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Employer Confidence Declines in Massachusetts in April

BOSTON — Massachusetts employers hit the pause button on a seven-month rally in business confidence during April, but their outlook remained solidly optimistic in the face of mixed political and economic signals. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index lost 2.2 points to 60.2 last month, 4.0 points higher than its level of a year earlier. Every constituent element of the confidence index lost ground after reaching a 13-year high during March. The results came as the Massachusetts economy contracted at a 0.5% annual rate during the first quarter and state unemployment rate rose to 3.6%. “We should not be surprised to see confidence readings correct slightly after advancing six points since September,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “It bears watching to determine whether the broad April decline becomes a trend as we move into the summer.” Analysts believe the numbers may also reflect growing concern among employers about the ability of the Trump administration to deliver the many pro-growth policies it promised during the campaign. 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 has remained above 50 since October 2013. Employers grew less confident about both the overall economy and their own operations during April. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, lost 0.4 points to 63.3, leaving it 6 points higher than in April 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions shed 2.7 points after gaining ground for the previous sixth months. April marked the 85th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, declined 1.9 points to 59.9, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, dropped 2.5 points to 60.5. The future outlook remained 3.2 points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, fell 2.6 points to 60.2. The Employment Index fell 2.8 points to 56.2, and the Sales Index declined 2.1 points to 60.5. The AIM survey found that nearly 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months were stable, with 37% planning to hire and only 10% downsizing. The April survey also reversed an unusual result in March, when Western Mass. companies were more confident than those in the eastern portion of the Commonwealth. Eastern Mass. employers posted a 61.7 confidence reading in April versus 58 for employers in the western part of the state. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord said employer confidence is facing headwinds from accelerating healthcare and health-insurance costs. Massachusetts has exceeded its objective for healthcare spending in each of the past two years, and employers continue to pay some of the highest costs in the nation. “The good news is that Massachusetts is beginning to identify some answers. And there appears to be enough common ground and political will on the issue to pursue some solutions,” Lord said. “New research conducted by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission suggests that Massachusetts employers, insurers, and policymakers could reduce total healthcare expenditures anywhere from $279 million per year to $794 million per year, or 0.5% to 1.3%, by making several key improvements to the healthcare system.”

Ko-Aqua Kit Wins Elevator-pitch Competition

HOLYOKE — Nkori Edem, a student from Mount Holyoke College, took first place at last week’s elevator-pitch competition at the Awards Ceremony & Banquet for the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. She pitched the Ko-Aqua Kit, a completely waterproof and airtight swim cap designed specifically for women of color. Edem convinced a panel of judges from area banks that her pitch was the best. Rune Percy and Alexander Smith, a student team from UMass Amherst, took second place based on their business-concept pitch for ARBioDesign, which aims to save tens of thousands of patients every year by personalizing dialysis treatment using rapid and inexpensive microfluidic blood-diagnostic tests. Finally, Daniel Olive, a student at Elms College, took third place with the DBL (Don’t Be Late) Pillow, which utilizes Bluetooth technology to revolutionize waking up. Representatives from six area banks once again sponsored the elevator-pitch competition and served as judges at the annual event held at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. The banks include Berkshire Bank, Country Bank, KeyBank, PeoplesBank, United Bank, and Westfield Bank. The live event featured a student representative from each of 13 participating local colleges: American International College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, and Westfield State University. First-, second-, and third-place winners received $1,000, $750, and $500 respectively. Each student participating received $100. Six student businesses were identified by the bank judges as Best Exhibitors. These were selected from a pool of 62 unique companies during a trade-show-type portion of the evening which featured the 2017 Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award winners. The winning exhibitors were Elms College: JMH Partners, LLC (Kevin Hepburn, Connor Holland, John Jacquinet, and Raphael Monterio); Western New England University: Sparks to Sparkles (Rebecca Abramson); Westfield State University: JPS Design Solutions (James Schmidt); Western New England University: Napollo Music (Sebastien Percy); Springfield College: Thorello Leather Goods (Dilyara Celik), and UMass Amherst: App Outreach, LLC (Jordan Ames, Davis McVay, Rich Sadick, and Lauren Tse-Wall). The Grinspoon, Garvey & Young Alumni Entrepreneurship Award is presented each year to an individual who has advanced substantially as an entrepreneur since receiving the Grinspoon Spirit Award. Phil Scarfi, founder of Pioneer Mobile Applications and alumnus of UMass Amherst, was awarded the 2017 Alumni Award and $1,000. Pioneer Mobile Applications is a software consulting agency, specializing in mobile app design and development.

