the story on page 6 reveals, agencies and individuals that are part of the ecosystem have been working to help businesses navigate their way through this whitewater, be it with help securing a grant from the local chamber of commerce or a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or making a successful pivot to a different kind of service or a new twist on an old one that would help with all-important cash flow.

Meanwhile, the work of mentoring those in business or trying to get into business goes on, often with powerful results, as that same story recounts. Initiatives such as WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) creates matches that provide rewards to both parties, but especially the young (and, in some cases, not so young) women working to turn ideas into businesses and smaller businesses into larger, more established ventures.

It would have been easy to put such initiatives on the shelf for several months until the pandemic passes, but we don’t know when it’s going to pass, and the business, if we want to call it that, of supporting people like Nicole Ortiz, who recently put her food truck on the road in Holyoke, and Leah Kent, who wants to grow her business that supports writers and helps them get works published, must go on.

And it does, because, as we said, the creation and development of small businesses isn’t just one component of economic-development activity in this region; it is perhaps the most important component of all. v

Opinion

Opinion

By Dr. Armando Paez

While experts cannot predict the severity of one flu season from another, this upcoming season will be unprecedented and can pose a severe threat due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The very protection advice we have been stressing for COVID-19 — wearing a mask, frequent hand washing, social distancing — is what is going to protect many people from the flu this year. But the best protection of all is to get your flu shot each year.

Flu season usually begins in the fall around October, but doesn’t peak until December through February. It can sometimes last until May. Because there could be a possible second wave of COVID-19 coinciding with the flu, getting your flu shot this year is more important than ever before.

For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S.

Already in advance of the onset of the 2020-21 flu season, the CDC is reminding people to get vaccinated sooner than later, with October being a good time to get vaccinated. It’s important to realize it can take up to two weeks for the vaccine to build up antibodies to protect you from the flu.

Once again, the CDC recommends all people be vaccinated against the flu, especially pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions. For the 2020-21 season, the flu vaccines were updated to better match viruses expected to be circulating in the U.S. The CDC has stated that providers may administer any licensed, age-appropriate flu vaccine with no preference for any one vaccine over another, including the shot or nasal spray.

People who should not get the flu vaccine include children younger than 6 months and those with severe, life-threatening allergies to flu vaccine and any of its ingredients.

In addition to the elderly, vaccination is particularly important for younger children who are also at high risk for serious flu complications, as well as those with heart disease, and pregnant women. The most important complication that can affect both high-risk adults and children is pneumonia. The flu can also aggravate and worsen chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and asthma.

Also, if you have a weakened immune system after contracting COVID-19, it can leave you at risk for getting a more severe case of the flu, or vice versa.

I’m always asked by those skeptical about getting vaccinated, “can the flu shot give you the flu?” The answer is no. This year, I’m also being asked, “can the flu shot protect you from COVID-19?” Unfortunately, the answer is also no, but we’re hopeful for a vaccine against COVID-19 early next year or sooner.

While the flu vaccine is not 100% effective, the CDC noted that recent studies show that flu vaccination reduces the risk of flu illness by between 40% and 60% among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.

Remember, it’s never too late to get your flu shot, preferably before flu viruses begin spreading in the community around the end of October.

Dr. Armando Paez is chief of Infectious Diseases at Baystate Medical Center.

Opinion

Editorial

Mayor Domenic Sarno is certainly confident that Springfield will rebound from all the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at it the past seven months or so.

As BusinessWest spoke with him recently, he said at least a few times that he expects the City of Homes to bounce back — and quickly — when COVID is over (whenever that is). This isn’t surprising, obviously; this is what mayors do. And he bases that optimism on the many projects currently in progress, new initiatives likely to move onto and then off the drawing board, and the considerable amount of momentum the city had created before the pandemic changed the landscape back in late winter.

We share his optimism to some degree, but the future of Springfield right now is a giant question mark. And before we go any further, we need to say that most all urban areas, even Boston and New York, are in the same boat and facing the same daunting question.

Which is … what will things look like when this is all over?

In Springfield, the hope is that things will look a whole lot like they did in mid-January. Back then, there were events happening, like Red Sox Winter Weekend. The Thunderbirds were packing them in at the MassMutual Center, while MGM was drawing decent crowds at the casino and bringing people to the city for concerts and shows, benefiting the downtown restaurants and bars. The downtown office towers weren’t full, certainly, but there were plenty of people working in the central business district — enough to support the retail and hospitality businesses in that area.

