With the New Year upon us, the staff of Reminder Publications took a look back and compiled a list of some of the top stories and trends that helped shape the Pioneer Valley in 2015. Feel free to share your thoughts or memories of the past year by either emailing us at email@example.com or connecting with us via social media on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ReminderPublications), Twitter (@TheReminderMA) or Instagram (@reminderpublications).
SPRINGFIELD – MGM Springfield recently gained approval for changes to its plans for its resort casino, but it wasn’t without a great deal of pain.
MGM’s initial decision to eliminate the 25-story glass tower hotel and replace it with a six-story building with approximately the same number of rooms – 250 – drew criticism and some even questioned the level of commitment MGM had to the city of Springfield.
MGM Resorts President William Hornbuckle visited the city in early October to announce some of the market-rate apartment previously slated for the tower would be built at the old School Department building at 195 State St. and reiterated the company’s resolve, pointing out it had invested $250 million in the effort to bring a casino to Springfield.
Later that month, MGM Springfield again came under fire, this time for its plans to reduce the square footage of the development by 14 percent. Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno called the fact that he was not told about the alteration to the plans during his previous discussions with Hornbuckle and MGM Springfield President Michael Mathis “incomprehensible.”
MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO James Murren came to the city to meet with Sarno and apologized for the company’s lack of communication and added any additional plans would be minor.
When MGM submitted its site plan application with the square footage to the city on Oct. 22, it was deemed incomplete and sent back to the company with a request for more information. MGM resubmitted the plan and made a presentation at CityStage on Nov. 18 and later presented its redesign to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission in December.
The Gaming Commission ultimately agreed to allow MGM to begin demolition and construction work and the City Council followed suit with approval of the zoning overlay district, which cleared the way for site work.
EAST LONGMEADOW – After voters approved the formation of a Charter Commission at the April 11 Annual Town Election, the nine-member group began its review of the town’s current form of government and drafted a proposal for a new format, which would require a seven-seat at-large Town Council and a town manager. Under the proposal, town councilors would serve three-year terms.
While residents initially conveyed concerns and criticism of the town’s current system at a May 27 public hearing hosted by the Charter Commission, the reaction to the proposed new government received mixed reactions at the commission’s second public hearing on Oct. 15.
The Charter Commission plans to present its proposal before the 2016 Annual Town Election at which time it would be put to a vote.
Outgoing interim Town Administrator Greg Moyer stressed the need for a change in the legislative branch of the government in his resignation letter.
SPRINGFIELD – Work on the Interstate 91 viaduct project officially began with significant lane and exit closures, causing major back ups in its first days.
At a Dec. 8 informational meeting at the Basketball Hall of Fame, representatives from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation explained the Bernie Avenue Connector, Union Street on-ramp to North, State Street ramp to I- 91 North, Exit 7 off-ramp from I- 91 south, Exit 6 off-ramp from I-91 South; and the Route 20 connector to I- 91 South would be closed through the fall of 2015.
A new exit, West Columbus/Birnie Avenue Exit 7-6, has been built for I-91 South motorists wishing to reach downtown Springfield, the Memorial Bridge and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Exit 9 off ramp from I-91 North to Route 20 will be closed in the late fall 2016.
Stage 1B, in which the inner travel lanes of Interstate 91 along the median will be closed for deck repair and replacement, is expected to continue until the late fall of 2016.
Stage 2, during which travel lanes will shift and the remaining lanes on the viaduct will be replaced, will start in late 2016 to late fall 2017.
SPRINGFIELD – The Diocese of Springfield announced on June 19 that Pope Francis High School would be built on the site of the former Cathedral High School on Surrey Road.
Bishop Mitchell Rozanski said, “No, today is only about winners, those young people, both now and hopefully well into the future, who will benefit from the steps we are about to undertake.”
The new school will be built to accommodate between 450 and 500 students but would have expansion capacities to 600 students and would cost $50 million. It is expected to open in 2018.
