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Residents invited to forum on downtown projects

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

HOLYOKE Downtown Holyoke has been the focus of several improvement efforts by two groups of business owners and now it will be the public's turn to participate.

At a meeting of the Downtown Revitalization Committee last week at Heritage State Park, a public meeting for June 26 was announced that would present plans on potential improvements that would include adding a water spray park to Heritage State Park, redesigning Front and Heritage Streets and improving Dwight Street. The meeting will be at 6 p.m. at the visitor's center of Heritage State Park.

Kathy Anderson of the office of Planning and Development, said the two business groups, while having their own issues, had several common themes on which the city has been seeking solutions.

Both groups expressed the need to provide on-street parking for customers. Too many of the businesses' owners or employees are "feeding the meter," Anderson said, taking up customer parking. The solution has been to urge businesses to buy monthly parking passes for the municipal garages that are $20 for a month with the first month free. Anderson said the Department of Public Works is also looking at a device that would "virtually" chalk tires, allowing police officers to ticket cars much easier.

The city is also working on drafts for two new ordinances to address other issues. Although panhandling is not a big problem in downtown, Anderson said there are people who ask passersby for money near certain businesses. Panhandling is protected under freedom of speech unless there is profanity, verbal or physical threats involved. A panhandling ordinance would give police the ability to warn, ticket or arrest panhandlers who have done something other than simply ask for money.

Karen Mendrala of the Planning Office explained the city is also writing an ordinance that would require owners of vacant industrial or commercial buildings to register those buildings with the city and pay a proposed $2,000 fee. The fee would encourage business owners to seek tenants and uses for the buildings.

Holyoke Mayor Michael Sullivan said another initiative is considering a new use and re-design for the former police station next to City hall and the parking area on its roof. Sullivan said preliminary plans would renovate part of the space into a plaza area that could be used for events.

Another part of the initiative would be replacing the City Hall Annex building. Sullivan said the cost of renovation would be double that of replacing it. He hopes to propose a bond and to seek funds for the estimated $10-$14 million project later this summer.

Anderson said that a survey of downtown business owners has indicated an interest in reviving a facade program. Although the city doesn't have the funding for such a program, she said that seeking contributions from area banks through community reinvestment programs might be one way to obtain the necessary budget.

Some of the business owners have successfully developed solutions to problems on their own. Anderson said that one business owner was tired of people going through her dumpster looking for cans or bottles that could be redeemed and spreading trash over her property as a result. She started putting any can or bottle with a deposit in a separate trash can near the dumpster and no longer has a problem.