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Economic Outlook

Economic Outlook

Forward Progress

Rick Sullivan says the region has considerable momentum carrying over in 2019, and it comes from most all sectors of the economy.

Rick Sullivan says the region has considerable momentum carrying over in 2019, and it comes from most all sectors of the economy.

Momentum.

Webster defines that word in several ways, including this one: ‘strength or force gained by motion or through development of events.’

Over the past few years, and especially in 2018, there was a good deal of motion and quite a few singular and ongoing events that have made this region stronger and created quite a bit of momentum, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC).

And this movement has been across a number of sectors and most all area communities, not just Springfield, although that’s where it is easily most visible and palpable.

“We’re seeing a great deal of momentum across the region,” he said. “And it’s across the board — manufacturing, healthcare, higher ed, tourism.”

Elaborating, he cited just a few examples of this momentum, starting with the most obvious:

• MGM Springfield opened its doors on Aug. 24, but it began to impact the regional economy long before that, through the filling of more than 2,000 jobs, proving a boost for area hotels (see related story, page 27), inspiring movement toward additional market-rate housing projects in and around the downtown, and even awarding life-changing vendor contracts with several area businesses, from a bus company in Chicopee to a dry cleaner in the Forest Park section of Springfield.

• Eds and meds. The region’s two main economic drivers, education and healthcare, are thriving and becoming ever-larger contributors to economic development in the region, he said, noting, on the education side, that the region’s community colleges continue to find ways to step up and help meet workforce needs and provide specific skills needed in the workplace.

• The cannabis industry. This intriguing new era in Massachusetts history is impacting everything from the commercial real-estate market to traffic in downtown Northampton, where a dispensary became just one of two sites in Massachusetts selling marijuana for recreational use.

• A host of other forces are at play in downtown Springfield, ranging from new tenants on Bridge Street to the revitalization of Stearns Square; from a new Starbucks (actually, two of them; there’s also one at MGM) to soaring interest in new housing projects; from new train service coming into Union Station to the opening (soon) of the Innovation Center.

“When I’m out downtown, I generally have to wait in line to get lunch — and I’m happy to do it. That’s a good thing; it means the economy is doing well.”

• Progress continues with developing new sources of jobs in fields such as cybersecurity (Bay Path University and UMass Amherst are becoming regional and even national leaders in that field) and water technology — a $3.9 million demonstration center is set to open at UMass Amherst within the next two years.

• The construction industry, usually a bellwether for the economy, remains sound, with many companies reporting they have ample jobs on the books for the coming. “The phones have been ringing — and that’s always a good sign,” said Tim Pelletier, president of Ludlow-based Houle Construction.

Sullivan has another, far more personal measure of progress and momentum. “When I’m out downtown, I generally have to wait in line to get lunch — and I’m happy to do it. That’s a good thing; it means the economy is doing well,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there is considerably more foot traffic in the central business district, and many businesses are benefiting from this.

Yes, there are some challenges to contend with, and even a few possible storm clouds on the horizon; workforce issues are impacting most all sectors, and they could stifle the growth of some companies (see related story, page 22), and most economic analysts are predicting a slowdown (but not a recession) in 2019.

But for the most part, there is momentum and continued cause for optimism, even as question marks grow in number.

‘Stable’ is the word Tom Senecal uses when he talks about the local economy, and in most ways, ‘stable’ is good.

‘Stable’ is the word Tom Senecal uses when he talks about the local economy, and in most ways, ‘stable’ is good.

“Several sectors are doing very well — education, construction, multi-family housing, green energy, and others,” said Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, who spoke from the perspective of his own bank, which saw roughly 8% growth this calendar year, and what he’s seen and heard anecdotally.

Senecal said he’s seen a noticeable slowing of residential real-estate business over the past month to six weeks, after a strong start to the year — a development probably linked to rising interest rates — but overall, as he said, the local economy is chugging along nicely.

Keith Nesbitt, vice president and Commercial Banking Team leader at Community Bank’s Springfield location, agreed.

“I would describe what’s happening in Western Mass. as transition against a backdrop of real stability,” he said, using ‘transition’ to mean many things, from the beginning of the casino era to the passing of many businesses from one generation to the next. “There’s a lot of certainty around those well-established, mature businesses that we have in this region. And those businesses that haven’t been around as long but are growing … they’re pretty solid, and they’re pretty confident.”

Banking on It

Both Senecal and Nesbitt put that word ‘stable’ to use early and quite often as they talked about the local economy and what they’re witnessing.

And in most all respects, ‘stable’ — and ‘steady’ and ‘predictable,’ words that were also used — is good, Senecal noted, adding, as many others have over the years while analyzing the local market, that while this region hasn’t soared like some others, including Boston, where the commercial and residential markets are white hot, that means it isn’t susceptible to the dramatic falls that those cities and regions also see.

“Fortunately, and sometimes unfortunately, we don’t see the highs and lows economically; we’re sheltered a little bit,” he explained. “We have a very stable economy when it comes to healthcare, education, and our nonprofit sector — those are three stable industries that keep Western Mass. insulated from the highs and lows.

“I would equate ‘stable’ to ‘predictable,’” he went on. “And for a small business, predictability is a huge part of job growth and just economic growth in general for small business.”

His own business moved forward with several initiatives in 2018, including the acquisition of First National Bank of Suffield and the start of work to convert the former Yankee Pedlar restaurant into a new and intriguing branch. And he said many businesses had the requisite confidence to move ahead with their own growth initiatives, be it through workforce expansion, new facilities, or new business lines.

And he expects this stability to continue into 2019, although possible, if not probable, additional interest-rate hikes (the Fed was set to vote on one as this issue went to press) could bring uncertainty, and therefore greater cautiousness, to the fore.

“Anything that stays stable and is predictable is good for economic development, and anything that is unpredictable is a slowdown in economic development,” he said, adding that there is uncertainty regarding everything from interest rates to the trade war.

“I would equate ‘stable’ to ‘predictable.’ And for a small business, predictability is a huge part of job growth and just economic growth in general for small business.”

Like Sullivan, though, Senecal said MGM has provided a boost to the local economy in several ways — through the jobs it has created and its contribution to greater vibrancy downtown. And it is just one of the many factors contributing to the improved picture locally.

Others include the steady performance of education and healthcare and movement toward creating new sources of jobs.

Sullivan cited the work being done at Bay Path and UMass Amherst in cybersecurity — Bay Path recently entered into a partnership with Google, for example — and creation of the water-technology demonstration center as developments to watch.

“Those are jobs of the future, and there’s real excitement about what can develop,” he noted. “There are now some partnerships with large companies, like Google, and tremendous promise.”

Elaborating, he said that, across the region, colleges and universities are playing key roles in providing individuals with the hard and soft skills to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy, and thus, they’re playing a major role in economic development.

Examples abound, from Holyoke Community College’s new culinary-arts facility, which is helping to meet the needs of individual employers like MGM and a growing field in general, to Greenfield Community College and its efforts to train workers for the manufacturing sector, to Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College working together with MGM to create the Casino Career Training Institute.

“What it comes down to is that economic development for this region, and across the country, for that matter, is all about workforce — developing, finding, and retaining talent,” he said. “And the good news for us is that we have a very robust higher-ed presence — four-year public and private, and the community colleges as well — and the future is bright.”

Returning to the subject of downtown Springfield, he said that, in addition to that waiting in line for lunch, he’s seen other signs of vibrancy and, most importantly, interest on the part of developers in investing in that area.

“We’ve had a number of investors express interest in possible hotels and potential housing, both market-rate and workforce-housing projects,” he noted. “And those are discussions that may not have beem happening in … pick a time period — five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. It’s been a while since we’ve seen this.”

Keith Nesbitt describes what’s happening in this region economically as “transition against the backdrop of stability.”

Keith Nesbitt describes what’s happening in this region economically as “transition against the backdrop of stability.”

Nesbitt concurred, and noted that, while the multi-family housing segment of the commercial real-estate market is heating up — it has been for some time — there is movement across the spectrum, much of it fueled not only by MGM, but by a promising outlook for the future.

“Long-time property owners are realizing that now is the time to realize value, so they’re putting those properties on the market,” he said of multi-family units but also other holdings. “And those that are speculating on the future are generally thinking that now is the time to get into the market based on some of those other transitions that are going on. So the commercial real-estate market has been very consistent.”

Steady As She Goes

“Consistent.’ ‘Stable.’ ‘Predictable.’ ‘Steady.’

Those are the words you hear most often in discussion of the local economy today and what is likely to happen in 2019.

There is a good amount of uncertainty in the air regarding everything from trade balances (or imbalances, as the case may be) to interest rates to the political scene in Washington.

But locally, stability and momentum seem to be the prevailing forces.

And they should enable the region to build on that momentum in the year ahead.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Running out of Gas?

Bob Nakosteen projects a slowdown for the economy, but not a recession.

Bob Nakosteen projects a slowdown for the economy, but not a recession.

What’s that old saying about death and taxes? It notes that they are the only real certainties in this world.

Actually, there’s another one: when it comes to the economy and making plans for the future, business owners and consumers certainly don’t like uncertainty.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of that commodity at the moment, and the volume may only be growing. Indeed, there is political uncertainty — lots and lots of that — and uncertainty about the housing market. And the trade war with China. And with the workforce — the nation as a whole is at or near full employment, and business owners and managers across all sectors are asking out loud where the workers are going to come from (see related story, page 22). There’s uncertainty about the stock market, except that there’s considerable amounts of turbulence (we’re certain about that). And about interest rates and what will happen with them. And about whether the tax cuts introduced a year ago will continue to be a source of economic fuel (although the consensus seems to be that they won’t be).

Add it all up, and, as we said, there is a lot of uncertainty out there.

Certainly enough to likely cause a slowdown in the economy, but not a recession in the technical sense of that word, said Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and a frequent voice in BusinessWest’s annual Economic Outlook.

“When there’s uncertainty, businesses tend to pull in their horns, and consumers, by and large, do the same; they wait until there’s more certainty about what they can expect,” said Nakosteen, adding that, instead of a growth rate between 3.5% and 4%, which is what the country and this region saw in 2018, both are probably looking at 2% to 2.5% for next year.

Again, that’s not a recession, but it is a slowdown.

Like Nakosteen, Karl Petrick, an associate professor of Economics in the College of Arts and Sciences at Western New England University, is predicting that this is what the nation, this state, and this region will see.

Note the future tense.

“When there’s uncertainty, businesses tend to pull in their horns, and consumers, by and large, do the same; they wait until there’s more certainty about what they can expect.”

“I really don’t think the slowdown has started yet. But I think it’s coming,” he said, adding quickly that there are signs things are cooling off somewhat.

He pointed to robust sales in the days and weeks following Thanksgiving as solid evidence that many Americans still have the confidence to spend. But a few months of severe turbulence on Wall Street, large amounts of political uncertainty, and a host of other factors will eventually erode some of that confidence, he added.

Karl Petrick says various forces, from turbulence on Wall Street to political uncertainty, will soon start to generate more cautiousness on the part of consumers and business owners.

