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Editorial

 

As we turn the page on 2022 and look ahead to a year filled with question marks, those of us at BusinessWest offer up some thoughts on what we’d like to see in the year ahead.

Some wishes would fall in the category of ‘obvious’ — a slowing of inflation, fewer and less dramatic interest-rate hikes (how about none at all?), improvement on the workforce front, and some real movement on job growth — while others might be less obvious. Here’s a short list:

 

Less Whitewater

The past three years have been a long, grueling grind for area businesses, large and small. They have had to cope with COVID, a workforce crisis, supply-chain issues, dramatic price increases, recession fears, waning consumer confidence, a microchip shortage, incessant employment-law challenges, cybersecurity issues, the various challenges of remote work, early retirement among Baby Boomers … the list doesn’t seem to end, and we certainly forgot a few.

The region’s business community could use a break, a breather, some real ‘party like its 2019’ normalcy, not the new normal. Let’s hope some is coming in 2023.

 

A More Impactful MGM Springfield

Let’s start by saying the casino complex on Main Street has had to deal with everything on the list above, just like everyone else. So it has certainly not had an easy ride since the parade that marked its grand opening in late August 2018. That said, few if any would say that MGM Springfield has had anything close to the kind of economic impact we were all hoping for, if not expecting, when it was blueprinted and then built.

Yes, it has had a stake in several meaningful initiatives, like the project to revitalize the old Court Square Hotel. But, overall, gaming revenues are not what were projected, and the same can be said for vibrancy in the casino area, the list of things to do at the complex, meetings and conventions, and impact. We’ve said it before, and it bears repeating … there are many days when, if you didn’t know there was a casino on Main Street, you wouldn’t know there was a casino on Main Street. This needs to change, and hopefully we’ll see some progress in 2023. Maybe sports betting will help.

 

Continued Growth of the Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

This has been one of the better economic-development stories of the past several years, and the region needs to continue and build upon its efforts to encourage entrepreneurship. As the immense competition for manufacturers and other kinds of businesses, and the jobs they create, only increases, perhaps the most realistic opportunities for growth in this region are of the organic kind. Progress in this fashion comes slowly and, in most cases, undramatically. But we have to continue to plant seeds.

 

Relief on the Workforce Front

We’re not sure if or how it can happen, but the area’s employers need some relief from the crushing workforce crisis. As the stories that begin on page 13 clearly show, workforce is the issue that is keeping business owners and managers up at night. Worse, it’s keeping many businesses from reaching their full potential and realize some of the opportunities that are coming their way.

The region and the state cannot simply wave a wand and bring thousands of people into the workforce. But what they can do is continue and accelerate the work to make this state more attractive, not just for businesses, but for the people who will work at them, by creating more affordable housing and taking other steps to bring people here instead of compelling them to look or move elsewhere to find a job, start a career, or write the next chapter.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Springfield officials went public recently with their frustration with MGM and what they consider to be poor performance when it comes to everything that was promised to the city and the region by the gaming giant.

It is their hope that these calls will spur some action to bring the operation on Main Street much closer to what was promised in terms of hiring projections, restaurants and the hours they’re open, vacant facilities and storefronts, and more.

While we believe these calls — and they are both literal and figurative in nature — should have come months ago because the problems are not exactly recent, we’re glad they are finally being made.

Indeed, what we’re seeing on Main Street is certainly not what was first promised going back nearly eight years ago when MGM was in contention for the sole Western Mass. casino license. And while the pandemic and the ongoing workforce crisis has certainly made keeping those promises much more difficult, MGM has an obligation to Springfield and this region to do better and do more.

Let’s start with what was promised. And let’s put aside hiring projections for a moment because, like gaming revenues, these numbers were always overly optimistic and probably not to be believed anyway.

What was promised was a first-class, inside-out casino with slots, table games, restaurants, shops, and things to do — an experience for those who ventured to the complex on Main Street. Four years and five months after the doors opened to great fanfare, the experience is far from what was promised or anticipated.

Some of the shops, including the Kringle Candle Emporium located in a church that was famously moved to make way for the casino, have closed, and no replacements have been found. The Chandler Steakhouse is open only on weekends, as are the bowling alleys. Meanwhile, the Main Street entrance to the casino has been closed most of the time, making this far less the inside-out facility that was promised.

As for hiring, particularly the hiring of certain segments of the population, from women to minorities, MGM has been lagging behind what was promised here as well.

Granted, the landscape has changed considerably since MGM opened its doors in late August 2018. The pandemic forced the facility to close for several months, and when it did reopen, there were a host of new conditions that had to be met. Meanwhile, the workforce landscape has changed considerably as well, and the broad hospitality sector has been especially hard hit; there are many restaurants that are now closed a few days a week, and many have had to cut back on what they can offer.

Still, MGM can do better — and it must do better. City officials are a little late with their list of complaints and calls for improvements, but they are certainly right to demand improvement from the casino giant. MGM Springfield was supposed to be a game changer for the city and region, and thus far it has not lived up to those expectations.

The city must do more than demand meetings with MGM’s CEO. They need to demand accountability and stay on the casino operators until they bring this operation far closer to what was promised than what we can see — and not see — today.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Flashing back almost three years ago to those early and very difficult days of the pandemic — yes, it seems like forever ago now — we were writing about how everyone was looking forward to the day when things would return to the way they were, meaning late 2019.

It was probably by the end of that year, and certainly by the middle of 2021, that everyone in business realized that we would not be returning to the way things were. In many cases, it’s because that simply wasn’t possible. But in most cases, it’s because we simply didn’t want to.

Indeed, we had learned new, different, and, in many ways, better and more efficient ways of doing things. This applies to everything from Zoom meetings with clients instead of seeing them in person to having homebuyers fill out mortgage applications online, to having many employees — the ones without direct contact with customers — working remotely.

It’s been a learning process, and it has continued even as the pandemic has waned in many respects, and other challenges have emerged, such as supply-chain issues and the workforce crisis. These issues have prompted companies to become smarter with everything from what and how much to order to what kinds of clients and projects to take on, to how and when to staff an office.

The learning continued in 2022, another very challenging year for businesses, who are due for one that isn’t. This past year brought us sky-high inflation, more shortages of needed products, ‘quiet quitting,’ more retirements among Baby Boomers, more ghosting when it came to job interviews and people showing up for the first day of work, and more frustration when it came to just filling open positions.

All this has led to adjustments and, as we noted earlier, conscious decisions not to go back to the way things were in 2019.

Many restaurants, for example, have been forced to reduce the number of days they are open due to shortages of help. In many cases, they’ve learned that this helps with retention of existing employees, improves morale, lessens burnout … and all without sharp, if any, overall drops in revenue and profits.

Meanwhile, many banquet halls and meeting venues have learned that less can sometimes mean more. Some are closing for the slow months of the year, and all of them are becoming more selective when it comes to which events they take on, choosing those with better margins and more profitability and foregoing those that are less so.

The result is that, while overall revenues are down in some cases, profitability is up. Hotels, plagued by staffing shortages, were simply not able to clean rooms as often during the months after they were allowed to reopen. Now, such policies have, in some establishments, become the new norm, enabling facilities to improve profits even while serving fewer guests.

Meanwhile, businesses across virtually all sectors have found benefits to not having everyone working on-site. Some have been able to reduce their overall space requirements, while nearly every business with remote-work or hybrid-work policies have found it easier to hire and retain employees and increase the talent pool by extending opportunities to those living outside the 413, or even the East Coast.

Yes, 2022 has been another ultra-challenging year for businesses of all sizes and in all sectors of the economy. But it’s also been another year to learn, adapt, and, in many cases, do things better and more profitably.

We haven’t gone ‘back to the way things were.’ And in many respects, that’s a good thing.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Just about all the dust has settled from this November’s election — finally, and thankfully. And now is the time for analysis.

And while much of the focus is on the national scene and what the results from this midterm election mean moving forward, what happened in the Bay State, where there was no suspense, is also intriguing and worthy of note.

In short, it was a milestone day for women — and the state itself.

Indeed, women won five of the six state-wide seats up for grabs. Maura Healey, the first woman elected governor of the Commonwealth (and the first openly lesbian governor in the U.S., a milestone she shares with Oregon Gov.-elect Tina Kotek), garnered much of the attention, but she was only part of the story.

Healey’s running mate, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, was elected lieutenant governor; Deb Goldberg was re-elected treasurer; Andrea Campbell became the first Black person elected attorney general; and Diana DiZoglio was elected auditor.

Longtime state Auditor Bill Galvin was the only man to win statewide office, and he defeated a woman, Rayla Campbell, in doing so.

So what does all this mean? First of all, more women are being elected to these offices because more women are running for these offices, which is a very positive step forward.

Before Tuesday, only nine women had served in the constitutional offices in the state’s history, and that’s largely because comparatively few women had the desire, the wherewithal, the confidence, and, in many cases, the support to seek such offices.

All that has changed in recent years, and we’re seeing it not just with statewide offices, but local offices as well. Michelle Wu became the first woman elected mayor of Boston this past year, and locally, several cities now have women in the corner office, including Easthampton and Pittsfield.

There are many reasons why more women are stepping forward and running for office, including a host of leadership programs, including several locally that encourage individuals to get involved, be active in their cities and towns, and, yes, take leadership roles.

Whatever the reason, getting more women — and more people of color and people with diverse backgrounds — involved in government, on both the local and statewide levels, can only be good for everyone involved because it means that more voices, and different kinds of voices, are being heard.

We’ve seen this in business, of course, and with very positive outcomes. Today, more women are sitting on the boards of major companies and nonprofits, more women are leading companies, and more women are taking leadership positions in realms once dominated by men, including construction, architecture, and even IT, although that is one sector where women are still looking to break through in large numbers.

Someday, perhaps not that far into the future, seeing women take five of the six — or even all six — of the Commonwealth’s constitutional offices won’t even be newsworthy. It’s only newsworthy now because it’s never happened before.

And it’s very positive news indeed, and a huge step forward for Massachusetts and all its residents.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

As Charlie Baker winds down his time as governor of the Commonwealth, it should be clear to all those in Western Mass. that he will be missed in this part of the state.

Since he was first elected eight years ago, and even before he took office a few months later, he made it clear that the 413 would be a priority for him and his administration. And he has followed through on that pledge.

We bring this up because all governors say they are going to represent the entire state and take a keen interest in every community from Fall River to North Adams. But most don’t actually deliver on those promises. Baker has.

And he’s done it by doing more than showing up at the Big E for a creampuff or coming out to distrubute checks and get his picture taken while doing so — although he done that, too. He has actually taken a real interest in what happens out here, and he became visible, and influential, in ways most governors haven’t.

Whether it was listening to a group of entrepreneurs at Valley Venture Mentors — and asking them probing questions about how to take their ventures to the next level — or taking the lead in efforts to make projects like the Court Square Hotel and a new parking garage in downtown Springfield a reality, Baker didn’t just show in up this region, he became a strong advocate for it.

Before we go any further, we do need to note Baker was late, as in very late, in officially signing on to plans for a high-speed rail project that has been proposed, in large part, to help level the playing field between east and west and create more opportunities for those in this part of the state. This hesitancy to fully support the initiative, for whatever reason, certainly slowed the process.

Meanwhile, his administration’s response to the pandemic was more draconian than was necessary, and this deepened the challenge facing businesses of all sizes, but especially smaller ventures and those in the hospitality and tourism industry, one of the foundations of the Western Mass. economy.

That said, Baker made his presence felt in this part of the state, and in many ways made it a full partner in many initiatives here, not just in Springfield, but across the region.

It has been said by some that we have an inferiority complex in this state and that we spend too much time thinking we are slighted, ignored, or both. While there is some truth to that, it has been easy for some governors to talk a good game, but, in the end, pay lip service to the broad region west of Worcester.

