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MGM, rail car company brought good economic news to city in 2015

Date: 12/30/2015

SPRINGFIELD – Economic developments dominated much of the news from the City of Homes in 2015.

Jan. 29, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – Bishop Mitchell Rosanski said he could not reveal any details from the final workshop meeting of the stakeholders in the Cathedral High School rebuilding issue, but he did say “the tone and outlook were optimistic and that allowed for thinking outside the box to come with a plan.”

Rosanski made the remarks at a press conference on Jan. 26. He said he didn’t want to seem “evasive” but he and the people involved in the stakeholders meeting had all agreed that until he makes his final decision in mid-February, no one would release any details.

Rozanski said, “This past weekend I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with delegates from the various Cathedral High School stakeholder groups during problem solving sessions held at the Genesis Spiritual Life Center in Westfield. Our discussions were frank, respectful and positive, centered on the challenges and possibilities we have in deciding how to continue Catholic secondary education in Springfield – on how best to continue the legacy and mission of Cathedral High School.

The issue of the whether or not Cathedral High School would be replaced and where a new school would be located was one of the ongoing stories of 2015. By the end of the year, the Diocese has made the decision to close the present Cathedral High School, merge it with Holyoke Catholic High School to form the new Pope Francis High School on the Holyoke Catholic campus in Chicopee. It also was decided to build the new Pope Francis High School on the grounds of the Cathedral High School that was destroyed in the 2011 tornado.

March 5, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – The decision for Dr. Stephen Mahoney, the principal of the Springfield Renaissance School, to resign was not an easy one, but he believes it is the right one at this time.

“The school has never been in better shape for a transition,” he told Reminder Publications.

Mahoney recently announced his decision to leave on June 30.

He accepted a position at Harvard University.

“I have been offered and I have accepted a position on the faculty of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where I will be working with a great team of men and women to launch the Harvard Teaching Fellows program, a new approach to recruiting, developing, supporting and retaining awesome teachers in urban secondary schools,” he wrote in a letter and on Facebook.

Mahoney said he was asked by the administration at Harvard to apply for the newly created position,

“I didn’t think I would make it to the round of finalists,” he said, however he did.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity much like Renaissance was,” Mahoney explained. After considerable thought, he said, “I’m jumping.”

March 19, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – The restoration and reuse of three historic building and the creation of the Innovation District Center are among the projects currently under way at Develop Springfield.

Jay Minkarah, the president and CEO of the non-profit development organization, updated the status of the projects for Reminder Publications.

Gun Hall, the block at the corner of State and Walnut streets, was built around 1830 and has been vacant for several years. Minkarah said the building represents “the most challenging due to the extent of the work.”

The three-story building had a bar on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors. What the contractors hired by Develop Springfield have done is to focus on remediation – removing asbestos from the building. This has proven more labor intensive than usual, as the asbestos was mixed into the paint on the walls. Minkarah said that normally one would simply remove the wall itself, but because the walls are made with the split lathe technique which was abandoned in the mid-19th century, they have had to scrape the affected plaster by hand carefully not to disturb the lathe.

With the end of winter, the next step is further stabilizing the building. Minkarah said the goal is to finish the work by mid-2016. He would like to see a coffee house or restaurant – a business to serve Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) and the Technology Park across the street – on the first floor and apartments on the upper two floors.

Work is still progressing on these properties.

March 26, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – With a backdrop of construction equipment and workers that conveyed the imminent demolition of the former Zanetti School, elected officials and the leadership of MGM Resorts International officially broke ground on the $800 million casino that will dominate the South End neighborhood.

Although demolition has not yet started and the Interstate 91 viaduct project is slated to start as well, MGM officials confirmed the Springfield casino would be completed in the fall of 2017.

With Las Vegas style, the groundbreaking featured a truck with a huge video screen that displayed the renderings of the casino complex. Visitors were encouraged to write down their wishes for the city and deposit them in a wishing well – the thoughts would be included in a time capsule. After the ceremonial tossing of shovelfuls of dirt a confetti cannon blasted white and blue paper shreds around the area.

The groundbreaking ceremony attracted hundreds of people as well as media from Boston, Hartford, CT, and Albany, NY. The addition of a casino in Massachusetts is part of a growing number of gaming attractions in bordering states.

While the feeling was jubilant on the day of the groundbreaking, by the year’s end, many residents and public officials were more reserved about MGM.

During the course of the year, MGM executives made a major change to its plans by eliminating a 25-floor glass and steel tower hotel without notifying city officials before.

There were concerns MGM may not be as committed to the Springfield project as it is to its other casinos under development.

By year’s end, though, the project with its changes was moving through the local and state approval processes with the opening date of fall 2018 still in place.

April 10, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – The effect is a bit unnerving. In the dark and the cold, the skeleton on Union Station has been revealed: concrete walls and ceiling and steel beams. There is a loud rumble as a train passes through the station several stories above.

There is a gentle but steady drip of water from several places on the roof and in the wide pedestrian tunnel that connects the concourse to Lyman Street.