Karl Petrick says various forces, from turbulence on Wall Street to political uncertainty, will soon start to generate more cautiousness on the part of consumers and business owners.

“We’re starting to see people become more cautious,” he noted. “They start to see what’s going on, they start to look at their 401(k) statements — even if they’re fairly young, they start to look at such things — and we’re going to start to see people be more cautious. And if and when that happens, companies start to become more cautious, too, because they start to see their markets dry up a bit.

“The momentum will carry into 2019, but unless we see some more certainty, that momentum will peter out into 2020,” he told BusinessWest. “The earliest a recession could happen is 2020, but there’s a lot of time between now and then to avoid that.”

For this issue and its Economic Outlook focus, BusinessWest talked with Nakosteen and Petrick about the proverbial big picture.

On-the-money Analysis

As he talked about the state of the economy and what is likely to happen in 2019, Nakosteen acknowledged that some economists are, in fact, using the dreaded ‘R’ word as they look into their crystal balls.

He’s not ready to join them — yet. But he said there are more than enough signs that a slowdown is coming — if it hasn’t arrived already.

Starting with the housing market.

“The housing market is clearly slowing down, and it is so important to so many segments of the economy and so many parts of the country,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not well-recognized, but we’ve had a period since 2012 of one of the most sustained increases in housing prices in our history; in fact, it comes close to matching what happened during the price bubble [of 2007-08]. The difference is that there isn’t this froth around it, and there isn’t this huge toxic-credit buildup.

“I don’t see this as a danger to the economy in terms of it exploding and dragging us into a recession,” he went on. “But I do see a slowdown affecting the overall economy and the economy of this state.”

Beyond the housing market, there are other signs, or indicators, of whitewater, including the trade war, if it can be called that, with China, Canada, and other countries.

Nakosteen said this region doesn’t produce many, if any, of the products directly affected by rising tariffs, but this area is affected indirectly because its precision manufacturers provide links in the supply chains that are impacted by the tariffs.

Petrick agreed. “We need to find some stability when it comes to our trade relationships,” he said. “Trade wars are not good for anybody.”

There’s also diminishing impact from the tax cuts implemented a year ago — “those cuts gave the economy a sugar high, but almost everyone thinks that effect will dissipate in 2019,” said Nakosteen — as well as all that turmoil on Wall Street.

Indeed, as of this writing, the S&P was in negative country after being up more than 8% for the year a few months ago — and there wasn’t much time left in 2018 to get onto the plus side.

Then there’s the workforce issue. While things are bad in this region in terms of employers finding good help (see related story, page 22), they’re much worse in other markets, including Boston, said Nakosteen.

“One of the things going on in this state is that we’re running out of workers, especially in the eastern part of the state,” he noted. “For the past 18 months, we’ve hired a lot of people, and no one’s quite sure where they’ve come from. And at some point, the labor-force constraint is going to be binding to our economy, and that’s going to slow things down; it’s going to be like squeezing a rock.”

But the biggest issue heading into 2019 is the one that’s fueling some of the problems listed above — growing uncertainty about the economy, the markets, jobs (GM announced plant closings and significant layoffs, for example), trade, and more.

This uncertainty generally leads to greater cautiousness, which manifests itself in several ways, said those we spoke with, starting with the obvious, such as slowdowns in home sales and other significant purchases.

Some signs are perhaps less obvious, such as the roller-coaster ride on Wall Street, said Petrick, adding that, when there is uncertainty, or no clear trends, the market becomes far more “news-driven,” as he called it, which manifests itself in wild swings, sometimes over the course of just a few hours, as news breaks.

“These big swings happen with the smallest provocation because people want to react to something,” he explained. “And whatever comes up on the news wire is what they’re reacting to.”

Reading the Tea Leaves

Looking at the proverbial big picture, Petrick said political uncertainty and economic uncertainty pretty much go hand-in-hand.

“That’s how we’re wired,” he said, adding that about the only thing that appears certain for 2019 is ongoing uncertainty.

Nakosteen agreed.

“Business decisions, as well as household decisions, regarding big-expense items such as cars, appliances, and houses, depend in large part — not totally, but in large part — on expectations of the future: ‘am I going to lose my job?’ ‘Am I going to get a raise?’ ‘Is my product going to keep selling?’ ‘Are my suppliers going to be disrupted?’”

Like he said, in many cases, they will hold off on such purchases until there is more uncertainty.

And as things are looking now, it might be a pretty long wait.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

The Employment Picture

As the job market tightens, Meredith Wise says, it becomes an employees’ market, with business owners increasingly having to pay for talent.

As the job market tightens, Meredith Wise says, it becomes an employees’ market, with business owners increasingly having to pay for talent.

Meredith Wise says it’s probably not a recent addition to the business lexicon. But it was certainly new to her when she heard it the first time.

‘Ghosting’ is the phrase in question, and it refers to a situation where an individual applies for a job, is given an offer, accepts the offer, passes a drug test, is given a starting date, accepts the starting date, and when it comes … he or she just doesn’t show up for work.

“That individual doesn’t feel the need or have the courtesy to call the company and say, ‘I’m not going to take the job; I have another opportunity that’s going to be better for me’; they just don’t show up,” said Wise, executive director of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE), adding that, when she first heard the term from one of her members, she thought it was an aberration and certainly not a common occurrence.

Suffice it to say that she has been corrected on that viewpoint at several of EANE’s monthly member roundtables over the past year or so.

“When I first brought it up I said, ‘oh, this can’t really be happening — this isn’t something people would do,’” she recalled, flashing back several months. “I expected pushback and people saying, ‘no, that doesn’t happen to me.’ Instead, there was agreement around the table that it is happening — a lot.”

Wise said this pattern of ghosting, which is happening in many sectors and at all rungs of the ladder — from entry-level service jobs to senior engineering positions — might be a form of role reversal when it comes to the employment process, and a very clear sign that this is an employees’ market.

“When employers get applicants, there are many times when they don’t communicate back to people; they don’t say, ‘thanks for applying, but we don’t have anything at this time,’” she explained. “As a candidate, you feel your résumé or your application has gone into a black hole. And it almost feels to me like the candidates are turning the tables on employers and saying, ‘I’m not going to get back in touch with you, and I’m just going to do what’s best for me.’”

Bryan Picard, president of Springfield-based Summit Careers Inc., agrees with Wise’s take and can certainly verify the overall tightness of the market, at least through most of this year — and the ghosting phenomenon.

To capture it, he cited the example of a company in Northampton trying to fill a basic warehouse position, with the emphasis on trying.

“We had to fill that same position six or seven times,” he explained, “because the first five people just didn’t show up for the job, and this is a position paying $5 an hour more than the average. There were so many opportunities for strong candidates to go somewhere else, they just didn’t show up.”

Finally, Summit decided to send several people to this client at the same time with instructions to pick the one it liked most — on the theory that at least one of them would show. And a few did, actually.

Meanwhile, the firm has strongly advised its clients to condense the overall hiring process — especially the period between when one is offered a job and when one starts — to hopefully keep would-be employees from becoming ghosts.

“The reality is that minimum wage went to $12 an hour four months ago. There are still companies paying $11 an hour, but the vast majority of them are paying more than what the minimum wage is because they know it’s required.”

All this is part of life in the current employment market, one that is expected to continue into 2019, in most ways and in most sectors — although Picard is seeing some signs of a slowdown in manufacturing (more on that later), and economists, in general, are projecting that the pace of expansion will slow in the year ahead.

“Overall unemployment numbers should stay steady into the first quarter of 2019, said Larry Martin, director of Business Services and Market Research for the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, noting that unemployment was quite low — 4% to 5% — across the region this year. “We see things being steady in the first quarter without any major shifts or changes — we should remain fairly flat.”

Wise agreed, and said flat means more challenging times for employers. Indeed, for now and the foreseeable future, the laws of supply and demand clearly favor employees, she said, with business owners adjusting, out of necessity, with slightly higher wages and better benefits.

“Employers are now sometimes having to buy talent,” she explained. “The applicant pool just isn’t what it was, and to lure people away from their current employer, they may need to be paying a few dollars per hour more to get people to come.”

For this issue and its Economic Outlook 2019, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the employment market and what employers can expect in 2019. For the most part, it is more of the same.

Work in Progress

Picard told BusinessWest that, although the minimum-wage hike to $12 an hour — the first in a series of incremental increases contained in the so-called ‘grand bargain’ legislation — doesn’t become law until Jan. 1, practically speaking, it went into effect long ago.

“The reality is that minimum wage went to $12 an hour four months ago,” he said. “There are still companies paying $11 an hour, but the vast majority of them are paying more than what the minimum wage is because they know it’s required.”

Bryan Picard says he’s seeing a slight slowdown in manufacturing, but overall, the job market remains tight.

Bryan Picard says he’s seeing a slight slowdown in manufacturing, but overall, the job market remains tight.

And this upward movement on wages, at least on the lower end, is yet another sign of how tight the labor situation is and how this is an employees’ market. And while there is speculation on just how long it will stay that way, employers for the moment face a number of challenges, and are responding accordingly, said Wise, who said it starts with the applicant pool, or what passes for one, in many cases.

“Employers are finding real problems with the applicants — they’re just not getting the volume of applicants they used to get, and the people they are getting just don’t have, in many cases, the qualifications and the skills that they’re looking for.”

But the problems certainly don’t end there, Wise said, adding that a huge issue for employers is finding applicants that can pass a drug test. The percentage of applicants that can’t would surprise some, but certainly not anyone working in human resources today, she told BusinessWest.

And if they do have the skills and they can pass a drug test … that generally means that they have many opportunities to choose from and are a solid candidate to become a ghost.

“When we would get candidates of a higher caliber that we would send on a temp-to-perm type of position, the challenge we saw was that they didn’t just have one job offer, they had five job offers,” said Picard. “And the companies that were really struggling starting bringing up their pay scales.”

Indeed, in response to all this, wages are increasing, but the pace of increase is still sluggish, as the chart on page 24 shows.

“I think wages are slightly higher, but wage growth is, overall, very slow,” said Wise, adding that there are several reasons for this, including the fact that retiring Baby Boomers are being replaced by less-experienced, lower-paid employees. Also, pay increases at the top end of wage earners are smaller increases for lower-wage earners, resulting in a lower overall average increase.

Beyond ‘paying for talent,’ to whatever extent they are doing so, employers are also responding to the tight market by altering their hiring policies and practices in some ways to keep good talent from going elsewhere and thus becoming ghosts.

“These trends are forcing employers to go back to what might be considered best practices,” Wise explained, noting, as one example, that after having an applicant accept an offer, the company in question is working harder to stay in touch with that applicant until they arrive for work, asking if they have any questions or just staying in communication with them.

Meanwhile, others are sending soon-to-be employees what she called “swag bags” or “swag items” such as a jacket with the company’s logo on it or a mousepad or other items as a gesture designed to show that the individual is valued.

Meanwhile, and as noted earlier, companies are being advised to condense the hiring process, especially the period between when one is hired and when that individual is slated to start work.

“If there is someone good that you want to put in a position, you put them in right away,” said Picard, adding that he went to far as to encourage clients to skip or accelerate the interview the process, hire promising candidates, and essentially interview them after they were hired.

