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Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Moving Toward ‘Normal.’

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

That’s an understatement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

Well, that year was … something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The holiday season would be a good time to start.

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

A Step in the Right Direction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Cannabis Business Is Riding High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

When everyone gathered on Main Street that hot August day back in 2018 to mark the opening of MGM Springfield, no one really knew what to expect or what the future would bring.

Certainly, no one could have predicted what the scene would be like two and half years later.

Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic took a resort casino that was ‘ramping up’ — that’s the phrase we kept hearing over and again from past and present leaders — and knocked it completely off the ramp. The casino was shuttered for several months, and when it reopened, it was only at a fraction of its full capacity. Until very recently, the hotel and most of the restaurants were closed, and the event venues were quiet and dark.

These days, the capacity is not quite half and destined to keep inching higher. The hotel is open on weekends, and the sports bar has reopened its doors as well. But huge question marks surround just when and under what circumstances the casino complex will again be able to host concerts, shows, and other large-scale gatherings.

In some ways, we’re all back where we were almost 32 months ago … wondering what will happen and just what the casino will mean for Springfield and this entire region. That’s where we are as MGM Springfield tries to get the ramping-up process back to something approaching the plane it was on before the world stopped almost exactly a year ago.

We’ve said this before, and we’ll say it again … this region needs MGM to make a solid comeback from all that COVID has tossed at it. It needs to come, well, roaring back and play an important role in restarting, if that’s the right word, the renaissance that Springfield was enjoying before the pandemic made Main Street a quiet, almost depressing, place to be.

And a lot will have to go right for such a comeback to happen. First, people will have to regain the confidence needed to gather in large numbers. In other parts of the country, and especially Las Vegas, where the casino business is coming back to life, the signs are quite positive. ‘Pent-up demand’ is the phrase we’re hearing a lot these days, and the hope — the expectation — is that there will be large quantities of it.

But Springfield’s casinos — and all the state’s casinos — could use some help as they proceed back up the ramp. And the state Legislature could deliver some in the form of sports betting.

Lawmakers have been dragging their feet on this issue for years now, and we cannot understand why. Sports betting, if done right, would provide another, potentially huge revenue stream for the state’s casinos at a time when they really need it.

New Hampshire and Rhode Island now have sports betting, and Connecticut is poised to join the fray. Much-needed tax dollars are going to other states or the illegal-betting arena, and Massachusetts simply cannot afford to keep sitting on the sidelines. To borrow still another sports phrase, it needs to get in the game, and soon.

Reflecting once more on that day in August 2018, the expectation among many was that MGM Springfield would not solve all the region’s ills and would not magically transform the region overnight. Instead, it would be a player — a large and important player — and an economic engine.

The pandemic has certainly altered the timeline, but hopefully it hasn’t changed those expectations, or the probability they can be realized.

Opinion

Editorial

In some ways, it seems like it just yesterday. In other ways, it seems like years ago.

That’s what the last 12 months of COVID-19 — 12 months unlike anything any of us have experienced before — have been like. They’ve gone by fast, but it’s been a long, as in long, year.

As with the Kennedy assassination (for those of us old enough) and with the morning of 9/11 for those who are younger, everyone remembers where they were and what was happening when the governor put his stay-at-home order in effect. For many, it meant packing up (if they hadn’t already packed up) and leaving the office for what we all thought might be a few weeks, or a few months at most.

We soon learned that those projections were way off base and that we would be living with the pandemic and all the hardships that came with it for a long time.

In the months that followed, we would learn much more, as our roundtable discussion with six area business leaders (see story on page 6) reveals. We learned that we didn’t have to be in the office, necessarily, to get our jobs done. We learned new ways of doing things. We learned to embrace technology — well, because we didn’t have a choice. And we all wondered why we didn’t embrace it earlier.

We learned some other things, as well. We learned that life is hard, and not just during a pandemic. But COVID, by exacerbating things, made it clear that work/life balance isn’t just a buzz phrase; it is a serious, serious challenge and something that employers now understand better than they ever did before.

As our panelists indicated, we all learned to listen a little more than we used to, and we learned how to more empathic to the needs and challenges of employees. Many of us learned how to be better managers because, in short, that’s what had to happen. We learned that making sales quotas, hitting deadlines, and reaching quarterly goals are not the only things that keep people up at night.

We also learned how to pivot — again, because we had to — and look for new ways to carry out our missions, make payroll each week, keep people employed, and keep the doors open.

In short, we’ve learned a lot — about pandemics, business, life, and ourselves. This is not a silver lining to this horrible crisis — there are none of those. It’s simply reality.

What’s also reality is that the hard decisions and the myriad challenges are not over — not by a long shot. Now, we have to determine how we’re going to execute all these things we’ve learned when life and work go back to normal, or something approaching it.

We have to decide how our businesses will function when it’s safe for everyone to come back to the office or the classroom or the restaurant. We’ve learned that people can work from home, but is that the best place to work — for the company and the employee? And there are other questions, including those related to how we can continue to listen, understand, and be empathic when we’re no longer in crisis mode.

These are just some of the things we need to think about as we mark a dubious milestone — a year of coping with a global pandemic.

It’s been a year to learn, reflect, adapt, and change. And we’re far from being done with any of those things.

Opinion

They’re All Making a Difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

An Appreciation for Chris Thibault

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The best story he told was his own.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

It certainly beats looking back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

A Chain Reaction of Impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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