In Chicopee, 2009 was a year of building and promise
|Jan. 6, 2010.|
By G. Michael Dobbs
CHICOPEE -- If there was one theme that marked events in Chicopee during 2009 it was one of building. From the reconstruction of Front Street to on-going sewer renovations to the start of the long awaited bike path it was difficult to avoid construction projects in the city this year.
Much of this construction was accomplished by state and federal funds, putting the city in an enviable position of undertaking major infrastructure improvements without tapping the taxpayers.
Like other communities, Chicopee was hit with the closing of Catholic parishes -- in the city's case, five parishes, the most of any community in the area.
Chicopee residents also protested the permitting of a proposed biomass plant in Springfield that would burn construction and demolition waste because of the impact the plant could make on air quality in the Pioneer Valley.
The following are some of the top stories from 2009 covered by this newspaper. They are presented in chronological order rather than an order of importance with the date of the edition in which the story appeared.
Feb. 17, 2009
1. With two-thirds of the fiscal year over, the impact of a 10 percent cut in state funding, Chicopee has been cushioned by the reduction not reaching over to the school budget, Mayor Michael Bissonnette said last week.
"The silver lining in the dark clouds is on the education side," he told Reminder Publications.
The $1.4 million in budget cuts made by Gov. Deval Patrick have been anticipated since last fall, he said and plans were made by city departments to cope with them.
Bissonnette said that by a combination of not filling vacancies and cautious spending, the city would avert any lay-offs at this time. He said he has given back his $10,000 pay increase and returned to the stabilization fund the $35,000 that had been allocated to buy him a hybrid Ford Explorer.
The impact of the recession coupled with the state government's economic problems was an on-going presence in municipal government this year. Chicopee was in better financial health than some of its neighbors, but there were still serious concerns expressed about the future.
March 3, 2009
2. The mayor, most of the members of the City Council, the School Committee and other city officials toured the closed St. Patrick's School on Saturday morning thinking of how the city would use the building if it could make an arrangement with the parish and diocese.
Mayor Michael Bissonnette said after the tour of the building, which is still used weekly for CDC classes and bingo, the building is in great shape.
"It's very sound. There seems to be a consensus among the City Council and School Committee members that the city should explore [an agreement] further with the parish or diocese," he said.
Bissonnette's initial thought is to move the aging Belcher School into the former parochial school. He said that Belcher, which doesn't have a playground, is on its last legs.
By the end of the year, the city was making its final preparations to complete the sale and begin renovations.
March 18, 2009
3. The sale of 57 acres of unused land zoned for industrial purposes from the city to Westmass Area Development Corporation will create an asset unique to the region a 110-acre industrial park.
Allan Blair, executive director of the Economic Development of Western Massachusetts (EDC), explained at the signing of the sales agreement in Mayor Michael Bissonnette's office on Tuesday that parcels that size are difficult to find in the region and could attract a major tenant.
When the property is at full build-out, Blair estimated there could be 1,000 jobs created and $1 million in new property taxes generated.
The property that was once part of Westover Air Force Base is still serving the city and the region well as the site for industrial expansion. Chicopee now has property available that would allow the construction of a major manufacturing or distribution facility.
March 24, 2009
4. The recent court decision that will allow the city to take over the Uniroyal and Facemate properties for demolition, clean-up and future redevelopment was described by Mayor Michael Bissonnette as "15 years of litigation that has come to an end."
The acquisition and development of these properties is seen by the mayor as part of a "big set of dominos" -- projects that are linked together that include the reconstruction of Front Street, a bike path along the former rail line, the widening of the Deady Bridge and the reconstruction of the Davitt Bridge -- that will revitalize the original mill section of the city.
With the involvement of MassDevelopment in the project, after decades of inertia, the redevelopment of the site is moving forward.
May 13, 2009
5. City officials told residents of lower McKinstry Avenue and the adjoining area that their flooding problems won't necessarily be solved by a $3 million storm drain reconstruction project, but they should see substantial relief.
At a meeting conducted at the Chicopee Boys & Girls Club on Thursday, Department of Public Works (DPW) Superintendent Stanley Kulig explained the Willimansett neighborhood in general is "the bowl of the city" where water flows downhill and the McKinstry Avenue area is the "bowl within the bowl."
At a meeting last year, angry residents described how their basements routinely become flooded and sewage backs up into their homes during rainstorms.
Kulig, Mayor Michael Bissonnette and Water Pollution Control Facility Chief Operator Thomas Hamel spoke to about 35 residents about the project, which should go out to bid in June and start construction in the fall. Completion is expected by early spring 2010.
Bissonnette explained the storm drain reconstruction was recognized by the city as a problem, but wasn't a priority. Fulfilling the agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to correct its $150 million problem of combined sewer overflows (CSO) -- in which raw sewage is pushed into the Connecticut River during heavy rainstorms -- was the city's immediate concern.
