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Opinion

Editorial

Mayor Domenic Sarno is certainly confident that Springfield will rebound from all the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at it the past seven months or so.

As BusinessWest spoke with him recently, he said at least a few times that he expects the City of Homes to bounce back — and quickly — when COVID is over (whenever that is). This isn’t surprising, obviously; this is what mayors do. And he bases that optimism on the many projects currently in progress, new initiatives likely to move onto and then off the drawing board, and the considerable amount of momentum the city had created before the pandemic changed the landscape back in late winter.

We share his optimism to some degree, but the future of Springfield right now is a giant question mark. And before we go any further, we need to say that most all urban areas, even Boston and New York, are in the same boat and facing the same daunting question.

Which is … what will things look like when this is all over?

In Springfield, the hope is that things will look a whole lot like they did in mid-January. Back then, there were events happening, like Red Sox Winter Weekend. The Thunderbirds were packing them in at the MassMutual Center, while MGM was drawing decent crowds at the casino and bringing people to the city for concerts and shows, benefiting the downtown restaurants and bars. The downtown office towers weren’t full, certainly, but there were plenty of people working in the central business district — enough to support the retail and hospitality businesses in that area.

Now … none of that is happening as the city tries to hang on and fight its way through this. The question is, can Springfield turn back the clock to start of this year and essentially pick up where it left off?

Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. And a big factor in this equation is the commercial office space downtown. Right now, the larger towers are mostly quiet as companies continue to have many of their employees work remotely. And there is speculation that they will remain mostly quiet as businesses adapt to a new way of doing things and considerably downsize their space.

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to Springfield. Boston is facing the same problem, and, to a large extent, so is New York.

But having a critical mass of workers in a central business district is one of the key ingredients in any success formula for such an area. The others are having people live in that district and having them come to visit. All three are important, and without one, more pressure gets put on the other two.

There are housing projects coming together in the broad downtown area — at Court Square and at the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street, to name a couple notable efforts — with the promise of more to come. And there are strong hopes that the vibrancy seen when there were shows at MGM and Symphony Hall and hockey games at the MassMutual Center will return once the pandemic is behind us — again, whenever that is.

But will this be enough to make the downtown area — and the city as a whole — thrive and regain the momentum lost to the pandemic?

Again, perhaps — but it seems logical that the city will not simply be able to turn back the clock; instead, it will likely have to turn the clock forward and find new and intriguing uses for the office space downtown and for the commercial spaces vacated by businesses that didn’t survive COVID-19.

Seven months into the pandemic, we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we have to somehow regain. The question for Springfield — and all urban areas — is ‘what can we expect when all this over?’ And right now, no one really knows.

Opinion

Opinion

By Stacey Lennard

The Connecticut River Conservancy (CRC) hosts its 24th annual Source to Sea Cleanup throughout September. CRC is asking you to sign up and help spread the word about our plastic problem and the impact on our rivers. In addition to annually coordinating thousands of volunteers to clean up trash in our rivers, CRC continues to work toward solutions to the persistent problem of trash pollution. Plastic bags, bottles, and polystyrene (Styrofoam) are consistently the most-found items during the Source to Sea Cleanup, and these items never fully break down in the environment.

You can help show the problem to help solve the problem. Take a photo, video, or make art inspired by river beauty or river pollution. Get creative, use #RiverWitness, #PurgeThePlastic, and tag CRC on social media. CRC will add your images to an online mosaic photo display and video. Select images will be used to call on decision makers to enact trash solutions to keep trash out of our rivers. Show them this is important to you. Speak up for your rivers.

According to CRC, the solution to this problem is to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place. “It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options,” said Andrew Fisk, CRC’s executive director. “Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

Other solutions are to make recycling easy, effective, and widely accessible; to increase the use of effective incentives like ‘bottle bills’ for recycling aluminum, plastic, and glass containers; and to disincentivize Styrofoam, especially foam dock floats in favor of enclosed foam or non-foam dock materials that won’t send plastic chunks into rivers.

“It’s time businesses step up to voluntarily do the right thing by offering more sustainable, reusable, recyclable, and compostable options. Vermont and Connecticut are leading the way with their recent state-wide bans on single-use plastics. This is particularly important due to China’s recent import restrictions on plastic waste. The cost of plastic waste is beginning to outweigh its usefulness.”

We all have a responsibility to solve this problem,” Fisk said. “We are responsible as consumers to make good choices in how we purchase and dispose of products. Manufacturers, businesses, and government are also responsible, and it’s time they do their part. By working together, we can make a real difference for our rivers. These ideas are going to take time, decades even. And we’ll keep at it as long as it takes. But our rivers need change now.”

Over the past 23 years, Source to Sea Cleanup volunteers have removed more than 1,167 tons of trash from our rivers. The Source to Sea Cleanup is a river cleanup coordinated by CRC in all four states of the 410-mile Connecticut River basin. Each fall, thousands of volunteers remove tons of trash along rivers, streams, parks, boat launches, trails, and more. Eversource, USA Waste & Recycling, and All American Waste are the lead Source to Sea Cleanup sponsors.
For more information or to register for the event, visit www.ctriver.org/cleanup.

 

Stacey Lennard is Source to Sea Cleanup coordinator for the Connecticut River Conservancy.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s face it — it’s been a long, hard year. And it’s only September.

Indeed, the pandemic has made this not only one of the most trying times almost anyone can remember, but one of the most tiring, especially when it comes to the seemingly unending barrage of bad news that began back in the dead of winter. Bright spots have been few and far between.

Which brings us to BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award. That’s the new name attached to a program started several years ago called the Continued Excellence Award. By whatever name it goes, this is an important honor, but one that often gets a little lost amid some of our other awards.

This one, sponsored this year and the past few years by Health New England, is presented to a Forty Under 40 winner who has continued to build upon their résumé professionally and perhaps within the community as well.

And this year’s class of five finalists provides a strong ray of light in a year that has been mostly dark. They are:

• Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, is also a winner of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Award. Over the past several years, she has added dealerships to the company’s portfolio and many new lines to the list of nonprofit groups and causes she and the company support, especially Driving for the Cure, which raises money to battle brain cancer.

• Mike Fenton, an attorney with Springfield-based Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin as well as a Springfield city councilor, has been a finalist for this award many times, and for good reason. He represents Ward 2, but he’s had a strong impact across the city, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, is the pure entrepreneur in this group, and a multiple winner of our awards, including Top Entrepreneur in 2016. We’ve followed his story from the very beginning, when his was a struggling brand trying to break out. Now it’s in several states, and is the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• James Leahy, has a day job — with the Massachusetts State Lottery — and a city job, as an at-large city councilor in Holyoke who just celebrated two decades in that role. But his influence extends far beyond City Hall; indeed, he’s become actively involved in a number of Holyoke institutions.

• Peter DePergola is director of Clinical Ethics at Baystate Health. In a very short time, he has become not only a regional and state leader in the emerging field of bioethics, but a national and even international leader as well, particularly as he applies his expertise to the COVID-19 crisis.

The winner of the 2020 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced on October 8 at this year’s drive-in 40 Under Forty event at Mercedes Benz Springfield. But all of these individuals are winners. And, more importantly, the region is the winner for having them working, living, and making contributions inside the 413.

Opinion

Opinion

By Suzanne Parker

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and women’s constitutional right to vote. This historic moment provides an important opportunity to emphasize that full gender equity requires racial justice and equity as well.

While the women’s suffrage movement benefited tremendously from the leadership of black women, it did not advance or include their right to vote. In fact, it took more than a half-century later for women of color to access the ballot with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. has a long history of denying its citizens the right to vote. ​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system. Many of our most heavily debated issues — the economy, healthcare, education, and public safety — carry tremendous consequences for those most vulnerable and with the least amount of political power.

That’s why it’s so important for girls, particularly girls of color, to be civically engaged as early as possible. Through our She Votes initiative, Girls Inc. helps girls realize the power of their voices, learn about the structure and role of the U.S. government, and even be inspired to run for elected office one day. Girls are innately powerful and, with the right opportunities and support, can grow up to be leaders and change agents in the world.

​Building a more equitable society means ensuring ​all ​people, regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, are able to participate in our political system.

Often overlooked in the pages of history, women of color have played an instrumental role in advancing civic engagement, voting rights, and social movements for centuries. From abolitionists like Sojourner Truth and Harriett Tubman to suffragettes and activists like Mary Church Terrell, Nannie Helen Burroughs, and Ida B. Wells, black women bravely fought for the rights of women and men long before they themselves were seen as equal citizens under the law or had the right to vote. They endured racial prejudice, discrimination, and even violence to advance justice and freedom for all. As ​educator and civil rights activist ​Nannie Helen Burroughs wrote​, “to struggle and battle and overcome and absolutely defeat every force designed against us is the only way to achieve.”

When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed — making racial discrimination in voting illegal — it marked more than a century of work by black suffragists to secure voting rights for all people, which finally would include them. To this day, however, obstacles to voting still persist for black Americans and communities of color, including voter suppression, ​photo-ID requirements, early-voting cutbacks, under-resourced polls, and inadequate funding for elections.

Young people of color face additional barriers. ​Mail-in ballots, which many young people complete (as well as first-time ​voters and people of color), have been found to be rejected at a higher rate than in-person ballots, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Tougher voting rules, difficult absentee-ballot procedures, and irregular school and work schedules serve as additional obstacles to young people exercising their right to vote.

Increasing voter participation is critical for democracy. With Nov. 3 just two short months away, we must do everything we can to ensure safe, fair, and accessible elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many states have begun preparations to educate people about the health risks, make polling places as safe as possible, and also encourage voting by mail. We must also urge Congress to appropriate emergency funding to support such efforts, as the funds provided in the CARES Act fall tremendously short of what is necessary.

Millions of eligible voters, many of them women and people of color, are not active in our political decision making — and we need them to be. During this year’s centennial celebration, we remember the women who paved the way for future female voters and political leaders, and the work that remains to ensure ​all​ girls and young people grow up in an equitable and just society.

Suzanne Parker is executive director of Girls Inc. of the Valley; (413) 532-6247.

Opinion

Editorial

Eric Lesser might be on to something.

In fact, we’re pretty sure he is.

During a recent installment of BusinessTalk, the podcast produced by BusinessWest in conjunction with Living Local, Lesser — the state senator from Longmeadow and staunch advocate for high-speed rail linking Western and Eastern Mass. — was asked about that project, which has lost some of its visibility, if not its traction, in the midst of the pandemic. In short, people seemingly have other things to worry about right now.

He was asked specifically if the project might still be needed given the way the pandemic has clearly shown that people can work remotely and, thus, may not have to physically get from Western Mass. to Eastern Mass. in order to work for a company in Boston or Cambridge.

He answered first by saying the rail line might be needed now more than ever because people will — eventually — need to see one another again, albeit perhaps not as often. High-speed rail would enable them to do so in a manner that is efficient, would help take cars off the road and thus reduce congestion, and might level the playing field between east and west in this state by helping to reduce one of the boundaries to high-paying jobs in emerging fields like IT and biosciences.

But he went further, arguing that building the rail line now would not only accomplish all that, but would help move this region and the entire state out of a pandemic-induced recession that will likely be with us for years.

“The economy desperately needs this,” he said. “At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, we built 800 airports … we need to be ambitious about where we’re going, and the economy is going to need the investment, the stimulus. East-west rail would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy almost immediately from construction alone.”

He’s right, and this is the way state and federal officials need to be thinking moving forward as they go about finding ways to help individuals and businesses — and the nation as a whole — dig out of this hole created by the pandemic.

