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Editorial

 

Just about all the dust has settled from this November’s election — finally, and thankfully. And now is the time for analysis.

And while much of the focus is on the national scene and what the results from this midterm election mean moving forward, what happened in the Bay State, where there was no suspense, is also intriguing and worthy of note.

In short, it was a milestone day for women — and the state itself.

Indeed, women won five of the six state-wide seats up for grabs. Maura Healey, the first woman elected governor of the Commonwealth (and the first openly lesbian governor in the U.S., a milestone she shares with Oregon Gov.-elect Tina Kotek), garnered much of the attention, but she was only part of the story.

Healey’s running mate, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, was elected lieutenant governor; Deb Goldberg was re-elected treasurer; Andrea Campbell became the first Black person elected attorney general; and Diana DiZoglio was elected auditor.

Longtime state Auditor Bill Galvin was the only man to win statewide office, and he defeated a woman, Rayla Campbell, in doing so.

So what does all this mean? First of all, more women are being elected to these offices because more women are running for these offices, which is a very positive step forward.

Before Tuesday, only nine women had served in the constitutional offices in the state’s history, and that’s largely because comparatively few women had the desire, the wherewithal, the confidence, and, in many cases, the support to seek such offices.

All that has changed in recent years, and we’re seeing it not just with statewide offices, but local offices as well. Michelle Wu became the first woman elected mayor of Boston this past year, and locally, several cities now have women in the corner office, including Easthampton and Pittsfield.

There are many reasons why more women are stepping forward and running for office, including a host of leadership programs, including several locally that encourage individuals to get involved, be active in their cities and towns, and, yes, take leadership roles.

Whatever the reason, getting more women — and more people of color and people with diverse backgrounds — involved in government, on both the local and statewide levels, can only be good for everyone involved because it means that more voices, and different kinds of voices, are being heard.

We’ve seen this in business, of course, and with very positive outcomes. Today, more women are sitting on the boards of major companies and nonprofits, more women are leading companies, and more women are taking leadership positions in realms once dominated by men, including construction, architecture, and even IT, although that is one sector where women are still looking to break through in large numbers.

Someday, perhaps not that far into the future, seeing women take five of the six — or even all six — of the Commonwealth’s constitutional offices won’t even be newsworthy. It’s only newsworthy now because it’s never happened before.

And it’s very positive news indeed, and a huge step forward for Massachusetts and all its residents.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

As Charlie Baker winds down his time as governor of the Commonwealth, it should be clear to all those in Western Mass. that he will be missed in this part of the state.

Since he was first elected eight years ago, and even before he took office a few months later, he made it clear that the 413 would be a priority for him and his administration. And he has followed through on that pledge.

We bring this up because all governors say they are going to represent the entire state and take a keen interest in every community from Fall River to North Adams. But most don’t actually deliver on those promises. Baker has.

And he’s done it by doing more than showing up at the Big E for a creampuff or coming out to distrubute checks and get his picture taken while doing so — although he done that, too. He has actually taken a real interest in what happens out here, and he became visible, and influential, in ways most governors haven’t.

Whether it was listening to a group of entrepreneurs at Valley Venture Mentors — and asking them probing questions about how to take their ventures to the next level — or taking the lead in efforts to make projects like the Court Square Hotel and a new parking garage in downtown Springfield a reality, Baker didn’t just show in up this region, he became a strong advocate for it.

Before we go any further, we do need to note Baker was late, as in very late, in officially signing on to plans for a high-speed rail project that has been proposed, in large part, to help level the playing field between east and west and create more opportunities for those in this part of the state. This hesitancy to fully support the initiative, for whatever reason, certainly slowed the process.

Meanwhile, his administration’s response to the pandemic was more draconian than was necessary, and this deepened the challenge facing businesses of all sizes, but especially smaller ventures and those in the hospitality and tourism industry, one of the foundations of the Western Mass. economy.

That said, Baker made his presence felt in this part of the state, and in many ways made it a full partner in many initiatives here, not just in Springfield, but across the region.

It has been said by some that we have an inferiority complex in this state and that we spend too much time thinking we are slighted, ignored, or both. While there is some truth to that, it has been easy for some governors to talk a good game, but, in the end, pay lip service to the broad region west of Worcester.

Baker succeeded in getting his name on a menu item at the Student Prince restaurant — a bun-less hamburger, to be specific. But far more importantly, he let people in this region know that they not only had a voice, but that their voice was being heard.

We can only hope the state’s next governor can continue that pattern of involvement.

Opinion

Editorial

They cut the ribbon at the new Marriott Springfield Downtown last week.

It was a lavish ceremony that was more than three years in the making. That’s how long it has taken serial entrepreneurs Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, owners of Springfield Hospitality, to transform the property in Tower Square, which lost the Marriott flag several years ago amid serious decline, into one of the state’s best hotels west of Boston.

A host of local, state, and national elected officials, area business leaders, and representatives of the Marriott chain turned out to celebrate the transformation of the property and the return of the Marriott flag to Springfield. There were speeches, tours, music from the Springfield Sci-Tech band, and more.

The ceremony marked more than the official ribbon-cutting for the hotel, though. It commemorated a triumph over extreme challenge — this renovation, or re-imagination, of the property was undertaken during the pandemic and thus had to overcome a series of stern challenges — and a raising of the bar, if you will, in Springfield and its downtown.

Indeed, like MGM Springfield before it, the new Marriott sets a new standard for imagination and quality in the city, and it is our hope that it will inspire others to reach higher and think bigger as they contemplate what can be done in Springfield and its downtown.

From the beginning, not just with the hotel but with the larger Tower Square property, Patel and Mitta have thought outside the box — relocating the Greater Springfield YMCA to the property is perhaps the best example — and never settled for ‘good enough’ as they have remade the landmark that opened in the late ’60s and set the tone for a period of building higher and better in the city’s downtown.

It is our hope that, more than 50 years later, the renovated Marriott and Tower Square complex can have a similar impact.

Indeed, while there has been some real progress in downtown Springfield over the past several years with MGM Springfield, the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel (still ongoing), the construction of a new parking garage (set to begin), and other initiatives, many other properties remain vacant or very much underutilized.

This is especially true farther south on Main Street in the area across from the MGM complex. But there are other properties as well that are awaiting new life.

The Marriott project, and the larger Tower Square initiative, have shown what can be done. They’ve shown what’s possible when people are willing to commit to Springfield and, as we said, think big. It is our hope, and expectation, that it will be a big success from a business perspective as well.

It is also our hope that this project, and some of the others now taking shape, like Court Square, will inspire other developers to look at Springfield as a city worth investing in.

All this, in addition to a grand new hotel, is what people were celebrating at that ribbon cutting.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2018, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, one what would recognize the outstanding accomplishments of women across this region and tell stories that might otherwise go untold.

This new program, this new honor, needed a name. After many options were considered, ‘Woman of Impact’ was chosen because, while success in business is certainly a consideration, there are many other ways to make a difference in this community, and we wanted to show that.

Over the first four years of this program, we have done that just, and this pattern continues with the class of 2022 — a very diverse group of eight women who have given back, and changed lives, in many different ways: by taking their business or nonprofit to new levels of success; by serving as a role model to others, but especially women and girls; by mentoring others and helping them find direction and purpose in their lives; by persevering through adversity; by doing, well … all of the above.

As the stories will show, these are indeed, Women of Impact. They are:

Latoya Bosworth, who, through her work with MassHumanities, her coaching of professionals, her mentoring of young people, her efforts to promote breast health and the importance of mammograms, and much, much more, helps others “transcend limits and transform lives,” as she likes to say;

• Sister Mary Caritas, the 99-year-old leader and inspiration to generations of residents of this region. She has led hospitals, served on countless boards, and even led the effort to end the odor problems at Bondi’s Island. But mostly, she has shown others the value of getting involved and the power of perseverance;

• Jodi Falk, who has been on public assistance for a short time in her life and knows what food insecurity is all about. And that’s one of many chapters in her life that has enabled her to take the reins of the nonprofit Rachel’s Table, broaden its mission, create new programs, and meet the needs of more people in Western Mass. She is an innovator, a motivator, and a true leader;

Anika Lopes, an internationally recognized milliner (or hat maker) who returned to her ancestral home of Amherst three years ago and set about bringing its neglected history — particularly the history of the Black and indigenous people who shaped it — into the light, and lauched a foundation to help provide today’s BIPOC communities with opportunities for success;

Laurie Raymaakers, who knows that success in business does not come easy, but through hard work, sacrifice, and finding ways to make it through the difficult days that inevitably come. Her story brings all this home in a compelling way while also showing that there are many ways to touch people’s lives and impact the community we call home;

• Hilda Roqué, who came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico at age 14, far from home and with no sense of belonging. Her role as executive director of Nuestras Raíces comes with many responsibilities, including its mission to connect people to their roots through agriculture. But beyond that, she is committed to seeing that those arriving today, and in the years to come, are not made to feel as she was;

• Ashley Sullivan, who, even as she succeeded in college and in her early career in engineering, often felt inadequate for the task. Her achievements, capped by earning the presidency of her firm after two decades, has instilled in her a desire to inspire and support young engineers, especially young women, with not just opportunity, but confidence; and

• Aelan Tierney, who told BusinessWest that “architecture impacts every aspect of our life. If you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.” She has indeed made an impact with more than her architecture. She’s also a leader in her business and in the community, and she’s a true role model.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Latino Economic Development Council (LEDC) opened to considerable fanfare last month. And with good reason.

It wasn’t just the new digs in the old Massachusetts Lottery facility on Fort Street that has people excited. It’s the broad and laudable mission, as well as the unique model, that is turning heads, while also providing promise for changing the local business landscape — in all kinds of ways.

The mission — the unofficial mission, anyway — as stated by several of the speakers in attendance at the grand opening, is to transform employees into employers, consumers of products into producers of products, people who work for others into people who work for themselves.

And the model for doing that is indeed quite unique. The agency, which will award microgrants and provides space for meetings and co-working, has, at its core, a team of more two coaches that will provide a wide range of counseling and training that holds the promise of helping people grow their businesses and take them to the next level.

These coaches offer expertise in subjects ranging from finance to human resources; marketing to mental wellness; personal finance to accounting. It is this expertise that can help fledgling businesses create opportunities and avoid some of the problems that turn business ventures into casualties.

As we said, the model is unique. Many of the agencies within the region’s large and growing entrepreneurship ecosystem, such as Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll, provide mentoring and education in specific subjects. But there isn’t a deep bench of people who are in business and can pass on what they know to small-business owners who can benefit from their knowledge and experience.

One of the coaches, Giulberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional-development coach for the LEDC, perfectly summed up the work of the LEDC and why he became a coach when he told BusinessWest, “I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

Giving back is a critical component of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and it’s one of the principles that has enabled this region to make great strides when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship, getting new businesses off the ground, and, as Amador said, enabling them to remain viable.

