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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.

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