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Coronavirus

‘Getting to the other side.’

That’s the mantra you’re hearing now. Or one of them, anyway. That and ‘flatten the curve.’

Business owners and managers across the region and across the country are talking about the ‘other side,’ that magical place when and where we can talk about the COVID-19 pandemic in the past tense.

It seems a long way away, and it probably is. It could be a few months. It could be several months. It could be 18 months, according to some sources. We have to hope it’s not that last number.

Whenever it is, the assignment is to get there, and it’s already becoming painfully evident that some won’t.

Those that will get there will have to call upon every bit of imagination, persistence, and resourcefulness they possess, because, as we’re already seeing with the restaurant sector and other aspects of the hospitality industry, the challenge is already significant and will only get worse with time.

Indeed, it was just a few weeks ago that people were talking about rescuing the White Hut in West Springfield. Now, the talk is of how to rescue not only every restaurant in the 413, but businesses in virtually every sector.

In this battle, resilience and resourcefulness will be the key attributes, and we can already look to the restaurant industry for some inspiration in those regards. Indeed, while most all of those businesses have had to lay off people, many are winding ways to keep people employed as long as possible while also looking for whatever revenue sources they can, including delivery, takeout, and even bringing the restaurant experience into one’s home — a concept still in the formative stages.

Meanwhile, restaurant owners are already exploring every form of relief possible, including state and federal assistance, SBA loans, and more — something many businesses will have to do. And they are collaborating on an effort called Strength in Numbers, which encourages area residents to support their favorite eateries by buying gift certificates now for use later, with a 20% incentive.

And we can also look to that sector for inspiration in other ways — everything from how area residents are, in fact, supporting those businesses, to their positive outlook at a time when their world has literally been turned upside down.

Indeed, we like what Peter Rosskothen has to say about all this. Perhaps no business owner in the region has been hit harder. His multi-faceted stable of businesses is grounded in hospitality, especially banquets, gatherings, and fine dining. At the moment, he can’t host a wedding, a meeting of the Holyoke Rotary Club, or BusinessWest’s Difference Makers banquet (yes, that was scheduled for tonight — March 19 — at the Log Cabin, but has been moved to Sept. 10).

Still, he’s finding ways to stay positive.

“The best we can do is utilize our smartness and fight through this as much as we can,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re a very resilient country; we’ll come out of this, and something good will come out of this — I’m convinced of that. We might be struggling a little bit, but something good will come out of this.”

We agree. Such optimism, by itself, isn’t going to get us to the other side, when we can finally, thankfully, look back on all this. But it certainly helps.

Opinion

Editorial

For years now, economic-development leaders have been talking about the need to better leverage the sport of basketball in the place where it was invented.

What they’ve always meant by that is that Greater Springfield has to a better job of capitalizing on perhaps the strongest point of identification when it comes to the city, and perhaps this entire region, beyond the mountain range known as the Berkshires — to do a better job taking full advantage of what is truly an international sport and one that, unlike football, baseball, or hockey, can be played and enjoyed by people of all ages and levels of ability.

Put another way, what people have been saying is that Springfield needs to be more than the home of the sport’s Hall of Fame; it needs to be the sport’s mecca, if that’s possible, given the number of places — from Madison Square Garden to Tobacco Road in North Carolina to the state of Indiana — that have a rich tradition of basketball and also want to make that claim.

Over the years, there have been several attempts to move in this direction, everything from season-opening games for college basketball at the MassMutual Center to the Spalding HoopHall Classic, which brought hundreds of young people — and top college coaches — to the area. And now, the region is poised to take a huge step forward with an ambitious project called Hooplandia.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

Inspired by Hoopfest in Spokane, Wash., which attracts roughly 7,000 teams, 28,000 players, and about 200,000 visitors overall, and firm of the belief that Springfield would be an even better place for such an event, organizers, including the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Eastrn States Exposition, which will host the event and most of the games, have quickly put a new event on the calendar.

