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The Great River Challenge (GRC) Off-Road Triathlon is a non-traditional race, consisting of paddling on the Connecticut River, running and mountain biking on the trails at the Northfield Mountain Recreation Center. The event promotes the outdoor recreational assets of the Upper Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts,
highlights the importance of outdoor recreation for overall health and wellness and supports the signature programs of the Northfield Kiwanis Foundation for area children, teens and families. Growing each year, the GRC attracts racers and their supporters. Short and long course options entice and challenge novice to elite athletes of all ages, participating individually or in a team. The race utilizes professional timing services to help racers measure their own performance and qualify for prizes in each of several categories. Corporate teams welcome for an outstanding team-building experience.

Visit the race website, www.greatriverchallenge.com, to learn more, register, and make the most of your time in the scenic Upper Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.

Briefcase Departments

Eastern States Exposition Breaks Attendance Record

WEST SPRINGFIELD — A record number of visitors attended the Big E this year, breaking the fair’s all-time high attendance figure, with a final tally of 1,525,553. The previous record of 1,498,605 was set in 2014. Oct. 1 attendance was 137,208, also a new record for the final Sunday of the 17-day fair. During the fair’s run, the all-time-highest single-day attendance record was also broken when 171,897 visitors attended Saturday, Sept. 23. Three additional daily attendance records were set: Sept. 21, 85,019; Sept. 28, 89,905; and Sept. 29, 109,871. “I am humbled to see the incredible support of Eastern States Exposition by our loyal fair patrons,” said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Exposition. “The 2017, 101st edition of the Big E broke records again, recording for the first time in history over 1.5 million guests. Patrons of New England’s Great State Fair braved days of punishing temperatures that pushed the heat index to above 100 degrees, they endured a 55-degree drop in temperature accompanied by rain, and yet they came in great numbers to participate in, enjoy, and support this organization and all it stands for.”

Employer Confidence Rebounds in September

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index broke a two-month slide in September, rising 1.2 points to 62.4. The reading equaled its high for 2017 and was 6.5 points better than a year ago. Employer confidence has moved in a narrow range so far in 2017, as employers appear bullish about the growth prospects of their companies. The September uptick was driven in part by a 5.7-point surge in the Sales Index, which is often a leading indicator of increased business activity. “The Index was also taken prior to the announcement of an effort by Congressional Republicans and the White House to significantly reduce corporate taxes, a move that enjoys broad support among employers,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The prospect of tax reform and tax simplification is likely to buoy employer sentiment through the end of the year.” The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. The Index has remained above 50 since October 2013. The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were generally higher during September. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, rose 2.2 points to 65.4, a reading that was 8.4 points higher than in September 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions dropped 0.4 points to 59.8 after surging more than 10 points during the previous 12 months. September marked the 90th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased 1.6 points to 62.9, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 0.7 points to 61.9. The Future Index ended the month 5.9 points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, gained 1.4 points to 62.3. Finally, the Employment Index fell 2.2 points to 55.8, continuing an up-and-down pattern within the mid-50s on the 100-point scale. “The Massachusetts economy continues to maintain a steady recovery, with employers adding 10,800 jobs during August and the state jobless rate declining to 4.2%,” said Elmore Alexander, dean of Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University, and a BEA member. “The surge in the AIM Sales and Future indices suggests that business activity may actually accelerate in coming months, so the primary challenge for employers will remain hiring and retaining skilled workers in a tight labor market.” AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, said employers generally support federal initiatives to reduce business taxes, but also remain concerned about the potential effect those reductions might have on the deficit. It is ironic, Lord added, that the proposed Republican tax plan would lower levies for subchapter-S corporations and other small pass-through businesses, while Massachusetts voters may be voting on a surtax next year on those same companies. “Subchapter-S corporations and other companies that pay taxes on the individual level are generally small to medium-sized enterprises that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy,” he noted. “What a shame it would be if the federal government were to help these companies while Massachusetts penalizes them.”