Hire Power

If all this seems a world apart from what was happening only a few years ago, it is, said Picard, adding that conversations he had with colleagues in this field from across the country revealed that this past year, and especially this past summer, was among the most difficult times anyone could remember when it came to securing qualified help for clients.

“They said it was the worst summer they’d seen in … forever, or at least 50 or 60 years, and that’s understandable with unemployment being at an all-time low,” he said, adding that, while things were not that bad in this market, employers in many markets struggled to find and keep talent.

That’s certainly been the case with precision manufacturing, one of the specific sectors that Summit specializes in.

“Every single company out there right now is looking for CNC machinists,” he told BusinessWest. “Many have more work than they can get out the doors, or more sales orders than they have people to fill them.”

“Employers are finding real problems with the applicants — they’re just not getting the volume of applicants they used to get, and the people they are getting just don’t have, in many cases, the qualifications and the skills that they’re looking for.”

The $64,000 question heading into the new year concerns how long things will stay this way.

As noted earlier, Picard said he has witnessed a slowdown when it comes to some segments of the manufacturing sector, and somewhat easier going when it comes to finding employees for those clients.

“I think things are changing; a lot of times, manufacturing is a leading indicator for what’s going to happen with the economy,” he explained. “The summer was very tight, but now, probably over the past month and a half, things were not as tight. We’re seeing very qualified, strong candidates that are coming through that four months ago … well, we would be begging for someone with half the talent that we’re seeing right now.”

Elaborating, he said he projects that 2019 will be “an interesting year” for his company and a less-busy one for some of his clients, especially those in manufacturing, and he comes to that conclusion mostly by comparing numbers from the fourth quarter this year compared to last year.

“In the fall of 2017, we were very busy, and I brought on someone to help in November,” he recalled. “I said, ‘this is our slowest time of the year, it’s a great time to come on, we’ll be able to do some coaching, things will be nice and easy.’ About January, she said, ‘when is it going to slow down again?’ because it never did.”

This year, it has, and Picard says it may be a sign of what’s to come in the year ahead.

Martin, meanwhile, is projecting essentially the status quo when it comes to the employment market — in manufacturing and most other sectors.

“For manufacturers, it’s going to be steady going, and they are going to need skilled help because of the individuals who are retiring,” he explained. “That’s not going to slow down whatsoever.”

He noted that the region essentially absorbed the arrival of MGM Springfield and its hiring of more than 2,000 people without major disruption to most sectors of the economy, even the broad culinary field, primarily because of proactive steps in anticipation of that seismic event.

“There was a lot of foresight and forecasting done in advance of MGM,” he explained. “There were a lot of new partnerships established, especially with the community colleges to help meet specific needs, such as those in culinary.

“Several sectors were impacted — culinary, retail, financial services, and others — but enough forecasting was done ahead of time to prepare for MGM’s arrival,” he went on. “And a lot of companies planned ahead and internally provided financial encouragement or other types of encouragement for existing staff.”

The challenge moving forward will be with the inevitable churn that the casino complex will experience, he went on, adding that while MGM, working with those partners he mentioned, had enough employees to get the doors open, it must now deal with ongoing turnover and the task of keeping workers in the pipeline.

Learning on the Job

As he talked about the job market and what may come in 2019, Picard concurred with Wise when she talked about many workers not exactly being courteous when it comes to taking better offers and instead becoming ghosts.

Likewise, he said all this amounts to a kind of payback, if you will, for how employers act when the laws of supply and demand are tilted in their favor.

He warned, however, that too much moving around and a great many lines on a résumé may come back to … well, haunt those ghosts when things change and the market is not so tight.

For now, though, it’s an employees’ market and will be for the foreseeable future, and employers looking to land good talent quickly and easily likely have a ghost of a chance of doing so.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Right Place, Right Time

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

John Doleva shows off the Basketball Hall of Fame’s renovated theater, one of many improvements at the hall.

They call it the ‘need period.’

There are probably other names for it, but that’s how those at the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) refer to the post-holiday winter stretch in this region.

And that phrase pretty much sums it up. Area tourist attractions and hospitality-related businesses are indeed needy at that time — far more than at any other season in this region. Traditionally, it’s a time to hold on and, if you’re a ski-related business, hope for snow or enough cold weather to make some.

But as the calendar prepares to change over to 2019 — and, yes, the needy season for many tourism-related businesses in the 413 — there is hope and optimism, at least much more than is the norm.

This needy season, MGM Springfield will be open, and five months into its work to refine and continuously improve its mix of products and services. And there will also be the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Game, coming to Springfield for the first time in a long time on Jan. 28 (actually, there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities). There will be a revamped Basketball Hall of Fame, a few new hotels, and some targeted marketing on the part of the GSCVB to let everyone know about everything going on in this area.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019. Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

So maybe the need period won’t be quite as needy as it has been.

And if the outlook for the traditionally slow winter months is brighter, the same — and more — can be said for the year ahead, said Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, noting that expectations, based in large part on the last few quarters of 2018 and especially the results after MGM opened on Aug. 24, are quite high for the year ahead.

“The last half of 2018 has been great, and we’re very optimistic — our outlook for tourism is really positive for 2019,” she told BusinessWest. “Certainly, MGM is a factor — it’s a huge factor, it’s a game changer — but it’s just part of the story.”

Elaborating, she said MGM is helping to spur new development in this sector — one new hotel, a Holiday Inn Express, opened in downtown Springfield in 2018, and another, a Courtyard by Marriott, is set to open on Riverdale Street in West Springfield — while also filling more existing rooms and driving rates higher.

Indeed, occupancy rates in area hotels rose to 68.5% in October (the latest data available), up nearly 2% from that same month in 2017, and in August, they were up 5% (to 72.6%) over the year prior.

Meanwhile, room revenue was up 4.6% in October, from $113 a night on average in this region to $119 a night, and in August, it went up 7.2%.

And, as noted, MGM is just one of the reasons for optimism and a bright outlook in this sector, Wydra said. Others include the renovated hoop hall, yearly new additions at Six Flags, and the awesome drawing power of the Dr. Seuss museum on the Quadrangle.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

An architect’s rendering of the renovated third-floor mezzanine at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes the tributes to the inductees.

For 2019, the outlook is for the needle to keep moving in the right direction, she said, noting that some new meetings and conventions have been booked (more on that later); Eastec, the massive manufacturing trade show, will be making its biennial pilgrimage to this region (specifically the Big E); the Babe Ruth World Series will again return to Westfield; and the AHL All-Star weekend will get things off to a solid start.

John Doleva, president of the Basketball Hall of Fame and a member of the executive board of the GSCVB, agreed.

“With MGM now in the marketplace and being active, there does appear to be a lift, much more of an excited spirit by those that are in the business,” he noted. “Everybody is saying that, at some level, their business is up, their interest in visitation is up — there is a general feeling of optimism.”

Getting a Bounce

Doleva told BusinessWest that MGM opened its doors toward the tail end of peak season for the hoop hall — the summer vacation months. Therefore, it’s too early to quantify the impact of the casino on attendance there.

But the expectations for the next peak season are quite high, he went on, adding that many MGM customers return several times, and the hope — and expectation — is that, on one or several of those return trips, guests will extend their visit far beyond the casino’s grounds.

“Once people return a few times, they’re going to be looking for other things to do,” he said. “I definitely feel a sense of excitement and anticipation, and I’m definitely looking forward to next summer when it’s the high-travel season, and really get a gauge for what the potential MGM crossover customer is.

“Conversely, there are probably individuals that would probably have the Hall of Fame on their list of things to do,” he went on, “and now that there’s more of a critical mass, with MGM right across the street, I think we rise up on their to-do list.”

But MGM’s arrival is only one reason for soaring expectations at the hall, said Doleva, adding that the facility is in the middle of an ambitious renovation project that is already yielding dividends.

Indeed, phase one of the project included an extensive makeover of the lobby area and the hall’s theater, and those steps have helped inspire a significant increase in bookings for meetings and events.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

Mary Kay Wydra says 2019 is shaping up as a very solid year for the region’s tourism industry.

“Our renovations have led to a great number of facility rentals for events that are happening in our theater, our new lobby, and Center Court,” he said, adding that the hall was averaging 175 rentals a year, and will log close to 240 for 2018. “Before, the theater wasn’t a hidden gem, it was just hidden; it was like a junior-high-school auditorium — it was dark, it was gray, it had no life. Now, it’s a great place to have a meeting or presentation like a product launch.”

Phase 2 of the project, which includes a renovation of the third-floor mezzanine, where the Hall of Fame plaques are, and considerable work on the roof of the sphere, will commence “any minute now,” said Doleva, adding that the work should improve visitation numbers, but, even more importantly, revenue and profitability.

The improved numbers for the hall — and the optimism there concerning the year ahead — are a microcosm of the broader tourism sector, said Wydra, adding that a number of collaborating factors point toward what could be a special year — and a solid long-term outlook.

It starts with the All-Star Game. The game itself is on a Monday night, but there is a whole weekend’s worth of activities planned, including the ‘classic skills competition’ the night before.

“Even with the average daily rate going up and occupancy growing, we still have that need period — which is true for all of Massachusetts,” she noted. “When you have an event like the All-Star Game in January, that really helps the hotels and restaurants.”

Additional momentum is expected in May with the arrival of EASTEC, considered to be New England’s premier manufacturing exposition. The three-day event drew more than 13,000 attendees last year, many of whom patronized area restaurants and clubs, said Wydra, adding that MGM Springfield only adds to the list of entertainment and hospitality options for attendees.

The Babe Ruth World Series is another solid addition to the year’s lineup, she noted, adding that the teams coming into the area, and their parents, frequent a number of area attractions catering to families.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Analysts say MGM Springfield has a far-reaching impact on the region’s tourism sector, including higher occupancy rates at area hotels and higher room rates.

Meanwhile, the region continues to attract a diverse portfolio of meetings and conventions, said Alicia Szenda, director of sales for the GSCVB, adding that MGM Springfield provides another attractive selling point for the 413, which can already boast a host of amenities, accessibility, and affordable hotel rates.

In June, the National Assoc. of Watch and Clock Collectors will stage its 75th annual national convention at the Big E, she said, an event that is expected to bring 2,000 people to the region. And later in the summer, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts will bring more than 900 people to downtown Springfield.

Those attending these conventions and the many others slated during the year now have a growing list of things to do in this region, said Wydra, who mentioned MGM, obviously, but also the revamped Hall of Fame; Six Flags, which continues to add new attractions yearly (a Cyborg ride is on tap for 2019); and the Dr. Seuss museum, which is drawing people from across the country and around the world.

“The Seuss factor is huge,” said Wydra. “It’s a big reason why visitation is up in this region. Seuss is a recognizable brand, and the museum delivers on the brand, and they keep reinventing that product.”

Staying Power

This ‘Seuss factor’ is just one of a number of powerful forces coming together to bring the outlook for tourism in this region to perhaps the highest plane it’s seen.

Pieces of the puzzle continue to fall into place, and together, they point to Western Mass. becoming a true destination.

