‘Moving the Ball Forward’

Springfield Chamber Leader Promotes Action, Not Talk
Victor Woolridge

Victor Woolridge has seen some inspiring turn-around stories in his travels, and he believes Springfield can be added to that list.

Victor Woolridge was busy gathering up the material he wanted to read on his flight to Buffalo, which was scheduled to leave in a few hours.

“I’ve had a lot of practice at this,” he told BusinessWest, noting that his job as managing director of the Real Estate Finance Group at Babson Capital Management LLC forces him to travel frequently. Name a city and he’s probably been there — often.

And in the course of all that travel, amassed through 27 years of work with MassMutual and its subsidiary, Babson, Woolridge has seen some inspiring turn-around stories.

“I’ve been to a lot of places that people had pretty much given up on,” said the Springfield native, listing sections of New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and other, smaller cities. “Years ago, people had nothing good to say or think about Harlem, but now it is the place to be. It’s the same with the inner harbor in Baltimore and on 13th and 14th streets in Washington. Not long ago, you wouldn’t walk down those streets; now, there’s a real renaissance going on there.”

Exposure to such success stories is one of the reasons why Woolridge, the recently elected chairman of the Springfield Chamber of Commerce, is optimistic about the prospect of adding the City of Homes to that list he offered. But he admits that there is much work to be done in a community that is recovering from near-bankruptcy, political scandal, and lots of bad press, and is just starting to see some momentum.

And as he assesses the challenges ahead for Springfield, Woolridge started by telling BusinessWest that he can see some direct parallels between what he does for a living — assessing high-yield investment opportunities for Babson — and his work with the Chamber and other groups trying to achieve progress in Springfield.

“In both cases, it’s about moving the ball forward,” he said, adding that, roughly translated, this means moving beyond the talk and actually getting things done.

“There is such a thing as analysis paralysis,” he said, referring to both the investment opportunities he and other members of the Real Estate Finance Group must weigh — and the many recommended plans of action for Springfield. “If you sit there and analyze all day long, you’re never going to get the deal. You have to get in there and put something on the table and advance the ball.”

And Woolridge says he’s seeing signs of that happening in Springfield.

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that, in recent months, he’s observed a change within both the Chamber and City Hall — a movement from talk to action that he intends to continue and accelerate.

Woolridge referred often to the recently completed Urban Land Institute (ULI) study of the City of Homes. The report lists a number of priorities, including downtown and the Court Square area, the South End neighborhood of the city, and the soon-to-be-vacant federal building on Main Street. As he begins his two-year stint as chairman of the Springfield chamber, Woolridge said one of his priorities is to help ensure that the ULI report becomes much more than good reading.

“Oftentimes, these reports sit on a shelf and gather dust,” he said. “We can’t let that happen in this case; there’s too much at stake for Springfield.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Woolridge talked about the Chamber, Springfield, some of those turn-around stories he’s witnessed, and what it will take to write one in his hometown.

Progress Report

Woolridge recalled one of his first meetings as an officer with the Springfield Chamber, and some comments he made then.

“I said, ‘everyone has obvious sympathy for the leper, but no one is willing to touch him,’” he remembers. “But every physician knows that for the sick patient to get better, someone has to touch him.”

Springfield was in many ways a sick patient at that time, he continued, noting that there was perhaps too much watching on the part of the Chamber and other groups in the city in the past, and not enough direct involvement, or touching. But this is a pattern he’s seen change.

“I’ve seen much more energy when it comes to the matters facing the city — not just talking about it, but strategizing, and saying ‘what do we do about it?’ and becoming a more active force in seeing these things happen,” he said. “On top of that, we’ve been discussing — we’re not there yet — how we can be better stewards or watchdogs over not just implementation of these things, but standards for how things get done so we don’t slide back into the kinds of problems we’re experienced over the past several years.”

Woolridge told BusinessWest that this greater willingness to touch the patient in recent years, an attitudinal change encouraged by his immediate predecessors on the Chamber, Mary Ellen Scott and Carol Baribeau; Mayor Charles Ryan; Economic Development Director David Panagore; and others, bodes well for the city.

That’s because direct action, not talk, is the only way to achieve progress with the many issues facing Springfield, including poverty, homelessness, public safety, economic development, workforce development, zoning, and creating a more business-friendly City Hall.