MGM’s 95% Document Submittal Consistent with HCA Commitments

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, announced that the MGM 95% construction-design submittals are consistent with the commitments outlined within the city’s host-community agreement (HCA). “As we move closer to the completion and grand opening of this unique urban development, I am pleased to be able to announce another milestone as the city accepts the 95% construction-design submittals,” said Sarno. “Through this continued collaborative effort between the city of Springfield and MGM, the designs submitted remain consistent with what has been outlined within the host-community agreement.” This determination of compliance is based on a detailed review of the submittal documents by a number of city departments, including the Office of Planning & Economic Development, the Law Department, the Building Department, the Department of Public Works, and the Casino Liaison Office. A full review of the 95% construction-design documents was also completed by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc., an urban-planning consultant that has been used extensively by the city of Springfield throughout the casino design-review process. “Based on a thorough review and engaged process over the past few months, we believe that MGM’s 95% construction documents continue to illustrate a high-quality, attractive, and innovative design,” said Kim Goluska of Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. “MGM’s cooperation with the city and its positive enhancements and completion of the key design components has resulted in a project that not only conforms to the HCA intent and requirements, but also creates a new, truly innovative precedent for urban casino developments.” Added Kennedy, “with MGM Springfield nearing completion and the numerous other economic-development efforts underway throughout the city, including the recent grand opening of Union Station, we are really starting to see the new Springfield take shape. Our focus will continue to be on capitalizing on these larger transformative developments to help attract other private investment and jobs to the city of Springfield.”

New England Unemployment Holds Steady in August

BOSTON — The New England Information Office of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has released New England and state unemployment numbers for August 2017. These data are supplied by the Local Area Unemployment Statistics (LAUS) program, which produces monthly and annual employment, unemployment, and labor-force data for Census regions and divisions, states, counties, metropolitan areas, and many cities. The New England unemployment rate was little changed at 4.0% in August. One year ago, the New England jobless rate was 3.9%. The U.S. jobless rate was little changed from July at 4.4%. No New England state had a significant over-the-year jobless rate change.

Daily News

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index broke a two-month slide in September, rising 1.2 points to 62.4. The reading equaled its high for 2017 and was 6.5 points better than a year ago.

Employer confidence has moved in a narrow range so far in 2017, as employers appear bullish about the growth prospects of their companies. The September uptick was driven in part by a 5.7-point surge in the Sales Index, which is often a leading indicator of increased business activity.

“The Index was also taken prior to the announcement of an effort by Congressional Republicans and the White House to significantly reduce corporate taxes, a move that enjoys broad support among employers,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The prospect of tax reform and tax simplification is likely to buoy employer sentiment through the end of the year.”

The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. The Index has remained above 50 since October 2013.

The constituent indicators that make up the overall Business Confidence Index were generally higher during September. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, rose 2.2 points to 65.4, a reading that was 8.4 points higher than in September 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions dropped 0.4 points to 59.8 after surging more than 10 points during the previous 12 months. September marked the 90th consecutive month in which employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than the national economy.

The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased 1.6 points to 62.9, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 0.7 points to 61.9. The Future Index ended the month 5.9 points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, gained 1.4 points to 62.3. Finally, the Employment Index fell 2.2 points to 55.8, continuing an up-and-down pattern within the mid-50s on the 100-point scale.

“The Massachusetts economy continues to maintain a steady recovery, with employers adding 10,800 jobs during August and the state jobless rate declining to 4.2%,” said Elmore Alexander, dean of Ricciardi College of Business at Bridgewater State University, and a BEA member. “The surge in the AIM Sales and Future indices suggests that business activity may actually accelerate in coming months, so the primary challenge for employers will remain hiring and retaining skilled workers in a tight labor market.”

AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, said employers generally support federal initiatives to reduce business taxes, but also remain concerned about the potential effect those reductions might have on the deficit. It is ironic, Lord added, that the proposed Republican tax plan would lower levies for subchapter-S corporations and other small pass-through businesses, while Massachusetts voters may be voting on a surtax next year on those same companies.

“Subchapter-S corporations and other companies that pay taxes on the individual level are generally small to medium-sized enterprises that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy,” he noted. “What a shame it would be if the federal government were to help these companies while Massachusetts penalizes them.”

Briefcase Departments

Employer Confidence Falls for Third Consecutive Month

Confidence among Massachusetts employers fell for a third consecutive month during August as companies remained uncertain about the vigor and durability of the economic recovery.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index (BCI) declined one point to 54.1 last month, leaving it three full points lower than in August 2015. The confidence reading remained above the 50 mark that denotes an overall positive economic outlook, but optimism dimmed sharply on current economic conditions and employers’ outlook on their own companies. The employer confidence readings are consistent with a recent weakening of consumer confidence in Massachusetts. The Mass Insight Consumer Confidence Index slid 10 points during the third quarter. “The national and state economies continue to improve, but without the kind of momentum we have seen in previous recoveries. So employers remain confident overall, but circumspect,” said Raymond G. Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design. “One potential red flag is the degree to which employer confidence in their own companies has weakened during the past several months.” The AIM Index, based on a survey of Massachusetts employers, has appeared monthly since July 1991. It is calculated on a 100-point scale, with 50 as neutral; a reading above 50 is positive, while below 50 is negative. The Index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 in February 2009. The index has remained above 50 since October 2013.

