July 21, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — To Town Councilor Richard Logan, getting his new committee's ducks in a row is first order of business.
Given that he was appointed to run the Planning and Development subcommittee, that could be a tall order. Among the things on its plate are several items that have been in limbo a long time — downtown redevelopment, the industrial park and the rail trail — and maybe a fourth that hasn't been touched in decades — a new master plan.
"Hopefully, we'll be able to start the process this year of pushing stuff through that will move the town forward," Logan said. "I don't want us just to be a paperwork committee. There are a lot of good ideas out there, but for some reason, they're not being heard."
He noted the June town election opened his eyes to that fact. While the Council and other parts of town government have spent a lot of the last year arguing over the access road, townspeople have other priorities.
"It really hit me during the election that the access road is totally outside people's minds. They're concerned about finding needles in parks and having things for their children to do," he observed. "I spent a year on the council and we didn't talk about that once."
Doing something on that issue will probably involve cooperation with the Trails and Recreation committees, the latter of which met for the first time Wednesday night.
A related issue is the rail trail project. It has been raised as a central part of last year's UMass and WPI sustainability and tourism projects, but Scott Benoit told Logan's panel it was being stalled by the state over a completed but unreleased report on the value of selling the steel rails. Various ways of releasing the logjam were tossed around, with Councilor Pam Regis suggesting "going under" Sen. Richard Moore to his staff, since legislative staff often have a lot of the details. Other suggested reaching above him to Rep. Richard Neal, who obtained the federal funds that are now in limbo.
Either way, the trail is a feature of the downtown redevelopment plan, for which the council recently contracted VHB Associates to provide coordination. According to Economic Development Director Sandy Acly, the work will be done by Jeff Vasser, who had a hand in drafting it originally.
Redevelopment Authority member Laurent "Butch" McDonald said the overall plan will take about 20 years to fulfill, but it's crucial "to show something where we get immediate impact." He said Vasser will be looking for ways "to get the quickest gains with the least investment" and should have specific short-term things the town can accomplish before the month's out.
Logan agreed, saying it has been the subject of lots of work, but the citizens so far have seen "nothing tangible" from it.
Resident Dennis Martinek already had one he believes Southbridge can pursue quickly — "viral marketing" of the town's assets online and elsewhere. He suggested coming up with a catchy town slogan, such as "Make Southbridge Home."
"Half of it is getting people out to look at [Southbridge]," Martinek said. "… We've got to find a way to make it palatable, to get people to see the benefit of coming downtown."
To do that, Martinek and Councilor Denise Clemence proposed an "adopt-a-window" effort, by which community groups can decorate and care for some of the vacant storefront windows (with their owners' permission) until the spaces get filled again. Various participants suggested having photo, art and historical exhibits, displaying the redevelopment and rail trail plans, and contacting local schools for student projects, among other things.
"I think the town is desperate to do something down there and see those For Rent signs go away," Logan said, later asking if Southbridge could start a microloan program to help people start businesses.
McDonald and Clemence, however, noted the town really needs to tie several of these ideas into a full-blown master plan, something that hasn't been done for at least 50 years. It normally takes about two years to craft such a document, in part because it calls for a lot of citizen input, and it needs to be updated regularly.
After some debate over whether that would unnecessarily delay other improvements, Regis said the town can find the funding if people deem it worthy. Such projects can easily cost around $20,000, but Acly said she'll get more concrete estimates.
Later, Logan said he initially felt a master plan was just "another layer of paperwork that would make people's eyes glaze over," but was convinced it could help by the others' advocacy. He said he hopes to start it this year.
Logan also said he wants to figure out a way to bridge the divide between anti-landfill and pro-access road people, noting the issue has put himself in a quandary. Although the town needs the industrial park, he said tying it to Casella's desire to bring in extra trash wasn't a good idea because it pits equally legitimate health concerns against community development needs.
"We have to find some common ground … to resolve that conflict," he said, noting people on either side also care about the other side's issue.
As part of that process, Logan said he hopes to have a community forum to educate the public about what's actually in the Casella contract. Most people don't know, "and some are suspicious of it," he said, noting it's too late to change it.
Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at email@example.com.