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Opinion

Editorial 1

A year ago — and, actually, long before that — this region was awash in speculation about what the gaming industry might bring to the region and what its broad impact might be.

The industry was new to the state, and there were questions. There was also excitement, some anxiety, no shortage of opinions, and plenty of hope. A year later, most of those emotions are still in evidence, and there remain many questions.

But in the meantime, another industry has emerged that apparently has the potential to have far more reach and far more impact: cannabis.

As several different stories in this issue reveal, the cannabis industry has certainly put down roots in the four counties of Western Mass., and while it’s still too early to know for sure, it appears to have far more potential to change the landscape — in all kinds of ways — than gaming.

Why? Because this is a far-reaching industry with myriad moving parts and potential business opportunities — from cultivation to retail to real estate to, yes, a new publication (see page 6). Also, it is seemingly far more democratic.

Indeed, while the gaming industry is reserved for large, as in very large, players investing $1 billion or more, the cannabis sector offers opportunities for individuals and small groups of investors — not that getting into this business, let alone succeeding in it, would be considered easy in any way, shape, or form.

And, as Michael Kusek, founder of that publication, A Different Leaf, points out, this is one of the few industries in this state where the opportunities are in Central and Western Mass., not Boston and within the Route 128 beltway. That’s because the majority of cities and towns in this region are welcoming of this industry, while most of those surrounding Boston are not.

When Easthampton Mayor Nicolle LaChapelle said her community was “head over heels in love, I would think, with cannabis, and I don’t think that’s overstating it,” she wasn’t just speaking for many of her colleagues — remember, Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, joked to a television reporter that his goal was to rename the city the ‘Rolling Paper City’ — but she was speaking about how this sector can be a real game changer in terms of everything from jobs to tax revenue to foot traffic on Main Street.

The cannabis industry is not an easy one to follow. As noted, there are a lot of moving parts, and the scene changes every month, if not every week, as new locations open, more host-community agreements are forged, and more real estate is acquired for the purpose of establishing businesses in this sector.

But as hard as it is to keep track of all that is going on, it’s a worthy endeavor, because this industry certainly bears watching. No one really knows how things will shake out as more and more locations are opened and, eventually, more states decide to follow the Bay State’s lead.

But it seems almost certain that this sector will bring more impactful change, from a business perspective, than anything this region has seen in decades.

Opinion

Considering the Downside of #MeToo

As the #MeToo Movement was gaining traction back in late 2017, we wrote about how refreshing that moment was and that it had the potential to change the workplace in a very positive way.

But we also offered a word of caution, a reminder that this same movement might bring about negative change in the form of men becoming less willing to interact with women, mentor them, and take them on conferences and other learning experiences because of potentially bad optics and, far worse in their minds, potential litigation.

And now, it appears that those fears have possibly become reality.

Indeed, in an eye-opening piece, attorney Amelia Holstrom, an employment-law specialist with the firm Skoler Abbott, reveals that evidence is emerging that #MeToo may be prompting more men to err on what they would consider the side of caution.

Holstrom writes that a survey conducted by LeanIn.org — an organization dedicated to helping women come together and achieve their goals — and titled “Working Relationships in the #MeToo Era,” suggested that 60% of male managers reported they were not comfortable participating in common work activities — mentoring, working alone, or socializing — with women.

That’s compared to 32% in a survey conducted a year earlier. Further, the recent survey also noted that senior-level men were 12 times “more likely to hesitate to have one-on-one meetings” with junior female employees, nine times “more likely to hesitate to travel [with junior female employees] for work,” and six times “more likely to hesitate to have work dinners” with junior female employees. According to the survey results, 36% of men said they avoided mentoring or socializing with women because they were concerned about how it might look.

These are very disconcerting numbers, to be sure.

Holstrom went on to write about how this type of behavior can lead to litigation of a different kind — discrimination suits because women are being denied some of the same opportunities to advance and succeed as men — and this is a very important point.