While helping individual businesses is the stated goal of the LEDC, its broader ambition, as many speakers stated at the grand opening, is to change the landscape, both figuratively and also quite literally, when it comes to new businesses on Main Street and many other streets in cities and towns across the region, especially new Latino businesses.

After all, this is the fastest-growing segment of the region’s business community, and it possesses enormous growth potential for the years and decades to come, said Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for the agency, noting that what many in that community need is a “leg up,” which can come in many different forms, from capital to that expertise provided by the coaches.

Speaking for just about everyone in the room that night, and everyone involved with the LEDC, Amador told BusinessWest, “if there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s. I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

This ambitious agency and its unique model of doing business holds great promise for making those sentiments become reality.

Opinion

Editorial

 

President Joe Biden famously, and matter-of-factly, announced recently that the pandemic is “over.”

Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen, but what isn’t in question is the fact that, while the pandemic may indeed be a matter for the past tense, businesses large and small continue to face a mountain of challenges, many of them stemming directly or indirectly from the pandemic.

This much was made clear in a recently released MassINC survey that revealed, among other things, that just over half the businesses polled, 53%, are reporting revenues lower than before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, inflation is at a 40-year high, supply-chain issues persist, a labor shortage continues, the Great Resignation is far from over, and now there is apparently a new workforce issue to contend with — so-called ‘quiet quitting,’ whereby employees don’t officially leave their jobs; they just do the bare minimum.

We’re not sure if quiet quitting is a byproduct of the pandemic or not — it’s a relatively new phenomenon, and there is not much data on it — but just about everything else is, from inflation to the supply-chain issues to the persistent problems companies are having with staffing up.

So while it’s good to hear that the pandemic is over — at least in a technical sense; we’re now told that COVID is in the same category as the flu — the ‘normal’ that everyone in the Western Mass. business community was seeking ever since we first heard of COVID seems like it is still a long way off.

Especially with growing talk about a recession, when it will come, how severe it will be — and whether or not we are already in one, which many economists already believe we are, as well as headlines about soaring energy costs and escalation of fighting in Ukraine.

Maybe the biggest issue, though, is the Federal Reserve’s ongoing fight against inflation. The Fed recently raised interest rates again, this time by three-quarters of a point for the third straight time, an aggressive tactic that might — that’s might — bring inflation back down to its 2% goal, but at a potentially high cost when it comes to the economy and the plight of businesses large and small.

Indeed, the tactics used to fight inflation may well tip the economy into a recession and, in the meantime, make it harder for businesses to attain the capital they need to expand, prompting more job cuts; many businesses have already gone from hiring to laying people off. Fed policy makers are projecting that the jobless rate will reach 4.4% by the end of 2023, up from its current level of 3.7%.

Overall, the cure may be worse than the disease, as the nation witnessed 40 years ago, when, to tame inflation, the Fed pushed the country into a protracted recession.

President Biden also said recently that he believes that a “soft landing” is possible for the economy. Perhaps, but many economists are predicting a much harder fall.

That’s not what area business owners want to hear after two and a half long years of battling the pandemic and its many side effects.

Technically speaking, the pandemic is over, but the challenges remain. We said back in March 2020 that the local business community was resilient and up to the challenge. We still believe that, but this resilience is certainly being tested, and the quest for normal — whatever that is — goes on.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

When it comes to dress codes and attire, companies for years have developed policy standards rooted in conveying a clean, conservative, and/or professional look. In so doing, employees had to conform to a singular vision or appearance. Whether defined expressly or otherwise, hairstyles have been a part of such stereotypes and visions, which has consequently left many minority applicants and/or employees on the sidelines when it came to being hired or promoted into certain positions despite being otherwise qualified to perform those roles.

Enter the CROWN Act legislation. CROWN is short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and is designed to break down some of the stereotypical barriers that certain minority groups were facing when being considered for employment.

To date, 17 states have adopted CROWN Act legislation, with Massachusetts being the latest to sign such measures into law. Other states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. Federally, Congress has contemplated a CROWN Act measure; this measure has been referred to the Senate for further consideration.

What is its significance? For states that have adopted these measures, it makes it unlawful to discriminate based on “natural or protective hairstyles.” Examples of these hairstyles include hair that is tightly coiled or curled, or worn in locks, cornrows, twists, braids, bantu knots, or afros.

For employers that are operating in a state that has enacted CROWN Act legislation, what should you do?

First, review your company policies to see if there is any express language prohibiting such hairstyles in the workplace. Policies that I have seen in handbooks that I have reviewed where the topic of hairstyles has been addressed have included such policies as dress code, hygiene, personal appearance, and professionalism.

If you are a multi-state employer that operates in states where CROWN Act legislation both has and has not been adopted, be careful with your handbook policy and structure. If your handbook is distributed across all your locations, it may be easier administratively to adjust your policy across the board to ensure compliance. (While, conceivably, another path could be to carve out your dress code or other policies and treat them as state-specific addenda or supplements that coincide with the different state requirements, such a practice may prove to be more cumbersome to sustain over time.)

Then there is the subject of managerial and supervisory actions and practices. For instance, have managers and supervisors chosen not to hire an applicant in the past over concerns about hairstyles? Passed over an employee for a promotion? Is it a topic of conversation addressed in interviews? Has the topic been broached in performance reviews or in disciplinary writeups? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then further discussion with management is advised to change practices (whether attributable to express or unconscious bias) moving forward.

As CROWN Act legislation continues to get adopted nationwide, companies may need to change their ways and let their hair down. Choosing otherwise could lead to discriminatory consequences and litigation down the road.

 

Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2017, BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes. In the early going, there were some questions among those seeking to nominate people and organizations about just how that word ‘hero’ was defined.

We told people then, and we tell them now, that ‘hero’ can be defined many different ways, but within the broad spectrum of healthcare, it traditionally denotes someone, some group, or some organization that is changing lives — and in a very positive way.

And, working with this basic definition, we have celebrated dozens of heroes over the past five years, with each story being different and each one touching on the many different ways those in healthcare touch our lives, bring passion, as in passion, to their work, and, yes, change lives.

And the class of 2022 is no exception, as the stories make clear. This class is defined by special people, always working in cooperation and collaboration with others, to improve quality of life for people in this region. It includes:

• Helen Caulton-Harris, the hero in the Lifetime Achievement category, who is being recognized for her life’s work, especially as commissioner of Health and Human Services for the city of Springfield, to educate people, advocate on their behalf, and create policy that will change and improve the general wellness of the community;

• Mark Paglia, COO of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, the hero in the Administration category, who not only opened that facility in the middle of a pandemic and amid a host of other challenges, but has established himself as a strong leader who empowers his team members and gives them the tools they need to succeed;

• Dr. Phillip Glynn, director of Medical Oncology at Mercy Medical Center, who could be the honoree in many categories, but is the 2022 hero in the Provider category for his work to balance science and humanity, guide his patients through a difficult journey, and make sure their voices are heard;

• Dr. Sundeep Shukla, chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Noble Hospital, who is being honored as the 2022 Emerging Leader hero for his tireless work to not only care for patients, but make the ER an effective safety net and efficient asset — for the hospital and the community;

• The Addiction Consult Service at Holyoke Medical Center, the hero in the Community Health category, which was created as a means to help stem the rising tide of opioid overdoses in the region and offer help and hope to those it touches, especially hope that they can bring change to their lives;

• The Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, a program at UMass Amherst being honored in (of course) the Innovation category, for bringing together two distinct disciplines in a way that makes perfect sense, and already finding success researching ways to improve patient care through better technology;

• Dr. Paul Pirraglia, division chief of General Medicine and Community Health at Baystate Health, who convened a broad, multi-organization response to the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 that delivered critical protection, communication, and resources to an often-underserved population, earning one of two awards this year in the Collaboration category; and

• ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic and its partners at Springfield College and UMass Amherst, this year’s other Collaboration heroes, for fostering connections that not only serve people with acquired brain injury, but, through hands-on education, are actively developing the next generation of therapists.

It’s an impressive class, all more than worthy of being called Healthcare Heroes.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Looking at Springfield’s Union Station today, a bustling facility with trains, buses, businesses, and people, it might be easy to forget there was a time when just about everyone in this city had given up the dream of ever revitalizing the long-dormant station.

It was 15 years or so ago. The city was in receivership, at the very early stages of climbing out of a deep and persistent funk. There was progress on some fronts, but still myriad challenges to overcome and a long list of priorities that did not include the historic but mostly forgotten station.

The suggestion from those running the city at the time was to mothball Union Station, try to protect it from the elements, move onto other, more manageable projects, and maybe get back to the train station another day.

Kevin Kennedy wasn’t buying any of that. Then an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, he wasn’t going to let the congressman’s long-held dream of revitalizing the station, which had been dormant since the early ’80s, lose whatever momentum it had.

So he kept at it, meeting with a small group of officials on a weekly basis to keep the project on some kind of roadmap and pulling the myriad details, from funding to design to logistics, into alignment. It was a monumental task, and most would have given up in frustration early on in the process.

But Kennedy never did, and today we have a revitalized Union Station, thanks to Neal — but, really, the thanks go to Kennedy. He’s the one who got it done.

And Kennedy, who passed away late last month, was able to get a lot of things done, as an aide to Neal and also as chief Development officer for the city, a job he assumed in 2011.

That lengthy list includes the new federal courthouse on State Street and the State Street Corridor project, MGM Springfield and the many components of that project, recovery from the 2011 tornado and the 2012 natural-gas explosion, and many other important initiatives.

These projects were all different, but they were similar in that they were extremely difficult and required high levels of coordination and cooperation, as well as a point person who was able to navigate whitewater and stay on track.

Kennedy was that point person.

When asked by BusinessWest why he wanted to leave the post with Neal and take the development position, Kennedy said simply, “I’ve proven I can get things done — and we have a lot of work to do in this city.”

He was right on both accounts. Looking back, Kennedy was the right person in the right position at the right time, and Springfield is now in a much better place because he was.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to find reason behind the Biden administration’s decision to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers.

Indeed, the amount of overall student debt has skyrocketed in recent years, and many individuals and families are paying off amounts of $40,000 or more — and struggling, often mightily — to do so.

Student loan debt has been cited as a reason why many young professionals are unable to buy homes and achieve the lifestyle they had envisioned when they went to college and pursued a career.

But the administration’s plan to simply cancel large swaths of this debt is not the answer to this growing problem. It is costly (we don’t even know how much this is going to cost the taxpayers), arbitrary, and, yes, inherently unfair to those who have already paid off college loans, worked two or three jobs so they wouldn’t have to take on debt, or opted not to go to college because they couldn’t afford it.

But beyond that, this plan to simply take debt off the books is a simplistic approach to a problem that you can equate, in some respects, to a backyard weed. You can cut it down, like the Biden administration is doing by erasing some of this debt, but to really address the problem, you need to get at the roots.

