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Opinion

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Allison Ebner

Over the past several decades, the human-resources position has slowly evolved from a very tactical and compliance-heavy role to a more holistic and thoughtful voice that helps lift an organization to bigger heights.

That slow pace of evolution has had a few Red Bull energy drinks recently and is now moving at the speed of light, threatening to leave behind HR professionals who are not moving to gain new competencies and tools.

The ‘new world of work’ is comprised of a complex ecosystem of operations, technology, and integration of human capital. In short, this symphony sounds perfectly harmonized only if all parts of the orchestra are playing the right notes. Like the meteoric rise in AI technology, the skills we must bring to our organization as the people professionals have taken a giant leap forward.

So, what are these new competencies that HR professionals need to bring to the table today? Let me quote my colleague, Kim Dunn for the simple definition first: “business first, people always.”

Business Acumen: Do you know the financial picture of your entire organization? Can you read a P&L or balance a full budget? Do you follow your industry trade publications or attend events to become more educated? Travel with your sales teams to talk with your customers and clients? It’s only when you have a full understanding of your business operations that you can effectively create a talent plan to support it.

Data Literacy: Does your current HR technology support the needs of your organization? Are you maximizing the tech that you have now? Reporting and metrics tied to your people operations are critical components of your strategic plans and initiatives.

Problem Solving and Critical Thinking: Ready to get uncomfortable? Figure out how to build relationships with people you don’t really like. Why? They probably think differently than you do. And that means they have a perspective that you don’t. As HR people leaders, we need to be able to clearly evaluate all sides of an issue or problem, and we can’t do that in a vacuum. By the way, this also includes building and flexing your negotiation skills.

Creating People-centric Cultures: This one feels closest to home for most HR professionals. But we need to expand our skills around helping our employees build resilience and understand that change and uncertainty are here to stay. They’re part of our daily lives now, and we need to learn to function in a world of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Organizational Transformation: This includes skills like refreshing your employer brand for talent development, updating your EVP (employee value proposition), and rebuilding your performance management system — big initiatives that put you at the center of the strategic table in your organization.

You may be feeling very comfortable with some of these competencies and less confident in others. That’s OK. Conduct an honest assessment of where you need to focus your attention and find resources that can help you build those skills.

EANE is here to help you with that initiative. Our HRYOUniversity programs are designed to help you be a well-rounded HR professional with all the talents you need to take your career to the next level. For a discussion about building your own learning pathway, contact me, and I’ll be happy to send you our self-assessment form and a few other resources to get you started.

 

Allison Ebner is president of the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

Summer is officially here. For college students, it started more than a month ago. And for high-school students, it began just a few days ago.

That means a lot of people are looking for work, and that’s good, because companies across every sector of the economy are looking for help. This juxtaposition of demand and supply is a positive thing because, as we’ve noted many times in the past, summer jobs — often the first jobs for a great many teenagers — are critically important for these individuals, the companies that hire them, and the region’s economy as a whole.

In short, these jobs help introduce people to the world of work, to companies in this area large and small, and, perhaps, to relationships that can last years, decades, or even a lifetime.

Which is why businesses should create such opportunities, if they can. And, in this time of workforce challenges, most of them can — and they are.

No matter where you end up in life — professionally, geographically, or otherwise — you remember your first job. And your second. And your third. But especially your first.

In this market, it might be working the counter at Friendly’s making Fribbles. Or bagging groceries at Big Y. Or working one of the carny games at Six Flags. Or working at one of the farms in Hadley, Hatfield, or East Longmeadow.

In each case, skills are learned, and work habits are developed. Young employees learn about the need to be on time, work beside others, and operate as part of a team. These employees learn not only from their supervisors, but from everyone around them.

The work may not always be fun and exhilarating, but it puts money in one’s pocket and helps keep him or her out of trouble.

As for college students looking to earn some money between semesters, summer jobs can and often do provide more than that. In many cases, jobs or internships can introduce them to careers and companies they can work for in the years to come.

Time and again, we’ve read and heard stories about young people who were undecided about what they wanted to do career-wise and were put on a path — or a different path than the one they were on — because of a summer job or internship at an accounting firm, marketing firm, or even a law firm.

These stories relate the importance of summer jobs — be they first jobs or someone’s fifth or sixth — to creating real opportunities, for both employees and employers.

Summer jobs have always been important, but in this climate, when businesses of all kinds and sizes are often desperate for help, and when many young people are trying to enter the workforce and perhaps start down the path to a career, they are more important than ever.

Opinion

Opinion

By Kim Dunn

 

Many organizations face the challenge of creating and keeping their workplaces free from conflict and drama. Although drama comes from many places and in many forms, the only sure way to rid your organization of it is to get to its true source.

Identifying the cause or source is where you get to put your detective skills to work. Digging down to the root of the problem starts with asking deep and meaningful questions to draw out what the true issues are that are creating the conflict. To do this, you will need to become an expert fact finder, which is often easier said than done. In many instances, there is not just one issue, but many, and the path to identifying what has created the tension or conflict between employees is murky and blurred with emotions.

It is interesting that there are some organizational cultures that seem to breed drama and others where there is rarely an issue. My research and experience with managing conflict in the workplace has reinforced that failing to address the following items will almost always lead to workplace drama.

• Inauthentic Leadership. A lack of authenticity creates a belief that management is hypocritical and that they only talk the talk, but do not walk the walk. In this environment, employees lose enthusiasm for their jobs, passion for what the company represents, and, most dangerously, they lose trust.

