Features Getting Down to Business

Getting Down to Business

Casinos Add to Full Slate for Springfield Chamber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Playing Their Cards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

East Meets West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Odds Are

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

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

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

 

Elizabeth Taras can be reached at [email protected]

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