Optimism for the Year Ahead


Over the years, BusinessWest has worn out the ‘question-mark’ key when writing stories and headlines for its Economic Outlook sections each December.

Any why not? No one really knows what lies ahead, especially when it comes to the economy. And over the past 15-20 years, there have been some times — such as the months after 9/11 and the very darkest days of the Great Recession in the fall of 2008 — when trying to speculate what might come next was all but impossible.

This isn’t exactly one of those times, but it’s close, and all because of history. Actually, two kinds of it.

First, that election about a month or so ago, because it ushered in a presidency seemingly defined by unpredictability and speculation — about what will happen domestically and abroad. And second, the nation’s economic track record.

Indeed, not once in the full history of this country has it gone more than 10 years without a recession. Don’t look now, but that means, sad to say, that we’re just about due for one. And if it comes soon — we’ve had almost nine years of mostly unspectacular growth — we’ll likely be entering it without the two most common methods of fighting one: lowering interest rates (because they’re already at historic lows and just can’t get any lower) and tax cuts (especially if President Trump makes good on his pledge to almost immediately lower them after getting sworn in).

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Sort of.

While it might be time to talk about that recession seemingly certain to come some time in Trump’s first term, the immediate future seems worthy of something else that gets typed often when writing about the year ahead — that phrase ‘cautious optimism.’

That’s especially true of the Western Mass. region, which, while it continues to lag maddeningly well behind most of the rest of the state in terms of growth and prosperity, is, for the most part, riding on an arrow pointed upward. Here are some reasons for the optimism:

• Springfield’s continuing climb. Last issue, we wrote about cranes and their uplifting abilities, no pun intended. It’s not hyperbole. Cranes do generate optimism and, well, more cranes. But it’s not just those machines at the casino site generating positive energy. It’s everything from new vibrancy downtown to the Thunderbirds; from Union Station to subway-car manufacturing. Springfield still has considerable work to do, but it is in what we believe are the early stages of a renaissance, which means there is more progress to come, and it will likely have a strong ripple effect throughout the region.

• Progress in other communities. As we’re written before, the process of reinventing a city — moving from a manufacturing hub to the proverbial ‘something else’ — is slow and often difficult. But many cities in this region, including Holyoke, Easthampton, Pittsfield, and Westfield, are making substantial progress in that regard, becoming centers for entrepreneurship, the arts, small business, tourism, and combinations of all of the above. This progress bodes well for the region, and it should continue in the year ahead.

• Promoting entrepreneurship. One of the most encouraging developments in this region in recent years, as we’ve noted, has been the efforts to not only promote and encourage entrepreneurship, but to create a population of smarter, more resilient entrepreneurs. Springfield has become the hub of this activity, but it’s happening region-wide. And while the landscape won’t change overnight, certainly, a stronger, more diverse economy will result.

• Eds and meds. Or is it meds and eds? While the region continues to diversify its economy, these two stalwarts continue to grow and become ever-more pivotal forces in overall economic development. Healthcare continues to be an ultra-steady source of jobs, and the region’s higher-ed institutions, led by UMass Amherst, are developing new degree programs and initiatives aimed at providing area businesses with their most important asset — qualified talent. These sectors are not only strong, but getting stronger, and the region will benefit accordingly.

While there are still many question marks regarding the economy and which way it will go in the year ahead, there are seemingly fewer of them. And this is a byproduct of the optimism (OK, guarded optimism) that is growing in intensity and bound to generate more progress in the year to come.