The Best Local Business Stories of 2009

Let’s face it, 2009 certainly wasn’t anything for the business community to write home about.

For many, this was a year to simply hang in and hang on, a time when “flat” translated into “pretty darned good.” For businesses large and small, this was a time best forgotten — and soon.

But there were some rays of sunlight that somehow managed to break through the clouds, some stories that offer hope of better times for those who live, work, and own businesses in the Pioneer Valley. Here are five, listed in reverse order of importance, in our view, of course.

5. A Focus on Literacy

OK, we can toot out own horn a little. Actually, it’s not our horn. Yes, BusinessWest created a new recognition program called Difference Makers, so-named to honor those who are making a difference in our community, and its first class was honored last spring. That was a good story; the better story came about a few months later when one of this year’s Difference Makers, Bill Ward, director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and that group’s project manager, Maura Geary, approached us with the idea of putting all of our winners to work.

That suggestion led to an ambitious project called ‘Creating a Culture of Literacy One Book at a Time.’ This past summer, the five Difference Makers helped collect hundreds of books donated to Hasbro Summer Learning Program, and agreed that all future winners of this award would continue to focus time, energy, and imagination on a matter of vital importance to the health and well-being of this region.

4. Qteros Lands in Chicopee

A little over a year ago, the news was that this region was going to lose Qteros, a company trying to revolutionize ethanol production by using not corn, by common switch grass, to the eastern part of the state. However, through the efforts of the company’s principals and some economic-development leaders in this region, the company has made good a commitment to maintain a noticeable presence in this area.

It will do so in a research and production facility that will be located in a new office facility at Westover in Chicopee. Having Qteros in this region will provide some jobs and some additional vibrancy in the Westover area, but perhaps more importantly, it will provide inspiration to fledgling ‘green’ businesses, while sending a message that they can do business in this area code.

3. UMass Comes to Downtown Springfield

It was announced recently that UMass Amherst will be locating one of the university’s programs “an urban design center ” in one of the buildings in Springfield’s Court Square early next year. The move indicates a firm commitment on the part of the university to play a substantial role in economic-development efforts in the region’s largest city.

And the better news is that all those involved with this endeavor say it is merely the beginning of efforts designed to make UMass more of a force in the City of Homes.

2. More Signs of Progress Downtown

Springfield’s central business district still has a long way to go in terms of returning to the vibrancy evident decades ago. But there were a few big steps in the right direction taken in 2009. They include the arrival of the Springfield Armor basketball team, a Developmental League franchise that should bring more people downtown; the opening of a new restaurant, Hot Table, in Tower Square; and, especially, successful efforts to re-tenant the former federal building with Springfield School Department offices, some employees of Baystate Health, and other agencies.

Together, these developments represent real progress in the work to bring more downtown ‘ to live, work, and play.

1. The High-performance Computing Center

Six months ago, hardly anyone in this region knew what a high-performance computing center was. In truth, many still don’t know today, but the picture is starting to come into focus. A center, which brings unprecedented amounts of computing power together in one place, is going to be built in Holyoke, thanks to an impressive partnership effort involving UMass, MIT, Boston University, Cisco, and a host of other players. Holyoke was chosen because of the vast amounts of inexpensive, ‘green” energy produced by that city’s hydroelectric facilities.

The center will create only a few dozen jobs to start, but there is enormous potential for this facility to attract government agencies, businesses from several different sectors, and support services.

This was easily the biggest and best story in a year when there was little competition.

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