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Employer Confidence Slips Slightly in July

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index shed 0.3 points to 61.5 last month, leaving it 6.4 points higher than a year ago. The Index has gained ground in five of seven months so far in 2017. The July slip was led by the Employment Index, which dropped 2.4 points from June. Experts on the AIM Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) believe the slide reflects employers’ inability to hire skilled workers amid a tight labor market rather than a hiring slowdown caused by economic factors. “Confidence levels at or above 60 signal continued strong confidence among employers in the direction of the state and national economies,” said Raymond Torto, BEA chair and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The labor shortage is a serious issue. We hear anecdotes from companies in multiple industries that are turning away business or postponing expansions because they can’t find tech specialists, manufacturing workers, or electricians to take the new jobs.” 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 mixed during July. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, lost a point to 63.2, still six points higher than in July 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions rose 0.5 points to 57.9 despite lingering uncertainty about federal healthcare and economic policy. July marked the 88th 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, declined 0.7 points to 61.2, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, edged up 0.1 point to 61.8. The Future Index ended the month seven points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, lost 0.2 points to 62.2, up 6.3 points during the 12-month period. And though the Employment Index dropped to 55.7, the Sales Index rose for the third consecutive month, gaining 1.5 points to 64.1. The AIM survey found that 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months are similar, with 37% expecting to hire and only 10% downsizing. Elliot Winer, chief economist with Winer Economic Consulting, said workers with the type of skills needed by employers in growing industries remain in short supply, even though Massachusetts has posted significant increases to its labor force so far in 2017. “Employers report that it is increasingly hard to fill jobs. Job vacancies now significantly exceed new hiring. And yet, wage growth in the state has been near zero when adjusted for inflation,” Winer said. Manufacturing companies remained optimistic about the economy with the 59.6 confidence reading, but not as optimistic as employers outside the manufacturing sector, who posted a 63.6 result. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, noted that employer confidence in the Massachusetts economy has stalled as the state Legislature has taken several troubling votes, including one to force employers to close a $200 million gap in MassHealth with no long-term program reforms.

Family Business Center to Host Summit for Couples in Business

AMHERST — Anyone in the unique (but not uncommon) situation of working with their spouse or significant other might be interested in being one of eight to 10 couples to take part in an upcoming ‘spouses summit,’ a constructive, honest, cathartic discussion and learning opportunity for couples in business. The Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley is planning such an event. The business owners represented will be from a mix of non-competing companies of various sizes and industries. A few lessons will be built in a la short talks on communication, conflict, professionalism, marketing oneself as a family business, etc., but it will also be a lightly facilitated, largely free-flowing conversation, comparing notes with others who are in the same scenario: working with one’s beloved. The Family Business Center has been presenting helpful programs, workshops, roundtables, and more for families in business since 1994, including a couple of successful sibling summits and one spouses summit. The cost will likely be around  $120 per couple, and limited to the first eight to 10 couples who register and pay. A date will then be chosen that will work for all participants. For more information, call Ira Bryck at (413) 835-0810.

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Massachusetts Adds 10,000 Jobs in June

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate increased to 4.3% in June from the May rate of 4.2%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 10,000 jobs in June. Over-the-month job gains occurred in education and health services; trade, transportation, and utilities; leisure and hospitality; other services; manufacturing; information; and financial activities. The May estimate was revised to a gain of 2,000 jobs. From June 2016 to June 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 65,900 jobs. The June state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.4% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force decreased by 2,600 from 3,711,100 in May, as 7,600 fewer residents were employed and 5,100 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased six-tenths of a percentage point from 3.7% in June 2016. There were 27,400 more unemployed persons over the year compared to June 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — remained at 66.7% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased 1.8% compared to June 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in education and health services; professional, scientific, and business services; financial activities; and other services. “During the first six months of 2017, Massachusetts has experienced the largest increase in the labor force on record, and the 66.7% labor-force participation rate is now 3.9 points higher than the U.S. rate,” said Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta. “These marked labor-force gains should help ease labor-market pressures and are signs of a growing economy in the Commonwealth.”

United Way, Peter Pan Launch Annual Stuff the Bus Program

SPRINGFIELD — United Way of Pioneer Valley and Peter Pan Bus Lines launched the annual Stuff the Bus campaign on July 28. The campaign will collect new school supplies through Aug. 16. The supplies will be distributed in new backpacks to children who are homeless in Chicopee, Holyoke, Springfield, Westfield, West Springfield, and South Hadley. “All children in our community deserve to enter school feeling confident, proud, and equipped to learn. Yet, in our community, hundreds of children are without homes,” said United Way President Jim Ayers. “United Way and our supporters want to ensure that these most vulnerable children return to school with what they need: their own unique backpack, new supplies, and a symbolic message from our community that we care deeply about them and recognize their potential.” Individuals are encouraged to donate the following age-appropriate supplies: number-2 pencils, erasers, binders, paper, crayons, highlighters, pencil boxes, pens, glue sticks, rulers, two-pocket folders, and one-subject notebooks. Through August 16, 2017, donations can be brought to the United Way of Pioneer Valley, 1441 Main St., Suite 147, Springfield (weekdays, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), Western Mass News, 1300 Liberty St., Springfield (weekdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), Balise Kia, 603 Riverdale St., West Springfield (every day, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.), or Six Flags New England (Wednesday, Aug. 16 only). Aug. 16 is National Roller Coaster Day. Donors who provide six to 19 items will receive a $20.17 coupon toward main-gate admission at Six Flags New England. Those who provide 20 or more items will receive a free ticket. This event concludes the Stuff the Bus campaign.

Single-family Home Sales Down Slightly in June

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were down 2.6% in the Pioneer Valley in June compared to the same time last year, while the median price rose 4.8% to $218,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were down 1.3%, while the median price rose 16.3% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 3.2%, while the median price was up 5.5%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 15% from June 2016, while the median price was up 6%.

Briefcase Departments

Confidence Rises in June Among Massachusetts Employers

BOSTON — Massachusetts employer confidence rose for the ninth time in 10 months during June amid optimism about an economy that is finally attracting more people into the workforce. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose one point to 61.8 last month, leaving it 5.7 points higher than a year ago. The Index has gained ground in each of the past two months after slipping in April. The results come a month after state officials reported a long-awaited expansion of the Massachusetts labor market; the labor-force participation rate rose to 66.7% in May, its highest mark since before the Great Recession. “Employer confidence in both the state and national economies remains well above the level we saw a year ago, especially among manufacturers,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Key Massachusetts indicators such as total jobs, wages, and gross state product far exceed pre-recession levels, and that is outweighing concerns about long-term growth.” 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 mostly positive during June. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, gained 2.1 points to 64.2, leaving it 5.7 points higher than in June 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions rose 2.8 points to 57.4 despite lingering uncertainty about federal economic policy. June marked the 87th 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, rose 1.5 points to 61.9, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, increased 0.4 points to 61.7. The Future Index was 5.1 points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, was unchanged for the month at 62.4 and up 4.7 points during the 12-month period. The Employment Index fell 0.4 points to 58.1, while the Sales index rose 0.6 points to 62.6. The AIM survey found that 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months while 18% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months are stable, with 38% expecting to hire and only 10% downsizing. Alan Clayton-Matthews, a professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, said the supply of workers remains one of the most important factors in the ability of Massachusetts to maintain long-term economic growth. “There is little slack left in the labor market,” he said. “Unemployment rates are back to pre-recession levels, and employment rates are very close to pre-recession levels. The slack that does remain is largely among young workers, those with less than a high-school education, and part-time workers who have been unable to find full-time work, suggesting that many workers lack the skills that employers are seeking.” Overall participation in the labor force nationally has hovered below 63% during the recovery, compared with more than 66% before the recession. Eastern Mass. companies were more confident in June than those in the western portion of the Commonwealth, posting a 61.8 confidence reading in June versus 60.8 for Western Mass. employers. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, said employers are increasingly concerned about a passel of potentially expensive and disruptive Beacon Hill proposals, including a surtax on incomes more than $1 million, paid family leave, and an employer assessment to close a budget gap in the MassHealth program. “Massachusetts employers have led what is now one of the longest and most consistent economic recoveries of the past 100 years. Much of that growth reflects the fact that policymakers have refrained from unnecessarily raising business costs and imposing inefficient regulation,” Lord said. “We look forward to working with the Legislature and the Baker administration to ensure that those policies continue.”

Gaming Commission Approves Workforce-development Grants

SPRINGFIELD — Members of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) approved close to $600,000 in grants — including two for the city of Springfield — for a workforce-development pilot program designed to fund gaming career pathways for local residents. The Workforce Program is a component of the 2017 Community Mitigation Fund, which was established by the state’s gaming law to help entities offset costs related to the construction and operations of gaming establishments. The Workforce Program was developed to provide interested residents in gaming regions the ability to attain academic and occupational credentials needed to work in the most in-demand occupations related to the gaming industry. Additionally, it was established to assist the unemployed or underemployed to either get their GED or Adult Basic Education, which would position them to get future jobs in the casino industry or training in advance by the backfilling of jobs. The two initiatives in Springfield include:

• $171,833 for a program the Springfield Public Schools is working to establish called Ahead of the Game, which will target low-skill, low-income adults interested in pursuing long-term careers with MGM Springfield; and

• $200,000 for Hampden Prep, an initiative involving Springfield Technical Community College in collaboration with Holyoke Community College to develop and implement an innovative high-school-equivalency and workforce-readiness program.

“Workforce-development programs are a critical component of job creation, economic opportunity, and the Commonwealth’s ability to meet gaming’s burgeoning hiring demand,” said MGC Chairman Steve Crosby. “MGC looks forward to further collaborations as we continue to work together to ensure that we are able to deliver on our legislative mandate to establish a highly skilled and diverse Massachusetts workforce for the state’s new casino industry.”

Single-family Home Sales in Pioneer Valley Down in May

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were down 6.9% in the Pioneer Valley in May compared to the same time last year, while the median price rose 1.2% to $204,500, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were down 1.7%, while the median price rose 8.2% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were down 7.4%, while the median price was up 1.9%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 4.2% from May 2016, while the median price was up 2.5%.

Painted Piano Performances Begin in Downtown Springfield

SPRINGFIELD — Residents, employees, and visitors to Springfield have recently been treated to a series of unusual art installations downtown: painted pianos. Three beautified, moralized, upright units were decorated and placed throughout the Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) in early June, with the mission to bring music to the people, and people to the streets. The locations are at 1350 Main St., the Shops at Marketplace, and 1550 Main St. Now, professionals will be playing every Wednesday during lunch. “We’ve seen such a diverse crowd interacting with this public art,” said Morgan Drewniany, executive director of the SCCD. “I saw a construction worker on his break playing a beautiful classical piece at 1350, and videos of children delighted by tinkling the keys at 1550, the School Department building. We want to continue this excitement by programming the pianos.” Local professional pianists will be playing on the painted pianos during the 12-1 p.m. lunch hour. Pedestrians are invited to leave their offices to stop by, or simply enjoy the music on their walk. Programming will continue every Wednesday through August, but between performances, the public is still invited to stop by at their leisure. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno is scheduled to receive his first piano lesson ever on the unit at 1350 Main Street. “Following the mayor’s excitement for the project, we’re even having a special performance on August 9,” said Drewniany. This programming is made possible by individual and organizational sponsors, including the Doleva family, Lessard Property Management, NAI Plotkin, Rus Peotter, Sarno, Springfield Techinical Community College, and state Sen. James Welch. Funding for the pianos was provided by the Springfield Cultural Council, the Community Music School of Springfield, and ChooseSpringfieldNow.com.

CAA Begins Roadway Reconstruction at Bradley International Airport

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — The Connecticut Airport Authority is beginning the reconstruction and realignment of the main Bradley International Airport entrance roadway at Route 20 and Schoephoester Road. The work will involve the realignment of Schoephoester Road along with a portion of the airport’s lower roadway system, as well as the construction of a modern roundabout. The project will provide a new entrance to the airport from Route 20 and open up a 19-acre site for the future development of Bradley’s ground transportation center. The construction will not interrupt access to the airport from the Route 20 connector. However, there may be slight delays due to the shifting and reduction of lanes. Construction signs and variable message boards are present along the roadway to alert motorists of any changes in traffic patterns. The project will consist of six phases of work and is scheduled to be completed by the fall of 2018. Regular updates will be provided to the public during this time period. “This project begins our preparations for the development of our new, state-of-the-art ground transportation center,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority. “We anticipate minimal impact to our passengers; however, it is important for them to be aware of the construction.” For more information about this project, visit www.flybdl.org/about/construction.

Briefcase Departments

Springfield Officials Announce Downtown Street Improvements

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy, and Public Works Director Christopher Cignoli announced several major streetscape improvements to downtown Springfield in the anticipation of the grand opening of Union Station and MGM Springfield. The city’s Main Street Refresh Project will target Main Street from Union Station to Central Street. Work will include numerous sidewalk repairs, tree plantings, intersection and crosswalk improvements, and enhancements to the railroad underpasses along Main Street, Dwight Street, and Chestnut Street. The project will also include a new pedestrian wayfinding system currently in the final phases of design. The project is designed to complement MGM Springfield’s significant investment in downtown infrastructure. That work just getting underway includes signal improvements at key intersections, major utility upgrades, new paving, curb and sidewalk work for improved pedestrian access, and more. MGM Springfield will distribute regular communications to the city and residents to give notice of where and when travel disruptions may occur. The project will have a total cost of $6.9 million, including approximately $5.5 million from MGM Springfield and $1.4 million from the city of Springfield. Work is anticipated to begin immediately and scheduled to be completed by late spring 2018.

Massachusetts Adds 2,900 Jobs in May

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate increased to 4.2% in May from the April rate of 3.9%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 2,900 jobs in May. Over-the-month job gains occurred in education and health services; leisure and hospitality; professional, scientific, and business services; information; and construction. The April estimate was revised to a loss of 800 jobs. From May 2016 to May 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 58,300 jobs. The May state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.3% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The labor force increased by 17,100 from 3,694,200 in April, as 4,900 more residents were employed and 12,200 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased four-tenths of a percentage point from 3.8% in May 2016. There were 17,300 more unemployed people over the year compared to May 2016. The state’s labor force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — increased two-tenths of a percentage point to 66.7% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased 1.7% compared to May 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in information; construction; professional, scientific, and business services; and education and health services.

Horace Smith Fund Awards $216,000 to Area Students

SPRINGFIELD — On Thursday, June 15, the Horace Smith Fund will hold its 118th corporators’ meeting and scholarship awards ceremony at the Carriage House at Storrowton Tavern in West Springfield for recipients, their parents and school counselors, and corporators. Wayne Webster, chair of the board of trustees, announced that there will be 18 scholarship recipients and three fellowship recipients this year. Each scholarship provides a total of $10,000 over four years, and each fellowship provides $12,000 over three years. This year’s scholarship recipients include Thomas Hendrickson, Agawam High School; Aqsa Maham and Willard McKinstry, Chicopee Comprehensive High School; Xavier Farrell, High School of Science & Technology; Jordan Kei-Rahn, Longmeadow High School; Ashley Gurney, Minnechaug Regional High School; Timothy Canning, Palmer High School; Richard Nguyen, Roger L. Putnam Vocational-Technical Academy; Padraig Smith, Saint Mary High School; David Giang, Kiara Mickens, and Brendan Truong, Springfield Central High School; Ilona Znackharchuk, Westfield High School; Lindsay Gearty, West Springfield High School; Ngan Tran, Springfield Central High School, Bay Path University; Parris Porter, SABIS, Hampshire College; Amelia Vega, Holyoke High School, UMass Amherst; and Kevin Pelletier, Chicopee Comprehensive High School, Westfield State University. The three fellowship recipients are graduates of the following high schools and colleges: Melanie Gomes, Chicopee High School, Brandeis University; John-Marc Austin, Austin Family Homeschool, Elms College; and Alexander Smith, Minnechaug Regional High School, UMass Amherst. Students were selected on a variety of criteria, including test scores, class rank, extracurricular activities, and a personal essay.

Cultural District Celebrates Public Art Venture Downtown

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) launched its second district-wide public art program, following the success of last summer’s utility-box mural program. Three painted pianos have been installed in the metro center of Springfield, with the mission of activating space, encouraging pedestrian activity, and providing artist income. The pianos are located at Market Place Shops, located behind 1341 Main St., as well as at 1350 Main St. and 1550 Main St. This program of public pianos is linked to the international street-pianos movement, with participating cities including London, Paris, and Sydney.

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Unemployment Down Across Most of Massachusetts in April

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates decreased in 13 labor-market areas, increased in three areas, and remained the same in eight areas in the state during the month of April, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. Compared to April 2016, the rates were down in nine labor-market areas, increased in 10 areas, and remained the same in five areas. All 15 areas for which job estimates are published recorded seasonal job gains in April. The largest gains occurred in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Springfield, Barnstable, Worcester, and Framingham areas. From April 2016 to April 2017, 12 of the 15 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the New Bedford, Barnstable, Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, and Boston-Cambridge-Newton areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for April was 3.8%. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to 3.9% in the month of April. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed a 3,900 job gain in April, and an over-the-year gain of 58,600 jobs. The unadjusted unemployment rates and job estimates for the labor market areas reflect seasonal fluctuations and therefore may show different levels and trends than the statewide seasonally adjusted estimates. The estimates for labor force, unemployment rates, and jobs for Massachusetts are based on different statistical methodology specified by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Single-family Home Sales in Pioneer Valley Up in April

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were up 2.3% in the Pioneer Valley in April compared to the same time last year, while the median price fell 0.2% to $194,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were down 5.7%, while the median price fell 11.3% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 6.7%, while the median price was down 1.3%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 5.1% from March 2016, while the median price was up 7.9%.

Local Land Trust Offers New License Plate

AGAWAM — The Massachusetts Chapter of the Sportsmen’s National Land Trust (SNLT) is collecting pre-orders for a new Massachusetts license plate which it plans to have released later this year. The SNLT is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Agawam, founded in 2003 to help conserve natural resources and wildlife habitat across the state. Proceeds from the plate will be used to acquire, maintain, and improve open land strictly within Massachusetts, which will be available to the public forever. The all-volunteer land trust has created a special plate with a deer-buck image created by local wildlife artist Ed Snyder. A limited number of low-number original issue plates are still available at the land trust website at www.snltmassachusetts.org, but quantities are limited. Further information about the SNLT can be found at the website as well.

AMA Study: Practice Owners No Longer Physician Majority

CHICAGO — Less than half of patient-care physicians had an ownership stake in their medical practice, according to a newly updated study on physician-practice arrangements by the American Medical Assoc. (AMA). This marks the first time physician-practice owners fell below a majority of the nation’s patient-care physicians since the AMA began documenting practice-arrangement trends. The share of patient-care physicians with ownership stakes in a medical practice declined 6% to 47.1% in 2016 from 53.2% in 2012. In contrast, the share of patient-care physicians with employed positions increased about 5% to 47.1% in 2016 from 41.8% in 2012. As a result, there were equal shares of physician employees and physician practice owners in 2016, while 5.9% of patient-care physicians were independent contractors. The preference of younger physicians toward employed positions has had a prominent impact. Nearly two-thirds (65.1%) of physicians under age 40 were employees in 2016, compared to 51.3% in 2012. The share of employees among physicians age 40 and older also increased between 2012 and 2016, but at a more modest pace than younger physicians. “Patients benefit when physicians practice in settings they find professionally and personally rewarding, and the AMA strongly supports a physician’s right to practice in the setting of their choice,” said AMA President Dr. Andrew Gurman. “The AMA is committed to helping physicians navigate their practice options and offers innovative strategies and resources to ensure physicians in all practice sizes and setting can thrive in the changing health environment.”

Briefcase Departments

Massachusetts Adds 3,900 Jobs in April

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate increased to 3.9% in April from the March rate of 3.6%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 3,900 jobs in April. Over-the-month job gains occurred in professional, scientific, and business services; education and health services; trade, transportation, and utilities; other services; information; and manufacturing. From April 2016 to April 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts added 58,600 jobs. The April state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.4% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Through the first four months of 2017, Massachusetts has added over 20,000 jobs, with much of those gains coming from key sectors of the economy like professional, business, and scientific services,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said. “These job gains, coupled with large increases to the labor force and a low unemployment rate, are signs of a strong economy in the Commonwealth. Our workforce agencies remain focused on closing the skills gap and ensuring that those newly entering the job market have the training necessary to access employment opportunities.” The labor force increased by 33,000 from 3,661,200 in March, as 21,200 more residents were employed and 11,800 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped one-tenth of a percentage point from 4.0% in April 2016. There were 300 more unemployed persons over the year compared to April 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — increased six-tenths of a percentage point to 66.5% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has increased 1.5% compared to April 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in professional, scientific, and business services; construction; financial activities; education; and health services.

Cultural District Seeks Pop-up Gallery Proposals

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) has issued a call to artists for a unique opportunity in downtown Springfield. The Cultural District is searching for artists to host a solo show in their Art Stop pop-up gallery program and sell their work in one of three locations downtown – New England Public Radio (NEPR), UMass Springfield, and 1550 Main. The RFP asks for proposals from artists of all mediums to show their work from July to October. Requirements to what the art should look like are fairly laid-back, to best enable creative expression. All art will be available for sale during the display period, with 100% of proceeds going directly back to the creator. A stipend of $200 will also be awarded to the chosen artists. The Art Stop venues include a small community meeting space at NEPR which has been used for its youth arts program, MediaLab, and yoga classes; the highly visible first-floor lobby of 1550 Main, trafficked by hundreds of people daily; and the sunny and recently renovated main entryway of the UMass Center at Springfield. The SCCD hopes artists will draw inspiration from these differing spaces. “Art Stop has now become a flagship program of the Cultural District,” said director Morgan Drewniany. “We began this in October of last year and continued the effort in April, expanding to include Tower Square. Visitors love the unique blend of art, music, and community at the openings, and artists love being able to connect directly with their audience, as well as have a platform to sell their work downtown.” A joint reception will be held between the three locations in mid-summer, with gallery openings, street art, and performances between the locations to encourage walking, and light food and drinks, all provided by the SCCD and the artist hosts. The Springfield Central Cultural District encompasses an area of the metro center of Springfield and is membership-based, involving many of the downtown arts institutions. Its mission is to create and sustain a vibrant cultural environment in Springfield. The RFP and more program details can be found at springfieldculture.org/artistresources. Any questions can be forwarded to Drewniany at [email protected] or (413) 454-1195.

Plainridge Study Suggests Casino Projects Can Lower Unemployment

HADLEY — The UMass Donahue Institute released a compilation of results from two years of new employee questionnaires at Plainridge Park Casino. This report is the latest in a series of studies focused on the economic impacts of the gaming industry in the Commonwealth. Representatives from the UMass Donahue Institute presented its findings to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) during a public meeting on May 10. The findings reveal several important characteristics of new hires at Plainridge Park Casino and the emergent casino workforce in Massachusetts:

• 50.1% of new hires worked part-time or were unemployed before obtaining their job at Plainridge Park Casino;

• Major reasons for seeking employment included career advancement, improved pay, and improved benefits;

• 40.1% of new hires said they needed work due to being unemployed, part-time, or underemployed. 86.2% had no gaming experience prior to their jobs at Plainridge Park Casino;

• 96.5% of new hires did not transfer from other Penn National Gaming locations, and 92.8% did not move to take their jobs at the casino. Of those who moved, one-quarter originated from cities or towns within Massachusetts; and

• Nearly three-quarters of respondents come to their job without pre-employment training for their position.

The vast majority of survey respondents are people who are new to the gaming industry and are now being hired for gaming and non-gaming positions at Plainridge Park Casino, including its food-court vendors. Very few workers (only 7%) moved to take their job at Plainridge Park Casino, and those who did were mostly from Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This suggests that most new employees live close enough to commute to their positions at Plainridge Park Casino. “As we have pointed out repeatedly, the Legislature made broad-based economic development a key focus of the Gaming Act, with a particular focus on local employment for those underemployed and unemployed,” said MGC Chairman Steve Crosby. “This report, thus far, demonstrates that legislative intent is being achieved. We are also pleased to see the implementation of the legislative mandate to objectively and rigorously assess the economic and social impacts of gaming. This report represents one of the many important research topics fulfilling that objective.” Added Rachel Volberg, principal investigator of the Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA) group, “one of the most important positive impacts of expanded gambling is increased employment. However, in assessing the overall impacts of expanded gambling, it is important to understand whether employment gains at the casino result in the loss of employment in other sectors of the economy and in surrounding communities. This report establishes a basis for making this determination going forward and will help us understand the role of casinos in increasing economic activity, and overall employment, in Massachusetts.”

Manufacturing Partnership Graduates 100th Student

TURNERS FALLS — On Friday, May 19, 14 advanced-manufacturing trainees will receive certificates of completion and start down the pathway toward precision-machining careers in Pioneer Valley manufacturing companies. The current cohort of students in the Advanced Manufacturing Pipeline – Computer Numerical Control (AMP-CNC) training program hail from across Franklin and Hampshire counties, including Belchertown, Colrain, Easthampton, Greenfield, Montague, Northfield, South Hadley, and Shelburne. Among these trainees will be the 100th graduate of a successful job-training partnership that began four years ago to address a shortage of skilled machinists in the Valley’s precision-manufacturing industry. The event will be held at 4 p.m. at the Franklin County Technical School. AMP-CNC is a non-credit, 15-week, 300-hour, hands-on training program offered by Greenfield Community College (GCC) in partnership with the Franklin Hampshire Regional Employment Board (FHREB), the Franklin Hampshire Career Centers, Franklin County Technical School (FCTS), and area machining companies. The program has been offered at no cost to qualifying participants thanks to funding provided by federal and state grants and employer contributions. The AMP-CNC program is taught by experienced instructors in a state-of-the-art machine shop at Franklin County Technical School. The shop is outfitted with Haas CNC mill and lathe machines funded by employer contributions and matching state funding. The program uses the FCTS machine shop in the evenings after the high-school day concludes, thereby maximizing training use of the equipment. The previous seven cohorts have averaged a 93% graduation rate and an 84% job-placement rate. Students participating in the program complete testing, a four-week Foundational Manufacturing precursor program, and online Tooling U assignments. Coaching and job-placement support are provided to help students demonstrate readiness and pursue careers in precision machining by completing résumés, cover letters, and work-search plans. Trainees recently completed their résumés and cover letters to participate in a recent CNC job fair before graduation. Employers present included Bete Fog Nozzle, Hassay-Savage, G.S. Precision, Mayhew Tool Co., Poplar Hill Machine, Quabbin Inc., and VSS Inc., all employer partners of the program. Those interested in applying can sign up to attend one of the monthly information and application sessions by registering online at www.gcc.mass.edu/manufacturing or by calling the Franklin Hampshire Career Center at (413) 774-4361. The next information session will take place on Monday, June 12 at 3 p.m. at the GCC Downtown Center, 270 Main St., Greenfield. For more information about the AMP-CNC training program, contact Andrew Baker at FHREB, (413) 774-4361, ext. 375, or [email protected], or April Estis-Clark at GCC, (413) 774-1602 or [email protected].

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Employer Confidence Declines in Massachusetts in April

BOSTON — Massachusetts employers hit the pause button on a seven-month rally in business confidence during April, but their outlook remained solidly optimistic in the face of mixed political and economic signals. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index lost 2.2 points to 60.2 last month, 4.0 points higher than its level of a year earlier. Every constituent element of the confidence index lost ground after reaching a 13-year high during March. The results came as the Massachusetts economy contracted at a 0.5% annual rate during the first quarter and state unemployment rate rose to 3.6%. “We should not be surprised to see confidence readings correct slightly after advancing six points since September,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “It bears watching to determine whether the broad April decline becomes a trend as we move into the summer.” Analysts believe the numbers may also reflect growing concern among employers about the ability of the Trump administration to deliver the many pro-growth policies it promised during the campaign. 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. Employers grew less confident about both the overall economy and their own operations during April. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, lost 0.4 points to 63.3, leaving it 6 points higher than in April 2016. The U.S. Index of national business conditions shed 2.7 points after gaining ground for the previous sixth months. April marked the 85th 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, declined 1.9 points to 59.9, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, dropped 2.5 points to 60.5. The future outlook remained 3.2 points higher than a year ago. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, fell 2.6 points to 60.2. The Employment Index fell 2.8 points to 56.2, and the Sales Index declined 2.1 points to 60.5. The AIM survey found that nearly 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months were stable, with 37% planning to hire and only 10% downsizing. The April survey also reversed an unusual result in March, when Western Mass. companies were more confident than those in the eastern portion of the Commonwealth. Eastern Mass. employers posted a 61.7 confidence reading in April versus 58 for employers in the western part of the state. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord said employer confidence is facing headwinds from accelerating healthcare and health-insurance costs. Massachusetts has exceeded its objective for healthcare spending in each of the past two years, and employers continue to pay some of the highest costs in the nation. “The good news is that Massachusetts is beginning to identify some answers. And there appears to be enough common ground and political will on the issue to pursue some solutions,” Lord said. “New research conducted by the Massachusetts Health Policy Commission suggests that Massachusetts employers, insurers, and policymakers could reduce total healthcare expenditures anywhere from $279 million per year to $794 million per year, or 0.5% to 1.3%, by making several key improvements to the healthcare system.”

Ko-Aqua Kit Wins Elevator-pitch Competition

HOLYOKE — Nkori Edem, a student from Mount Holyoke College, took first place at last week’s elevator-pitch competition at the Awards Ceremony & Banquet for the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative. She pitched the Ko-Aqua Kit, a completely waterproof and airtight swim cap designed specifically for women of color. Edem convinced a panel of judges from area banks that her pitch was the best. Rune Percy and Alexander Smith, a student team from UMass Amherst, took second place based on their business-concept pitch for ARBioDesign, which aims to save tens of thousands of patients every year by personalizing dialysis treatment using rapid and inexpensive microfluidic blood-diagnostic tests. Finally, Daniel Olive, a student at Elms College, took third place with the DBL (Don’t Be Late) Pillow, which utilizes Bluetooth technology to revolutionize waking up. Representatives from six area banks once again sponsored the elevator-pitch competition and served as judges at the annual event held at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. The banks include Berkshire Bank, Country Bank, KeyBank, PeoplesBank, United Bank, and Westfield Bank. The live event featured a student representative from each of 13 participating local colleges: American International College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, and Westfield State University. First-, second-, and third-place winners received $1,000, $750, and $500 respectively. Each student participating received $100. Six student businesses were identified by the bank judges as Best Exhibitors. These were selected from a pool of 62 unique companies during a trade-show-type portion of the evening which featured the 2017 Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award winners. The winning exhibitors were Elms College: JMH Partners, LLC (Kevin Hepburn, Connor Holland, John Jacquinet, and Raphael Monterio); Western New England University: Sparks to Sparkles (Rebecca Abramson); Westfield State University: JPS Design Solutions (James Schmidt); Western New England University: Napollo Music (Sebastien Percy); Springfield College: Thorello Leather Goods (Dilyara Celik), and UMass Amherst: App Outreach, LLC (Jordan Ames, Davis McVay, Rich Sadick, and Lauren Tse-Wall). The Grinspoon, Garvey & Young Alumni Entrepreneurship Award is presented each year to an individual who has advanced substantially as an entrepreneur since receiving the Grinspoon Spirit Award. Phil Scarfi, founder of Pioneer Mobile Applications and alumnus of UMass Amherst, was awarded the 2017 Alumni Award and $1,000. Pioneer Mobile Applications is a software consulting agency, specializing in mobile app design and development.

Unemployment Down Across State in March

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates decreased in 23 labor-market areas and increased in one area in the Commonwealth during the month of March, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. Compared to March 2016, the rates were down in all 24 labor-market areas. All 15 areas for which job estimates are published recorded seasonal job gains in March. The largest gains occurred in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Worcester, Barnstable, Framingham, Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, Lawrence-Methuen-Salem, and Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford areas. From March 2016 to March 2017, 13 of the 15 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the New Bedford, Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford, Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Barnstable, Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, and Pittsfield areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for March was 3.9%. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to 3.6% in the month of March. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed a 200-job gain in March, and an over-the-year gain of 49,000 jobs. The unadjusted unemployment rates and job estimates for the labor-market areas reflect seasonal fluctuations and therefore may show different levels and trends than the statewide seasonally adjusted estimates. The estimates for labor force, unemployment rates, and jobs for Massachusetts are based on different statistical methodology specified by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Dragon Boat Festival Seeks Organizations to Sponsor Boats

SPRINGFIELD — The fifth annual Springfield Dragon Boat Festival will take place on Saturday, June 24 from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. at North Riverfront Park, 121 West St. in Springfield. Racing begins at 9 a.m. Registration is now open for teams wishing to participate at www.pvriverfront.org/db-fest-reg. In addition to dragon-boat races, the festival will feature family-friendly events such as music, performances, food, vendors, and children’s activities. The boat races will have both community and club racing categories. For businesses and organizations looking for a team-building opportunity, the $2,000 race fee includes a coached training session the week prior to the race, the use of boats and paddles, and personal flotation devices. On race day, teams will participate in three 200-meter races. No prior experience is necessary to participate. Proceeds from the event will provide support for riverfront programs for youth and adults at Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club as it grows and strengthens its presence in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. “Our mission is to connect the community to the Connecticut River,” said Ben Quick, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club. “Past community team participants have included MassMutual, Health New England, the Center for Human Development, and more. It is a great way for community groups to have fun and create awareness. They love that they can enjoy a great team-building event and support programs that help our local youth and adults get fit.”