And this will require a solution that is far more complicated than simply forgiving $10,000 or $20,000 in college-loan debt.

The cost of a college education has skyrocketed over the past few decades, far accelerating the pace of inflation. It is these spiraling costs that need to be brought under control.

Increasingly, a college education is necessary to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. But the cost of that education — at most all institutions, but especially private, four-year colleges and universities — is now more than most individuals and families can handle — unless they assume large amounts of debt to close the gap between the cost and what they can afford.

The challenge for the Biden administration is to tackle this problem at the roots, to somehow control and perhaps even bring down the cost of a college education so that individuals and families don’t have to take on debt. That’s a big challenge and there are no easy answers.

But that answer will be a better, more meaningful solution than waving one’s hand and simply eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars in loan payments at taxpayers’ expense.

That’s because the weed is going to grow back. v

Opinion

Editorial

The scaffolding has come down from the five-story wall on Worthington Street facing Stearns Square after a lengthy process of restoration and completion of a new mural undertaken by artist John Simpson.

So now, people can see what they have. And what have is much more than art, although it is certainly that.

It is bridge from the past to the present — and the future — as a well as a conversation piece and another important effort to ‘activate’ property in the City of Homes, and especially in its downtown.

We’re seeing that word ‘activate’ quite a bit lately in reference to downtown properties — everything from the old Court Square Hotel, now being renovated into apartments, to the parking lot adjacent to the soon-to-be-demolished and replaced Civic Center Parking Garage (that property will become an extension of the MassMutual Center and used for various gatherings). It’s also been used to describe restoration work at Stearns Square, Pynchon Park, the riverfront, and other landmarks.

Overall, it is used to describe efforts to take something that was once dormant, or underutilized, and bring it back to useful life.

It’s understandable that the phrase would be used in reference to buildings or parks or even vacant lots. But a wall — in this case, the east wall of the Driscoll Building, built in 1894 and on the National Register of Historic Places?

Yes, a wall.

The wall has been there for 125 years or so, and the advertisements for cameras and related equipment that adorned the wall and sold by the company, Bloom’s, which occupied the structure, have been there for nearly 70 years. But they had become faded and easy to overlook.

Now, the wall is impossible to overlook. It features those same ads, carefully restored to what they were in the 1950s, as well as other images depicting people, businesses, products, and culture that help tell the story of Springfield — everything from a Dr. Seuss book to an Indian motocycle to a depiction of Milton Bradley.

In short, the wall is no longer a wall. It’s a piece of art, but it’s more than that. It’s a window to the past and a vibrant, colorful part of the present and future of the city. It’s also an attraction. People stop, they look, they take pictures, and they marvel at what once was — and still is. You don’t often see 50-foot-high ads for camera equipment.

Even more importantly, this wall is another piece of the city that has been activated, or given a new life. With each triumph like this — and it is a triumph — Springfield takes another important step forward in its efforts to become more vibrant and more livable.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It took a few years longer than it should have, but sports gambling finally seems to be a reality in the Bay State.

The Massachusetts Legislature recently approved a sports-betting bill, and Gov. Charlie Baker has signed it into law. If all goes well — something that doesn’t happen often in this state — systems should be in place for sports betting for later this year and certainly by the time the Super Bowl rolls around next February.

This news is cause for celebration in the state’s three casinos, which have been pushing hard for such a measure, and for good reason. Gaming revenues have certainly not been what they were projected to be nearly four years after MGM Springfield opened its doors to great pomp and circumstance. And the lack of sports betting has given gamblers one more reason to cross the border and go to facilities in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Sports betting seemed to always make sense as a way to help these casinos improve traffic, bring more revenue to the state, and add some jobs. But that didn’t stop the Legislature from doing what it does all too often: sit on its hands.

Indeed, state lawmakers tend to overthink these things, if that’s even the right term, and this leads to indecision. It happened with gaming for several years, and it happened with sports betting as well.

After four years of “painstaking work and research,” as state Sen. Eric Lesser called it, the Legislature was able to come to an agreement on a bill providing for both retail and mobile sports wagering, one that will allow betting on college sports, with some restrictions, and also comes with a number of consumer protections. These include a provision whereby, for online and mobile betting, bets cannot be linked to credit cards — a measure implemented to make sure consumers are wagering with funds on hand and not borrowing.

Projections of revenues vary, but the measure is expected to bring in more than $35 million annually. That’s not a huge number, but right now, it’s money that’s going elsewhere, and that the state could put to good use in areas ranging from workforce development to public health.

The state is once again late to the party. But late is better than never — or even later. v

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

When Laura Teicher was hired as director of Greentown Learn in 2018, one of the first things she did was push for a rebrand, a new name that better represented what the enterprise — an offshoot of Greentown Labs in Somerville that connects startups with manufacturers — is all about.

The team tried to get some variation of the word ‘connect’ into the name, almost calling it KINECT before realizing that was the name of a failed Super Nintendo app, as well as too close to K’Nex building toys.

What they eventually settled on was FORGE, which isn’t an acronym; the capital letters are used for emphasis. It was simply, elegant, and forceful, speaking to the way the agency forges relationships between innovators looking to produce and then scale up their big ideas, and manufacturers looking for new, local lines of business.

And that’s exactly what it has done, helping more than 500 startups since 2015, currently engaging more than 450 manufacturers, and supporting more than 4,500 jobs in innovation and manufacturing along the way. The startups in the program boast more than a 90% survival rate; the national average is around 10%.

But, in some ways, FORGE’s name took on a new meaning during the past two and a half years of economic upheaval churned up by the pandemic. It reflects the way this agency forged on, not only continuing to make connections, but re-emphasizing the importance of what it does.

Take the supply-chain crisis. The disruptions of those global production and shipping networks, which continues today, caused many manufacturers to localize their supply chains as much as possible, at the same time that startup companies were increasingly looking to manufacture their products close to home. In that sense, FORGE has become an even more valuable part of the innovation and manufacturing ecosystem.

But even in more stable times, an enterprise like FORGE is simply a good idea, on many levels. So many startups with good ideas fail because they don’t have this kind of resource to guide them into the production and scaling phases that are critical to a business success story. And so many manufacturers aren’t aware of the potential new lines of business sprouting up in their own backyards.

The greatest beneficiary is the regional economy itself. These connections are not only helping businesses grow and thrive, but do so in Massachusetts, and in many cases Western Mass., and that’s good economic news for everyone.

FORGE’s Western Mass. director, Kevin Moforte, told BusinessWest that he loves entrepreneurship, partly because of the role it plays in building not just individual wealth, but prosperous, stable communities. That’s something to celebrate during an era that has been anything but stable.

Opinion

Editorial

 

From the day he took the helm with the fledgling Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team, Nate Costa, now the president of the franchise, talked about the importance of winning to the ultimate success of a team.

Indeed, Costa, who came to Springfield following management roles with several minor league sports operations, often spoke about the importance of presentation and the overall experience when it came to how well a team could capture the hearts and minds of a region or community — and thrive financially. But ultimately, he said there is no real substitute for winning. A team can have endless promotions, bring in big names as guests, and offer special prices on hot dogs and beer, he implied, but in the end, it would have to win to really break through.

The events of the past few several months, and especially the past few weeks, have proven Costa right.

As the Thunderbirds made their way to the Calder Cup finals against the Chicago Wolves, the team moved to a new and much higher level in terms of visibility and presence, for lack of a better term, in the Greater Springfield area. While T-Birds ultimately lost the series, four games to one, including the last three at home, it was a clear winner on every other level.

Let’s start with the games themselves. The downtown area was electric on game nights. Some fans would arrive an hour or two before the game started. There was some tailgating in some of the parking lots and larger crowds in many of the area restaurants.

The weekend games that closed out the series were sell-outs, and there were high levels of energy in the MassMutual Center.

Overall, the Thunderbirds were front of mind for the past month or so as they progressed in the playoffs to the finals. They were the lead story on local sports pages and the local news shows, but there was more than that.

People were talking about them — at the office, in coffee shops, and at the many events that have been staged in the region over the past several months as the long-awaited return to normalcy from the pandemic has moved to a different level. And they are still talking about them.

And while people were talking about this team, they were reminiscing about championship teams from 30 and 50 years ago. Hockey, for at least a little while, became king.

The best news is that interest in the T-Birds has moved well beyond talk. Season-ticket sales are far ahead of the pace for previous years, and they, as everyone knows, are one of the key cornerstones to success. More corporate support is certain to follow.

While the Thunderbirds have always had a presence in Springfield and the region, they have now officially arrived. And this bodes extremely well for a city that will need this team to play a big role in its full recovery from the pandemic and ongoing efforts to make downtown a place to not only work, but live.

The T-Birds did not bring home the Calder Cup in 2022. But they may have succeeded in an even bigger game, if one can call it that.

They have broken through and truly captured the attention of the region. That makes them big winners.

Opinion

Editorial

Area businesses already battling an intense workforce crisis received an additional dose of sobering news recently when MassINC released a report indicating that the Bay State could lose as much as 10% of its college-educated workforce by the end of the decade, a drop of roughly 129,000 people.

The projected decline stems from a number of factors, said the think tank, including a huge wave of retiring baby boomers, falling numbers of school-aged children in the state, and declining immigration. To sum it all up, there are fewer people going to college — certainly not enough to offset the number of boomers who are retiring — and fewer people coming into the state — from other countries and from other states, with the latter the result of the exploding cost of living in Massachusetts.

This confluence of factors leads to MassINC’s dire projections, which, if they come to be, will make an already narrow pipeline of qualified talent for jobs in a technology-focused region even smaller, threatening the health and vitality of many sectors.

There is not much anyone can do at this point about the birth rates that will lead to this projected talent drain, but there are some steps that can be taken to perhaps lessen the blow, starting with efforts to help more people attain a college degree.

This work starts with easing more people into college, especially through early-college programs in high schools, a step that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said is effective in increasing both college enrollment and completion rates, especially for low-income students and students of color.

Getting more people into and then through college is only part of the equation. As the cost of living in Massachusetts continues its upward movement, more college graduates will gravitate elsewhere. More housing, especially affordable housing, is one answer to this problem.

Indeed, a recent report on the state of U.S. housing released late last month by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reveals that, to afford a typical house in Greater Boston, one will need to earn more than $180,000. The numbers for this region are roughly half — $96,000 for Pittsfield, $83,500 for Greenfield, and $87,412 for Springfield.

With those statistics in mind, the need for high-speed rail becomes even more evident. They show the importance of enabling someone who wants to work in Boston, Cambridge, or Worcester to live in the 413.

The new report from MassINC is certainly sobering. As anyone in business can tell you, a college education is increasingly necessary to succeed in today’s high-tech economy. This state, and this region, needs more people with degrees, not 129,000 fewer of them.

The task at hand is to bring more people into college and then through it, and to then make it possible for more people with degrees to afford to live here. Nothing about this assignment is easy, but the stakes are high, and something needs to be done.