But beyond the litigation factor, this hesitancy among men to travel with women or have dinner with them or avoid mentoring is simply not good for the business in question. And not good for society, and individual regions like this one.

That’s because the world is changing, and so is the world of work. What this region, and every region, needs is strong, effective leaders. And while it’s very possible that a woman can become a good, solid leader without interacting with men or being mentored by them, we would offer that it seems less likely that they could do so.

Workplaces are better, more productive spaces when individuals don’t have to think twice about the gender of the person they may be supervising or mentoring or thinking about taking to a professional-development conference in a city halfway across the country.

That’s a perfect world, and this is far from a perfect world. But with #MeToo, there was hope that we might be moving closer to a perfect world. Perhaps, but these survey results are unsettling.

We can only hope that, with time, these trends will reverse themselves and women can be not only free of sexual harassment, but in a position to access all the same opportunities as men.

Opinion

Editorial

For decades now, Western Mass. has lived in the proverbial shadow of Boston and the Route 128 beltway.

We have our own identity in this part of the state, to be sure, and for the most part, we’re proud of it. But we seem to be forever measuring ourselves against the other end of the state and lamenting what the yardstick shows.

That’s true when it comes to employers, jobs, vibrancy, bright lights, etc., etc. And now, it looks like we can add casinos to the list, even if we shouldn’t.

Indeed, Encore Boston Harbor opened last month to considerable fanfare — and considerable visitation. Area media outlets have been quick to point out that Encore raked in $16.8 million in revenue its first week in operation, nearly as much as the $20 million MGM Springfield took in for the entire month of June.

It’s certainly very early — perhaps too early — to be drawing serious conclusions, but some media outlets are already portraying Encore as the casino with the high rollers and Springfield as home to the casino that is lagging well behind when it comes to revenue projections.

And while it is true that MGM Springfield isn’t logging the kind of numbers company officials projected it would — in 2014, MGM told the Gaming Commission to expect $418 million in gross gambling revenue its first year, and it would now be very hard pressed to break $300 million for that period — early ‘Tale of Two Casinos’ headlines are not really appropriate.

Encore is a much larger casino located just outside one of the most affluent urban centers in the country. It is also literally a stone’s throw from Logan Airport, making it easily accessible to jet-setting high-rollers. It was always expected to generate more revenue than MGM, especially at the gaming tables, as opposed to the slot machines, and it will always generate more revenue.

Rather than look upon this as two casinos — or three when one counts the slots casino in Plainridge — it would be better to view it as the state’s casino industry, one with three important pieces that are all contributing to the state’s overriding goal when it comes to gaming.

And that is to take some of the huge amounts of casino revenue that were going to neighboring states and keep them in the Bay State.

That’s happening, and at the same time, the casinos, and especially the one in Springfield, have become important economic-development pieces, bringing jobs and a spark to sectors ranging from hospitality to commercial real estate.

It was inevitable that there would be comparisons between Encore and MGM Springfield, and the press didn’t waste any time in making them while at the same time fueling the already-obvious disparities in economic vibrancy between east and west.

It’s OK to do this, but it would be better to focus on the bigger picture, and from what we can see, that picture is coming into focus nicely.

Opinion

Editorial

The headlines came in rapid succession, and they juxtaposed each other nicely.

The site in South Hadley’s Woodlawn Plaza that was once home to a Big Y supermarket is the proposed location of a mixed-income apartment complex. Meanwhile, in Westfield, plans were announced to convert the former Bon-Ton department store location in the Westfield Shops into a 50,000-square-foot trampoline park, complete with dodgeball courts, an American Ninja Warrior-style course, and climbing walls.

These headlines, and they’re only the latest of this nature — highlight how the retail landscape is changing, and also how this region and individual communities within it will be challenged to find new and imaginative uses for the hundreds of thousands of square feet of retail space now vacant or likely to be vacant.

