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Opinion

They’re All Making a Difference

Since BusinessWest started its Difference Makers recognition program in 2009, we’ve told dozens of stories involving individuals, groups, and institutions that are positively impacting life in the 413.
Each one is different, although there are some common threads, and each one is inspiring. And this is the point of this exercise, if you will — to tell these amazing stories, because they need to be told, and to inspire others to find their own way to make a difference in their community.
The Difference Makers class of 2021 certainly continues this tradition. The stories beginning on page 22 convey, in a single word, the passion that these individuals and groups have for helping those in their communities and improving quality of life here. And they all go about it in a different way:

• Kristin Carlson, by becoming the face, or the new face, of manufacturing in this region. And a new voice as well, one that works overtime (that’s an industry phrase) to educate people, and especially young people, about the many opportunities in this field. Her efforts are already reaping dividends, as evidenced by her own shop floor, which now boasts a number of women in machining positions;

• EforAll Holyoke, by becoming another powerful force in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. Through its accelerator programs, mentorship initiatives, and other ongoing forms of support, this nonprofit is helping many people, especially those in the minority community, realize their dreams of owning their own business;

• Janine Fondon, by being a constant source of energy and ideas, through initiatives ranging from UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news, to programs like On the Move, which bring women, and especially women of color, together for forums that are designed to engage, educate, and inspire;

• Harold Grinspoon, by being a successful business person, but especially by being a philanthropist who has never stopped asking about how he can help. Over the years, he has launched initiatives to support entrepreneurship at area colleges and universities, assist the region’s farmers, celebrate excellent teachers, and improve Jewish life and culture;

• Chad Moir, by creating the DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, inspired by the experience of his late mother, to help those suffering from this dreaded disease live healthier, more confident lives through various forms of exercise that have proven to slow the progression of symptoms;

• Bill Parks, by not only helping young people and their families access critical programs through the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield, but by using his own experiences to show them that their dreams and goals really are possible. His club’s programs not only impact young people’s lives today, but help them take charge of their future; and

• Pete Westover, for working tirelessly to help preserve and protect this region’s open spaces through a remarkable, decades-long career that featured a lengthy stint as conservation director in Amherst and ongoing work as managing partner of Conservation Works, which is involved in a wide range of preservation, trail-building, and other types of projects across the Northeast.

We salute these members of the class of 2021, and encourage others to read their stories and become inspired to find new and different ways to make a difference here in Western Massachusetts.

Opinion

An Appreciation for Chris Thibault

Filmmakers are storytellers. That’s what they do. They tell stories, and they help others tell their stories.

That’s what Chris Thibault did, and he was very good at it. He started Chris Teebo Films, and he worked with businesses and institutions across this area — from Spirit of Springfield to BusinessWest and its many award recipients and program sponsors Mercedes-Benz of Springfield — to help them communicate and get their messages across.

In recent years, though, the most compelling story Chris told was his own — specifically his long and difficult battle with cancer, which ended this week when he died at age 38. Starting from when he was first diagnosed with breast cancer, Chris used his talents and his desire to help others to take his battle public, through short films, blog posts — including one titled “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — and more.

In the course of doing so, he became an inspiration to many, and in a number of ways. It was more than Jim Valvano’s famous ‘don’t give up, don’t ever give up’ messaging — although there was some of that. His message was more along the lines of never letting cancer run his life or tell him what he could or couldn’t do.

And there was still more to this story. Indeed, even though he was dealt a very bad hand and had every reason to say ‘why me?’ or bemoan his fate, he didn’t. He accepted what was happening to his body, and he never stopped trying to be upbeat, optimistic, and even humorous.

Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about that aforementioned blog post and the subject matter involved, he said simply, “I haven’t figured that one out yet … and to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you would actually start reading the thing.”

Like all good filmmakers, he did grab your attention, and he held it.

His story certainly did not end the way he or all those who loved and admired him wanted, but it was one that left us even more thankful for the time we had with him — and more appreciative of the time we have on this planet. Period.

We thank him for that, and we thank him for the way he inspired us to live life to the fullest, even when serious roadblocks are put in front of us.

The best story he told was his own.

Opinion

Editorial

The story of restaurants during the pandemic has not been a good one.

While that may be the most obvious of observations, it’s still important to keep at the forefront of any discussion of this industry — because restaurateurs will spin the past year as positively as they can. “We discovered a strong market for takeout.” “Outdoor dining was an unexpected success we’ll stick with.” “Our loyal customers tell us they can’t wait to dine out again.”

But don’t confuse those sentiments — which testify to the grit and resourcefulness of the region’s many dining establishments — with good news. There is no good news. Among the restaurant owners we spoke with for this issue, total sales over the past year have been significantly curtailed — in some cases halved, or worse.

Yes, they’ve done what they could to hang onto their dedicated staffs, with much-appreciated help from Paycheck Protection Program loans and state and local grants. And the pivots they made — one told us it was like opening a new restaurant every week — are admirable, as they were willing to change menus on the fly, install takeout and delivery, set up outdoor dining, and take any number of other steps to survive.

Some have not. And even among those that have, no one had a good year, and some are hanging by a thread. That 25% indoor capacity restriction, however needed to keep people safe, is just not going to cut it through a New England winter. That 9:30 p.m. curfew, only recently lifted, might pose an inconvenience to customers, but for a restaurant owner, those extra hours could be the difference between paying their bills and … well, not.

The economic impact on the region is massive; according to the Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc., the Bay State’s restaurants generated $18.7 billion in sales in 2018, while employing almost 350,000 workers. Meanwhile, every dollar spent on table-service dining contributes $1.87 to the state economy. And in a place like Hampshire County, where restaurants are such a key part of the culture and economy of Northampton, Easthampton, Amherst, and other communities, the damage of 2020 — which is clearly extending into 2021 — is even more dire.

A Pioneer Institute report lists a few steps local and state governments can make to ease the strain a little, from allowing alcoholic-beverage takeout and delivery on a permanent basis to allowing restaurants to sell fresh produce, meats, and other whole foods during the pandemic to compete with grocery stores; from prioritizing local permitting for food trucks owned by restaurants to allowing outdoor seating in parking lots and on sidewalks, as happened last summer in downtown Northampton.

But none of these steps, or the pivots restaurants have already made, will solve the main issue — that, even at reduced capacity, diners aren’t filling tables right now, and might not until they feel it’s safe, and that gets into vaccine distribution, a whole other story.

In the meantime, why not do what you can? Order more takeout. Buy more gift cards. Sit down for a meal if you feel safe doing so; area restaurants have been transparent about their sanitization procedures. And, once the COVID fog lifts and restaurants can open more fully, support them as much as possible.

The loss of more restaurants in Western Mass. would be a blow to our economy and a culture that values good food. But mostly, it would be a blow to some good, smart people who are tired of pivoting — but continue to do so, just to stay alive.

 

Opinion

Editorial

Starting in 1996, ˆ has, at the start of each year, presented something we call the Top Entrepreneur award.

We do this to pay homage to a long — as in three centuries long — tradition of entrepreneurship in Western Mass., and to recognize companies, institutions, and individuals who are carrying on that tradition today. Over the years, the winners have included traditional entrepreneurs — those leading tech companies, multi-faceted corporations, and some family-owned businesses that have been part of the landscape for decades, if not a century or more — and also some non-traditional entrepreneurs — a college president and a hospital CEO, for example.

This broad diversity is by design, and it shows that we’re honoring entrepreneurial spirit as much as we are entrepreneurs.

Which brings us to this year’s honoree — the partners and leadership team at Golden Years Homecare Services, an East Longmeadow-based company that started with home care and has since diversified into staffing, behavioral-health services, and other realms ). An entrepreneurial mindset prevails from top to bottom and in every aspect of this enterprise, and it has enabled the company to set and maintain a torrid pace of growth since.

We salute Cesar Ruiz, Lisa Santaniello, and other partners and managers who are aggressively rewriting the business plan and taking this company to new places and a higher plane.

And while we’re at it, we would like to salute all the entrepreneurs slugging it out across our region. They all deserve some credit at this ultra-challenging time for anyone trying to own and operate a business.

Indeed, running a company has never, ever been easy. But in these times, everything is much more difficult. As we’ve said on many occasions, one of the things that has inspired us during these times has been the manner in which the region’s business community has responded.

In short, it has been entrepreneurial. Business owners and managers have responded to adversity with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new ways of doing business, and new avenues for growth. Examples abound, including everything from outdoor dining at restaurants to manufacturers retooling to make PPE. At Golden Years, the pandemic actually helped fuel a surge in home-care business, as many families came to view the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

Looking back, one might call 2020 the ‘year of the entrepreneur.’ Those at Golden Years stand out, certainly, and they are most deserving of this prestigious honor. But all the entrepreneurs who have bravely battled COVID-19 deserve to take a bow.

Opinion

Editorial

 

While the arrival of vaccines is fostering some optimism across this country and we’re hearing phrases like ‘beginning of the end’ (for the pandemic) and ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’ the sad fact is that relief won’t come soon enough for some businesses in this region.

The latest victim of the COVID-19 crisis is Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Owners Lori Divine and Vitek Kruta announced they can longer continue operating their cultural-arts center, which had become such a critical part of Holyoke’s resurgence, and will now attempt to sell the complex.

Their message to the community sums up the plight of so many businesses in this region and the frustration that has accompanied the restrictions, shutdowns, and general lack of support from state and federal officials.

“We have reached the point where we just don’t have the resources and energy to try to survive,” they wrote, echoing the sentiments of many who have been trying, unsuccessfully, to hang on. “It took us 10 years to start feeling that we could make it, and then COVID took it all away.”

The two went on to talk about life just before they were forced to close their doors. There was a sold-out concert with more than 500 people in the Hub (and an impressive upcoming slate of big-name artists), a theater production with more than 100 people, and a full house in Judd’s restaurant. And in the veritable blink of an eye, it was all gone.

Like most small businesses in this region, Gateway City Arts received a PPP loan last spring. It was intended to provide eight to 10 weeks of support and keep people paid — and that’s exactly what it did. The problem, as everyone knows, is that the pandemic has lasted far longer than a few months. No further relief, other than a GoFundMe campaign, was forthcoming, and with no end to this crisis in sight, Divine and Kruta had to let their dream die.

As we all prepare to turn the calendar to 2021, many businesses are some state of peril — and many more dreams may have to die. If there is a lockdown or further restrictions, as many fear is possible, if not imminent — or even if the status quo continues — many more small businesses will be forced to close their doors.

Yes, the vaccines are coming, and yes, there just might be some light at the end of this incredibly long, exceedingly dark tunnel. But for many, it won’t come soon enough. As this issue was going to press, Congress was making some progress toward a new stimulus package, one we have to hope will include some relief to embattled small businesses.

But these companies need more than that. As we’ve written on many occasions, they need the support of the community, in any way it can come, to get through this.

