Daily Hampshire Gazette - Established 1786
M/cloudy
70°
M/cloudy
Hi 77° | Lo 63°

Florence Community Center tenants wary of change

  • Rear view of the Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Rear view of the Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Santa Garcia, standing, helps a group of girls create portraits of themselves while their mothers participate in a financial literacy workshop in another room of the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center. From left are Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Amelie Acevedo, 6, Sofia Munoz, 5, Angela Robles, 5, and Dayami Crespo, 3, all of Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Santa Garcia, standing, helps a group of girls create portraits of themselves while their mothers participate in a financial literacy workshop in another room of the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center. From left are Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Amelie Acevedo, 6, Sofia Munoz, 5, Angela Robles, 5, and Dayami Crespo, 3, all of Northampton.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres, center, holds a financial literacy class on Wednesday with, from left, Janilixxa Rivera, Elba Heredia and Maria Rentas, all of Northampton, as part of the organization's Mujer project. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Casa Latina director Lillian Torres, center, holds a financial literacy class on Wednesday with, from left, Janilixxa Rivera, Elba Heredia and Maria Rentas, all of Northampton, as part of the organization's Mujer project.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Northampton residents have a snack before the start of a financial literacy class in the offices of Casa Latina at the Florence Community Center Wednesday. From left are Amelie Acevedo, 6, Angela Robles, 5, Sofia Munoz, 5,  Dayami Crespo, 3, Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Maria Rentas, Santa Garcia and Elba Heredia.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Northampton residents have a snack before the start of a financial literacy class in the offices of Casa Latina at the Florence Community Center Wednesday. From left are Amelie Acevedo, 6, Angela Robles, 5, Sofia Munoz, 5, Dayami Crespo, 3, Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Maria Rentas, Santa Garcia and Elba Heredia.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity resource development coordinator Jean Savarese, left, and office manager and executive assistant Amanda Hill work in the organization's office at the Florence Community Center on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity resource development coordinator Jean Savarese, left, and office manager and executive assistant Amanda Hill work in the organization's office at the Florence Community Center on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Rear view of the Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Santa Garcia, standing, helps a group of girls create portraits of themselves while their mothers participate in a financial literacy workshop in another room of the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center. From left are Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Amelie Acevedo, 6, Sofia Munoz, 5, Angela Robles, 5, and Dayami Crespo, 3, all of Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres, center, holds a financial literacy class on Wednesday with, from left, Janilixxa Rivera, Elba Heredia and Maria Rentas, all of Northampton, as part of the organization's Mujer project. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Northampton residents have a snack before the start of a financial literacy class in the offices of Casa Latina at the Florence Community Center Wednesday. From left are Amelie Acevedo, 6, Angela Robles, 5, Sofia Munoz, 5,  Dayami Crespo, 3, Anaisha Feliciano, 8, Maria Rentas, Santa Garcia and Elba Heredia.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Casa Latina director Lillian Torres holds a financial literacy class in the Casa Latina offices at the Florence Community Center on Wednesday. <br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity resource development coordinator Jean Savarese, left, and office manager and executive assistant Amanda Hill work in the organization's office at the Florence Community Center on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Debja Steinberger in her Movement Innovations studio at the Florence Community Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Florence Community Center at 140 Pine Street in Florence.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Florence Community Center tenants pianist Sylvie Tardif, left, and voice teacher Justina Golden, right, work with student Cathy Kay, seen in mirror, during a voice lesson in Golden's Profound Sound Voice studio on Tuesday.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

It is a deceptively quiet place, but former classrooms that once harbored energetic children are compact beehives of activity and sound. Small businesses, nonprofits, artisans and entrepreneurs are busy at work.

The teacher’s lounge is a vocal training studio, the principal’s office is home to a nonprofit serving the Latino community and the basement library is headquarters of a commercial cleaning business.

There is Valley Free Radio, which hit the airwaves in 2005, Pioneer Valley Habitat for Humanity, which has used the building’s space for more than a decade, and Iglesia Cristiana Getsemani, an evangelical Christian church.

“Most of us have been here for a very long time,” said Justina Golden, a voice teacher who has run the Profound Sound Voice Studio on the second floor since 1998. “This has been absolute heaven for the past 15 years.”

Golden is one of many tenants who speak affectionately about the former Florence Grammar School, just south of Florence center on Pine Street. Like others, she worries that the building’s life will soon change as the city prepares to unload the property.

On Monday, city officials will open bids from prospective buyers with the anticipation that someone will breathe new life into the building. The City Council has declared the property surplus and the mayor will decide who gets it. The property has been appraised at $270,000; the city estimates it needs $1.2 million in work.

At a time when Northampton needs millions of dollars to repair its infrastructure and provide critical services, getting this property on the tax rolls is viewed as a priority.

Narkewicz said he will select a buyer soon.

“We’re hoping that whatever the future use is, it could be a similar use with the same sort of mix of tenants,” Narkewicz said this week. “Now we’ll just see what projects come forward.”

As he weighs his decision in consultation with staff, the mayor said he will consider many factors beyond merely a sale price, including how a future use of the building contributes to the fabric of Florence center.

