Home Posts tagged Editorial
Opinion

Editorial

 

Photo by Leah Martin

Fredrika Ballard, founder and owner of Fly Lugu Flight School, one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2023, was one of three people who died tragically in a plane crash in Leyden, at the Greenfield line, on Jan. 14.

The others killed were William Hampton, a flight instructor, and Chad Davidson, a student pilot.

Their deaths sent shock waves through the region, its business community, and all of us here at BusinessWest, who, in a short time, came to know Ballard as the epitome of the program created by those at the magazine to recognize women who are making a difference in this region.

Ballard, a flyer since her youth and a true entrepreneurial spirit, brought both of those qualities together in Fly Lugu, a name whose origins could be traced to something her father told her about how, when it came to the yoke of a plane, when you look up, you go up — LUGU.

Ballard brought that sentiment not just to flying, but to life in general. To move forward, she said, one had to look up, be positive, and move with confidence.

She did all of that, and she inspired others to do so as well, again, not just with flying, but with their lives and careers.

BusinessWest created its Women of Impact program, and chose that name, not simply to honor successful businesswomen, although several of them have been recognized. It was created to honor women who stand out, women who are true leaders, women who are mentors to others, women who inspire those around them to set a higher bar — in their work and in their lives — and then clear that bar. Women whom others consider powerful forces in their lives.

Ballard was all of these things and more, and this is why she epitomizes that phrase Woman of Impact. She was a success in business and a true entrepreneur, but she was also a teacher, a mentor, and an inspiration.

Opinion

Editorial

 

The main reason the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts opened a long-awaited distribution center in Chicopee this month is that it distributes millions of pounds of food each month, and more space means doing more of that critical work, and in a more streamlined way, thanks to Chicopee’s proximity to two interstates.

The nonprofit’s new, larger, greener food-distribution center is twice the size of its previous Hatfield location, with an additional 18,000 square feet in the warehouse alone. Floor-to-ceiling warehouse racks and expanded refrigeration and freezer sections enhance efficiencies and enable the Food Bank to store and distribute more healthy food than ever before to 175 member food pantries, meal sites, and emergency shelters of the food-assistance network across all four counties of Western Mass.

The new site also features a dedicated community space with a working kitchen for cooking and nutrition classes and other educational events. Other efficiencies include electric charging stations, an expanded member pick-up area, and ample parking for staff and volunteers. In 2024, the Food Bank will add a solar array on the roof and a canopy over part of its parking, along with backup battery storage that will fully support all electricity needs of the building.

“The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts’ new, state-of-the-art facility will allow their dedicated team to provide greater access to healthy, nutritious foods to thousands more of our neighbors in need and expand service routes to partners throughout the area,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said. “I’m proud of the Food Bank’s 40 years of history serving our community and their continued leadership on the national stage in our movement to end hunger now.”

The Food Bank certainly isn’t alone in those efforts, but the sheer scale of its work to connect food-collection sources through distribution channels to reach people in need is nothing short of remarkable, and its shepherding of tens of millions of dollars to build the new Chicopee location testifies to the firm belief in its work held by individuals, businesses, and government.

“I want to express my gratitude to our incredible community of supporters and donors who made our vision a reality,” Food Bank Executive Director Andrew Morehouse said.

No, thank you.

Opinion

Editorial

 

“Honestly, this was one of our busiest years I can remember.”

“It’s been a very challenging year.”

Those are two quotes from this issue of BusinessWest, one from the world of construction, the other from hospital administration.

And if you asked leaders of other sectors — from education to auto sales; from real estate to insurance — how things are going, you’d probably encounter the same range of answers.

Because these are unusual times. In some ways, the economy is strong, with historically low unemployment, real wages rising, and energy prices falling. But in other ways — indeed, the ways in which people feel it most immediately — things are not getting better: inflation is still too high, housing is increasingly unattainable, and employers are struggling to find talent.

But even by those negative measures, the U.S. has seen improvement over the past year, and in many industries, business is steady. We hope for even more improvement in 2024, of course, and while we do, here are four other developments we wouldn’t mind seeing, both locally and nationally.

• Lower interest rates. Not only has it been a terrible year for banks on that front, but consumers have been struggling with the dual issues of housing availability and higher mortage rates. Now that inflation is easing, mortgage rates are expected to make a slow decline throughout 2024. Realtor.com forecasts that rates will be 6.8% on average for 2024 and 6.5% by the year’s end, following a high of 7.79% earlier this year.

• Movement on east-west rail in Massachusetts. Obviously, any movement here will be painfully slow, but there has been some progress toward connecting Springfield (and even Pittsfield) with Boston. This fall, the federal government awarded a grant of $108 million to Massachusetts for infrastructure upgrades, and Gov. Maura Healey signed off on $12.5 million in DOT funding in the state’s FY 2024 budget toward the effort.

• Federal cannabis decriminalization. Well over half of U.S. citizens live where cannabis is legal in some way statewide, that number is rising every year, and about 60% of Americans want the drug legal for recreational use. But the federal government’s continued categorization of cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug — and the related Section 280E issues in the Internal Revenue Code — continue to hamper the industry in many ways, from banking and taxes to security and transportation. Descheduling marijuana seems to have bipartisan support in Congress, but there has been little movement.

• More momentum in downtown Springfield. The good news is plentiful: MGM posted some of its best-ever months this year. The Thunderbirds generate a $126 million effect on the local economy, according to a UMass Donahue Institute study. The market-rate housing development at the former Court Square Hotel has been taking applications, with the promise of bringing more foot traffic to the area. All the downtown office towers report new tenants or progress toward that goal. Downtown may never attain the energy of its mid-20th-century heyday, but the progress has been encouraging.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Second Chance Animal Services calls it a “trifecta of challenges that demand immediate attention.”

First, a rising tide of inflation has led to food insecurity for both people and their furry companions, as the cost of pet-care essentials skyrockets. Housing costs, too, are soaring, forcing families to make wrenching decisions about their living situations, often resulting in the surrender of beloved pets.

Second, a veterinary-care crisis persists, with burnout among professionals causing a shortage of crucial services.

