By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – Yet another new structure is under construction at Westover Air Reserve Base, this time a $6.8 million headquarters for Navy Reserve Seabees.
Last year, the base broke ground for a $31.4 million Armed Services Reserve Center, to consolidate operations from several locations to Westover.
The newest addition to the base is the $6.8 million headquarters for the Navy Reserve Seabees, which will house 550 reservists from the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 27, along with 14 active-duty personnel who are relocating from Brunswick Naval Air Station, Maine, which will close in 2011.
Congress approved the construction funds last year.
The battalion, one of 12 reserve mobile construction battalions in the country, provides support to military units, particularly the U.S. Marine Corps. As of last October, the battalion had deployed 500 personnel throughout the Middle East in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Battalion 27 has detachments conducting military drills at 10 Navy Operational Support Centers in seven states throughout New England and upstate New York.
Attending last week’s groundbreaking ceremony were Col. Robert Swain, commander of Westover’s 439th Airlift Wing; Mayor Michael Bissonnette; James Robbins, commander of the Civil Engineer Corps; and Kevin Kennedy, aide to U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Springfield.
The new construction at the base is due to the decision of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Commission to close and consolidate military operations throughout the United States.
The Westover expansion includes the transfer of all military operations from Bradley International Airport in Hartford, Conn., and Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield. The 103rd Airlift Wing will remain at Bradley.
Barnes National Guard Air Base, also in Westfield, home to the 104rd Airlift Wing, remains in operation.
The new Armed Forces Reserve Center will house up to 1,600 personnel from Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy Reserve operations. The base will also host the Massachusetts Army National Guard.
That new center is expected to open this summer or fall.
Westover’s 2,500 acres make it the largest Air Reserve Base in the country and the closest to Europe.
In addition to housing the 439th Airlift Wing, the base is also home to several other military tenants including Marine Air Support Squadron Six; Marine Machine Gun Platoon; 4thMarine Aircraft Wing Reserve Training Center; the U.S. Armed Forces Reserve Training Center; a Reserve Readiness and Mobility Squadron, Marines Machine Gun/Anti-Terrorism Platoon; the U.S. Army Reserve 226th Transportation Company; and the Springfield Military Entrance Processing Station.
Archive for April, 2009
By Etta Walsh
By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – The commander of Westover Air Reserve Base thinks he can make his military budget go farther if he can work out a deal with Westover Job Corps to use students at the federally funded job-training program to do some work at the base.
Col. Bob Swain, commander of the 439th Airlift Wing, said students at the Johnson Road Job Corps center are training in the building trades, culinary crafts and computer systems – skills that could be put to good use at the largest Air Reserve base in the country.
Job Corps Director Curtis Price said he is interested in Swain’s proposal for collaboration, which the commander voiced at last week’s luncheon of the Job Corps’ Community Relations Council.
“I look forward to working with you,” Price told Swain.
Swain said even though the Job Corps is located on former Westover base property, declared surplus many years ago, there is little interaction between the base and the job-training program.
“It’s like we’re neighbors who don’t get to know each other,” Swain said. The commander said he is unsure what shape collaboration would take, or how it would be accomplished. But the opportunity is there and should be investigated, he said.
“These are the types of people we want to hire,” he said. “If they’re local, they’re going to stay with us.”
One area of collaboration could be using Job Corps culinary arts students to cater events at the base’s Galaxy Club, Swain said. He also said personnel from the air base could act as mentors for the Job Corps students.
The Westover Job Corps program has 550 students, aged 16 to 24.
“This is a great program.” Swain said.
Westover Air Reserve Base is an economic engine for the region, pumping $195 million into the economy within a 50-mile radius of the 2,500-acre base during 2008. The base employs 3,600 workers, including military personnel, Civil Service workers and private contractors.
The air base isn’t the only large area employer interested in establishing closer ties with the Job Corps program.
Juan Martinez of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s Human Resources office, said he wants to get more Job Corps students assigned to positions at the 1,450-acre university, which has 26,000 full-time students and 1,200 faculty members.