State Receives Federal Funds to Fight Opioid Crisis

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced that Massachusetts has received a federal grant totaling nearly $12 million to bolster its public-health response to the opioid epidemic, particularly for outpatient opioid treatment, recovery services, and expanded community overdose-prevention programs. “Our administration strongly supported the 21st Century Cures Act as an effort to advance Massachusetts’ leadership in biomedical innovation and expedite new ways to treat disease and addiction,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “We are grateful for the opportunity to use these funds for prevention and treatment activities to address the opioid crisis that has devastated families in every corner of Massachusetts.” The grant, from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), is the first round of annual funding authorized under the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law late last year. The funds will support an array of statewide prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery activities managed by the state Department of Public Health’s (DPH) Bureau of Substance Abuse Services. “This administration is intensely focused on ending this epidemic, which has claimed far too many lives across our Commonwealth,” said Marylou Sudders, state Secretary of Health and Human Services. “This new grant enables us to continue the fight and expand successful prevention, treatment, and recovery programs throughout the state.” The majority of the $11.7 million in funding will be used to increase outpatient opioid treatment and recovery services and expand community overdose-prevention programs. The funding will also support new programs to promote treatment and recovery for at-risk populations, including pregnant and post-partum women and correctional inmates scheduled for release. “This funding comes at a critical time and supports our comprehensive response to this deadly epidemic,” said DPH Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel. “Investing in prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery saves lives, and this funding helps us in each of those areas.”

Single-family Home Sales Record Uptick in March

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were up 5.9% in the Pioneer Valley in March compared to the same time last year, while the median price was up 1.7% to $188,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were up 21.2%, while the median price fell 12.0% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were up 10.2%, while the median price was up 2.8%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 8.0% from March 2016, while the median price rose 4.3%.

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SC Learning Commons to Be Named for Benefactor

SPRINGFIELD — During his lifetime, Rev. Harold Smith dedicated himself and his many gifts to Springfield College. Mary-Beth Cooper, Springfield College president, announced that, to celebrate his rich legacy, the college will name its newly reconstructed learning commons to honor his memory and the many ways in which he helped Springfield College grow and prosper. Smith passed away March 21, 2017, in New York City, at age 83. “Harold had a passion for Springfield College and for the YMCA,” said Cooper. “His life’s work will live on in this learning commons and in the lives of our students who will study and research there.” Smith was a valued member of the Springfield College board of trustees for more than three decades, and served as chair of the board’s investment committee for 25 of those years, as well as on the executive committee and the committee on business affairs. Under his leadership, and through his investment expertise and strategy, the college’s endowment experienced unprecedented growth through a diverse portfolio. Smith was recognized for his dedication and commitment to serving others in the Springfield College tradition when he was awarded the Springfield College honorary doctor of humanics degree in 1998. He was a member of the college Naismith Giving Society, which recognizes donors who have given more than $1 million during their lifetime. He is enshrined in the YMCA Hall of Fame located on the college campus. The Harold C. Smith Learning Commons will be dedicated when the building is opened later this year to honor the man who studied for the ministry, but went on to become the president and chief investment officer of the YMCA Retirement Fund. Reflecting 21st-century library innovations, the learning commons will become the heart of the college’s academic program, providing facilities where students and faculty can study, research, work in groups, and receive writing and other academic support. Renovations of the college’s 45-year-old library began in August 2016, and the new facility will include a 24-hour reading room, a café, and a technology hub designed to promote collaboration between research and information technology, and will be home to the college’s Academic Success Center. Smith was a dedicated philanthropist and volunteer throughout his lifetime and volunteered for the League of Women Voters, the Interfaith Committee of Trumbull, and the Bridgeport Area Foundation. He was a trustee of the YMCA Retirement Fund, YMCA Greater Bridgeport, and Ursinus College, as well as a board member of the YMCA of Greater New York, Bank Mart, and Y-Mutual Insurance. Born in the Bronx, Smith was an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and held a bachelor’s degree and doctor of divinity degree from Ursinus College, a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and an MBA from New York University. He was a chartered financial analyst, a member of the New York Society of Security Analysts, and a member of the American Economics Assoc. He had a 40-year dual career in ministry and investments.

STCC to Offer Summer Classes

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) will offer five-week and 10-week on campus and online summer classes. Session One begins June 5, and Session Two starts July 10. Summer classes an ideal opportunity for area college students to earn college credit between June and August, said STCC Dean of Enrollment Management Matthew Gravel. “The majority of classes available during summer session can be used to fulfill requirements at other colleges and universities,” he added. “Classes fill up very quickly, and we continue to offer classes across the curriculum to meet the demands of STCC students, as well as students from other colleges and universities who are home for the summer.” Academic subject areas include accounting, anthropology, biology, business law, chemistry, criminal justice, economics, electronic systems, English, finance, graphic communication and photography, history, IT, math, marketing, medical assisting, music, office information technologies, philosophy, physics, psychology, sign language, sociology, Spanish, and speech. Class schedules are available at www.stcc.edu/summer. Students can register online, by phone at (413) 755-4321, or in the Registrar’s Office, Garvey Hall South, first floor.

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Leadership Pioneer Valley Campaign Kicks Off

SPRINGFIELD — Leadership Pioneer Valley’s leadership campaign committee gathered last week to announce outreach efforts for LPV’s class of 2018. The committee includes emerging leaders in education, banking, insurance, healthcare, local government, and nonprofit management. In small teams, they plan to connect with employers, community leaders, and prospective class participants throughout the region. They’ll work through June to identify the most promising applicants. Only 40 spots are available for the class of 2018, which begins in September. LPV’s 10-month regional leadership-development program engages the Pioneer Valley’s up-and-coming emerging leaders through learning and exploration. Participants are trained in leadership skills by experts in a classroom setting. They also attend in-depth field experiences across the region, where they meet with local leaders and explore the region’s economy and culture. Applied leadership experience is developed through work on projects for local nonprofits and government agencies. To date, more than 200 individuals representing more than 90 companies, organizations, and municipalities have participated. “Leadership Pioneer Valley made me a better collaborator, and it’s exciting to revisit that skill in partnership with other alums as we seek out new LPV participants who can help the Pioneer Valley succeed,” said Pat Gagnon of Baystate Health and LPV’s class of 2015. The campaign committee will seek out individuals in all sectors and focus on recruiting those committed to growing their personal, professional, and civic leadership. Applicants will be considered in a competitive application process that prioritizes diversity by employment sector, geography, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Emerging leaders, mid-career professionals with leadership potential, and those looking to better the Pioneer Valley should consider applying. Now entering its seventh class cycle, LPV alumni are leading in many ways throughout the region. Graduates are receiving promotions, growing businesses, running for elected office, and governing nonprofit boards. Together, the group represents a regionally unique leadership network reaching into every community. The deadline for LPV class of 2018 applications is July 3. Applications and further information can be found at www.leadershippv.org.

Unemployment Up in February

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates increased in 22 labor-market areas, remained the same in one area, and dropped in one area in the state during the month of February, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. Compared to February 2016, the rates were down in 23 areas and remained the same in one area. Six of the 15 areas for which job estimates are published recorded seasonal job gains in February. Gains occurred in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Springfield, Worcester, Peabody-Salem-Beverly, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, and New Bedford areas. From February 2016 to February 2017, 13 of the 15 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the New Bedford, Barnstable, Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Taunton-Middleborough-Norton, and Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for February was 4.2%. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate increased to 3.4% in the month of February. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed a 10,100-job gain in February, and an over-the-year gain of 57,700 jobs.

Speaker Sisterhood Adds Two Public-speaking Clubs

NORTHAMPTON — The Speaker Sisterhood, a network of public-speaking clubs for women with clubs in Springfield, Amherst, Northampton, and South Hadley, is adding two new clubs, one in Greenfield and a second Northampton club, for women who want to become more confident speakers. Both new clubs scheduled open houses. The Northampton open house was held on April 6 at Click Workspace at 9 1/2 Market St., and was be led by Cathy McNally, a corporate communication trainer with a background in stand-up and improv comedy. The Greenfield open house will take place on Tuesday, April 18 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at 170 Main St., and will be led by documentarian and communication coach Carlyn Saltman, innovator of the coaching method known as Video Mirror Feedback. Angela Lussier, CEO of Speaker Sisterhood, says that the mission of the clubs is to provide a community for “women who want to increase confidence, boost public-speaking skills, have fun, and maybe even change the world.” Lussier, a well-known public speaker and author of three books, added that “each Speaker Sisterhood club is more than just a place to practice speaking in front of a group. It’s a tribe of women who are supporting and empowering each other to follow their dreams by building confidence in their voice.” According to McNally, who is also the Speaker Sisterhood program development director, the program uses interactive activities, humor, and other tools that engage women at all skill levels. “We draw on fun exercises from the comedy world to make sure women have a blast at our meetings. At our open houses, guests can get a sense right away of the lively and supportive atmosphere we create together.” According to Saltman, women can attend two club meetings for free before deciding to join. “We want to give every woman who visits a chance to see if the club is a good match for them.” Saltman said the group covers the topics that meet the needs of most public speakers: storytelling, persuasion, humor, body language, and thinking on one’s feet. “Women are a powerful force in our world, and we want to bring them together to help them better articulate their ideas, stories, and views. We believe that is exactly what the world needs right now,” said Lussier of the Speaker Sisterhood, which formed in 2016, has several clubs in Western Mass., and is expected to expand nationwide in 2017.

Single-family Home Sales Down in February

SPRINGFIELD — Single-family home sales were down 23.3% in the Pioneer Valley in February compared to the same time last year, while the median price was up 3.2% to $180,000, according to the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley. In Franklin County, sales were down 31.3%, while the median price fell 25.4% from a year earlier. In Hampden County, sales were down 21.9%, while the median price was up 3.8%. And in Hampshire County, sales fell 13.0% from February 2016, while the median price was down 4.7%.

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Massachusetts Tops U.S. News Ranking of States

BOSTON — The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been named the best overall state in U.S. News & World Report’s inaugural report. This best-state ranking evaluates all 50 states in various categories, with Massachusetts ranked the top overall state, first in healthcare, second in education, and among the top 10 for economy and crime and corrections. Massachusetts was recognized for having the most accessible healthcare and is ranked third for pre-K through grade-12 education. “Massachusetts is a great place to live, work, and raise a family because of the strength and character of all those who call the Commonwealth home,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Everyone should be proud that Massachusetts continues to lead the nation in healthcare access and public education for all citizens, and our administration will continue to build on these accomplishments to bring more economic success to every corner of Massachusetts.” Massachusetts ranked well above the national average as number one in enrollment for Medicare Advantage plans, higher-education educational attainment, and college readiness, and number two in patents granted and populations with fast download speed.

Connecticut River Watershed Council Applauds Clean-water Legislation

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker recently introduced legislation that — if signed into law along with his budget proposal to begin increasing staffing at the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — will start a several-year process of rebuilding and significantly changing the state’s clean-water program. The immediate focus of the announced legislation is to begin the process of delegating Clean Water Act permitting, enforcement, and compliance authority to the state. Massachusetts is currently one of three states in the country that does not have this authority. “The Connecticut River Watershed Council supports creating a top-notch water-quality program that administers the federal Clean Water Act at the Mass. DEP. The governor’s budget proposal combined with this legislation is a first step to begin creating such a program,” said CRWC Executive Director Andrew Fisk. “We stand ready to work with the administration and the Legislature to enact additional legislation that will create a program based on strong and achievable standards, timely and fair permitting, robust enforcement, and widely available technical assistance.” The Connecticut River Watershed Council works to protect the watershed from source to sea by collaborating, educating, organizing, restoring, and intervening to preserve its health for generations to come.

Survey: Most Businesses That Chose Massachusetts Would Do So Again

WATERTOWN — A large majority of companies that chose Massachusetts as a place to expand their business would do it again, primarily based on its innovative economy, industry clusters, and skilled workforce, according to “Choosing Massachusetts for Business: Key Factors in Location Decision Making,” an 18-month study commissioned by MassEcon, a non-partisan economic-development organization, and conducted by the UMass Donahue Institute’s Economic and Public Policy Research group. A statewide survey of businesses that had expanded within Massachusetts found that more than three out of four (77%) would choose to locate or expand here again, if faced with the same decision, and 64% rated the state as a “good” or “very good” place to do business. Nearly all of the surveyed companies (96%) cited the state’s high-quality workforce as a key factor in choosing Massachusetts. According to survey respondents, the top three strengths of doing business in Massachusetts were workforce, superior industry clusters, and the community environment. “This report is a valuable tool for us to use to measure our successes in creating a business environment that supports employer growth and uncover opportunities to strengthen collaboration across the state to help our cities and towns increase jobs and investment,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Jay Ash. “I look forward to the solutions that we can implement with our partners across business, nonprofit and government sectors to improve the business environment for the benefit of all Massachusetts residents.” The comprehensive study was drawn from a multi-faceted survey and in-depth interviews of nearly 90 companies that had expanded or relocated within Massachusetts over the past 10 years. “We are heartened by the validation of Massachusetts as an outstanding location for business expansion,” said Susan Houston, executive director of MassEcon, “but equally important, this study tells us that we can’t be complacent. For Massachusetts to maintain — and grow — its leadership position, we must continue to nurture our key assets and address the challenges that could undermine our economic competitiveness.”

Pioneer Valley Home Sales Down Slightly in January

SPRINGFIELD — The Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley reported that single-family home sales in January were down 0.6% in the region compared to the same time last year. The median price was up 5.9% to $195,000. In Franklin County, sales were up 2.9%, while the median price rose 8.2%. In Hampden County, sales were down 11.4%, while the median price was up 0.6%. And in Hampshire County, home sales rose by 41.3%, while the median price fell by 1.9%.

Commonwealth Adds 13,000 Jobs in January

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate increased to 3.2% in January from the revised December rate of 3.1%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate Massachusetts added 13,000 jobs in January. Over-the-month job gains occurred in trade, transportation, and utilities; financial activities; construction; leisure and hospitality; education and health services; information; and government. From January 2016 to January 2017, BLS estimates Massachusetts has added 65,100 jobs. The January state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.8% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Massachusetts continues to experience low levels of unemployment with the largest year-over-year percentage gains in jobs in the construction, education, and health services sectors. We remain focused on fostering an employment environment where businesses can grow and create jobs while having access to workers with the skills and training needed to fill them,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said. The labor force increased by 1,600 from 3,561,700 in December, as 9,800 more residents were employed and 8,200 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped 1.1% from 4.3% in January 2016. There were 40,400 fewer unemployed people over the year compared to January 2016. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — increased to 64.9% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has decreased 0.1% compared to January 2016. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in construction; education and health services; financial activities; professional, scientific, and business services; and leisure and hospitality.

State Expands Residential Substance-use Treatment Programs for Women

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced it is awarding contracts to programs in Pittsfield, Lowell, and Salisbury to support and expand residential substance-use-disorder treatment for women in Massachusetts. The contracts will fund 60 long-term, residential treatment slots that, when operational, will provide services to approximately 240 women each year. “The opioid and heroin epidemic has tragically impacted too many people and communities in our Commonwealth, and we are committed to helping those struggling with addiction,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Support for these residential treatment slots underscores not only our comprehensive approach to addressing the opioid epidemic, but also adds to the investment we’ve already made to strengthen our treatment and recovery infrastructure.” Since coming into office in 2015, the Baker-Polito administration has increased spending on addiction services by 50%, from $120 million to $180 million, and has added more than 500 substance-use treatment beds to the system. “As the Commonwealth continues to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic from all angles, our administration is pleased to announce these contracts for communities in need,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “We will keep investing in this public-health crisis and partnering with communities in every corner of the state to offer resources and treatment for those struggling with this horrific epidemic.” The $1.75 million in annual funding awarded to the three programs was based on a competitive procurement and will support expansion of one existing and two new programs. The funded programs are:

• The Brien Center/Seymour House, Pittsfield: funding to create a new, 17-bed program serving the needs of pregnant or post-partum women.

• Megan’s House, Lowell: funding to support 28 beds in its existing program serving the needs of young women, ages 18-25. This new funding will ensure greater access to treatment for women without health insurance.

• John Ashford Link House/Seacoast Recovery Home for Women, Salisbury: funding to create a new 15-bed program with a focus on serving the needs of women on the North Shore, some of whom are criminal-justice-involved.

Residential treatment programs provide a highly structured and supportive environment to assist each resident’s recovery from substance-use disorders. Programs include individual and group counseling, comprehensive case management, and assistance with skills necessary to maintain a drug- or alcohol-free lifestyle. Work on each of the funded programs will begin immediately and are expected to be fully operational by the end of June.

Briefcase Departments

VVM Graduates Manufacturing Cohort

SPRINGFIELD — This week, Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) celebrated the graduation of participants in its Massachusetts Manufacturing Accelerator. The graduation ceremony took place at VVM World Headquarters at Tower Square in front of a crowd of nearly 100 friends, supporters, and members of the political and business communities. The Manufacturing Accelerator delivered intensive and immersive training sessions to seven small precision manufacturers over four months to help them identify new revenue streams and connect them with new industries and customers. “This program is unique because it takes startup methodology and applies it to established manufacturers,” said Paul Silva, VVM co-founder. “We encouraged these businesses to boldly question the way they’ve been doing business for decades and discover new markets and opportunities. We’re very excited about the results.” Funding for this program was provided by the Advanced Manufacturing Futures Program administered by MassDevelopment. “The manufacturers who participated in the Massachusetts Manufacturing Accelerator benefited from the creative and thoughtful approach Valley Venture Mentors and its partners took with this program, and MassDevelopment is pleased to support the accelerator with a grant from the Manufacturing Futures Fund,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones said. “Congratulations to everyone on this accomplishment, which will help Western Massachusetts’ innovative manufacturing industry continue to grow.” Graduates of the program include BSS Additive, Boulevard Machine & Gear, Decker Machine Works Inc., Mitchell Machine Inc. and Precise Turning and Manufacturing.

Nominees Sought for Ubora, Ahadi Awards

SPRINGFIELD — The African Hall subcommittee of the Springfield Museums is seeking nominations for the 26th annual Ubora Award and the ninth annual Ahadi Youth Award. The African Hall subcommittee is a volunteer group comprised of educators, business people, and community leaders from the African-American community. The nomination deadline for both awards is March 31. The Ubora Award is presented to an African-American adult who has demonstrated a commitment to the Greater Springfield area and exhibited excellence in the fields of community service, education, science, humanities, or the arts. The Swahili word ‘ubora’ means ‘excellence.’ Named for the Swahili word for ‘promise,’ the Ahadi Youth Award is presented to a young African-American who has excelled in academics and performed admirable service to the Greater Springfield community. Eligible candidates must be age 19 or younger, live in or have strong ties to the Greater Springfield area, and be currently enrolled in grades 10, 11, or 12. The Ubora and Ahadi Awards will be presented at a ceremony at the Springfield Museums in September. Nomination forms can be downloaded by visiting springfieldmuseums.org/ubora. For additional information, call (413) 263-6800, ext. 325, or e-mail Valerie Cavagni at [email protected] Nominations may be e-mailed to Cavagni or mailed to African Hall Subcommittee, c/o Valerie Cavagni, Springfield Museums, 21 Edwards St., Springfield, MA 01103.

Nominations Sought for Pynchon Award

SPRINGFIELD — The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts is seeking nominations from throughout Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties for the Pynchon Award, which recognizes citizens of this region who have rendered distinguished service to the community. The Order of William Pynchon was established by the Advertising Club in 1915 to recognize and encourage individuals whose lives and achievements typified the ideals of promoting citizenship and building a better community in Western Mass. Past recipients include war heroes, social activists, teachers, volunteers, philanthropists, historians, clergy, physicians, journalists, public servants, and business leaders. A complete list of recipients since 1915 can be found at www.adclubwm.org/events/pynchonaward. To nominate an individual, submit a one-page letter explaining why the nominee should be considered. Include biographical information, outstanding accomplishments, examples of service to the community, organizations he or she is or has been active in, and the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least three people who can further attest to the nominee’s eligibility for induction into the Order of William Pynchon. All nominees will be considered and researched by the Pynchon trustees, comprised of the current and five past presidents of the Advertising Club. Nominations must be submitted by Tuesday, Feb. 28 to William Pynchon Trustees, Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, P.O. Box 1022, West Springfield, MA 01090-1022, or by e-mail to [email protected] Pynchon medalists are chosen by unanimous decision of the Pynchon trustees. The 2017 recipients will be announced in June, with an awards ceremony scheduled for Oct. 19 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Recipients are presented with a bronze medal cast with the name and likeness of Springfield’s founder, William Pynchon, and bearing the inscription, “They honor us whom we honor.”

Briefcase Departments

State Unemployment Rate Drops to 2.8% in December

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 2.8% in December, marking the sixth consecutive month the rate has declined, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday. The last time the state’s unemployment rate was at 2.8% was in December 2000. In December, preliminary estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 6,600 jobs over the month. The November job gain had an upward revision, with the state adding 7,000 jobs compared to the previously published 5,800-job-gain estimate. Over the year, Massachusetts has added 75,000 jobs. At 2.8%, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is down 2.1% over the year from 4.9% in December 2015. There were 73,300 fewer unemployed residents and 112,900 more employed residents over the year compared to December 2015. “For the past six months, the unemployment has continued to drop, and the labor-force participation rate has held steady over the year, which is very good news for the state,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said. “We are also pleased to see the state continues to add jobs in key sectors, such as education and health services; professional, scientific, and business services; information; and construction.” In December, over-the-month job gains occurred in the education and health services; construction; professional, scientific, and business services; information; leisure and hospitality; financial activities; manufacturing; and other services sectors. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — is 64.7%. Over the year, the labor-force participation rate has increased 0.2% compared to December 2015. Over the year, the largest private-sector percentage job gains were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; education and health services; and leisure and hospitality. Massachusetts’ unemployment rate has remained lower than the national rate since April 2008. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the December national rate at 4.7%. Since the statewide rate peaked at 8.8% in September 2009, there are now 335,600 more Massachusetts residents employed and 202,700 fewer residents unemployed, as the labor force increased by 133,000.

VVM Announces 36 Startups in 2017 Accelerator

SPRINGFIELD — Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) announced the 2017 Startup Accelerator cohort this week. The 36 startups, chosen from more than 200 applicants received from around the world, represent high-quality, early-stage startups across more than eight industries, including technology, beauty, healthcare, transportation, and publishing. “We are excited by the diversity of industries represented in this cohort,” VVM CEO Liz Roberts said. “We are honored that they are choosing to invest their time in our accelerator. They will get intensive training, mentorship, and resources to take their startups to the next level.” Sixty-five percent of this year’s startups are led by women, and 36% are led by people of color. International teams from Canada, India, and Ghana will participate. “Educating startup founders is all about helping them minimize their startup risks. Over the next four months, these entrepreneurs and their teams are going to spend time analyzing their products, services, business models, and the markets they intend to disrupt,” said Paul Silva, VVM chief innovation officer and co-founder. “They will learn from successful entrepreneurs — people who have been exactly where these founders are.” VVM Startup Accelerator participants also develop relationships with funders and are eligible to win up to $50,000 in equity-free cash at the end of the program. The winners will be announced on Thursday, May 25 at an awards ceremony with an expected 600 people in attendance at the MassMutual Center. VVM’s visionary partners include MassMutual, MassDevelopment, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, MassTech Collaborative, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. Another aspect of this year’s program is VVM’s partnership with Pathlight, a local organization which serves people with intellectual disabilities. The two organizations put out a national call for entrepreneurs with technology ideas that could increase independence for those with intellectual disabilities. After a rigorous selection process, two such startups were selected to participate in the accelerator: Galactic Smarties and Habit Stackr. Several of the companies accepted to the 2017 VVM Startup Accelerator are graduates of VVM’s mentorship program, including AlignMeeting, Bhlue Publishing, FootCare by Nurses, Hot Oven Cookies, Listen2aBook, Lumme, RecordME, Streamliners, TripleTote, and Yummy Yammy. The 2017 VVM Startup Accelerator cohort includes:
• AlignMeeting, business-productivity software facilitating best meeting practices to improve team efficiency before, during, and long after meetings;
• AuCoDe, the Google Alerts of controversies and crisis situations, providing early detection as a signal for hedge funds;
• Barakat Bundle, a curated package of life-saving solutions for mothers and newborns in South Asia;
• Bhlue Publishing, a cloud-based career-development platform for teens and young adults who are struggling to figure out a career direction;
• Bharat Babies, which produces developmentally appropriate children’s books that are inspired by the stories of India and South Asia;
• Connecticut Horse, a bimonthly print and online magazine for horse enthusiasts in Connecticut;
• Emotive Agility Training Center, a consulting company offering training tools and curricula for people with autism to crack the non-verbal code of social interactions;
• Enrichment Express, which provides instructors with the curriculum, materials, and logistical support needed to teach engaging enrichment classes to children 5 to 12 years old;
• Ernest Pharmaceuticals, programmed bacteria to eliminate metastatic cancer;
• Fields Center, which provides help for individuals with autism and families;
• FirmOffer, a software solution for legal recruiting enabling law students to make binding offers to law firms;
• FootCare by Nurses, foot-wellness experts;
• Galactic Smarties, which makes technology that supports independence for people of all ages and abilities;
• GeneRisk, which identifies genetic variants of autism allowing for better understanding of risk and ID targets for more personalized intervention;
• Genoverde Biosciences Inc., an agricultural biotech startup focused on improving crop yield for commercial farming through bioengineering;
• Habit Stackr, which helps people keep daily routines through brain science and a mobile app;
• Hot Oven Cookies, a handcrafted cookie bakery specializing in the delivery and curbside sales of warm, gourmet cookies;
• Kwema, which developed a smart bracelet that can call for help to friends and family, authorities, and Kwema’s safety communities;
• Listen2aBook, which makes audiobook production accessible to everyone;
• Lumme Inc., a startup funded by the National Cancer Institute that develops smart technology to help people quit smoking;
• M1 Tapes, which makes premium, contractor-grade tape measures;
• MEANS Database, a nonprofit technology company devoted to business-friendly food recovery;
• MyBarber, which provides on-site haircuts at offices, apartment complexes, and co-working spaces;
• NERv Technology, which is developing an implantable biochip platform to detect post-operative complications;
• New England Breath Technologies, which developing a pain-free diabetic monitoring device to improve outcomes of patients;
• Nonspec, which has created a low-ost, durable, and adjustable prosthetic system;
• Paysa, which is developing a fingerprint-authorized cashless payment system for stores in rural India with the goal of increasing bank-account owners;
• ProjectMQ, a social-media app for independent game studios and fans worldwide;
• RateFrame, which helps users highlight and share the best parts of any video;
• RecordME, a studio-recording company that provides hardware, engineers, and distribution so content creators and venues can make more money;
• Streamliners, which sells aerodynamic devices to the trucking industry, saving $4,000 per truck per year in fuel costs, paying for itself in three months;
• Trabapido, an online marketplace that helps individuals and businesses find and hire service providers, such as plumbers, painters, and tutors;
• TripBuddy, a ride-sharing startup;
• Tripletote, which manufactures consumer products that help people carry items as they travel, commute, shop, and work;
• VaxAtlas, which provide real-time access to one’s vaccine history, helping to avoid unnecessary repeat vaccines, identify missed vaccines, and alert for outbreaks; and
• Yummy Yammy, which helps busy people eat better, one deliciously addictive sweet potato at a time.

Simon Youth Foundation Seeks Scholarship Applicants

LEE — Simon Malls and Simon Premium Outlets in New England announced that, once again, its malls and centers — including Lee Premium Outlets — will help deserving graduating seniors pay for college. Simon Youth Foundation, a national nonprofit that provides educational opportunities for at-risk high school students, is looking for qualified applicants. Each year, Simon Youth Community Scholarships are awarded in every community across the country that is home to a Simon Malls or Premium Outlets center. The application period ends on March 1. Students can apply online by visiting syf.org/scholarships. Any student who will be graduating in the class of 2017 and lives in the community surrounding a Simon property is eligible. Applicants can check their eligibility by entering their ZIP code at syf.org/scholarships. Recipients will receive up to $1,500 to enroll in an accredited college, university, or vocational or technical school. In addition, 11 regional Awards of Excellence will be given to top candidates. The regions eligible are Atlanta, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Indianapolis, Miami, New York, Orange County (Calif.), Orlando, and Seattle/Tacoma. Students from these areas will have the opportunity to receive a $10,000 award ($2,500 for up to four years). In 2016, the Simon Youth Foundation awarded $1.2 million to 300 students nationwide. Scholarship recipients will be selected by International Scholarship and Tuition Services Inc., a third-party administrator. Students are selected based on a variety of criteria, including financial need, academic performance, leadership skills, and participation in school and community activities. Students who are the first in their family to pursue a post-secondary education will also be given close consideration. Recipients will be notified in May.

Horace Smith Fund Calls for Scholarship, Fellowship Applications

SPRINGFIELD — The Horace Smith Fund, a private foundation that offers scholarships and fellowships, has extended the application deadline date for the Walter S. Barr Scholarships and Fellowships until March 1, 2017, due to the low number of applications so far. Last year, The fund awarded $258,000 to 25 area students. “To date, we have received only 46 scholarship applications and 16 fellowship applications. It is surprising that more students haven’t applied yet,” said Teresa Regina, trustee and chair of the scholarship committee. “Applications can be downloaded or completed online. They are also available at every area high school and college or by contacting our office.” The Walter S. Barr Scholarship is available for graduates of Hampden County public and private high schools. Applicants may either be graduating high-school seniors or in college. Scholarship awards of $10,000 are distributed in annual installments of $2,500 and renewable each year until graduation. Recipients are selected on a variety of criteria, including their test scores, class rank, extracurricular activities, and a personal written account of why the student feels deserving of financial assistance. The Walter S. Barr Fellowship awards are made annually to those wishing to enroll in full-time graduate studies. In general, applicants must be residents of Hampden County. Awards are made to students pursuing a specific post-graduate degree. The award of $12,000 is distributed in annual installments of $4,000 for a maximum of three years. Awards will be made on the basis of all available information, including school records, recommendations, and examination scores. Consideration will be given to both the merit and financial need of the applicant. “We hope students take advantage of this local resource,” Regina said.

Briefcase Departments

Employer Confidence Hits 12-Year High

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers hit its highest level in 12 years during December amid the prospect of growth initiatives from the new administration in Washington and a continued strong state economy. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index (BCI) rose 2.3 points to 60.4 last month, a full 5.1 points higher than its level in December 2015 and the highest reading since December 2004. It marked the fourth consecutive monthly increase in sentiment among employers in the Commonwealth, where the unemployment rate recently fell to 2.9%. The November and December BCI readings mirror the post-election rally in U.S. financial markets, which have risen 5% as President-elect Donald Trump prepares to work with a Republican Congress on business-friendly issues such as tax reductions, regulatory reform, and infrastructure spending. The AIM survey showed a 5.5-point jump in confidence in the national economy last month, leaving that indicator at its highest level since 2007. “Massachusetts employers are taking the president-elect at his word that he will prioritize economic growth at the national level, especially if he is able to work with Congressional Democrats on a $1 trillion infrastructure initiative,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “But employer enthusiasm is also based upon a solid economic expansion during 2016 that most analysts believe will continue in a methodical manner though the first half of 2017.” 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. Almost all of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer were up in December. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, gained 2 points to 61.8, leaving it 5.5 points ahead of the same time last year. The increase in the U.S. Index of national business conditions put that figure 7.5 points higher than its level of a year ago, but still short of the Massachusetts index. It marked the 80th 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 2.2 points to 59.1, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 2.5 points to 61.7. The future outlook was 5.5 points better than a year ago and higher than at any point since March 2015. The sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations also strengthened considerably. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, rose 1.4 points to 60.9, while the Sales Index increased 3.2 points to 61.4. The Employment Index was the only indicator to lose ground, falling 0.2 points to 57.2. The AIM survey found that nearly 38% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months were stable, with 37% planning to hire and only 10% downsizing. “One of the most positive results of the December survey is that business confidence is strengthening uniformly across almost every sector of the economy,” said Elliot Winer, chief economist at Winer Economic Consulting and a BEA member. “Employers both large and small, manufacturers and non-manufacturers, from the Pioneer Valley to Greater Boston, are more optimistic about their prospects than at any time since prior to the Great Recession.” The BCI Manufacturing Index jumped 0.6 points during the month and 2.6 points for the year. The overall Business Confidence Index among non-manufacturers was 63.3 compared to 56.7 for manufacturing companies. Companies in the eastern part of the Massachusetts were slightly more optimistic at 61.4 than those in the western part of the state at 57.6. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, also a BEA member, said employers appear to be encouraged by the prospect that Trump and a Republican Congress will be able to pass their tax and regulatory agenda. At the same time, Lord said, there remains uncertainty about a possible repeal of federal healthcare reform and the future of international trade agreements that are critical to Massachusetts companies. “The only certainty appears to be uncertainty for the next six months,” Lord said. “The key will be to ensure that any tax reductions and regulatory reforms made on the national level are not obviated by state measures intended to make Massachusetts a progressive model for the rest of the country.”