More Than 1,100 Volunteer for Annual Day of Caring

PIONEER VALLEY — On Sept. 9, the United Way of Pioneer Valley launched its annual fund-raising campaign with the Day of Caring, when more than 1,100 volunteers from more than 40 area businesses volunteered across the region to help local nonprofits. Starting with a kickoff breakfast in Court Square in downtown Springfield, participants traveled to towns across the Valley, contributing in myriad ways to support programs and organizations that support the community. Projects included lawn work, painting projects, light construction, gardening, and trash removal. The day was ideal for team building, but it was also a chance for both nonprofits and area businesses to learn more about each other’s work. “I participate in the Day of Caring because I believe that giving back to the community is a central part of promoting unity,” said Sharon Dorsey, an executive assistant from Health New England. “The past few years I participated in the Day of Caring, I loved seeing how appreciative and grateful the beneficiaries were.” This year’s Day of Caring sponsors included Baystate Health, MassMutual, Health New England, Comcast, Excel Dryer, UTC Aerospace Systems, IAMAW Local 743, Harry Grodsky & Co., Mestek Inc., Monson Savings Bank, PeoplesBank, Peoples United Bank, Quabbin Wire & Cable Co., TD Bank, Gulf Stream, the Springfield Community Music School, and Sodexo.

Springfield Regional Chamber Debuts New Dental Benefit

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber has teamed up Altus Dental to offer to its chamber members a new employee benefit to enhance their employee-compensation package. Administered through American Benefits Group, dental insurance provided by Altus Dental is now available for companies with as few as one employee. Altus Dental offers the state’s largest preferred-provider (PPO) dental network with more than 6,200 participating locations in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Southern New Hampshire, and national access through CONNECTION Dental, with more than 108,000 dentist locations nationwide. Three coverage options are available at competitive rates. Plus Plan 1 is basic coverage available to employers with one or more participating employees. Plus Plan 2 is an enhanced coverage option available to those with 10 or more participating employees, and Plus Plan 3 is an enhanced coverage option for companies with 20 or more participating employees. Each option includes 100% diagnostic and preventative services with no deductible, 80% for basic restorative care with a $50 single or $150 family deductible, and a low benefit maximum per year. Plus Plan 2 and Plus Plan 3 include major restorative care such as crowns and dentures. Plus Plan 3 includes orthodontic services. To be eligible, a business must be a member of the Springfield Regional Chamber and contribute at least 50% of the monthly premium. Coverage is open to active, full-time employees.

ServiceNet Wins Grant to Boost Work with Homeless Individuals

NORTHAMPTON — To further combat the continuing challenge of homelessness in communities across Western Mass., ServiceNet’s Shelter & Housing division has been awarded a three-year grant, totaling $1.2 million, by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Returning Home, the program funded by this grant, is specifically focused on the needs of chronically homeless individuals and homeless veterans who also have a serious mental illness and/or substance-use disorder. The SAMHSA grant is one of 30 recently awarded nationwide, and it is the only one awarded in Massachusetts. Returning Home has a two-fold goal: to successfully move individuals from homelessness to permanent housing, and to improve their overall health and well-being. It does so through a combination of intensive case-management services and evidence-based clinical care. Increased funding will enable ServiceNet to assist an additional 112 individuals in the three-year period, and to expand its community outreach to meet with people on the streets, in outdoor camps, and elsewhere in the community. Returning Home will accept referrals from service providers throughout Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire counties, as well as from ServiceNet’s own network of emergency shelters.  “This award reflects SAMHSA’s trust in the outstanding work our team has done to date in housing individuals who are chronically homeless,” said Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet’s vice president of Shelter & Housing, Vocational, and Addiction Services. “We are proud of the work they do, and this funding further stabilizes and preserves our Returning Home program.” Sacchetti also cited ServiceNet’s longstanding commitment to applied research as an advantage in securing the national grant. “When we say something works, we have the data to prove it; and when something doesn’t work, we understand why,” he said. “Our research team will continue to track the impact of Returning Home’s expanded services as we move forward.” ServiceNet is partnering with the Hilltown Community Development Corp. — administrator of the federal continuum of care which oversees area initiatives related to homelessness — to serve as steering committee for the grant. “This grant is going to help a lot of people a lot,” said Jack Tulloss, a former Marine and now clinical case manager with ServiceNet’s Shelter and Housing division. Increased case-management efforts will be underway by Oct. 1.

