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Just about all the dust has settled from this November’s election — finally, and thankfully. And now is the time for analysis.

And while much of the focus is on the national scene and what the results from this midterm election mean moving forward, what happened in the Bay State, where there was no suspense, is also intriguing and worthy of note.

In short, it was a milestone day for women — and the state itself.

Indeed, women won five of the six state-wide seats up for grabs. Maura Healey, the first woman elected governor of the Commonwealth (and the first openly lesbian governor in the U.S., a milestone she shares with Oregon Gov.-elect Tina Kotek), garnered much of the attention, but she was only part of the story.

Healey’s running mate, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, was elected lieutenant governor; Deb Goldberg was re-elected treasurer; Andrea Campbell became the first Black person elected attorney general; and Diana DiZoglio was elected auditor.

Longtime state Auditor Bill Galvin was the only man to win statewide office, and he defeated a woman, Rayla Campbell, in doing so.

So what does all this mean? First of all, more women are being elected to these offices because more women are running for these offices, which is a very positive step forward.

Before Tuesday, only nine women had served in the constitutional offices in the state’s history, and that’s largely because comparatively few women had the desire, the wherewithal, the confidence, and, in many cases, the support to seek such offices.

All that has changed in recent years, and we’re seeing it not just with statewide offices, but local offices as well. Michelle Wu became the first woman elected mayor of Boston this past year, and locally, several cities now have women in the corner office, including Easthampton and Pittsfield.

There are many reasons why more women are stepping forward and running for office, including a host of leadership programs, including several locally that encourage individuals to get involved, be active in their cities and towns, and, yes, take leadership roles.

Whatever the reason, getting more women — and more people of color and people with diverse backgrounds — involved in government, on both the local and statewide levels, can only be good for everyone involved because it means that more voices, and different kinds of voices, are being heard.

We’ve seen this in business, of course, and with very positive outcomes. Today, more women are sitting on the boards of major companies and nonprofits, more women are leading companies, and more women are taking leadership positions in realms once dominated by men, including construction, architecture, and even IT, although that is one sector where women are still looking to break through in large numbers.

Someday, perhaps not that far into the future, seeing women take five of the six — or even all six — of the Commonwealth’s constitutional offices won’t even be newsworthy. It’s only newsworthy now because it’s never happened before.

And it’s very positive news indeed, and a huge step forward for Massachusetts and all its residents.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Cristina Rivera, LICSW

 

The holidays can be a wonderful time of the year. For some, they mean seasonal gatherings and reconnecting with loved ones. For others, however, they can be emotionally and physically challenging, and this is especially true for many who are in recovery from substance use.

Having a plan for self-care and adhering to strategies that keep one healthy are key for all of us in enjoying the annual celebrations fall and winter bring.

I encourage people to not feel pressured to say “yes” to every obligation, whether that means attendance at a social function, family gathering, or work event. Individuals in recovery often know what environments will assist them in maintaining sobriety or allow the space to not use substances. Set boundaries and choose events that support your goals.

If you attend an event where substances may be easily accessible, prepare in advance. What’s your escape strategy if needed? Plan your arrival and departure, whom you will spend time with, and whom you will not. Having your own transportation allows you to leave if you are feeling uncomfortable. Having someone along to chat with helps if you are feeling the need for extra support.

If you opt out of an event, remember that you can still enjoy time with friends and loved ones. Plan to meet where you feel both comfortable and safe in maintaining your recovery goals.

The holidays may also bring feelings of loneliness as well as negative thoughts that could lead to using substances. I stress with my clients the importance of maintaining contact with people who support them in their recovery. This may be a mentor, therapist, friend, or fellow members of a support group — anyone in their life who is a positive influence and supports their sobriety. A supportive network can mean the difference between remaining substance-free or using a substance again.

It is possible to celebrate the holiday season and maintain your personal goals in recovery. Keeping to your routine and seeking support when needed are going to be very important. The gift of life is invaluable, and during the time of giving, the greatest gift to give yourself is decision making that maintains your recovery goals.

 

Cristina Rivera is director of Outpatient Services, Substance Use Disorders at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As Charlie Baker winds down his time as governor of the Commonwealth, it should be clear to all those in Western Mass. that he will be missed in this part of the state.

Since he was first elected eight years ago, and even before he took office a few months later, he made it clear that the 413 would be a priority for him and his administration. And he has followed through on that pledge.

We bring this up because all governors say they are going to represent the entire state and take a keen interest in every community from Fall River to North Adams. But most don’t actually deliver on those promises. Baker has.

And he’s done it by doing more than showing up at the Big E for a creampuff or coming out to distrubute checks and get his picture taken while doing so — although he done that, too. He has actually taken a real interest in what happens out here, and he became visible, and influential, in ways most governors haven’t.

Whether it was listening to a group of entrepreneurs at Valley Venture Mentors — and asking them probing questions about how to take their ventures to the next level — or taking the lead in efforts to make projects like the Court Square Hotel and a new parking garage in downtown Springfield a reality, Baker didn’t just show in up this region, he became a strong advocate for it.

Before we go any further, we do need to note Baker was late, as in very late, in officially signing on to plans for a high-speed rail project that has been proposed, in large part, to help level the playing field between east and west and create more opportunities for those in this part of the state. This hesitancy to fully support the initiative, for whatever reason, certainly slowed the process.

Meanwhile, his administration’s response to the pandemic was more draconian than was necessary, and this deepened the challenge facing businesses of all sizes, but especially smaller ventures and those in the hospitality and tourism industry, one of the foundations of the Western Mass. economy.

That said, Baker made his presence felt in this part of the state, and in many ways made it a full partner in many initiatives here, not just in Springfield, but across the region.

It has been said by some that we have an inferiority complex in this state and that we spend too much time thinking we are slighted, ignored, or both. While there is some truth to that, it has been easy for some governors to talk a good game, but, in the end, pay lip service to the broad region west of Worcester.

Baker succeeded in getting his name on a menu item at the Student Prince restaurant — a bun-less hamburger, to be specific. But far more importantly, he let people in this region know that they not only had a voice, but that their voice was being heard.

We can only hope the state’s next governor can continue that pattern of involvement.

Opinion

Editorial

They cut the ribbon at the new Marriott Springfield Downtown last week.

It was a lavish ceremony that was more than three years in the making. That’s how long it has taken serial entrepreneurs Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, owners of Springfield Hospitality, to transform the property in Tower Square, which lost the Marriott flag several years ago amid serious decline, into one of the state’s best hotels west of Boston.

A host of local, state, and national elected officials, area business leaders, and representatives of the Marriott chain turned out to celebrate the transformation of the property and the return of the Marriott flag to Springfield. There were speeches, tours, music from the Springfield Sci-Tech band, and more.

The ceremony marked more than the official ribbon-cutting for the hotel, though. It commemorated a triumph over extreme challenge — this renovation, or re-imagination, of the property was undertaken during the pandemic and thus had to overcome a series of stern challenges — and a raising of the bar, if you will, in Springfield and its downtown.

Indeed, like MGM Springfield before it, the new Marriott sets a new standard for imagination and quality in the city, and it is our hope that it will inspire others to reach higher and think bigger as they contemplate what can be done in Springfield and its downtown.

From the beginning, not just with the hotel but with the larger Tower Square property, Patel and Mitta have thought outside the box — relocating the Greater Springfield YMCA to the property is perhaps the best example — and never settled for ‘good enough’ as they have remade the landmark that opened in the late ’60s and set the tone for a period of building higher and better in the city’s downtown.

It is our hope that, more than 50 years later, the renovated Marriott and Tower Square complex can have a similar impact.

Indeed, while there has been some real progress in downtown Springfield over the past several years with MGM Springfield, the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel (still ongoing), the construction of a new parking garage (set to begin), and other initiatives, many other properties remain vacant or very much underutilized.

This is especially true farther south on Main Street in the area across from the MGM complex. But there are other properties as well that are awaiting new life.

The Marriott project, and the larger Tower Square initiative, have shown what can be done. They’ve shown what’s possible when people are willing to commit to Springfield and, as we said, think big. It is our hope, and expectation, that it will be a big success from a business perspective as well.

It is also our hope that this project, and some of the others now taking shape, like Court Square, will inspire other developers to look at Springfield as a city worth investing in.

All this, in addition to a grand new hotel, is what people were celebrating at that ribbon cutting.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2018, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, one what would recognize the outstanding accomplishments of women across this region and tell stories that might otherwise go untold.

This new program, this new honor, needed a name. After many options were considered, ‘Woman of Impact’ was chosen because, while success in business is certainly a consideration, there are many other ways to make a difference in this community, and we wanted to show that.

Over the first four years of this program, we have done that just, and this pattern continues with the class of 2022 — a very diverse group of eight women who have given back, and changed lives, in many different ways: by taking their business or nonprofit to new levels of success; by serving as a role model to others, but especially women and girls; by mentoring others and helping them find direction and purpose in their lives; by persevering through adversity; by doing, well … all of the above.

As the stories will show, these are indeed, Women of Impact. They are:

Latoya Bosworth, who, through her work with MassHumanities, her coaching of professionals, her mentoring of young people, her efforts to promote breast health and the importance of mammograms, and much, much more, helps others “transcend limits and transform lives,” as she likes to say;

• Sister Mary Caritas, the 99-year-old leader and inspiration to generations of residents of this region. She has led hospitals, served on countless boards, and even led the effort to end the odor problems at Bondi’s Island. But mostly, she has shown others the value of getting involved and the power of perseverance;

• Jodi Falk, who has been on public assistance for a short time in her life and knows what food insecurity is all about. And that’s one of many chapters in her life that has enabled her to take the reins of the nonprofit Rachel’s Table, broaden its mission, create new programs, and meet the needs of more people in Western Mass. She is an innovator, a motivator, and a true leader;

Anika Lopes, an internationally recognized milliner (or hat maker) who returned to her ancestral home of Amherst three years ago and set about bringing its neglected history — particularly the history of the Black and indigenous people who shaped it — into the light, and lauched a foundation to help provide today’s BIPOC communities with opportunities for success;

Laurie Raymaakers, who knows that success in business does not come easy, but through hard work, sacrifice, and finding ways to make it through the difficult days that inevitably come. Her story brings all this home in a compelling way while also showing that there are many ways to touch people’s lives and impact the community we call home;

• Hilda Roqué, who came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico at age 14, far from home and with no sense of belonging. Her role as executive director of Nuestras Raíces comes with many responsibilities, including its mission to connect people to their roots through agriculture. But beyond that, she is committed to seeing that those arriving today, and in the years to come, are not made to feel as she was;

• Ashley Sullivan, who, even as she succeeded in college and in her early career in engineering, often felt inadequate for the task. Her achievements, capped by earning the presidency of her firm after two decades, has instilled in her a desire to inspire and support young engineers, especially young women, with not just opportunity, but confidence; and

• Aelan Tierney, who told BusinessWest that “architecture impacts every aspect of our life. If you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.” She has indeed made an impact with more than her architecture. She’s also a leader in her business and in the community, and she’s a true role model.