Baker succeeded in getting his name on a menu item at the Student Prince restaurant — a bun-less hamburger, to be specific. But far more importantly, he let people in this region know that they not only had a voice, but that their voice was being heard.

We can only hope the state’s next governor can continue that pattern of involvement.

Opinion

Editorial

They cut the ribbon at the new Marriott Springfield Downtown last week.

It was a lavish ceremony that was more than three years in the making. That’s how long it has taken serial entrepreneurs Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, owners of Springfield Hospitality, to transform the property in Tower Square, which lost the Marriott flag several years ago amid serious decline, into one of the state’s best hotels west of Boston.

A host of local, state, and national elected officials, area business leaders, and representatives of the Marriott chain turned out to celebrate the transformation of the property and the return of the Marriott flag to Springfield. There were speeches, tours, music from the Springfield Sci-Tech band, and more.

The ceremony marked more than the official ribbon-cutting for the hotel, though. It commemorated a triumph over extreme challenge — this renovation, or re-imagination, of the property was undertaken during the pandemic and thus had to overcome a series of stern challenges — and a raising of the bar, if you will, in Springfield and its downtown.

Indeed, like MGM Springfield before it, the new Marriott sets a new standard for imagination and quality in the city, and it is our hope that it will inspire others to reach higher and think bigger as they contemplate what can be done in Springfield and its downtown.

From the beginning, not just with the hotel but with the larger Tower Square property, Patel and Mitta have thought outside the box — relocating the Greater Springfield YMCA to the property is perhaps the best example — and never settled for ‘good enough’ as they have remade the landmark that opened in the late ’60s and set the tone for a period of building higher and better in the city’s downtown.

It is our hope that, more than 50 years later, the renovated Marriott and Tower Square complex can have a similar impact.

Indeed, while there has been some real progress in downtown Springfield over the past several years with MGM Springfield, the renovation of the former Court Square Hotel (still ongoing), the construction of a new parking garage (set to begin), and other initiatives, many other properties remain vacant or very much underutilized.

This is especially true farther south on Main Street in the area across from the MGM complex. But there are other properties as well that are awaiting new life.

The Marriott project, and the larger Tower Square initiative, have shown what can be done. They’ve shown what’s possible when people are willing to commit to Springfield and, as we said, think big. It is our hope, and expectation, that it will be a big success from a business perspective as well.

It is also our hope that this project, and some of the others now taking shape, like Court Square, will inspire other developers to look at Springfield as a city worth investing in.

All this, in addition to a grand new hotel, is what people were celebrating at that ribbon cutting.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2018, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, one what would recognize the outstanding accomplishments of women across this region and tell stories that might otherwise go untold.

This new program, this new honor, needed a name. After many options were considered, ‘Woman of Impact’ was chosen because, while success in business is certainly a consideration, there are many other ways to make a difference in this community, and we wanted to show that.

Over the first four years of this program, we have done that just, and this pattern continues with the class of 2022 — a very diverse group of eight women who have given back, and changed lives, in many different ways: by taking their business or nonprofit to new levels of success; by serving as a role model to others, but especially women and girls; by mentoring others and helping them find direction and purpose in their lives; by persevering through adversity; by doing, well … all of the above.

As the stories will show, these are indeed, Women of Impact. They are:

Latoya Bosworth, who, through her work with MassHumanities, her coaching of professionals, her mentoring of young people, her efforts to promote breast health and the importance of mammograms, and much, much more, helps others “transcend limits and transform lives,” as she likes to say;

• Sister Mary Caritas, the 99-year-old leader and inspiration to generations of residents of this region. She has led hospitals, served on countless boards, and even led the effort to end the odor problems at Bondi’s Island. But mostly, she has shown others the value of getting involved and the power of perseverance;

• Jodi Falk, who has been on public assistance for a short time in her life and knows what food insecurity is all about. And that’s one of many chapters in her life that has enabled her to take the reins of the nonprofit Rachel’s Table, broaden its mission, create new programs, and meet the needs of more people in Western Mass. She is an innovator, a motivator, and a true leader;

Anika Lopes, an internationally recognized milliner (or hat maker) who returned to her ancestral home of Amherst three years ago and set about bringing its neglected history — particularly the history of the Black and indigenous people who shaped it — into the light, and lauched a foundation to help provide today’s BIPOC communities with opportunities for success;

Laurie Raymaakers, who knows that success in business does not come easy, but through hard work, sacrifice, and finding ways to make it through the difficult days that inevitably come. Her story brings all this home in a compelling way while also showing that there are many ways to touch people’s lives and impact the community we call home;

• Hilda Roqué, who came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico at age 14, far from home and with no sense of belonging. Her role as executive director of Nuestras Raíces comes with many responsibilities, including its mission to connect people to their roots through agriculture. But beyond that, she is committed to seeing that those arriving today, and in the years to come, are not made to feel as she was;

• Ashley Sullivan, who, even as she succeeded in college and in her early career in engineering, often felt inadequate for the task. Her achievements, capped by earning the presidency of her firm after two decades, has instilled in her a desire to inspire and support young engineers, especially young women, with not just opportunity, but confidence; and

• Aelan Tierney, who told BusinessWest that “architecture impacts every aspect of our life. If you’re in a good space, you do and feel good, and if you’re in a bad space, it can make your life difficult. I like how architecture makes an impact on people.” She has indeed made an impact with more than her architecture. She’s also a leader in her business and in the community, and she’s a true role model.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The Latino Economic Development Council (LEDC) opened to considerable fanfare last month. And with good reason.

It wasn’t just the new digs in the old Massachusetts Lottery facility on Fort Street that has people excited. It’s the broad and laudable mission, as well as the unique model, that is turning heads, while also providing promise for changing the local business landscape — in all kinds of ways.

The mission — the unofficial mission, anyway — as stated by several of the speakers in attendance at the grand opening, is to transform employees into employers, consumers of products into producers of products, people who work for others into people who work for themselves.

And the model for doing that is indeed quite unique. The agency, which will award microgrants and provides space for meetings and co-working, has, at its core, a team of more two coaches that will provide a wide range of counseling and training that holds the promise of helping people grow their businesses and take them to the next level.

These coaches offer expertise in subjects ranging from finance to human resources; marketing to mental wellness; personal finance to accounting. It is this expertise that can help fledgling businesses create opportunities and avoid some of the problems that turn business ventures into casualties.

As we said, the model is unique. Many of the agencies within the region’s large and growing entrepreneurship ecosystem, such as Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll, provide mentoring and education in specific subjects. But there isn’t a deep bench of people who are in business and can pass on what they know to small-business owners who can benefit from their knowledge and experience.

One of the coaches, Giulberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional-development coach for the LEDC, perfectly summed up the work of the LEDC and why he became a coach when he told BusinessWest, “I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

Giving back is a critical component of the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and it’s one of the principles that has enabled this region to make great strides when it comes to encouraging entrepreneurship, getting new businesses off the ground, and, as Amador said, enabling them to remain viable.

While helping individual businesses is the stated goal of the LEDC, its broader ambition, as many speakers stated at the grand opening, is to change the landscape, both figuratively and also quite literally, when it comes to new businesses on Main Street and many other streets in cities and towns across the region, especially new Latino businesses.

After all, this is the fastest-growing segment of the region’s business community, and it possesses enormous growth potential for the years and decades to come, said Andrew Melendez, director of Operations for the agency, noting that what many in that community need is a “leg up,” which can come in many different forms, from capital to that expertise provided by the coaches.

Speaking for just about everyone in the room that night, and everyone involved with the LEDC, Amador told BusinessWest, “if there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s. I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

This ambitious agency and its unique model of doing business holds great promise for making those sentiments become reality.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In 2017, BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes. In the early going, there were some questions among those seeking to nominate people and organizations about just how that word ‘hero’ was defined.

We told people then, and we tell them now, that ‘hero’ can be defined many different ways, but within the broad spectrum of healthcare, it traditionally denotes someone, some group, or some organization that is changing lives — and in a very positive way.

And, working with this basic definition, we have celebrated dozens of heroes over the past five years, with each story being different and each one touching on the many different ways those in healthcare touch our lives, bring passion, as in passion, to their work, and, yes, change lives.

And the class of 2022 is no exception, as the stories make clear. This class is defined by special people, always working in cooperation and collaboration with others, to improve quality of life for people in this region. It includes:

• Helen Caulton-Harris, the hero in the Lifetime Achievement category, who is being recognized for her life’s work, especially as commissioner of Health and Human Services for the city of Springfield, to educate people, advocate on their behalf, and create policy that will change and improve the general wellness of the community;

• Mark Paglia, COO of MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, the hero in the Administration category, who not only opened that facility in the middle of a pandemic and amid a host of other challenges, but has established himself as a strong leader who empowers his team members and gives them the tools they need to succeed;

• Dr. Phillip Glynn, director of Medical Oncology at Mercy Medical Center, who could be the honoree in many categories, but is the 2022 hero in the Provider category for his work to balance science and humanity, guide his patients through a difficult journey, and make sure their voices are heard;

• Dr. Sundeep Shukla, chief of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Noble Hospital, who is being honored as the 2022 Emerging Leader hero for his tireless work to not only care for patients, but make the ER an effective safety net and efficient asset — for the hospital and the community;

• The Addiction Consult Service at Holyoke Medical Center, the hero in the Community Health category, which was created as a means to help stem the rising tide of opioid overdoses in the region and offer help and hope to those it touches, especially hope that they can bring change to their lives;

• The Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, a program at UMass Amherst being honored in (of course) the Innovation category, for bringing together two distinct disciplines in a way that makes perfect sense, and already finding success researching ways to improve patient care through better technology;

• Dr. Paul Pirraglia, division chief of General Medicine and Community Health at Baystate Health, who convened a broad, multi-organization response to the arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 that delivered critical protection, communication, and resources to an often-underserved population, earning one of two awards this year in the Collaboration category; and

• ServiceNet’s Enrichment Center and Strive Clinic and its partners at Springfield College and UMass Amherst, this year’s other Collaboration heroes, for fostering connections that not only serve people with acquired brain injury, but, through hands-on education, are actively developing the next generation of therapists.

It’s an impressive class, all more than worthy of being called Healthcare Heroes.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Looking at Springfield’s Union Station today, a bustling facility with trains, buses, businesses, and people, it might be easy to forget there was a time when just about everyone in this city had given up the dream of ever revitalizing the long-dormant station.

It was 15 years or so ago. The city was in receivership, at the very early stages of climbing out of a deep and persistent funk. There was progress on some fronts, but still myriad challenges to overcome and a long list of priorities that did not include the historic but mostly forgotten station.

The suggestion from those running the city at the time was to mothball Union Station, try to protect it from the elements, move onto other, more manageable projects, and maybe get back to the train station another day.

Kevin Kennedy wasn’t buying any of that. Then an aide to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, he wasn’t going to let the congressman’s long-held dream of revitalizing the station, which had been dormant since the early ’80s, lose whatever momentum it had.

So he kept at it, meeting with a small group of officials on a weekly basis to keep the project on some kind of roadmap and pulling the myriad details, from funding to design to logistics, into alignment. It was a monumental task, and most would have given up in frustration early on in the process.

But Kennedy never did, and today we have a revitalized Union Station, thanks to Neal — but, really, the thanks go to Kennedy. He’s the one who got it done.

And Kennedy, who passed away late last month, was able to get a lot of things done, as an aide to Neal and also as chief Development officer for the city, a job he assumed in 2011.

That lengthy list includes the new federal courthouse on State Street and the State Street Corridor project, MGM Springfield and the many components of that project, recovery from the 2011 tornado and the 2012 natural-gas explosion, and many other important initiatives.

