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Casinos Add to Full Slate for Springfield Chamber

Springfield Chamber leaders (from left) Jeff Ciuffreda, Jeff Fialky, and Patrick Leary

Springfield Chamber leaders (from left) Jeff Ciuffreda, Jeff Fialky, and Patrick Leary all say that casinos are just one of many issues on the agency’s crowded plate.

Patrick Leary acknowledged that much of the current discussion involving casinos in Springfield is centered on where and who — meaning the location and the chosen operator.

But the Springfield Chamber of Commerce isn’t focusing on those specific matters, and it probably won’t, said Leary, a partner with the Springfield-based accounting firm Moriarty & Primack and current president of the chamber’s board. But that doesn’t mean the organization isn’t getting involved in what would be the largest development project in the city’s history if it comes to fruition.

Instead, the chamber is taking a more global view, one that can best be described as providing a voice for its membership on this all-important issue, said Leary.

“North End, South End … regardless of who it is and where it is, we’re more concerned that the chamber’s members aren’t forgotten in this whole process,” he told BusinessWest. “It would be very easy to have a casino move into the North End or South End and start siphoning business away from the central business district and pulling employees away from our membership; we need to look at all those issues that are going to affect our membership.”

Jeffrey Ciuffreda, executive director of the 550-member Springfield Chamber, as well as the larger Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, agreed.

He said the chamber has thus far decided, as an organization, to endorse the concept of a Springfield-based casino — with some stated suggestions, or requests, designed to protect the interests of existing businesses in the city.

These include:

• “A preferential procurement program for gods and services from Springfield businesses with measurable goals”;

• “Employing those unemployed and underemployed,” with an emphasis on those residing in Springfield now or in the future in market rate housing; and

• “Enhancement of downtown Springfield and the city as a whole,” among others.

The wording on the chamber’s measure sums up the charge for the group during the casino fight. The organization voted to “support a Springfield-based casino development that adequately addresses the issues and concerns of the membership of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce.”

So, in many respects, the chamber is taking the same approach with casinos that it does with other issues impacting the local business community, said Ciuffreda, listing everything from tax classification and efforts to lower the commercial rate to zoning policy and matters involving the compensation and term length of Springfield’s mayor.

The common denominator, he said, is creating an environment in which the city and its business community can succeed.

“We have a very large and diverse membership base in Springfield,” said Ciuffreda. “Our mission is to effectively represent these businesses, advocate for them, and, in general, create a business-friendly environment in the city.”

For this issue, BusinessWest concludes its Getting Down to Business series with an in-depth look at the Springfield Chamber, which finds itself in the middle of a hotly contested battle for the Western Mass. casino license, but also has a number of other matters on its plate.

 

Playing Their Cards

When asked about the chamber’s role with casinos moving forward, Ciuffreda said the time for debate about whether expanded gaming is something the state wants or needs is over — legislation passed just over a year ago allows up to three casinos and a slots parlor — and the chamber’s current assignment reflects this.

“Now, the issue of ‘do you want a casino?’ is off the table,” he said, while acknowledging that city residents must still approve a referendum on a casino plan or plans. “The issue now is ‘how does this benefit Springfield?’”

Elaborating, he said the chamber’s official role is to communicate the desires and concerns of its membership and the business community as a whole, and to secure itself a seat at the table in discussions with casino operators — both literally and figuratively.

Concerning the former, Kate Kane, managing director of the Springfield office of Northwestern Mutual Financial/the Zuzdo Group, and a former Springfield Chamber board member, has been appointed to an ad-hoc committee appointed by mayor Domenic Sarno to review competing casino proposals; she will, in essence, represent the chamber and its membership on the panel. As for the latter, the chamber intends to be quite visible and vocal as negotiations continue with casino operators, said both Leary and Ciuffreda.

And to carry out that assignment, the chamber has appointed its own casino subcommittee, one that has met several times and thoroughly researched other urban centers with casinos, including Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., and Biloxi, Miss.

“We discussed the good and the bad of having a casino, how they [operators] negotiated, and whether they even negotiated,” said Leary, “and the board voted to endorse the Springfield-based casino with the provision that we’re going to have certain items that we need to have addressed before we’ll fully endorse and advocate for casinos.”