State Awards $2.4 Million in Workforce-training Grants

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration awarded more than $2.4 million in workforce-training fund grants to 25 companies to train current or newly hired workers. This round of grant funding will help train 2,162 workers, and is expected to create 263 new jobs. “We have made workforce development a priority for Massachusetts residents to get the skills they need to prosper and for companies to have a talented pool of workers to expand,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “The training and career-building skills provided by these investments will help bolster economic prosperity and success throughout the Commonwealth.” The Workforce Training Fund assists Massachusetts businesses in becoming more competitive by investing in the skills of their workers. The Workforce Training Fund is also a key resource to thousands of Massachusetts workers who wish to advance their skills to achieve promotional opportunities and higher wages. It also acts as a catalyst for job creation. “The Workforce Training Fund is a vital tool for many companies to upgrade employees’ skills and increase productivity,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. “The training helps both the workers and the companies compete in a global environment.” The Workforce Training Fund provides grants of up to $250,000 to companies in Massachusetts, to pay for workforce training over a two-year period. Grants are awarded to projects that will upgrade workers’ skills, increase productivity, and enhance the competitiveness of Massachusetts businesses. Grants are matched dollar-for-dollar by the award recipients. The Workforce Training Fund is a program of the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development and administered by Commonwealth Corp., a quasi-public state agency that fosters partnerships between industry, education, and workforce organizations to strengthen skills for youth and adults in order to help them thrive in the state’s economy. Locally, Freedom Credit Union in Springfield was awarded $126,175 to train 133 workers. Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership was awarded $151,016 to train 93 workers, with nine additional jobs expected by 2018. This grant was awarded to a consortium of businesses, including Universal Plastics Corp. of Holyoke, Advanced Welding of Springfield, Duval Precision Grinding of Chicopee, Metronic of Chicopee, and Millitech Inc. of Northampton.

Study Details Spending of Consumer-driven Health Plan Enrollees

WASHINGTON, D.C. — People with consumer-driven health plans (CDHPs) had lower total per-capita spending on healthcare, driven in part by using less healthcare overall, than people with traditional non-CDHP commercial health plans, finds a new study from the Health Care Cost Institute (HCCI). At the same time, spending out of pocket by CDHP consumers was 1.5 times higher on average than non-CDHP consumers. For example, people enrolled in consumer-driven health plans paid an annual average $58 more out of pocket on visits to the doctor and $50 more on emergency room visits than their non-CDHP counterparts, while using roughly 8% and 10% fewer visits, respectively. The study, “Consumer Driven Health Plans: A Cost and Utilization Analysis,” examines healthcare use and spending from 2010 to 2014 for people covered by employer-sponsored insurance and under 65 years of age who are enrolled in CDHPs. Enrollment in CDHPs has been steadily increasing within HCCI’s employee-sponsored insurance population; more than one-quarter had a CDHP in 2014, compared to just 15% in 2010. Overall, the study found that that fewer total dollars were spent on healthcare for people with CDHPs, in part because people with CDHPs tended to use fewer healthcare services. However, people with CDHPs had higher spending out of pocket on deductibles, co-pays, and co-insurance (excluding premiums). This higher out-of-pocket spending meant people enrolled in CDHPs were responsible for nearly one-quarter of their medical costs on average, compared to 14% for those enrolled in non-CDHPs. “As the costs of healthcare increase, consumer-driven health plans try to balance lower premiums with higher deductibles and higher limits on out-of-pocket spending,” said HCCI Senior Researcher Amanda Frost. “As these types of plans grow in prevalence, it is important to look beyond premium dollars and also consider dollars spent directly on healthcare services.”

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — While progressive political organizations dream of convincing Senator Elizabeth Warren to run for president in 2016, a majority of Warren’s constituents think a presidential candidacy is a bad idea, according to the latest survey from the Western New England University Polling Institute. The telephone survey of 427 registered voters in Massachusetts, conducted April 6 – 14, found that 57% said that Warren seeking the presidency would be a bad idea, 32 percent said it would be a good idea, and 11% said they did not know or declined to answer the question. The survey has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points. Warren has repeatedly said she has no plans to run for president in 2016, despite ongoing efforts by liberal political organizations to entice her to run. While a majority of voters in Massachusetts don’t think Warren should run for president, those sentiments do not necessarily reflect negative views of Warren. The survey found that 62% of voters approve of the job Warren is doing as senator, 21% disapprove, and 17% said they did not know or declined to answer the question. More thasn half (55%) of voters have a favorable view of Warren, and 30 percent of voters have an unfavorable view. The survey also found that:

• Governor Charlie Baker, after having served 100 days in office, has a job approval rating of 63%, with 10% of voters disapproving, and 27% saying they did not know or declining to answer the question; 56% of voters have a favorable view of Baker, while 13% hold an unfavorable view, marking an increase in Baker’s popularity since winning election as governor in November.