We were encouraged to see that a number of businesses were stepping up during the holidays to help. Indeed, instead of sending the traditional gift basket or tray of cookies to an office where few if any people are working anyway, some businesses have sent gift certificates or even small, pre-paid credit cards, with instructions to use them to support local businesses.

Likewise, instead of having that holiday party at a local venue, some businesses are instead giving employees gift certificates for local restaurants, a step that shows appreciation not only for valued workers, but for the local eateries that have been devastated by this pandemic.

It’s unlikely that such steps would have saved Gateway City Arts, a intriguing, potential-laden business that was just hitting its stride when the rug was pulled out from under it. Unless the region rallies around the still-surviving small businesses, other dreams may die as well.

Opinion

Editorial

As 2020 prepares to come to what we hope will be a merciful end (only if our collective luck changes), it is time to look ahead.

It certainly beats looking back.

And as we look ahead, we need to consider what the world might look like when and if something approaching normal returns, and what it means for us. At both the micro and macro level, it doesn’t mean going back to the way things were before.

The world will have changed, in all kinds of ways, and a good many of these changes will be permanent, as in, there’s no going back to the way we were. This goes for the services we offer to customers, how we do business, and where we do business.

Yes, everyone hates Zoom — or really hates Zoom, as the case may be. But even the most ardent of haters will admit that a Zoom session beats investing the time and energy in a drive to Worcester, Boston, or wherever. A Zoom session beats getting up early — and getting dressed (don’t forget that part) — to go to a morning board meeting or perhaps even a session with a client.

And that’s just one example. The same goes for the modern office. As much as we all hear that businesses will return to the office, that workers need the camaraderie, that teams need to be in the same room to be effective, it’s clear that things simply will not be as they were.

“We’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region.”

Companies have learned they can make do with less office space — or without any office space. Individuals have learned they can do their jobs from home, and that ‘home’ doesn’t necessarily have to be close to the office. Which means it doesn’t have to be a densely populated — and very expensive — area. Businesses owners may gradually ditch the current mindset that they need to be in Seattle, Boston, Cambridge, or the Research Triangle, “because that’s where the workers are.” The workers, at least for some jobs, can be anywhere.

If you’re an optimist, this bodes well for the region, and we like to be optimistic. Which is why we’re encouraged by a more aggressive attitude toward taking advantage of what appears to be an opportunity for the region. Groups like the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council and the Springfield Regional Chamber appear to moving from ‘we might want to think about this’ to the ‘let’s do something about it’ stage.

By that, we mean they’re moving more assertively when it comes to trying to tell this region’s story and putting information in people’s hands — with the goal of motivating people, small businesses, and maybe major corporations to consider the 413 as a place to put down roots or expand.

It has always been that way — and we have always sold it as such — but we haven’t done well in pitching people on the concept, even as Boston has become more expensive and its roads have become more congested.

Maybe the pandemic and the lessons learned while navigating our way through it will change this equation. Maybe. After all, there will be considerable competition from other cities, states, and regions who have learned the same lessons. Meanwhile, this region has never been able to muster the kind of marketing muscle it takes to get a message across to a broad audience.

But it doesn’t hurt to try, and as we thankfully turn the calendar to 2021, it is time to look back a little, reflect on what we’ve learned, and do what we’ve all been trying to do since March — be in a better position after the pandemic than we were before.

Opinion

Editorial

As the region pauses to celebrate Thanksgiving and start the holiday season, many are counting down the days until this most painful of years comes to a close.

For the business community especially, 2020 has been a year of never-ending challenges, more uncertainty than anyone would ever want, and decisions that only come in two varieties — difficult and really difficult. Nothing has come easy.

And while none of this will magically end when the calendar gets flipped to 2021, it will be good to put this year in our collective rear-view mirror.

As we begin our work reflecting on this year — and there will be a lot of that, even as we brace for times that could be even more difficult, if that’s possible — it is easy to focus on all the negative. And we’ve done enough of that ourselves.

But we want to take another opportunity to recognize and applaud the fighting spirit of the region’s business community and the manner in which it has responded to all that has been thrown at it with imagination and true resolve.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

And there really is a lot that has been thrown at our businesses — including draconian measures taken in the name of flattening the curve and ever-changing guidance and regulations that often make it so what you were doing last week is impossible to do this week. But, as we said, businesses have responded, and in creative, determined fashion.

We saw another example recently when the Big E, which has been continually hammered by state restrictions regarding large events, and had to cancel its annual 17-day fair, came up with a unique ‘golden-ticket’ promotion.

Inspired by Willy Wonka, or so we’ve been told, the promotion involves $1,000 golden tickets that enable the purchaser and a companion lifetime entrance to the Big E, along with a number of other perks.

From what we hear, the 100 tickets sold in less than two minutes once they officially went on sale.

Realistically, $100,000 is a tiny fraction of the Big E’s annual budget, and this promotion is not going to make a serious dent in the staggering losses the company has suffered this year. But it helps — in this trying year, every single dollar helps. And the golden ticket is a perfect example of how companies have had to look beyond what they’ve done, look beyond what they know — and find ways to generate revenue and keep people employed until that day when the clouds will finally break.

But it’s just one example. There are plenty of others.

We’ve seen restaurants get creative and entrepreneurial in their efforts to use outdoor dining, delivery, and curbside service to somehow keep their doors open. We’ve seen event venues and production companies make the difficult adjustment to hybrid and virtual events. We’ve seen nonprofits pivot and use these virtual events to raise money so they can continue to carry out their missions. We’ve seen manufacturers retool to one extent or another and shift to making PPE and other in-demand items. Getting back to the Big E, we’ve seen it tack and put its large indoor spaces to use as storage facilities for cars, boats, and other items.

There are countless other examples of companies taking a very bad situation and making something of it. And as the year draws to a close, we believe these stories can and must serve as inspiration for what it is to come — probably several more months of challenges and those difficult decisions.

Not that anything was ever easy, but we certainly won’t see anything approaching easy for a while yet.

Which means we’ll need to keep exercising our collective imaginations and coming up with our own golden tickets.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the past decade or so, one of the better stories to emerge in this region has been the development of the Ludlow Mills complex in Ludlow.

Acquired by Westmass Area Development Corp. in 2012, the mostly vacant set of jute mills and storage buildings has become home to an eclectic mix of businesses, and is now the site of a residential complex, a rehabilitation hospital (Encompass), and a host of small businesses that cross several sectors.

But this solid business story had been tempered somewhat by the very public, highly visible discord (there’s a diplomatic term) between Westmass and one of its more popular tenants, Iron Duke Brewing.

A disagreement over language in the lease eventually escalated into a bitter and protracted court fight, one that led to hard feelings, plans to relocate the business in Wilbraham, and a new and popular product — Eviction Notice IPA.

For a while, it looked like this court battle was going to end like so many before it — with no one really winning, despite how the ruling came down. It looked for all the world like both sides were going to be out perhaps hundreds of thousands in legal fees, Westmass would be out a good tenant, and Iron Duke would be saddled with the expense and challenge of essentially starting over in a new town and new brewery.

And then … things changed. Not overnight, but as the story on page 6 recounts, they did change.

Amid the heavy baggage from the lawsuit and the disagreement that led to it, the two sides agreed to sit down and talk. And from those talks came some progress and eventually a path to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay in its home at the mill — one of the century-old stockhouses that stored raw material — but expand within that site and perhaps own it someday.

An agreement that didn’t seem at all possible just 18 months ago.

Maybe there’s a lesson in all this — one about communication and listening and getting to understand both sides of a disagreement, on the theory that the more people know and the more people talk, the better the odds they can work out their problems.

Maybe the lesson is to try to do that before egos take over and before the lawyers get involved because, after that happens, it becomes that much harder.

We’re not sure about the lessons. We are sure that what was a good story for the region is now an even better story. Iron Duke will stay where it is, expand, and make the mill complex a better, stronger destination, one that might help attract more hospitality-related businesses like it.

Iron Duke will soon have to change its name to avoid another expensive lawsuit, this one from Duke University as it seeks to protect its brand. But that’s another story.

This story has what certainly appears to be a happy ending, after a plot twist as welcome as it was — that’s was — unlikely.

Opinion

A Chain Reaction of Impact

Back in 2007, BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty recognition program to celebrate the achievements of the region’s rising stars. A couple years later, it created Difference Makers, which recognizes individuals who are, well, making a difference in their communities. The Healthcare Heroes awards followed three years ago, recognizing high achievers in that important sector.

Clearly, we love identifying and writing about people and organizations that deserve the attention; we’re as inspired writing those stories as you (hopefully) are when you read them.

Plenty of women have been honored by all three programs — in many years, in fact, women comprise a majority of winners. So why did we launch the Women of Impact program in 2018? Is it really necessary?

In a word, yes. First of all, while there are many women of achievement in this region — and have been for a long time — not enough of them have received the recognition they are due.

But another reason, one that has become more clear over the first three cohorts of Women of Impact, is that this program spotlights ways in which honorees not only shine on their own, but help other women do the same.

In this year’s class alone, you can read about Carol Campbell, president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors, who has not only personally mentored many women over the years, but cultivated a management team entirely made up of women — in an industry still dominated by men.

And Pattie Hallberg, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts, who has devoted her professional life to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls, and finding proactive ways to address them.

And Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, who understands how critical an affordable college education is to women, including low-income women, women of color, and working mothers, many of whom have been thrown for a loop by the pandemic and recession, and rely on HCC’s support to stay on their degree path.

The stories go on, in many cases echoing the honorees’ desire not only to succeed in life, but to make sure women following behind them have the tools they need to do the same and, in turn, inspire the next generation.

This is not the easiest time for women in the workforce. In fact, in September, about 617,000 women stopped working — about eight women for every man who dropped out, in fact — partly due to competing demands from home, especially young kids who need support with remote learning.

Even during more, well, normal times, BusinessWest has long told the stories of not only women who are helping their peers navigate challenges, but organizations like the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, Girls Inc. of the Valley, and so many more who’ve made it their mission to help women succeed, now and in the future.

In short, women in this region are making an impact every day. We’re honored to be able to tell some of their stories.

 

Opinion

Editorial

You can look in any direction you choose during this pandemic and find developments that are disappointing, sad, and, in some cases, heartbreaking. It’s hard to single out specific stories from all the others.

But in the case of the Springfield Thunderbirds, the American Hockey League franchise that plays in the MassMutual Center, we find a story that is particularly poignant and frustrating — one that shows just how much this crisis has taken from us.

Indeed, this team had become one of the great symbols of Springfield’s renaissance, one of the very bright lights in a city that was once quite dark, figuratively if not literally, one of the reasons why people working downtown had to pay attention to their arrival or departure time because, if they didn’t, they might get caught in a traffic jam — a somewhat annoying, but, for those rooting for Springfield, almost joyous traffic jam.

Yes, the Thunderbirds were a feel-good story, a team that was selling out the MassMutual Center on a regular basis, bringing luminaries like David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and even Ric Flair to the city, and setting the bar ever higher when it came to strategies for attracting fans, creating visibility, and involving the franchise in the community.