Advertising Club Calls for Scholarship Applications

SPRINGFIELD — The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts announced that its 2017 scholarship applications are now available online at adclubwm.org. Applications will also be available through guidance departments at high schools in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, or by contacting the Ad Club at (413) 736-2582. Western Mass. seniors who plan to attend an accredited college or technical school in the fall of 2017 to study advertising, communications, marketing, or graphics arts are encouraged to apply. The scholarship must be applied against tuition and fees at the school. Candidates will be judged on academic performance; extracurricular activities; community service and/or work experience; a demonstrated interest in advertising, communications, marketing, or graphic design; personal recommendations; and a letter of introduction outlining future plans. In 2017, one $1,000 scholarship will be awarded. Completed scholarship applications and all support materials must be submitted to the Ad Club and postmarked by Friday, Feb. 24. Scholarship decisions are made by the scholarship committee of Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, and are considered final. The scholarship will be awarded at the Ad Club’s Creative Awards show in May.

Grinspoon Foundation, Big Y AnnounceLocal Farmer Awards

AGAWAM — In partnership with Big Y, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) announced the third year of the Local Farmer Awards, a program to support local farmers with projects that will help them compete in the marketplace. The awards are for equipment and physical farm improvements. “Big Y has been partnering with and supporting local farmers since we began over 80 years ago,” President and Chief Operating Officer Charles D’Amour said. “Through our partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation, we are providing one more way to help the local growers to thrive in our community.” In an effort to have the widest impact, individual award recipients  a total of over $110,000 in awards. Realizing the importance of local farms in our region, Grinspoon launched these awards in 2015. The 2016 awards were distributed to 47 of the 128 applicants. The two regional Buy Local farm advocates, Berkshire Grown and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), will continue to provide insight and assistance. Philip Korman, executive director of CISA, noted that “we are so pleased to continue to work with everyone involved in this unique farm awards program to support the vital role family farms play in our communities.” Added Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, “we’re thrilled about the continuation of these financial awards for farmers in Western Massachusetts to strengthen their farm businesses. This helps build the local food economy in our region.” The deadline for applying is Tuesday, Jan. 31. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit www.farmerawards.org for more information.

Greater Springfield Named 13th-least-dangerous Metro Area for Pedestrians

SPRINGFIELD — In light of Smart Growth America naming Greater Springfield the 13th-least dangerous metro area in the country for pedestrians, as well as Massachusetts ranking in the top 10 least-dangerous states for pedestrians, as part of its 2016 edition of “Dangerous by Design,” the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) is highlighting some of its collaborative efforts to make the streets of the Pioneer Valley safer for automobiles, bikers, and pedestrians. “While we are obviously happy to see Greater Springfield named the 13th-least-dangerous metro area in the United States [for pedestrians], there is clearly much more work to be done, especially on behalf of older residents, residents of color, and low-income families, who are disproportionately vulnerable as pedestrians, according to this recent report,” said Gary Roux, PVPC principal transportation planner and traffic manager. “Our regional efforts to implement complete street design into our communities will ensure our future roadways will be safe for all forms of travel.” In the pursuit of safer roadways in the Pioneer Valley, the PVPC has been actively working in partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, WalkBoston, and the state Department of Public Health on Vision Zero Planning, an approach to transportation safety planning that sets a target of eliminating all serious injuries and deaths due to road traffic crashes; collaborating with member communities to apply Complete Streets design into local roads, implementing the state Department of Transportation Complete Streets funding program that promotes roadway planning that considers the safety of drivers, bikers, and pedestrians; contributing $2 million in planning and public-engagement efforts for Live Well Springfield, a community movement to support healthy and active living; and partnering with the communities of Holyoke, Springfield, Northampton, and South Hadley on bike-pedestrian visioning and planning efforts. Additionally, the PVPC has released a draft update report of the “Top 100 High-crash Intersections in the Pioneer Valley,” to help the region’s urban communities target their roadway safety-improvement efforts. A community-by-community listing of dangerous intersections is also currently being prepared to allow all 43 PVPC member communities to address their most pressing transportation-design needs.

Springfield Leadership Institute to Begin Session

SPRINGFIELD — The 2017 Springfield Leadership Institute will emphasize strategies and techniques designed to create high-energy and high-involvement leadership for middle and upper mangers who have potential to make an impact on their organization and the community, and who serve in key roles in volunteer organizations. The Institute, which begins on Feb. 9 and runs for seven consecutive Thursdays from 1 to 4:30 p.m., is directed by Robert Kleine III, dean of the Western New England University College of Business, and Jack Greeley, executive-in-residence at the university. Greeley has a strong background in management, strategic planning, and consulting to a variety of organizations. Sessions will focus on problem solving, learning to ask the right questions, and implementing creative and innovative solutions for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Participants will actively explore best practices of leaders; analyze their own leadership, learning, and problem solving styles; and experience the synergies that result from high-performing teams. The emphasis will be on experiential activities that provide opportunities to identify, develop, and refine skill sets for effective leadership. All sessions will be held at the TD Bank Conference Center, 1441 Main St., Springfield. Upon successful completion of Leadership 2017, participants will be eligible to enroll in a free graduate course offered through the College of Business at Western New England University (subject to certain requirements). Applications must be received by Wednesday, Feb. 1. Tuition is $885 per participant. For questions about the program or the application process, e-mail Jessica Hill at [email protected]

Community Foundation Gives $1,306,600 to Nonprofits

SPRINGFIELD — The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts is awarding $1,306,600 to 78 local nonprofit organizations in the Pioneer Valley, with awards ranging from $3,700 to $30,000. The Community Foundation awards competitive grants each year, with funds targeting projects addressing community needs in arts and culture, education, the environment, health, housing, and human services for residents of Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Over 40 of the projects funded were supported by trusts administered by Bank of America. The Community Foundation receives and reviews grant applications on behalf of Bank of America for four charitable trusts for which the bank serves as a trustee. One award was made as part of the Community Foundation’s Challenge Program to support capital campaigns taking place in the Pioneer Valley region. The $30,000 award requires a one-to-one match. Berkshire Hills Music Academy is the 2017 Challenge Grant recipient. Other grants include $20,000 to the Center for New Americans to support the training of staff and volunteers who work annually with immigrants living in the Pioneer Valley on immigration legal issues; $25,000 to Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society Inc. for masonry repairs to the exterior of the organization’s Springfield location; $25,000 to Community Music School of Springfield Inc. for its children’s chorus music program; and $25,000 to Baystate Health Foundation Inc. for its new surgical center at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. “These grants are a tremendous investment in our community and in the nonprofits that under take this important work. We are fortunate to have generous donors and committed volunteers to make this investment possible,” said Community Foundation Senior Program Officer Sheila Toto. Grant funding comes from distributions from 38 funds established by various individuals and groups committed to supporting local nonprofits. These donors rely on the Community Foundation’s volunteers and staff to focus their funds for effective use by nonprofit agencies in the Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin county communities. Thirteen volunteer members of the Community Foundation’s Distribution Committee and 12 project reviewers carefully evaluated 109 applications for funding requests totaling more than $2.1 million.

Federal Funding Helps Area Farms Save Energy

NORTHAMPTON — Farms and rural small businesses in Massachusetts seeking to reduce energy costs or install clean energy technologies have long relied on the state Department of Agricultural Resources’ (MDAR) Mass. Farm Energy Program (MFEP) for funding and technical assistance. New funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD) will support the work of the MFEP. The USDA has awarded a $33,000 Rural Business Development Grant to the Center for EcoTechnology (CET), a nonprofit based in Northampton, which manages MFEP. CET will use the grant to provide timely information, funding request assistance, and technical assistance to rural farms that wish to improve their energy efficiency and reduce operating costs. MDAR Commissioner John Lebeaux will join Massachusetts elected officials, USDA RD Southern New England Director Scott Soares, and Lorenzo Macaluso of CET on Friday, Jan. 6 at 10 a.m. at Smith’s Farmstead, 20 Otter River Road, Winchendon. Attendees will have the opportunity to tour the farm’s renewable and efficiency projects. USDA funding adds to funding sources the MFEP draws on to provide help to farms, including funding from public utilities, the USDA, MDAR, municipal utilities, the Mass. Clean Energy Center, and a variety of energy-efficiency and clean-energy rebates.

State Earns Top Ranking for Public-health Preparedness

BOSTON — The Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) has recognized Massachusetts as first in the nation when it comes to preventing, responding to, and recovering from public health emergencies such as disease outbreaks, bioterrorism, and natural and man-made disasters. The findings were published in TFAH’s annual “Ready or Not?” report, which ranks all 50 states on a set of key preparedness indicators. “Our top ranking in the Trust for America’s Health report is a testament to the collaborative efforts of public-health and emergency-management agencies, hospitals, health centers, healthcare providers, community-based organizations, and residents to make Massachusetts as prepared and resilient as possible, no matter what,” said Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel. The TFAH report ranks each state on 10 indicators, including public-health funding commitment, National Health Security Preparedness Index, public-health accreditation, flu-vaccination rate, climate-change readiness, food safety, reducing healthcare-associated infections, public-health laboratories (biosafety training), public-health laboratories (biosafety professional on staff), and emergency healthcare access. Massachusetts was the only state in the nation to receive credit for all 10 indicators.

Report Details STEM Employment in State

BOSTON — The New England Information Office of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released data on occupational employment and wages for scienc, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) occupations in Massachusetts’ metropolitan areas and divisions for May 2015. These data are supplied by the Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program, which produces employment and wage estimates for the U.S., by state, and by metropolitan area for more than 800 occupations. Among selected metropolitan areas in Massachusetts, the Boston-Cambridge-Nashua New England City and Town Area (Boston NECTA) had wages that were significantly higher than the respective national averages for three STEM occupations — computer-user support specialists ($63,840), applications-software developers ($109,540), and systems-software developers ($115,180). Leominster ($58,940) also had above-average wages for computer-user support specialists, while Pittsfield ($40,790) had wages that were significantly lower than the U.S. average for this occupation. Wages for applications software developers in the Lawrence NECTA division ($112,050) were significantly higher than the national average of $102,160. Conversely, Springfield ($94,610) had wages that were significantly below the national average for this occupation. The Boston NECTA had a combined employment of 69,990 for the three selected STEM occupations, with 49,230 of these jobs in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton NECTA division. Among the other selected areas, Worcester and Springfield had a combined employment of 2,630 and 2,450, respectively, for the three occupations.

PVPC Releases New Edition of Hiking and Biking Guide

SPRINGFIELD — Recognizing both the abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities and natural beauty within the region, as well as its unique involvement in the creation and protection of much of it, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) has released its second edition of “Pioneer Valley Trails: A Hiking and Biking Guide.” Self-published using revenue from the sale of the guide’s first edition, which has sold over 2,200 copies since 2011, the PVPC is hoping this comprehensive map of Hampden and Hampshire County’s recreational opportunities remains a popular item within the region’s many outdoor outfitters. In preparing the guide, the PVPC reached out to many cooperating entities for data and map information, including all 43 PVPC member municipalities, the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, as well as nonprofit partners such as the Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon. The guide includes many of the Pioneer Valley’s most popular trails, including the New England National Scenic Trail and the Robert Frost Trail for hiking, as well as the Manhan Rail Trail and Norwottuck – Mass Central Rail Trail for biking. It also includes many smaller trails spread out across the region’s cities and towns, allowing visitors and residents alike to discover new opportunities to enjoy nature. Since 1962, the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission has been the designated regional planning body for the Pioneer Valley region, which encompasses 43 cities and towns in Hampden and Hampshire counties. PVPC is the primary agency responsible for increasing communication, cooperation, and coordination among all levels of government as well as the private business and civic sectors in order to benefit the Pioneer Valley region and to improve its residents’ quality of life.

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November Unemployment Rate Drops to 2.9%

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 2.9% in November, marking the fifth consecutive month the rate declined, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday.
The last time the state’s unemployment rate was at 2.9% was in January 2001. The unemployment rate in October was 3.3%.
In November, preliminary estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 5,800 jobs over the month.  BLS slightly revised the October job estimates, reporting the state loss 5,400 jobs as opposed to the previously reported 5,500 job loss estimate. Year-to-date, December 2015 to November 2016, Massachusetts has added 67,200 jobs.
Massachusetts’ unemployment rate has remained lower than the national rate since April 2008. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national rate at 4.6% in November.
At 2.9%, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is down 2.0% over the year from 4.9% in November 2015. There were 68,100 fewer unemployed residents and 108,400 more employed residents over the year compared to November 2015.
“We are very pleased to see the unemployment rate consistently go down month after month,” said Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald L. Walker, II. “Not only is the unemployment rate declining, but we have continued job growth in key sectors that drive the Massachusetts economy.”
In November, over-the-month job gains occurred in the financial activities; professional, scientific and business services; construction; information; ‘other services’; education and health services; and local government sectors.
The state’s labor force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — is 64.7%, down 0.2 of a percentage point over the month.  Over the year, the labor force participation rate has increased 0.1 of a percentage point compared to November 2015.

MBTA to Place Second Order of Rail Cars with CRRC

BOSTON — The MBTA announced it will place a second order for new Red Line cars with CRRC, the company already contracted to build new train cars at a facility it is building in Springfield, the Republican reported. MBTA officials say it’s cheaper to pay $300,000 for each new car than to rehab aging trains. CRRC, the Chinese-owned world leader in rail-car manufacturing, won a contract in 2014 to build 152 Orange Line cars and 132 Red Line cars to replace aging trains. Under the new proposal, CRRC will start building an additional 120 Red Line cars in 2022 after completing the initial order of Red Line and Orange Line cars. The proposal includes an option to purchase 14 more.

State Adds More Than 6,300 Clean-energy Jobs

BOSTON – The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) today announced that the Commonwealth added 6,317 clean- energy jobs and has surpassed 100,000 clean energy jobs statewide for the first time, currently 105,212. The figures, released as part of MassCEC’s 2016 Massachusetts Clean Energy Industry Report, show the Bay State clean energy sector maintained a strong growth rate of six percent between 2015 and 2016. The report also found that the number of clean energy jobs in Massachusetts has increased by 75% since 2010.
“The Commonwealth’s highly educated and well-trained workforce makes it an attractive place for innovative industries, including clean energy companies,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Massachusetts’ recently passed comprehensive energy diversification legislation will continue to build on the recent success of the clean energy industry by increasing opportunities for growth and advancement.”
“The Clean Energy Industry Report clearly shows that the booming clean energy sector is a pivotal jobs creator within the Commonwealth and a driving force for diversifying our energy sources,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “The Baker-Polito Administration is committed to continuing our support of Massachusetts’ robust clean energy sector and making these benefits accessible to residents throughout the Commonwealth.”
The report found that clean energy is an $11.8 billion industry in Massachusetts, and represents 2.5% of the Commonwealth’s Gross State Product. Clean energy jobs represent 2.9% of the overall workforce in the state, the report found. The clean energy industry employs residents of every region in Massachusetts. Jobs grew over the past year in each of the state’s regions, with the largest growth coming in Northeastern Massachusetts (8.8%) and Southeastern Massachusetts (8.2%).
“The continued strength of Massachusetts’ clean energy industry continues to bring innovation, energy savings and environmental benefits to communities across the state,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) Secretary Matthew Beaton. “The Baker-Polito Administration will continue to work with our partners in the clean energy industry to reduce costs to ratepayers, usage and emissions as we work to achieve our Global Warming Solutions Act goals.”
“The clean energy industry in Massachusetts continues to see strong job growth while helping to drive the state’s vibrant innovation economy,” said MassCEC CEO Stephen Pike. “The clean energy sector is fueled by the economic activity of small businesses, universities, nonprofits, technologists and entrepreneurs hard at work on addressing our most pressing energy challenges.”
The report found that Massachusetts installed 25,390 renewable energy projects in 2016, adding an additional 374 megawatts (MW) of electric capacity in the process, enough to power 56,040 homes. The Commonwealth also remains first in the United States for per-capita early-stage clean energy venture investment, beating out California. Early stage investment in Massachusetts clean energy companies grew 166% over the previous year.
The report, prepared for MassCEC by BW Research Partnership, also found Massachusetts to be the national leader in early-stage clean energy investment. Overall, public and private investment in the industry exceeded $658 million.

State Treasurer Issues Report on Financial Literacy in Massachusetts

BOSTON — State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg recently unveiled a one-year progress report on her Office of Economic Empowerment’s financial-education initiatives. The review highlighted the advancements resulting from the 2015 Financial Literacy Task Force Report. The task force consisted of a diverse group of policymakers, educators, bankers and advocates, and convened last year to develop an action plan for Massachusetts residents to have access to the financial skills they need to attain economic stability. The report culminated with the release of 22 recommendations aimed at empowering residents with an understanding of how to budget their money, save for retirement, and understand the impact of economic decisions. “I am thankful for the many partners that share our vision and commitment to expanding economic security in Massachusetts,” Goldberg said. “We will continue to innovate and expand our programs through a digital delivery of financial education and partnerships throughout the state.” In one year, Goldberg’s Office of Economic Empowerment initiated 14 of the 22 policy recommendations provided by the task force, including: establishing $eedMA, a pilot program designed to help kindergarten families save for post-secondary education and training; creating the Women’s Economic Empowerment Series, a free financial-empowerment workshop series for women; and the relaunch of Operation Money Wise as a grant program for organizations to provide financial education and programming to the military, veteran, family, and survivor community.

Springfield Cultural District Releases Video Map

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) launched a new video map to accompany the Downtown Springfield Cultural Walking Tour. The tour, first introduced in the summer of 2015, is a tool designed to be used by visitors or residents to learn more about the city’s architectural, historic, and cultural highlights. Printed maps are available at all downtown hotels, visitor’s centers, and cultural institutions, and is also available digitally on the SCCD website, springfieldculture.org. “Sometimes even residents are unaware of the beautiful assets we have throughout the Cultural District, and these videos are a living, breathing way for everyone to connect with the people at our historic and cultural landmarks, not just the buildings,” said Morgan Drewniany, SCCD director. The video map brings a new dimension to the walking tour. Viewers gain insight into the history of each location on the map and have the chance to learn an unexpected fact about the venue or building. Each video is presented by a member of the Springfield Central Cultural District on location, and is under two minutes, to allow viewing while out and about. There are 12 videos linked to the Walking Tour. Kay Simpson, president of the Springfield Museums; John Doleva, president and CEO of the Basketball Hall of Fame; Stacey Church, general manager of the MassMutual Center; and Peter Salerno, executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, are just a few of the highlighted speakers, among many others. The project was funded, in part, by a Springfield Cultural Council grant, and was produced by Focus Springfield.

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Local Nonprofit Launches
White House Initiative

SPRINGFIELD — On Nov. 30, the White House announced the Diversify Access to Capital Pledge, in which a group of angel investors, venture capitalists, and startup accelerators, including more than 30 organizations, pledge to increase access to seed and early-stage capital to entrepreneurs from diverse groups. Participating organizations represent more than 11,000 investors deploying more than $800 million in investment dollars across the country. “Our goal is to catalyze early-seed investors to fund startups founded by entrepreneurs from underrepresented groups who historically have had less access to capital,” said Liz Roberts, CEO of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), one of the pledge signers. “This is one of VVM’s core values and, frankly, common sense when it comes to finding the best investments, innovations, and startups.” VVM, funded in part by the MassMutual Foundation, is honoring this commitment through training and mentoring diverse entrepreneurs. To date, VVM has graduated 174 startups via its Mentorship and Accelerator programs. In last year’s Accelerator cohort, approximately 50% of the startups were women-led, and 36% led by people of color. Other local firms, such as the Springfield Venture Fund, also signed the pledge and are invested in making a difference. “We are thrilled to be a signer to the Diversify Access to Capital Pledge and garner national recognition for helping to grow the entrepreneurial ecosystem of Western Massachusetts,” said Jay Leonard, co-manager at the Springfield Venture Fund. In October, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Commerce Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship invited Roberts, as part of a select group of angel investors and those working to create more angel and seed capital, to a conversation at the White House. This group worked to identify best practices in stimulating broader access to risk capital for entrepreneurs, including for entrepreneurs from backgrounds historically and currently underrepresented in science and tech entrepreneurship. The pledge was an organic byproduct of that meeting.

Volunteers Needed for
Tax-preparation Program

SPRINGFIELD — Volunteers are needed to participate in this year’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA offers free tax preparation for low- to moderate-income residents in Hampden County. The program relies on dedicated volunteers to provide free tax preparation from late January through mid-April. No experience is necessary, and all volunteers are trained by the Internal Revenue Service. Volunteers prepare taxes, greet clients, translate, and coordinate VITA sites. “Last year our volunteers completed more than 5,000 tax returns, free of charge,” said Jennifer Kinsman, United Way director of Community Impact. “These volunteers are an enormous asset to our community.” The VITA program runs from Jan. 29 through April 15. Volunteer training will take place in December. For more information or to volunteer, call (413) 263-6500 or (413) 612-0206.

State Releases Report
on Opioid Epidemic

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration has released “The Massachusetts Opioid Epidemic: a Data Visualization of Findings from the Chapter 55 Report.” The visualization can be viewed at www.mass.gov/chapter55. This website is designed to complement the recent release of the Chapter 55 Report, an unprecedented public/private partnership that reviewed opioid-related data sets from a variety of sources to better understand the opioid epidemic. The report was a product of the Chapter 55 of the Acts of 2015 signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in August 2015. “This project represents our latest effort to use and present data to better understand the opioid epidemic and inform our residents about one of the great public-health challenges of our time,” Baker said. “It is also an example of drawing talent from across state government and working with our external partners to create a tool that makes this important report accessible to more people.” The online site, produced by a MassIT and the Mass. Department Public Health (DPH) partnership, is an online, multi-media resource which illustrates and explains the complex nature of the disease of addiction, the role that legal prescription medications and illegal substances play in the epidemic, its impact across the demographic spectrum in Massachusetts, and what steps are being taken to address this fundamental public-health crisis in communities across the state. “The Chapter 55 report was truly groundbreaking in the depth of its analysis and its use of advanced data to understand the underlying causes of opioid-related deaths,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. “We hope that this new way of communicating the data helps underscore the challenges ahead and our resolve for addressing this crisis.” Led by DPH, the Chapter 55 analysis involved 10 data sets from 5 different government agencies. In total, 29 groups from government, higher education, and the private sector provided information and expertise. This level of partnership is what makes the Chapter 55 report a milestone achievement in Massachusetts. Before this legislation was passed, such a comprehensive look at the opioid epidemic in the Commonwealth would not have been possible. “This innovative tool takes us beyond charts and statistics in a way that allows even greater insight into the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts,” said Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel. “We hope it will be a useful resource to help inform policymakers, stakeholders, and community members understand where we are, and how we move forward.”

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Employer Confidence Strengthens in October

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers rose for a second consecutive month during October, bolstered by a surprising improvement in the outlook among manufacturers and the continued strong performance of the state economy. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 0.3 points to 56.2 last month, 0.6 points higher than in October 2015. The increase was driven by a 2.6-point jump in the manufacturing index, which has lagged overall confidence readings for the past 18 months as companies struggled with economic weakness in Europe, China, and other key export markets. The increase came as the Massachusetts unemployment rate fell to 3.6%, its lowest rate since the dot-com boom of 2001. 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. It has remained above 50 since October 2013. Almost all of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer were up in October. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, gained 0.9 points to 57.9, leaving it a healthy 3.8 points ahead of the same time last year. The U.S. Index of national business conditions remained unchanged at 49.2, 1.7 points lower than its level of October 2015. Employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than about the national economy for 78 consecutive months. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased slightly to 56, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose 0.3 points to 56.3. The future view is virtually the same as it was a year ago. The three sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations also strengthened. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, rose 0.2 points to 57.9, while the Employment Index surged 0.9 points to 55.4. The Sales Index lost ground, however, falling 1.2 points during October and 3.9 points during the previous 12 months.

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LIPPI Featured in National Storytelling Platform

EASTHAMPTON — The Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts’ Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) was one of several featured programs that launched Tuesday during the rollout of a new national storytelling initiative unveiled by the Women’s Funding Network (WFN) at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting. The uniquely interactive digital tool seeks to bring attention to a leading challenge facing women in the U.S. and around the world — economic security — and lift up the vital work of women’s foundations that are addressing this issue. “Telling the story of local women on a national scale is crucial to the work we do. If we want our communities to thrive, we must ensure the economic security of women,” said Elizabeth Barajas-Román, CEO, of the Women’s Fund. This year, Barajas-Román was invited to represent Western Mass. on the national board of the Women’s Funding Network. The launch highlights the story of the Women’s Fund LIPPI program, a unique leadership institute developed in response to a shortage of women in civic leadership positions, in public office, and serving on boards. The coursework equips women with the tools and confidence to become civic and political leaders. More than 250 participants are now leaders in their local communities; 22 have run for elected office, one received a gubernatorial appointment, one graduate is the first female police chief of Northampton, one ran a successful race for mayor of Pittsfield, and two graduates are serving in executive cabinet positions. Many more continue to serve on various boards and commissions, organizing grassroots campaigns, and raising their collective voices on issues that impact women and families. The Economic Security Digital Storytelling Platform is a data-driven, yet narrative, evidence of women’s foundations’ ongoing commitment to ensuring women’s economic prosperity. The platform gives users the opportunity to explore the data alongside the powerful stories of the women, programs, and organizations making an impact on this issue, breathing life into facts and figures. The responsive and flexible format encourages user engagement and learning by featuring links and downloadable files throughout, as well as links to social media to make these important stories easy to share. WFN’s Economic Security Digital Storytelling Platform can be previewed at economicsecurity.womensfundingnetwork.org.

State Nets $2.5M Grant to Help People with Disabilities Find Jobs

BOSTON — Massachusetts was one of only six states awarded $2.5 million this week by the federal government to help people with disabilities find employment. The grant will target youth and young adults, ages 14 to 24, in Hampden County and the Greater Lowell area by expanding access to credential-based education and training. The U.S. Department of Labor yesterday announced $14.9 million in grants to six states as part of the Disability Employment Initiative. “We know that, unfortunately, people with disabilities face much higher rates of unemployment, and we have been developing plans to tackle that problem for over a year now. One of the first executive orders I signed was to create a task force to look at ways to help people with barriers to employment find and keep jobs,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “This award from the federal government will help us continue that important work, and create more opportunities for young people with disabilities to find fulfilling careers.” According to the U.S. Department of Labor, people with disabilities make up only 19.8% of the nation’s workforce. In Massachusetts, it is estimated that 15% of people with disabilities are unemployed. The grant is expected to serve more than 350 youth and young adults with disabilities. In Massachusetts the funds will also be used to create partnerships with local employers to increase hiring opportunities for young people with disabilities, and expand short-term subsidized work programs. The grant will provide job-retention and placement services to young people who have difficulty finding work due to their disability. “This is the first initiative where we will completely focus on youth and young adults with disabilities in order to help them find and keep employment,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said. “We are thrilled to be one of only a few states to receive this grant, and it will enable us to continue the work started by the task force for people facing higher employment.” The other states to receive grants were Connecticut, California, Idaho, Minnesota, and Maryland. While Massachusetts’ unemployment rate is lower than the national average, at 3.9% in August, certain populations face chronically higher rates of unemployment, including African-Americans, Hispanics/Latinos, people with disabilities, Native Americans, and recently returned veterans.

Unemployment Rate Drops to 3.9% in August

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 3.9% in August from 4.1% in July, and preliminary estimates show the state gained 5,900 jobs over the month, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. The last time the state’s unemployment rate hit 3.9% was in August 2001. At 3.9%, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is down 0.9% over the year from 4.8% in August 2015. There were 30,300 fewer unemployed residents and 73,000 more employed residents over the year compared to August 2015. Massachusetts’ unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.9% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state added fewer jobs over the month in July than the Bureau of Labor Statistics originally estimated, gaining 5,800 jobs compared to the previously published 7,300-job-gain estimate. Year to date, December 2015 to August 2016, Massachusetts has added 61,000 jobs. In August, the largest over-the-month job gains occurred in the leisure and hospitality, education and health services, and other services sectors. The state’s labor force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — is 65.0%. Over the year, the labor-force participation rate has increased 0.2% compared to August 2015.

State Releases Detailed Report on Opioid Epidemic

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration released an in-depth analysis of the state’s opioid-related deaths from 2013 to 2014. The findings reveal that opioid-related deaths have increased by 350% in Massachusetts in 15 years and marks the first time data from multiple state agencies has been linked to give a comprehensive overview of deaths associated with the opioid epidemic. “We are pleased to unveil this report to combine state resources and aggregate data in an innovative way to better understand the drivers behind opioid and heroin-related overdoses,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We are hopeful that new information will help us better understand the contours of this public-health crisis as we continue to work on prevention, education, and treatment in our communities to combat the opioid crisis in the Commonwealth.” Added Marylou Sudders, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, “in 2013 and 2014 alone, opioid-related deaths were recorded for two-thirds of the cities and towns in Massachusetts. In the face of this crisis, we must continue our efforts to battle this epidemic that continues to take a record number of lives.” The analysis, performed by the state Department of Public Health, reviewed opioid-related deaths in 2013 and 2014 by analyzing data from multiple government entities including the Department of Public Health, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the Department of Correction, MassHealth, and the Center for Health Information and Analysis. The Commonwealth’s technology agency, MassIT, facilitated integration work to bring the various streams of data together. The report, which was released at a reconvening of the Governor’s Opioid Working Group, chaired by Sudders, is part of continued efforts to improve the collection and release of data examining the impact that opioids have on Bay State communities. Earlier this year, Baker signed landmark opioid legislation into law to address the deadly opioid and heroin epidemic plaguing the Commonwealth. “Opioid-use disorder is a chronic disease, and this epidemic is a complex and persistent problem that will not be solved through a single solution,” said Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel. “This data will be leveraged to allocate resources more efficiently and effectively to help us save lives.” In 2015, the Governor’s Opioid Working Group released recommendations and a comprehensive action plan aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic. These short- and long-term recommendations focus on prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery support. Approximately 93% of the initiatives in the governor’s action plan are complete or underway.

Five Colleges Inc. Breaks Ground for Library Annex

HATFIELD — At a brief ceremony on Sept. 15 attended by campus officials and developers, Five Colleges Inc. broke ground on for its Library Annex on a site it purchased in Hatfield. When complete, the 35,000-square-foot building will provide shelving for up to 2.5 million items from the libraries of the campuses of the consortium — Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges and UMass Amherst — freeing up space for new materials and other academic needs. In addition, it will serve as a temporary home for much of the collection of Smith College’s Neilson Library while it undergoes a major renovation. “This facility will help Smith greatly in coming years. It’s a great example of how the institutions help each other,” said Susan Fliss, Smith College dean of Libraries. Added Chris Loring, the recently retired director of libraries at Smith College and a driving force behind the development of the annex, “this will become another library for us.” The 12-acre parcel is at the junctions of the Interstate 91 exit 22 ramp, West Street, and Plain Road in Hatfield. Five Colleges paid $925,000 for the property, which had been owned by Lynda, Martin, and Sharyn Holich. Site preparation work began on May 17, and work is expected to be complete in May 2017. With climate-controlled conditions for long-term preservation of print materials, the annex will house a part of the Five College library repository collection, which already preserves nearly 600,000 items for its member campuses.

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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.”

Briefcase Departments

Springfield Wins Grant from
U.S. Department of Justice

SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recently announced that the city of Springfield has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in the amount of $147,456 to expand communications and technology at the Springfield Police Department, and to increase officer safety and efficiency. The funds were awarded through the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program, the primary provider of federal criminal justice assistance to state and local governments. The JAG funds support for a range of program areas, including law enforcement, drug treatment, victim and witness initiatives, and technology-improvement programs. “This important crime-prevention assistance for the city is timely and needed,” Neal said. “I have always said the men and women of the Springfield Police Department deserve the appropriate amount of local, state, and federal resources they need to do their jobs effectively. Each day, they put their lives at risk to protect families and keep our community safe. With these additional funds, they will be able to continue to do their vital and courageous work on the streets of Springfield. In my opinion, Mayor Sarno and Commissioner Barbieri deserve great credit for their efforts to secure this highly competitive grant.” Added Sarno, “Police Commissioner John Barbieri is always looking to do cutting-edge innovative technology initiatives which in turn will continue to enhance the public safety of each and every one of our residents in the city of Springfield. These funds will assist with improving the technology needed to make the Springfield Police Department more efficient and effective in serving the residents of our fine city.” According to the DOJ, the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program allows states and units of local government to prevent and control crime based on their own state and local needs and conditions. Grant funds can used for state and local initiatives, technical assistance, training, personnel, equipment, supplies, contractual support, and information systems for criminal justice, including for any one or more of the following areas: law-enforcement programs; prosecution and court programs; prevention and education programs; corrections and community-corrections programs; drug-treatment and enforcement programs; planning, evaluation, and technology-improvement programs; and crime victim and witness programs (other than compensation). The Springfield Police Department will use the award funds to support information-technology upgrades and purchase protective equipment. The use of this federal assistance meets unfunded needs and expands communications and technology capacity and increases officer safety and efficiency.