• Senator Ed Markey, who won re-election in November, has a job approval rating of 35%, with 18% of voters disapproving and nearly half of voters — 47% — either unable or unwilling to offer an opinion. Markey’s favorability rating is 35%, with 19% unfavorable, 15% saying they have not heard of him, and 27% saying they have no opinion of him. Markey’s unfavorability has dropped 10 points since October, while his favorability has remained steady.

After asking voters about a hypothetical Warren candidacy for president, the Polling Institute asked voters to explain, in their own words, why they think Warren running for president would be a good idea or a bad idea. Among voters who said a Warren White House bid would be a bad idea, the most frequent reason given was that Warren does not have enough experience yet to serve as president (38%). Meanwhile, 12% said Warren is too liberal, while another 12% said they don’t like Warren, or they don’t like her issue positions. Tim Vercellotti, director of the Polling Institute and a professor of political science at Western New England University, said that voters who think a Warren presidential candidacy is a bad idea are a mix of her detractors and supporters. “While there are plenty of voters who oppose the idea because they feel Warren is inexperienced or they don’t like her or her issue positions, there is also a significant number of voters who say she is doing a good job in the Senate and they want her to stay there,” he said. Democrats were almost evenly divided, with 42% saying a presidential run would be a good idea and 46% saying it would be a bad idea. Among Republican and unenrolled voters, more than 60% said they thought it would be a bad idea.

Daily News

AMHERST — UMass Amherst now ranks among the nation’s top 30 public universities, moving up 10 spots during the past year in the 2015 Best Colleges guide released recently by U.S. News & World Report.

There are more than 600 public, four-year colleges in the country, and U.S. News ranks the top 122. The Commonwealth’s flagship campus, led by Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, earned its highest ranking ever in the prestigious national universities category. Since 2010, when UMass Amherst ranked 52nd among public schools, the university’s standing has steadily improved, reaching 40th last year before advancing to 30th for 2015, tied with four other schools.

Among all national universities, public and private, UMass Amherst moved up an impressive 15 places this year, from 91st to 76th, tied with eight other schools. A Washington Post analysis of the rankings cited UMass Amherst as one of only three national universities over the past five years that have risen more than 20 steps in the overall top 100 universities, from 99th to 76th.

“UMass Amherst increasingly is a destination of choice for the best students in Massachusetts and from all corners of world,” said Subbaswamy. “These rankings reflect our commitment to excellence in undergraduate education. We greatly appreciate such national recognition, and we are grateful for the increased investment in public higher education supported by our legislators and the governor. That investment is truly yielding dividends.”

Led this year by the University of California Berkeley, the University of California Los Angeles, and the University of Virginia, national public universities offer a full range of undergraduate majors, plus master’s and Ph.D. programs, and are committed to producing groundbreaking research. The U.S. News rankings are based on a variety of weighted factors: graduation rate performance, undergraduate academic reputation, faculty resources, graduation and retention rate, alumni giving, financial resources, and student selectivity.

This fall, UMass Amherst again welcomed its most academically accomplished entering class. More than 37,000 students applied for admission, a 4% increase over the prior year. Applications have more than doubled since fall 2004. The academic profile of the entering class is at another historic high, continuing a record-setting trend. SAT scores increased by about 10 points to 1,218 compared to the previous year, and high-school grade-point average increased from 3.73 to 3.78. On average, the high-school rank improved, with students ranking, on average, in the top 20% their high-school class. The entering class includes 4,650 students, slightly more than last year.

Briefcase Departments

Business Confidence Index Stabilizes
BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index stabilized in July after drops in May and June, adding a half-point to 50.5. “The index remains near the neutral midpoint of its 100-point scale, and results overall are very similar to what we saw in June,” said Raymond Torto, global chief economist at CB Richard Ellis Group Inc., chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors. “July brought more evidence of a lackluster economy, with the deadlock in Washington adding to the uncertainty about prospects for future growth. The deal reached at the end of the month to end the debt crisis may or may not restore faith in national leadership; it will not end the uncertainty, however, because we don’t know what the impact will be on the economy.” AIM’s Business Confidence Index has been issued monthly since July 1991 under the oversight of the Board of Economic Advisors. Its historical high was 68.5, attained in 1997 and 1998; its all-time low was 33.3 in February 2009. Although the index is up 2 points from last July, and about 10 points over two years, Torto noted, “a more realistic interpretation is that we saw confidence grow steadily from March 2009 to June 2010, and have bumped along since then.”