In October, the diocese stated Cathedral High School, currently at a temporary home in Wilbraham, and Holyoke Catholic High School in Chicopee would combine in 2016 as Pope Francis High School at the Chicopee location.
Later that month, to reiterate the diocese’s commitment to rebuilding in Springfield, Dr. Paul Gagliarducci, executive director of the Pope Francis High School project, unveiled a new sign at the Surrey Road site, stating he would expect “something in the ground” sometime between April and June next year, probably closer to June.
LONGMEADOW – The town of Longmeadow hired facilitator Bernard Lynch in an effort to improve the relationship between the Select Board and Town Manager Stephen Crane in 2015.
Issues between Crane and the board have been well documented. In February 2014 members of the Charter Commission sent a letter to the Select Board, criticizing its lack of compliance with the town’s charter and in June 2014, Crane and members of the board engaged in a heated debate regarding roles and responsibilities during his first performance review.
Crane received better, but still mixed feedback in his second evaluation in May 2015, but concerns about communication and timeliness of information provided to the board remained for some selectmen.
Lynch identified battles over turf, egos and a lack of communication as the major stumbling blocks during his first session with the town in September. In a subsequent session, with Lynch’s help, the board and Crane agreed the task of identifying new revenue possibilities should be a priority during the upcoming fiscal year.
GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Nick Breault, the longtime East Longmeadow town administrator, left the town to accept a position with the same title in Wilbraham, officially signing a contract on April 28.
He began work on June 1 with a starting salary of $101,000.
Breault, who identified additional responsibility, “more authority and more oversight” in the day-to-day operations of the town as appealing factors of his new position, was chosen over former West Springfield Mayor Edward Gibson and former Town Administrator of Bar Harbor, ME, Dana Reed.
Recently resigned Mayor of Westfield Daniel Knapik and Kevin Sutherland, chief of staff for the city of Ithaca, NY, were also considered for the job, but withdrew their applications prior to interviews conducted on March 7.
To replace Breault in the short term, the East Longmeadow Board of Selectmen hired Greg Moyer, who previously served as interim city manager of Bethel, AK, as its interim town administrator.
Upon arrival in East Longmeadow, Moyer said he discovered the position offered less managing powers than he expected. Stating the job description was more in line with that of an executive secretary, he pushed the selectmen to give him additional authority.
The selectmen acquiesced in September by signing a memorandum of understanding that granted him the ability to make recommendations regarding personnel staffing requirements as well as hiring and firings of employees, members of boards and commissions appointed by the selectmen. He was also allowed to assist in compiling the annual operating budget, complete an inventory of all town property, assist with collective bargaining negotiations, prepare employee performance evaluations and recommend town policies and procedures.
Moyer’s contract, which was due to expire in November, was renewed by the selectmen in October to April 12, but Moyer issued his 30-day notice in a resignation letter on Dec. 4 and drove back to his home in Broken Arrow, OK.
Moyer was planning on spending the holidays at home and working remotely at half of his agreed-upon salary.
Moyer cited the town’s current governmental structure as his reason for leaving. While previous media reports cited a selectman who claimed a poor relationship with department heads was to blame, Moyer refuted that assertion.
In the wake of Moyer’s departure, the board unanimously voted to appoint former West Springfield Mayor Gregory Neffinger interim town administrator.
BOSTON – East Longmeadow native Frank Vatrano scored his first NHL goal in his first game on Nov. 7 in the Boston Bruins’ game against the Montreal Canadiens.
Vatrano, who signed an entry-level contract with the Bruins in March after completing his redshirt sophomore season with the University of Massachusetts, was called up on Nov. 6 after leading the American Hockey League in goals for the Providence Bruins, including a four-goal game that earned him AHL Player of the Week honors.
On Dec. 18, he scored a hat trick to propel Boston to a 6-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Heading into the team’s Dec. 29 game against Ottawa, Vatrano had five goals and an assist in 21 games with Boston.
