Briefcase Departments

Briefcase

Downtown Springfield
to Offer Free Wi-fi

SPRINGFIELD — Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy announced upgrades to Springfield’s downtown technology infrastructure. The initiatives include providing free public wi-fi access beginning in the downtown area this spring, then expanding to other areas of the city, including public parks. Working with city partners, the initiative will also bring high-speed fiber into buildings, which will provide the growing entrepreneurship sector with quicker, cost-effective, easier-to-access technology. “Springfield has a history of innovation,” Sarno said. “These investments will keep us competitive in the market to attract entrepreneurs and to assist those here today in continuing to grow. This will also serve as a matter of convenience for residents and tourists who will be able to access Internet in our parks and public spaces.” The initial investment will range between $50,000 and $100,000 and will ensure free wi-fi access throughout downtown. The investment comes on the heels of the city’s announcement of a National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) award, part of which will dedicate funding to a pair of key innovation projects in the district: DevelopSpringfield’s Springfield Innovation Center and an IT workforce-training program through Tech Foundry. Funding is expected to be $300,000 for each project. All of these activities fall in the city’s Transformative Development Initiative district, a designation the city applied for and was awarded through MassDevelopment, which has since provided staff, an equity investment, and technical and financial assistance as the Worthington Street master plan continues to advance. “This has all been part of a dedicated planning process to establish an innovation district in our downtown,” Kennedy said. “The private and nonprofit sectors have been doing their share in creating a great deal of excitement with programming; these key city infrastructure investments will only help further these efforts. It’s been a great partnership.”

Springfield Regional Chamber Adopts
Energy Position

SPRINGFIELD — The board of directors of the Springfield Regional Chamber voted this week, on behalf of its members, to take a position on energy in the state of Massachusetts and to support a balanced energy portfolio, including the expansion of the supply of natural gas. “Energy is a critical issue for our members. While they acknowledge that regional investment in the transmission infrastructure has increased the reliability of our grid, they see that demand for natural gas continues to rise and the infrastructure is not in place to support such demand,” said chamber President Jeffrey Ciuffreda. “This not only increases their already-high costs of electricity, but causes constraints on the infrastructure and supply. Combined, they tell us it significantly impeded their continued economic development and the economic development of our region.” As a result, Ciuffreda said the Chamber, on their behalf, has adopted the following position: “The Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce (SRC), through its members, has long identified the high, and increasing, cost of energy as a major issue to address and more recently has identified the constraints on the supply of natural gas as a major deterrent to economic development in the region. Therefore, the chamber supports the expansion of the supply of natural gas, especially to the Western Massachusetts region, as a means to assist in economic-development efforts as well as to reduce the cost of electricity. The chamber acknowledges that two pipeline expansions are in various stages of development, the Spectra project as well as the Kinder Morgan project, and encourages the development of each. The chamber believes that there are sufficient permitting and regulatory rules in place to ensure the safety of these projects and the protection of lands in and around these projects. While endorsing the increased supply of natural gas, the chamber also reiterates its support for the goal set by the state for the development of solar energy and encourages swift action on a comprehensive energy bill that will further bring on line other alternative energies such as wind and hydro. Finally, the chamber is encouraging its members to take advantage of the programs available, many funded through electricity charges, for conservation and efficiencies. There is no better way to lower the cost of electricity than through those efforts. Moving toward this balanced portfolio of energy sources and recognizing the conditions and constraints about being in New England will ensure a better future for all — businesses and residents alike.” Ciuffreda said the chamber will work with local and state officials, utility companies, and developers to continue to advocate on behalf of its members for the programs and capital necessary to lower these escalating costs and improve the region’s infrastructure, and will be an active participant in reviewing any legislation on this issue.