Employer Confidence Falls
for Second Straight Month

BOSTON — A resurgent U.S. stock market, better-than-expected job growth, and growing labor-force participation failed to make believers of Massachusetts employers during July as business confidence fell for a second consecutive month. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index declined one point to 55.1 last month, leaving it more than four full points lower than in July 2015. The confidence reading remained above the 50 mark that denotes an overall positive economic outlook, but optimism dimmed across the board on employment, the Massachusetts economy, and employers’ outlook on their own companies. The index has now declined in three of the past four months. Economists suggest that employers may be caught between the expectation of an expanding U.S. economy and concern about anemic growth and instability overseas. It’s a paradox that has resulted in the stock and bond markets, which usually move in opposite directions, rising in tandem this year. “We see a familiar pattern in what is now the fourth-longest economic expansion since World War II — employers remain optimistic about the state of the economy, but it is an optimism marked by fits and starts and reactions to all sorts of political and economic events,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. The AIM Business Confidence 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. It has remained above 50 since October 2013. Most of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer declined during July. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, dropped 1.3 points during July and 0.3 points over the year to 57.2. The U.S. Index of national business conditions, in contrast, bucked the downward trend of the past year (in which it dropped 3.0 points) by gaining 1.5 points. Even so, employers have been more optimistic about the Massachusetts economy than about the national economy for 75 consecutive months. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, fell 0.2 points to 55.3, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, slid 1.8 points to 54.8. “July marked the first time since September 2015 that employers were more positive about current conditions than those six months from now. It’s something to watch, since confidence drives employer decisions on hiring and investment moving forward,” said Elliot Winer, chief economist for Northeast Economic Analysis Group LLC. “It’s also worth noting that employer confidence in their own companies has declined by 5.8 points, albeit from a high level, during the past 12 months.” Indeed, the three sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations all weakened. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, fell 1.8 points to 55.9, while the Sales Index lost 1.4 points to 55.6, and the Employment Index dropped 2.0 points to 52.5. The AIM survey found that nearly 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment. Expectations for the next six months were stable, with 37% expecting to hire and only 10% downsizing. “A tightening labor market is finally beginning to put upward pressure on wage growth as employers compete for skilled workers,” said Michael Goodman, executive director of the Public Policy Center (PPC) at UMass Dartmouth. “Wages rose 2.6% for the 12 months ended in June, the fastest annual growth rate since 2009. While this is welcome news for the state’s working families, whose wages have been stagnant for an extended period, it represents a challenge for those employers with limited pricing power who can expect it to be increasingly difficult and expensive to obtain the labor they need to support expected growth in coming months.” Confidence levels in July were higher in Greater Boston (56.8) than in the rest of the Commonwealth (52.2). Non-manufacturing companies enjoyed a significantly brighter outlook at 58.0 than manufacturing employers, who posted an overall confidence level of 52.6. AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, a BEA member, said employers should take encouragement from the moderate approach to business issues taken by state lawmakers during the two-year legislative session that ended Sunday night. Beacon Hill balanced a difficult budget with no tax increases, passed economic-development and energy legislation, and developed a consensus pay-equity measure that balances the needs of employers and workers. “The Legislature and the Baker administration again showed an understanding of the factors that contribute to business growth and job creation,” Lord said.

Pioneer Valley Home Sales
Down 11.3% in July

SPRINGFIELD — The Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley reported that single-family home sales in July were down by 11.3% in the Pioneer Valley, compared to the same time last year. The median price was up 8.2% to $224,000. In Franklin County, sales were down 26%, and the median price was up 24.7%. Hampden County saw a 7.5% sales decrease, with the median price rising 0.1%. In Hampshire County, sales were down down 15.6%, while the median price rose 8.1%.

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Baystate Health Laying Off 300

SPRINGFIELD — In a memo to employees, Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack announced the elimination of 300 positions from among the system’s 12,500 employees, citing a budget gap of $75 million for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2016. “Many factors are causing this projected shortfall, most significantly the continuing shortfalls in the reimbursements we receive for providing Medicaid services,” Keroack said. “Other factors are also contributing to this challenge, most prominently the recent decision by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services not to accept corrected wage data resulting in $23 million in reduced Medicare reimbursements next year, as well as increased spending on wages and benefits, pharmaceutical costs, and malpractice insurance.” He explained that Baystate’s leadership team has identified almost $40 million in strategies to mitigate these impacts and reduce the budget gap to about $35 million, but workforce cuts are necessary to further trim the deficit. “We expect that these reductions will affect management as well as front-line team members, prioritizing non-clinical areas for reductions, and most importantly preserving the quality and safety of the care we provide,” he wrote. “We expect the majority of these reductions will take place in Springfield-based operations, but we anticipate some impact throughout many parts of Baystate Health. As we know more specifics about impact on teams and individuals, we will share them.” Employees affected by the cuts will have access to severance pay and Baystate Health’s workforce placement and transition services, and may apply for open positions of critical need in the system. “Even after these painful steps, we expect to face a remaining budget gap of $15 million. We’ll continue our work to address this gap and do all we can to preserve jobs,” Keroack noted. “Our leadership has worked hard, as our financial challenges have mounted in recent months, to minimize the impact of these challenges. We are doing everything we can to help our elected leaders change some of the long-standing disparities in Medicaid reimbursement between different provider organizations in Massachusetts, which have been a major driver of our current difficulties.”

GCC Survey Uncovers What Employers Look for

GREENFIELD — What skills and knowledge do Pioneer Valley employers look for in their recent hires? That was the focus of a spring 2016 survey conducted by Greenfield Community College (GCC). More than 125 businesses, municipalities, nonprofit organizations, and schools weighed in on the college-learning outcomes they value the most. The survey, modeled after a national study conducted by Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Assoc. of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), was sent to Pioneer Valley employers on the member lists of the Franklin County, Greater Northampton, and Amherst Area chambers of commerce. It presented 17 distinct skill and knowledge areas and asked respondents to indicate how important it is that the new college graduates they employ exhibit proficiency in each. Among the results, at least four out of five respondents said they want new hires to have the ability to effectively communicate orally, ethical judgment and decision making, the ability to work effectively with others in teams, the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and critical-thinking and analytical-reasoning skills. Employers, both large and small, report placing high value on these skills when hiring recent college graduates. Recently, GCC students participated in the national Community College Survey of Student Engagement and were asked how much their experience at the college has contributed to their knowledge, skills, and personal development in a number of areas similar to those on the employer survey. A majority of respondents indicated that their time at GCC has contributed “quite a bit” or “very much” to their abilities to write and speak clearly and effectively, think critically and analytically, and work effectively with others. Marie Breheny, GCC’s director of Assessment, noted that “the findings from this local survey of Pioneer Valley employers were very similar to those obtained through the AAC&U’s larger effort. The ongoing national debate about the purpose of a college education is often presented in terms of conflicting viewpoints, with some believing that college is primarily for the development of a person and others believing that it is primarily to get a job. Following from that argument are questions about the value of various courses of study. The results from these surveys show no such conflict, as the outcomes from a broad education that that contribute to the development of a well-rounded individual are also highly valued by employers. In short, a liberal-arts education that fosters communication, ethics, critical thinking, teamwork, and the application of knowledge to real-world settings prepares students for success in employment and success in life.” Added GCC President Bob Pura, “Greenfield Community College thanks employers in the Pioneer Valley for their participation in this effort. Input such as this helps the college understand how issues in higher education that garner national attention play out at the local level. GCC will use this information to inform its programming and planning so as to best serve students while being responsive to the needs of area employers and the community.”

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Governor Signs Bipartisan Pay-equity Legislation

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bipartisan pay equity bill last week, passed unanimously by both legislative branches, to ensure equal pay for comparable work for all Massachusetts workers and equal opportunities to earn competitive salaries in the workplace. The governor was joined by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, Treasurer Deb Goldberg, State Auditor Suzanne Bump, state Sen. Patricia Jehlen, state Rep. Ellen Story, state Rep. Patricia Haddad, and members of the Legislature at a signing ceremony in the State House to enact S.2119, An Act to Establish Pay Equity, which will go into effect on July 1, 2018 for Commonwealth employers and employees. “I am pleased to sign bipartisan legislation to create a more level playing field in the Commonwealth and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to earn a competitive salary for comparable work,” Baker said. “I thank the Legislature for unanimously passing this bill and working closely with the business community to support women and families across the state.” Added Polito, “this legislation is an important step toward advancing more equal, inclusive, and thriving workplaces throughout the Commonwealth for women and families.” The new law will prevent pay discrimination for comparable work based on gender. The bill allows employees to freely discuss their salaries with coworkers, prohibits employers from requiring applicants to provide their salary history before receiving a formal job offer, and authorizes the attorney general to issue regulations interpreting and applying the expanded law. Under the new law, employers are permitted to take certain attributes of an employee or applicant into account when determining variation in pay, including their work experience, education, job training, or measurements of production, sales, or revenue. “This new law is an important step toward ensuring economic security for Massachusetts women and families. It makes vital updates that reflect our modern economy and balance the needs of workers and the business community,” said Attorney General Maura Healey, adding that “pay equity is not only a women’s issue, it’s a family issue, and with this new law on the books, we are closer to closing the pay gap in our state.” The statute of limitations laid out currently under the equal-pay statute will be expanded from one to three years, and employees will no longer be required to pursue a general claim of intentional discrimination at the Massachusetts Commission against Discrimination before filing a separate equal-pay claim in court.

ABA Bringing Franchise to Springfield This Fall

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Sting will be the first American Basketball Assoc. (ABA) team to call Springfield, the birthplace of basketball, its home when it commences play in November. The organization will boast top talent from the Greater Springfield area and beyond. The Sting will join the ABA’s Northeast Division for the start of the 2016-17 season, alongside teams in Boston, Providence, New York, Long Island, and New Jersey. The franchise will be owned by Zach Baru of Longmeadow. Baru’s past experience in sports and entertainment includes the Springfield Spirit of the National Women’s Basketball League, the Greater Springfield Pro-Am Basketball League, the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League, and the Miami Dolphins of the National Football League. Dr. Steven Sobel has been hired as the team’s first general manager and head coach. Sobel, a former Division II star at the University of Hartford, has spent more than 40 years coaching collegiate and professional basketball teams and players. During the offseason, he helms the Springfield Slamm of the Greater Hartford Pro-Am Basketball League. Sobel is also a nationally recognized motivational speaker and author of The Good Times Handbook: Your Guide to Positive Living and Exciting Life. “We are excited to bring professional basketball back to the city of Springfield. With Dr. Sobel at the helm, and potential supporters already reaching out, the possibilities for success here in the community are endless,” Baru said.

Free Legal Assistance Available to Small Businesses

SPRINGFIELD — The Western New England University Small Business Legal Clinic is now accepting applications from entrepreneurs and small-business owners seeking legal assistance for the fall 2016 semester. Under faculty supervision, law students assist clients with legal issues, including choice of entity, employment policies, contract drafting, regulatory compliance, and intellectual-property issues relating to trademark applications and copyright. This is a free service available to local businesses that would not otherwise have the resources to obtain these types of services. The Small Business Clinic at Western New England School of Law has assisted more than 300 small businesses. By using the clinic’s services, businesses can avoid problems by getting legal issues addressed early and correctly. It also provides students with an opportunity to get real-world experience. The Small Business Legal Clinic asks small-business owners to submit their applications by Monday, Aug. 15. Applications received after that date will be considered if additional resources are available. Students will begin providing services in September. For more information, call the clinic at (413) 782-1469 or e-mail [email protected].

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UMass Vaults to Top 30 in Patents Awarded in 2015

BOSTON — In the latest display of its R&D firepower, the University of Massachusetts vaulted to 30th globally in the Top 100 Worldwide Universities Granted U.S. Patents in 2015. Winning a record 62 U.S. patents arising out of faculty inventions, UMass placed third in Massachusetts and New England and was tied for 24th place among American universities. “Our faculty continues to shine with cutting-edge research and innovation that places us in the top tier of universities in the world. They lead us to new frontiers of human understanding, and their work opens the door to a more prosperous economic future,” President Marty Meehan said. “We’re proud of this accomplishment because today’s patent is tomorrow’s job-creating startup technology company.” The patents awarded are based on UMass research in areas as diverse as gene silencing, high-technology textiles, polymers, and nanotechnology, according to Abigail Barrow, interim executive director of the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization and Ventures. The 62 patents represent a 55% increase over the 40 awarded to UMass in the previous year and is the highest number issued in a single calendar year since UMass began its technology-transfer program in 1995, she added. UMass is also a national leader among universities in licensing income earned on its patented inventions. “Congratulations to the University of Massachusetts for making the Top 100 again this year and for an impressive increase,” said Paul Sanberg, president of the National Academy of Inventors, which produces the rankings along with the Intellectual Property Owners Assoc. One of the UMass patents relates to Geckskin, a super-strong adhesive discovered at UMass Amherst that can be used multiple times without losing effectiveness. This year’s top 10 ranked universities worldwide were: the University of California system, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of Texas, Tsinghua University (China), California Institute of Technology, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University, and University of Michigan. The rankings are calculated using data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. UMass is on pace to match or modestly exceed its record 62 patents in the next report, Barrow said. “Our impressive patent numbers reflect the rapid growth and influence of UMass’ research enterprise and the discovery going on at all of our campuses.” UMass shares the number-30 spot with the University of Utah Research Foundation and the Research Foundation of the State University of New York. The National Academy of Inventors is a nonprofit organization of U.S. and international universities and governmental and nonprofit research institutions with more than 3,000 members. The Intellectual Property Owners Assoc. is a trade association of owners of patents, trademarks, copyrights, and trade secrets. This is the fourth year they have collaborated to issue the rankings report.

Springfield Regional Chamber Seeks Super 60 Nominations

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber is seeking nominations for its annual Super 60 awards program. Now in its 27th year, the awards program celebrates the success of the fastest-growing privately owned businesses in the region, which continue to make significant contributions to the strength of the regional economy. Each year, the program identifies the top-performing companies in revenue growth and total revenue. Last year, total-revenue winners combined for revenues of more than $1 billion, with only-third of winners exceeding revenues of $30 million. All winners in the revenue-growth category had growth in excess of 20% while one-third experienced growth in excess of 65%. To be considered, companies must be based in Hampden or Hampshire county or be a member of the Springfield Regional Chamber, produce revenues of at least $1 million in the last fiscal year, be an independent and privately owned company, and have been in business for at least three full years. Companies are selected based on their percentage of revenue growth over a full three-year period or total revenues for the latest fiscal year. Companies may be nominated by financial institutions, attorneys, or accountants, or be self-nominated. Companies must submit a nomination form and provide net operating revenue figures for the last three full fiscal years, signed and verified by an independent auditor. All financial information must be reported under generally accepted accounting principles and will be held and considered confidential and not released without prior approval. Nomination forms are available here or by contacting Kara Cavanaugh at [email protected] or (413) 755-1310. Nominations must be submitted no later than Friday, Aug. 12. The Super 60 awards will be presented in partnership with the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce at the annual luncheon and recognition program on Friday, Oct. 28 from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Chez Josef in Agawam.

Springfield Launches Futurecity Massachusetts

SPRINGFIELD — On Friday, July 15, the Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) will be one of three statewide districts to launch Futurecity Massachusetts, a new approach to transforming cities that puts art, culture, and creativity at the center of redevelopment and revitalization. Futurecity Mass is a joint initiative of the Massachusetts Cultural Council (MCC) and the Boston Foundation. Futurecity Massachusetts will work with mayors, urban planners, and arts and business leaders in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield on key real-estate projects in state-designated cultural districts in the three cities, targeting areas ready for development and job growth. It is the first U.S. effort to advance the strategies of Mark Davy and his London-based Futurecity, which has created more than 200 partnerships across the globe that reposition cultural assets from community amenities to marketplace drivers. Futurecity has been immersed in cultural placemaking projects for more than a decade, and Davy believes Futurecity Massachusetts will secure the Commonwealth’s global position as a cultural leader. Davy will visit Springfield on July 15 to meet and workshop with local cultural and economic-development leaders. He will take knowledge from a walking tour of the Cultural District, an extensive workshop, and a general reception back to his UK team to review. In October, Futurecity will return to present a strategy to the Springfield public. The MCC hopes to eventually expand the program statewide. A press event will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Friday with Davy, MCC Executive Director Anita Walker, Mayor Domenic Sarno, and SCCD Executive Director Morgan Drewniany on the steps of City Hall. Both press and the general public are invited to attend. The Springfield Central Cultural District, which encompasses an area of the metro center of Springfield, is membership-based, involving many of the downtown arts institutions. Its mission is to create and sustain a vibrant cultural environment in Springfield.

Local Business Volunteers Bring JA to Fairview School

CHICOPEE — Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts (JA) and 33 volunteers from area banks, businesses, and colleges teamed up to bring Junior Achievement programs to all 436 students at Fairview School in Chicopee for last month’s JA in a Day event. “This is the sixth year that Chicopee Savings Bank Foundation has sponsored JA in a Day for these students,” noted Jennifer Connolly, president of Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts. “The students and teachers look forward to ending their year with JA, and Junior Achievement looks forward to ending our year with this terrific school. Nowhere else are our JA Volunteers treated to a final assembly with hundreds of cheering students and handmade cards and notes. It is an amazing event.” This year, JA volunteers from Chicopee Savings Bank, Bank of America, Santander Bank, Westfield Bank, Webster Bank, TD Bank, Babson Capital, Elms College, UMass Amherst, and Lead Yourself Youth brought Junior Achievement programs to students in grades K-5 at Fairview School. Carlos DeLeon, a Chicopee Savings Bank volunteer, noted, “the students had a good understanding of how a city runs. They had a great understanding of a savings account, and we talked about how taxes help the city rebuild.” Erika Eisnor, a Santander volunteer who taught JA Our Region in a fourth-grade class, noted that “JA is so much fun and a great learning experience.” Added Kidon Gebersadik from Bank of America, “it’s never too early to learn about good money habits. These exceptional students are learning about building blocks that will lead to more stable financial lives down the road, making our communities and local economies stronger.” Tim Dominick, a teacher at Fairview School, explained that the program “further offered the students a chance to explore their creative thinking process. The students benefited from the teamwork and problem solving the program offered.” JA programs empower students to make a connection between what they learn in school and how it can be applied in the real world, enhancing the relevance of their classroom learning and increasing their understanding of the value of staying in school. Each year, JA reaches more than 10 million students worldwide and helps them develop successful financial-management habits, empowering them to explore the potential of becoming an entrepreneur and providing them with the skills necessary to succeed in a global workforce. Locally, Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts reaches more than 11,000 students.

Baker Signs Transgender Anti-discrimination Law

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law an anti-discrimination bill, previously passed by the state House and Senate, that gives transgender people the right to use public restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identities, regardless of their sex at birth. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination will adopt policies to enforce its provisions, a statement from the governor’s office said. “No one should be discriminated against in Massachusetts because of their gender identity,” Baker said, according to CNN. “This compromise legislation extends additional protections to the Commonwealth’s transgender community, and includes language to address the public-safety concerns expressed by some by requiring the attorney general to issue regulations to protect against people abusing the law.”

Area Business Leaders to Head to Capitol Hill

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Regional Chamber will hold its biannual Washington Symposium on September 21-23 hosted by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. This popular event brings the region’s business leaders to Washington, D.C. to listen to and question some of the country’s most influential leaders, including members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, top federal policy makers, and members of the Obama Administration in its last months in office. Past speakers have included political strategist Stan Greenberg, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, U.S. Rep. John Lewis, U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, House Ways and Means Chair David Camp, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, Chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisors Jason Furman, and Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S. Anne Anderson. Registrations are limited and include air transportation, airport parking, hotel transfers, hotel accommodations at the Phoenix Park Hotel within walking distance to the Capitol, breakfast and lunch each day, and welcome and closing evening receptions. The reservation deadline is Friday, Aug. 5, and no refunds will be granted after that date. The all-inclusive cost is $1,395 (single) or $1,270 (per person, double occupancy) if made by Friday, July 15. Reservations made after July 15 will increase to $1,495 (single) or $1,370 (per person, double occupancy). Sponsorship opportunities are also available and include complimentary attendance. For reservations or more information, visit www.springfieldregionalchamber.com or e-mail Nancy Creed at [email protected]

BTCF HousingUs Initiative Issues RFP

SHEFFIELD — Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s HousingUs initiative is soliciting proposals from nonprofits, community organizations, and public agencies to plan and convene outreach activities that bring residents together to explore the interrelated issues of affordable housing, economic development, and town-center vitality. Grants of up to $10,000 will be available for projects that result in action-oriented community-development strategies or create broader public awareness of the elements of healthy and resilient communities, including the availability of affordable housing. Only collaborative proposals with one lead applicant and at least one other partner will be considered. Organizations serving Berkshire County, Mass.; Columbia County and Northeast Dutchess County, N.Y.; and Northwest Litchfield County, Conn., are eligible. The deadline for submitting proposals is Friday, Aug. 26. For more information, visit www.berkshiretaconic.org/housingus.

AMA Recognizes Benefits of Paid Sick Leave

CHICAGO — The American Medical Assoc. (AMA) recently adopted new policy recognizing the public-health benefits of paid sick leave and other discretionary time off. Citing a growing body of evidence that lack of access to paid sick leave results in the spread of infectious diseases, as well as delayed screenings, diagnoses, and treatment, the new AMA policies support paid sick leave, as well as unpaid sick leave, for employees to care for themselves or a family member. “With both dual-earner and single-parent households on the rise in the United States, it is increasingly challenging for workers to juggle family and work,” said former AMA board chair Dr. Barbara McAneny. “Workers without paid sick days are more likely to work sick and are more likely to delay needed medical care, which can lead to prolonged illness and worsen otherwise minor health issues. Lack of paid leave also has a ripple effect across a worker’s family. Paid sick leave has been shown to aid children’s health, shorten hospital stays, and reduce the risk of disease transmission by allowing parents to stay home with sick children. Paid sick leave keeps our homes, offices, and communities healthier while ensuring the family’s economic security.” The U.S. is the only industrialized nation without a federal family-leave law that guarantees workers may receive pay while taking time to care for themselves or their family. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act mandates that companies provide leave, the law does not require that it be paid. The AMA also reaffirmed existing policy supporting voluntary leave policies that provide employees with job security and the continued availability of health-plan benefits in the event that leave becomes necessary due to medical conditions.

Rep. Neal Releases Rail Study for Northern New England

SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, dean of the New England congressional delegation, held a press conference in Springfield last week to release the Northern New England Intercity Rail Initiative (NNEIRI), a study funded by the Federal Railroad Administration and requested by Neal and former U.S. Rep. John Olver to identify and improve rail service in the region, including Springfield to Boston. NNEIRI is a conceptual planning study that examines the benefits, opportunities, and impacts of adding more frequent and higher-speed inter-city passenger rail service on two rail corridors, the inland route and the Boston-to-Montreal route. The inland route would run between Boston and New Haven, Conn. via Springfield. The Boston-to-Montreal route would run between Boston and Montreal, Quebec via Springfield. The two routes would share the trackage between Boston and Springfield. The combination of these two rail routes defines the study area that is collectively identified as the NNEIRI Corridor. “More than 2 million people live within three miles of a station along this corridor,” said FRA Administrator Sarah Feinberg. “For everyone to move safely and efficiently, this region needs a robust rail system, and this blueprint will help achieve that goal.”

Report Details State Residents without Insurance Coverage

BOSTON — The Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation released a new report, “Massachusetts Residents without Health Insurance Coverage: Understanding Those at Risk of Long-term Uninsurance.” Massachusetts currently has the lowest uninsurance rate in the nation, and as part of the individual mandate to carry health insurance coverage, the state collects detailed information through its tax-filing process about the health-insurance status of more than 4 million residents. This report analyzes 2011 and 2012 state-tax-filer data and provides new information about Massachusetts residents who are prone to remaining uninsured over consecutive years. The findings can help inform stakeholders who want to maintain the state’s low uninsurance rate and strive to lower the number of individuals without health-insurance coverage. Prepared by Michael Chin of UMass Medical School and Audrey Gasteier of the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority, the analyses in this report represent the first time that tax-filer data is being used to quantify the state’s uninsured population over a period of two consecutive calendar years. No other state has such detailed information on its residents’ insurance status.

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PVPC Releases Economic-development Strategy

SPRINGFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) recently released its 2016 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) annual update, as part of its larger Plan for Progress, a 10-year blueprint for economic development in the region. The CEDS features a description of regional economic-development conditions and sets forth goals and objectives for the future, as well as a list of projects seeking the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) public-works funding in the next year. The report highlights the region’s continued decrease in unemployment, an improved workforce-talent pipeline, and increased early-education enrollment and high-school and community-college graduation rates, among others, as metrics illustrating the overall progress being made. The CEDS also lists many major committed projects of regional significance, such as the Center for Hospitality and Culinary Excellence at Holyoke Community College, the Springfield Innovation Center, the CRRC MA subway-car manufacturing plant, and the Aviation Research and Training Center, a collaboration between UMass Amherst and Westover Air Reserve Base. A full digital copy of the 2016 CEDS is available on the PVPC website, www.pvpc.org. Hard copies are also available upon request. The PVPC, which administers this process, has been the EDA-designated regional planning agency for the Pioneer Valley region since 1999, which includes 43 cities and towns in Hampshire and Hampden counties.

Home Sales Rise in Pioneer Valley

SPRINGFIELD — The REALTOR Association of Pioneer Valley reported that single-family home sales in May were up 19.4% compared to the same time last year. The median price was up 2.0% to $205,000. County reports vary. In Franklin County, sales were up 90.3% and prices up 5.6%; in Hampden County, sales were up 16.8% and prices up 1.5%; in Hampshire County, sales were up 10.6% and prices down 3.7%.

Passenger Rail Platform Delayed at Union Station

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA) Director Christopher Moskal announced recently that required design modifications will delay the opening of a new boarding platform at Springfield Union Station. He said progress at the Union Station Regional Intermodal Transportation Center project continues to advance, and he “expects that the Union Station terminal project itself will open on schedule in January 2017, albeit without the new boarding platform in operation.” He said this “includes the terminal building, the bus terminal, the parking garage, and the passenger tunnel up to the current Amtrak lobby on Lyman Street.” As a separate component of the overall project, MassDOT is committed to delivering a new boarding platform for Amtrak trains. This high-level platform, which will provide ‘level-entry boarding’ for Amtrak passengers, was scheduled to be in operation when Union Station opened. However, in reviewing the new platform’s design, Amtrak indicated that a waiver of two Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) design requirements would be needed. This waiver relating to the width of the new platform was necessitated by the unique configuration of the existing Union Station tracks. The SRA submitted the waiver request on March 10. After discussions between FRA and MassDOT, FRA issued a letter on May 23 requiring full compliance with its design regulations. This FRA decision requires major modifications to the initial design of both the platform and the underground passenger tunnel. Accordingly, the project’s architect has been directed to prepare necessary changes to the project’s plans and specifications. The project team is currently working to finalize a revised schedule and budget. Moskal indicated that MassDOT remains committed to funding related design and construction costs. In the interim, he indicated that Amtrak passengers will access trains from the new terminal by passing through the renovated portion of the tunnel into the current Amtrak lobby and using the existing boarding platform on the Lyman Street side as they do today. After the new boarding platform is completed, the Lyman Street end of the tunnel — the current Amtrak lobby — will be renovated and will reopen. This will result in a fully renovated passenger tunnel between the terminal and Lyman Street.

Ashe Explores Starting Foundation

Hampden County Sheriff Michael J. Ashe Jr., honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2016, issued a statement to the press recently announcing that he is exploring the possibility of staring a foundation to continue his life’s work. “Like most anyone else facing retirement, I find myself contemplating what I want to do with the rest of my life,” he said. “I know that, despite being in my mid-70s, I still have great intensity and energy. The fire still burns in me for my life’s work of 42 years — assuring that offenders have the best possible likelihood of re-entering the community as law-abiding, productive, positive citizens, giving to, rather than taking from, the lives of others. That life’s work would be hard for me to completely walk away from when I still feel vital and useful and passionate about its value to others. One of the scenarios that I’ve contemplated is to continue that life’s calling in a new framework, to create a local foundation, with myself as its unpaid chief administrator, to enhance our community’s effort to successfully re-enter offenders.” Ashe said he’s far from having an exact blueprint regarding specific ways that such a nonprofit might help, and he’s not yet completely certain that starting and heading up such a philanthropic foundation is where he can be of best service in retirement. But he did say it’s an idea worth exploring. “Although I am not far enough along to have detailed the specifics of the structures of such a possible foundation, I would want any such foundation to be marked by simplicity and integrity,” he explained. “One model that I would use is the local charity Griffin’s Friends, which was founded to bring moments of joy to courageous kids at Baystate Medical Center, and which minimizes administrative costs and maximizes direct service to those it seeks to help.” Ashe said one reason he’s thinking aloud and publicly about this is to put the word out to others who might be likewise interested in founding such a new nonprofit, to let him know of their interest in helping to build what could be “an inspired addition to the edifice that we’ve labored so tirelessly to build during these last 42 years — a community corrections system driven by a vision of social justice, integrity, and public safety.”

Employer Confidence Weakens in June

BOSTON — A month of economic uncertainty punctuated by weak U.S. job growth and the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union drove Massachusetts employer confidence lower during June. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index fell 1.6 points to 56.1 as employers took an increasingly bearish view of the U.S. economy. At the same time, the confidence reading remained comfortably above the 50 mark that denotes an overall positive economic outlook. Taken quarterly, confidence rose from 55.8 during the first three months of the year to 56.7 during April, May, and June. The June survey of employers overlapped by a few days the landmark vote in Great Britain to leave the European Union, an outcome that caused financial gyrations and concern about U.S. exports in the face of a rising dollar. The confidence readings also came in the wake of the slowest pace of job creation in the U.S. since 2010. “Massachusetts employers are trying to balance a range of economic and political distractions that pull them in different directions month to month,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The good news is that employers remain highly confident in the Massachusetts economy and in the prospects for their own companies.” Added AIM President and CEO Richard Lord, a BEA member, “the sustained optimism that Massachusetts employers have shown toward the state economy reflects the ability of the Legislature and several administrations to maintain disciplined fiscal policy while creating an environment that allows employers to grow. We look forward to working with policymakers to continue that record as the two-year legislative session ends next month.” 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. It has remained above 50 since October 2013.

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New AHL Franchise Named Springfield Thunderbirds

SPRINGFIELD — Springfield’s new American Hockey League (AHL) franchise will take the ice for the upcoming 2016-17 season as the Springfield Thunderbirds. With hockey fans and local dignitaries looking on from center-ice seats at the MassMutual Center Arena, team officials announced the new name through a pulsating two-minute video on the arena’s state-of-the-art LED scoreboard. “The Springfield Thunderbirds’ name represents the strength and pride of Western Massachusetts. It is a nod to our hockey past, a tribute to the men and woman of the Air Force who are so vital to this region, and a symbol of the new energy and spirit that is palpable in Springfield,” said Nathan Costa, Thunderbirds executive vice president. Thunderbirds is an allusion to two previous Springfield AHL hockey team names, the Indians and the Falcons. The name refers to the animal of Native American legend that creates thunder and lightning by flapping its massive wings. Like the Falcon, it is also a fierce bird of prey. The name also refers to the famous demonstration planes of the U.S. Air Force and serves as an homage to Barnes Air National Guard Base and Westover Air Reserve Base, in Westfield and Chicopee, respectively. The announcement follows a name-the-team campaign that solicited suggestions from the public in a survey coordinated in partnership with MassLive and the Republican. The survey received more than 2,600 responses. “We would like to thank the thousands of fans who participated in this survey,” Costa said. “We were overwhelmed by the creativity and enthusiasm of those who submitted suggestions. Our fans wanted a name that honored the proud history of AHL hockey in Springfield while at the same time reflecting the new energy and excitement of this franchise. We believe the Thunderbirds captures this spirit.” The logo features a bird’s head in bright blue with a curved beak against a background of red and yellow. The team’s name is picked out in yellow and white. “The City of Springfield has a long and storied relationship with the American Hockey League going back to the days of Eddie Shore,” said U.S. Rep. Richard Neal. “For 80 years, professional hockey has been played in our community, and many fans could not imagine a season without a local franchise playing home games at the MassMutual Center. Next season, the Springfield Thunderbirds will take the ice in pursuit of their first Calder Cup. And we have the ownership group to thank for the efforts to keep a charter member of the AHL in downtown Springfield. I am certain that local fans will welcome this exciting new team to ‘the Nest,’ and that the 2016-17 season will be a successful partnership between the Thunderbirds and the Florida Panthers of the NHL.” In coordination with the announcement, the franchise also launched its new website, www.springfieldthunderbirds.com, where fans can now place deposits for season-ticket memberships. The team’s social-media handles are Springfield Thunderbirds on Facebook, @thunderbirdsahl on Twitter, and thunderbirdsahl on Instagram. “Again, so thankful, but not surprised that these outstanding corporate citizens continue to step up for our city of Springfield,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said. “Their continued belief and investment in our Springfield is deeply appreciated. Now we need to pack the house to help assure that professional hockey is here to stay for many years to come. Drop the puck!” Added Florida Panthers Executive Chairman Peter Luukko, “we are excited to have our AHL players take the ice next season with the Springfield Thunderbirds name and logo on their jerseys. This is the start of a new era for AHL hockey in Western Massachusetts, and we look forward to being a part of it.” Founded in 1936 and now with franchises in 30 cities across North America, the American Hockey League serves as the top development league for the players, coaches, managers, executives, and broadcasters of all 30 National Hockey League teams. More than 88% of today’s NHL players are AHL graduates, and for the 15th year in a row, more than 6 million fans attended AHL games in 2015-16. For more information on the Thunderbirds, go HERE.

