As lawmakers in Washington debate a new possible COVID-19 relief package, Connecting Point looks at the state of the economy here in western New England.
During the summer months, many businesses with capacity restrictions benefited from having access to the outdoors. But with the change of seasons bringing frigid temperatures and snow, those options are now limited or nonexistent.
Rick Sullivan is the president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. Sullivan joined Zydalis Bauer to share how local businesses are weathering the one-two punch of winter weather and the pandemic.
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Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: As lawmakers in Washington debate a new possible COVID-19 relief package, we take a look at the state of the economy here in western New England.
During the summer months, many businesses with capacity restrictions benefited from having access to the outdoors. But, with the change of seasons bringing frigid temperatures and snow, those options are now limited or nonexistent.
I spoke with Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, to find out how local businesses are faring during the winter.
Rick Sullivan, Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts: Some of our businesses have done actually fairly well during this period of time, so we are starting to see significant demand.
You know, if you’re in the manufacturing sectors, you know, those are doing quite well. Some of them have pivoted kind of the term of the day, if you will, to maybe go into some other production lines if they can get longer term contracts for things like PPE.
But, if you were in the restaurant industry or anything, that is a venue-travel-tourism related, you know, you are still struggling and are going to continue to struggle to some degree until we really are out of the COVID restrictions and the gathering restrictions.
And obviously in restaurants, while they might have got a bit of a reprieve during the summer and early fall, you know, Massachusetts does not really lend itself to outdoor dining experiences.
Zydalis Bauer: As you just mentioned, the restaurant industry has been hardest hit by all of what’s happening with COVID, and it’s garnered a lot of much-deserved attention. But what businesses are also struggling that we haven’t really been hearing about, but also needs some attention and light shined on them?
Rick Sullivan, Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts: Anything that is consumer-related that is is kind of impulse buying to some degree or relies on any kind of foot traffic, because, you know, if you’re in Springfield or any of the communities, you know, people are working from home. So, you know, they’re not out in those usual areas. And so the foot traffic is down significantly at any of those kind of, you know, smaller consumer areas, kind of the businesses that we think of as Main Street businesses.
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: It was announced in early January that the Paycheck Protection Program, or PPP, would reopen for new borrowers. What should businesses be aware of with this latest round? And what other resources are available?
Rick Sullivan, Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts: They certainly, first and foremost, need to be working with their financial advisors and in most cases, their local banks that they do business with and decide, you know, if if applying for and getting a PPP makes sense for them.But it’s a good thing that the PPP program has reopened.
The state does have some other grant programs that are out there that are COVID relief. I think the cities that are entitlement communities have leverage their community development block grants, which is a federal program, and made it available to mostly Main Street-type businesses. You know, again, the mom and pops to come in with some grants to be able to help them weather this storm and provide some much needed cash flow to be able to keep keep people employed and to pay the bills.
And there’s now a grant program out there with — for cities, which does involve working with regional economic development organizations to kind of get together, to put together employment programs or other programs that are going to be able to get people back to work, get the businesses back open, and hopefully allow us to really come out of the COVID restrictions with the economy that’s vibrant.
Zydalis Bauer: With the start of the New Year, the topic of vaccinations has been at the forefront of many conversations surrounding the pandemic and COVID-19. Some people are on board; some people want to decline the vaccination. Is the future of our economy dependent on vaccinations and the amount of people who receive it?
Rick Sullivan, Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts: I do think that it is. You know, I don’t think people are going to feel safe until obviously the numbers are down significantly. I do think that there’s a direct correlation between the availability and the deployment of the vaccine.
I do think that there has been significant frustration in terms of the rollout and the availability of the vaccine and when people are going to be able to get it. And it is taken longer than people have thought it should take. It’s up to the government to get it out and get it dispersed and get it into people’s arms, as they say.
But I do think that there’s a direct correlation between that and people feeling safe and us being able to turn the corner to a more vibrant economy.
Zydalis Bauert: Back in the summer when we last spoke with you, you were feeling optimistic about the long term prognosis of our local economy. Now, almost six months later, are you still feeling optimistic about the future of our economy here in western Mass?
Rick Sullivan: I am. I can tell you, I think if you look at the real estate market in terms of residentially, you know, it is still — it is still a seller’s market, we certainly need some additional inventory. Those individuals that are either going to be working remotely or from home or even some of the hybrids, they’re going to have a choice as to where they choose to live.
And so as long as we have the infrastructure in terms of the communication and the Wi-Fi and the broadband, western Mass has a compelling case to make for individuals that may need to have access to Boston or New York, but they can live and experience a lower cost of living and a great quality of life here in western Massachusetts.
I also think that as companies have gone through the pandemic, and they’ve looked at their supply chains, particularly some of their foreign suppliers, they see that supply chain as being unreliable, or at least not as reliable as they want. And we have some extremely talented businesses out here in western Mass, particularly when you’re talking precision manufacturing. And there’s an ability for these companies to be able to enter some supply chains of companies that they currently are not in.
And I can tell you just anecdotally, one of the services that the EDC does provide is site selection searches. And our numbers are up. And the number of, I’ll say, active potential, active deals that we have is higher now than it would have been even two years ago. So I do — I am optimistic. I do think we’ve got a lot of opportunities and I think in some respects, western Massachusetts’ best days are — may very well be in front of us as we come out of COVID.