Opinion

Opinion

By Valerie Boudreau

 

It seems like people are talking at each other more than listening to each other these days. Think about how many emails, text messages, voice mails, and other interruptive, one-way communications we send and receive — there’s a lot more talking than active listening going on.

The ability to listen effectively is not only a critical communication skill, but also a strong leadership skill. Active listening allows employees, customers, and co-workers to feel that their ideas, thoughts and perspectives are heard, accepted, and understood.

To become a better listener, you need to understand what is involved in effective communication and develop the techniques to sit quietly and listen — a feat of true discipline and self-control! You must ignore your own needs and focus solely on the person speaking. Here are a few keys to active listening:

• Focus on the person and the message. Focus your entire attention on the speaker, and listen without judging or trying to come back with a response before they’re halfway through speaking. Look at the speaker’s body language in addition to their words.

• Communicate your attention. Use your body language and gestures to let the speaker know you are locked into what they’re saying. Face them directly and make eye contact. Sit or stand in an open position. Smile and nod occasionally.

• Acknowledge what the person is saying. From time to time, use “uh-huh” or “I see” to indicate you are following what the person is saying. This indicates that you are actively listening and following them, not necessarily that you agree with them.

• Don’t interrupt. Interrupting shows impatience and disrespect, especially if you interrupt with an argument rather than a question. It frustrates the speaker and limits your understanding of the message. Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.

• Build rapport. Engage with the speaker by asking questions or reflecting back what you have heard. For example, say, “what I’m hearing you say is…” or “I’m not sure I understand…” This demonstrates that you are paying attention and will allow you to gain more information.

• Be authentic in your response. Your job as the listener is to gain information, perspective, and understanding. Be candid, open, and honest when responding to the speaker, but do so in a respectful manner. If there is conflict or disagreement, focus your response on the issue rather than the person.

As leaders, to make the best decisions for our organizations, we need as much information and as many different perspectives as possible. Active listening encourages people to proactively share information, ideas, thoughts, and perspectives because they know they will be heard and respected.

 

Valerie Boudreau leads the Learning & Development team at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Latino Economic Development Council (LEDC) opened to considerable fanfare last month. And with good reason.

It wasn’t just the new digs in the old Massachusetts Lottery facility on Fort Street that has people excited. It’s the broad and laudable mission, as well as the unique model, that is turning heads, while also providing promise for changing the local business landscape — in all kinds of ways.

The mission — the unofficial mission, anyway — as stated by several of the speakers in attendance at the grand opening, is to transform employees into employers, consumers of products into producers of products, people who work for others into people who work for themselves.

And the model for doing that is indeed quite unique. The agency, which will award microgrants and provides space for meetings and co-working, has, at its core, a team of more two coaches that will provide a wide range of counseling and training that holds the promise of helping people grow their businesses and take them to the next level.

These coaches offer expertise in subjects ranging from finance to human resources; marketing to mental wellness; personal finance to accounting. It is this expertise that can help fledgling businesses create opportunities and avoid some of the problems that turn business ventures into casualties.

As we said, the model is unique. Many of the agencies within the region’s large and growing entrepreneurship ecosystem, such as Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll, provide mentoring and education in specific subjects. But there isn’t a deep bench of people who are in business and can pass on what they know to small-business owners who can benefit from their knowledge and experience.

One of the coaches, Giulberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional-development coach for the LEDC, perfectly summed up the work of the LEDC and why he became a coach when he told BusinessWest, “I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

Giving back is a critical component of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and it’s one of the principles that has enabled this region to make great strides when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship, getting new businesses off the ground, and, as Amador said, enabling them to remain viable.

While helping individual businesses is the stated goal of the LEDC, its broader ambition, as many speakers stated at the grand opening, is to change the landscape, both figuratively and also quite literally, when it comes to new businesses on Main Street and many other streets in cities and towns across the region, especially new Latino businesses.

After all, this is the fastest-growing segment of the region’s business community, and it possesses enormous growth potential for the years and decades to come, said Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for the agency, noting that what many in that community need is a “leg up,” which can come in many different forms, from capital to that expertise provided by the coaches.

Speaking for just about everyone in the room that night, and everyone involved with the LEDC, Amador told BusinessWest, “if there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s. I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

This ambitious agency and its unique model of doing business holds great promise for making those sentiments become reality.

Opinion

Opinion

By Susan Olshuff

 

Feeling the chill in the air? Checking out the golden autumn leaves? Putting the lawn furniture away for the winter? 

As the days get shorter, we might find ourselves thinking about the coming cold months, dreading the chilly bathrooms, worrying about the increasing heating bills, and concerned about the impact on our planet from all the energy we’re using.

Are you ready for what’s coming? Is your home ready?

We know we should really do something to prepare for the coming heating season, but then again, there’s the snowblower that needs to be taken into the shop to be repaired, and the kiddie pool that needs to find its way to the back of the basement or garage, and so much more. We also know that those beautiful golden leaves will soon morph into cold snow.

You may not realize that every time you’ve paid a utility bill over the years, you have been contributing to an energy-efficiency fund that is designated to pay for Mass Save energy-efficiency services that are yours for the taking at no charge. This includes a no-cost energy assessment along with recommendations for how to make changes that will save you energy and money.

Also at no cost, you’ll receive air sealing around those leaky spots that let cold air in, as well as programmable thermostats, water-saving devices, and energy-efficient power strips. You could also receive 75% to 100% off approved insulation. And there are more opportunities, too.

The mayors of both Springfield and West Springfield have declared October to be Energy Efficiency Month. By focusing now on ‘doing the right thing,’ we can reduce our costs this winter and, at the same time, help our cities work toward their climate goals. You can sign up for your no-cost audit at masssave.com/egs.

Energy efficiency is the cheapest, quickest way to meet our energy needs, cut our bills, and reduce harmful pollution. It’s also an economic engine, amassing a U.S. workforce of nearly 2.4 million at the start of this year in manufacturing, installation, construction, and other fields — most of which can’t be outsourced overseas. Energy Efficiency Day is a collaborative effort of more than 1,000 regional and national organizations.

The the colder it gets, the more people will request this assistance, and the wait time for your home energy assessment will lengthen. So don’t wait — act now. Your wallet will thank you, as will future generations.

 

Susan Olshuff is a town liaison and researcher for ener-G-save, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation LLC.

Opinion

Editorial

 

President Joe Biden famously, and matter-of-factly, announced recently that the pandemic is “over.”

Whether that’s true or not remains to be seen, but what isn’t in question is the fact that, while the pandemic may indeed be a matter for the past tense, businesses large and small continue to face a mountain of challenges, many of them stemming directly or indirectly from the pandemic.

This much was made clear in a recently released MassINC survey that revealed, among other things, that just over half the businesses polled, 53%, are reporting revenues lower than before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, inflation is at a 40-year high, supply-chain issues persist, a labor shortage continues, the Great Resignation is far from over, and now there is apparently a new workforce issue to contend with — so-called ‘quiet quitting,’ whereby employees don’t officially leave their jobs; they just do the bare minimum.

We’re not sure if quiet quitting is a byproduct of the pandemic or not — it’s a relatively new phenomenon, and there is not much data on it — but just about everything else is, from inflation to the supply-chain issues to the persistent problems companies are having with staffing up.

So while it’s good to hear that the pandemic is over — at least in a technical sense; we’re now told that COVID is in the same category as the flu — the ‘normal’ that everyone in the Western Mass. business community was seeking ever since we first heard of COVID seems like it is still a long way off.

Especially with growing talk about a recession, when it will come, how severe it will be — and whether or not we are already in one, which many economists already believe we are, as well as headlines about soaring energy costs and escalation of fighting in Ukraine.

Maybe the biggest issue, though, is the Federal Reserve’s ongoing fight against inflation. The Fed recently raised interest rates again, this time by three-quarters of a point for the third straight time, an aggressive tactic that might — that’s might — bring inflation back down to its 2% goal, but at a potentially high cost when it comes to the economy and the plight of businesses large and small.

Indeed, the tactics used to fight inflation may well tip the economy into a recession and, in the meantime, make it harder for businesses to attain the capital they need to expand, prompting more job cuts; many businesses have already gone from hiring to laying people off. Fed policy makers are projecting that the jobless rate will reach 4.4% by the end of 2023, up from its current level of 3.7%.

Overall, the cure may be worse than the disease, as the nation witnessed 40 years ago, when, to tame inflation, the Fed pushed the country into a protracted recession.

President Biden also said recently that he believes that a “soft landing” is possible for the economy. Perhaps, but many economists are predicting a much harder fall.

That’s not what area business owners want to hear after two and a half long years of battling the pandemic and its many side effects.

Technically speaking, the pandemic is over, but the challenges remain. We said back in March 2020 that the local business community was resilient and up to the challenge. We still believe that, but this resilience is certainly being tested, and the quest for normal — whatever that is — goes on.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

When it comes to dress codes and attire, companies for years have developed policy standards rooted in conveying a clean, conservative, and/or professional look. In so doing, employees had to conform to a singular vision or appearance. Whether defined expressly or otherwise, hairstyles have been a part of such stereotypes and visions, which has consequently left many minority applicants and/or employees on the sidelines when it came to being hired or promoted into certain positions despite being otherwise qualified to perform those roles.

Enter the CROWN Act legislation. CROWN is short for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and is designed to break down some of the stereotypical barriers that certain minority groups were facing when being considered for employment.

To date, 17 states have adopted CROWN Act legislation, with Massachusetts being the latest to sign such measures into law. Other states include California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, and Washington. Federally, Congress has contemplated a CROWN Act measure; this measure has been referred to the Senate for further consideration.

What is its significance? For states that have adopted these measures, it makes it unlawful to discriminate based on “natural or protective hairstyles.” Examples of these hairstyles include hair that is tightly coiled or curled, or worn in locks, cornrows, twists, braids, bantu knots, or afros.

For employers that are operating in a state that has enacted CROWN Act legislation, what should you do?

First, review your company policies to see if there is any express language prohibiting such hairstyles in the workplace. Policies that I have seen in handbooks that I have reviewed where the topic of hairstyles has been addressed have included such policies as dress code, hygiene, personal appearance, and professionalism.

If you are a multi-state employer that operates in states where CROWN Act legislation both has and has not been adopted, be careful with your handbook policy and structure. If your handbook is distributed across all your locations, it may be easier administratively to adjust your policy across the board to ensure compliance. (While, conceivably, another path could be to carve out your dress code or other policies and treat them as state-specific addenda or supplements that coincide with the different state requirements, such a practice may prove to be more cumbersome to sustain over time.)