WILBRAHAM – Following an impassioned speech on the Republican Caucus floor, incumbent School Committee Chair Marc Ducey refused his nomination to run for a second term on the School Committee and resigned his appointment with the Republican Town Committee.
Ducey stated that it was his “need to distance himself from the extremists” in the Republican Town Committee that led to his decision to refuse the nomination.
“Unfortunately, there is an extremist group sitting here in this auditorium that is more concerned about promoting their single agenda, than what is in the best interest of our schools and our town,” Ducey said. “These individuals have misrepresented the good work of many of my colleagues and me.
“They manipulate the truth, lie about motivations, and attempt to besmirch the characters of good people – people who have volunteered their time to benefit the community in which we live,” he continued.
Ultimately, Ducey ran as an independent candidate and lost the election to Republican Caucus nominee William Bontempi as well as incumbent independent candidate Michelle Emirzian. Ducey finished third in the race for two seats by just 37 votes.
LONGMEADOW – Longmeadow faced a great deal of attrition among its department heads in 2016.
Among the significant changes were the retirements of Police Chief Robert Siano, Fire Chief Eric Madison and Department of Public Works (DPW) director Michael Wrabel. The public safety positions were filled with internal candidates. Former Capt. John Dearborn took over the top job in the Fire Department after being chosen by the Select Board on July 9, while former Capt. John Stankiewicz was unanimously appointed police chief on July 20.
Mario Mazza, previously a deputy DPW director in Springfield and brother of Longmeadow Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Finance and Operations Thomas Mazza, replaced Wrabel as director of Public Works in August.
Superintendent of Schools Marie Doyle also announced her intentions to retire after six years in the district following the 2015-2016 school year. The School Committee formed a Superintendent Search Committee and hired Ray and Associates to assist with the search, which yielded 47 applicants, six of which were interviewed by the Search Committee.
Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea was selected as the next superintendent, beating out Wolf Swamp Road School Principal Neil Gile. The two were interviewed as finalists on Dec. 17, then appeared again before the School Committee on Dec. 22 after site visits at both locations. Contract negotiations with O’Shea began in hopes of being completed by the Jan. 5, 2016 deadline.
In August, Nicholas Jorge was also selected to replace former IT Director Kevin Warenda, who was recruited to work at a private school in Connecticut.
WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee voted at its Nov. 10 meeting to move forward with the pursuit for a single unified middle school.
The Middle School Task Force, formed to address a decline in enrollment in the district’s middle schools, delivered this recommendation to the School Committee a month earlier.
In order to move forward the School Committee would submit a statement of interest (SOI) to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), but must first decide whether the school would consist of a newly constructed building or a renovation of either Thornton W. Burgess or Wilbraham middle schools.
Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea recently told Reminder Publications a combined middle school could help avoid the budgeting challenges the district faced the past several years. O’Shea and middle school principals Peter Dufresne and Noel Pixley added the educational opportunities at the schools have been impacted by drops in enrollment.
LONGMEADOW – The Longmeadow School Committee put to bed a months-long debate on May 11 when it approved a redistricting plan for the elementary schools that relocated 70 students from Blueberry Hill Elementary School to Center School.
K-4 students in an area bordered by Forest Glen Road to the north, Farmington Avenue to the south, Laurel Street to the east, and Route 5 to the west, made the move in order to resolve overcrowding issues at Blueberry Hill. According to enrollment data provided by the district, before redistricting, Blueberry Hill had 500 students, while Center has 391 students.
The district also faced an allegation of civil rights abuse at Blueberry Hill stemming from overcrowding of staff because four special education teachers were working in one room designed for students with hearing impairments, according to Superintendent Marie Doyle.
Students entering grade 5 at Blueberry Hill were grandfathered, allowing them to stay.
The district also considered creating a redistricting committee for Glenbrook and Williams Middle Schools. Williams Middle School Principal Christopher Collins spoke against the idea because class sizes would be unpredictable and there is adequate space at both schools.
The School Committee voted not to pursue middle school redistricting, based on this information.