Employer Confidence Surges in May

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers rose to a 10-month high during May as the state approached full employment and the national economy continued to throw off mixed signals. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 1.5 points during May to 57.7, the highest level since July 2015. The reading was slightly higher than the 57.3 level posted a year ago and comfortably above the 50 mark that denotes an overall positive economic outlook. The brightening outlook came amid growing evidence that the U.S. economy is regaining its footing after posting a 0.8% growth rate during the first quarter. Recent reports on retail sales, housing starts, and industrial production paint an upbeat picture of the economy in the second quarter. At the same time, the government reported that the U.S. economy created just 38,000 jobs during May, the slowest pace since 2010. “Massachusetts employers appear to have shaken off the uncertainty of the fall and winter and are now feeling optimistic about the remainder of 2016,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s board of economic advisors and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “The most encouraging news is that every constituent measure contained in the Business Confidence Index rose during May, and most were higher than they were a year ago.” 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. It has remained above 50 since October 2013.

UMass Generates $6.2B in Economic Impact

BOSTON — The University of Massachusetts was responsible for $6.2 billion in economic activity in Massachusetts last year — a record high — and helped to support more than 43,000 jobs statewide, President Marty Meehan announced Tuesday. “UMass educates more students than any college or university in the Commonwealth and is one of the state’s three largest research universities, but it also has a profound impact on the Massachusetts economy based on the scope and reach of its operations,” Meehan said. “UMass is a vital economic engine for the Commonwealth, and its impact is felt in every community and by virtually every family across Massachusetts.” Victor Woolridge, chairman of the UMass board of trustees, said the report illustrates that “UMass truly is here for a reason, and that reason is to serve the entire Commonwealth. The importance of generating an economic impact on the scale that we do — and having it distributed in every corner of the state — cannot be overstated.” The economic impact generated by the five-campus UMass system translates to a 10-to-1 return on investment for state government when total state funding for the university is considered, according to a FY 2015 analysis performed by the UMass Donahue Institute, which conducts economic and public-policy research. The major drivers of economic impact are student, faculty, and staff spending; construction projects; and the university’s purchasing the goods and services required for its activities. The study measured that spending and its ripple effect in determining the $6.2 billion impact estimate. According to the Donahue Institute report, each of the five university campuses generated a substantial economic impact for its region and the state. By campus or unit, the figures were: Amherst, $2.069 billion; Boston, $1.085 billion; Dartmouth, $466.1 million; Lowell, $921.9 million; Medical School, $1.584 billion; and Central Administration, $198.4 million.

Board of Higher Education Amends Leave Policies

BOSTON — A committee of the state Board of Higher Education voted Tuesday to amend the leave policies for non-unit professionals (NUPs) at the state’s 15 community colleges and nine state universities in an effort to better align such policies with those governing UMass employees, public higher-education systems in other New England states, and Massachusetts state employees. The vote is subject to a final vote by the full Board of Higher Education on June 14. If approved, the changes would impact approximately 1650 employees. The board’s Fiscal Affairs and Administrative Policy (FAAP) Committee voted to eliminate the current policy allowing employees to convert unused vacation days into sick time. Going forward under the new policy, any vacation days that remain over a 64-day balance would be forfeited by the employee if not used. The 64-day vacation balance would be reduced over the next two and a half years to a maximum of 50 days that can be ‘carried’ by an employee. Additionally, the committee voted to reduce the number of vacation days allotted to higher-education employees to a maximum of 25, a reduction from a previous allocation of 30 days per year for the longest-serving employees; and to standardize the number of personal days allotted to employees across all three segments of the higher-education system. All non-unit professionals employed at the state’s community colleges and state universities will receive a total of five annual personal days, effective Jan. 1, 2017. “These changes will bring our employment policies for non-unit professionals at community colleges and state universities into alignment with those in place at the University of Massachusetts, at public colleges and universities across New England, and for state employees,” said Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, who ordered an expedited review of the policies in March. “They will allow us to remain competitive with other institutions in our bid to attract top talent, while also making good on our commitment to be effective stewards of state resources.”

State Unemployment Rate Remains at 4.2% in May

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate remained at 4.2% in May, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The preliminary May job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicate that Massachusetts lost 6,400 jobs. Job losses were impacted by a temporary labor dispute in the information sector. In May, leisure and hospitality was the only sector to experience over-the-month job gains. BLS also revised upward the state’s over-the-month job gains in April, reporting that 15,200 jobs were added compared to the 13,900-job gain originally reported. From December 2015 to May 2016, Massachusetts has added 30,500 jobs. At 4.2%, the unemployment rate is down 0.7% over the year, with the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropping from 4.9% in May 2015. There were 26,600 fewer unemployed persons and 49,000 more employed persons over the year compared to May 2015. The Commonwealth’s May unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.7% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The labor force continues to grow, with 7,000 more employed residents and 2,000 fewer unemployed residents in May,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said, adding that the education and healthcare sector and the professional, scientific, and business-services sector continue to generate the most jobs in Massachusetts. The state’s labor-force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — remained at 65.0%. The labor-force participation rate over the year has decreased 0.2% compared to May 2015. Over the year, the largest private-sector percentage job gains by sector were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; other services; and leisure and hospitality.

Online Resource Aims to Keep River Users Healthy

GREENFIELD — In time for the summer recreation season, the Connecticut River Watershed Council (CRWC) and 16 partners have launched the 2016 Connecticut River water-sampling program. Water samples are tested for E. coli bacteria as an indicator for all types of other pathogens that could potentially make one sick. River users can visit the “Is It Clean” web page at www.connecticutriver.us to find bacteria test results at more than 147 river-access and recreation sites in Massachusetts, Northern Conn., Vermont, and New Hampshire. Samples are typically collected at each site weekly or bi-weekly, and test results are posted online 24 hours later, through early October. “When weather gets warm, people head to our rivers to cool off and have fun, and they want to know if our rivers are clean. The data tells us that it is a good idea to stay out of the water for 24 to 48 hours after a heavy rain because bacteria levels could be high,” said CRWC Lower River Steward Alicea Charamut. “Heavy rain is often the cause of high bacteria levels. Bacteria can spike after a storm due to combined sewer overflows and polluted stormwater runoff from urban, suburban, and agricultural areas.” Added CRWC Massachusetts River Steward Andrea Donlon, “cities and towns along the river are making significant investments to reduce pollution to our rivers, and this has made a tremendous difference. We want people to be able to explore and enjoy this wonderful resource. Our rivers are certainly much cleaner than they used to be, but it makes sense for river users to pay attention to this information so they know when it’s clean for swimming or boating.” Water sample results are color-coded and map-based to offer guidance about whether the water is clean enough for swimming and boating. Results are a snapshot of river conditions at the moment the sample was taken, but give river users information they can use to make informed decisions and prevent potential illness. The website provides bacteria data for the Connecticut River and more than 20 tributaries, including the Chicopee River, Mill River in Northampton, Mill River/Lake Warner in Hadley, Farmington River in Connecticut, Ottauquechee and Black Rivers in Vermont, and many more.

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FutureCity 2026 Presents Development Strategy

SPRINGFIELD — An executive summary of the FutureCity 2026 economic-development strategy was presented to about 120 business and community leaders and stakeholders at CityStage last week. FutureCity is a joint initiative by DevelopSpringfield, the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the city of Springfield’s Office of Planning and Economic Development. Its purpose is to build on the strategies identified in earlier studies such at the Urban Land Institute study of 2006 and the Rebuild Springfield Plan of 2012 — both of which identified tangible goals that continue to be the focus of public and private economic-development strategy in Springfield. Both plans recommended the importance of developing a long-term strategy for economic growth in the city that would ultimately benefit the entire region. “The goal of this project was to pinpoint and leverage the city’s attributes, including geographic location, infrastructure, workforce, and industries, and align these existing characteristics, assets, and conditions with pillars of realistic current and prospective market opportunities,” said Jeff Fialky, an attorney with Bacon Wilson and co-chair of the FutureCity initiative. “The objective was to develop an approach based upon realistic market opportunities that is obtainable rather than merely aspirational.” The FutureCity strategy was prepared by the nationally recognized real-estate and economic-development consulting firm Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, guided by a steering committee representing a broad spectrum of businesses and organizations over the course of a nine-month period. The consultants were charged with an ambitious scope of work which took place over nine months to include the following: assess existing conditions, analyze target industries, assess logistics and supply-chain capabilities, assess talent-development strategies, develop a list of recruitment opportunities for target industries, and identify strategic initiatives and an implementation plan with measurable deliverables. Newmark conducted over 100 interviews, which included city and state leaders, economic-development agencies, large employers, young professionals, elected officials, nonprofits, workforce-development organizations, real-estate and creative-economy experts, and more, in addition to deep dives into relevant data, peer-city comparisons, and several site visits to Springfield. Major themes emerging from the study include site and space readiness, centralization of small-business resources, development of a multi-generational workforce plan, development of a unified marketing and messaging plan, fostering collaboration and connectivity, strategically unifying economic-development efforts, collaboration, and a focus on Springfield’s unique strengths. “This was a very pragmatic exercise that shows there are many more pros than cons as we continue to market Springfield,” said Mayor Domenic Sarno. “As we have done with the Urban Land Institute and our Rebuild Springfield plans, we will follow through with this one, too. Now is our time. We will continue to capitalize on the synergy of our public and private collaborations and keep the momentum going as the ‘can-do city.’” Added Jay Minkarah, DevelopSpringfield president and CEO and co-chair of the FutureCity initiative, “the FutureCity economic-development strategy is designed to be a guide to action, not simply a plan to sit on a shelf. The plan includes over 170 specific recommendations along with metrics for measuring success, estimated costs, potential impact, and priorities, and identifies the parties responsible for implementation.” Funding was provided by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the U.S. Economic Development Agency, the Springfield Regional Chamber, Smith and Wesson, and DevelopSpringfield. A link to the presentation can be found at www.developspringfield.com. Over the next few weeks, an executive summary and detailed report will be made available through DevelopSpringfield, the Springfield Regional Chamber, and the city of Springfield’s Office of Planning and Economic Development.

Springfield, Pittsfield Each Given $475,000 in Working Cities Challenge

BOSTON — The Federal Reserve Bank of Boston announced that Springfield, Pittsfield, Haverhill, Lowell, and Worcester will each receive $475,000 in the second round of the Working Cities Challenge, a competition for smaller cities in New England focused on building collaborative leadership, which is shown to be a critical element in economic growth for struggling post-industrial cities. The five communities put forward initiatives focused on neighborhood revitalization, workforce development, and improving access to economic opportunity. The cities will work on these initiatives over a three-year period, accompanied by technical assistance and a learning community for best-practice sharing. “I want to congratulate the winners of the Working Cities Challenge. Collaborative leadership is at the heart of this competition, and these five cities demonstrated significant capacity to reach across sectors and advance efforts on behalf of low-income residents in their communities,” said Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren. “I look forward to following the progress in the communities in the coming months and years.” Added Gov. Charlie Baker, “together with our partners in the private, philanthropic, and nonprofit sectors, we are proud to leverage greater resources to support and prepare communities for success. The Working Cities Challenge elevates local leadership, amplifying solutions from the community level to increase cross-sector collaboration and improve economic outcomes for low-income residents.” Last fall, 10 Massachusetts communities were each awarded $15,000 design grants through the Working Cities Challenge to strengthen their bids to the competition. The five winning cities were selected after a six-month design-grant period, which saw the cities refining proposals and adding partners from across their community. The Springfield Works Initiative will advance the city’s economy by enhancing and strengthening the connectivity between employers who need qualified workers and low- income Springfield residents who need meaningful employment. It aims to achieve this goal through an innovative collaboration between employers, educational institutions, service providers, community leaders, community-based organizations, government, and residents. The Springfield Works Initiative core team includes the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, the Springfield Office of Planning and Economic Development, the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, MGM Springfield, Partners for Community Action, HAPHousing, Springfield Technical Community College, Western MA National Machine and Tooling Assoc., the Community Foundation of Western Mass., Tech Foundry, United Personnel Services, United Way of Pioneer Valley, and DevelopSpringfield. The Pittsfield Bridges: Transformative Movement (PBTM) initiative will support the journey from poverty to sustainability by collaboratively building community resources and removing barriers. The effort’s vision is for all people in Pittsfield to experience a just, thriving, and safe community. The PBTM’s goal is to improve individual, institutional, and social fairness and respect in the community and thus support individuals moving out of poverty. The PBTM’s core team includes Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity, the city of Pittsfield, the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, Berkshire Community College, BerkshireWorks Career Center, Berkshire United Way, Goodwill Industries, Berkshire Children and Families, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Community Action Council, Downtown Pittsfield Inc., Pittsfield public schools, the local NAACP chapter, Pittsfield Community Connection, West Side Neighborhood Initiative, First United Methodist Church, Heart 2 Heart Ministry, Manos Unidas, Brien Center for Mental Health, Multi-Cultural Bridge, and Girls Inc. For more information on the Working Cities Challenge, visit www.bostonfed.org/workingcities.

Celia Grace Wins $50,000 at VVM Accelerator Awards

SPRINGFIELD — Twelve area startups won a total of $252,000 at the Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) Accelerator Awards on May 26, led by Celia Grace, whose founder, Marcelia Muehlke, calls her company a fair-trade, ethical wedding-dress seller that gives back and empowers women around the world. Muehlke, who won $50,000 at the ceremony at the MassMutual Center, launched the company several years ago after searching, fruitlessly, for a maker of fair-trade wedding dresses. Sensing both a need and an opportunity, she set about creating such a company. She traveled to Asia and set up a supply chain that could create high-quality garments that she and her clients could feel good about. She then began working with a group of women in a sewing group in Cambodia, contracted with a designer in New York, and got her business — and her dream — up and running. Today, Celia Grace sells dresses across the country and in Europe. The VVM award is just one in a long line of accolades, including a Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Success Spirit Award in 2011, a finish in the money at the UMass Pitch Competition in 2012, and a second-place finish at Valley Venture Mentors’ pitch contest during the Western Mass. Business Expo in 2012. About 500 people attended the May 26 ceremony. The other 11 winners of VVM Accelerator Awards, and their prize money, include:
• Homebody Holistics ($45,000), a maker of all-natural, hand-crafted, herbal cleaning solutions using no harsh chemicals or additives;
• Scout Curated Wears ($32,000), a designer, curator, and producer of thoughtful women’s accessories;
• DaVinci Arms ($21,000), a designer and manufacturer of firearms suppressors and accessories for mission-critical applications;
• Treaty ($21,000), a nanotechnology company whose flagship product is FogKicker, a biodegradable anti-fog solution made from nanocellulose;
• Prophit Insight ($19,000), a software company that helps healthcare providers identify and acquire unique sources of physician referrals;
• Livingua ($18,000), an app that connects travelers to locals who know the language and culture wherever and whenever they want;
• Name Net Worth ($15,000), a connective platform that leverages trusted relationships to measure and strengthen a user’s personal and professional networks;
• iRollie ($9,000), a niche-market phone-case manufacturer and online retailer featuring the rolling tray phone case;
• Need/Done Inc. ($9,000), instant help for kids at home from people their parents trust;
• Sumu ($7,000), which works with property managers and landlords to post fee-free apartments to help users find their next home; and
• AnyCafé ($6,000), a developer of hot beverage solutions for the future, including the Travel Brewer.

Legislation Filed to Cap Sick-time Accrual

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito recently introduced “An Act to Reform Sick Time,” aimed at limiting sick-time accruals that have led to exorbitant payouts upon retirement from state government. The legislation would cap accrual of sick time for state employees in the Executive Department at no more than 1,000 hours, equivalent to six months of work. The bill grandfathers in approximately 5,800 current state employees who already have more than 1,000 hours accrued. Those employees would be capped at their current earned amount as of the date of enactment. Once the legislation is passed, the policy will take effect immediately. “Sick leave is a benefit designed to offer employees a way to deal with health and family issues, not a retirement bonus,” Baker said. “Bringing the Commonwealth’s sick-leave-accrual policy in line with other private- and public-sector employers just makes sense and is the fiscally responsible thing to do.” Added Polito, “this legislation ensures the use of sick time remains consistent with its intended purpose. Benefits for Executive Department employees will remain competitive while we implement an accrual policy that is fair to Massachusetts taxpayers.” Under current law, employees can accrue a maximum of 15 sick days per year, and those employees who retire are permitted to cash out 20% of unused sick time. In FY 2015, 378 employees had an accrual of more than 1,000 hours upon retirement. While this represents only about one-third the number of retiring employees, the cashouts for these employees accounted for nearly 80% of the total cashout cost. Based on the last three fiscal years, if fully implemented, a 1,000-hour cap on accruals would have saved an average of $3.5 million in cashouts per year. “Sick days serve an important purpose, but they must be used in an appropriate and accountable way for our compensation system to have the integrity and transparency taxpayers deserve,” said Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr. Added House Minority Leader Bradley Jones Jr., “recent media reports highlighting excessive sick-leave payouts in the public higher-education system clearly demonstrate the need to crack down on these types of abuses. The reforms proposed by the Baker-Polito administration will help to provide greater transparency and accountability to the state’s taxpayers.”

Habitat for Humanity Partners with Faith Organizations

SPRINGFIELD — Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity (GSHFH) announced an upcoming Circle of Faith build on 479 Allen St. in Springfield. This project is a partnership between GSHFH and 11 local faith communities who have come together to raise the funds for a Habitat home, and who will also contribute volunteers, in-kind materials, and amenities for the project. As an intentionally interfaith project, this build incorporates Christian, Islamic, and Jewish communities. These 11 faith communities include First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, Sinai Temple in Springfield, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in East Longmeadow, St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Longmeadow, the Islamic Society of Western Mass. in West Springfield, Christ the King Lutheran Church in Wilbraham, East Longmeadow United Methodist Church, Mercy Medical Center and the Sisters of Providence Health System in Springfield, St. Cecilia’s Parish in Wilbraham, and Foster Memorial Church in Springfield. Ellen Tougias, the point person for First Church of Christ in Longmeadow, says her church is “proud to be a part of the Circle of Faith Build for Habitat. We have committed to this project as part of our 30th-year celebration. It is one way that we have chosen to give back to our community in honor of this special year.” Mohammad Bajwa of the Islamic Society of Western Mass. referenced a piece of Scripture in relation to the project: “cooperate with one another, for doing good deeds and righteousness … surely God’s mercy is upon the good doers.” To kick off this partnership, the Circle of Faith communities and GSHFH hosted a “House Wrapped in Love” event at the Islamic Society of Western Mass. on June 1. The family-friendly event invited kids to paint what home, family, and love means to them on sheets of plywood that will then be used to build the walls of the new habitat house at 479 Allen St. Following this event will be several days of building on the job site, where the exterior walls of the home will start to take shape.

Unemployment Drops Across State in April

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates dropped in all labor market areas in the state during the month of April, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. All 15 areas added jobs over the month, with the largest gains in the Springfield, Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Barnstable, Worcester, and Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford areas. From April 2015 to April 2016, 14 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the Haverhill-Newburyport-Amesbury, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, Taunton-Middleborough-Norton, and Barnstable areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for April is 3.9%, down 0.7% from the March rate. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 4.2% for the month of April. The unemployment rate is down 0.8% over the year. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed a 13,900-job gain in April and an over-the-year gain of 73,500 jobs. The unadjusted unemployment rates and job estimates for the labor market areas reflect seasonal fluctuations and therefore may show different levels and trends than the statewide seasonally adjusted estimates. The estimates for labor force, unemployment rates, and jobs for Massachusetts are based on different statistical methodology specified by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Leadership Pioneer Valley, Women’s Fund Partner on Alumni Discount

SPRINGFIELD — Effective immediately, Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV) and the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts will begin offering alumni of their programs a mutual 20% discount — just one part of a new effort between these organizations to strengthen and coordinate learning opportunities for emerging leaders in the region. Both LPV’s core program and the Women’s Fund’s Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impact (LIPPI) program seek to empower up-and-coming leaders and, ultimately, strengthen the region as a whole. However, each program has unique content and perspectives that, if taken subsequently, provide a comprehensive leadership experience. Graduates of the LPV program can apply for LIPPI at womensfund.net; graduates of LIPPI can apply for LPV at leadershippv.org. “The Women’s Fund is thrilled to participate in this collaborative effort with Leadership Pioneer Valley,” said Elizabeth Barajas-Román, CEO of the Women’s Fund. “We think this is a natural partnership for our organizations, as we both invest in creating strong communities through leadership development. Together, our participants will become the civic and business leaders of tomorrow who will help the region thrive.” Added Lora Wondolowski, executive director of Leadership Pioneer Valley, “this partnership makes so much sense as we feel our curriculums are complementary. Together, we are building a cadre of leaders who are making a difference in their careers and communities.” LPV is a nonprofit that works to identify, develop, and connect diverse leaders to strengthen the region. LPV’s core program challenges and engages emerging leaders from all sectors of the community from throughout the region. The curriculum consists of both classroom and hands-on, experiential learning that builds leadership skills, enhances regional understanding, and creates broader networks. The Women’s Fund is a public foundation that connects donors with the lives of local women and girls through strategic grant making and leadership development. Its signature, non-partisan program, LIPPI, is designed to address the need to provide women with the tools, mentors, and confidence they need to become powerful and effective civic leaders and elected officials. Further information on each program can be found at leadershippv.org and womensfund.net.

Local Farmers Receive Awards Totaling $117,500

AGAWAM — Recognizing that farming is essential to the region, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation and Big Y awarded 47 local farmers from the Berkshires to the Pioneer Valley $2,500 each to make physical infrastructure improvements to their farms. Along with the support of sponsors Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and MGM Springfield, farmers have already put to use the awards for farm-improvement projects. This represents a 42% increase in awards from the 2015 inaugural year. With the collaboration of local agriculture advocacy organizations Berkshire Grown and CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture), the applications selected for the Local Farmer Awards were announced in December. More than 120 farmers submitted applications describing their improvement projects. The award recipients are diverse: 32% have been farming for more than 20 years, and 23% for five years or fewer; and more than 40% of the farms have sales of more than $100,000, while another 30% recorded sales of less than $49,000. A winner from 2015 and 2016, Julia Coffey of Mycoterra Farm in Westhampton said, “we are thrilled to be a Local Farmer Award recipient. The projects that these awards have helped fund are making our farm more viable.” This year, Coffey is purchasing equipment required for outfitting a commercial kitchen that will allow the farm to begin manufacturing value-added food products with unsold fresh mushrooms. Jennifer Salinetti, owner of Woven Roots Farm in Tyringham, will install a permanent vegetable wash station which will directly impact the farm’s productivity. Gideon Porth of Atlas Farm in Deerfield will install a pump system for a new well to increase the supply of potable water for the farm’s packing house and greenhouses, which will double its current watering abilities. Harold Grinspoon, founder of the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, who launched the Local Farmer Awards in 2015, noted that “farmers don’t typically ask for help. They are genuinely appreciative of these awards and use the money in creative ways for projects to help their businesses.” Charlie D’Amour, president & COO of Big Y, added, “through our partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation, we are providing one more way to help local growers thrive in our community.” The goal of the Local Farmer Awards is to strengthen farmers’ ability to compete in the marketplace so the region benefits from the environmental, health, and economic advantages of local farming. A farmer appreciation event is held yearly for all applicants and awardees to honor and recognize farmers and promote the importance of local farming.

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Tishman Construction, Fontaine Brothers Win MGM Garage Contract

SPRINGFIELD — MGM Springfield, the urban announced it has awarded a construction contract to Tishman Construction, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AECOM, in partnership with Springfield-based construction manager Fontaine Brothers Inc. Together these companies will be responsible for erecting the seven-level, 3,400-space parking garage structure. Construction is set to begin this month and be completed in approximately 20 months. “We are delighted about our continuous progress toward building MGM Springfield. Today’s announcement is yet another example of how we are engaging top global companies and local businesses to develop this tremendous project,” said Michael Mathis, president and COO, MGM Springfield. “We are excited to see construction on the garage move forward as the foundation is poured and we watch this structure rise out of the ground over the coming months.” MGM Springfield is expected to open in fall 2018, and is currently the largest construction project under development in Western Mass. The resort will feature a luxury hotel and a variety of entertainment offerings, including dining, shopping, gaming, and amusements, expected to attract millions of visitors and locals to downtown Springfield. “We are thrilled to be part of another iconic MGM Resorts development and excited to continue our work with the city of Springfield, Pioneer Valley Building Trades, and Fontaine Brothers Inc. to bring the vision of MGM Springfield to life,” said Edward Cettina, COO of AECOM’s building construction group. MGM Springfield is committed to engaging the community and maintaining diversity across its workforce, partners, and supply chain. In alignment with this commitment, Tishman Construction will host information sessions for diverse companies interested in working as subcontractors on the project. Tishman is partnering with Fontaine Brothers to manage the parking-garage project, including solicitation of subcontractors and other procurement efforts. Fontaine Brothers is a local, fourth-generation, family-owned construction firm. In Springfield, Fontaine is best-known for its work on major construction and renovation projects including Symphony Hall, the MassMutual Center, Hilton Garden Inn, and dozens of educational institutions. “Fontaine Brothers is elated to partner with Tishman Construction and MGM Springfield on this exciting project,” said David Fontaine Jr., vice president, Fontaine Bros. “We are thrilled to join this world-class team and to play an active role in the continuing revitalization of the city we call home. We look forward to working with Tishman to manage the construction effort while continuing to help the team connect and partner with talented contractors based here in Western Massachusetts.”

Business Leaders Purchase South Hadley Plaza

SOUTH HADLEY — South Hadley Plaza, located at 501 Newton St., is officially under new ownership. The new owners are a triumvirate of local business leaders: Rocco Falcone of Rocky’s Hardware, Peter Picknelly of Peter Pan Bus Lines, and the Yee Family, whose other South Hadley businesses include Johnny’s Bar and Grille, Johnny’s Taproom, and IYA Sushi & Noodle Kitchen. The plaza is home to Rocky’s Hardware, Friendly’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, General Cleaners, and Mandarin Gourmet. There are currently vacancies in the former Movie Gallery and Big Y locations. That is due to change under the new ownership. “We’re in a great position to attract a mix of local and national businesses,” Falcone said. “This is a vibrant community, and we want to deliver some exciting options and breathe new life into South Hadley Plaza. The former Big Y site in particular, with its 60,000 square feet of space, is a unique offering that we’re exploring some interesting ideas for.” The new owners bring the resources and pedigree to draw new business and connect with the South Hadley community. Rocky’s Hardware has 31 stores in New England and four in Florida. Meanwhile, this will be the second collaboration for Picknelly and the Yee Family, who purchased and revitalized Springfield’s historic Student Prince restaurant in 2014. “It’s essentially three family businesses coming together — big families with big businesses, but families all the same,” Falcone said. “We look forward to expanding the horizons of this space and being a great resource for the community.”

State Unemployment Drops to 4.2% in April

BOSTON — The state’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.2% in April from the March rate of 4.4%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts continues to gain jobs, with 13,900 added in April. The April gain follows March’s revised gain of 6,600 jobs. From December 2015 to April 2016, Massachusetts has added 35,600 jobs. In April, over-the-month job gains occurred in the professional, scientific, and business services; leisure and hospitality; trade, transportation, and utilities; education and health services; other services; information; financial activities; and manufacturing sectors. The April state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 5.0% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “We see continued strong job gains in many of the traditional economic drivers for the state,” Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Ronald Walker II said. “The strong job gains in April are on the heels of 6,600 jobs added in March and 13,900 jobs added in February.” The labor force increased by 15,400 from 3,581,500 in March, as 19,000 more residents were employed and 3,500 fewer residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped 0.8% from 5.0% in April 2015. There were 27,100 fewer unemployed people and 404,000 more employed people over the year compared to April 2015. The state’s labor force participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — increased 0.3% to 65% over the month. The labor-force participation rate over the year has decreased 0.3% compared to April 2015. Over the year, the largest private-sector percentage job gains were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; other services; information; and education and health services.

State Launches Campaign for Good Samaritan Law

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Attorney General Maura Healey announced a new public-information campaign to encourage people to call 911 for emergency medical services at the first signs of a drug overdose. Along with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Department of Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, and members of the law-enforcement community, state officials launched the $250,000 Make the Right Call campaign to promote the Massachusetts 911 Good Samaritan Law. This law provides protection to individuals seeking medical assistance for themselves or someone else experiencing a drug-related overdose, including opioid-related overdoses, without the risk of charges of possession of a controlled substance. “Today we’re proud to announce, along with the attorney general, a partnership for a $250,000 campaign to encourage people to call 911 at the first sign of a drug overdose,” Baker said. Added Healey, “what the Good Samaritan Law says is that, if you see someone overdosing, or if you’re with someone who is overdosing, call 911. Get them help. And if you do call 911 to save that person’s, life you will not be prosecuted for drug use or possession.” Sudders noted that addiction is a disease, and “just like if we saw someone on the side of the street who had collapsed from a heart attack, we would stop, and we would call 911, and that is what this campaign is about.” Baker added that “this 911 Good Samaritan Law, will reinforce to bystanders and first responders alike that the most important step to take when someone is having an overdose is to save their life, and that someone shouldn’t face legal consequences for taking that step.”

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AHL Hockey Could Return to Springfield

SPRINGFIELD — Less than a month after losing the Falcons to Tucson, Ariz., hockey could be returning to Springfield for the 2016-17 season. According to Portland, Maine-based WCSH, the Portland Pirates, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Florida Panthers, has been sold to a new ownership group that intends to relocate the team in Springfield. According to a statement released yesterday by the team, “the Portland Pirates have announced that a letter of intent has been signed with an outsider buyer to purchase and relocate the AHL franchise to a new city. The details of the agreement were not disclosed, and final sale is pending approval of the AHL board of governors and the Florida Panthers. All previously purchased season tickets for the 2016-17 season will be refunded.” Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling told WCSH that losing the team “will have a terrible impact on the local economy.” The Springfield Falcons were purchased by their National Hockey League affiliate, the Arizona Coyotes, in April. The club intends to move the Falcons to Tucson in time for the 2016-17 season, and will refund all advance tickets sold to Springfield fans for that season. Portland has been the host city to a minor-league hockey team for almost 40 years, dating back to the Maine Mariners, WCSH said. The Mariners left in 1992, and after a one-year gap, the Pirates arrived in 1993.

State’s Economic Growth Improves in First Quarter

HADLEY — Massachusetts real gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.3% in the first quarter of 2016, according to the Current Economic Index released this week by MassBenchmarks, the journal of the Massachusetts economy published by the UMass Donahue Institute in collaboration with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. In contrast, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, national real gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 0.5% during the same period. Recently revised data now reveal that, in 2015, the state’s economy expanded at an annual rate of 1.4% in the fourth quarter (1.4% for the U.S.), 2.0% in the third quarter (2.0%), 4.9% in the second quarter (3.9%), and 2.0% in the first quarter (0.6%). The pace of economic growth in Massachusetts picked up in the first three months of 2016 after slowing in the second half of 2015. Although underlying indicators were mixed, both employment and earnings recorded strong growth, and the unemployment rate fell. Payroll employment grew at a 2.0% annual rate in the first quarter, up from 0.7% in the prior quarter. Wage and salary income, as estimated from state withholding tax revenue, expanded 5.6% in the first quarter, after falling 7.0% in the final three months of last year. The state’s headline unemployment rate — the so-called U-3 measure — stood at 4.4% in March, down from 4.9% in December, and down from 5.1% in March 2015. The U.S. unemployment rate in March was 5.0%, the same as in December, and down from 5.5% in March of last year. The unemployment rate in Massachusetts is now lower than its pre-recession low of 4.6% in 2007. But this overall strong performance continues to mask troubling imbalances in the labor market. The broader U-6 measure of unemployment, which includes those who are working part-time but want full-time work, as well as those who are marginally attached to the labor force, is still significantly above pre-recession levels. It inched down to 9.3% in March from 9.5% in December and 9.8% in March 2015. The U.S. rate in March was 9.8%, down from 9.9% in December and 10.9% in March 2015. Prior to the recession in 2007, the U-6 reached lows of 7.1% in Massachusetts and 8.0% in the U.S. “Spending on items subject to the state regular sales tax declined by 6.3% in the first quarter, in stark contrast to the very strong growth of 9.5% experienced in the fourth quarter of 2015. Year over year, spending is up 3.5%,” noted Alan Clayton-Matthews, MassBenchmarks senior contributing editor and associate professor of Economics and Public Policy at Northeastern University. “Most of the drop this quarter was due to spending on automobiles, which slowed after expanding strongly at the end of 2015, and also to weak spending on other taxable sales items in February.” The Mass. Department of Revenue recorded weaker bonus payouts in February, tied to stock-market performance and corporate profits. Market fear tends to dampen business confidence and investment, and a prolonged market downturn may restrain consumer spending as well. The MassBenchmarks Leading Economic Index suggests the state economy will continue to grow at a moderate pace over the next six months, at a 3.1% rate in the second quarter, and a 2.5% rate in the third quarter of this year. The factors weighing on the state and national economic outlook have changed little from last quarter. One factor is the tightening labor market. As there are fewer unemployed workers and as more Baby Boomers retire, it is becoming more difficult for employers to find the workers they need. This is reflected in historically low levels of initial unemployment claims, a sign that employers are reacting to the tightening labor market by holding on to the workers they have. Another factor is slower worldwide economic growth as China’s rapid pace of economic growth has decelerated, Japan’s economy is stalled, and Europe remains sluggish. A third is turmoil in financial markets. Although volatility in stock markets in reaction to falling commodity prices has calmed, there are remaining downside risk factors related to the fallout of weak global demand on corporate profits.

