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Editorial

 

Earlier this month, the Berkshire Film & Media Collaborative (BFMC) announced it was awarded a $200,000 Cultural Facilities Fund capital grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) and MassDevelopment.

The collaborative will use this grant to begin build drawings for Kemble Street Studios, a new, international film-education center proposed for the north end of the Elayne Bernstein Theatre complex on the grounds of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox.

“We are thrilled with the continued support we have received from MCC/Cultural Facilities Fund for the project, first for the feasibility study, then for architectural drawings, and now to finish phase 2 of the project and to plan and begin the final renderings of the build drawings,” BFMC Executive Director Diane Pearlman said. “Their support has been significant in garnering interest and contributions from other individuals and organizations.”

Kemble Street Studios will be a mixed-use studio, lab, and classroom environment dedicated to education in the art and craft of filmmaking and media development. The center will offer hands-on learning for area young people interested in training in this burgeoning industry, as well as a resource for local nonprofits and companies to become video-literate and incorporate video in their branding, marketing, social media, and training. To date, BFMC has raised well over $500,000 for this initiative.

It’s just another example of how the creative economy continues to be a key driver across the four counties of Western Mass., not just in the sense of tourism, culture, and recreation — think museums, festivals, concert venues, and the like — but by generating future impacts through training, workforce development, and entrepreneurship.

Everywhere you look (and listen), the vibrancy of the Western Mass. creative and cultural scene is evident, from music events — such as last week’s Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the upcoming Northampton Jazz Festival, and a constant stream of concerts at the Iron Horse, the Drake, Academy of Music, Hawks & Reed, and myriad other venues — to a new round of large-scale art going up in Springfield thanks to Common Wealth Murals; from dance and drama at Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, and Double Edge Theatre to the occasional movie filmed in the region, most recently Janet Planet, the film directorial debut of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright (and Amherst native) Annie Baker.

And that doesn’t even mention all the solo artists and craftspeople creating quietly in their homes and small businesses.

When people talk about quality of life in Western Mass., they often think of outdoor recreation, restaurants, interesting downtowns, and a cost of living that, while still high these days, is less burdensome than in the Boston area.

But they also think about the arts and culture, which continue to thrive in so many ways, as artists, audiences, and the entities that invest in their worthy work continue to generate inspiration and economic impact at a time when both are certainly needed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Gov. Maura Healey’s administration recently announced it is providing $15 million to help extend a Boston program designed to bring more vibrancy downtown by converting underused office buildings to housing.

The money will help Mayor Michelle Wu continue a program that offers property tax breaks for such office-to-residential conversions. Since the program was launched last fall, developers have filed nine proposals to convert office space across 13 buildings that collectively could bring another 412 housing units to Boston’s central business district. With the conversion program, Wu is offering developers as much as 75% off property tax bills for up to 29 years.

With this state money coming, the Wu administration has decided to keep the program going until the end of 2025, instead of ending it on June 30 as initially planned, with the hopes of spurring another 300 to 500 units.

The program is intriguing, and it is our hope that the Healey administration — and the Legislature — will make similar incentives available to other communities, including Springfield and other cities in Western Mass. Indeed, the state aid to Boston comes as the Legislature considers a housing bond bill that could further boost office-residential conversions. A version that recently passed the House would provide $150 million in technical assistance funds for cities and towns while creating tax credits equal to as much as 10% of the project costs to incentivize conversions.

Communities in this region haven’t been hit as hard as Boston when it comes to soaring vacancy rates in office buildings due to the huge pendulum swing toward remote work — and few, if any, signs that the pendulum might actually swing back any time soon. But communities like Springfield, Northampton, and even Greenfield have certainly felt the pinch — and for longer.

In Springfield, there are buildings, such as the property generally known as Harrison Place, once home to Bank of Western Massachusetts, and others along Main Street, that have been vacant or largely vacant since long before COVID. And with the shift toward remote work, there is little hope they can return to that use.

Meanwhile, some properties that were dedicated to office or a mix of office and retail, such as the Clocktower Building and the Colonial Block, are being redeveloped for mostly residential use — and those doing the developing could certainly use some additional pots of money to make these efforts reality.

That’s because conversion from office to residential isn’t easy, and it’s quite expensive.

In Boston, the incentive program was created as a way to bring more vibrancy in the wake of a sharp decline in the number of workers coming to the city on a daily basis; there have been studies to suggest that downtown foot traffic is roughly half of what it was before the pandemic. The theory, and it has a great deal of validity, is that people living in those buildings can provide at least as much, if not more, support to businesses in that area than people working in them.

The same is true for Springfield and other cities in this region.

That’s why we hope the incentives being offered to developers in Boston are made available across the Commonwealth. As we noted, conversions from office to residential are not easy or cheap, but they provide solid hope for bringing more vibrancy to downtown areas, while also helping to alleviate a Commonwealth-wide shortage of housing.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As you likely know, BusinessWest marked its 40th anniversary this month.

Over that time, the magazine has told many intriguing stories involving entrepreneurship, innovation, risk taking, and pioneering.

And one of the best — one that involves all those qualities and more — has been the meteoric rise of the institution now known as Bay Path University.

Roughly 30 years ago, this was a small — make that tiny — two-year school with a reach that barely extended beyond its campus in Longmeadow. Over the course of the past three decades, under the leadership of two presidents, first Carol Leary and now Sandra Doran, the school has taken dramatic strides, adding four-year and then graduate programs, creating new degree programs in areas ranging from cybersecurity to healthcare, launching the annual Women’s Leadership Conference, taking dramatic steps in online education, including creation of the American Women’s College, and much more.

The university now has a reach that is national and even global, and it has achieved this status by being what it encourages its students to be — innovative, bold, and entrepreneurial.

The latest example of all these traits coming together in a powerful way is the school’s recently announced acquisition of Cambridge College (see story on page 26). This bold move speaks not only to Bay Path’s intention to continue its efforts to grow enrollment and expand its reach, but to the trends and challenges in higher education today as well.

Indeed, due to a series of factors, especially heightened competition for enrollment and the rising costs of doing business, many schools have found it difficult to continue their missions. Many, in fact, have looked to merge or partner with other schools.

Meanwhile, Bay Path was developing a growth strategy, one that called for everything from new graduate programs to a broadening of its healthcare offerings; from geographic expansion to profound growth in enrollment among the Hispanic population — the fastest-growing population in the region.

As Doran told BusinessWest, there were several options for achieving these various goals, and one alternative was to nibble at the corners, as she put it. Another was to take a bold step, which was far more likely given the school’s recent track record.

Several acquisition options were considered in several different parts of the country, before Bay Path’s leadership eventually set its sights on Cambridge College, the Boston-based institution created a half-century ago.

This acquisition will essentially double Bay Path’s enrollment and take the institution (and probably the Bay Path name itself, although the specifics still must be worked out) to different markets, including Boston and Puerto Rico, where Cambridge has a campus in San Juan that provides graduate programs in business and technology as well as education and counseling to working professionals.

It will also allow the school to add another 30 graduate programs to its existing portfolio and better serve the growing Hispanic population — Cambridge is ranked among the best colleges and universities for Latinos.

Full integration of Cambridge College into Bay Path will take 18 to 24 months, and it will be interesting to see what the combined schools will look like then.

But we expect that this will be another success story for an institution that has written several of them over the past 30 years.

Opinion

Editorial

The Western Mass. region has a strong tradition of entrepreneurship that goes back more than three centuries.

And BusinessWest publisher John Gormally reflects that tradition in many ways. He has owned, or still owns, everything from a billboard company to a television station to a boutique resort hotel in Costa Rica. But his story began 40 years ago with a small, monthly publication he decided to call the Western Massachusetts Business Journal (the first issue is pictured at right).

As he tells the story, he looked around New England and saw that other cities and other regions had publications focused specifically on the many aspects of business. He saw that the Greater Springfield area did not have such a publication, and decided that it should, because, well … there were stories that needed to be told.

Four decades later, there are still stories to be told, and we remain dedicated to telling them. We also remain dedicated to expanding on Gormally’s initial vision of 40 years ago and finding new and better ways to turn a mirror on the region’s business community and provide thought-provoking stories and commentary on what is reflected by that mirror.

A great many changes have come to the region and its economic landscape over the past 40 years, and these are reflected in the stories that start on page 6, each focusing on a specific sector. These developments involve everything from the consolidation of many industries to profound shifts in how work is done, where, when, and by whom (or what, in the emerging AI era).

There are many common threads running through these stories, but the biggest is technology. Those who can recall what the workplace was like 40 years ago remember a time when desks didn’t have computers on them, when people who wanted to contact someone reached for a three-inch-thick phone book, when the fax machine was a wonderous new way to deliver information; when the internet was still a decade away from emerging from government research facilities into millions of homes and businesses, when portable phones were the size of bricks and the only thing you could do with one was call someone.

Now, information is everywhere and instantaneous. People can call or text their lawyer at 3 a.m. — and he or she will answer the phone. Consumers can move their money from one bank to another in a matter of minutes — or get a quote on car insurance or a loan approval just as fast. Manufacturing equipment can and does run all night, with no one to attend to them. Business meetings are often taken by Zoom, saving travel time and expense and allowing people to work from virtually anywhere, while not diminishing the value of in-person collaboration.

There have been many other developments as well. Our business community is different in many ways, but it is especially more diverse, with far more women (29 of whom earned a spot in this year’s 40 Under Forty) and those from traditionally minority populations serving in leadership positions and owning their own businesses. This has been a profound and refreshing change.

Speaking of 40 Under Forty, BusinessWest introduced that recognition program and gala in 2007, and it remains a fiercely coveted honor among the region’s young professionals. We followed that up with other recognition programs and accompanying galas, including Difference Makers in 2009, the 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award in 2015, Healthcare Heroes in 2017, and Women of Impact in 2018. Why? Because so many success stories, both individuals and organizations, deserve to be celebrated, and their stories told.

Those stories and thousands more in the pages of BusinessWest and the Healthcare News, our sister publication introduced in 2000, and on our two websites, businesswest.com and healthcarenews.com, have, over the years, testified to a changing business landscape. So has our use of daily e-newsletters, social media, and weekly podcasts, dynamic business tools that further reflect changes in the way people work, share information, and engage with each other in 2024.

Even the way we produce this magazine is much different today; we went, like other media companies with a long history, from using negatives and paste-up ads in the ’80s and early ’90s to quickly laying out and producing each issue digitally, and immediately sharing stories on our websites and through daily e-news. And we’ve undergone all that change while retaining our culture as a small, independent, local operation with deep roots and a commitment to the communities of Western Mass.

The downtowns of many of those communities, by the way, have been dramatically reshaped by changes that have come to retail and other sectors. Meanwhile, many of the huge manufacturing mills that once gave many communities their character (think Holyoke, Easthampton, Chicopee, Greenfield, Palmer, and Pittsfield) have become housing facilities, spaces for artists, multi-use properties, shared office space, small-business incubators, or cannabis cultivation operations, to name a few.

Yes, cannabis cultivation. That’s another profound development, and one of many that probably could not have been imagined back in 1984.

Indeed, when asked to look ahead and project what will come next, many of those we spoke with said, given the pace of change that has taken place, predicting the future is very difficult, indeed.

As for BusinessWest … we’ll just keep doing what we have been doing: holding up that mirror and putting the spotlight on a business community that is rich, diverse, ever-evolving, and with an endless supply of good stories to tell.

We thank our advertisers, our readers, and the entire Western Mass. business community for your support over the past four decades, and we’re looking forward to the next 40 years of progress, challenge, and unpredictability.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The numbers are alarming.