Then there is the subject of managerial and supervisory actions and practices. For instance, have managers and supervisors chosen not to hire an applicant in the past over concerns about hairstyles? Passed over an employee for a promotion? Is it a topic of conversation addressed in interviews? Has the topic been broached in performance reviews or in disciplinary writeups? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then further discussion with management is advised to change practices (whether attributable to express or unconscious bias) moving forward.

As CROWN Act legislation continues to get adopted nationwide, companies may need to change their ways and let their hair down. Choosing otherwise could lead to discriminatory consequences and litigation down the road.

 

Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2017, BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes. In the early going, there were some questions among those seeking to nominate people and organizations about just how that word ‘hero’ was defined.

We told people then, and we tell them now, that ‘hero’ can be defined many different ways, but within the broad spectrum of healthcare, it traditionally denotes someone, some group, or some organization that is changing lives — and in a very positive way.

And, working with this basic definition, we have celebrated dozens of heroes over the past five years, with each story being different and each one touching on the many different ways those in healthcare touch our lives, bring passion, as in passion, to their work, and, yes, change lives.

And the class of 2022 is no exception, as the stories make clear. This class is defined by special people, always working in cooperation and collaboration with others, to improve quality of life for people in this region. It includes:

• Helen Caulton-Harris, the hero in the Lifetime Achievement category, who is being recognized for her life’s work, especially as commissioner of Health and Human Services for the city of Springfield, to educate people, advocate on their behalf, and create policy that will change and improve the general wellness of the community;

• Mark Paglia, COO of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, the hero in the Administration category, who not only opened that facility in the middle of a pandemic and amid a host of other challenges, but has established himself as a strong leader who empowers his team members and gives them the tools they need to succeed;

• Dr. Phillip Glynn, director of Medical Oncology at Mercy Medical Center, who could be the honoree in many categories, but is the 2022 hero in the Provider category for his work to balance science and humanity, guide his patients through a difficult journey, and make sure their voices are heard;

• Dr. Sundeep Shukla, chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Noble Hospital, who is being honored as the 2022 Emerging Leader hero for his tireless work to not only care for patients, but make the ER an effective safety net and efficient asset — for the hospital and the community;

• The Addiction Consult Service at Holyoke Medical Center, the hero in the Community Health category, which was created as a means to help stem the rising tide of opioid overdoses in the region and offer help and hope to those it touches, especially hope that they can bring change to their lives;

• The Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, a program at UMass Amherst being honored in (of course) the Innovation category, for bringing together two distinct disciplines in a way that makes perfect sense, and already finding success researching ways to improve patient care through better technology;

• Dr. Paul Pirraglia, division chief of General Medicine and Community Health at Baystate Health, who convened a broad, multi-organization response to the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 that delivered critical protection, communication, and resources to an often-underserved population, earning one of two awards this year in the Collaboration category; and

• ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic and its partners at Springfield College and UMass Amherst, this year’s other Collaboration heroes, for fostering connections that not only serve people with acquired brain injury, but, through hands-on education, are actively developing the next generation of therapists.

It’s an impressive class, all more than worthy of being called Healthcare Heroes.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Looking at Springfield’s Union Station today, a bustling facility with trains, buses, businesses, and people, it might be easy to forget there was a time when just about everyone in this city had given up the dream of ever revitalizing the long-dormant station.

It was 15 years or so ago. The city was in receivership, at the very early stages of climbing out of a deep and persistent funk. There was progress on some fronts, but still myriad challenges to overcome and a long list of priorities that did not include the historic but mostly forgotten station.

The suggestion from those running the city at the time was to mothball Union Station, try to protect it from the elements, move onto other, more manageable projects, and maybe get back to the train station another day.

Kevin Kennedy wasn’t buying any of that. Then an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, he wasn’t going to let the congressman’s long-held dream of revitalizing the station, which had been dormant since the early ’80s, lose whatever momentum it had.

So he kept at it, meeting with a small group of officials on a weekly basis to keep the project on some kind of roadmap and pulling the myriad details, from funding to design to logistics, into alignment. It was a monumental task, and most would have given up in frustration early on in the process.

But Kennedy never did, and today we have a revitalized Union Station, thanks to Neal — but, really, the thanks go to Kennedy. He’s the one who got it done.

And Kennedy, who passed away late last month, was able to get a lot of things done, as an aide to Neal and also as chief Development officer for the city, a job he assumed in 2011.

That lengthy list includes the new federal courthouse on State Street and the State Street Corridor project, MGM Springfield and the many components of that project, recovery from the 2011 tornado and the 2012 natural-gas explosion, and many other important initiatives.

These projects were all different, but they were similar in that they were extremely difficult and required high levels of coordination and cooperation, as well as a point person who was able to navigate whitewater and stay on track.

Kennedy was that point person.

When asked by BusinessWest why he wanted to leave the post with Neal and take the development position, Kennedy said simply, “I’ve proven I can get things done — and we have a lot of work to do in this city.”

He was right on both accounts. Looking back, Kennedy was the right person in the right position at the right time, and Springfield is now in a much better place because he was.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to find reason behind the Biden administration’s decision to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers.

Indeed, the amount of overall student debt has skyrocketed in recent years, and many individuals and families are paying off amounts of $40,000 or more — and struggling, often mightily — to do so.

Student loan debt has been cited as a reason why many young professionals are unable to buy homes and achieve the lifestyle they had envisioned when they went to college and pursued a career.

But the administration’s plan to simply cancel large swaths of this debt is not the answer to this growing problem. It is costly (we don’t even know how much this is going to cost the taxpayers), arbitrary, and, yes, inherently unfair to those who have already paid off college loans, worked two or three jobs so they wouldn’t have to take on debt, or opted not to go to college because they couldn’t afford it.

But beyond that, this plan to simply take debt off the books is a simplistic approach to a problem that you can equate, in some respects, to a backyard weed. You can cut it down, like the Biden administration is doing by erasing some of this debt, but to really address the problem, you need to get at the roots.

And this will require a solution that is far more complicated than simply forgiving $10,000 or $20,000 in college-loan debt.

The cost of a college education has skyrocketed over the past few decades, far accelerating the pace of inflation. It is these spiraling costs that need to be brought under control.

Increasingly, a college education is necessary to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. But the cost of that education — at most all institutions, but especially private, four-year colleges and universities — is now more than most individuals and families can handle — unless they assume large amounts of debt to close the gap between the cost and what they can afford.

The challenge for the Biden administration is to tackle this problem at the roots, to somehow control and perhaps even bring down the cost of a college education so that individuals and families don’t have to take on debt. That’s a big challenge and there are no easy answers.

But that answer will be a better, more meaningful solution than waving one’s hand and simply eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars in loan payments at taxpayers’ expense.

That’s because the weed is going to grow back. v

Opinion

Editorial

The scaffolding has come down from the five-story wall on Worthington Street facing Stearns Square after a lengthy process of restoration and completion of a new mural undertaken by artist John Simpson.

So now, people can see what they have. And what have is much more than art, although it is certainly that.

It is bridge from the past to the present — and the future — as a well as a conversation piece and another important effort to ‘activate’ property in the City of Homes, and especially in its downtown.

We’re seeing that word ‘activate’ quite a bit lately in reference to downtown properties — everything from the old Court Square Hotel, now being renovated into apartments, to the parking lot adjacent to the soon-to-be-demolished and replaced Civic Center Parking Garage (that property will become an extension of the MassMutual Center and used for various gatherings). It’s also been used to describe restoration work at Stearns Square, Pynchon Park, the riverfront, and other landmarks.

Overall, it is used to describe efforts to take something that was once dormant, or underutilized, and bring it back to useful life.

It’s understandable that the phrase would be used in reference to buildings or parks or even vacant lots. But a wall — in this case, the east wall of the Driscoll Building, built in 1894 and on the National Register of Historic Places?

Yes, a wall.

The wall has been there for 125 years or so, and the advertisements for cameras and related equipment that adorned the wall and sold by the company, Bloom’s, which occupied the structure, have been there for nearly 70 years. But they had become faded and easy to overlook.

Now, the wall is impossible to overlook. It features those same ads, carefully restored to what they were in the 1950s, as well as other images depicting people, businesses, products, and culture that help tell the story of Springfield — everything from a Dr. Seuss book to an Indian motocycle to a depiction of Milton Bradley.

In short, the wall is no longer a wall. It’s a piece of art, but it’s more than that. It’s a window to the past and a vibrant, colorful part of the present and future of the city. It’s also an attraction. People stop, they look, they take pictures, and they marvel at what once was — and still is. You don’t often see 50-foot-high ads for camera equipment.

Even more importantly, this wall is another piece of the city that has been activated, or given a new life. With each triumph like this — and it is a triumph — Springfield takes another important step forward in its efforts to become more vibrant and more livable.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It took a few years longer than it should have, but sports gambling finally seems to be a reality in the Bay State.

The Massachusetts Legislature recently approved a sports-betting bill, and Gov. Charlie Baker has signed it into law. If all goes well — something that doesn’t happen often in this state — systems should be in place for sports betting for later this year and certainly by the time the Super Bowl rolls around next February.

This news is cause for celebration in the state’s three casinos, which have been pushing hard for such a measure, and for good reason. Gaming revenues have certainly not been what they were projected to be nearly four years after MGM Springfield opened its doors to great pomp and circumstance. And the lack of sports betting has given gamblers one more reason to cross the border and go to facilities in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Sports betting seemed to always make sense as a way to help these casinos improve traffic, bring more revenue to the state, and add some jobs. But that didn’t stop the Legislature from doing what it does all too often: sit on its hands.

Indeed, state lawmakers tend to overthink these things, if that’s even the right term, and this leads to indecision. It happened with gaming for several years, and it happened with sports betting as well.

After four years of “painstaking work and research,” as state Sen. Eric Lesser called it, the Legislature was able to come to an agreement on a bill providing for both retail and mobile sports wagering, one that will allow betting on college sports, with some restrictions, and also comes with a number of consumer protections. These include a provision whereby, for online and mobile betting, bets cannot be linked to credit cards — a measure implemented to make sure consumers are wagering with funds on hand and not borrowing.

Projections of revenues vary, but the measure is expected to bring in more than $35 million annually. That’s not a huge number, but right now, it’s money that’s going elsewhere, and that the state could put to good use in areas ranging from workforce development to public health.

The state is once again late to the party. But late is better than never — or even later. v

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

Employers have an obligation to maintain a workplace free from unlawful harassment and discrimination. When it comes to the pillars and strategies for achieving this outcome, many focus upon their efforts and resources on training their management and employees. Others focus on promoting and reinforcing positive behaviors and conduct in support of their values and culture to pull their workforce together, foster greater employee engagement, and thereby collectively root out such inappropriate and unlawful conduct. Most, if not all, enforce existing policies or practices for compliance and employee-relations purposes.

Yet despite the myriad paths to take (whether individually or concurrently), one tool that is critical towards supporting all of them is the need to conduct effective and thorough investigations.