As noted, even the ‘need period’ is looking less needy. The rest of the year? The sky’s the limit.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Experts Don’t Foresee Any Rocking of the Economic Boat

economicoutlookartMore of the same. That’s what the experts are predicting for this region, and the country as a whole, when it comes to the economy. And by more of the same, they mean growth that is steady if unspectacular — even with tax reform — and few if any signs of what could amount to real trouble. “Another boring year,” was how one economist put it. But for many businesses, boring is more than acceptable.

As a student — and a professor — of economics, Bob Nakosteen fully understands that the region and the nation as a whole are, as they say, due for a recession.

Maybe even overdue.

Indeed, eight and a half years is a long time to be in an expansion, if history and especially 20th-century history is any guide, and that’s about the length of the run the country has been on, said Nakosteen, a long-time educator at UMass Amherst who pegged the summer of 2009 as when the Great Recession ended and the upswing — as unspectacular as it has been, for the most part, in this region — began.

But he quickly noted that there’s no actual relationship between how long a country has been in an expansion and when it’s due for a recession. Time isn’t officially one of the factors that determine such things, he noted, adding that none of the issues and indicators that do are — at this moment, at least — pointing toward recession.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

“The expansion is old, certainly, but there’s nothing on the horizon to interrupt the expansion,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that a host of factors will shape what course a continued expansion takes. “The issues in the state economy, especially in Western Massachusetts, are not macro-economic nearly as much as they are structurally micro-economic; there are individual sectors that are really struggling.”

Karl Petrick, an economics professor at Western New England University, agreed, and summoned another word for what he’s projecting for at least one more year: boring.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will. It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

“Unless you were on Twitter, last year was pretty boring,” he said, tongue firmly planted in cheek while focusing his remarks on what was happening in this region economically. And that was essentially the same thing that’s been happening for the past several years — steady if unspectacular growth that amounts to a few percentage points on average and not the kind of boom times that traditionally follow a recession, especially like the one of almost a decade ago now.

“Even with the tax break, the projections are for the U.S. economy to grow at 2.5% in 2018, and in 2019, 2.1%,” he said. “And if we did see a big increase in growth, it’s very likely that that the Fed will raise interest rates to slow down inflation. The forecast is for another boring year — I hope.”

Indeed, for many in business, boring translates into a decent year, and that’s what Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, said many of his clients — commercial and residential alike — experienced.

He told BusinessWest that the residential real-estate market is enjoying a surge fueled by low inventories, and that many individual sectors are experiencing steady growth. And he expects tax reform to lift most boats still higher.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices. We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s.”

“With corporate tax rates projected to decrease from 35% to 20%, that will have a significant impact on most businesses,” he went on. “I expect that to be a determining factor in what our local economy will be like in 2018.”

There are other determining factors, obviously, and some areas of concern, both nationally and locally, including persistently stagnant wages.

Despite steady growth in the economy and soaring corporate profits that have fueled a nearly 20% rise on Wall Street this year, wages have remained flat, said Petrick. And he doesn’t believe — despite what leading supporters say — that tax reform will change that equation. And if wages remain stagnant, that might slow the economy down.

“Trickle-down doesn’t really come to fruition the way people say it will,” he explained. “It’s been promised for decades and decades, but it’s never really happened.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the precipitous decline of traditional retail could pose some problems regionally (more on that later), as could a host of other factors ranging from escalating student debt to tighter immigration laws that could keep some foreign students from landing on area college campuses.

But overall, these concerns are not expected to significantly alter the picture or impact those projections for more of what the region has seen over the past several years.

Onward and Upward

“Stable.”

That’s the word Senecal summoned early and often as he talked about the local economy, and it’s another word business owners always like to hear.

He said the region’s economy has historically been fueled by education and healthcare (‘eds and meds’), and that trend continues. And those sectors are, well, stable, to say the least.

“If you think of the spin-off economies in the Western Mass. market, we clearly benefit from those sorts of industries [healthcare and education] that are not recession-proof, but they certainly come through recessionary times much more stable than the rest of the economy,” he said. “And I see this in the numbers from our residential loans and our commercial loans. The stability and continued growth has been there, and we expect it to continue throughout next year.”

Beyond eds and meds, Senecal noted, a number of sectors are doing “pretty well,” as he put it. These include ‘green’ energy businesses, commercial construction (although moreso in the eastern part of the state than this region) and the residential real-estate market, which, as noted earlier, has picked up dramatically over the past few years.

“Inventory is extremely low in many area communities, and this is having a big impact on prices,” he explained. “We’re going back to seeing sale prices in excess of asking prices, and that hasn’t happened since the late ’80s and early ’90s; it’s clearly a seller’s market right now.”

Surveying the scene locally as well as nationally, those we spoke with said there is no indication of anything that will disrupt this stability to any significant degree.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some question marks concerning the year ahead. And perhaps the biggest concerns tax reform and what it will mean.

Petrick and Nakosteen said such reforms — usually measures to be administered during a recession, not an expansion — can’t (or shouldn’t) be expected to trigger the wage hikes and subsequent consumer spending predicted by supporters of the legislation, because … well, because history shows this isn’t what happens, they told BusinessWest.

“Tax cuts really have little effect,” said Nakosteen, “especially when the economy is not in recession and is near full employment.”

Also, early and unofficial polling of business leaders indicates that wage increases for their employees are not in their plans.

“Many big corporations have already said that, whatever tax breaks they get, they’ll use them to buy back stock,” Petrick noted. “That will do wonders for the stock market, but there’s no indication they’ll use that tax break to raise wages.”

But Senecal projected that tax reform might, in fact, provide a real boost for the economy in the form of investments made by business owners.

“Tax reform has a significant impact on corporate spending,” he opined. “I think that, right now, a lot of businesses are waiting and seeing on tax reform to determine how aggressive or reserved businesses are going to be come 2018.”

Economic Indicators

As for other factors that might impact the year ahead, to one degree or another, Petrick put wages, and the stagnancy of same, at the top of that list.

“We see growth, but the foundation for continued growth continues to be a little bit shaky, in terms of wages at the national level and the state level,” he told BusinessWest. “They’re just not growing, even as unemployment comes down.

“And that is a bit of conundrum for us at the state level and the federal level, because that puts more pressure of households, especially with uncertainty with what’s going to happen with the individual mandate and how that might impact insurance rates,” he added. “It also impacts state tax revenue, because if wages don’t go up, the state doesn’t collect more.”

There are many reasons why wages are stagnant, he went on, listing everything from soaring health-insurance costs for employers to the decline of labor unions, to the retirement of Baby Boomers and their replacement by younger workers earning lower salaries. But the bottom line is that, generally, flat wages are not good for the economy.

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said the continued decline of traditional retail would further change the local landscape, and it might impact the economy in some ways.

Giant retailers like Sears, Toys R Us, Kmart, and others are closing stores in huge volumes, leaving malls with large boxes to fill (or not, as the case may be) and worries about their very existence. Meanwhile, many smaller retailers are disappearing from the landscape, for reasons ranging from the intrusion of online shopping to a lack of a succession plan.

All this is creating a number of empty storefronts and a lot of commercial real estate for sale and lease, said Nakosteen, adding that the problem is impacting even the most vibrant of downtowns, including Northampton’s, where tenants are asking, ‘why are lease rates so high if so many storefronts are empty?’

“And that’s a very good question,” he said, adding that the higher rates will impact existing retailers and perhaps dissuade others from coming downtown.

But it’s an issue in nearly every area community.

“There are so many empty storefronts,” Nakosteen went on, “and the retail sector is so important to so many downtown areas.”

Meanwhile, workforce issues might also have an impact on the course and strength of the ongoing expansion, he noted, adding that a lack of qualified workers within some sectors might stifle growth.

“The state, as a whole, has issues with the labor force not growing fast enough to accommodate the economy,” he explained. “And Western Mass. is even worse. We have very slow labor growth here; you can’t grow the economy faster than you can hire people to fill the jobs.”

Interest rates could play a role as well, the experts noted, adding that, if the economy does start heating up, the Fed will likely raise rates to keep it from overheating and sending inflation higher.

“Prime rate effects people’s home-equity loans, and it effects commercial borrowers,” Senecal explained. “And if the Fed increases rates two or three times, and that’s clearly their intent, that could have an impact on spending.”

Bottom Line

‘Stable. ‘Boring.’ ‘Steady.’ Those aren’t exactly headline-generating adjectives when we’re talking about the economy and where it might head in the months to come.

But they represent reality, and for many in this region — which, as has been noted countless times in the past, doesn’t enjoy stunning highs and crippling lows like other regions — those words are welcome, and much better than the alternative.

And if tax reform works, as Senecal and others believe it might, the region just might wind up doing better than ‘more of the same.’

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook Sections

On the Bright Side

By Richard Sullivan

Richard Sullivan

Richard Sullivan

The state of the region’s economy is strong, and the economic outlook is bright. That’s a simple statement, but let’s look at the facts that support that optimism.

We all have read of the important investments that MGM and CRRC, the Chinese rail-car manufacturer, are making in Springfield. Less-reported is the some $5.2 billion of economic-development projects that have recently occurred or are currently underway in our region.

In a 2016 study, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. (EDC) catalogued the growth in each community — from housing developments to manufacturing companies expanding and relocating to the area; from transportation investments to growth in our public and private education systems. That study shows strong and important regional investments, and this trend is continuing.

MGM and CRRC are certainly important regional economic-development projects for the jobs they are creating, the taxes they will pay, and the many public benefits they are required to provide through their host-community agreements. However, the biggest economic impact the projects will have is when they contract with local businesses as part of their operational and supply chains. MGM specifically is using best efforts to annually contract locally for $50 million in goods and services. These dollars will stay local, provide additional economic opportunities, and create more jobs in companies that are part of the fabric of our communities, hiring our neighbors, paying local taxes, and supporting our local charities. It is an opportunity we are capitalizing on, but one that we can’t lose sight of.

Another bright spot within the local economy is tourism. You may think Boston, San Francisco, or New York, but maybe not Western Mass., when it comes to this important sector. However, tourism is the third-largest industry in the region. Approximately 3 million visitors come to the area each year, spending $750 million, producing an estimated $17 million in state and local taxes, and supporting 5000 jobs.

Mary Kay Wydra, president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, is bullish on the growth of tourism in Western Mass., with the addition of MGM, the Dr. Seuss Museum, a soon-to-be-refurbished Basketball Hall of Fame, continued investment at Yankee Candle and Six Flags, and more. She is confident that annual visitorship will grow. Tourism is a vital part of our economy and will become even more important beginning in 2018.

Still another source of optimism and good news is the growing amount of entrepreneurial energy in the region.

Indeed, at the recent “State of Entrepreneurship in the Valley,” hosted by Steve Davis and the EDC entrepreneurship committee, the focus was on the growth of a relatively new sector for the region — innovation, startups, and entrepreneurship. In 2015 and 2016 alone, more than 9,000 people attended a Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) event; there are currently 613 part-time and 227 full-time jobs in the startup ecosystem, and just under $27 million of revenue and investment was created in the region. If all the startups were under one roof, they would represent the 11th-largest company in Springfield.