Indeed, state tax revenues have fallen below projections for seven consecutive months now, and the shortfall is beginning to put some real pressure on the Commonwealth’s ability to spend what it needs to spend to support vital programs.

Earlier this year, Gov. Maura Healey, citing the lower-than-expected tax-revenue collections — they were running nearly $800 million, or 4%, behind the state’s original projections at the time, and the estimated shortfall for the fiscal year is now pegged at $1 billion — slashed $375 million in spending, cutting hundreds of millions from programs that provide outreach for seniors, behavioral-health supports, and other services.

These cuts hurt, and they may be just the first, with more to come impacting other vital services that communities large and small provide to their residents.

While the numbers are cause for concern, what’s behind them should prompt even more concern. Indeed, while debate on why the revenues continue to decline continues, it seems clear that the state has tipped the pendulum too far in the wrong direction when it comes to taxing businesses and wealthy individuals — especially when it comes to the so-called millionaire’s tax — and, at the same time, it’s spending too much, especially when it comes to housing the thousands of migrants that have made their way to the Commonwealth.

Jay Ash, CEO of Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization, noting that the state ranks 46th in state tax climate, including 44th in personal income tax, recently told a Boston media outlet what that dubious ranking means.

“We’re just losing our competitiveness. We have states around the country that are cleaning our clock. We’re no longer competitive when it comes to taxes. What the pandemic has done is showed us that business can take place away from the bricks and mortar that it was always tied to. So businesses, the people who run those businesses, investment, are all flowing to places where it’s easy to do business, and that’s not Massachusetts’ calling card.”

Places like neighboring New Hampshire, which is considerably more tax-friendly. And it’s not just businesses. Wealthy individuals are leaving the state as well, and the millionaire’s tax, which was enacted by referendum and imposes a 4% surtax on taxable income over $1 million, is likely a big reason why.

While the tax has certainly brought in new revenue — as much as $1.5 billion for 2023, according to some estimates — those gains are being offset by the loss of revenue, talent, and, eventually if not already, jobs. Indeed, the millionaire’s tax will wind up doing much more than keeping desired free agents from joining the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins. It will contribute to a brain drain that will have a long-lasting impact.

As for spending, the state has long had a spending problem in general, and now it has another one — the steadily rising cost of housing and other services for the migrants pouring into the Commonwealth.

State Sen. John Velis, a Westfield Democrat who was among the National Guard members deployed to buttress the state’s shelter system last fall, told the Boston Globe earlier this year that Healey’s imposed budget cuts were “a warning shot” about the financial pressures wrought by the influx of migrants and the demands it has put on the state.

“A dollar is a dollar. And state money is state money,” Velis said. “I don’t know how I can continue to support more funding for [the shelter system] without some type of notion of where does it end or how are we limiting it?”

The state has to answer those questions, and, overall, it needs to reverse the trends that have brought such serious, and dangerous, reductions in overall revenues and pressure on the state budget.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When the report surfaced on March 21 that MGM Resorts International is exploring the sale of its casino operations at MGM Springfield and Ohio’s Northfield Park, it should not have come as a shock to anyone.

Indeed, rumors about MGM shedding the Springfield property from its portfolio of casino holding have been floating around since … well, since the facility opened its doors in August 2018.

And they have persisted, primarily because the casino has, to put it mildly, underperformed, at least when it comes to the expectations MGM had when it decided Springfield would be a good entry point for the Massachusetts market.

MGM projected that a Springfield casino could reap $34 million in revenues a month. The reality is, it hasn’t come close to that number, with $26 million the first month it opened being the actual high-water mark.

The casino has had to endure a pandemic and increased competition from several points on the compass — and there was already formidable competition not far away in the form of well-established Connecticut casino complexes.

But from day one, when the long lines that were expected to form outside MGM to check out the shining new attraction failed to materialize, it was clear that this facility was not going to perform as hoped, and it was going to become a drain on the parent company, which invested $1 billion in its creation.

That became clear when Bill Horbuckle, MGM CEO, told reporters after meeting local officials last year, “our original valuation of this market simply was off — full stop.”

So what now?

Talks of a sale are in the preliminary stages, and nothing may come of this. If MGM is intent on selling the property, we hope it will be to a responsible party, and maybe even a local party, that can somehow change the trajectory of the property and at least continue to make it a key contributor to the local economy.

From the start, we have said that MGM Springfield was not going to magically change the landscape and transform the Western Mass. economy. But it would be an important addition to the mix and would bring people to the region.

It has done that, to some extent, but it simply hasn’t performed as MGM Resorts expected it would and needs it to.

“The news of MGM exploring the sale of MGM Springfield is both surprising, as they’ve become a fixture in our community, and unsurprising, as the rumors of their fickleness to the site started even before a shovel was in the ground,” state Sen. Adam Gomez said. Other local elected officials have even stated they won’t be sad if and when MGM leaves town.

Not knowing who or what might come next, we won’t go that far.

But we will say that Springfield and this region could certainly do much worse than what MGM has brought to the 413 — and that anything worse would be a serious setback to the South End, Springfield, and the area’s economy.

Almost from the day the casino opened, people have been asking, “what will happen if MGM sells the property?” We may soon be finding out.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Springfield will play host to a Division 1 men’s regional hockey final on March 28 and March 30, an event that comes with a degree of risk, but also presents a great opportunity to showcase the region and show that it can host more events like this.

Landing the D1 hockey regional has been a collaborative effort between UMass Amherst and American International College, two local schools with surging hockey programs (UMass won a national title in 2021) and the MassMutual Center, now managed by MGM Springfield. Individually and collectively, these entities saw an opportunity and essentially said, in unison, ‘why not Springfield?’

Why not, indeed? The city has hosted collegiate sporting events before — a D1 basketball regional back in the ’70s, when that tournament was on an exponentially smaller scale than it is now, and, more recently, D2 basketball. It has also staged the old Tip Off Classic for D1 basketball and its current-day counterpart, the Hall of Fame Classic.

Meanwhile, with the emergence of the UMass Amherst and AIC hockey squads, as well as the unqualified success of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the 413 has become a hockey hotbed of sorts — at least as much as, if not more than, Providence, Worcester, Bridgeport, and other cities in New England that have hosted D1 hockey regionals.

And for UMass Amherst, a regular in the tournament the past several years, the event represents a chance to play in its own backyard rather than traveling across this state or to another state in the Northeast, or even the Midwest to play in a regional. (AIC does not have that same opportunity because it plays its home games at the MassMutual Center.)

All of these contributing factors make it simple common sense to bring a regional to Springfield, and now that one is coming, we’ll have a chance to see whether the area will support such an event and what kind of impact it will make.

Expectations are certainly high, but there is risk, especially when it comes to which teams might land here for the games in late March. While the D1 standings are crowded with good teams from the Northeast, one recent projection for the Springfield regional has UMass, Boston University, Cornell, and Denver coming to Springfield. BU and UMass would be great draws. Cornell is a question mark, and Denver is a much bigger question mark.

But quality hockey is assured, close to 1,000 hotel rooms have been blocked off, and thousands of tickets have already been sold, so this has the makings of a great addition to the region’s hospitality landscape, one that brings people to Western Mass. at an otherwise very slow time on the calendar. And already, bids have been submitted for a number of other collegiate sporting events, from hockey and basketball to volleyball and wrestling.

It is our hope — and our expectation — that this will prove to be a risk well worth taking, and the first of many sporting events that will bring more people, more visibility, and more vibrancy to the region.

And as the saying goes — and it applies here — if some is good, more is better.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Forty-five years is a long time, and for more than 40 of them, the Iron Horse Music Hall, which opened in 1979, provided not just live entertainment, but countless moments of connection, of joy, of the kind of shared experiences folks tend to remember.

How many young people were inspired by a show there to pick up a guitar and start making their own music? How many solo concertgoers bonded over being seated together at a table, and then carried the conversation to a local bar or café afterward? How many first dates turned into long relationships, marriages, and a whole lot more concerts?

Those moments — and the music itself, of course — have been missed since the legendary College Street storefront in downtown Northampton went dark during the pandemic and, well, never came back. Until now. Or, more accurately, later this spring.

The Iron Horse’s motto for decades has been “music alone shall live.” There’s truth to that — great music does outlast a lot of things. But for a lot of us, live music is about more than the music; it’s about feelings of community, the energy of the give and take between performer and crowd — and, again, a shared, completely unique, ‘you had to be there’ experience.

And, as the story details, you can soon be there again, thanks to the efforts of the Parlor Room Collective, a nonprofit that bought the troubled property from longtime owner Eric Suher and, with the help of many generous donors to an ongoing, $750,000 capital campaign, is renovating and expanding the room.

Chris Freeman and his team certainly want the renovated space to reflect its vibrant past — seating at tables, where a reimagined menu will be served — but they’re also improving what needed improving, from the run-down green room to the famously inadequate bathrooms.

It’s a heartening development, to be sure. We’ve written often about the value of performing-arts institutions to a region, and certainly, venues like Symphony Hall in Springfield, the Drake in Amherst, Hawks & Reed in Greenfield, MASS MoCA in North Adams, and the Parlor Room itself in Northampton continue to deliver plenty of music and good times.

But the Iron Horse always seemed … well, special, with its wild array of styles — both major stars and rising lights from the genres of rock, folk, country, blues, jazz, and a dozen others have graced its stage over the years — its unique setup, and its striking intimacy.

When the Calvin Theatre returns at some point — Suher has been working on a sale of that larger concert hall as well — that will be more great news for a downtown, and region, that could use more music and fewer vacant storefronts.

But no venue has embodied the spirit of ‘music alone shall live’ like the Iron Horse, and we’re hopeful it will rise again to the prominence of its heyday, sending home countless concertgoers with the feeling they’d experienced something truly unique, together.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Photo by Leah Martin

Fredrika Ballard, founder and owner of Fly Lugu Flight School, one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2023, was one of three people who died tragically in a plane crash in Leyden, at the Greenfield line, on Jan. 14.

The others killed were William Hampton, a flight instructor, and Chad Davidson, a student pilot.

Their deaths sent shock waves through the region, its business community, and all of us here at BusinessWest, who, in a short time, came to know Ballard as the epitome of the program created by those at the magazine to recognize women who are making a difference in this region.

Ballard, a flyer since her youth and a true entrepreneurial spirit, brought both of those qualities together in Fly Lugu, a name whose origins could be traced to something her father told her about how, when it came to the yoke of a plane, when you look up, you go up — LUGU.

Ballard brought that sentiment not just to flying, but to life in general. To move forward, she said, one had to look up, be positive, and move with confidence.

She did all of that, and she inspired others to do so as well, again, not just with flying, but with their lives and careers.

BusinessWest created its Women of Impact program, and chose that name, not simply to honor successful businesswomen, although several of them have been recognized. It was created to honor women who stand out, women who are true leaders, women who are mentors to others, women who inspire those around them to set a higher bar — in their work and in their lives — and then clear that bar. Women whom others consider powerful forces in their lives.

Ballard was all of these things and more, and this is why she epitomizes that phrase Woman of Impact. She was a success in business and a true entrepreneur, but she was also a teacher, a mentor, and an inspiration.

Opinion

Editorial

In the 40 years BusinessWest has been delivering key business news, trends, profiles, and much more to our readers, the economy has swung back and forth many times, from the downturns of the early ’90s and ’00s to the Great Recession of roughly 15 years ago to the recent, hyper-challenging pandemic years — and, of course, the brighter, more robust stretches in between those downturns.