Now … none of that is happening as the city tries to hang on and fight its way through this. The question is, can Springfield turn back the clock to start of this year and essentially pick up where it left off?

Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. And a big factor in this equation is the commercial office space downtown. Right now, the larger towers are mostly quiet as companies continue to have many of their employees work remotely. And there is speculation that they will remain mostly quiet as businesses adapt to a new way of doing things and considerably downsize their space.

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to Springfield. Boston is facing the same problem, and, to a large extent, so is New York.

But having a critical mass of workers in a central business district is one of the key ingredients in any success formula for such an area. The others are having people live in that district and having them come to visit. All three are important, and without one, more pressure gets put on the other two.

There are housing projects coming together in the broad downtown area — at Court Square and at the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street, to name a couple notable efforts — with the promise of more to come. And there are strong hopes that the vibrancy seen when there were shows at MGM and Symphony Hall and hockey games at the MassMutual Center will return once the pandemic is behind us — again, whenever that is.

But will this be enough to make the downtown area — and the city as a whole — thrive and regain the momentum lost to the pandemic?

Again, perhaps — but it seems logical that the city will not simply be able to turn back the clock; instead, it will likely have to turn the clock forward and find new and intriguing uses for the office space downtown and for the commercial spaces vacated by businesses that didn’t survive COVID-19.

Seven months into the pandemic, we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we have to somehow regain. The question for Springfield — and all urban areas — is ‘what can we expect when all this over?’ And right now, no one really knows.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stacey Lennard

The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) hosts its 24th annual Source to Sea Cleanup throughout September. CRC is asking you to sign up and help spread the word about our plastic problem and the impact on our rivers. In addition to annually coordinating thousands of volunteers to clean up trash in our rivers, CRC continues to work toward solutions to the persistent problem of trash pollution. Plastic bags, bottles, and polystyrene (Styrofoam) are consistently the most-found items during the Source to Sea Cleanup, and these items never fully break down in the environment.

You can help show the problem to help solve the problem. Take a photo, video, or make art inspired by river beauty or river pollution. Get creative, use #RiverWitness, #PurgeThePlastic, and tag CRC on social media. CRC will add your images to an online mosaic photo display and video. Select images will be used to call on decision makers to enact trash solutions to keep trash out of our rivers. Show them this is important to you. Speak up for your rivers.

According to CRC, the solution to this problem is to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place. “It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options,” said Andrew Fisk, CRC’s executive director. “Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

Other solutions are to make recycling easy, effective, and widely accessible; to increase the use of effective incentives like ‘bottle bills’ for recycling aluminum, plastic, and glass containers; and to disincentivize Styrofoam, especially foam dock floats in favor of enclosed foam or non-foam dock materials that won’t send plastic chunks into rivers.

“It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options. Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

We all have a responsibility to solve this problem,” Fisk said. “We are responsible as consumers to make good choices in how we purchase and dispose of products. Manufacturers, businesses, and government are also responsible, and it’s time they do their part. By working together, we can make a real difference for our rivers. These ideas are going to take time, decades even. And we’ll keep at it as long as it takes. But our rivers need change now.”

Over the past 23 years, Source to Sea Cleanup volunteers have removed more than 1,167 tons of trash from our rivers. The Source to Sea Cleanup is a river cleanup coordinated by CRC in all four states of the 410-mile Connecticut River basin. Each fall, thousands of volunteers remove tons of trash along rivers, streams, parks, boat launches, trails, and more. Eversource, USA Waste & Recycling, and All American Waste are the lead Source to Sea Cleanup sponsors.
For more information or to register for the event, visit www.ctriver.org/cleanup.

 

Stacey Lennard is Source to Sea Cleanup coordinator for the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s face it — it’s been a long, hard year. And it’s only September.

Indeed, the pandemic has made this not only one of the most trying times almost anyone can remember, but one of the most tiring, especially when it comes to the seemingly unending barrage of bad news that began back in the dead of winter. Bright spots have been few and far between.

Which brings us to BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award. That’s the new name attached to a program started several years ago called the Continued Excellence Award. By whatever name it goes, this is an important honor, but one that often gets a little lost amid some of our other awards.

This one, sponsored this year and the past few years by Health New England, is presented to a Forty Under 40 winner who has continued to build upon their résumé professionally and perhaps within the community as well.

And this year’s class of five finalists provides a strong ray of light in a year that has been mostly dark. They are:

• Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, is also a winner of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Award. Over the past several years, she has added dealerships to the company’s portfolio and many new lines to the list of nonprofit groups and causes she and the company support, especially Driving for the Cure, which raises money to battle brain cancer.

