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Here Are the Stories That Impacted Western Mass. in 2022

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar


Cannabis Sector Continues to Grow

How many dispensaries is too many? Cities like Northampton, Holyoke, and Easthampton that have embraced the cannabis industry are demonstrating that many such businesses can thrive together, while generating healthy tax revenues for the municipality itself. However, the recent closure of the Source — the state’s first adult-use dispensary to close since shops began opening in 2018 — poses new questions on the competition front.

There’s no doubt cannabis has been a success in Massachusetts, with recreational sales approaching $4 billion since legalization. But one big question is what form the industry will eventually take — with some predicting eventual consolidation by bigger entities alongside a robust population of boutique sellers — and how the state will continue to protect opportunities for smaller players, especially minorities.

The latter prospect was strengthened by a law passed in August aimed at giving minority cannabis entrepreneurs easier access into the industry, and also paving the way for municipalities to allow marijuana cafés. The bill also better regulates host community agreements, creates a state-run loan fund for minority entrepreneurs, lowers taxes for marijuana businesses, and makes it easier to expunge records for old marijuana offenses.

In short, this story is still evolving in intriguing ways.


Companies Grapple with Workforce Challenges

The pandemic temporarily dislodged millions of people from their jobs, and when companies started rehiring again, they found it was much more difficult to recruit and retain employees, particularly in lower-paying industries like hospitality, but it was a trend that stretched across all fields, from healthcare to construction to … well, you name it.

At issue has been three intersecting trends: the Great Resignation of older workers, many of whom moved up their retirement timeline in the wake of the pandemic’s economic upheaval; a movement among Gen-Zers and younger Millennials, particularly in service industries, to re-evaluate their worth and push for higher wages and more flexibility; and ‘quiet quitting,’ defined as doing the bare minimum to fulfill one’s job, which, of course, cuts into a company’s productivity.

There are no easy answers to combat these trends, and companies struggling with workforce shortages must grapple with what they mean in the longer term. Workers no doubt have leverage right now like they haven’t had in recent memory, and they’re wielding it, to significant — and, in many cases, still-undetermined — effect.


An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre

Victory Theatre Project Gains Momentum

Holyoke officials and groups involved with the arts have been engaged in efforts to try to revitalize the historic Victory Theatre for more than 40 years now. And while this initiative still has a ways to go before it can cross the goal line, some significant progress was seen this past year.

It came in several forms, but especially the earmarking of ARPA funding to renovate the theater, which opened in the 1920s and last showed a movie in 1979. The ARPA funding is expected to help close the gap between the funds that have been raised for the initiative and the total needed — roughly $60 million.

Momentum can also be seen in a firm commitment on the part of Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who sees the project as an important catalyst for bringing new businesses to downtown Holyoke and another key ingredient in the larger formula for revitalizing the Paper City.


The Marriott Flag Returns to Downtown Springfield

It took more than three years, and there were a number of challenges to overcome along the way, but the Marriott flag is now flying again over the hotel in the Tower Square complex. The massive renovation — or “re-imagining” — of the space, as it’s been called, earned Tower Square owners Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor for 2022.

But the undertaking has done more than that. It has helped transform the property into one of the best hotels west of Boston, and it has become a stunning addition to a Tower Square complex that has been reinvented as well, with intriguing additions ranging from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Springfield to White Lion Brewery to a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket soon to emerge in space formerly occupied by CVS.

The new Marriott staged a truly grand opening in November, an event that was a big day not just for Patel and Mitta, but for the entire city.


Remote Work Is Here to Stay

This past year was one in which the region’s business community was to return to normal in most all respects after two painful years of COVID. But there was one realm where it didn’t — and that was by choice.

Indeed, remote work continued to be part of the landscape in 2022, but this time there was an air of permanence to the concept, not merely a temporary response to COVID. In interviews for stories written over the course of the year, owners of businesses large and small said remote work and hybrid work schedules have become the new norm. They have become a benefit of sorts for valued workers and have become an effective means for attracting and recruiting talent, as well as for as widening the net for job applicants well beyond the 413 area.

The full impact of remote work on the commercial real-estate market and small businesses that rely on workers being in their offices — restaurants and bars, for example — has yet to be fully and accurately measured, but it appears that this fundamental change in how people work is here to stay.