This event — hailed as a 3-on-3 tournament and celebration rolled into one — could bring a huge economic bounce (pun intended) for Springfield and the entire region.

They gave it a name, Hooplandia, and scheduled it for the same weekend in late June as Hoopfest. They have ambitious goals, not just for the first year — 2,500 teams and 10,000 players — but to eventually supplant Spokane’s event as the largest of its type.

This is where some people might start to think about the recent and highly publicized competition, if it could be called that, between Springfield and Battle Creek, Mich. for the rights to say which city held the largest breakfast gathering in the world (Springfield liked to claim that its pancake breakfast, staged by the Spirit of Springfield, earned that honor).

But this isn’t about outgunning Spokane to say who has the largest 3-on-3 tournament. It is about aggressively leveraging a tremendous asset — Springfield’s identity as home to perhaps the most popular sport in the world. This is reflected in some early projections for overall economic impact — $7 million, which would be nearly four times the amount from the recent Red Sox Winter Weekend.

It’s still early in the process — registration for Hoolandia didn’t begin until March 1 — but already it appears that teams from not only across the region, but also countries like Russia, Belgium, Poland, and Brazil want to not simply vie for another 3-on-3 title but perhaps play a game on Center Court at the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is what people, including this publication, have meant by better leveraging the sport of basketball.

We won’t call this a slam dunk yet — that would be presumptuous — but it certainly appears that the region has a winner in the making.

Opinion

Editorial

A few weeks back, we referenced that massive public hearing conducted to provide an update on the ongoing study of rail options for the Commonwealth. At that time, we focused on the high degree of skepticism concerning the state’s projections for cost and especially ridership (Western Mass. planners project almost 500,000 riders annually, while MassDOT has estimated roughly half that number and now promises to take a second look at the projections) and, overall, the many expressed opinions that the state wasn’t being sincere in its approach to this study.

All this is problematic on many levels. But there was one comment that was troubling on another level. It had to do with repeated use of the phrase ‘east-west rail,’ which has been used in most of the discussions and is even the formal name of this ongoing initiative — the ‘East-West Passenger Rail Study.’ The comment was made that it should be called ‘west-east rail’ because this is the region that would be benefit, and — we’re paraphrasing here — it’s essentially a Western Mass. project.

This line of thinking is flawed in a number of respects. Let’s start with the whole Western Mass. inferiority-complex thing — and it is a thing. Many out here have that complex, and it manifests itself in a number of ways, including jokes — if they’re even jokes — about how this region would be better off if it seceded and became part of Vermont. But to suggest that labeling a study ‘East-West’ as opposed to ‘West-East’ is a slight, and an indication of the state’s indifference to all the real estate west of Worcester, is take things too far and miss the far bigger point.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

But there’s something else that’s wrong with this line of thinking — something far more important. This isn’t a Western Mass. project, and it can’t simply be a Western Mass. project. Why? Because it will never sell if it is. The state just isn’t going to spend $25 billion or $5 billion or even $2 billion — the various price tags attached to the options outlined at the meeting last month — on a Western Mass. project.

‘East-west’ is a phrase used to describe how roads, highways, and, yes, rail lines run. Few people, if any, say the Turnpike runs ‘west-east.’ It goes in both directions. ‘East-west’ is a figure of speech.

We get it. This project is mostly, if not entirely, being pushed by Western Mass. lawmakers and especially state Sen. Eric Lesser from Longmeadow. And one of their arguments is that this rail line would likely provide a huge boost to many of the cities and towns that are not seeing the same kind of economic prosperity being enjoyed by communities inside Route 128. It would provide a lifeline to communities that are seeing their populations age and decline because young people don’t have enough incentives to live in these places. It would, according to those proposing it, help level the laying field between east and west.

But that’s not the only argument, and it can’t be the only argument if this thing is ever going to move beyond the study phase and stand any chance of being approved by the Legislature.