Describing the campus as a small city, with its own healthcare center, police force, full-time maintenance crew and seven dining facilities, Martinez said he has placed Job Corps students in food-service and maintenance jobs on campus and hopes to use students studying healthcare services in the campus healthcare center.
“For myself, for UMass, it’s been a very good partnership,” Martinez said.
He said getting Job Corps students into university positions helps the students consider going to classes at UMass.
“I don’t just want to hire them. I want them to look around and say, ‘I could go here,’” Martinez said.
By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – Curtis Price didn’t waste any time in addressing complaints about Westover Job Corps students, the subject of complaints by Fairview residents for rowdy, disruptive behavior when off campus.
Price, who formerly worked at Job Corps centers in Penobscot, Maine, Centerville, Utah, and Gary, Texas – the largest Job Corps center in the country – became interim director of the Westover center in early February.
One of his first actions was to get in his car and drive up and down James Street, visiting Fariview businesses and asking owners what they wanted him to do to address neighborhood complaints.
“I did a lot of listening,” said Price, who became full-time director of the center in March. “I wanted to hear the issues from their point of view. One of the business owners was nice enough to go with me in my car and show me areas of concern.”
He added, “Sometimes, you just have to hear the brutal truth. It provides an opportunity for us to make some changes.”
In February, nearly 200 Fairview residents turned out for a neighborhood meeting with city officials, complaining that Job Corps students congregate in public parks to drink, smoke marijuana and deface public property. Some children had bicycles and music players stolen by Job Corps students, they said.
Ward 9 City Councilor Ronald Belair said neighbors complained about “overall disrespect” from Job Corps students when they are off campus. The center has 550 students, aged 16 through 24.
Top Job Corps officials recruited him to address those concerns, Price said.
“That had been a point of emphasis,” he said. “They wanted me to concentrate on improving the relationship with the community.”
Price said he has had several meetings with city officials and community representatives, resulting in some new policies being instituted at the center, including:
• A 10 p.m. weekday curfew for students has been scaled back to 8 p.m.;
• Job Corps security vehicles patrol the neighborhood surrounding the Westover Road center;
• More bus trips have been scheduled for students, to bring them to retail and recreation centers, reducing their need to walk to neighborhood venues and congregate there in numbers;
• Meetings of the center’s Community Relations Council have been increased from every three months to every month;
• On-campus recreation activities for students have been increased; and
• Job Corps officials instituted a quicker response time to neighborhood complaints.
“The students didn’t like the negative press,” Price said. “They want to be good neighbors.”
So far, the changes seem to be working, he said.
“I have found the community to have concerns, but also be responsive to the changes we have made, and are making, here,” he said, adding that community feedback to the changes has been “encouraging.”
A recent Job Corps cleanup of Prescott Park on Access Road brought out some neighbors who pitched in, he said. One neighbor even took photos of the event, which he shared with the center, Price said.
Belair “has been very involved” in working with the center, to address neighborhood concerns, Price said, as have been other community representatives.
Price said that while Job Corps has traditionally contributed volunteer labor to numerous municipal and community projects, the pace has been stepped up in recent weeks. Students have “adopted” nearby James Street and conducted a cleanup there, as well as at neighboring Selser Elementary School, the center’s next-door neighbor.
“We’re out there every Saturday, doing some community project, big or small,” he said.
The center has also instituted a “respect initiative” for students, emphasizing self-respect, respect for others and the community, and a focus on the future, said Price, a former head basketball coach at West Virginia State College.
“It’s our behavior when we are in the community that’s the problem,” he said. “It’s how we carry and respect ourselves. That is key.”
“We want to help them make healthy choices,” he said of students. “There’s nothing like seeing young people come in and grow. To have that opportunity is a blessing.”
“Job Corps is a microcosm of society,” said John Arthur, the center’s business and community liaison. “We have many good kids here.”
Some students didn’t like the new, tougher Job Corps policies and have left the program, Price said.