This is a management team and ownership group that even took home BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur prize in 2018.

And now? This is a team in limbo, a franchise that doesn’t know if, when, or under what circumstances it can again play games. So much is up in the air, and almost everything is out of the control of a management team led by President Nate Costa.

In a way, the T-Birds have become a metaphor for this pandemic. In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

The team is symbolic of the pandemic’s impact on the business community in another respect — a team that did a great job building itself up, literally from scratch, will now have to rebuild. It won’t have to start from scratch, but it won’t be able to just turn the clock back to pre-pandemic days, either.

In many ways, we’re all in a holding pattern of some sort, waiting and hoping for things to return to the way they once were.

It will have to work hard to get fans back, build up its presence, and, hopefully, regain everything that’s been lost over the past eight months — and counting.

In many respects, most every business in this region will have to do the same thing. Eventually, although no one knows when, the pandemic will ease, and life will start to return to normal. Companies will have to rebuild what they had and regain the customers and business lost.

And as they do that, they can look to the Thunderbirds for inspiration, a team that built itself up the right way, and will no doubt rebuild itself in similar fashion — using imagination, best practices, and a passion for continuous improvement to set and reach new goals.

What’s happened to the T-Birds is unfortunate on many levels. This team did seemingly everything right; it did everything a forward-thinking company is supposed to do to thrive in the moment and prepare for the future. But in a moment, it lost control of its fortunes and its fate — at least for the short term.

We have little doubt this team will bounce back, eventually, and be part of Springfield’s efforts to rebuild from this crisis. In five short years, it has become a symbol of excellence and perseverance. And moving forward, we hope it becomes a model for how to survive the pandemic and become even better and stronger for it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Back in the spring of 2017, as BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, were preparing to launch a new recognition program focused on the region’s large and critically important healthcare sector, the magazines hosted a meeting with members named to an advisory board assembled to help guide the initiative off the drawing board.

The first question asked at that session concerned the name given to the program — Healthcare Heroes. “How do you define ‘hero?’” one panel member asked.

The reply was that the magazines wouldn’t be defining ‘hero.’ That task would fall to those nominating individuals, groups, and institutions, and the judges assigned the task of evaluating those nominations. In short, the answer to that question was ‘heroism is in the eye of the beholder — and there are heroes all across the broad healthcare sector in this region.’

Never has that sentiment been truer than during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, for this year’s program, the magazines opted not to use the traditional categories that have defined this program, such as ‘Caregiver,’ ‘Emerging Leader,’ ‘Innovation in Healthcare,’ and even ‘Lifetime Achievement,’ and instead seek general nominations involving those who in some way stepped up and stood out during this pandemic, on the theory that heroes came in all kinds of categories this year.

And we were right. Nominations were submitted for both individual EMTs and the CEOs of medical centers; for manufacturing companies that shifted their production lines to make PPE and individual home healthcare providers; for entire staffs at local hospitals and specific teams at area service providers.

Everyone nominated this year is a true hero, and the judges had a very difficult time deciding which stories were truly the best. But as the accounts  reveal, these judges did a commendable job.

These stories are, in a word, inspirational, and they clearly convey both the depth of the crisis and the determined, imaginative responses to it. These stories are touching, but they are also powerful in that they reveal the kind of dedicated, creative, and, above all, compassionate individuals working within the healthcare sector in this region.

The stories are all different, but the common theme is individuals, groups, and organizations seeing needs in the midst of this generational crisis, and rising to meet them, such as:

• The staff at Holyoke Medical Center coming together under very trying circumstances to take in residents of the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home at the height of the tragedy there;

• Three patient advocates at Berkshire Health Systems leaving their behind-the-scenes jobs to become frontline nurses at a BHS facility on the other side of the state;

• Home health aide Jennifer Graham, a junior at Bay Path University, volunteering, when few others would, to work at emergency tents set up to care for the region’s homeless population;

• Baystate Health President and CEO Mark Keroack providing needed leadership to not only his institution, but the region and state as the pandemic reached this region last spring;

• The Nutrition Department at Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc., which creating new programs and protocols to ensure that hot meals were delivered to the area seniors who need them; and

• Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, director of Spiritual Life at JGS Lifecare, who stepped into the breach and provided needed guidance and support to residents, family members, and especially the staff members providing services at the height of the crisis.

These are just some of the stories in our special section introducing the Healthcare Heroes of 2020 that will resonate, possibly generate tears, and certainly leave you proud of this region and those individuals and institutions serving it.

Opinion

Editorial

Over the years, we’ve written a number of times about the importance of promoting entrepreneurship and mentoring those trying to start and grow their own businesses.

This component of economic development, one that is often overlooked amid efforts to attract large businesses, open new industrial parks, and grow new business sectors like biotech, is vital because small businesses have always been the key to the growth and vitality of individual communities and regions like Western Mass.

Just as important, these small businesses — everything from restaurants to dry-cleaning establishments; from dance studios to clothing stores — help give these communities their identity and make them more livable.

And that’s why we’ve been a strong supporter of what has become a movement of sorts in this region to encourage entrepreneurship and help those who have made the decision to put their name over the door — figuratively if not, in many cases, literally. Within this movement has been the creation and development of what’s been called the entrepreneurship ecosystem, which has many moving parts, from agencies that support entrepreneurs to colleges with programs in this subject, to venture-capital firms that provide the vital fuel to help businesses get to the next stage.

This ecosystem has always been important, but it’s perhaps even more important now in the middle of this pandemic. That’s because — and you know this already, but we need to remind you — a large number of small businesses are imperiled by this crisis. Their survival is not assured by any means, and as the calendar turns to fall — with winter not far behind and no relief in sight from this pandemic — uncertainty about the fate of many businesses only grows.

As the story on page 6 reveals, agencies and individuals that are part of the ecosystem have been working to help businesses navigate their way through this whitewater, be it with help securing a grant from the local chamber of commerce or a Paycheck Protection Program loan, or making a successful pivot to a different kind of service or a new twist on an old one that would help with all-important cash flow.

Meanwhile, the work of mentoring those in business or trying to get into business goes on, often with powerful results, as that same story recounts. Initiatives such as WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) creates matches that provide rewards to both parties, but especially the young (and, in some cases, not so young) women working to turn ideas into businesses and smaller businesses into larger, more established ventures.

It would have been easy to put such initiatives on the shelf for several months until the pandemic passes, but we don’t know when it’s going to pass, and the business, if we want to call it that, of supporting people like Nicole Ortiz, who recently put her food truck on the road in Holyoke, and Leah Kent, who wants to grow her business that supports writers and helps them get works published, must go on.

And it does, because, as we said, the creation and development of small businesses isn’t just one component of economic-development activity in this region; it is perhaps the most important component of all. v

Opinion

Editorial

Mayor Domenic Sarno is certainly confident that Springfield will rebound from all the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown at it the past seven months or so.

As BusinessWest spoke with him recently, he said at least a few times that he expects the City of Homes to bounce back — and quickly — when COVID is over (whenever that is). This isn’t surprising, obviously; this is what mayors do. And he bases that optimism on the many projects currently in progress, new initiatives likely to move onto and then off the drawing board, and the considerable amount of momentum the city had created before the pandemic changed the landscape back in late winter.

We share his optimism to some degree, but the future of Springfield right now is a giant question mark. And before we go any further, we need to say that most all urban areas, even Boston and New York, are in the same boat and facing the same daunting question.

Which is … what will things look like when this is all over?

In Springfield, the hope is that things will look a whole lot like they did in mid-January. Back then, there were events happening, like Red Sox Winter Weekend. The Thunderbirds were packing them in at the MassMutual Center, while MGM was drawing decent crowds at the casino and bringing people to the city for concerts and shows, benefiting the downtown restaurants and bars. The downtown office towers weren’t full, certainly, but there were plenty of people working in the central business district — enough to support the retail and hospitality businesses in that area.

Now … none of that is happening as the city tries to hang on and fight its way through this. The question is, can Springfield turn back the clock to start of this year and essentially pick up where it left off?

Perhaps, but it won’t be easy. And a big factor in this equation is the commercial office space downtown. Right now, the larger towers are mostly quiet as companies continue to have many of their employees work remotely. And there is speculation that they will remain mostly quiet as businesses adapt to a new way of doing things and considerably downsize their space.

Again, this isn’t an issue specific to Springfield. Boston is facing the same problem, and, to a large extent, so is New York.

But having a critical mass of workers in a central business district is one of the key ingredients in any success formula for such an area. The others are having people live in that district and having them come to visit. All three are important, and without one, more pressure gets put on the other two.

There are housing projects coming together in the broad downtown area — at Court Square and at the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street, to name a couple notable efforts — with the promise of more to come. And there are strong hopes that the vibrancy seen when there were shows at MGM and Symphony Hall and hockey games at the MassMutual Center will return once the pandemic is behind us — again, whenever that is.

But will this be enough to make the downtown area — and the city as a whole — thrive and regain the momentum lost to the pandemic?

Again, perhaps — but it seems logical that the city will not simply be able to turn back the clock; instead, it will likely have to turn the clock forward and find new and intriguing uses for the office space downtown and for the commercial spaces vacated by businesses that didn’t survive COVID-19.

Seven months into the pandemic, we know what we’ve lost, and we know what we have to somehow regain. The question for Springfield — and all urban areas — is ‘what can we expect when all this over?’ And right now, no one really knows.

Opinion

Editorial

Let’s face it — it’s been a long, hard year. And it’s only September.

Indeed, the pandemic has made this not only one of the most trying times almost anyone can remember, but one of the most tiring, especially when it comes to the seemingly unending barrage of bad news that began back in the dead of winter. Bright spots have been few and far between.

Which brings us to BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award. That’s the new name attached to a program started several years ago called the Continued Excellence Award. By whatever name it goes, this is an important honor, but one that often gets a little lost amid some of our other awards.

This one, sponsored this year and the past few years by Health New England, is presented to a Forty Under 40 winner who has continued to build upon their résumé professionally and perhaps within the community as well.

And this year’s class of five finalists provides a strong ray of light in a year that has been mostly dark. They are:

• Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, is also a winner of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers Award. Over the past several years, she has added dealerships to the company’s portfolio and many new lines to the list of nonprofit groups and causes she and the company support, especially Driving for the Cure, which raises money to battle brain cancer.

• Mike Fenton, an attorney with Springfield-based Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin as well as a Springfield city councilor, has been a finalist for this award many times, and for good reason. He represents Ward 2, but he’s had a strong impact across the city, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, is the pure entrepreneur in this group, and a multiple winner of our awards, including Top Entrepreneur in 2016. We’ve followed his story from the very beginning, when his was a struggling brand trying to break out. Now it’s in several states, and is the official vodka of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

• James Leahy, has a day job — with the Massachusetts State Lottery — and a city job, as an at-large city councilor in Holyoke who just celebrated two decades in that role. But his influence extends far beyond City Hall; indeed, he’s become actively involved in a number of Holyoke institutions.