“We decided it was important to take a look at our zoning and procedures to make sure that they were competitive, streamlined, and that people understood them,” he said, adding that he helped initiate discussions with developers who compared and contrasted Springfield’s model with others to create a qualitative database for action. “Hopefully, at the end of the day, we’ll have a comprehensive set of zoning procedures so that people can track from A to Z how to get a transaction done in the city of Springfield.

“Our process was deemed to be not as friendly as other neighboring communities as well as other cities,” he continued, adding that he and others visited other cities to see how they handled things. “It just makes sense to try to fix the system, because if you save people time and money and make it a pleasant experience, then that gives you an opportunity for more business.”

Streamlining zoning codes and the overall development process is just one example of how city and civic leaders are progressing from talking about the patient to touching him, said Woolridge, adding that the ULI is certainly another.

The process of preparing the report gave people an opportunity to listen, exchange ideas, and, in many cases, vent, he said, adding that with the report in hand, the city and its leaders must do something with it, or else risk losing some of the momentum that’s been achieved.

“Some of the recommendations in that report need to be pursued,” he said, returning to his warnings on overanalysis that can stifle action. “This is an outline, a framework, that provides a direction; the best way to move is to take a step forward, do something, and do your analysis on the way to building a new city.

“You can’t analyze ad nauseum,” he continued. “You have to work the problem and figure it out along the way.”

Agenda Items

Woolridge told BusinessWest that he’s thankful for having two years as chairman at the Chamber; one is simply not enough time to finish some of the work started by others, let alone start and advance new initiatives.

Assessing priorities for the city and the Chamber, he said there are specific and general goals for both. With the Chamber, he wants to increase membership, improve visibility, and make the organization more directly involved with key issues. Also, he wants to continue working with the state Legislature on business-related measures, and with the Finance Control Board on its ongoing efforts to bring fiscal stability to the community.

As for the city, priorities include everything from poverty and homelessness to devising ways to make the community’s great ethnic diversity more of a cultural and economic asset.

“That diversity should be fully embraced and seen as a clear positive for the city,” he said. “Right now, it isn’t.”

Another issue to be addressed, he said, is the preponderance of affordable and subsidized housing in the city, at the expense of market-rate units that could attract more professionals to many neighborhoods and breathe life into the city’s downtown. There has been some quality single-family home construction in outlying areas of the city, he noted, adding that the next step is to continue this trend into the core of the community.

“We have to stabilize our economy by bringing in higher-quality real estate that attracts higher-income people to help lift the entire economic boat of the city,” he said. “If you continue to build poor-quality housing, then ultimately you end up with a city that’s full of poor-quality housing. And how then do you attract people of better means, if you will, into a community like that?

“It’s a domino effect,” he continued. “The tax base gets impaired because you don’t have a good balance between affordable and market rate, and when the tax base gets impaired the infrastructure is impaired, and your school buildings and other municipal facilities can’t get repaired; it’s a spiral downhill because you can’t generate enough tax base.”

Achieving a balance between affordable and market-rate housing is easier said than done, he acknowledged, adding quickly that he’s seen it done — in cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, and also smaller communities like Greenville, S.C. In those cities, developers have created 80/20 mixes that attract professionals (the market-rate component is the ‘80’) but without, in his words, “casting aside” lower-income constituencies.

Housing is one of those areas where there has been mostly talk in Springfield, said Woolridge, adding this isn’t getting the job done.

As with other issues, the city needs to move on the housing dilemma or, as he said many times, move the ball forward.

“We’re never going to know all the answers, and no matter how hard you search, the target keeps moving,” he said. “You have to move with it, and you have to get things done; you learn along the way, you make mistakes along the way, but that’s all part of the process.”

Plane Speaking

As he prepared to shuffle off to Buffalo, Woolridge took a minute to show BusinessWest one of his group’s latest investment gambits — a high-rise office tower in what might be his favorite destination: Chicago.

“It’s a wonderful city, and it’s transformed itself into a European-style city,” he said, adding that by this he meant an attractive mix of arts, green space, and architecture. “What I like most about Chicago is that there’s an overall vision for the city and its neighborhoods.”

And by advancing the ball, that city is turning vision into reality, he said, adding that the same can happen in Springfield if talk can be turned into action.

“There are some who maybe have given up on Springfield,” he continued. “But you never know … this could someday be the place people want to be.”

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