East-west Rail Chugs Forward

East-west rail service between Pittsfield and Boston is still far from reality, and plenty can still happen to derail the decades-long dream of so many legislators, businesses, municipalities, and other rail advocates. But 2022 marked the strongest progress toward that goal yet, with $275 million allocated toward the project in August as part of the state’s $11 billion infrastructure bill — a good start, but only a start.

A high-speed rail connection between the Hub and Western Mass. is about more than convenience; it’s about expanded opportunity — both for workers who can earn Boston wages while enjoying a decidedly non-Boston cost of living, and also for employers who can cast a wider net for talent — not to mention easier access to recreational and regional resources, as well as reduced traffic and emissions.

“We have the money, the support, and I have secured the commitment from both the outgoing Baker-Polito administration and the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration to keep this train literally and metaphorically moving forward,” U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said earlier this month. “This is an opportunity that will not avail itself again, and now is the time to move on an east-west rail project that will be transformative for all of Massachusetts.”


The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship

The T-Birds came up a few wins shy of an AHL championship, but their playoff run was a huge win for the team and the region.

Springfield Thunderbirds Reach AHL Finals

The Springfield Thunderbirds eventually wound up a few wins shy of a Calder Cup this past spring. But their dramatic run to the finals was a huge win for the team, the city, and the region.

Indeed, the race for the cup captured the attention of the entire area, with fans old and new turning out at the MassMutual Center, tuning in on social media, and talking about the team at the water cooler — or the weekly Zoom meeting.

The team, which eventually lost in the finals to the Chicago Wolves, created a great deal of momentum with its playoff run, as well as a surge in season-ticket sales. While not all deep playoff runs are financial success stories, this was one, said the team’s president, Nate Costa. It was also validation for him and for the ownership group that stepped up and brought hockey back to Springfield when the Falcons departed for Arizona.

There’s now an Eastern Conference Championship banner hanging in the MassMutual Center, and even more of a connection between the region and its pro hockey team.


Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Returns

After a long, as in very long, two-year absence, the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade and road race returned in full force in March. The twin events have always been part of the fabric of the region and a huge contributor to the Greater Holyoke economy, and that became clear in interviews with parade organizers, city officials, and individual business owners in the weeks leading up to the parade for a story in BusinessWest that carried the headline: “The Return of a Tradition: For Holyoke, the Parade Brings Business — and a Sense of Normalcy.”

Business owners told BusinessWest that the parade and race account for large amounts of annual revenues, and that losing the events for two years due to COVID was devastating. But beyond business and vibrancy, something else went missing for those two years. Marc Joyce, president of the parade for the past three years, put it all in perspective.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up here,” he said. “It’s a homecoming; people come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year. It’s a wonderful, family-oriented event.”


The LEDC has a unique model

The LEDC has a unique model featuring coaches on matters ranging from accounting to mental health.

Latino EDC Opens Its Doors

The Latino Economic Development Corp. opened its doors to considerable fanfare in September, and with good reason. The agency, called the Latino EDC, or LEDC, has a broad mission and a unique business model, one aimed at helping businesses, especially Latino-owned businesses, open their doors and keep them open.

The LEDC, located on Fort Street in Springfield, is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners and share what they know. Executive Director Andrew Meledez says the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get where they want to go — coaching, capital, and connections. Overall, its goal is to turn employees into employers, and the agency is already capturing the attention of economic-development leaders in this region — and well beyond.


New College Presidents Take the Reins

College and university presidents are in many ways key regional voices, shaping public perspectives on issues through programs and initiatives they spearhead. And in 2022, that exclusive pool of influencers saw some significant ripples.

In April, Hubert Benitez, vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation and acting chief Inclusion officer at Rockhurst University, took the reins at American International College, replacing Vince Maniaci, who had been president there for 17 years.

Then Michelle Schutt, previously vice president of Community and Learner Services at the College of Southern Idaho, began her tenure as president of Greenfield Community College in July, replacing Richard Hopper, who had been interim president since the summer of 2021.

Also in July, Smith College announced that Sarah Willie-LeBreton, provost and dean of faculty at Swarthmore College, will replace Kathleen McCartney, who has served as president since 2013, starting in July 2023.

Finally, in June, UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy announced he will retire in June 2023 after serving in that role since 2012, and the following month, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College since 2017, announced she will retire in July 2023; searches are on to replace both.


new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the new parking-garage facility at the MassMutual Center.