• Peter DePergola is director of Clinical Ethics at Baystate Health. In a very short time, he has become not only a regional and state leader in the emerging field of bioethics, but a national and even international leader as well, particularly as he applies his expertise to the COVID-19 crisis.

The winner of the 2020 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced on October 8 at this year’s drive-in 40 Under Forty event at Mercedes Benz Springfield. But all of these individuals are winners. And, more importantly, the region is the winner for having them working, living, and making contributions inside the 413.

Opinion

Editorial

Eric Lesser might be on to something.

In fact, we’re pretty sure he is.

During a recent installment of BusinessTalk, the podcast produced by BusinessWest in conjunction with Living Local, Lesser — the state senator from Longmeadow and staunch advocate for high-speed rail linking Western and Eastern Mass. — was asked about that project, which has lost some of its visibility, if not its traction, in the midst of the pandemic. In short, people seemingly have other things to worry about right now.

He was asked specifically if the project might still be needed given the way the pandemic has clearly shown that people can work remotely and, thus, may not have to physically get from Western Mass. to Eastern Mass. in order to work for a company in Boston or Cambridge.

He answered first by saying the rail line might be needed now more than ever because people will — eventually — need to see one another again, albeit perhaps not as often. High-speed rail would enable them to do so in a manner that is efficient, would help take cars off the road and thus reduce congestion, and might level the playing field between east and west in this state by helping to reduce one of the boundaries to high-paying jobs in emerging fields like IT and biosciences.

But he went further, arguing that building the rail line now would not only accomplish all that, but would help move this region and the entire state out of a pandemic-induced recession that will likely be with us for years.

“The economy desperately needs this,” he said. “At the height of the Great Depression, our country built 78,000 bridges, we built 800 airports … we need to be ambitious about where we’re going, and the economy is going to need the investment, the stimulus. East-west rail would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy almost immediately from construction alone.”

He’s right, and this is the way state and federal officials need to be thinking moving forward as they go about finding ways to help individuals and businesses — and the nation as a whole — dig out of this hole created by the pandemic.

The comparisons to the Great Depression are appropriate — we are now in an economic downturn comparable to what happened 90 years ago in many ways: everything from the long lines at the unemployment office to the long lines at what were then soup kitchens and are now food pantries.

While World War II eventually ended the Great Depression, massive construction projects launched during the mid-’30s created millions of jobs that enabled families to survive those years. But those projects did much more than that. Indeed, they addressed needed infrastructure issues, vastly improved the nation’s transportation system, and paved the way for development of many western and Sun Belt states.

Projects ranging from the Hoover Dam to the Triborough Bridge in New York to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco were game changers in many different ways — especially the way they provided jobs at a time when people desperately needed them.

State and national leaders should be thinking about projects like east-west rail in the same light. Such initiatives can not only solve recognized problems, they can help lessen the already-crippling damage from this pandemic. And there are many other projects that can be undertaken, right here in this region, from repairing roads and bridges to renovating parks and bike trails.

There is a tendency among some to look at the damage from the pandemic as temporary, something that will be fixed once the virus has run its course. The accumulating evidence would seem to indicate otherwise — that it will take years to repair damage done to individual communities and a wide range of business sectors. The key to repairing this damage is jobs, not stimulus checks or even PPP money.

Lesser’s right. The high-speed rail project is more important now than it was before, and there are many projects that fit that description. The state and the nation can learn from what happened 90 years ago and make needed, prudent investments, even at a time of extreme challenge, to help all of us through this crisis.

Opinion

Editorial

In the 21 months since recreational marijuana became legal in Massachusetts, the industry has raked in about $150 million in tax revenue for state and local coffers.

Of that, $30 million — about 20% of the total — has poured in just since Memorial Day, when the state ended several weeks of COVID-19 restrictions on dispensaries as part of its reopening plan.

Talk about pent-up demand.

And talk about an opportunity.

In our cover story this month, Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, drew a comparison between current demand for cannabis with the lifting of prohibition during the Great Depression. Though times were still tough, alcohol sales surged, and have rarely let up since.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides than others, and cannabis — judging by these latest tax-revenue numbers, and by the customer lines outside dispensaries even as more competition springs up around the region — may be one of them.

Indeed, cannabis sales in the Bay State have totaled $785 million since November 2018, when adult use became legal here. The tax rate in the state is 6.25%, with a 10.75% excise and a 3% local tax in most areas. It adds up.

“This tax-revenue milestone is a big moment for the Massachusetts cannabis business community because it shows not only the great demand for safe, regulated cannabis, but also affirms the meaningful value this industry brings to cities and towns every single day,” David Torrisi, president of the Commonwealth Dispendary Assoc., noted in a statement following the news.

“We know the hardship that COVID-19 has imposed on local and state budgets,” he added, “and we are proud to help provide steady revenue streams that can hopefully reduce the need for difficult choices and maintain services.”

Such talk cheers Marrero and other municipal officials in Holyoke, the city that, more than any other in the region, has fully embraced the economic potential of cannabis, with a few businesses already open and many more in the pipeline.

And it’s not just tax revenue, although that is critical right now. It’s also jobs and business growth — both in new and growing enterprises that grow, manufacture, and sell cannabis products, and at companies that provide services to those entities, whether legal, security, maintenance … the list goes on.

It’s what Marrero called “economic contagion,” a positive and kind of delightful use of that latter word during this time of pandemic. Holyoke wants to create a cannabis cluster that will boost the entire city’s — and region’s — economy, and other communities might take heed of the lessons learned so far.

The main one is that cannabis appears to be a hardy sector, no matter what the broader economic conditions are. At a time when communities are looking for bright spots, this one ranks high on the list.

Opinion

Editorial

Nearly five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the biggest issues — and questions — to emerge involves remote work and its future.

Indeed, while many people have returned to the office over the past several weeks, large numbers of employees continue to work from home. And the longer they do that — with generally positive results when it comes to productivity and overall satisfaction among managers and workers alike — the more people ask the $64,000 question: is this the future of work?

The answer right now is, by and large, ‘we don’t know — but we’re certainly looking at it.’ And the reasons for this are obvious. Having large numbers of people working at home could save companies considerable amounts of money on real estate, office design and accommodations, and other expenses. And from some of the early reports, they can do this while making employees happier — most of them enjoy working from home and not commuting — and perhaps more productive, partly because, again, they’re happier and they’re not commuting.

But this goes well beyond real estate, and that’s why this issue deserves the attention it is now getting. Remote work has the potential — the potential, mind you — to perhaps level the playing field when it comes to urban and rural areas, and also perhaps change the landscape when it comes to downtowns dominated by office buildings — and the businesses that serve the workers in those buildings.

That’s perhaps. We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, but not really. These are the kinds of questions — and scenarios — that are already being talked about.

As that talk goes on, so does the discussion about remote work itself. As noted earlier, most of the early returns are positive. Companies do talk about how they miss the in-person interactions and a loss of the some of the collaborative spirit that comes with having everyone working in the same space.

But generally, they also talk about how productivity has not been impacted by people working at home, and how much employees appreciate these new arrangements. Some companies, like Google, have already told employees (most of them, anyway) they can and will work at home until roughly this time next year.

Whether these arrangements are being made, tolerated, and even applauded purely because of the pandemic remains to be seen. Maybe, when there’s a vaccine, everyone will return to the office and things will be as they were in February 2020.

But that now seems unlikely. COVID has, in many ways, shown the world that working from home is a viable option, one that could bring benefits for employers and employees alike. And this opens up a number of possibilities.

Indeed, individuals now living in Boston won’t have to live in that area to work for companies located there. They can live in Western Mass., where the living is cheaper, the air is cleaner, and the roads are less clogged (for now). Speaking of roads, do we have to worry about them being clogged again?

Meanwhile, people living in Western Mass. won’t have to work for companies located in Western Mass. Some of them don’t anyway, but now more can enjoy that option.

And what about high-speed rail? Will we still need it if far fewer people will need to travel across the state to work? Seems like the playing field may be leveled without it.

While in some respects these seem like questions for another day, they are appropriate to ask right now. And if the pandemic lingers and people continue to work from home successfully and productively into next year, these questions will be asked more and more — and the answer might well become obvious, if it isn’t already.

There have been many stories to emerge from this pandemic, but remote working may be the biggest of them all. There are many questions still to be answered and research to be done, but this may just be the future of work — or a very big part of it. And the impact could be enormous.

Opinion

Big E Cancellation a Major Blow

Going back to the early days of the pandemic, one of the overriding questions on the minds of many in this region, and especially its business community, was: will there be a Big E?

Late last month, we finally learned the answer: no.

In many ways, that verdict, arrived at after lengthy discussions between Big E organizers and officials in West Springfield, was not unexpected. Looking at the situation objectively, one had to wonder how organizers could possibly stage a fair that draws more than 100,000 people on a good day and keep not only these visitors safe, but also the workers, vendors, and area residents.

It just didn’t seem doable, even to those who really, as in really, wanted the Big E to happen.

And that’s a large constituency, especially within the business community, where many different kinds of ventures benefit greatly from the 17-day fair and the 1.5 million people drawn to it annually. That list includes hotels, restaurants, tent-rental companies, transportation outfits, food vendors, breweries, and many, many more. These businesses have already lost so much to the pandemic, and now they’ve suffered perhaps the biggest loss of all.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Indeed, the year-long (at least) challenge of surviving the pandemic just became a little sterner for all kinds of businesses within the 413.

And the community loses out as well. The Big E isn’t just an annual event, it’s a century-old tradition that has become part of the fabric of this region.

Canceling the Big E was certainly the right move from a public-health perspective, and it makes sense on so many levels. But that doesn’t soften the blow for constituencies ranging from large corporations to homeowners near the fairgrounds who turn their driveways and lawns into parking lots.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the Big E provides more evidence — not that anyone needed any — of just how cruel this pandemic has become for business owners, most of whom have worked diligently to abide by the rules and do everything they can to position themselves to survive COVID-19.

Indeed, so much of this fight to survive involves matters far out of the control of these business owners — from orders to shelter in place to the many details and deadlines (often coming without any real warning) with regard to reopening the economy, to the loss of key customers, such as the Big E and MGM Springfield, which is due to reopen soon after being closed for nearly four months.

As the stories that begin on page 6 clearly show, business owners have done whatever they can do to pivot, create new revenue streams, and simply try to weather this storm. But the pandemic keeps throwing more challenges at them, with the Big E’s cancellation being the latest.

The silence on Memorial Avenue this September will be deafening. And the blow to the region will be significant.

Opinion

Editorial

Words and money.

That’s mostly what the business community has been throwing at the problems magnified by the deaths of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks in recent weeks.

The words have come in the forms of statements from CEOs expressing outrage over what has happened and support for Black Lives Matter. And they’ve come from everywhere, including many companies in this region. Some went public, others were kept internal, but they all struck the same general tones.

The money? It has come in the form of pledges made by corporations to fight racism and increase black wealth, and there have been many of them — from Bank of America, Walmart, Bain Capital, and myriad others.