For this to work, it has to be a project that will benefit not only Chester and Palmer, Pittsfield and Springfield, but also Boston and its suburbs, which are seeing congestion, traffic, and overall cost of living rise to almost untenable levels.

We understand that a name is not a big deal, and it’s mostly about semantics. Why not call it the ‘West-East Rail Study’? We could, if it would make people out here feel better (it wouldn’t make us feel better). But we should instead call it the ‘Commonwealth Rail Study,’ because it’s a project to benefit those living or working on both sides of the state.

If it wasn’t, it would never get off the ground.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Gretchen Harrison

Massachusetts employers project lower wage and salary increases, a consistent level of recruitment activity, and moderating health-insurance premium increases for 2020 after navigating a solid but volatile economy during 2019.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) recently published its 2020 HR Practices Report, showing that companies project a 2.77% salary-increase budget for 2020, consistent with the 2.71% actual increase reported for 2019 but down from the 2.86% reported in the 2018 HR Practices Report.

Meanwhile, national salary-increase projections for 2020 have risen slightly from the prior year to 3.3%. Salary-increase trends in Massachusetts have tended to lag national numbers in recent years, and the gap has begun to widen.

How does a state with a 2.9% unemployment rate, a persistent shortage of skilled workers, and an impending demographic cliff show slower wage growth than the rest of the nation? Survey data suggest several reasons.

First, escalating regulatory costs (minimum wage) and non-wage compensation costs (health insurance and paid family and medical leave) are making employers cautious about increasing pay. Companies generally have a set compensation budget, so increases in these ancillary costs may put downward pressure on wages. In addition, the Massachusetts Equal Pay Act may be limiting the degree to which employers are able to offer compensation incentives to ‘superstar’ job candidates.

Members of the AIM Board of Economic Advisers offer additional explanations:

• Wages are already much higher than the national average in Massachusetts, meaning increases represent a smaller percentage of total wages.

• Massachusetts is aging quickly. Older workers are at a steadier place in their careers and see slower wage growth. As they retire, they are replaced by less expensive younger workers. This is a natural drag on overall wage growth.

• The higher-skill workers who dominate the Massachusetts economy get a significant portion of their compensation in non-wage forms like bonuses, commissions, and stock options. Projected recruitment activity for 2020 is expected to be comparable with actual recruitment experienced in 2019, which saw a significant increase over 2018 volumes.

The wage and salary increase projections come as unemployment in Massachusetts remains at record low levels. And while the state economy contracted by 0.2% during the third quarter, analysts say the downturn does not appear to indicate the beginning of a recession, but rather the capacity limits against which the state is bumping.

These include the barriers to labor-force growth presented by an aging population as the departure of Baby Boomers from the regional workforce continues.

Gretchen Harrison is director of AIM HR Solutions.

Opinion

Opinion

By Sue Kline

It’s an autumn afternoon at the Morgan School in Holyoke, and Superintendent Stephen Zrike Jr. is performing what might look like a magic trick, or maybe a minor miracle: he has the quiet, rapt attention of a class full of boisterous preschoolers, who sit in a semicircle with mouths agape and eyes glued on him and what he’s holding in his hand.

It’s not an iPad or a smartphone or a flashy toy or a magic wand — it’s a book. Specifically, it’s The Family Book by Todd Parr, one of four books the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) is gifting to children in Holyoke Public Schools and Springfield Public Schools this year through Stories to Achieve Reading Success (STARS), an initiative to support early reading and family engagement. After the reading and a discussion, the children — smiling wide and with a bit of shock — receive their own individual copies to take home and read with their families.

For these children, these books are magic: they open doors to new worlds, they offer enchanting stories and illustrations that are just as miraculous on the 50th read as on the first, and the books are theirs to keep forever. In today’s digital age, where screens are ubiquitous and you can read a 1,000-page novel on your phone, there is still something special about holding a beautiful book in your hands.