• Lack of Transparency. Misguided attempts at confidentiality can create the sense that everything is a secret. In the face of lacking information, employees will write their own story, which is almost always dangerous. Remember, employees usually know more than you think they know. Old-fashioned though it may sound, it pays to be open with as much information as possible.

• Not Addressing Bad Behavior. Many leaders hope drama will just go away if they ignore it. We know all too well that bad behavior never goes away on its own. The fact that the drama exists must be acknowledged and accepted so that action can be taken to address it. Inconsistency in dealing with conflict not only leads to the erosion of trust, but also increases the chance that it will return for a second act.

What all of these causes have in common is that they lead to a lack of trust in leadership. When employees do not trust and respect leadership, they will quickly become disengaged.

Drama can be created from many sources, and once you have identified the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ you can begin to take the action necessary to repair the damage or at least stop the bleeding.

If drama is alive and well in your organization, do not wait to take action to uncover and address the issues that are creating or feeding it. Drama impacts the bottom line because it takes up time, and time costs organizations money. That alone is reason enough to make it a top leadership priority.

In taking the steps to address workplace drama, it is important to remember that not all drama is created intentionally. It can be driven by insecurity, fear, or other emotional issues that have not been identified and dealt with. In many organizations, drama is created because people simply do not have the skills to manage conflict. Not many of us wake up in the morning looking forward to managing conflict; however, not having the skills to deal with it can lead to disastrous and expensive drama-filled workplaces.

The culture that you and the leaders are creating and cultivating in your organization must be a priority. By modeling the behaviors of collaboration, support, and customer focus, you will create a foundation where destructive behaviors are quickly identified and corrected. You can even take it a step further and build these behaviors into your performance-management system, which will help reward the best and address the rest.

The one thing we know for sure is that if conflict, aka drama, is not dealt with quickly, thoroughly, and consistently, it will never go away.

 

Kim Dunn is a Strategic Human Resources consultant at the Employers Assoc. of the Northeast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By John Henderson

Let’s face it: we are living and working in a socially and politically divisive world that can have a negative impact on a company’s culture. So what can an organization do about this in order to create and sustain a culture of respect in their workplace?

It really comes down to courtesy — being polite and aware of other’s concerns and feelings, and practicing the good manners of saying “hello,” asking “how are you?” and actually waiting for the person to respond rather than continuing to walk by them.

We foster a culture of respect by appreciating everyone for their uniqueness and intrinsic worth as a person — what they bring to the team and organization. We realize that we must create a place where people can be their authentic self at work. We show that we value and support others. And the most important thing is that we accept people for who they are and what they do, but we don’t necessarily need to agree with their opinions or values.

The last one is where many organizations fall short by allowing people’s differences to get in the way of having a productive and positive environment where people feel valued and feel that they belong.

As in real estate, where the most important things are location, location, and location, the things that are most important to creating a respectful workplace are communication, communication, and communication. We must lead by example and communicate openly and constructively.

We must also have embedded in our culture the willingness to effectively address disrespectful behavior, not turn and walk away from it. When communicating, make sure it is clear, specific, and understood by the recipient by asking them to repeat back what they heard and what you agree upon. Most importantly, remember that our non-verbal communication is 70% of what is conveyed.

To foster a culture of respect does not have to be a difficult undertaking. Ensuring that the values and norms of the organization are understood by all is the first step, but living them is the next step that needs to be part of everyday life in your organization.

 

John Henderson is director of Learning and Development at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Shlemon

In an instance of good intentions gone awry, an effort to hire people because of the skills they possess rather than their college degrees has turned into a concern that certified rehabilitation counselors may not be able to divulge their credentials to clients. That’s not helpful to anyone, especially the clients they serve: people with disabilities.

In January, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey signed an executive order requiring the state government to use skill-based hiring practices. That means the state would not ask its job applicants whether they held a college degree, or other advanced certifications, unless it was absolutely necessary for the job, potentially enabling people with relevant experience but not a degree to be hired.

As the leader of a national organization that advocates for people with disabilities, I see the value of skills-based hiring, which would open doors for qualified, motivated workers who may lack a particular degree.

The problem came soon after, with how the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission interpreted that order. Commissioner Toni Wolf suggested limitations on how the state’s certified rehabilitation counselors, or CRCs, use and disclose their certification to their clients.

That is a problem. Reducing the emphasis on credentials while hiring is one thing, but trying to erase their importance while performing the job is misguided. CRCs get their credentials from the organization I lead, the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification. The certification is the national gold standard in the field of rehabilitation counseling for people with disabilities, and it leads to proven better outcomes. Indeed, the Massachusetts Division of Professional Licensure asks for proof of the certification to become a licensed rehabilitation counselor.

Certification for CRCs serves as a quality guarantee, an assurance for a person with a disability that their counselor has the skills, knowledge, and ethical standards to help clients live as fully and independently as possible. A CRC is required by their certification to focus on what the client can and wants to do in their life, and is trained to work toward those goals. The nationally accredited certification is the result of rigorous training, comes with a 50-page code of ethics, and is not lightly granted.

In this field, as in many professions, credentials are important. You trust a certified public accountant, not a bookkeeper, with accounting skills. You bare your soul to a licensed mental-health professional, not someone familiar with some aspects of mental health. When you need surgery, you rely on board-certified surgeons and anesthesiologists, not someone knowledgeable in human anatomy but unlicensed to practice. This is true as well with rehabilitation counseling.

