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Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

The holidays are a stressful time in some way, shape, or form for everyone. However, for those folks in recovery, this stress can become intensified around festivities and traditions tied to the season and undermine their sobriety.

An individual in recovery invited to a work gathering may ask themselves, “what am I going to do if someone offers me a drink or they offer me a substance? I may feel uncomfortable disclosing to my colleagues and my co-workers or other people that I am in recovery.”

Holiday gatherings with family members can be an emotional minefield of negative memories, bringing up feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. There is also the potential for an individual in recovery to know they will be with a close family member with an addiction that is untreated. The person in recovery wants to avoid being offered an alcoholic beverage or other type of substance, and this type of encounter could present an especially stressful situation for them.

The question for the pern in recovery becomes, “am I going to be able to say no or be able to help myself prepare for a situation that I know that I may not feel comfortable in from an emotional standpoint?”

I address these situations around holiday sobriety with the individuals I work with in recovery by telling them to continue to focus on their physical and mental health.

Rest, relax, and rejuvenate are three key words to remember about self-care during the frustrations, busyness, and exhaustion of the holidays. I ask people to ask themselves, “am I getting good sleep at night? Am I eating healthy? Am I engaging in exercise?”

I work, too, with people on the ability to say no or to pass on going to a certain celebration or relative’s house. If someone does go to an event, they should have an exit plan so they can leave if things start to get really uncomfortable or they feel their sobriety might be at risk.

Most importantly, holiday sobriety is about staying connected to one’s support system. This may be a close friend or a fellow member in a self-help meeting. It could be a sponsor or a pastor.

Sometimes people get so caught up in the holidays that they skip a support meeting or call to their sponsor. This could be a real trigger for someone to worry about — that they get out of their routine and their pattern of supports that they have for their security relapse planning.

What would I advise someone hosting a celebration or family gathering and inviting someone they know is in recovery?

Make sure there are a lot of choices available in terms of non-alcoholic beverages — many drinks advertised as “non-alcohol” contain some alcohol.

Also, have an open dialogue with the individual who is in recovery and ask them, “what can be done to help you feel safer and more comfortable with your recovery while you are here?”

I really believe in people having as much open dialogue as possible. The person in recovery is the best person to say what is going to be most helpful to them. Sometimes people’s actions are really well-intended, but they may not realize their actions could trigger a relapse.

And I always tell the person in recovery that their recovery and sobriety come first and to be honest with themselves in that approach. I remind them again: if you don’t feel going to any particular celebration or event is safe for you in your recovery this holiday season, it is OK to say no, and it is important as well to remain engaged with your supports — all those things that have helped you stay in your routines.

 

Alane Burgess is a licensed mental-health clinician and director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Olivia Bernstein

More than 4 million youth and young adults experience homelessness annually in this country. It is estimated that at least 700,000 are not part of a family or accompanied by a parent or guardian. Risk factors include family conflict, a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity, substance use, and school problems.

MHA is among the organizations that recently launched initiatives to address this issue in Massachusetts, where it is said that, on any given day, nearly 500 unaccompanied young people, ages 18 to 24, experience homelessness.

Federal grant money received through our work with the Continuums of Care in Hampden County and the Three County Continuum of Care administered by Community Action of Pioneer Valley (CAPV), which serves Hampshire, Berkshire, and Franklin counties, is funding two MHA projects over a 24-month period that support the needs of homeless youth.

One provides permanent supportive housing for eight beds annually in Springfield, as well as eight in Greenfield, and includes subsidies so participants pay only one-third of their income for rent.

The other, referred to as a Housing Navigation and Rapid Re-housing program, helps youth and young adults navigate services to obtain housing. The program covers rental and related expenses for up to two years for six beds annually.

These projects represent a more comprehensive approach to youth homelessness that provides ongoing rental and individualized case-management support.

In its pioneering report, “More Than Housing, Give Us Homes,” CAPV called youth homelessness a “crisis in our region,” and through $1.96 million in federal funds, it and its partners received a jump start toward ending the crisis. Guiding principles include prioritizing “evidence-based, low-barrier practices, such as housing first, trauma-informed care, and positive youth development.”

As one of CAPV’s partners, MHA couldn’t agree more. This is a population just starting out in life and in need of support, including subsidized housing that is in short supply in the area; services tailored to individualized needs, which may include access to behavioral-health resources; learning life skills such as budgeting; and pursuing employment or educational opportunities.

