HILLTOWNS – Gains have been made in the Gateway Hilltowns over the past year. Beginning with the Community Compact agreements between the six towns of Chester, Middlefield, Huntington, Russell, Blandford, Montgomery and the Baker-Polito administration in May of 2016, the towns pledged to work together on economic development and shared services in the region. The administration subsequently came through with several grants to help the towns achieve those goals. While the challenges of a shrinking population, high taxes and slow economic growth are still a reality, a lot of hard work has been done by dedicated volunteers, and the towns are cooperating like never before.
In March, Andrew Myers, chair of the Hilltown Collaborative, the group that formed after the Community Compacts were signed, received some welcome news of a hoped-for grant of just over $100,511 to hire a shared economic development coordinator for the six towns.
The job was posted and a search conducted with the assistance of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC). In late June, Myers of Chester announced that the new grant-funded position of economic development director had been filled by Jeanne LeClair of Haverhill. LeClair, a small-town Missouri native, received her bachelor’s degree from Boston University and master’s in community development from Brandeis. She called the position “her dream job.”
In September, three months into the job, LeClair said her role was to be a funnel for all of the activities, events and opportunities in the Gateway hilltowns, all of which end up on her website at gatewayhilltowns.org. “My actual goal is to shore up what’s already happening. There are a lot of cool things happening,” LeClair said.
She also had a goal of helping area businesses with their online presence. She taught several free classes for businesses through the Southern Hilltowns Adult Education Center. LeClair’s next class will be “Economic Development: What it Means for You” on January 10, 6 to 8 p.m. at the new Village Enterprise Center in Chester. LeClair is also identifying properties and business opportunities in the six towns, and will be adding a GIS map of all available locations on the website in the months ahead, she said.
LeClair also started the Gateway Enterprise Club, a small business education hub for students at Gateway Regional, which has more than 20 members in its first year. LeClair said the administration is fully behind the concept, and she hopes it will plant a seed for more business education opportunities at the school, which currently offers only Business Math. “It’s filling a need they have. It’s free, no cost to Gateway,” LeClair said.
In support of the effort, the Jacob’s Ladder Business Association (www.jlba.org), another collaborative hilltown organization, is offering a prize for the best business plan produced by students at the end of the year, in lieu of the annual scholarship the organization used to give. LeClair said she is hoping to host a “Shark Tank” style public event, at which students can pitch their plans for the prize.
Although the grant funding the position is for 12 months only, LeClair and the HIlltown Collaborative are hoping that the six towns will agree to put shared funding for the position in their annual town budgets for FY19.
HUNTINGTON –Renewed energy in the hilltowns was also reflected in contested races for both Selectmen and Town Clerk in Huntington in the town election on May 19.
Elected for a three-year term on the Board of Selectman was Capital Planning Committee member Karon Hathaway, who defeated fireman Dylan Mosher 229 to 50. Elected for a two-year term was Finance Committee chair Darlene McVeigh, who had 183 votes to business owner and Planning Board member Evelyn Korfias’ 99.
Three residents ran for the office of Town Clerk. The position became available in March when the former town clerk and tax collector resigned, citing personal reasons. Kathleen Thomas, who had served as assistant town clerk was named interim town clerk, and also ran for the elected office against former town clerk Judith Guyette and Melissa Reid, a lifelong resident of the town and member of the Board of Health.
In the election, Thomas received 139 votes and Guyette, who previously served as Town Clerk from 1983 to 2003 also received 139 votes. Board of Health member Melissa Reid, the third candidate, received 10 votes. The tie was unprecedented, according to Thomas. A recount was scheduled, which yielded the same result. Following the recount, Guyette conceded the race for personal reasons, and Thomas was appointed by the Board of Selectmen as Temporary Town Clerk until the next election in May, 2018.
BLANDFORD – Meanwhile, the appointed Town Administrator position In Blandford was also facing a vote. Angeline Ellison, who became the first Town Administrator in ten years in September of 2016 faced two efforts by area citizens to reduce her part-time salary from $40,000 to $1, effectively eliminating the position.
At the Annual Town Meeting in May, residents voted on a Citizen’s Petition submitted by town resident Don Carpenter to fund the Town Administrator salary line at $1 for fiscal year 2018. Both the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen recommended that the town take no action on the article. At the meeting, Town Moderator David B. Hopson asked for a motion on the question, and the vote to take no action passed 76 to 32 by secret ballot.