The comparisons to the Great Depression are appropriate — we are now in an economic downturn comparable to what happened 90 years ago in many ways: everything from the long lines at the unemployment office to the long lines at what were then soup kitchens and are now food pantries.

While World War II eventually ended the Great Depression, massive construction projects launched during the mid-’30s created millions of jobs that enabled families to survive those years. But those projects did much more than that. Indeed, they addressed needed infrastructure issues, vastly improved the nation’s transportation system, and paved the way for development of many western and Sun Belt states.

Projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were game changers in many different ways — especially the way they provided jobs at a time when people desperately needed them.

State and national leaders should be thinking about projects like east-west rail in the same light. Such initiatives can not only solve recognized problems, they can help lessen the already-crippling damage from this pandemic. And there are many other projects that can be undertaken, right here in this region, from repairing roads and bridges to renovating parks and bike trails.

There is a tendency among some to look at the damage from the pandemic as temporary, something that will be fixed once the virus has run its course. The accumulating evidence would seem to indicate otherwise — that it will take years to repair damage done to individual communities and a wide range of business sectors. The key to repairing this damage is jobs, not stimulus checks or even PPP money.

Lesser’s right. The high-speed rail project is more important now than it was before, and there are many projects that fit that description. The state and the nation can learn from what happened 90 years ago and make needed, prudent investments, even at a time of extreme challenge, to help all of us through this crisis.

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

Opinion

Opinion

The recent news that two small businesses located in the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — Serendipity and Alchemy Nail Bar — will be closing permanently due to a sharp decline in business from the pandemic provides more direct evidence of the damage being done to the business community from this crisis.

A number of small businesses have already closed over the past four and a half months, and those numbers will surely rise as the pandemic continues to keep people in their homes. Many of these closings are seemingly unavoidable — they involve businesses, such as event venues, bars, and restaurants, where people gather in large numbers indoors, something the pandemic has made all but impossible if people want to stay safe.

But some could be avoided if the residents of this area find ways to provide needed support. Many are already doing that, but these numbers need to grow if the Western Mass. business community is to avoid losing more of its valued members.

And we say valued, because that’s exactly what they are. Businesses are not simply establishments that occupy space in buildings and provide goods and services. They are part of the community, and often a big part.

They employ people. They pay taxes. They support organizations like the United Way and the Chamber of Commerce. Their employees often serve on boards and commissions and lend their support to local causes.

When a business closes, we lose a lot more than a place to buy shoes. When a restaurant closes, we lose more than our favorite pizza joint. When a tourist attraction shuts its doors, we lose more than a place to take the kids on a Saturday.

Supporting local businesses has always been important, but it is even more so during this crisis because so many of them are imperiled. As we have chronicled over the past several months, ventures in every sector of the economy have been rocked by this pandemic.

Indeed, companies recording sales of 60% or 70% of last year’s totals are having a good year. And most are not in that category, with declines of 70%, 80%, or even 90% over last year. Many of these businesses have been helped by assistance from the federal government in the form of PPP loans, SBA loans, and small grants from individual cities and towns. But many have exhausted those funds, and the pandemic shows no signs of letting up.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in accounting to understand that most businesses simply cannot sustain losses like this for much longer. And some have already concluded that they can’t sustain them any longer.

With each headline like the one about Serendipity and Alchemy closing, there is regret about what we’ve lost. And as mentioned earlier, we lose more than a shop that sells an item or makes good Italian food. We lose tax dollars, and we lose a piece of our community.

There are many ways to support a business even if you can’t visit it in person — from buying a gift certificate to getting takeout to buying online. And by exercising these options, we can perhaps avoid losing some of the businesses that still call Western Mass. home.

Opinion

Editorial

If you read between the lines when scanning or listening to the comments made by MGM Springfield officials in the run-up to the reopening of the facility this week, it’s easy to see that they have some real concerns about whether the restrictions they’ve been placed under will enable them to succeed.

“We’re excited to be here in this moment,” Chris Kelley, president and COO told members of the press being given a tour of the pandemic-adjusted facilities. “We have significant occupancy constraints that the business will be opening with, but we approach this moment with gratitude for the opportunity to serve our guests and this community again.”

We’re not sure how much gratitude, but we are sure that these occupancy constraints and other restrictions, put in place to keep guests and employees safe, are going to present stern challenges for the casino operators.

Roughly two-thirds of the slot machines will be disabled in the name of social distancing; many table games, including roulette, craps, and poker, will be shut down; capacity in the restaurants will also be limited, again in a nod to social distancing; the bars will be closed and drinking will be limited to those playing the games that are still open; large gatherings, such as concerts and shows, are still prohibited.

Add it all up, and then add in the cost of retrofitting the casino for play in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s fair to wonder whether opening is even a sound business decision given the high overhead at such facilities. That question remains to be answered.

What isn’t in doubt, though, is whether the city and the region need this facility open for business. To that question, there is a resounding ‘yes.’

Indeed, the tourism industry has been absolutely battered by the pandemic, perhaps harder than any other sector. Hotels, restaurants, bus companies, tourist attractions, and other businesses, have been crippled by this. And the announcement that there will be no Big E this fall dealt that sector another huge blow.

We’re not sure how much reopening MGM Springfield will help those businesses — many visitors to the casino don’t make any other stops before or after they do their gambling — but any help would certainly be appreciated.

There’s also the support the casino provides to other businesses, especially its vendors. We’ve written much over the past few years about how important MGM’s business is to these vendors — from the sign makers to the dry cleaners — and the trickle-down, while limited in some respects, is very real.

And then, there’s the psychological factor. Much of Main Street in Springfield was shut down by the pandemic, from shops to restaurants to businesses in the office towers. It’s starting to come back somewhat, with outdoor restaurants on Fort Street, Worthington Street, and by One Financial Plaza, and the office towers slowly (as in SLOWLY) but surely coming back to life.

MGM is another, very important, piece of the puzzle. With the casino again welcoming guests, Springfield, the region, will seem all the more open for business after a dreadful spring.

We’re under no delusions here. Reopening MGM is not going to dramatically alter the fate of many of the businesses that have been decimated by the pandemic. But it might provide a spark — another spark to be more precise — as the region tries to fight its way out of a disaster unlike anything it’s ever seen.

MGM’s managers are certainly not thrilled with the hand they’ve dealt, as they say in this business, but perhaps they can do something with it, show they can operate safely, and eventually build their capacity back up. In the meantime, the city and the region get another boost when they so badly need one.

Opinion

Opinion

As the calendar turns to late July, area colleges and universities are getting set to welcome students back for a fall semester that will, like the spring semester before it, be unlike any they’ve ever experienced.

It will be that way for the students, but also for the institutions themselves as they try to cope with a pandemic that is testing them in every way imaginable, starting with the not-so-simple task of simply reopening.

Indeed, there are a number of strategies being deployed by the schools in this region and well beyond — everything from mostly or entirely online (something many community colleges are favoring) to in-classroom learning, to an increasingly popular hybrid approach that blends both .

And there are twists on those themes, such as UMass offering online education in all programs, but also giving students the option of living on campus — with a whole lot of rules that will have to be followed in an attempt to keep people safe from the virus.

But as schools scramble to reopen, deeper discussions are taking place — or should be taking place — about how the pandemic may bring about systemic change in how colleges provide an education to students.

With that, we return to those reopening strategies, because they provide ample evidence of an ongoing debate concerning what’s important to students and what a college education is or should be.

Many are of the opinion that in-person, in-the-classroom learning is critical and more effective than online, or remote, learning, and this is why some colleges are working diligently to maintain this element, even during a pandemic. Meanwhile, others consider the campus experience an integral part of a college education.

This leads to the larger question — just what is a college education? Is it merely gaining skills that could enable one to succeed in the workplace? Or is it much more? Is it also about making lifelong friendships, learning about people and about life, working in a collaborative environment, and, yes, going to parties and football games and concerts?

The easy answer is that it’s all these things. The challenge for each institution is figuring out how to provide the best mix of all that to its students. As the story on page 17 makes clear, no two strategies among the region’s schools are exactly the same, and that makes the fall semester a fascinating experiment — one higher-ed leaders promise to take lessons from, even as they hope for a more traditional fall of 2021.

Opinion

Big E Cancellation a Major Blow

Going back to the early days of the pandemic, one of the overriding questions on the minds of many in this region, and especially its business community, was: will there be a Big E?

Late last month, we finally learned the answer: no.

In many ways, that verdict, arrived at after lengthy discussions between Big E organizers and officials in West Springfield, was not unexpected. Looking at the situation objectively, one had to wonder how organizers could possibly stage a fair that draws more than 100,000 people on a good day and keep not only these visitors safe, but also the workers, vendors, and area residents.

It just didn’t seem doable, even to those who really, as in really, wanted the Big E to happen.

And that’s a large constituency, especially within the business community, where many different kinds of ventures benefit greatly from the 17-day fair and the 1.5 million people drawn to it annually. That list includes hotels, restaurants, tent-rental companies, transportation outfits, food vendors, breweries, and many, many more. These businesses have already lost so much to the pandemic, and now they’ve suffered perhaps the biggest loss of all.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Indeed, the year-long (at least) challenge of surviving the pandemic just became a little sterner for all kinds of businesses within the 413.

And the community loses out as well. The Big E isn’t just an annual event, it’s a century-old tradition that has become part of the fabric of this region.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the Big E provides more evidence — not that anyone needed any — of just how cruel this pandemic has become for business owners, most of whom have worked diligently to abide by the rules and do everything they can to position themselves to survive COVID-19.

Indeed, so much of this fight to survive involves matters far out of the control of these business owners — from orders to shelter in place to the many details and deadlines (often coming without any real warning) with regard to reopening the economy, to the loss of key customers, such as the Big E and MGM Springfield, which is due to reopen soon after being closed for nearly four months.

As the stories that begin on page 6 clearly show, business owners have done whatever they can do to pivot, create new revenue streams, and simply try to weather this storm. But the pandemic keeps throwing more challenges at them, with the Big E’s cancellation being the latest.

The silence on Memorial Avenue this September will be deafening. And the blow to the region will be significant.

Opinion

Moving Beyond the Blame Game

Family members of veterans living at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home didn’t need a 174-page review by a former federal prosecutor to tell them that something went terribly wrong at that facility in March and April, leading to the deaths of 75 residents.

But the report did what it was commissioned to do — analyze the facts concerning what happened at the home and come to a conclusion as to how this tragedy was allowed to play itself out and answer what was, for a time, the most pressing question about all this: ‘who is to blame?’

Indeed, in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations at the Soldiers’ Home, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature both used the phrase ‘get to the bottom of this’ (unofficially or unofficially) as the scope of the tragedy grew, as did the thirst for answers. And the report has certainly identified some people to blame.

Starting with state officials for not only giving the job of running the home to a veteran (Bennett Walsh) who had no experience leading a long-term-care facility, but then failing to provide adequate amounts of oversight to Walsh and others charged with the care of veterans. But Walsh is also singled out for triggering a series of decisions that allowed COVID-19 to race through the home, affecting residents and staff members alike.

With language that can only be described as heartbreaking, the report recounts the thoughts of one staff member after management merged two locked dementia units on March 27, a decision investigators described as a catastrophe: “[I] will never get those images out of my mind — what we did, what was done to those veterans … my God, where is the respect and dignity for these men?” Other staff members were quoted as saying, “all in this room will be dead by tomorrow.”

While the report is certainly a valuable document, the veterans who died, their families, and staff members who lived through this horrible tragedy want so much more than a document that chronicles what happened and assigns blame. They want and need for this catastrophe to lead to meaningful and permanent changes that will ensure that no one will ever say, ‘where is the respect and dignity for these men?’ again.