These youth and young adults, 18 to 24, have experienced more than anyone should have to in their young lives. Some of them have been out on the street or in shelters or exited foster care at 18 with no place to go. Some of them are in unsafe situations and at risk of harm. They may be living with a family member or couch surfing in an unsafe place, and many we serve identify as LGBTQ+. They may not feel accepted by their family or have family relationships that they don’t feel are safe.

MHA is seeing early success in its work with youth involved in both projects. It is, for some, their first time involved with social services, but all are eager to move into the next stage of their lives, which includes more independence and access to housing. Some are continuing a college education, others are seeking employment in their chosen field, and some are in recovery programs.

These young people have shown they are resilient and, like all of us, deserving of a place to call home. We see homelessness all over this country, but it is a huge systemic injustice that anyone should have to live out on the street.

 

Olivia Bernstein is clinical director of Homeless Services at MHA.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The holiday season would be a good time to start.

Opinion

Opinion

By Allison Ebner

 

I read an article recently about Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, who started the business with about $5,000. The recent acquisition of Spanx by Blackstone now positions the company’s value at about $1.2 billion — a staggering transformation. To reward her employees for helping her create this amazing company, Blakely gave each of her 500 employees two first-class airline tickets to a destination of their choice and $10,000 in spending money for their trip.

So how did a woman with barely any means accomplish this phenomenal business venture? There are quite a few strategies and decisions that contributed to her success, but one of the biggest things that stood out to me was the message I saw on the careers page on its website. Here it is, in part:

“We are a high-growth, digital company with an iconic brand that earned its reputation for over 20 years by delivering amazing products and staying true to our greater mission of supporting and elevating women. We don’t believe ‘pain is beauty,’ and we don’t believe ‘business is war.’ We run our business with kindness, empathy, intuition, creativity, integrity … and fun. We don’t believe you have to act serious to be taken seriously. We dream big, think forward, and give back. We challenge the status quo, aim high, and celebrate our ‘oops’ moments. We test and learn and we aren’t afraid of failure. We think like entrepreneurs in everything we do, and we look for people who are self-starters, kind, creative, and out-of-the box-thinkers. If this sounds like you, join us! And help us make the world a better place … one butt at a time.”

Spanx has an excellent track record of being an employer of choice with great retention numbers and pathways for advancement across the organization. So, what helps them drive a robust and engaging company culture? They follow some of the same principles that many other successful organizations employ to create a great employee experience:

• Build trust. In fact, start with trust and go from there. Don’t make new employees earn trust. Start from a place where they have your trust, and manage the relationship from there.

• Empower your employees to make decisions. Don’t create a culture of micromanaging. Allow team members to make decisions, collaborate, and generate new ideas.

• Set clear, transparent goals. Your employees need to know the big picture and their role in that path to success. Work with them to set clear goals and expectations. Train your managers to have coaching conversations regularly, not just once a year at their annual performance review. Set goals, coach, redirect, and repeat.

• Show appreciation — especially now. If your company has successfully navigated this pandemic, at least some of that success is due to the work and dedication of your staff. Be sure to say ‘thank you’ and celebrate the wins with your entire team.

• Invest in their well-being. A paycheck is great, but you have to do more. Take a genuine interest in your people. Offer wellness resources and train managers and leaders to show empathy with accountability.

• Allow freedom to make mistakes. Don’t punish the team for failures. Bold moves lead to big successes. If your team is afraid of making mistakes, you’ll miss the big moments of greatness.

Not sure where your company stands on the journey to create a thriving company culture? That’s OK. Grab your leadership team and review the key elements of a successful strategy listed above. You may also want to consider asking your employees for their feedback through an employee-engagement survey. Whether your company is trying to improve communication between individuals and teams, gauge morale after a merger or downsizing, or obtain feedback on programs and policies, a customized employee-engagement survey gathers employee feedback via a core set of questions, options for narrative responses, and special areas of focus. Results typically come with a detailed analysis of results, management debriefs, and a clear action plan that will help you address some of your biggest areas for improvement.

 

Allison Ebner is director of member services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast; [email protected] This article first appeared on EANE’s blog.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Thornton

 

Organizational leaders are ready to pull their hair out over the challenges they are fighting to recruit and retain talent today. The best recruitment strategy always includes having a strong retention plan. We know what can happen when we take our eye off the ball … ouch!