 

State Proposes $83.5M
for Vocational Technical Education Programs

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker, Secretary of Education James Peyser, Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Ronald Walker II, and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash announced a series of new initiatives to support career vocational technical education, including $83.5 million to be proposed between the governor’s FY 2017 budget recommendation and new capital grant funding to be filed in an economic-development bill this week. “With too many good-paying jobs going unfilled, we are pleased to announce this critical investment in our career and technical schools,” Baker said. “Our proposal will make it possible for more students to explore a pathway to success through stronger partnerships with our schools and local businesses in the Commonwealth.” The funding in the FY 2017 budget will be coupled with a substantial capital-grant program for vocational equipment that further aligns the administration’s investments with local economic- and workforce-development needs and employment partnerships. “Massachusetts has some of the strongest career-technical programs in the country, at both the high-school and college levels, but access and quality are uneven across the Commonwealth, and there’s currently little alignment across education levels,” said Peyser. “Our efforts will significantly expand student access to high-quality career-education programs in STEM fields, manufacturing, and traditional trades, with a focus on underserved populations and communities.” Added Walker, “finding ways to make sure people get the skills and job training they need to get a good-paying job is one of the biggest challenges before us. With these initiatives, we will engage employers as full partners in program design and implementation to help them create a pipeline of workers.” Ash noted that “vocational institutions are an important part of training the workforce to address the skills gap. These additional resources will continue to equip vocational institutions as they train the next generation of skilled workers who will help grow the Commonwealth’s economy.”

 

Employer Confidence Steady to Start 2016

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers remained steady during January as optimism about the state economy offset uncertainty about China and turbulent financial markets. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 0.5 points to 55.8 last month, starting 2016 well above the 50 mark that denotes a positive economic outlook. The increase was driven by a 1.8-point surge in the index measuring employer attitudes about Massachusetts. Confidence remained lower than it was in January 2015, however. “The fact that employer confidence remained solid during a month in which the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was at one point off 9% and oil dropped below $27 a barrel points to the fundamental, underlying strength of the Massachusetts economy,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. The index ended 2015 down for the year, but remained consistently in optimistic territory for the first 12-month period since the Great Recession. Most of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer rose a point or two in January, though all remained down year over year. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, jumped 1.8 points to 58.1, starting the year more than a point lower than last January. “The Massachusetts Index has been above its national counterpart for 80 consecutive months, and that perception was bolstered by the decision in January by General Electric to locate its corporate headquarters in Boston,” Torto said. “GE’s decision was important, not only for the 800 jobs it will bring, but because the company cited Massachusetts’ leadership in knowledge industries as its reason for coming.” The U.S. Index of national business conditions slipped to 49.9 on the month, leaving it more than four points lower than a year ago. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased slightly to 54.6, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose almost a full point to 57.0. “Employers clearly do not believe that the correction in financial markets signals an overall economic slowdown,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, associated professor of Economics and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a BEA member. “Massachusetts employers foresee positive business conditions through at least the first half of 2016, and that comports with economic forecasts that Massachusetts will reach full employment during the year.” The three sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations were mixed in January. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, was up 0.3 points at 57.0, the Sales Index shed 1.1 points to 57.1, and the Employment Index rose 1.3 points to 55.1. “The increase in the Employment Index is good news for Massachusetts. Our survey found that 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment,” said Katherine Kiel, professor of Economics at College of the Holy Cross and another BEA member. “Expectations for the next six months are even stronger — 37% hiring and only 10% downsizing.”

 