Baystate to Eliminate
354 Positions
SPRINGFIELD  — Citing continued cuts in state reimbursement and “the government’s inability to properly fund the expansion of health care,” as well as the lingering impact of a weak economy, Baystate Health recently announced a reduction in workforce totaling 354 positions. The cuts, announced on July 20, involve positions held by 169 managers and staff, as well as another 185 vacant, funded positions. Affected employees will receive severance pay and other benefits “in accordance with Baystate Health’s workforce-transition policy,” said Gregory Harb, executive vice president and COO at Baystate Health. “Our leadership carefully reviewed all positions system-wide, and … announced a reduction in our workforce by 354 positions.” Baystate Health, the region’s largest employer, took the action to ensure its financial viability and ability to fulfill its charitable mission, focused on improving the health of the people of Western Mass., said Mark Tolosky, president and CEO of the system. The combination of continued reductions in state reimbursements, inadequate funding of the expansion of health care, and a soft economy is creating dire situations for health care organizations throughout the state, and Baystate Health is not immune from these challenges, he added. Baystate senior leaders project a $25 million budget shortfall in 2011 growing to $54 million in 2012 unless expenses are reduced. Plans are to continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the long-term viability of the system. “At Baystate Health, we embrace changing models of patient care and health coverage expansion; however, these changes are not based on a properly funded plan,” said Tolosky. “Massachusetts has expanded and enhanced health care for our residents, which we applaud, but the Commonwealth is not paying for these commitments.” Elaborating, he said that health care providers are facing intense pressures to transition to a less costly, highly coordinated, patient-centered model of care amid an environment of continuing underpayments. Massachusetts health care providers are faced with freezes in reimbursements for patient care by Medicaid and other state programs, Tolosky explained, while medical inflation is rising by 3% to 4% annually. The disparity created by decreasing revenues and increasing costs threatens the financial viability of hospitals throughout the Commonwealth. Baystate, like so many others within health care, is being paid less than the cost of the care it provides, he went on. The three hospitals of Baystate Health — Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Baystate Franklin Medical Center in Greenfield, and Baystate Mary Lane Hospital in Ware — were underpaid $26.5 million by the state government for the cost of care for Medicaid patients in 2010. Medicaid patients represent 26% of the patient population at Baystate’s hospitals, resulting in significant financial loss for care of these patients.

Springfield Sells School Offices to Developer
SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield City Council voted last month to sell the vacant for School Department office building at 195 State St. to CSM North of Acton for $1. In exchange, CSM North must deliver on its commitment to use private funds to develop the site into 30 to 35 market-rate apartments. The School Department moved out of the building a year ago, relocating to the old federal courthouse building. The 195 State St. property is considered one of many efforts by the city to encourage the development of market-rate housing in the city’s central business district, and therefore one of the keys to revitalization of that area.

East Baking Co. Approved for Tax-incentive Program
HOLYOKE — The Holyoke Office of Planning and Development announced last month that the Mass. Economic Assistance Coordinating Council had approved the East Baking Co. certified project. The certified project status allows the company to be eligible for state investment tax credits and local property-tax exemptions. East Baking Co. is relocating and expanding operations to its new facility at 104 Whiting Farms Road, located within the Holyoke Economic Opportunity Area. Prior to the state approval, the Holyoke City Council approved the project, which includes a tax-increment financing agreement. East Baking Co. is a five-year-old Massachusetts company that manufactures baked goods. It counts UMass Amherst and Baystate Health among its many clients. The company outgrew its original location and is consolidating all of its operations at the 28,000-square-foot facility in Holyoke.

Survey: Salaries to Increase — for Some
NEW YORK — Despite ongoing uncertainty, companies are betting on their best workers — and are willing to pay more to prove it, according to a recent survey. After years of stagnant wages, nearly all — 97% — of the 1,200 U.S. employers polled in a compensation survey by Mercer said they plan to increase salaries in 2012. The average increase in base pay is expected to be 3% in 2012, up slightly from 2.9% in 2011 and 2.7% in 2010, the consulting firm said. However, the top-performing employees — just 8% of the workforce — will see their salaries increase by an average of 4.8% next year, the survey said.

Springfield Wins Square Dance Convention
SPRINGFIELD — The City of Homes will become the city of square dancing for a week in 2015, following the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau’s successful bid to win a major convention. After a lengthy sales process, organizers of the National Square Dance Convention agreed to bring their event to Springfield for the first time. Nearly 7,000 attendees are expected for the convention.