Sergeant Shower Wins Pitch Competition

HOLYOKE — Jonathan LaFrance, an MBA student from Bay Path University, took first place at last night’s awards ceremony and banquet for the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, pitching Sergeant Shower, a biodegradable, two-sided, single-use, all-in-one shampoo and body-wash cloth mitt. LaFrance convinced a panel of judges from six area banks that his pitch was the best at the event held at the Log Cabin. Jonathan Mendez, a Holyoke Community College student, took second place based on his business concept pitch for Mean Green Detergent Machine, a kiosk in stores allowing people to refill their laundry-detergent bottle. Steven Goldberg, a student at Amherst College, took third place with DineToday, a platform allowing restaurants to post discounts for off-peak reservation times. The live event featured a student representative from each of the 14 participating local colleges: American International College, Amherst College, Bay Path University, Elms College, Greenfield Community College, Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Springfield College, Springfield Technical Community College, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, and Westfield State University. First-, second-, and third-place winners received $1000, $750, and $500 respectively. Each student participating received $100. The judges represented Berkshire Bank, Country Bank, First Niagara Bank, PeoplesBank, United Bank, and Westfield Bank. The judges also identified nine winning teams as Best Exhibitors. These were selected from a pool of 56 unique companies during a ‘trade show’ portion of the evening which featured the 2016 Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award winners. The three first-place winners (each receiving an additional award of $600) were: Connor Brown and Xavier Reed from Amherst College with Meetum, a platform for students to openly share events and activities with the college community; Misael Ramos from Springfield College with Royaume Expressions, garment decoration; and Joey Baurys and Nicolette LaPierre from Western New England University with Hemoflux, a prenatal genetic testing company. The Entrepreneurship Initiative is one of several local initiatives supported by the philanthropy of Harold Grinspoon. For more information, visit www.hgf.org.

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Leadership Pioneer Valley Seeks Class of 2017

SPRINGFIELD — Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV) is now accepting applications for enrollment in its class of 2017. The regional leadership-development program begins in September.
LPV utilizes a 10-month, topically relevant, ever-changing curriculum designed to challenge and engage emerging leaders from all sectors of the community within the Pioneer Valley region. The curriculum consists of both classroom and hands-on, experiential learning through retreats, day-long seminars, field experiences, and team projects. To date, more than 180 individuals representing more than 82 companies, organizations, and municipalities have participated.
LPV is seeking applicants from nonprofits, businesses, and government who are eager to increase their leadership skills and take action to better the region. Applicants are considered in a competitive application process that prioritizes diversity by employment sector, geography, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Emerging leaders, mid-career professionals with leadership potential, and those looking to better the Pioneer Valley should consider applying.
In its five years running, the program has filled a critical need for a leadership program that builds a network of emerging leaders to address the challenges and opportunities of the region. Fifty-three percent of alumni have a new leadership role at work, 64% have joined a new board of directors, and 99% made new, meaningful connections.
The deadline for LPV class of 2017 applications is July 1. Applications and further information can be found at www.leadershippv.org.

State Unveils Low-cost Bachelor’s Degree Plan

LOWELL — Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito joined public higher-education leaders Thursday to announce the ‘Commonwealth Commitment,’ an innovative college affordability and completion plan to help more students achieve the dream of a college degree.
The Commonwealth Commitment, the first agreement of its kind in the nation, was signed by UMass President Marty Meehan, Worcester State University President Barry Maloney, and Middlesex Community College President James Mabry, representing the three segments of the public higher-education system, at a ceremony at Middlesex Community College. The plan commits every public campus to providing 10% rebates at the end of each successfully completed semester to qualifying undergraduate students, in addition to the standard MassTransfer tuition waiver received upon entering a four-year institution from a community college. Students who meet the program requirements will, depending on the transfer pathway they choose, be able to realize an average savings of $5,090 off the cost of a baccalaureate degree. Also, as part of the Commonwealth Commitment’s goal to increase cost savings and predictability, tuition and mandatory fees will be frozen for program participants as of the date they enter the program.
Students will begin their studies at one of the state’s 15 community colleges, enrolling in one of 24 Commonwealth Commitment/Mass Transfer Pathways programs that will roll out in fall 2016 (14 programs) and fall 2017 (10 additional programs). They must attend full-time, and must maintain a cumulative GPA of 3.0. After earning an associate’s degree in two and a half years or less, students will transfer to a state university or UMass campus to earn a baccalaureate degree.
“I am pleased that our higher-education leaders have worked collaboratively to create this program to decrease the cost of a college degree and accelerate on-time completion,” Baker. “Even though public higher education in Massachusetts is already a great value, the Commonwealth Commitment will make it even easier for students to go to school full-time and to enter the workforce faster and with less debt.”

Springfield Among Cities Gaining Jobs

BOSTON — Local unemployment rates dropped in 12 labor market areas, remained the same in nine areas, and increased in three areas in the state during the month of March, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. The rates were down in all areas compared to March 2015.
A total of 14 areas added jobs over the month, with the largest gains in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Springfield, Worcester, Framingham, and Barnstable areas. The Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford area recorded the only loss over the month. From March 2015 to March 2016, 14 areas added jobs, with the largest percentage gains in the Haverhill-Newport-Amesbury, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, and Barnstable areas. The Lynn-Saugus-Marblehead area jobs level remained unchanged.

Hydropower Project Upgrades Announced

WEST SPRINGFIELD — State energy officials announced more than $1 million in funding to support upgrades to hydroelectric facilities in three communities. Facilities receiving grant funding are Mini-Watt Hydroelectric in Orange, Pioneer Hydro Electric in Ware, and A&D Hydro Inc. in West Springfield. The initiatives, announced during Earth Week, are aimed at increasing Massachusetts’ clean-energy generation.
“In filing legislation for the procurement of cost-effective, low-carbon hydropower, our administration recognizes the importance of improving renewable-energy facilities to help the Commonwealth continue to lead the way on clean energy, energy efficiency, and the adoption of innovative technologies,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “These grants to make hydropower facilities more efficient and increase hydropower production will help us meet our greenhouse-gas emissions goals and continue to increase the role of renewables in our energy portfolio.”
The upgrades, which are being funded through the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center’s Hydropower Program, will allow the facilities to annually produce an average of 1.2 million more kilowatt hours of renewable electricity.
“Upgrading local hydroelectric facilities further diversifies the Commonwealth’s energy portfolio, while helping to reach our ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions-reduction goals,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton. “Hydropower is a low-cost, clean resource that allows us to provide reliable electricity to Massachusetts residents while protecting the environment.”

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Leadership 2016 Lauds 22 Graduates

SPRINGFIELD — Twenty-two business professionals graduated from the Springfield Regional Chamber’s Leadership 2016 in a ceremony on April 14 at the Springfield Sheraton. Sponsored by the MassMutual Financial Group with scholarship support from the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, the program is a collaboration between the Springfield Regional Chamber and Western New England University to teach middle- and upper-level managers the crucial thinking and problem-solving skills needed to prepare participants to be effective leaders in service to the community and their workplaces. This year’s program, “Leadership Skills: For Personal, Organizational, and Community Development,” included an emphasis on strategies and techniques designed to create high-energy and high-involvement leadership, focusing on problem solving, learning to ask the right questions, and implementing creative and innovative solutions for both nonprofit and for-profit organizations. “Notwithstanding the learning component, the Leadership program is unique in that it brings together people from different business backgrounds, providing an opportunity to view the various learning topics from different points of view, giving participants a greater appreciation of the lessons,” said 2016 graduate Youssef Fadel of New England Promotional Marketing. “The setting is casual and friendly, making it conducive to developing an atmosphere where one wants to learn and observe. You get to appreciate many aspects of leadership and come out with a specific plan for your own leadership journey. You can use what you learned in your professional, volunteer, or personal life.” Working alongside Western New England University professors, participants actively explored best practices of leaders; analyzed their own leadership, learning, and problem-solving styles; were challenged to think in new ways and to analyze their own strengths and organizational challenges within a dynamic economy; and explored task and interpersonal focus, negotiation orientation, and emotional intelligence, supplemented by self-diagnostics, experiential activities, and case studies. “The Leadership Institute offers a wonderful refresher on various leadership frameworks such as planning and problem solving. It helps you to stretch your mind to explore ways you can use your influence to help others. If you get the opportunity to participate in the Leadership Institute, I highly recommend it,” said 2016 graduate Gillian Palmer, business development and group sales coordinator with the Eastern States Exposition. Sessions included “Each Person’s Behavior Makes Perfectly Good Sense to Them: We Are All Different,” which explored how individuals differ in the ways they learn, communicate, lead, and follow, and “Leadership Who Get Things Done: The Power of Influence,” which focused on influence skills such as reading other people and adapting the message so it will be better-understood, understanding the six universal forms of influence, and developing political savvy. Since 1982, more than 900 area leaders have graduated from the institute. “TD Bank’s focus on continued development of our rising talent goes hand in hand with the goals of the Leadership program,” said Christine Moran, senior vice president and market commercial credit manager for TD Bank, who has sponsored many of these area leaders. “Year over year, we have seen our employees develop increased confidence and gain negotiation and influential skills to become stronger team members. These accomplishments keep us committed to the program, as we continually grow our next generation of leaders.” Members of this year’s class include: Bill Raimondi and Christopher Savenko, Baystate Health; Sean Nimmons, Big Y Foods Inc.; Gillian Palmer, Eastern States Exposition; Abby Getman, Food Bank of Western Mass.; Mahera Chiarizio, Ryan Howard, Terri Lombardo, Naida Lopez, and Shawn Teece, HCS Headstart Inc.; Waleska Lugo-DeJesus, Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley; Steven Facchetti and Tina Whitney, MassMutual Financial Group; Melissa Nelson, Medvest LLC (Doctors Express); Youssef Fadel, New England Promotional Marketing; Latora Godbolt, Ormsby Insurance Agency; Vickie Dempesy, Shriners Hospital for Children; Michael Ehmke and Christopher Scott, TD Bank; Julie Fregeau, the Republican; Marlene Johnson, United Personnel; and Mike Murray, Western New England University.

Employer Confidence Strengthens in March

BOSTON — Massachusetts employers grew more confident during March as turbulence in China and other key global markets subsided. At the same time, a significant gap has developed between the bullish outlook of service companies and a less optimistic view among manufacturers that is also reflective of national developments. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 1.4 points to 56.5 last month, its highest level since November and well above the 50 mark that denotes a positive economic outlook. The index for service companies and other non-manufacturers increased to 61.3, while the manufacturing index fell to 54.8, down 7.1 points from its level in March 2015. The results come a week after the state announced that the unemployment rate dropped to 4.5% during February and that employers added 14,400 jobs during the first two months of the year. “The good news is that the Massachusetts and U.S. economies have proven remarkably resilient in the face of weak growth globally that unsettled financial markets at the beginning of the year,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “What happens next? Employers here in Massachusetts appear to be generally optimistic about their prospects during the next six months, though the outlook among manufacturers remains muted by global uncertainty, weakening corporate earnings, the strength of the dollar, and rising credit risk.” The AIM Business Confidence 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.

Law Reduces Barriers for People Convicted of Drug Offenses

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker signed bipartisan legislation passed unanimously by both branches of the Legislature to ease the transition for those convicted of drug offenses to re-enter society, hold employment, and care for their families by repealing the automatic suspension of drivers licenses and a subsequent $500 reinstatement fee for all drug convictions. “As the Commonwealth takes important steps to battle substance abuse and re-examine our criminal-justice system, I am pleased to sign legislation providing opportunities for those convicted of drug offenses and who have served their time to re-enter society, find and keep a job, and support their families,” Baker said. “Removing this significant barrier to re-entry reduces the prospects of recidivism as individuals continue treatment or recovery and gives them a better chance at getting back on their feet.” The legislation provides certain exceptions for drug-trafficking convictions and takes effect immediately. “We are proud to support this legislation that would ensure those who have paid their debts to society for drug offenses have the means to be productive citizens, capable of supporting themselves and their loved ones,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “I’m proud of our administration’s efforts and collaboration with the Legislature to counter opioid addiction, and ending the automatic license suspension is a reform that will help put people on a path that keeps them out of our criminal-justice system.”

Meehan Praises Baker, Legislature for Backing UMass Funding

BOSTON — UMass President Marty Meehan praised Gov. Baker and the state Legislature for approving funding to the system. “The support we are receiving from Gov. Charlie Baker and from the House and Senate will help to fuel our progress and success — and will have a real impact on the Commonwealth’s future,” Meehan said. A $158 million supplemental budget approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor includes $10.9 million for UMass. The funding, which relates to labor contracts, will be used for workforce purposes and will also fund $7 million in student scholarships, in addition to aiding the university’s overall pursuit of quality and excellence. Meehan praised Baker, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, saying, “I am grateful to our state leaders for their commitment to UMass and to the cause of high-quality public higher education — a cause that is so critical to the Commonwealth and its citizens and will remain so for generations to come.” The Legislature’s action comes at a time when UMass is enjoying successes on many fronts, with its endowment, enrollment, and research output reaching record levels. Additionally, UMass has been named the top public university in New England, one of the best 20 public universities in the nation, and among the top 100 in the world, according to the 2015 Times Higher Education World Reputation Rankings.

Springfield Named Among Best Cities for African-Americans

SPRINGFIELD — The City of Springfield has been named one of the “10 Best Cities for African-Americans, 2016” by Livability.com. The cities were selected based on basic indicators of livability including cost of living, healthcare availability, economic equality, commute time, access to parks, and safety. Editors looked for cities with higher-than-average and growing African-American populations, and where they are succeeding in terms of income, academic achievement, and home ownership.
Springfield is cited for its diverse economy and recovery from the financial recession of 2008, as well as ongoing economic development. Also noted are the strong presence of corporate headquarters, which offer employment opportunities and commitments to workforce diversity. Local nonprofit organizations are noted for leveling the educational and economic playing field for African-Americans through after-school programs for children, mentoring, housing, and parenting-skills training.
Livability.com notes that African-Americans are the ethnic group most likely to stress the importance of a college education, and Springfield and the surrounding area is home to more than two dozen colleges and universities.
“In this age of reality TV, where negativity sells with some media outlets, especially in how they depict our urban American cities, it’s nice to know that our Springfield does and will continue to make good lists, too,” Mayor Domenic Sarno said. “We’ve always believed there is plenty of good that our diverse city has to offer.”

Briefcase Departments

Advertising Club Seeks Pynchon Nominations

SPRINGFIELD — The Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts is seeking nominations from the four Western Mass. counties for the 101st annual William Pynchon Award, the area’s oldest and most prestigious community-service award. Established in 1915, the award honors individuals from all walks of life who go beyond the call of duty to enhance the quality of life in Western Mass. Past recipients have included social activists, teachers, philanthropists, historians, clergy, housewives, physicians, journalists, and business leaders — a diverse group with one thing in common: a drive to make the region a better place for all who live here. To nominate an individual, submit a one-page letter explaining why the nominee should be considered. Include brief biographical information, outstanding accomplishments, examples of service to the community, organizations he or she is or has been active in, and the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of at least three people who can further attest to the nominee’s eligibility for induction into the Order of William Pynchon. All nominees will be considered and researched by the Pynchon trustees, comprising past and present presidents of the Advertising Club. Nominations must be submitted by April 30 to William Pynchon Trustees, Advertising Club of Western Massachusetts, P.O. Box 1022, West Springfield, MA 01090, or by e-mail to [email protected] Pynchon medalists for 2016 will be announced in August.

Cultural District Welcomes 15 New Members

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Central Cultural District recently welcomed 15 new organizations to its membership. They include the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc., Bay Path University, the Bing Arts Center, Blues to Green, the Drama Studio, Classical Condominiums, Enchanted Circle Theatre, Martin Luther King Family Services, New England Farmworkers Council, Panache Productions, Partners for a Healthier Community, the Performance Project, Springfield Public Forum, Springfield Technical Community College, and SilverBrick Lofts. They will join the ranks of 25 current members, mostly comprised of downtown arts and culture organizations. The Springfield Central Cultural District (SCCD) is an independent nonprofit that attained the designation of cultural district from the Massachusetts Cultural Council in 2014. Its mission is to foster civic engagement and arts education in the city of Springfield by creating and sustaining a vibrant cultural environment that positions the city as the cultural capital of the region. “We are honored to have such amazing members join the fold,” said Morgan Drewniany, executive director of the SCCD. “Increasing the size of our membership only increases the possibility of work we can do in making Springfield more friendly to arts and culture. Having a connected network of not only arts organizations, but businesses and higher ed, helps the district grow stronger together.” For more information about current and new members, how to become a member, or the work the SCCD is doing, visit springfieldculture.org or contact Drewniany at [email protected] or (413) 781-1592.

State Unemployment Drops to 4.5% in February

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate dropped to 4.5% in February from the January rate of 4.7%, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts continues to gain jobs, with 13,300 added in February. Year to date, Massachusetts has added 14,500 jobs. In February, over-the-month job gains occurred in education and health services; professional, scientific, and business services; financial activities; leisure and hospitality; other services; construction; trade, transportation, and utilities; and government. “Massachusetts continues to add jobs, and the labor force showed positive gains with 14,100 more residents employed and 7,400 fewer residents unemployed over the month,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald L. Walker II said. The February state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 4.9% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped 0.6%  from 5.1% in February 2015. There were 24,600 fewer unemployed people over the year compared to February 2015. Over the year, the largest private-sector percentage job gains were in construction; professional, scientific, and business services; education and health services; and financial activities.

Insurance Survey Finds Coverage Gains, but Access, Affordability Gaps

BOSTON — Results from a survey of Massachusetts residents regarding health insurance released by the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation reveal a continued high rate of insured among the state’s population, but also challenges with access and affordability, particularly among those with lower incomes and those with higher healthcare needs. The Massachusetts Health Reform Survey (MHRS), conducted in the fall of 2015 by the Urban Institute, highlights “sustained gains” in health-insurance coverage since the 2006 passage of the state’s healthcare reform law, with 95.7% of non-elderly adults reporting coverage when surveyed last fall. The near-annual survey tracks trends in the state’s healthcare system since the 2006 passage of health reform. This is the first MHRS following the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that began in January 2014. The survey revealed that people who are healthier generally have more confidence in their ability to keep their insurance in the future, and have an easier time affording healthcare. Sicker respondents with chronic diseases indicated a higher degree of difficulty obtaining healthcare services and were more likely to be worried about their ability to pay for their medical bills in the future. “The survey’s top-line trend is affirming for Massachusetts residents and policy makers alike, as the rate of adults covered at the time of the survey is very high — in fact, it is the highest ever since we began measuring in 2006,” said Audrey Shelto, president of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation. “However, the fact that 43% of insured adults report problems with affordability is a significant issue. Furthermore, these continued financial problems are disproportionately affecting our most vulnerable residents, suggesting that simply having health insurance does not guarantee access to affordable care.”

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretaries Support Hydropower Bill

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker received bipartisan support from three former secretaries of Energy and Environmental Affairs, Maeve Vallely-Bartlett, Rick Sullivan, and Ian Bowles, for the administration’s efforts to diversify the state’s energy portfolio through the procurement of cost-effective hydropower generation. The announcement followed a State House meeting between Baker, current Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton, and his predecessors to discuss the need to stabilize New England’s electricity rates, meet the Commonwealth’s Global Warming Solutions Act (GWSA) goals, and provide ratepayers with a clean, cost-competitive alternative to coal and oil generation. “I appreciate the support from our state’s former top energy officials as our administration aims to pursue a balanced, diversified energy portfolio through the pursuit of hydroelectric power,” Baker said. “This endorsement is illustrative of the pressing need to address Massachusetts’ rising energy costs, increase electricity-grid reliability, and reduce carbon emissions to meet the Commonwealth’s energy and environmental goals.” Added Beaton, “I thank former Secretaries Bowles, Sullivan, and Vallely-Bartlett for their endorsement of the Baker-Polito administration’s legislation for the procurement of hydroelectric power, which will provide needed generation capacity, while positioning the Commonwealth to achieve our Global Warming Solutions Act goals. As part of the administration’s balanced approach to making the necessary investments in our regional energy infrastructure, this legislation strikes an important balance between climate and environmental awareness and the Commonwealth’s need for clean, reliable, cost-effective generation resources.” In July, the Baker-Polito administration filed Senate Bill 1965, “An Act Relative to Energy Sector Compliance with the Global Warming Solutions Act,” to require Massachusetts utilities to jointly, and competitively, solicit long-term contracts for clean energy-generation resources and associated transmission together with the Department of Energy Resources. In addition to the benefits this legislation aims to bring to the regional electricity market, clean energy generation will position Massachusetts to reach its ambitious greenhouse-gas-reduction targets, Baker said. A recent update to Massachusetts’ “Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2020” concluded that the Commonwealth is well-positioned to meet, or exceed, a greenhouse-gas-reduction goal of 25% by 2020 through the full implementation of the Baker-Polito administration’s energy policies, which include hydropower and solar legislation. “The Commonwealth is a national leader in clean energy and has built a world-class clean-energy industry that is increasing homegrown energy and reducing carbon emissions,” said Rick Sullivan, who served as secretary from 2011 to 2014, and currently serves as CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. “We must build on this success while continuing to work to reduce the high cost of energy for residents and businesses across Massachusetts. Bringing in cost-effective, large-scale hydro and other renewable-energy resources is critical to these efforts.”

Parsons Paper Site to Be Remediated, Redeveloped

HOLYOKE — On March 14, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse was joined by city and state officials to mark the official start of the demolition and cleanup of the former Parsons Paper in preparation for the expansion of Holyoke manufacturer Aegis Energy Services. The announcement capped a multi-year effort to remediate the site and make it ready for development. The expansion of Aegis Energy Services will entail a private investment of approximately $7 million, the retention of 65 jobs and the creation of at least 30 new jobs, as well as the creation of up to 4 megawatts of renewable energy, making it the city’s largest manufacturing expansion in years. “This is a significant milestone in our city’s revitalization that should be celebrated and praised. Redevelopment of the Parsons site has been an extremely difficult challenge, bringing with it significant legal, environmental, and financial constraints that have impeded progress for years,” Morse said. “The staff in the Office of Planning and Economic Development and the Law Department should be applauded for their efforts as they’ve worked diligently with the Redevelopment Authority and a cross-collaboration of public and private partners to make this project a reality. I’d be remiss if I did not offer my sincere appreciation to Lee Vardakas of Aegis Energy for his commitment to Holyoke; we are fortunate to have this innovative company stay and grow in our city, and I thank him for his investments and contributions.” Located at 84 Sargeant St. between the first and second level canals, the 4.7-acre Parsons Paper site has been unused and vacant since 2004. In 2008, a fire significantly destroyed a majority of the structures, and the city officially foreclosed on the property and took ownership in 2012 for failure to pay taxes. In 2014, the Redevelopment Authority engaged Tighe & Bond to undertake environmental assessments, specifications for demolition and cleanup, and project permitting to prepare the site for reuse. Many sources of funds are being used to make the demolition and cleanup phase of the project possible and have been amassed through the HRA, including $250,000 in funds from an agreement with Eversource Energy (formerly Northeast Utilities) as part of a mitigation payment associated with cleanup of contaminants in the Connecticut River; $2 million from the state Brownfield Fund through MassDevelopment; $1 million in capital investment by Holyoke Gas & Electric, which secures an easement on the site for potentially 2.5 MW of hydroelectric generation; and a $400,000 capital loan from the Holyoke Economic Development and Industrial Corp., to be paid from the sale proceeds of the land to Aegis Energy Services. The city also provided its most aggressive tax-incentive schedule in its history: a 100% property-tax exemption for 10 years. “This is an incredibly challenging site and a costly endeavor, one that would have been very difficult for the city to do by itself,” said Marcos Marrero, director of Planning & Economic Development for the city, as well as executive director for the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority. “Consequently, the financing framework for this project is probably the most complex that Holyoke has seen in decades. The implications a year from now will be significant: blight reduction, building reuse, job creation, expansion of manufacturing, more renewable energy, and improved property values in the neighborhood.” The contractor for the work is McConnell Enterprises Inc. Demolition and cleanup is projected to be completed by August, after which the site will be taken over for redevelopment by Aegis Energy Services, rehabilitating one 40,000-square-foot building — a 200% expansion of the company’s square footage — and adding at least 30 new jobs, an approximate 50% growth in the company’s employment.

Briefcase Departments

Employer Confidence Weakens in February

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers weakened for the fifth time in seven months during February, but businesses remain optimistic overall about the ability of the Massachusetts economy to ride out uncertainty abroad and an increasingly curious election season in the U.S. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index shed 0.7 points to 55.1 last month, still comfortably above the 50 mark that denotes a positive economic outlook. However, the reading was 4.7 points below its level of a year earlier, weighed down by growing concern about the slowing U.S. economy. That concern was confirmed Friday when the government said U.S. economic growth slowed to 1% during the fourth quarter of 2015. “We’re seeing some ambivalence among employers as they look at the economy, especially the turmoil in some overseas markets, but all within the range of general optimism about 2016,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Ambivalence indeed seems to define most views of the U.S. economy, as we saw last week when the annual economic report of the president noted the strong rebound since 2008 while acknowledging that economic forces, including the rapid pace of technological change, are weighing on American industry.” 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.

Governor Signs Landmark Opioid Bill into Law

BOSTON — Last week at the State House, Gov. Charlie Baker signed landmark legislation into law to address the deadly opioid and heroin epidemic plaguing the Commonwealth. He was joined by a group including Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, Attorney General Maura Healey, Auditor Suzanne Bump, members of the Legislature, law enforcement, healthcare providers, community leaders, individuals in recovery, and others. The bill, titled “An Act Relative to Substance Use, Treatment, Education, and Prevention,” passed with unanimous votes in both legislative chambers and includes numerous recommendations from the Governor’s Opioid Working Group, including prevention education for students and doctors and a seven-day limit on first-time opioid prescriptions. “Today, the Commonwealth stands in solidarity to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that continues to plague our state and burden countless families and individuals,” Baker said. “I am proud to sign this legislation marking a remarkable statewide effort to strengthen prescribing laws and increase education for students and doctors. While there is still much work to be done, our administration is thankful for the Legislature’s effort to pass this bill and looks forward to working with the attorney general and our mayors to bend the trend and support those who have fallen victim to this horrific public health epidemic.” Added Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, “today, we take another step forward by passing landmark legislation that will help the individuals and communities affected by the deadly opioid and heroin epidemic. We are grateful for the Legislature’s progress and for the partnership of Attorney General Healey, our mayors, and several others as we continue pursuing aggressive reforms to combat this crisis from the Berkshires to the Cape.” The bill includes the first law in the nation to limit an opioid prescription to a seven-day supply for a first-time adult prescriptions and a seven-day limit on every opiate prescription for minors, with certain exceptions. Other provisions from the governor’s recommendations include a requirement that information on opiate use and misuse be disseminated at annual head-injury safety programs for high-school athletes, requirements for doctors to check the Prescription Monitoring Program (PMP) database before writing a prescription for a Schedule 2 or Schedule 3 narcotic, and continuing-education requirements for prescribers, ranging from training on effective pain management to the risks of abuse and addiction associated with opioid medications. Several measures were passed to empower individuals and update current prevention efforts. Patients will receive access to non-opiate directive forms and the option of partially filling opioid prescriptions in consultation with doctors and pharmacists. Schools must annually conduct verbal substance-misuse screenings in two grade levels and collaborate with the departments of Elementary and Second Education and Public Health (DPH) around effective addiction-education policies. To reduce the prevalence of unused medication, manufacturers of controlled substances in Massachusetts must participate in either a drug stewardship program or an alternative plan as determined by DPH. This bill strengthens access to insurers and the bed-finder tool website; requires that patients receive information on FDA-approved, medication-assisted therapies after being discharged from a substance-use treatment program; and ensures civil-liability protection for individuals who administer Narcan. The opioid epidemic continues to impact every community in Massachusetts. According to the most recent data, it is estimated that there were nearly 1,200 unintentional and undetermined opioid deaths in 2014. The estimated rate of 17.4 deaths per 100,000 residents for 2014 is the highest ever for unintentional opioid overdoses and represents a 228% increase from the rate of 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2000. And the trend isn’t slowing. Preliminary data estimations show there were over 1,100 opioid deaths between January and September 2015.

United Way Wins Veteran Financial-literacy Grant

SPRINGFIELD — Massachusetts Treasurer Deborah Goldberg announced that the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) was one of five recipients of a grant that supports financial education to veterans and military families. Known as the Operation Money Wise: Financial Education Opportunity Grant and funded through the Office of Economic Empowerment, these grants aim to increase the scope of financial education for military families by providing them with the tools they need to achieve financial stability. Many of these workshops will include strategy sessions on managing money, planning for college, preparing for retirement, and monetary decision making. “These financial-literacy grants will further empower our military community to make informed financial decisions,” Goldberg said. “I am honored to support organizations that work to bring economic stability to the men, women, and families who help keep our country safe.” With three Thrive financial-literacy centers up and running in Holyoke and Springfield, and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program flourishing throughout the region, UWPV is already a leader in improving fiscal education and responsibility among those it serve. The Thrive centers have served hundreds of student and seniors, helping them improve their credit ratings and open their first bank accounts. Last year, VITA helped 4,594 working families keep $2,462,549 through the Earned Income Tax Credit.

State Issues $9.3 Million in Workforce Skills Grants

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced $9.3 million in workforce skills equipment grants to 35 high schools, community colleges, and vocational training providers across the Commonwealth for vocational-technical education and training equipment purchases that connect Massachusetts students and residents to economic opportunities in high-demand industries. “Workforce skills education and training plays an enormous role in economic and personal development by helping residents acquire the skills they need to connect with promising careers,” Baker said. “These vocational-technical education equipment grants will help build stronger communities and a more competitive business environment that ensures more residents have the skills they need to succeed in and support the Commonwealth’s economic future.” Added Polito, “these workforce-development grants will build bridges between residents seeking careers to build a future on and the employers who need a skilled workforce to grow the state’s economy. Today, too many good-paying jobs are going unfilled because employers are struggling to find skilled employees. This investment in training equipment will enable high schools and community colleges across the Commonwealth to equip students with the skills they need to secure a bright future.”
The Workforce Skills Capital Grant Program is a new initiative of the Governor’s Workforce Skills Cabinet, which seeks to align education, workforce, and economic-development strategies across the state. Western Mass. recipients of the new round of grants include:
• Berkshire Community College, Pittsfield, $465,119 to upgrade and modernize its manufacturing and engineering program, utilizing new hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical controls, materials testing, CNC, and 3-D printing equipment to train students and adult learners for careers in advanced manufacturing, engineering, and biotechnology;
• Dean Technical High School, Holyoke, $393,156 to transform its existing machine technology shop into an advanced-manufacturing shop that aligns with current industry practices and technologies, in order to connect Holyoke students to career opportunities in the Pioneer Valley’s skilled manufacturing workforce;
• Franklin County Technical School, Montague, $52,500 to revamp its computer programming and web-design programs and expand the programs’ capacity to reach adult learners;
• Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative, West Springfield, $257,100 to expand the capacity of its recently-founded high school Machine Technology Program, and to extend programming to adult learners, including unemployed and underemployed individuals facing barriers to employment;
• McCann Technical School, North Adams, $121,128 to revamp its welding and metal-fabrication equipment to train students for careers in Berkshire County’s aerospace, defense, commercial, medical-device, and power-generation industries, and enable re-training for unemployed workers;
• Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, Springfield, $441,500 to launch a new program to equip students with the skills to enter the construction workforce, including training with heavy equipment; and
• Springfield Technical Community College, $499,785 to enhance training in its Laser Electro-Optics and Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Technology programs by creating an advanced-laser-machining laboratory and a one-year Laser Materials Processing Certificate of Completion, in order to meet the needs of the Commonwealth’s rapidly growing laser-manufacturing industry.

Health Care Sections

Check Point

 By KATHLEEN MITCHELL

Maura McQueeney

Maura McQueeney says telemonitoring equipment is so compact, a nurse of yesteryear could have fit it in her briefcase.

Every morning at exactly 10 a.m., Barbara Kobak weighs herself, takes her blood pressure, attaches a clip to her finger that measures her oxygen-saturation rate, then answers a series of computerized questions specific to her condition, which are presented out of sequence from one day to the next to ensure she thinks carefully about her response.

Within two minutes, the results are transmitted electronically to a registered nurse at Porchlight Visiting Nurse Assoc./Home Care in Chicopee, who calls the 84-year-old if anything doesn’t fall within the parameters Kobak’s doctor set for her.

The service is called telemonitoring, and Porchlight brought the equipment to Kobak’s home in January after she was released from the hospital. She had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and after an initial meeting with a nurse liaison in the hospital, a registered nurse spent several days in her home making sure she understood how to use the technology.