State Announces $9.2M
in Skills Capital Grants

HOLYOKE — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced the availability of $9.2 million in Skills Capital Grants for vocational-technical equipment investments to improve the quality of education and vocational training, provide career technical training to increase program capacity, and enable students to improve their skills to meet the needs of employers in the Commonwealth. “The skills gap is real across the country, and many companies cannot find the talent they need to fill positions and further develop their local economic impact,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “By investing in capital equipment at vocational and technical schools that are focused on training, we will ensure more residents get the skills they need to get good-paying jobs in growing industries across the Commonwealth.” State officials announced the availability of the Skills Capital Grants at the future site of Holyoke Community College’s (HCC) Center for Culinary and Hospitality Excellence, located in the heart of the Holyoke Innovation District, which is experiencing significant investment and growth. The center is being funded by a $1.75 million capital grant from the former Manufacturing Training Equipment Grant program, which is being combined with the Vocational Opportunity Challenge Grants to create the new Skills Capital Grant. The Holyoke grant was awarded from a prior funding round. High demand for career training programs like Holyoke’s led to the creation, and expansion in scope, of the Skills Capital Grant program. “We are proud and excited to see the expansion of Holyoke Community College’s Culinary Arts program into a larger center which will provide critical skills to our residents for jobs available that are available now,” said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Added HCC President William Messner, “Holyoke Community College is committed to continuously improving our academic program offerings. We have invested $20 million in such efforts over the past few years in areas directly related to regional employment opportunities, including this culinary center, as well as healthcare, STEM fields, and adult literacy. We are pleased to be able to expand our culinary and hospitality program at a critical time for the region and look forward to increasing the educational opportunities for hundreds of local residents.” The Skills Capital grants will range from $50,000 to $500,000, and while the grants do not require a match, applicants are encouraged to demonstrate cash and/or in-kind matches. Eligible applicants include Massachusetts schools, institutions, and organizations that provide career/vocational technical education programs, including all Chapter 74-approved vocational tech schools, community colleges, and providers of training programs that meet the federal Perkins Act definition of career and technical education. Grant applications must be submitted by Jan. 29.

 

Results From Statewide
Healthcare Quality
Survey Released

WATERTOWN — Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP) announced the results of an independent statewide patient experience survey, now publicly available at healthcarecompassma.org. The survey encompassed nearly 65,000 patients from more than 500 primary-care practices representing approximately 4,000 physicians across the state, who responded to the question of whether they would recommend their primary-care physician to their family and friends. “The answer to this and other patient-experience questions makes Healthcare Compass MA a tremendous resource for Massachusetts residents who want to find the best care available,” said Barbra Rabson, president and CEO of MHQP. Questions about whether or not providers ask patients about feeling depressed, feeling stressed, or experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs, or a mental or emotional illness were reported for the first time in MHQP’s 2014 survey results. The 2014 statewide behavioral-health mean score of 53.1 indicated that there was substantial room for improvement. The results of the 2015 survey indicate improvement to 56.5 for these behavioral-health measures, with several practices having made truly noteworthy progress. The survey also found that primary-care physicians across the state excel in communicating with their patients. The communication mean score for all practices across the state is 93.5 out of a potential 100 points. “We are fortunate to live in Massachusetts where we have access to MHQP’s statewide public reporting about patient-experience results,” said patient advocate Rosalind Joffe, president of ciCoach and MHQP board member. “MHQP’s commitment to capturing and reporting the patient voice, and focusing on what is important to patients, will continue to make care better in Massachusetts.” Added Dr. Thomas Scornavacca, senior medical director, UMass Memorial Health Care Office of Clinical Integration, “MHQP’s survey provides actionable information that helps bring physicians closer to our goal of delivering patient-centered care. At UMass Memorial Health Care, we evaluate MHQP survey results very carefully as we set healthcare quality-improvement priorities.”

Applicants Sought for
Energy and Environmental
Education Awards

BOSTON — The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) is now accepting nominations for its annual Secretary’s Awards for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education until March 30. EEA Secretary Matthew Beaton will present awards this spring to Massachusetts teachers and students involved in school-based programs that promote environmental and energy education. “I am proud to recognize the teachers and students leading and inspiring their communities as they tackle critical energy and environmental issues,” Beaton said. “It is important to engage students early in issues like energy, recycling, conservation, and wildlife, and they have so many fresh ideas to offer.” All public and private Massachusetts schools (K-12) that offer energy and environmental education programs are eligible to apply for the awards. In 2015, schools and nonprofit organizations from 22 communities across the state were recognized for their work on issues including recycling, energy conservation, ocean science, wildlife conservation, and alternative fuels. The Secretary’s Advisory Group on Energy and Environmental Education will review applications through mid-April. Qualified entrants will be invited to attend a formal award ceremony with Beaton at the State House this spring.

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