Both Ciuffreda and Leary said they’re impressed with the plans of both casino operators (MGM and Penn National) proposing facilities in Springfield, just as they were with Ameristar’s concept for the former Westinghouse site before that company withdrew from the competition. But both also added that some of the promises to hire minorities and women are already part of the state’s gaming legislation.

While other chambers had to reach out and call for the casino developers to do something specific on that front, “it’s already built into ours,” Ciuffreda said.

“Not taking anything away from MGM or Penn National; there’s a minimum standard [through the legislation], and they’ve exceeded those standards,” he continued. “But it’s a compliment to Gov. Patrick and the Legislature for writing a very solid measure that protects what we have right now and adds to it.”

 

East Meets West

Yet, as the pitched casino battle plays itself out, the Springfield chamber will have other matters to address, which collectively fall under the category of giving its membership a strong, clear, united voice in both Springfield City Hall and Beacon Hill.

Indeed, advocacy is one of the most visible and impactful ways that the chamber brings value to its members through the long reach of the ACCGS, said Ciuffreda, adding that there are many ways in which this aspect of the group’s mission is carried out.

For starters, there’s the ACCGS’s annual bus trip to the State House every April, a program that brings 65 area business and nonprofit leaders to Boston to meet with delegation members, gain insight into pressing issues impacting the business community, and express their view on such issues.

“Boston just doesn’t see that many people in that building at one time from Western Mass.,” said Leary. “And that translates to 65 business leaders who represent literally thousands of people.”

And while the chamber brings its members to Boston, it has also succeeded in bringing Boston-based elected officials to Springfield. Indeed, Ciuffreda secured Jay Gonzalez, secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, as a speaker for a recent luncheon program, and has consistently brought top officials within the Patrick administration — and the governor himself — for area events.

“I see it as a win-win situation,” he said of such high-profile speaking engagements. “Area business owners and managers get to hear directly from these officials, and we can provide a large audience for them.”

Chamber visibility in Springfield City Hall is far more constant, obviously, said Ciuffreda, adding that the chamber has been, and continues to be, vocal on issues ranging from tax classification to city-wide zoning policy; from tornado recovery to the mayor’s salary.

That last item is still a matter to be settled, he continued, adding that it is one of many action items to result from the 2007 Urban Land Institute study on Springfield, which took place as the city was struggling to fight its way out of receivership and blueprint an economic-development strategy for the years ahead.

The report’s recommendations for City Hall included lengthening the mayor’s term in office from two to four years, adding a chief financial officer (those steps have already been taken), and raising the mayor’s salary above its current $95,000, in an effort to consistently attract top talent to that position.

“It’s a sensitive issue when you talk about a pay increase for a mayor,” said Jeffrey Fialky, a partner with the law firm Bacon Wilson and chamber board member, as he talked about why the chamber is involved in such matters. “But it’s such an important part of the ability to retain strong serving mayors as well as the ability to attract new mayoral candidates.”

Tim Murphy, a partner with the law firm Skoler, Abbott, & Presser, P.C., represented the chamber on the compensation committee, and explained its recommendations. “The pay has been $95,000 since 1997,” he explained. “What the committee was able to agree on was immediately increasing the mayor’s pay to $110,000 and having an annual cost-of-living increase of 2.5% going forward.”

Ciuffreda said the pay issue is slated to be resurrected in 2013, and is an important consideration for the city as it looks to ensure strong leadership in the corner office in the years and decades to come.

Education is another matter the chamber, and the ACCGS as a whole, is addressing in many ways and on many levels, said Ciuffreda, adding that it is involved in everything from early education to efforts to reduce the city’s disturbingly high dropout rates, to initiatives involving training and retaining key members of the workforce.

One stated goal is supporting efforts to close the so-called skills gap in the region, a factor contributing to difficulties for many companies with filling open positions, even at a time of high unemployment, and stifling growth efforts for some ventures.

One such initiative is the Precision Manufacturing Training Program (PMTP), a pilot program aimed at providing individuals with the skills needed to succeed in today’s technology-oriented precision-manufacturing sector.

“There’s a big emphasis on the veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ciuffreda, adding that the state is looking to expand the program based on the success of an initial thrust involving more than 130 participants.

