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Residents to settle battle over Gillett Cigar Factory

Date: 2/17/2009

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

SOUTHWICK -- At the next Special Town Meeting, voters will settle a debate between some members of the Historical Society and the Community Preservation Committee (CPC): the fate of the Charles Gillett Cigar Factory.

The factory, circa 1870, the only remaining cigar factory of its kind in the Connecticut River Valley, is being threatened by the development of a CVS Pharmacy and strip mall. Numerous calls to John Furman, regional office manager representing developers Vanasse Hagen Brustlin Inc., were not returned by press time.

To save the structure, the Historical Society has applied for $300,000 in Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds to move the building from 213 to 86 College Highway.

The majority of the CPC voted to send the application to Special Town Meeting, with several members in strong opposition.

"At the cost of $300,000, I just feel that maybe there is a better use for the money," Kelly Magni, member of the CPC, told Reminder Publications. "I'm not against saving an old building but it's [going to] cost $300,000 to the taxpayers."

He added that he does not believe the proposal will pass at Special Town Meeting given the current economic climate.

The town's CPA fund currently stands at over $1 million.

"I don't know if there is an understanding [among those in opposition of this application] of the reverence or understanding of the importance of this building [to the Southwick community]," Linda Wonson, president of the Historical Society, said. "Anybody who lives in this area, they know what [role] the tobacco industry has played in their's unique and a big part of the community's heritage."

She added that the $300,000 requested within the CPA application includes the cost to transport the structure, site work and exterior and interior repairs.

Barbara MacEwan, chair of the Southwick Historical Commission and member of the CPC, said she voted in favor of sending the application to Special Town Meeting because the factory "is a significant historic building and has significant ties to the history of this community."

"That is why the this [Community] Preservation Act was passed," she continued, "so that municipalities could try to save their historical structures."

CPA funds -- acquired via a real estate tax surcharge of up to three percent -- can be used for open space, historic preservation or community housing.

The Board of Selectmen has yet to set the date for Special Town Meeting.