By the end of 2022, we expect more than half of all employees in the U.S. to be looking for a new job. Employers are really going to need to assess the value they bring to the reasons why their employees stay.

Gallup has provided us with the 12 most important factors that employees evaluate as they consider staying put or testing out opportunities with a new employer. They are:

• I know what is expected of me at work;

• I have the equipment I need to do my work right;

• I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day at work;

• I’ve received recognition or praise for doing good work in the last week;

• My supervisor seems to care about me as a person;

• There is someone at work that encourages my development;

• At work, my opinions seem to count;

• The mission of my organization makes me feel my job is important;

• My co-workers are committed to doing quality work;

• I have a best friend at work;

• In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress; and

• In the last year, I’ve had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

All of this comes down to our culture and level of engagement. Do you know how your employees would respond to these statements? If you aren’t sure, now is the time to find out. Here are a few ways to increase engagement with our employees:

• Encourage managers to define and discuss the expectations with each employee they supervise on a regular basis.

• Remember that employees use tangible and intangible resources to do their work well. Ask employees what would make it easier to perform their tasks. You might find out you don’t really need the fancy new software, but you do need the entire team to be trained on how to use what is already in place with consistency and efficiency.

• Encourage managers to ‘connect the dots’ with the talents and interests their employees demonstrate and even share in social conversations. Those elements of interest and excitement might be just what is missing from their job description today. Giving employees tasks that are a natural fit will increase productivity all the way around.

• Learn which employees like which types of recognition — and give it! Workplace recognition provides a sense of value and accomplishment. It also shows other employees what success in your organization looks like.

• Challenge employees, but give them the tools for success. Create learning opportunities and ask employees what they are learning as they go, and give them the opportunity to demonstrate it. Talk with them about their short-term and long-term growth goals with an open mind about where those goals align with today’s and tomorrow’s needs within your organization.

We all know that compensation and benefits are the lure that can attract someone to your organization, but it’s your culture that can keep the top talent you’ve already won. Keep the lines of communication open, and you might just find that some of the talent you have been trying to recruit is already on your payroll.

 

Pam Thornton is director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By John Garvey

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Garvey is president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might be the start of something big.

Opinion

Opinion

By Eduardo Crespo

 

President George H.W. Bush proclaimed the first Hispanic Heritage Month on Sept. 14, 1989 to honor the achievements of Hispanic-Americans.

Sept. 15 was chosen as the date of commemoration because it is the anniversary of the independence of five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, all of which declared independence in 1821. In addition, Mexico, Chile, and Belize celebrate their independence days on Sept. 16, 18, and 21, respectively.

Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the accomplishments of Hispanic-Americans, who have enriched our culture and society and helped make America into the incredible country it is today. Hispanic-American men and women embody the American values of devotion to faith and family, hard work, and patriotism through their countless contributions as leaders, innovators, entrepreneurs, and members of our Armed Forces.

They have in the process helped to build a better future for all Americans.

Hispanic-Americans also continue to support our economy and society as business owners, professionals, teachers, and public servants. We should recognize their achievements and contributions to our national story.

The Hispanic market has shown unprecedented income growth in the U.S. even as Hispanic-Americans have become an important sector of the workforce. It’s what I call ‘the Hispanic Opportunity,’ a unique phenomenon in U.S. history in which Hispanic demographic growth is ascending rapidly while the white population is declining.

These developments have together created immense opportunities in the marketplace.

Indeed, progressive, market-driven brands and employers are creating new paradigms incorporating Hispanics as part of their core business strategies and corporate culture. Marketing campaigns today must be culturally relevant and linguistically appropriate, not merely translations of content developed for other audiences.

Only consumer brands that cater to Hispanics will achieve meaningful success.

Also, one out of four residents under the age of 18 is Hispanic, meaning the future of America depends on how well they do in terms of education, work, and achieving the American dream.

 

Eduardo Crespo, an immigrant from Ecuador, is a bilingual/bicultural professional and founder and CEO of Hispanic Market Solution in Lawrence. This article first appeared on the Associated Industries of Massachusetts blog.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

Way back in mid-March of 2020, as the state was shutting down due to COVID-19, we wrote about the great resiliency of this region’s business community and how it would be sternly tested because this was the greatest challenge anyone in business had ever faced.