Parent Ashley Garcia is thrilled with the most recent selection, saying, “I absolutely love how The Family Book acknowledges diversity. Sometimes it can be challenging to explain to young children that all families are unique, yet, despite differences, all families are brought together by one thing, which is love. The colorful pictures and simple words make this a perfect gift.”

HGCF introduced STARS, now in its second year, to advance a simple but urgent goal — to help get kids in Holyoke and Springfield reading from a young age. Abundant academic research suggests strong linkages between early reading and later educational success. That makes STARS much more than a program that makes learning more fun and engaging for children and families; it’s an investment in the long-term futures of these students that can pay dividends for years to come.

Patricia Chavez, Holyoke’s director of Early Childhood Learning, notes that “partnering with the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation has been a wonderful opportunity, bolstering the home-to-school connection, something we are always striving toward. Because each book is accompanied with reading tips and ideas for parents, there’s a great opportunity for families to engage.”

STARS gifts four books throughout the year from the established curriculum to 2,400 children in Springfield and Holyoke preschools. The program is a real gem — we’re awed by the extraordinary work being done in classrooms by preschool educators who transmit to youngsters an early love of stories, and very proud that the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation can help extend preschoolers’ positive classroom reading experiences into their homes.”

For more information about STARS and available opportunities to assist in expanding outreach to additional Holyoke and Springfield preschools, e-mail [email protected].

Sue Kline is director of  Stories to Achieve Reading Success.

Opinion

Opinion

By Robert Rio

The climate protesters who took to the streets of Boston earlier this month targeted the wrong people.

If these people really want to impact the climate debate, they should turn their attention outside of a state that is already well on its way to achieving the goals outlined at the State House demonstrations.

Massachusetts has had a law on the books for more than a decade that mandates an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from all sectors (electric generation, transportation, and buildings) by 2050. Admittedly, that isn’t 100%, but worrying about whether Massachusetts meets 80% or 100% misses the larger picture.

There are separate regulations aimed at carbon reduction as well. State policy requires that 80% of electricity be generated using carbon-free sources by 2050. And new proposed regulations by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection will move that requirement to nearly 100% during the same time frame. Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) supports the proposed regulations.

The Baker administration has already finalized contracts for one offshore wind farm, and another one is going through the approval process. These developments will leave the region humming with new turbines.

Additionally, a large hydro power project is being routed through Maine to supply about 18% of Massachusetts’ total power. Without hydro power, our transition to carbon-free energy will be delayed for decades because it would take an enormous amount of additional solar or offshore wind to make up for the loss of carbon-free hydro power.

That leaves transportation, which accounts for the largest portion of greenhouse-gas emissions — 45% and growing.

Gov. Baker has been a leader in addressing transportation-based greenhouse gases and is a visible backer of the 12-state (plus the District of Columbia) regional effort to reduce greenhouse gases in the transportation sector known as the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI). AIM has joined with the administration and several environmental groups to support this effort, and the governor is always looking for more support.

TCI will establish a regional cap on carbon emissions while auctioning emissions allowances. Proceeds from the TCI fee will be sent back to each participating state to improve statewide public transportation and to encourage fuel users to purchase alternative vehicles.

A MassINC poll published this month found that a majority of registered voters in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia strongly or somewhat support their home state’s participation in TCI. Some states, however, are balking at joining TCI. Perhaps the Boston climate activists could take their message to other state capitals to ensure that this critical multi-state effort gets off the ground.

Declaring victory and moving on is tough, but it is necessary to move on from Massachusetts and concentrate efforts in those areas where the greatest changes should be made. The best thing for all of us to do is acknowledge our work favorably and let the rest of the nation know it can be done with the right leadership.

Robert Rio is senior vice president, Government Affairs at AIM.

Opinion

Editorial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Opinion

Opinion

By Kristen Rupert

Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) and its 3,500 members urge the U.S. Congress to approve the new USMCA trade agreement with Canada and Mexico.