Big E to Feature Diverse Lineup of Talent, Events
WEST SPRINGFIELD — The 2011 Big E, slated for Sept. 16 to Oct. 2, will feature a diverse lineup of talent this year, including Reba, Blake Shelton, and Darius Rucker. New England’s largest fair will also present two weekday Mardi Gras parades, sponsored by Mohegan Sun; the Big E Super Circus, sponsored by Coca-Cola; along with a assortment of rides, crafts, food, animals, and the best of the old and new that fairgoers have come to expect. The fair opens Friday, Sept. 16 with Be a Kid for a Day — all ages pay the children’s price of $10 — and Military Appreciation Day, honoring the men and women of the armed services; admission is free for military personnel and dependents with ID, as well as veterans with ID (copy of DD-214 or proof of membership to any veterans’ organization). For tickets, showtimes, and detailed information, visit thebige.com; www.facebook.com/thebige; or
twitter.com/the_big_e. Appearing on the Comcast Arena Stage will be:
Reba — Country-music legend and winner of seven CMAs and two Grammys, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. (tickets: $69/$59/$49).
• Blake Shelton — Country sensation with four out of five gold albums, Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. (tickets: $39/$29).
• Darius Rucker — Rising country star and former lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. (tickets: $39/$29).
• Freestyle Motocross — Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. and Sept. 17 and 18 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. (free).
• Bowzer’s Rock & Roll Party — John Bauman stars as his alter ego Bowzer, featuring his band, the Stingrays, and a lineup of 50s and 60s bands, Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m. (free).
• Jake Owen — CMA-nominated, rising country star, Sept. 25 at 7:30 p.m. (free).
• An Evening with Cheap Trick — 70s icons, writer and producer of The Colbert Report theme song, Sept. 30 at 7:30 p.m. (free).
Appearing on the Court of Honor Stage, sponsored by Comcast, will be:
• Extreme Vegas — Spectacular illusions, acrobatics, and more, daily at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 8 p.m.;
• Frankie Lymon’s Legendary Teenagers — Sept. 16-22 at 1 and 6:30 p.m.;
• The Buckinghams — “Kind of a Drag,” “Don’t You Care,” Sept. 23-27 at 1 and 6:30 p.m.;
• Yvonne Elliman — Disco diva, Sept. 28-Oct. 2 at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
• Galaxy Girl — Tina Winn, who swings on a 120-foot sway pole, daily at 2, 5, and 7 p.m.

OPAL Real Estate Named Preferred Developer for Court Square Project
SPRINGFIELD – A development group led by local businessman Peter Picknelly has been designated the preferred developer for a project to convert a long-vacant office building on Elm Street at Court Square into a multi-million-dollar project with a mix of retail, office, and residential uses. The Springfield Redevelopment Authority, which owns the six-story office building at 13-31 Elm St. and four connected properties, voted unanimously in July to designate OPAL Real Estate Group of Springfield as preferred developer. The preferred-developer designation is for 120 days and, if successful, would culminate with the sale of the property to the developer. Picknelly is president of OPAL and Peter Pan Bus Lines. The OPAL team also includes Demetrios Panteleakis, managing partner; Robert Schwarz, executive vice-president; and Mark Healy, vice president of brokerage.

Departments

Springfield Names Development Chief

SPRINGFIELD — John Judge, a real-estate developer in Boston, has been named the city’s new chief development officer. He will succeed David Panagore, who left last fall to take a similar position in Hartford. Judge, 42, who was introduced by Mayor Domenic Sarno at a City Hall press conference, brings a varied résumé to his position. He’s president of Judge Co., a real estate development firm based in Boston, and previously served as director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Boston. As he was introduced, Judge told the local press that “the challenges that Springfield is encountering right now are the challenges that America is encountering. Springfield can certainly be an incubator for innovation and ideas, an incubator in the lead, top of mind, if you will, for New England.”