The members of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SPAR) saw first-hand the progress made at Union Station just several days before bids are to be open to begin the reconstruction of the transportation hub.

“It’s well underway,” SRA Executive Director Christopher Moskal told the board members.

Moskal led the group through the structure showing how it has been demolished down to its support. Not only is the first floor with the terminal’s main concourse been made ready for renovation, but the mezzanine, second and third floor as well, he added.

Several tours were conducted throughout the year to show the progress of the renovation. Currently the building roof has been sealed and new windows are being installed. Work has started on building the parking garage and the area for busses to park for passengers.

SRA officials say the rehabilitation is on schedule and the opening is still slated for 2017.

June 5, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – In his invocation at the dedication ceremonies of the new Elias Brookings Elementary School, Rev. Mark Baymon described the new school as a phoenix rising “from the rumble.”

The ceremony was emotional at times with stories of the damage done by the tornado and the hope for the future the new school represents.

The dedication ceremony on May 29 was only a few days away from the fourth anniversary of the June 1, 2011 tornado that hit Springfield and damaged at two of its schools. The damage to the Brookings School, built in 1926, was deemed too severe to repair, while the Margaret Dryden Veterans Memorial School was renovated.

Mayor Domenic Sarno noted the new Brookings School was a $27.5 million project and he expressed thanks to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA), which provided an initial rate of reimbursement of 80 percent.

That figure jumped to 100 percent due to a successful bill sponsored by state Sen. James Welch, Sarno added.

“This school is absolutely wonderful,” Sarno said.

July 2, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – Despite the fact that in April a press release from Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) listed the estimated completion of the I-91 viaduct project as February 2019, Richard Masse, acting director for MassDOT Region 2, asserted to Reminder Publications the renovation of the span through downtown Springfield would be completed by August 2018.

Although Massie didn’t make a note of it, that is now the completion date of the MGM Springfield casino. He did say that MassDOT had been in communication with MGM management “even before they were selected” to be the casino developers.

Several hundred people gathered at the Basketball Hall of Fame theater on June 25 for a progress update on the project.

Massie said the contractor J.F. White has an incentive provision in the contracts that rewards the company with a bonus of $50,000 for every day ahead of schedule the completion falls. There is a pool of $9 million in incentives, he added.

On Dec. 20, the renovation work on the viaduct started with lane and exit closures. The traffic signs that supply real time traffic information frequently note traffic is stopped on the southbound lane of the highway.

July 16, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – Chris Russell, the executive director of the Springfield Business Improvement District (SBID), said, despite the rumors, people riding motorcycles are welcome at this year’s concert series at Stearns Square.

On June 2, the first concert, now known as the City Block Concert Series, Worthington Street was closed to vehicular traffic and bikers were directed to park on adjacent streets or in lots. On July 9, this reporter only saw a handful of motorcycles and the crowd looked diminished in size.

Although some bikers, according to their posts on the Facebook page for the concert series, saw the renaming of the event as a way to exclude bikers – it was commonly known as “Bike Night” – Russell said the street closing is actually an experiment to see if a pedestrian mall could be created on Worthington Street.

“It’s kind of a test,” he told Reminder Publications.

Russell believes that as programming on Stearns Square expands it will “spill out into the street as well.” This year the SBID is sponsoring a cruise night on Mondays from 5 p.m. until dusk.

To date there has been no announcement from the SBID whether to not the parking practice that many bikers didn’t like would return this year for the series of concerts.

July 31, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – Now a second elected official answered the call from North End residents to “stand up to the sheriff.”

State Sen. James Welch announced on July 28 he will join the effort started by state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez in asking the state’s Division of Capital Asset to review the selection of Wason Avenue to be the new site of Western Massachusetts Correctional Addiction Center. Residents urged a review of the decision at the meeting of the City Council on July 21.

Welch wrote, “The residents of the North End deserve to have their voices and concerns heard. Yesterday, I met with residents of the neighborhood to hear those concerns. The common theme that appeared was the frustration in the lack of a process that allowed or encouraged residents to voice their concerns about the project to the city, state or the Sheriff's Department prior to the site being chosen. I couldn’t agree more.”

Residents complained they were not consulted with the selection of the site in a residential neighborhood. Since that meeting Mayor Domenic Sarno released a statement backing Sheriff Michael Ashe and the selection of the location.

The plans to place the center in the North End neighborhood were withdrawn and a new search is underway.

Sept. 3, 2015 SPRINGFIELD – The boyhood home of acclaimed children’s author and cartoonist Dr. Seuss will shortly be owned by the Springfield Museums, although the plans for its future have not yet been finalized.

The museums announced on Aug. 31 that it in “the final stages” of purchasing the home at 74 Fairfield St.

Matt Longhi, director of Public Relations and Marketing for the museums, told Reminder Publications, “Our short-term goal was to secure the house, and we’ll now be communicating with various stakeholders, including neighborhood residents and city leaders, to discuss next steps.” discussions.”