Finally, shelters are reaching capacity across the country — and not just in the South, where overpopulation has long been a problem — forcing many to euthanize perfectly adoptable pets when they are out of space.

North Brookfield-based Second Chance, which runs four community veterinary hospitals, never euthanizes for space and is taking in as many transports as it can, but its space is limited as it grapples with an increase in surrenders from local pet owners.

“We are being stretched to our limits, and I am deeply concerned,” Second Chance CEO Sheryl Blancato said recently.

But there’s hope, too, she added, citing her own organization’s efforts to keep pets with their families, from subsidized rates at its hospitals and a pet food pantry to community vaccine clinics and veterinary care at senior-living residences.

But it needs help: more volunteers, more donations, more awareness of the problem.

Meg Talbert feels the same way, as she told BusinessWest in the story that begins on page 4. The executive director of Dakin Humane Society says volunteers and foster families are critical to the nonprofit’s work, but so is financial support.

“A corporate donation or a foundation or individual giving, they really let us do the work. They are that bridge that allows us to go that extra mile for the animals, and to help people out when they’re coming to us,” she said, whether they’re at the point of surrendering an animal or having trouble affording veterinary care.

The goal, in almost every case, for organizations like Dakin and Second Chance is to keep families and their pets together. Not only is it heartbreaking to have to surrender an animal, but every pet back in the shelter system is one more animal adding to an overcrowding problem that is not letting up.

That’s why, Talbert said, every adoption of a dog, cat, or other critter actually saves two lives: the adopted animal’s life, and the animal that adoption makes room for at the shelter. Just as every surrender compounds the problem, every rescue adoption improves it.

We encourage families who want to add a pet to their home to consider adopting first, not only to reduce the overcrowding issue, but to literally save a life worthy of saving — a pet with plenty of love and appreciation to spare.

Speaking of appreciation, Dakin, Second Chance, and other animal-welfare organizations are always grateful for not only financial gifts, but volunteers. As the season of giving commences, that’s something that should give us all paws — er, pause.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Almost from the first puck drop back in the fall of 2017, we have been writing about the importance of the Springfield Thunderbirds — not just to the general psyche of the region (it’s good to have a pro sports team to root for) and to the vitality of Springfield’s downtown, but also to the local economy.

We’ve said many times that the team is a powerful force not just for filling bars and restaurants, and the casino on Main Street, but for job creation and supporting jobs elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley.

And now, we can quantify this broad impact.

Indeed, a recently released report details a study undertaken by the UMass Donahue Institute showing that the team’s operations have generated $126 million for the local economy since 2017.

The study included an analysis of team operations data, MassMutual Center concessions figures, a survey of more than 2,000 T-Birds patrons, and interviews with local business owners and other local stakeholders. Among its most critical findings, the study shows that the T-Birds created $76 million in cumulative personal income throughout the region and contributed $10 million to state and local taxes.

Meanwhile, the report shows that the team has doubled the number of jobs created from 112 in 2017 to 236 in 2023, and estimates that income per job created by the T-Birds is approximately $76,000, and that each job created by the Thunderbirds creates or supports 3.3 other jobs elsewhere in the Pioneer Valley.

Overall, the study concludes that the franchise, which has enjoyed success both off the ice and on it, including a run to the Calder Cup finals in 2022, is having a true ripple effect that extends beyond the walls of the MassMutual Center. Indeed, the study found that 78% of T-Birds fans spend money on something other than hockey when they go to a game, including nearly 70% who patronize a bar or restaurant or MGM Springfield. It also found that median spending by fans outside the arena is $40 per person on game nights and that every dollar of T-Birds revenue is estimated to yield $4.09 of additional economic activity in the Pioneer Valley.

We’re not sure, but it’s unlikely that even those business owners who came together to 2016 to save professional hockey in Springfield could have imagined this kind of impact. The numbers clearly show that they did more than bring a franchise here; they put together a team, led by President Nate Costa, that has put a quality product on the ice, marketed it in ways that are the envy of the American Hockey League, and turned that product into an economic engine.

Over the years, Costa and the team’s ownership group have won a number of awards from BusinessWest, everything from a Forty Under 40 plaque and a Difference Makers award for Costa to the Top Entrepreneur recognition for the team’s owners and managers.

Together, those awards speak volumes about what a success story this has been, not just for hockey fans, but for the entire region. But the Donahue Institute report speaks even louder. It puts numbers behind the words and quantifies what can only be called an unqualified success.

Opinion

Editorial

 

“I think that ship has sailed.”

That’s what JD Chesloff, CEO of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, said in response to a question from the Boston Globe recently about why companies, even those like Google, Meta, and Amazon, who have made headlines with stringent return-to-the-office policies, are not asking employees to come in five days a week.

He’s right: it has sailed. The hybrid work schedules that so many companies have adopted, not out of choice, but more because they don’t really have a choice, are now the new norm and, from all accounts, will be the norm for at least the foreseeable future.

Indeed, it appears to be time to stop asking when everyone is going to return to the office and realize that not everyone is going to return to the office. And for many reasons.

Most of them have to do with the current labor market and the fact companies remain far too desperate in their efforts to attract and retain talent to make demands on where people can work. In some cases, employees are simply more productive working at home. And in still other cases, companies have been able to dramatically reduce their square footage (and, therefore, their annual costs) by having some or most of their employees working remotely.

Add it all up, and what we’re seeing in the workplace now is what we’re going to be seeing, unless some of those factors above change dramatically in the near term, and we just don’t see that happening. In short, employees who have been given a taste of remote work, like what they’ve tasted, will not want to go back to the office five days a week. And if employers try to force them to, they’ll find a new employer that won’t. Meanwhile, business owners will continue to be reasonable and cost-conscious, traits that, at this moment, don’t lend themselves to forcing people back to the office.

So instead of asking when workers will return the office, employers, managers, property owners, and leasing agents alike need to adjust.

Employers and managers need to find new and creative new ways to build teamwork and employee engagement, such as by requiring all employees to be in certain days of the week and then maximizing that time together.

As for property owners, the adjustment is more difficult. They may have to find other uses for their square footage other than office, a real challenge at a time when retail is also in retreat and conversion to residential is expensive and, in some cases, not realistic.

