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Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

They call it ‘employee ghosting.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Considering the Downside of #MeToo

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are very disconcerting numbers, to be sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

And, sometimes, economic development is art itself.

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

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

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

How is this economic development?

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

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

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

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