Home visits were spaced farther apart as time went on, which is typical; the goal is to help the person learn to manage their disease by recognizing potentially dangerous symptoms, making changes in their diet, and taking all medications prescribed for them.

“The equipment is really easy to use; I depend on it and don’t know what I would do without it. It’s reassuring to have someone call me if my blood pressure is up,” she noted, adding that there have been days when her pressure has been high in the morning, but when she puts the cuff on later in the day, she is relieved to see it has returned to normal.

The Chicopee octogenarian is one of a growing number of people who are benefiting from telemonitoring services. The equipment is made by a variety of manufacturers, and it allows healthcare providers to keep a close watch on the patient from a remote setting.

“We call new patients every day until they become comfortable with the equipment,” said Sandra Peret, a registered nurse at Porchlight and associate director of intake/community service. “We tell patients to use it at the same time every day, but if they are not feeling well, they can recheck the values.”

Telemonitoring is typically used to treat people with congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which can make it difficult to breathe, although an additional module can be added if the person is diabetic and doesn’t have another reliable method to measure their blood-sugar levels.

Experts say it is valuable because people who are newly released from the hospital can feel overwhelmed when they get home due to the trauma of their diagnosis, the amount of information presented to them, and the lifestyle changes they must make to keep their condition from exacerbating, which can lead to rehospitalization.

“These conditions require a lot of self-management and usually include dietary changes such as cutting down sodium intake,” said Melissa Pouliot, a registered nurse and Porchlight’s intake/telemonitoring manager, noting that telemonitoring helps the patient see a direct correlation between their behavior and their health. For example, if someone eats Chinese food, their weight is likely to rise the next day due to its high salt content.

When that happens, a registered nurse calls the patient and conducts an assessment by phone to determine if the doctor needs to be notified. In some cases, there is no need for alarm, while in other instances, the person’s physician may be called to see if medication changes are in order.

From left, Melissa Pouliot, Sandra Peret, and Kathleen Stezko

From left, Melissa Pouliot, Sandra Peret, and Kathleen Stezko say patients being telemonitored are given a finger clip that measures oxygen saturation.

However, patients sometimes don’t follow instructions given to them, which can have a direct effect on their vital signs. For example, they might fail to weigh themselves at the same time each day or wear heavy shoes or clothing while they are on the scale.

In any case, the patient is followed closely, and if the weight gain continues, the doctor is contacted. “The ultimate goal is keep the patient from having an acute attack,” said Sue Pickett, director of Mercy Home Care, adding that patients track their symptoms themselves on a calendar even though the results are stored in the computer.

“Telemonitoring is a wellness proactive measure that allows us to catch symptoms early before they exacerbate and become a crisis,” she told BusinessWest. “The reason why these programs are so important is because is because rehospitalization is very common for people with congestive heart failure. We have patients who have been in and out of the hospital every other week.”

Nuts and Bolts

Major advances have been made in telemonitoring equipment in recent years, said those we spoke with.

In the past, people needed a landline to transmit information remotely, but today Bluetooth, cellular, and satellite technology make it possible to provide the service whether or not the person has a phone in their home.

The equipment patients receive from the VNA or home-healthcare service usually includes a blood-pressure cuff, an oxygen sensor that is clipped onto a finger, and a scale, which is plugged into a monitor with a touchscreen that not only transmits the information, but stores it, although there are some variations according to the company producing the equipment.

Pouliot said people tap the screen on the monitor Porchlight uses, and when a voice asks them what they want to do, they hit the corresponding icon. When they are finished with their reporting, which takes less than 10 minutes, a voice on the monitor asks the patient a series of questions which can range from “has the doctor changed your  medications?” to “do you want someone to call you?” as well as reminders to take their medication.

However, these systems are not appropriate for some, including people with dementia or individuals with a disability who don’t have a caregiver.

“The person has to want to do this and be able and willing to use the equipment every morning,” said Sheryle Marceau, manager of clinical practice for Mercy Home Care.

The remote monitoring is combined with education that takes place during visits to the person’s home. Mercy’s patients are given printed materials with valuable information including symptoms that should not be ignored by people with congestive heart failure. They include unexpected or rapid weight gain; weakness or fatigue; dizziness or faintness; swelling of the legs, ankles, feet, or abdomen; more frequent visits to the bathroom at night; chest pain; and other signs.

“Exacerbation can be prevented, but people need to know what they can do every day, which includes reading food labels, taking their medication, and eating foods low in sodium,” Marceau said.

She added that hospital stays are usually short, so the staff doesn’t have time to teach the patient all they need to know. In addition to the goal of keeping them from returning to the hospital, they want patients to be able to maintain their quality of life and stay active in the community.

So, while the technology is important, it’s what people do with the information gleaned from daily readings that makes a difference.

“It helps patients connect the dots,” said Maura McQueeney, president of Baystate VNA and post-acute executive.

For example, if a patient has a big holiday dinner and their blood pressure and weight rise the next day, it will trigger a call from the nurse who will discuss what they have eaten and determine whether the doctor needs to be involved.

Medication is critical, but unless patients understand the importance of each drug prescribed for them and know exactly what it does, they may take it inconsistently or fail to get it refilled, particularly if they are on a fixed income.

“We try to update each patient’s medication list because the physician may make changes during an office visit, and monitoring allows us to see if the new medication is working,” McQueeney told BusinessWest.

Baystate typically uses telemonitoring for patients who have experienced heart failure. They usually keep the equipment 30 to 45 days or until the nurse feels the patient is capable of caring for himself or herself and has learned the association between symptoms that may indicate their disease is getting worse.

Insurance doesn’t pay for telemonitoring, but local visiting-nurse associations find it so valuable, they do not charge patients for the equipment or the service.

“It’s a tool that provides us with consistent information,” McQueeney said, adding that Baystate began tracking the effectiveness of telemonitoring in high-risk patients about 18 months ago and found their rates of rehospitalization are lower than the national average.

“If a patient calls at 8 p.m., we can have them slip on the blood-pressure cuff and the oxygen clip and get on the scale, which gives the nurse valuable information,” she noted.

In many cases, people have more than one chronic condition, which complicates matters, but a registered nurse has the ability to discern whether pain from a surgery or anxiety is likely the cause of shortness of breath, heart palpitations, or other complaints.

It takes a long time for most chronic diseases to become apparent, but there are points at which the disease progresses.

“Without monitoring, it can seem that the disease got worse overnight, but when a patient can chart their vital signs on a daily basis and know they are being watched by a registered nurse, trends can be identified that alert them to changes that require the doctor to become involved,” McQueeney told BusinessWest. “Telemonitoring is a tool that helps keep people out of the hospital. It involves education and a collaboration with the patient, the registered visiting nurse, and their physician.”

As a result, the service can make a critical difference in a person’s life.

The American Health Care Assoc. reports that the majority of people with chronic heart disease or COPD are elderly, and being readmitted to a hospital increases the risk of complications and infections during their stay as well as the likelihood that their functioning will be decreased when they return home. In addition, every hospitalization exacts an emotional toll on the patient and increases the cost of Medicare, since people are living longer and the incidence of chronic diseases has increased dramatically over the last three decades.

Weighing In

Before nurses discharge patients from home-based services, Marceau said, they make sure they have absorbed what they need to know and have a blood-pressure cuff and scale so they can continue to weigh themselves daily. “We have purchased scales for people who are unable to afford them and teach people when to call their doctors,” she noted.

However, Porchlight has found some patients or their families opt to pay for the telemonitoring service even when the person no longer needs it because it gives them peace of mind.

“It’s great for family members who are concerned about a loved one,” Pouliot said, adding that the service costs about $100 per month, and people on fixed incomes can apply for reduced rates.

Kathleen Stezko agrees. “People get nervous and aren’t sure who to call or whether they should call anyone if they don’t feel well. But telemonitoring provides them with reassurance; they know someone is checking on them each day and will get in touch with them and their physician if it is necessary,” said Porchlight’s vice president of clinical services, adding that people using the equipment can call at any time of the day or night if they have concerns.

Indeed, the peace of mind and patient learning that results from telemonitoring is so important that most VNAs and home-care agencies that use it keep adding more equipment, which helps patients and also ultimately reduces the cost of healthcare.

Kobak can attest to the comfort it provides. “When my friends visit and see this,” she said, “they are so impressed.”

Briefcase Departments

Council Approves Revised MGM Springfield Design

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield City Council approved MGM Springfield’s revised site plan Monday, voting 12-1 in favor of the $950 million casino project and changes that include the elimination of a 25-story hotel tower. Council President Michael Fenton was the sole vote against the altered proposal. MGM will replace the initially planned 25-story hotel tower on State Street with a six-story, 250-room hotel on Main Street. In another change, MGM’s host-community agreement with Springfield allows MGM to move about 54 proposed market-rate apartments from the casino grounds to a location near the casino. MGM Springfield has begun demolition and site preparation for the casino development, which is expected to open in September 2018 and bring thousands of construction and casino jobs to the city.

 

UMass Announces Progress on Renovations

BOSTON — The University of Massachusetts now spends three out of four capital dollars on renovation and repair and has significantly reduced its maintenance backlog in recent years, President Marty Meehan said this week. In a letter submitted to state government leaders, Meehan noted that UMass has gone through a building boom over the past 20 years, largely in response to enrollment and faculty-innovation booms, but said the university over the past decade has placed a significant emphasis on maintenance and renovation. “The building that has taken place across the UMass system has been critical to our ability to step forward and emerge as a great public university. While we have constructed new facilities, we have also recognized the need to repair facilities that aged over the years,” he noted. One of the fastest-growing universities in the nation, the five-campus UMass system experienced a 44% surge in enrollment in the past two decades and built academic buildings and student housing to accommodate the increase of 22,000 students. It also constructed laboratories and other facilities needed as it emerged as a global research university. But UMass also recognized that it had to repair as well as build, Meehan said, and has been guided in its efforts by Sightlines, a company that advises more than 400 colleges and universities across the nation and in Canada on facilities-management issues. In his letter to state government leaders, President Meehan said recent reports from Sightlines show that, between 2009 and 2015, UMass Amherst reduced its project backlog from $2 billion to $1.5 billion, achieving a 25% decrease. UMass Amherst saw deferred maintenance decrease significantly during this period, declining from $869 million to $596 million, for an even larger percentage reduction of 31%. This occurred at a time when backlog at public universities in the U.S. grew by nearly 20%, according to Sightlines. Meanwhile, Sightlines calculates that the UMass system is on course to reduce its current $1.45 billion in deferred maintenance by nearly 40% to $900 million by fiscal year 2019, when the university’s current capital plan concludes. It is also projected that the backlog for the UMass system will decline from $3.2 billion to $2.26 billion over the next three years. Backlog refers to those facilities projects that should be handled over the next decade, and deferred maintenance is the term for projects that need to be addressed within three years. “We are not declaring victory or minimizing the work that lies ahead, but I think it’s important to note that UMass has charted this prudent course,” Meehan said. Added Victor Woolridge, chairman of the UMass board of trustees, “the University of Massachusetts has taken the responsible course in addressing the needs of buildings that in some cases are 40-plus years old. We have taken on issues that we needed to confront in order to be able to provide really good students with the high-quality facilities they need to be able to compete in the contemporary environment.” Among other key points in Meehan’s letter, nearly three-quarters of the current UMass capital program is dedicated to projects that will reduce the five-campus system’s project backlog; since 2008, UMass has included a maintenance reserve for every new building constructed by the university; and enrollment at UMass has increased by 44.5% over the past 20 years, soaring from 51,044 to 73,761 students. Of the 22,717 students UMass has added, 14,673 are in-state students, while out-of-state students increased by slightly more than 8,000.

Mass Insight Education Honors 11 Area Teachers

BOSTON — Eleven teachers in Western Mass. have been honored with Mass Insight Education’s Partners in Excellence Award for helping students take advanced-placement (AP) courses with success as they prepare for college. The winners include Melissa Ferris and Patrice Latrell, Taconic High School, Pittsfield; Carla Comeau and Jennifer Gaudette, Pittsfield High School; Jill Keenan, Jennifer Levesque, and Tawnya Tiskus, Westfield High School; Michelle Fontana, Christopher Rea, and Diana Sands, Ludlow High School; and Marissa Lapointe, Springfield Central High School. The award recognizes 54 Massachusetts AP teachers for their outstanding contributions to student achievement and their dedication to college success during the 2014-15 academic year. The teachers were selected out of a pool of more than 600 AP teachers who participated in Mass Insight Education’s AP STEM and English program. “The teachers Mass Insight supports in AP partnerships across the state are the backbone of the schools’ role preparing students for college success,” said William Guenther, president, CEO, and founder of Mass Insight Education. “We’re very pleased to recognize the AP teacher partners who have produced especially outstanding results with their high-school students.” Mass Insight Education’s content directors selected the teachers based on their ability to increase their students’ access to AP classes, their students’ improved performance on the AP exams, and their students’ resulting college readiness. The award recipients will be honored at Mass Insight Education’s Partners in Excellence Award Celebration on Tuesday, April 5 from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at Seaport Hotel in Boston. Eric Waldo, executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher initiative, will be the keynote speaker. Each award winner will be recognized for his or her achievement and will receive a check for $1,000. Mass Insight Education (MIE) is a national nonprofit dedicated to improving student achievement and increasing college success through district restructuring and rigorous academic programs. This is particularly important within the urban ‘gateway’ communities in which MIE operates, as youth from economically challenged communities are not as typically afforded the personalized, high-caliber instruction that is provided in the AP environment. Mass Insight Education’s AP STEM and English program encourages more students to take AP classes in an effort to increase their confidence while providing them with the academic skills they need to succeed in post-secondary education. The AP STEM and English program is a key part of MIE’s innovative College Success Campaign. Annually, more than 10,000 students at more than 75 Mass Insight Education partner schools take part in the program. These schools typically double or triple their enrollment in AP classes, and double the number of students earning qualifying scores on the AP exam. To help students prepare for the AP exams, Mass Insight Education supports them in several ways, including hosting a series of weekend classes. The goal is to have students take an AP class as an introduction to the level of work they will need to do in college. The hope is that the experience inspires many to enroll in college who previously thought themselves incapable of that work. Getting a qualifying score earns them college credit, thus allowing them to finish college more quickly and at a lower cost. Statistics show that 78% of Mass Insight Education students who took at least one AP math, science, or English course in high school attended a two- or four-year college after graduating high school. Ninety-three percent continued with two years of college, and 82% either graduated or are still in school four years after graduating from high school. Mass Insight Education also provides extra training for AP instructors to strengthen their teaching skills.

Briefcase Departments

Demolition of I-91 Viaduct Deck Underway

SPRINGFIELD — MassDOT’s contractor, the joint venture of White-Schiavone, began demolishing the I-91 viaduct’s reinforced concrete bridge deck on Feb. 10. The work will take place in the inner northbound lane of the viaduct along the median, which is currently closed. The contractor will work a day shift (7 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and a night shift (4 p.m. to midnight) on Mondays through Fridays. Demolition of the inner northbound lane deck is expected to continue through April 2017. Demolition of other portions of the viaduct deck will continue through summer 2017. White-Schiavone will use several noise mitigation techniques during demolition. It has proactively installed noise curtains along the work zone in noise-sensitive areas. Additional curtains may be installed as required once initial noise readings are taken after demolition activities have started. In addition, all heavy trucks and equipment have been retrofitted with self-adjusting backup alarms, which limit the sound to a set volume above the ambient (background) noise. The JV has also taken initial readings of ambient noise in the work zone to establish a baseline for comparison. All equipment has been tested to ensure it is operating within the manufacturer’s specification. Those traveling through the area should follow the reduced speed limits and use caution. MassDOT encourages drivers to avoid the area and seek alternate routes to minimize delays. For more information about the project, visit www.mass.gov/massdot/i91viaductrehab. To report issues or concerns, or with questions about construction, e-mail [email protected] or call (617) 454-1839.

Ouimet-Rooke Nominated as District Court Judge

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker has nominated Michele Ouimet-Rooke, an attorney with more than 17 years of experience in Western Mass. courts, to serve as a judge in Springfield District Court. “Michele Ouimet-Rooke offers the court a great combination of experience in both civil and criminal legal matters drawn from her career in public service and private practice in Western Massachusetts,” Baker said. “I am pleased to recommend an individual with such broad experience to the Governor’s Council for their consideration.” Added Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, “the first two District Court openings our administration has sought to fill are in Hampden County, and we are pleased to make this second nomination to the Springfield District Court. If confirmed, we know that Ms. Ouimet-Rooke will serve her hometown with distinction.” Ouimet-Rooke, a native and resident of Springfield, joined the practice of Doherty, Wallace, Pillsbury and Murphy in 2002 as an associate representing plaintiffs and defendants in a variety of litigations, including employment and discrimination law, premise and product liability, insurance defense, landlord/tenant issues, criminal defense, and business litigation, becoming a partner in 2012. She began her career in the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office as a victim/witness advocate for eight years before becoming an assistant district attorney and chief prosecutor. She obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Springfield College and her juris doctor from Western New England College School of Law in 1999. The Governor’s Council held a hearing on the nomination on Feb. 17, and a confirmation vote is scheduled for Feb. 24. There are 62 district courts throughout the Commonwealth hearing a range of criminal, civil, housing, juvenile, mental-health, and other cases, including all felonies punishable by a sentence up to five years, misdemeanors, and violations of city and town ordinances and by-laws. Springfield is located in Region 6, which includes courts in Chicopee, Eastern Hampshire, Greenfield, Holyoke, Northern Berkshire, Northampton, Orange, Palmer, Southern Berkshire, and Westfield.

Governor Signs Bill to Reduce Minors’ Risk for Skin Cancer

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation last week to reduce the risk of skin cancer among minors by increasing the minimum age for the use of tanning facilities to 18 years old. During consideration of the bill, medical associations including Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the American Cancer Society, the Melanoma Foundation of New England, the Children’s Melanoma Prevention Foundation, and the families of skin-cancer victims Glenna Kohl and Jay Farley testified in support of its passage. “With the number of minors diagnosed with skin cancer on the rise across Massachusetts and the nation, this legislation takes a critical step towards increasing awareness and protecting our most vulnerable,” Baker said. Added state Rep. Marjorie Decker, “this legislation is about protecting young people from carcinogenic UV rays that we know cause cancer. I am proud to have worked on legislation that will help save lives and want to thank Gov. Baker for signing this into law.”

Briefcase Departments

Downtown Springfield
to Offer Free Wi-fi

SPRINGFIELD — Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy announced upgrades to Springfield’s downtown technology infrastructure. The initiatives include providing free public wi-fi access beginning in the downtown area this spring, then expanding to other areas of the city, including public parks. Working with city partners, the initiative will also bring high-speed fiber into buildings, which will provide the growing entrepreneurship sector with quicker, cost-effective, easier-to-access technology. “Springfield has a history of innovation,” Sarno said. “These investments will keep us competitive in the market to attract entrepreneurs and to assist those here today in continuing to grow. This will also serve as a matter of convenience for residents and tourists who will be able to access Internet in our parks and public spaces.” The initial investment will range between $50,000 and $100,000 and will ensure free wi-fi access throughout downtown. The investment comes on the heels of the city’s announcement of a National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) award, part of which will dedicate funding to a pair of key innovation projects in the district: DevelopSpringfield’s Springfield Innovation Center and an IT workforce-training program through Tech Foundry. Funding is expected to be $300,000 for each project. All of these activities fall in the city’s Transformative Development Initiative district, a designation the city applied for and was awarded through MassDevelopment, which has since provided staff, an equity investment, and technical and financial assistance as the Worthington Street master plan continues to advance. “This has all been part of a dedicated planning process to establish an innovation district in our downtown,” Kennedy said. “The private and nonprofit sectors have been doing their share in creating a great deal of excitement with programming; these key city infrastructure investments will only help further these efforts. It’s been a great partnership.”

Springfield Regional Chamber Adopts
Energy Position

SPRINGFIELD — The board of directors of the Springfield Regional Chamber voted this week, on behalf of its members, to take a position on energy in the state of Massachusetts and to support a balanced energy portfolio, including the expansion of the supply of natural gas. “Energy is a critical issue for our members. While they acknowledge that regional investment in the transmission infrastructure has increased the reliability of our grid, they see that demand for natural gas continues to rise and the infrastructure is not in place to support such demand,” said chamber President Jeffrey Ciuffreda. “This not only increases their already-high costs of electricity, but causes constraints on the infrastructure and supply. Combined, they tell us it significantly impeded their continued economic development and the economic development of our region.” As a result, Ciuffreda said the Chamber, on their behalf, has adopted the following position: “The Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce (SRC), through its members, has long identified the high, and increasing, cost of energy as a major issue to address and more recently has identified the constraints on the supply of natural gas as a major deterrent to economic development in the region. Therefore, the chamber supports the expansion of the supply of natural gas, especially to the Western Massachusetts region, as a means to assist in economic-development efforts as well as to reduce the cost of electricity. The chamber acknowledges that two pipeline expansions are in various stages of development, the Spectra project as well as the Kinder Morgan project, and encourages the development of each. The chamber believes that there are sufficient permitting and regulatory rules in place to ensure the safety of these projects and the protection of lands in and around these projects. While endorsing the increased supply of natural gas, the chamber also reiterates its support for the goal set by the state for the development of solar energy and encourages swift action on a comprehensive energy bill that will further bring on line other alternative energies such as wind and hydro. Finally, the chamber is encouraging its members to take advantage of the programs available, many funded through electricity charges, for conservation and efficiencies. There is no better way to lower the cost of electricity than through those efforts. Moving toward this balanced portfolio of energy sources and recognizing the conditions and constraints about being in New England will ensure a better future for all — businesses and residents alike.” Ciuffreda said the chamber will work with local and state officials, utility companies, and developers to continue to advocate on behalf of its members for the programs and capital necessary to lower these escalating costs and improve the region’s infrastructure, and will be an active participant in reviewing any legislation on this issue.

 

State Proposes $83.5M
for Vocational Technical Education Programs

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker, Secretary of Education James Peyser, Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Ronald Walker II, and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash announced a series of new initiatives to support career vocational technical education, including $83.5 million to be proposed between the governor’s FY 2017 budget recommendation and new capital grant funding to be filed in an economic-development bill this week. “With too many good-paying jobs going unfilled, we are pleased to announce this critical investment in our career and technical schools,” Baker said. “Our proposal will make it possible for more students to explore a pathway to success through stronger partnerships with our schools and local businesses in the Commonwealth.” The funding in the FY 2017 budget will be coupled with a substantial capital-grant program for vocational equipment that further aligns the administration’s investments with local economic- and workforce-development needs and employment partnerships. “Massachusetts has some of the strongest career-technical programs in the country, at both the high-school and college levels, but access and quality are uneven across the Commonwealth, and there’s currently little alignment across education levels,” said Peyser. “Our efforts will significantly expand student access to high-quality career-education programs in STEM fields, manufacturing, and traditional trades, with a focus on underserved populations and communities.” Added Walker, “finding ways to make sure people get the skills and job training they need to get a good-paying job is one of the biggest challenges before us. With these initiatives, we will engage employers as full partners in program design and implementation to help them create a pipeline of workers.” Ash noted that “vocational institutions are an important part of training the workforce to address the skills gap. These additional resources will continue to equip vocational institutions as they train the next generation of skilled workers who will help grow the Commonwealth’s economy.”

 

Employer Confidence Steady to Start 2016

BOSTON — Confidence among Massachusetts employers remained steady during January as optimism about the state economy offset uncertainty about China and turbulent financial markets. The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 0.5 points to 55.8 last month, starting 2016 well above the 50 mark that denotes a positive economic outlook. The increase was driven by a 1.8-point surge in the index measuring employer attitudes about Massachusetts. Confidence remained lower than it was in January 2015, however. “The fact that employer confidence remained solid during a month in which the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index was at one point off 9% and oil dropped below $27 a barrel points to the fundamental, underlying strength of the Massachusetts economy,” said Raymond Torto, chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors (BEA) and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. 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 ended 2015 down for the year, but remained consistently in optimistic territory for the first 12-month period since the Great Recession. Most of the sub-indices based on selected questions or categories of employer rose a point or two in January, though all remained down year over year. The Massachusetts Index, assessing business conditions within the Commonwealth, jumped 1.8 points to 58.1, starting the year more than a point lower than last January. “The Massachusetts Index has been above its national counterpart for 80 consecutive months, and that perception was bolstered by the decision in January by General Electric to locate its corporate headquarters in Boston,” Torto said. “GE’s decision was important, not only for the 800 jobs it will bring, but because the company cited Massachusetts’ leadership in knowledge industries as its reason for coming.” The U.S. Index of national business conditions slipped to 49.9 on the month, leaving it more than four points lower than a year ago. The Current Index, which assesses overall business conditions at the time of the survey, increased slightly to 54.6, while the Future Index, measuring expectations for six months out, rose almost a full point to 57.0. “Employers clearly do not believe that the correction in financial markets signals an overall economic slowdown,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, associated professor of Economics and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a BEA member. “Massachusetts employers foresee positive business conditions through at least the first half of 2016, and that comports with economic forecasts that Massachusetts will reach full employment during the year.” The three sub-indices bearing on survey respondents’ own operations were mixed in January. The Company Index, reflecting overall business conditions, was up 0.3 points at 57.0, the Sales Index shed 1.1 points to 57.1, and the Employment Index rose 1.3 points to 55.1. “The increase in the Employment Index is good news for Massachusetts. Our survey found that 39% of respondents reported adding staff during the past six months, while 19% reduced employment,” said Katherine Kiel, professor of Economics at College of the Holy Cross and another BEA member. “Expectations for the next six months are even stronger — 37% hiring and only 10% downsizing.”

 

State Announces $9.2M
in Skills Capital Grants

HOLYOKE — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced the availability of $9.2 million in Skills Capital Grants for vocational-technical equipment investments to improve the quality of education and vocational training, provide career technical training to increase program capacity, and enable students to improve their skills to meet the needs of employers in the Commonwealth. “The skills gap is real across the country, and many companies cannot find the talent they need to fill positions and further develop their local economic impact,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “By investing in capital equipment at vocational and technical schools that are focused on training, we will ensure more residents get the skills they need to get good-paying jobs in growing industries across the Commonwealth.” State officials announced the availability of the Skills Capital Grants at the future site of Holyoke Community College’s (HCC) Center for Culinary and Hospitality Excellence, located in the heart of the Holyoke Innovation District, which is experiencing significant investment and growth. The center is being funded by a $1.75 million capital grant from the former Manufacturing Training Equipment Grant program, which is being combined with the Vocational Opportunity Challenge Grants to create the new Skills Capital Grant. The Holyoke grant was awarded from a prior funding round. High demand for career training programs like Holyoke’s led to the creation, and expansion in scope, of the Skills Capital Grant program. “We are proud and excited to see the expansion of Holyoke Community College’s Culinary Arts program into a larger center which will provide critical skills to our residents for jobs available that are available now,” said Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse. Added HCC President William Messner, “Holyoke Community College is committed to continuously improving our academic program offerings. We have invested $20 million in such efforts over the past few years in areas directly related to regional employment opportunities, including this culinary center, as well as healthcare, STEM fields, and adult literacy. We are pleased to be able to expand our culinary and hospitality program at a critical time for the region and look forward to increasing the educational opportunities for hundreds of local residents.” The Skills Capital grants will range from $50,000 to $500,000, and while the grants do not require a match, applicants are encouraged to demonstrate cash and/or in-kind matches. Eligible applicants include Massachusetts schools, institutions, and organizations that provide career/vocational technical education programs, including all Chapter 74-approved vocational tech schools, community colleges, and providers of training programs that meet the federal Perkins Act definition of career and technical education. Grant applications must be submitted by Jan. 29.

 

Results From Statewide
Healthcare Quality
Survey Released

WATERTOWN — Massachusetts Health Quality Partners (MHQP) announced the results of an independent statewide patient experience survey, now publicly available at healthcarecompassma.org. The survey encompassed nearly 65,000 patients from more than 500 primary-care practices representing approximately 4,000 physicians across the state, who responded to the question of whether they would recommend their primary-care physician to their family and friends. “The answer to this and other patient-experience questions makes Healthcare Compass MA a tremendous resource for Massachusetts residents who want to find the best care available,” said Barbra Rabson, president and CEO of MHQP. Questions about whether or not providers ask patients about feeling depressed, feeling stressed, or experiencing problems with alcohol, drugs, or a mental or emotional illness were reported for the first time in MHQP’s 2014 survey results. The 2014 statewide behavioral-health mean score of 53.1 indicated that there was substantial room for improvement. The results of the 2015 survey indicate improvement to 56.5 for these behavioral-health measures, with several practices having made truly noteworthy progress. The survey also found that primary-care physicians across the state excel in communicating with their patients. The communication mean score for all practices across the state is 93.5 out of a potential 100 points. “We are fortunate to live in Massachusetts where we have access to MHQP’s statewide public reporting about patient-experience results,” said patient advocate Rosalind Joffe, president of ciCoach and MHQP board member. “MHQP’s commitment to capturing and reporting the patient voice, and focusing on what is important to patients, will continue to make care better in Massachusetts.” Added Dr. Thomas Scornavacca, senior medical director, UMass Memorial Health Care Office of Clinical Integration, “MHQP’s survey provides actionable information that helps bring physicians closer to our goal of delivering patient-centered care. At UMass Memorial Health Care, we evaluate MHQP survey results very carefully as we set healthcare quality-improvement priorities.”

Applicants Sought for
Energy and Environmental
Education Awards

BOSTON — The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) is now accepting nominations for its annual Secretary’s Awards for Excellence in Energy and Environmental Education until March 30. EEA Secretary Matthew Beaton will present awards this spring to Massachusetts teachers and students involved in school-based programs that promote environmental and energy education. “I am proud to recognize the teachers and students leading and inspiring their communities as they tackle critical energy and environmental issues,” Beaton said. “It is important to engage students early in issues like energy, recycling, conservation, and wildlife, and they have so many fresh ideas to offer.” All public and private Massachusetts schools (K-12) that offer energy and environmental education programs are eligible to apply for the awards. In 2015, schools and nonprofit organizations from 22 communities across the state were recognized for their work on issues including recycling, energy conservation, ocean science, wildlife conservation, and alternative fuels. The Secretary’s Advisory Group on Energy and Environmental Education will review applications through mid-April. Qualified entrants will be invited to attend a formal award ceremony with Beaton at the State House this spring.

Briefcase Departments

Grinspoon, Big Y Call for Farm Awards Applicants

WEST SPRINGFIELD — In partnership with Big Y, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) announced the second year of the Farm Awards, a program to support local farmers with projects that will help improve their farm businesses. The awards are for equipment and physical farm improvements. “Big Y has been supporting local farmers since we began 80 years ago,” said Charles D’Amour, president and COO of Big Y. “Through our partnership with the Grinspoon Foundation, we are providing one more way to help the local growers to thrive in our community.” In an effort to have the widest impact, the individual award recipients will be given up to a maximum of $2,500 per award, for a grand total of $100,000. Realizing the importance of local farms in the region, Grinspoon launched these awards last year. The 2015 awards were distributed to 33 of the 88 applicants. The two regional Buy Local farm advocates, Berkshire Grown and Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), will continue to provide insight and assistance, which was essential to the successful launch of the program in 2015. “We are so pleased to continue to work with everyone involved in this unique Farm Awards program to support the vital role family farms play in our communities,” said Philip Korman, executive director of CISA. Added Barbara Zheutlin, executive director of Berkshire Grown, “we’re thrilled about the continuation of these financial awards for farmers in Western Massachusetts to strengthen their farm businesses. This helps build the local food economy in our region.” The deadline for applying is Jan. 31. Interested applicants are encouraged to visit www.hgf.org/farm-awards for more information.

 

MGM Springfield Begins Major Demolition

SPRINGFIELD — With a permit from the city of Springfield in hand, MGM Springfield began demolition of the Zanetti School on Jan. 12. This sign of construction progress follows the project’s recent state and city environmental and zoning approvals. The former elementary school suffered some of the worst damage caused by the 2011 tornado that tore through Springfield’s South End, and last year served as the backdrop for MGM Springfield’s groundbreaking. Demolition is expected to last up to several weeks. MGM Springfield, a more than $950 million resort, is slated for 14.5 acres of land between Union and State streets, and between Columbus Avenue and Main Street. For more information, visit www.mgmspringfield.com.

 

State to Issue $700,000 in Naloxone Grants for First Responders

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH) announced that $700,000 will be awarded to police and fire departments in 40 communities heavily impacted by the Commonwealth’s opioid epidemic, facilitating the purchasing, carrying, and administering of the opioid-overdose-reversal drug naloxone. “This grant will help save more lives as our administration continues to pursue new and wide-ranging tools to combat the opioid epidemic, including the ability for medical personnel to intervene with those who have overdosed,” Baker said. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to pass meaningful reforms, and are pleased to support our first responders’ access to immediate, life-saving resources.” Last year, the administration established a bulk purchasing fund allowing first responders in municipal entities to access the state rate for naloxone purchases and, when available, receive an additional discount. Baker has also filed legislation to provide medical personnel with the power to intervene with patients suffering from addiction, control the spread of addictive prescription opioids, and increase education about substance-use disorder for providers and in the community. “Today’s announcement, along with the creation of the bulk purchasing fund, will increase the amount of naloxone available in hot-spot communities where it is needed most,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “These resources will help ease the costs of medication, enabling our firefighters and police officers to save more lives.” Grants for $10,000 to $50,000 are being awarded to the following communities: Attleboro, Barnstable, Beverly, Boston, Brockton, Chelsea, Chicopee, Everett, Fall River, Falmouth, Fitchburg, Framingham, Haverhill, Holyoke, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, Malden, Medford, New Bedford, North Attleboro, Peabody, Pittsfield, Plymouth, Quincy, Revere, Salem, Saugus, Somerville, Springfield, Stoughton, Taunton, Waltham, Wareham, Westfield, Weymouth, Winthrop, Woburn, and Worcester. “There is no faster and more effective way to reverse an opioid overdose than to administer naloxone,” said state Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “It is imperative we do everything we can to counteract the epidemic of opioid addiction by providing as many first responders as possible the opportunity to use this life-saving medication.”