While the words and monetary donations are welcome, the corporate world, and we’ll include nonprofits in this, needs to do more — much more. It needs to take steps that are sustainable and, well, institutional, to generate the kind of real change this critical moment in time demands.

Businesses large and small need to take the inititiative to not only understand systemic racism and the many forms it takes — that’s the key first step, because so many still do not understand it — but then take steps to address it with changes that become embedded in these companies’ cultures.

As the story on page 6 reveals, there are some signs that this might happen. Signs such as phone calls and e-mails to the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), a 501(c)(3) created several years ago after several area leaders were inspired by what they heard while on a City2City trip to Grand Rapids, Mich. What they saw was a city making slow but steady progress in efforts to understand and combat racism by bringing diverse audiences together in a room and talking about an issue that so few want to talk about.

Through these discussions, individuals and groups come to better understand that racism is real, it is systemic, and it needs to be addressed.

In recent years, HRIPV has hosted more than 800 people for its signature two-day session, which, overall, strives to help attendees understand there is only one human race.

Many of the phone calls and e-mails mentioned earlier involve individuals, groups, businesses, and nonprofits that have attended one of these sessions and want to know, essentially, what more they can do to address this age-old problem.

And as Vanessa Otero, the interim director of HRIPV, told BusinessWest, the ‘what’s next’ involves helping businesses and institutions move beyond acknowledging and comprehending racism to a point where they become anti-racist.

To help them get there, the institute is working to formalize and institutionalize a broader roster of services that include half- and full-day training sessions for board and staffs, onboarding services for companies to help ensure that new hires are ready to engage with an anti-racism work environment, and policies and procedures audits, designed to identify blind spots that disproportionately have an adverse effect on people of color.

We hope the institute builds the infrastructure needed to build and sustain these programs and that area companies and nonprofits embrace them. In the meantime, these same businesses and agencies need to take a hard look at their policies and practices, as well as the makeup of their boards and workforces, with an eye toward creating not only diversity, but equal opportunity.

Many have taken some positive steps in these directions in recent years, and to their own benefit, but much work remains to be done.

In short, while the words in statements and press releases and the checks with several zeroes on them are welcome and often helpful, this moment in time — and that’s exactly what it is — cries out for more.

Opinion

PPP: The Feds Need to Do More

As you read the accounts of individual companies grappling with the pandemic in the June 8 issue of BusinessWest — we call them ‘COVID Stories’ — a number of themes and similarities emerge.

The first is that virtually every business in every sector of the economy was hit, and hit extremely hard by this. We talked with people in healthcare, service, tourism and hospitality, the sector known as ‘large events,’ marketing, retail, and more, and all of them said the same thing — that the floor was virtually taken out from under them back in mid-March.

Another theme is that businesses have responded with imagination and determination, finding new revenue streams, new products to develop, new ways to do things, and new opportunities wherever they arise.

Still another theme is that these new revenue streams and opportunities haven’t produced results that come anything close to what these companies were doing before the pandemic, a time that now seems like years ago, but was really only three short months ago.

Which brings us to one more common thread among the stories presented this month in a series that will continue into the summer — the fact that these companies needed help, received it, and will very likely need more help if they are going to fully rebound from this crisis.

Indeed, most all the companies we spoke with received support in the form of loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, an acronym now very much part of the current business landscape.

“Most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’”

Some struggled to get it and waited nervously for the money to land in their accounts. Others haven’t really touched it yet and don’t know exactly what to do with it because they can’t bring their people back to work because there is, as yet, no work to do.

The program isn’t perfect, and there are some bugs to be worked out, but overall, this measure has done exactly what it was designed to do — provide a lifeline to businesses that desperately need one. PPP has enabled companies to meet that most basic of obligations — meeting payroll — at a time when so many would not have been able to do so.

But as these stories make painfully clear, most of the companies we spoke with are not even close to being out of the woods. In fact, some are counting down the days until the PPP runs out with a certain amount of dread and a painful question: ‘what happens then?’

What should happen is the government offering another round of support to companies that can demonstrate real need — and, again, that’s most of them. The recovery is not going to be V-shaped or even U-shaped. It may be several months before there is, in fact, real recovery.

And the federal government has an obligation to help businesses get to that point. When the PPP was first conceptualized, the thinking was (we presume) that, in eight weeks, the worst would be over and things would start to return to normal. It’s still early in the game, but mounting evidence suggests that is not the case.

‘Normal’ is still a long-term goal, and it’s clear that companies will need additional support to be able to keep paying people and staying upright until better days arrive.

As one business owner we talked with said, and we’re paraphrasing here — ‘the government caused this problem by ordering a shutdown … so now, they own the problem.’ He’s right.

Already, there are far more ‘for sale’ and ‘for lease’ signs on properties across the region than there were three months ago. A number of businesses, many of them in the broad realm of hospitality and tourism, have already failed. Many more will fail in the months to come if they don’t get the support they need — not only from local consumers, but from the federal government itself.

PPP isn’t perfect, but it works. And we’ll likely need at least one more round of it to enable businesses to survive this pandemic.

Opinion

Editorial

“Free money.”

That’s the phrase one of the region’s bank presidents used in a recent interview with BusinessWest to describe funds contained within the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) being administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

He’s not entirely accurate with that choice of words — these loans are forgivable only if the companies receiving them keep everyone on the payroll for the prescribed period. But ‘free money’ is essentially what this is, if those requirements are met.

And the lure of free money is obviously quite strong, because interest in this program is off the charts. And as news starts to leak out about some of the large, national companies that are receiving this free money, it’s clear to us, and most everyone else, that some of it — and, unfortunately, a large portion of it — is not going to the desperate small businesses that need it most.

Hedge funds, national restaurant chains like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and J. Alexander’s, and a host of other large, public companies have all received several million dollars from the $369 billion fund, which was totally depleted less than two weeks after the program was officially launched. Meanwhile, Harvard University, with its $40 billion endowment, received nearly $9 million in aid from the federal government through the CARES Act — specifically, a $14 billion fund to support higher-education institutions during the pandemic. More ‘free money.’

Actually, Harvard received less than some other either Ivy League schools — Columbia and Cornell each got almost $13 million.

Whatever those numbers are, they represent poor allocation of money that is desperately needed to keep smaller businesses afloat during these ultra-challenging times. Harvard could certainly use $9 million, but it doesn’t need $9 million — not nearly as much as hundreds of struggling small colleges across the country do.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House could certainly use the $20 million it received, but it doesn’t need it to survive like the myriad small restaurants pushed to the brink of collapse need it.

Before we go any further, we’ll acknowledge that big companies have just as much right to apply for, and receive, stimulus money as the small ones do. They’re not breaking any laws by doing so. And we understand that a job saved is a job saved, whether that job was provided by a national taco chain or the corner pizza joint.

But the reality is, with a great many small businesses across this country, when it comes to the pandemic, we’re not talking about a bad quarter or a bad year — we’re talking about survival.

And while it wasn’t written into the legislation that created the Paycheck Protection Program and other forms of relief, enabling threatened companies to survive was, or should have been, the intent.

Moving forward, it should be. Many more relief measures will be passed in the months to come, and with these, Congress should be more diligent about who is eligible and who is actually awarded funds.

Meanwhile, we encourage those larger businesses to follow the lead of Shake Shack, the giant chain that was awarded PPP money and then gave it back amid the outcry from smaller businesses left high and dry.

“As we watched this opportunity play out over the weeks, it was very clear that the program was underfunded and wasn’t set up for everyone to win,” Shake Shack CEO and Chairman Danny Meyer said of his decision. “By returning our $10 million, that $10 million can go back into the pot and go to the people that deserve it.”

He’s right about that, and by ‘deserve,’ he means the hardworking small-business owners who simply don’t have the resources to weather this storm.

These are the people who deserve this ‘free money,’ and we’re hoping that, from this point forward, more of them wind up getting it.

Opinion

Editorial

Those in this region who have been in business a long time — and even those who have had their name over the door since the start of this century — have seen and endured quite a bit.

Indeed, over just the past 20 years or so, there’s a been the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the resulting downturn in the economy, followed by 9/11, soon after which the phrase heard most often in businesses across every sector was ‘the phones just stopped ringing.’ Later, of course, there was the Great Recession, when the phones again stopped ringing, as well as — all within a few months — a tornado, a hurricane, that snowstorm on Halloween, and the resulting power outages. There’s also been a workforce crisis, a skills gap, the arrival of the Millennials (who get blamed for everything), family medical leave, and who knows what else.

Like we said, businesses have been through a lot.

But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.

Look at what’s happening. Colleges are telling students not to come back from spring break while they figure out how to handle all classes remotely. Communities and organizations are canceling events like the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parade and postponing others to future dates, hoping matters will improve. States are declaring emergencies, and people are being advised to avoid large gatherings. The stock market is in ‘bear’ territory.

Communities haven’t taken steps like this World War II, if they even took them then. Or since 1919, when the Spanish Influenza pandemic raced around the globe, killing millions.

The worst thing about all this, as we said, is that people can’t rely on experience, because there is simply none to fall back on. This isn’t like a recession or a tornado or a terrorist attack in New York.

“… businesses have been through a lot. But nothing quite like coronavirus. This is something new. This is, in most all ways, uncharted territory.”

They still ran the St. Patrick’s Day Parade during the Great Recession. The region’s colleges stayed open after 9/11. No one cancelled meetings and conventions following the tornado in 2011.

This is different. Very, very different.

So what do we do when we can’t call on experience?

We rely on common sense, our strengths, and our ability to innovate. In short, this is what has seen us through all of those downturns and natural disasters mentioned above.

And by innovation, we mean our capacity to look at what we do and how we do it, and find new and perhaps better ways. And if we can do that, we’re not simply hunkering down, waiting things out, or trying to survive; we’re making ourselves stronger and more resilient.

Looking back on 2008 and 2009, as companies coped with the worst downturn in 80 years, many found ways to better maximize resources, and especially people, while also creating new avenues for revenue and growth. Those challenging days provided a stern test, and the businesses that passed it certainly reaped the benefits of their perseverance and resourcefulness by becoming more resilient overall.

In short, they learned something, and they benefited from what they learned.

Coronavirus will likely present another stern test, and it will require a similar response — creativity and innovation.

And it will require something else as well — a firm understanding that small businesses (and large ones as well) are being severely impacted by this and need any form of support you can give them. From pizza shops, coffee shops, restaurants, and taverns losing the business of college students who won’t be returning, to banquet facilities losing scores of events scheduled for the coming weeks; from Holyoke shops that won’t get that huge parade bounce to travel-related businesses seeing cruises and flights canceled — businesses are hurting. And they’ll need help to get through this.

That’s what we mean by uncharted territory.

Opinion

Editorial

We’re not sure just how the people of this region should take this, but apparently Western Mass. is finally getting some attention.

That’s attention as in … things are soooo bad in and around Boston when it comes to congestion, traffic, and the sky-high cost of housing (and living in general) that some people are thinking about maybe — dare we say it — thinking about possibly giving this area a look.