Ellison had been hired in part on a recommendation by the state Department of Revenue that the town hire a town administrator, after the former tax collector was charged with stealing more than $150,000 from taxpayers and the town. In January, LeeAnn Thompson, 47, of North Chelmsford, was indicted by a Hampden County Grand Jury on the charges of Embezzlement by a Public Officer (1 count), Larceny Over $250 (1 count), and Use of an Official Position to Secure an Unwarranted Privilege (1 count). In November, a trial date for Thompson was set for March 19, 2018.
Ellison’s difficulties with the town continued after the Annual Meeting. In October, a second citizen’s petition submitted by resident Anthony J van Werkhooven with 99 signatures forced another vote at a Special Town Meeting on Nov. 20 to reduce the town administrator’s salary to $1.00. Once again, a motion was made to postpone the vote indefinitely, which passed by a majority show of hands.
Earlier this month, it was announced that Ellison had been offered the full-time job of town manager in Uxbridge. Ellison, who lives in Sturbridge said they were still in negotiations, but she was looking forward to it, especially being closer to home. “It’s been a wonderful experience, full of challenges and lots of opportunity for growth and development,” she said about her year in Blandford.
“My responsibility to her as her manager is that she leaves better than when she started. I would never begrudge an employee leaving for a better opportunity and this is more hours, more compensation, and a shorter commute. I’ve enjoyed working with her and wish her the best,” said Adam Dolby, chair of the Blandford Board of Selectmen this week.
BLANDFORD SKI AREA – Before a standing room only crowd of members and friends, the Springfield Ski Club held a special meeting of current membership on July 18 to vote on whether to move forward with the sale of Blandford Ski Area to Butternut Basin. After hearing from Mike Gagnon, president of the ski club and Jeff Murdock, owner of Butternut Basin, 286 members, including proxy ballots of those not able to attend, were in favor of the sale. The vote was well over the two-thirds of the 338 current members required to move forward.
Prior to the sale, which became finalized on September 1, The Blandford Ski Area, owned by the Springfield Ski Club, celebrated its 80th season as the oldest club-owned ski area in North America.
In late October, Ron Crozier became the new General Manager for Ski Blandford. Crozier previously worked for Butternut from 1999 to 2004. He said the new position of general manager was like “coming home.”
Crozier said they were working at Blandford to make the place presentable. Projects include maintenance of the chair lift, mowing the slopes, and weeding. They repaired Blandford’s snow guns, and leased four more from the manufacturer. “More firepower,” he said. They also bought a “new used” Pisten Bully groomer.
HUNTINGTON –Another significant sale was through an auction for the historic 1882 St. Thomas Church on the corner of East Main and Basket Streets on July 20 p.m. on the church grounds. There were six bidders in all, according to auctioneer Corey Fisher of Aaron Posnik & Co., Inc. auctioneers of West Springfield, who also said the church held a deed restriction that no eventual usage inconsistent with the Roman Catholic Church would be permitted.
The church also had a Local Historic District restriction put on the church by the town of Huntington in 2012, when they voted to amend the town’s bylaws to create a single property Local Historic District, consisting solely of the St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church.
The successful bidder at $75,000 was Gerry Farelly of Westfield on behalf of the Farelly Family Realty Trust. Farelly declined to comment on his plans for the church.
St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church closed in February of 2010, after the membership of St. Thomas, Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Russell and St. John Mission in Chester voted to merge parishes and worship in the Russell church, which was then renamed the Holy Family Parish. St. Thomas went on sale shortly afterwards, originally listed for $199,900.
CHESTER – Coming full circle, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito visited Chester on July 26, accompanied by Michael Knapik, director of the Baker-Polito administration’s Western Massachusetts office in Springfield to celebrate a $1 million grant for a 5 ½ mile stretch of East River Road awarded by the MassWorks infrastructure grant program in partnership with MassDOT.
“I have enjoyed so much the visits across the Commonwealth, and to be able to work directly with you on moving towards your goals,” Polito said at the end of the visit. “I think it’s very exciting. Thank you for all of your efforts,” she added.
After Polito and Knapik left to attend another meeting in the town of Mount Washington, Chester Selectman Barbara Huntoon said she was “honored and thrilled that she came.” “It shows the commitment on the state level for local issues. That’s big for us, especially being pretty far away from the center.” Myers said.
“The governor and lieutenant governor were selectmen, so they understand. We’re pretty excited for Chester’s future,” added Selectman Rene Senecal.