Internal investigations are a powerful tool. Done effectively, they can help mitigate and control the risk that an organization may face when a dispute or complaint surfaces. Is termination warranted? Some other form of discipline? Or no discipline at all? A thorough and objective investigation can provide the foundation and backbone to justify whatever action management chooses to take in response to a situation, especially if challenged by others or by opposing legal counsel (if litigation later ensues).

Investigations can also serve as a deterrent against inappropriate conduct occurring in the workplace in the first place. While some perpetrators will succumb to the temptation of engaging in bad conduct when they are not being supervised or when they feel management will not be able to get to the bottom of it, they may think twice or not do something at all when management has a reputation of taking complaints seriously and conducting investigations thoroughly.

Then there is the engagement benefit that comes with investigations. Employees often feel disengaged if they feel they don’t have a voice in the workplace when their concerns are ignored or are not addressed. Such disengagement can have severe consequences for a company. It can lead to lost productivity and turnover, and when it involves questions of illegal conduct, it can also lead to employees going elsewhere to air their concerns (such as by filing a complaint with a state or federal anti-discrimination agency or going to court).

By contrast, employers who conduct investigations in a timely, thorough, and objective manner can engender trust and credibility among their employees, and with that gained trust, employees are more likely than not to utilize an employer’s internal complaint- and problem-resolution procedures rather than going outside the organization.

Employers who ignore conducting them altogether do so at their peril. In an opinion handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, the court described the failure to investigate a sexual harassment complaint as follows: “an employer’s investigation of a sexual-harassment complaint is not a gratuitous or optional undertaking; under federal law, an employer’s failure to investigate may allow a jury to impose liability on the employer” (Malik v. Carrier Corp.).

So, do you have a plan for how internal investigations are to be conducted? Will it be by someone from inside the organization? If so, are they trained on how to conduct workplace investigations? Will you use an outside resource to conduct them on your behalf? Or will you evaluate which path to take on a case-by-case basis? For employers, it is important to have answers to these questions and have either the internal or external resources in place to be able to respond promptly. Failing to do so can lead to delay or inaction altogether, which can create greater risk.

 

Mark Adams, director of Compliance for the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, leads EANE’s HR Services Team. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The jersey barriers have gone up on Harrison Place, Dwight Street, and Bruce Landon Way.

They inform us that the Civic Center Parking Garage will soon be coming down — slowly and carefully, we’re told, because there just isn’t much real estate around it to accommodate demolition and all that comes with it.

All we can say is, ‘it’s about time.’

Often, but not always, with demolition, there is a sense of loss when it comes to what is being torn down to make way for the new. It was like that when the old Forbes & Wallace department store came down to make way for what is now Monarch Place. And while you’d have to be pretty old to remember, it was like that when the Everett Barney mansion had to be torn down because it was in the path of I-91.

It certainly wasn’t like that when the Hotel Charles, an eyesore for decades, came down well in advance of the Union Station complex in the North End, or with a number of older industrial properties that were demolished to make way for the new Basketball Hall of Fame along the riverfront.

And it certainly won’t be like that with the parking garage, except for Springfield Thunderbirds management, who face the start of a new season in just a few months with no parking garage next to the arena.

Indeed, the Civic Center garage, the workhorse facility that had served the city for nearly a half-century, had become the butt of jokes in recent years as increasingly larger blocks of its space were declared unsafe for parking.

More than that, the garage had become a symbol, if you will, of what you could call the ‘old Springfield,’ the city that was in receivership, the city that had hit rock bottom in terms of both perception and reality when it came to vibrancy and this being a place where people and businesses wanted to be.

As new developments emerged — MGM Springfield, Union Station, redevelopment of the old Peter Pan Bus terminal, and others — the Civic Center garage remained a crumbling symbol of what was. In recent years, as larger sections were rendered unusable, many who came to downtown every day found other places to park. It was only during college graduations, T-Birds games, the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference, and other large gatherings that the garage was a real asset for the city.

Now, after years of elected officials talking about it and considering several alternative sites, the garage is coming down to make way for a new, state-of-the-art facility on that same footprint. There will be some disruption downtown, but not much. Indeed, with many people still working remotely or in hybrid situations, there is plenty of parking downtown to handle what would be considered ‘routine’ days.

Things will get more dicey for the larger events, especially the hockey games. But the disruption will be well worth the eventual benefit — a modern facility in keeping with what the city has become and what it hopes to be in the years and decades to come.

The garage is coming down, and a symbol of the ‘old Springfield’ is coming down with it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When Laura Teicher was hired as director of Greentown Learn in 2018, one of the first things she did was push for a rebrand, a new name that better represented what the enterprise — an offshoot of Greentown Labs in Somerville that connects startups with manufacturers — is all about.

The team tried to get some variation of the word ‘connect’ into the name, almost calling it KINECT before realizing that was the name of a failed Super Nintendo app, as well as too close to K’Nex building toys.

What they eventually settled on was FORGE, which isn’t an acronym; the capital letters are used for emphasis. It was simply, elegant, and forceful, speaking to the way the agency forges relationships between innovators looking to produce and then scale up their big ideas, and manufacturers looking for new, local lines of business.

And that’s exactly what it has done, helping more than 500 startups since 2015, currently engaging more than 450 manufacturers, and supporting more than 4,500 jobs in innovation and manufacturing along the way. The startups in the program boast more than a 90% survival rate; the national average is around 10%.

But, in some ways, FORGE’s name took on a new meaning during the past two and a half years of economic upheaval churned up by the pandemic. It reflects the way this agency forged on, not only continuing to make connections, but re-emphasizing the importance of what it does.

Take the supply-chain crisis. The disruptions of those global production and shipping networks, which continues today, caused many manufacturers to localize their supply chains as much as possible, at the same time that startup companies were increasingly looking to manufacture their products close to home. In that sense, FORGE has become an even more valuable part of the innovation and manufacturing ecosystem.

But even in more stable times, an enterprise like FORGE is simply a good idea, on many levels. So many startups with good ideas fail because they don’t have this kind of resource to guide them into the production and scaling phases that are critical to a business success story. And so many manufacturers aren’t aware of the potential new lines of business sprouting up in their own backyards.

The greatest beneficiary is the regional economy itself. These connections are not only helping businesses grow and thrive, but do so in Massachusetts, and in many cases Western Mass., and that’s good economic news for everyone.

FORGE’s Western Mass. director, Kevin Moforte, told BusinessWest that he loves entrepreneurship, partly because of the role it plays in building not just individual wealth, but prosperous, stable communities. That’s something to celebrate during an era that has been anything but stable.

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Thornton

 

The legalization of marijuana across Massachusetts, Connecticut, and now Rhode Island has further increased the complexity of how we manage drug use in our workplaces. Employers are being forced to re-evaluate their position and practices around maintaining a safe and drug-free workplace.

Although employers may need to revise their drug-testing and accommodation policies, no state law requires employers to tolerate on-the-job drug use, intoxication, or impairment. Communication with your employees, a solid workplace drug policy, and enforcement of your practices can go a long way to keeping your workplace drug-free.

The recent mindset of some employees has really surprised many leaders and HR practitioners. Employees have always known that they can’t come to work under the influence of alcohol or any other controlled substance, for that matter, but with the sweeping legalization of recreational marijuana, employees are taking liberties and showing up to work impaired because “it’s now legal.”

It’s important for employers to educate and overcommunicate. Putting it out there, that even though it’s legal, it’s not acceptable to possess or use in the workplace, really needs to be said from the top down, across all functions and in multiple ways. Practically speaking, this means even having conversations to confirm that marijuana isn’t allowed in the workplace smoking area or at the outdoor company picnic, for instance. Clear communication with some specific examples can really help to get everyone on the same page.

Employers are trying to get qualified employees in the door to do the work in this tight labor market and are thinking long and hard about whether or not they really need to drug test for marijuana. They are weighing the upside of drug testing with the multiple requirements varying by state, with the downside being the risk of not being able to attract or retain talented people. Marijuana is still illegal under federal law, however, and companies that have these specific requirements still need to adhere to these standards.

Developing and implementing a policy that outlines the specifics of the law required by your state and clearly defines use and possession parameters is critical. Properly training managers to be able to identify the signs of impairment will assist in the applicability and enforcement of the policy and can protect everyone. These are different times that we are living in and complicated at best when it comes to this subject, but the employer still has the right to require a drug-free workplace. The burden of outlining and reinforcing common-sense guidelines is one that the employer will bear, but the advantages are sure to be beneficial in the long run.

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

From the day he took the helm with the fledgling Springfield Thunderbirds hockey team, Nate Costa, now the president of the franchise, talked about the importance of winning to the ultimate success of a team.

Indeed, Costa, who came to Springfield following management roles with several minor league sports operations, often spoke about the importance of presentation and the overall experience when it came to how well a team could capture the hearts and minds of a region or community — and thrive financially. But ultimately, he said there is no real substitute for winning. A team can have endless promotions, bring in big names as guests, and offer special prices on hot dogs and beer, he implied, but in the end, it would have to win to really break through.

The events of the past few several months, and especially the past few weeks, have proven Costa right.

As the Thunderbirds made their way to the Calder Cup finals against the Chicago Wolves, the team moved to a new and much higher level in terms of visibility and presence, for lack of a better term, in the Greater Springfield area. While T-Birds ultimately lost the series, four games to one, including the last three at home, it was a clear winner on every other level.

Let’s start with the games themselves. The downtown area was electric on game nights. Some fans would arrive an hour or two before the game started. There was some tailgating in some of the parking lots and larger crowds in many of the area restaurants.

The weekend games that closed out the series were sell-outs, and there were high levels of energy in the MassMutual Center.

Overall, the Thunderbirds were front of mind for the past month or so as they progressed in the playoffs to the finals. They were the lead story on local sports pages and the local news shows, but there was more than that.

People were talking about them — at the office, in coffee shops, and at the many events that have been staged in the region over the past several months as the long-awaited return to normalcy from the pandemic has moved to a different level. And they are still talking about them.

And while people were talking about this team, they were reminiscing about championship teams from 30 and 50 years ago. Hockey, for at least a little while, became king.

The best news is that interest in the T-Birds has moved well beyond talk. Season-ticket sales are far ahead of the pace for previous years, and they, as everyone knows, are one of the key cornerstones to success. More corporate support is certain to follow.

While the Thunderbirds have always had a presence in Springfield and the region, they have now officially arrived. And this bodes extremely well for a city that will need this team to play a big role in its full recovery from the pandemic and ongoing efforts to make downtown a place to not only work, but live.

The T-Birds did not bring home the Calder Cup in 2022. But they may have succeeded in an even bigger game, if one can call it that.

They have broken through and truly captured the attention of the region. That makes them big winners.

Opinion

Editorial

Area businesses already battling an intense workforce crisis received an additional dose of sobering news recently when MassINC released a report indicating that the Bay State could lose as much as 10% of its college-educated workforce by the end of the decade, a drop of roughly 129,000 people.