This is not a local problem or a regional problem. Indeed, it’s a national problem and probably an international problem: just what do we do with all that space once assigned to retail?

It’s a question that needs to be answered because, from everything we’ve gathered and from everything the experts are saying, the pendulum is simply not going to swing back the other way on this issue. Traditional retail is shrinking, and it is vanishing.

In fact, the world of retail started to change perhaps a full decade and a half ago, and the process of change has only accelerated. Fewer people are shopping in actual brick-and-mortar stores, while many of the brands that once dominated this industry — like Sears and JCPenney — have been closing stores in large numbers.

These two forces have collided in places like the Eastfield Mall, which now boasts some of the largest and most barren parking lots to be seen anywhere. Plans are being developed to turn the mall, this region’s first real suburban shopping mall (it opened more than a half-century ago), into what is being called a ‘village,’ one where people can live, work (perhaps), drop off their children at day care, see a movie, work out at a gym, eat at a restaurant, and maybe even get on a trampoline. This sounds ambitious, but it is also reality. The Eastfield Mall can never again be what it once was, so it has to become something else.

And this same phenomenon is happening all across the region. The former Big Y supermarket in South Hadley was simply not going to become another supermarket, not that the owners of the property didn’t try to lure one there. So it has to become something else. Tower Square in Springfield is never going to be the thriving retail hub it was in the ’70s ever again, so it has become the home of two colleges — and soon it will be home to a YMCA and a brewery. The Bon-Ton site was not going to house another department store — in a year or 10 years. Hence, a trampoline park.

Let’s hope there is need for other things as well, because, as we said, this trend will only accelerate. More department stores will close, more mom-and-pop stores will close, and eventually the need for large auto dealerships will subside, and we’ll need to find new uses for them. (One auto dealership in Westfield has already been converted into a gym, a restaurant, and indoor batting cages.)

This kind of imagination is going to be needed moving forward, because there are now vacant stores in malls, strip malls, and Main Streets across the region. And there will only be more of them.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s start by saying that manufacturers griping about how recent high-school graduates cannot do seemingly basic math is certainly nothing new.

They’ve been complaining about that for decades. They’ve probably always complained about that.

But such gripes are not what Springfield Business Leaders for Education (SBLE) is all about — although those complaints are duly noted, to be sure. This group of several dozen business owners and managers came together because the problem with Springfield’s schools — and the schools in many of the state’s Gateway cities — goes well beyond basic math (see related story, page 6).

In short, many students graduating from high school are not ready for college or the workplace, even though they have that diploma in their hands. Again, this is not exactly a recent phenomenon, but it’s a growing problem, one that has caught the attention of the business community — and with good reason.

These are the workers of tomorrow, or not, as is often the case. Or they’re the workers of tomorrow after they receive considerable training that amounts to what they should have learned in high school. In short, it’s an economic-development issue as well as an education issue.

This is why SBLE was created. Quality education is as important to the future of area businesses as it is to the future of the students in the classroom.

As we said at the top, SBLE wasn’t formed to bring gripes about job candidates not being to add columns of numbers to the superintendent of schools — or to tell the superintendent how to do his or her job. Or to change the curriculum. It was formed to be what co-chair John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, calls a critical friend of the schools — an ally, if you will.

As an ally, SBLE is working with other groups, such as Massachusetts Parents United and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, to advocate for schools and much-needed education reform, with the broad goal of improving overall outcomes and closing the wide achievement gap that still exists in the state between students in affluent communities and those in the aforementioned Gateway cities.

At the same time, and as the story on page 6 makes clear, SBLA is also working to achieve greater transparency and accountability from city school officials, because both are clearly needed. As is a long-term strategic plan for the schools moving forward — again, because one is needed.

That’s because, while everyone, or most everyone, agrees that some progress has been made in Springfield, both at individual schools and the system as a whole, the numbers don’t lie.

