|By G. Michael Dobbs
Springfield's skyline will change dramatically if one of the two casino proposals is approved by the state in 2013.
Reminder Publications phot by G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD The casino selection issue dominated much of the news generated in the City of Homes in 2012, but other noteworthy events also took place.
WFCR plans move to city
Jan. 23, 2012: Although it already has studios in the city, New England Public Radio (WFCR and WNNZ) is planning to move most of its remaining operations to the first floor of 1537 Main St. sometime in 2014.
Martin Miller, the CEO and general manager of the National Public Radio affiliate, explained to Reminder Publications "a 65 year-old former dorm is not adequate for 21st century broadcasting."
WFCR has been operating out of Hampshire House at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) campus since its creation in 1961.
Miller said that, as part of the UMass/Springfield partnership agreement in which the university develops closer ties with the city, the station was approached about expanding into Springfield in December 2009. It started planning a capital campaign to fund the move to the city through the WFCR Foundation. The campaign is in its "quiet phase," Miller added.
The new space will consist of 16,000 square feet on the first floor and part of the basement, Miller said. He expects to close on the property in May and it will be a condominium arrangement with The Dennis Group, the owners of the building.
Springfield also became the location in 2012 for the location of a repeater station for Hartford, Conn.-based WNPR.
Feb. 1, 2012: In a room in a sub-basement that one expects the Phantom of the Opera to feel at home and amid a hulking and ancient heating system sits a modern boiler quietly providing heat to the city block above it.
This may not be a sexy part of the renovations to the Paramount Theater but as Heriberto Flores explained it is work such as the installation of a modern boiler that will bring the venerable theater back to life.
The Paramount has been, for much of its history since it opened in 1929, a venue that has featured some of the best known names in American show business, theater and films and if Flores is successful, the theater will serve generations to come.
In an interview with Reminder Publications, Flores acknowledged with a laugh that some people were critical of his move to buy the theater last year for $1.7 million from its previous owners Stephen Stein and Michel Barossa. Flores is the chair of Partners for Community, a Springfield-based non-profit that is best known for its services as the New England Farm Workers' Council.
By the end of the year, Penn National Gaming announced the Paramount would play a role in its proposed casino for Springfield.
Entertainment time changed
Feb. 15, 2012: One entertainment business owner is challenging the conception the city's downtown entertainment district is out of control with crime issues.
Paul Ramesh, the owner of three nightclubs on Worthington Street, Kush, Glo and Shadow, explained to Reminder Publications that during the period of Dec. 2, 2011 to Feb. 2 there were 902 arrests in the city, according to police records.
Of those arrests, only 127 were in Sector E the police designation for the area that includes the Metro Center, the South End and part of Maple High Six Corners and of those 127 only 21 arrests were "bar-related."
Three of those 21 arrests didn't happen in Worthington Street area, but at the Basketball Hall of Fame complex, which is considered part of the entertainment district, Ramesh noted.
Public safety concerns in downtown Springfield motivated Mayor Domenic Sarno to change all entertainment licenses to 1 a.m. instead of 2 a.m. in an effort to move bar patrons out of the Entertainment District earlier to make it safer. Bars and restaurants had to apply for a 2 a.m. license.
Stebbins appointed to commission
April 2, 2012: Bruce Stebbins' first day on the job as a member of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission is April 2 and he sees his involvement in the process of establishing casino gambling in the Commonwealth as an opportunity for significant job growth.
He told Reminder Publications that casino gaming is "one of the biggest potential economic development opportunities to come along in a long time."
Stebbins, a former Springfield City Councilor, left his job as the business development administrator for Springfield on March 28. Previously, he had worked at the National Association of Manufacturers and the Massachusetts Office of Business Development and had served in the Administration of Gov. Bill Weld, and as associate director of political affairs in the White House under President George H.W. Bush.
Stebbins was named to the Commission on March 20 as one of the last two appointments, along with James McHugh, retired associate justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. Stebbins said he had been "very happy" with his job development position with the city but was interested in the role of commissioner when he was contacted by a recruitment firm to consider applying for the position.
Mayor questioned on insurance
April 23, 2012: If the city could save millions of dollars, wouldn't it be worth the effort to find out? That's the question City Council Timothy Rooke and School Committee Vice Chair Christopher Collins continue to ask about the city's health insurance costs.
Despite a memo issued last week by Mayor Domenic Sarno that said that the city would not go out to bid to see if it could lower its health insurance costs, both men are going to push the issue further.
On April 18, Sarno issued a written statement on the request from Rooke and Collins to go out to bid. He said, "Based upon these facts it makes no sense to go out to bid at this point in time because it would put more strain on the city's general budget creating additional costs to the tax payers. Review of the proposal from Blue Cross Blue Shield indicates an increase in premiums, which would cause the city to make more cuts to other services such as police, fire, DPW, [Department of Public Works] parks and libraries. The ability of the city to participate in the GIC [General Insurance Commission] was part of the municipal relief package put forth by the governor and state Legislature. This GIC plan gives us budget predictability and sustainability."
A memo by William Mahoney, the director of Human Resources and Labor Relations, accompanied Sarno's statement. In it Mahoney wrote, "We are going out to bid. We are just going out to bid with the GIC. The GIC will be going out to bid next year. As the GIC has approximately 300,000 members and the City of Springfield has 8,000 members it is quite clear that the GIC has significant greater purchasing power than the city. Additionally, it is noteworthy that the GIC is reportedly considering seeking a national PPO [preferred provider organization] for next year. This will provide our retirees who are out of state with a less costly alternative to purchasing an indemnity plan. Finally there is no reason for the city to assume the cost of going out to bid when the GIC will. Two brokers contacted for estimates for preparing a bid, getting it out on the street, analyzing the results against our current 19 plan options and making a recommendation ran from $40,000 to $80,000."