Favoring just skills at the expense of credentials is risky in the field of rehabilitation counseling. The training, the degree, and, most importantly, the certification verify that they know what they are doing. A person hiring a rehabilitation counselor would want to be sure they could do the work, avoid unintentional harm, give accurate information, and not take shortcuts, like referring clients to mediocre employment opportunities misaligned to their skillset or failing to account for their functional limitations. The certification held by a CRC provides that assurance.

A CRC, for example, is committed to helping a person with disabilities find and keep a high-quality job that suits them and bolsters their independence, not just any job. We work with a vulnerable population. The certification is acknowledgement of that and serves as a promise that CRCs never forget their obligations to this population.

Being barred from divulging their credentials hurts the CRCs, too. It’s demoralizing and frustrating to be unable to speak about their qualifications. It’s an erasure of their professional identities.

I have no quarrel with Gov. Healey’s move toward skills-based hiring, which is beneficial to many people in many fields. We at CRCC favor legislation that increases access to certification, including the Tomorrow’s Workforce Coalition, which advocates for workforce-development policies that open up funding for certifications, including the CRC.

Commissioner Wolf’s track record is long and admirable. This is certainly a case of a move made with good intentions and unintended consequences. I hope the commissioner sees that and steps back from this move.

 

Pam Shlemon is executive director of the Commission on Rehabilitation Counselor Certification (CRCC), the national organization that sets the national standard for certification and advocates both for the profession and individuals with disabilities.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The numbers are alarming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By State Rep. Aaron Saunders

 

I grew up in a home where it was OK to ask if you were OK, mentally or physically, at the dinner table. This was not common during the 1980s, when a stay in a psychiatric ward could be a mark against you for life, but my dad was a psychologist, and my mother, a teacher.

They knew the importance of conversations with their boys about feelings, expectations, and disappointments and not just a skinned knee and how you got it.

I was reminded of this recently during a visit to the newly renovated adolescent unit of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke. Its recent reopening brought back on line 16 much-needed inpatient beds in Western Mass. for youth ages 13 to 17. The redesigned environment enhances delivery of care and healing for this population, in which recent government data estimates that nearly 50% have had a mental-health disorder at some point in their lives.

Massachusetts, with its Roadmap for Behavioral Health Reform, introduced last year a Behavioral Health Line to call 24/7 and network of community behavioral-health centers that provide broader access to mental-health services for those in crisis. The state, too, has added inpatient psychiatric beds to ease Emergency Department boarding that continues for all age groups.

We, as legislators, need to ensure that there is ongoing funding for such services and adequate reimbursement rates for such beds, as well as for addiction-treatment programs. Mental-health and substance-use disorders co-occur frequently, and it is important for both to be treated.

We also need to continue to consider policies that address staffing shortages and issues like educating students and their families on the importance of mental healthcare.

Yet, there is another barrier — stigmatization — around lessening disabling behavioral-health conditions. Massachusetts has a campaign that seeks to educate that addiction is a chronic illness and not a personal choice, but stigma and misinformation continue to prevent individuals with behavioral-health issues from seeking treatment.

You can’t legislative away all stigma. We all need to be better-educated that mental illness can be treated and that there are steps to be taken to prevent poor mental health from progressing to where it interferes with daily life. This is what I reflected on during my recent visit to MiraVista.

I hear from my constituents of the need for services close to home and, in applying the lessons learned from my parents in asking my own three children about their feelings, I get a look into their day in an age when bullying and pressure to engage in unhealthy behavior can come from anywhere.

We all need to be more open to talking with our families, friends, and healthcare providers about our mental health and that of those in our care, as this, too, is part of the roadmap to raising emotionally healthy children and staying emotionally healthy, too.

 

State Rep. Aaron Saunders represents the 7th Hampden District.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sandra Mauro

 

As human-resource professionals partner with their organization’s senior leaders to set priorities for 2024, we at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) can’t help but reflect on the 2023 workplace predictions and ask, how effective were we at deciding where to focus our efforts, and, more importantly, did we move the needle on the critical issues we faced?

In 2023, seven key challenges were forecasted. Number one was quiet hiring, challenging us to look internally and determine if our workforce strengths would meet future organizational needs. Number two was equitable flexibility for frontline workers, an inspirational idea to open up the dialogue for frontline workers to freely express their preferences on how, when, and with whom they work.

Three through six were manager support, pursuing non-traditional talent, coping with stress, and workplace civility. Number seven? Technology and the entrance of AI.

Focusing forward on 2024, two through seven are green workplaces, civil culture, defining the new workplace, psychological safety, learning and upskilling, and career advancement. What a difference a year makes. AI has catapulted to number one.

When we think about AI and ask what will my organization do (or not do) with this new technology, we first need to acknowledge that Gen Z now makes up 23% of our 2024 workforce. This generation literally grew up with technology at their fingertips from the time they could touch it, and will expect nothing less in their workplace. Gen Z is not only tech-savvy, they are highly motivated for change thinking and will quickly move into key positions with great influence over our workplaces.

Yes, the demand for faster information, revolutionary thinking, and finding how and where AI can enhance — or threaten — our workplace will dominate our organizations. And equally important on every generation’s mind are the other six priorities.

There is no question 2023 was filled with turning our organization’s energy from day-to-day survival to blazing our future path. We tiptoed through return to the workplace, fought through scarce candidate pools, and contemplated solutions to quiet quitting and disengagement.

