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Westfield State seeks development opportunities

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- The former State Normal Training School at 27 Washington St. has seen better days. The interior reeks of stale air, must and mold and a thick layer of dust and dirt coats every surface.

According to officials at Westfield State College (WSC) and the WSC Foundation -- the owner of the building -- this location has an untapped potential in the effort to revitalize downtown.

On Oct. 15, WSC President Evan Dobelle announced that the WSC Foundation has hired William Rawn Associates to develop a master plan to determine the potential sites for the college's expansion into downtown.

He explained that the college is seeking a "viable, strong partnership" between WSC and downtown. "Anybody who takes public money has an obligation to leverage it to help these old cities in Western Massachusetts [return to their former grandeur]," Dobelle said.

He noted that the college is looking into the possibility of a downtown campus, which will include dormitories and a venue for visual and performing arts. Dobelle said the goal is to have students living in downtown residence halls by 2010.

"We all are part of this development," he said. "Everyone has something to offer and no one is going to dominate this process. There is no reason we can't do it. This isn't a depressed area. This is a solid community. We just want to take it to the next level."

Over the course of the next three months, William Rawn Associates will also be consulting Gideon Lester of the American Repertory Theatre to explore the viability of a downtown performing arts center.

"The potential is huge," Lester said while surveying the location at 27 Washington St. He envisioned a downtown performing and visual arts facility as an "incubator, where artists can come to Westfield and develop work."

Jack Shea, coordinator of WSC's Theater Arts Program, said, "This [center could be] a phenomenal opportunity for students to work with artists that are nationally and internationally renowned."

William Rawn of William Rawn Associates explained that his firm will explore all facilities within the Westfield Business Improvement District for potential renovation as well as locations for new construction centered around expanding the college's art program. He noted that many communities such as Northampton have proven to be successful models for downtown revitalization.

"We need warm bodies on the streets to enable business growth downtown," Mayor Michael Boulanger said, adding that additional student presence in this area of the city will help greatly in Westfield's revitalization efforts.

Rawn said the college will have a completed master plan within three months, which will include a physical plan, the city's role in the college's downtown expansion, sidewalk and road improvements and sites for renovation or new construction.