In most cases over those years, business owners could read the signs and pinpoint what kind of economy they were dealing with — good or bad, promising or worrisome.

The current landscape, though, is mixed in an unusual way, with low unemployment and a soaring stock market on one hand and persistent inflation and too-high home prices on the other, just to name a few competing trends. As the Economic Outlook shows, there’s plenty of concern out there, but optimism, too, as we enter a year of global uncertainty, from what promises to be a wild presidential election in the U.S. to serious geopolitical conflicts overseas.

What is more certain is that BusinessWest will continue to reflect these times, these trends, and these stories from a local perspective — that is, through the eyes, minds, and stories of business owners and economic experts throughout the 413.

In our very next issue, we’ll reveal our 28th annual Top Entrepreneur — an intriguing, outside-the-box choice you’ll be excited to read about. One issue after that, we’ll unveil our 16th annual class of Difference Makers, the first of four very popular recognition programs throughout 2024, along with 40 Under Forty in April, Healthcare Heroes in September, and Women of Impact in October. Please note that BusinessWest accepts nominations for all four programs all year long.

We’re also introducing a few regular features to accompany our town-hopping Community Spotlight and the monthly Professional Development story, which focuses on how area colleges and universities are connecting with the business world to help people access better career opportunities.

The new, quarterly offerings in 2024 will include Where Are They Now? — a visit with a past winner of one of the four awards mentioned earlier, detailing how their life and career have evolved since — as well as Nonprofit Spotlight, a quick look at one of the region’s nonprofit organizations and the important work they do, and our Faces of… series, which will offer thoughtful perspectives from leaders in the worlds of construction (in February), education (May), finance (August), and healthcare (November). That’s, of course, on top of our regular coverage of dozens of sectors.

Oh, and did we mention 40 years? We’ll be celebrating that milestone in a big way in our May 13 issue, with a comprehensive look at how several key industries and sectors have evolved since BusinessWest (then known as the Western Mass. Business Journal) first appeared in 1984, and a celebration of the people who made it all happen.

So, as another uncertain year takes shape (and, really, aren’t they all?) we’re excited to bring it all to you — on the page, at our recognition events, and at businesswest.com. Happy New Year.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The main reason the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts opened a long-awaited distribution center in Chicopee this month is that it distributes millions of pounds of food each month, and more space means doing more of that critical work, and in a more streamlined way, thanks to Chicopee’s proximity to two interstates.

The nonprofit’s new, larger, greener food-distribution center is twice the size of its previous Hatfield location, with an additional 18,000 square feet in the warehouse alone. Floor-to-ceiling warehouse racks and expanded refrigeration and freezer sections enhance efficiencies and enable the Food Bank to store and distribute more healthy food than ever before to 175 member food pantries, meal sites, and emergency shelters of the food-assistance network across all four counties of Western Mass.

The new site also features a dedicated community space with a working kitchen for cooking and nutrition classes and other educational events. Other efficiencies include electric charging stations, an expanded member pick-up area, and ample parking for staff and volunteers. In 2024, the Food Bank will add a solar array on the roof and a canopy over part of its parking, along with backup battery storage that will fully support all electricity needs of the building.

“The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ new, state-of-the-art facility will allow their dedicated team to provide greater access to healthy, nutritious foods to thousands more of our neighbors in need and expand service routes to partners throughout the area,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said. “I’m proud of the Food Bank’s 40 years of history serving our community and their continued leadership on the national stage in our movement to end hunger now.”

The Food Bank certainly isn’t alone in those efforts, but the sheer scale of its work to connect food-collection sources through distribution channels to reach people in need is nothing short of remarkable, and its shepherding of tens of millions of dollars to build the new Chicopee location testifies to the firm belief in its work held by individuals, businesses, and government.

“I want to express my gratitude to our incredible community of supporters and donors who made our vision a reality,” Food Bank Executive Director Andrew Morehouse said.

No, thank you.

Opinion

Editorial

 

“Honestly, this was one of our busiest years I can remember.”

“It’s been a very challenging year.”

Those are two quotes from this issue of BusinessWest, one from the world of construction, the other from hospital administration.

And if you asked leaders of other sectors — from education to auto sales; from real estate to insurance — how things are going, you’d probably encounter the same range of answers.

Because these are unusual times. In some ways, the economy is strong, with historically low unemployment, real wages rising, and energy prices falling. But in other ways — indeed, the ways in which people feel it most immediately — things are not getting better: inflation is still too high, housing is increasingly unattainable, and employers are struggling to find talent.

But even by those negative measures, the U.S. has seen improvement over the past year, and in many industries, business is steady. We hope for even more improvement in 2024, of course, and while we do, here are four other developments we wouldn’t mind seeing, both locally and nationally.

• Lower interest rates. Not only has it been a terrible year for banks on that front, but consumers have been struggling with the dual issues of housing availability and higher mortage rates. Now that inflation is easing, mortgage rates are expected to make a slow decline throughout 2024. Realtor.com forecasts that rates will be 6.8% on average for 2024 and 6.5% by the year’s end, following a high of 7.79% earlier this year.

• Movement on east-west rail in Massachusetts. Obviously, any movement here will be painfully slow, but there has been some progress toward connecting Springfield (and even Pittsfield) with Boston. This fall, the federal government awarded a grant of $108 million to Massachusetts for infrastructure upgrades, and Gov. Maura Healey signed off on $12.5 million in DOT funding in the state’s FY 2024 budget toward the effort.

• Federal cannabis decriminalization. Well over half of U.S. citizens live where cannabis is legal in some way statewide, that number is rising every year, and about 60% of Americans want the drug legal for recreational use. But the federal government’s continued categorization of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — and the related Section 280E issues in the Internal Revenue Code — continue to hamper the industry in many ways, from banking and taxes to security and transportation. Descheduling marijuana seems to have bipartisan support in Congress, but there has been little movement.

• More momentum in downtown Springfield. The good news is plentiful: MGM posted some of its best-ever months this year. The Thunderbirds generate a $126 million effect on the local economy, according to a UMass Donahue Institute study. The market-rate housing development at the former Court Square Hotel has been taking applications, with the promise of bringing more foot traffic to the area. All the downtown office towers report new tenants or progress toward that goal. Downtown may never attain the energy of its mid-20th-century heyday, but the progress has been encouraging.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Second Chance Animal Services calls it a “trifecta of challenges that demand immediate attention.”

First, a rising tide of inflation has led to food insecurity for both people and their furry companions, as the cost of pet-care essentials skyrockets. Housing costs, too, are soaring, forcing families to make wrenching decisions about their living situations, often resulting in the surrender of beloved pets.

Second, a veterinary-care crisis persists, with burnout among professionals causing a shortage of crucial services.

Finally, shelters are reaching capacity across the country — and not just in the South, where overpopulation has long been a problem — forcing many to euthanize perfectly adoptable pets when they are out of space.

North Brookfield-based Second Chance, which runs four community veterinary hospitals, never euthanizes for space and is taking in as many transports as it can, but its space is limited as it grapples with an increase in surrenders from local pet owners.

“We are being stretched to our limits, and I am deeply concerned,” Second Chance CEO Sheryl Blancato said recently.

But there’s hope, too, she added, citing her own organization’s efforts to keep pets with their families, from subsidized rates at its hospitals and a pet food pantry to community vaccine clinics and veterinary care at senior-living residences.

But it needs help: more volunteers, more donations, more awareness of the problem.

Meg Talbert feels the same way, as she told BusinessWest in the story that begins on page 4. The executive director of Dakin Humane Society says volunteers and foster families are critical to the nonprofit’s work, but so is financial support.

“A corporate donation or a foundation or individual giving, they really let us do the work. They are that bridge that allows us to go that extra mile for the animals, and to help people out when they’re coming to us,” she said, whether they’re at the point of surrendering an animal or having trouble affording veterinary care.

The goal, in almost every case, for organizations like Dakin and Second Chance is to keep families and their pets together. Not only is it heartbreaking to have to surrender an animal, but every pet back in the shelter system is one more animal adding to an overcrowding problem that is not letting up.

That’s why, Talbert said, every adoption of a dog, cat, or other critter actually saves two lives: the adopted animal’s life, and the animal that adoption makes room for at the shelter. Just as every surrender compounds the problem, every rescue adoption improves it.

We encourage families who want to add a pet to their home to consider adopting first, not only to reduce the overcrowding issue, but to literally save a life worthy of saving — a pet with plenty of love and appreciation to spare.

Speaking of appreciation, Dakin, Second Chance, and other animal-welfare organizations are always grateful for not only financial gifts, but volunteers. As the season of giving commences, that’s something that should give us all paws — er, pause.

Opinion

Editorial

 

UMass Amherst graduates from a generation or two ago — and there are a great many still living and working in this region — will recall that the food served on campus was largely the subject of derision and ridicule.

Like the football team is now — although that’s another story for another day.

This one is about what has happened to UMass Dining over the past quarter-century or so. It has made the talk of bland, unimaginative food of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s the stuff of seemingly ancient history, which it is. And, like the school’s marching band, it has become a symbol of excellence and pride, and an inspiration to other schools and other programs at the state’s flagship university.

As this issue’s cover story notes, UMass Dining is on a winning streak for the ages. The program has made UMass Amherst the top school for campus dining for seven years running in the respected Princeton Review. But the story isn’t about the hardware — it’s about what it takes to win all that hardware.

And that’s a lengthy list — everything from quality food, obviously, to authenticity to comprehensive efforts to not only gather feedback from various constituencies, especially students, but listen and respond to that feedback in ways that yield continuous improvement and, yes, more top rankings in Princeton Review.

As anyone in business, or even professional or college sports, knows, getting to the top is one thing. Staying on top, especially when you’re sharing best practices with anyone who asks — which is what the team at UMass Dining does — is much more difficult.

Speaking of business, those working in just about every sector of the economy can take some invaluable lessons from UMass Dining, about everything from a commitment to excellence to what it means to serve a truly diverse audience and fully respect that diversity, to how to proactively respond to those who are being served.

What they do isn’t rocket science — they prepare and serve meals every day. But the attention to detail, the commitment to excellence, and the level of teamwork that goes into the day-to-day operations is extraordinary.

The dramatic change in operations — and quality — at UMass Amherst began with the arrival of Ken Toong, the executive director of Auxiliary Services at the university, which oversees the dining operation, in the late ’90s. He established a culture of excellence, maintained that culture of excellence, and embedded it into every operation and every meal served there — 8 million annually, by some estimates.

This is a story of teamwork and top-down commitment to doing not just a good job, but the best job possible, every single day.

In that respect, UMass Dining isn’t just a department at the university — one that has been the best in the nation for nearly a decade. It’s a model to be emulated.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Almost from the first puck drop back in the fall of 2017, we have been writing about the importance of the Springfield Thunderbirds — not just to the general psyche of the region (it’s good to have a pro sports team to root for) and to the vitality of Springfield’s downtown, but also to the local economy.

We’ve said many times that the team is a powerful force not just for filling bars and restaurants, and the casino on Main Street, but for job creation and supporting jobs elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley.

And now, we can quantify this broad impact.

Indeed, a recently released report details a study undertaken by the UMass Donahue Institute showing that the team’s operations have generated $126 million for the local economy since 2017.

The study included an analysis of team operations data, MassMutual Center concessions figures, a survey of more than 2,000 T-Birds patrons, and interviews with local business owners and other local stakeholders. Among its most critical findings, the study shows that the T-Birds created $76 million in cumulative personal income throughout the region and contributed $10 million to state and local taxes.