With our sights on what to implement to stay relevant in 2024, we need to collaboratively decide where we are going to focus our resources. Now more than ever, we need to keep our doors open and ask for employee ideas, buy-in, and commitment. Fight not only to align your operational objectives, but to nurture your organizational values, welcome authenticity, and embrace a culture where collaboration across every department is encouraged and celebrated.

And when 2025 is around the corner, let’s reflect back together and ask again, how did we do? After all, what gets measured gets done.

 

Sandra Mauro is a human resource business partner at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

Photo by Leah Martin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Dr. Negar Beheshti

In a world where the pursuit of perfection can sometimes overshadow the significance of self-compassion, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center emphasizes the need for New Year’s resolutions that prioritize mental health and are both realistic and achievable. This approach aims to reduce the pressure often associated with traditional New Year’s resolutions and promotes a more holistic perspective on personal growth. The key themes are:

Prioritize self-care rituals. Resolve to incorporate daily self-care rituals into your routine. This could include activities like meditation, reading, taking a warm bath, or going for a nature walk.

Establish healthy boundaries. Set clear boundaries in your personal and professional life. Learn to say ‘no’ when necessary and prioritize activities that contribute positively to your well-being.

Cultivate mindfulness and presence. Make a commitment to being more present in the moment. Practice mindfulness through activities like meditation, deep-breathing exercises, or simply taking a moment to appreciate the present.

Nurture positive relationships. Focus on building and strengthening positive relationships. Invest time in meaningful connections with friends and family, fostering a support system that contributes to your emotional well-being.

Limit screen time. Reduce the time spent on electronic devices and social media. Allocate time for activities to promote mental health, such as reading, engaging in hobbies, or spending quality time with loved ones.

Practice gratitude. Start a gratitude journal and make it a habit to reflect on the positive aspects of your life. Regularly expressing gratitude can shift your focus towards positivity.

Engage in regular physical activity. Choose physical activities that you enjoy and make them a regular part of your routine. Exercise has proven benefits for mental health, releasing endorphins that can boost mood and reduce stress.

Seek professional support. Break down the stigma surrounding mental health by committing to seeking professional support when needed. Therapy or counseling can provide valuable tools for managing stress, anxiety, or other mental-health challenges.

Embrace a healthy sleep routine. Prioritize sleep by establishing a consistent sleep routine. Ensure that you are getting enough restorative sleep each night, as it plays a crucial role in mental and emotional well-being.

Learn a new skill or hobby. Engage your mind in positive and creative activities by learning a new skill or picking up a hobby. This can provide a sense of accomplishment and contribute to your overall sense of well-being.

 

Dr. Negar Beheshti is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and chief medical officer for both MiraVista and TaraVista Behavioral Health Centers.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Ben Brubeck

 

The Biden administration’s final rule, “Federal Acquisition Regulation: Use of Project Labor Agreements for Federal Construction Projects,” implements Executive Order 14063, which requires federal construction contracts of $35 million or more to be subject to controversial project labor agreements (PLAs).

The Biden administration’s burdensome, inflationary, and anti-competitive PLA mandate rule will needlessly raise costs on taxpayer-funded construction projects and steer contracts to unionized contractors and workers. Absent a successful legal challenge, this executive overreach will reward powerful special interests with government construction contracts at the expense of taxpayers and the principles of free enterprise and fair and open competition in government procurement.

When mandated by governments, PLAs increase construction costs to taxpayers by 12% to 20%, reduce opportunities for qualified contractors and their skilled craft professionals, and exacerbate the construction industry’s worker shortage of more than a half-million people in 2023.

Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) will continue to fight on behalf of quality, experienced contractors harmed by this rule and the 88.3% of America’s construction industry who have made the choice not to belong to a union and want a fair opportunity to participate in federal construction projects, but cannot do so because of PLA schemes.

In addition, ABC condemns Biden administration policies independent of this rulemaking that push PLAs on competitive grant programs administered by federal agencies, affecting nearly $260 billion worth of federally assisted infrastructure projects procured by state and local governments, as well as schemes by the Biden administration to coerce private developers of hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of clean energy and domestic microchip manufacturing projects to mandate PLAs. Biden’s PLA policies circumvent congressional intent as none of these policies were passed in funding legislation.

Some background: on Aug. 19, 2022, the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council issued its proposed rule implementing Executive Order 14063. In October 2022, ABC submitted more than 40 pages of comments to the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council, calling on the Biden administration to withdraw its controversial proposed rule.

ABC’s opposition was shared by more than 50 members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, 19 Republican governors, and a diverse coalition of construction-industry, small-business, and taxpayer advocates urging the administration to withdraw its proposal and additional policies promoting PLA mandates on federal and federally assisted construction projects.

At least 8,000 stakeholders across the country — including 2,500 ABC member contractors — submitted comments opposed to this proposed rule during the 60-day comment period. In a September 2022 survey of ABC contractor members, 98% opposed this proposed rule, and 97% said a construction contract that required a PLA would be more expensive compared to a contract procured via fair and open competition.

ABC plans to challenge this Biden administration scheme in the courts on behalf of taxpayers and the majority of the construction industry. In the interim, ABC will continue to oppose its special-interest-favoring policy using all tools in our advocacy and legal toolbox while educating stakeholders about the negative impact of government-mandated PLAs on federal and federally assisted projects.

 

Ben Brubeck is vice president of Regulatory, Labor, and State Affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, thank you.

Opinion

Opinion

By Henry Howard

 

There is nothing minor about the support the American Legion Department of Massachusetts receives from the Springfield Thunderbirds.