These projects were all different, but they were similar in that they were extremely difficult and required high levels of coordination and cooperation, as well as a point person who was able to navigate whitewater and stay on track.

Kennedy was that point person.

When asked by BusinessWest why he wanted to leave the post with Neal and take the development position, Kennedy said simply, “I’ve proven I can get things done — and we have a lot of work to do in this city.”

He was right on both accounts. Looking back, Kennedy was the right person in the right position at the right time, and Springfield is now in a much better place because he was.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to find reason behind the Biden administration’s decision to cancel up to $20,000 in federal student loan debt for tens of millions of borrowers.

Indeed, the amount of overall student debt has skyrocketed in recent years, and many individuals and families are paying off amounts of $40,000 or more — and struggling, often mightily — to do so.

Student loan debt has been cited as a reason why many young professionals are unable to buy homes and achieve the lifestyle they had envisioned when they went to college and pursued a career.

But the administration’s plan to simply cancel large swaths of this debt is not the answer to this growing problem. It is costly (we don’t even know how much this is going to cost the taxpayers), arbitrary, and, yes, inherently unfair to those who have already paid off college loans, worked two or three jobs so they wouldn’t have to take on debt, or opted not to go to college because they couldn’t afford it.

But beyond that, this plan to simply take debt off the books is a simplistic approach to a problem that you can equate, in some respects, to a backyard weed. You can cut it down, like the Biden administration is doing by erasing some of this debt, but to really address the problem, you need to get at the roots.

And this will require a solution that is far more complicated than simply forgiving $10,000 or $20,000 in college-loan debt.

The cost of a college education has skyrocketed over the past few decades, far accelerating the pace of inflation. It is these spiraling costs that need to be brought under control.

Increasingly, a college education is necessary to thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. But the cost of that education — at most all institutions, but especially private, four-year colleges and universities — is now more than most individuals and families can handle — unless they assume large amounts of debt to close the gap between the cost and what they can afford.

The challenge for the Biden administration is to tackle this problem at the roots, to somehow control and perhaps even bring down the cost of a college education so that individuals and families don’t have to take on debt. That’s a big challenge and there are no easy answers.

But that answer will be a better, more meaningful solution than waving one’s hand and simply eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars in loan payments at taxpayers’ expense.

That’s because the weed is going to grow back. v

Opinion

Editorial

 

It took a few years longer than it should have, but sports gambling finally seems to be a reality in the Bay State.

The Massachusetts Legislature recently approved a sports-betting bill, and Gov. Charlie Baker has signed it into law. If all goes well — something that doesn’t happen often in this state — systems should be in place for sports betting for later this year and certainly by the time the Super Bowl rolls around next February.

This news is cause for celebration in the state’s three casinos, which have been pushing hard for such a measure, and for good reason. Gaming revenues have certainly not been what they were projected to be nearly four years after MGM Springfield opened its doors to great pomp and circumstance. And the lack of sports betting has given gamblers one more reason to cross the border and go to facilities in New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. Sports betting seemed to always make sense as a way to help these casinos improve traffic, bring more revenue to the state, and add some jobs. But that didn’t stop the Legislature from doing what it does all too often: sit on its hands.

Indeed, state lawmakers tend to overthink these things, if that’s even the right term, and this leads to indecision. It happened with gaming for several years, and it happened with sports betting as well.

After four years of “painstaking work and research,” as state Sen. Eric Lesser called it, the Legislature was able to come to an agreement on a bill providing for both retail and mobile sports wagering, one that will allow betting on college sports, with some restrictions, and also comes with a number of consumer protections. These include a provision whereby, for online and mobile betting, bets cannot be linked to credit cards — a measure implemented to make sure consumers are wagering with funds on hand and not borrowing.

Projections of revenues vary, but the measure is expected to bring in more than $35 million annually. That’s not a huge number, but right now, it’s money that’s going elsewhere, and that the state could put to good use in areas ranging from workforce development to public health.

The state is once again late to the party. But late is better than never — or even later. v

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The jersey barriers have gone up on Harrison Place, Dwight Street, and Bruce Landon Way.

They inform us that the Civic Center Parking Garage will soon be coming down — slowly and carefully, we’re told, because there just isn’t much real estate around it to accommodate demolition and all that comes with it.

All we can say is, ‘it’s about time.’

Often, but not always, with demolition, there is a sense of loss when it comes to what is being torn down to make way for the new. It was like that when the old Forbes & Wallace department store came down to make way for what is now Monarch Place. And while you’d have to be pretty old to remember, it was like that when the Everett Barney mansion had to be torn down because it was in the path of I-91.

It certainly wasn’t like that when the Hotel Charles, an eyesore for decades, came down well in advance of the Union Station complex in the North End, or with a number of older industrial properties that were demolished to make way for the new Basketball Hall of Fame along the riverfront.

And it certainly won’t be like that with the parking garage, except for Springfield Thunderbirds management, who face the start of a new season in just a few months with no parking garage next to the arena.

Indeed, the Civic Center garage, the workhorse facility that had served the city for nearly a half-century, had become the butt of jokes in recent years as increasingly larger blocks of its space were declared unsafe for parking.

More than that, the garage had become a symbol, if you will, of what you could call the ‘old Springfield,’ the city that was in receivership, the city that had hit rock bottom in terms of both perception and reality when it came to vibrancy and this being a place where people and businesses wanted to be.

As new developments emerged — MGM Springfield, Union Station, redevelopment of the old Peter Pan Bus terminal, and others — the Civic Center garage remained a crumbling symbol of what was. In recent years, as larger sections were rendered unusable, many who came to downtown every day found other places to park. It was only during college graduations, T-Birds games, the Bay Path Women’s Leadership Conference, and other large gatherings that the garage was a real asset for the city.

Now, after years of elected officials talking about it and considering several alternative sites, the garage is coming down to make way for a new, state-of-the-art facility on that same footprint. There will be some disruption downtown, but not much. Indeed, with many people still working remotely or in hybrid situations, there is plenty of parking downtown to handle what would be considered ‘routine’ days.

Things will get more dicey for the larger events, especially the hockey games. But the disruption will be well worth the eventual benefit — a modern facility in keeping with what the city has become and what it hopes to be in the years and decades to come.

The garage is coming down, and a symbol of the ‘old Springfield’ is coming down with it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When Laura Teicher was hired as director of Greentown Learn in 2018, one of the first things she did was push for a rebrand, a new name that better represented what the enterprise — an offshoot of Greentown Labs in Somerville that connects startups with manufacturers — is all about.

The team tried to get some variation of the word ‘connect’ into the name, almost calling it KINECT before realizing that was the name of a failed Super Nintendo app, as well as too close to K’Nex building toys.

What they eventually settled on was FORGE, which isn’t an acronym; the capital letters are used for emphasis. It was simply, elegant, and forceful, speaking to the way the agency forges relationships between innovators looking to produce and then scale up their big ideas, and manufacturers looking for new, local lines of business.

And that’s exactly what it has done, helping more than 500 startups since 2015, currently engaging more than 450 manufacturers, and supporting more than 4,500 jobs in innovation and manufacturing along the way. The startups in the program boast more than a 90% survival rate; the national average is around 10%.

But, in some ways, FORGE’s name took on a new meaning during the past two and a half years of economic upheaval churned up by the pandemic. It reflects the way this agency forged on, not only continuing to make connections, but re-emphasizing the importance of what it does.

Take the supply-chain crisis. The disruptions of those global production and shipping networks, which continues today, caused many manufacturers to localize their supply chains as much as possible, at the same time that startup companies were increasingly looking to manufacture their products close to home. In that sense, FORGE has become an even more valuable part of the innovation and manufacturing ecosystem.

But even in more stable times, an enterprise like FORGE is simply a good idea, on many levels. So many startups with good ideas fail because they don’t have this kind of resource to guide them into the production and scaling phases that are critical to a business success story. And so many manufacturers aren’t aware of the potential new lines of business sprouting up in their own backyards.

The greatest beneficiary is the regional economy itself. These connections are not only helping businesses grow and thrive, but do so in Massachusetts, and in many cases Western Mass., and that’s good economic news for everyone.

FORGE’s Western Mass. director, Kevin Moforte, told BusinessWest that he loves entrepreneurship, partly because of the role it plays in building not just individual wealth, but prosperous, stable communities. That’s something to celebrate during an era that has been anything but stable.

Opinion

Editorial

As spring prepares to turn to summer, there are many positive signs for the region’s economy as it moves ever closer to the normal that we have all been seeking since we first heard that word ‘COVID’ back in early March of 2020.

Indeed, the tourism sector seems poised for a strong summer as those who have been shut in, to one degree or another, for the past 27 months, are poised to make up for some lost time. Couple that with soaring gas prices, soaring prices to fly, and soaring prices to stay in a hotel, and many will be opting for day trips and staying closer to home, which also bodes well for our local tourism and hospitality economy, which is geared toward those types of visits.

But amid the many promising signs, there are many stark reminders that, if what we’ve been in for the past two years could be considered the woods, we are certainly not out of them — not by a long shot.

And we need look no further than Northampton and the now shuttered Sylvester’s restaurant for ample proof of that sobering fact.

The owners of that establishment were nearing 40 years of service to the Pioneer Valley when they decided, in their words, to “simplify their lives.’ By that, they meant that they would focus on their other restaurant, Roberto’s, also in Northampton, and close Sylvester’s, which focused exclusively on breakfast and lunch and was a favorite of many in this region, a landmark in every sense of the word.

“Our hearts are heavy as we make a difficult announcement,” they wrote on FaceBook. “After 39 years of serving the Pioneer Valley, we have decided to close our doors at Sylvester’s. Anyone in the business will tell you that navigating a restaurant through the pandemic of the last two years has been a monumental task.

“We have always been successful because of our staff, managers, and family,” they went on. “Many of our staff had come back to us after being laid off twice in the past year. They’ve endured a mask mandate in a steamy kitchen, endless challenges, labor shortages, and the struggles and worries brought on by COVID-19.”

Slicing through all this and reading between the lines, it’s clear that, while the pandemic has loosened its grip on the region and its business community, this fight is far from over. And it’s likely that Sylvester’s will not be the last casualty.

Indeed, businesses of all kinds, but especially those in hospitality, retail, and other service businesses, are still struggling to turn back the clock to 2019. In fact, most have realized there is simply no returning to the way things were.

Wages have skyrocketed and myriad other costs have risen in ways that could not have been imagined two years ago. Some businesses can pass along these higher costs, but others have a much harder time doing so. Meanwhile, it has become painfully clear that the workforce crisis, like inflation itself, is not temporary — or anywhere near as temporary as we all would like.

Finding help, even at the going, much-higher rates seen today, is a daunting task, and for some, it has proven too daunting.

As we mourn the loss of Sylvester’s and the traditions it spawned, we are reminded that, while the skies are certainly brighter in this region and the pandemic has eased its grip, COVID and its many side-effects are still a considerable force to be reckoned with.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s easy to understand why members of the Springfield City Council were not happy with the way the recent request for $6.5 million in emergency funding for the Court Square Development project came to them.

It arrived late and in the form of an ultimatum of sorts: ‘approve this additional expenditure immediately, or this important project will die.’ One of those officials involved with the now $64 million project hinted strongly that if the money was not approved, and quickly, the building would deteriorate and perhaps even collapse.

The 11th-hour request, which came on the heels of skyrocketing construction costs that are impacting development projects of all kinds across the country, should have come at the 10th hour or even the ninth. Those leading the project, which will bring 71 market-rate apartments, retail space, and a restaurant to downtown Springfield, knew costs were escalating and knew they would need additional assistance to keep the initiative on track.

They put the council on the spot, unnecessarily — so much so that a resolution was recently passed requiring the mayor’s office to give the council 30 days’ notice on any economic-development issue that needs council approval.

