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Opinion

Editorial 1

A year ago — and, actually, long before that — this region was awash in speculation about what the gaming industry might bring to the region and what its broad impact might be.

The industry was new to the state, and there were questions. There was also excitement, some anxiety, no shortage of opinions, and plenty of hope. A year later, most of those emotions are still in evidence, and there remain many questions.

But in the meantime, another industry has emerged that apparently has the potential to have far more reach and far more impact: cannabis.

As several different stories in this issue reveal, the cannabis industry has certainly put down roots in the four counties of Western Mass., and while it’s still too early to know for sure, it appears to have far more potential to change the landscape — in all kinds of ways — than gaming.

Why? Because this is a far-reaching industry with myriad moving parts and potential business opportunities — from cultivation to retail to real estate to, yes, a new publication (see page 6). Also, it is seemingly far more democratic.

Indeed, while the gaming industry is reserved for large, as in very large, players investing $1 billion or more, the cannabis sector offers opportunities for individuals and small groups of investors — not that getting into this business, let alone succeeding in it, would be considered easy in any way, shape, or form.

And, as Michael Kusek, founder of that publication, A Different Leaf, points out, this is one of the few industries in this state where the opportunities are in Central and Western Mass., not Boston and within the Route 128 beltway. That’s because the majority of cities and towns in this region are welcoming of this industry, while most of those surrounding Boston are not.

When Easthampton Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle said her community was “head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t think that’s overstating it,” she wasn’t just speaking for many of her colleagues — remember, Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, joked to a television reporter that his goal was to rename the city the ‘Rolling Paper City’ — but she was speaking about how this sector can be a real game changer in terms of everything from jobs to tax revenue to foot traffic on Main Street.

The cannabis industry is not an easy one to follow. As noted, there are a lot of moving parts, and the scene changes every month, if not every week, as new locations open, more host-community agreements are forged, and more real estate is acquired for the purpose of establishing businesses in this sector.

But as hard as it is to keep track of all that is going on, it’s a worthy endeavor, because this industry certainly bears watching. No one really knows how things will shake out as more and more locations are opened and, eventually, more states decide to follow the Bay State’s lead.

But it seems almost certain that this sector will bring more impactful change, from a business perspective, than anything this region has seen in decades.

Opinion

Considering the Downside of #MeToo

As the #MeToo Movement was gaining traction back in late 2017, we wrote about how refreshing that moment was and that it had the potential to change the workplace in a very positive way.

But we also offered a word of caution, a reminder that this same movement might bring about negative change in the form of men becoming less willing to interact with women, mentor them, and take them on conferences and other learning experiences because of potentially bad optics and, far worse in their minds, potential litigation.

And now, it appears that those fears have possibly become reality.

Indeed, in an eye-opening piece, attorney Amelia Holstrom, an employment-law specialist with the firm Skoler Abbott, reveals that evidence is emerging that #MeToo may be prompting more men to err on what they would consider the side of caution.

Holstrom writes that a survey conducted by LeanIn.org — an organization dedicated to helping women come together and achieve their goals — and titled “Working Relationships in the #MeToo Era,” suggested that 60% of male managers reported they were not comfortable participating in common work activities — mentoring, working alone, or socializing — with women.

That’s compared to 32% in a survey conducted a year earlier. Further, the recent survey also noted that senior-level men were 12 times “more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings” with junior female employees, nine times “more likely to hesitate to travel [with junior female employees] for work,” and six times “more likely to hesitate to have work dinners” with junior female employees. According to the survey results, 36% of men said they avoided mentoring or socializing with women because they were concerned about how it might look.

These are very disconcerting numbers, to be sure.

Holstrom went on to write about how this type of behavior can lead to litigation of a different kind — discrimination suits because women are being denied some of the same opportunities to advance and succeed as men — and this is a very important point.

But beyond the litigation factor, this hesitancy among men to travel with women or have dinner with them or avoid mentoring is simply not good for the business in question. And not good for society, and individual regions like this one.

That’s because the world is changing, and so is the world of work. What this region, and every region, needs is strong, effective leaders. And while it’s very possible that a woman can become a good, solid leader without interacting with men or being mentored by them, we would offer that it seems less likely that they could do so.

Workplaces are better, more productive spaces when individuals don’t have to think twice about the gender of the person they may be supervising or mentoring or thinking about taking to a professional-development conference in a city halfway across the country.

That’s a perfect world, and this is far from a perfect world. But with #MeToo, there was hope that we might be moving closer to a perfect world. Perhaps, but these survey results are unsettling.