Opinion

Editorial

At the midway point in what has been a historically difficult year for consumers, calls are growing increasingly louder for tax relief in the Commonwealth, and especially gas-tax relief.

And it’s time those pleas were answered.

Indeed, at a time when the state is essentially swimming in cash — the rainy-day fund saw $2 billion in capital gains tax collections between Feb. 1 and May 31 — it only makes sense for the state to bring from relief to those who are being adversely impacted by record-high prices at the pump.

And that’s …. just about everyone, from families looking to take vacations to businesses of all sizes just trying to carry on day-day activities. Prices have gone up in almost every category of consumer goods and services, but the huge increase in gas prices touches just about everyone, and it is having a very real impact.

That not-so-magic number of $5 per gallon was passed recently in the Bay State — and just about every other state in the country. In fact, it’s already well above that figure, which represents more than a number. For many, it’s a threshold. When gas hits that mark, people start to cut back.

They cut back on travel — which means fewer visits to the businesses, and there are many of them in this part of the state, in the tourism and hospitality sector that were already reeling from two and half years of pandemic and were looking toward 2022 as a return to something approaching normal.

Or … people and businesses cut back on other things, because they simply can’t cut back on travel.

And when they cut back, an economy that is already on the edge when it comes to heading into a recession, may just tip in the wrong direction.

If times were different and the state was not flush with cash, we could almost see a reason for not moving forward with some gas-tax relief — almost. But not in these times. Not when the state is far from hurting fr revenue and when many other states have seen the wisdom of providing residents with some form of gas-tax relief.

Not at a time when many businesses are finally starting to make it almost all the way back from the depths of the pandemic and need help, not another punch to the stomach.

Not at a time when many businesses have been forced to pass along price increases to consumers because of rising cost of labor, raw materials, and just about everything else, and now they’re faced with passing on more because of the rising cost of gasoline.

We’re not sure what a tax-gas holiday would cost the state when it comes to its credit rating or overall revenues. But at this critical time for the business community and the economy as a whole, the cost of not putting some relief in place would certainly be much higher.

It’s time for state lawmakers to do the right thing and provide the Commonwealth with some much-needed help at the pump. v

Opinion

Editorial

As spring prepares to turn to summer, there are many positive signs for the region’s economy as it moves ever closer to the normal that we have all been seeking since we first heard that word ‘COVID’ back in early March of 2020.

Indeed, the tourism sector seems poised for a strong summer as those who have been shut in, to one degree or another, for the past 27 months, are poised to make up for some lost time. Couple that with soaring gas prices, soaring prices to fly, and soaring prices to stay in a hotel, and many will be opting for day trips and staying closer to home, which also bodes well for our local tourism and hospitality economy, which is geared toward those types of visits.

But amid the many promising signs, there are many stark reminders that, if what we’ve been in for the past two years could be considered the woods, we are certainly not out of them — not by a long shot.

And we need look no further than Northampton and the now shuttered Sylvester’s restaurant for ample proof of that sobering fact.

The owners of that establishment were nearing 40 years of service to the Pioneer Valley when they decided, in their words, to “simplify their lives.’ By that, they meant that they would focus on their other restaurant, Roberto’s, also in Northampton, and close Sylvester’s, which focused exclusively on breakfast and lunch and was a favorite of many in this region, a landmark in every sense of the word.

“Our hearts are heavy as we make a difficult announcement,” they wrote on FaceBook. “After 39 years of serving the Pioneer Valley, we have decided to close our doors at Sylvester’s. Anyone in the business will tell you that navigating a restaurant through the pandemic of the last two years has been a monumental task.

“We have always been successful because of our staff, managers, and family,” they went on. “Many of our staff had come back to us after being laid off twice in the past year. They’ve endured a mask mandate in a steamy kitchen, endless challenges, labor shortages, and the struggles and worries brought on by COVID-19.”

Slicing through all this and reading between the lines, it’s clear that, while the pandemic has loosened its grip on the region and its business community, this fight is far from over. And it’s likely that Sylvester’s will not be the last casualty.

Indeed, businesses of all kinds, but especially those in hospitality, retail, and other service businesses, are still struggling to turn back the clock to 2019. In fact, most have realized there is simply no returning to the way things were.

Wages have skyrocketed and myriad other costs have risen in ways that could not have been imagined two years ago. Some businesses can pass along these higher costs, but others have a much harder time doing so. Meanwhile, it has become painfully clear that the workforce crisis, like inflation itself, is not temporary — or anywhere near as temporary as we all would like.

Finding help, even at the going, much-higher rates seen today, is a daunting task, and for some, it has proven too daunting.

As we mourn the loss of Sylvester’s and the traditions it spawned, we are reminded that, while the skies are certainly brighter in this region and the pandemic has eased its grip, COVID and its many side-effects are still a considerable force to be reckoned with.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2015, BusinessWest decided to add a new layer of intrigue to its popular 40 Under Forty Program.

The new wrinkle involved a separate award that would be presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the minds of a panel of independent judges, had most impressively built on their resume of both excellence in their chosen field and work within the community. We call it the Alumni Achievement Award, or AAA for short.

And over the years, this award has become one of the most coveted that we present each year because of what it represents — specifically a deep and ongoing commitment to this region.

Indeed, it has become a symbol of excellence, but actually much more than that. It has become a symbol of caring about this region we call home and a passion for making it a better place to live, work, and operate a business.

Which brings us to this year’s three finalists for the AAA award, all of whom exemplify the reasons we created it in the first place. Only one will take home the award at the 40 Under Forty gala on June 16, but all of them are very worthy:

• Amanda Garcia was vice president of Operations for Junior Achievement when she became a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2010. At that time, she had recently launched her own accounting firm. In the ensuing years she has moved into higher education, as a professor of accounting and finance at Elms College. At Elms, she has helped launched and build the MBA program and create new initiatives such as a program in Entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, she has grown her business — it now boasts three employees — and remained committed to JA and other nonprofits in the region. She has also become a mentor and coach to many entrepreneurs and young people looking for guidance on college and life in general;

• Anthony Gleason II was also part of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2010. Back then, he was 24, but already a successful businessperson, especially with his own venture, Gleason Johndrow Landscaping. In the ensuing years, he has grown that venture into one of the largest snow-removal companies in the country, while also building an impressive commercial real estate portfolio.

In the community, Gleason and his company have become strong supporters of the Spirit of Springfield and its many initiatives, especially its annual pancake breakfast and Bright Nights, but it also supports many other nonprofits and specific fund-raising efforts;

• Amy Royal became a 40 Under Forty honoree one year earlier than her co-finalists. Since 2009, she has grown her law firm and diversified its roster of services, adding national and international clients ranging from Google to Macy’s to Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Meanwhile, in the community, she continues to lend her time and talents to a number of nonprofits, from the Center for Human Development to the Springfield Ballers.

Overall, these three finalists are shining examples of why BusinessWest created the Alumni Achievement Award and why this honor has become so coveted. There are now more than 600 women and men with 40 Under Forty plaques in their offices; these finalists represent the best of the best.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Lawyers representing the families that filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in the wake of the deaths of 84 veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020 — and family members themselves — contend that the state’s willingness to pay $56 million to those families is an admission that this tragedy, one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, was preventable and never should have happened.

And they are right in that assessment. While COVID presented a stern challenge to every long-term facility in the country, and deaths were recorded at most all of them, what happened at the Soldiers’ Home was different. What happened there was negligence — on many, many levels.

The 29-page lawsuit charged that the state “made a promise to its citizen-soldiers” to care for them after they served their country but failed to stem the spread of COVID-19 through the home, which it said, “was preventable.”

“The Commonwealth did not keep its promise to protect and keep them safe from harm when they were unable to care for themselves,” the complaint states. “Our veterans deserved better.”

This is an understatement. It was and is the state’s responsibility to place those soldiers in the hands of administrators capable of leading a healthcare facility, and it was and is the state’s responsibility to make sure that those placed in these positions are doing the jobs they were hired to do.

In the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, neither of these responsibilities were met.

The lawsuit repeatedly cited the findings of the state-ordered investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein, who found that leaders at the Soldiers’ Home made ‘utterly baffling’ mistakes in responding to the outbreak. These mistakes were not the result of poor leadership — they were the result of unqualified leadership.

The consequences were catastrophic — 84 lives were lost, and countless other lives were shattered by those losses.

Families of the victims, and even Gov. Baker himself, have acknowledged that the money from the settlement — roughly $400,000 for each victim — doesn’t end the pain. But for many impacted by this tragedy, it will bring a sense of closure.

We’re hoping that it will bring something else — a deeper commitment on the part of this state and other states to uphold their promises to constituencies like the veterans in Holyoke and to take more seriously the responsibilities they have to place such facilities in the hands of people capable of running them.

It wasn’t long after the full scope of the tragedy in Holyoke revealed itself that it became clear that this calamity simply didn’t have to happen. Any doubts were erased by the state’s willingness to settle this lawsuit. The state did the right thing by settling and can do the right thing again by making sure that the lessons learned here are heeded and those in power remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts announced recently that Katie Allan Zobel will be stepping down from her role as president and CEO of that vital agency. A search for a successor has commenced and a transition should be completed by September.

We’re confident that a worthy successor will be named, but these will be big shoes to fill, indeed. During her tenure, Zobel took an already successful agency to new heights in terms of the work that it does and the lives that it impacts, and she is to be commended for all that she has done.

The Community Foundation was never just about writing checks and dispensing scholarships to students and funds to nonprofits. But on Zobel’s watch, the agency took philanthropy in many different directions, but especially the realm of working to solve problems in our community rather than simply throw money at them.

Under Zobel’s leadership, the Community Foundation of Western Mass. launched Valley Gives, which has raised more than $10 million through annual one-day, on-line fundraising campaigns for local nonprofits. Valley Gives has helped bring attention to the needs of hundreds of the region’s nonprofits, and it inspires more individuals and groups to give, because the foundation has made it easier to do so.

Another initiative launched during Zobel’s tenure is Valley Gives, a partnership with the Barr Foundation established to support a vibrant arts and creativity sector in Western Mass., an initiative that is already giving a louder, stronger voice to this important sector of the local economy.

Still another initiative launched during Zobel’s tenure is an effort to support research on college completion, with the understanding that it’s not enough to give a worthy student a scholarship; there is a need to help ensure that the student can successfully complete their college education and then put their degree to work.

And then, at the height of the pandemic, Zobel led efforts to create the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund to support community members and nonprofit partners most severely impacted by the pandemic and its many side-effects.

It was initiatives like these and Zobel’s leadership efforts to create them that earned her the distinction of being named one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact, and the Community Foundation itself being named a Difference Maker by the magazine this spring.

But for Zobel, it’s never been about awards, and it has never been about her. Instead, it’s been about her team, and a laser focus on how the foundation can make this region stronger and more resilient.