That is our hope as well, and while the governor and legislators sound sincere when they say this is their overriding concern with the regard to the Soldiers’ Home, we know from history that when stories disappear from the front pages of newspapers, the will to implement meaningful change dissipates.

We can’t allow that to happen in this case.

Changes proposed by the governor, including several not in the report, include creation of a consistent policy at Holyoke and its sister facility in Chelsea for the hiring of a superintendent; creating more oversight by hiring an assistant secretary within the state Department of Veterans’ Services who would serve as an executive director for the state’s two soldiers’ homes and report directly to the secretary of Veterans’ Services; expanding the board of trustees at both the Holyoke and Chelsea facilities from seven to nine and requiring that the two additions each have either a clinical or administrative background in healthcare; and, most importantly, perhaps, making immediate and long-term capital improvements to modernize residential units and furnishings to address infection control — renovations are currently underway on one floor, but a more comprehensive plan of modernization and improvements is certainly needed.

History also shows us that, following some of the worst tragedies in history — the Triangle fire in New York City, the Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, and even the Titanic’s sinking — reviews that initially focused on laying blame eventually led to serious, and often historic, reforms.

If that can happen with the case of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home tragedy, then perhaps those veterans who bravely served their country will not have died in vain.

Opinion

Editorial

Words and money.

That’s mostly what the business community has been throwing at the problems magnified by the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in recent weeks.

The words have come in the forms of statements from CEOs expressing outrage over what has happened and support for Black Lives Matter. And they’ve come from everywhere, including many companies in this region. Some went public, others were kept internal, but they all struck the same general tones.

The money? It has come in the form of pledges made by corporations to fight racism and increase black wealth, and there have been many of them — from Bank of America, Walmart, Bain Capital, and myriad others.

While the words and monetary donations are welcome, the corporate world, and we’ll include nonprofits in this, needs to do more — much more. It needs to take steps that are sustainable and, well, institutional, to generate the kind of real change this critical moment in time demands.

Businesses large and small need to take the inititiative to not only understand systemic racism and the many forms it takes — that’s the key first step, because so many still do not understand it — but then take steps to address it with changes that become embedded in these companies’ cultures.

As the story on page 6 reveals, there are some signs that this might happen. Signs such as phone calls and e-mails to the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), a 501(c)(3) created several years ago after several area leaders were inspired by what they heard while on a City2City trip to Grand Rapids, Mich. What they saw was a city making slow but steady progress in efforts to understand and combat racism by bringing diverse audiences together in a room and talking about an issue that so few want to talk about.

Through these discussions, individuals and groups come to better understand that racism is real, it is systemic, and it needs to be addressed.

In recent years, HRIPV has hosted more than 800 people for its signature two-day session, which, overall, strives to help attendees understand there is only one human race.

Many of the phone calls and e-mails mentioned earlier involve individuals, groups, businesses, and nonprofits that have attended one of these sessions and want to know, essentially, what more they can do to address this age-old problem.

And as Vanessa Otero, the interim director of HRIPV, told BusinessWest, the ‘what’s next’ involves helping businesses and institutions move beyond acknowledging and comprehending racism to a point where they become anti-racist.

To help them get there, the institute is working to formalize and institutionalize a broader roster of services that include half- and full-day training sessions for board and staffs, onboarding services for companies to help ensure that new hires are ready to engage with an anti-racism work environment, and policies and procedures audits, designed to identify blind spots that disproportionately have an adverse effect on people of color.

We hope the institute builds the infrastructure needed to build and sustain these programs and that area companies and nonprofits embrace them. In the meantime, these same businesses and agencies need to take a hard look at their policies and practices, as well as the makeup of their boards and workforces, with an eye toward creating not only diversity, but equal opportunity.

Many have taken some positive steps in these directions in recent years, and to their own benefit, but much work remains to be done.

In short, while the words in statements and press releases and the checks with several zeroes on them are welcome and often helpful, this moment in time — and that’s exactly what it is — cries out for more.

Opinion

Opinion

A quick look around downtown Springfield and other area communities would reveal that the economy, which had been in a kind of deep freeze for the better part of three months, is showing signs of coming back to life.

Let’s start with the tents. Indeed, they’re an interesting symbol of how the restaurant industry is emerging from a state-forced hibernation of sorts that saw them relegated to takeout service only. Such tents are now to be found in a number of parking lots, alleyways, and even closed streets as restaurants try to claw back with outdoor dining.

Perhaps the most visible sign of all this is Fort Street in downtown Springfield, where the owners of the iconic Student Prince restaurant have placed several tents and created an atmosphere that not only speaks of Europe — where outdoor dining is far more commonplace — but prompts one to wonder why it took a pandemic to create something like this. It’s a wonderful atmosphere that will be in place until the fall, and could become a yearly addition to the downtown landscape. Let’s hope it does.

And there are other signs of life as well, including the pending reopening of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Museums, and other attractions. Tourism has become a huge part of this region’s economy, and this economic engine, if you will, won’t be firing on anything approaching all its cylinders until this sector roars back to life.

And that’s the sobering news amid the positive signs we’ve seen lately. Indeed, while these businesses are reopening, they are not roaring back — yet, anyway. As the story on page 10 reveals, hotels and tourist attractions have had a miserable spring, and the summer is dominated by question marks about whether the tourists will come back, and how many of them.

There is optimism that concern about traveling in anything but an automobile will spark a surge of interest in so-called staycations that might benefit the region and its many tourist attractions. The theory goes that, instead of traveling across the country or to other countries — or even Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard, for that matter — residents of this state and neighboring states might take in the attractions of Western Mass.

We have to hope some of this happens.

But matters are complicated by several factors, starting with the MGM casino and the many restrictions likely to be placed upon it. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is still discussing a number of guidelines, but at the moment, craps, poker, and roulette will not be allowed, and overall capacity might be set at perhaps 25% of previous levels. These restrictions will make it difficult for MGM to operate in anything approaching a profitable manner, and they will also limit the number of visitors who might come to the casino and then take in more of the region.

Then there’s the matter of the Big E. Huge questions surround what the 2020 fair might look like and whether there will even be a 2020 fair. No Big E, or even a much smaller Big E, would be a huge blow to the hospitality industry that depends on it.

So, while there are some signs of life in the region when it comes to the economy and tourism, we still have a long way to go. v

Opinion

PPP: The Feds Need to Do More

As you read the accounts of individual companies grappling with the pandemic in the June 8 issue of BusinessWest — we call them ‘COVID Stories’ — a number of themes and similarities emerge.

The first is that virtually every business in every sector of the economy was hit, and hit extremely hard by this. We talked with people in healthcare, service, tourism and hospitality, the sector known as ‘large events,’ marketing, retail, and more, and all of them said the same thing — that the floor was virtually taken out from under them back in mid-March.

Another theme is that businesses have responded with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new products to develop, new ways to do things, and new opportunities wherever they arise.

Still another theme is that these new revenue streams and opportunities haven’t produced results that come anything close to what these companies were doing before the pandemic, a time that now seems like years ago, but was really only three short months ago.

Which brings us to one more common thread among the stories presented this month in a series that will continue into the summer — the fact that these companies needed help, received it, and will very likely need more help if they are going to fully rebound from this crisis.

Indeed, most all the companies we spoke with received support in the form of loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, an acronym now very much part of the current business landscape.

“Most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’”

Some struggled to get it and waited nervously for the money to land in their accounts. Others haven’t really touched it yet and don’t know exactly what to do with it because they can’t bring their people back to work because there is, as yet, no work to do.

The program isn’t perfect, and there are some bugs to be worked out, but overall, this measure has done exactly what it was designed to do — provide a lifeline to businesses that desperately need one. PPP has enabled companies to meet that most basic of obligations — meeting payroll — at a time when so many would not have been able to do so.

But as these stories make painfully clear, most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’

What should happen is the government offering another round of support to companies that can demonstrate real need — and, again, that’s most of them. The recovery is not going to be V-shaped or even U-shaped. It may be several months before there is, in fact, real recovery.

And the federal government has an obligation to help businesses get to that point. When the PPP was first conceptualized, the thinking was (we presume) that, in eight weeks, the worst would be over and things would start to return to normal. It’s still early in the game, but mounting evidence suggests that is not the case.

‘Normal’ is still a long-term goal, and it’s clear that companies will need additional support to be able to keep paying people and staying upright until better days arrive.

As one business owner we talked with said, and we’re paraphrasing here — ‘the government caused this problem by ordering a shutdown … so now, they own the problem.’ He’s right.

Already, there are far more ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs on properties across the region than there were three months ago. A number of businesses, many of them in the broad realm of hospitality and tourism, have already failed. Many more will fail in the months to come if they don’t get the support they need — not only from local consumers, but from the federal government itself.

PPP isn’t perfect, but it works. And we’ll likely need at least one more round of it to enable businesses to survive this pandemic.

Opinion

Riots Reflect Deeper Issue of Racism

Editor’s Note: In the wake of recent incidents in Minneapolis and other communities, MassMutual chairman, president, and CEO Roger Crandall issued the following letter to employees.

In response to the racist acts that have come to light over the past several weeks, I wanted to directly address the deep frustration, anger, and sadness weighing heavily on all of us, especially the African-American and black community. The tragic and senseless deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd and the delays in bringing justice against those responsible, as well as the ugly confrontation in Central Park, have been vivid reminders of the prejudice and bigotry that continue to exist in our country.

Importantly, while we mourn for each of these victims, our hearts ache for many others previously killed under similar circumstances, including those whose names we don’t know, simply because there was no video or witness. These losses of human lives are staggering, unjust, and incomprehensible — and are taking a painful, emotional toll on our country.

The violence and riots of the past weekend are symptoms of the deeper issues of racism, inequality, and hopelessness that continue to exist in America today, and reflect the expressions of a community that feels its voice is not being heard. These issues have shaped everything from where people live to the healthcare they receive, to their access to education, to their treatment by the justice system. We see the results of this today during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people of color have shouldered a far greater impact, with the African-American and black community accounting for a higher proportion of deaths compared to other racial groups.

This is a vast, systemic problem, and I wish I was writing to you today with a crisp, detailed plan for how we will fix it. I don’t have this plan, and frankly no one does. But I can tell you instead what MassMutual is doing and what is on my mind.

First and foremost, I want to voice my — and the executive leadership team’s — support for our colleagues in the African-American and black community. Your voices, perspectives, and feelings matter to us. While I can’t begin to understand the full extent of your pain and hurt — how fear and discrimination are part of your everyday activities, or how you may worry as a parent when your child goes for a jog or enters a store — I want you to know we firmly stand with you as allies and advocates. Each of us can make a difference simply by asking how others are doing and spending time listening to their experiences, fears, and concerns, so we can learn more about what we can do as allies to take meaningful action and offer our support.

Secondly, at the heart of who we are and who we have been since our founding nearly 170 years ago is a company of people helping people. I want to reiterate that MassMutual’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is non-negotiable, and part of our core values and our promise to Live Mutual to make our world better. We will honor the memories of the victims of these senseless acts by influencing real change, and we are working with a cross-functional team, including representatives from our Passages Business Resource Group, to identify the best way to engage and act as an organization to advance how we address these complex issues.

Most immediately, Passages hosted a ‘Brave Space’ discussion recently to talk about these recent events and consider ways we can work together to build a sustainable, lasting effort to fight inequality and recognize and value the differences among us. While outside our walls, we are also actively working to unify business leaders to use our collective voices to drive change in our communities and workplaces.

In the meantime, I promise you this: MassMutual will stand with the victims of racism and hate crimes of any kind, with the people fighting oppression, and with everyone seeking to turn their sadness at recent events into actions that will build a better world. This is not the country I want to leave to my children and grandchildren. We can — and must — do better.

