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Plans move forward for former Chicopee High

Date: 8/4/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE - The plan presented last year by School Superintendent Richard Rege and Mayor Michael Bissonnette is one step further in becoming a reality.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) approved, at its meeting on July 29, moving the proposal to renovate the former Chicopee High School building as a new middle school to the feasibility study level.

Bissonnette told Reminder Publications that he would be meeting with Rege about the city's next move.

"I'm hoping we can jump start this [project]," he said.

Bissonnette said that unlike other recent school building projects, the new middle school would be a renovation of an existing building.

If the building becomes the home of a new middle school, it would be the first step in a reorganization of the city's school's facilities, Bissonnette said. The students from the Chicopee High side of the river would not have to bussed to the Fairview Middle School, saving the city $200,000. School officials could then shift the roles of other school buildings.

"This is the lynch pin for the entire school organization plan," he said. "I'd like to get the building in full use as quickly as possible," he added.

If the MSBA gives final approval to the middle school process, the building would then be taken off the list of the potential sites for a new senior center and for the central offices of the School department, the mayor said.

Right now, the Chicopee Academy program is using the top floor of the building and Bissonnette hopes the feasibility study will show the program could stay during the renovations. It would be eventually relocated, he added.

Bissonnette, Rege and three others to be named would serve on the panel developing the feasibility study.

What the mayor believes will help in creating a "fast turnaround" for the project is the preliminary assessment that has already been done on the building. An initial estimate to retrofit the building came in at $38 million - an amount "too much to handle," Bissonnette said.

The plans then were scaled back to a $15 million level.

If the feasibility plan was approved, the timeline for construction would be established as well as the naming of a project manager and architect. An "optimistic time line" would be to see construction begin next summer, Bissonnette said.

Bissonnette is hoping to see a reimbursement rate of 70 percent and noted that Chicopee was the first community in the state to negotiate an agreement with the MSBA to receive the reimbursement up-front.

"We still have to work out exactly what cost items will be reimbursable but this is a good indicator of the partnership that the MSBA has with municipalities," Katherine Craven, MSBA executive director, said

Bissonnette anticipated the project, if it goes forward, would be "tightly managed" to avoid the cost over-runs that plagued the new Chicopee Comprehensive High School construction.