Meanwhile, the report shows that the team has doubled the number of jobs created from 112 in 2017 to 236 in 2023, and estimates that income per job created by the T-Birds is approximately $76,000, and that each job created by the Thunderbirds creates or supports 3.3 other jobs elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley.

Overall, the study concludes that the franchise, which has enjoyed success both off the ice and on it, including a run to the Calder Cup finals in 2022, is having a true ripple effect that extends beyond the walls of the MassMutual Center. Indeed, the study found that 78% of T-Birds fans spend money on something other than hockey when they go to a game, including nearly 70% who patronize a bar or restaurant or MGM Springfield. It also found that median spending by fans outside the arena is $40 per person on game nights and that every dollar of T-Birds revenue is estimated to yield $4.09 of additional economic activity in the Pioneer Valley.

We’re not sure, but it’s unlikely that even those business owners who came together to 2016 to save professional hockey in Springfield could have imagined this kind of impact. The numbers clearly show that they did more than bring a franchise here; they put together a team, led by President Nate Costa, that has put a quality product on the ice, marketed it in ways that are the envy of the American Hockey League, and turned that product into an economic engine.

Over the years, Costa and the team’s ownership group have won a number of awards from BusinessWest, everything from a Forty Under 40 plaque and a Difference Makers award for Costa to the Top Entrepreneur recognition for the team’s owners and managers.

Together, those awards speak volumes about what a success story this has been, not just for hockey fans, but for the entire region. But the Donahue Institute report speaks even louder. It puts numbers behind the words and quantifies what can only be called an unqualified success.

Opinion

Editorial 2

 

It has become somewhat of a tradition at BusinessWest to make Veterans Day a time to put a hard focus on those who have served, and also how veterans have helped shape our region’s business community. And over the years, there have been some great stories to tell.

But there are few better than the one involving a relatively new venture called Easy Company Brewing (see story on page 4).

It involves two veterans, Jeff St. Jean and John DeVoie (the latter of Hot Table Fame), who have come together on a very unique enterprise that blends history, entrepreneurship, some great beer, and an admirable willingness to do something to help those who have served their country.

Easy Company Brewing was created to celebrate the service, and many accomplishments, of the fabled ‘band of brothers’ from the 101st Airborne Division, as captured in the Stephen Ambrose book and HBO miniseries.

DeVoie and St. Jean, who have both served with the 104th Tactical Fighter Group based at Barnes Airport in Westfield (St. Jean still does), have long been enamored with the story of Easy Company, and came up with an idea to brew beers that would honor those men while also raising money to support nonprofits that provide services to veterans.

Indeed, following the model of Newman’s Own, 100% of profits are donated to several different nonprofits that support veterans, such as the Tunnel to the Towers Foundation, which has several programs to support first responders and veterans, including a program to build mortgage-free smart homes for catastrophically injured veterans and first responders, and another to provide mortgage-free homes to surviving spouses with young children.

Meanwhile, and this is the fun part, the beers being developed by the company follow the story of Easy Company, from their training in Georgia to the south of England, where they trained for D-Day; to the Normandy coast in France; and then to the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany.

The company’s efforts are drawing considerable support from individuals and businesses, as well they should. This is a noble mission, and one that deserves the backing of all those who want to recognize and honor our country’s veterans and do their part to help them.

In a way, Easy Company Brewing is making every day Veterans Day, and that’s an attitude worth emulating — by our businesses, our nonprofits, everyone.

We salute their efforts and encourage them to carry on.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2018, BusinessWest created a new recognition program, one to recognize the contributions of women. We did this … well, because we needed to.

Indeed, while we have other programs that certainly recognize women — 40 Under Forty, Difference Makers, and Healthcare Heroes — a separate program focused exclusively on women and the many contributions they are making to quality of life in this region was clearly necessary.

The reason is that so many of the stories we’ve told since 2018 might not have been told otherwise, and some women worthy of recognition might not have been duly recognized.

We could have called this program ‘Women in Business’ — other business publications have done just that. But we believed this was too limiting. We wanted to recognize all the many ways women can excel and make an impact. Thus, the name Women of Impact was chosen.

And the program has lived up to that title. This tradition of honoring women from across a wide spectrum of professions, pathways, and methods for making an impact continues with the class of 2023.

This class includes business leaders, nonprofit managers, a healthcare provider, an author and public speaker, and even a flight instructor — who is also a business owner.

The stories are all different, but there are many common threads. These women are leaders, they are inspiring, they are mentors to others, and they give back in many different ways.

And there is something else as well. These women all recognize what one of our honorees, Dawn Forbes DiStefano, called the “power of one woman,” especially when it comes to influencing the lives and careers of other women.

And they demonstrate that power, in myriad ways.

Indeed, our honorees have all made it a priority to help empower women and enable them to rise higher, quite literally when it comes to flight instructor and flight-school owner Rika Ballard; or by helping them get into the still-male-dominated auto industry, in the case of Carla Cosenzi; or help them enter (and then persevere in) the financial-advisor industry, in the case of Amy Jamrog; or help them overcome postpartum depression or the trauma of child abuse, as Arlyana Dalce-Bowie and Lisa Zarcone, respectively, are doing; or, in the case of Michelle Theroux, help young people with disabilities thrive in music and in life.

In many ways, our Women of Impact program has become a vehicle for displaying the awesome power of a single woman. Since 2018, our honorees, including those in the class of 2023, have demonstrated the power to lead, inspire, and generate positive change in the lives of not only women, but all those they impact.

It’s a striking, impressive class, and we’re excited to share their stories with you.

Opinion

Editorial

 

“I think that ship has sailed.”

That’s what JD Chesloff, CEO of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said in response to a question from the Boston Globe recently about why companies, even those like Google, Meta, and Amazon, who have made headlines with stringent return-to-the-office policies, are not asking employees to come in five days a week.

He’s right: it has sailed. The hybrid work schedules that so many companies have adopted, not out of choice, but more because they don’t really have a choice, are now the new norm and, from all accounts, will be the norm for at least the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it appears to be time to stop asking when everyone is going to return to the office and realize that not everyone is going to return to the office. And for many reasons.

Most of them have to do with the current labor market and the fact companies remain far too desperate in their efforts to attract and retain talent to make demands on where people can work. In some cases, employees are simply more productive working at home. And in still other cases, companies have been able to dramatically reduce their square footage (and, therefore, their annual costs) by having some or most of their employees working remotely.

Add it all up, and what we’re seeing in the workplace now is what we’re going to be seeing, unless some of those factors above change dramatically in the near term, and we just don’t see that happening. In short, employees who have been given a taste of remote work, like what they’ve tasted, will not want to go back to the office five days a week. And if employers try to force them to, they’ll find a new employer that won’t. Meanwhile, business owners will continue to be reasonable and cost-conscious, traits that, at this moment, don’t lend themselves to forcing people back to the office.

So instead of asking when workers will return the office, employers, managers, property owners, and leasing agents alike need to adjust.

Employers and managers need to find new and creative new ways to build teamwork and employee engagement, such as by requiring all employees to be in certain days of the week and then maximizing that time together.

As for property owners, the adjustment is more difficult. They may have to find other uses for their square footage other than office, a real challenge at a time when retail is also in retreat and conversion to residential is expensive and, in some cases, not realistic.

But adjustment, on the part of all those concerned, is necessary, because Chesloff is right.

That ship has sailed.

Opinion

Opinion

 

While significant progress has been made in downtown Springfield in recent years, several issues and challenges remain, and many of them come together at the corner of State and Main streets and other properties near that intersection.

Indeed, this is the site of several mostly vacant and underutilized buildings in the shadow of MGM Springfield that were a big part of the city’s past, but have become an eyesore in the present and a huge question mark for the future.

Last week, that future became much brighter when the city named a preferred developer for a project to redevelop the so-called Clock Tower Building at State and Main, the Colonial Block just south on Main Street, and a smaller office building on Stockbridge Street.

McCaffery Interests Inc. plans to create more than 90 market-rate apartments in the three buildings, a $68 million project that, if it comes to fruition, could go a long way toward addressing some of those issues alluded to earlier.

One of them is housing.

At the local, state, and federal levels, this is the word you hear most often, and with good reason. There is a huge need for housing, and especially market-rate housing, in almost every community in Western Mass., especially Springfield. And while an additional 90 units won’t solve the problem, they will certainly be a huge step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, this project will bring new life to properties that stand in stark contrast to the gleaming casino across Main Street and to the progress seen at other addresses, especially Court Square, where another huge mixed-use project focused on housing is taking shape.

As mentioned earlier, these properties have played a big role in the city’s past, as home to both residents and businesses of all kinds, but they have been left behind, if you will, by neglect and huge changes in the office market.

Indeed, there is a now what amounts to a glut of office space in Springfield and questions about what will become of that space. McCaffery Interests has put some ambitious plans on the table to answer that question for at least three properties.

While helping to address the housing crisis and bring new life to these once-proud properties, this project will also bring additional momentum to the efforts to revitalize downtown Springfield and likely trigger efforts to redevelop many other vacant or underutilized properties in that area.

As we’ve written many times, there are several ingredients to the success of any downtown. The first is people. The second is businesses to support and serve those people. And one brings more of the other. More people means more restaurants, retail, and other service businesses, and these businesses, in turn, attract more people.

The ambitious project to redevelop these three properties should help generate this kind of chain reaction of progress.

It’s another big step forward for Springfield.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s a significant investment: more than $20 million just for the first year. But it’s an investment that could bring a significant return.

That’s the hope, anyway, of Gov. Maura Healey and other state officials, who officially launched the initiative called MassReconnect with a press conference on Sept. 24 at MassBay Community College in Wellsley.

The program, quite simply, establishes free community college — covering not just tuition and fees, but books and supplies — for academically qualifying students age 25 and older.

The governor laid out the compelling rationale for the program at the event. “MassReconnect will be transformative for thousands of students, for our amazing community colleges, and for our economy,” she said. “It will bolster the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state and help us better meet the needs of businesses to find qualified, well-trained workers. We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher-education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path.”

Let’s consider those points one at a time.

Western Mass., where four of the state’s 15 community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are located, needs them to be strong and vibrant to generate, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into myriad fields.

Meanwhile, at a time when businesses of all kinds are struggling to attract and retain talent, making it easier for non-traditional students — those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another — to enter career pipelines could make a real difference in those companies’ growth, and even survival.

Meanwhile, Healey is right: there’s no doubt that education is a key factor in overcoming barriers to economic success; it isn’t hard to imagine that many students taking advantage of this program will represent the first generation of their family to attend college.

Holyoke Community College President George Timmons believes that “MassReconnect will enable our community colleges to do more of what we do best, which is serve students from all ages and all backgrounds and provide them with an exceptional education that leads to employment and, ultimately, a stronger economy and thriving region.”

MassReconnect is expected to support up to 8,000 community-college students in the first year, which could grow to closer to 10,000 students by FY 2025, depending on how many students take advantage of the new opportunity. There are approximately 700,000 Massachusetts residents who have some college credit but no degree. MassReconnect could help bring back these students to finish their degrees, with the additional funding and support they may have lacked the first time around.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges are a ticket to economic mobility for many residents. Nationally, employees who have earned their associate degree are paid 18% more than workers with only a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As for those jobs, in July, there were more than 26,000 job postings in Massachusetts that specifically required an associate degree.