Opinion

Editorial

If you watched Gov. Charlie Baker at his highly anticipated press conference to announce the state’s reopening plan last week, you may have been very disappointed.

The governor said he is trying to create a balance between keeping people safe and attempting to resurrect an economy that was seen by many as being one of the strongest in the country — although not anymore, thanks in part to the governor.

If balance is the goal, this plan — if we can really call it a plan — falls way short. It doesn’t move quickly or profoundly enough, and it leaves far too many of the small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy without any real chance to weather this storm.

In short, Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside (if they can); a situation where a yoga school with eight students is put in the same category as a Planet Fitness with thousands of members.

As most everyone knows by now, the Baker administration’s reopening plan has four phases — named ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal.’ On May 18, a day every business owner had circled on his or her calendar, the governor gave some details on phase 1. Manufacturing and construction could restart immediately, with restrictions, as could places of worship, while hospitals and community health centers can now provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions. On May 25, laboratory and life-sciences facilities can open; offices can reopen, except in Boston; and recreational-marijuana shops can reopen, as can salons, barber shops, and pet groomers. Retail facilities can open for remote fulfillment and curbside pickup.

Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside.

But there are no details on phase 2, which includes restaurants and lodging, some healthcare facilities, and playgrounds and pools, or phase 3, which includes bars, casinos, gyms, and museums. All that’s known is that each phase will last at least three weeks and could be extended before moving on to the next stage, depending on factors like COVID rates, testing, and healthcare-system readiness.

For small businesses, this slow, plodding pace and lack of details makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan and — more importantly — stay alive. The governor’s plan is anything but a plan, and it will spell the demise of many small businesses.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, put things in perspective when he told BusinessWest, “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with those protocols. They’ll need to plan, order equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight.”

The reopening panel could have recognized the needs of small businesses and implemented common-sense protocols to allow them to open. Instead, it chose not to. Clearly, there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for just how endangered our state’s small businesses are, or what will become of our cities and towns if they are allowed to die on the vine.

These businesses need more than a belated plan with cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) named stages. They need a common-sense blueprint for effectively reopening an economy that’s been shut down for two tortuously long months.

The governor’s ‘plan’ is anything but that.

Opinion

Opinion

By Mary Flahive-Dickson

Seemingly, there is very little time for reflection these days. As we move from one news report, one Zoom meeting, one emergency to another, it is not lost on us that this is now our norm; life has changed. Restlessness is nationwide. Our communities are apprehensive at best, and our seniors are even more isolated now than any other historical time.

Social isolation, while defined as a lack of relationships and meaningful contact with society, needs to be further contemplated and gauged in our elder population as COVID-19 continues to force us to shelter in place, while begging for social and physical distance.

Caregivers, as catechized members of the front line, are being asked to rise to the challenge of defense against physical and social isolation of seniors.

Our elders are seemingly the target of so many evil pathogens and infections as their immunologic response has slowed and their physicality is compromised. Add life-changing risk factors such as retirement, death of loved ones, and the global nature of our society to the geriatric mix, and oftentimes the result assumes the form of social and physical isolation and loneliness.

Isolated and lonely seniors are at an increased risk for additional physical and emotional health conditions such as anxiety, high blood pressure, depression, and cognitive decline. With the loss of a sense of connectivity to the outside world and specifically their community, our elders run the risk of a decrease in wellness and a general decline in health.

Additionally, and especially in the current COVID-19 theatre, physical and emotional needs such as activities of daily living (ADL), companionship, and personal care may not be satisfied or executed. This situation is yet another nail in the proverbial coffin of enabling an immunologic response to infections, therefore rendering individuals less able to fight off disease, while increasing their risk of mortality.

Conversely, elders who engage with society, continue to be active and cognitively stimulated, have conversations, and have their ADLs satiated oftentimes experience increased positive influential health opportunities and many times are able to maintain the state of wellness longer.

Our role as caregivers is to facilitate an improvement or at least a maintenance of independence, health, and well-being of our elders. By providing for and assisting them with activities of daily living, promoting self-care, and reinforcing social support and a sense of community, caregivers continue to promote and disseminate multiple dimensions of physical and emotional health and wellness among this population.

As society continues to seesaw under the cloud of COVID-19, the senior population is not exempt from partaking in groups, programs, and activities which can help in thwarting physical and social isolation and loneliness. In fact, for the seniors, it is just the opposite. No populace has seen a furthering of isolation more than the seniors.

And, with home care widely accepted as a significant player in promotion of health and wellness, staving off mortality and reduction of admissions to institutional care such as hospitals and skilled-nursing facilities, caregivers’ roles should be touted as the front-line essential necessity they have always been, albeit unpronounced.

Mary Flahive-Dickson is chief operating officer for Golden Years Home Care Services.

Opinion

Reflection

By Darby O’Brien

Darby O'Brien

Darby O’Brien

It was 40 years ago — May 1, 1980 — that I started Darby O’Brien Advertising out of a side porch in Holyoke. Charlie Keenan worked with me on copy and concept and Carolyn Harrington handled the books. We outsourced design to Susan Fentin and Kerry Gavin from Brooklyn.

It all started with three clients: A.O. White Clothiers, the Yankee Pedlar Inn, and the Mt. Tom Ski Area.

The staff of three worked at one desk — a cheapo folding table with a tacky vinyl top. The first call we got was from Eddie Fauteaux from A.O. White and the folding table collapsed. Good start.

The inspiration for me to start a business was my great-great grandfather, Daniel O’Connell, who came over from Ireland and started a construction company. All I ever wanted was to build ads as good as Daniel O’Connell’s Sons built buildings, roads and bridges. My father was vice president of that company. 

My father also co-signed the loan from Security National Bank that helped me move the agency out of the side porch and put in a couple real desks. What a risk that was for him, considering it took me five schools and six years to get out of high school. I used to tell my dad, “The longer I go, the smarter I get.”

Al White, the owner of A.O. White, was on the board of the bank and when Wally Burnett, the president of Security National, called for a reference, Al said, “I’d bet my last buck on him.”

 We moved into Baystate West a month later. 

We spent a decade-plus in downtown Springfield. First in Baystate West and then in the historic Stacy Building, where they built the first American gasoline-powered car and where one of our clients, Taylor Street Dental, operates today. 

We had a good run in Springfield. Had a lot of lunches at the Fort and met many great people who became longtime clients and friends, including Brian Trelease, Denis Gagnon and many more. In 1991, we moved to the Village Commons in South Hadley where I designed the playhouse office, met Bill Ochoa, and began another series of adventures.

Just like Daniel O’Connell’s — and one of our best and longest-running clients, Excel Dryer — I’ve been lucky to have the next generation join the business. Joe and Gainer. That’s the best thing that’s happened over 40 years. When I’m gone, they’ll probably sink it. But what the hell.

 A couple of things said about the agency have stuck with me. Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin, said, “Nobody will fight harder for a client than those guys.” And Peter Picknelly, president of Peter Pan, said, “They do different good.” 

We’ve always gone over big with guys named Peter.

Hey, it’s always been about the creative. And I’ve always said about the ideas, “They’ll never buy it, but let’s do it anyway.”

It’s a strange time to be celebrating anything right now, but things have always been a little strange with this agency. It’s been a wild ride. But like I’ve been saying from the start, keep your dukes up.

Darby O’Brien is founder and president of Darby O’Brien Advertising.

Opinion

Editorial

“Free money.”

That’s the phrase one of the region’s bank presidents used in a recent interview with BusinessWest to describe funds contained within the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) being administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

He’s not entirely accurate with that choice of words — these loans are forgivable only if the companies receiving them keep everyone on the payroll for the prescribed period. But ‘free money’ is essentially what this is, if those requirements are met.

And the lure of free money is obviously quite strong, because interest in this program is off the charts. And as news starts to leak out about some of the large, national companies that are receiving this free money, it’s clear to us, and most everyone else, that some of it — and, unfortunately, a large portion of it — is not going to the desperate small businesses that need it most.

Hedge funds, national restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and J. Alexander’s, and a host of other large, public companies have all received several million dollars from the $369 billion fund, which was totally depleted less than two weeks after the program was officially launched. Meanwhile, Harvard University, with its $40 billion endowment, received nearly $9 million in aid from the federal government through the CARES Act — specifically, a $14 billion fund to support higher-education institutions during the pandemic. More ‘free money.’

Actually, Harvard received less than some other either Ivy League schools — Columbia and Cornell each got almost $13 million.

Whatever those numbers are, they represent poor allocation of money that is desperately needed to keep smaller businesses afloat during these ultra-challenging times. Harvard could certainly use $9 million, but it doesn’t need $9 million — not nearly as much as hundreds of struggling small colleges across the country do.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House could certainly use the $20 million it received, but it doesn’t need it to survive like the myriad small restaurants pushed to the brink of collapse need it.

Before we go any further, we’ll acknowledge that big companies have just as much right to apply for, and receive, stimulus money as the small ones do. They’re not breaking any laws by doing so. And we understand that a job saved is a job saved, whether that job was provided by a national taco chain or the corner pizza joint.

But the reality is, with a great many small businesses across this country, when it comes to the pandemic, we’re not talking about a bad quarter or a bad year — we’re talking about survival.

And while it wasn’t written into the legislation that created the Paycheck Protection Program and other forms of relief, enabling threatened companies to survive was, or should have been, the intent.

Moving forward, it should be. Many more relief measures will be passed in the months to come, and with these, Congress should be more diligent about who is eligible and who is actually awarded funds.

Meanwhile, we encourage those larger businesses to follow the lead of Shake Shack, the giant chain that was awarded PPP money and then gave it back amid the outcry from smaller businesses left high and dry.

“As we watched this opportunity play out over the weeks, it was very clear that the program was underfunded and wasn’t set up for everyone to win,” Shake Shack CEO and Chairman Danny Meyer said of his decision. “By returning our $10 million, that $10 million can go back into the pot and go to the people that deserve it.”

He’s right about that, and by ‘deserve,’ he means the hardworking small-business owners who simply don’t have the resources to weather this storm.

These are the people who deserve this ‘free money,’ and we’re hoping that, from this point forward, more of them wind up getting it.

Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

If one were to take a walk down Main Street — and I just did — it would be tempting to say that, if Springfield had any luck at all, it would be bad.

Yes, the pandemic is hitting every country, every state, every city and town, hard. As in very hard. But in Springfield, it seems worse, because things were — and I hope I don’t have to keep using the past tense — so much better. And the outlook was certainly bright and quite intriguing.

Now?

Now, we’re left to hope that, when this state gradually turns the economy back on again, the city can maybe pick up where it left off. That might be the best we can hope for at this point, but let’s stay optimistic.

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

And it’s momentum that we’ve lost most of all.

Let’s start at MGM Springfield. It’s eerily quiet there, almost as if things are frozen in time. The doors that were never supposed to be locked are now locked. And who can say when they will open again? Likewise, who can say what business will be like when the doors do open again?

After a quick walk around, it’s hard not to lament all that’s been lost, even though it’s clear that a shutdown was absolutely necessary to flatten the curve and put the region’s healthcare system in a position to do battle with this pandemic.

Casino floors are — in the best of times — crowded places with people sitting around blackjack tables, positioned just a few feet from each other at the rows of slot machines, jammed into the food court, and generally milling about, taking it all in. On a busy Friday or Saturday night, it’s difficult to find elbow room. When are people going to want to be in such a place again — especially the older population that makes up such a large part of this casino’s clientele? Indeed, the casino’s best customers are those most at risk.