The city continued correcting its combined sewer overflow project around the city this year. More work will be done in 2010.
May 26, 2009
6. The idea brought to the city's attention by City Councilor William Zaskey in 1979 is finally coming to fruition.
On Friday morning, city and state officials gathered for the groundbreaking of the first segment of the bike path and river walk along the Chicopee River that will eventually extend from the historical sycamore trees in the center of downtown to the Uniroyal/Facemate site.
The initial leg of the path will be 1,100 feet of paved walkway that is suitable for bike riders, walkers and will be fully handicapped accessible. The $800,000 project will also include decorative lighting, fencing, seating, retaining walls, plantings, signage and historical markers. The plaza that overlooks the path across the street from City Hall will also be redesigned with new seating and plantings.
The segment will end at Grape Street.
Mayor Michael Bissonnette thanked State Rep. Joseph Wagner and the Chicopee legislative delegation for their help in securing the $800,000 in state funds for the project. Construction is to start this summer and continue through the end of the construction season this year. The majority of the work is expected to be concluded this year.
Work progressed on the river walk through the year but was not officially finished by year's end.
Aug. 12, 2009
7. Environmental activist Chris Matera has issues with how the state is clear cutting state forests and he brought his concerns directly to Gov. Deval Patrick on Thursday.
Matera was one of several hundred people who turned out at Patrick's town meeting at the Chicopee Public Library. Patrick answered questions ranging from why massage therapists have new requirements for certification to education reform to the use of medical marijuana.
Residents from Chicopee, Springfield, Easthampton, Sunderland and other communities asked questions and raised issues during the 13th of a series of 15 town meetings Patrick has conducted throughout the state this year.
Patrick demonstrated a wide range of knowledge on issues, as well as a willingness to explore topics new to him. Aides in the audience met with people who asked questions to obtain information for follow-ups.
Introduced by Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette, who reminded the audience of the state's involvement in municipal projects such as the library at which the meeting was conducted, Patrick said during his introduction that he "didn't come out to make a speech" but wanted to have a dialogue.
Throughout 2009, Patrick proved to be the governor most involved in Western Massachusetts in recent memory. The state is still facing substantial budget challenges in 2010.
Aug. 25, 2009
8. Although the city awarded Lorraine's Soup Kitchen a check for $20,000 in Community Development Block grant money for the construction of its new facility on Meadow Street on Aug. 20, there is still a need for additional funding.
Jerry Roy, president of the board, told Reminder Publications $80,000 still needs to be raised in order for the new facility to be completed and the Soup Kitchen can move from its present location on Center St.
Roy gave reporters a tour of the new soup kitchen building and pointed out the large area designated for the new kitchen. The dry wall has been installed throughout the building and Roy said the kitchen area would also have a special plastic backsplash put up for easy cleaning.
The community rallied behind the construction of a new Soup Kitchen, although neighbors had expressed concern on how the traffic generated by the non-profit would impact the narrow streets around it. The building is nearing completion.
Sept. 15, 2009
9. Mayor Michael Bissonnette and officials of Premiere Education Group (PEG) announced Monday morning the sale of the former Gold Club property on Shawnigan Drive for $1.3 million.
The failed strip club will undergo a $500,000 to $600,000 renovation to become a Branford Hall educational facility that PEG Vice President of Marketing Tony McPeck said would initially hire 15 to 20 employees. When the school, which probably will feature allied health programs, is running at capacity, it should have 50 to 60 employees serving 200 students.
The property is expected to generate $25,000 in tax revenues, Bissonnette estimated in a post on his Facebook account.
A long-time economic development issue was solved with this sale.
Nov. 11, 2009
10. Shane Brooks told Reminder Publications that with the end of his present term on the City Council he is through with politics for the time being.
Brooks cautioned that he wouldn't say he'd pass up an opportunity in the future as public service is "in my blood."
Brooks suffered a decisive defeat in his bid for mayor against Michael Bissonnette on Nov. 3. The city councilor said he had "no problems, no regrets" with his campaign and with the results.
Speaking at the Bridge Caf at about 7:50 p.m. polls in Chicopee closed at 7 p.m. Brooks addressed a small group of supporters while standing on a chair.
"I don't know what tomorrow holds," he said. He added with a laugh that all he knows is that he had to go back to work on Thursday.
There were tears from some supporters who shouted out, "Next time, Shane, next time."
He thanked his wife and family for their support and said he was going to "focus on my daughters."
"I owe them a lot of attention that was taken away by the campaign," he added.
Bissonnette won a decisive victory, which he saw as an affirmation from voters on the direction of the city has taken.
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