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Government can only do so much

Feb. 14, 2011
By G. Michael Dobbs, Managing Editor
In 1965, my mom, brother and I were living in Oroville, Calif., awaiting word on when we could join my dad at his new overseas assignment. We were sitting with at least one of my grandma's brothers, watching television, when Petula Clark came on whatever show it was and sang her hit, "Downtown."
The song — for my readers under the age of 50 — extolled the virtues of going downtown, where there was always something going on. I distinctly remember the adults in the room shaking their head in disagreement, as by the mid-1960s their downtown was not the same as it apparently had been.
If there is one topic of conversation that has united urban dwellers since then, it has been why downtowns have deteriorated and what can be done to bring them back. Book after book has been written, studies have been completed and consultancy businesses have all been spawned out of the desire to turn back the clock.
I attended a meeting this week in Chicopee, conducted by Mayor Michael Bissonnette, concerning current and future improvements to the city's downtown.
He and other city officials described how some streets have been rebuilt and other infrastructure work is underway.
Bissonnette told the audience of business owners that government couldn't improve their business — its best role was to "get out of the way."
His message was that government should only do the public works projects that can make private development both feasible and attractive to the public sector.
In Holyoke and Springfield there have been efforts to improve the downtown, each with some success. According to the Urban Land Institute, the real key to lasting success is getting more people to live in a downtown neighborhood.
In Springfield, there is the promise of the Court Square building as a location for residences. In Chicopee, the Ames Privilege complex is on the verge of adding 42 new apartment units to its successful complex and there is increasing hope the proposed apartments across the street at the Cabotville building are going to become a reality.
In Holyoke, there has been an influx of young people choosing to live in that historic city. The buildings have character — and affordable prices. Holyoke is — and perhaps Chicopee center is as well — a candidate for the Northampton syndrome. Northampton in the early 1970s was a grim place.
The depressed and available real estate, though, was perfect for young people to start homes and businesses. Holyoke is seeing the kind of grassroots development that characterized Northampton, and Downtown Chicopee might see it as well.
So Bissonnette may be more accurate than dozens of books and consultants who have blathered about this subject for years in his assessment of how a downtown could redevelop: fix the things government can fix and allow the private sector to move forward.
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In the dead of this horrible winter, when we contemplate heating bills, roof rakes and whether the ice ruts on my street will ruin my car, my mind has turned to a more pleasant issue: what kind of candy did you eat as a kid that you don't see — much less consume — today?
I liked Sky Bars, even though the peanut butter part never really tasted like peanut butter to me.
They still make them and I had quite a nostalgic romp through the pages of www.groovycandies.com, an online company that specializes in hard-to-find candies, many of which were popular years ago.
Chocolate Necco wafers.
Another favorite, even though the chocolate flavor was always a little weak. How about Zagnut bars? I've not had one in years — coconut surrounding a peanut butter filling.
And this site has the sacred UNO bars. Never heard of them? They were never sold in New England, but were a favorite for decades in California. My mom introduced them to us when we lived there and they became an instant favorite. They are difficult to get on the East Coast, but this site has them.
The last thing I need is a box of UNO bars tempting me. What the heck — life is short!
Hey, agree with me? Disagree? Drop me a line at news@thereminder.com or at 280 N. Main St., East Longmeadow, MA 01028. As always, this column represents the opinion of its author and not the publishers or advertisers of this newspaper.
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