• Mike Fenton, an attorney with Springfield-based Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin as well as a Springfield city councilor, has been a finalist for this award many times, and for good reason. He represents Ward 2, but he’s had a strong impact across the city, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, is the pure entrepreneur in this group, and a multiple winner of our awards, including Top Entrepreneur in 2016. We’ve followed his story from the very beginning, when his was a struggling brand trying to break out. Now it’s in several states, and is the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• James Leahy, has a day job — with the Massachusetts State Lottery — and a city job, as an at-large city councilor in Holyoke who just celebrated two decades in that role. But his influence extends far beyond City Hall; indeed, he’s become actively involved in a number of Holyoke institutions.

• Peter DePergola is director of Clinical Ethics at Baystate Health. In a very short time, he has become not only a regional and state leader in the emerging field of bioethics, but a national and even international leader as well, particularly as he applies his expertise to the COVID-19 crisis.

The winner of the 2020 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced on October 8 at this year’s drive-in 40 Under Forty event at Mercedes Benz Springfield. But all of these individuals are winners. And, more importantly, the region is the winner for having them working, living, and making contributions inside the 413.

Opinion

Editorial

Eric Lesser might be on to something.

In fact, we’re pretty sure he is.

During a recent installment of BusinessTalk, the podcast produced by BusinessWest in conjunction with Living Local, Lesser — the state senator from Longmeadow and staunch advocate for high-speed rail linking Western and Eastern Mass. — was asked about that project, which has lost some of its visibility, if not its traction, in the midst of the pandemic. In short, people seemingly have other things to worry about right now.

He was asked specifically if the project might still be needed given the way the pandemic has clearly shown that people can work remotely and, thus, may not have to physically get from Western Mass. to Eastern Mass. in order to work for a company in Boston or Cambridge.

He answered first by saying the rail line might be needed now more than ever because people will — eventually — need to see one another again, albeit perhaps not as often. High-speed rail would enable them to do so in a manner that is efficient, would help take cars off the road and thus reduce congestion, and might level the playing field between east and west in this state by helping to reduce one of the boundaries to high-paying jobs in emerging fields like IT and biosciences.

But he went further, arguing that building the rail line now would not only accomplish all that, but would help move this region and the entire state out of a pandemic-induced recession that will likely be with us for years.

“The economy desperately needs this,” he said. “At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, we built 800 airports … we need to be ambitious about where we’re going, and the economy is going to need the investment, the stimulus. East-west rail would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy almost immediately from construction alone.”

He’s right, and this is the way state and federal officials need to be thinking moving forward as they go about finding ways to help individuals and businesses — and the nation as a whole — dig out of this hole created by the pandemic.

The comparisons to the Great Depression are appropriate — we are now in an economic downturn comparable to what happened 90 years ago in many ways: everything from the long lines at the unemployment office to the long lines at what were then soup kitchens and are now food pantries.

While World War II eventually ended the Great Depression, massive construction projects launched during the mid-’30s created millions of jobs that enabled families to survive those years. But those projects did much more than that. Indeed, they addressed needed infrastructure issues, vastly improved the nation’s transportation system, and paved the way for development of many western and Sun Belt states.

Projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were game changers in many different ways — especially the way they provided jobs at a time when people desperately needed them.

State and national leaders should be thinking about projects like east-west rail in the same light. Such initiatives can not only solve recognized problems, they can help lessen the already-crippling damage from this pandemic. And there are many other projects that can be undertaken, right here in this region, from repairing roads and bridges to renovating parks and bike trails.

There is a tendency among some to look at the damage from the pandemic as temporary, something that will be fixed once the virus has run its course. The accumulating evidence would seem to indicate otherwise — that it will take years to repair damage done to individual communities and a wide range of business sectors. The key to repairing this damage is jobs, not stimulus checks or even PPP money.

Lesser’s right. The high-speed rail project is more important now than it was before, and there are many projects that fit that description. The state and the nation can learn from what happened 90 years ago and make needed, prudent investments, even at a time of extreme challenge, to help all of us through this crisis.

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

Opinion

Opinion

The recent news that two small businesses located in the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — will be closing permanently due to a sharp decline in business from the pandemic provides more direct evidence of the damage being done to the business community from this crisis.