In short, she has helped take philanthropy to a higher plane in this region, and she is to be commended for the many accomplishments she has led.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Over the years, we’ve written many times about the entrepreneurship ecosystem in this region and its importance to economic development in the four western counties. This is an area dominated by small businesses, and it always will be, with growth coming organically, rather by recruiting the likes of a General Electric (bad example, given what’s happened to that company) or a Smith & Wesson (OK, that’s another bad example and a rather sore subject.)

But you get the point. This is a region that needs to consistently encourage entrepreneurship, but also providing a support system for those inspired to try to work for themselves, rather than someone else.

And that’s where the small army of mentors now working with agencies like Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll, SCORE, and others comes in. As the story on page 6 reveals, these mentors are doing critically important work, not just by helping individuals with the many technical aspects of running a business — from marketing to reading a spreadsheet; from building a website to writing and rewriting a business plan — but also with handling the roller-coaster ride that is owning your own business.

These mentors come with different backgrounds and experience in various sectors. But they share one common, and important, trait. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. And, for the most part, those they are helping have not. And that’s why they are so important.

Entrepreneurship has been described as a lonely undertaking, even if there are other people involved in the business. And it is. The heavy weight of decisions, the risks assumed, and the anxiety that comes from working without the net of a steady weekly paycheck makes it a difficult, nerve-wracking undertaking.

Mentors understand all this, and they also understand that fledging entrepreneurs simply don’t know what they don’t know. So, they make a point to make sure they know more. And in the process, they may enable them to avoid some mistakes, but, more importantly, they help make sure that they learn from the mistakes they do make.

More important still, they make it clear that mistakes are not just common. They are to be expected. They are part and parcel to owning a business, whatever the product or service may be. And they can overcome.

Indeed, one of the most important lessons these mentors impart to those they are assisting is that failure isn’t something to fear. It is another part of the process, one very logical outcome when someone assumes risk and takes a chance on an idea. As one mentor reminded us, every entrepreneur of note has failed at some point in their career, and it’s not the failure that is noteworthy; it’s how he or she responds to it.

The mentors we spoke with for this issue all talked about the rewarding nature of their work. They all mentioned the pride they take in helping someone transform a rough idea from the back of a napkin into a success story.

All of us in this region share in these rewards, because each of these success stories brings more vibrancy and more jobs to Western Mass.

That’s why the work of these mentors is so critically important.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to understand why members of the Springfield City Council were not happy with the way the recent request for $6.5 million in emergency funding for the Court Square Development project came to them.

It arrived late and in the form of an ultimatum of sorts: ‘approve this additional expenditure immediately, or this important project will die.’ One of those officials involved with the now $64 million project hinted strongly that if the money was not approved, and quickly, the building would deteriorate and perhaps even collapse.

The 11th-hour request, which came on the heels of skyrocketing construction costs that are impacting development projects of all kinds across the country, should have come at the 10th hour or even the ninth. Those leading the project, which will bring 71 market-rate apartments, retail space, and a restaurant to downtown Springfield, knew costs were escalating and knew they would need additional assistance to keep the initiative on track.

They put the council on the spot, unnecessarily — so much so that a resolution was recently passed requiring the mayor’s office to give the council 30 days’ notice on any economic-development issue that needs council approval.

Fortunately, most members of the council put aside their concerns about how all this went down and did the right thing. They voted to approve the measure and enable the much-needed project to move forward.

There were some questions as to just how much this project is needed, but the majority of the council could see how the importance of the initiative to the future of the city.

We’ve said it many times, and others have said it many times as well: one of the real keys moving forward is to balance the many people working downtown with those who actually call that area home.

This has been a formula for success in many cities, including Lowell, Worcester, Hartford, and many others, and it will be a key ingredient for Springfield moving forward, especially if current trends continue and there are fewer people actually coming to work each day in the city’s downtown.

In those other cities, a critical mass of people living in a downtown has spawned new service and hospitality businesses, which, in turn, have promoted more people to want to live in those areas, which, in turn, has prompted more businesses, which attract more people … you get the idea.

The Court Square project, which has been talked about for decades, literally, and has come to fruition through a unique public-private partnership, isn’t the answer. But it’s part of the answer, just as MGM Springfield, a revitalized Tower Square and White Lion Brewing, the Springfield Thunderbirds, Union Station, new housing in the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street, and other developments are parts of the answer.

And that’s why it was so important for the council to look past the nature of this request and, as we said, do the right thing.

For Springfield, and the region, this was an important step forward.

Opinion

 

 

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this state’s mind-numbing hesitancy when it comes to sports gambling.

After all, legislators waited years after other states moved ahead with casino gambling to finally put a measure in place for Massachusetts. Time and again, casino gambling was brought up for votes and brushed aside for … another day. Finally, casino gambling was approved roughly a decade ago, but the hesitation cost the state dearly. Indeed, by the time the three casino operations in the state, including MGM Springfield, were up and running, the competition in surrounding states had increased exponentially, essentially changing the landscape and making it far more difficult for those casinos to gain the revenues that were projected when the casino bill was finally passed.

One might have thought the state would have learned from this expensive lesson, but here we are in late March, the middle of this year’s college basketball championships, the biggest betting event on the planet, and the state appears nowhere close to passing a sports-gambling bill.

It’s perplexing, but it’s also quite frustrating. The casinos sorely need this huge revenue stream, and the lack of sports betting is putting them at a competitive disadvantage, not only during March Madness, but the other 11 months of the year as well. The casinos have all built facilities in anticipation of a sports-gambling measure — MGM has created two areas for watching and wagering on sports (see story on page 33) — but they currently sit unused or have been put to other uses.

Theories abound about why there is such hesitation on sports gambling, including the one concerning it becoming competition for the state’s highly lucrative lottery. We understand the premise, but people were saying the same thing about the state’s three casinos. Almost four years after they’ve opened, the lottery is still thriving.

Another theory is that legislators are wary that sports gambling — on top of the casinos and the aforementioned lottery — would be too much gambling and perhaps put more people at risk of developing addictions.

We understand this theory as well, but if people want to bet on sports — and a large number of people do (Americans spent $9.7 billion on sports bets this past January alone) — they will find a way to do it. And with New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other nearby states already allowing such gambling, they don’t have to travel far to do it.

Overall, 15 states introduced sports-betting legislation in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the big question is why Massachusetts didn’t make it 16.

Bills have been introduced — several of them, in fact — but they haven’t received the requisite attention to gain any traction.

Overall, sports gambling is just not a priority in this state. Should it be? There are plenty of other priorities, certainly, including housing, education, mental health, and childcare. But while tackling them, it seems the state Legislature could find the time and inclination to pass a sports-gambling measure.

The ongoing hesitancy simply doesn’t make sense. And it should not continue.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Flash back exactly two years ago, to a time when employees of companies across the region — from banks to nonprofits; hospitals to health plans — packed up their computers and whatever else they needed and went home to work.

Initially, we thought two things that never really happened the way we expected. The first was that these workers wouldn’t be gone for long — maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, depending on how things went. The second was that, just as everyone left en masse, so would everyone return en masse.

Indeed, two years later, many still haven’t returned. And they certainly haven’t returned all at once.

And most importantly, most of those who have returned — and will return in the coming weeks and months — won’t be going to the office five days a week.

Suffice it to say the world of work has changed considerably since COVID-19 entered our lives — and there is simply no way things will go back to the way they were. The genie is out of the bottle, if you will, and there is no getting it back in.

But except for the long-term implications of this new world order on office properties, the restaurants and bars located around them that count these workers as patrons, and cities like Boston, New York, and even Springfield — and that’s another story — these developments are mostly positive.

In many ways, the move to flexible schedules and greater concern for the needs of employees is something businesses should have been thinking about long ago — and a few of the more progressive ones certainly were.

What the pandemic did, among other things, was show the business community that it could be done — that employees could work remotely and be just as effective as they were in the office, if not more effective — and that it should be done.

Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer at Ware-based Country Bank, probably said it best when she told BusinessWest, “one of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore.”

For the 200 or so years leading up to the pandemic, one size did fit all — at least in most cases. Almost everyone worked at the office. Almost everyone worked Monday through Friday. Almost everyone worked roughly 9 to 5.

One-size-fits-all worked for employers before the pandemic, and it worked for most employees, although they learned over the past two years that flexible schedules work better.

And what employers are learning now is that flexible schedules work better for them as well. They work because employees are generally happier. They work because, in some cases, productivity actually improves when people work remotely or in hybrid schedules. And they work because the biggest challenge facing all employers right now is attracting and retaining talent, and they’ve already found that they fare much better with those challenges if they can be accommodating to their employees.

Six months into the pandemic, most workers were still looking forward to the day when they could return to the office full-time. Not long after that, most were looking forward to perhaps not returning at all.

That’s how much the world of work has changed. And while we can’t say definitively what the future will bring, it seems almost certain that these changes are here to stay.

Opinion

Moving Toward ‘Normal.’

 

 

For more than two years now, this region and its business community have been longing for a return to something approaching ‘normal,’ or what we knew before COVID arrived in Western Massachusetts in early March of 2020.

If the pandemic has taught us anything over the past 24 months, it is that we shouldn’t take anything for granted and should never think that anything is ‘over,’ because ‘over,’ when it comes to COVID, is a relative term.

But, and this is a big but, we are starting to see some very welcome and very refreshing signs of normal. Let’s start with the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race. After a long, painful two-year hiatus, these traditions are returning, and Holyoke — and the region — are poised for a huge party.

Also returning after two years on the sidelines is Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference, an event that brings more than 2,000 attendees to the MassMutual Center in Springfield each spring. And then, there’s BusinessWest’s Difference Makers event, another early spring tradition.

It will be back at the main ballroom at the Log Cabin on March 24. The event has been staged over the past two years, but not in its traditional fashion. In 2021, it was a virtual event, and in 2020, it became a fall happening, staged at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin with 25 people in attendance — because that was the limit for event venues at that moment in time.

We all remember those days, and would probably like to forget them.

As we see more important signs of ‘normal’ — on our calendars, and in general — there is room for optimism that the time may soon be approaching when the pandemic ceases to rule our lives and is something we just have to live with. How soon, no one knows, but by most accounts, we’re moving much closer.

Those who spoke with BusinessWest about the Holyoke parade and its long-anticipated return, everyone from the mayor to the parade chairman to bar owners in the city, spoke about its importance from an economic perspective. Indeed, dozens of businesses benefit directly from the parade and the road race, and some generate perhaps half a normal year’s income during that one week.

But they also spoke of its importance from a civic pride perspective and how people came back to Holyoke year after year because it was the place to be St. Patrick’s Day — or the whole week. And they talked about the importance of getting back to something approaching normal.

That’s because it’s been missing from our lives for most of the past two years.

What we’ve learned since March of 2020 is that ‘normal’ is important, ‘normal’ is good for everyone.

And that point will be driven home again when the parade kicks off in Holyoke, when the speakers take to the stage at the Women’s Leadership Conference, and when the Difference Makers hear the applause they’ve earned at the Log Cabin.