For years the Thunderbirds have supported Massachusetts Legion programs such as Boys State, Junior Law Cadet, American Legion Baseball, and the developing softball program. The hockey team honors a Veteran of the Game and regularly conducts a jersey raffle, with proceeds going to a Legion program.

Department of Massachusetts NECman Jodie Pajak raves about the support. “There’s no question, no feedback, no static when we ask them for anything. There is no hesitation from anybody on their staff. I’ve never been to any establishment where they are that welcoming. They want to be part of the community, and it definitely shows. The relationship is phenomenal.”

The Legion-Thunderbirds partnership was on full display on Dec. 1, the Legion’s Be the One Day. American Legion members set up a booth inside the arena to educate fans about the organization’s primary mission to reduce the number of veteran suicides. Legion family members handed out customized brochures to thousands of fans. Additionally, a special Be the One jersey, signed by the entire team, was revealed. It will be raffled off at the end of the season, with proceeds going to the Veterans & Children Foundation to support Be the One.

The Be the One mission is especially meaningful for Pajak. “Veterans suicide is a cancer that should not be,” she said. “There are way too many resources, way too many programs to help veterans and their families, to help combat these needs and feelings that these veterans develop in their military careers and come across as they try to transition out of service and back to civilian life. You can’t just flip a switch and go from structured to unstructured. You have to have some help. After a few years, you find you just can’t cope. With this program, we hope that they see us and seek us out.”

Be the One was a natural tie-in this season for the Thunderbirds, which have regularly honored veterans. Their nickname, appropriately enough, is related to the Air Force Thunderbirds.

The team “wanted to get more involved with the community, and they are wonderful to work with,” said Pajak, who, along with her husband, Drew, are members of Post 185 in Agawam. “They felt the need, and they did want to help. They have been phenomenal in promoting this as a way to reduce the stigma. We have a partner that loves putting the Legion first.”

The Thunderbirds highlight the American Legion at all 36 home games. The Legion staffs a table inside the arena, promoting timely programs and initiatives. Over the course of a season, that outreach connects the Legion with at least 220,000 fans.

“At this level, specifically, I thought it was crucially important for us to build our business to open our doors to community projects and give it back to a number of programs, specifically the Legion,” said Nathan Costa, Thunderbirds team president. “Part of the vision from the very beginning was how we can do things to make an impact on the community while also trying to do the right thing.”

Ryan Smith, who manages the team’s media, community relations, and broadcasting, said his grandfather served in World War II. “It’s wrenching for me that there are so many of these military folks who come back and, for a variety of reasons, are not able to reacclimate to society,” he said, adding that he is thankful for the freedom he enjoys thanks to generations of veterans.

“This is a chance to thank them for all that they do, because without them, who knows what we could be doing on a day-to-day basis?” he said. “There is no amount of thanks that we can give them for all that they do for us.”

Strong community partners embolden the Be the One mission.

“It should be important to everybody,” Pajak said. “Everybody should be aware. The Thunderbirds are family-oriented and community-oriented. It’s not only veterans; it’s the community itself. It could be your neighbor. It could be your friend. It could be your co-worker that might need some help. They are willing to help us spread the word and make sure that it is known that is it OK to not be OK.”

 

Henry Howard is deputy director of Media and Communications for the American Legion.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

“It’s been a very challenging year.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Kimberley Lee

 

In the vast landscape of public service, few figures stand as tall and unwavering in their commitment to mental-health advocacy as Rosalynn Carter. The former U.S. first lady carved a legacy defined by compassion, resilience, and an unyielding dedication to destigmatizing mental health. Her journey, spanning decades, has transformed the conversation around mental well-being and left an indelible mark on the global pursuit of mental-health awareness.

Carter’s journey into mental-health advocacy began at a time when discussing mental illnesses was often shrouded in silence and shame. In the 1970s, as the first lady, she fearlessly stepped into the spotlight to challenge societal norms, becoming a powerful voice for those whose struggles were often overlooked. Her early advocacy laid the foundation for a lifelong commitment to breaking down barriers and fostering understanding.

In 1991, she took a monumental step by establishing the Carter Center Mental Health Program. This initiative, born out of a deep sense of empathy, has been a driving force in shaping mental-health policies, conducting groundbreaking research, and providing resources to educate the public. It stands as a testament to Carter’s foresight and determination to create a world where mental health is prioritized.

At the core of Carter’s advocacy was a relentless pursuit of accessibility to mental healthcare. She tirelessly championed policies that recognized mental health on par with physical health, dismantling obstacles that impede individuals from seeking the support they deserve. Her vision extended beyond borders, advocating for a global approach to mental health that transcends cultural boundaries.

A defining aspect of Carter’s impact was her courage in confronting the stigma surrounding mental health. Through personal stories and public discourse, she became a beacon of hope, normalizing conversations that were once deemed uncomfortable. Her ability to connect with people on a personal level inspired others to share their experiences and contribute to the ongoing dialogue.

Beyond the accolades and recognition, Carter’s legacy is one of empathy in action. Her work has not only shifted policies, but has also sown the seeds of understanding and compassion in communities worldwide. In a world where mental health is gaining the recognition it deserves, she stands as a pioneer, a visionary who dedicated much of her life to ensuring that no one feels alone in their mental-health journey.

As we reflect on her profound impact, we are reminded that the journey toward mental-health acceptance is ongoing. Her example serves as both a call to action and a source of inspiration for individuals, communities, and nations to continue the important work of fostering a world where mental health is a priority and compassion knows no bounds.