And those numbers show that far too many students are not able to read at grade level, the graduation rate is still far too low, and not enough students are going on to college at a time when such education is critical to achieving success in our technology-driven economy. Most importantly, the numbers show that far too many students are not going to be able to capitalize on the opportunities others are seizing because the education they received doesn’t make them ready to do so.

These are the numbers that matter. And we believe the SBLE can help change them. Business owners speak with a loud voice, they know how to partner with others to achieve success, and, most importantly, they have a huge stake in all this — their future workforce.

So, while griping about a lack of math skills is nothing new, business leaders in Springfield taking a very active role in advocating for education reform and bringing about real change is.

And we’re very glad that this is happening at this critical time.

Opinion

Editorial

We’ve written on many occasions in the past about how the phrase ‘economic development’ means much more than trying to lure an Amazon — or an MGM Springfield, for that matter — to your town or filling a business park with distribution companies.

Indeed, this kind of work extends to such realms as workforce development, improving public education, public safety, infrastructure, marketing of a given region, and promotion of arts and culture.

And, sometimes, economic development is art itself.

We saw this with the recent initiative known as Fresh Paint. This was a mural festival staged earlier this month that involved a number of noted artists, with help from the public, and literally changed the face of a number of buildings and structures, such as parking-garage facades.

The murals are highly visible, and they do more than bring a splash of color — a big splash of color — to some otherwise drab pieces of real estate.

They also help tell the story of Springfield through depictions of everything from Dr. Seuss characters to the diverse population that now calls the city home.

How is this economic development?

Well, the murals accomplish something important. They prompt people to stop, look, think, and, ultimately, view Springfield in a different way than they did before. And this is what we want business owners, young professionals, entrepreneurs, and even retirees looking for a place to live to do — look at the City of Homes in a different way.

The murals — there are 10 of them in all, scattered throughout the downtown area and beyond — give the city a new look and vibe. They help send a message that the community is changing, for the better, and that, while once things were dark, the future is seemingly bright.

Can a set of murals really do all that? Apparently, they can.

And for that reason, we certainly hope this is not the last Fresh Paint festival.

Opinion

Editorial

When Kevin Kennedy took over as Springfield’s chief Development officer after a lengthy stint as aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, the city was in a much different place — a much darker place.

It was only a year or so removed from being in receivership and only a few months into the complex, and quite overwhelming, task of rebuilding after a tornado roared through the heart of the city. The casino era was just beginning, and no one really dared dream that one might be built in Springfield. No one had ever heard of a Chinese company called CRRC, and the city’s downtown was, for the most part, living in the past.

Flash forward nearly eight years, and Springfield is a much different, much brighter, much more vibrant place, with a billion-dollar casino and, overall, more than $4 billion in new development over the past several years.

Kennedy, who announced Monday that he will be retiring late this summer, didn’t do it all by himself, obviously. But he set a tone, an aggressive tone, a set-the-bar-higher-than-most-people-would-dare tone.

And it has produced results. MGM is the most obvious example, but there are many others, including Union Station (a project Kennedy worked on for more than 25 years), progress on creating much-needed market-rate housing, growth of the entertainment district, and the start of work to redevelop the so-called ‘blast zone.’

At the press conference to announce Kennedy’s retirement, Mayor Domenic Sarno described him as a “nuts and bolts guy,” and that’s a fairly apt characterization. He knew how to bring a project from the starting line to the finish line, and that’s exactly what the city needed at this critical stage in its history.

It was said that he knew how to get things done, and during his tenure, he proved that repeatedly.

These will be big shoes to fill, and the assignment falls to Timothy Sheehan, currently director of the Norwalk Redevelopment Agency in Connecticut. It will be his job to build on the momentum Kennedy has helped create. There is still considerable work to do in Springfield; yes, many significant pieces have been added and the outlook is much brighter, but the city must be able to seize this moment in its history.

We can only hope that Sheehan can continue Kennedy’s pattern of getting things done.