The PMTP is funded by a $750,000 grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development through the work of the chamber, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and will take place at Springfield Technical Community College and Westfield Vocational Technical High School.

 

Odds Are

Ciuffreda said a series of circumstances — from geography to what is perceived to be a more open competitive landscape in the Western Mass. region — has made Springfield ground zero in the casino fight.

This development has added new challenges and more layers of involvement to the Springfield chamber’s itinerary. But casinos are just one of many issues that will compete for the group’s energy and attention.

The bigger assignment is to keep providing that aforementioned voice for its members, something it has done for more than a century now, and will keep doing long after the casino is built — wherever it winds up.

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

Features Getting Down to Business
An Energized State Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce Focuses on the Big Picture

Debra Boronski (center) with two Massachusetts Chamber employees, Heidi Brodeur (left), director of membership services, and Noelle Myers, events and communications manager.

Debra Boronski (center) with two Massachusetts Chamber employees, Heidi Brodeur (left), director of membership services, and Noelle Myers, events and communications manager.

Debra Boronski has achieved a number of goals since establishing the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce five years ago. Starting with the right to call it that.

“We started as the Massachusetts Chamber of Business and Industry because the name ‘Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce’ was taken,” Boronski said, explaining that an individual registered the moniker in 1989 but never did anything with it. “It took me three years to find him, and once I did, I had to get a letter of consent, and we worked it out.”

Even under its original name, however, Boronski felt her nascent organization filled a badly needed niche in the Bay State.

“There are 43 state chambers in the United States; I founded the 43rd,” she told BusinessWest, explaining how she broke away in 2007 from two decades of work with the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield (ACCGS) and, before that, the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, to lead this new endeavor.

“After having spent 20-something years in local and regional chambers, I really felt that what I could do as a business professional in these arenas was done. I was strongly encouraged by many associates, and I got a great deal of support from other professionals in the chambers and other organizations, to start a Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce.”

Five years later — the organization celebrated that anniversary on Oct. 9 — the Massachusetts Chamber counts about 700 members in its ranks, and Boronsky has a much different job than she used to.

“A state chamber of commerce really focuses its primary efforts on advocacy,” she said. “We aren’t like your local or regional chamber; we don’t do networking events or after-5s, and we don’t get involved in local government and local ordinances. We believe a local chamber is meant to do that, and they do it well.

“But local chambers,” she continued, “have a hard time paying attention to all the laws and regulations being discussed in Boston, and I can say that from experience running the Chicopee Chamber for 10 years and doing work for the Affiliated Chambers for 11 years. They have their hands full with their day-to-day business.”

The role of a state chamber, she explained, is threefold: information, education, and advocacy. “I am a registered lobbyist, and we also employ a lobbying firm in Boston. We are always in the know and informed as to what’s going on today and what’s being planned for tomorrow.”

For this installment of Getting Down to Business, Boronski talks about some of those issues, and the way her organization has expanded, not just in membership, but in scope.

 

Taking a Stand

Her role begins, however, with advocacy in Boston — a task she believes is critical for member businesses to succeed.

For example, in March, the state Division of Insurance staged a hearing to discuss increasing workers’ compensation rates by almost 20%. “We were the only chamber of commerce there; I was the only CEO at that hearing, testifying against that increase and providing testimony to Division of Insurance representatives about what harm it would do to businesses, small businesses in particular,” Boronski said. “And they did not raise it. I think we made a difference.”

She also pointed to an economic-development bill signed into law in August 2010 that includes two provisions for which the Massachusetts Chamber pushed hard. One raises the cap on small-claims court actions from $2,000 to $7,000, allowing businesses to pursue collection of bigger debts without incurring huge legal expenses, while the other changes the language in procurement rules to ensure that Massachusetts companies are given preference on state contracts. “That’s another great example of the value of a state chamber.”

In addition, Boronski noted, “two and a half years ago, when gaming was being discussed initially, we were the first business organization to submit testimony in support of gaming in Massachusetts. I think that speaks volumes about the value of a state organization being able to look at the big picture and take a broader view of the potential impact — both beneficial and negative — of various initiatives.”