Yes, we can all use a little ‘normal’ right about now.

Opinion

Editorial

Thirteen years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, Difference Makers, as a way to celebrate the many different ways individuals and organizations can make a difference in their community, and Western Mass. as a whole.

And this year’s additions to that list provide still more evidence that there are countless ways to make a difference, and they all need to be celebrated. They include:

Tara Brewster, vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, who has made community service more than a mantra, immersing herself in the work of area nonprofits and causes — not in a slapdash fashion, but putting her heart and soul into whomever she happens to be helping each day;

• The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which for 30 years has convened and connected myriad resources in the region to benefit a host of groups, from students trying to pay for college to the arts community to organizations focused on helping people through the pandemic and economic disruption; 

• Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, who has spent the last half-century operating programs — centered on energy, education, child welfare, workforce development, and more — that help people in need, while at the same time investing in the economic well-being of Springfield;

John Greaney, retired State Supreme Court justice and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, a judicial trailblazer who, as one peer put it, “has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor”;

Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival and principal at RC Communications, whose business has helped nonprofits reach new levels of marketing and success, and who brought those skills to bear on reviving a beloved music festival that continues to raise the profile of Northampton’s downtown;

• Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools and Spas, who has used his decades of success in the pool business as a springboard to support dozens of causes and organizations throughout the region, through both philanthropy and giving of his time — often in ways few people see;

• I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis, who emerged from a very difficult youth to found an organization that brings many resources together to, as its name implies, help young people journey from some dark, difficult times to a promising future; and

• Roca Holyoke and Springfield, an innovative program that helps young people in the criminal-justice system find a better path than recidivism and more time behind bars, by using case management, education, and employment training to get them into jobs and a stable, crime-free life.

As we said, there are no limits on the ways an individual or group can make a difference here in Western Mass. That’s what we’ve been celebrating since 2009, and the celebration continues with the class of 2022.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

Indeed, Bob Bolduc, the founder and owner of the Pride chain of gas stations and convenience stores, had announced his intentions to sell his business back in June, noting that it was time to retire and there was no one in the family interested in carrying on the business.

The search for a new buyer ended with the Boston-based private equity firm ArcLight Capital Partners, with the sale finalized at the end of last year.

Local press accounts have indicated that ArcLight plans no serious changes in the operation and intends to keep the chain intact and the name ‘Pride’ over the door. We hope all that is true. Any time a local business is sold to a national entity, there is concern that the region will be losing something in the translation.

And in this case, there is a lot to lose. That’s because, while Bolduc has been a bold, innovative entrepreneur who has authored one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories — the Pride chain boasts 31 stores (with more in various stages of development) and more than $300 million in annual sales — he has also been a philanthropist and strong supporter of many of the region’s nonprofit agencies.

Much was made of one particular act of philanthropy — actually, one act with many parts to it. That was Bolduc’s decision to donate Pride’s $50,000 ‘bonus’ for selling the single largest lottery win in U.S. history to one Mavis Wanczyk to a number of elementary schools and youth-focused nonprofits.

Some called it a publicity stunt — and he certainly got a lot of publicity from it — but Bolduc’s decision to share the wealth, and the manner in which he did, speaks volumes about how he gave back to the community, and especially its young people — and also why BusinessWest bestowed its coveted Difference Makers award on him in 2018.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” Bolduc said of his lottery bonus. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

He has made many such decisions over the years, becoming a strong supporter of many local nonprofits, especially those focused on young people and families. That list includes Square One; Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, which Pride has partnered with over the years; Brightside for Families and Children; WMAS and its Coats for Kids campaign; and many others.

Bolduc has always emphasized the need for businesses to give back, but especially to local agencies that can make a real impact on the quality of life enjoyed by people living and working in the 413.

We wish ArcLight well as it takes over the chain Bolduc started, nurtured, and grew over the past 45 years or so. We hope it continues Bolduc’s track record for innovation, including the placement of Subway shops, Dunkin’ Donuts stores, and, most recently, Chester’s chicken restaurants in his stores.

More importantly, we hope the company can continue Bolduc’s legacy of philanthropy and support of agencies focused on the region’s young people. By doing so, they’ll not only be keeping the Pride name over the door, they’ll be continuing the proud tradition of this company (and not just its founder) being a real difference maker in our region.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Ronn Johnson, who spent the last four decades making a difference for children and families in the Springfield community, died on Jan. 15 at age 63. 

The date — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — was a significant one for the long-time president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., who not only led that organization over the past decade but modeled much his of work around King’s example of service.

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple,” Johnson told BusinessWest in 2020, when he was named a Difference Maker by this publication. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that.”

That’s an understatement.

Early in his career, he worked at the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it.

After that, he served as vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years. Gang violence was on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force, among many other initiatives. 

Johnson then worked for six years as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual, after which he launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates. One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency. 

When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship and oversaw the success of many MLK Family Services programs, from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations.

But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped the families of more than 50 children purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps, secure a service dog, and meet many other needs.

“I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”

His leadership, passion, and ability to inspire others will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

BusinessWest launched its Top Entrepreneur program back in 1996 to recognize individuals, groups, and institutions that were honoring a tradition that went back centuries and made Greater Springfield a hub for innovation and industry.

For much of that decade, and into the next one, the list of honorees was top-heavy with those from the IT sector, as might be expected. Indeed, that realm was booming, and a legion of young entrepreneurs were starting businesses focused on hardware, software, and developing solutions for clients.

But over the years, this award has also gone to a college president, a hospital president, a municipal utility (Holyoke Gas & Electric), and a hockey team — actually, the owners and operators of that team, the Springfield Thunderbirds. And there have been more traditional entrepreneurs as well, in fields ranging from auto sales to hardware stores; trash hauling to home care.

The common denominator — and there’s certainly more than one — is calculated risk taking and a desire to meet identified, and often unmet, needs. In most all cases, they’ve done so by overcoming several challenges, and, in the case of decades-old businesses (Rocky’s Ace Hardware and Balise Auto Sales come to mind), adapt to changing times.

This pattern is certainly continuing with this year’s honorees, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, the serial entrepreneurs who have made Springfield’s Tower Square their latest and most ambitious undertaking to date (see story on page 16).

Tower Square, originally known as Baystate West, was conceived and built in the ’60s. It was designed to change the landscape in the city, and it did just that, its office tower rising far above everything around it for another two decades. It was created to be a destination, a place where people would work, shop, and dine, and for a while, it worked.

But when shopping patterns changed and malls were erected in the suburbs, it didn’t.

By the time MassMutual, which built the complex, decided to sell it in 2017, it was, in many respects, tired. There were many intriguing tenants, including UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, but still many vacancies on both the retail and office sides. Meanwhile, the hotel on the property had lost its Marriott flag, was operating as the Tower Square Hotel, and had lost most of its original luster.

While most potential investors saw a troubled property and had visions of a fire sale, Patel and Mitta saw a gem — albeit one that needed some polishing. They rolled the dice, knowing their $17.5 million investment was only the first of many that would have to be made.

Since acquiring the property, they have used imagination — attracting White Lion Brewing Co. and the YMCA’s fitness and daycare operations, for example — and persistence (something that’s certainly needed during a pandemic now entering its third year) to bring new life and energy to the property.

The new façade that has gone up on the hotel is somewhat symbolic of this entire project — it is shiny, it is new, and it is turning a lot of heads.

The partners still have a long way to go with this endeavor, to be sure. There are still many vacancies to fill, and the property is still not entirely worthy of the term ‘destination.’

But three years and more than $30 million in investments later, their gamble is showing signs that it will pay off — for them, the city, and the region.

We don’t know how this story will end, but for now, there are many intriguing plotlines. One of them concerns entrepreneurs taking a chance, planning, and working diligently to make a dream become reality.

That’s the same general pattern followed by all the winners of the Top Entrepreneur award since 1996, and it explains why Mitta and Patel are worthy additions to a distinguished list of honorees.

Opinion

Opinion

By Michelle Desaulniers

 

Most everyone has been a passenger on an airplane and heard the safety talk. Very often, the ‘put your own mask on first before helping others’ analogy is used to remind people, in myriad situations, that it is OK — in fact, it is preferable — to practice self-care.

Most of us push self-care and everything that goes along with that notion to the bottom of our to-do list — and we just keep on flying. But what if, at the beginning of 2022, you decided to put yourself and your career first? Start this new year on a different note by taking a personal learning inventory.

At the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), we are challenging our members to bring their personal development to the number-one position on their to-do list for 2022 by asking themselves these questions:

• How will you make next year count?

• What will you do to take your career to a new level?

• How will you challenge yourself in 2022?

What will it take to get you into a personal growth mindset? Start by thinking about the last time you took a class, attended a training session, or went to a conference. Remember that feeling of accomplishment, the renewed sense of purpose and engagement that you felt afterwards? It was great connecting with peers outside of your organization and sharing ideas, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to feel that again and really get into that forward-thinking growth mindset?

EANE offers a variety of formal opportunities and options to refresh your attitude and to add substance to your learning inventory. The coming year should be punctuated with your own personal learning events that will enable you to return to your daily challenges feeling refreshed, re-energized, and ready to tackle those challenges with a new outlook and armed with freshly minted skills. Not only do you owe it to yourself, but you owe it to your co-workers. They will see your example, and they will follow it.

No doubt everyone is feeling the weight of the world lately, and no one wants to poke their head up for fear of flying objects. But allowing your professional growth to stagnate for yet another year is like putting someone else’s mask on before your own. On an airplane — and in your career — that could lead to disaster.

 

Michelle Desaulniers is a member of the Learning & Development team at EANE.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When you talk with people in business about COVID-19, and especially those early days, in March 2020, when the state and the country were shutting down, many will share a similar story that goes something like this:

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

Such thinking was certainly understandable. None of us had been through a pandemic before, and this is what we thought: we’ll stay home for a few weeks, hunker down, and then this will pass.

It didn’t take long to realize that those thoughts were unrealistic and perhaps naive. We soon came to grips with the fact that we had a longer wait for ‘normal.’ Much longer.

Nearly two years later, we’re still waiting, and the unfortunate truth is that this is still a long way from being over. Unfortunate, because we all desperately want and need for it to be over, and it isn’t.

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

These days, quite a few conversations begin with “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this,” or “I can’t believe we’re talking about this again.”

What we’re talking about are COVID cases rising, long lines for testing, and hospitals being pushed to and then beyond their limits. And in the business world, what we’re talking about, again, are postponed events, canceled business meetings, people avoiding restaurants and movie theaters, colleges not sure if they’ll be able to open their doors when the semester break ends in a few weeks, and area school systems not sure if they’re going to be able to open their doors and stay open, leaving parents wondering what they will do if they don’t.