We can only hope that, with time, these trends will reverse themselves and women can be not only free of sexual harassment, but in a position to access all the same opportunities as men.

Opinion

Editorial

For decades now, Western Mass. has lived in the proverbial shadow of Boston and the Route 128 beltway.

We have our own identity in this part of the state, to be sure, and for the most part, we’re proud of it. But we seem to be forever measuring ourselves against the other end of the state and lamenting what the yardstick shows.

That’s true when it comes to employers, jobs, vibrancy, bright lights, etc., etc. And now, it looks like we can add casinos to the list, even if we shouldn’t.

Indeed, Encore Boston Harbor opened last month to considerable fanfare — and considerable visitation. Area media outlets have been quick to point out that Encore raked in $16.8 million in revenue its first week in operation, nearly as much as the $20 million MGM Springfield took in for the entire month of June.

It’s certainly very early — perhaps too early — to be drawing serious conclusions, but some media outlets are already portraying Encore as the casino with the high rollers and Springfield as home to the casino that is lagging well behind when it comes to revenue projections.

And while it is true that MGM Springfield isn’t logging the kind of numbers company officials projected it would — in 2014, MGM told the Gaming Commission to expect $418 million in gross gambling revenue its first year, and it would now be very hard pressed to break $300 million for that period — early ‘Tale of Two Casinos’ headlines are not really appropriate.

Encore is a much larger casino located just outside one of the most affluent urban centers in the country. It is also literally a stone’s throw from Logan Airport, making it easily accessible to jet-setting high-rollers. It was always expected to generate more revenue than MGM, especially at the gaming tables, as opposed to the slot machines, and it will always generate more revenue.

Rather than look upon this as two casinos — or three when one counts the slots casino in Plainridge — it would be better to view it as the state’s casino industry, one with three important pieces that are all contributing to the state’s overriding goal when it comes to gaming.

And that is to take some of the huge amounts of casino revenue that were going to neighboring states and keep them in the Bay State.

That’s happening, and at the same time, the casinos, and especially the one in Springfield, have become important economic-development pieces, bringing jobs and a spark to sectors ranging from hospitality to commercial real estate.

It was inevitable that there would be comparisons between Encore and MGM Springfield, and the press didn’t waste any time in making them while at the same time fueling the already-obvious disparities in economic vibrancy between east and west.

It’s OK to do this, but it would be better to focus on the bigger picture, and from what we can see, that picture is coming into focus nicely.

Opinion

Bringing the Message Home

When you talk to Kirk Jonah about his son Jack’s death from a heroin overdose and his work to educate and inspire people since that fateful day, you don’t sense anger, frustration, bitterness, or even embarrassment — emotions that are all perfectly understandable and probably there somewhere.

No, all you see is determination, which is exactly what is needed as this region and this country continues to battle one of the worst epidemics in history — the opioid epidemic.

One can argue forever how we got to this point with this epidemic, one that is killing tens of thousands of people a year, and it’s clear there is plenty of blame to go around — from the makers of prescription painkillers to the doctors who prescribe them carelessly, to people young and old who take them irresponsibly. But what’s really needed now, in addition to treatment of those who are addicted, is plain, old-fashioned talk about the need for everyone — from parents to young people — to make smart decisions.

And that’s exactly what Jonah provides.

As the story on page 10 details, Jack Jonah and his family became statistics back in the spring of 2016, when Jack was found dead in his room of an apparent heroin overdose, a tragedy that seemed to come out of nowhere because there were no easily recognizable signs that he was using and abusing the drug.

Those statistics are related to the number of overdose deaths in this country, and statistics related to the number of families torn apart by such tragedies.

But Kirk Jonah was never content to be merely a statistic, and he wasn’t about to let his son become one, either.

Indeed, they have become so much more than that. They have become inspirations and, yes, leaders in the ongoing fight to stem the tide of substance abuse and overdose deaths by bringing others into the fight.

That’s what Kirk Jonah will tell you he does. He brings people into the fight by compelling them to recognize that choices have to be made, and they need to be smart ones.

These decisions involve everything from how and where parents should store their prescription drugs to whether and how young people should tell the parents or other loved ones of someone they know is on a collision course with tragedy about what they know.

This work started with speaking engagements before a wide variety of audiences — from smaller gatherings at schools to a huge audience at Mercy Hospital’s Caritas Gala — and it has expanded to a foundation and fundraising activities. Soon, there will be a movie made about Jack Jonah, his family, and the work to prevent more tragedies like this.

The working title, from what we’ve gathered, is Making Courage Contagious, which is exactly what Kirk — and Jack — have been doing over the past three years.