Our work at MiraVista is very much a reflection of Rosalynn Carter’s significant contributions and commitment as our daily efforts continue with a profound sense of purpose and dedication, directly contributing to improving mental-health awareness and access to services.

 

Kimberley Lee is chief of Creative Strategy and Development at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Judy Herrell, John DiBartolo, James Winston, Jon Reed, and Amy Mager

 

Save Northampton Main Street has surveyed the Northampton Main Street business district to assess the number of businesses in favor or opposed to the city of Northampton’s redesign. In the media, city officials have touted that 50 businesses on Main Street are in favor of their redesign.

However, our findings clearly show that most downtown businesses are opposed to the current redesign plans by the city of Northampton. Our results show, of 100 businesses surveyed, 69 are opposed, while only two are in favor. Several businesses were not aware of the proposed changes and needed more information, and four businesses were neutral about the changes.

What was the most interesting was how businesses listed on the city’s list that were surveyed by our team were not aware they were on any list, let alone one that was published.

Additionally, Save Northampton read and analyzed the Toole Design report [detailing the Main Street redesign]. John DiBartolo of our group wrote a letter outlining these issues to the City Council in Northampton and the Mayor’s office. Some of these issues are:

• Traffic increase and travel time. This new design will create traffic jams and extended travel time for people traveling down Route 9 through Northampton for any reason. According to the city, the intention of the project is to slow down traffic for safety, and it was never an objective to keep travel time or improve traffic flow.

• Bike safety. This new design will create unsafe bike crossings at intersections without traffic lights and visibility issues with drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. According to the city, the current design’s internal lanes are 40% safer than other designs, including our suggestion of adjacent-to-traffic bike lanes with enhancements.

• Requested public meetings. The city refuses to meet with business owners and residents except individually. They claim to have had many in-person meetings during COVID, which were Zoom meetings. There was no city public hearing on this subject (only one Zoom hearing by the DOT). The city feels that their process was robust and inclusive.

• Comparing Northampton’s redesign to Concord, N.H. While the size of Concord and Northampton are relatively the same, Concord is set up as a grid, which Northampton is not. Northampton has no natural bypass for drivers who wish to bypass the Northampton shopping district. Furthermore, Concord has shared bike and vehicle lanes with no separate bike path and was always a one-lane-in-each-direction road. In Concord, they removed parking to create larger sidewalks and green areas. Concord’s main shopping district is not a state highway. Concord’s city officials conducted 50 meetings in person with concerned businesses and residents before deciding on their plan. Northampton had only 20 Zoom meetings, the last of which was both in-person and over Zoom.

• A new design alternative. Save Northampton has had numerous discussions with residents, businesses, and property owners and is currently working with an architect to provide the city with an alternative plan which can also receive the same funding and might be a bit less expensive.

We continue to hope the city of Northampton will call for a public meeting to access the city’s views on the current design, as our data indicates more residents are opposed than in favor of this design. Our Save Northampton Main Street petition currently has more than 2,000 signatures, mostly from Northampton, Florence, and Leeds residents and business owners.

 

Judy Herrell, John DiBartolo, James Winston, Jon Reed, and Amy Mager are members of Save Northampton Main Street.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

And now, we can quantify this broad impact.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial 2

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We salute their efforts and encourage them to carry on.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And they demonstrate that power, in myriad ways.

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

“I think that ship has sailed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That ship has sailed.

Opinion

Opinion

 

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

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

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

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

One of them is housing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s another big step forward for Springfield.

Opinion

They Help Define ‘Hero’

 

In 2015, BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, established a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes. It was created to bring much-needed recognition to individuals, groups, and organizations working within the large and vitally important healthcare sector in our region.

There was much discussion then, and it continues today, about just what makes one a ‘hero.’ Clearly, there is not one overriding definition of that word. If we had to try, we would say a hero is someone who inspires us with their actions and their words, compels others to excel, and makes a real difference in the lives of others.

And this year’s class of honorees certainly lives up that definition, as the stories that begin on Page H6 clearly show. Individually and collectively, they stand out for the way that they have dedicated their careers and their lives to helping others and setting an example that others should follow.

Let’s start with Jody O’Brien, a nurse with the Urology Group of Western New England. She’s 87 and still working two days a week and volunteering the other three. But her desire to work well past full retirement age only begins to explain why she is the hero in the Lifetime Achievement category. Through nearly 70 years in nursing, she has been a provider of care, hope, and especially inspiration.

Dr. Mark Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center, has been making a difference on many levels — in his ER, on the national stage by bringing to light the staggering cost of EpiPens and the need to do something about it, and, perhaps most importantly, in the lives of individual patients, by utilizing perhaps his best talent: listening.

Cindy Senk, personal trainer and owner of Movement for All, enables individuals to discover the many benefits of yoga. But more importantly, she inspires them to improve their mobility — and their quality of life while doing so. Her philosophy is to not only educate her clients, but empower them.

Gabriel Mokwuah and Joel Brito are patient safety associates (PSAs) at Holyoke Medical Center, and each one has been credited with saving a life in recent months through their quick actions. And while doing so, these heroes have turned a spotlight on the PSA position at HMC, one that takes the traditional ‘sitter’ or ‘patient observer’ position to new dimensions.