However, a recent update to the town’s facilities study conducted by JCJ Architecture indicated it would be more cost effective to build a new single combined middle school rather than renovate either building or constructing two new schools.
WILBRAHAM – Residents voted in favor of a new police station $4.2 million debt exclusion for the $8 million project at the May 11 Town Meeting and May 16 Annual Town Election.
The new facility will be located at 2780 Boston Road, adjacent to the recently renovated fire station. The house on the property, previously owned by Helen Moore, was demolished in September and the town will start accepting bids for the project’s general contractor on Jan. 13, 2016. The contract will likely be awarded in January, according to Police Station Building Committee Chair Roger Fontaine.
While dependent on weather, the committee expects construction to be complete by March 2017.
GREATER SPRINGFIELD – The towns of Wilbraham, Hampden, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow and Ludlow are considering the possibility of establishing a Regional Emergency Communication Center, which would allow 911 dispatchers to answer emergency calls from any of the five towns.
Former Longmeadow Police Chief Robert Siano, Wilbraham Police Chief Roger Tucker and Hampden Police Chief Jeffrey Farnsworth initiated discussion and later, the five towns received a $100,000 grant from the State 911 Department to conduct a study on the issue.
The Carell Group, a consulting firm hired for the study, identified the Greenwood Center, currently home of the Longmeadow Adult Center and Greenwood Children’s Center, as the ideal location for the project, with cost estimates of $5.7 million. The future Hampden and Wilbraham police stations were also considered.
During a meeting with officials from the proposed communities on Sept. 10, Longmeadow Selectmen Mark Gold and Alex Grant voiced concerns with the program, but the Select Board later agreed to join the other four towns in the second phase of the study.
LONGMEADOW – It took a few extra months, but a change to the town’s zoning bylaws was overwhelmingly approved at a Feb. 3 Special Town Meeting, allowing Grove Property Fund, owner of the Longmeadow Shops, to begin the process of expanding the plaza.
The expansion will include a new building that would house a CVS with a drive thru pharmacy as well as a new retail tenant in the shops.
For the expansion to move forward, Town Meeting had to approve the change in the zoning of a two-acre parcel located to the east of the shops between the shopping complex and the First Church of Christ Scientist from A1 residential to a business zone.
At the Nov. 18, 2014 Special Town Meeting, the zoning change failed to receive the necessary two-thirds majority vote, even after a revote. However, because of irregularities detected in during the hand counts, the Feb. 3 meeting took place with 729 votes cast in favor of the zoning change and 168 opposed.
Since the vote, Grove Property Fund worked with the town for necessary site and design approvals. The project is set to go out to bid for its contractor Jan. 1, 2016 in order to begin construction in the spring.
LONGMEADOW – The Longmeadow School Committee voted at its Nov. 5 meeting to make the conversation on whether to fund free full-day kindergarten a priority during the fiscal year 2017 (FY17) budget discussion.
Fully funding a free kindergarten program would require an additional appropriation of approximately $375,000.
School Committee Chair Janet Robinson conveyed the committee’s intentions to the Select Board on Nov. 16, a concept that drew mixed reactions from the selectmen.
Longmeadow currently offers full-day kindergarten with tuition of $2,750 per year. It is the only district in Western Massachusetts that does not currently offer free full-day kindergarten.
East Longmeadow voted at its May 18 Annual Town Meeting to approve a budget that included funding for a free kindergarten program.
Meanwhile, at the state level, state Sen. Eric Lesser co-sponsored of An Act for Universal Early Education and Full-Day Kindergarten, which would mandate fully funded kindergarten and voluntary pre-kindergarten programs throughout the state.
WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee voted unanimously at its Aug. 25 meeting to end Group Insurance Commission (GIC) coverage for retired teachers in order to switch to the Scantic Valley Regional Health Trust in spite of strong opposition from retirees.
According to Superintendent M. Martin O’Shea and School Committee Chair Peter Salerno, would save the district $9.2 million during the next 20 years and establish a local control regarding how the district and retirees would pay for premium percentages.