The hope is that MassReconnect will harness the power of community colleges by allowing workers to earn the training and education necessary to jump-start their career growth and reinforce a pipeline of skilled professionals entering the workforce. That’s what this is about, and why Healey and other proponents and believe the state’s investment will be more than justified by its return.

“MassReconnect will be a game changer for residents 25 and over in the Pioneer Valley and throughout the Commonwealth,” Greenfield Community College President Michelle Schutt said.

Let’s hope it changes the equation for employers — and the state’s entire economy — as well.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s been five years since MGM Springfield opened its doors amid considerable pomp, circumstance, and rides in a Rolls-Royce down Main Street.

There are times when it seems like those five years have flown by. Most of the time, though, it seems like it’s been much more than five years; a global pandemic that reached this region only 18 months after the casino opened its doors and closed the facility for several agonizing weeks will do that.

In any case, five years is a good time to take stock and assess what the casino era has brought to Springfield and the surrounding region — and what it hasn’t — and to gauge what we can and should expect moving forward.

Starting just a few hours after it opened, when it was clear that opening-day crowds simply were not going to be what officials at MGM had hoped and expected they would be, the casino era has been about adjusting expectations. And they needed adjusting because they were unrealistic to begin with — when it comes to everything from visitation to gaming revenues (although they have been better of late); from employment numbers to the manner in which we thought MGM was going to provide a real boost to the tourism industry.

Why those expectations were so high is a matter of conjecture. In part, it’s because of what we were told. But another part is what we wanted to believe. In short, we thought MGM was going to be … here comes that phrase: a game changer.

Five years later, it’s clear that the nearly $1 billion development has not been a game changer and probably won’t be. But it has been, and will continue to be, we believe, a solid and important addition to the region’s business community and its tourism and hospitality sector.

MGM simply hasn’t brought a lot more people to Western Mass. — except to visit the casino for several hours, get back in the car, and then go back to where they came from. In that respect, there hasn’t been much of the trickle-down effect that most of us expected.

The notable exception, as we’ve seen this spring and summer, has been the music and comedy shows that have brought good crowds and become a real boon for restaurants and clubs in the downtown area.

Beyond this, the casino has not had much of an impact on downtown or the tourism industry and individual attractions such as the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nor has it had much, if any, impact on economic development in the area around the casino. Indeed, beyond a new CVS and a Wahlburger’s on Main Street, there hasn’t been any new development that can be tied to the casino.

That’s not to say the casino hasn’t contributed to progress in Springfield; it has pumped money into Union Station, for example, and been a key player in the long-awaited revitalization of the former Court Square Hotel as well.

Moving forward, we expect that MGM will continue to be what it has been: a key contributor to the local economy and an important part of the proverbial big picture. But not a real game changer.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Western Mass. is well-known for quality higher education. Which means it should have a leg up in the competition for professional talent.

But that’s not necessarily the case, and talent drain is a real thing, as graduates — especially those who didn’t grow up here and have no roots in the region beyond their college years — procure their degrees and make their way to Boston, New York, or myriad points south and west.

Which is why it’s encouraging to hear about the types of initiatives featured in two of this issue’s articles. On page 53, we learn about an MBA program at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts that takes place partly at the Berkshire Innovation Center, just down Route 7 in Pittsfield. Through that partnership, students are exposed to experts, resources, and growing, innovative companies with which they can collaborate and make connections — potentially long-term connections.

Meanwhile, the story on page 58 details an initiative through which UMass students in the iCons certificate program are matched with area companies through internships that promote mutual growth and, again, connections that may develop roots.

“We are dedicated to supporting next-generation talent … and fostering professional development in our region,” a leader of one of those companies said, and that’s really the best way to think about these partnerships. For Massachusetts to thrive in the coming decades, it needs to attract — and retain — the best next-generation talent, and part of the strategy must include robust professional-development efforts that introduce young people to successful, inspiring companies early.

We’ve mentioned before some of the issues causing the highest outmigration numbers in Massachusetts in decades, from a housing crisis to transportation challenges to high taxes and cost of living. The Bay State needs to address those, of course, but it also needs to give people positive reasons to stay. An innovative economic ecosystem is one of those reasons, and the more young people are exposed to that, on a personal, experiential level, the more they will want to stay here.

And the better the future will look.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Eastfield Mall has officially passed into history.

And this passing certainly prompts some reflection — on what has been and what is to come at the sprawling site on Wilbraham Road.

As for what has been … well, the mall was something of a marvel when it opened back in 1968. This region hadn’t seen anything quite like it. The indoor mall was new and totally captivating.

Someone could park the car once and go shopping, get a meal at one of several restaurants (including the famous Flaming Pit), get a haircut, watch a movie, take a walk, do some people watching … all of that and more.

Before Eastfield, people went downtown to shop, be it in Springfield, Holyoke, Westfield, Chicopee, Amherst, or Northampton, visiting a host of different stores and buildings as they did so. This was a completely different kind of experience, and the mall drew people from all across the region.

Eastfield ceased being a wonder in relatively short order. Other malls, which collectively doomed the region’s downtowns, save for Northampton’s (and even it struggled until the early ’80s) were built in downtown Springfield (Tower Square, then known as Baystate West, was a center for retail), Chicopee, Hadley, and Holyoke. It was the Holyoke Mall, which was much bigger and featured many more stores, that pushed Eastfield to second-tier status.

Still, Eastfield persevered on the strength of its anchors and an eclectic mix of national and local stores and remained a destination.

Until … the retail world started to change dramatically, especially with the advent of online shopping. One by one, the anchors, including Sears and JCPenney, disappeared from Eastfield — and many other sites as well. Then, the theaters closed, and some of the smaller shops did as well. While other malls found new uses for their retail spaces — everything from trampoline parks to bowling alleys — Eastfield struggled to do so.

Eventually, its massive, all-but-empty parking lot became a symbol of a changing retail landscape.

For years, there has been talk about what will come next at the site — a 21st-century facility that will be mixed-use, blending a residential component with retail, hospitality, and support businesses. Work on demolition will begin soon, and construction on what is expected to be a $65 million to $85 million facility will commence soon after.

Meanwhile, most of the 40 or so businesses and nonprofits that were in the mall have found new homes. Many have relocated to other sites in Springfield, but others have put down roots in surrounding communities, including Wilbraham, Ludlow, and Holyoke.

This is a developing story, and an intriguing chapter in the Eastfield story, one in which the businesses that gave the mall its character and charm will live on.

As for the mall itself, it will live on in memories. Like old ballparks, malls (most of them anyway) can’t become something else. They have to be destroyed because their useful life is over.

This was a sad but predictable, and inevitable, end for what had been, and still is in some ways, a landmark.

Rest in peace, Eastfield Mall.

 

Opinion

Opinion

 

While it might be considered dangerous to get into a discussion concerning the quality and relative merits of a particular piece of art, when it comes to the new mural taking shape at the former Skyplex building off Stearns Square in downtown Springfield, we’ll make an exception.

This is an intriguing and masterful work (and it’s not even done yet) that celebrates the city, its history, its personalities, its landmarks … all of that.

But it does more than that. It activates a space, and it gets people talking. Overall, it takes a nondescript wall on an underutilized building and turns it into a conversation piece and part of a larger effort to bring more vibrancy to that part, and other parts, of Springfield.

It’s a small piece, but an important piece nonetheless.

If there’s anything to complain about with the mural, it’s that there’s too much going on. The entire wall is covered, and with many, if not most, of the ‘characters,’ one needs to ask, ‘who’s that?’ and ‘why is that person on this wall?’

That’s true of Abraham Lincoln and Muhammed Ali (you know who they are), but also Ted Shawn, the dancer and choreographer who created Jacob’s Pillow in Becket (and lived in Springfield for a time), and also June Foray, a Springfield native who became the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, among other notable characters. You might not know who they are.

That’s the beauty of this mural. People get to take in something creative and learn about a city and its history at the same time.

It takes quite some time to take in the entirety of this mural, and another one like it just around the corner on Worthington Street, one that recreates advertising images put on the wall of a former camera store more than 50 years ago. But it’s worth taking the time, because these works tell a story, and they really do link the past, present, and future.

And at the same time, they bring new life to buildings, and an area, that needed a spark.

It is said that art can be captivating, powerful, and, yes, inspirational. This mural is a good example of how it can be all that and more.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Late last month, Gov. Maura Healey announced that that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward the replacement of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, known to many as the ‘sick courthouse,’ and for obvious reasons.

The funding, represented in the next four years of capital-improvement plans, embodies the state’s first real commitment to replacing the tired, unhealthy structure, and is the next big step in a project that might ultimately cost a half-billion dollars.

The announcement came a few weeks after the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) issued a report identifying 11 properties in Springfield, one in West Springfield, and one in East Longmeadow, as potential sites for a new courthouse.

One of those sites is 50 State St., the location of the 47-year-old courthouse, where many illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, have stricken an inordinate number of courthouse employees.

It’s unclear whether the inclusion of 50 State St. on the list means the state is leaning toward rehabilitating the current structure — a massive and expensive undertaking, to be sure — or simply tearing it down and building a new courthouse on that site.

Either way, we hope the state will ultimately look in a different direction for a solution, but not too far.

Indeed, the courthouse project, while defined by, and instigated by, tragedy in the form of the number of people who have become sick while working in it, represents a huge opportunity for the city of Springfield.

Actually, two of them.

The first would be building a new courthouse and thereby revitalizing some vacant or underutilized property, preferably in the city’s downtown (more on why in a minute), while the second would be to redevelop the site of the current courthouse, a property across State Street from MGM Springfield in the heart of downtown.

The huge site, just a few hundred feet from I-91, holds enormous promise, with potential uses ranging from housing, which the city still desperately needs, to office to retail and hospitality. The development community would have no trouble finding some creative and impactful uses for the property.

As for a new courthouse, while the proposed sites in West Springfield (Riverdale Street) and East Longmeadow (Shaker Road) and some of those in Springfield (Allen and Cooley streets and Hendee Street, for example) hold promise, this courthouse really needs to be in downtown Springfield, and for several reasons.

For starters, downtown would directly benefit from the still-considerable foot traffic to the courthouse every day, far more than those other locations. Also, where courthouses go, lawyers follow — it’s a simple matter of logistics; lawyers and law firms need to be close (as in walking distance, preferably) to the place where they still conduct large amounts of business.

Each of the large office buildings in downtown Springfield (and many of the smaller ones) are home to law firms and individual lawyers. If the courthouse were to move to West Springfield or East Longmeadow or even Allen and Cooley streets, some of these lawyers would go with it. We say some, because the need to be in close proximity to the courthouse is not as crucial as it once was.

But moving the courthouse more than a few blocks from downtown would be a blow to the central business district at a time when it has already been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the trend toward remote work and hybrid schedules.

A new courthouse is still several years away, and much has to happen before it becomes reality, including further commitments from the state. As the process unfolds, we hope the state realizes not only the need to replace the ‘sick courthouse,’ but the need for Springfield to make the very most of its opportunity — or opportunities.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Earlier this month, Trulieve Cannabis Corp. announced it will be exiting the Massachusetts market by the end of the year, a move that includes the closure of its massive growing and processing facility in Holyoke.

The company, which is also scaling back in California and exiting the Nevada wholesale market, cited changing conditions and slumping business for the moves, which are the latest to signal that the cannabis sector in the Bay State is losing some of its luster amid growing competition from other states.

Indeed, some dispensaries have closed within the 413, and other companies have announced layoffs. Meanwhile, several proposed cannabis facilities, including one planned for the former Chez Josef banquet house in Agawam, have been scrapped due to an inability to secure financing amid dramatically changing market conditions.