Yes, we’re still talking about these things, or talking about them again. The COVID fight continues, and the end is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, a workforce crisis continues, inflation is no longer talked about as ‘transitory,’ production and supply-chain issues persist, and the many businesses that stayed afloat with the help of government lifelines like PPP and the employee-retention credit will not have that net underneath them in 2022.

So why is there is so much optimism about the year ahead, as revealed in our special Economic Outlook section, starting on page 15? Maybe people are thinking that things simply must get better in 2022. Or that COVID has to finally run its course and will now cease controlling our lives.

Perhaps, but there are other reasons. We especially feel a sense that the region did, indeed, catch a glimpse of a post-COVID world in 2021, and it was a very encouraging experience.

It was a brief window, to be sure, and it came roughly between Memorial Day and just before Labor Day. The state had lifted virtually all of its restrictions on businesses, and people started doing things they hadn’t done in a while — like put their masks aside, go to a restaurant, gather as a family, go on a summer vacation, stage a Chamber After 5, or gather for a retirement party.

As noted, it was a brief window, and by the time the Big E staged its return and BusinessWest feted its 40 Under Forty class at the Log Cabin (both in late September), there was plenty of apprehension about a variant called Delta.

Now, there’s far more apprehension about another variant called Omicron, and there are serious questions, and trepidation, about what the first few weeks, or even the first few quarters, of 2022 will be like.

But amidst all that, there is a prevailing sense of optimism that we can finally see a lot more of what we saw during that brief window in the year ahead. We sense that the ingredients may finally in place for actually getting to that proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic.

We’re not there yet, and there are some rough weeks and perhaps months ahead, but the signs are there.

Opinion

Editorial

It’s been a long, very painful year for all those who love the Student Prince and the Fort restaurant in Springfield.

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff

First, Andy Yee, who acquired the landmark along with several other investors in 2014, passed away in late May after a lengthy battle with cancer. Then late last month, Rudi Scherff, who was owner and host at the establishment for decades, died after his own lengthy battle against the disease.

If Yee will be remembered as one of those who saved the Fort, as it was known, amid trying financial times nearly a decade ago, Scherff will always be remembered as the face of the restaurant. Only, it was more than a restaurant. Much, much more. It was a gathering place, not only for workers downtown, but residents of communities across the region. It was a place to celebrate milestones — birthdays, wedding anniversaries, family reunions — and especially holidays. Spending part of the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving at the Fort was a tradition. It was the same on Christmas Eve, and all through the holiday season

It was the people. It was the place. It was the people and the place coming together.

And Rudi — he was one of those people who needed only a first name — was a huge part of it.

He set the tone. He created the atmosphere. And he gave every single person he touched a story to tell. Usually, many of them. He was a pretty good businessman, but he was a much better ambassador for Springfield and its downtown, always advocating for the city and acting as a cheerleader when one was needed.

His family ran the restaurant, but he was synonymous with it, becoming an almost larger-than-life figure in the process. And while he sold the restaurant to Yee, Picknelly, and other partners in 2014, he remained a fixture there, right up until last week, when he returned to the Fort to lead others in a final singing of “Silent Night.”

There’s an oil painting of Rudi hanging in the restaurant’s Heidelberg Room, and the bar area is now named after him. We have those things to remember him by. But really, we don’t need them.

We have the stories. We have the memories. And that’s more than enough.

He will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

It was certainly something different than 2020, when COVID-19 took everyone by surprise, not only launching a serious health crisis, but disrupting the economy in ways both immediate — many businesses were shut down for weeks and even months — and in the longer term (the broken supply chain).

Everyone learned to pivot — yes, the word everyone got sick of in 2020 — and that made us all more resilient during 2021, a year when business began getting back to normal in some ways, while in other ways, we wondered if we’d ever see normal again.

Take remote work, which may prove to have the longest legs when it comes to trends that emerged from COVID. By the fall of 2020, employers were crafting plans to bring homebound workers back to the office. Plenty of those workers didn’t want to return, and made it clear they were perfectly productive without a commute or face-to-face contact with co-workers. More than a year later, many of those employers have backed off and have made remote work, or at least a hybrid schedule, a more or less standard model.

We certainly hope supply-chain and inflation challenges don’t prove to have the longest legs, because those are problems no one can afford to live with forever. We’ll see what the federal response is in 2022 — rising interest rates seem inevitable — and how these issues continue to depress the ability of businesses to invest and grow.

The other factor suppressing business growth, of course, is an ongoing workforce crunch — a combination of older workers retiring early and younger ones wielding newfound leverage in surprising ways. Whatever the factors, the Great Resignation is real, and will continue to reverberate into 2022.

That said, all that pivoting created a more resilient business culture in Western Mass. this year, one that has become more nimble, more adaptable, and more entrepreneurial. Sectors like tourism rebounded nicely, while cannabis continued its unimpeded progress. .

But back to that hard-earned sense of resilience. Whatever industry we covered this year — construction, auto sales, manufacturing, nonprofits, you name it — when we spoke with business leaders, no one shied away from the lingering pandemic and its global side effects, and how those factors continue to make it difficult to do business.

But there’s a sense of optimism in the air, too. Many feel like, if they’ve made it this far, 2022 can only get better, even if no one can be sure when the pandemic and its ill effects will recede. They’ve survived, they’ve rebounded, they’ve learned — and they know their customers want to get back to normal, to buy and invest and experience as they used to.

In some ways, it’s frustrating to think we’d be in better shape than we are now, on many levels. But for most, things did get a little better in 2021 — and we’re sensing plenty of optimism for 2022. And we’ll stay on top of it, as always. Happy holidays from BusinessWest.

Opinion

Editorial

Suffice it to say that COVID-19 and its many side effects have brought a number of challenges and headaches to our region, especially its business community. That list has included shutdowns, endless restrictions on what business can be conducted and when, a workforce crisis, supply-chain issues, inflation, uncertainty, unease … the list goes on.

There are a few positives in there, obviously, including innovation born of necessity, newfound resilience, and profound changes in how work is conducted — and where.

And there’s something else. As the story on page 6 reveals, and others stories have hinted at over the course of the past 18 months or so, COVID has inspired a slew of new stories of entrepreneurship in the Valley, which is intriguing and refreshing, on a number of levels.

As Samalid Hogan, the soon to be former executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s regional office, told us, the pandemic was a time when many people did some pausing and reflecting — in part because they had the time to do so.

And while doing that, they figured out that what they were doing wasn’t what they really wanted to be doing. What they wanted to do was own their own business. In many cases, this was a long-held dream accelerated by COVID. For others, it was something that came about by circumstance.

In any case, when they came to a crossroads, they took the one whereby they put their name on the door.

Over the course of the past 18 months or so, individuals, husband-and-wife teams, and other types of partnerships have created new beer labels, a wine-distribution venture, new retail outlets, a Latino marketing agency, a business offering personalized hikes in the Berkshires, and countless others.

These ventures have brought new life to tired real estate in some cases, and some new excitement in communities up and down the Valley, at a time when it was sorely needed.

These entrepreneurs have discovered what countless others learned long ago, and what they probably already knew themselves — that owning your own business, while usually a dream worth pursuing, isn’t easy.

It’s been described by those who have lived that life as a roller-coaster ride, with ups and downs, and usually more of the latter than the former. There are sleepless nights, and some time spent wondering if it was a good idea to leave a steady paycheck for the great unknown.

But for many who take this route, there is the ultimate conclusion that, yes, it was a good idea. It was worth it to take those risks. It was a life-changing decision.

Many people are now experiencing these emotions, and COVID had something to do with it. They may have lost the job they had. They may have decided the job they had simply wasn’t something they wanted to do anymore. They may have found the time and energy they never had to finally turn a dream into reality.

Whatever the reason, it has happened, and it’s still happening, as those monthly totals of people becoming part of the Great Resignation make clear.

There haven’t been many good things to come from the pandemic and its many, many side effects, but this is clearly one of them. v

Opinion

Editorial

 

Everyone wants to buy great gifts. But what about building a great economy?

While it’s only one part of a healthy local economic ecosystem, the idea of buying local has been gaining traction lately, even at a time when online sales show no sign of flagging in popularity.

We’re not deluded enough to think we can slow the march of Amazon, and we get the importance of convenience.

But why not do both? Sure, there may be some gifts especially well-suited to an online order, for reasons of availability and especially price. But why not check out the abundance of locally owned retail shops, artisans, and restaurants — people love gift cards, after all — when rounding out that shopping list?

Local shops are where you’ll find unique wares you can’t find anywhere else — the sort of special gifts that make an impact and create memories. And, as noted in our story on page 31, every $100 spent in a local shop returns $69 to the local economy. Local businesses are more likely to utilize other local businesses, such as banks, service providers, and farms, and the cycle continues. And in today’s uncertain economic climate, they count on your business to survive and thrive.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Small Business Assoc. and the U.S. Department of Labor, independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the community in which they operate than chain competitors. And independent restaurants return more than twice that of national restaurant chains. Local businesses are also more accountable to their local communities and donate more money to nonprofits.

Finally, supporting local businesses is good for the environment because they often have a smaller carbon footprint than larger companies, and goods don’t have to be shipped across the country or the world. And let’s not even talk about those supply-chain woes.

It isn’t always the most convenient option to drive to an independent business rather than visiting a large chain down the road — or clicking a keyboard and having Amazon deliver right to your house. But so, so often, it’s the right option.

As Bill Cole, president of Living Local 413, notes, “the world and our country are evolving fast, and we need to adapt to new challenges. Over the past years and decades, we have learned that we cannot rely on powerful outside forces, be they public or private, to bring vitality to our home. If we want to maintain and develop the community that we love, it is our responsibility to act and put our money where our mouths are.”

The holiday season would be a good time to start.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The past 20 months or so have been a living hell for most businesses in this region. Owners, managers, and HR execs (who have been earning their keep, to say the least) have had to cope with everything from the many stages of the pandemic to the worst workforce crisis anyone can ever remember; from supply-chain issues to the ‘Great Resignation’ and retirements.

It’s been a long, hard stretch that has challenged everyone and forced too many small businesses to simply pack it in.

The last thing these businesses needed was another stern challenge, but that’s what many of them got with the vaccination mandates recently announced by the Biden administration. These mandates involve businesses of 100 or more employees (which must soon have all employees vaccinated or tested regularly) and those with contracts with the federal government — all those employees must be vaccinated by Dec. 8, with no testing option (see related story, page 6).

The vaccine mandates are well-intended — they are designed to greatly improve vaccination rates and move the country closer to herd immunity — and in some ways they relieve the employers in these categories from having to implement a vaccine mandate on their own, a controversial decision to say the least. Now, they can simply say, ‘the government is making us do it.’

But as well-intentioned as they are, these mandates are simply not what struggling business owners and managers need right now. They don’t need the additional costs, and there are many of them, from paying for vaccines and tests to paying employees while they’re getting vaccinated or even recovering from side effects. They don’t need the burden of trying to make sure they are in compliance with the new regulations, and they certainly don’t need the additional turmoil when it comes to their workforce.