The entrepreneurship ecosystem is growing up and down the Valley. VVM works closely with initiatives in Franklin County and SPARK in Holyoke; our local colleges and universities have all carved out leadership positions; Greentown Labs, based in Somerville, Mass., has opened a manufacturing office at the Scibelli Enterprise Center; and the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative is a national leader in elevating the importance of entrepreneurship and recognizing entrepreneurial excellence among college students. A new group, Women Innovators & Trailblazers (WIT), is establishing itself in order to ignite a women-led innovation economy in Western Mass. and beyond. This is an exciting and quickly growing sector in the region.

I see additional new sectors growing in the region that can become centers of excellence for Western Mass. This year, UMass Amherst, in cooperation with the EDC, hosted an event highlighting its national leadership position in the field of green technology and the environment. The event was sponsored by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and focused on building technologies, water innovation, and clean energy and storage. Companies from across Massachusetts came to discuss the quickly growing green-technology cluster and the partnerships that can be developed between the private sector and the university for research and development, but also talent development.

Bay Path University recently staged its fifth annual Cybersecurity Summit, showcasing the work it is doing in the field of cybersecurity. President Carol Leary, who serves as a member of the Department of Homeland Security’s Academic Advisory Council, said “it is critical for higher education to be a central part of this emerging cyber ecosystem. We are developing the right talent, the diverse talent needed to be a part of the cybersecurity workforce. To the students pursuing a cybersecurity career — you are the future, you are qualified, and we need you more than ever.”

Western Mass., because it is home to a significant number of universities, colleges, community colleges, and technical schools, finds itself in an enviable position because it can supply the workforce of the future.  Still, there is no doubt that the biggest issue facing our existing companies, and the companies of the future, is their ability to find, develop, and retain a high-quality workforce.

We need to coordinate with all the great workforce-development organizations in the region and leverage the high-quality education institutions that call Western Mass. home to meet this demand.

When we do, our future economy will be bright.

Richard Sullivan is president of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.; [email protected]

Economic Outlook Sections

A Time to Stay on Track

By Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

We might remember 2017 as the year of the much-anticipated reopening of Union Station as a dramatically renovated transportation hub. The more than $90 million renovation additionally created office and retail space, transforming this area of Springfield’s North End. The Innovation Center on Bridge Street welcomed new tenants with continued construction on additional office and retail space, and the new, $11.8 million Mercedes-Benz of Springfield dealership opened in Chicopee.

This past year was also one during which many projects made significant progress toward their anticipated 2018 completion dates.

Awaiting us in 2018 is a mix of opportunities and challenges. Springfield and the region have been experiencing unprecedented growth in the last couple of years. While 2018 is the year in which we will see the finishing touches put on some major projects and programs, we are also faced with the uncertainty and potential effects of healthcare, tax reform, and ballot initiatives which could impact all of us.

On the growth side, the I-91 viaduct construction is ahead of schedule, with the highway expected to be in full use by February; production of MBTA subway cars at the new 204,000-square-foot, $95 million CRCC rail-car factory off I-291 in East Springfield will kick off in 2018; and the much anticipated opening of the $950 million MGM resort casino is on track for a late-2018 opening.

There is also opportunity to help small businesses grow and prosper. The city of Springfield has launched “Rise Up Springfield,” an innovative collaboration between the city, the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals, and the Springfield Regional Chamber. Powered by Boston-based Interise’s award-winning StreetWise MBA curriculum, this seven-month, intensive, hands-on program provides the knowledge and know-how business owners need to create and manage a three-year strategic business plan. This a key opportunity for the city to capitalize on the entrepreneurial spirit of the region and to encourage our smaller, less-established businesses get to the next level in their growth.

Advocates of a ballot question are pushing for an additional income tax on those making above a certain income threshold in order to fund some of the areas I mentioned above. However, other states have taken a similar approach, which only resulted in businesses relocating to lower-tax jurisdictions. At its core, this proposal is bad for business. Why would we tax talent — our state’s principal competitive advantage.”

While we are encouraged and excited about growth in the region, our business community will face some significant challenges in the coming year. Healthcare continues to remain of grave concern. Costs continue to rise at uncontrollable rates, not only impacting the bottom lines of our businesses, but crippling the state budget. With 40% of the state budget allocated to MassHealth, there is virtually no room for additional funding in critical areas such as education, transportation, and local aid.

Advocates of a ballot question are pushing for an additional income tax on those making above a certain income threshold in order to fund some of the areas I mentioned above. However, other states have taken a similar approach, which only resulted in businesses relocating to lower-tax jurisdictions. At its core, this proposal is bad for business. Why would we tax talent — our state’s principal competitive advantage?

Another ballot question that we could be faced with is one that provides for paid family and medical leave. Not only does our business community understand the value of fringe benefits and attracting and retaining the top talent, but they want to do the right thing for their employees. Those businesses that are financially able to offer ‘above and beyond’ benefits do so, but not every small business is in a position to compete with the benefits offered by a Fortune 100 company.

The ballot question as proposed would require employers of any size to offer paid leave at a rate of 90% of an employee’s wages. It is estimated that this would have a $1 billion financial impact across the Commonwealth.

There is one other ballot question we could be faced with come November 2018 — an increase in the minimum wage, to $15 an hour by 2022. A back-of-the-napkin calculation estimates this to be an increase of 25% to a company’s salaries/wages line item. Again, while the business community wants to do the right thing, it comes at a cost to the competitiveness of our state.

While we are optimistic about our growth, we are concerned about what lies ahead that could derail that growth. We are concerned for our business community here in Western Mass., but equally concerned as to what the impact could be across the state, on the Commonwealth’s fiscal health, on attracting new growth, on remaining competitive with our neighboring states and across the country, and on ensuring Massachusetts and our region remain at the forefront of innovation.

Throughout the chamber’s 127-year history, we have worked to encourage and facilitate economic growth. We have faced and weathered challenges and advocated on behalf of the region’s businesses. Our mission will continue in 2018 and beyond, as we support and collaborate with regional businesses and advocate for them at the local, state, and federal levels and work to ensure our continued growth is not stunted.

Nancy Creed is executive director of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce; (413) 755-1309.

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Balance Statement

Forecast Is Strong for 2017, but Questions Loom on the Horizon

outlookdpartAfter six years of largely uninterrupted economic growth in both Massachusetts and the U.S. as a whole, questions have arisen as to how long the expansion can last, especially coming on the heels of an unusual election season and amid sluggish economic trends internationally. The consensus seems to be that the present course should hold in 2017, but also that recessions are a regular occurrence in the American economy, and it wouldn’t take much to spark a slowdown. For now, though, cautious optimism reigns.

Rarely, economists note, does the U.S. economy grow for a full decade without hitting a recession. So the continuing strength of the economy — reflected most notably in falling unemployment — is a mixed bag of news. In short, while the growth is welcome, some caution is warranted.

“At the state and national level, the recovery has been going on for six years, and while there are no hard-and-fast rules about this, we could expect some moderation after six years of growth,” said Karl Petrick, assistant professor of Economics at Western New England University. “Every year of growth makes it more likely that the downward part of the business cycle is closer.”

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

Because of both economic and political reasons, I think the state economy is entering into a period of more uncertainty. Luckily, we are doing so after a period of robust economic growth, so, as a state, we have a good foundation to weather this uncertainty.”

 

 

A year ago, Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, called the economic outlook “fuzzy,” but said last week that 2016 solidified into a positive year on many fronts.

“Growth statewide has been somewhat modest, but continuous; we haven’t seen the unemployment rate this low since 16 years ago, the turn of the century,” said Nakosteen, who is also co-editor of MassBenchmarks, the quarterly publication devoted to analysis of the Bay State’s economy. “I don’t think the economy is going gangbusters, but it’s been steady, moderate growth over a long period of time, with higher employment numbers and the total number of workers higher.”

Slowly and steadily, if not spectacularly, he went on, the economic outlook since the low point of the Great Recession has morphed into a remarkable period of expansion. In Massachusetts, the main drivers include the usual suspects, such as information and communications technology, healthcare, and education. “These are industry sectors that are in high demand both nationally and globally, and we have the good luck, at least in the recent past, to have a heavy dose of those sectors. Any time there’s a big demand in the national economy for the services and industries we specialize in, it’s going to help us, and that’s what’s happening.”

PeoplesBank’s Tom Senecal (left) and Mike Oleksak

PeoplesBank’s Tom Senecal (left) and Mike Oleksak say indicators like rising employment and fewer foreclosures point to a strengthening economy.

Massachusetts, Petrick noted, has outpaced the national rate of growth since 2008.  For example, the state’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 3.7% in the third quarter of this year, while the national annualized rate of growth was 2.9% during that same period.

A similar trend holds in the category of unemployment rate. In October 2016, the last month for which state data is available, the Bay State’s unemployment rate was 2.7%, compared to the U.S. unemployment rate of 4.9%.

But is unemployment falling because more people are finding jobs, he asked, or because people are leaving the labor force and aren’t being counted? Comparing October 2016 to Oct 2015, the labor force grew while the unemployment rate fell (from 4.5% in Oct 2015 to 2.7% in Oct. 2016). While that’s a sign of success, one result is a tightening job market.

“The unemployment rate is falling for the right reasons, but it does also signal that it will be harder to keep up the pace of economic growth that we have been experiencing as the labor market gets tighter,” he told BusinessWest. “Effectively, it will be harder for those who are unemployed to find work.”

Meanwhile, the 2.7% number doesn’t tell the whole story. The official (U3) unemployment rate, the one that gets reported, counts anyone who is either working or willing to work, defined as someone who has looked for a job in the past four weeks, he explained. A broader measure of unemployment is the U6 rate, which includes workers who have given up looking for work but would return to the labor force if jobs were available, as well as people who are employed part-time because they can’t find a full-time job. The average U6 number in Massachusetts is 8.8%.

“The difference between that and the state U-3 rate does indicate that there is potentially more room to grow in Massachuetts,” Petrick said. “That’s a lot of potential workers that are on the sidelines who could return to the labor market if things continue to improve.”

Whether the economy will, indeed, continue to improve is the big question.

East and West

Petrick and Nakosteen both noted that breaking the state down by region results in a much more mixed picture for Western Mass.

Specifically, while Hampden County’s U3 rate fell from 6.0% to 3.6% from October 2015 to October 2016 — and similarly decreased from 8.3% to 5.1% in Springfield and 7.4% to 4.3% in Holyoke — those figures trail other metro areas in Massachusetts, including Boston (2.6% in October 2016) and Worcester (3.3%). In fact, Springfield’s 5.1% rate ranks among the highest city unemployment rates in the state.

“The recovery started sooner in Eastern Mass., and it took a while for the effects to be really felt in the western part of the state,” Petrick said. “Over the past year, we have seen a degree of catching up … after lagging in Western Mass. for a few years, the rate of job growth is now pretty consistent across the state.”

One interesting result over the past year, he noted, has been a rebound in the construction industry in Massachusetts, which saw employment grow by almost 38%. But much of that growth — particularly new construction — has been concentrated in the Greater Boston area.  Still, he went on, as construction was hard-hit by the recession, a rebound in this sector is a positive sign.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

I don’t think the economy is going gangbusters, but it’s been steady, moderate growth over a long period of time, with higher employment numbers and the total number of workers higher.”