The projected decline stems from a number of factors, said the think tank, including a huge wave of retiring baby boomers, falling numbers of school-aged children in the state, and declining immigration. To sum it all up, there are fewer people going to college — certainly not enough to offset the number of boomers who are retiring — and fewer people coming into the state — from other countries and from other states, with the latter the result of the exploding cost of living in Massachusetts.

This confluence of factors leads to MassINC’s dire projections, which, if they come to be, will make an already narrow pipeline of qualified talent for jobs in a technology-focused region even smaller, threatening the health and vitality of many sectors.

There is not much anyone can do at this point about the birth rates that will lead to this projected talent drain, but there are some steps that can be taken to perhaps lessen the blow, starting with efforts to help more people attain a college degree.

This work starts with easing more people into college, especially through early-college programs in high schools, a step that the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said is effective in increasing both college enrollment and completion rates, especially for low-income students and students of color.

Getting more people into and then through college is only part of the equation. As the cost of living in Massachusetts continues its upward movement, more college graduates will gravitate elsewhere. More housing, especially affordable housing, is one answer to this problem.

Indeed, a recent report on the state of U.S. housing released late last month by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies reveals that, to afford a typical house in Greater Boston, one will need to earn more than $180,000. The numbers for this region are roughly half — $96,000 for Pittsfield, $83,500 for Greenfield, and $87,412 for Springfield.

With those statistics in mind, the need for high-speed rail becomes even more evident. They show the importance of enabling someone who wants to work in Boston, Cambridge, or Worcester to live in the 413.

The new report from MassINC is certainly sobering. As anyone in business can tell you, a college education is increasingly necessary to succeed in today’s high-tech economy. This state, and this region, needs more people with degrees, not 129,000 fewer of them.

The task at hand is to bring more people into college and then through it, and to then make it possible for more people with degrees to afford to live here. Nothing about this assignment is easy, but the stakes are high, and something needs to be done.

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

Social media platforms have become an essential part of life for the estimated 3 billion people around the world who log on daily. They keep us connected with family and friends, provide access to all types of information and the opportunity to build professional contacts to name a few of their popular usages.

Their presence in our lives is something that has been celebrated annually on World Social Media Day, June 30, since 2010. This represents a time period during which social media platforms have expanded in use across the globe as well as in this country. According to the Pew Research Center, such platforms are now used by seven in 10 Americans. In 2005, only 5% of Americans did, a figure that grew to 50% by 2011, and stands today at 72% of the public, according to the center’s research.

The use of social media can have a downside as well, as other surveys of users have reported.

Ongoing studies across the globe indicate that these platforms impact some users negatively, lowering self-esteem, disrupting sleep patterns, and raising issues of addictive behavior in their compulsive use.

It’s no secret that people bully and harass others online or that how one sees oneself can take a hit when viewing what others post — or boast — online about how they look or what they have.

We are all vulnerable to disappointment that can put us at risk for mental health concerns when it comes to social media and expectations. Are we seeking validation for our feelings and comments, supportive comparisons for our lifestyle and new friends? Are we using it as a substitute for in-person engagement or even professional behavioral health counseling?

What I suggest to my clients is to consider how much time they spend daily on social media platforms and how it impacts their mood. Studies suggest links between increased symptoms of general anxiety and depression among users of multiple social media platforms.

I also stress that visiting social media is not a fix for loneliness, but an indication it is time for more focus on off-line activities for the benefit of our emotional wellness and physical health.

The Pew Research Center data shows YouTube and Facebook as the most widely-used online platforms with Americans across age, educational and income levels, with Instagram, Pinterest and Linkedin also popular.

Visiting and posting on them and others can be both fun and helpful as part of our daily or weekly routines. It is, however, as we celebrate this World Social Media Day June 30, important to be aware of their role and impact in our lives and to know when it is time for a digital detox. It is good to step away from such interaction for a day or two to know that we can and, if not, evaluate why.

 

Alane Burgess is the Clinic Director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center in Springfield; [email protected].

Opinion

Editorial

At the midway point in what has been a historically difficult year for consumers, calls are growing increasingly louder for tax relief in the Commonwealth, and especially gas-tax relief.

And it’s time those pleas were answered.

Indeed, at a time when the state is essentially swimming in cash — the rainy-day fund saw $2 billion in capital gains tax collections between Feb. 1 and May 31 — it only makes sense for the state to bring from relief to those who are being adversely impacted by record-high prices at the pump.

And that’s …. just about everyone, from families looking to take vacations to businesses of all sizes just trying to carry on day-day activities. Prices have gone up in almost every category of consumer goods and services, but the huge increase in gas prices touches just about everyone, and it is having a very real impact.

That not-so-magic number of $5 per gallon was passed recently in the Bay State — and just about every other state in the country. In fact, it’s already well above that figure, which represents more than a number. For many, it’s a threshold. When gas hits that mark, people start to cut back.

They cut back on travel — which means fewer visits to the businesses, and there are many of them in this part of the state, in the tourism and hospitality sector that were already reeling from two and half years of pandemic and were looking toward 2022 as a return to something approaching normal.

Or … people and businesses cut back on other things, because they simply can’t cut back on travel.

And when they cut back, an economy that is already on the edge when it comes to heading into a recession, may just tip in the wrong direction.

If times were different and the state was not flush with cash, we could almost see a reason for not moving forward with some gas-tax relief — almost. But not in these times. Not when the state is far from hurting fr revenue and when many other states have seen the wisdom of providing residents with some form of gas-tax relief.

Not at a time when many businesses are finally starting to make it almost all the way back from the depths of the pandemic and need help, not another punch to the stomach.

Not at a time when many businesses have been forced to pass along price increases to consumers because of rising cost of labor, raw materials, and just about everything else, and now they’re faced with passing on more because of the rising cost of gasoline.

We’re not sure what a tax-gas holiday would cost the state when it comes to its credit rating or overall revenues. But at this critical time for the business community and the economy as a whole, the cost of not putting some relief in place would certainly be much higher.

It’s time for state lawmakers to do the right thing and provide the Commonwealth with some much-needed help at the pump. v

Opinion

Editorial

As spring prepares to turn to summer, there are many positive signs for the region’s economy as it moves ever closer to the normal that we have all been seeking since we first heard that word ‘COVID’ back in early March of 2020.

Indeed, the tourism sector seems poised for a strong summer as those who have been shut in, to one degree or another, for the past 27 months, are poised to make up for some lost time. Couple that with soaring gas prices, soaring prices to fly, and soaring prices to stay in a hotel, and many will be opting for day trips and staying closer to home, which also bodes well for our local tourism and hospitality economy, which is geared toward those types of visits.

But amid the many promising signs, there are many stark reminders that, if what we’ve been in for the past two years could be considered the woods, we are certainly not out of them — not by a long shot.

And we need look no further than Northampton and the now shuttered Sylvester’s restaurant for ample proof of that sobering fact.

The owners of that establishment were nearing 40 years of service to the Pioneer Valley when they decided, in their words, to “simplify their lives.’ By that, they meant that they would focus on their other restaurant, Roberto’s, also in Northampton, and close Sylvester’s, which focused exclusively on breakfast and lunch and was a favorite of many in this region, a landmark in every sense of the word.

“Our hearts are heavy as we make a difficult announcement,” they wrote on FaceBook. “After 39 years of serving the Pioneer Valley, we have decided to close our doors at Sylvester’s. Anyone in the business will tell you that navigating a restaurant through the pandemic of the last two years has been a monumental task.

“We have always been successful because of our staff, managers, and family,” they went on. “Many of our staff had come back to us after being laid off twice in the past year. They’ve endured a mask mandate in a steamy kitchen, endless challenges, labor shortages, and the struggles and worries brought on by COVID-19.”

Slicing through all this and reading between the lines, it’s clear that, while the pandemic has loosened its grip on the region and its business community, this fight is far from over. And it’s likely that Sylvester’s will not be the last casualty.

Indeed, businesses of all kinds, but especially those in hospitality, retail, and other service businesses, are still struggling to turn back the clock to 2019. In fact, most have realized there is simply no returning to the way things were.

Wages have skyrocketed and myriad other costs have risen in ways that could not have been imagined two years ago. Some businesses can pass along these higher costs, but others have a much harder time doing so. Meanwhile, it has become painfully clear that the workforce crisis, like inflation itself, is not temporary — or anywhere near as temporary as we all would like.

Finding help, even at the going, much-higher rates seen today, is a daunting task, and for some, it has proven too daunting.

As we mourn the loss of Sylvester’s and the traditions it spawned, we are reminded that, while the skies are certainly brighter in this region and the pandemic has eased its grip, COVID and its many side-effects are still a considerable force to be reckoned with.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2015, BusinessWest decided to add a new layer of intrigue to its popular 40 Under Forty Program.

The new wrinkle involved a separate award that would be presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the minds of a panel of independent judges, had most impressively built on their resume of both excellence in their chosen field and work within the community. We call it the Alumni Achievement Award, or AAA for short.

And over the years, this award has become one of the most coveted that we present each year because of what it represents — specifically a deep and ongoing commitment to this region.

Indeed, it has become a symbol of excellence, but actually much more than that. It has become a symbol of caring about this region we call home and a passion for making it a better place to live, work, and operate a business.

Which brings us to this year’s three finalists for the AAA award, all of whom exemplify the reasons we created it in the first place. Only one will take home the award at the 40 Under Forty gala on June 16, but all of them are very worthy:

• Amanda Garcia was vice president of Operations for Junior Achievement when she became a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2010. At that time, she had recently launched her own accounting firm. In the ensuing years she has moved into higher education, as a professor of accounting and finance at Elms College. At Elms, she has helped launched and build the MBA program and create new initiatives such as a program in Entrepreneurship.

Meanwhile, she has grown her business — it now boasts three employees — and remained committed to JA and other nonprofits in the region. She has also become a mentor and coach to many entrepreneurs and young people looking for guidance on college and life in general;

• Anthony Gleason II was also part of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2010. Back then, he was 24, but already a successful businessperson, especially with his own venture, Gleason Johndrow Landscaping. In the ensuing years, he has grown that venture into one of the largest snow-removal companies in the country, while also building an impressive commercial real estate portfolio.

In the community, Gleason and his company have become strong supporters of the Spirit of Springfield and its many initiatives, especially its annual pancake breakfast and Bright Nights, but it also supports many other nonprofits and specific fund-raising efforts;

• Amy Royal became a 40 Under Forty honoree one year earlier than her co-finalists. Since 2009, she has grown her law firm and diversified its roster of services, adding national and international clients ranging from Google to Macy’s to Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Meanwhile, in the community, she continues to lend her time and talents to a number of nonprofits, from the Center for Human Development to the Springfield Ballers.

