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Training center to be new home for veterans

Date: 8/10/2010

Aug. 11, 2010

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

AGAWAM -- The former Western Massachusetts Criminal Justice Training Center on South Westfield Street is the scene of overgrown vegetation, structural neglect and vandalism -- but not for long.

In about 36 months time, this historic building, circa 1916, will be the site of Gordon H. Mansfield Veterans Community. The non-profit Soldier On an organization located in Northampton dedicated to providing assistance to homeless veterans will soon close on the property, currently owned by the state, for $1 and convert the existing building into a 40-unit co-op for homeless military veterans.

The sale was made possible by legislation sponsored by State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti and State Rep. Rosemary Sandlin and the endorsement of Gov. Deval Patrick.

"This building will see a renaissance for a great cause," Buoniconti said.

The $12 million project will renovate the former training center into 688 square-foot, rent-to-own studio apartments. An addition or wings will be connected to the existing building creating 80 more studio apartments, according to Steven Como, executive vice president of Soldier On.

The total cost of the entire renovation and construction is $21.5 million and will be financed by $12 million in Congressional appropriations, $7.7 million in grants and $1.8 million in Solider On co-op monies.

Como noted the facility would also feature community rooms, an office for the veterans' services officer and a greenhouse for residents to grow flowers for military gravesites. He said the non-profit is also in talks with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to extend its bus route to the site.

"We want to break the stereotypes of what we consider homeless people," Como said, adding that those living in the co-op will receive job placement and counseling to help them become part of the community.

"It's a win-win for everybody, for tax purposes and for those who defend our freedom that we often take for granted," Mayor Richard Cohen said, noting the building will be put back on the tax rolls.

"No American more than our veterans want and deserve the American dream," Sandlin said. "We need to give them the ladder to climb out of [poverty]."

She added she believes co-ops such as this one will do just that for veterans and their families.

Como said a groundbreaking is slated for next summer, allowing veterans to move in by 2012 or early 2013.

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