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Construction begins on new senior center

Date: 4/12/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

CHICOPEE — Speaker after speaker at the groundbreaking ceremony for the RiverMills Center, the city's new senior center, discussed the struggle to reach that day, saluted the teamwork that made it happened and congratulated the city for making the new center a reality.

About 100 people gathered at what was once the site of the Facemate Corporation for the hour-long program on April 8.

Mayor Michael Bissonnette said the project began in 2007 when he assigned Christopher Nolan from his staff to head a taskforce to address the redevelopment of the Uniroyal and Facemate properties.

"They were a headache for the city of Chicopee for three decades," the mayor said.

The Facemate location had been the site of textile manufacturing since the early 1800s. The property was vacant since 2003 when Facemate declared bankruptcy. The city was able to finally demolish the deteriorating buildings in 2011 after it had been made the owner of the 20-acre site.

Over the course of the speaking program, the people involved with cleaning the site and making the start of construction possible were lauded. Bissonnette noted the selection of the site for attention by the Brownfield Support team, headed by Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, was essential.

The subsequent funding of the cleanup was provided by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Brownfield Redevelopment Funds, administered by MassDevelopment.

"It took $10 million to get to this point," Bissonnette said, noting the total price tag for the project will be about $18 million.

Telling the city's story to state officials was undertaken by the city's legislative delegation. Bissonnette thanked state Rep. Joseph Wagner, who noted that Chicopee has four representatives and three senators lobbying for the city. State Sens. Michael Knapik and James Welch also attended the groundbreaking.

Curt Spalding, regional director for the EPA, expressed pride in being able to play a role in cleaning up the site, but noted that in these days of federal budget cuts, "these kind of dollars are probably at greatest risk."

Davis Stevens, executive director of the Massachusetts Councils on Aging, underscored the need for the new center. He said that nationally 10,000 people turn 65 years of age every day, and with the aging of the baby boom generation the need for senior centers will increase.

Bissonnette acknowledged the government official who has pushed the hardest for a new senior center has been City Councilor Jean Croteau. Croteau said that after serving 18 years on the City Council he lost an election and subsequently was a member of the Council on Aging for three years before winning back a seat on the City Council.

Being on the Council on Aging was "an education for me" and one thing he learned was "a larger site [for a senior center] was desperately needed."

The new center will have a large multipurpose room that can accommodate 300 people. It will also have areas for exercise, fitness and health services, as well as a commercial kitchen, wireless computer access, a game room, art studio, lounges, a café, a library, a television lounge and billiard room.

There will be parking for 240 vehicles and the center will be on the Chicopee Riverwalk.

City Treasurer Ernest Laflamme, who is the co-chair of the fundraising campaign undertaken by the Friends of the Senior Center didn't mince any words about the nest step. With a smile, he told the audience, "Now it's time to raise the big bucks." The Friends group has pledged to raise $2 million and is currently at about $700,000. Laflamme announced that PeoplesBank has just donated $100,000 to the cause.