But adjustment, on the part of all those concerned, is necessary, because Chesloff is right.

That ship has sailed.

Opinion

They Help Define ‘Hero’

 

In 2015, BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, established a new recognition program called Healthcare Heroes. It was created to bring much-needed recognition to individuals, groups, and organizations working within the large and vitally important healthcare sector in our region.

There was much discussion then, and it continues today, about just what makes one a ‘hero.’ Clearly, there is not one overriding definition of that word. If we had to try, we would say a hero is someone who inspires us with their actions and their words, compels others to excel, and makes a real difference in the lives of others.

And this year’s class of honorees certainly lives up that definition, as the stories that begin on Page H6 clearly show. Individually and collectively, they stand out for the way that they have dedicated their careers and their lives to helping others and setting an example that others should follow.

Let’s start with Jody O’Brien, a nurse with the Urology Group of Western New England. She’s 87 and still working two days a week and volunteering the other three. But her desire to work well past full retirement age only begins to explain why she is the hero in the Lifetime Achievement category. Through nearly 70 years in nursing, she has been a provider of care, hope, and especially inspiration.

Dr. Mark Kenton, chief of Emergency Medicine at Mercy Medical Center, has been making a difference on many levels — in his ER, on the national stage by bringing to light the staggering cost of EpiPens and the need to do something about it, and, perhaps most importantly, in the lives of individual patients, by utilizing perhaps his best talent: listening.

Cindy Senk, personal trainer and owner of Movement for All, enables individuals to discover the many benefits of yoga. But more importantly, she inspires them to improve their mobility — and their quality of life while doing so. Her philosophy is to not only educate her clients, but empower them.

Gabriel Mokwuah and Joel Brito are patient safety associates (PSAs) at Holyoke Medical Center, and each one has been credited with saving a life in recent months through their quick actions. And while doing so, these heroes have turned a spotlight on the PSA position at HMC, one that takes the traditional ‘sitter’ or ‘patient observer’ position to new dimensions.

Ashley LeBlanc, practice manager of Thoracic Surgery and nursing director of the Lung Screening Program at Mercy Medical Center, is a nurse and administrator with a strong track record for getting things done, especially a program that now screens 250 people for lung cancer each month, and then setting more ambitious goals.

Ellen Ingraham-Shaw, pediatric emergency nurse at Baystate Medical Center, has brought her passions for behavioral healthcare and compassion for children and their families to her work in a busy ER, enhancing care delivery and inspiring others to look at problems as opportunities, not roadblocks.

Julie Lefer Quick, nurse manager of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, was looking for a career change and found one at the VA, where she devotes herself to the needs of veterans and finding new and innovative ways to care for them.

Finally, Kristina Hallett, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of Graduate Psychology at Bay Path University, has not only helped myriad clients overcome trauma, anxiety, and countless other challenges, but she’s inspiring and helping to cultivate the next generation of behavioral-health professionals.

They’re heroes, every one. We hope you enjoy their stories.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s a significant investment: more than $20 million just for the first year. But it’s an investment that could bring a significant return.

That’s the hope, anyway, of Gov. Maura Healey and other state officials, who officially launched the initiative called MassReconnect with a press conference on Sept. 24 at MassBay Community College in Wellsley.

The program, quite simply, establishes free community college — covering not just tuition and fees, but books and supplies — for academically qualifying students age 25 and older.

The governor laid out the compelling rationale for the program at the event. “MassReconnect will be transformative for thousands of students, for our amazing community colleges, and for our economy,” she said. “It will bolster the role of community colleges as economic drivers in our state and help us better meet the needs of businesses to find qualified, well-trained workers. We can also make progress in breaking cycles of intergenerational poverty by helping residents complete their higher-education credentials so they can attain good jobs and build a career path.”

Let’s consider those points one at a time.

Western Mass., where four of the state’s 15 community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — are located, needs them to be strong and vibrant to generate, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into myriad fields.

Meanwhile, at a time when businesses of all kinds are struggling to attract and retain talent, making it easier for non-traditional students — those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another — to enter career pipelines could make a real difference in those companies’ growth, and even survival.

Meanwhile, Healey is right: there’s no doubt that education is a key factor in overcoming barriers to economic success; it isn’t hard to imagine that many students taking advantage of this program will represent the first generation of their family to attend college.

Holyoke Community College President George Timmons believes that “MassReconnect will enable our community colleges to do more of what we do best, which is serve students from all ages and all backgrounds and provide them with an exceptional education that leads to employment and, ultimately, a stronger economy and thriving region.”

MassReconnect is expected to support up to 8,000 community-college students in the first year, which could grow to closer to 10,000 students by FY 2025, depending on how many students take advantage of the new opportunity. There are approximately 700,000 Massachusetts residents who have some college credit but no degree. MassReconnect could help bring back these students to finish their degrees, with the additional funding and support they may have lacked the first time around.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth’s 15 community colleges are a ticket to economic mobility for many residents. Nationally, employees who have earned their associate degree are paid 18% more than workers with only a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As for those jobs, in July, there were more than 26,000 job postings in Massachusetts that specifically required an associate degree.

The hope is that MassReconnect will harness the power of community colleges by allowing workers to earn the training and education necessary to jump-start their career growth and reinforce a pipeline of skilled professionals entering the workforce. That’s what this is about, and why Healey and other proponents and believe the state’s investment will be more than justified by its return.

“MassReconnect will be a game changer for residents 25 and over in the Pioneer Valley and throughout the Commonwealth,” Greenfield Community College President Michelle Schutt said.

Let’s hope it changes the equation for employers — and the state’s entire economy — as well.

Opinion

Editorial

 

It’s been five years since MGM Springfield opened its doors amid considerable pomp, circumstance, and rides in a Rolls-Royce down Main Street.

There are times when it seems like those five years have flown by. Most of the time, though, it seems like it’s been much more than five years; a global pandemic that reached this region only 18 months after the casino opened its doors and closed the facility for several agonizing weeks will do that.

In any case, five years is a good time to take stock and assess what the casino era has brought to Springfield and the surrounding region — and what it hasn’t — and to gauge what we can and should expect moving forward.

