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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.

Opinion

Editorial

 

BusinessWest launched its Top Entrepreneur program back in 1996 to recognize individuals, groups, and institutions that were honoring a tradition that went back centuries and made Greater Springfield a hub for innovation and industry.

For much of that decade, and into the next one, the list of honorees was top-heavy with those from the IT sector, as might be expected. Indeed, that realm was booming, and a legion of young entrepreneurs were starting businesses focused on hardware, software, and developing solutions for clients.

But over the years, this award has also gone to a college president, a hospital president, a municipal utility (Holyoke Gas & Electric), and a hockey team — actually, the owners and operators of that team, the Springfield Thunderbirds. And there have been more traditional entrepreneurs as well, in fields ranging from auto sales to hardware stores; trash hauling to home care.

The common denominator — and there’s certainly more than one — is calculated risk taking and a desire to meet identified, and often unmet, needs. In most all cases, they’ve done so by overcoming several challenges, and, in the case of decades-old businesses (Rocky’s Ace Hardware and Balise Auto Sales come to mind), adapt to changing times.

This pattern is certainly continuing with this year’s honorees, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, the serial entrepreneurs who have made Springfield’s Tower Square their latest and most ambitious undertaking to date (see story on page 16).

Tower Square, originally known as Baystate West, was conceived and built in the ’60s. It was designed to change the landscape in the city, and it did just that, its office tower rising far above everything around it for another two decades. It was created to be a destination, a place where people would work, shop, and dine, and for a while, it worked.

But when shopping patterns changed and malls were erected in the suburbs, it didn’t.

By the time MassMutual, which built the complex, decided to sell it in 2017, it was, in many respects, tired. There were many intriguing tenants, including UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, but still many vacancies on both the retail and office sides. Meanwhile, the hotel on the property had lost its Marriott flag, was operating as the Tower Square Hotel, and had lost most of its original luster.

While most potential investors saw a troubled property and had visions of a fire sale, Patel and Mitta saw a gem — albeit one that needed some polishing. They rolled the dice, knowing their $17.5 million investment was only the first of many that would have to be made.

Since acquiring the property, they have used imagination — attracting White Lion Brewing Co. and the YMCA’s fitness and daycare operations, for example — and persistence (something that’s certainly needed during a pandemic now entering its third year) to bring new life and energy to the property.

The new façade that has gone up on the hotel is somewhat symbolic of this entire project — it is shiny, it is new, and it is turning a lot of heads.

The partners still have a long way to go with this endeavor, to be sure. There are still many vacancies to fill, and the property is still not entirely worthy of the term ‘destination.’

But three years and more than $30 million in investments later, their gamble is showing signs that it will pay off — for them, the city, and the region.

We don’t know how this story will end, but for now, there are many intriguing plotlines. One of them concerns entrepreneurs taking a chance, planning, and working diligently to make a dream become reality.

That’s the same general pattern followed by all the winners of the Top Entrepreneur award since 1996, and it explains why Mitta and Patel are worthy additions to a distinguished list of honorees.

Opinion

Opinion

By Michelle Desaulniers

 

Most everyone has been a passenger on an airplane and heard the safety talk. Very often, the ‘put your own mask on first before helping others’ analogy is used to remind people, in myriad situations, that it is OK — in fact, it is preferable — to practice self-care.

Most of us push self-care and everything that goes along with that notion to the bottom of our to-do list — and we just keep on flying. But what if, at the beginning of 2022, you decided to put yourself and your career first? Start this new year on a different note by taking a personal learning inventory.

At the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), we are challenging our members to bring their personal development to the number-one position on their to-do list for 2022 by asking themselves these questions:

• How will you make next year count?

• What will you do to take your career to a new level?

• How will you challenge yourself in 2022?

What will it take to get you into a personal growth mindset? Start by thinking about the last time you took a class, attended a training session, or went to a conference. Remember that feeling of accomplishment, the renewed sense of purpose and engagement that you felt afterwards? It was great connecting with peers outside of your organization and sharing ideas, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to feel that again and really get into that forward-thinking growth mindset?

EANE offers a variety of formal opportunities and options to refresh your attitude and to add substance to your learning inventory. The coming year should be punctuated with your own personal learning events that will enable you to return to your daily challenges feeling refreshed, re-energized, and ready to tackle those challenges with a new outlook and armed with freshly minted skills. Not only do you owe it to yourself, but you owe it to your co-workers. They will see your example, and they will follow it.

No doubt everyone is feeling the weight of the world lately, and no one wants to poke their head up for fear of flying objects. But allowing your professional growth to stagnate for yet another year is like putting someone else’s mask on before your own. On an airplane — and in your career — that could lead to disaster.

 

Michelle Desaulniers is a member of the Learning & Development team at EANE.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

Rudi Scherff

Rudi Scherff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Alane Burgess

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Olivia Bernstein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Olivia Bernstein is clinical director of Homeless Services at MHA.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The holiday season would be a good time to start.

Opinion

Opinion

By Allison Ebner

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Pam Thornton

 

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

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

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

• I know what is expected of me at work;

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

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

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

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

• There is someone at work that encourages my development;

• At work, my opinions seem to count;

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

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

• I have a best friend at work;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By John Garvey

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Garvey is president of Garvey Communication Associates Inc.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It might be the start of something big.

Opinion

Opinion

By Eduardo Crespo

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

These developments have together created immense opportunities in the marketplace.

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

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

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

 

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

A Step in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Brooke Thomson

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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