But that’s just the casino floor. Perhaps the bigger contribution the casino has made has been to vibrancy in the downtown, the nightlife, through events in its ballrooms and shows at the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and other venues. Who can say when there will be another concert, another convention, or even a fundraising dinner for a local nonprofit agency?

People are optimistically eyeing late summer or perhaps the fall as a time when we can return to something approaching ‘normal.’ But how realistic are those projections?

Walk around Springfield, and most of the signs of progress, the indicators that this was a city on the rise, are now as silent as the casino.

There’s the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which was bringing families from every corner of the country to Springfield. It is now closed. So too is the Basketball Hall of Fame, which has undergone extensive renovations and was looking forward to a huge year as it inducts one of its most prestigious classes of honorees this fall.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently moved into Tower Square amid considerable fanfare as it started an intriguing chapter in its life, has seen both its fitness center and daycare center, its two largest revenue producers, shut down within just a month or two of opening.

At Union Station, the rail service that was starting to pick up steam has suffered a tremendous setback. People are now reluctant to get on trains, and even if they weren’t reluctant, there are really no places the train can take them — most workplaces are shut down, and so is every cultural attraction in New York.

Meanwhile, the restaurants that were such a big part of the city’s rebirth are now quiet, except for takeout, and many of the new businesses that had moved onto Bridge Street and other locations are locked down with their employees working from home — if they’re still working.

The lockdown, or shutdown, or whatever one wants to call it, isn’t even a month old yet. But it seems like an eternity. And for Springfield, it could not have come at a worse time — not that there’s ever a good time for a pandemic.

The pieces were starting to fall into the place, and the outlook was generally quite positive.

And now?

We have to hope that momentum is all we’ve lost, and that we haven’t lost too much of that precious commodity.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Coronavirus Opinion

Opinion

By George O’Brien

 

Remember that classic scene in Young Frankenstein (even you Millennials have seen it, I’m sure) when Gene Wilder (Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, pronounced Frankensteeen), and Marty Feldman (Igor) are in the graveyard digging up the corpse that will become the monster. Wilder says, “what a filthy job!” Feldman says, “it could be worse.” Wilder asks, “how could it possibly be worse?” Feldman says, “could be raining.”

And then it starts pouring.

Life has felt like that these past few weeks. Someone will say, ‘how could it be worse?’ And it starts raining, in a proverbial sense. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have lost some, most, or all of their revenue streams. People are running out of toilet paper — or they’re really, really afraid that they will. We lost Tom Brady to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers! (The who?) People stuck at home are losing their patience, if not their minds, and we’re just really getting started with this pandemic. And then it snowed on Monday!

There are no sports! How many times can we watch the Patriots beat the Falcons in replays of Super Bowl LII? We know how it ends! The Masters has been postponed if not cancelled. Golf courses are apparently not on the ‘essential’ businesses list put out by the governor’s office. How can golf courses not be on the essential businesses list?

If anyone says ‘it could be worse,’ our immediate temptation is to say, ‘no, it can’t.’

To borrow from Dickens, these really are the worst of times. This is worse than any downturn in the economy, worse than 9/11, worse than the Great Recession. It’s worse because there is so much uncertainty — about today, tomorrow, three months from now, and a year from now.

Not only that, but life is different now. Everything is weird. If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger. If we’re out at the store, we look at everyone as if they might have the virus, and the look isn’t a good one.

Everyone is on edge about their jobs, their life savings, their 401(k), their health, the health of their loved ones. You can see it in their faces, and if you’re talking to them on the phone (which we all are), you can hear in their voices. You can also hear them yawn, because people are not sleeping, by and large. Who could sleep with all this going on?

If we’re actually out on the sidewalk walking and we approach other people, we avoid them like a game of Frogger.

And yet, there is something else, something far more powerful and positive going on, and it’s worth noting.

Yes, there are now security guards and even off-duty police in the toilet-paper aisle in many supermarkets. And yes, sales of guns and ammo are skyrocketing. And yes, we’re already starting to see a rise in reported instances of domestic violence. But despite all this, it’s abundantly clear to me that people are caring more about each other.

And it’s about time.

People don’t just put their initials at the end of an e-mail anymore. They say ‘be well,’ ‘stay well,’ or ‘take care of yourself.’ And they mean it. People are bringing food and coffee to those who are shut in (and that’s most people now). Co-workers are being nicer to each other. When I dropped off the golf cart at a club in Connecticut last Saturday, I walked over to the attendant who was parking it — someone who would likely be unemployed in about 27 hours — and said (from six feet away), “good luck to you — hope you get through this OK.” And I meant it.

You’re seeing a lot more of that these days, and this, more than anything else, will get us to the other side — whenever and whatever that happens to be.

Yes, it could be worse. It could be raining. It seems like it’s already raining — pouring, in fact. But there’s a little sunlight trickling in.

And it might be just enough.

George O’Brien is the editor of BusinessWest.

Opinion

Editorial

Those in this region who have been in business a long time — and even those who have had their name over the door since the start of this century — have seen and endured quite a bit.

Indeed, over just the past 20 years or so, there’s a been the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the resulting downturn in the economy, followed by 9/11, soon after which the phrase heard most often in businesses across every sector was ‘the phones just stopped ringing.’ Later, of course, there was the Great Recession, when the phones again stopped ringing, as well as — all within a few months — a tornado, a hurricane, that snowstorm on Halloween, and the resulting power outages. There’s also been a workforce crisis, a skills gap, the arrival of the Millennials (who get blamed for everything), family medical leave, and who knows what else.

Like we said, businesses have been through a lot.

But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.

Look at what’s happening. Colleges are telling students not to come back from spring break while they figure out how to handle all classes remotely. Communities and organizations are canceling events like the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade and postponing others to future dates, hoping matters will improve. States are declaring emergencies, and people are being advised to avoid large gatherings. The stock market is in ‘bear’ territory.

Communities haven’t taken steps like this World War II, if they even took them then. Or since 1919, when the Spanish Influenza pandemic raced around the globe, killing millions.

The worst thing about all this, as we said, is that people can’t rely on experience, because there is simply none to fall back on. This isn’t like a recession or a tornado or a terrorist attack in New York.

“… businesses have been through a lot. But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.”

They still ran the St. Patrick’s Day Parade during the Great Recession. The region’s colleges stayed open after 9/11. No one cancelled meetings and conventions following the tornado in 2011.

This is different. Very, very different.

So what do we do when we can’t call on experience?

We rely on common sense, our strengths, and our ability to innovate. In short, this is what has seen us through all of those downturns and natural disasters mentioned above.

And by innovation, we mean our capacity to look at what we do and how we do it, and find new and perhaps better ways. And if we can do that, we’re not simply hunkering down, waiting things out, or trying to survive; we’re making ourselves stronger and more resilient.

Looking back on 2008 and 2009, as companies coped with the worst downturn in 80 years, many found ways to better maximize resources, and especially people, while also creating new avenues for revenue and growth. Those challenging days provided a stern test, and the businesses that passed it certainly reaped the benefits of their perseverance and resourcefulness by becoming more resilient overall.

In short, they learned something, and they benefited from what they learned.

Coronavirus will likely present another stern test, and it will require a similar response — creativity and innovation.

And it will require something else as well — a firm understanding that small businesses (and large ones as well) are being severely impacted by this and need any form of support you can give them. From pizza shops, coffee shops, restaurants, and taverns losing the business of college students who won’t be returning, to banquet facilities losing scores of events scheduled for the coming weeks; from Holyoke shops that won’t get that huge parade bounce to travel-related businesses seeing cruises and flights canceled — businesses are hurting. And they’ll need help to get through this.

That’s what we mean by uncharted territory.

Opinion

Opinion

By Paul Caron

If you Google ‘health insurance profits,’ it’s clear the industry is doing very well in the U.S. According to one article, the five largest insurers — Anthem, Cigna, CVS Health, Humana, and UnitedHealth Group — cumulatively expect to collect almost $787 billion in 2019.

A share of Anthem’s stock is more than double what it was just five years ago. Cigna’s stock price has not quite doubled in the last five years, but it is close. Humana stock has also doubled in five years, and UnitedHealth Group’s is worth about three times as much in that same time frame. Only poor CVS is down — but you get the picture: it’s good to be in the health-insurance industry.

The primary reason health insurers are doing so well is due to Obamacare, which mandated people in this country get health insurance. In some ways, the health insurers are no different than the gas or electric companies — they are monopolies, and you have to pay them. The federal government has been very good to that industry, and it’s about to happen again.

Legislation in Congress to end surprise billing, is going to put billions in the pockets of health insurers. Now, surprise billing is a terrible problem. In case you don’t know, you get a surprise bill when you go to a hospital that is in your network, but the doctors you see are not. This typically happens in emergency situations, because many hospital emergency rooms are separate entities from the hospital and are not covered by the same insurance plans. Surprise bills in the six figures aren’t uncommon.

In some ways, the health insurers are no different than the gas or electric companies — they are monopolies, and you have to pay them.

This legislation, sponsored by Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander and essentially replicated in the Democrat-chaired House Energy and Commerce and Education committees, is problematic regardless of its good intentions. These bills purport to end the practice by putting the onus on ER doctors and other emergency services to either cut their prices or allow insurance companies to reimburse them at the local median cost. These bills require a negotiation between insurers and emergency-services providers, but it’s not a negotiation if one side knows a federal law will allow them to pay less if they can’t reach agreement.

Another wonderful gift for the health insurers from Uncle Sam.

The problem for the American people, and workers, is that many emergency services are going to suffer or be pared back, in order to ensure that health-insurance companies remain grossly profitable. If this legislation becomes law, services like air ambulances will be crushed. If you live in a rural area, it’s hard to see how emergency helicopters will continue to service remote areas if this legislation becomes law.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in six emergency-room visits in 2017 was out of network, which substantially increases the cost of care. This situation cannot persist.

But it just doesn’t seem fair that health insurers, again, get to walk away unscathed, while hospitals, emergency-services providers, patients, and the American taxpayer will be left paying more to ensure that healthcare is accessible.

Paul Caron served as a Massachusetts state representative from 1983 to 2003.

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

Opinion

Editorial

A few weeks back, we referenced that massive public hearing conducted to provide an update on the ongoing study of rail options for the Commonwealth. At that time, we focused on the high degree of skepticism concerning the state’s projections for cost and especially ridership (Western Mass. planners project almost 500,000 riders annually, while MassDOT has estimated roughly half that number and now promises to take a second look at the projections) and, overall, the many expressed opinions that the state wasn’t being sincere in its approach to this study.

All this is problematic on many levels. But there was one comment that was troubling on another level. It had to do with repeated use of the phrase ‘east-west rail,’ which has been used in most of the discussions and is even the formal name of this ongoing initiative — the ‘East-West Passenger Rail Study.’ The comment was made that it should be called ‘west-east rail’ because this is the region that would be benefit, and — we’re paraphrasing here — it’s essentially a Western Mass. project.

This line of thinking is flawed in a number of respects. Let’s start with the whole Western Mass. inferiority-complex thing — and it is a thing. Many out here have that complex, and it manifests itself in a number of ways, including jokes — if they’re even jokes — about how this region would be better off if it seceded and became part of Vermont. But to suggest that labeling a study ‘East-West’ as opposed to ‘West-East’ is a slight, and an indication of the state’s indifference to all the real estate west of Worcester, is take things too far and miss the far bigger point.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

But there’s something else that’s wrong with this line of thinking — something far more important. This isn’t a Western Mass. project, and it can’t simply be a Western Mass. project. Why? Because it will never sell if it is. The state just isn’t going to spend $25 billion or $5 billion or even $2 billion — the various price tags attached to the options outlined at the meeting last month — on a Western Mass. project.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

We get it. This project is mostly, if not entirely, being pushed by Western Mass. lawmakers and especially state Sen. Eric Lesser from Longmeadow. And one of their arguments is that this rail line would likely provide a huge boost to many of the cities and towns that are not seeing the same kind of economic prosperity being enjoyed by communities inside Route 128. It would provide a lifeline to communities that are seeing their populations age and decline because young people don’t have enough incentives to live in these places. It would, according to those proposing it, help level the laying field between east and west.