A key part of Kirk Jonah’s presentations to the groups he addresses is the death certificate mailed to him several weeks after son’s death. It’s a powerful document, especially when one focuses on the words written above the cause-of-death line: acute heroin intoxication.

Those are words that, as we said at the top, should induce anger, frustration, and embarrassment. What they’ve produced instead is determination — as in determination not to let another parent receive a similar piece of mail.

At this time of crisis and epidemic, that’s what this region, and this country, needs most.

Opinion

Editorial

The headlines came in rapid succession, and they juxtaposed each other nicely.

The site in South Hadley’s Woodlawn Plaza that was once home to a Big Y supermarket is the proposed location of a mixed-income apartment complex. Meanwhile, in Westfield, plans were announced to convert the former Bon-Ton department store location in the Westfield Shops into a 50,000-square-foot trampoline park, complete with dodgeball courts, an American Ninja Warrior-style course, and climbing walls.

These headlines, and they’re only the latest of this nature — highlight how the retail landscape is changing, and also how this region and individual communities within it will be challenged to find new and imaginative uses for the hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space now vacant or likely to be vacant.

This is not a local problem or a regional problem. Indeed, it’s a national problem and probably an international problem: just what do we do with all that space once assigned to retail?

It’s a question that needs to be answered because, from everything we’ve gathered and from everything the experts are saying, the pendulum is simply not going to swing back the other way on this issue. Traditional retail is shrinking, and it is vanishing.

In fact, the world of retail started to change perhaps a full decade and a half ago, and the process of change has only accelerated. Fewer people are shopping in actual brick-and-mortar stores, while many of the brands that once dominated this industry — like Sears and JCPenney — have been closing stores in large numbers.

These two forces have collided in places like the Eastfield Mall, which now boasts some of the largest and most barren parking lots to be seen anywhere. Plans are being developed to turn the mall, this region’s first real suburban shopping mall (it opened more than a half-century ago), into what is being called a ‘village,’ one where people can live, work (perhaps), drop off their children at day care, see a movie, work out at a gym, eat at a restaurant, and maybe even get on a trampoline. This sounds ambitious, but it is also reality. The Eastfield Mall can never again be what it once was, so it has to become something else.

And this same phenomenon is happening all across the region. The former Big Y supermarket in South Hadley was simply not going to become another supermarket, not that the owners of the property didn’t try to lure one there. So it has to become something else. Tower Square in Springfield is never going to be the thriving retail hub it was in the ’70s ever again, so it has become the home of two colleges — and soon it will be home to a YMCA and a brewery. The Bon-Ton site was not going to house another department store — in a year or 10 years. Hence, a trampoline park.

Let’s hope there is need for other things as well, because, as we said, this trend will only accelerate. More department stores will close, more mom-and-pop stores will close, and eventually the need for large auto dealerships will subside, and we’ll need to find new uses for them. (One auto dealership in Westfield has already been converted into a gym, a restaurant, and indoor batting cages.)

This kind of imagination is going to be needed moving forward, because there are now vacant stores in malls, strip malls, and Main Streets across the region. And there will only be more of them.

Opinion

Opinion

By James T. Brett and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal

Core to the premise of the so-called American Dream is the idea that, if you work hard over the course of your career, you’ll get to enjoy a secure retirement. Unfortunately, for far too many Americans, that simply is not the case.

Consider this: nearly half of U.S. households with people age 55 and older have no savings for retirement. And almost 50% of private-sector workers — some 58 million people — do not even have access to a retirement plan through their employer, including small-business workers, self-employed workers, and gig workers.

Yet a typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement earnings, and that number is projected to drop to less than 28% within two years. At the same time, people are living longer. According to the World Economic Forum, a baby born in 2007 stands to live to be 103 — 36 years beyond Social Security’s current full retirement age. To further complicate matters, the student-debt crisis is also having an impact, with younger workers putting off saving for retirement because they are struggling to pay off student loans.

So how do we address this problem and ensure that all Americans are prepared for their golden years? There are several steps we can take that would have a tremendous impact.

First, we must continue to preserve tax incentives that encourage individuals to save for retirement. Allowing workers to contribute pre-tax wages to a 401(k) or other qualified retirement plan is a simple and proven way to encourage savings.

Second, it is critical that we take action to increase financial literacy — and that needs to start at a young age. It’s important that young people appreciate how student debt will affect them later in life, that younger workers understand just how much they need to be saving to be prepared for retirement, and that all employees are aware of the various tools available to them to invest in their own future.

… a typical Social Security check covers less than 40% of pre-retirement earnings, and that number is projected to drop to less than 28% within two years.