A number of small businesses have already closed over the past four and a half months, and those numbers will surely rise as the pandemic continues to keep people in their homes. Many of these closings are seemingly unavoidable — they involve businesses, such as event venues, bars, and restaurants, where people gather in large numbers indoors, something the pandemic has made all but impossible if people want to stay safe.

But some could be avoided if the residents of this area find ways to provide needed support. Many are already doing that, but these numbers need to grow if the Western Mass. business community is to avoid losing more of its valued members.

And we say valued, because that’s exactly what they are. Businesses are not simply establishments that occupy space in buildings and provide goods and services. They are part of the community, and often a big part.

They employ people. They pay taxes. They support organizations like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. Their employees often serve on boards and commissions and lend their support to local causes.

When a business closes, we lose a lot more than a place to buy shoes. When a restaurant closes, we lose more than our favorite pizza joint. When a tourist attraction shuts its doors, we lose more than a place to take the kids on a Saturday.

Supporting local businesses has always been important, but it is even more so during this crisis because so many of them are imperiled. As we have chronicled over the past several months, ventures in every sector of the economy have been rocked by this pandemic.

Indeed, companies recording sales of 60% or 70% of last year’s totals are having a good year. And most are not in that category, with declines of 70%, 80%, or even 90% over last year. Many of these businesses have been helped by assistance from the federal government in the form of PPP loans, SBA loans, and small grants from individual cities and towns. But many have exhausted those funds, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in accounting to understand that most businesses simply cannot sustain losses like this for much longer. And some have already concluded that they can’t sustain them any longer.

With each headline like the one about Serendipity and Alchemy closing, there is regret about what we’ve lost. And as mentioned earlier, we lose more than a shop that sells an item or makes good Italian food. We lose tax dollars, and we lose a piece of our community.

There are many ways to support a business even if you can’t visit it in person — from buying a gift certificate to getting takeout to buying online. And by exercising these options, we can perhaps avoid losing some of the businesses that still call Western Mass. home.

Opinion

Editorial

If you read between the lines when scanning or listening to the comments made by MGM Springfield officials in the run-up to the reopening of the facility this week, it’s easy to see that they have some real concerns about whether the restrictions they’ve been placed under will enable them to succeed.

“We’re excited to be here in this moment,” Chris Kelley, president and COO told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities. “We have significant occupancy constraints that the business will be opening with, but we approach this moment with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our guests and this community again.”

We’re not sure how much gratitude, but we are sure that these occupancy constraints and other restrictions, put in place to keep guests and employees safe, are going to present stern challenges for the casino operators.

Roughly two-thirds of the slot machines will be disabled in the name of social distancing; many table games, including roulette, craps, and poker, will be shut down; capacity in the restaurants will also be limited, again in a nod to social distancing; the bars will be closed and drinking will be limited to those playing the games that are still open; large gatherings, such as concerts and shows, are still prohibited.

Add it all up, and then add in the cost of retrofitting the casino for play in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s fair to wonder whether opening is even a sound business decision given the high overhead at such facilities. That question remains to be answered.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is whether the city and the region need this facility open for business. To that question, there is a resounding ‘yes.’

Indeed, the tourism industry has been absolutely battered by the pandemic, perhaps harder than any other sector. Hotels, restaurants, bus companies, tourist attractions, and other businesses, have been crippled by this. And the announcement that there will be no Big E this fall dealt that sector another huge blow.

We’re not sure how much reopening MGM Springfield will help those businesses — many visitors to the casino don’t make any other stops before or after they do their gambling — but any help would certainly be appreciated.

There’s also the support the casino provides to other businesses, especially its vendors. We’ve written much over the past few years about how important MGM’s business is to these vendors — from the sign makers to the dry cleaners — and the trickle-down, while limited in some respects, is very real.

And then, there’s the psychological factor. Much of Main Street in Springfield was shut down by the pandemic, from shops to restaurants to businesses in the office towers. It’s starting to come back somewhat, with outdoor restaurants on Fort Street, Worthington Street, and by One Financial Plaza, and the office towers slowly (as in SLOWLY) but surely coming back to life.

MGM is another, very important, piece of the puzzle. With the casino again welcoming guests, Springfield, the region, will seem all the more open for business after a dreadful spring.

We’re under no delusions here. Reopening MGM is not going to dramatically alter the fate of many of the businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic. But it might provide a spark — another spark to be more precise — as the region tries to fight its way out of a disaster unlike anything it’s ever seen.

MGM’s managers are certainly not thrilled with the hand they’ve dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it, show they can operate safely, and eventually build their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.