That’s what we mean by attention.

It seems that, as officials and residents alike ask out loud about possible solutions to the worsening situation in Boston, Western Mass. — and Worcester in some cases — are being mentioned as places where people might go to escape what’s happening in Beantown.

A few months ago, BusinessWest talked with local realtor and real-estate manager Evan Plotkin, who firmly believes that Boston’s rents have gone so high that some business owners, as well as those who run some state agencies, might be willing to move to Springfield, where the lease rates are a fraction what they are in the 617 — and some of the other zip codes as well.

Meanwhile, a few weeks back, Boston Globe columnist Joan Vennochi submitted a piece with this headline: “The Solution to Boston’s Housing and Congestion Crisis? Western Mass.,” and the subhead: “With high-speed rail, plus a major attitude adjustment, Western Massachusetts could be Greater Boston’s new hot neighborhood.”

We’ll get to the rail and ‘attitude adjustment’ parts in a minute. First, that column…

In the article, at what appears to be an invite from state Sen. Eric Lesser — or maybe it’s a challenge — Vennochi visits Western Mass. and writes about getting off at exit 5 in Chicopee. Perhaps she’s simply role-playing (assuming the identity of someone who needs an introduction to this area), but her trek seems much like a visit to a foreign country. Maybe she brought her passport with her just in case.

She marvels at the low housing prices in Hampden County, raves about the co-work space available at the Brewer-Young Mansion in Longmeadow, and describes the Valley Venture Mentors offices in the Springfield Innovation Center as “cool space.” She goes on to interview some people living and working here, as well as one couple that left Boston for Holyoke and admit to not really missing the Hub that much.

Like many of her readers in the Boston area, this was a real learning experience, and one that might, that’s might, open some eyes.

But now we have to return to that subtitle and what amounts to huge caveats, or stumbling blocks, concerning Western Mass.

The first is rail service. Not many will be willing to leave much-higher-paying jobs in the Boston area to come here, and few will want to keep them and commute from here at the present two hours each way. So high-speed rail will be essential to getting more people to move to the 413.

The other problem is that attitude-adjustment thing. One is definitely needed if some people are even going to look west. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Opinion

Editorial

Mike Mathis, the individual who guided MGM Springfield through the permitting and construction phases and then the first 17 months of operation, is out at the South End resort casino. MGM has chosen to go in another direction, leadership-wise, and probably also with regard to how the casino operates.

Mathis’s ouster was announced Tuesday, and it was immediately linked to December’s record-low monthly performance for the Springfield casino when it comes to gross gaming revenues — under $19 million. That same month, Encore Boston had its best month since it opened last summer (with $54 million), and the juxtaposition of the numbers is telling.

What they show, at least from a gaming revenues standpoint, is that MGM is not attracting enough gamblers — it’s not bringing enough people to its doors. Chris Kelley, who ran MGM’s operation in Northfield Park in Ohio and took over in Springfield on Tuesday, will be charged with changing that equation. Mathis will assume a new role as senior vice president of Business Development at MGM, working on various company initiatives.

“We are excited to have Chris lead the MGM Springfield team,” said Jorge Perez, regional portfolio president of MGM Resorts International. “Chris’ experience in Ohio, rebranding and integrating a property and introducing MGM to the community, will be an asset for Springfield as we continue to work closely with the community and strive to not only be a world-class entertainment destination but also a good corporate neighbor.”

That won’t be an easy assignment. Indeed, while MGM Springfield has succeeded in bringing jobs, additional vibrancy, and opportunities for a number of small businesses, it hasn’t really succeeded in its primary mission — bringing people to Springfield.

This has been clear since the day it opened in August 2018, when visitation was well below what was expected. For roughly a year, Mathis repeatedly used the phrase ‘ramping up’ to describe what was happening, with the expectation — based on previous experience at other casinos — that the numbers would improve.

There have been some good months since, but the numbers haven’t improved significantly, if at all. And now that Encore Boston seems to be hitting its stride, it will that much more difficult to improve those gaming revenues.

From the start, the question has always been ‘will people come to Springfield?’ But there have been variations on that query, including ‘will people come to Springfield now that Encore Boston is open?’ and ‘will people come to Springfield instead of Boston, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and all the other places where there’s casino gambling?’

Roughly 17 months after the casino opened, the answer to the question is the proverbial ‘yes, but…’ And the ‘but’ is followed by ‘not enough of them.’

It’s clear that MGM will have to create more draws — like the highly successful Red Sox Winter Weekend that brought an estimated 10,000 people to Main Street — to bring individuals and groups to the City of Homes.

In short, people need more reasons to come to the Springfield casino, and it will be Chris Kelley’s assignment to create them.

Opinion

Editorial

Twenty-three years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition initiative called our ‘Top Entrepreneur’ award.

We would have called it ‘Entrepreneur of the Year,’ but that phrase was, and still is, copyrighted. Besides, most of the people we’ve honored over the years weren’t recognized only for accomplishments in a given year, but instead for what they’ve done over a lifetime — or at least to that point in their career. And, in many cases, we also honored their compelling vision for what might be, and their ongoing work to achieve it. Past, present, and future.

Cinda Jones, our Top Entrepreneur for 2019, falls into all three categories.

Indeed, she has already spearheaded a transformation of the North Amherst neighborhood her family business, W.D. Cowls Inc., calls home, moving on from an unprofitable sawmill a decade ago and cultivating a period of both significant land conservation — like the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in Leverett and Shutesbury and an adjacent, 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham — and community-development initiatives.

The latter is best represented these days by North Square at the Mill District, a still-evolving mixed-use project that’s attracting residents, eclectic retailers, eateries, and what she calls ‘experiences’ (fun ones — she’s not soliciting dentists or accountants).

But perhaps the most intriguing element of this project is the vision that sustains it. It’s a vision of how people, especially young people, want to live in the 21st century — their longing for more face-to-face contact, their growing awareness of climate change, and their general desire to live in a hive of activity, not a long drive from it.

Any developer can invest in modern, well-appointed buildings and sign up whatever tenants show interest; Jones and her team aren’t settling for anyone, though. They want North Square to be an economic success, but also a rich way of life for those who choose to live and work there.

Western Mass. has been home to plenty of entrepreneurial vision over the decades and centuries, from legends like Milton Bradley and gunmakers Horace Smith and Daniel Wesson to the names BusinessWest has profiled as Top Entrepreneurs for the past quarter-century. Those range from Pride CEO Bob Bolduc, V-One Vodka President Paul Kozub, and Paragus Strategic IT President Delcie Bean — people who started companies from scratch and brought them to regional prominence — to Big Y’s D’Amour family and Balise Motor Sales President Jeb Balise, who built significantly on the work of multiple generations before them.

Again, Cinda Jones represents both models in some ways, stewarding a nine-generation family business but doing it in completely different ways, and with totally new enterprises, than in the past.

What all 24 years of honorees share, despite their vastly different achievements, is vision — to see opportunities that others had not — as well as the work ethic to act on that vision and a desire to see people’s lives improved in some way by the end result.

That sort of vision and energy is what much of the Pioneer Valley’s economy is built on, and, from our perspective, it’s not in short supply. v

Opinion

Editorial

Often, when we say that something, or some trend, is ‘changing the landscape,’ we don’t mean literally, and we’re often exaggerating.

That was not the case with some of the biggest stories of the 2010s, a decade in which the landscape was changed literally, but also figuratively, and in all kinds of ways.

Start with the tornado that roared through the region on June 1, 2011. It certainly altered the landscape, from Springfield to Brimfield. But there were other landscape-altering developments over the past 10 years, especially the introduction of casino gambling and the arrival of a broad, multi-faceted cannabis industry in Massachusetts. More on both of those later.

But there were other significant changes to the landscape — specifically, the business landscape — that took place over the past decade. And they’re all still having a profound impact.

These range from ongoing workforce challenges facing employers across every single sector of the economy to the continued growth and maturity of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, to the opening of the Dr. Suess Museum at the Quadrangle, an addition that is certainly helping to put Springfield on the map.

Speaking of Springfield and being on the map, it’s pretty safe to say that more people are setting their GPS for the City of Homes than at any time in recent memory (we know, GPS hasn’t been around that long, but you get the point). The casino in the city’s South End has a lot to do with that, but overall, the city is enjoying a renaissance of sorts that involves the arts, tourism, entrepreneurship and innovation, a new hockey team, some new businesses, and even some new places to live.

There is still considerable work to do, but it’s safe to say that the city has rebounded nicely from the fiscal nightmare of a decade ago and now has what could be called momentum as we enter the 2020s.

As for the casino and cannabis, these were the biggest stories of the decade, and they could well be among the biggest in the decade to come.

MGM Springfield has transformed the South End into something one might find in Las Vegas. The question on everyone’s minds, though, is just how many people are finding it. The revenues — as in gross gambling revenues, or GGR — are not what they were projected to be, and that is certainly cause for concern.

But, revenues aside, the casino is certainly bringing more vibrancy to the downtown, especially when big shows are slated. And the complex holds considerable promise for luring more convention groups to the region.

The casino will certainly be making headlines for years, but the question remains — what kind of headlines?

As for cannabis … we wrote several months ago that this development is likely to be far more impactful than the casino on a regional basis, and we’re already seeing that. In communities like Holyoke, Easthampton, Northampton, and others, cannabis is bringing jobs, tax revenues, and new opportunities for development of commercial real estate, much of it previously vacant or underutilized.

And we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial real estate.

The cannabis industry, in most respects, is still very much in its infancy. What will it look like when it’s all grown up? That’s a matter to be decided in the next decade.

As for the one that’s soon to be referred to in the past tense … it was one of profound change to the landscape, in every sense of that phrase.

Opinion

Editorial

Ordinarily, a press release announcing that one of the region’s colleges or universities had maintained its accreditation with the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) would barely register as news.

But this was not the case with the recent announcement that NECHE voted to continue the accreditation of Hampshire College. Or ‘embattled Hampshire College,’ as the case may be, because it seems that this adjective has more or less became attached to the school as it has endured severe economic hardship over the past 18 months or so.

Indeed, maintaining accreditation was hardly a foregone conclusion for this school, which has seen enrollment drop dramatically, putting it in fiscal peril. In fact, for some, it seemed like a long shot.

So NECHE’s vote, which essentially buys Hampshire College two years to put itself on much more solid ground, is a milestone, and, hopefully, the first of many.

The vote is affirmation that the school — which has vowed to maintain its independence, launched a major fundraising campaign, hired a new president and several other administrators, and set ambitious goals for enrollment for 2020, its 50th-anniversary year — is on the right track.

Hampshire and its new leader, Ed Wingenbach, said they had a plan, or a path forward. They told NECHE that it is “ambitious, data-driven, and achievable.” And NECHE, apparently, is in agreement.

But this doesn’t mean Hampshire College is out of the woods. Not by a long shot.