Cannabis got off to a fast and quite solid start in this region, with facilities opening in most area cities and towns, absorbing vacant or underutilized real estate — ranging from former mill buildings to the Springfield Newspapers headquarters facility in downtown Springfield — in the process.

This has been especially true in Holyoke, a city that has aggressively courted the industry, with many former mills, some of which had been vacant for years, being retrofitted for growing operations and dispensaries. Trulieve’s Holyoke facility, formerly home to Conklin Office Furniture, will soon be on the market, and given the current downward trends in the sector, there are certainly question marks about whether another large-scale operation will be taking over that space.

It’s been a time of change and turbulence for the region’s cannabis sector as prices continue to fall and competition in Massachusetts and surrounding states continues to mount. This business was never as easy as it looked, given the hurdles that need to be cleared to simply open the doors and the high taxes that operations must pay. But now, it’s much more difficult to be profitable.

It is our hope that those that can survive this whitewater can stay in the game for the long term, because cannabis has become an important part of the region’s economy, one that has provided a real boost to communities like Holyoke, Easthampton, Northampton, and others.

The ‘green rush’ is losing some of its steam, but it is still a potent force within this market.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense — to the point that it should have happened 33 years ago, or more.

We’re talking about Hooplandia, the 3-on-3 basketball tournament taking place at the Big E fairgrounds and the Basketball Hall of Fame on June 23-25.

The 33 years is a reference to Hoopfest, a 3-on-3 tournament in Spokane, Wash. that has grown over those three-plus decades to encompass about 7,000 teams per year, a staggering figure. It’s a success story worth praise, even though some local leaders don’t love that Spokane refers to itself as Hooptown USA.

Because Springfield is the real Hooptown, right?

No one here is truly mad at Spokane for that, though. Instead, the organizers of Hooplandia are grateful that Hoopfest inspired the 413’s very own tournament, one they feel will only grow each year, maybe to the same level as Washington’s event (see story on page 40).

“Some of our earliest registrations were from far away,” said Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. “We’ve got a couple from New Jersey and Maryland … and we’ve got a lot of Connecticut players; Connecticut obviously is a big basketball state. So it’s starting with a pretty broad footprint already, and I expect that to grow as well.”

It’s an example of taking an obvious regional asset — that being the birthplace of basketball and home of its Hall of Fame — and investing in that asset in a new way, while take advantage of another existing asset, the space afforded by the Big E fairgrounds.

If all goes as planned, that investment will bring immediate economic dividends (think hotels, restaurants, and other tourist attractions), and may multiply those dividends in future years, as the tournament expands its reach not only through the Northeast, but across the entire U.S., drawing even more people to Western Mass., who might just want to explore more of what the region has to offer during their multi-day stay.

It wasn’t too many years ago that the Springfield Museums leveraged the city’s fame as the birthplace of Ted Geisel into the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum and accompanying sculpture garden, which have been key to attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Museums from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.

In fact, so much tourism in Western Mass. springs from what already existed, whether it’s the homes of Emily Dickinson in Amherst and Edith Wharton in Lenox being turned into popular museums, or the historical structures in Deerfield and Sturbridge giving rise to living-history experiences, or the region’s abundant natural resources offering robust opportunities for skiing, whitewater rafting and paddling, rail-trail bicycling, ziplining, and so much more.

“Tourism in general has come back in varying ways,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “What we’re finding is that people want to get out. They want to do stuff.”

Well, Western Mass. is home to endless cultural, historical, and recreational ‘stuff.’ That’s one of its greatest assets. What Hooplandia proves — and hopefully keeps proving with exponential growth in the future — is that there’s always room for another great idea.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Girls on the Run isn’t about running.

Sure, running is a big part of this program for girls in grades 3-8; participants learn to enjoy running and build endurance so they can keep at it longer — and become healthier in the process.

But the heart of this organization (see story on page 30) isn’t physical endurance; it’s emotional resilience. It’s about social-emotional health, developing confidence, and finding joy.

And those can be challenges for young people today.

“We’ve definitely tapped into a need,” Alison Berman, council director of Girls on the Run Western Massachusetts, told us. “There’s a huge child mental-health crisis right now. And whatever’s going on with them, Girls on the Run is giving them this extra layer of skills to support them.”

Interestingly, we spoke with Berman and her team members during Mental Health Awareness Month, just a few days after we visited Springfield Central Library for another program aimed at young people and their emotional wellness.

Specifically, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center partnered with the Holyoke Public Library and Springfield’s city libraries to encourage awareness and conversations on the topic of mental wellness. Displays of books and other materials have been prominently set up to promote understanding around mental health and to encourage such collaborations for libraries to become better resources on the topic — for visitors of all ages, including (and, perhaps, especially) youth.

María Pagán, Holyoke Public Library director, said she hopes that, by making educational materials about mental health and substance use more accessible, the effort will eventually encourage people to learn about these conditions, recognize them, and seek any needed assistance.

Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director for Public Services at Springfield Central Library, said librarians don’t judge what people read. “The same thing goes for if you were to come into a library and ask a question that concerns mental health or emotional wellness. We don’t judge that. We’re here to help you no matter what.”

The displays, she said, might help visitors find something they need, and realize that “this is a safe place to ask questions, including about your emotional wellness.”

Meanwhile, just a few months ago, the Springfield Youth Mental Health Coalition, convened by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, launched “I Am More Than My Mood,” a new awareness campaign that aims to normalize healthy conversations about mental health and encourage youth and their caregivers in Greater Springfield to discuss stress, anxiety, and depression as common challenges that everyone goes through.

These are just a few examples, but the message is clear: mental-health issues are common — and were certainly exacerbated during the pandemic, especially for young people — and the time is always right to talk about them (as in the case of the library partnership and the coalition campaign) and give kids healthy alternatives to achieve personal wellness (as Girls on the Run and other youth-serving nonprofits do).

Pagán, for her part, agrees with Canosa. “No judgment. You might read something because you want to, you’re curious, or because you know somebody that might benefit, and you could help if you learn about it. Information is power.”

So is talking about mental health. So let’s keep talking.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Last week’s announcement of a new, two-year labor agreement between Springfield Symphony Orchestra and Local 171 of the American Federation of Musicians is, undoubtedly, good news. And the press conference at which it was announced, attended by SSO board members, union musicians, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and others, was all warmth — and a palpable sense of relief.

That’s because it ended an awkward period, starting during the pandemic and extending well beyond, in which an expired contract turned into a divorce of sorts, with the union musicians forming a separate organization, Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO), and scheduling smaller-scale concerts throughout the region.

As part of the agreement, MOSSO will live on as the renamed Springfield Chamber Players, ensuring that the SSO continues to produce full symphony concerts, while transitioning chamber concerts to the new entity.

So, maybe divorce is the wrong word. Maybe separation is more appropriate, because no one involved — not the SSO’s leadership, board, or the musicians themselves — thought a permanent dissolution was a good idea. That’s why the atmosphere at the May 4 announcement was so festive, and why SSO President and CEO Paul Lambert and Local 171 President Beth Welty repeatedly expressed their admiration for each other and for the way the other handled the long negotiation process — which, let’s not forget, included an unfair labor practice complaint by the musicians’ union registered with the National Labor Relations Board (which has, of course, been dropped).

So, labor peace has been achieved, and everyone’s ready to make beautiful music together.

For now.

As noted, the labor agreement — which guarantees musicians annual raises and a minimum of eight concerts per year — applies only to the next two seasons 2023-24 and 2024-25. The hope is that it will serve as a framework for future negotiations, because, again, no one wants the SSO imperiled.

After all, the Springfield Symphony is one part of a downtown renaissance in Springfield that relies on a number of drivers — from the Thunderbirds to MGM to the club district — as well as a plan for more housing and mixed-use development, to continue an era of revitalization. And the SSO is also a critical element in the arts and culture scene in Western Mass. as a whole, one of its more attractive tourism drivers and quality-of-life elements.

In addition to the agreement between the SSO and Local 171, the city of Springfield has pledged $280,000 over two years in financial support for SSO youth educational programming, underscoring the organization’s generational importance.

Now, it’s up to the business and philanthropic communities, as well as area residents, to support these performances and the SSO itself. But it’s also up to the organization and its musicians to guard against another messy separation — or worse.

Opinion

Joe Bednar, long-time senior writer at BusinessWest magazine, has been named editor of the publication, succeeding long-time Editor George O’Brien, who is retiring after nearly 30 years in that role.

Bednar, who joined BusinessWest 22 years ago, said he is looking forward to continuing its long history of being the region’s go-to source for business news and information and building on a solid foundation of excellence.

“BusinessWest has established itself as the clear leader when it comes to being a voice for the region’s business community and keeping it informed of the latest news, trends, challenges, and opportunities,” Bednar said. “I’m excited about the challenge of continuing this track record of excellence and building on everything we’ve accomplished since 1984.

“As the magazine prepares to celebrate 40 years of carrying out its important mission,” he went on, “I want to raise the bar higher and then clear that bar when it comes to the quality of what we do and how we meet the changing needs of the region’s business community.”

Bednar has been a journalist in the region for almost 30 years. A 1991 graduate of Evangel College in Springfield, Mo., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and English, he broke into the newspaper business with the Waterbury Republican-American in Connecticut, and later worked as a reporter for the Westfield Evening News.

He was recruited to BusinessWest in 2001 and used his writing and editing skills to help the magazine expand its coverage of area businesses, trends, and issues. He played key roles in the growth and development of BusinessWest’s sister publication, the Healthcare News, and the expansion of BusinessWest from a monthly to a twice-monthly publication in 2005.

Later, as BusinessWest expanded into events, such as Forty Under 40, Difference Makers, Healthcare Heroes, and Women of Impact, he became known for his poignant profiles of honorees and his work behind the microphone at events, especially as one of the emcees for Forty Under 40 each June.

“I grew up believing I’d one day write the great American novel, but eventually accepted that wasn’t in the cards,” Bednar said. “Instead, I’ve developed a passion for telling other people’s stories — several thousand of them, in fact, over the past three decades. I’m so grateful that so many people have taken the time to share their stories with me — how they got into business, their struggles and victories, how they contend with the challenges facing all businesses today.

“And I enjoy going beyond what they do for a living, writing about who they are, what they value, and what their passions are, both at work and outside of it,” he went on. “Their stories inspire me, and I’m beyond proud to keep bringing them to our readers in this new role.”

Kate Campiti, associate publisher of BusinessWest, said that, given his vast experience with the publication, knowledge of the area and its business community, and commitment to taking BusinessWest to the next level, Bednar was the logical choice to become its next editor.

“Joe isn’t just a writer and editor — he’s a trusted source,” she said. “He’s a resource for this region and its business community.”

When he’s not working, Bednar enjoys live music, cryptic crosswords, and spending time with his wife, Jennifer, compliance director at Appleton Corp. in Holyoke; his college-bound son, Nathan; and their three dogs.

He added, “I want to thank George O’Brien, who has been a mentor, example, and constant support in my career for more than two decades. I appreciate him more than he knows. And I told him I’ll start wearing ties, but we’ll see.”

Opinion

Editorial

 

Inspiring.

There are many adjectives one can use to describe the members of the 40 Under Forty class of 2023 and their many — and varied — accomplishments. But ‘inspiring’ probably works best, and for a reason.

This was one of the main motivations for BusinessWest to start this recognition program in 2007. The goal was not to simply identify 40 rising stars each spring, but to inspire others by telling their stories, which are all different, but similar in that they chronicle success in the honorees’ chosen fields, but also strong involvement in the community.