Ashley LeBlanc, practice manager of Thoracic Surgery and nursing director of the Lung Screening Program at Mercy Medical Center, is a nurse and administrator with a strong track record for getting things done, especially a program that now screens 250 people for lung cancer each month, and then setting more ambitious goals.

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw, pediatric emergency nurse at Baystate Medical Center, has brought her passions for behavioral healthcare and compassion for children and their families to her work in a busy ER, enhancing care delivery and inspiring others to look at problems as opportunities, not roadblocks.

Julie Lefer Quick, nurse manager of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, was looking for a career change and found one at the VA, where she devotes herself to the needs of veterans and finding new and innovative ways to care for them.

Finally, Kristina Hallett, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of Graduate Psychology at Bay Path University, has not only helped myriad clients overcome trauma, anxiety, and countless other challenges, but she’s inspiring and helping to cultivate the next generation of behavioral-health professionals.

They’re heroes, every one. We hope you enjoy their stories.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

Let’s consider those points one at a time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Philip Korman

 

The widespread flooding that hit our region in mid-July illuminates many truths: the vulnerability of many local farms, the hard reality of climate change, and the amazing response that is possible when the community, nonprofit and foundation partners, and government all step up and work together.

Current estimates are that more than 100 local farms were affected by the floods and that they lost a combined $15 million in crops — but long-term effects are still being counted. The flooding came on the heels of two freezes that damaged peach, blueberry, and apple crops, and was followed by continued heavy rains that deluged even non-flooded fields. As our climate changes, these extreme weather events will become more common.

The response — from the generosity of individual donors to the speed with which our state government has acted — has been stunning. The governor signed a supplemental budget that includes $20 million in disaster relief to cover crop losses. The Emergency Farm Fund at Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) is offering no-interest loans up to $25,000 to affected farms, and a recent disaster declaration will make low-interest federal loans available too.

What is missing is money to cover all the other losses that farms have suffered, including the destruction of property and equipment. The new Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund can help fill this gap, and it has set an ambitious fundraising goal of $5 million to quickly get grants to farms.

Farmers are resilient, and they are adapting to their new reality — but they will need continued support and a robust emergency-response system as the climate changes. You can support them, as always, by buying local, and you can help build up the Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund now so it’s there in the future. Learn more at buylocalfood.org/helpfloodedfarms.

 

Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Jeff Liguori

 

Is Washington, D.C. broken?

The global rating agency, Fitch, certainly believes so. On Aug. 1, the company downgraded the credit of the United States one notch, from AAA to AA+. It is only the second time in history that our nation’s credit has been downgraded, the first in August 2011 by S&P. In its explanation, Fitch stated that the downgrade “reflects the expected fiscal deterioration over the next three years, a high and growing general government debt burden, and the erosion of governance relative to AA- and AAA-rated peers over the last two decades that has manifested in repeated debt-limit standoffs and last-minute resolutions.”

The move came as a surprise despite the agency hinting in May that the inability of Congress to effectively deal with the debt ceiling could lead to a downgrade. Once legislation was passed to raise the U.S. government debt limit, Fitch Ratings said the United States’ AAA credit rating would remain on negative watch. President Biden, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, and others in the administration have criticized the move as bizarre and arbitrary, careful to point out that the timing made no sense given the bipartisan effort to avoid a default in June.

The reaction by financial markets was somewhat mild considering the nearly unprecedented — and alarming — nature of the downgrade by Fitch. Bond prices went lower as yields continued higher, and the S&P 500 sold off about 1.3% — overall, a negative response. But 2023 has been a healthy year for investors thus far, with stocks up nearly 20% prior to the Fitch downgrade and a bond market about flat on the year, a stark contrast to 2022, when both markets were down double digits, an historical anomaly. So, what is the impact of a AA+ versus AAA rating for our government’s debt?

When S&P downgraded the U.S. government debt rating in 2011, global stock markets plunged and bonds rallied, driving interest rates lower. Typically, a downgrade in credit equates to higher — not lower — interest rates. But the uncertainty surrounding that downgrade pushed investors into safe-haven assets, namely U.S. treasuries, which illustrates that the move by S&P had no real implications for buyers of U.S. debt. It was a slap on the wrist, a consequence of massive accommodative fiscal measures intended to shore up a weak economy as the nation emerged from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The rating agency was signaling that the U.S. had to get its fiscal house in order and Congress needed to come together to address the burgeoning debt. Like today, S&P had signaled to the Obama administration and U.S. Treasury that there was a risk of a downgrade about a month prior to the move. Stock markets lost roughly 10% of their value in the 30 days preceding the downgrade.

Fitch’s recent actions are consistent with its close competitor, S&P, in 2011. The U.S. debt, as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP), rose from 65% at the end of 2007 to 92% prior to the downgrade then. Before COVID locked down the economy, debt to GDP was just above 100%, ballooning to 135% by the middle of 2020. Currently, our debt is running at nearly 120% of GDP. And as interest rates rise, the situation worsens. (Growth in GDP can ameliorate this ratio, but the economy is not keeping pace with inflation presently.)

Similarities from the first downgrade to today are limited. Yes, the nation was emerging from crisis in 2011, the economy was flooded with stimulus spending, and Washington, D.C. was also unable to address our long-term fiscal issues. But the similarities end there.

Economically, global bond yields were falling prior to the downgrade in 2011, and central banks were still easing, dealing with the aftermath of the Great Recession. The unemployment rate was around 9%, high from a historical standpoint, but trending lower as the number of job openings were on the upswing. Debt to GDP was still under 100%, with most economists optimistic that further economic growth would remedy that dynamic. U.S. household debt had decreased about 8% and was also trending lower. The interest rate on a 30-year mortgage was about 4.5% and, again, trending lower.

