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Year in review: Springfield sees much change

Date: 12/29/2009

The new Springfield history museum opened this year and featured rare artifacts from the Indian Motocycle Company as well as a Rolls Royce car manufactured in the city. Other exhibits cover the Springfield Armory and the growth of precision manufacturing. The museum celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 10 with special events.
By G. Michael Dobbs -- Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- This has been a very important year in Springfield history with the passage of a bill that reshaped Springfield's municipal government as well as the opportunity for voters to cast the ballot for ward city councilors for the first time since the 1950s.

Although there was a mayoral election, the campaign of City Councilor Bud Williams never achieved the traction it needed from voters and the choice for mayor proved to be less interesting than the race for City Council and the extension of the mayor's term to four years.

Some wags might think the battle between Mayor Domenic Sarno and the Worthington Street hot dog vendor John Verducci was one of the big stories of the year, it has to be noted that Verducci's situation wasn't changed at all -- a new vending ordinance is still in the works and the controversy didn't harm Sarno in the election.

Here are some of the stories reported on in this newspaper that made an impact in the city and its citizens. There are not ranked by importance, but by chronological order. The date indicates the edition in which the story appeared

Jan. 14, 2009

1. On Jan. 9, Gov. Deval Patrick said three words which sparked animated applause and tremendous sighs of relief among those present at his signing of what he called the "Springfield Bill."

"OK, it's law," he said as he put down the pen.

Patrick, accompanied by the city's legislative delegation, signed the bill at the state offices on Dwight Street.

The bill grants the city an extension on its $52 million state loan repayment schedule by 10 years, establishes a chief administrative and financial officer (CAFO), a new city comptroller and director of internal audit, a new consolidated Department of Community Development and the consolidation of city and school administrative and financial operations under the CAFO, the dissolution of the Finance Control Board on June 30 and greater monitoring of finances by the Department of Revenue.

This event marked the first half of a two-part process that returned the governance of the city back to the city itself on June 30 and the departure of the Finance Control Board, devils to some and saviors to others.

Feb. 11, 2009

2. The question cities and towns in the Greater Springfield area will face later this year when the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) closes its center in Springfield is what entity is going to provide the same services.

In 2008, the center accepted 6,600 animals into its Union Street shelter and adoption center, according to Candy Lash of the MSPCA. Those animals were not just dogs and cats, but small animals such as hamsters, rabbits and ferrets, she added. The small animals and in some cases cats are not handled by some of the other animals shelters in the region.

The Thomas O' Connor Animal Control and Adoptions Center operated jointly by Springfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee and Hampden has also seen budget cuts, Lash added. Towns that have their own animal control services will be hit harder by the MSPCA closing, she said.

The announcement made Friday by MSPCA President Carter Luke was that the Springfield center would close March 31. The organization plans to close its Martha's Vineyard facility on May 1 and then its Brockton adoption center on Sept. 30. Other than two law enforcement officers stationed in Western Massachusetts and operating out of their homes, Lash confirmed there would be no MSPCA presence west of Worcester.

The issue of animal control for both the city and the region grew more urgent with the announcement the MSPCA was going to leave the area. The Thomas J. O'Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center, the cooperative effort serving several cities including Springfield, underwent budget cuts that affected its services.

Dakin Humane Society, long offering services in Franklin and Hampshire Counties, bought the building later in the year and brought back additional animal care services to Hampden County.

Feb. 16, 2009

3. Not everyone at the community meeting for the South End neighborhood on Feb. 10 expressed support for the first phase of the infrastructure improvements to the neighborhood.

The first phase of a 10-step plan to rebuild the neighborhood -- a priority identified in the Urban Land Institute assessment of the city would include the resurfacing of Main Street from Howard to Locust; rebuilding sidewalks; renovating street lighting; adding trees and plantings; and expanding Columbus Circle into a plaza, while changing the traffic flow around it.

The schedule to begin construction on the project isn't set as yet, but John Bechard, of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., the project's managers, estimated it would be either this summer or fall.

The price tag for the first phase will be over $7 million in state and federal funds.

While Joan Kagan, the CEO of Square One, which has its headquarters in the South End, called the renovations a "great opportunity for revitalization," Frank Langone, one long-time businessman, asked of Bechard and staff members from the city's Office of Planning and Economic Development, "Why are you doing this?"

Langone asserted that money has already been spent "many times" in the South End on "fancy signs and fancy sidewalks."

"It's time to learn from our mistakes," he said.

Langone said he would rather see the city "take $10 million, buy a building and give it to people to start a business."

For many drivers in downtown Springfield, 2009 was the year of "you can't get there from here." Construction started in the South End for the first phase of a multi-year program to revitalize the South End during the same time a multi-million dollar renovation of State Street was taking place.

March 3, 2009

4. Only a few hours after a meeting at which Mayor Domenic Sarno said he would like to bar clubs from hosting 18-plus events to curb violence in the entertainment district, police were called to a fight at 2:20 a.m. Friday at Stearns Square.

They arrested six young men ranging in age from 19 to 20 for disorderly conducts, assault and battery and resisting arrest. Two of the men were also charged with assault and battery on a police officer.