Little did we know then just how stern this test was going to be and how long it would last. But 18 months later, not only do the challenges remain, but they have in many ways multiplied. Thus, a time that many thought would be normal — meaning what we knew in the fall of 2019, or at least something approximating it — is nothing like we imagined.

Indeed, this was expected by many to be a time when most of the hard decisions would be behind us. Decisions about whether to lay off or furlough people. Decisions about whether to forge ahead with programs and events that would bring people together in large numbers. Even decisions about whether to stay in business — or certain kinds of business.

As summer comes to a close and a fall shrouded by question marks looms, we’re facing some of those decisions again (or still) — and some new ones as well.

Some businesses may be forced to look again at mask mandates or at requiring proof of vaccination before one can enter an establishment or even a college campus. Others have already made vaccination a requirement for employment, and many others are contemplating whether to go this same route.

These are hard decisions that often put employers at odds with their customers and employees at a time when they simply don’t need to be alienating either constituency.

All of this makes it clear that the fight against this pandemic is far — as in far — from over.

Indeed, just as those who went home in March 2020 thinking it would be for just a few weeks soon learned how wrong those projections were, we’re all now forced to recalibrate, again, just how long we’ll be battling this pandemic and how heavy the fight will get.

What is clear is that the victory celebrations, if we can call them that, from just before Memorial Day, when the governor removed all remaining restrictions on businesses, were certainly premature.

Meanwhile, there are new challenges, from shortages of needed goods and raw materials to escalating prices and hard choices about if and how to pass them on to customers who are finally coming back in large numbers. Then, there’s a workforce crisis that has impacted almost every business sector and forced several types of businesses to reduce hours of operation, curtail services, or both.

There is hope that, with the end this month of the federal bonus being paid to those receiving unemployment benefits, things will improve on this front. But those hopes are countered by the reality that this problem is deep-rooted, and it may be some time before there is real relief.

And there are still more hard choices about whether, when, and how to bring workers back to the office, decisions now made even more difficult by the Delta variant and the great uncertainty about what this fall will be like.

Going back to what we wrote in March 2020 … this region’s business community is, indeed, resilient. And it needs to be. Because, contrary to what we were all hoping, it isn’t any easier being in business now than it was then. And in many ways, it’s even harder.

 

Opinion

A Step in the Right Direction

Late last month, Gov. Charlie Baker, heeding a call from a number of business groups that have steadily pushed for unemployment-insurance (UI) relief, proposed using $1 billion in state surplus money to help ease the burden facing the state’s business community from the widespread layoffs that occurred during the pandemic.

The governor filed a supplemental budget proposal with the Legislature that would set aside the $1 billion for unemployment rate relief as part of a broader $1.6 billion plan to spend the bulk of what remains of a massive, $5 billion state budget surplus from the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

If approved, the measure certainly won’t cover what is expected to be a $5 billion shortfall in the state’s UI fund — a shortfall that the Baker administration and the Legislature decided to address with an assessment that businesses will pay over the next 20 years or more — but it will help reduce the burden on the state’s businesses, and it represents a minor breakthrough of sorts when it comes to this administration and the business community.

Baker’s proposal shows that at least some people are paying more than lip service to the plight of the state’s businesses, which have often been overlooked when it comes to the long list of victims of this pandemic. Despite large amounts of local, state, and federal assistance in many different forms, from grants to loans, businesses in many sectors are still struggling in the wake of the pandemic.

This spring and summer have bought some relief to those in many sectors, including hospitality and tourism, but the road back to normal, pre-pandemic levels of revenue and profit is paved with uncertainty, especially as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to gain strength.

Businesses are, by and large, and to one degree or another, regaining their footing. But this improved stability, if it can even be called that, is threatened by many different forces — including the huge bill that has come due from so many of the state’s residents being forced into unemployment by the pandemic.

As we’ve said before, the state’s businesses didn’t cause the pandemic, and they should not have to bear the brunt of paying the enormous unemployment-insurance burden now facing the Commonwealth — not when the state has roughly $5 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds at its disposal and the huge surplus from FY 2021, resulting from a flood of federal aid and better-than-expected tax revenue.

In announcing his proposal regarding unemployment insurance, Baker said “this UI piece would send a big, positive message to employers and employees that we’re looking to try to help them with what is going to be one of the biggest expenses … because of the pandemic.”

He’s right, but it’s more than a message — it’s a solid step, and hopefully a solid first step — toward addressing the unemployment-insurance deficit.