 

State Launches $30M Solar Loan Program

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced the launch of a $30 million residential solar loan program, which will support Massachusetts lenders in providing loans between $3,000 and $60,000 with low, fixed-interest rates to homeowners across the state. The program is expected to deliver approximately $100 million in savings to residents who take advantage of it. “Massachusetts is a national leader in solar energy, and this program provides another way for residents to access solar energy while diversifying the Commonwealth’s energy portfolio and reducing our overall carbon footprint,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. For residents, Mass Solar Loan widens the range of energy financing available via low-interest solar loans and by making those loans also accessible to borrowers with lower credit scores or incomes. For local lenders, Mass Solar Loan opens up new lending opportunities. For solar installers, the program provides a long-term financing program for customers. Direct solar ownership of solar electricity keeps more energy dollars in Massachusetts, while keeping energy generation local and helping to achieve the Commonwealth’s goal of 1,600 megawatts of solar by 2020. “Helping residents own their own solar generation will expand the Massachusetts solar industry and help local lenders grow their business while moving Massachusetts closer to its statewide energy and environmental goals,” said Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton. Mass Solar Loan is a program run in partnership by the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). It is available for solar installations on single-family homes and residential buildings up to three units, with all lenders offering loans between $3,000 and $35,000 and some lenders offering loans up to $60,000. The program provides funding to Massachusetts banks and credit unions to incentivize lenders to make solar lending a part of their portfolios and to make solar loans available to borrowers with lower incomes or credit scores. To date, Bank Five, First Citizens’ Federal Credit Union, North Brookfield Savings Bank, Shrewsbury Federal Credit Union, UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, and Weymouth Bank offer Mass Solar Loans, with more due to begin participating over the coming weeks. “Residential solar has been a key component in the Commonwealth’s efforts to meet our ambitious clean energy goals,” said DOER Commissioner Judith Judson. “The Mass Solar Loan program will lower costs and increase the options for Massachusetts residents to benefit from owning solar.” Residents can visit www.masscec.com/programs/mass-solar-loan for a list of participating solar installers and lenders, tips on how to select a solar installer, and the steps for participating in the program. They may also call (617) 712-1121 for more information. Interested lenders or installers may contact MassCEC to participate in the program.

 

Sheriff Michael Ashe Joins Mental-illness Anti-stigma Effort

SPRINGFIELD — Hampden County Sheriff Michael Ashe is known across the Commonwealth as a leader and innovator in law enforcement. Now, he’s become the first sheriff in Massachusetts to join the NAMI Mass CEOs Against Stigma campaign, pledging to create a mentally healthier work environment for the employees of the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department. “As sheriff of Hampden County for over 41 years, with 900-plus employees and over 1,500 inmates in our custody, I know all too well the stigma surrounding mental illness,” Ashe said. “My staff is committed to treating these afflictions and removing the stigma that surrounds this critical issue in the workplace as well as in the community.” The campaign is designed to put an end to stigma in the workplace, employing top-down leadership to change misconceptions about mental-health disorders and encouraging people to open up and speak freely about the conditions that affect them and their immediate families. Mental-health disorders affect one in five adults and are the single greatest cause of lost productivity at work. “We all know the stigma surrounding mental-health issues prevents many from seeking treatment,” Ashe said. “That is why I’m committed to this effort.” Bernice Drumheller, president of NAMI Western Mass., noted that, “unlike physical conditions, mental illness is often not discussed in the workplace. Sheriff Ashe understands the importance and positive impact that the CEOs Against Stigma campaign brings to the work environment.” By signing the CEOs Against Stigma pledge, Ashe makes the commitment to open up dialogue about mental-health conditions without fear of disclosure as well as making employees aware of the benefits available to them. He will also bring into his workplace NAMI’s In Our Own Voice presentations, an effective anti-stigma program. The goal of CEOs Against Stigma is to have 250 chief executives — including elected officials — join the campaign and to reach a half-million employees. Any Massachusetts company or organization with at least 50 employees can take part. For more information about CEOs Against Stigma, visit ceos.namimass.org. To contact NAMI Western Mass., call (413) 786-9139.

 

Employers Assoc. Releases Business Trends Survey

AGAWAM — With close to 900 members concentrated in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) unveiled the regional findings from the 2016 National Business Trends Survey conducted by the Employer Associations of America. Results from this comprehensive survey of 1,242 organizations, covering 2,814 employer locations and 45 U.S. states, indicate that the majority of executives surveyed remain optimistic for 2016, are confident they will award pay increases, will provide a heightened emphasis on recruiting, and plan to increase training budgets that focus on developing their existing employees. “Here in the Northeast, we certainly understand that regulatory compliance is a concern, and we are heartened to see more companies looking to increase staff,” said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “We are also encouraged by the commitment of businesses in the Northeast to technology, processes, and people.” The top three distinctions for the Northeast from the findings appear to be:
• Regulatory compliance is a bigger concern. In comparison to the national average, Northeast companies view the cost of regulatory compliance as a greater challenge, both in the short and long term. The data shows 32% of the Northeast regional responses expressing concern in the short term versus 27% of the national responses. On a long-term basis, 42% of the Northeast regional responses see regulatory compliance as a serious challenge, whereas nationally the average checks in at 34%.
• There appears to be a greater consensus on the part of Northeastern business to invest in technology equipment, lean and other process improvements, and training. All measures were responded to more favorably and at a higher rate than in comparison to the national norms. Overall, 70% of executives surveyed in the Northeast said they would be making new investments in people, facilities, and/or equipment in 2016 versus only 62% nationally.
• More companies are looking to add staff. While the majority of surveyed executives indicated that they would be increasing staff in 2016, a greater percentage of Northeastern executives — 59% — plan on adding staff when compared to the national norm of 52%.

 

Massachusetts Launches Digital-health Initiative

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and executives from the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership (MACP) joined leaders from across state government, healthcare, and the technology sector at Boston Children’s Hospital this week to announce a comprehensive public-private partnership designed to accelerate the competitiveness of the Commonwealth’s digital healthcare industry. “Our administration is committed to making Massachusetts a national leader in digital health by partnering with private industry, convening key stakeholders, and addressing market gaps,” Baker said. “This emerging industry cluster has the potential to become a powerful driver of job creation across the Commonwealth, while also unlocking new advances in improving patient care and lowering health care costs.” Digital health, or eHealth, is a rapidly growing sector at the intersection of healthcare and information technology and, according to a report by Goldman Sachs, represents an approximately $32 billion market opportunity over the next decade. The sector spans a variety of technologies including electronic health records, consumer wearable devices, care systems, payment management, big-data analytics, and telemedicine, among others, and has close connections to the state’s technology and life-sciences sectors. Massachusetts is well-positioned for success in digital health as host to world-class healthcare and academic institutions, a strong startup culture, significant venture-capital investment, a healthy life-sciences sector, and roughly 250 existing digital-health companies. The initiative will bring public, private, academic, and healthcare leaders together to build a stronger and more connected statewide digital-health ecosystem. To support digital health startups, the city of Boston, Massachusetts eHealth Institute at MassTech, and MACP announced the establishment of a digital-health-innovation hub. The initiative will provide space, programming, and a strong industry network for digital health startups and will serve as a Boston hub for the industry. Programming through the hub will be managed and operated by MassChallenge. MACP also announced several private industry-led initiatives that will help accelerate growth in the digital health sector, including innovative approaches to provide private funds for digital healthcare companies that are starting up in, located in, or planning to re-locate to Massachusetts. MACP also facilitated the development of standardized software, technology, and sponsored research agreements and user guides to make it easier for entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and the private sector to do business with academic institutions, including the UMass system, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, and Partners HealthCare. MACP will also host a second year of its Mentorship Speaker Series, with a focus on digital health, connecting high-level, experienced industry leaders across the state with entrepreneurs of emerging companies to discuss how to start and grow a successful tech business in Massachusetts. “The innovation economy comprised of the life-sciences and digital-technology sectors is the future growth engine of our Commonwealth,” said Dr. Jeffrey Leiden, who led the Digital Health Initiative on behalf of MACP. “It has been a privilege for me to lead this outstanding group of public- and private-sector partners toward our shared goal of accelerating the growth of the digital-healthcare industry in Massachusetts. With the strengths of our universities, academic medical centers, and life-sciences companies, Massachusetts is uniquely positioned to succeed in digital healthcare, and I’m thrilled to be part of the team that will make it happen.”

Briefcase Departments

Pittsfield to Welcome MassDevelopment TDI Fellow

PITTSFIELD — MassDevelopment has selected Pittsfield, Brockton, and New Bedford for its second round of Transformative Development Initiative (TDI) fellows to advance local redevelopment visions in those cities’ TDI districts. The fellows, who will have experience in city planning, community partnership building, real estate, and economic development, will work in their host districts for three years in collaboration with local partnerships. These fellows follow the successful initial placements earlier this year in Springfield, Haverhill, and Lynn. “This grant is another recognition that Pittsfield is moving forward,” said state Sen. Ben Downing (D-Pittsfield). “Support through the TDI program will help revitalize the Tyler Street corridor and build on the great work of local business and community organizations.” MassDevelopment is accepting qualifications for these new fellows positions, which will begin in spring 2016, on its website. Staff members from Peabody and Worcester will participate in this round as adjunct fellows, joining cohort activities such as monthly meetings, skills building, site visits, and regional leadership development. Brockton, New Bedford, and Pittsfield are three of the 10 Gateway Cities selected in December 2014 as the pilot TDI districts in development, along with Haverhill, Holyoke, Lynn, Peabody, Revere, Springfield, and Worcester. As a part of the program, each will receive a range of real-estate-development services to support local visions for redevelopment, and to catalyze and leverage investments and economic activities. Everett and Malden are receiving directed regional planning and implementation assistance to advance their districts’ TDI visions. “The first three fellows have quickly become indispensable parts of the economic-development communities in Haverhill, Lynn, and Springfield by partnering with local organizations to create redevelopment opportunities,” said MassDevelopment President and CEO Marty Jones. “We look forward to the new faces that will arrive in Brockton, New Bedford, and Pittsfield to support those cities’ visions.”

State Adds 19 to Green Communities List

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration announced that 19 more cities and towns have been designated Green Communities by the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and will receive more than $3.1 million for local clean-energy and energy-efficiency projects. The Western Mass. communities added to the list, and their funding, include Adams ($166,865), Bernardston ($131,290), Egremont ($138,570), Stockbridge ($139,625), West Springfield ($222,765), and Windsor ($137,880). “The Green Communities program demonstrates state and local governments can work together to save energy and taxpayers’ money, while making the Commonwealth a healthier place to live,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “These 19 communities will be able to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy, reducing energy costs and reducing their carbon footprints.” Added Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, “helping cities and towns reduce their energy consumption allows them to channel their financial savings into other municipal needs, like public safety, education, and municipal buildings. These grants further reiterate the Commonwealth’s ability to work with municipalities to ensure Massachusetts continues to be a leader in clean energy and energy efficiency.” The 155 Green Communities are cities and towns of all sizes that range from the Berkshires to Cape Cod and are home to 54% of Massachusetts’ population. All Green Communities commit to reducing municipal energy consumption by 20% over five years. “Through the Green Communities program, DOER is able to work with municipalities to find clean-energy solutions that reduce long-term energy costs and strengthen local economies,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton. “The commitment and hard work of these 19 communities to reduce their energy use and undertake clean-energy projects will help Massachusetts continue its leadership in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and emissions reductions.”

Holiday Sales Up 7.9% This Year

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The holiday shopping season isn’t quite over yet — many of those who received gift cards have yet to hit the stores — but a study has shown that it is already a solid one for retailers. Indeed, retail sales were up 7.9% between Black Friday and Christmas Eve compared to the same period a year ago, according to MasterCard SpendingPulse, which studies transaction and survey data on purchases made with credit cards, cash, and checks. The report found that e-commerce provided crucial holiday momentum this holiday season, with sales up 20% in that realm.

Defense-contract Work Contributed $20B to State Economy in FY 2013

AMHERST — The Commonwealth’s defense-contract work supported more than 88,000 workers and contributed more than $20 billion to the Massachusetts economy, while Massachusetts military installations directly or indirectly supported more than 57,000 jobs with a total economic contribution of more than $13 billion, in fiscal year 2013, according to two new UMass Donahue Institute reports. Massachusetts companies exemplifying the connections between the defense sector and small businesses include Holyoke’s Meridian Industrial Group, which does machining for portable MRI equipment; Southampton’s J&E Precision Tool, which produces components for Black Hawk helicopters, periscopes, and F-22s and F-35s; and CPI Radant Technologies Division in Stow, which develops components for military aircraft. “The Commonwealth’s six bases and defense-related firms continue to have a major impact on the Massachusetts economy, both in terms of jobs and dollars,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Academia, business, and technology — three of the Commonwealth’s top sectors — play a role in our installations and defense contracts, helping this industry serve as an economic driver. We look forward to their continued growth and contribution to Massachusetts.” The Massachusetts Military Asset and Security Strategy Task Force and MassDevelopment commissioned the reports. The first studied the impact of the Commonwealth’s six military installations — Barnes Air National Guard Base, Fort Devens Reserve Forces Training Area, Hanscom Air Force Base, Joint Base Cape Cod, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, and Westover Air Reserve Base — and the Massachusetts Army National Guard and the U.S. Army Reserve. The second report studied the defense industry’s contribution to the New England economy, finding that, in fiscal year 2013, New England defense contracting generated nearly $49 billion and more than 218,000 jobs.

College Farm Market Project Launched with $25,000 Grant

GREENFIELD — The Rural Community College Alliance has awarded a $25,000 grant to Greenfield Community College (GCC), Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), and the Franklin Community Co-op (FCC) to fund a new collaborative College Farm Market Project (CFMP). GCC farm and food systems and business majors will work as interns with CISA and FCC to enhance and expand on existing opportunities with farmers’ markets in the Pioneer Valley. The project’s goal is to develop a replicable model for coordinating food- and farm-focused education, marketing, and sales that support the growing sustainable farm movement in Western Mass. The RCCA grant will fund six three-credit paid internships for GCC students while the costs of the credits earned are covered by other grants the college has won. Three interns will work at FCC, and three will work at CISA. The grant also provides funds to defray some of the partner-agency staff time needed for this project and for staff to attend national and regional conferences to share information about the project with other colleges and organizations. This grant brings together three organizations that have significant impact on regional farm and food systems and will enhance coordination around food justice and development of farmers’ markets. The internships housed at FCC will continue the work of fall 2015 GCC interns to create a mid-week farmers’ market in Greenfield, seeing its development from its opening this spring through the remainder of the summer and fall. At CISA, the GCC interns will focus on broader regional issues that affect farmers’ markets in general, further food justice and SNAP matching efforts, provide replicable templates for building market business structures, and expand the customer base for locally grown foods that promote sustainable models for farm viability. Staff and administrators from the three organizations will meet regularly to develop long-term structures for interorganization collaboration for strengthening agricultural cooperative supports in the region. “This project enhances the learning of our students in farm and food systems and in business through work experience in which they can apply their academic work,” said Christine Copeland, SAGE assistant and internship coordinator at GCC. “It’s great for their career prospects, and they also make professional contacts and network with people in their field.”

State Issues Grants to Three Area Farms

BOSTON — The Baker-Polito administration recently announced that five Massachusetts farms with land permanently protected from development through the state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction (APR) Program — including three in Western Mass. — have been awarded $400,000 in grant funding for infrastructure improvements. “These agricultural investments help create jobs and make Massachusetts’ farms more competitive in the national and global marketplace,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Our administration is committed to supporting Massachusetts’ vibrant agriculture industry, which provides fresh, healthy food for the Commonwealth’s residents.” The local grantees include Burnett Farm in Adams, $50,000 for barn expansion; Luther Belden Farm in Hatfield; $100,000 for dairy infrastructure improvements; and the Kitchen Garden in Sunderland, $75,000 for produce packing and storage building. The APR Improvement Program, established in 2009, is funded by the federal Farm and Lands Protection Program and is administered by the Department of Agricultural Resources. The program also provides recipients with technical and business-planning assistance to identify the best use of funds to improve farm infrastructure and productivity. Since 2009, AIP has provided more than $3.5 million in total grants (average $66,509 per farm) and $330,150 in technical assistance (average $6,229 per farm) to Massachusetts APR farms that own a combined total of more than 7,000 acres of protected farmland.

Briefcase Departments

MGM Springfield Wins Final License Approval

SPRINGFIELD — MGM Springfield announced it has received its final state license approval from the Mass. Gaming Commission (MGC), clearing the way to begin construction. The MGC specifically found that all feasible measures have been taken to avoid or minimize impacts of the project and damage to the environment. “We are grateful to the MGC commissioners for their detailed deliberations and patience with this process,” said Michael Mathis, MGM Springfield president. “This comprehensive review has helped MGM Springfield evolve into the most community-facing and integrated property MGM Resorts has ever built.” Separately, the proposed design changes must still be approved by the city and the MGC. Updated MGM Springfield design plans were made public in September, and company executives appeared at a public presentation in Springfield in November to outline the design plan, highlighting changes that allowed for both design and cost efficiencies, as well as to provide a new project cost estimate of more than $950 million. “This approval has been a year in the making,” Mathis said. “We are eager to bring this back to Springfield and work with the city to get final signoff for impactful demolition and construction.” The Springfield City Council is expected to discuss and vote on a casino overlay district on Monday, Dec. 21. MGM Springfield representatives will be at the meeting. The new year will be busy for MGM with the commencement of active construction. MGM Springfield construction-management representatives will host ongoing information sessions with interested minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses, and the opening of the relocated MGM Springfield Community Office.

Massachusetts to See Income-tax Decrease

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced that the final economic trigger was met in order to lower the state’s income tax from 5.15% to 5.10%. The income-tax cut for all Massachusetts residents will become effective on Jan. 1. “Meeting the requirements needed to reduce the income-tax rate is a sign that the Massachusetts economy remains strong,” Baker said. “Allowing citizens across the Commonwealth to keep more money in their pockets will allow the state’s economy to continue growing in 2016.” Added Polito, “the will of the voters has persevered. It’s been 15 years since the voters first made this decision, and every chance we get to provide more discretionary income is a good day for the Commonwealth and the taxpayers.” Kristen Lepore, secretary of the Executive Office for Administration and Finance, noted that “the fiscal year 2016 budget revenue assumed effects of the lower tax rate to 5.10% and has been accounted for in the balance sheet. This is good news for the taxpayers with no new impact on the state’s fiscal outlook.” A ballot initiative passed in 2000 called for the state’s income tax to be reduced to 5% over time. Legislation was passed in 2002 that tied reducing the tax rate by 0.05% each tax year (until the Part B income tax rate is 5%) to certain economic triggers. First, the inflation adjusted growth in baseline tax revenues for the preceding fiscal year has to exceed 2.5%. The second trigger, completed on the 15th of each month between September and December, certifies that the inflation-adjusted growth in baseline tax revenues over the previous three months of the current calendar year compared to the same periods of the prior calendar year is greater than zero. Once the statutory triggers are met, the rate is lowered by 0.05% until it reaches 5% percent. The charitable deduction will be restored the year after the tax rate is lowered to 5%. The last time all growth thresholds were met was in 2014.

DevelopSpringfield Issues Grants for Façade Improvements

SPRINGFIELD — DevelopSpringfield recently awarded several façade-improvement grants through the Corridor Storefront Improvement Program (CSIP), which provides grants of up to $10,000 per storefront for exterior improvements to first-floor businesses located on State and Main streets in Springfield. A grant of $30,000 was provided to Boynton Property Group for work related to its rehabilitation of the shopping plaza located at 666 State St. in the city’s Mason Square area. Funds provided were allocated toward new signage, enhanced lighting, and new windows to the plaza, home to a restaurant and beauty salon. Silverbrick Group has been making major renovations to the former Morgan Square property at 1593-1607 Main St. The project includes redevelopment of the apartments, creating Silverbrick Lofts as well as renovations to first-floor commercial space. A grant of $60,000 was provided to support installation of new, energy-efficient windows and doors for six units on the ground floor. This contribution augmented the substantial investment by the project’s developers which, in addition to the newly refurbished apartments, also includes major repairs to masonry work on the upper stories of the property. Silverbrick is located in Springfield’s downtown Innovation District, a priority redevelopment area. Finally, as a part of Nadim’s Mediterranean Grill’s recent redesign, DevelopSpringfield provided a $10,000 grant to aid in the façade enhancement, including new windows, signage, and awning. The restaurant, located at 1380-1390 Main St., has undergone a major redesign inside and out. Nadim’s made further investments to improve the inside dining room as well as the patio dining experience. “DevelopSpringfield is pleased to support these Springfield businesses in their efforts to make lasting improvements, which impact not only their own activities, but also benefit neighboring businesses as well,” said Jay Minkarah, president and CEO of DevelopSpringfield. “We are proud to be among the partners working to support and strengthen longtime and new business ventures in our city.” DevelopSpringfield’s Corridor Storefront Improvement Program was established in 2009 with the support of the city of Springfield and other private funders, to enhance the visual appeal of State and Main streets while providing assistance to businesses making investments in these two key corridors within the city. For more information on CSIP, visit www.developspringfield.com and click on ‘programs,’ or contact Minkarah at (413) 209-8808 or [email protected].

More Than 140 Become U.S. Citizens at Ceremony in Springfield

SPRINGFIELD — U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) recently presented more than 140 candidates for naturalization to the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. U.S. Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson administered the Oath of Allegiance to America’s newest citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the UMass Center at Springfield. Guests and speakers included Robertson; Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno; Daniel Montagna, director of Operations at the UMass Center at Springfield; and Luis Chaves, director of the USCIS Lawrence Field Office. The citizenship candidates originate from the following 44 countries: Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, El Salvador, Estonia, Germany, Ghana, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Iraq, Israel, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Lithuania, Moldova, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Somalia, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Sweden, Tanzania, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom, and Vietnam. For more information on USCIS and its programs, visit www.uscis.gov.

State Legislation Establishes Workforce Investment Board

BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed legislation establishing the Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board to improve the public workforce system and enhance regional economies around the Commonwealth by focusing on employers’ growing need for skilled workers. “With changes to the federal workforce-investment laws, we now have an opportunity as a state to redefine and reimagine how we create skill-building programs,” Baker said. “Creating strong regional economies by designing programs that meet the demands of workers and businesses in each region is important to driving economic growth and new job opportunities for our residents.” Required by federal law and currently defined by state statute, the Massachusetts Workforce Development Board advises the governor and the secretary of Labor and Workforce Development with the mission to build a strong workforce system aligned with state education policies and economic-development goals. “To help people find good jobs, we are flipping the model to be demand-driven for employers, which, in turn, will help more people find jobs that suit their skill sets,” Secretary of Labor and Workforce Development Ronald Walker II said. “We need to create a system that better meets the needs of employers who struggle to find talented workers.” The legislation, “An Act Establishing a State Workforce Development Board,” is based on a bill introduced Baker in June reconstituting the state’s Workforce Investment Board, reducing its membership from 65 members to 33, and ensuring the makeup of its membership continues to comply with federal requirements under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). WIOA was signed into law by President Obama on July 22, 2014, reauthorizing the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 after more than a decade to transform the nation’s workforce system, and to invest in a skilled workforce. The Workforce Development Board is charged with developing plans and policies, which are approved by the governor, to coordinate services through one-stop career centers and workforce boards. The board also issues policy recommendations to align the public workforce system and improve performance accountability, and will develop strategies to promote workforce participation of women, people of color, veterans, and people with disabilities across industry sectors.

Unemployment Rates Down in Massachusetts

BOSTON — Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates are down in all labor markets in the state, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics compared to October 2014, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported. During the month of October, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates went down in eight labor market areas, increased in six areas, and remained the same in 10 other areas of the state. Twelve areas added jobs over the month, with the largest gains in the Boston-Cambridge-Newton, Springfield, Brockton-Bridgewater-Easton, and Worcester areas. The Lowell-Billerica-Chelmsford area had no change in its jobs level over the month, while seasonal losses occurred in the Barnstable and Lynn-Saugus-Marblehead areas. In order to compare the statewide rate to local unemployment rates, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the statewide unadjusted unemployment rate for October remained at 4.5%. Last week, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 4.6% for the month of October. The unemployment rate is down 0.9% over the year. The statewide seasonally adjusted jobs estimate showed an 11,000-job gain in October and an over-the-year gain of 80,600 jobs. Meanwhile, the New England Information Office of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released New England and state unemployment numbers for October 2015. The New England unemployment rate was unchanged at 4.6% in October. One year ago, the New England jobless rate was higher, at 5.6%. The U.S. jobless rate was essentially unchanged from September (5.0%).

Briefcase Departments

Business Confidence Up, Manufacturing Challenged

BOSTON — The Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) Business Confidence Index rose 1.3 points in November to 56.9, almost exactly where it stood a year before (56.8). “The story here is less the monthly gain than the longer-term pattern,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Design. “Over the past year, the index rose nicely for five months and then started a fitful decline back to where it was last November. The hidden trend behind that pattern is a divergence in confidence levels between manufacturers and other employers.” He added that “our state’s manufacturing sector, which relies heavily upon international demand for its world-class products, is up against a strong dollar and weak conditions in all its major export markets — China, Japan, Canada, and Western Europe. Domestic demand is down as well because of global conditions and large inventories. In March, manufacturers were almost as confident as other employers, but the confidence gap has grown significantly since then.” Torto noted that the manufacturing sector is overrepresented in AIM’s survey, but that it plays a vital part in the Massachusetts economy. “If the sector continues to struggle in 2016, other sectors will feel the repercussions, especially in regions of the state with concentrations of manufacturing industries.” AIM’s Business Confidence Index has been issued monthly since July 1991 under the oversight of the Board of Economic Advisors. Presented on a 100-point scale on which 50 is neutral, the index attained a historical high of 68.5 in 1997 and 1998; its all-time low was 33.3 in February 2009.

State Issues Financial-literacy Report

BOSTON — State Treasurer Deb Goldberg, accompanied by her Financial Literacy Task Force, released their statewide report on the status of financial education in the Commonwealth. “I have always understood the responsibilities of the Treasurer’s office include insuring economic stability within our state,” Goldberg said. “This means building a robust financial-literacy program, which is a critical step toward strengthening economic security for everyone in Massachusetts.” The task force, under the direction of the Treasurer’s Office of Economic Empowerment, launched a comprehensive research effort in April. The diverse group of policymakers, educators, bankers, and advocates convened for six months. Their goal was to develop a road map to resources that will empower every Massachusetts resident with the skills they need to manage their money, plan for college, save for retirement, and better understand the impact of their economic decisions. “Implementing the recommendations of this task force will make a difference in the quality of the lives of Massachusetts citizens of all ages and backgrounds,” said former Undersecretary of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation Barbara Anthony, who chaired the task force. “The task force work presents the vital road map for the future of financial literacy in our state.” Some initiatives within the report include increasing accessibility to all financial education activities and programs throughout the state, promoting a public financial-education awareness campaign, communicating the family-dynamic principle to stakeholders, and incorporating it in all financial-literacy programming within the Office of Economic Empowerment. The 31 task force members identified three key demographic groups — K-12 students, college students, and adults — for the largest scope of fiscal impact on the state. The task force’s final report serves as an action plan for Goldberg and the Economic Empowerment Trust Fund Board. “Though we are keenly aware all adults can benefit from financial services, the adult subcommittee of Treasurer Goldberg’s Financial Literacy Task Force determined low-to-moderate income families, first-generation immigrants, women, seniors, and veterans are particularly vulnerable, and have set forth recommendations to ensure their financial well-being throughout their lifetime,” said Sylvia de Haas Phillips, subcommittee co-chair and senior vice president of United Way.

Standard & Poor’s Affirms State’s AA+ Bond Rating

BOSTON — In a communication to the Commonwealth, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services shared that it has affirmed Massachusetts’ AA+ credit rating on its general obligation bonds, while also providing notice that it is changing the Commonwealth’s outlook to ‘negative’ due to concerns about a multi-year trend on spending and the use of reserve funds. “While we have retained our current AA+ rating, we recognize and acknowledge the areas of concern raised today by Standard & Poor’s revised outlook,” Treasurer Deb Goldberg said. “I will continue to emphasize the importance of building our reserves, and I look forward to working with the administration and Legislature to establish the path to a healthier, stronger reserve balance for Massachusetts.”

Briefcase Departments

MGM Springfield Outlines Evolving Plans for Casino Design

SPRINGFIELD — MGM Resorts recently detailed how and why the MGM Springfield design has evolved over the last four months. In a public presentation at CityStage in downtown Springfield, MGM executives, led by President Bill Hornbuckle, walked hundreds of attendees through the enhanced design plan, highlighting changes that allow for both design and operational efficiencies. The late-afternoon forum was hosted by Mayor Domenic Sarno and his economic-development team, led by Chief Development Officer Kevin Kennedy. “We are very proud of MGM Springfield’s improved design,” Hornbuckle said. “Our commitment to the city of Springfield, the region, and the Commonwealth has never wavered. Today, I am hopeful that people will see it has only gotten stronger. We are as ready as we have ever been to help return downtown Springfield to its glory days.” The MGM team presented a detailed comparison of commitments in the May 2013 host-community agreement and the new design plan, with an amenity layout resulting in a less than 1% adjustment in square footage to be experienced by customers. While some amenities, such as the child-care facility and retail, have grown in size, other operational and back-of-the-house spaces were reduced through design efficiencies. A redesign was made public earlier this fall when MGM Springfield announced it was moving the 250-room hotel along Main Street and market-rate apartments off-site. With the changes, MGM hopes to further engage Main Street while promoting ancillary development opportunities with off-site market-rate apartments. MGM is currently negotiating the purchase of 195 State St., the former Springfield School Department headquarters, to move forward with a housing redevelopment at that property. Brian Packer, MGM’s vice president of construction and development, joined Hornbuckle on stage, giving a construction update. Packer said that the company already has spent more than $23 million on MGM Springfield construction and employed 675 construction workers. Many of those workers were involved in the renovation of the new Mission on Mill Street, providing an updated, secure facility that will house a rehabilitation program, giveaway center, and business offices. Additionally, Packer laid out a sequence of construction events that will lead up to the September 2018 opening. The company estimates it will now cost more than $950 million to open MGM Springfield. Original estimates were expected to exceed $860 million, including capitalized interest and land-related costs. “MGM Springfield is not only the largest development project Western Massachusetts has ever seen, it is starting to rival the investment of the most-talked-about about development projects in the Commonwealth,” said Michael Mathis, MGM Springfield president. “We developed this presentation to provide transparency on our process. The people of Western Massachusetts want to be excited about the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that is MGM Springfield. We know maintaining a level of positive energy is our responsibility. Major demolition, large contract awards, and exciting opportunities to get involved are all part of the next phase, which will start very soon.” MGM is scheduled to present a comprehensive cost and design analysis to the Mass. Gaming Commission on Dec. 3. The mayor and City Council must still approve the updated site plans before MGM can go forward with its design-approval process.

Massachusetts Gains 11,000 Jobs in October

BOSTON — The state’s total unemployment rate remained at 4.6% in October, the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development announced Thursday. The preliminary job estimates from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate Massachusetts added 11,000 jobs in October. The largest over-the-month job gains occurred in the education and health services; professional, scientific, and business services; and other services sectors. Year-to-date, Massachusetts has added 62,800 jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also revised preliminary job estimates for September that originally indicated Massachusetts lost 7,100 jobs. BLS revised estimates for September show the state lost 2,200 jobs. The October preliminary estimates show 3,396,900 Massachusetts residents were employed during the month, and 164,000 were unemployed, for a total labor force of 3,560,900. The labor force decreased by 8,700 from 3,569,600 in September, as 9,600 fewer residents were employed and 900 more residents were unemployed over the month. Over the year, the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell 0.9% from 5.5% in October 2014. There were 32,000 fewer unemployed persons over the year compared to October 2014. The October state unemployment rate remains lower than the national rate of 5.0% reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Massachusetts continues to add jobs, and the labor market is strong. We frequently hear from employers that they have jobs to fill, which is a good position for the state to be in,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Ronald Walker II said. The state’s labor-force-participation rate — the total number of residents 16 or older who worked or were unemployed and actively sought work in the last four weeks — decreased 0.2% point to 64.7% over the month. The labor-force-participation rate over the year has decreased 0.8% compared to October 2014. The largest private-sector percentage job gains over the year were in professional, scientific, and business services; construction; other services; leisure and hospitality; and education and health services.