 

“It’s always been the case that the growth in Boston spreads very unevenly, and it dissipates as it gets farther from Boston,” Nakosteen added. “In Western Massachusetts, our employment numbers have increased, but not dramatically.”

One oft-discussed reason has been the decline of the manufacturing base over the past few decades, with no one industry stepping up to replace it. “We have a smattering of everything, and a number of manufacturing companies, but nothing very big.”

Area economic-development leaders hope the emergence of CRRC USA Rail Corp., a subsidiary of the China-based world leader in rail-car manufacturing — which promises to create more than 150 manufacturing jobs in Springfield when its plant on Page Boulevard opens in 2018 — is a harbinger of more good news for the region’s manufacturing sector. At the same time, downtown projects like Union Station and MGM Springfield, coupled with a surge in entrepreneurial activity in the region, bode well for the future.

So do the continued health of the ‘eds and meds’ sectors in the region. Nakosteen noted that people think of Massachusetts’ world-class hospitals when they think of the state’s healthcare prowess, but in addition to that anchor, companies that perform pharmaceutical research and build medical devices are thriving — although, again, mainly in the eastern part of the state.

Still, he went on, “there has been some convergence of the economic prospects of the eastern and western parts of the state, and that’s a good thing.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, said her organization’s members are mainly bullish on the year ahead.

“There’s a lot of optimism. I hear it on the streets and in chamber meetings,” she said. “We’re seeing new business come into the city — small businesses, especially, that want to be part of what’s happening here. And the chamber is growing — chamber members are increasing job growth, increasing spending. I think, overall, people are feeling good about the city of Springfield.”

Nancy Creed says businesses expect to grow in 2017

Nancy Creed says businesses expect to grow in 2017, despite caution over what national events and trends represent.

However, “I would say it’s also tempered with what could potentially happen with the new federal administration,” she added. “Who knows what’s going to happen with healthcare and the ACA? So there’s also some caution overall.”

Indeed, Petrick noted, markets don’t like uncertainty, and they tend to be volatile during an election year in the U.S. — particularly one as unpredictable and unusual as the one that gave rise to President-elect Donald Trump and his aggressive rhetoric regarding trade.

“Certainly two of our biggest trade partners at the national level, China and Mexico, have both responded by letting us know that a trade war is a very bad idea for the U.S. as well as for them,” he said. “They have also both let the incoming administration know that there’s not a whole lot of good will there after a series of inflammatory statements regarding both countries during the campaign.

Those relationships need mending, he said, and it’s in the interest of both the U.S. and Massachusetts economies for that to happen. At the national level, he noted, much uncertainty lingers — more than what is typical after an election — and both companies and consumers want to see what the incoming administration will do, particularly after so many statements, many of them contradictory, regarding potential policy.

“So, because of both economic and political reasons, I think the state economy is entering into a period of more uncertainty,” Petrick said. “Luckily, we are doing so after a period of robust economic growth, so, as a state, we have a good foundation to weather this uncertainty.”

In the financial world, indicators reflect general economic health, said Thomas Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank.


List of Business and Economic Development Resources


“Interest rates, obviously, drive most of what we do,” he said, adding that the Fed is expected to raise rates another 25 basis points this week, and he anticipates further jumps in the spring and perhaps the fourth quarter of 2017. “We see it as a moderate increase in rates that won’t have a huge, detrimental effect.”

In fact, he added, the Fed moves should instead translate into positive consumer confidence, which usually brings positive economic impact.

Meanwhile, Senecal added, “unemployment is significantly down in Western Mass., and we see in the banking industry that foreclosures are down, delinquencies are down — these are all positive signs for the economy.”

Broader Trends

Other fundamentals at the national level remain positive, Petrick said. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that the U.S. economy will grow by 2.2% over the next year. That’s a strong rate of growth, although one part of the IMF forecast — higher energy prices — is better for some states (like Texas and North Dakota) than for Massachusetts. The IMF also estimate that the U.S. dollar will weaken over the coming year, which is good news for exports from Massachusetts, as a strong dollar over the past two years has seen state exports to many top trade partners suffer.

While the national economy is still growing, Nakosteen noted, it’s growing at a slightly slower rate than in previous years, and that’s bound to affect Massachusetts. “We can only be healthy to the extent of a strong national economy.”

Meanwhile, globally, China continues its transformation from an export-led economy to one more consumer-driven, and that could be a painful process. “It’s not clear that transition will be successful or happen any time soon,” he said, “and it’s not clear the politics in that country will be able to sustain it.”

As for Europe, “what they consider good news, we’d call stagnant. We’d be lamenting it here, but they’re happy there. There’s not much in the tea leaves to say that will change any time soon,” Nakosteen said, adding that slowdowns in commodities exports — a problem from Asia to Africa to Canada — are proving to impact economies negatively as well.

“The world isn’t on the brink of anything, but it’s certainly challenged in a number of ways, and certainly just slogging along,” he said. “We’re not disconnected from any of that. Even though we have a really dynamic economy, these trends are bound to suppress growth at some point. We’ve managed to keep modest growth continually for a long time, but there are troubling outside signs.”

Petrick agreed. “A generally sluggish world economy doesn’t help the U.S. or the Massachusetts state economy. The weakened Chinese economy, a sluggish European Union, and the continued fallout from the Brexit vote in the UK all bear watching.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president, senior lender, and chief credit officer at PeoplesBank, noted, as many analysts have, that Western Mass. is to some degree more shielded from national trends than, say Boston — never reaching the same heights or plumbing the same depths.

“The last few years, we’ve seen positive trends for both our customers and prospective customers,” he said, adding that he sees some staying power in regional trends like rising household incomes, strong commercial occupancy levels, and an uptick in home purchases in the mortgage realm after several years of refinances dominating that sector. Meanwhile, he sees the casino and other large projects causing a trickle-down effect of renewed investment interest in the region.

“I think the casino and CRRC will have an impact on the Western Mass. market; there will be some economic spilloff from that,” Senecal added. “Any time you see cranes in the sky, it makes you feel good about what’s going on in the immediate area.”

Meanwhile, some sectors are dealing with trends that are more cultural than economic, notably retail, which continue to grapple with Internet sales cutting deeply into their bottom line. Nakosteen said he has talked to store owners who say they hear that things are getting better, but they’re not seeing it themselves. “Retailers across the state and nation are struggling to deal with the Internet world.”

Bottom Line

In summary, Petrick expects Massachusetts’ economic growth to remain positive in 2017 but at a slower rate, closer to the U.S. national rate of growth.

“It’s really hard to continually outpace the national rate of growth after so many years of doing so,” he said. “I suspect, for at least part of the year, we will grow faster than the national average, but the gap will get narrower.”

One advantage the Bay State has is a high percentage of educational attainment, as 41.5% of residents in age 25 or older have a bachelor’s degree or higher; the national rate is 30.6%. “That is one of the reasons that Massachusetts is an attractive place for companies to locate.”

On the other hand, they still grapple with skills gaps, trying to match their needs with the available talent. But one of the more positive stories over the past decade in Western Mass. has been the region’s efforts to attack that problem.

“The skills gap is always going to be a concern, as businesses evolve and have different needs,” Creed said, adding, however, that the city has been fortunate to see robust partnerships emerge between its colleges, technical schools, and workforce-development agencies to prime the pump of talent and keep it in the region. “That’s the nature of the beast — businesses evolve, the skills they need evolve, and we’ve got to keep pace with that.”

Those partnerships don’t happen everywhere and shouldn’t be taken for granted, she added — but they are being noticed by both local companies and those looking for a place to plant new roots.

“I hear it from people at my events — they want to be downtown, they want to be part of the excitement. They want to be part of what’s happening here.”

It’s an optimism being felt across Western Mass. — admittedly, more strongly in some communities than others — as the calendar turns to 2017, and all the economic questions a new year brings.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections

Questions About Sustainability Cloud the Picture for 2016

Outlook 2016

By most accounts, the state’s economy — and area businesses — had a solid 2015. Performance didn’t match pre-recession levels, but it was an improvement over the previous three or four years. The question looming over 2016 is whether that performance can be sustained, and there are enough doubts, or reservations — created by everything from a stronger dollar to still-falling oil prices to uncertainty about who will win the White House next November — to keep confidence in check.

Dan Flynn calls it “soft confidence.”

That simple, two-word phrase goes a long way toward explaining the current state of the local and national economy and the general attitude concerning it among business owners.

Elaborating, Flynn, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Wholesale Banking for West Springfield-based United Bank, said many of the institution’s commercial clients are doing well — not as well as before the so-called Great Recession that started in 2008, but performance has been solid. Some even recorded their proverbial ‘best year ever’ in 2015, he noted, adding that most saw at least improvement over 2014.

Dan Flynn says many area businesses had a solid 2015

Dan Flynn says many area businesses had a solid 2015, but the question moving forward is whether that performance can be sustained.

But — and this is an important ‘but’ — these business owners are not at all sure that such performance is sustainable given a host of factors that are almost all well beyond their control. These range from global and domestic violence to still-spiraling healthcare insurance costs to extreme uncertainty about who will prevail in the 2016 presidential election — and what he or she might do after getting elected.

Thus, existing confidence is, well, soft.

“For most business owners, their inventory backlog or their job backlog is building, but they don’t have the confidence that this will sustain itself in 2016 or 2017,” Flynn explained. “They think it will, but it’s not like that flat-out ‘we’re confident, we’re going to hire a couple of extra people, we’re going to add a second shift.’ They’re not that confident.”

John Patrick agreed. The CEO of Farmington Bank, which recently made a foray into the Western Mass. market with locations in West Springfield and then East Longmeadow, said there is some optimism about the year ahead, but there are also serious doubts, enough to keep confidence from becoming deep or profound.

“The economy, especially the local economy, is all about confidence,” he noted. “And I wouldn’t say there is strong confidence in the marketplace relative to everything that’s happening around them.”

And by ‘everything,’ he meant factors ranging from terrorism in Paris and California to the ever-rising cost of health insurance.

Bob Nakosteen concurred, summoning another word to describe the current picture and outlook for 2016: ‘fuzzy.’

He would go into much greater detail, obviously, but Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst and co-editor of MassBenchmarks, the quarterly publication devoted to analysis of the Bay State economy, said that one word pretty much does the job.

Indeed, the outlook is fuzzy, as in not sharp, not clear, and, for the most part, not predictable.

“The picture is fuzzy, and through the fuzziness, we see a lot of positives, but we also see some risk,” he explained. “There’s a lot of internal strength in the U.S. economy, and it is going to overcome various weaknesses, and that means this state is going to do well. It’s a mixed picture, but the overall trend is positive. But do I have 100% confidence in what I just said? Absolutely not.”

That’s soft confidence personified.

“We’re in the middle of a slowdown … it’s not anywhere near a recession, but we’re definitely seeing some slowing,” Nakosteen went on. “The economy has been growing at 2% or a little less, and that’s not vibrant.”