Starting just a few hours after it opened, when it was clear that opening-day crowds simply were not going to be what officials at MGM had hoped and expected they would be, the casino era has been about adjusting expectations. And they needed adjusting because they were unrealistic to begin with — when it comes to everything from visitation to gaming revenues (although they have been better of late); from employment numbers to the manner in which we thought MGM was going to provide a real boost to the tourism industry.

Why those expectations were so high is a matter of conjecture. In part, it’s because of what we were told. But another part is what we wanted to believe. In short, we thought MGM was going to be … here comes that phrase: a game changer.

Five years later, it’s clear that the nearly $1 billion development has not been a game changer and probably won’t be. But it has been, and will continue to be, we believe, a solid and important addition to the region’s business community and its tourism and hospitality sector.

MGM simply hasn’t brought a lot more people to Western Mass. — except to visit the casino for several hours, get back in the car, and then go back to where they came from. In that respect, there hasn’t been much of the trickle-down effect that most of us expected.

The notable exception, as we’ve seen this spring and summer, has been the music and comedy shows that have brought good crowds and become a real boon for restaurants and clubs in the downtown area.

Beyond this, the casino has not had much of an impact on downtown or the tourism industry and individual attractions such as the Basketball Hall of Fame. Nor has it had much, if any, impact on economic development in the area around the casino. Indeed, beyond a new CVS and a Wahlburger’s on Main Street, there hasn’t been any new development that can be tied to the casino.

That’s not to say the casino hasn’t contributed to progress in Springfield; it has pumped money into Union Station, for example, and been a key player in the long-awaited revitalization of the former Court Square Hotel as well.

Moving forward, we expect that MGM will continue to be what it has been: a key contributor to the local economy and an important part of the proverbial big picture. But not a real game changer.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Western Mass. is well-known for quality higher education. Which means it should have a leg up in the competition for professional talent.

But that’s not necessarily the case, and talent drain is a real thing, as graduates — especially those who didn’t grow up here and have no roots in the region beyond their college years — procure their degrees and make their way to Boston, New York, or myriad points south and west.

Which is why it’s encouraging to hear about the types of initiatives featured in two of this issue’s articles. On page 53, we learn about an MBA program at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts that takes place partly at the Berkshire Innovation Center, just down Route 7 in Pittsfield. Through that partnership, students are exposed to experts, resources, and growing, innovative companies with which they can collaborate and make connections — potentially long-term connections.

Meanwhile, the story on page 58 details an initiative through which UMass students in the iCons certificate program are matched with area companies through internships that promote mutual growth and, again, connections that may develop roots.

“We are dedicated to supporting next-generation talent … and fostering professional development in our region,” a leader of one of those companies said, and that’s really the best way to think about these partnerships. For Massachusetts to thrive in the coming decades, it needs to attract — and retain — the best next-generation talent, and part of the strategy must include robust professional-development efforts that introduce young people to successful, inspiring companies early.

We’ve mentioned before some of the issues causing the highest outmigration numbers in Massachusetts in decades, from a housing crisis to transportation challenges to high taxes and cost of living. The Bay State needs to address those, of course, but it also needs to give people positive reasons to stay. An innovative economic ecosystem is one of those reasons, and the more young people are exposed to that, on a personal, experiential level, the more they will want to stay here.

And the better the future will look.

Opinion

Opinion

 

While it might be considered dangerous to get into a discussion concerning the quality and relative merits of a particular piece of art, when it comes to the new mural taking shape at the former Skyplex building off Stearns Square in downtown Springfield, we’ll make an exception.

This is an intriguing and masterful work (and it’s not even done yet) that celebrates the city, its history, its personalities, its landmarks … all of that.

But it does more than that. It activates a space, and it gets people talking. Overall, it takes a nondescript wall on an underutilized building and turns it into a conversation piece and part of a larger effort to bring more vibrancy to that part, and other parts, of Springfield.

It’s a small piece, but an important piece nonetheless.

If there’s anything to complain about with the mural, it’s that there’s too much going on. The entire wall is covered, and with many, if not most, of the ‘characters,’ one needs to ask, ‘who’s that?’ and ‘why is that person on this wall?’

That’s true of Abraham Lincoln and Muhammed Ali (you know who they are), but also Ted Shawn, the dancer and choreographer who created Jacob’s Pillow in Becket (and lived in Springfield for a time), and also June Foray, a Springfield native who became the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel, among other notable characters. You might not know who they are.

That’s the beauty of this mural. People get to take in something creative and learn about a city and its history at the same time.

It takes quite some time to take in the entirety of this mural, and another one like it just around the corner on Worthington Street, one that recreates advertising images put on the wall of a former camera store more than 50 years ago. But it’s worth taking the time, because these works tell a story, and they really do link the past, present, and future.

And at the same time, they bring new life to buildings, and an area, that needed a spark.

It is said that art can be captivating, powerful, and, yes, inspirational. This mural is a good example of how it can be all that and more.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Late last month, Gov. Maura Healey announced that that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward the replacement of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in Springfield, known to many as the ‘sick courthouse,’ and for obvious reasons.

The funding, represented in the next four years of capital-improvement plans, embodies the state’s first real commitment to replacing the tired, unhealthy structure, and is the next big step in a project that might ultimately cost a half-billion dollars.

The announcement came a few weeks after the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance (DCAMM) issued a report identifying 11 properties in Springfield, one in West Springfield, and one in East Longmeadow, as potential sites for a new courthouse.

One of those sites is 50 State St., the location of the 47-year-old courthouse, where many illnesses, including Lou Gehrig’s disease, have stricken an inordinate number of courthouse employees.

It’s unclear whether the inclusion of 50 State St. on the list means the state is leaning toward rehabilitating the current structure — a massive and expensive undertaking, to be sure — or simply tearing it down and building a new courthouse on that site.

Either way, we hope the state will ultimately look in a different direction for a solution, but not too far.

Indeed, the courthouse project, while defined by, and instigated by, tragedy in the form of the number of people who have become sick while working in it, represents a huge opportunity for the city of Springfield.

Actually, two of them.

The first would be building a new courthouse and thereby revitalizing some vacant or underutilized property, preferably in the city’s downtown (more on why in a minute), while the second would be to redevelop the site of the current courthouse, a property across State Street from MGM Springfield in the heart of downtown.