Finally, we must take steps to expand access to and increase participation in retirement-savings products and plans. In particular, we must make it easier for small businesses to offer retirement-savings plans by eliminating barriers for such businesses to band together in multiple-employer plans, thereby simplifying administration and lowering fees. It is also important to provide incentives for businesses to offer plans with automatic enrollment, and to require them to allow long-term part-time workers to have access to retirement benefits.

Congress must take bold action to bolster retirement savings and ensure that all Americans have access to the tools they need to save for their golden years. This crisis presents an opportunity for leaders in Washington to work collaboratively toward bipartisan solutions. The good news is that there already are bipartisan, bicameral efforts underway in Congress to pass legislation to bolster retirement savings.

The business community and our leaders in government must continue to work together to address and resolve the retirement-savings crisis facing our country. We owe it to the millions of Americans who work hard each and every day to keep our economy growing. We are hopeful that Congress will indeed take action on this important issue in the coming months so that all Americans will be able to realize the dream of a well-earned, secure retirement.

James T. Brett is president and CEO of the New England Council, a non-partisan, regional business association. U.S. Rep. Richard Neal represents Massachusetts’ First Congressional District and is the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s start by saying that manufacturers griping about how recent high-school graduates cannot do seemingly basic math is certainly nothing new.

They’ve been complaining about that for decades. They’ve probably always complained about that.

But such gripes are not what Springfield Business Leaders for Education (SBLE) is all about — although those complaints are duly noted, to be sure. This group of several dozen business owners and managers came together because the problem with Springfield’s schools — and the schools in many of the state’s Gateway cities — goes well beyond basic math (see related story, page 6).

In short, many students graduating from high school are not ready for college or the workplace, even though they have that diploma in their hands. Again, this is not exactly a recent phenomenon, but it’s a growing problem, one that has caught the attention of the business community — and with good reason.

These are the workers of tomorrow, or not, as is often the case. Or they’re the workers of tomorrow after they receive considerable training that amounts to what they should have learned in high school. In short, it’s an economic-development issue as well as an education issue.

This is why SBLE was created. Quality education is as important to the future of area businesses as it is to the future of the students in the classroom.

As we said at the top, SBLE wasn’t formed to bring gripes about job candidates not being to add columns of numbers to the superintendent of schools — or to tell the superintendent how to do his or her job. Or to change the curriculum. It was formed to be what co-chair John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, calls a critical friend of the schools — an ally, if you will.

As an ally, SBLE is working with other groups, such as Massachusetts Parents United and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, to advocate for schools and much-needed education reform, with the broad goal of improving overall outcomes and closing the wide achievement gap that still exists in the state between students in affluent communities and those in the aforementioned Gateway cities.

At the same time, and as the story on page 6 makes clear, SBLA is also working to achieve greater transparency and accountability from city school officials, because both are clearly needed. As is a long-term strategic plan for the schools moving forward — again, because one is needed.

That’s because, while everyone, or most everyone, agrees that some progress has been made in Springfield, both at individual schools and the system as a whole, the numbers don’t lie.

And those numbers show that far too many students are not able to read at grade level, the graduation rate is still far too low, and not enough students are going on to college at a time when such education is critical to achieving success in our technology-driven economy. Most importantly, the numbers show that far too many students are not going to be able to capitalize on the opportunities others are seizing because the education they received doesn’t make them ready to do so.

These are the numbers that matter. And we believe the SBLE can help change them. Business owners speak with a loud voice, they know how to partner with others to achieve success, and, most importantly, they have a huge stake in all this — their future workforce.

So, while griping about a lack of math skills is nothing new, business leaders in Springfield taking a very active role in advocating for education reform and bringing about real change is.

And we’re very glad that this is happening at this critical time.

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written on many occasions in the past about how the phrase ‘economic development’ means much more than trying to lure an Amazon — or an MGM Springfield, for that matter — to your town or filling a business park with distribution companies.

Indeed, this kind of work extends to such realms as workforce development, improving public education, public safety, infrastructure, marketing of a given region, and promotion of arts and culture.

And, sometimes, economic development is art itself.

We saw this with the recent initiative known as Fresh Paint. This was a mural festival staged earlier this month that involved a number of noted artists, with help from the public, and literally changed the face of a number of buildings and structures, such as parking-garage facades.

The murals are highly visible, and they do more than bring a splash of color — a big splash of color — to some otherwise drab pieces of real estate.

They also help tell the story of Springfield through depictions of everything from Dr. Seuss characters to the diverse population that now calls the city home.

How is this economic development?