Businesses across every sector of the economy are not only have trouble filling positions, they’re having trouble simply getting applicants to apply for open positions. It is already a nightmare scenario for these businesses, many of which are trying to fully rebound from the pandemic and get back to something approaching normal — or what existed before March 2020. 

Talented workers are already leaving hospitals and other healthcare providers, police departments, state agencies, and even college football programs because they refuse to be vaccinated. Forcing more businesses, especially small businesses with federal contracts, to also require vaccination or testing as a condition of employment is a step that is only going to wreak more havoc on an economy struggling to pick up steam.

We understand why the Biden administration has taken these steps, and everyone wants to be able to put the pandemic behind us. But mandating vaccinations in this fashion is only going to create more turbulence for employers at a time when they simply don’t need it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As we absorb the news that Smith & Wesson will be packing its bags — some of them, anyway — and leaving Springfield for Blount County, Tennessee, a self-proclaimed ‘Second Amendment sanctuary,’ we are left with a number of questions.

Ironically, most of them don’t involve whether more could have been done, and should have been done, to keep the company here, which is usually the case when a corporation decides to headquarter itself somewhere else. Despite CEO Mark Smith’s insistence that the company left because of proposed legislation that would  ban the manufacturing of many of the company’s products (specifically assault weapons), it seems clear that Blount County made the corporation an offer it couldn’t refuse. And didn’t refuse.

No, most of the questions the day after the announcement was made concern just how big a loss this is for the city and the state. And those questions are certainly hard to answer.

On the surface, it’s certainly a big loss when the corporate brand most identified with your city (most people couldn’t tell you MassMutual is headquartered here) is lost to somewhere else. There’s also the history; Smith & Wesson was founded in Springfield in 1856, and the company has been a big part of the city’s manufacturing tradition.

But having one of your city’s largest employers be a manufacturer of weapons that kill people has long been somewhat of a public-relations problem. The jobs are good, but many have chosen not think too long and hard about what the people employed there are making and what they’re used for.

Aside from losing a big piece of Springfield’s history, we’re also losing roughly 550 jobs. That’s not insignificant, certainly, but let’s not forget that every manufacturing operation in Western Mass. has a help-wanted sign outside its doors, either figuratively or quite literally. For many years now, there has been a huge imbalance between the number of people these plants could hire and the number they have hired, because there just hasn’t been enough qualified people in the labor pool.

So … if you were ever going to lose 550 manufacturing jobs, or 550 jobs of any kind, this would be the time to lose them.

Which brings us to state Sen. Eric Lesser’s comment that this development with Smith & Wesson might be actually be some kind of blessing in disguise.

That’s an odd choice of phrase — and he was quick to note that he was obviously concerned about the 550 families to be impacted by this — but in many ways, it works.

Smith & Wesson is not leaving Springfield completely. It will maintain many of its operations and employ 1,000 people. That’s certainly good news. But no later than 2023, a good number of skilled workers — how many, we don’t know because some of those currently employed will follow the company to Tennessee — can take skills to other area companies that desperately need them.

The depth of this need is evidenced by the number of manufacturers who have already reached out to Lesser, other elected officials, the MassHire agencies, and even those employees themselves, letting them know that they are ready and willing to take them on.

It’s possible, that’s possible, that Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations to Tennessee might provide the means for some area companies to grow and perhaps open the door to additional employment opportunities.

This bombshell announcement by the company certainly represents a loss. But in some ways, it may also represent opportunity.

Opinion

Opinion

By John Garvey

 

Is Facebook really Big Tobacco? The answer is ‘no’ — and there is no reasonable comparison, despite the compelling testimony of the Facebook whistleblower.

A two-sentence trip down memory lane on the subject of the tobacco industry will refresh our collective memories about an industry that was not only supported by government subsidies, but protected by the government. The tobacco industry was, in fact, founded on the back of slavery. So, despite the attention that the ‘Facebook is Big Tobacco’ comparison attracts, it is wildly hyperbolic and does a disservice to any alleged misdeeds of the social-media giant.

Now that we got that out of the way, what is Facebook, then? Really popular. As you know, your mother is on Facebook commenting on your posts that you need to lose weight, and your kids are on Instagram hiding their profiles from you. I hesitate to introduce the fact that they are probably over on TikTok, actually, because that will give you a headache.

Breaking news: the fight between Facebook and the whistleblower/Congress was over before it started. Where’s the evidence, you say? The perceived and actual value of Facebook was debated the day before the whistleblower testified in Washington, when someone at headquarters apparently tripped over and disconnected the network cord to Facebook, Instagram, and Whats App (OK, that’s fake news, but they each did go down on Oct. 4). The world noticed, consumers’ demand was tested and passed, and the stock priced declined.

However, just as the whistleblower started to whistle, Facebook’s stock began to rebound.

Are the charges serious? Yes, but they are societal as well — meaning it’s not just the algorithm that pushes nefarious content in front of us and our children. It is, in fact, us. We have choices, and we can easily unlike, complain, or log off if we are confronted by information from any source that we find offensive. Conveniently, your digital marketers will support your complaints because they — meaning me — do not want you to log off and wish to continue to put information in front of you that you will feel is relevant, compelling, and useful. That is how the algorithm is supposed to work, and there are coders tweaking it every day to make it better.

Here’s where I understand your anger, though. Mark Zuckerberg is absolutely not the right person to be leading or speaking for Facebook at this time. While he may still be popular with the Facebook employees, outside the building, he is barely discernable. This is one guy who fails to emote or show empathy.

I know, this presentation is somewhat simplistic. But if you are on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest, or, indeed, LinkedIn (is Snapchat dead yet?), I sincerely hope you are getting some value out of the platforms you frequent. Companies like Facebook need to be more transparent and will be forced to in the future — but more likely by you, the public, rather than Congress. So, keep showing up, but also keep weighing in.

After all, we do not want to wait centuries for improvements, like we had to for government’s regulation of Big Tobacco.

 

John Garvey is president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The proposal to create a data center on aggregated land in the northwest corner of Westfield is big in every respect.

Big as in the pricetag — $2.7 billion, almost three times larger than the MGM Springfield project — and also big in terms of the number of buildings (10), the number of square feet (upward of 2 million), the amount of energy that will be used, the number of total jobs it will create … the list goes on.

Where this project (see story on page 6) also comes up big is in the realm of opportunity. Just how big an opportunity we don’t know yet, but there is certainly potential for this project to be perhaps merely the first such facility to serve the needs of the sector known as Big Data.

Granted, sites like the one in Westfield, which can check a wide array of boxes pertaining to everything from power to fiber to highway access, are extremely rare. But this region does hold the potential to be more of a player in the world’s quest for data and ways to store and provide it, and this project might be a catalyst for more development down the road.

Before we get to that, let’s address the Westfield project itself. In many ways, it seems like the perfect development initiative for the city and the region. It is proposed for industrially zoned land that is difficult to develop and has gone begging for a new use for decades now.

Most of the other proposed uses involve large amounts of truck traffic (warehouses) or power production, neither of which sit well with residents. The data center would be almost invisible to the community and would provide needed jobs, tax revenue, and potential support businesses.

It would be like the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke on a much, much larger scale.

This is the kind of development the region has been looking for. Granted, the number of jobs involved is not as high as some would like, especially when we’re talking about a development that will be spread out over about 90 acres of a 155-acre parcel. But these are the proverbial good jobs at good wages — starting salaries will be in the $85,000 to $100,000 range — that all communities have been looking for, those that are better in most all ways than those in distribution, retail, and tourism and hospitality.

And the best part about all this is that the jobs will be in a relatively new and emerging sector, one with almost unlimited growth potential. Not every region or every community has a chance to break into this sector, but the 413 now does.

There aren’t enough suitable parcels to create several centers like the one proposed for Westfield. In fact, this could be one of a kind — and would be one of the largest such facilities in the country. But there is potential for smaller-scale facilities given this region’s abundance of land, relatively inexpensive power (especially communities with their own utilities, such as Holyoke and Westfield), comparatively low cost of living, and many institutions of higher learning, several of which offer cybersecurity and related programs.

The Westfield project still has a number of hurdles to clear. While it has some momentum and many likable qualities, projects on this scale do not come together easily.

But if it does come to fruition, it could open the door to more. Maybe much more.

It might be the start of something big.

Opinion

Editorial

Most business owners and managers in this region had circled Sept. 3 on their calendars long ago.

That’s the day when roughly 3 million Americans were going to see their extended unemployment benefits — those $300 weekly bonus checks — expire, with little, if any, hope that the payments would be extended.

Thus, early September was supposed to be the time when a distressingly challenging labor market was supposed to begin improving and the pendulum was supposed to start swinging back toward employer. How much of a swing, no one knew, but there was to be a swing.

Well, it’s now mid-September, and those in the business community are waiting anxiously to see just what will happen now that the benefits have stopped and, supposedly, people will be heading back to the workforce.

It’s still early, and anything can happen, but many signs now point toward a softer, less pronounced improvement in the job market than people anticipated, and for a number of reasons. In simple terms, it seems clear that the problem runs much deeper than the extra unemployment benefits, although that has certainly been a factor.

Indeed, any time people can make more money sitting at home than they can working hard for eight hours a day, it’s only logical that many would choose the former path, and that’s why these benefits should have stopped long before Sept. 3.

But the benefits are only one of many reasons why people are not seeking employment — or seeking it and not finding it. Daycare is a huge issue for many. That industry has been hard hit by the workforce crisis, and services are just not as readily available as they once were. Meanwhile, COVID-19 and the Delta variant have many people reluctant to wade into the water, or back in the water, as the case may be. Also, millions of Americans were able to retire during the pandemic, and the many challenges stemming from COVID, especially in the workplace, gave them the impetus to take that step. Still others decided they just didn’t want to work for minimum wage, especially in the middle of the pandemic.

As for the hospitality sector, many people left it at the height of the pandemic in early 2020 when restaurants, bars, and hotels were shuttered, and they found something else — something better — and now, they’re not going back. There’s a similar story in healthcare, especially within the nursing field, but other specialties as well, as burnout from COVID has taken a huge toll on these professionals.

As for those who are seeking work, many of them still lack the skills they need to be good candidates for many of the jobs that are being posted, a continuation of a situation that existed in 2019, when, overall, there were far more openings than there were qualified people to fill them.

Add all this up, and it seems clear that, while it was still good to circle Sept. 3 on the calendar, the end of those unemployment benefits is not likely to be the end of the region’s labor issues. The problems are far more deep-rooted. And who knows what the impact will be of President Biden’s plans to require vaccination and/or testing for all employees of companies with more than 100 workers? It may put more still workers on the sidelines, and it may put more of them in the pipeline.

Stay tuned.

Those two words apply to just about every aspect of a workforce crisis that is deep, sometimes puzzling, and very persistent.

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