With national and state elections in the rear-view mirror, she said, businesses have a handful of issues they’re particularly concerned with, including healthcare costs and the recently passed law aimed at containing them.

“That’s something we’re keeping a close eye on. That’s where the ‘information’ part of what we do comes in. We can translate what’s happening in Boston and communicate that in such a way that business owners don’t have to pore through pages and pages of publications. We can share with them, ‘this is what’s going on, and this is what you need to be aware of.’”

Another area of focus is proposed tax increases, she noted. “We need to make sure our members know what’s proposed and why we promote or oppose various initiatives. Our ears are always to the ground, making sure that we don’t miss anything.”

Local initiatives involving infrastructure, transportation, and water are also closely tracked. “All these things cost money, so how do we pay for it?” Boronski said. “We want to make sure that we inform those who are making these decisions what the ramifications of their decisions are.

“It’s important that we keep a two-way line of communication open,” she continued. “A lot of times, things simply present themselves — regulations don’t always go before legislative bodies, and those things can happen very quickly. That’s where having our lobbying firm really adds value for businesses that belong to the Massachusetts Chamber; we can provide them with information within hours of learning something.”

 

Branching Out

The chamber has expanded its role beyond its original mission, however. About two years ago, the West of River Chamber of Commerce, which was looking to break away from the ACCGS, approached the Massachusetts Chamber for management services.

“We became their management company,” Boronski explained, noting that this involves everything from billing and invoicing services to generating marketing materials and running events. And she was grateful for this new opportunity, even as she embraced her organization’s statewide role. “I had missed some of that, working with the local business community, and this allowed me to dip my toe back into the community. And the West of the River Chamber has grown and added programs since then.”

The effort didn’t go unnoticed by the nearby North Central Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, covering the Enfield-Suffield area, which contacted Boronski about taking on a similar management role there. So, sensing a growing opportunity, she launched a subsidiary company, called Chamber Management Services, with an eye on bringing in more clients down the road.

“We see this as a model for the future,” she explained. “There are many chambers of commerce that may not have the financial resources to employ a high-level CEO and Main Street office space, but they still want to provide important networking and advocacy on the local level, and this model allows them to do that.

“It’s extremely important for these chambers to maintain their independence and their individuality; they don’t want to be lumped together,” she added. “And we make sure they have their own phone numbers, their own business cards and marketing programs; they just happen to be managed by the same company.”

Boronski said the arrangement allows the local chambers to share best practices. “What one chamber is doing well can be shared with the other chamber, and vice versa, so they can maintain their independence, but have the ability through management to find out what’s happening elsewhere. And both are interested in doing some cross-border initiatives.”

 

State of Mind

Having been involved in chamber activity on both a micro and macro scale, Boronski said she’s convinced she made the right call five years ago.

“In 20-something years in local and regional chambers, putting on trade shows, breakfasts, and after-5s, being able to expand my career into this arena, representing businesses, has been a wonderful professional experience,” she said. “I truly enjoy the advocacy portion of my job. You get to have an impact on a much larger level.”

Boronski has also kept busy running for a seat on the East Longmeadow Board of Selectmen, with an election looming this month. “For 25 years, I’ve been working on one side of the table, talking to lawmakers and decision makers about the impact of their decisions. Now I’m looking to fill a seat on the other side of the table so I can help make good decisions. For me, it’s a way to give back. I feel like I can take my skill sets and put them to good use.”

In the meantime, she’s not letting up on efforts to expand the organization she has led for the past five years. About a year ago, she launched the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce Foundation — “because I didn’t have enough to do,” she said with a laugh. More seriously, though, she explained that this arm was created to raise money for workforce-development efforts through business grants to members. And she’s also taking steps to create a political action committee. “We are constantly evolving and growing.”

The Massachusetts Chamber is also building on its member-benefit center, which businesses can access for things like home- and auto-insurance discounts, training resources, website and merchant card services, and UPS shipping discounts, among others.

“As a large state organization, we’re in a position to negotiate benefit programs with large providers, and we can offer our members significant savings,” Boronski said. “These companies know we have a far reach, and in return our members receive value they wouldn’t otherwise receive.

“It’s the icing on the cake,” she added. “Lobbying and advocacy may be our cake, but we have some good icing, too.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]