Overall, these three finalists are shining examples of why BusinessWest created the Alumni Achievement Award and why this honor has become so coveted. There are now more than 600 women and men with 40 Under Forty plaques in their offices; these finalists represent the best of the best.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Lawyers representing the families that filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in the wake of the deaths of 84 veterans at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home in the spring of 2020 — and family members themselves — contend that the state’s willingness to pay $56 million to those families is an admission that this tragedy, one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, was preventable and never should have happened.

And they are right in that assessment. While COVID presented a stern challenge to every long-term facility in the country, and deaths were recorded at most all of them, what happened at the Soldiers’ Home was different. What happened there was negligence — on many, many levels.

The 29-page lawsuit charged that the state “made a promise to its citizen-soldiers” to care for them after they served their country but failed to stem the spread of COVID-19 through the home, which it said, “was preventable.”

“The Commonwealth did not keep its promise to protect and keep them safe from harm when they were unable to care for themselves,” the complaint states. “Our veterans deserved better.”

This is an understatement. It was and is the state’s responsibility to place those soldiers in the hands of administrators capable of leading a healthcare facility, and it was and is the state’s responsibility to make sure that those placed in these positions are doing the jobs they were hired to do.

In the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, neither of these responsibilities were met.

The lawsuit repeatedly cited the findings of the state-ordered investigation by attorney Mark Pearlstein, who found that leaders at the Soldiers’ Home made ‘utterly baffling’ mistakes in responding to the outbreak. These mistakes were not the result of poor leadership — they were the result of unqualified leadership.

The consequences were catastrophic — 84 lives were lost, and countless other lives were shattered by those losses.

Families of the victims, and even Gov. Baker himself, have acknowledged that the money from the settlement — roughly $400,000 for each victim — doesn’t end the pain. But for many impacted by this tragedy, it will bring a sense of closure.

We’re hoping that it will bring something else — a deeper commitment on the part of this state and other states to uphold their promises to constituencies like the veterans in Holyoke and to take more seriously the responsibilities they have to place such facilities in the hands of people capable of running them.

It wasn’t long after the full scope of the tragedy in Holyoke revealed itself that it became clear that this calamity simply didn’t have to happen. Any doubts were erased by the state’s willingness to settle this lawsuit. The state did the right thing by settling and can do the right thing again by making sure that the lessons learned here are heeded and those in power remain vigilant in their efforts to ensure that something like this never happens again.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts announced recently that Katie Allan Zobel will be stepping down from her role as president and CEO of that vital agency. A search for a successor has commenced and a transition should be completed by September.

We’re confident that a worthy successor will be named, but these will be big shoes to fill, indeed. During her tenure, Zobel took an already successful agency to new heights in terms of the work that it does and the lives that it impacts, and she is to be commended for all that she has done.

The Community Foundation was never just about writing checks and dispensing scholarships to students and funds to nonprofits. But on Zobel’s watch, the agency took philanthropy in many different directions, but especially the realm of working to solve problems in our community rather than simply throw money at them.

Under Zobel’s leadership, the Community Foundation of Western Mass. launched Valley Gives, which has raised more than $10 million through annual one-day, on-line fundraising campaigns for local nonprofits. Valley Gives has helped bring attention to the needs of hundreds of the region’s nonprofits, and it inspires more individuals and groups to give, because the foundation has made it easier to do so.

Another initiative launched during Zobel’s tenure is Valley Gives, a partnership with the Barr Foundation established to support a vibrant arts and creativity sector in Western Mass., an initiative that is already giving a louder, stronger voice to this important sector of the local economy.

Still another initiative launched during Zobel’s tenure is an effort to support research on college completion, with the understanding that it’s not enough to give a worthy student a scholarship; there is a need to help ensure that the student can successfully complete their college education and then put their degree to work.

And then, at the height of the pandemic, Zobel led efforts to create the Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund to support community members and nonprofit partners most severely impacted by the pandemic and its many side-effects.

It was initiatives like these and Zobel’s leadership efforts to create them that earned her the distinction of being named one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact, and the Community Foundation itself being named a Difference Maker by the magazine this spring.

But for Zobel, it’s never been about awards, and it has never been about her. Instead, it’s been about her team, and a laser focus on how the foundation can make this region stronger and more resilient.

In short, she has helped take philanthropy to a higher plane in this region, and she is to be commended for the many accomplishments she has led.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Over the years, we’ve written many times about the entrepreneurship ecosystem in this region and its importance to economic development in the four western counties. This is an area dominated by small businesses, and it always will be, with growth coming organically, rather by recruiting the likes of a General Electric (bad example, given what’s happened to that company) or a Smith & Wesson (OK, that’s another bad example and a rather sore subject.)

But you get the point. This is a region that needs to consistently encourage entrepreneurship, but also providing a support system for those inspired to try to work for themselves, rather than someone else.

And that’s where the small army of mentors now working with agencies like Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll, SCORE, and others comes in. As the story on page 6 reveals, these mentors are doing critically important work, not just by helping individuals with the many technical aspects of running a business — from marketing to reading a spreadsheet; from building a website to writing and rewriting a business plan — but also with handling the roller-coaster ride that is owning your own business.

These mentors come with different backgrounds and experience in various sectors. But they share one common, and important, trait. They’ve been there, and they’ve done that. And, for the most part, those they are helping have not. And that’s why they are so important.

Entrepreneurship has been described as a lonely undertaking, even if there are other people involved in the business. And it is. The heavy weight of decisions, the risks assumed, and the anxiety that comes from working without the net of a steady weekly paycheck makes it a difficult, nerve-wracking undertaking.

Mentors understand all this, and they also understand that fledging entrepreneurs simply don’t know what they don’t know. So, they make a point to make sure they know more. And in the process, they may enable them to avoid some mistakes, but, more importantly, they help make sure that they learn from the mistakes they do make.

More important still, they make it clear that mistakes are not just common. They are to be expected. They are part and parcel to owning a business, whatever the product or service may be. And they can overcome.

Indeed, one of the most important lessons these mentors impart to those they are assisting is that failure isn’t something to fear. It is another part of the process, one very logical outcome when someone assumes risk and takes a chance on an idea. As one mentor reminded us, every entrepreneur of note has failed at some point in their career, and it’s not the failure that is noteworthy; it’s how he or she responds to it.

The mentors we spoke with for this issue all talked about the rewarding nature of their work. They all mentioned the pride they take in helping someone transform a rough idea from the back of a napkin into a success story.

All of us in this region share in these rewards, because each of these success stories brings more vibrancy and more jobs to Western Mass.

That’s why the work of these mentors is so critically important.

Opinion

Opinion

 

Much has been made of Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent endorsement of east-west rail in Massachusetts.

It came at a meeting late last month with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other key stakeholders in the bid to expand east-west commuter rail. And the immediate question on everyone’s minds is ‘what does this mean?’

Well … it could make all the difference in the world.

The governor’s endorsement was one of the key missing piece in this puzzle, and a large piece at that. Baker has said he’s never really been opposed to the concept; rather, he just had questions, primarily about how much this would cost, who would administer the rail system, and how much land would have to be taken to create it.

These questions and others have been answered, or soon will be, leaving fewer of those pieces of the puzzle to fall into place for a project that just a few years ago seemed like a good idea — especially for the western part of the state — but had much too steep a price tag and seemingly too little support statewide to become reality.

Now? On BusnessTalk, BusinessWest’s podcast, Neal said the stars are aligned for east-west rail in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a year ago.

Indeed, funding for the project, seemingly the biggest question mark and hurdle facing this project could be much less of an issue thanks to the $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which will, by Neal’s estimate, bring $9 billion to the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the federal government put another piece in place when it approved freight carrier CSX’s acquisition of Pan Am Railways — on condition that Amtrak would have access to tracks in and out of Springfield.

And then, there’s Baker’s endorsement. Although he’s in office only eight more months and candidates to succeed him have already announced their support of east-west rail, his support of the plan is critical at this juncture. That’s because things need to start happening this year if funds from the infrastructure bill are to be ticketed for this rail project.

Baker has recommended the establishment of a Massachusetts passenger rail authority to apply for federal funds and administer expanded east-west commuter rail, and he further recommends that it be established before this legislative session ends. His support of the concept might help get that done.

East-west rail still has many, hurdles to clear, and in many respects, it remains a long shot. But Neal is right. The stars seem to be aligned, and a project that was the longest of shots just a few years ago may finally be gaining some needed momentum.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to understand why members of the Springfield City Council were not happy with the way the recent request for $6.5 million in emergency funding for the Court Square Development project came to them.

It arrived late and in the form of an ultimatum of sorts: ‘approve this additional expenditure immediately, or this important project will die.’ One of those officials involved with the now $64 million project hinted strongly that if the money was not approved, and quickly, the building would deteriorate and perhaps even collapse.

The 11th-hour request, which came on the heels of skyrocketing construction costs that are impacting development projects of all kinds across the country, should have come at the 10th hour or even the ninth. Those leading the project, which will bring 71 market-rate apartments, retail space, and a restaurant to downtown Springfield, knew costs were escalating and knew they would need additional assistance to keep the initiative on track.

They put the council on the spot, unnecessarily — so much so that a resolution was recently passed requiring the mayor’s office to give the council 30 days’ notice on any economic-development issue that needs council approval.

Fortunately, most members of the council put aside their concerns about how all this went down and did the right thing. They voted to approve the measure and enable the much-needed project to move forward.

There were some questions as to just how much this project is needed, but the majority of the council could see how the importance of the initiative to the future of the city.

We’ve said it many times, and others have said it many times as well: one of the real keys moving forward is to balance the many people working downtown with those who actually call that area home.

This has been a formula for success in many cities, including Lowell, Worcester, Hartford, and many others, and it will be a key ingredient for Springfield moving forward, especially if current trends continue and there are fewer people actually coming to work each day in the city’s downtown.

In those other cities, a critical mass of people living in a downtown has spawned new service and hospitality businesses, which, in turn, have promoted more people to want to live in those areas, which, in turn, has prompted more businesses, which attract more people … you get the idea.

The Court Square project, which has been talked about for decades, literally, and has come to fruition through a unique public-private partnership, isn’t the answer. But it’s part of the answer, just as MGM Springfield, a revitalized Tower Square and White Lion Brewing, the Springfield Thunderbirds, Union Station, new housing in the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street, and other developments are parts of the answer.

And that’s why it was so important for the council to look past the nature of this request and, as we said, do the right thing.

For Springfield, and the region, this was an important step forward.

Opinion

 

 

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this state’s mind-numbing hesitancy when it comes to sports gambling.

After all, legislators waited years after other states moved ahead with casino gambling to finally put a measure in place for Massachusetts. Time and again, casino gambling was brought up for votes and brushed aside for … another day. Finally, casino gambling was approved roughly a decade ago, but the hesitation cost the state dearly. Indeed, by the time the three casino operations in the state, including MGM Springfield, were up and running, the competition in surrounding states had increased exponentially, essentially changing the landscape and making it far more difficult for those casinos to gain the revenues that were projected when the casino bill was finally passed.