Opinion

Editorial

Those gathered around the water cooler have had to find other things to talk about in recent days, as James Holzhauer, the record-breaking, cyborg-like Jeopardy! champion was forced to the sidelines as the popular game show took a break for its teachers’ tournament.

But he’ll be back soon, and so will the talk — all kinds of talk. About his almost scary intellect, non-traditional tactics, intriguing personality, and, yes, his winnings — almost $1.7 million (in just 22 shows) when he had to take his break.

But the discussion at the water cooler, and in columns in newspapers and magazines across the country, has gone further in some cases, talking about how Holzhauer has somehow broken the popular game, ruined it, turned it into bad television, or somehow broken or distorted its rules.

Apparently, the virtues of even an incredible Jeopardy! winning streak are in the eyes of the beholder.

What we see is something quite intriguing, something that offers lessons about maybe how all of us should look at life, work, and running our businesses.

Indeed, for decades, it seemed, Jeopardy! was played one way. Contestants found a category they liked, started at the top, and moved to the bottom. When they found a Daily Double, they generally (but not always) wagered conservatively. A good day’s work was maybe $25,000 or even $35,000.

Then, along came Holzhauer, the professional sports gambler, who has obviously looked at this game and its rules and decided that there was a better, more effective, more lucrative way to play it. Before he arrived, the one-day record was $77,000. He’s averaging that — well, $76,864, to be exact — per game.

He starts at the bottom of each category with the big-money questions. He moves around the board searching for the Daily Doubles. When he finds them, he usually has a lot of money won, and then he wagers large amounts, often making them true Daily Doubles. And by hitting the $1,000 and $2,000 questions early — and getting them right — he’s building leads his opponents simply cannot overcome; there isn’t enough money left on the board.

When it gets to Final Jeopardy! the game is already won, but Holzhauer still wagers generally as much as he can, gets the question right (he hasn’t missed a final question yet), and often banks north of $100,000.

It’s radical, it’s different, but unless you’re a hopeless traditionalist who just doesn’t like the way Holzhauer is smoking his competiton every night, you have to like it, you have to applaud it — and you have to tune in to watch it. Yes, Jeopardy! ratings have been much higher since he started this remarkable run.

The lessons for managers and business owners? They’re quite obvious.

Holzhauer surveyed the scene, looked at how just about everyone before him had played Jeopardy! and decided there was a better way. And we’re willing to bet that many more people will be playing it this way from now own.

This is the way to look at your business and your role in it. The status quo is sometimes just fine. Doing things the way everyone else has done them is sometimes OK. But we always need to be searching for those better ways, those new and innovative ways, to do things.

By finding such ways, Holzhauer has set and re-set the single-day earnings record for Jeopardy! In fact, he now owns the 12 highest daily totals in the show’s history. He has, in effect, raised the bar, and he keeps raising it.

That’s the ultimate lesson from this incredible run.

Opinion

Editorial

Meryl Streep?

That’s who Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, suggests, tongue in cheek (we think; we hope), should play him in a movie about his life.

“Let’s see if she can really play anything,” he writes in one of the answers to questions put to all of this year’s honorees. And when asked what figure, past or present, he would like to have lunch with, he suggests Ernest Hemingway. “I feel like he would have a few good stories, and there would most certainly be cocktails accompanying the lunch.”

The collective answers to a host of revealing questions cast a bright and intriguing light on this year’s honorees, who join the 480 who came before them as owners of some of the most prestigious plaques to be found in Western Mass. Indeed, a 40 Under Forty winner is someone who stands out among his or her peers (there were nearly 200 nominations submitted this year) and is truly a rising star amid a galaxy of them.

Indeed, contrary to popular theory, there is quite a bit of young talent in this region, and it exists across the board, in sectors ranging from healthcare to retail; from financial services to nonprofit management; from law to casino administration.

Their stories continue until you know all you need to know about Alyson Yorlano. And, as noted, to tell their stories, we used a questionnaire format, one that allows honorees to use their own words to convey what’s important to them, what inspires them, who mentored them, and yes, who they think could play them in a movie.