The huge site, just a few hundred feet from I-91, holds enormous promise, with potential uses ranging from housing, which the city still desperately needs, to office to retail and hospitality. The development community would have no trouble finding some creative and impactful uses for the property.

As for a new courthouse, while the proposed sites in West Springfield (Riverdale Street) and East Longmeadow (Shaker Road) and some of those in Springfield (Allen and Cooley streets and Hendee Street, for example) hold promise, this courthouse really needs to be in downtown Springfield, and for several reasons.

For starters, downtown would directly benefit from the still-considerable foot traffic to the courthouse every day, far more than those other locations. Also, where courthouses go, lawyers follow — it’s a simple matter of logistics; lawyers and law firms need to be close (as in walking distance, preferably) to the place where they still conduct large amounts of business.

Each of the large office buildings in downtown Springfield (and many of the smaller ones) are home to law firms and individual lawyers. If the courthouse were to move to West Springfield or East Longmeadow or even Allen and Cooley streets, some of these lawyers would go with it. We say some, because the need to be in close proximity to the courthouse is not as crucial as it once was.

But moving the courthouse more than a few blocks from downtown would be a blow to the central business district at a time when it has already been negatively impacted by the pandemic and the trend toward remote work and hybrid schedules.

A new courthouse is still several years away, and much has to happen before it becomes reality, including further commitments from the state. As the process unfolds, we hope the state realizes not only the need to replace the ‘sick courthouse,’ but the need for Springfield to make the very most of its opportunity — or opportunities.

 

Opinion

Opinion

By Iván Espinoza-Madrigal

 

On June 29, while raising the bar on universities’ ability to consider race in admissions, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected calls to overrule its affirmative-action precedents. Most importantly, the court left the door open for admissions offices to consider how race may have shaped an applicant’s life, affirming that “nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise.” 

In finding that Harvard’s and UNC’s admissions processes lacked “sufficiently focused and measurable objectives warranting the use of race,” the court’s ruling will undoubtedly require schools to reconfigure their policies. But the decision cannot be construed as an outright bar on race-conscious admissions. Key elements of the holistic admissions process for higher-education institutions remain in place. 

Throughout this challenge to Harvard’s policies, Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) has represented Harvard alumni and students of color as friends of the court (amici), emphasizing how Harvard’s holistic admissions process has led to a diverse campus that benefits all students. 

LCR is unequivocally committed to eliminating systemic barriers that harm communities of color. Far too many colleges and universities offer preferential treatment in the admissions process to the family members of alumni (so-called ‘legacies’) and donors, which typically results in an unearned and unfair advantage for white applicants and takes away admissions slots that could otherwise go to highly qualified and deserving students of color. 

As institutions assess how the college admissions process will work moving forward, it is important to continue to invest in pipeline projects designed to dramatically expand access to higher education for students of color.

The Supreme Court’s ruling leaves open the door for colleges to use race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity on campus, including recruiting based on income and socioeconomic background, utilizing criteria such as home and school zip codes, investing heavily in efforts to admit first-generation college students and to make them feel at home on campus, and guaranteeing admission to graduates with the best grade-point averages from each high school within the state where the college or university is located, as schools such as the University of Texas have already successfully implemented.

These programs provide a concrete and lawful path forward.

 

Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is executive director of Boston-based Lawyers for Civil Rights.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense — to the point that it should have happened 33 years ago, or more.

We’re talking about Hooplandia, the 3-on-3 basketball tournament taking place at the Big E fairgrounds and the Basketball Hall of Fame on June 23-25.

The 33 years is a reference to Hoopfest, a 3-on-3 tournament in Spokane, Wash. that has grown over those three-plus decades to encompass about 7,000 teams per year, a staggering figure. It’s a success story worth praise, even though some local leaders don’t love that Spokane refers to itself as Hooptown USA.

Because Springfield is the real Hooptown, right?

No one here is truly mad at Spokane for that, though. Instead, the organizers of Hooplandia are grateful that Hoopfest inspired the 413’s very own tournament, one they feel will only grow each year, maybe to the same level as Washington’s event (see story on page 40).

“Some of our earliest registrations were from far away,” said Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition. “We’ve got a couple from New Jersey and Maryland … and we’ve got a lot of Connecticut players; Connecticut obviously is a big basketball state. So it’s starting with a pretty broad footprint already, and I expect that to grow as well.”

It’s an example of taking an obvious regional asset — that being the birthplace of basketball and home of its Hall of Fame — and investing in that asset in a new way, while take advantage of another existing asset, the space afforded by the Big E fairgrounds.

If all goes as planned, that investment will bring immediate economic dividends (think hotels, restaurants, and other tourist attractions), and may multiply those dividends in future years, as the tournament expands its reach not only through the Northeast, but across the entire U.S., drawing even more people to Western Mass., who might just want to explore more of what the region has to offer during their multi-day stay.

It wasn’t too many years ago that the Springfield Museums leveraged the city’s fame as the birthplace of Ted Geisel into the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum and accompanying sculpture garden, which have been key to attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Museums from all 50 states and more than 30 countries.

In fact, so much tourism in Western Mass. springs from what already existed, whether it’s the homes of Emily Dickinson in Amherst and Edith Wharton in Lenox being turned into popular museums, or the historical structures in Deerfield and Sturbridge giving rise to living-history experiences, or the region’s abundant natural resources offering robust opportunities for skiing, whitewater rafting and paddling, rail-trail bicycling, ziplining, and so much more.

“Tourism in general has come back in varying ways,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “What we’re finding is that people want to get out. They want to do stuff.”

Well, Western Mass. is home to endless cultural, historical, and recreational ‘stuff.’ That’s one of its greatest assets. What Hooplandia proves — and hopefully keeps proving with exponential growth in the future — is that there’s always room for another great idea.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Girls on the Run isn’t about running.

Sure, running is a big part of this program for girls in grades 3-8; participants learn to enjoy running and build endurance so they can keep at it longer — and become healthier in the process.

But the heart of this organization (see story on page 30) isn’t physical endurance; it’s emotional resilience. It’s about social-emotional health, developing confidence, and finding joy.