But that’s not the only argument, and it can’t be the only argument if this thing is ever going to move beyond the study phase and stand any chance of being approved by the Legislature.

For this to work, it has to be a project that will benefit not only Chester and Palmer, Pittsfield and Springfield, but also Boston and its suburbs, which are seeing congestion, traffic, and overall cost of living rise to almost untenable levels.

We understand that a name is not a big deal, and it’s mostly about semantics. Why not call it the ‘West-East Rail Study’? We could, if it would make people out here feel better (it wouldn’t make us feel better). But we should instead call it the ‘Commonwealth Rail Study,’ because it’s a project to benefit those living or working on both sides of the state.

If it wasn’t, it would never get off the ground.

Opinion

Editorial

We’re not sure just how the people of this region should take this, but apparently Western Mass. is finally getting some attention.

That’s attention as in … things are soooo bad in and around Boston when it comes to congestion, traffic, and the sky-high cost of housing (and living in general) that some people are thinking about maybe — dare we say it — thinking about possibly giving this area a look.

That’s what we mean by attention.

It seems that, as officials and residents alike ask out loud about possible solutions to the worsening situation in Boston, Western Mass. — and Worcester in some cases — are being mentioned as places where people might go to escape what’s happening in Beantown.

A few months ago, BusinessWest talked with local realtor and real-estate manager Evan Plotkin, who firmly believes that Boston’s rents have gone so high that some business owners, as well as those who run some state agencies, might be willing to move to Springfield, where the lease rates are a fraction what they are in the 617 — and some of the other zip codes as well.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi submitted a piece with this headline: “The Solution to Boston’s Housing and Congestion Crisis? Western Mass.,” and the subhead: “With high-speed rail, plus a major attitude adjustment, Western Massachusetts could be Greater Boston’s new hot neighborhood.”

We’ll get to the rail and ‘attitude adjustment’ parts in a minute. First, that column…

In the article, at what appears to be an invite from state Sen. Eric Lesser — or maybe it’s a challenge — Vennochi visits Western Mass. and writes about getting off at exit 5 in Chicopee. Perhaps she’s simply role-playing (assuming the identity of someone who needs an introduction to this area), but her trek seems much like a visit to a foreign country. Maybe she brought her passport with her just in case.

She marvels at the low housing prices in Hampden County, raves about the co-work space available at the Brewer-Young Mansion in Longmeadow, and describes the Valley Venture Mentors offices in the Springfield Innovation Center as “cool space.” She goes on to interview some people living and working here, as well as one couple that left Boston for Holyoke and admit to not really missing the Hub that much.

Like many of her readers in the Boston area, this was a real learning experience, and one that might, that’s might, open some eyes.

But now we have to return to that subtitle and what amounts to huge caveats, or stumbling blocks, concerning Western Mass.

The first is rail service. Not many will be willing to leave much-higher-paying jobs in the Boston area to come here, and few will want to keep them and commute from here at the present two hours each way. So high-speed rail will be essential to getting more people to move to the 413.

The other problem is that attitude-adjustment thing. One is definitely needed if some people are even going to look west. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Opinion

Editorial

Mike Mathis, the individual who guided MGM Springfield through the permitting and construction phases and then the first 17 months of operation, is out at the South End resort casino. MGM has chosen to go in another direction, leadership-wise, and probably also with regard to how the casino operates.

Mathis’s ouster was announced Tuesday, and it was immediately linked to December’s record-low monthly performance for the Springfield casino when it comes to gross gaming revenues — under $19 million. That same month, Encore Boston had its best month since it opened last summer (with $54 million), and the juxtaposition of the numbers is telling.

What they show, at least from a gaming revenues standpoint, is that MGM is not attracting enough gamblers — it’s not bringing enough people to its doors. Chris Kelley, who ran MGM’s operation in Northfield Park in Ohio and took over in Springfield on Tuesday, will be charged with changing that equation. Mathis will assume a new role as senior vice president of Business Development at MGM, working on various company initiatives.

“We are excited to have Chris lead the MGM Springfield team,” said Jorge Perez, regional portfolio president of MGM Resorts International. “Chris’ experience in Ohio, rebranding and integrating a property and introducing MGM to the community, will be an asset for Springfield as we continue to work closely with the community and strive to not only be a world-class entertainment destination but also a good corporate neighbor.”

That won’t be an easy assignment. Indeed, while MGM Springfield has succeeded in bringing jobs, additional vibrancy, and opportunities for a number of small businesses, it hasn’t really succeeded in its primary mission — bringing people to Springfield.

This has been clear since the day it opened in August 2018, when visitation was well below what was expected. For roughly a year, Mathis repeatedly used the phrase ‘ramping up’ to describe what was happening, with the expectation — based on previous experience at other casinos — that the numbers would improve.

There have been some good months since, but the numbers haven’t improved significantly, if at all. And now that Encore Boston seems to be hitting its stride, it will that much more difficult to improve those gaming revenues.

From the start, the question has always been ‘will people come to Springfield?’ But there have been variations on that query, including ‘will people come to Springfield now that Encore Boston is open?’ and ‘will people come to Springfield instead of Boston, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and all the other places where there’s casino gambling?’

Roughly 17 months after the casino opened, the answer to the question is the proverbial ‘yes, but…’ And the ‘but’ is followed by ‘not enough of them.’

It’s clear that MGM will have to create more draws — like the highly successful Red Sox Winter Weekend that brought an estimated 10,000 people to Main Street — to bring individuals and groups to the City of Homes.

In short, people need more reasons to come to the Springfield casino, and it will be Chris Kelley’s assignment to create them.

Opinion

Editorial

Twenty-three years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition initiative called our ‘Top Entrepreneur’ award.

We would have called it ‘Entrepreneur of the Year,’ but that phrase was, and still is, copyrighted. Besides, most of the people we’ve honored over the years weren’t recognized only for accomplishments in a given year, but instead for what they’ve done over a lifetime — or at least to that point in their career. And, in many cases, we also honored their compelling vision for what might be, and their ongoing work to achieve it. Past, present, and future.

Cinda Jones, our Top Entrepreneur for 2019, falls into all three categories.

Indeed, she has already spearheaded a transformation of the North Amherst neighborhood her family business, W.D. Cowls Inc., calls home, moving on from an unprofitable sawmill a decade ago and cultivating a period of both significant land conservation — like the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in Leverett and Shutesbury and an adjacent, 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham — and community-development initiatives.

The latter is best represented these days by North Square at the Mill District, a still-evolving mixed-use project that’s attracting residents, eclectic retailers, eateries, and what she calls ‘experiences’ (fun ones — she’s not soliciting dentists or accountants).

But perhaps the most intriguing element of this project is the vision that sustains it. It’s a vision of how people, especially young people, want to live in the 21st century — their longing for more face-to-face contact, their growing awareness of climate change, and their general desire to live in a hive of activity, not a long drive from it.

Any developer can invest in modern, well-appointed buildings and sign up whatever tenants show interest; Jones and her team aren’t settling for anyone, though. They want North Square to be an economic success, but also a rich way of life for those who choose to live and work there.

Western Mass. has been home to plenty of entrepreneurial vision over the decades and centuries, from legends like Milton Bradley and gunmakers Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson to the names BusinessWest has profiled as Top Entrepreneurs for the past quarter-century. Those range from Pride CEO Bob Bolduc, V-One Vodka President Paul Kozub, and Paragus Strategic IT President Delcie Bean — people who started companies from scratch and brought them to regional prominence — to Big Y’s D’Amour family and Balise Motor Sales President Jeb Balise, who built significantly on the work of multiple generations before them.

Again, Cinda Jones represents both models in some ways, stewarding a nine-generation family business but doing it in completely different ways, and with totally new enterprises, than in the past.

What all 24 years of honorees share, despite their vastly different achievements, is vision — to see opportunities that others had not — as well as the work ethic to act on that vision and a desire to see people’s lives improved in some way by the end result.

That sort of vision and energy is what much of the Pioneer Valley’s economy is built on, and, from our perspective, it’s not in short supply. v

Opinion

Opinion

By Gretchen Harrison

Massachusetts employers project lower wage and salary increases, a consistent level of recruitment activity, and moderating health-insurance premium increases for 2020 after navigating a solid but volatile economy during 2019.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently published its 2020 HR Practices Report, showing that companies project a 2.77% salary-increase budget for 2020, consistent with the 2.71% actual increase reported for 2019 but down from the 2.86% reported in the 2018 HR Practices Report.

Meanwhile, national salary-increase projections for 2020 have risen slightly from the prior year to 3.3%. Salary-increase trends in Massachusetts have tended to lag national numbers in recent years, and the gap has begun to widen.

How does a state with a 2.9% unemployment rate, a persistent shortage of skilled workers, and an impending demographic cliff show slower wage growth than the rest of the nation? Survey data suggest several reasons.

First, escalating regulatory costs (minimum wage) and non-wage compensation costs (health insurance and paid family and medical leave) are making employers cautious about increasing pay. Companies generally have a set compensation budget, so increases in these ancillary costs may put downward pressure on wages. In addition, the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act may be limiting the degree to which employers are able to offer compensation incentives to ‘superstar’ job candidates.

Members of the AIM Board of Economic Advisers offer additional explanations:

• Wages are already much higher than the national average in Massachusetts, meaning increases represent a smaller percentage of total wages.

• Massachusetts is aging quickly. Older workers are at a steadier place in their careers and see slower wage growth. As they retire, they are replaced by less expensive younger workers. This is a natural drag on overall wage growth.

• The higher-skill workers who dominate the Massachusetts economy get a significant portion of their compensation in non-wage forms like bonuses, commissions, and stock options. Projected recruitment activity for 2020 is expected to be comparable with actual recruitment experienced in 2019, which saw a significant increase over 2018 volumes.

The wage and salary increase projections come as unemployment in Massachusetts remains at record low levels. And while the state economy contracted by 0.2% during the third quarter, analysts say the downturn does not appear to indicate the beginning of a recession, but rather the capacity limits against which the state is bumping.

These include the barriers to labor-force growth presented by an aging population as the departure of Baby Boomers from the regional workforce continues.

Gretchen Harrison is director of AIM HR Solutions.

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written in the past that it’s wise to be wary about a good many of these ‘top 10’ or ’50 best’ lists that come out regularly, charting everything from the most attractive places to retire to the ‘most unsafe’ cities in the country.

It’s always best to take them with a grain of salt.

But sometimes, these lists can provide food for thought, and that is certainly the case when it comes to Springfield finding a home — let’s hope it’s a permanent home — on Inc. magazine’s list of the 50 Best U.S. Cities for Starting a Business in 2020, or its ‘Surge Cities Index.’

The City of Homes is right there at No. 46, one spot behind Houston, one ahead of Tulsa, Okla., and 45 behind Austin, Texas. Beyond that general ranking, there are other measures, and Springfield, according to Inc., ranks 14th in wage growth, 22nd in early-stage funding deals, and 28th in net business creation.

These lists are incredibly subjective and wholly unscientific, and no one can really say if Springfield is the 46th-best place to start a business or the 43rd, or the 52nd. But what’s more important than the number is what Inc. had to say about the city and what’s really behind that ranking.

