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Editorial: State grants recognize region’s needs

  • The Rev. Peter Ives, second from left, former pastor of First Churches in Northampton, talks with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, foreground right, in the lobby of the Northampton Community Arts Trust building on Friday. Joining them, from left, are Northampton Ward 2 Councilor Dennis Bidwell, NCAT Board Director Dorothy Nemetz, Massachusetts Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Jay Ash and NCAT Board President Richard Wagner. About 30 patrons of the arts were on hand for Ash's announcement of a $500,000 state grant for the arts trust’s building project. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

There are times when local officials in western Massachusetts are justified in arguing that they are overlooked by state government in Boston. Last week was not one of them.

In the space of four days, officials in Belchertown, Northampton and Southampton accepted significant grants to fuel economic development, improve infrastructure and boost the arts and education. The grants are a testament to the work done by area legislators to secure the money, and recognition by state officials that projects in all corners of Massachusetts benefit from such funding.

The largest grant, $3 million from the MassWorks Infrastructure Program, encourages more redevelopment at the former Belchertown State School property on Route 202. The money will help build a road — as well as water, sewer and electrical lines — connecting Front and Jackson streets where the Christopher Heights Belchertown assisted living center is under construction. That road will provide access to an additional 25 acres of the 800-acre state school site for development.

“Once this campus opens up, it’s going to allow a lot more to happen,” said Steven Williams, director of the Belchertown Department of Public Works. “This grant is going to allow us to provide key infrastructure in an area that is definitely ready for it.”

Besides the 83-unit Christopher Heights project that is scheduled to open in the spring, a new building for the Belchertown Day School is also under construction. Local officials hope they are the cornerstones for a mix of residential, commercial, recreational and cultural uses on the site that housed the state school for 70 years before it closed in 1992.

In announcing the grant, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito pointed out that 10 percent of the state’s $500 million MassWorks funds are set aside for communities with fewer than 7,000 residents. “While much attention is given to Boston, it’s my job and the governor’s to make sure we are distributing those dollars to all parts of the commonwealth.”

Southampton also received a $1 million MassWorks grant to repair the 90-year-old East Street Bridge. Select Board Chairman Charles Kaniecki described East Street as “a major corridor in town” connecting Route 10 in downtown Southampton to Holyoke, crossing the Manhan River.

The bridge is too narrow for a sidewalk or shoulder and its railing is in disrepair. But the project has been stalled since 2009 because the bridge is not structurally deficient enough to qualify for state money under a different program.

Kaniecki believes the MassWorks grant will leverage additional state money to pay for repairs to all of East Street. “This is going to enhance that whole area of town,” he said.

In Northampton, education will benefit from a $175,000 Skills Capital Grant awarded to Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School to upgrade its greenhouses and add a new concentration next year. It is one of 32 high schools, community colleges and other educational institutions that received money to improve career training programs.

The grant will allow Smith School to move its greenhouses closer together, creating a complex that students from several concentrations will use. One of the greenhouses will have a computerized system installed so students can use tablets to control the climate. A greenhouse management and floriculture program will start next fall.

Students will be able to grow plants with techniques that include terraponics, aquaponics and hydroponics, and fish will be added, with talapia being raised.

“We’re really trying to get into some of the advanced growing techniques that are happening,” said Joseph Bianca, principal of Smith School.

The week was capped Friday by the announcement of a $500,000 grant from an economic development bill to the Northampton Community Arts Trust to continue renovating its building at 33 Hawley St. for performance and events space.

The trust purchased the building in 2013 and completed the first phase of work converting it to affordable space for artists. The first part of the structure, including a dance studio, was opened in September. The grant will help pay for flexible performance space, a lobby and bathrooms.

“We have to provide affordable space for a flourishing creative community,” said Richard Wagner, president of the Northampton Community Arts Trust board. “Most importantly, we must protect that space from becoming a victim of is own success by holding and managing it for the common good.”

We applaud state officials for their smart allocation of money to support the common good, in a broader sense, for the region.