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2013 in review: Area faces changes, challenges

Jan. 3, 2014 |

By Carley Dangona carley@thereminder.com WEST SPRINGFIELD – West Side officially joined the race for a casino on Jan. 11, 2013 with a dramatic unveiling – complete with Bret Michaels, frontman of the rock group Poison – of the Hard Rock New England Resort Casino proposal for the Gate 9 site of the Big E fairgrounds. The 38-acre site was to include a hotel, music school, memorabilia hall, shopping center a convention center and more. Hard Rock would lease the area from the Eastern States Exposition (ESE). As part of its efforts, an entire overhaul of Memorial Avenue including new access to the ESE from Route 5. Two weeks later, Hard Rock executives addressed environmental concerns regarding the wildlife in the area. While that part of the ESE property was not part of the lease agreement Jim Allen, chair of Hard Rock International, vowed to uphold the company’s motto, “Love all. Serve all. Save the Planet.” Throughout the year, information sessions were conducted to educate the public about the project and Hard Rock representatives were present at most Town Council meetings. Both the council and Mayor Gregory Neffinger formed committees to research the impact of the resort casino. The two eventually joined efforts. On July 11, 2013, a Host Community Agreement (HCA) was signed between the town and Hard Rock New England. In it, HRNE committed to spending a minimum of $800 million on the project, which included nearly $42 million of payments and investments prior to the opening of the venue. The first Community Development Grant of $400,000 was awarded to the town on July 16 and was used to purchase the former Elks property. The plans came to a screeching halt after the Sept. 10, 2013 special election where 55 percent of voters cast ballots in opposition of the proposal. At this time, Hard Rock has not shown interest in other possible sites for a resort casino in Massachusetts. The race, however, continues as MGM Springfield submitted the second phase of its application to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Edward Sullivan was selected as the next mayor on the Nov. 5, 2013 election. He won the support of all eight precincts, over former Mayor Gregory Neffinger who ran for a second term. Sullivan is a former Town Meeting member, School Committee member and Town Council president. Councilors Kathleen Bourque and Robert Mancini did not run for re-election. They will be succeeded by Bridget Fiala and Brian Clune. Sullivan was officially sworn in on Jan. 2. After a two-year paid administrative leave, Capt. Daniel O’Brien of the Police Department was fired in October 2013 after the town and he failed to reach an agreement. O’Brien was placed on leave after an alleged incident where he taped a woman’s mouth shut after placing her in a restraint chair while she was in police custody after being arrested at the 2011 Big E. Alfred Donovan, special investigator for APD Management Inc., conducted the internal investigation into O’Brien’s conduct. News reports ran a photo of the woman, whose face could not be clearly identified, in the restraint chair with evidence tape securing her to the restraint chair. According to Donovan’s report, two other alleged incidents are documented claiming that O’Brien placed arrestees in the chair in contrast to the department’s policy for use of the chair. Other findings documented in the report stated that information regarding O’Brien’s health and military background were not included in his application to the West Springfield Police Department. Earlier in the year, O’Brien was one of three finalists in the search for a new police chief. Interim Chief Ronald Campurciani was selected for the position. To date, O’Brien has not requested a Civil Service hearing regarding the matter. The $16 million renovation of the West Springfield Public Library (WSPL), 200 Park St., is still in the fundraising process. In December 2013, the Town Council approved a $2.6 reimbursable bond for the library. The West Side Story Campaign for the WSPL has raised half of its $2 million goal. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners will provide $6.2 million in funding for the project. The remaining $5.2 million will be funded by the town. A temporary site for the library has yet to be determined for the duration of the rehabilitation. Neffinger anticipated construction would begin in early 2014. After more than 30 years, the town has a new Animal Control ordinance. The updated policy limits the amount of pets a person can have to “six companion animals over the age of six months, provided that there be no more than three dogs over the age of six months at any residence without complying with the requirements of the West Springfield Zoning Ordinance, and obtaining a kennel license.” In addition, the town hired Hannah Chapman as its Animal Control officer. At first, Chapman was without transportation, but is now mobile and fully equipped with tools for her job, due in part to the use of free cash that was approved by the Town Council. The ordinance calls for a Hearing Authority to be established, consisting of the Town Clerk, the Health Director and a designee from the Police Department chosen by the Police Chief. Once established, the authority will determine the appropriate measures for dealing with dangerous dogs and feral cats. The construction of the new West Springfield High School continued, with an anticipated opening date of Feb. 25 of this year. The $107.1 million dollar project is funding entirely by the Commonwealth. According to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Russell Johnston, the main themes of the design are safety, security, functionality and efficiency. In the fall, nostalgic tours were offered to the public to view the old high school that will be torn down once the new one opens. Features included in the building include a gymnasium that can be separated into three parts, a 13-foot-deep, 16-land pool, a two-story library, a miniature theater and safety features such as corner vision panels that enable teachers to see what is going on in hallways from inside the classroom. A recent issue with the construction resulted in an error with the actual number of seats in the auditorium being reduced. The renovation of the 3,200 square-foot Unico building began. Victoria Connor, director of the Park & Recreation department anticipated its grand opening would coincide with the start of its summer camp for summer camp for children with mental and physical disabilities. According to Connor, many of the features of the building are more than 40-years-old. She also noted that the building is in need of proper insulation and a new floor. Once updated, the department will be able support expanded programs offerings. Conservation Officer and Assistant Planner Mark Noonan found an error with the updated Federal Management Agency (FEMA) flood maps and saved some residents from potentially having to purchase flood insurance. When FEMA released its preliminary flood zone designations, a large portion of the area surrounding Block Brook was incorporated into the flood district. After Noonan reviewed the changes, he discovered that FEMA had referenced outdated maps, causing a larger flood zone than needed. Once the error was corrected, the Town Council voted to adopt the updated flood maps and coinciding flood ordinance. June 1, 2013 marked the second anniversary of the tornado that tore through Western Massachusetts and West Side’s Merrick neighborhood that is still in the recovery process. In May 2013, Director for the Department of Public Works Robert Colson stated that crews were just getting started inspected the underground condition of the area. Crews had until the end of June 2013 to complete the grant-funded inspections. The Merrick Rezoning Petition is still in development and has yet to be reviewed by the Town Council. The initial goal was to have the document before the council in June 2013. “The goal is to preserve the look and functionality of the neighborhood as residents desire,” Joseph LaPlante, director of Community Development, stated during a March 2013 Town Council meeting. Neffinger had called a special meeting of the Town Council on Dec. 19, but it was postponed to Dec. 30 due to a lack of quorum. The rescheduled meeting was also canceled for the same reason. He had planned to bring the petition before the council during that time.

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