While the school maintained its accreditation, there were some caveats, most of them involving what’s known as “institutional resources,’ or the bottom line. Hampshire’s still isn’t very good, and it needs to get much better.

To that end, the school has set about raising $60 million by 2024; an ambitious capital campaign called “Change in the Making: A Campaign for Hampshire” was kicked off at ceremonies on the campus last week. And while Hampshire is off to a great start — more than $11 million has been raised toward that goal, and the school has some good friends that can help it in this endeavor (alumnus Ken Burns is serving as co-chair of the campaign), that is a very big number.

And, as been noted several times over the past few years, demographics and other conditions are not working in Hampshire’s favor as it works to stabilize its future. High-school classes continue to get smaller, and this trend will continue. Meanwhile, the sky-high price of a college education is prompting many young people and their parents to put a premium on value and return on investment when they search for a school, a trend that further endangers small private schools with large price tags — like Hampshire.

Had the school not maintained accreditation, that would have been a virtual death knell. It’s hard enough to attract students considering the conditions listed above; it’s nearly impossible when a school has lost accreditation.

But the announcement from NECHE is merely the first of several milestones that Hampshire must reach. This will still be an uphill battle, but the school has in essence made it through base camp.

Hampshire College has been given an important lease on life. Now, it must make the very most of this opportunity.

Opinion

Editorial

On the gridiron, they call it ‘piling on.’

That’s when one tackler stops the ball carrier and begins to take him down, and a number of teammates come over and help him get the job done. That’s piling on.

The phrase has been adapted for use off the football field as well. It has taken on several meanings, and is often used in the context of debates and adding many voices to an expressed opinion on a particular subject.

With that, we’ll say we’re piling on today on the subject of UMass football, or the sorry state of UMass Amherst football, to be more precise. To be sarcastic, and a little snarky, this team probably hasn’t piled on all season, and that explains why it’s giving up more than 50 points a game on average. And this isn’t to LSU, Ohio State, or Oklahoma, either. It’s to Army, Liberty, UConn, Louisiana Tech, Northwestern, and other non-powerhouses in college football.

But this isn’t a column for the sports page. It’s an editorial for a business publication. College football is business, but, more to the point, we believe the sad state of the football team is hurting the business — and the brand — of the state university.

We’re not the only ones expressing this opinion, hence that comment about piling on.

Indeed, other media outlets have gone beyond printing the abysmal scores of the UMass games — 44-0, 69-21, 63-21, and 63-7 have been some of the recent ones — and are now asking, ‘why are we still doing this?’

‘This,’ of course, is playing football in what’s known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, where the Alabamas, Georgias, and Notre Dames live. UMass has played all those schools and others, generally receiving more than $1 million for the privilege of traveling to those college towns, becoming a designated cupcake on the schedule, and getting trucked by the home team.

We’d say it’s getting embarrassing, but it’s well past the ‘getting’ stage — so much so that UMass President Marty Meehan, who was at the Army game at West Point a few weeks back and witnessed the carnage (that’s the 63-7 score, and it wasn’t really that close) first-hand, knew what reporters were calling about the following Monday before they asked their first question.

When asked by the Boston Globe whether the school should give up the ghost and drop back down a level in college football, Meehan danced around the matter and essentially said it was up to the school and its chancellor to make that decision.

Maybe he’s right, but he could certainly help them make it, and we believe he should.

Over the past several years, we’ve written countless stories about a university on the rise — a business school climbing up the ranks nationally, astronomers helping to provide proof of black holes, student scientists and entrepreneurs turning discoveries in the lab into new businesses, and a food-service program second to none — and a brand taking hold nationally.

Football can’t and won’t kill the brand, but these scores, this embarrassment on the field, certainly isn’t helping, and of late, it has become a distraction.

Yes, this football season will mercifully end in a few weeks, and maybe the press will go away for a while and stop talking about football. But the problem isn’t going away — and it is a problem, a very big problem.

Nearly a decade after entering the Football Bowl Subdivision, UMass isn’t making any progress. In fact, it’s regressing. It is struggling mightily to recruit solid players, as might be expected given the school’s location and its track record for losing by 40 points every week. And that’s not going to change anytime soon. The school is finding out that this is a cycle you can’t break.

Maybe the money is working out, but we think it’s more of a wash than anything else. And the school’s reputation, or brand, is taking a serious hit that can’t be mitigated by the hockey team going to the national finals last spring.

The team has become a punching bag and a punchline, and it’s time for the university to cut its losses.

Opinion

Editorial

As the headlines keep coming about the state’s casinos not meeting their projections for gaming revenues, the announcement last week that the Boston Red Sox will bring their annual Winter Weekend fan event to MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center was well-timed and quite poignant.

We’ve been saying for some time now — and we’ll keep on saying — that, while the revenue projections for the state’s casinos are somewhat disappointing, they are just part of what gaming brings to the state and the communities in which they are located. Do we wish their revenues were more in line with the projections made all those years ago? Sure, but the casinos, and especially the one in Springfield, have brought benefits well beyond additional revenues to the state.

In the City of Homes, it has created momentum and traffic on most Saturday nights. On nights when there are shows, downtown comes alive and looks like … well, it doesn’t look like Springfield, or at least the Springfield of much of the past several decades. And the casino continues to bring energy and benefits in ways that probably couldn’t have been anticipated when officials were signing the host-community agreement drafted several years ago.

Which brings us back to the Red Sox and the Winter Weekend. This is one of the many benefits resulting from the new, multi-year partnership the team inked with MGM as the “official and exclusive resort of the team” early last year.

That designation once belonged to Foxwoods Resort and Casino in Connecticut, meaning that, for two days in January, a large group of Red Sox players (past and present), officials, and, yes, fans traveled to the Nutmeg State and spent a considerable amount of money there.

Next Jan. 17 and 18, those players, officials, and fans — and that spending money — will instead be coming to Springfield. And they’ll be coming during a time when the tourism sector here could certainly use a boost.

Several thousand fans are expected to come to the festival, which will include a town-hall event, autograph sessions, and photo opportunities with the players from today and yesterday.

This will be a great opportunity for fans of the team to connect with the players and coaches in a way they probably never have before. Meanwhile, those who come to see the team’s stars will also see a rising star in the city of Springfield — which they probably haven’t seen up close either.

Overall, this will be a tremendous opportunity for the city to roll out the red carpet and showcase all the good things that have happened here in recent years.

Some logistically minded people are already wondering, ‘what happens if it snows?’ We’re pretty certain the organizers will figure out. And they’ll also figure out how to make these two days something memorable, not only for Red Sox fans but for those doing business in downtown Springfield.

It all came to be because MGM forged a strong business partnership with the Red Sox. That’s one of the benefits you don’t see when you’re just looking at statistics concerning gross gaming revenue. And it’s one of the many reasons why it’s far too early to discuss whether the gaming industry is off to a disappointing start in the Bay State.

The Red Sox are coming to town. And Springfield is the big winner in this game.

Opinion

Editorial

When BusinessWest decided a few years back to create a new recognition program to honor women in this region, the next big decision involved assigning a name to this initiative.

‘Women in Business’ would have been the obvious choice, and publications with similar missions and audiences have gone that route. But that would be short-sighted, and it would leave out a good number of women who are making a real difference in this community.

‘Women Leaders’ is another option, and it would certainly work, because these are the individuals that this program was created to identify — and celebrate.

But we chose ‘Women of Impact’ for a reason. When we hear that word ‘impact,’ we think of people who are influencing this region in some way, creating positive change, improving quality of life, and moving the needle on many of the important issues facing society. And while doing that, they may also be very successful in business as well.

We also chose ‘Women of Impact’ because there are countless ways to make an impact in this region — each one of them important in its own way. It was and is our desire to show the variety of ways that people, and especially women, can be impactful. We were quite successful with this assignment in our first year, 2018, and we can say the same for the class of 2019. The stories for this year’s class are unique:

• Tricia Canavan, president of United Personnel, is a highly successful businesswoman, but she is having an impact in many ways, especially in her various efforts to help ensure that individuals possess the skills they need to succeed in the workplace;

• Carol Moore Cutting, president, CEO, and general manager of Cutting Edge Broadcasting, is also a successful businesswoman and a role model for women of color across the region. She also epitomizes the hard work, sacrifice, and the ability to overcome adversity that is necessary to succeed in business — and in life;

• Jean Deliso, principal with Deliso Financial Services, is also a successful business owner and has spent her career helping individuals, and especially women, become empowered when it comes to financial planning and securing a solid future;

• Ellen Freyman is an accomplished business lawyer, but she would be the first to tell you the biggest impact she is making concerns helping others, especially women and minorities, get involved in their communities and make an impact themselves.

• Mary Hurley has been a life-long public servant and has made an impact at every stop in her career — as a lawyer, a Springfield city councilor, mayor of the city, District Court judge, and, most recently, as governor’s councilor. At each stop, she has impacted lives in countless ways;

• Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of schools in Springfield and the first Hispanic woman to hold that post, is being impactful in many ways, from helping to ensure students can succeed in the workplace after they accept their diplomas to serving as a role model for young women, and especially Hispanic women;

• Suzanne Parker, executive director of Girls Inc., has transformed that agency into a powerful force when it comes to empowering young women and enabling them to seize career opportunities. As a mother and master of the art of balancing life and work, she is also a role model to those girls across the region; and

• Kate Putnam, managing director of Golden Seeds and a successful businesswomen in her own right, is making an impact in several ways, but especially in her efforts to mentor entrepreneurs, and especially women entrepreneurs, helping them attain much-needed capital and grow this region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

Eight stories. Far more than eight ways to have an impact on this region and the people who call it home. This is why we created a new recognition program and why we chose this name. And that’s also why the class of 2019 is worthy of celebration.

Opinion

Editorial

State governments are, by and large, clunky and inefficient bodies known for their slow pace, general indecisiveness, and tendency to study rather than act decisively.

Those are generalities, to be sure, but they’re also truisms.

While most all state legislatures share those qualities, the Bay State’s leadership seems to stand out from the rest. There are many recent examples of this — everything from east-west rail to the education bill currently being debated.

And then, there’s casino gambling, and most recently, sports gambling.

For reasons we’ve never fully understood, this state lost a great many years — at least a decade by most accounts — when it came to legalizing casino gambling.

While legislators were debating the relative merits of gaming — and debating them some more — a host of other states were moving forward with facilities and establishing a solid foundation that has made it more difficult for the casinos now operating in the Bay State to achieve the kinds of revenues that were originally projected.

And now, the Legislature, which has shown a propensity in recent years for letting the voters make some of the most difficult decisions through referendum questions, is repeating, and compounding, its mistake on gaming by dragging its feet on sports gambling.

Legislative leaders have expressed interest in the concept, and some project a vote might — that’s might — come before the end of this legislative session. If and when it is approved, by next July, it will be another six to 12 months before someone can actually place a bet on a sports team in Massachusetts.

By then, the state will have lost tens of millions of dollars in needed tax revenues to Rhode Island, New Hampshire (set to launch its own program), and other states that saw the light and decided to take action.