Today, central bankers continue to fight persistent inflation, aggressively raising interest rates and tightening monetary conditions. The job picture remains sanguine, with the unemployment rate at 3.5%. Job openings, however, are now on the decline after sharply increasing from COVID lows. Household debt is on the rise, with total credit-card debt projected to hit $1 trillion for the first time ever. And housing affordability is at its worst level since the late 1980, according to the National Assoc. of Realtors, as the rate on a 30-year mortgage bumps up against 7%, an increase of 114% since the beginning of 2022.

There may be no economic adjustment to the rating downgrade by financial markets. Stocks have been incredibly resilient this year. The message by the Fitch agency is more about the United States having the willingness to pass legislation to deal with our debt burden, and less about the ability to pay our borrowers.

It is not an issue solely for the U.S.; after the Federal Reserve and U.S. government accounts, the largest holders of our debt are Japan, China, and the UK (in that order). The snowball effect of a default would be catastrophic. Almost every analyst and economist voicing an opinion on the downgrade, however, knows that an actual default is such a remote possibility for the largest economy in the world that it isn’t worth mentioning. And there’s no new information that brought on the downgrade.

It is a warning, nonetheless, and emblematic of our long-term political issues, which continue to hamper constructive fiscal progress.

 

Jeff Liguori is the co-founder and chief Investment officer of Napatree Capital, an investment boutique with offices in Longmeadow as well as Providence and Westerly, R.I.; (401) 437-4730.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the better the future will look.

Opinion

Opinion

By Claire Morenon, Margaret Christie, and Phil Korman

 

On July 10, heavy rains led to widespread flooding alongside small rivers and creeks throughout our region. The next day, the Connecticut River overflowed its banks to levels not seen since Hurricane Irene in 2011.

This flooding event was fast in some ways — the fields at Natural Roots Farm in Conway, along the South River, filled with water as farmers and their draft horses worked to save their deluged chickens and equipment. And it was slow in others, as farmers watched and waited more than 24 hours to see how high the Connecticut River would rise.

Heavy rain has continued to fall, making some fields that didn’t flood too wet to access for farmwork and increasing the likelihood of plant diseases that thrive in wet conditions.

Flooding is catastrophic for farms in many ways, and the timing of this flood is especially damaging. Floodwaters sweep away plants, livestock, equipment, and topsoil. Plants that survive generally can’t be harvested and eaten because floodwater is often contaminated with road runoff, sewage overflow, and other contaminants. Any edible part of a plant that contacts flood water or flooded soil can’t be sold or donated.

A flood in early July has huge financial implications for the farms that were flooded: they have devoted immense time and money to growing and maintaining crops which are now unsalable, and they may not be able to plant and harvest new crops before the growing season is over.

Flooding impacted farms of all kinds: small startups, some of them operated by immigrant and refugee farmers; long-standing, diverse vegetable operations that sell directly to consumers through farm stands and CSAs; and large wholesale operations that supply supermarkets and corner stores across the state. Farms of all sizes donate produce, too, so food pantries and food banks are also impacted.

The response to this disaster has been swift. Farmers have donated produce and young plants to flooded farms. Community members have contributed generously, and volunteers have turned out to help clean up mud and debris. State and federal elected leaders came to see the damage and hear directly from farmers. Local legislators, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, UMass Cooperative Extension, and nonprofits that focus on food and farms worked quickly and cooperatively to tally losses, address immediate needs, and plan for a more comprehensive response to this and future climate-related disasters.

Gov. Maura Healey also announced the launch of the Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund (see story on page 64), a public/private initiative that offers a place to donate, a source of grants for impacted farms statewide, and the beginnings of a safety net for future climate-change events. In addition, advocates are hopeful that state legislators will include a farm disaster fund in their supplemental budget.

Farmers are resilient and adaptable. Farming has always been a weather-dependent, narrow-margin occupation. But the weather extremes of our changing climate are bigger and more damaging than the everyday unpredictability of New England weather.

This flood is the third weather event this year to bring widespread losses to local farms: peach buds were killed in February in a weekend cold snap during an otherwise warm winter, and a late frost in May greatly reduced blueberry and apple harvests. These events match climate-change predictions for our region, which include wild temperature fluctuations, increased precipitation, and higher summer temperatures.

Local farmers have already begun to adjust their growing practices to increase resilience in the face of these changes. But to survive, they need more help. This must include more funding for research into climate-adapted farming practices, more financial support for farmers in making those changes, and a more robust emergency-response system.

Climate change will make extreme weather events more frequent. Recent flooding and freezes show the devastation these events can cause — and the response that’s possible. Farms saw an outpouring of community support, and Massachusetts has begun to build the capacity for the larger response that will get us through this disaster and the ones to come.

Right now, funds are desperately needed. Go to buylocalfood.org to donate to the new Massachusetts Farm Resiliency Fund, individual farm fundraisers, and CISA’s Emergency Farm Fund, which provides no-interest farm loans. And don’t forget that using your grocery dollars to buy local food offers a two-part benefit: investing in local farms while enjoying summer’s bounty.

 

Claire Morenon is communications manager, Margaret Christie special projects manager, and Philip Korman executive director of CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture).

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Eastfield Mall has officially passed into history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rest in peace, Eastfield Mall.

 

Opinion

Opinion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, two of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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