Collins and Rooke disputed several of Mahoney's statements. Rooke noted the city has about 10,000 members and Collins said the cost for putting out a bid at $40,000 to $80,000 was inaccurate. Collins and Rooke said that according to three different consultants the cost would be closer to $5,000.
South End improvements
May 16, 2012: Mayor Domenic Sarno and Gordon Pulsifer, president of First Resource Development Company, broke ground on May 11 for the first phase of redevelopment of the South End neighborhood known as the Hollywood section.
Pulsifer explained the redevelopment will be in three phases and will affect seven of 23 buildings in the neighborhood. Among the improvements will be new kitchen and baths in the apartments, landscaping, video intercom security systems, and heightened system of security cameras.
The first phase will also include a community center building, he added, and should be completed in December.
The neighborhood has been noted for its congestion and density, and Pulsifer said that within four years all of the phases will be completed and there will be 316 renovated apartments serving about 1,000 residents.
Although many people associate the neighborhood with crime Sarno once suggested demolishing the apartment buildings and using the land for a baseball stadium Pulsifer explained the history of the area. In 1900, the area was the last undeveloped parcel in the city and its wooded acres were a popular location for picnics. Between 1914 and 1926, though, 44 apartment buildings were constructed there, of which 23 now remain.
The original name of the area was "Outing Park," and Pulsifer said the neighborhood is now known as "Outing Park Historic District."
Further revitalization efforts in the South End included the re-opening of an enlarged and improved Emerson Wight Park.
Officer dies in line of duty
June 11, 2012: Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose, one of the department's most seasoned veterans, was killed in the line of duty while reporting to a domestic violence situation at the Lawton Arms Apartments on Lawton Street shortly before 1 p.m. on June 4.
Ambrose, who wore badge No. 7, served with the Springfield Police Department for 36 years after two years as a cadet.
"On behalf of the city of Springfield and our residents I extend my heartfelt condolences to the family of Springfield Police Officer Kevin Ambrose who wore his badge with honor and integrity and served our city with a tremendous amount of pride and passion. The thoughts and prayers of everyone at Springfield City Hall are with Kevin's loving family at this very difficult and emotional time," Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said.
"The men and women in blue at the Springfield Police Department, like police departments throughout the country, are faced with very challenging, difficult and dangerous situations on a daily basis. For this, we owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to our police officers and their families. Today, Officer Ambrose paid the ultimate sacrifice protecting and serving the residents of our city. He will be sadly missed by his fellow officers and the community at-large," he continued.
Ambrose was responding to a 911 call from Charlene Mitchell, a resident of the apartments, who said was in fear of her life following a dispute with Shawn Bryan, her ex-boyfriend and father of her 1-year-old child, against whom she had just taken out a restraining order, according to police.
Union Station project begins
July 25, 2012: What has been a challenge and problem for a succession of Springfield mayors will not become an "economic engine" for the city.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood characterized the redevelopment of Union Station as a "jobs creator," not just in construction positions, but also in permanent jobs in and around the renovated train station.
The building has been closed since the mid-1970s and was taken by the Springfield redevelopment Authority by eminent domain in 1988.
LaHood was in Springfield on July 23 to formally announce the allocation of more than $17 million in federal funding to underwrite the often spoken about and frequently delayed conversion of the building into an inter-modal transportation center.
"This is as good a use for taxpayer's dollars that you'll ever find in America," LaHood said.
Noting the decades the project has been under consideration, Congressman Richard Neal said "We've been at this for a long time." He then thanked Sen. John Kerry and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy for their support over the years in trying to make the redevelopment a reality.
In the fall, there was an official groundbreaking ceremony for the demolition of the former baggage building of Union Station, the first step in the renovation.
Asylum building sold
Aug. 8, 2012: The city opened 1592 Main St. better known as the Asylum building for potential buyers last week. Brian Connors, deputy director of Economic Development, explained the city has released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for the building, which needs to be completed and returned to the city by Aug. 13.
The RFP carries a minimum bid of $400,000 as the purchase price for the building.
He said a decision about the development proposals would probably be made 30 days after that date.
Connors detailed the numerous improvements made to the building in order to prepare for sale. More than half of the building was demolished to make way for a 20-space parking lot. The remaining structure has been gutted and cleaned. A new heating system, windows, signage, sprinklers, landscaping and roof have been installed.
The New England Farmworkers Council purchased the building.
Casino declares commitment
Oct. 29, 2012: On the site of the former Westinghouse plant and potential new building site for a Springfield casino, Ameristar Casinos Inc. CEO and Director Gordon Kanofsky unveiled a proposal for a $910 million development that would sit between Page Boulevard and Interstate 291.
Kanofsky told members of public, local business owners and city officials that on the 40-acre property, Ameristar would build a 150,000 square foot casino featuring 3,300 slot machines and 110 table games, a hotel with 500 luxury hotel rooms and 50 suites and valet and self-parking for 4,300 vehicles.
It would also feature a nightclub, swimming pools, a spa, meeting and entertainment space and on-site childcare.
Troy Stremming, senior vice president of Government Relations and Public Affairs, said that the company chose Springfield for several reasons, but most specifically because of its economic potential.
"It quickly became apparent to us that Springfield was the right location," he said. "This is where the population base is. This is where the majority of the workforce is located. But most importantly, this is the area that really has the greatest need for economic development in Western Massachusetts."
Ameristar later dropped out of contention in Springfield for a casino license as did Hard Rock, which couldn't close on a site. By the year's end only two casino developers were left standing in the city: MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming.
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