“We let some students go who didn’t adhere to those policies,” he said. “I had visited here several times and saw how much the students wanted a change. You have to give them a chance to perform. Those who don’t want to, this isn’t the place for them.”
Price said Job Corps will continue to emphasize good community relations with students.
“We don’t see an end to this process,” he said. “It’s an ongoing effort.”
He added, “I have the best job in the world. The students inspire me and challenge me. There is such a difference in when students come in and when they leave. They’re not the same – and they shouldn’t be.”
By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – Wayne Stec has an idea for Front Street, currently undergoing an $8.4 million reconstruction – make it a dead-end near the Rte. 391 overpass and turn it from “a dumping ground and speed strip” into a passive area maintained by the neighboring American Legion Post 452.
“Now’s the time to do it,” said Stec, who manages the post and is a past commander there.
Stec said he and other post officials have complained for years about conditions at the end of Front Street.
The street, which previously connected Chicopee and West Springfield, was closed when Rte. 391 was built.
Now the area, which sits under the 391 overpass, attracts people who dump trash, particularly hard-to-dispose items such as mattresses and broken appliances, Stec said.
It also attracts speeders, who use the area for a shortcut to West Street, and encourages loiterers, he said.
“God knows what goes on there at night,” he said.
The Legion post has put up with the conditions for several years, paying extra to haul away others’ trash placed in the post’s Dumpster, and keeping an eye out for speeding drivers, who endanger pedestrians, he said.
“They took out our guardrail, once,” Stec said.
At last week’s Ward 2 neighborhood meeting, to inform residents about several ongoing and planned projects, including the Front Street reconstruction, Stec pleaded with city officials to address concerns at his end of Front Street.
“Would you please end Front Street there, to address these problems?” he urged.
Stec said he has sought permission for years, from both city and state officials, to block off Front Street near the Legion post.
The Legion will maintain the area, if blocked off, including installing video surveillance cameras that will discourage illegal dumping there, he said.
“If we can see who’s doing it, the police can issue citations,” he said.
Blocking off the area won’t affect neighborhood traffic to any great extent, he said. Instead, it will discourage those whose behavior disrupts the neighborhood, Stec said.
The reconstruction of Front Street, on a two-mile span that runs from Depot Street to Oak Street, is expected to take two years. It is a “curb to curb” reconstruction that will replace some sewer and water lines.
By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – The $450,000 appraisal for a 30-acre conservation-area parcel is based on “hypotheticals” and needs to be re-done, according to state Rep. Joseph Wagner, D-Chicopee.
Wagner said he supports turning the acreage, bordering Nelson Road and the Chicopee River, into a nature preserve, but not without a new appraisal of the property that is based on what city officials think it could fetch on the open market.
Chicopee is seeking a state grant that would pay 70 percent of the parcel’s value, with the city chipping in the rest, estimated at $135,000.
Wagner said the $450,000 appraisal by Crowley Real Estate Appraisers Inc. of Springfield doesn’t jibe with the $403,100 value set by city tax assessors.
The state representative, who said Crowley is a well-known and respected appraisal service – “the best in the business,” according to Wagner – based its higher valuation on what owner Yves Demers said could be built there.
The City Council rezoned the parcel in December from industrial to residential use – making the land more valuable – at Demers’ request. The developer said he planned to build 16 single-family homes there, but city officials contend only 5.5 acres of the marshy parcel are buildable and only 5 to 6 homes could be constructed.
Tax Assessor Laura McCarthy said the $403,100 tax valuation was established when the acreage was zoned for industrial use. Tax valuations don’t take into account what land owners plan to construct on their properties, she said.
Wagner said the city valuation was based on the entire 32-acre parcel. Crowley removed 1.5 acres from its valuation scenario at the direction of Mayor Michael Bissonnette, who said that Demers indicated during negotiations with the city that he wanted to retain some acreage. He has since agreed to hold on to two 100-by-100-foot parcels for two single-family homes, according to the mayor.
The Springfield appraiser based its $450,000 valuation on a scenario where nine acres would be developed for housing and the remaining land would be open space.