The Legislature will have a lot on its plate when it gets back in session after Labor Day. We hope the governor’s UI proposal gets the proper consideration and eventually becomes part of the plan to spend down the rescue-plan monies and the deficit.

Things are better for the business community, but many challenges remain, and this proposal is a big step in the right direction.

 

Opinion

Editorial

It seems like longer ago — as in much longer — but it was almost exactly three years to this date that the casino era officially began in this region.

MGM Springfield was opened to considerable fanfare that hot August afternoon, and why not? The nearly $1 billion project, by far the largest private-sector development this region had ever seen, was more than five years in the making, and the buildup to that day was immense. There was a parade down Main Street. Some businesses actually adjusted their hours so employees could find parking spaces downtown amid what was expected to be a huge crush of visitors to the downtown area.

The expectations were sky-high for this gleaming resort casino, but almost immediately the numbers — in terms of visitors and revenues — started coming in lower than anyone hoped or anticipated.

And then … 18 months after that grand opening, COVID-19 changed the picture in a profound way.

So here we are, three years later. And in many respects, we’re right back where we were when the parade was making its way down Main Street. We can really only look to the future and project, because there simply isn’t enough data, enough evidence, to properly access MGM’s impact on the region.

Indeed, by now, we should have had a clear picture concerning whether this huge gamble — that’s what this is — has been worth it for Springfield and the region. Instead, because of COVID, we really don’t.

We do know some things. We know that MGM is not going to magically change the neighborhood around the casino and spur large amounts of additional development. That was the hope, but it won’t be the reality — unless things change in a dramatic fashion.

A CVS was built there, and, partly because of that CVS, a Wahlburgers restaurant has opened in that area as well. But, unfortunately, most of the office buildings across Main Street from the casino and in that area remain mostly vacant, with few signs of pending development. There is hope that the transformation of property in Court Square into market-rate housing — yes, MGM is a key partner in that project — will promote other developments of that type and also bring new service businesses to the area. But thus far, we certainly haven’t seen the scope of investments that had been anticipated.

We also know that gaming itself is not going to bring more vibrancy to the downtown area — or beyond, as some had hoped, with people maybe combining trips to the casino with visits to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Big E, or other attractions. There are some visits to area restaurants, but what we’ve observed mostly is just what many feared — that those coming to gamble are single-minded in that purpose, and they’re getting back in their cars after their time on the casino floor is over and driving home.

The biggest impact from the casino has been its special events — concerts and shows — that bring people to this area, not just for that event, but for a night or even two. Such shows help pack area restaurants and bars and, when combined with other happenings, such as Thunderbirds games, create traffic (desirable traffic) and a buzz about Springfield.

The region was starting to see more of that buzz in the months before COVID hit, but, sadly, there has been very little of it since.

But there is hope that it can return — and soon.

Hope — and expectations — were all we had when the casino opened to all that fanfare three years ago. Now, we don’t really know what to expect, largely because of the pandemic and how it has changed the landscape and will continue to change it. But there is still that hope.

The hope that this $950 million investment will fulfill all that promise and become a real economic force in the region.

Right now, if we had to grade MGM Springfield and its impact three years after the doors swung open, that grade would have to be ‘incomplete.’

Opinion

Opinion

By Brooke Thomson

 

Companies from Facebook to Walmart to Google have begun to mandate that their employees get vaccinated to protect against COVID-19. Restaurants throughout the state have also started to require that guests provide proof of vaccination before eating indoors.

As the Delta variant causes COVID-19 infections to increase throughout the country, there is increased pressure on businesses and employers to protect their employees and customers.

Businesses have an important role to play in addressing the health and economic impacts of this crisis. Our businesses have stepped up in amazing ways in the name of public health during the past 18 months. They have enforced masking requirements, shifted to remote and online commerce, closed down to the public, and been on the front lines of the pandemic.

Now, they are again being asked to take responsibility to stop the spread.

But should businesses alone be in charge of leading on public-health emergencies? While federal, state, and local governments took difficult and important steps to protect public health during the pandemic, government leaders now appear to have taken a back seat, relying instead on the private sector to solve public challenges.

A core duty and primary function of any government is to protect the public’s health and safety. The pandemic highlights the need for governments to take their duties seriously. Our elected officials should provide leadership driven by science and evidence, not partisan politics.