Let’s start with the headline. “In the Pioneer Valley, founders are made, not imported.” That’s an accurate description of what’s going on in this region — businesses get started here and, hopefully, grow here — and a very telling one. Indeed, Western Mass. is trying to grow its base of businesses organically, primarily out of necessity.

Here’s what Inc. had to say:

“This Pioneer Valley city benefits from its proximity to the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, which serves as an incubator for startup talent. Founders in this Massachusetts town can develop further with Valley Venture Mentors, a grant-fund mentorship organization, and innovation center TechSpring. The latter organization focuses primarily on latter-stage startups in healthcare, while the former has helped more than 300 startups since its founding in 2011. ‘We don’t have a bias toward high tech. We have a bias toward the people who live here,’ says Valley Venture Mentors CEO Kristin Leutz. ‘[People here] see anyone as a potential high-growth entrepreneur.’”

Slicing through this commentary, it is now evident that Greater Springfield’s entrepreneurship ecosystem is not only gaining some momentum, it is gaining some attention. We’re quite sure the region was already on the proverbial map when it comes to startups and innovation, and this ranking provides still more evidence.

Such an ecosystem involves a lot of moving parts — incubators, mentorship groups, colleges and universities with entrepreneurship programs, angel investors, venture-capital groups, and more — and they have to work in unison to create startups, nurture them, get them to the next stage, and, hopefully, keep them in this region.

Springfield has a long way to go before it has a startup environment like Austin, Salt Lake City, Durham, N.C., Denver, and Boise, Idaho — the top five cities on Inc.’s list — but it’s making its presence known, both to the editors at Inc. and hopefully with people looking to launch a business.

Like we said at the top, one has to be careful not to read too much into these ‘best-of’ lists. But we can read something from this one — that all those efforts to encourage and mentor entrepreneurs in this region are starting to pay off. v

Opinion

Opinion

By Sue Kline

It’s an autumn afternoon at the Morgan School in Holyoke, and Superintendent Stephen Zrike Jr. is performing what might look like a magic trick, or maybe a minor miracle: he has the quiet, rapt attention of a class full of boisterous preschoolers, who sit in a semicircle with mouths agape and eyes glued on him and what he’s holding in his hand.

It’s not an iPad or a smartphone or a flashy toy or a magic wand — it’s a book. Specifically, it’s The Family Book by Todd Parr, one of four books the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) is gifting to children in Holyoke Public Schools and Springfield Public Schools this year through Stories to Achieve Reading Success (STARS), an initiative to support early reading and family engagement. After the reading and a discussion, the children — smiling wide and with a bit of shock — receive their own individual copies to take home and read with their families.

For these children, these books are magic: they open doors to new worlds, they offer enchanting stories and illustrations that are just as miraculous on the 50th read as on the first, and the books are theirs to keep forever. In today’s digital age, where screens are ubiquitous and you can read a 1,000-page novel on your phone, there is still something special about holding a beautiful book in your hands.

Parent Ashley Garcia is thrilled with the most recent selection, saying, “I absolutely love how The Family Book acknowledges diversity. Sometimes it can be challenging to explain to young children that all families are unique, yet, despite differences, all families are brought together by one thing, which is love. The colorful pictures and simple words make this a perfect gift.”

HGCF introduced STARS, now in its second year, to advance a simple but urgent goal — to help get kids in Holyoke and Springfield reading from a young age. Abundant academic research suggests strong linkages between early reading and later educational success. That makes STARS much more than a program that makes learning more fun and engaging for children and families; it’s an investment in the long-term futures of these students that can pay dividends for years to come.

Patricia Chavez, Holyoke’s director of Early Childhood Learning, notes that “partnering with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation has been a wonderful opportunity, bolstering the home-to-school connection, something we are always striving toward. Because each book is accompanied with reading tips and ideas for parents, there’s a great opportunity for families to engage.”

STARS gifts four books throughout the year from the established curriculum to 2,400 children in Springfield and Holyoke preschools. The program is a real gem — we’re awed by the extraordinary work being done in classrooms by preschool educators who transmit to youngsters an early love of stories, and very proud that the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation can help extend preschoolers’ positive classroom reading experiences into their homes.”

For more information about STARS and available opportunities to assist in expanding outreach to additional Holyoke and Springfield preschools, e-mail [email protected].

Sue Kline is director of  Stories to Achieve Reading Success.

Opinion

Editorial

Often, when we say that something, or some trend, is ‘changing the landscape,’ we don’t mean literally, and we’re often exaggerating.

That was not the case with some of the biggest stories of the 2010s, a decade in which the landscape was changed literally, but also figuratively, and in all kinds of ways.

Start with the tornado that roared through the region on June 1, 2011. It certainly altered the landscape, from Springfield to Brimfield. But there were other landscape-altering developments over the past 10 years, especially the introduction of casino gambling and the arrival of a broad, multi-faceted cannabis industry in Massachusetts. More on both of those later.

But there were other significant changes to the landscape — specifically, the business landscape — that took place over the past decade. And they’re all still having a profound impact.

These range from ongoing workforce challenges facing employers across every single sector of the economy to the continued growth and maturity of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, to the opening of the Dr. Suess Museum at the Quadrangle, an addition that is certainly helping to put Springfield on the map.

Speaking of Springfield and being on the map, it’s pretty safe to say that more people are setting their GPS for the City of Homes than at any time in recent memory (we know, GPS hasn’t been around that long, but you get the point). The casino in the city’s South End has a lot to do with that, but overall, the city is enjoying a renaissance of sorts that involves the arts, tourism, entrepreneurship and innovation, a new hockey team, some new businesses, and even some new places to live.

There is still considerable work to do, but it’s safe to say that the city has rebounded nicely from the fiscal nightmare of a decade ago and now has what could be called momentum as we enter the 2020s.

As for the casino and cannabis, these were the biggest stories of the decade, and they could well be among the biggest in the decade to come.

MGM Springfield has transformed the South End into something one might find in Las Vegas. The question on everyone’s minds, though, is just how many people are finding it. The revenues — as in gross gambling revenues, or GGR — are not what they were projected to be, and that is certainly cause for concern.

But, revenues aside, the casino is certainly bringing more vibrancy to the downtown, especially when big shows are slated. And the complex holds considerable promise for luring more convention groups to the region.

The casino will certainly be making headlines for years, but the question remains — what kind of headlines?

As for cannabis … we wrote several months ago that this development is likely to be far more impactful than the casino on a regional basis, and we’re already seeing that. In communities like Holyoke, Easthampton, Northampton, and others, cannabis is bringing jobs, tax revenues, and new opportunities for development of commercial real estate, much of it previously vacant or underutilized.

And we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial real estate.

The cannabis industry, in most respects, is still very much in its infancy. What will it look like when it’s all grown up? That’s a matter to be decided in the next decade.

As for the one that’s soon to be referred to in the past tense … it was one of profound change to the landscape, in every sense of that phrase.

Opinion

Opinion

By Robert Rio

The climate protesters who took to the streets of Boston earlier this month targeted the wrong people.

If these people really want to impact the climate debate, they should turn their attention outside of a state that is already well on its way to achieving the goals outlined at the State House demonstrations.

Massachusetts has had a law on the books for more than a decade that mandates an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from all sectors (electric generation, transportation, and buildings) by 2050. Admittedly, that isn’t 100%, but worrying about whether Massachusetts meets 80% or 100% misses the larger picture.

There are separate regulations aimed at carbon reduction as well. State policy requires that 80% of electricity be generated using carbon-free sources by 2050. And new proposed regulations by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will move that requirement to nearly 100% during the same time frame. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) supports the proposed regulations.

The Baker administration has already finalized contracts for one offshore wind farm, and another one is going through the approval process. These developments will leave the region humming with new turbines.

Additionally, a large hydro power project is being routed through Maine to supply about 18% of Massachusetts’ total power. Without hydro power, our transition to carbon-free energy will be delayed for decades because it would take an enormous amount of additional solar or offshore wind to make up for the loss of carbon-free hydro power.

That leaves transportation, which accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse-gas emissions — 45% and growing.

Gov. Baker has been a leader in addressing transportation-based greenhouse gases and is a visible backer of the 12-state (plus the District of Columbia) regional effort to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). AIM has joined with the administration and several environmental groups to support this effort, and the governor is always looking for more support.

TCI will establish a regional cap on carbon emissions while auctioning emissions allowances. Proceeds from the TCI fee will be sent back to each participating state to improve statewide public transportation and to encourage fuel users to purchase alternative vehicles.

A MassINC poll published this month found that a majority of registered voters in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia strongly or somewhat support their home state’s participation in TCI. Some states, however, are balking at joining TCI. Perhaps the Boston climate activists could take their message to other state capitals to ensure that this critical multi-state effort gets off the ground.

Declaring victory and moving on is tough, but it is necessary to move on from Massachusetts and concentrate efforts in those areas where the greatest changes should be made. The best thing for all of us to do is acknowledge our work favorably and let the rest of the nation know it can be done with the right leadership.

Robert Rio is senior vice president, Government Affairs at AIM.

Opinion

Editorial

Ordinarily, a press release announcing that one of the region’s colleges or universities had maintained its accreditation with the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) would barely register as news.

But this was not the case with the recent announcement that NECHE voted to continue the accreditation of Hampshire College. Or ‘embattled Hampshire College,’ as the case may be, because it seems that this adjective has more or less became attached to the school as it has endured severe economic hardship over the past 18 months or so.

Indeed, maintaining accreditation was hardly a foregone conclusion for this school, which has seen enrollment drop dramatically, putting it in fiscal peril. In fact, for some, it seemed like a long shot.

So NECHE’s vote, which essentially buys Hampshire College two years to put itself on much more solid ground, is a milestone, and, hopefully, the first of many.

The vote is affirmation that the school — which has vowed to maintain its independence, launched a major fundraising campaign, hired a new president and several other administrators, and set ambitious goals for enrollment for 2020, its 50th-anniversary year — is on the right track.

Hampshire and its new leader, Ed Wingenbach, said they had a plan, or a path forward. They told NECHE that it is “ambitious, data-driven, and achievable.” And NECHE, apparently, is in agreement.

But this doesn’t mean Hampshire College is out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

While the school maintained its accreditation, there were some caveats, most of them involving what’s known as “institutional resources,’ or the bottom line. Hampshire’s still isn’t very good, and it needs to get much better.

To that end, the school has set about raising $60 million by 2024; an ambitious capital campaign called “Change in the Making: A Campaign for Hampshire” was kicked off at ceremonies on the campus last week. And while Hampshire is off to a great start — more than $11 million has been raised toward that goal, and the school has some good friends that can help it in this endeavor (alumnus Ken Burns is serving as co-chair of the campaign), that is a very big number.

And, as been noted several times over the past few years, demographics and other conditions are not working in Hampshire’s favor as it works to stabilize its future. High-school classes continue to get smaller, and this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the sky-high price of a college education is prompting many young people and their parents to put a premium on value and return on investment when they search for a school, a trend that further endangers small private schools with large price tags — like Hampshire.

Had the school not maintained accreditation, that would have been a virtual death knell. It’s hard enough to attract students considering the conditions listed above; it’s nearly impossible when a school has lost accreditation.

But the announcement from NECHE is merely the first of several milestones that Hampshire must reach. This will still be an uphill battle, but the school has in essence made it through base camp.

Hampshire College has been given an important lease on life. Now, it must make the very most of this opportunity.

Opinion

Editorial

To walk into Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield was to step back in time. And everyone loved to do it.

Wilson’s, a Main Street staple, was the last of the old-time downtown department stores in this region. For the younger generations, a trip there was just something different — as in different from going to the mall (what few are left) and different from shopping online and getting the item delivered.