Fortunately, most members of the council put aside their concerns about how all this went down and did the right thing. They voted to approve the measure and enable the much-needed project to move forward.

There were some questions as to just how much this project is needed, but the majority of the council could see how the importance of the initiative to the future of the city.

We’ve said it many times, and others have said it many times as well: one of the real keys moving forward is to balance the many people working downtown with those who actually call that area home.

This has been a formula for success in many cities, including Lowell, Worcester, Hartford, and many others, and it will be a key ingredient for Springfield moving forward, especially if current trends continue and there are fewer people actually coming to work each day in the city’s downtown.

In those other cities, a critical mass of people living in a downtown has spawned new service and hospitality businesses, which, in turn, have promoted more people to want to live in those areas, which, in turn, has prompted more businesses, which attract more people … you get the idea.

The Court Square project, which has been talked about for decades, literally, and has come to fruition through a unique public-private partnership, isn’t the answer. But it’s part of the answer, just as MGM Springfield, a revitalized Tower Square and White Lion Brewing, the Springfield Thunderbirds, Union Station, new housing in the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street, and other developments are parts of the answer.

And that’s why it was so important for the council to look past the nature of this request and, as we said, do the right thing.

For Springfield, and the region, this was an important step forward.

Opinion

 

 

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this state’s mind-numbing hesitancy when it comes to sports gambling.

After all, legislators waited years after other states moved ahead with casino gambling to finally put a measure in place for Massachusetts. Time and again, casino gambling was brought up for votes and brushed aside for … another day. Finally, casino gambling was approved roughly a decade ago, but the hesitation cost the state dearly. Indeed, by the time the three casino operations in the state, including MGM Springfield, were up and running, the competition in surrounding states had increased exponentially, essentially changing the landscape and making it far more difficult for those casinos to gain the revenues that were projected when the casino bill was finally passed.

One might have thought the state would have learned from this expensive lesson, but here we are in late March, the middle of this year’s college basketball championships, the biggest betting event on the planet, and the state appears nowhere close to passing a sports-gambling bill.

It’s perplexing, but it’s also quite frustrating. The casinos sorely need this huge revenue stream, and the lack of sports betting is putting them at a competitive disadvantage, not only during March Madness, but the other 11 months of the year as well. The casinos have all built facilities in anticipation of a sports-gambling measure — MGM has created two areas for watching and wagering on sports (see story on page 33) — but they currently sit unused or have been put to other uses.

Theories abound about why there is such hesitation on sports gambling, including the one concerning it becoming competition for the state’s highly lucrative lottery. We understand the premise, but people were saying the same thing about the state’s three casinos. Almost four years after they’ve opened, the lottery is still thriving.

Another theory is that legislators are wary that sports gambling — on top of the casinos and the aforementioned lottery — would be too much gambling and perhaps put more people at risk of developing addictions.

We understand this theory as well, but if people want to bet on sports — and a large number of people do (Americans spent $9.7 billion on sports bets this past January alone) — they will find a way to do it. And with New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other nearby states already allowing such gambling, they don’t have to travel far to do it.

Overall, 15 states introduced sports-betting legislation in 2021, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the big question is why Massachusetts didn’t make it 16.

Bills have been introduced — several of them, in fact — but they haven’t received the requisite attention to gain any traction.

Overall, sports gambling is just not a priority in this state. Should it be? There are plenty of other priorities, certainly, including housing, education, mental health, and childcare. But while tackling them, it seems the state Legislature could find the time and inclination to pass a sports-gambling measure.

The ongoing hesitancy simply doesn’t make sense. And it should not continue.

Opinion

Moving Toward ‘Normal.’

 

 

For more than two years now, this region and its business community have been longing for a return to something approaching ‘normal,’ or what we knew before COVID arrived in Western Massachusetts in early March of 2020.

If the pandemic has taught us anything over the past 24 months, it is that we shouldn’t take anything for granted and should never think that anything is ‘over,’ because ‘over,’ when it comes to COVID, is a relative term.

But, and this is a big but, we are starting to see some very welcome and very refreshing signs of normal. Let’s start with the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race. After a long, painful two-year hiatus, these traditions are returning, and Holyoke — and the region — are poised for a huge party.

Also returning after two years on the sidelines is Bay Path University’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference, an event that brings more than 2,000 attendees to the MassMutual Center in Springfield each spring. And then, there’s BusinessWest’s Difference Makers event, another early spring tradition.

It will be back at the main ballroom at the Log Cabin on March 24. The event has been staged over the past two years, but not in its traditional fashion. In 2021, it was a virtual event, and in 2020, it became a fall happening, staged at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin with 25 people in attendance — because that was the limit for event venues at that moment in time.

We all remember those days, and would probably like to forget them.

As we see more important signs of ‘normal’ — on our calendars, and in general — there is room for optimism that the time may soon be approaching when the pandemic ceases to rule our lives and is something we just have to live with. How soon, no one knows, but by most accounts, we’re moving much closer.

Those who spoke with BusinessWest about the Holyoke parade and its long-anticipated return, everyone from the mayor to the parade chairman to bar owners in the city, spoke about its importance from an economic perspective. Indeed, dozens of businesses benefit directly from the parade and the road race, and some generate perhaps half a normal year’s income during that one week.

But they also spoke of its importance from a civic pride perspective and how people came back to Holyoke year after year because it was the place to be St. Patrick’s Day — or the whole week. And they talked about the importance of getting back to something approaching normal.

That’s because it’s been missing from our lives for most of the past two years.

What we’ve learned since March of 2020 is that ‘normal’ is important, ‘normal’ is good for everyone.

And that point will be driven home again when the parade kicks off in Holyoke, when the speakers take to the stage at the Women’s Leadership Conference, and when the Difference Makers hear the applause they’ve earned at the Log Cabin.

Yes, we can all use a little ‘normal’ right about now.

Opinion

Editorial

Thirteen years ago, BusinessWest launched a new recognition program, Difference Makers, as a way to celebrate the many different ways individuals and organizations can make a difference in their community, and Western Mass. as a whole.

And this year’s additions to that list provide still more evidence that there are countless ways to make a difference, and they all need to be celebrated. They include:

Tara Brewster, vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank, who has made community service more than a mantra, immersing herself in the work of area nonprofits and causes — not in a slapdash fashion, but putting her heart and soul into whomever she happens to be helping each day;

• The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which for 30 years has convened and connected myriad resources in the region to benefit a host of groups, from students trying to pay for college to the arts community to organizations focused on helping people through the pandemic and economic disruption; 

• Heriberto Flores, president of the New England Farm Workers’ Council, who has spent the last half-century operating programs — centered on energy, education, child welfare, workforce development, and more — that help people in need, while at the same time investing in the economic well-being of Springfield;

John Greaney, retired State Supreme Court justice and senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, a judicial trailblazer who, as one peer put it, “has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor”;

Ruth Griggs, president of the Northampton Jazz Festival and principal at RC Communications, whose business has helped nonprofits reach new levels of marketing and success, and who brought those skills to bear on reviving a beloved music festival that continues to raise the profile of Northampton’s downtown;

• Ted Hebert, owner of Teddy Bear Pools and Spas, who has used his decades of success in the pool business as a springboard to support dozens of causes and organizations throughout the region, through both philanthropy and giving of his time — often in ways few people see;

• I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis, who emerged from a very difficult youth to found an organization that brings many resources together to, as its name implies, help young people journey from some dark, difficult times to a promising future; and

• Roca Holyoke and Springfield, an innovative program that helps young people in the criminal-justice system find a better path than recidivism and more time behind bars, by using case management, education, and employment training to get them into jobs and a stable, crime-free life.

As we said, there are no limits on the ways an individual or group can make a difference here in Western Mass. That’s what we’ve been celebrating since 2009, and the celebration continues with the class of 2022.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone.

Indeed, Bob Bolduc, the founder and owner of the Pride chain of gas stations and convenience stores, had announced his intentions to sell his business back in June, noting that it was time to retire and there was no one in the family interested in carrying on the business.

The search for a new buyer ended with the Boston-based private equity firm ArcLight Capital Partners, with the sale finalized at the end of last year.

Local press accounts have indicated that ArcLight plans no serious changes in the operation and intends to keep the chain intact and the name ‘Pride’ over the door. We hope all that is true. Any time a local business is sold to a national entity, there is concern that the region will be losing something in the translation.

And in this case, there is a lot to lose. That’s because, while Bolduc has been a bold, innovative entrepreneur who has authored one of the region’s more intriguing business success stories — the Pride chain boasts 31 stores (with more in various stages of development) and more than $300 million in annual sales — he has also been a philanthropist and strong supporter of many of the region’s nonprofit agencies.

Much was made of one particular act of philanthropy — actually, one act with many parts to it. That was Bolduc’s decision to donate Pride’s $50,000 ‘bonus’ for selling the single largest lottery win in U.S. history to one Mavis Wanczyk to a number of elementary schools and youth-focused nonprofits.

Some called it a publicity stunt — and he certainly got a lot of publicity from it — but Bolduc’s decision to share the wealth, and the manner in which he did, speaks volumes about how he gave back to the community, and especially its young people — and also why BusinessWest bestowed its coveted Difference Makers award on him in 2018.

“I decided to give it to the kids,” Bolduc said of his lottery bonus. “It’s a windfall; it’s not my money. So it was an easy decision to make.”

He has made many such decisions over the years, becoming a strong supporter of many local nonprofits, especially those focused on young people and families. That list includes Square One; Lincoln Elementary School in Springfield, which Pride has partnered with over the years; Brightside for Families and Children; WMAS and its Coats for Kids campaign; and many others.

Bolduc has always emphasized the need for businesses to give back, but especially to local agencies that can make a real impact on the quality of life enjoyed by people living and working in the 413.

We wish ArcLight well as it takes over the chain Bolduc started, nurtured, and grew over the past 45 years or so. We hope it continues Bolduc’s track record for innovation, including the placement of Subway shops, Dunkin’ Donuts stores, and, most recently, Chester’s chicken restaurants in his stores.

More importantly, we hope the company can continue Bolduc’s legacy of philanthropy and support of agencies focused on the region’s young people. By doing so, they’ll not only be keeping the Pride name over the door, they’ll be continuing the proud tradition of this company (and not just its founder) being a real difference maker in our region.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Ronn Johnson, who spent the last four decades making a difference for children and families in the Springfield community, died on Jan. 15 at age 63. 

The date — Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday — was a significant one for the long-time president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc., who not only led that organization over the past decade but modeled much his of work around King’s example of service.

“I do what I do because I have a passion for making a difference for people. It’s that simple,” Johnson told BusinessWest in 2020, when he was named a Difference Maker by this publication. And I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve been able to make a career around doing that.”

That’s an understatement.

Early in his career, he worked at the W.W. Johnson Life Center, an organization that dealt in mental-health issues, and the Dunbar Community Center, where he was involved in grant writing in an effort to meet the needs of an “underfunded community,” as he called it.

After that, he served as vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development (CHD), where he worked for 13 years. Gang violence was on the rise during the early part of the 1990s, and it was creeping into local schools, so he created a CHD program called the Citywide Violence Prevention Task Force, among many other initiatives. 

Johnson then worked for six years as director of Community Responsibility at MassMutual, after which he launched a consulting firm, RDJ Associates. One of his clients was MLK Family Services, which approached him, during the summer of 2012, with an offer to take over leadership of the venerable but financially struggling agency. 

When he came on board, the first goal was simply to make payroll, but eventually he righted the ship and oversaw the success of many MLK Family Services programs, from helping people access healthier food to a College Readiness Academy that gives students tutorial help while bringing them to college campuses to raise their educational aspirations.