These stories are impressive, but it is our hope, and our expectation, that they will inspire others to want to follow suit.

Let’s look at a few of these stories so you can see what we mean:

There’s Ashley LeBlanc, who told BusinessWest that it seems strange to be happy when someone is diagnosed with lung cancer. But she is, in some ways, because that diagnosis, especially if it comes early, can be one that saves a life. And helping to save and prolong life has become a kind of unofficial job description for her as nurse practice manager of Thoracic Surgery and nursing director of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield.

There’s Dave Fontaine Jr., who has not only taken his family’s business, the construction firm Fontaine Bros. Inc., to new and much higher levels in terms of sales, staff, and even a ranking as one of the Boston Globe’s “Top Places to Work.” He has also become a serial entrepreneur of note as president of F2 Ventures, and taken his company and his family to a new level of involvement in the community. Indeed, collectively, they support everything from Link to Libraries to the Forest Park Zoo to the Sr. Mary Caritas Cancer Center.

There’s also Chelsea Russell, manager and CPA at Meyers Brothers Kalicka. She has quickly become a leader and mentor at the company, and has also developed its Community Outreach program, which coordinates drives, awareness campaigns, and services for organizations that include Square One, the United Way of Pioneer Valley, Christina’s House, Rachel’s Table, and many others.

There’s Andrew Brow, the restaurateur who has grown his portfolio to three eateries in Western Mass. — HighBrow Woodfired Kitchen and Bar, the Kitchen by HighBrow at White Lion Brewing Co., and Jackalope Restaurant — while also becoming quite active in the community, serving on boards at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and Holyoke Community College, and using his talents in the kitchen to support a number of area nonprofits.

Then there’s Delmarina Lopez, who started a career in law and still uses her legal talents to help small business owners as a consultant. But she wanted to do something more meaningful with her time and energy, so she ran for, and won, a seat on Chicopee’s City Council as its Ward 3 representative.

There are 35 more stories like this, starting on page A8. Each is one is different, inspiring, and uplifting.

This is what we had in mind 16 years ago when we took an idea — to shine a bright light on the young talent in this region — and made it reality.

Like the 680 stories we’ve told, including the 40 this year, this program, and the way it has inspired others, is something worth celebrating.

 

Opinion

Opinion

 

Amid some very concerning trends on outmigration — more than 110,000 people have left the Bay State for … well, somewhere else since early 2020 — Massachusetts House leaders have unveiled a tax-relief plan they believe will improve the state’s overall competitiveness.

The plan, which echoes much of what Gov. Maura Healey proposed in her own tax plan, would, among other things:

• Raise the estate-tax threshold from $1 million to $2 million and tax only the value of an estate that exceeds $2 million, and not the entire estate, as the law currently requires;

• Cut the rate on short-term capital gains from 12% to 5% in two years. During the first year, short-term capital gains would be taxed at 8%;

• Change how state corporate taxes are calculated to what is known as the ‘single sales factor,’ to line up with how most states tax companies now;

• Expand tax credits for seniors and renters; and

• Combine two existing tax credits — childcare and dependent care — to create one $600 credit per dependent, while eliminating the current cap.

The Senate has yet to release its tax plan, and there will be considerable debate before one plan — if there is one — eventually emerges.

But the House plan is cause for optimism in the Bay State. It shows that the chamber’s leaders get it when it comes to outmigration and the many ways in which this ongoing exodus is impacting the state and its business community.

This plan recognizes the need for Massachusetts to be able to compete for talent and then retain it, whether the employer is MassMutual, the University of Massachusetts, or even the New England Patriots.

The outmigration, as we’ve noted many times before, is a strong indicator that this state has become too expensive, both for individuals and the corporations that hire them.

There are many factors that go into this equation, including the skyrocketing cost of living, especiallly when it comes to housing. This is a problem that was many years in the making, and it will take many more years, and strong efforts to create more housing worthy of that adjective ‘affordable,’ before we can see any kind of relief.

But there are things this state can and should do now, such as raising the estate-tax threshold and cutting the rates on short-term capital gains, that can have more immediate results when it comes to making the state more competitive.

It is time to stem the tide, and this proposal is a step in that direction.

Opinion

Some Big Shoes to Fill

 

Javier Reyes, the incoming chancellor of UMass Amherst, was introduced to the local media — and took a few questions — at a session on the campus earlier this month.

On subjects ranging from the Blarney Blowout to his management style; from why he pursued this particular job to his thoughts on the relative worth of college rankings today, he said … well, mostly what you would expect.

That was especially true when he was asked by BusinessWest what it would be like to follow in the very large footsteps of Kumble Subbaswamy, who has served as chancellor for the past 11 years and is credited with taking the university to a higher plane when it comes to everything from prestige (and those rankings; the school is now 26th among American public universities, according to U.S. News & World Report) to research dollars.

So much so that UMass President Marty Meehan opined at the same media session that the UMass chancellor’s job is now far more attractive than it was years ago, one able to draw the top candidates.

That includes Reyes, who has most recently served as interim chancellor at the University of Illinois Chicago. He told those assembled that, when it comes to following Subbaswamy, he understands there is perhaps more pressure than if this was a turnaround assignment, as many schools are providing these days, but he welcomes that pressure.

“You’re not coming in to repair something, but to build on the shoulders of giants — and that is a very attractive opportunity,” he said of his decision to come to UMass Amherst and work to keep the school on its current pace and angle of ascent. “You’re not trying to catch up; you’re really trying to move and set the direction and be a forward leader … It comes with more pressure, but it’s more exciting.”

‘Exciting’ would be just one of the words we could use to describe this assignment. ‘Daunting’ also comes to mind. That’s because, while it isn’t easy to put a major university on a higher trajectory, it is certainly more difficult to maintain such a course.

To do that requires real leadership and both a desire to continually set the bar higher and the will to clear that higher bar.

We hope that Reyes, the university’s first Hispanic chancellor, can meet this stern challenge because, as we’ve said on many, many occasions, UMass Amherst is an extremely important economic engine for this region and a source of innovation and entrepreneurial energy. Meanwhile, its graduates — at least those that we can keep in this market — are a key ingredient in the success formula of businesses all across the 413, and across the state as well.

Using every measuring stick but the football team (a sore subject to be sure), UMass took critical steps forward during Subbaswamy’s tenure in terms of new building and expansion of the campus; enrollment; research dollars; diversity, equity, and inclusion; rankings for the university and specific schools, such as the Isenberg School of Business; and the institution’s ability to attract top talent, meaning students, faculty, and staff.

Swamy, as most everyone called him, has taken the university to a place it hadn’t been before. It will be Reyes’ assignment to not merely maintain the status quo, but take it further still.

He sounds like he’s up for a challenge, and that’s good, because this will be one.

Opinion

East-west Rail a Worthwhile Goal

 

“This is an easy fix. Please fix it. Make it easy for us. Make it easy for me to get to work.”

Those were the words of Gina Nortonsmith, who lives in Northampton but works in Boston, as reported by the Berkshire Eagle.

The occasion was a pair of hearings on east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts, the latest in a series of meetings being held by the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission.

Nortonsmith’s sentiments are no doubt shared by many in Western Mass. who work in the eastern part of the state, or travel there often for other reasons, from medical appointments to ballgames and concerts.

What many state officials and lawmakers no doubt take issue with is the word ‘easy,’ at least when it comes to bringing such rail service into existence. Because it certainly won’t be easy — or inexpensive.

But our feeling has long been that the price tag — an initial outlay of $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, according to MassDOT, plus ongoing maintenance costs — is worth it.

The reasons are myriad. In an age of remote and hybrid work models — which don’t seem to be going away — rail service could be a boon for those who need to work in or near Boston but want the lower cost of living and what they see as a higher quality of life in the Valley or the Berkshires. Conversely, it would open up job opportunities out east for those already living here.

“Key passenger rail stops along the east-west passenger line would provide a catalyst for economic growth throughout the area,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said in written testimony at the Springfield hearing. “The iron is hot, and now is the time to strike. This project would open up myriad positive possibilities, including opportunities for economic development, jobs, and housing.”

Enhanced rail could also bring more tourism dollars to Western Mass. — which is rich in cultural and recreational destinations — by making it easier for Eastern Mass. denizens to spend some time here.

The service would likely connect Pittsfield to Boston via a high-speed train with proposed stops in Chester, Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester. From an environmental perspective, fewer cars on the Mass Pike and other roads means fewer emissions, and that’s a plus for the health of the entire corridor.

While talk of east-west service had been frustratingly fruitless for rail advocates in recent years, their dream got some concrete encouragement last summer when an $11.4 billion infrastructure bond bill backed by former Gov. Charlie Baker authorized $275 million toward expansion of passenger rail and created the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission to gather information about the feasibility of such a project.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and many influential local lawmakers have been stalwart supporters of such a plan. And in her FY 2024 state budget, Gov. Maura Healey proposed directing $12.5 toward the project, including the hiring of a project director, design of a station in Palmer, and track improvements in Pittsfield — all of which points to continued support from the governor’s office to make east-west rail a reality.

The plan still has many hurdles to clear; it’s far from a done deal, and may never happen — because, as we noted, it’s not easy.

But the payoff would go far beyond making commuters’ lives a little easier. From the perspectives of economic growth, tourism dollars, and even climate and health, we hope this theoretical train keeps chugging toward an actual, feasible plan.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Three years.

It seems like much longer than that, obviously. That’s because the pandemic years, at least the first two, seemed like dog years, each of them four or five years rolled into one.

That’s why so many people who were on the fence decided to retire, including a large percentage of the region’s college presidents and a good number of its nurses. Who could blame them? It was a difficult and, in many ways, exhausting time.

But as we’re set to mark the three-year anniversary of the day when everyone packed up their computer and went home (March 24 seems to be the consensus day), we have to say there is certainly some credence to that old saying — the one about how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

We’ve said that before in regard to the pandemic and its aftermath, but it bears repeating.

First, though, we need to note that this pandemic did kill a lot of businesses in this region, many, if not most of them, in the retail and hospitality fields — businesses that saw people stop coming to their door and simply couldn’t adjust to that changing landscape.

Which brings us back to those that could adopt and did survive. They are better are off for it, and they are now even better able to withstand change, even rapid, profound change that alters how business is done forever. These businesses have learned to communicate better, to find new and often better ways of doing things, to work together to solve real problems.

Over the past three years, we’ve told countless stories about companies and nonprofits and how they battled through COVID. They are all different, but there are many similarities. Mostly, they involve people looking at a very difficult situation and simply getting creative.

They couldn’t do things the way they always did them, so they had to find other ways. They had to dig deep, overcome adversity, and create solutions. That’s what being in crisis mode — which is what colleges, hospitals, and, yes, many other kinds of businesses were in for at least two full years — is all about.

The challenge, and the opportunity, for businesses now is to continue to apply those lessons and maintain that spirit of problem solving and finding new ways of doing things even when the pandemic is essentially over. And from what we’ve observed, there seems to be a good bit of this going on.

Companies are not going back to the way they did things, because that doesn’t make sense anymore — be it with regard to technology, remote work, hours of doing business, recruiting talent from outside the 413 … all of these things and more. Instead, they are shedding that ‘this is how we’ve done it, so this is how we’ll continue to do it’ mentality.

And they are certainly the better for it.