One might have thought the state would have learned from this expensive lesson, but here we are in late March, the middle of this year’s college basketball championships, the biggest betting event on the planet, and the state appears nowhere close to passing a sports-gambling bill.

It’s perplexing, but it’s also quite frustrating. The casinos sorely need this huge revenue stream, and the lack of sports betting is putting them at a competitive disadvantage, not only during March Madness, but the other 11 months of the year as well. The casinos have all built facilities in anticipation of a sports-gambling measure — MGM has created two areas for watching and wagering on sports (see story on page 33) — but they currently sit unused or have been put to other uses.

Theories abound about why there is such hesitation on sports gambling, including the one concerning it becoming competition for the state’s highly lucrative lottery. We understand the premise, but people were saying the same thing about the state’s three casinos. Almost four years after they’ve opened, the lottery is still thriving.

Another theory is that legislators are wary that sports gambling — on top of the casinos and the aforementioned lottery — would be too much gambling and perhaps put more people at risk of developing addictions.

We understand this theory as well, but if people want to bet on sports — and a large number of people do (Americans spent $9.7 billion on sports bets this past January alone) — they will find a way to do it. And with New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other nearby states already allowing such gambling, they don’t have to travel far to do it.

Overall, 15 states introduced sports-betting legislation in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the big question is why Massachusetts didn’t make it 16.

Bills have been introduced — several of them, in fact — but they haven’t received the requisite attention to gain any traction.

Overall, sports gambling is just not a priority in this state. Should it be? There are plenty of other priorities, certainly, including housing, education, mental health, and childcare. But while tackling them, it seems the state Legislature could find the time and inclination to pass a sports-gambling measure.

The ongoing hesitancy simply doesn’t make sense. And it should not continue.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mark Adams

 

For many employers, arbitration agreements have been a valuable tool for resolving employment disputes. They allow cases to be handled outside the court system without the costs associated with prolonged discovery schedules and complex procedural rules, and, most importantly, without a public record that would allow for public access to those proceedings. All told, arbitration cases are cheaper and faster for all concerned.

Not just employers appreciate the value of arbitration agreements. Congress recognized their benefit when it enacted the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), recognizing the right of parties to be able to freely enter into contracts to resolve their disagreements. In Moses H. Cone Memorial Hospital v. Mercury Construction Corp., the U.S. Supreme Court stated “as a matter of federal law, any doubts concerning the scope of arbitrable issues should be resolved in favor of arbitration.” Title VII claims, Age Discrimination in Employment Act claims, and Fair Labor Standards Act claims are just some of the many forms of disputes that can be compelled to be resolved through an arbitration agreement.

Yet, despite this long-standing national policy, arbitration agreements can have their limits. Some state fair-employment-practice agencies do not recognize their enforcement when it comes to cases that can come within their jurisdiction. For example, when it comes to discrimination claims arising under its Massachusetts General Law Chapter 151B, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has the wherewithal to move forward with a discrimination complaint on its own accord in the public’s interest.

Now, Congress has passed and President Biden has signed into law the “Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021” to prohibit employers from compelling employees to resolve sexual-harassment and sexual-assault disputes through the use of an pre-dispute arbitration agreement. While the act takes effect immediately and applies to such agreements that exist, it does not apply to cases that are already pending. Rather, the act applies to claims that accrue on or after the law’s enactment.

While the motivations for the law’s passage are fairly clear (the rise of the #MeToo movement and the need for greater awareness on such cases), it does raise the question of whether future legislative initiatives may be forthcoming to create additional carveouts in the interest of workplace transparency. In fact, there is an interim final rule that has been promulgated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in implementing procedures for the handling of retaliation complaints under the Taxpayer First Act (TFA), which does exactly that. The rule (which is currently under comment until May 6) states that “no pre-dispute arbitration agreement is valid or enforceable if the agreement requires arbitration of a dispute arising under the TFA anti-retaliation provision.”

That is not to say pre-dispute arbitration agreements are dead. Far from it. After all, they also serve to resolve other disputes that may not have legal consequences at all. However, what may be next? Pay equity and transparency claims? Other forms of federal discrimination? Only time will tell. However, with the growing demand for greater transparency comes the potential for additional erosion of the longstanding policy favoring arbitration agreements in the future.

 

Mark Adams is director of Compliance at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared at eane.org.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Flash back exactly two years ago, to a time when employees of companies across the region — from banks to nonprofits; hospitals to health plans — packed up their computers and whatever else they needed and went home to work.

Initially, we thought two things that never really happened the way we expected. The first was that these workers wouldn’t be gone for long — maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, depending on how things went. The second was that, just as everyone left en masse, so would everyone return en masse.

Indeed, two years later, many still haven’t returned. And they certainly haven’t returned all at once.

And most importantly, most of those who have returned — and will return in the coming weeks and months — won’t be going to the office five days a week.

Suffice it to say the world of work has changed considerably since COVID-19 entered our lives — and there is simply no way things will go back to the way they were. The genie is out of the bottle, if you will, and there is no getting it back in.

But except for the long-term implications of this new world order on office properties, the restaurants and bars located around them that count these workers as patrons, and cities like Boston, New York, and even Springfield — and that’s another story — these developments are mostly positive.

In many ways, the move to flexible schedules and greater concern for the needs of employees is something businesses should have been thinking about long ago — and a few of the more progressive ones certainly were.

What the pandemic did, among other things, was show the business community that it could be done — that employees could work remotely and be just as effective as they were in the office, if not more effective — and that it should be done.

Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer at Ware-based Country Bank, probably said it best when she told BusinessWest, “one of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore.”

For the 200 or so years leading up to the pandemic, one size did fit all — at least in most cases. Almost everyone worked at the office. Almost everyone worked Monday through Friday. Almost everyone worked roughly 9 to 5.

One-size-fits-all worked for employers before the pandemic, and it worked for most employees, although they learned over the past two years that flexible schedules work better.

And what employers are learning now is that flexible schedules work better for them as well. They work because employees are generally happier. They work because, in some cases, productivity actually improves when people work remotely or in hybrid schedules. And they work because the biggest challenge facing all employers right now is attracting and retaining talent, and they’ve already found that they fare much better with those challenges if they can be accommodating to their employees.

Six months into the pandemic, most workers were still looking forward to the day when they could return to the office full-time. Not long after that, most were looking forward to perhaps not returning at all.

That’s how much the world of work has changed. And while we can’t say definitively what the future will bring, it seems almost certain that these changes are here to stay.

Opinion

Opinion

By James F. Birge

 

This isn’t another COVID think piece written by a college president. This is a story about upward mobility in the face of the most significant public health crisis of our lifetime.

In fact, the faculty and staff at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) are so dedicated to this mission that we’ve received national recognition for it — MCLA ranks 21st on U.S. News and World Report’s list of the 50 public and private “Top Performers on Social Mobility,” which measures how well schools graduate students who receive federal Pell Grants. These grants are typically awarded to those whose families make less than $50,000. The publication also ranked MCLA as a 2021 Top Ten College for the third consecutive year, and the ninth time in the past 11 years.

Nearly half of MCLA students are Pell Grant recipients, the highest percentage across the Massachusetts state-university system. More than 40% are the first in their families to go to college. Nearly 85% of students receive some kind of financial aid.

These are students who need support in their academic journey. Many are balancing work and family commitments. Many are coming from urban areas and are discovering what it is like to live in a rural area for the first time. Many have no frame of reference for what a college experience is like. They are discovering who they are, and who they want to be, in a time of global upheaval, and many of them have seen increased economic insecurity as a result of COVID-19.

What does a commitment to social mobility look like during a pandemic? Here are some examples.

• In 2020, MCLA kicked off its TRiO Program, supported by a $1.2 million federal grant, which works toward increasing the retention, good academic standing, and graduation rates of low-income, first generation, and students with disabilities. This program serves up to 160 students a year;

• MCLA’s Office of Admission adopted a test-blind policy in 2020 and waived SAT requirements for students applying for the fall 2021 and 2022 semesters;

• In 2020, in response to economic uncertainties brought on by the pandemic, MCLA established the Resiliency Fund, which has to date distributed nearly $300,000 to 296 students in need;

• The MCLA Food Pantry combats student food insecurity, supported with student volunteer work and donations; and

• MCLA boasts more than 100 of its own private scholarships, including five new additions since 2020.

Like all other schools, MCLA has seen its enrollment decline as a result of the pandemic. Still, we continue to serve these students well. We continue to graduate our high-need students at higher rates than the national average, and the vast majority of MCLA graduates — 93% — land jobs or get accepted into some of the finest grad schools in the country. Helping our under-resourced students achieve a college education will help them earn more in their lifetimes, find fulfilling careers, and live meaningful lives. Public colleges help contribute to furthering economic equity every day, and we are proud to make this part of our mission as an institution.

I’m incredibly proud of all our students, as well as our incredible faculty and dedicated staff, who are changing individual lives and working toward a more equitable future.

 

James F. Birge is president of MCLA.

Opinion

Moving Toward ‘Normal.’

 

 

For more than two years now, this region and its business community have been longing for a return to something approaching ‘normal,’ or what we knew before COVID arrived in Western Massachusetts in early March of 2020.

If the pandemic has taught us anything over the past 24 months, it is that we shouldn’t take anything for granted and should never think that anything is ‘over,’ because ‘over,’ when it comes to COVID, is a relative term.

But, and this is a big but, we are starting to see some very welcome and very refreshing signs of normal. Let’s start with the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race. After a long, painful two-year hiatus, these traditions are returning, and Holyoke — and the region — are poised for a huge party.

Also returning after two years on the sidelines is Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference, an event that brings more than 2,000 attendees to the MassMutual Center in Springfield each spring. And then, there’s BusinessWest’s Difference Makers event, another early spring tradition.

It will be back at the main ballroom at the Log Cabin on March 24. The event has been staged over the past two years, but not in its traditional fashion. In 2021, it was a virtual event, and in 2020, it became a fall happening, staged at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin with 25 people in attendance — because that was the limit for event venues at that moment in time.

We all remember those days, and would probably like to forget them.

As we see more important signs of ‘normal’ — on our calendars, and in general — there is room for optimism that the time may soon be approaching when the pandemic ceases to rule our lives and is something we just have to live with. How soon, no one knows, but by most accounts, we’re moving much closer.

Those who spoke with BusinessWest about the Holyoke parade and its long-anticipated return, everyone from the mayor to the parade chairman to bar owners in the city, spoke about its importance from an economic perspective. Indeed, dozens of businesses benefit directly from the parade and the road race, and some generate perhaps half a normal year’s income during that one week.

But they also spoke of its importance from a civic pride perspective and how people came back to Holyoke year after year because it was the place to be St. Patrick’s Day — or the whole week. And they talked about the importance of getting back to something approaching normal.

That’s because it’s been missing from our lives for most of the past two years.

