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City receives Urban Self-Help grant

Above is a small portion of the 50 acres of land on School Street in Agawam that the city plans to turn into a park that will include a number of athletic fields and other recreation areas. The Urban Self-Help grant will allow the city to complete phases one and two of the project simultaneously. City officials also hope to renovate the barn, seen above, as part of the School Street Park project.
By Michelle Symington

Staff Writer

AGAWAM With the help of a $500,000 Urban Self-Help grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs (EOEA), the city will be able to simultaneously complete phases one and two of the School Street Park project.

Agawam received one of 27 Urban Self-Help grants awarded to communities across the Commonwealth totaling $9,544,085 that will be used by cities and towns to develop land for park and recreation purposes or to assist in acquiring such land.

The funding will help Agawam move forward on a project that has been on the minds of city officials since the late 1990s.

Christopher Sparks, director of the Agawam Parks and Recreation Department, explained that the project began to move forward in about 1999. When Mayor Richard Cohen took office in 2000, the city hired Berkshire Design to create a master plan.

The 50 acres of land was part of the city's Open Space and Recreation plan since 1986.

Sparks said that in 2000-2001 as the master plan for the park was in the works, the economy took a turn for the worse. At that point, there was no funding for the project available until the city voted to adopt a Community Preservation Act.

"The CPA fund has been the biggest asset to this project, getting approval for the first nearly $1 million for phase one," Sparks said, adding that the CPA funding was used as seed money to apply for the grant.

CPA funding in the amount of $928,356 was approved by the city in June for the project and an additional $80,000 was donated to the city for the project by Berkshire Power.

The master plan for the park includes areas such as bike and walking trails, access roads, soccer fields, parking, concession stands, rest rooms, baseball fields, multi-purpose fields, a playground, picnic areas, bocce and shuffleboard and community gardens.

The project is broken down into three phases. Sparks said that the city is concentrating on phase one and two and have not yet looked into funding for phase three.

He said he expects phase three, which includes access from Corey Street and additional baseball and multi-purpose fields, will cost about $1.5 million to complete.

He said that he is "very excited" that phase one and two will be completed simultaneously and that the city received the full $500,000.

"Anytime we receive an award we are always hoping for the best, but prepared for the worst," he said. "Waiting for the call from Boston led to a great surprise to receive the full amount we requested."

Sparks said that the city continued to work on the project while it was waiting to hear about the grant.

He said that he and other officials worked on the bid, but waited to complete the final draft until they heard about the grant because they wanted to include all aspects of the job.

He explained that the next step for the project is to put it out to bid and hire an architect to complete the final design and construction drawings so that the city could then hire a contractor to complete the project.

Sparks said that the timeline for the project will depend on the architect's timeline. However, he said he would hope to break ground on the project in 2006.

According to Sparks, the new park is needed because there is a small number of parks in the city, excluding the school grounds. He added such parks are heavily used by special user groups.

"Really, we're excited to be able to do phase one and two simultaneously and that we are able to get this work started, taking the project off the shelves and start making our dreams a reality," he said.

In addition to phase one and two, Sparks said he is working with the Historical Society to possibly have the old barn renovated as phase one and two are completed so that they can all be unveiled at once.

Mayor Richard Cohen was also excited to hear that the city was chosen to receive the funding.

"It is great news," he said.

He explained that the School Street Park will "offer both recreation and passive recreation and will benefit the entire community."

He added that parks also help to increase the values of the properties in the vicinity.

"Most importantly, it will provide desperately needed new fields in Agawam," he said, adding that the city does not have enough fields to accommodate the growth of lacrosse, field hockey, softball, baseball and other sports.

"We are very excited and very happy to be able to break ground on this very soon," Cohen said. "I absolutely can't wait."