For Baby Boomers, though, going there was like going into a time machine and back to their youth. Back to the day when the department stores were downtown and you had to go to one floor to find housewares and another to buy a tie. Back to the day when life — and retail — were seemingly much simpler.

Wilson’s, a Main Street staple, was the last of the old-time downtown department stores in this region.

Soon, you’ll actually need a time machine to enjoy such an experience, because Wilson’s, a store that opened nearly 140 years ago, will be closing its doors as soon as its remaining inventory is gone.

Kevin O’Neil, president of the store that has been operated by his wife’s family for roughly 90 years, announced late last month that will be retiring and closing the landmark. He told area media outlets that he could have kept the store going for a few more years, despite radical changes in retail that have made survival much more challenging, but he wanted to retire while he was still in good health.

The closing will leave a very large hole in Greenfield’s downtown — although there are a number of intriguing reuse alternatives in a city that is enjoying a resurgence of sorts — and a hole in the hearts of people who loved this landmark’s unique qualities and old-time charm.

But this closing was in almost all ways inevitable. Retail is changing, and bricks and mortar, especially in downtown settings, are becoming anachronistic.

Across the region and across the country, shopping malls are closing and being converted into what are known as ‘lifestyle centers’ that blend some retail with some residential and maybe some office space; one is being planned for the site of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, this region’s first enclosed mall.

As for downtowns, they have long since ceased being a place where most people shop. In Springfield, Chicopee, Holyoke, Westfield, and other area communities, downtowns are still places to gather and maybe eat, enjoy a cocktail, see a show, or go to work in a co-working space. But not to shop.

At least not the way people did 50 or even 30 years ago. Those days are gone, and all evidence seems to indicate that they are not coming back.

Which brings us back to Wilson’s.

Yes, this is a sad day. It’s always sad when we lose something we cherish. But while we can and should mourn this loss, we could — and we should — celebrate what we had.

In Wilson’s, that was a trip back in time. And whether you did it every week or once every year, you loved the experience.

It will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

On the gridiron, they call it ‘piling on.’

That’s when one tackler stops the ball carrier and begins to take him down, and a number of teammates come over and help him get the job done. That’s piling on.

The phrase has been adapted for use off the football field as well. It has taken on several meanings, and is often used in the context of debates and adding many voices to an expressed opinion on a particular subject.

With that, we’ll say we’re piling on today on the subject of UMass football, or the sorry state of UMass Amherst football, to be more precise. To be sarcastic, and a little snarky, this team probably hasn’t piled on all season, and that explains why it’s giving up more than 50 points a game on average. And this isn’t to LSU, Ohio State, or Oklahoma, either. It’s to Army, Liberty, UConn, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern, and other non-powerhouses in college football.

But this isn’t a column for the sports page. It’s an editorial for a business publication. College football is business, but, more to the point, we believe the sad state of the football team is hurting the business — and the brand — of the state university.

We’re not the only ones expressing this opinion, hence that comment about piling on.

Indeed, other media outlets have gone beyond printing the abysmal scores of the UMass games — 44-0, 69-21, 63-21, and 63-7 have been some of the recent ones — and are now asking, ‘why are we still doing this?’

‘This,’ of course, is playing football in what’s known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the Alabamas, Georgias, and Notre Dames live. UMass has played all those schools and others, generally receiving more than $1 million for the privilege of traveling to those college towns, becoming a designated cupcake on the schedule, and getting trucked by the home team.

We’d say it’s getting embarrassing, but it’s well past the ‘getting’ stage — so much so that UMass President Marty Meehan, who was at the Army game at West Point a few weeks back and witnessed the carnage (that’s the 63-7 score, and it wasn’t really that close) first-hand, knew what reporters were calling about the following Monday before they asked their first question.

When asked by the Boston Globe whether the school should give up the ghost and drop back down a level in college football, Meehan danced around the matter and essentially said it was up to the school and its chancellor to make that decision.

Maybe he’s right, but he could certainly help them make it, and we believe he should.

Over the past several years, we’ve written countless stories about a university on the rise — a business school climbing up the ranks nationally, astronomers helping to provide proof of black holes, student scientists and entrepreneurs turning discoveries in the lab into new businesses, and a food-service program second to none — and a brand taking hold nationally.

Football can’t and won’t kill the brand, but these scores, this embarrassment on the field, certainly isn’t helping, and of late, it has become a distraction.

Yes, this football season will mercifully end in a few weeks, and maybe the press will go away for a while and stop talking about football. But the problem isn’t going away — and it is a problem, a very big problem.

Nearly a decade after entering the Football Bowl Subdivision, UMass isn’t making any progress. In fact, it’s regressing. It is struggling mightily to recruit solid players, as might be expected given the school’s location and its track record for losing by 40 points every week. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. The school is finding out that this is a cycle you can’t break.

Maybe the money is working out, but we think it’s more of a wash than anything else. And the school’s reputation, or brand, is taking a serious hit that can’t be mitigated by the hockey team going to the national finals last spring.

The team has become a punching bag and a punchline, and it’s time for the university to cut its losses.

Opinion

Opinion

By Kristen Rupert

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and its 3,500 members urge the U.S. Congress to approve the new USMCA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The reason is simple — Canada and Mexico purchase more U.S.-made goods than the next 11 trading partner countries combined. USMCA will help to preserve more than 2 million American manufacturing jobs — at least 15,000 of them in Massachusetts — that rely on trade with Canada and Mexico.

Time is short for Congress to act. The U.S. House and Senate need to pass the USMCA before the year’s end.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Democrats have inched closer to supporting the deal. They have worked to iron out lingering concerns in weeks of talks with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The USMCA was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). USMCA strengthens and modernizes intellectual-property rules, sets new digital-economy standards, expands U.S. manufacturers’ access to Canada and Mexico, ensures that U.S. companies can sell their products duty-free into these markets, eliminates red tape at the border, and levels the playing field by raising standards, prohibiting anti-U.S. discrimination, and strengthening enforcement.

AIM is in contact with the Massachusetts delegation in Congress to encourage them to pass the USMCA. Gov. Charlie Baker calls the agreement “strong, fair and flexible.” Among the many products that are traded between Massachusetts and Canada and Mexico are auto parts, medical devices, lab instruments, semiconductors, paper products, and aerospace parts. Most of the manufacturing exports from Massachusetts going to Canada and Mexico are produced by small and medium-sized businesses.

AIM urges employers to contact their members of Congress to emphasize how important the USMCA is to manufacturing companies in Massachusetts. Industry associations, individual companies, and elected officials across the U.S. encourage an immediate vote on USMCA.

Kristen Rupert is senior vice president of External Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts and director of AIM’s International Business Council.

Opinion

Editorial

As the headlines keep coming about the state’s casinos not meeting their projections for gaming revenues, the announcement last week that the Boston Red Sox will bring their annual Winter Weekend fan event to MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center was well-timed and quite poignant.

We’ve been saying for some time now — and we’ll keep on saying — that, while the revenue projections for the state’s casinos are somewhat disappointing, they are just part of what gaming brings to the state and the communities in which they are located. Do we wish their revenues were more in line with the projections made all those years ago? Sure, but the casinos, and especially the one in Springfield, have brought benefits well beyond additional revenues to the state.

In the City of Homes, it has created momentum and traffic on most Saturday nights. On nights when there are shows, downtown comes alive and looks like … well, it doesn’t look like Springfield, or at least the Springfield of much of the past several decades. And the casino continues to bring energy and benefits in ways that probably couldn’t have been anticipated when officials were signing the host-community agreement drafted several years ago.

Which brings us back to the Red Sox and the Winter Weekend. This is one of the many benefits resulting from the new, multi-year partnership the team inked with MGM as the “official and exclusive resort of the team” early last year.

That designation once belonged to Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, meaning that, for two days in January, a large group of Red Sox players (past and present), officials, and, yes, fans traveled to the Nutmeg State and spent a considerable amount of money there.

Next Jan. 17 and 18, those players, officials, and fans — and that spending money — will instead be coming to Springfield. And they’ll be coming during a time when the tourism sector here could certainly use a boost.

Several thousand fans are expected to come to the festival, which will include a town-hall event, autograph sessions, and photo opportunities with the players from today and yesterday.

This will be a great opportunity for fans of the team to connect with the players and coaches in a way they probably never have before. Meanwhile, those who come to see the team’s stars will also see a rising star in the city of Springfield — which they probably haven’t seen up close either.

Overall, this will be a tremendous opportunity for the city to roll out the red carpet and showcase all the good things that have happened here in recent years.

Some logistically minded people are already wondering, ‘what happens if it snows?’ We’re pretty certain the organizers will figure out. And they’ll also figure out how to make these two days something memorable, not only for Red Sox fans but for those doing business in downtown Springfield.

It all came to be because MGM forged a strong business partnership with the Red Sox. That’s one of the benefits you don’t see when you’re just looking at statistics concerning gross gaming revenue. And it’s one of the many reasons why it’s far too early to discuss whether the gaming industry is off to a disappointing start in the Bay State.

The Red Sox are coming to town. And Springfield is the big winner in this game.

Opinion

Editorial

The CVS in Tower Square in downtown Springfield closed its doors the other day as the chain opened a new facility several blocks to the south, almost across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

While this event isn’t in itself newsworthy on most levels, it is part of what is becoming a trend that is rather … well, disconcerting is too strong a word, but it’s pretty close. It’s a trend we would like to see reversed.

And that’s a trend toward businesses and institutions moving a block or two and having officials and business leaders label such activity ‘economic development.’ It might be that on some level — or in some cases, to be precise. But mostly, it’s just musical chairs that isn’t really helping matters when it comes to the big picture.

Let’s start with that CVS. On some levels, we should consider this part of efforts to revitalize the tornado-ravaged South End of Springfield — and that’s what it’s being called. In fact, MGM’s leaders have mentioned this project early and often when talking about how the $960 million facility is stimulating additional development in and around its campus.

Maybe that’s true. That’s maybe. But moving CVS several hundred yards to the south can’t be interpreted as bringing ‘new business’ to Springfield. And moving that store out of Tower Square can’t be helping the ongoing efforts to revitalize that former business hub and shopping center. In fact, the decrease in foot traffic will certainly hurt efforts to bring new businesses into that once-thriving but long-struggling facility. And it will also hurt the employees in the downtown business towers who frequent that convenient location.

But enough about CVS. We’ve seen this musical-chairs activity with bank branches, small businesses, nonprofits, and more. They move into a new space to considerable fanfare while leaving a vacancy somewhere else.

Sometimes it’s necessary — as when a company needs to move to better or larger space, or when a lease is being terminated, as was the case a few years ago with a number of law firms displaced by the arrival of MGM. And it’s nothing unique to Springfield or this region. Indeed, every time a new office building is constructed in Boston, New York, or any other large city, tenants relocate to it from other facilities in the general area.

And, as we noted, sometimes it’s a good thing, as is the case with Peter Pan moving just a few hundred feet into Union Station. That seemingly unnecessary move cleared the way for Way Finders to build a new facility on the Peter Pan site that might help revitalize the North Blocks area, while also helping to speed development in the South End, in property currently home to Way Finders.

But in most cases, this musical-chairs activity is just that — people moving from one chair to another with no real benefits, other than to those doing the moving.

We don’t know all the reasons why CVS moved three blocks down Main Street, and we’re not sure what kind of impact it will have in the South End. Maybe it will be a catalyst for more development, and maybe it will be a solid start to efforts to balance the glitz on the west side of Main Street with some on the east side.

But overall, such moves don’t generate economic development as much as they just move it around. The real goal should be to have companies change their zip code (to one in the 413) when they move, not keep the same one.