Poll: Local Firms Optimistic About Economic Recovery

SPRINGFIELD — The recession has taken a toll on businesses across the country, and Hartford-Springfield firms are no exception: 83% report that the recession has had a direct negative effect on their business. To remain competitive, many businesses in the interstate region have postponed capital spending (48%), cut their workforce (45%), or initiated hiring or pay freezes (39%). Only a handful (9%) have raised prices. In fact, more businesses have lowered prices to boost demand, and almost half (49%) have increased marketing efforts to prepare for recovery when the economy bounces back. Those are some of the key findings in the 2009 Hartford-Springfield Regional Business Survey, released recently. Commissioned by the Hartford-Springfield Economic Partnership (HSEP), the survey was conducted by the Connecticut Business & Industry Assoc. (CBIA) and sponsored by Comcast Business Class and Kostin, Ruffkess & Co. It is a follow-up to the first survey in 2007. The survey finds that economic competitiveness, taxes, regulatory burdens, and the cost of doing business are high on Hartford-Springfield businesses’ list of concerns, while the region’s quality of life, educational institutions, and proximity to key markets rank high on the list of benefits. The majority (61%) of business leaders cited the cost of doing business as the single greatest barrier to their continued success in the Hartford-Springfield region. The sluggish economic climate overall ranked a distant second (18%), followed by the region’s demographics and skilled workforce shortage (14%). Somewhat encouraging is the fact that the proportion of businesses expecting to record a loss in 2007 and in 2009 has remained the same (23%); however, the share of businesses expecting to record a profit dropped precipitously from 71% in 2007 to a projected 41% in 2009. Perhaps the brightest news is that almost none of the businesses surveyed plan to shut down (2%). While 9% plan to sell their companies within the next five years, the vast majority (85%) expect to stay in business — and to stay in the Hartford-Springfield region. “Concerns expressed about the high costs of doing business are timely as state governments struggle with decreased revenue and flirt with increasing costs to compensate,” said Allan Blair, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. “For our companies to grow when the economy improves, their costs must remain competitive. Fortunately, most businesses surveyed expect to successfully navigate these difficult times.”

Pay Gap Between Public, Private Sectors Reaches New High

WASHINGTON — The compensation gap between public- and private-sector employees continues to grow, according to recently released data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall total compensation for state and local workers in December 2008 was $39.25 per hour — $11.90, or 44%, more than in private business. A year earlier, the gap was $11.31. Public-employee benefits were 68% higher than private-sector workers — $13.38 an hour compared to $7.98. Annualized, that equates to $27,830 for the average government worker and $16,598 for the average employee in the private sector. Last year, the cost of public-sector benefits rose three times more than those in the private sector — up 69 cents for government workers and 23 cents for private-sector employees, according to the new report. The public-private wage gap has remained about the same since 2002, the report states, but for every $1-per-hour pay increase, public employees have received $1.17 in new benefits compared to 58 cents for private workers.

Consumer Confidence Climbs in May

SPRINGFIELD — The Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index climbed 14.1 points in May, a much-larger jump than most analysts were expecting, bringing the confidence level to its highest mark — 54.9 — since last September (61.4). The gain was at least 10 points higher than economists were predicting, fueling speculation that the worst of the recession may indeed be over. Much of the improvement came from the expectations index, which measures shoppers’ outlook over the next six months. That barometer climbed to 72.3 from 51.0 in April. Consumers’ assessment of the present situation, however, was still weak, rising from 25.5 in April to 28.9 in May.

Springfield’s Jobless Rate Falls

SPRINGFIELD — A rise in seasonal hiring brought Springfield’s employment rate down from 8.7% in March to 8.2% in April, according to recently released statistics from the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development. The decline mirrored a 0.4% decrease reported statewide (from 8.2% to 7.8%); however, the numbers are not quite double what they were a year ago (4.3% for the state and 4.7% for Springfield).

Manpower Indentifies ‘Hardest-fill’ Positions

MILWAUKEE — Engineers, nurses, and skilled/manual trades are among the nation’s most challenging positions to fill, according to survey findings released by Manpower Inc. “In the four years we have performed this research, the same positions appear on the list again and again,” said Jonas Prising, president of the Americas. “Despite the current economic instability and high unemployment, there are still skills that the U.S. workforce seems to lack.” The 10 hardest jobs to fill, as reported by U.S. employers for 2009, are engineers, nurses, skilled/manual trades, teachers, sales representatives, technicians, drivers, IT staff, laborers, and machinists/machine operators. Each of the 10 job categories on the 2009 list has appeared on the Hardest Jobs to Fill list in the past. Technicians, machinists/machine operators and sales representatives have been present all four years. Engineers, drivers, and laborers have appeared three out of four years, while nurses, teachers, skilled/manual trades, and IT staff have been present in two of the four years Manpower has performed the survey. Even with unemployment at or near record levels in many communities, Manpower’s research highlights the problem many employers are having finding individuals with the right combination of job-specific skills, experience, training, and soft skills. “It is becoming more clear that there is a talent disconnect,” said Melanie Holmes, vice president, World of Work Solutions for Manpower North America.

Home Sales Increase in Springfield

SPRINGFIELD — Home sales in Springfield surged in April compared to a year ago, bucking a statewide trend. A total of 90 homes were sold in Springfield in April, up 30.43% from the 69 sold in April 2008, according to figures released by the Warren Group. Year-to-date through April, there were 274 homes sold in Springfield, up 13.22% from the 242 sold in the first four months of 2008.

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