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Poll finds positives and negatives in Springfield

Date: 4/14/2010

April 14, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The results of a survey taken by the Western New England College Polling Institute shows there are decidedly mixed feelings about the third largest city in the state.

The survey was comprised of telephone polling in Springfield and Hampden Country conducted in February and as well as a Web-based survey of employees of many of the city's major employers that was taken in March.

Among the findings from the report's executive summary were:

• "Fifty-four percent of Springfield residents rate the city as only a fair or poor place in which to live, while 44 percent rate the city as excellent or good. More than two-thirds of Springfield residents, however, rate their neighborhoods as excellent or good places in which to live. Residents of communities in surrounding Hampden County have a much harsher view of the city, with 78 percent rating it as a fair or poor place in which to live.

• "Crime is the most important problem facing Springfield today, according to 60 percent of Springfield residents, while 17 percent point to the economy, jobs and poverty.

• "Seventy percent of residents in surrounding Hampden County also cited crime as the most pressing problem, while 10 percent pointed to the economy, jobs and poverty.

• "Thirty-five percent of Springfield residents rated the public schools as excellent or good, while 54 percent characterized them as only fair or poor. Parents of children in the Springfield public schools were even more critical, with 64 percent rating the schools as fair or poor, and 35 percent rating them as excellent or good.

• "Twenty-eight percent of city residents said Springfield is doing an excellent or good job combating crime, while 71 percent said the city is doing a fair or poor job.

• "Springfield residents, however, are more likely to be optimistic than pessimistic about the future. Forty-seven percent said they expect the city to be somewhat better or much better as a place to live five years from now, while only 21 percent said the city would be somewhat worse or much worse. Majorities of male, black and Hispanic residents also express optimism about the city's future.

• "When asked to name one thing the city should do right now to improve the quality of life in Springfield, the most common response was that the city must devote more resources to fighting crime (37 percent), followed by creating more jobs and economic assistance for the poor (18 percent) and improving the public schools (11 percent)."

The survey results were presented at the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield's April breakfast club meeting last Wednesday and then were the subject of a panel discussion at the college's annual Communications and Leadership Conference following the breakfast.

The panel included Richard Debonis, senior vice president and director of marketing for Hampden Savings Bank; Judith Matt, president of Spirit of Springfield; Anthony Cignoli, A.L. Cignoli Company; and Nancy Urbschat, principal of TSM Design.

Both Debonis and Matt saw the report as having both positives and negatives.

"I think the report is very sobering, but I see signs of hope," Matt said.

Debonis said that reading the report one could come away either "encouraged or depressed."

"There are a lot of positive things going on in the city, but there are some big gorillas in the room which I'm sure we'll talk about," he said.

The survey and the panelists also covered the issue of revitalizing downtown. The survey reported that about 30 percent of Springfield and Hampden County residents cited safety concerns about attending downtown cultural events, but "lack of interest was also a common reason for not attending," according to the survey. A lack of interest also accounted for about 70 percent saying why they have don't attend Springfield Falcons hockey games.

Cignoli said these results indicate there is competition for people's spare time and interest and organizations must find "new ways to market."

Debonis noted a recent survey stated that Hartford, Conn., was the seventh most dangerous city in the country, while Springfield ranked 18th, yet Hartford doesn't have the negative perception among some people that Springfield does.

"We really have to address the public safety and crime issue," he said.

Urbschat asked what shapes that perception.

"Most people haven't told me the source," she said. She then called for community conversations about crime.

Matt had an answer to her question about what shapes the perception about Springfield's crime: WWLP Television newscasts. She cited the long time support of the station for SOS activities, but said the station's coverage on crime in the city has made an impact.

Matt also added Springfield's poverty rate is a factor in the city's image. Although the survey indicated many people are happy and proud of their neighborhoods, Debonis said downtown is still "a major pulse of the whole region" and in looking at whether it is "vibrant or vacant," his answer would be "vacant."

Springfield Chamber of Commerce President Russell Denver, a member of the audience, said of the 2,600 housing units in the downtown area about 2,000 are subsidized rather than market rate. The amount of disposable income that these downtown residents have is less due to their economic status and that has affected the amount and kind of retail in the area.

Denver also noted downtown areas such as Springfield with courts used to have many more offices for attorneys who naturally wanted to be physically near the court facilities. Now, the advantages provided by Internet technology don't require that proximity creating vacancies in office space.

"That's the pure economics of the situation," Denver said.

Both Debonis and Cignoli said the city must seek new ways to sell its positive aspects. Cignoli noted the new media such as social networking could be used to accomplish this.

"It's all about telling the story," Debonis said.

City Councilors Tim Allen and Michael Fenton were in the audience and Allen said he would like to continue the conversation through the economic development subcommittee of which he is the chair.