What we’ve learned since March of 2020 is that ‘normal’ is important, ‘normal’ is good for everyone.

And that point will be driven home again when the parade kicks off in Holyoke, when the speakers take to the stage at the Women’s Leadership Conference, and when the Difference Makers hear the applause they’ve earned at the Log Cabin.

Yes, we can all use a little ‘normal’ right about now.

Opinion

Putting MassSave Changes in Perspective

By Robert Rio

Massachusetts recently updated its flagship Mass Save energy efficiency program. The changes will affect businesses in areas served by an investor-owned electric or gas utility — companies such as Eversource, National Grid and UNITIL.

The changes took effect on Jan. 1. Massachusetts reviews its energy efficiency programs every three years. 

What will the changes mean to your company? Many commercial and industrial (C&I) programs will continue, some with modifications.   

Greenhouse-gas reductions are now counted in the calculations to determine energy savings 

A 2021 Massachusetts law mandated economy-wide greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions beginning 2030. As a result, the new energy efficiency programs include the social value of carbon in the cost-effectiveness analysis calculations for most measures.

The result is that previously marginally cost-effective programs may now be eligible for programs when the benefits of greenhouse-gas reductions are included. The new three-year plan is expected to reduce the equivalent of 845,000 metric tons of greenhouse-gas by 2030, equal to the emissions from about 180,000 cars. 

New emphasis on heat-pump technology 

Reducing greenhouse gases will eventually require a switch from fossil fuels to electric options for building heating, water heating and some industrial processes. The new plan will emphasize electric heat-pump technology for commercial and industrial customers, particularly for smaller businesses where residential-sized options may work.

Larger companies may have a tougher time electrifying, but electrification may still make sense in areas of your facility, particularly if you are served by delivered fossil fuels such as oil and propane.  

Most lighting rebates are eliminated

Since its inception, Mass Save has offered rebates for energy efficient lighting. Now that such lighting is often required by code and ubiquitous, rebates are not allowed, except when new lighting is paired with controllable technologies.  

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is no longer eligible for rebates  

Combined Heat and Power systems produce electricity and recover the exhaust heat to produce heating, cooling, and process steam for manufacturing and other uses.

Many businesses have installed combined heat and power to manage their energy costs and ensure reliability. AIM has long supported this effort. The new greenhouse-gas law makes natural gas and other fossil fuels ineligible for rebates. AIM has long supported CHP and disagrees with the elimination of incentives for Combined Heat and Power.

Electricity and natural-gas costs will rise 

The Mass Save program is primarily funded by a surcharge on a customer’s electric and gas bills.

In the previous three-year plan (2019-2021), the total costs (gas and electric) were about $1.1 billion for commercial and industrial customers, representing about 40% of the total program costs. Rebates are generally sector specific, so money collected from commercial and industrial customers is mostly returned to those customers.

The new program will see commercial and industrial sector costs rise to about $1.56 billion dollars over three years. The impact on company energy bills will vary, but the increase will have a measurable impact on overall energy costs. More information will be available as programs are rolled out.

 

Robert Rio is senior vice president and counsel of Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts; [email protected] 

Opinion

Editorial

Thirteen years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, Difference Makers, as a way to celebrate the many different ways individuals and organizations can make a difference in their community, and Western Mass. as a whole.

And this year’s additions to that list provide still more evidence that there are countless ways to make a difference, and they all need to be celebrated. They include:

Tara Brewster, vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, who has made community service more than a mantra, immersing herself in the work of area nonprofits and causes — not in a slapdash fashion, but putting her heart and soul into whomever she happens to be helping each day;

• The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which for 30 years has convened and connected myriad resources in the region to benefit a host of groups, from students trying to pay for college to the arts community to organizations focused on helping people through the pandemic and economic disruption; 

• Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, who has spent the last half-century operating programs — centered on energy, education, child welfare, workforce development, and more — that help people in need, while at the same time investing in the economic well-being of Springfield;

John Greaney, retired State Supreme Court justice and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, a judicial trailblazer who, as one peer put it, “has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor”;

Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival and principal at RC Communications, whose business has helped nonprofits reach new levels of marketing and success, and who brought those skills to bear on reviving a beloved music festival that continues to raise the profile of Northampton’s downtown;

• Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools and Spas, who has used his decades of success in the pool business as a springboard to support dozens of causes and organizations throughout the region, through both philanthropy and giving of his time — often in ways few people see;

• I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis, who emerged from a very difficult youth to found an organization that brings many resources together to, as its name implies, help young people journey from some dark, difficult times to a promising future; and

• Roca Holyoke and Springfield, an innovative program that helps young people in the criminal-justice system find a better path than recidivism and more time behind bars, by using case management, education, and employment training to get them into jobs and a stable, crime-free life.

As we said, there are no limits on the ways an individual or group can make a difference here in Western Mass. That’s what we’ve been celebrating since 2009, and the celebration continues with the class of 2022.

Opinion

Opinion

By Kimberley Lee

 

The death of Peter Robbins resonated with me. He was tapped to be the first voice of Charlie Brown as a child actor in the early 1960s when Charles Schultz began to adapt his popular “Peanuts” cartoon strip for TV and movies.

I grew up with these shows, and so did my children, but it was not just nostalgia that made me take notice of Robbins’s death. His family announced on Jan. 25 that the 65-year-old Robbins had died the week before by suicide. He had long struggled with both mental-health and substance-use disorders.

MHA, the Mental Health Assoc., is the organization I work for, whose behavioral-health outreach clinic and residential programs have long offered support and treatment to individuals with such dual diagnoses. It was especially disheartening to read how the life of Robbins, associated through the 1970s with a character that brought much entertainment to the screen, ended.

The cartoon strip itself was sometimes subtitled “Good ol’ Charlie Brown,” and the world Schultz created was a self-contained one about childhood. Its ups, downs, and misplaced crushes were depicted by characters who were very animated, even in print. No adults are featured, but the characters struggle with plenty of personal issues that often follow into adulthood. Some, like Lucy, can be bossy; some are a bit vain, like curly-haired Freida; and some are self-absorbed, like Schroeder on his piano. Everyone is just trying to fit in or fit into who they are, including Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s beagle, who often retreats into his own world on top of his doghouse or into his imagination, where he fights the Red Baron as the Flying Ace. There is also Pig-Pen, who tells Sally, Charlie Brown’s younger sister, he doesn’t appreciate that name he has been tagged with because of his appearance, but neither does he like the rain to wash away that appearance from a day of playing in the dirt.

They are a complicated bunch, defying stereotypes in their own ways of being and thinking and friendships across neighborhoods and interests.

Schultz, who died in 2000, wondered if his characters would resonate through time, and they do, as Charlie Brown embodies a little bit of all of us emotionally as he navigates this world of personalities. And, of course, should he need advice, there is Lucy, who sets up a Psychiatric Help booth, where she gives her version of professional help for five cents. It is a world in which the timeless troubles and alienations of childhood are on display, but also one in which the characters cope and carry on with their pursuits and come together.

I grew up with all the animated specials, including A Charlie Brown Christmas, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, and, again, so did my children. Each time these classic movies aired, those 30 minutes provided an opportunity for us to be together as a family, to make a connection, to embrace each other emotionally.

In our house, emotional connectedness happens in other ways as well. For example, once a week, my husband and I pull our girls together (now that they are in college, this is done remotely), we all unplug, and we just simply and sincerely ask them, “how are you?” And not just physically, but emotionally. Their answers have been honest and transparent and emotional at times.

It gave them, at an early age, a green light to talk openly about how they feel from a mental-health perspective, and there was no stigma, no shame, no hesitancy in doing this.

We all know that challenges to mental health start young, and the sooner we address them, the better the outcome.

 

Kimberley Lee is vice president of Resource Development & Branding for the Mental Health Assoc.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

Indeed, Bob Bolduc, the founder and owner of the Pride chain of gas stations and convenience stores, had announced his intentions to sell his business back in June, noting that it was time to retire and there was no one in the family interested in carrying on the business.

The search for a new buyer ended with the Boston-based private equity firm ArcLight Capital Partners, with the sale finalized at the end of last year.

Local press accounts have indicated that ArcLight plans no serious changes in the operation and intends to keep the chain intact and the name ‘Pride’ over the door. We hope all that is true. Any time a local business is sold to a national entity, there is concern that the region will be losing something in the translation.

And in this case, there is a lot to lose. That’s because, while Bolduc has been a bold, innovative entrepreneur who has authored one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories — the Pride chain boasts 31 stores (with more in various stages of development) and more than $300 million in annual sales — he has also been a philanthropist and strong supporter of many of the region’s nonprofit agencies.

Much was made of one particular act of philanthropy — actually, one act with many parts to it. That was Bolduc’s decision to donate Pride’s $50,000 ‘bonus’ for selling the single largest lottery win in U.S. history to one Mavis Wanczyk to a number of elementary schools and youth-focused nonprofits.

Some called it a publicity stunt — and he certainly got a lot of publicity from it — but Bolduc’s decision to share the wealth, and the manner in which he did, speaks volumes about how he gave back to the community, and especially its young people — and also why BusinessWest bestowed its coveted Difference Makers award on him in 2018.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” Bolduc said of his lottery bonus. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

He has made many such decisions over the years, becoming a strong supporter of many local nonprofits, especially those focused on young people and families. That list includes Square One; Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, which Pride has partnered with over the years; Brightside for Families and Children; WMAS and its Coats for Kids campaign; and many others.

Bolduc has always emphasized the need for businesses to give back, but especially to local agencies that can make a real impact on the quality of life enjoyed by people living and working in the 413.

We wish ArcLight well as it takes over the chain Bolduc started, nurtured, and grew over the past 45 years or so. We hope it continues Bolduc’s track record for innovation, including the placement of Subway shops, Dunkin’ Donuts stores, and, most recently, Chester’s chicken restaurants in his stores.

More importantly, we hope the company can continue Bolduc’s legacy of philanthropy and support of agencies focused on the region’s young people. By doing so, they’ll not only be keeping the Pride name over the door, they’ll be continuing the proud tradition of this company (and not just its founder) being a real difference maker in our region.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Ronn Johnson, who spent the last four decades making a difference for children and families in the Springfield community, died on Jan. 15 at age 63. 

The date — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — was a significant one for the long-time president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., who not only led that organization over the past decade but modeled much his of work around King’s example of service.

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple,” Johnson told BusinessWest in 2020, when he was named a Difference Maker by this publication. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that.”

That’s an understatement.

Early in his career, he worked at the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it.

After that, he served as vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years. Gang violence was on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force, among many other initiatives. 

Johnson then worked for six years as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual, after which he launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates. One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency. 

When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship and oversaw the success of many MLK Family Services programs, from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations.

But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped the families of more than 50 children purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps, secure a service dog, and meet many other needs.

“I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”

His leadership, passion, and ability to inspire others will certainly be missed.

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