Unemployment Down Across State in March

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates decreased in 23 labor-market areas and increased in one area in the Commonwealth during the month of March, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. Compared to March 2016, the rates were down in all 24 labor-market areas. All 15 areas for which job estimates are published recorded seasonal job gains in March. The largest gains occurred in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Worcester, Barnstable, Framingham, Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, Lawrence-Methuen-Salem, and Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford areas. From March 2016 to March 2017, 13 of the 15 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the New Bedford, Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford, Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Barnstable, Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, and Pittsfield areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for March was 3.9%. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to 3.6% in the month of March. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed a 200-job gain in March, and an over-the-year gain of 49,000 jobs. The unadjusted unemployment rates and job estimates for the labor-market areas reflect seasonal fluctuations and therefore may show different levels and trends than the statewide seasonally adjusted estimates. The estimates for labor force, unemployment rates, and jobs for Massachusetts are based on different statistical methodology specified by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dragon Boat Festival Seeks Organizations to Sponsor Boats

SPRINGFIELD — The fifth annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival will take place on Saturday, June 24 from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. at North Riverfront Park, 121 West St. in Springfield. Racing begins at 9 a.m. Registration is now open for teams wishing to participate at In addition to dragon-boat races, the festival will feature family-friendly events such as music, performances, food, vendors, and children’s activities. The boat races will have both community and club racing categories. For businesses and organizations looking for a team-building opportunity, the $2,000 race fee includes a coached training session the week prior to the race, the use of boats and paddles, and personal flotation devices. On race day, teams will participate in three 200-meter races. No prior experience is necessary to participate. Proceeds from the event will provide support for riverfront programs for youth and adults at Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club as it grows and strengthens its presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. “Our mission is to connect the community to the Connecticut River,” said Ben Quick, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club. “Past community team participants have included MassMutual, Health New England, the Center for Human Development, and more. It is a great way for community groups to have fun and create awareness. They love that they can enjoy a great team-building event and support programs that help our local youth and adults get fit.”

State Receives Federal Funds to Fight Opioid Crisis

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced that Massachusetts has received a federal grant totaling nearly $12 million to bolster its public-health response to the opioid epidemic, particularly for outpatient opioid treatment, recovery services, and expanded community overdose-prevention programs. “Our administration strongly supported the 21st Century Cures Act as an effort to advance Massachusetts’ leadership in biomedical innovation and expedite new ways to treat disease and addiction,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “We are grateful for the opportunity to use these funds for prevention and treatment activities to address the opioid crisis that has devastated families in every corner of Massachusetts.” The grant, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is the first round of annual funding authorized under the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law late last year. The funds will support an array of statewide prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery activities managed by the state Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. “This administration is intensely focused on ending this epidemic, which has claimed far too many lives across our Commonwealth,” said Marylou Sudders, state Secretary of Health and Human Services. “This new grant enables us to continue the fight and expand successful prevention, treatment, and recovery programs throughout the state.” The majority of the $11.7 million in funding will be used to increase outpatient opioid treatment and recovery services and expand community overdose-prevention programs. The funding will also support new programs to promote treatment and recovery for at-risk populations, including pregnant and post-partum women and correctional inmates scheduled for release. “This funding comes at a critical time and supports our comprehensive response to this deadly epidemic,” said DPH Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel. “Investing in prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery saves lives, and this funding helps us in each of those areas.”

Single-family Home Sales Record Uptick in March

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were up 5.9% in the Pioneer Valley in March compared to the same time last year, while the median price was up 1.7% to $188,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were up 21.2%, while the median price fell 12.0% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 10.2%, while the median price was up 2.8%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 8.0% from March 2016, while the median price rose 4.3%.

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