Well, the murals accomplish something important. They prompt people to stop, look, think, and, ultimately, view Springfield in a different way than they did before. And this is what we want business owners, young professionals, entrepreneurs, and even retirees looking for a place to live to do — look at the City of Homes in a different way.

The murals — there are 10 of them in all, scattered throughout the downtown area and beyond — give the city a new look and vibe. They help send a message that the community is changing, for the better, and that, while once things were dark, the future is seemingly bright.

Can a set of murals really do all that? Apparently, they can.

And for that reason, we certainly hope this is not the last Fresh Paint festival.

Opinion

Editorial

As anyone in business knows, it’s hard enough to project out a few months or even a few weeks, let alone several years or even a few decades.

But that’s been Tim Brennan’s job for almost 50 years now, and suffice it to say he’s done it very well. While keeping one eye on the present and immediate future, the director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has kept the other on what the world, and this region in particular, will likely look like in 20 or 30 years when it comes to infrastructure, workforce demands, recreational needs, and even climate change.

In a few weeks, Brennan will be calling it a career — as we said, a long and fruitful career, for himself and the region he became passionate about.

It was fruitful for him because, as the story that begins on page 6 makes clear, it was in what amounted to a dream job, doing work he found “intoxicating.” And beneficial for the region, because Brennan did a capable job of keeping the focus on the future and anticipating what it might bring.

We believe his most significant contribution — and it was a team effort, to be sure — is the Plan for Progress. We say ‘is,’ because this is a working document, one that will be continually changed and updated as times, and the region’s needs, change.

The first iteration of the plan detailed the need for an economic-development entity to put the focus on regional progress at a time when individual communities were battling with each other for employers, often to the benefit of the employer, and not the municipalities involved in those competitions.

This recommendation led to the formation of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, which has been in the forefront of efforts to advance the region and put its best foot forward — and today, that region includes both Western Mass. and Northern Conn. — the so-called Knowledge Corridor.

More recent iterations of the plan have helped the region place greater emphasis on maintaining a strong workforce in the wake of retiring Baby Boomers, training the next generation of leaders, and other priorities.

Meanwhile, throughout his tenure, Brennan has put a strong emphasis on the environment (from Connecticut River cleanup to climate change), infrastructure (especially when it comes to rail service for a region where it has been missing for the past several decades), and making cities places in which people, and especially young people, will want to work and live.

One of his pet projects, a high-speed rail line connecting this region with Boston, has not come to fruition — yet. But Brennan has been one of the leaders from this region who have worked hard to keep this issue alive when it could easily have died on the vine.

Brennan leaves some very big shoes to fill, but he has set a tone for effective planning in this region. Through his efforts, a foundation has been laid, in the form of the Plan for Progress and other initiatives, that will make this region better able to anticipate change and be prepared for it.

That is Tim Brennan’s legacy, and he and this region should be proud of it.

Opinion

Editorial

When Kevin Kennedy took over as Springfield’s chief Development officer after a lengthy stint as aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the city was in a much different place — a much darker place.

It was only a year or so removed from being in receivership and only a few months into the complex, and quite overwhelming, task of rebuilding after a tornado roared through the heart of the city. The casino era was just beginning, and no one really dared dream that one might be built in Springfield. No one had ever heard of a Chinese company called CRRC, and the city’s downtown was, for the most part, living in the past.

Flash forward nearly eight years, and Springfield is a much different, much brighter, much more vibrant place, with a billion-dollar casino and, overall, more than $4 billion in new development over the past several years.

Kennedy, who announced Monday that he will be retiring late this summer, didn’t do it all by himself, obviously. But he set a tone, an aggressive tone, a set-the-bar-higher-than-most-people-would-dare tone.

And it has produced results. MGM is the most obvious example, but there are many others, including Union Station (a project Kennedy worked on for more than 25 years), progress on creating much-needed market-rate housing, growth of the entertainment district, and the start of work to redevelop the so-called ‘blast zone.’

At the press conference to announce Kennedy’s retirement, Mayor Domenic Sarno described him as a “nuts and bolts guy,” and that’s a fairly apt characterization. He knew how to bring a project from the starting line to the finish line, and that’s exactly what the city needed at this critical stage in its history.

It was said that he knew how to get things done, and during his tenure, he proved that repeatedly.

These will be big shoes to fill, and the assignment falls to Timothy Sheehan, currently director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in Connecticut. It will be his job to build on the momentum Kennedy has helped create. There is still considerable work to do in Springfield; yes, many significant pieces have been added and the outlook is much brighter, but the city must be able to seize this moment in its history.

We can only hope that Sheehan can continue Kennedy’s pattern of getting things done.