State leaders have an opportunity right now to demonstrate this leadership by adopting statewide mask requirements, limiting gatherings in dangerous situations, and providing guidance for businesses to operate safely. Businesses should be focused on their employees and their customers and take their direction on public health and safety from the officials we elect to guide us.

Leaving public-health decisions to private businesses is not the right answer. It is the duty of state and local governments to protect our health. We need leadership on the pandemic to support our businesses and employers.

 

Brooke Thomson is executive vice president of Government Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It takes only a few months, even a few weeks, to establish a habit.

And in under 18 months, some new habits have completely altered the work world. The question now is, for how long?

It’s a well-told story at this point how companies across the U.S. sent their employees home in mid-March 2020 for what they figured would be a few weeks at most. Many worried whether their teams could be productive at home, relying on remote technology they had never used before.

Both instincts were largely wrong. A few weeks quickly became a few months and then well over a year. Now, almost a year and a half later, tens of millions of Americans are still working from home, and in many cases making remote work a requirement, or at least a strong request, when they apply for jobs. In other words, since the work-from-home habit set in, it has proven difficult to shake.

But employers were also wrong — at least in most cases — when they assumed the transition to remote work would be rocky. Thanks to a raft of tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and IT companies that stayed incredibly busy through the first half of 2020 making sure clients’ employees had the equipment they needed — most businesses have found their remote colleagues as productive as they had been in the office, and in many cases happier and less stressed out.

So why not make remote work the new status quo, right?

The main problem lies in company culture and camaraderie — specifically, the fact that it’s difficult to maintain any when everyone is working in a different place; even regular Zoom meetings can’t replace face-to-face collaboration. Employee onboarding is harder, too — it’s tougher for a newcomer to feel assimilated and comfortable on a team when that team is scattered far and wide.

All of which is why hybrid scheduling makes so much sense, and why many companies — those that don’t require their employees to see customers and clients in person, anyway — are moving to a hybrid model (see story on page 25). In short, employees who like the home setting can work there some days, but are required to come in on other days. That way, they still feel less stress and can balance work and life, but can also meet their employer’s collaborative needs.

Some companies are establishing set at-home and on-site days, while others allow their employees to decide each week where they will be, as long as they meet the minimum on-site requirements. Others have their staffs in house most of the time, but allow them to stay home on days when they feel they would work better there.

Formal or informal, hybrid work models are becoming the norm — and might completely transform workplace culture across the U.S., not to mention the trickle-down effects on industries like commercial real estate, office furniture, IT, and even restaurants that cater to lunch crowds.

It’s a transformation that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, and it took a worldwide health crisis to unlock the door. But when Americans figure out that something works well, they tend to stick with it. How permanent will this shift be? Stay tuned.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

 

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and the Commonwealth’s business community join with our fellow citizens in celebrating the first official state observance of Juneteenth, which commemorates the day in 1865 — June 19 — that the last enslaved people held in Galveston, Texas learned of their freedom, two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The day is both an historical observance and an opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of African-Americans here in Massachusetts and throughout the nation. It is also a reminder of an event largely ignored by history texts, much like the Tulsa massacre that took place 100 years ago.

AIM — as an organization committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion — regards the day as a symbol of the importance of creating an economy that provides opportunity for all the citizens of Massachusetts.

“The Juneteenth holiday is a long-overdue teaching moment about the contributions and history of a people who were instrumental in building the country. Reminders of what has kept us apart are necessary to forming bonds that bring us together moving forward,” said Donna Latson Gittens, founder of MORE Advertising in Watertown and a member of the AIM Executive Committee.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill last July making June 19 a limited-scope holiday, analogous to Patriots’ Day, Presidents’ Day, and Martin Luther King Day. Private employers may elect to observe the day but are not required to do so. Creation of the state holiday came amid a national racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd and several other black people during encounters with police.

Employers plan to mark Juneteenth in various ways.

AIM member National Grid announced that all of its U.S. employees, including 6,336 employees in Massachusetts, would be given the Friday before Juneteenth off as “a symbol of our dedication to honoring black Americans who have suffered the impacts of racism throughout U.S. history,” according to Natalie Edwards, the company’s chief diversity officer.

The company encouraged its workers to use the time off as “a day of reflection and to celebrate black communities, particularly in the neighborhoods where they live and work.”

AIM members New Balance, Foley Hoag, Boston University, Harvard University, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries have also instituted Juneteenth as a paid holiday. Other members, such as Fidelity Investments and Santander Bank, are conducting or sponsoring online events to discuss diversity and financial issues in communities of color.