“All those assumptions impact the value,” Wagner said. “This is a document that, for me, raises questions.”
Wagner said he will not support the city’s application for grant funds “unless those questions are resolved.”
“The city was the client and the appraiser was using information from the seller, who stood to profit if the appraisal was high,” Wagner said. “If you can only build five homes, instead of 16 homes, that value would decrease.”
The state legislator said he contacted state officials, including the office of Governor Duval Patrick, to alert them that he thinks the appraisal needs to be done again.
“The state should not be paying 70 percent of an appraisal that is not based on anything real,” he said. “If the city wants to pay $450,000 for that land, that would be the city’s business. I’m not going to put my imprint on anything that doesn’t pass the smell test – and this doesn’t.”
By Etta Walsh
CHICOPEE – Tempers flared earlier this week, as the mayor and one of his challengers in the upcoming election clashed over the value of a 30-acre parcel the city wants to buy for conservation reasons.
Mayor Michael Bissonnette and At-large City Councilor Shane Brooks, who seeks to unseat the mayor in November, sparred over the $450,000 value placed on the property by Crowley Real Estate Appraisers Inc., of Springfield.
The two men exchanged some heated words at a meeting on the matter held Monday in the Chicopee Library, to inform lower Granby Road residents about the proposal.
Brooks contends that the appraisal figure is too high, citing the city’s tax assessors’ valuation of $403,100 for the entire, 32-acre site. Crowley’s appraisal left out 1.5 acres of the parcel, at the mayor’s direction.
Bissonnette said the Crowley appraisal is based on the fair-market value of the 30 acres appraised. He directed the Springfield appraiser to leave out 1.5 acres because, while the appraisal was being conducted, his office was still negotiating with property owner Yves Demers, he said.
“We decided to err on the side of caution,” Bissonnette said. “We wanted to keep the appraisal price as low as possible.”
The city is seeking a state LAND (Land Acquisitions for Natural Diversity) grant from the state Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs to finance 70 percent of the cost of acquiring the land, with the city kicking in about $135,000.
Demers has offered to sell most of the parcel to Chicopee for $500,000. As part of his agreement, he would retain two 100-by-100-foot parcels to build two single-family homes there.
The owner originally sought to build 16 homes on the parcel, but city officials said the marshy area, bordered by Nelson Road and the Chicopee River, only offered 5.5 acres suitable for building five or six homes. Abutters said they wanted the area left as a nature preserve.
Brooks said the parcel’s valuation was based on faulty information.
“This is based on a ton of assumptions and what-ifs,” Brooks said of the appraisal. “I suggest the appraisal may not be accurate.”
He also complained that a packet of material that Bissonnette provided to City Council members, who must approve any purchase of the land, was lacking key information.
Bissonnette said he provided the Council with all information that was available at the time, on March 17.
Gesturing to the 90 people who attended the meeting, the mayor said he wanted to inform neighbors who would be most affected by the project, about the conservation proposal.
“This is transparent,” he said.
Following the meeting, Brooks again criticized the mayor, saying the Crowley appraisal of Demers’ property “was based on a subdivision plan created by the owner” rather than independent data.
The fact that Demers planned to keep two building parcels for private development was not shared with council members, he said.
“If the mayor didn’t know that, on March 17, when he presented (the packet of information) to the City Council, he certainly should have known,” Brooks said.
The mayor said if the state DEEA wants a second appraisal of the parcel, it has the power to order it.
“If the state wants a second appraisal, that’s fine with me,” he said. The difference between Crowley’s $450,000 valuation and that of city assessors, at $403,100, “is less than the price of one building lot,” he said.
He said that Brooks, and other council members who are objecting to his handling of the matter, could de-rail the opportunity to buy the property and turn it into the nature preserve that neighbors want.
“We need to get the grant, first,” Bissonnette said. “I wish everyone would focus on that instead of trying to kill this (conservation proposal) in its crib.”
There are 16 applications on file for only three grants available from the DEEA, he said.