But no effort has been more personal to Johnson than the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, who was born into the world with multiple broken bones from the brittle-bone condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. Twenty-two years later, the Brianna Fund has raised more than $750,000 and helped the families of more than 50 children purchase a vehicle, renovate a home, widen hallways, install ramps, secure a service dog, and meet many other needs.

“I do believe that God has a plan for every one of us,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “I’m a very faith-driven person. I’ve been blessed to be in places where people see my interests and read my heart, and where I’m able to make some things happen.”

His leadership, passion, and ability to inspire others will certainly be missed.

Opinion

Editorial

 

BusinessWest launched its Top Entrepreneur program back in 1996 to recognize individuals, groups, and institutions that were honoring a tradition that went back centuries and made Greater Springfield a hub for innovation and industry.

For much of that decade, and into the next one, the list of honorees was top-heavy with those from the IT sector, as might be expected. Indeed, that realm was booming, and a legion of young entrepreneurs were starting businesses focused on hardware, software, and developing solutions for clients.

But over the years, this award has also gone to a college president, a hospital president, a municipal utility (Holyoke Gas & Electric), and a hockey team — actually, the owners and operators of that team, the Springfield Thunderbirds. And there have been more traditional entrepreneurs as well, in fields ranging from auto sales to hardware stores; trash hauling to home care.

The common denominator — and there’s certainly more than one — is calculated risk taking and a desire to meet identified, and often unmet, needs. In most all cases, they’ve done so by overcoming several challenges, and, in the case of decades-old businesses (Rocky’s Ace Hardware and Balise Auto Sales come to mind), adapt to changing times.

This pattern is certainly continuing with this year’s honorees, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel, the serial entrepreneurs who have made Springfield’s Tower Square their latest and most ambitious undertaking to date (see story on page 16).

Tower Square, originally known as Baystate West, was conceived and built in the ’60s. It was designed to change the landscape in the city, and it did just that, its office tower rising far above everything around it for another two decades. It was created to be a destination, a place where people would work, shop, and dine, and for a while, it worked.

But when shopping patterns changed and malls were erected in the suburbs, it didn’t.

By the time MassMutual, which built the complex, decided to sell it in 2017, it was, in many respects, tired. There were many intriguing tenants, including UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, but still many vacancies on both the retail and office sides. Meanwhile, the hotel on the property had lost its Marriott flag, was operating as the Tower Square Hotel, and had lost most of its original luster.

While most potential investors saw a troubled property and had visions of a fire sale, Patel and Mitta saw a gem — albeit one that needed some polishing. They rolled the dice, knowing their $17.5 million investment was only the first of many that would have to be made.

Since acquiring the property, they have used imagination — attracting White Lion Brewing Co. and the YMCA’s fitness and daycare operations, for example — and persistence (something that’s certainly needed during a pandemic now entering its third year) to bring new life and energy to the property.

The new façade that has gone up on the hotel is somewhat symbolic of this entire project — it is shiny, it is new, and it is turning a lot of heads.

The partners still have a long way to go with this endeavor, to be sure. There are still many vacancies to fill, and the property is still not entirely worthy of the term ‘destination.’

But three years and more than $30 million in investments later, their gamble is showing signs that it will pay off — for them, the city, and the region.

We don’t know how this story will end, but for now, there are many intriguing plotlines. One of them concerns entrepreneurs taking a chance, planning, and working diligently to make a dream become reality.

That’s the same general pattern followed by all the winners of the Top Entrepreneur award since 1996, and it explains why Mitta and Patel are worthy additions to a distinguished list of honorees.

Opinion

Editorial

 

When you talk with people in business about COVID-19, and especially those early days, in March 2020, when the state and the country were shutting down, many will share a similar story that goes something like this:

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

Such thinking was certainly understandable. None of us had been through a pandemic before, and this is what we thought: we’ll stay home for a few weeks, hunker down, and then this will pass.

It didn’t take long to realize that those thoughts were unrealistic and perhaps naive. We soon came to grips with the fact that we had a longer wait for ‘normal.’ Much longer.

Nearly two years later, we’re still waiting, and the unfortunate truth is that this is still a long way from being over. Unfortunate, because we all desperately want and need for it to be over, and it isn’t.

“When we packed up our computers and went home, we thought it would be for a few weeks or maybe a few months, and then we’d be back — it would be over, and we’d be back to normal.”

These days, quite a few conversations begin with “I can’t believe we’re still talking about this,” or “I can’t believe we’re talking about this again.”

What we’re talking about are COVID cases rising, long lines for testing, and hospitals being pushed to and then beyond their limits. And in the business world, what we’re talking about, again, are postponed events, canceled business meetings, people avoiding restaurants and movie theaters, colleges not sure if they’ll be able to open their doors when the semester break ends in a few weeks, and area school systems not sure if they’re going to be able to open their doors and stay open, leaving parents wondering what they will do if they don’t.

Yes, we’re still talking about these things, or talking about them again. The COVID fight continues, and the end is nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, a workforce crisis continues, inflation is no longer talked about as ‘transitory,’ production and supply-chain issues persist, and the many businesses that stayed afloat with the help of government lifelines like PPP and the employee-retention credit will not have that net underneath them in 2022.

So why is there is so much optimism about the year ahead, as revealed in our special Economic Outlook section, starting on page 15? Maybe people are thinking that things simply must get better in 2022. Or that COVID has to finally run its course and will now cease controlling our lives.

Perhaps, but there are other reasons. We especially feel a sense that the region did, indeed, catch a glimpse of a post-COVID world in 2021, and it was a very encouraging experience.

It was a brief window, to be sure, and it came roughly between Memorial Day and just before Labor Day. The state had lifted virtually all of its restrictions on businesses, and people started doing things they hadn’t done in a while — like put their masks aside, go to a restaurant, gather as a family, go on a summer vacation, stage a Chamber After 5, or gather for a retirement party.

As noted, it was a brief window, and by the time the Big E staged its return and BusinessWest feted its 40 Under Forty class at the Log Cabin (both in late September), there was plenty of apprehension about a variant called Delta.

Now, there’s far more apprehension about another variant called Omicron, and there are serious questions, and trepidation, about what the first few weeks, or even the first few quarters, of 2022 will be like.

But amidst all that, there is a prevailing sense of optimism that we can finally see a lot more of what we saw during that brief window in the year ahead. We sense that the ingredients may finally in place for actually getting to that proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic.

We’re not there yet, and there are some rough weeks and perhaps months ahead, but the signs are there.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

It was certainly something different than 2020, when COVID-19 took everyone by surprise, not only launching a serious health crisis, but disrupting the economy in ways both immediate — many businesses were shut down for weeks and even months — and in the longer term (the broken supply chain).

Everyone learned to pivot — yes, the word everyone got sick of in 2020 — and that made us all more resilient during 2021, a year when business began getting back to normal in some ways, while in other ways, we wondered if we’d ever see normal again.

Take remote work, which may prove to have the longest legs when it comes to trends that emerged from COVID. By the fall of 2020, employers were crafting plans to bring homebound workers back to the office. Plenty of those workers didn’t want to return, and made it clear they were perfectly productive without a commute or face-to-face contact with co-workers. More than a year later, many of those employers have backed off and have made remote work, or at least a hybrid schedule, a more or less standard model.

We certainly hope supply-chain and inflation challenges don’t prove to have the longest legs, because those are problems no one can afford to live with forever. We’ll see what the federal response is in 2022 — rising interest rates seem inevitable — and how these issues continue to depress the ability of businesses to invest and grow.

The other factor suppressing business growth, of course, is an ongoing workforce crunch — a combination of older workers retiring early and younger ones wielding newfound leverage in surprising ways. Whatever the factors, the Great Resignation is real, and will continue to reverberate into 2022.

That said, all that pivoting created a more resilient business culture in Western Mass. this year, one that has become more nimble, more adaptable, and more entrepreneurial. Sectors like tourism rebounded nicely, while cannabis continued its unimpeded progress. .

But back to that hard-earned sense of resilience. Whatever industry we covered this year — construction, auto sales, manufacturing, nonprofits, you name it — when we spoke with business leaders, no one shied away from the lingering pandemic and its global side effects, and how those factors continue to make it difficult to do business.

But there’s a sense of optimism in the air, too. Many feel like, if they’ve made it this far, 2022 can only get better, even if no one can be sure when the pandemic and its ill effects will recede. They’ve survived, they’ve rebounded, they’ve learned — and they know their customers want to get back to normal, to buy and invest and experience as they used to.

In some ways, it’s frustrating to think we’d be in better shape than we are now, on many levels. But for most, things did get a little better in 2021 — and we’re sensing plenty of optimism for 2022. And we’ll stay on top of it, as always. Happy holidays from BusinessWest.

Opinion

Editorial

Suffice it to say that COVID-19 and its many side effects have brought a number of challenges and headaches to our region, especially its business community. That list has included shutdowns, endless restrictions on what business can be conducted and when, a workforce crisis, supply-chain issues, inflation, uncertainty, unease … the list goes on.

There are a few positives in there, obviously, including innovation born of necessity, newfound resilience, and profound changes in how work is conducted — and where.

And there’s something else. As the story on page 6 reveals, and others stories have hinted at over the course of the past 18 months or so, COVID has inspired a slew of new stories of entrepreneurship in the Valley, which is intriguing and refreshing, on a number of levels.

As Samalid Hogan, the soon to be former executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s regional office, told us, the pandemic was a time when many people did some pausing and reflecting — in part because they had the time to do so.

And while doing that, they figured out that what they were doing wasn’t what they really wanted to be doing. What they wanted to do was own their own business. In many cases, this was a long-held dream accelerated by COVID. For others, it was something that came about by circumstance.

In any case, when they came to a crossroads, they took the one whereby they put their name on the door.

Over the course of the past 18 months or so, individuals, husband-and-wife teams, and other types of partnerships have created new beer labels, a wine-distribution venture, new retail outlets, a Latino marketing agency, a business offering personalized hikes in the Berkshires, and countless others.

These ventures have brought new life to tired real estate in some cases, and some new excitement in communities up and down the Valley, at a time when it was sorely needed.

These entrepreneurs have discovered what countless others learned long ago, and what they probably already knew themselves — that owning your own business, while usually a dream worth pursuing, isn’t easy.

It’s been described by those who have lived that life as a roller-coaster ride, with ups and downs, and usually more of the latter than the former. There are sleepless nights, and some time spent wondering if it was a good idea to leave a steady paycheck for the great unknown.

But for many who take this route, there is the ultimate conclusion that, yes, it was a good idea. It was worth it to take those risks. It was a life-changing decision.

Many people are now experiencing these emotions, and COVID had something to do with it. They may have lost the job they had. They may have decided the job they had simply wasn’t something they wanted to do anymore. They may have found the time and energy they never had to finally turn a dream into reality.

Whatever the reason, it has happened, and it’s still happening, as those monthly totals of people becoming part of the Great Resignation make clear.

There haven’t been many good things to come from the pandemic and its many, many side effects, but this is clearly one of them. v

Opinion

Editorial

 

Everyone wants to buy great gifts. But what about building a great economy?

While it’s only one part of a healthy local economic ecosystem, the idea of buying local has been gaining traction lately, even at a time when online sales show no sign of flagging in popularity.

We’re not deluded enough to think we can slow the march of Amazon, and we get the importance of convenience.

But why not do both? Sure, there may be some gifts especially well-suited to an online order, for reasons of availability and especially price. But why not check out the abundance of locally owned retail shops, artisans, and restaurants — people love gift cards, after all — when rounding out that shopping list?

Local shops are where you’ll find unique wares you can’t find anywhere else — the sort of special gifts that make an impact and create memories. And, as noted in our story on page 31, every $100 spent in a local shop returns $69 to the local economy. Local businesses are more likely to utilize other local businesses, such as banks, service providers, and farms, and the cycle continues. And in today’s uncertain economic climate, they count on your business to survive and thrive.

Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Small Business Assoc. and the U.S. Department of Labor, independent retailers return more than three times as much money per dollar of sales to the community in which they operate than chain competitors. And independent restaurants return more than twice that of national restaurant chains. Local businesses are also more accountable to their local communities and donate more money to nonprofits.

Finally, supporting local businesses is good for the environment because they often have a smaller carbon footprint than larger companies, and goods don’t have to be shipped across the country or the world. And let’s not even talk about those supply-chain woes.

It isn’t always the most convenient option to drive to an independent business rather than visiting a large chain down the road — or clicking a keyboard and having Amazon deliver right to your house. But so, so often, it’s the right option.

As Bill Cole, president of Living Local 413, notes, “the world and our country are evolving fast, and we need to adapt to new challenges. Over the past years and decades, we have learned that we cannot rely on powerful outside forces, be they public or private, to bring vitality to our home. If we want to maintain and develop the community that we love, it is our responsibility to act and put our money where our mouths are.”

The holiday season would be a good time to start.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The past 20 months or so have been a living hell for most businesses in this region. Owners, managers, and HR execs (who have been earning their keep, to say the least) have had to cope with everything from the many stages of the pandemic to the worst workforce crisis anyone can ever remember; from supply-chain issues to the ‘Great Resignation’ and retirements.

It’s been a long, hard stretch that has challenged everyone and forced too many small businesses to simply pack it in.

The last thing these businesses needed was another stern challenge, but that’s what many of them got with the vaccination mandates recently announced by the Biden administration. These mandates involve businesses of 100 or more employees (which must soon have all employees vaccinated or tested regularly) and those with contracts with the federal government — all those employees must be vaccinated by Dec. 8, with no testing option (see related story, page 6).

The vaccine mandates are well-intended — they are designed to greatly improve vaccination rates and move the country closer to herd immunity — and in some ways they relieve the employers in these categories from having to implement a vaccine mandate on their own, a controversial decision to say the least. Now, they can simply say, ‘the government is making us do it.’

But as well-intentioned as they are, these mandates are simply not what struggling business owners and managers need right now. They don’t need the additional costs, and there are many of them, from paying for vaccines and tests to paying employees while they’re getting vaccinated or even recovering from side effects. They don’t need the burden of trying to make sure they are in compliance with the new regulations, and they certainly don’t need the additional turmoil when it comes to their workforce.

Businesses across every sector of the economy are not only have trouble filling positions, they’re having trouble simply getting applicants to apply for open positions. It is already a nightmare scenario for these businesses, many of which are trying to fully rebound from the pandemic and get back to something approaching normal — or what existed before March 2020. 

Talented workers are already leaving hospitals and other healthcare providers, police departments, state agencies, and even college football programs because they refuse to be vaccinated. Forcing more businesses, especially small businesses with federal contracts, to also require vaccination or testing as a condition of employment is a step that is only going to wreak more havoc on an economy struggling to pick up steam.

We understand why the Biden administration has taken these steps, and everyone wants to be able to put the pandemic behind us. But mandating vaccinations in this fashion is only going to create more turbulence for employers at a time when they simply don’t need it.

Opinion

Editorial

 

As we absorb the news that Smith & Wesson will be packing its bags — some of them, anyway — and leaving Springfield for Blount County, Tennessee, a self-proclaimed ‘Second Amendment sanctuary,’ we are left with a number of questions.

Ironically, most of them don’t involve whether more could have been done, and should have been done, to keep the company here, which is usually the case when a corporation decides to headquarter itself somewhere else. Despite CEO Mark Smith’s insistence that the company left because of proposed legislation that would  ban the manufacturing of many of the company’s products (specifically assault weapons), it seems clear that Blount County made the corporation an offer it couldn’t refuse. And didn’t refuse.

No, most of the questions the day after the announcement was made concern just how big a loss this is for the city and the state. And those questions are certainly hard to answer.

On the surface, it’s certainly a big loss when the corporate brand most identified with your city (most people couldn’t tell you MassMutual is headquartered here) is lost to somewhere else. There’s also the history; Smith & Wesson was founded in Springfield in 1856, and the company has been a big part of the city’s manufacturing tradition.

But having one of your city’s largest employers be a manufacturer of weapons that kill people has long been somewhat of a public-relations problem. The jobs are good, but many have chosen not think too long and hard about what the people employed there are making and what they’re used for.

Aside from losing a big piece of Springfield’s history, we’re also losing roughly 550 jobs. That’s not insignificant, certainly, but let’s not forget that every manufacturing operation in Western Mass. has a help-wanted sign outside its doors, either figuratively or quite literally. For many years now, there has been a huge imbalance between the number of people these plants could hire and the number they have hired, because there just hasn’t been enough qualified people in the labor pool.

So … if you were ever going to lose 550 manufacturing jobs, or 550 jobs of any kind, this would be the time to lose them.

Which brings us to state Sen. Eric Lesser’s comment that this development with Smith & Wesson might be actually be some kind of blessing in disguise.

That’s an odd choice of phrase — and he was quick to note that he was obviously concerned about the 550 families to be impacted by this — but in many ways, it works.

Smith & Wesson is not leaving Springfield completely. It will maintain many of its operations and employ 1,000 people. That’s certainly good news. But no later than 2023, a good number of skilled workers — how many, we don’t know because some of those currently employed will follow the company to Tennessee — can take skills to other area companies that desperately need them.

The depth of this need is evidenced by the number of manufacturers who have already reached out to Lesser, other elected officials, the MassHire agencies, and even those employees themselves, letting them know that they are ready and willing to take them on.

It’s possible, that’s possible, that Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations to Tennessee might provide the means for some area companies to grow and perhaps open the door to additional employment opportunities.

This bombshell announcement by the company certainly represents a loss. But in some ways, it may also represent opportunity.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Way back in mid-March of 2020, as the state was shutting down due to COVID-19, we wrote about the great resiliency of this region’s business community and how it would be sternly tested because this was the greatest challenge anyone in business had ever faced.

Little did we know then just how stern this test was going to be and how long it would last. But 18 months later, not only do the challenges remain, but they have in many ways multiplied. Thus, a time that many thought would be normal — meaning what we knew in the fall of 2019, or at least something approximating it — is nothing like we imagined.

Indeed, this was expected by many to be a time when most of the hard decisions would be behind us. Decisions about whether to lay off or furlough people. Decisions about whether to forge ahead with programs and events that would bring people together in large numbers. Even decisions about whether to stay in business — or certain kinds of business.

As summer comes to a close and a fall shrouded by question marks looms, we’re facing some of those decisions again (or still) — and some new ones as well.

Some businesses may be forced to look again at mask mandates or at requiring proof of vaccination before one can enter an establishment or even a college campus. Others have already made vaccination a requirement for employment, and many others are contemplating whether to go this same route.

These are hard decisions that often put employers at odds with their customers and employees at a time when they simply don’t need to be alienating either constituency.

All of this makes it clear that the fight against this pandemic is far — as in far — from over.

Indeed, just as those who went home in March 2020 thinking it would be for just a few weeks soon learned how wrong those projections were, we’re all now forced to recalibrate, again, just how long we’ll be battling this pandemic and how heavy the fight will get.

What is clear is that the victory celebrations, if we can call them that, from just before Memorial Day, when the governor removed all remaining restrictions on businesses, were certainly premature.

Meanwhile, there are new challenges, from shortages of needed goods and raw materials to escalating prices and hard choices about if and how to pass them on to customers who are finally coming back in large numbers. Then, there’s a workforce crisis that has impacted almost every business sector and forced several types of businesses to reduce hours of operation, curtail services, or both.

There is hope that, with the end this month of the federal bonus being paid to those receiving unemployment benefits, things will improve on this front. But those hopes are countered by the reality that this problem is deep-rooted, and it may be some time before there is real relief.

And there are still more hard choices about whether, when, and how to bring workers back to the office, decisions now made even more difficult by the Delta variant and the great uncertainty about what this fall will be like.

Going back to what we wrote in March 2020 … this region’s business community is, indeed, resilient. And it needs to be. Because, contrary to what we were all hoping, it isn’t any easier being in business now than it was then. And in many ways, it’s even harder.

 

Opinion

A Step in the Right Direction

Late last month, Gov. Charlie Baker, heeding a call from a number of business groups that have steadily pushed for unemployment-insurance (UI) relief, proposed using $1 billion in state surplus money to help ease the burden facing the state’s business community from the widespread layoffs that occurred during the pandemic.

The governor filed a supplemental budget proposal with the Legislature that would set aside the $1 billion for unemployment rate relief as part of a broader $1.6 billion plan to spend the bulk of what remains of a massive, $5 billion state budget surplus from the fiscal year that ended on June 30.

If approved, the measure certainly won’t cover what is expected to be a $5 billion shortfall in the state’s UI fund — a shortfall that the Baker administration and the Legislature decided to address with an assessment that businesses will pay over the next 20 years or more — but it will help reduce the burden on the state’s businesses, and it represents a minor breakthrough of sorts when it comes to this administration and the business community.

Baker’s proposal shows that at least some people are paying more than lip service to the plight of the state’s businesses, which have often been overlooked when it comes to the long list of victims of this pandemic. Despite large amounts of local, state, and federal assistance in many different forms, from grants to loans, businesses in many sectors are still struggling in the wake of the pandemic.

This spring and summer have bought some relief to those in many sectors, including hospitality and tourism, but the road back to normal, pre-pandemic levels of revenue and profit is paved with uncertainty, especially as the highly contagious Delta variant continues to gain strength.

Businesses are, by and large, and to one degree or another, regaining their footing. But this improved stability, if it can even be called that, is threatened by many different forces — including the huge bill that has come due from so many of the state’s residents being forced into unemployment by the pandemic.

As we’ve said before, the state’s businesses didn’t cause the pandemic, and they should not have to bear the brunt of paying the enormous unemployment-insurance burden now facing the Commonwealth — not when the state has roughly $5 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds at its disposal and the huge surplus from FY 2021, resulting from a flood of federal aid and better-than-expected tax revenue.

In announcing his proposal regarding unemployment insurance, Baker said “this UI piece would send a big, positive message to employers and employees that we’re looking to try to help them with what is going to be one of the biggest expenses … because of the pandemic.”

He’s right, but it’s more than a message — it’s a solid step, and hopefully a solid first step — toward addressing the unemployment-insurance deficit.

The Legislature will have a lot on its plate when it gets back in session after Labor Day. We hope the governor’s UI proposal gets the proper consideration and eventually becomes part of the plan to spend down the rescue-plan monies and the deficit.

Things are better for the business community, but many challenges remain, and this proposal is a big step in the right direction.

 

Opinion

Editorial

It seems like longer ago — as in much longer — but it was almost exactly three years to this date that the casino era officially began in this region.

MGM Springfield was opened to considerable fanfare that hot August afternoon, and why not? The nearly $1 billion project, by far the largest private-sector development this region had ever seen, was more than five years in the making, and the buildup to that day was immense. There was a parade down Main Street. Some businesses actually adjusted their hours so employees could find parking spaces downtown amid what was expected to be a huge crush of visitors to the downtown area.

The expectations were sky-high for this gleaming resort casino, but almost immediately the numbers — in terms of visitors and revenues — started coming in lower than anyone hoped or anticipated.

And then … 18 months after that grand opening, COVID-19 changed the picture in a profound way.

So here we are, three years later. And in many respects, we’re right back where we were when the parade was making its way down Main Street. We can really only look to the future and project, because there simply isn’t enough data, enough evidence, to properly access MGM’s impact on the region.