And those can be challenges for young people today.

“We’ve definitely tapped into a need,” Alison Berman, council director of Girls on the Run Western Massachusetts, told us. “There’s a huge child mental-health crisis right now. And whatever’s going on with them, Girls on the Run is giving them this extra layer of skills to support them.”

Interestingly, we spoke with Berman and her team members during Mental Health Awareness Month, just a few days after we visited Springfield Central Library for another program aimed at young people and their emotional wellness.

Specifically, MiraVista Behavioral Health Center partnered with the Holyoke Public Library and Springfield’s city libraries to encourage awareness and conversations on the topic of mental wellness. Displays of books and other materials have been prominently set up to promote understanding around mental health and to encourage such collaborations for libraries to become better resources on the topic — for visitors of all ages, including (and, perhaps, especially) youth.

María Pagán, Holyoke Public Library director, said she hopes that, by making educational materials about mental health and substance use more accessible, the effort will eventually encourage people to learn about these conditions, recognize them, and seek any needed assistance.

Jean Canosa Albano, assistant director for Public Services at Springfield Central Library, said librarians don’t judge what people read. “The same thing goes for if you were to come into a library and ask a question that concerns mental health or emotional wellness. We don’t judge that. We’re here to help you no matter what.”

The displays, she said, might help visitors find something they need, and realize that “this is a safe place to ask questions, including about your emotional wellness.”

Meanwhile, just a few months ago, the Springfield Youth Mental Health Coalition, convened by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, launched “I Am More Than My Mood,” a new awareness campaign that aims to normalize healthy conversations about mental health and encourage youth and their caregivers in Greater Springfield to discuss stress, anxiety, and depression as common challenges that everyone goes through.

These are just a few examples, but the message is clear: mental-health issues are common — and were certainly exacerbated during the pandemic, especially for young people — and the time is always right to talk about them (as in the case of the library partnership and the coalition campaign) and give kids healthy alternatives to achieve personal wellness (as Girls on the Run and other youth-serving nonprofits do).

Pagán, for her part, agrees with Canosa. “No judgment. You might read something because you want to, you’re curious, or because you know somebody that might benefit, and you could help if you learn about it. Information is power.”

So is talking about mental health. So let’s keep talking.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Inspiring.

There are many adjectives one can use to describe the members of the 40 Under Forty class of 2023 and their many — and varied — accomplishments. But ‘inspiring’ probably works best, and for a reason.

This was one of the main motivations for BusinessWest to start this recognition program in 2007. The goal was not to simply identify 40 rising stars each spring, but to inspire others by telling their stories, which are all different, but similar in that they chronicle success in the honorees’ chosen fields, but also strong involvement in the community.

These stories are impressive, but it is our hope, and our expectation, that they will inspire others to want to follow suit.

Let’s look at a few of these stories so you can see what we mean:

There’s Ashley LeBlanc, who told BusinessWest that it seems strange to be happy when someone is diagnosed with lung cancer. But she is, in some ways, because that diagnosis, especially if it comes early, can be one that saves a life. And helping to save and prolong life has become a kind of unofficial job description for her as nurse practice manager of Thoracic Surgery and nursing director of the Lung Cancer Screening Program at Mercy Medical Center in Springfield.

There’s Dave Fontaine Jr., who has not only taken his family’s business, the construction firm Fontaine Bros. Inc., to new and much higher levels in terms of sales, staff, and even a ranking as one of the Boston Globe’s “Top Places to Work.” He has also become a serial entrepreneur of note as president of F2 Ventures, and taken his company and his family to a new level of involvement in the community. Indeed, collectively, they support everything from Link to Libraries to the Forest Park Zoo to the Sr. Mary Caritas Cancer Center.

There’s also Chelsea Russell, manager and CPA at Meyers Brothers Kalicka. She has quickly become a leader and mentor at the company, and has also developed its Community Outreach program, which coordinates drives, awareness campaigns, and services for organizations that include Square One, the United Way of Pioneer Valley, Christina’s House, Rachel’s Table, and many others.

There’s Andrew Brow, the restaurateur who has grown his portfolio to three eateries in Western Mass. — HighBrow Woodfired Kitchen and Bar, the Kitchen by HighBrow at White Lion Brewing Co., and Jackalope Restaurant — while also becoming quite active in the community, serving on boards at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and Holyoke Community College, and using his talents in the kitchen to support a number of area nonprofits.

Then there’s Delmarina Lopez, who started a career in law and still uses her legal talents to help small business owners as a consultant. But she wanted to do something more meaningful with her time and energy, so she ran for, and won, a seat on Chicopee’s City Council as its Ward 3 representative.

There are 35 more stories like this, starting on page A8. Each is one is different, inspiring, and uplifting.

This is what we had in mind 16 years ago when we took an idea — to shine a bright light on the young talent in this region — and made it reality.

Like the 680 stories we’ve told, including the 40 this year, this program, and the way it has inspired others, is something worth celebrating.

 

Opinion

East-west Rail a Worthwhile Goal

 

“This is an easy fix. Please fix it. Make it easy for us. Make it easy for me to get to work.”

Those were the words of Gina Nortonsmith, who lives in Northampton but works in Boston, as reported by the Berkshire Eagle.

The occasion was a pair of hearings on east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts, the latest in a series of meetings being held by the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission.

Nortonsmith’s sentiments are no doubt shared by many in Western Mass. who work in the eastern part of the state, or travel there often for other reasons, from medical appointments to ballgames and concerts.

What many state officials and lawmakers no doubt take issue with is the word ‘easy,’ at least when it comes to bringing such rail service into existence. Because it certainly won’t be easy — or inexpensive.

But our feeling has long been that the price tag — an initial outlay of $2.4 billion to $4.6 billion, according to MassDOT, plus ongoing maintenance costs — is worth it.

The reasons are myriad. In an age of remote and hybrid work models — which don’t seem to be going away — rail service could be a boon for those who need to work in or near Boston but want the lower cost of living and what they see as a higher quality of life in the Valley or the Berkshires. Conversely, it would open up job opportunities out east for those already living here.