Civic Center Parking Garage Comes Down — Finally

After years of talking about and working with state leaders to assemble the financing to build a replacement, the city tore down the crumbling Civic Center Parking Garage this fall. As the demolition crews began their work, workers in downtown office buildings paused to watch.

It wasn’t a landmark that was coming down, but rather a decaying structure that had become a symbol of all that Springfield was trying to put behind it — the hard economic times, aging infrastructure, and a downtown of another era.

While the long-awaited demise of the parking garage was news, the more exciting news is what’s going up in its place — a new, state-of-the-art, environmentally friendly, 1,000-space facility, and activation of abutting property, acquired by the city, that will enable Springfield to create an atmosphere that officials say will be similar to the scene at Fenway Park on game nights.


transformation of the old Court Square Hotel

The transformation of the old Court Square Hotel is a long time coming.

Court Square Transformation Project Proceeds

When Dave Fontaine Jr. talks about work to renovate the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate apartments being a “generational project,’” he means it. Indeed, when he talked with BusinessWest about the initiative this past summer, he said he believes his father and grandfather were both involved in bids on projects to transform the property going back more than 30 years.

It’s taken decades of effort, but the transformation of the property is now well under way. The project is expected to not only bring new life to that historic property — in the form of 71 units of housing as well as retail on the ground floor — but also create more vibrancy in the city’s downtown and possibly be a catalyst for new hospitality and service-sector businesses.

The Court Square project is a true public-partnership, with funding support from several parties, including Winn Development, Opal Development, the state, the city, and MGM Springfield. And it will make sure that an important part of the city’s past is now a vital cog in its future.


Navigating Challenges in Auto Sales

This past year was another wild ride, if that’s the right term, for the region’s auto dealers. Indeed, the trends that emerged in 2020 and 2021 — from historically low levels of inventory to sky-high prices and low inventory of used cars — continued in 2022.

Matters improved to some degree for area dealers, but there were still many challenges to face — and still a number of used cars taking up space on the showroom floors.

But perhaps the biggest news in 2002 involved electric vehicles, with many dealers reporting huge increases in the sales of such models. There are several reasons why, but simple math is perhaps the biggest, with drivers of electric vehicles — after the initial investment, anyway — spending far less to get from here to there than those with gas-powered cars, trucks, and SUVs.

That trend is expected to continue into next year, say area dealers, as more makers introduce electric-vehicle lines.


Live Music Scene Expands

When the Drake opened in downtown Amherst in April, it became the town’s first-ever dedicated music venue, hosting everything from jazz and rock to funk and world music. And it opened at a time when demand for live music in the region is on the rise, and an increasing number of spaces are meeting the need.

With Eric Suher’s Iron Horse Music Hall, Pearl Street Nightclub, and Mountain Park shuttered to concerts these days and the Calvin Theatre hosting a bare trickle of tribute bands, others have picked up the slack.

They include not just the Drake, but Race Street Live, which hosts national touring acts in the Gateway City Arts complex in Holyoke; Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center in downtown Greenfield, which schedules a robust slate of events across four spaces; MASS MoCA, which hosts concerts inside the museum and festivals outside it; Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence, which opened in October 2021 in a converted 1861 church; and many more.

It’s clear that people are enjoying live music again, and a new generation of venues — and some venerable ones as well — are stepping up to meet that need.


Moving On from COVID

President Biden declared COVID over in September. With a winter setting in in which doctors are warning of a ‘tripledemic’ of flu, RSV, and COVID, that’s … well, not quite the truth, not with about 350 people still dying from COVID each day in the U.S., about 85% of them unvaccinated.

What is true is that, even as some people are still overcoming COVID, just about everyone is over it — and especially over the disruptions the pandemic caused to the global economy.

Still, moving on is easier said than done, as is shifting back to something resembling business as usual pre-2020. Construction firms still face challenges with scheduling and cost, knowing that the supply chain can be wildly inconsistent. Families still struggle with inflation, and are getting hit hard by the tonic being poured on it: higher interest rates for loans. As noted earlier, real-estate owners wonder whether a slowed market will remain so as tenants decide they need less space for a workforce that has gone largely remote and may remain so.

In short, moving on from COVID is a slow process, and its effects will continue to reverberate, no matter how much anyone — even the president — wishes it would just go away.


George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]


Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.




Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.


Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.


Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.


Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.


Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.


Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.


The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.


Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.


Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.


Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.