On Aug. 18, the School Committee hosted a public hearing on the topic attended by more than 100 retired teachers, who almost all spoke against the change, citing satisfaction with GIC, the availability of local physicians accepting that plan, and the dramatic increase in premium costs.
Premium costs for retirees under Scantic Valley will increase gradually during the next 20 years, from 15 percent in 2015 to 35 percent in 2035.
EAST LONGMEADOW – U.S. District Court Judge Michael Ponsor dismissed a number of counts related to a pending lawsuit levied against the town of East Longmeadow by former employee Rosalind Minahan.
In 2012, Minahan filed a sweeping lawsuit against the town and several public officials, including former Town Administrator Nick Breault, the Board of Selectmen – then consisting of current Chair Paul Federici and former members James Driscoll and Enrico “Jack” Villamaino – Kathleen Tranghese, formerly of K&D Human Resources, with whom the town contracted its human resources services, former Town Accountant Thomas Caliento and Planning Director Robyn Macdonald for discrimination and retaliation.
She sought $850,000 in damages.
Ponsor made the decision on Feb. 17 to dismiss all counts against Federici, Breault, Tranghese, Caliento and Macdonald and six of the seven counts against the town, Driscoll and Villamaino.
Only one count, relating to the Family and Medical Leave Act interference, pursuant to Title 29 of the United States Code (USC), section 2615(a)(1), remained against the town and the two former selectmen.
SPRINGFIELD – Marcus Williams, a 26-year-old lifelong resident of Springfield, pulled off a stunning victory in the race for City Council in Ward 5 in which he won more than 61 percent of the vote.
Ward 5 consists of all of Sixteen Acres and part of the Pine Point neighborhood.
Williams, the nephew of City Councilor Bud Williams, topped incumbent Clodo Concepcion, who held the ward seat since 2009.
Williams is the contracts and grants coordinator at the YWCA in Springfield. He graduated from the High School of Commerce and received a bachelor’s degree from Boston College in 2012.
SPRINGFIELD – The CRRC rail facility on the site of the former Westinghouse factory on Page Boulevard officially broke ground on Sept. 1.
The CRRC US Rail Corp. will manufacture 284 rail cars for the MBTA – 152 new Orange Line cars and 132 Red Line cars – as its first order. The $95 million factory is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 and should employ initially 150 people in what was described as middle class jobs with salaries averaging $66,000.
The plant will create 150 permanent jobs and 100 construction jobs.
The company looked at more than 50 sites in which to locate its new facility before selecting Springfield.
LONGMEADOW – Longtime Longmeadow Selectman Paul Santaniello was ousted by voters in favor of incumbent Select Board Chair Richard Foster and newcomer Thomas Lachiusa at the June 9 Annual Town Election, which had a turnout of nearly 15 percent.
Foster and Lachiusa, who campaigned together, received 1,086 and 1,117 votes, respectively.
Santaniello, who served three terms on the board, captured just 532 votes. Challenger Jeffrey Klotz also ran and received 224 votes.
In the race for School Committee, incumbent Michelle Grodsky was reelected and newcomer Russell Dupere defeated incumbent Kathryn Girard for three-year terms on the committee.
EAST LONGMEADOW – Hasbro signed a letter of intent to sell its 1.15 million-square-foot factory at 443 Shaker Road, but stated no regular employees would lose their jobs.
Hasbro agreed to sell its local plant to the Cartamundi Group, a Belgium-based producer of playing cards, in August, and completed the sale on Aug. 31.
The plant employs 350 people in Western Massachusetts and Julie Duffy, Hasbro’s vice president of Corporate Communications said the organizational structure of the facility would “remain relatively unchanged.”
Cartamundi’s retail collection of licensed trading cards include Disney, James Bond, Hasbro, Magic: The Gathering, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and cards for games such as Uno and Monopoly, as well as Wizards of the Coast cards, which are part of Hasbro.