Looking back, this is what the most successful businesses came away with from the pandemic — an understanding of not just how imaginative and resourceful they can be, but of how imaginative and resourceful they must continue to be moving forward.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Gov. Maura Healey presented her first budget a few weeks back, and it contains some proposals that could help the state navigate its way out of an ongoing workforce crisis.

Chief among them is something called MassReconnect, which would fund free community-college certificates and degrees to Commonwealth residents who are 25 years and older and have not yet earned a college degree.

Based on initiatives in Michigan and Tennessee, MassReconnect actually goes further than those programs by covering more than just tuition; it also covers mandatory fees, books, and various support services. It is designed to remove barriers to getting the college degree that is needed to succeed in most jobs today, and it holds significant promise to do just that.

So do some of Healey’s other proposed investments in higher education, including a 3% increase in public college and university base spending, as well as $59 million to stabilize tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts and other public institutions.

But it is free community college that is getting the most attention, and rightfully so. In fact, Senate President Karen Spilka has been working on legislation to achieve just that, saying that reducing the cost of getting a degree will help close equity gaps and build a more educated workforce to meet the needs of important industries in Massachusetts..

Indeed, while the bottom-line cost of a community-college education is much lower than at four-year schools, it is still a burden to many and a roadblock when it comes to attaining not just a job, but a career. In that sense, this proposal could open doors to individuals who have seen them closed for one reason or another, while holding considerable potential to bolster the state’s 15 community colleges and the state’s economy as a whole.

Indeed, the Commonwealth’s community colleges, long considered a key component in any region’s economic-development strategy, and especially here in Western Mass., have been struggling of late, and for many reasons.

Smaller high-school graduating classes are just one of them. A strong job market has traditionally had the effect of impacting enrollment at community colleges — they thrived during the Great Recession, for example — and that pattern has held for roughly the past decade or so. Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.

This region needs its four community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — and it needs them to be strong and vibrant if it is to create, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into fields ranging from healthcare to cannabis to hospitality.

Meanwhile, community college serves as a place to start one’s secondary education. Many graduates of these schools move on to four-year colleges and degrees that lead to a wider range of job, and career, possibilities. But first, students need to begin.

That’s why this proposal holds such potential. It is designed for non-traditional students, those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another. These are the individuals who hold the most promise for bringing some real relief to the region’s ongoing workforce crisis, one that is impacting businesses in every sector of the economy.

The concept of free community college has its skeptics, and some will wonder where the money will come from and whether the state can afford to do this.

Looking at matters from an economic-development lens, however, one could argue that the state can’t afford not to do it.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

In the fall of 2008, the decision makers at BusinessWest decided the region needed a new recognition program. The magazine had, just a year earlier, introduced the phrase ‘40 Under Forty’ to the local lexicon, a program to recognize the emerging leaders in the 413.

What was needed was a program to recognize … well, everyone.

What the concept really needed was a name, and the chosen brand, Difference Makers, encapsulated everything this was about. There are many ways to make a difference within the community we call home, and this new recognition program was designed to make that clear.

It has certainly done that. Over the years, it has recognized individuals (dozens of them), as well as nonprofits and institutions ranging from the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round to the region’s four community colleges. Each year, there are new stories to convey all the ways there are to make a difference — and inspire others to find their own way.

And the Difference Makers class of 2023 continues that tradition. These inspiring stories share similarities in that they involve individuals and nonprofits committed to helping others, but they are all different:

• Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, is making a difference not just by making hockey part of the fabric of the region — again — but because of the way he has made this team an economic engine, a supporter of local nonprofits, and a pivotal component of ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Springfield.

• Steve and Jean Graham make a difference on many levels — as employers, as philanthropists who turned the long-vacant train depot in the center of East Longmeadow into a destination where families can gather and enjoy ice cream and much more, and, in Steve’s case, as a wrestling coach and promoter of the sport who has helped young people across the region absorb the many lessons and benefits from getting on the mat.

• Helix Human Services, formerly the Children’s Study Home, is the oldest social-service agency in the region, tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Childrencaring for destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War. The mission has changed over the years, and the name changed just last month. But its ability to make a difference in the lives of children and families remains a constant.

• Burns Maxey has long been a believer in the transformative power of the arts, and her volunteer efforts leading the board of CitySpace in Easthampton comprise the most recent, and most exciting, example. The rehabilitation of Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space not only renovates a historic building, but promises to spur economic development and create long-term affordability and accessibility for artists.

• Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould share an office in downtown Amherst, leading the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District, respectively. Individually, but especially as a team, they have helped this college town find its way through the darkest of days during the pandemic, and continue to work together in many ways to put this community on the map as a place where businesses can thrive.

• Gary Rome was recently named Auto Dealer of the Year by TIME magazine. You don’t get to take home that hardware simply by selling a lot of cars — although that certainly helps. You earn that honor by selling a lot of cars and by being a force in the community. And he is certainly that, both as a philanthropist and by involving his dealerships and employees in causes ranging from the Ronald McDonald House to the Jimmy Fund to Rays of Hope.

• Sports are more than fun and games. They teach important lessons about teamwork and overcoming adversity. They also build character and give people young and old something to look forward to. In that spirit, the organization known as Springfield Ballers continues to make a difference in the way it helps young people get in the game — and get a leg up in life.

• Finally, Henry Thomas has racked up a half-century of difference-making efforts leading the Urban League of Springfield, from its many education and youth-development initiatives to programs ranging from workforce development to productive-aging outreaches to community support, in many forms. Thomas said he’s optimistic that the younger generations will continue to make a similarly powerful difference in their communities and beyond. So are we.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

To say that the still-emerging cannabis sector has had a profound impact on the local economy, and the local landscape, would be a huge understatement.

Indeed, this sector, now just over six years old in the Commonwealth, has brought much-needed revenue to area cities and towns, several hundred new jobs, and new life to dormant or underperforming properties ranging from old mills in Holyoke and Easthampton to the Springfield Newspapers building.

No one really knew just what to expect when this new business took off, but few could have expected this kind of impact.

And while nothing was easy for anyone getting into this sector — there are steep costs and a mountain of regulations to meet — it has been, for the most part, a ticket to success.

That’s has been.

As the stories make clear, the cannabis sector has already entered a new and exponentially more difficult phase of its existence. Competition is growing, both in this region and in neighboring states; prices are coming down; margins are becoming ever-more thin; and profitability is becoming more difficult.

To make a long story short, the laws of supply of demand are starting to catch up with this sector.

In the beginning, meaning just a few years ago, there was huge demand and not nearly as much supply as there is now. We can all recall the long lines of people around those first dispensaries that opened in this region.

It was these lines that hinted at just how lucrative this business could be, and they helped lead entrepreneurs with capital and a sense of adventure to stake a claim during what some came to call a ‘green rush.’

What these entrepreneurs are realizing, and most of them realized it long ago, is that there is a limit when it comes to just how big this pie can become. And as more people want a slice … well, the slices will get smaller and smaller.

In this environment, communities — smart ones, anyway — will take steps to limit the number of licenses, thus enabling those operating at least a fighting chance to succeed. Meanwhile, individual business owners will have to focus on quality, customer service, branding, and, overall, separating themselves from the competition and finding what it will take to survive in a changing, more competitive environment.

In that respect, they will have to be like business owners in every sector where the consumers have choices and exercise their right to choose.

History has shown that, in situations like this, it becomes a matter of survival of the fittest. And it will be the same with this sector, which has changed the landscape in all kinds of ways and continues to do so.

Cannabis has been a game changer for this region and this state, but now, the cannabis game itself is changing. It will be interesting to watch as the new chapter in this intriguing story unfolds.

Opinion

Opinion

By Valerie Harlow

We’re all facing many types of disruption from ongoing organizational transformation, new approaches on how work is done, economic uncertainty, and political discourse. Maybe, as an employer, you are seeing and hearing things like louder complaints about changes, indifference and disengagement with work and projects, burnout, resistance, negativity, etc.

Change fatigue is not something to discount or think it will just take care of itself. It has a huge impact on attrition, which will impact your bottom line. Gartner for HR lists in its “Top 5 Priorities for HR Leaders in 2023” that 43% of employees who experience above-average change fatigue intend on staying, compared to 74% who have low change fatigue.

That 31% difference could be a big cost to an organization — not just the bottom line, but also the impact on engagement, productivity, culture, and more.

What can leaders do about it? Focus on moving toward an open-source change strategy and away from the traditional top-down ‘cascading’ approach. Open-source change strategies involve employees throughout the process. It’s not about just telling employees what is happening or what will happen. Instead, it’s involving them from the beginning. They help co-create and are active participants in identifying, making, and crafting change decisions and outcomes.

In other words, employees own the change planning process. From there, they can develop individual or team change-implementation plans. Communication becomes an open conversation rather than a constant marketing message of the change and its benefits.

From an organizational perspective, it’s also important to have a pulse on the amount, size, and significance of change that is happening or being planned in the organization. This can help to ensure employees are able to participate early on, and it helps the overall organization mitigate any change overload or manage changes that really are not aligned strategically. This can also prevent change fatigue.

Change is constant and necessary to bring about innovation, creativity, and long-term growth and results. Ensuring that your employees don’t burn out or become change-fatigued is an important leadership responsibility.

 

Valerie Harlow is a learing advisor and facilitator at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

 

As he talked with BusinessWest recently about the prospects for the region in 2023 and beyond, Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, stressed the need for creation of a growth strategy for Western Mass.

And he’s right. A region that has become notorious, if that’s the right word, for its lack of growth over the past several decades needs a strategy for bringing more jobs, more businesses, and more vibrancy to the 413.

What goes into such a strategy? Many different things, but it starts with identifying areas where a region can grow and then putting specific strategies in place for making it happen. After all, growth doesn’t occur in a vacuum — it happens where there are opportunities, be it through developable land, location, a large and talented workforce, comparatively lower costs of doing business, an existing infrastructure and critical mass of businesses in specific sectors, a high quality of life, and … did we mention a talented workforce?

These elements have led to profound growth in areas ranging from Silicon Valley to the Research Triangle in North Carolina; from Cambridge to countless towns in Mexico.

The region has several of these attributes, including quality of life, a comparatively lower cost of living (for now, anyway); some available land; a solid workforce trained for some specific sectors, especially manufacturing; a location that provides easy access to Boston, New York, and other major cities; and emerging sectors such as cybersecurity, green energy, and even so-called water technology.

But is this region ready to grow? Can it accommodate more businesses and provide them with the workers they need?

That is a harder question to answer. On the surface, it would seem that, based on the fact that almost every business in every sector, especially healthcare, is struggling to find good help, the answer is ‘no.’ But throughout history, regions have found that, if you create jobs, people will come to that area.

Moving forward, the region needs to take some steps to enable growth to happen. It needs to build its workforce by keeping more young people here and prompting more young people to come here. To do that, there must be jobs, as in good jobs, and places to live. Right now, the region doesn’t have enough of either, which is a problem.

But while creating jobs is important in this new age, the jobs don’t necessarily have to be in the 413. With the advent of remote work, the jobs can be in New York, Boston, or elsewhere, and people can live here.

Either way, this region will need more housing, specifically affordable housing. It will also need a larger and more skilled workforce, which means more training programs and better utilization of one of the region’s best and perhaps least-appreciated assets — its four community colleges.

Meanwhile — and we know you’ve heard this before — it needs to do a better job of telling its story and marketing itself to businesses in other regions of this state and well beyond.

None of this is new, really. The region has known it needs to take these steps and others for years, if not decades now. What would help would be to formalize all this, put a plan together, and take steps to implement it.

Because growth doesn’t happen by accident.