The reason is simple — Canada and Mexico purchase more U.S.-made goods than the next 11 trading partner countries combined. USMCA will help to preserve more than 2 million American manufacturing jobs — at least 15,000 of them in Massachusetts — that rely on trade with Canada and Mexico.

Time is short for Congress to act. The U.S. House and Senate need to pass the USMCA before the year’s end.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said Democrats have inched closer to supporting the deal. They have worked to iron out lingering concerns in weeks of talks with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

The USMCA was negotiated by the Trump administration to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). USMCA strengthens and modernizes intellectual-property rules, sets new digital-economy standards, expands U.S. manufacturers’ access to Canada and Mexico, ensures that U.S. companies can sell their products duty-free into these markets, eliminates red tape at the border, and levels the playing field by raising standards, prohibiting anti-U.S. discrimination, and strengthening enforcement.

AIM is in contact with the Massachusetts delegation in Congress to encourage them to pass the USMCA. Gov. Charlie Baker calls the agreement “strong, fair and flexible.” Among the many products that are traded between Massachusetts and Canada and Mexico are auto parts, medical devices, lab instruments, semiconductors, paper products, and aerospace parts. Most of the manufacturing exports from Massachusetts going to Canada and Mexico are produced by small and medium-sized businesses.

AIM urges employers to contact their members of Congress to emphasize how important the USMCA is to manufacturing companies in Massachusetts. Industry associations, individual companies, and elected officials across the U.S. encourage an immediate vote on USMCA.

Kristen Rupert is senior vice president of External Affairs at Associated Industries of Massachusetts and director of AIM’s International Business Council.

Opinion

Opinion

By Alex Zlatin

A company’s intention in a job interview is to find the person who best fits a particular position. But quite often, the candidate who is hired fails, and usually their exit is related to attitude issues that weren’t revealed in the interview.

That raises the question: are interviewers asking the wrong questions — and consequently hiring the wrong people? Some traditional styles of interviewing are outdated, thus wasting time and resources while letting better candidates slip away.

It still astounds me to meet HR professionals who lack the basic skills of interviewing. In 2019, ‘tell me about yourself’ is still a way to start an interview, and that’s absurd. The only thing you get is people who describe the outline of their résumé, which you already know.

Here are some interview approaches to help HR leaders, recruiters, and executives find the right candidate:

• Make it a two-way conversation. Traditional interviewing focuses too much on the candidate’s skills and experience rather than on their motivation, problem-solving ability, and willingness to collaborate. Rather than making most of the interview a rigid, constant question-and-answer format that can be limiting to both sides, have a two-way conversation and invite them to ask plenty of questions.

• Flip their résumé upside down. Surprise them by going outside the box and asking them something about themselves that isn’t on their résumé or in their cover letter. See how creatively they think and whether they stay calm. You want to see how a candidate thinks on their feet — a trait all companies value.

• Ask open-ended questions. Can this candidate make a difference in your company? Answering that question should be a big aim of the interview. Ask questions that allude to how they made a difference in certain situations at their past company. Then present a hypothetical situation and ask how they would respond.

• Don’t ask cliched questions. Some traditional interview questions only lead to candidates telling interviewers what the candidate thinks the company wants to hear. Interviewers should stop asking pointless questions like, ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ or ‘why do you want to work for this company?’ Candidates rehearse these answers, and many of them are similar, so that doesn’t allow them to stand apart.

• Learn from the candidate’s questions. The questions candidates ask can indicate how deeply they’ve studied the company and how interested they really are. A good candidate uses questions to learn about the role, the company, and the boss to assess whether it’s the right job for them.

• Don’t take copious notes. The tendency by interviewers to write down the candidate’s answers and other observations is a huge obstacle to building a solid two-way conversation because it removes the crucial element of eye contact.

 

Alex Zlatin is CEO of dental practice-management company Maxim Software Systems.

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