We’re not sure why our Legislature couldn’t do the same thing. Waiting and watching and learning doesn’t seem to make any sense at this point.

Sports gambling is a fact of life in this country. Legalizing it and taking advantage of the revenues would seem to be a no-brainer, especially given the heightened degree of competition within the gaming industry and the need for the state’s casinos to be able to keep pace with its neighbors on every level.

Indeed, the state’s two resort casinos, Encore Boston and MGM Springfield, while off to decent starts, are both turning in gross gaming revenue (GGR) numbers below what they projected, primarily because of lagging slots revenues.

These casinos need a shot in the arm; they need another arrow in the quiver when it comes to bringing people to the doors and giving them more to do when they arrive.

Sports gambling seems like a very attractive ‘something more.’

It should have happened by now. Maybe it will happen soon. The state’s Legislature has a history of waiting, studying, procrastinating — and losing out on opportunities.

It looks like history is repeating itself on sports gambling, and the state is almost certain to lose out again.

Opinion

Editorial

Most would agree that Springfield has come a long way over the past decade or so and especially since the 2011 tornado touched down on Main Street.

But most would also agree there is still considerable work to be done in the City of Homes to bring it back to the prominence it enjoyed decades ago. And while no one would dare suggest that what has accomplished to date has been easy — although MGM Springfield might have been the easiest $1 billion project anyone has ever seen — the work to be done falls into the ‘much harder’ category.

Indeed, over the past decade, city officials, working in collaboration with a host of public and private partners, have succeeded in giving people more reasons to come to Springfield — to work, play, and, yes, live — and they’ve also made it somewhat easier to get here through new rail service and extensive work on I-91.

Collectively, the city has made progress and created momentum, but hard work remains to build on what could be called a foundation, while also making sure that MGM Springfield, Union Station, and other developments are put in a position to succeed.

Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s recently appointed chief Development officer, touched on some of these points in an extensive interview with BusinessWest (see story, page 6). Slicing through his comments, he notes that, while Springfield is now a more attractive place to visit, in many respects, it must focus even harder on creating more opportunities for people to live here, launch businesses, and see them succeed.

Most recently employed by the city of Norwalk, Conn. and its Redevelopment Agency, he said he saw first-hand what can happen when a city succeeds in attracting a larger population of professionals through new market-rate housing initiatives.

Norwalk, roughly an hour’s commute to New York city via train, benefited from its location and developed more housing that in turn brought energy, disposable income, and, yes, business opportunities to the city.

Springfield, doesn’t have the same advantage of geography — although hopes remain for east-west rail that would certainly change that equation — but there is still vast potential to create more market-rate housing in its downtown and the neighborhoods beyond. And tapping this potential is perhaps the number-one priority for the city moving forward.

That’s because, while the city can certainly benefit from people coming to gamble or see an Aerosmith concert or visit the Basketball Hall of Fame or take in the Dr. Seuss museum, true vibrancy comes when people live in your community. Brooklyn, N.Y. is perhaps the best example of this, but there are many others.

The assignment, then, becomes giving people a reason (or a good number of reasons) to live in your community.

Springfield is making progress there, but it has to do more to entice private investors to build here. And this brings us to another priority on Sheehan’s to-do list — the city’s many fine neighborhoods. We can still use that adjective, although all of them have seen better days, especially when it comes to their commercial districts.

Sheehan mentioned Boston Road, which is still a vibrant commercial artery but not what it was decades ago, especially at the Eastfield Mall end of the street. The ongoing demise of traditional retail certainly plays a part in what’s happening along these stretches, but Sheehan is right when he says the city needs to develop new plans for these areas, create buy-in from neighborhood institutions, and, overall, inspire investors to what to be part of something.

All this falls into the category of taking Springfield to the next stage. As we said, this is in many ways harder work than what has been undertaken to date, but it’s work that has to be done if Springfield is to enjoy a real renaissance.

Opinion

They call it ‘employee ghosting.’

By now, just about everyone has heard the phrase, and most employers have actually experienced it. While definitions vary, the most common form of ghosting occurs when an individual is offered a job, accepts it, and then, on what would be their first day on the job, doesn’t show up, because between the time when they accepted the job and when they were supposed to start, something better came along.

But it also happens with interviews — a candidate will agree to one and just not show up for it — and with already-hired employees — they’re in the office one day, and the next day they’re not, usually without explanation.

Ghosting is a byproduct of a tight unemployment market, immense competition for good talent, and, maybe (according to some) a desire for payback among individuals who applied for a job, interviewed for it (maybe a few times, even) and then never heard from the potential employer again.

In any case, while ghosting is a fairly recent phenomenon and a sign of the current times, it is also part of what we believe will be a new norm for employers, and not a temporary inconvenience. That’s because demographics certainly favor employees; Baby Boomers are retiring, and the generations following them are considerably smaller.

Yes, we know that advancing technology will eventually reduce or eliminate certain types of employment opportunities — depending on whom one talks with, we won’t have much need for truck drivers or even lawyers soon — those days are a ways off. For now, employers must cope with this new norm. And that’s why BusinessWest partnered with Garvey Communication Associates Inc. (GCAi) this month to present a morning-long series of workshops called “Attracting the Best Candidates in Possibly the Worst of Times”.

Whey these are, indeed, the worst of times — for employers, anyway; for candidates, it’s the best of times — things are probably not going to change much moving forward. Yes, the economy will eventually decline, and yes, the unemployment rate will climb, but for a host of reasons, including demographics, employers shouldn’t expect to be in the driver’s seat anytime soon.

In this environment, they have to do things differently than they have for decades. In short, they have to create an attractive culture — one people want to be part of — and then sell that culture.

Sarah McCarthy, senior Human Resources business partner for Commonwealth Care Alliance and member of a panel at the Sept. 20 event, probably summed things up best when she said, “it’s not an environment where people are coming to you; you have to do some mining and find these individuals and encourage them to come work for you, and in doing that, you need to provide context for them — why should they want to come work for you?”

Indeed, why should they? Employers will have to come armed with reasons, and they must involve more than a number on the paycheck — although that’s always important. And it will have to involve more than flex time and casual Fridays.

As John Garvey, president of GCAi, put it, “people want to be a part of something they’re passionate about. That’s important. And that requires us to talk to them in different ways and develop talent in different ways — and also to reach out in different ways.”

Note that word ‘different.’ That’s the key. Companies can’t do things the way they used to, they can’t talk to candidates like they used to, and they can’t sell themselves like they used to.

These are different times, and in most ways, they represent what is a new norm. And if companies don’t understand this, they will soon come to understand what employee ghosting is all about.

Opinion

Editorial

In the U.S., 150,000 tons of food is wasted every day.

This equals about a pound of food per person, or about a third of the daily calories that each American consumes. What may not be totally obvious when we throw out that banana with a brown spot on it, or the slightly mushy red pepper, is that all this food waste contributes to a much bigger problem in America — the waste of about 40% of country’s food production.

This shocking fact shared by the Center for EcoTechnology is a testament for just how serious the food-waste epidemic is.

In addition, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, wasted food is the single biggest occupant in American landfills. The food we throw out affects our lives in more ways than one, including our own financial resources and a bigger carbon footprint.

Thankfully, while food waste remains a huge problem in America and the world, more and more awareness is being brought to this subject, and more action is being taken to significantly reduce this problem. This includes organizations like Lovin’ Spoonfuls, a nonprofit dedicated solely to food rescue and distribution in Massachusetts.

Lovin’ Spoonfuls picks up food from more than 75 vendor partners in refrigerated trucks and serves more than 40 cities and towns across Massachusetts. It focuses primarily on perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, and dairy, which are the most likely to be wasted, and provides meals to more than 30,000 people a week.

Aside from organizations like this, there are simple ways families can do their part to significantly reduce food waste — everything from planning meals for the week before going to the grocery store to freezing foods that won’t be eaten right away. Looking in the refrigerator and cabinets and cooking food already on hand — and saving leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day — are other habits that add up over 128 million American households.

Businesses are increasingly implementing food-waste reduction strategies as well — spurred in many cases by state regulation. The bottom line is, if everyone tries a little each day to help, significantly less food will be wasted and dumped into landfills.

While Massachusetts in general has been a national leader in addressing food waste, it is important that individuals do their part by implementing their own strategies. With the help of organizations like the Center for EcoTechnology and Lovin’ Spoonfuls, we can only hope those shocking food-waste numbers begin to go down in the next several decades.

Opinion

Editorial

There’s no set timeframe to be a hero. It’s more about taking advantage of opportunities that emerge. And that can happen quickly, or over a lifetime.

One of the goals of the Healthcare Heroes recognition program, now in its third year, was to create a vehicle for relaying some of the many amazing stories taking place within the region’s healthcare industry, stories that convey energy, compassion, innovation, forward thinking, and, above all, passion — for finding ways to improve quality of life for those that these people and organizations touch every day.

And, as noted, this heroism takes a lot of different forms.

Take Katherine Wilson, who has spent the past three decades building and shaping Behavioral Health Network into a $115 million network that continues to expand and find new ways to provide care and support to those in need. This honor goes far beyond the vast portfolio of programs her agency offers. It’s also about a lifetime spent advocating for those with mental illness, substance-abuse issues, or development disabilities, anticipating and then meeting their needs.

Linda Uguccioni, on the other hand, has been with executive director at Linda Manor Assisted Living in Northampton for only four years. But in that time, she’s put it on the fast track when it comes to growth, vibrancy, and recognition, doubling occupancy from 40 to more than 80, with a waiting list. She does so with a lead-by-example style and an ability to make each and every team member feel not only valued but a key contributor to the health and well-being of all residents.

Frank Robinson, like Wilson, has been working for a healthier community for much of the past four decades, developing and growing initiatives in realms ranging from children’s oral health to asthma; from food insecurity to sexual health; from health education to overall population health. As he turns 70 this month, he has no plans to slow down, citing both a passion for his work and the fact that so much of that work remains to be done.

Meanwhile, it’s been less than two years since Tara Ferrante, director of the Holyoke Outpatient Clinic at ServiceNet, launched the agency’s OCD and Hoarding Disorder Program, leading a team of clinicians who are seeing progress every day in helping people escape the shackles of these often-debilitating conditions — and overcoming the social stigma that accompanies them.

The fact is, a Healthcare Hero can emerge quickly, or he or she can become part of the fabric of the community for a very long time. The common thread is how they make a positive, palpable impact on lives in Western Mass.

BusinessWest has other recognition programs — 40 Under Forty, Difference Makers, and Women of Impact — but it became clear through the years that something distinct for the healthcare sector was needed, and that there was no shortage of stories to tell — stories that are just beginning, or gaining mid-career momentum, or starting to wind down after setting the stage for others to continue the fight for this region’s health and well-being.

We were right — as this year’s class of Healthcare Heroes continues to make clear. Enjoy their stories, be inspired, and realize that we could honor far, far more heroes if we had the time and space. They’re all around you — and we have a lot more stories to write in the coming years.

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.