Seniors reject Nativity Church as site of a new senior center
|By G. Michael Dobbs|
CHICOPEE -- At the Wednesday evening meeting billed as a community forum to discuss capital improvement priorities for the city, several points were made: the city's seniors are tired of waiting for a new senior center to start construction and converting Nativity Church in Williamansett to a new senior center is unacceptable to them.
Dozens of seniors attended the meeting at the Community Room of the Chicopee Public Library. Wearing large stickers that read, "It's Time," the seniors gave Mayor Michael Bissonnette and the City Council a petition urging them to take action.
The meeting was punctuated with statements from elders about the need for a new center. One senior asked," We are in need of a safe building that can house us ... but what about us?"
Bissonnette, the City Council and the School Committee met with residents in what Bissonnette described as "a highly unusual meeting." No votes or minutes were taken.
"We come before you as an united front," the mayor said to the audience.
"The united front" was rather short-lived as later in the evening City Council Vice President Shane Brooks, who is challenging Bissonnette for mayor, clashed with the mayor over his spending priorities.
The intent of the meeting was to present plans for the city's schools, the renovation of the public safety complex and the construction of a new senior center and whether or not the city is in the position to bond for those projects. Because the city is in a good financial position concerning its present outstanding debt, Bissonnette explained, it's now time to consider future borrowing and for which project.
School Superintendent Richard Rege explained the most immediate part of a lengthy plan to change the city's schools system is the possible purchase of the St. Patrick's School to replace the aging Belcher School.
Belcher, which is 109 years old, has no auditorium or gym and no playground with grass. New construction for the K-8 school would cost between $18 to $20 million, he said, compared to a purchase and renovation cost of just under $4 million.
Rege said the Diocese of Springfield has offered the city two options: one is to buy the building immediately while another is a lease to own arrangement that would enable the city to buy the school over a three-year period.
Rege said the city would need to buy modular classrooms to augment the space at St. Patrick's.
Rege said the city is speaking to officials at the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) about the possibility of receiving funding for the purchase of the building. Normally the MSBA only funds new construction.
Bissonnette said private businesses have expressed interest in the vacant school.
"There is some urgency," he said,
Rege expects to conclude the negotiations for the school within the next 30 days and Bissonnette said the city has about $2 million in available funds it could use for the purchase.
The goal is to have occupancy of the school for next September, Rege said.
Rege explained the MSBA has upgraded the status of the proposed conversion of the former Chicopee High School to a middle school from "on hold" to that deserving a feasibility study. Rege said the City Council must approve funding for a study.
If ultimately the MSBA approves funding for the project -- which when started would take about three and half years to complete -- Rege explained it would start a series of changes that would reshape the school system.
Fairview Middle School would move to the former high school. Selser and Szetela schools would move into Fairview Middle School, which would create a new kindergarten through grade five building, Rege said.
Selser School would then be used by Chicopee Academy and the administration building would move from its deteriorating building on Broadway to the Szetela School.
The city would save $130,500 annually in bussing costs and $42,367 in utilities, Rege added.
After the discussion on the school changes, Bissonnette attempted to speak about the needs of the public safety complex, but a number of seniors complained about a discussion of a new senior center coming last. The mayor acquiesced to their request and did not revisit the issue of the public safety complex.
Bissonnette explained the city is waiting for a report on if the ground at a parcel at the Facemate property in Chicopee Falls would be suitable for construction of the new center. He said the present architectural plans would be used and the cost is estimated at $9 million.
If the soil is suitable, Bissonnette said that bids could be sought in the spring. At the present time, the funding would be split between federal dollars, money provided by the city and money raised by the Friends of Senior Center.
City Councilor John Vieau asked the seniors present if they would be happy with a new center at the Facemate property. About a dozen hands shot up.
Vieau questioned if seniors would come to the building if it were in the center of a major demolition and construction zone, which if plans progress the Uniroyal and Facemate properties would become just that.
Bissonnette's suggestion of seeking the purchase of the Nativity Church was not met with much enthusiasm. When asked by City Councilor Chuck Swider about the site, Sandra Lapollo, executive director of the Council on Aging, said, "It's not appropriate."
She doubted the Friends group would raise $2 million for a renovation and explained the feasibility study for the new center stipulated that a six-acre site was needed for a large enough building and enough parking spaces.
Resident Chuck Demaris asked, "What could we do with a church? We could pray for a new senior center."
Several of the City Councilors were concerned about the level of additional borrowing. Councilor Ronald Belair noted that decreasing state revenues might trigger more mid-year budget cuts, which would affect the city's bottom line.
Brooks asked Bissonnette how the new center ranks among his priorities. Brooks said that he and other councilors have been waiting for Bissonnette to produce a prioritized list of capital projects.
"What's the most important thing to do?" Brooks asked. "We don't need to bond on a campaign promise."
"What would you do, Mr. Brooks?" Bissonnette asked in reply.
Brooks said his priorities are the city's children, public safety and the senior center. He wouldn't promise the construction of a new senior center, though.
"We need to take a good long look," Brooks said. "We can't keep everyone happy."
Bissonnette said his priorities was the schools, the seniors and the public safety complex, which he quickly said would cost about $4 to $5 million. The city will soon receive final plans for the renovations.
The mayor expressed the city can work on more than one project at a time.
After the meeting, Brooks said he was still not satisfied with Bissonnette's priorities. He had hoped to have heard from the city treasurer and thought the city's financial status needed greater clarification.
"I don't think it was clearer for anyone who walked in," Brooks said.
Brooks also had hoped for greater cooperation between the mayor and the City Council.
Although the issue of the senior center is important to him, Brooks added he is "not willing to mortgage the future of the city" on it.
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