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New development chief sees progress

Date: 1/9/2012

Jan. 9, 2012

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD — Kevin Kennedy, the city’s new chief development officer, is unabashedly bullish when it comes to Springfield.

Kennedy, a life-long resident of the city and, until several weeks ago, a long-time aide to Congressman Richard Neal, said the job has already shown its diversity and challenges, going from issues such as tornado recovery to zoning issues to planning a budget for the department.

Kennedy sat down with Reminder Publications to discuss the status of several key development issues in the city. While in Neal’s office, he worked on the planning and implementation of the State Street Corridor project, the re-use of the former Federal Building, and the construction of the new Federal Building.

When asked about the status of the Asylum building at the corner of Main and Worthington streets, Kennedy said that project is “almost complete.” He described it as “an integral part of downtown.”

He explained that since the central business district is one of the greatest contributors of tax revenue, “it’s important to keep the central business district viable.”

He said the re-use of the Asylum building was part of the plan first developed a decade ago that included the new courthouse and the renovations to State Street.

The rear of the building has been demolished to create a parking lot of 21 spaces. The front of the building is being restored and Kennedy said he is meeting with Mayor Domenic Sarno to discuss the disposition of the building’s office space.

He said that although there are public agencies that need the space — both the Business Improvement District and the Springfield Parking Authority have been mentioned in the past few months as possible tenants — Kennedy said there has been a suggestion for a police “presence,” but not a sub-station at the location.

He also said there is a possibility to put out a request for proposals and see what the private sector would suggest.

On the subject of the renovation of Union Station, Kennedy said, “We have rolled that boulder up the hill, but very slowly.”

He believes that this year, there would be additional movement toward making the structure, first opened in 1926, the region’s transportation hub. There is $27 million in state and federal funding on hand, he added, but the estimate for the total project would be $83 million.

Kennedy said, “The Federal Transit Administration is encouraging an approach to get Union Station started.”

He believes that with commitments made to renovate the Amtrak rail tracks between New Haven, Conn., and points in Vermont, the Union Station project has a good chance of receiving the additional funds it needs from Congress.

Kennedy said the project has a designer and he has reinstated the stakeholder meetings attended by the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority (PVTA), Amtrak, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, the Connecticut Department of Transportation and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

Despite various plans that have called for hotels or tourist attractions at the space in past years, Kennedy said the vision he believes would work best is to develop a intermodal transit center that would feature Peter Pan and PVTA buses and Amtrak, with transportation-related retail and service businesses.

The renewed facility would also feature a parking garage.

With interest in the city from casino developers heating up, Kennedy cautioned that it is still early in the process.

“We don’t know what the rules are yet,” he said.

He said he was planning to meet with officials from Ameristar, the company that has proposed a casino on Page Boulevard.

His concern is a casino will have a negative effect on key Springfield businesses. He said that when Bay State West — now Tower Square — opened up in the early 1970s it affected downtown by drawing offices away from existing buildings. It took the area years to recover, he said.

He is concerned a casino might have a similar effect on other businesses.

A mission for him is to protect the viability of the MassMutual Center and Symphony Hall from whatever entertainment offerings a casino would present.

Kennedy believes Springfield would benefit most from a casino located fairly close to Union Station that would also be adjacent to a baseball stadium. He said the entertainment acts the casino brings in could be presented at the MassMutual Center and Symphony Hall with buses or a trolley system providing transportation to and from the casino.

Conversion of the former School Department building to condominiums should start soon, he said and the redevelopment of 31 Elm St. — or the Court Square block — into housing is also moving forward with discussions about parking for the building.

Kennedy said he is “determined” to redevelop the unused part of the Indian Motocycle building and the closed fire station at Mason Square. His future plans include developing a renovation plan for North Main Street, not unlike the renovation of State Street.

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