Economic Recovery in North Central Massachusetts

Fidelity Bank hasn’t let the COVID-19 pandemic stop them from serving customers with care and safety.

Sheila King-Goodwin

While operations may look and feel different now and for the foreseeable future, Sheila King-Goodwin, Senior Vice President and Chief Retail Banking Officer with Fidelity, said the financial institution has learned to adapt quickly.

And she said many of those changes will likely continue as the Massachusetts economy starts to reopen.

“We’re finding new ways to be flexible and innovative so clients can receive a caring service that provides clarity and confidence regarding their banking,’’ she said. “We’re taking a thoughtful but forward-thinking approach to the short term and long term.’’

She said that this may mean continuing to offer drive-up services for client needs like obtaining a new debit card or closing quickly on a loan. It also may mean scheduling more appointments as opposed to walk-ins to enable clients to have a designated time to meet with a Life Design Banker. We’re also finding that many of our clients are using our convenient digital banking services such as mobile and online banking which provides bank access at any time or anywhere. 

Gov. Charlie Baker announced a four-phase reopening plan on May 18 that outlined how and when Massachusetts businesses can reopen.

While there is still much uncertainty about the future, local leaders are hopeful.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,’’ said Roy Nascimento, president and chief executive officer of the North Central Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce. “I think the region is well positioned because it has a very diverse regional economy.’’

Nascimento said the chamber has been working to help businesses manage the crisis with guidance, loans, and resources. He said the chamber had already hired a consultant to develop an economic development plan for the region, which will now serve as a blueprint for recovery.

“We’re being proactive and working tirelessly to support our businesses,’’ he said. “Recovery will be front and center to help those hit the hardest.’’

The chamber has formed a committee of 30 business and municipal leaders to help guide the development of the recovery plan.

Nascimento said he’s hopeful the region’s manufacturing and health care base will survive and even thrive as there becomes a greater need for some of the products and services they provide.

The sectors he’s most concerned about are those that have been most devastated by the pandemic – retail, hospitality and tourism.

“Those are the ones I worry about,’’ he said. “Those are the hardest hit and will be the last to recover.’’

The chamber hired RKG Associates, Inc. earlier this year to complete an economic development plan for North Central Massachusetts. And while it will still look at areas of growth for the region, a large component will now focus on recovery.

Eric Halvorsen

RKG had already started work and spent the last few months documenting the existing conditions in the region. This included identifying trends in the different industry sectors, such as which were growing, shrinking and had the potential for expansion; surveying commercial space and lease prices; and analyzing housing stock and prices, said  RKG’s Eric Halvorsen.

Upcoming phases of the plan will compare North Central Massachusetts to other regions in the state in areas like housing, schools, safety, transportation, development potential and existing jobs.

The report will also identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats and try to identify what sectors the region should be trying to attract.

“They want to spend their time and money in a strategic way,’’ Halvorsen said. “We want the rifle shot, not the buck shot.’’

Other aspects of the plan will look at the workforce and determine what skills it must have to meet future job demand.

The plan will also look at some key sites in the region, such parcels of land or areas that could support future development and potential obstacles like zoning or infrastructure. And then outline specific strategies and recommendations.

“The overall goal is to provide the chamber with a roadmap for the next five to 10 years for what they should focus on from an economic development standpoint and how to best use the resources they have to advance economic development goals in the region,’’ Halvorsen said. “To some degree, some of this will pivot more to recovery – how do you ensure you don’t take five steps backwards?’’

The plan is expected to be done this fall.

Halvorsen is hopeful that a good portion of the jobs in North Central Massachusetts may be insulated from the pandemic to some degree. These include manufacturing, health care, social services, and possibly local and state government and education.

One other potential benefit for North Central Massachusetts is its location outside of Boston.

“If more people switch to working from home and don’t need to live so close to Boston, places like Fitchburg that have lower housing costs but access to commuter rail may start to see some activity,’’ he said.

On the flip side, there are also many jobs in restaurants, retail and hospitality, which may be the hardest to get back. Outdoor seating, for example, is a great option but the New England weather makes that challenging in the long term. Those employees also tend to make less, he said.

“The impact is compounded for those employees,’’ he said.

Henry Tessman

The Great Wolf Lodge in Fitchburg is a business that falls into several categories of hard hit industries – entertainment, lodging, retail and food service – making it a challenge to plan for reopening.

The Fitchburg-Boston lodge, one of 18 nationwide, features water parks, an arcade, rock wall, bowling, miniature golf, shops and restaurants, all sectors that have specific reopening guidelines.

But reopening plans are now in full swing, said Henry Tessman, general manager of Great Wolf Lodge New England.

Tessman said lodges throughout the country are working together to develop a reopening playbook. The company has also hired an industrial engineering firm that is assisting to develop policies for physical separation, personal protective equipment and flow patterns.