“Key passenger rail stops along the east-west passenger line would provide a catalyst for economic growth throughout the area,” Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said in written testimony at the Springfield hearing. “The iron is hot, and now is the time to strike. This project would open up myriad positive possibilities, including opportunities for economic development, jobs, and housing.”

Enhanced rail could also bring more tourism dollars to Western Mass. — which is rich in cultural and recreational destinations — by making it easier for Eastern Mass. denizens to spend some time here.

The service would likely connect Pittsfield to Boston via a high-speed train with proposed stops in Chester, Springfield, Palmer, and Worcester. From an environmental perspective, fewer cars on the Mass Pike and other roads means fewer emissions, and that’s a plus for the health of the entire corridor.

While talk of east-west service had been frustratingly fruitless for rail advocates in recent years, their dream got some concrete encouragement last summer when an $11.4 billion infrastructure bond bill backed by former Gov. Charlie Baker authorized $275 million toward expansion of passenger rail and created the Western Massachusetts Passenger Rail Commission to gather information about the feasibility of such a project.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and many influential local lawmakers have been stalwart supporters of such a plan. And in her FY 2024 state budget, Gov. Maura Healey proposed directing $12.5 toward the project, including the hiring of a project director, design of a station in Palmer, and track improvements in Pittsfield — all of which points to continued support from the governor’s office to make east-west rail a reality.

The plan still has many hurdles to clear; it’s far from a done deal, and may never happen — because, as we noted, it’s not easy.

But the payoff would go far beyond making commuters’ lives a little easier. From the perspectives of economic growth, tourism dollars, and even climate and health, we hope this theoretical train keeps chugging toward an actual, feasible plan.

Opinion

Editorial

 

Three years.

It seems like much longer than that, obviously. That’s because the pandemic years, at least the first two, seemed like dog years, each of them four or five years rolled into one.

That’s why so many people who were on the fence decided to retire, including a large percentage of the region’s college presidents and a good number of its nurses. Who could blame them? It was a difficult and, in many ways, exhausting time.

But as we’re set to mark the three-year anniversary of the day when everyone packed up their computer and went home (March 24 seems to be the consensus day), we have to say there is certainly some credence to that old saying — the one about how what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

We’ve said that before in regard to the pandemic and its aftermath, but it bears repeating.

First, though, we need to note that this pandemic did kill a lot of businesses in this region, many, if not most of them, in the retail and hospitality fields — businesses that saw people stop coming to their door and simply couldn’t adjust to that changing landscape.

Which brings us back to those that could adopt and did survive. They are better are off for it, and they are now even better able to withstand change, even rapid, profound change that alters how business is done forever. These businesses have learned to communicate better, to find new and often better ways of doing things, to work together to solve real problems.

Over the past three years, we’ve told countless stories about companies and nonprofits and how they battled through COVID. They are all different, but there are many similarities. Mostly, they involve people looking at a very difficult situation and simply getting creative.

They couldn’t do things the way they always did them, so they had to find other ways. They had to dig deep, overcome adversity, and create solutions. That’s what being in crisis mode — which is what colleges, hospitals, and, yes, many other kinds of businesses were in for at least two full years — is all about.

The challenge, and the opportunity, for businesses now is to continue to apply those lessons and maintain that spirit of problem solving and finding new ways of doing things even when the pandemic is essentially over. And from what we’ve observed, there seems to be a good bit of this going on.

Companies are not going back to the way they did things, because that doesn’t make sense anymore — be it with regard to technology, remote work, hours of doing business, recruiting talent from outside the 413 … all of these things and more. Instead, they are shedding that ‘this is how we’ve done it, so this is how we’ll continue to do it’ mentality.

And they are certainly the better for it.

Looking back, this is what the most successful businesses came away with from the pandemic — an understanding of not just how imaginative and resourceful they can be, but of how imaginative and resourceful they must continue to be moving forward.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

Gov. Maura Healey presented her first budget a few weeks back, and it contains some proposals that could help the state navigate its way out of an ongoing workforce crisis.

Chief among them is something called MassReconnect, which would fund free community-college certificates and degrees to Commonwealth residents who are 25 years and older and have not yet earned a college degree.

Based on initiatives in Michigan and Tennessee, MassReconnect actually goes further than those programs by covering more than just tuition; it also covers mandatory fees, books, and various support services. It is designed to remove barriers to getting the college degree that is needed to succeed in most jobs today, and it holds significant promise to do just that.

So do some of Healey’s other proposed investments in higher education, including a 3% increase in public college and university base spending, as well as $59 million to stabilize tuition and fees at the University of Massachusetts and other public institutions.

But it is free community college that is getting the most attention, and rightfully so. In fact, Senate President Karen Spilka has been working on legislation to achieve just that, saying that reducing the cost of getting a degree will help close equity gaps and build a more educated workforce to meet the needs of important industries in Massachusetts..

Indeed, while the bottom-line cost of a community-college education is much lower than at four-year schools, it is still a burden to many and a roadblock when it comes to attaining not just a job, but a career. In that sense, this proposal could open doors to individuals who have seen them closed for one reason or another, while holding considerable potential to bolster the state’s 15 community colleges and the state’s economy as a whole.

Indeed, the Commonwealth’s community colleges, long considered a key component in any region’s economic-development strategy, and especially here in Western Mass., have been struggling of late, and for many reasons.

Smaller high-school graduating classes are just one of them. A strong job market has traditionally had the effect of impacting enrollment at community colleges — they thrived during the Great Recession, for example — and that pattern has held for roughly the past decade or so. Meanwhile, the pandemic certainly hasn’t helped.

This region needs its four community colleges — Berkshire Community College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Springfield Technical Community College — and it needs them to be strong and vibrant if it is to create, and maintain, a strong pipeline of workers coming into fields ranging from healthcare to cannabis to hospitality.

Meanwhile, community college serves as a place to start one’s secondary education. Many graduates of these schools move on to four-year colleges and degrees that lead to a wider range of job, and career, possibilities. But first, students need to begin.

That’s why this proposal holds such potential. It is designed for non-traditional students, those who haven’t started in college, or who have started but haven’t completed, for one reason or another. These are the individuals who hold the most promise for bringing some real relief to the region’s ongoing workforce crisis, one that is impacting businesses in every sector of the economy.

