Positive Signs for Springfield

MassMutual Chairman Robert O’Connell wasn’t sure he needed a large, formal press conference to announce the company’s $40 million expansion.

As he told the large group assembled for the event late last month, MassMutual’s support for, and confidence in, the city of Springfield isn’t exactly news. After all, the company has long been one of the city’s largest employers, and it has shown its support in ways ranging from the creation of Baystate West (now Tower Square) to the purchase of naming rights for the convention center taking shape on Main Street.

But O’Connell figured that a project of this magnitude deserved a ’celebratory moment,’ as he put it, and that residents and business owners might need to be reminded that, at a time when the headlines are dominated by the city’s fiscal woes, crime, and the many effects of poverty, there are some good things happening here.

The Springfield Chamber of Commerce and the Springfield Business Improvement District came to roughly the same conclusion.

The two agencies are splitting the bill for a radio advertising campaign that compares and contrasts Springfield to the rest of the Commonwealth with regard to several economic statistics. The data shows that, since 2001, the number of new businesses in Springfield is up 32%, compared to 9% for the entire state. Likewise, the number of Springfield residents employed increased 2.6% during that period, while the state as a whole, increased just 0.7%.

People can use statistics to say whatever they want, and these numbers certainly reflect how much the state is lagging behind the country in terms of overall recovery. But the numbers do show progress, a message that Russell Denver, president of the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, did not want lost amid all the negative headlines about Springfield’s control board, $30 million deficits, tax delinquents, and squabbles with city unions over concessions.

The ad campaign, which will cost about $15,000, is unprecedented, says Denver, but it is also quite necessary to let people know that in Springfield, it’s not all gloom and doom.

Quite the contrary, actually.

As BusinessWest’s annual economic outlook (which starts on the next page) shows, there are many indications that the recovery, which has been less than spectacular to date, will become more pronounced in the year ahead.

A look at the jobs picture, for example, shows that the volume of job postings in the Greater Springfield area is up, while the number of people looking for work is down — and the numbers have been trending in this fashion for several months. The employment news is especially positive in the manufacturing sector, which has struggled in recent years amid growing foreign competition. Many local manufacturers have begun adding both part-time and full-time employees, and some are confident enough to move forward with major expansions and new construction.

In East Longmeadow, for example, German-owned papermaker Suddekor is building a 100,000-square-foot plant and Maybury Material Handling is moving ahead with a new, 40,000-square-foot facility.

The new construction is not limited to manufacturing. In Chicopee, the Memorial Drive corridor is growing by leaps and bounds, adding both a Home Depot and Wal-mart in just the past year, with Staples and Marshall’s on the way.

The construction activity is an especially positive sign, because while area hospitals and colleges have been building steadily over the past several years, the most high-profile initiatives have instead been publicly funded projects such as the Basketball Hall of Fame, the new federal courthouse on State Street, Union Station, and the new convention center. Private-sector building is always a strong indicator of confidence in a community’s future.

Not all the news in Springfield is positive, to be sure. The control board will reign over the city’s finances for years to come, and the work to take the community out of the red will be very challenging indeed. Meanwhile, the city’s problems with crime and poverty will not be corrected quickly or easily. These are not the best of times.

But O’Connell and Denver are right to say that the city’s fiscal problems and high murder rate should not overshadow the good things that are happening here and in surrounding communities.

The signs point to a more-robust economy in the year ahead, and MassMutual’s expansion is merely one expression of a growing feeling of confidence that will hopefully translate into many more positive business stories.