John Patrick

John Patrick says a number of area manufacturers have seen exports impacted by the weakening of many foreign currencies.

Moving beyond ‘fuzzy,’ Nakosteen, like Flynn and others we spoke with, said there are a number of factors impacting the state and national economy — everything from a weak Canadian dollar, which is hurting exports to that country, to the fact that most Americans are not putting the money they’re saving at the gas pump back into the economy, to impressive job growth in the Commonwealth (if not Greater Springfield). Together, they make predicting what will come next an even more difficult assignment than it generally is.

Most observers are expecting growth to remain right around that 2% level, but it could go higher or lower depending on how matters evolve, especially that critical confidence level among business owners.

Money Matters

As he talked with BusinessWest about 2015 and what will likely happen in the year ahead, Nakosteen said there are certainly plenty of reasons to look at the glass and declare it at least half-full.

“Within the lack of clarity that we’re seeing, there lies a solid core of economic strength,” he explained, adding that the Bay State continues to match or outperform the nation overall, but it is very much dependent on the relative health of this country, as well as international markets, for its success.

As evidence, he cited some recent data showing that Massachusetts is experiencing an economic expansion in many ways reminiscent of the late ’90s, though without the impetus of the tech bubble that drove that cycle, meaning that this one is more well-rounded.

Gross state product is growing robustly, he went on — 7.1% for the second quarter compared to national GDP growth of 3.7% — and employment growth is steady, although limited geographically. The unemployment rate remains low by historical standards, and has been below the national rate since — and even before — the Great Recession.

“The current expansion appears to be on firm footing — the economy in the state has slowed down recently, but it’s still been a really good year,” he said while offering the global view.

“We’re expecting strong growth over the year or so,” he went on, using ‘we’ to mean the editors at MassBenchmarks. “It might be as strong as what we had up to the second quarter of this year, but pretty solid growth. How much of it makes its way out to the western part of the state remains to be seen.”

Flynn agreed.

“Overall, clients performed better over the past 12 months than the previous three to four years,” he said while generalizing the comments of business owners within the bank’s portfolio. “As a whole, they’re not seeing the same rate of return as before the recession, but they’re doing better than they were a year ago.

“And it’s across the board,” he went on. “You can take retail, manufacturing, wholesalers … generally, companies are performing better than they had.”

Given all that, though, the question looming over 2016 is whether that performance — by individual companies and the economy as a whole — can be sustained. And strong doubts about whether it can have led to heavy use of phrases such as ‘soft confidence,’ ‘fuzzy picture,’ ‘mixed signals,’ and the always-popular ‘cautiously optimistic,’ which Flynn said he’s heard repeatedly.

That’s because most all of the factors that will decide the fate of 2016 come complete with ‘ifs,’ ‘buts,’ question marks, and both points and counterpoints.

Take the jobs picture, for example. The nation’s economy added another 211,000 jobs in November after a gain of nearly 300,000 in October, a solid boost by most accounts that exceeded almost all expectations and propelled the stock market to a more than 2% gain the day the figures were released.


Click HERE to download a PDF chart listing the region’s largest employers


But do those numbers and the stated 5% national unemployment rate reflect real progress in what’s happening locally? The short answer is ‘no’ or ‘probably not.’

“I was in New York recently, and I heard a nationally respected economist who said that, if you really take a look at the numbers, unemployment on a normalized basis is closer to 9% when you take into consideration all the people who are unemployed and those working part-time who would prefer to be working full time,” said Patrick.

Like others, he noted that, overall, many employers have not yet reached — and likely won’t reach for some time — that threshold of confidence needed to add back some of those employees trimmed during extensive efforts during and after the recession to become more efficient and rightsize.

“Businesses are a little apprehensive about continuing to make significant investments in people, technology, and franchise, because they’re just unsure about what’s going to happen,” Patrick told BusinessWest. “And there many businesses that, because of the cost of healthcare, don’t want to go over that 50-employee number, and they’re trying to manage their business accordingly.”

Meanwhile, Nakosteen said, despite the start of work on the Springfield casino and a host of other construction projects across Western Mass., the employment needle has “barely budged” in the city of Springfield, meaning the jobless rate is still hovering around 9%, in sharp contrast to what’s happening elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Bob Nakosteen says the Bay State added jobs at an impressive clip in 2015

Bob Nakosteen says the Bay State added jobs at an impressive clip in 2015, but by and large, those gains did not extend to Western Mass.

“Employment in the state has really grown at an amazingly fast clip over the past year to 18 months, but it’s not the same in Western Mass., as is usually the case,” he explained, adding that the Bay State has added 50,000 to 60,000 jobs over the past year, most of them in technology-related sectors, although healthcare and education remain solid contributors to such growth.

“A different picture emerges out here,” he went on, talking from his office on the UMass Amherst campus. “Springfield has added a few jobs but not many — at least it hasn’t gone down. The picture is better in the larger metropolitan area, but all the construction is in Springfield, so that’s where it should be recorded, but so far we’re not seeing it.”

Dollars and Sense

Another factor that is contributing to uncertainty is the stronger U.S. dollar. It certainly benefits those traveling overseas and has provided a huge boost for airlines and cruise lines, but overall, a strong dollar hurts exporters, including the many precision manufacturers that call the Knowledge Corridor home.

“I think many of the manufacturers in this region got off to a good start in 2015 and had good backlogs,” said Patrick, referring to companies on both sides of the border. “But companies within that corridor are usually producing a product that has export potential, and because of the strong dollar internationally, they’ve seen a lot of the orders slow down and some of them put on hold, with the buyer saying, ‘what we’ll do is wait for the dollar to drive down in value a bit.’”

There was some movement in that direction in early December, he noted, but overall, the dollar remains quite strong against all other currencies, and until a pattern of weakness occurs, exports will continue to suffer.

Nakosteen agreed, and said one country often overlooked when it comes to currency rates is Canada. It is a big trading partner, and at the moment that country’s dollar, also known as the ‘loonie,’ is in a hard spiral fueled by a host of factors, including falling energy prices and questionable monetary policy.

“Canada is our most important trade partner; a year ago, it was about one U.S. dollar to one Canadian dollar; now, a Canadian dollar is worth about 70 cents,” he explained. “What that means is for Candians, U.S. products are much more expensive, and you can see it in the export numbers — they’ve really dropped over the past year.”

As for falling oil prices, which analysts say will remain low for the foreseeable future, they are not producing a surge in consumer spending, as some had predicted, and in the meantime, they are taking a hard toll on the energy industry, which is having a ripple effect, in this country and elsewhere.

“We have not seen the surplus from lower gas prices turn into consumer spending — it’s going into savings or to reduce debt,” Nakosteen said. “It has not created the bump that was expected by everyone, including me.

“From everything I’m reading in the energy industry, low gas prices are here for a while,” he went on. “So it will be interesting to see if, over time, consumers start behaving a little differently and take this surplus and spend it.”

Still another factor is interest rates, which, after that strong November jobs report, are almost certain to rise after roughly seven years of stagnancy. The projected 0.25% increase, though minor, will finally bring some measure of relief to investors who have focused on low-risk options, such as bonds, which have yielded marginal returns. But the hike will also make borrowing more expensive, and this may slow the economy somewhat.

Cliff Noreen, president of Springfield-based Babson Capital, told Bloomberg News Radio recently that he welcomed the U.S. interest rate hike — “I think it’s about time; it’s been seven years, and we’ve been living with manipulated rates for that long, and we should go back to a more normal rate environment.”

“I think the biggest victims today are retirees — they retired with the assumption five or 10 years ago that they would earn a risk-free rate of 4%, 5%, or 6%; now, the risk-free rate is zero,” he told Bloomberg. “So they have to take more risk to make their return to live on, and they’ve been forced to invest in higher-risk assets like high-yield bonds and stocks, and they’ve had to adjust their asset allocation to make up for the zero-percent rate environment we’re in globally.”

CurrenciesChartCommoditiesChartOverall, Noreen said there were several surprises in 2015 — from falling commodities prices to spiraling foreign currencies (see charts) to gasoline prices that could have fallen further than they did — and all signs point to these conditions (and the negative impact and uncertainty they bring) continuing into 2016.

“We expect lower-than-normal investment returns for all asset classes,” he noted, “and slow economic growth globally, although things have been stabilizing, and continued very, very low interest rates that are in the process of rising.”

And there are still other factors to consider looking ahead, said Noreen, listing everything from a slowing of the growth rate in China to slowing corporate-profit growth in this country, and historically low yields on bonds, with many European countries, including Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, gaining status in what Noreen called the “negative-rate club.”

As for the upcoming presidential election, Nakosteen noted that, while elections themselves typically don’t have an impact on the economy and individual presidents don’t often dictate fiscal policy, elections do generate anxiety, which has its own trickle-down effect.

Bottom Line

Speaking from experience, Patrick agreed, noting that the one commodity business owners dislike the most is uncertainty.

And because there is no lack of it at the moment — not just because of the election but all those other issues mentioned above — there is a corresponding shortage of perhaps the most important element for at least the short-term health of the regional and national economy: confidence.

There is confidence that the progress measured in 2015 can be sustained, but, as Flynn noted, it is soft confidence.

And as long as that condition remains, the picture for 2016 will remain fuzzy.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Economic Outlook Sections
Region’s Economy Gets a Jolt of Vibrancy

EcoOutlookDPartSince the end of the Great Recession in 2009, economic expansion in Western Mass. — and many other parts of the country as well — has been, in a word, limited.

And these limits have resulted from a host of factors that have stood in the way of more profound recovery. They include everything from lackluster hiring trends to high energy prices and their impact on businesses and consumers alike; from economic turmoil abroad, especially in Europe, to political chaos in Washington, as with the so-called fiscal cliff of early 2013; from a floundering housing market to a persistent lack of confidence among business owners.

But as the new year approaches, say experts we spoke with, much of this whitewater seems to be giving way to smoother conditions that are much more conducive to progress. The coast isn’t clear, they imply, but it is much clearer.

Indeed, Bob Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, told BusinessWest that he sees positive signs almost everywhere he looks, something he hasn’t been able to say for at least the past seven years.

That includes the latest employment statistics for the Bay State, which show unemployment in Springfield at 8.4% (down from 10.6% a year ago), which he considers a bellwether.

“What’s happening now is that the economic recovery is actually permeating Western Massachusetts, something you couldn’t say over the past several years,” he noted, adding that Boston, Cambridge, and other communities have enjoyed a far-more-robust recovery. “If you look at the employment numbers, we’re adding jobs in this part of the state, and that’s a really good development.”

That also includes the gas pump, where the prices for regular are now below $3 a gallon in all but a few of the 50 states and below $2 in a few (Oklahoma, for example). By all indications, they should stay at those levels, or drop even further, in the weeks ahead.

“And this simply puts money in people’s pockets,” Nakosteen explained. “When you pay for gas at the gas station, most if that money leaves the state — some of it stays, but most of it just goes away. Now, that money is staying in people’s pockets, but hopefully not for long; there are some estimates that people will spend at least half of what they save at the pump, and that goes to local businesses.”