The concept of free community college has its skeptics, and some will wonder where the money will come from and whether the state can afford to do this.

Looking at matters from an economic-development lens, however, one could argue that the state can’t afford not to do it.

 

Opinion

Editorial

 

The numbers are alarming — on many levels.

From July 2021 to July 2022, more than 57,000 more people moved out of the state than into it, one of the highest rates of what is being called ‘domestic outmigration’ in the country. And if you go back to April 2020, the number soars beyond 110,000.

That’s a lot of people who decided they couldn’t make it in Massachusetts anymore, or didn’t want to try. And these numbers should get everyone’s attention, because these departures are not good for individual cities and towns, or for the Commonwealth’s technology-driven economy.

It’s enough of a problem that Gov. Maura Healey made it one of the focal points of her inaugural address last month, stating “this is greatest state in the union, but people are leaving at some of the highest rates in the country — giving up on the Massachusetts story.”

It’s possible that some people are giving up because of the cold (and we don’t even have as much of that as we used to), or the traffic (in the Boston area), or the decidedly liberal nature of the State House, or even the ‘millionare’s tax.’ This might explain why more than 20,000 of those who have left have moved to New Hampshire, where taxes are much lower and elected leaders are much more conservative.

But it seems clear that most are leaving because they simply can’t afford to live here anymore.

That’s especially true in the eastern part of the state, where taxes are sky-high, home prices are through the roof, and other costs, including childcare, are becoming increasingly prohibitive.

“Affordability in Massachusetts has dropped dramatically,” Nadia Evangelou, senior economist for the National Assoc. of Realtors, told the Boston Globe recently.

We have a few thoughts on this problem. First, state leaders need to do something to address the housing problem here. The term ‘affordable housing’ has a shifting definition in Massachusetts and other states where there are plentiful, attractive jobs, but however it is defined, the state simply needs to create more of it. If it doesn’t, more people will leave or, in the case of graduating college students, settle somewhere else.

In the meantime, economic-development leaders in Western Mass. should double down on their efforts to try to convince people that if they want to escape the high prices (if not the cold), they don’t have to leave the state; they just have to look west of Worcester.

Indeed, while some communities in this part of the state are expensive, most are quite reasonable. And there isn’t nearly as much traffic. And the costs of childcare are considerably lower. And with the advent of remote work, you can have all of this and still work for IT and financial-services companies based in Boston or Cambridge.

Those of us Western Mass. know all this, and most people living in Newton, Wellesley, or Lexington know as well, but it wouldn’t hurt for this region to market itself more aggressively, especially in the eastern part of the state.

Doing so would benefit not only the Western Mass. region, where many communities have lost population and professionals of all kinds are needed, but the state as well.

Indeed, until ways can be found to somehow make this state, and especially the Boston area, more affordable, we need to focus on ways to inspire people to move from one end of the state to the other, instead of out of it altogether.

Opinion

Editorial

 

In the fall of 2008, the decision makers at BusinessWest decided the region needed a new recognition program. The magazine had, just a year earlier, introduced the phrase ‘40 Under Forty’ to the local lexicon, a program to recognize the emerging leaders in the 413.

What was needed was a program to recognize … well, everyone.

What the concept really needed was a name, and the chosen brand, Difference Makers, encapsulated everything this was about. There are many ways to make a difference within the community we call home, and this new recognition program was designed to make that clear.

It has certainly done that. Over the years, it has recognized individuals (dozens of them), as well as nonprofits and institutions ranging from the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round to the region’s four community colleges. Each year, there are new stories to convey all the ways there are to make a difference — and inspire others to find their own way.

And the Difference Makers class of 2023 continues that tradition. These inspiring stories share similarities in that they involve individuals and nonprofits committed to helping others, but they are all different:

• Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, is making a difference not just by making hockey part of the fabric of the region — again — but because of the way he has made this team an economic engine, a supporter of local nonprofits, and a pivotal component of ongoing efforts to revitalize downtown Springfield.

• Steve and Jean Graham make a difference on many levels — as employers, as philanthropists who turned the long-vacant train depot in the center of East Longmeadow into a destination where families can gather and enjoy ice cream and much more, and, in Steve’s case, as a wrestling coach and promoter of the sport who has helped young people across the region absorb the many lessons and benefits from getting on the mat.

• Helix Human Services, formerly the Children’s Study Home, is the oldest social-service agency in the region, tracing its roots back to 1865, when it was known as the Springfield Home for Friendless Women and Childrencaring for destitute women and children orphaned by the Civil War. The mission has changed over the years, and the name changed just last month. But its ability to make a difference in the lives of children and families remains a constant.

• Burns Maxey has long been a believer in the transformative power of the arts, and her volunteer efforts leading the board of CitySpace in Easthampton comprise the most recent, and most exciting, example. The rehabilitation of Old Town Hall into an arts and performance space not only renovates a historic building, but promises to spur economic development and create long-term affordability and accessibility for artists.

• Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould share an office in downtown Amherst, leading the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District, respectively. Individually, but especially as a team, they have helped this college town find its way through the darkest of days during the pandemic, and continue to work together in many ways to put this community on the map as a place where businesses can thrive.

• Gary Rome was recently named Auto Dealer of the Year by TIME magazine. You don’t get to take home that hardware simply by selling a lot of cars — although that certainly helps. You earn that honor by selling a lot of cars and by being a force in the community. And he is certainly that, both as a philanthropist and by involving his dealerships and employees in causes ranging from the Ronald McDonald House to the Jimmy Fund to Rays of Hope.

• Sports are more than fun and games. They teach important lessons about teamwork and overcoming adversity. They also build character and give people young and old something to look forward to. In that spirit, the organization known as Springfield Ballers continues to make a difference in the way it helps young people get in the game — and get a leg up in life.

• Finally, Henry Thomas has racked up a half-century of difference-making efforts leading the Urban League of Springfield, from its many education and youth-development initiatives to programs ranging from workforce development to productive-aging outreaches to community support, in many forms. Thomas said he’s optimistic that the younger generations will continue to make a similarly powerful difference in their communities and beyond. So are we.

 

Opinion

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.