The answers are certainly good reading. They reveal some common denominators — everything from a willingness to work hard to get where they want to go, to a passion for family and community. And, in many cases, honesty and a good sense of humor.

As when Alex Dixon, the now-former general manager of MGM Springfield (he’s returned to Las Vegas to manage Circus Circus but will be at the Log Cabin in June for the 40 Under Forty gala), revealed that, growing up, he wanted to be governor of Nevada, an Alvin Ailey dancer, or a running back for the Washington Redskins.

Beyond witty answers, the profiles of this year’s honorees should provide inspiration for others seeking to own one of these plaques themselves, and encouragement for those who might be worried about whether we have sufficient young leadership coming of age in the 413.

Take Donald Havourd, who has thrived in a Fortune 500 corporate environment at MassMutual while simultaneously founding and growing a business, Migliore, which manufactures and distributes luxury car-care products.

Or Joy Baglio, who poured her passion for writing into the creation of the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop, growing it in only three years from a solo enterprise to one with 13 instructors teaching dozens of workshops and classes each year.

Or Dorothy Ostrowski, whose unique trajectory has taken her from the war-torn streets of Afghanistan to a wide-ranging career in the fast-paced world of emergency-room nursing, to ownership of a venerable West Springfield construction company.

We hope you enjoy reading these stories, but more importantly, we hope these 40 rising stars make you feel good about the future of this region. Because we certainly do.

Opinion

Editorial

It’s a logical step, but the recent decision by the University of Massachusetts to create a national online college is one that can perhaps best be summed up with that phrase risk/reward.

Indeed, there are certainly potential rewards, but also some huge risks and certainly no guarantees of success with this planned enterprise. Like the school’s venture into big-time college football a decade or so ago, this move is certainly not as easy as it looks and will require a large investment, time, patience, and even some luck.

More on that later, but first the ‘logical step’ part.

The announcement made earlier this month by UMass President Martin Meehan certainly makes a great deal of sense given recent demographic trends and other factors that are impacting almost every college in the country, large or small.

High-school classes are getting smaller, and they’re going to continue to get smaller for at least another decade as families have fewer children. These smaller pools of high-school graduates are going to affect both smaller private schools like Hampshire College in Amherst and larger public universities like UMass, but in some ways, those public institutions will likely benefit from these demographic shifts as students and their families look for landing spots on firm financial ground.

But it only makes sense for a growth-minded institution to look beyond traditional students and toward older adults (non-traditional students) seeking to continue their education or finish a degree program — individuals who are prime candidates for online learning because of its flexibility and convenience (specifically, the opportunity to learn from home).

It makes so much sense that many growth-minded institutions are thinking along these same terms. In fact, UMass might actually be considered late to this party — although hopefully not too late.

Several large institutions such as Purdue, Arizona State, and the University of Maryland have established highly successful online programs, as have some smaller schools, such as Southern New Hampshire University. And, right here in the 413, Bay Path University formed the American Women’s College, an online school that has helped change the fortunes of the former two-year college in a profound way.

On the other side of the scorecard, however, several schools have launched online programs that have not met expectations, and still others have essentially scuttled their initiatives after years of high-cost underperformance.

The bottom line is that online education programs are, contrary to public opinion, quite expensive, rather complicated, and immensely competitive. Officials at UMass say this matter has been thought through thoroughly and that there is tremendous opportunity for growth — if they move quickly and properly.

“The time for us to act is now,” Meehan said in announcing the plans during his annual report on the state of the five-campus university system at the UMass Club in Boston. “It’s predicted that, over the next several years, four to five major national players with strong regional footholds will be established. We intend to be one of them.”

He’s certainly right about the first part of that equation — there will be several established in a few years. As for the second part, we hope he’s right about that, too.

But as several schools have already discovered, breaking into the online market is a challenging proposition.