When Baker signed the law last July, it was in recognition of “the continued need to ensure racial freedom and equality,” he said. “Juneteenth is a chance for us all to reflect on this country’s painful history of slavery and the systemic impact that racial injustice continues to have today. It is also an opportunity to recommit ourselves to the goal of creating a more equal and just society.”

 

John Regan is president and CEO of Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

By George O’Brien

 

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

Andy Yee, who passed away late last month, was the true definition of a serial entrepreneur. Even though he had a number of businesses, especially restaurants within the Bean Group, he was always looking for that next challenge, that next opportunity.

He took on each project with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm that was as inspiring as it was contagious. And many of his undertakings were not just business ventures — they were game changers in our local communities, difficult yet successful efforts to save institutions such as the Student Prince in downtown Springfield and the White Hut in West Springfield from being relegated to the past tense.

In 2015, BusinessWest named Yee and several of his business partners, including Peter Pan Chairman and CEO Peter Picknelly and Kevin and Michael Vann, as Difference Makers for their efforts to save the Student Prince. And that title certainly fit him. He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.

“He was a difference maker as a business owner and entrepreneur, as a family man, and as a leader in the community.”

The Student Prince was struggling when Yee and Picknelly stepped forward. Theirs was a business proposition, to be sure, but it was much more than that. It was an effort to save something that had become a part of the fabric of the city and of the region. It was more about community than it was about dollars and cents — although Yee, a very smart businessperson, was also focused on the dollars and cents as well.

The same was true with the White Hut in West Springfield — a different kind of restaurant, to be sure, but with a very similar brand of emotional attachment. Today, both establishments live on, and Yee is a huge reason why.

As a business writer who interviewed him dozens of times over the past two decades, I was always struck by how energetic he was, how hands-on he was in every endeavor he became involved with, and how he always had one eye on the present and the other on the future, trying to anticipate what was to come and be ready for it.

That is the essence of a leader, and that’s another word that fits Yee like a glove.

His latest endeavor is a restaurant project in Court Square in Springfield, another landmark that needed someone to step forward and give it a new direction, a new future. Yee was part of a large team doing just that.

We sincerely hope this project moves forward. It will be difficult without his leadership, his enthusiasm, and his ability to get the tough projects done. It will be a fitting tribute — yet another one — to how he had the ability to not only open a business, but change a community for the better — and make a huge difference.

He will be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Sean Hogan

 

As COVID-19 winds down and we begin to go back to our normal lifestyle, I find myself asking what is next.

Let’s look back and see what has changed in the business world over the last year. The economy came to a halt, there was a major strain on the supply chain, restaurants and bars were closed, and business stopped. Certain industries, including IT, thrived, but COVID affected everyone; it missed no one.

We at Hogan Technology had to embrace meeting, selling, and collaborating over videoconferencing. This was a major shift in our protocol. We were hesitant at first, but there was not much of an option. We, like everyone else, jumped on the Zoom bandwagon. I quickly realized that Zoom had some security issues, and we moved all our collaboration to Microsoft Teams. Teams has been easy to use and efficient, and it had integration with our current voice platform. In the beginning, we were limited to viewing four participants; thankfully, MS made some changes and improved the capacity for our Teams meetings.

I have been managing and selling for more than 34 years, and shifting to video meetings with clients at first was clumsy. I was conditioned to prepping for my meetings, driving to the client site, waiting in the lobby, and then meeting face to face with my client. It took a few video calls to get into a process, but then I started to see how efficient and productive they could be. The ability to bring in my team to collaborate with my clients has worked exceptionally well.

Our sales and discovery process has completely changed, and this old dog has learned some new tricks. We now send out invites that allow our prospects and clients to log into our videoconference, and I can introduce my team and our vision. I then hand over the presentation of any software or applications to my tech team. Once the presentation is done, I can share or review any proposals or quotes though a screen share. This allows me to go line by line and make sure the client completely understands our solution.

This new style of sales has worked very well. We are printing far less, engaging the client more productively, and saving fuel and time by not driving to the site. We will still gladly meet on site, but if the client is open to meeting online, that will be our first step. Video collaboration and presentations are here it stay, and we welcome and embrace the cost-savings technology.

There were lots of new terms thrown about during the pandemic, but the two that made me think were ‘new normal’ and ‘pivot.’ The new normal, in my mind, is constant change. I like to think we all embraced the new normal, seeing that we are engaged in technology, which is constant change.