Indeed, by now, we should have had a clear picture concerning whether this huge gamble — that’s what this is — has been worth it for Springfield and the region. Instead, because of COVID, we really don’t.

We do know some things. We know that MGM is not going to magically change the neighborhood around the casino and spur large amounts of additional development. That was the hope, but it won’t be the reality — unless things change in a dramatic fashion.

A CVS was built there, and, partly because of that CVS, a Wahlburgers restaurant has opened in that area as well. But, unfortunately, most of the office buildings across Main Street from the casino and in that area remain mostly vacant, with few signs of pending development. There is hope that the transformation of property in Court Square into market-rate housing — yes, MGM is a key partner in that project — will promote other developments of that type and also bring new service businesses to the area. But thus far, we certainly haven’t seen the scope of investments that had been anticipated.

We also know that gaming itself is not going to bring more vibrancy to the downtown area — or beyond, as some had hoped, with people maybe combining trips to the casino with visits to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Big E, or other attractions. There are some visits to area restaurants, but what we’ve observed mostly is just what many feared — that those coming to gamble are single-minded in that purpose, and they’re getting back in their cars after their time on the casino floor is over and driving home.

The biggest impact from the casino has been its special events — concerts and shows — that bring people to this area, not just for that event, but for a night or even two. Such shows help pack area restaurants and bars and, when combined with other happenings, such as Thunderbirds games, create traffic (desirable traffic) and a buzz about Springfield.

The region was starting to see more of that buzz in the months before COVID hit, but, sadly, there has been very little of it since.

But there is hope that it can return — and soon.

Hope — and expectations — were all we had when the casino opened to all that fanfare three years ago. Now, we don’t really know what to expect, largely because of the pandemic and how it has changed the landscape and will continue to change it. But there is still that hope.

The hope that this $950 million investment will fulfill all that promise and become a real economic force in the region.

Right now, if we had to grade MGM Springfield and its impact three years after the doors swung open, that grade would have to be ‘incomplete.’

Opinion

Editorial

 

It takes only a few months, even a few weeks, to establish a habit.

And in under 18 months, some new habits have completely altered the work world. The question now is, for how long?

It’s a well-told story at this point how companies across the U.S. sent their employees home in mid-March 2020 for what they figured would be a few weeks at most. Many worried whether their teams could be productive at home, relying on remote technology they had never used before.

Both instincts were largely wrong. A few weeks quickly became a few months and then well over a year. Now, almost a year and a half later, tens of millions of Americans are still working from home, and in many cases making remote work a requirement, or at least a strong request, when they apply for jobs. In other words, since the work-from-home habit set in, it has proven difficult to shake.

But employers were also wrong — at least in most cases — when they assumed the transition to remote work would be rocky. Thanks to a raft of tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and IT companies that stayed incredibly busy through the first half of 2020 making sure clients’ employees had the equipment they needed — most businesses have found their remote colleagues as productive as they had been in the office, and in many cases happier and less stressed out.

So why not make remote work the new status quo, right?

The main problem lies in company culture and camaraderie — specifically, the fact that it’s difficult to maintain any when everyone is working in a different place; even regular Zoom meetings can’t replace face-to-face collaboration. Employee onboarding is harder, too — it’s tougher for a newcomer to feel assimilated and comfortable on a team when that team is scattered far and wide.

All of which is why hybrid scheduling makes so much sense, and why many companies — those that don’t require their employees to see customers and clients in person, anyway — are moving to a hybrid model (see story on page 25). In short, employees who like the home setting can work there some days, but are required to come in on other days. That way, they still feel less stress and can balance work and life, but can also meet their employer’s collaborative needs.

Some companies are establishing set at-home and on-site days, while others allow their employees to decide each week where they will be, as long as they meet the minimum on-site requirements. Others have their staffs in house most of the time, but allow them to stay home on days when they feel they would work better there.

Formal or informal, hybrid work models are becoming the norm — and might completely transform workplace culture across the U.S., not to mention the trickle-down effects on industries like commercial real estate, office furniture, IT, and even restaurants that cater to lunch crowds.

It’s a transformation that wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago, and it took a worldwide health crisis to unlock the door. But when Americans figure out that something works well, they tend to stick with it. How permanent will this shift be? Stay tuned.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Back in 2015, those of us at BusinessWest decided it was time to build on what was already a pretty good thing — our annual 40 Under Forty compilation of rising stars in this region.

That decision was to add another layer of recognition, and another layer of intrigue, to the equation by creating a new award, one that would acknowledge a previous 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to build on the accomplishments that earned them membership in one of the region’s more prestigious clubs.

Originally, we called this the Continued Excellence Award, which works, but doesn’t tell the whole story. So in 2019, we changed it to the Alumni Achievement Award, which does a better job of explaining what this is about.

It’s about achievement — in one’s profession and with work in the community to address the many issues and challenges facing those who call this region home. And sometimes, one’s profession is addressing those aforementioned challenges.

Such is the case this year, with at least two of the five finalists for the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award, but we’ll get to them in a minute. First, more about the award and what it’s about.

It’s about calling attention to people who are setting the standard when it comes to making a difference and serving as role models for other young people in this region — individuals who continue to find ways to impact quality of life for the better.

There can be only one (or two) winners of this award annually, but we call attention to all the finalists — and really all those nominated for this award — because of the way these stories can, and should, inspire everyone to keep reaching higher and find new ways to give back.

The five finalists this year (see profiles HERE) are:

• Tara Brewster, the “recovering entrepreneur” (former co-owner of the clothing store & Connor) who is now the vice president of Business Development at Greenfield Savings Bank and extremely active within the community, with groups ranging from the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce to the YMCA to the Downtown Northampton Assoc. And she’s recently added another line to her résumé — radio personality, as the new host of the Western Mass. Business Show on WHMP;

• Gregg Desmarais, another banking executive — he’s vice president and senior private client relationship manager for TD Private Client Group, a business of TD Wealth — who has made it his business to get involved in the community. Much of that involvement is with Revitalize Community Development Corp., which he has served as chair and helped bring to new levels of success with revitalizing area neighborhoods;

• Anthony Gulluni, district attorney for Hampen County, who has introduced a number of new programs since first being elected to office in 2015, initiatives that include everything from a cold-case unit to an addiction task force; from a campus-safety symposium to a human-trafficking task force; from a youth-advisory board to one of the nation’s first courts focused specifically on high-risk young adults;

• Eric Lesser, the state senator representing the communities that comprise the First Hampden and Hampshire District. Since first being elected in 2014, Lesser has worked tirelessly within the broad realm of economic development, but especially toward the goal of leveling the playing field between east and west in Massachusetts and bringing new opportunities to those who live, work, and own businesses in the 413; and

• Meghan Rothschild, president and owner of Chikmedia, who has steadily built on a résumé of success of business and giving back to the community. In addition to growing her company, she has become an advisor and mentor to many women in business while also donating time and her considerable talents to a number of area nonprofits, volunteering for everything from help with social-media marketing to emceeing an event.

The winner of the 2021 Alumni Achievement Award will be announced at the 40 Under Forty Gala on Sept. 23 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House. But in our view, all five of this year’s finalists are truly winners. They exemplify all that this award is about, and, more importantly, they set the standard when it comes to being a leader in this region.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s only July, just a few months after the governor essentially reopened the state and things started returning to normal. We have a long way to go before we can even begin to know the full impact of the pandemic on the local business community and individual communities.

But to many, it’s already apparent that new and intriguing uses will have to be found for spaces in the office towers and some of the other buildings in downtown Springfield. It seems clear that many of those already in those office towers will be downsizing or moving out when their leases expire. Meanwhile, there are few if any signs that retail can stage any kind of meaningful comeback, as the current vacancies along Main Street clearly show.

These indicators make it clear that creativity, with a generous amount of patience as well, will be needed when it comes to bringing new life to the properties downtown. Old answers and traditional ways of thinking won’t work. People should be thinking not about what these properties were designed to be — office spaces, for the most part — but what they can be.

If the pandemic has done anything, it has probably only accelerated a process that has been in place for years now. Indeed, downtown vacancy rates have been consistently, and somewhat disturbingly, high, with new inventory, at locations like 1550 Main Street and Union Station, only adding to the challenges facing those owning and managing property in and around Main Street.

There has been some movement in recent years when it comes to office-space absorption — Wellfleet Group moving into several floors in Tower Square, the Community Foundation moving out of Tower Square and onto street-level offices on Bridge Street, and the Dietz architecture firm moving into Union Station — but much of it is the kind of ‘musical chairs’ action that has defined the commercial real-estate scene for years now.

Looking forward, there is certainly potential for downtown to become more of a destination when it comes to office space, especially with regard to the manner in which the pandemic has shown business owners that they don’t necessarily have to be in downtown Boston or New York, paying sky-high lease rates, to conduct business. They can work from anywhere — including Springfield.

Unfortunately, every city in the country is sending out that same message, including communities with larger, deeper workforces, better climate, and more vibrant central business districts.

There are steps being taken to try to convince elected leaders to move some state offices to Springfield, again in recognition that they don’t need to be in Boston or even the Boston area. There is some optimism regarding these efforts, and the argument makes a great deal of sense, but we wonder if there can be any meaningful movement when it comes to agencies that have been headquartered in the eastern part of the state forever — and when it might come.

Beyond these initiatives, it’s clear that some real creativity in the form of imaginative new uses will needed. We’ve seen some already downtown with the YMCA of Greater Springfield, two colleges, and now White Lion Brewing moving into Tower Square, but we’ll need more.

That’s because traditional office-space users — law firms, accounting firms, insurance agencies, financial-services firms, and even nonprofits — will almost certainly need less of that space in the years to come. It’s time to look at a host of options, including residential, hospitality, healthcare, education, and others. Perhaps a live/work type of facility, such as the type being proposed for 1350 Main Street, can be one of the answers.

We’re not sure what the future will look like, but we’re reasonably sure it won’t look like what we have now. So something else will be needed. Something creative.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Going back to the start of the pandemic, we expressed concern for the survival of not only the businesses in Springfield and across the region, but also the institutions that contribute to the quality of life we all enjoy here.

That’s a broad category that includes a number of museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Springfield Thunderbirds and other sports teams, and arts venues ranging from Jacob’s Pillow to Tanglewood to the Springfield Symphony Orchestra. All of them are part of the fabric of this community.

Among all those, perhaps the one we feared for the most was the symphony, which has seen several changes in leadership over the past decade and has seemingly struggled to attract younger and broader audiences. If there was an institution that couldn’t afford to be on the sidelines, out of sight, and in many cases out of mind, it was the SSO.

“Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.”

These fears gained some legitimacy last week when musicians who play for the orchestra issued a press release that doubled as both warning and call to action. These musicians, some of whom have been playing for the SSO for decades, raised questions about how committed the SSO’s board is to everything from giving long-time maestro Kevin Rhodes a new contract to a 2021-22 season for the SSO. They asked for “an encore, not a curtain call.”

The SSO’s interim executive director, John Anz, responded by saying many of these issues are intertwined, and the orchestra cannot proceed with a new contract for Rhodes or a 2021-22 season until negotiations with the musicians’ union are resolved.

Reading between all the lines, it appears that concerns about the future of the venerable, 75-year-old institution are very real and quite warranted.

We sincerely hope the SSO is able to rebound from what is certainly the greatest challenge of its existence. Springfield needs these institutions to become the destination that we all hope that it can be.

Indeed, many things go into making a community livable — jobs, neighborhoods, schools, a thriving downtown, and, yes, culture. Springfield has already lost CityStage; it simply cannot afford to lose another thread of its fabric.

This is especially true as the state and the nation emerge from this pandemic. We’ve heard the talk that large urban areas are now less attractive to some segments of the population, who are now looking more longingly toward open spaces and less crowded areas. And we’ve seen dramatic evidence of this in our own real-estate market.