The incident underscored the point Sarno has been making for several weeks following a shooting last month at Club 1800 that wounded two people.

Sarno may soon have the legal means to prevent any nightclub in the city from having 18-plus events. The mayor met with city bar owners and other interested parties at a meeting Thursday evening in City Hall to present the new entertainment license rules and regulations.

When asked after the meeting if he would use the new regulations to eliminate the 18-plus events, Sarno told Reminder Publications, "There is now a process that is going to be followed."

Crime news dominated many 2009 newscasts with the downtown area often being cast as a dangerous place. Two murders taking place in two of the city's strip clubs didn't help change that perception.

Sarno's action was aimed at ridding the demographic group that seemed to be responsible for some of the violence. He was sued later in 2009 over the legality of his ban.

March 31, 2009

5. On March 24 Mayor Domenic Sarno wrote state housing officials asking them to consider altering the redevelopment plans for Longhill Gardens to include market rate housing. He had no idea that those same state officials had asked HUD to release federal funds to underwrite the project as it was planned on March 18.

The city was not notified of the state's actions until this reporter gave photocopies of the state's request to HUD to the mayor's office. Springfield Forward, a citizen advocacy group that has fought the establishment of low-income housing at the closed apartment complex, supplied the documents.

Mayoral Communications Director Thomas Walsh told Reminder Publications that City Solicitor Edward Pikula was analyzing the document sent to HUD to determine if it trumps Sarno's authority to release federal HOME funds for the project.

George Pappas of Springfield Forward said that to stop HUD from action one needs to send an official objection the right of any Springfield or Massachusetts resident. The objections have to be in HUD's office by April 2. An objection by Springfield Forward will be filed, Pappas said.

Pappas said the state committed "a disingenuous act" by filing for the release of funds without notifying Sarno and city housing officials.

The highly controversial Longhill Gardens development might have been the subject of much protest and legal action, but it is currently under construction.

May 26, 2009

6. Simply put by a group of elected officials, lenders and real estate professionals, this is the best time to buy a house in the City of Homes.

A new program, "Buy Springfield Now," was announced at a press event at the Basketball Hall of Fame on May 19 and described as the most comprehensive program to attract homebuyers to the city.

With historically low interest rates and a diverse and affordable housing market, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said, "The time is right to buy Springfield now."

He added, "The effort is the most aggressive in the city's history."

Don Thompson of Keller Williams Realty described the home buying scene locally as "a perfect storm." He said that "storm" includes low mortgage rates with low prices coupled with an $8,000 federal tax credit for first-time homebuyers.

The "Buy Springfield" program proved to be highly successful with dozens of homes purchased in the city.

June 15, 2009

7. During a basketball game, there is usually only one or two lucky individuals who are selected to take a shot from half-court. Diehard basketball fans might go through their entire lives without this exciting opportunity.

However, on June 10, anyone could go to the Mass Mutual Center and shoot from half-court to win season tickets for the new National Basketball Association (NBA) Development League team. This half-court shot was a part of NBA Springfield's Arena Open House.

The city became home for another professional sports franchise with the advent of the Springfield Armor, a NBA development team. The reception from fans has been, so far, very positive.

Sept. 8, 2009

8. On Sept. 15, city voters will have the opportunity to do something they have not had to do since the late 1950s -- vote for a ward representative for the city council.

With the reinstatement of ward representation, all the city's neighborhoods will have a voice on the City Council.

There will be primary races in wards Two, Five, Six, Seven and Eight and the new ward system has attracted newcomers to politics as well as former city councilors, a veteran school committee member and neighborhood activists to run for the seats.

Although there had been years of activism on behalf of ward representation, turnout in both the primary and the final election were very disappointing.

Sept. 28, 2009

9. City Councilor Timothy Rooke issued an invitation on Wednesday to Mayor Domenic Sarno to publicly debate the issue of relocating the School Department to the former Federal Building on Main Street without a Request for Proposals (RFP) search for the most affordable rental agreement.

Rooke told Reminder Publications the city could be wasting taxpayer's dollars by not looking into other options.

Sarno released a statement through his spokesman Thomas Walsh on Thursday that he would not debate Rooke on this matter.

Walsh said Rooke's call for a debate is "a quintessential example of election year politics."

"The mayor doesn't see a need to debate Councilor Rooke on this issue," Walsh continued.

The issue of whether or not the city should move the School Department into the former Federal Building was unresolved at the close of 2009 as the School Committee refused to sign the lease and was awaiting further legal clarification.

Nov. 25, 2009

10. Opponents from Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, Westfield, Southwick and East Longmeadow to the proposed biomass plant that would burn construction and demolition waste as fuel urged the city's Public Health Advisory Council to help stop the plant at the Nov. 18 meeting conducted at the Pine Point Senior Center.

Chair Timothy Allen explained that no representatives of Palmer Renewable Energy were present at the meeting and that a separate meeting for the developers to respond to the criticism will be arranged sometime before the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducts a Dec. 2 hearing to determine the final stage of the approval process.

In their place, the developers delivered a fact sheet about the plant to the council, which was distributed to the attendees at the close of the meeting.

State officials eventually bowed to criticism and decided to conduct an environmental/health impact study on the Springfield plant before granting any final permits.