I think ‘pivot’ is what we have always internally termed ‘nimble.’ One of the advantages of being a small business is that it does not take much for us to turn our ship; we are not a large tanker, but more of a go-fast boat. We can turn on a dime, we can make changes without having to get board approval, and we can move fast when we need to get out of our own way. COVID taught us all how to be nimble and how to change the way we do business. I am amazed and proud to look at the business community and see how people have pulled together and toughed out a brutal year.

Yes, we all pivoted, and we all learned to deal with the new normal, but, most importantly, we all got up, went back to work, and supported each other.

 

Sean Hogan is president of Hogan Technology.

Opinion

Opinion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Cannabis Business Is Riding High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Doran

Work has always been a women’s issue. Whether we work or not, the types of jobs we do, how much we are paid, and how far we can advance, it’s all shaped by our experiences as women, and this, in turn, shapes the central mission at Bay Path University. Therefore, it has been hard to see how deeply the pandemic has thwarted working women. In January, the National Women’s Law Center calculated the percentage of women working at 57%, the lowest it has been since 1988.

As the conversation grows louder, and the issues more pressing, this is our moment to seize, for making changes that are long overdue. At Bay Path, we’re doubling down on our commitment to preparing women for the career world, but the pandemic has confirmed it’s high time that businesses, organizations, and policymakers get on board with preparing the career world for women. Here are a few places to start.

• Support mothers. Over the last 30 years, childcare costs have increased by 70%, while real median wages have increased by a scant 7%. The cost of childcare in the U.S. and the allegiance to traditional gender roles still forces women into the slow lane of career growth and pushes many to take the off-ramp. Taking time away from one’s career puts women at risk of re-entering the labor market at a lower entry point than when they left, a scenario that underlies our persistent wage gap. The experiences of mothers during the pandemic has led to renewed calls for subsidized childcare, something every other industrialized country in the world offers. At the same time, the nearly universal pivot to remote work arrangements should inspire us all to develop schedules and create resources that expand the flexibility we can offer.

• Expand access to degrees for more women. It’s never been more important for women to get their degrees. It still holds true that women with bachelor’s degrees will earn $630,000 more over the course of their careers than high-school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more. Most women who left the workforce exited the hospitality, health-services, and retail sectors, where the majority of jobs do not require a degree and the majority of workers don’t have one. Due to their disproportionate representation in these sectors, fewer black and Hispanic women are working now than any other demographic. Creating access to degrees and providing the support to help women complete them can have a transformational impact on the types of jobs women fill and the amount of money they earn.

• Put more women in charge of more companies. Today, there are actually fewer women in rising management roles than there were in 2019, even though having more women in leadership roles isn’t just good for women, it’s better for business. Although men and women start in roughly the same positions, by age 30 to 44, 36% of men become supervisors or managers, compared to 30% of women. By age 45 and older, 12% of men ascend to an executive-level role, while only 6% of women do. A Harvard Business School study found that having women represent 30% of corporate leadership leads to a 15% increase in profitability for a typical firm. Researchers attributed this to “increased skill diversity within top management,” which translates to an ability to encourage better employee performance and stronger recruitment, promotion, and retention of talent (the women who otherwise would have left due to gender discrimination).

• Shift the ways we define ‘women’s work’ and what it’s worth. In 2017, 64.2% of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinners for their families. Our jobs are central to supporting our families and ourselves, yet they are routinely undervalued and underpaid (see teachers, 76% women; social workers, 83% women; and healthcare workers, 85% women). Questions to consider: if more men entered these fields, as they did with computer programming, a skill once tied to women’s secretarial roles, would wages go up? If they did, would more men opt to enter these fields? This chicken-egg scenario inevitably leads to the same takeaway: these critical roles need higher pay to truly represent their value to our society.

We’re living in remarkable times, when we’re not just dreaming of change, we’re demanding it — for our daughters, sisters, friends, co-workers, and, obviously, our students. Women’s employment isn’t expected to return to pre-pandemic rates until 2024 (men will get there in 2023), and the road back can’t be paved only with good intentions. A recovery won’t do — what we really need is a reimagining.

Sandra Doran is president of Bay Path University.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Nancy Creed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nancy Creed is president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

They’re All Making a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

An Appreciation for Chris Thibault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best story he told was his own.

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