“We’re working with all directors at all properties and building best practices,’’ he said. “We have multiple states opening so we can see the good, bad and ugly of what states are doing and pull the best practices where we can.’’

Tessman said the Fitchburg location will be among the last in the country to reopen with a tentative target date of late June. Tessman said the lodge falls under Phase 3 of Baker’s reopening plan, similar to that of a casino.

“With the amount of time, money and work everyone’s put into these plans, I feel comfortable we will be in a good spot when we reopen,’’ Tessman said.

Among the changes –all employees will have temperatures checked each day and they will wear masks and gloves. The company is developing training videos for employees that will explain all new protocols.

“When we do open up, we will be very prepared to run what the new normal will be,’’ Tessman said.

Initially, Great Wolf will operate at 25 percent capacity, Tessman said, later ramping up to 50 percent and hopefully 100 percent by the end of September.

He said new technology is being installed in the Waterparks to track the number of people so he will know at all times how many people are in each park.

What the experience will be guests is still under consideration and will be dictated by state and company guidelines, Tessman said. However, the number of people allowed on towers and in pools will be limited. Some areas may be off limits, such as the hot tub.

“The biggest thing we have to focus on is social distancing in the pools, seating areas and towers,’’ he said.

Tessman said they won’t be issuing day passes this summer and the buffet will not be open. New policies will also be in place for payment in the restaurants.

So far, Tessman said bookings show customers are eager to get back.

“We’re seeing very good demand up front,’’ he said. “I think local travel will be quicker to return that cruises or airline travel so we may see better demand than other traditional vacation spots.’’

One area of uncertainty is education. North Central Massachusetts is home to both Fitchburg State University and Mount Wachusett Community College.

Dr. Jim Vander Hooven

MWCC President James Vander Hooven said there is no way to predict if colleges will allow students back on campus and how students will respond to those decisions.

But he said MWCC has and will continue to do everything it can to provide a safe environment for students and staff.

He said the Mount quickly moved all its classes online for the spring semester and continues to hold remote classes for the summer. Plans for summer camps and the fall are still uncertain.

Vander Hooven said many of the Mount’s students have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Many of their students have children at home and work in places like the restaurant industry but were laid off.

“Our students are already challenged in many ways and everywhere we turned, it was another hit for them,’’ he said.

Even in the best case scenario, he said the Mount is not rolling back into normal operation.

“It’s going to be a while before we’re back to our typical normal and we’ll have to redefine our normal,’’ he said.

One of the biggest difficulties facing the school is trying to plan for uncertainty. He said many colleges won’t know for a while whether classes will be held in person.

“We could find out as late as Aug. 1 whether we end up with a bunch of students who decided to come to the Mount or we could be down 15 percent,’’ he said. “I’m not even looking at current enrollment projections because it’s not worth the stress. It’s a great unknown.’’

But he too is confident.

“We’ll get through this,’’ Vander Hooven said. “The community here really has a strong backbone. I’m seeing interconnected communities supporting one another. When you can approach a crisis of this magnitude from that perspective, you have a good shot of getting through it together.’’

Dr. Mark Melnik

In the past, Massachusetts has been able to weather downturns because the state was insulated by some anchor institutions – hospitals and universities, said Mark Melnik, director of economic and public policy research at the UMass Donahue Institute.

But this time, those sectors may be hit, making the state more vulnerable this time around.

In the short term, Melnik said his biggest concerns are retail, tourism, entertainment and restaurants. Those sectors have a high percentage of small businesses that aren’t able to easily weather a downturn.

Unemployment numbers for North Central Massachusetts showed the largest spike in claims from those in the construction, food services and administrative support sectors.

But the manufacturing base in North Central Massachusetts may give the region an advantage, Melnik said.

“They have a really strong manufacturing sector,’’ Melnik said. “It’s one of the most significant manufacturing industries in the state.’’

Melnik said communities can’t sit back but need to be proactive in planning, seeking out state and federal planning dollars and working together.

That’s where the chamber can play a role, Nascimento said.

“We have several advantages that will help us weather this better than other regions,’’ Roy said. “We have a diverse economy, strong partnerships in the business community and with our municipal leaders, and the development of a recovery plan already in the works.’’

Nascimento also said he has confident in the region’s businesses.

“There will be some negative consequences for a while but our business community is resilient and will continue to be creative and adapt,’’ Nascimento said. “We’ve been through recessions before and this will pass over time.’’

In her role at the bank, King-Goodwin deals with many sectors of the economy. And while she acknowledges that there will be significant hardships in the short term, she is hopeful about the future.

“Businesses are redefining their operating model in new and creative ways she said, “It’s certainly causing angst and concern but I do have confidence that looking back, we will find there were innovative ideas that came out of this crisis that makes our businesses and communities better.’’ We were fortunate to support over 400 businesses most recently with needed Paycheck Protection Program funds and this has helped businesses bring employees back to work and provide them the confidence and capital needed to run their businesses.