The positive trends also include the housing market, the balance sheets of both businesses and families (both are carrying less debt), and consistently rising numbers when it comes to business confidence.

And then, there’s that $800 million casino project in Springfield’s South End. It isn’t officially underway yet — at least in terms of demolition or construction — but it is already generating excitement, movement within the long-stagnant commercial real-estate market, and talk of opportunities in many forms.

“We’ve had two vendor fairs, and they were very well-attended by small and medium-sized businesses who are looking at the possibility of doing business with the casino, and that’s a real positive sign,” said Jeff Ciuffreda, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, noting that there is anticipation with regard to jobs — both construction and permanent — and the casino’s vast potential for bringing more meetings and conventions to the city and region as a whole.

Meanwhile, the announcement that Changchun Railway Co. will be building subway cars in the former Westinghouse site has spurred anticipation of more than 150 well-paying manufacturing jobs as well as hopes for further growth within the region’s once-prominent manufacturing sector.

Despite all this welcome news, there are some points of global economic concern, said Cliff Noreen, president of Springfield-based Babson Capital Management LLC. He cited everything from a slowing growth rate in China to falling bond rates in many European countries to the fact that, while corporate profits are soaring, that wealth is, by and large, not being shared with employees.

The $800 million MGM Springfield

The $800 million MGM Springfield, due to start taking shape in Springfield’s South End, is one of many sources of optimism across the region.

“In the third quarter, U.S. corporate profits were up 9% on revenue growth of 4%,” he explained. “And this results from a very intense focus on managing expenses, which is to the detriment of employees; wages as a percentage of GDP have dropped to 43%, the lowest level in years.”

But, overall, Noreen and others are generally optimistic about the year ahead, so much so that the adverbs ‘guardedly’ and ‘cautiously,’ which have preceded that term since the recession officially ended nearly six years ago, have been generally dropped from most commentary.

“I do think that the mood of small-business owners is positive — I sense a better buzz, a better feel now than I have in the past several years,” said Ciuffreda. “Some of this is downtown-centric, with UMass here, the progress at 1550 Main Street, NPR’s new facilities, new tenants in 1350 Main St. … the feeling is a lot better; the city is more positive than I’ve ever seen it.”

Fueling Speculation

Like Nakosteen, Noreen called falling gas prices a form of economic stimulus, and he offered some eye-opening numbers to get his point across.

“Every penny that gas drops results in $1.3 billion of additional money or funds for consumers and business in the United States — discretionary spending,” he explained. “Gas has dropped approximately 55 cents from the beginning of the year, which should result in a savings of $73 billion, which is effectively stimulus, which comes out to about four-tenths of 1% of GDP.”

Nakosteen cited estimates that the average family will save perhaps $60 a month due to the falling gas prices. “And if you do the arithmetic, take half that and add that up over a whole lot of households, that’s really money being spent in the region,” he said. “And from all I’m reading, this decline in fuel prices is not going to be short-lived; it’s going to last for a while.”

This windfall — unexpected but in some ways not surprising, given the explosion in the production of shale oil in this country — is just one of many reasons, large and small, for rising optimism regarding the economy, even as those numbers are tempered by the damage done to the energy sector when oil falls to below $70 a barrel.

Nakosteen said the improving employment numbers are equally important, if not moreso.

Cliff Noreen

Cliff Noreen says that, despite general optimism about the economy, there are many factors, here and abroad, that could impact the pace of growth.

Elaborating, he noted that, for the most part, whatever recovery this region has enjoyed over the past several years has been generally of the jobless variety. But recent employment reports show that perhaps that scenario is changing.

“It’s been really a slow slog,” Nakosteen said of employment in the four western counties and especially Springfield. “Maybe the recovery is really gaining traction in this part of the state, and recent developments are only going to help.”

With jobs come disposable income and a resulting trickle-down, said Noreen, noting quickly that optimism does need to be kept in check by the fact that many jobs being created, not only in Massachusetts but nationwide, are part-time in nature, and with wages that are not keeping pace with inflation.

“More than 321,000 new jobs were created on a net basis in November,” he said, citing the most recent jobs report. “Our concern, and we’ve been saying this to clients all year, is that the quality of jobs is not what it used to be, and many of these jobs are part-time jobs, they’re in service-type industries that are very low-wage, and many of the jobs are being taken by workers over 55 years old, either because they want to work or they need to work.”

But, overall, the job growth is being seen as a positive sign for the region’s economy, as is the growing confidence among business owners, said PeoplesBank President Doug Bowen, who cited not only the Associated Industries of Massachusetts’ monthly business confidence index and its recent steady improvement, but also trends and activity he’s noticed locally.

“The Massachusetts economy is on track to strengthen, with solid economic growth, and add more jobs in 2015,” he said. “We have a positive outlook for Western Mass. Companies in our portfolio, in general, are doing well and showing moderate growth. Some of these business owners are selectively investing in capital equipment and, to a lesser degree, new facilities.

“But we are seeing growth,” he went on. “We’re seeing some that are adding additional shifts, which always precedes the actual physical construction of new space.”

One of the sectors where he’s seeing such movement is aerospace, or machine shops, which he considers a positive sign because those jobs are generally well-paying. But he’s also witnessing growth in other manufacturing, healthcare, hospitality, and IT.

He said that most of these expansions are resulting not from speculation, but rather from current backlog and existing orders, which leads some to speculate on how long this might continue. However, Bowen noted that he’s seeing generally forward movement and, overall, less hesitation when it comes to additional hiring.

If there are speed bumps down the road for the region’s and nation’s economy, they will likely result from action — or inaction, as the case may be — in other corners of the globe, said those we spoke with.

“Japan is struggling, the Russian ruble has declined substantially, and China is growing at less than people thought,” Noreen explained, adding that these factors and others add up to less demand for U.S. products and commodities such as oil, iron ore, and concrete, which may eventually slow the pace of growth in this country.

“Over the past three years, China used more concrete than the U.S. used in the last 100 years,” said Jay Leonard, a director with Babson Capital Management. “That’s a stunning number, and it helps explain why, with China’s slower rate of growth, oil prices are down, copper prices are down, and steel is getting crushed.”

Meanwhile, Europe continues to be the biggest disappointment on the global economic stage, said Noreen, pointing to bond rates on 10-year government yields (2% in Spain, 1% in France, and 0.77% in Germany) that he called shockingly low.

Industry Terms

As 2015 approaches, those representing several economic sectors anticipate that this will be a year of change, but also challenge and, in many cases, opportunity.

For the long-suffering construction industry, one of the sectors hardest-hit by the recession and the lackluster recovery that followed, change is almost certainly good, said Dave Fontaine, president of Springfield-based Fontaine Brothers.

Doug Bowen

Doug Bowen says confidence among business owners is growing, and many are making investments in their ventures.

He told BusinessWest that, while 2014 has not been a banner year for his company — “we had work, but it was all booked in 2013” — there has been some improvement in several areas within construction, from home building to infrastructure work (roads and bridges). And the consensus is that 2015 will be better because of what he called “pent-up frustration.”

But easily the greatest source of optimism within the industry is the approaching start of work on the casino.

While the general contractor for this massive project will certainly be a firm from well outside the 413 area code, undoubtedly one with several casino projects in its portfolio, Fontaine said, there will be a trickle-down effect, with many area subcontractors and individual tradesmen (all unionized) in line to win much-needed work.

Just how much work remains to be seen, obviously, but Fontaine expects the project to have a deep impact on the sector and its workforce.

“The casino project is going to be good for the general trades, because I know that, for bricklayers, carpenters, and laborers, their hours were down significantly this past year,” he said. “These types of projects certainly employ a lot of people, and they employ them quickly and for a lot of hours, but then they’re done.”

What the sector will have to guard against, to whatever extent possible, is a shortage of manpower for other projects because of the attractiveness of the casino work in terms of hours, wages, and the opportunity for overtime.

“There’s the potential for some manpower shortages, because everyone would want to be down at the casino because they’re getting overtime and six days a week and whatnot,” Fontaine explained. “But our group of tradespeople that work for us, I don’t see them packing up and abandoning us to give their life to the casino for two years.”

Change is also expected in the banking sector, where Bowen believes the recent spate of mergers and acquisitions will give way to a more stable environment.

Indeed, 2014 saw the completion of the merger of equals between United Bank and Connecticut-based Rockville National, and the announced acquisition of Hampden Bank, the last institution based in Springfield, by Pittsfield-based Berkshire Bank.

“To a large extent, it’s pretty much over,” he told BusinessWest. “There may be one or two more organizations that come into play, but the organizations that positioned themselves for merger or acquisition have pretty much achieved their objective.”

These mergers present opportunities in several forms, especially for community banks like PeoplesBank, said Bowen, noting that, whenever such acquisitions take place and management of the acquired bank shifts away from Greater Springfield, commercial and consumer accounts will be moved to small institutions. Meanwhile, such unions generally result in downsizing, which enables banks to recruit talented individuals that already know the local market.

“As an independent, mutually owned bank with no shareholders, we often become the bank of choice for customers who have experienced some disruption in their banking experience,” he said. “This year alone, we’ve increased deposits by more than $100 million; a typical year might by three-quarters that amount.”

Another sector that bears watching in 2015 is healthcare, which is still struggling to cope with the changes brought on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and the ongoing shift from a fee-for-service system to one focused much more on population health.

Such a shift requires providers to make significant investments in equipment, systems, and personnel, said Dennis Chalke, Baystate Health’s chief financial officer, treasurer, and senior vice president of Community Hospitals, adding that these investments come at a time when reimbursements for care are flat or declining and inpatient stays, a major source of revenue, are falling.

Thus, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make them, especially for stand-alone hospitals, he said, which explains why North Adams Regional Hospital closed in 2014 and why Stewart Health Care System announced that it was shuttering Quincy Medical Center, the largest hospital closing in the state in more than a decade.

“Right now, Medicare is penalizing people if their readmission rates are too high,” he explained. “That means you have to now invest in tools and other things to decrease readmissions, so when patients leave the hospital you have to make sure they follow up with physician office visits and they that they are adhering to their medications and so forth — and that takes investments in things you wouldn’t traditionally invest in.

“That’s a good thing,” he went on. “But we’re not getting paid to do that. We avoid losing dollars when we do that; it’s almost like a negative incentive. And that’s the biggest challenge facing the industry moving forward.”

As for the casino, Ciuffreda said that, overall, apprehension about the gaming facility is diminishing, at least within the business community, and it is generally being replaced with optimism, although some concern remains about its long-term sustainability.

“The mood is very positive — the only slightly gray cloud hanging over the casino is its sustainability 10 years out or so,” he said. “About 95% of the people feel very comfortable about the next five years, and 75% are comfortable about the next 10 years, but some questions start to creep in about what happens after that.”

Money Talks

Challenge and opportunity. Those two words sum up the outlook for each sector and the regional economy as a whole.

But, overall, the emphasis this year seems to be more on opportunity, as it pertains to jobs, growth through additional discretionary spending, expansion, and the many forms of trickledown anticipated from the casino.

As Nakosteen said, it appears that the economic recovery is actually permeating Western Mass.

And it’s about time.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]