Springfield is to emerge as a player in this new environment, a true destination, then it will need institutions like the SSO to create that quality of life that both the young and old are seeking out as they search for places to call home.

The SSO has certainly been rocked by this pandemic. Emerging from it will be a stern test. We certainly hope it can move forward and be part of Springfield and this region for decades to come.

Opinion

Editorial

The light at the tunnel that we’ve all been waiting for is essentially here.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s announcement last week that he was eliminating virtually all COVID-19 restrictions on May 29, in time for Memorial Day weekend, puts Massachusetts in the final stage of the reopening plan he announced almost exactly a year ago, which he dubbed the ‘new normal.’

But while this announcement is certainly cause for celebration and optimism, the local business community is, in many ways, still in the tunnel. COVID is not to be referred to in the past tense yet, and there are still a number of challenges to overcome, including some new ones.

Indeed, as the story on page 10 reveals, the governor’s announcement brings some anxiety to go along with the joy and relief that most business owners are certainly feeling. That anxiety comes in many forms, from finding adequate supplies of good help (a challenge confronting those in virtually every sector of the economy) to tackling the daunting task of bringing employees back to the office, to dealing with loosened restrictions on masks, which are causing confusion and considerable doubt when it comes to the ‘honor system.’

In many ways, as welcome as the governor’s announcement was and is, it’s a fact that many businesses are simply not ready to turn back the clock to the fall of 2019, when the world had never heard that word COVID.

What makes things even more complicated is that no one knows just how ready the consuming public is to turn back the clock and pick up where things left off 15 months ago. It’s safe to say it might take a little time for both constituencies to feel comfortable within the realm of the new normal.

Here’s what we do know: this region’s business community has shown remarkable resilience since the pandemic arrived in this region. We’re all tired of hearing and uttering that word ‘pivot,’ but that’s exactly what business owners and managers did, whether they’re in hospitality, manufacturing, financial services, healthcare, or any other sector.

The new normal means pivoting again. In some cases, it will actually mean simply returning to how things were in late 2019, and that can be challenging enough given the abundance of ‘help wanted’ and ‘we’re hiring: $250 sign-on bonus’ signs we’re seeing in ever-increasing numbers, as well as the skyrocketing price increases involving everything from food products to lumber to gasoline (see story on page 6).

For most businesses, though, things won’t ever be just as they were before COVID. They’ve learned new and, in many instances, better ways of doing things — out of necessity. Meanwhile, many employees will continue to work remotely, changing, perhaps forever, the dynamic of the modern office.

As we said, the region’s business community will have to pivot once again. Based on how well it did the past 14 months, we believe it will adjust quite well to the new normal. We’re not out of the tunnel yet, but the light is very, very close.

Opinion

Editorial

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in the spring of 2007, there were many goals attached to that initiative.

First and foremost, we wanted to introduce 40 rising stars to the business community here in Western Mass. Second, we wanted to tell some really inspiring stories about people doing incredible things — both at their jobs and in their community. Also — and this was not an official goal, to be sure — we wanted to assure the sometimes cynical members of the older generations that there were strong leaders in place for this region for the years and decades to come.

As we introduce the class of 2021, all these goals come to the forefront. This is a tremendous class of young leaders, one that speaks volumes about our region. Indeed, Western Mass. is diverse, and its business community is also diverse, with a strong mix of ventures across all sectors, from technology to healthcare; hospitality to agriculture. Its up-and-coming leaders have chosen a number of different paths; some are entrepreneurs, others lead nonprofits, still others are professionals in fields ranging from law to accounting; marketing to financial services. Some are professionals who are also entrepreneurs.

The class of 2021 reflects all this. It reflects something else, as well — the willingness of these young leaders to step forward, serve their community, and address the many issues confronting our region, including homelessness, poverty, illiteracy, access to healthcare, and more.

The 40 remarkable stories starting on page 25 illuminate all this. They tell of young people excelling in their chosen field, and people who are making it their business to give back.

People like Dr. Jessica Bossie, the highest scorer among the nearly 200 nominees, who serves as the primary-care doctor for a program called Health Services for the Homeless and brings medical care and large doses of compassion to that population.

Or Claudia Quintero, who turned her passion for social justice — and her gratitude for U.S. citizenship — into a legal career advocating for the rights and well-being of migrant farmworkers.

Or Crystal Maldonado, who never gave up on her dream of writing a book, and, in doing so, shared her own life and perspective with teenage readers who don’t often see themselves reflected in mainstream media.

Or Matthew Kushi, an administrator at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst who also grows hot peppers and chairs Hadley’s Agriculture Commission.

Or Julissa Colón, who struggled to finish college after having her first child and now helps others achieve their dreams through Holyoke Community College’s Gateway to College program.

Or Brendon Holland, who brought a cutting-edge skillset to regional public-access television and helped keep a city and its residents connected during the critical months of the pandemic.

Or Chris Thibault, the first-ever posthumous winner of this award, who will be remembered for using his camera to help others tell their stories, but especially for how he shared his own — a courageous battle with cancer.

There are nearly three dozen more stories of this nature involving the class of 2021, a class that showcases all that is good about this region — and all that is good about the young leaders now making their mark.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Let’s start by saying there is no debating that most of the economic-stimulus programs created by local, state, and federal governments have been extremely effective in helping businesses of all sizes and moving the economy forward at a time of extreme — as in extreme — duress.

Indeed, programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan initiative have provided an absolutely vital lifeline, without which many small businesses in this region and across the country would simply not be here. Other programs have benefited healthcare providers, specific sectors of the economy, and municipalities.

That said, some stimulus has actually backfired on business and the economy, and that’s especially true when it comes to federal unemployment benefits — checks that were designed to help those who lost their jobs to the pandemic, but have had serious unintended consequences in the form of people who are simply staying out of the job market because they can make more money by not working and are making the no-brainer decision to do so.

This is not a news flash; it has been going on for roughly a year now. What is a news flash — sort of — is the extent to which these unemployment benefits are stifling the economy just as the ingredients are there for it to start really taking off again.

Indeed, as the story on page 6 relates in great detail, businesses across a number of sectors are struggling mightily to find the help they need. And for some, the inability to find this help could threaten their ability to expand and take on work that could come their way.

Stories abound about pool-installation companies already booked solid for this season and simply unable to take on any more projects, even though they are there for the taking; home-improvement companies having to turn down lucrative projects because they just don’t have the workers; and restaurant owners looking ahead to better times with a mix of anticipation and dread, with the latter involving great uncertainty about whether they will have enough bodies to handle the surge in volume they hope — and believe — is coming.

Not all of this is the result of the unemployment payments contained in the federal stimulus package. Indeed, many employers were struggling to find adequate supplies of help before anyone had to think about hanging a mask from the rear-view mirror of their car. But these benefits have made the situation exponentially worse.

And it’s not just the benefits, especially the additional $300 per week contained in the stimulus package, that are causing the problem; it’s the inability, or the unwillingness, of state unemployment divisions to enforce the simple rules that pertain to unemployment benefits.

Unemployment was designed to help those who have lost their job and cannot secure another one. Those who receive these benefits are expected to maintain a vigilant pursuit of new employment opportunities, and accept one when a proper fit is found.

These days, that is simply not happening. People are staying on unemployment because, well … why wouldn’t they? Especially when they could earn as much, if not more, by not working.

Many employers are already counting down the days until September, when these benefits expire, thinking matters might then return to normal. This is wishful thinking — this Congress may well extend the benefits again, given the way things are going — and not where their energies should be placed.

Instead, business leaders should be lobbying those in power — both in Washington and Boston — to do something about this problem now, before things get worse and before the recovery from COVID becomes further stalled.

As we said at the top, most of the federal, state, and local stimulus has done what is was designed to do — help people hurt by COVID weather the storm. The unemployment benefits were designed to do the same, but the unintended consequences have now greatly overshadowed the good that’s been done.

This is a case of stimulus gone awry, and something has to be done.

Opinion

Cannabis Business Is Riding High

Back in November — only two years after adult-use marijuana became legal in the Commonwealth — the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission reported sales had surpassed $1 billion, and the state had collected some $200 million in taxes from the adult-use windfall. At the time, employment in the adult-use cannabis field in Massachusetts was approaching 6,000. It’s likely significantly higher now.

The COVID-19 impact? Not much, really. Except during those weeks from March through early May 2020, when most businesses of all kinds were closed to the public, dispensaries have reported steady revenues right through the pandemic. While the supply-chain issues and other economic impacts that followed in the wake of COVID did slow the pace of progress at some projects in various stages of development, customers are still lining up to get into the shops currently open.

In short, some industries are more resilient amid shifting economic tides — and public-health emergencies, it turns out — than others, and cannabis has proven, so far, to be one of them.

One lingering question, however, is how the rapid proliferation of dispensaries and other cannabis businesses will impact sales at each individual shop — in other words, will supply begin to outstrip demand and make this a riskier or less desirable industry to enter than it was a year ago?

To hear the business owners themselves tell it, the answer is no. Take Northampton, for example. Both Noho-based business owners we spoke with for this issue’s cannabis focus say that city has become such a destination for cannabis that each new enterprise just adds a little more texture to a robust ecosystem — and draws in even more customers from outside.

After all, if a city is known for its restaurants, no one ever says there are too many, or that it’s a bad idea to open another.

The heightened competition has, of course, forced new business owners to think critically about how to best stand out from the crowd, and the stories starting on page 29 are good examples of how they’re doing exactly that.

Cannabis has been a boon for the state’s coffers, no doubt about it. But it continues to be a strong driver of employment as well, one with a still-undefined ceiling. And it’s begun to add real vibrancy to the economy and lifestyle of communities that have been welcoming hosts.

In short, this is still fertile soil. After a year of economic news that hasn’t always been bright, that’s something to celebrate.

Opinion

Editorial

Every sector of the economy, and every business, large or small, has been impacted by this global pandemic. But this region’s large and important hospitality and tourism sector has easily been the hardest-hit.

The hotels, restaurants, tourists attractions, event venues, and cultural institutions have been pummeled by this crisis. Some have not survived; those that have are battered and bruised, and that goes for small mom-and-pop operations, the $1 billion MGM Springfield resort casino, and everything in between.

As the calendar turns to April, though, there can finally be sentiment that the very worst is behind this sector and that better times are to come — though myriad challenges remain.

First, the good news. As various stories in this issue reveal, there are positive signs and ample amounts of optimism about what’s in store for this sector. Tanglewood, Jacob’s Pillow, and other renowned cultural institutions have announced that, after canceling everything (or staging only virtual performances) in 2020, they will have schedules of live offerings this year — although they will be different.

Meanwhile, there is a great deal of talk of pent-up demand, and new terms working their way into the lexicon like ‘revenge spending’ and ‘vacation retaliation.’ All this points to a summer — and a year — when people who spent their time off in 2020 (if they had any) on the back deck, might instead be spending some money taking in all that Western Mass. has to offer.

This good news is tempered by the hard reality that we just don’t know what this year portends when it comes to people getting back in the water — literally and figuratively. There is pent-up demand, yes, and many people certainly have money to spend. But when the time comes, will people be willing to gather in large numbers? Will there be a Big E, and if so, how many people will attend? Will people return to the casino? And when can MGM again stage the live events that bring so many people to downtown Springfield? Can the Basketball Hall of Fame bounce back from a dismal year? Will people have an appetite for crowded (or more crowded) restaurants? When will conventions return?

These are just some of the questions that will determine the short-term fate of the region’s tourism and hospitality industry. For the long term, we know the health and well-being of this sometimes-overlooked sector is absolutely critical to the economy of this region, and to its quality of life.

Thankfully, there are many signs that it’s ready to officially roar back to life.

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