For tenants, uncertainty about whether they will be able to stay under a new owner is of deep concern, as is the potential loss of what they describe as a vibrant community center anchoring one of the gateways to Florence.

“All of the businesses in here are really in the business of transforming people’s lives,” Golden said. “It’s not like we’re all in our corners not affecting the world.”

Casa Latina is a case in point. The nonprofit group has been providing advocacy, cultural and educational programs for the Latino communities in Hampshire County from the Florence Community Center since 2001.

Lillian Torres, its director and only employee, said the former school property provides ample parking, affordable space and is on a bus stop, making it accessible for those who use Casa Latina’s services. Last Wednesday night, the organization led a two-hour financial literacy workshop for women and young girls in its offices.

“The concern is the same for all of us,” Torres said of potentially having to part ways under new ownership.

Must sell

City officials say they are doing all they can to move the process along efficiently so the 15 current tenants can plan. All leases are up in June.

The city’s requests for proposals highlights support for the arts, small business development, historic preservation and community use as factors for bidders to consider.

Prospective buyers are not beholden to any of these criteria, but addressing them “will make their proposals stronger,” said Joe Cook, the city’s chief procurement officer.

As of last week, about a dozen parties had requested copies of the city’s request for proposals. Three groups — the Northampton Community Arts Trust, North Star (the self-directed learning center for teens in Hadley) and the Opal Real Estate Group in Springfield — have been given tours of the building, according to David Pomerantz, the city’s director of Central Services, which maintains municipal buildings.

“It’s a great old building, it’s structurally sound,” Pomerantz said. “There are a lot of potential great uses.”

But like other city officials interviewed, Pomerantz said the city wants out of the property management business for buildings not serving municipal purposes. Although the city typically breaks even on the Florence Community Center each year, it has little to no money available for the $1.2 million in needed capital improvements, nor does it have money to put aside for that work.

The city’s requests for proposals states the property has an antiquated heating system and that its wiring and plumbing are not up to code. The building needs better lighting, has little insulation and does not meet handicapped access expectations. The property is heated by two original oil-fired boilers from the 1920s that consume approximately 11,000 gallons of oil a year and need to be replaced.

In addition to the Florence Community Center, the city leases space to other organizations at the Northampton Community Music School on South Street and the former Feiker and Vernon Street schools, properties it also may sell at some point.

“I do think the city would like to get out of the (property management) business,” said Ward 5 City Councilor David A. Murphy, who served on a Florence Community Center re-use committee. “This is not one of our critical competencies.”

A unified voice

For tenants, having a voice in the city’s discussions was critical. Last year, they formed a new association to create a unified voice. Its members attended and participated in the city’s talks on the future of the property.

The group has pushed for continued residency in the building and offered to work with any new owner to ensure it thrives in the future, including helping fill several empty rental spaces.

“As we see arts and community spaces in Northampton continue to disappear, we feel strongly that FCC offers an important opportunity to preserve and enhance the vibrant cultural climate of Northampton,” the tenant association wrote to the mayor, city councilors and re-use committee in February.

The city applies a dual-rent system for nonprofit and for-profit groups in the building, offering below-market rates. Some tenants say losing that affordable and unique space would have a ripple effect beyond their enterprises, which serve clients locally and afar and provide an economic stimulus to the city.

“I frankly don’t know what’s going to happen if this place folds,” said Emily Fox, who has taught ballroom, Latin and swing dance in the building for years with Studio Firenze. “There’s kind of nowhere else to go and people are being pushed out of the community.”

Fox said it would be detrimental for the center to lose what she described as its creative energy, should a new owner force tenants out. “Northampton is going to lose a little bit of its soul,” she said.

Debja Steinberger of Movement Innovations, a tenant, said the center provides opportunities for small business incubation and the flexibility for existing businesses to grow and change.

Steinberger draws clients in her wellness education programs from as far as Boston, she said, many of whom frequent shops and restaurants downtown. “They make a day of it,” Steinberger said. “They come with their money and drop it into Northampton.”

For others, Steinberger said the center provides services and community events to people who live within walking distance and don’t have a lot of means. Finding a space to replicate her studio of nine years would be difficult elsewhere in Northampton, she said.

“It could even mean having to leave the area, which would be a shame,” she said.

Mass Commercial Cleaning, a homegrown family business occupying space in the basement, has grown to employ about 120 full- and part-time employees over nearly 25 years.

“It’s been a wonderful experience here,” said Glenn R. Connly, vice president of the company, which has maintained offices in the building since 1998. “We kind of fell into it when the city asked us to clean it.”

“It’s just a great location to operate a business and there’s a crazy amount of parking,” he added. “I’d love to have an owner buy it and keep it somewhat what it is.”

Connly, who lives in Florence, said his company has been searching for other space for months in anticipation of having to relocate, but it’s slim pickings.

“There’s a lot of big stuff, a lot of small stuff, but not a lot of in-between,” he said.

Like his fellow tenants, he remains hopeful things will work out.

“I think the future is bright for that building,” he said.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

Related

‘Life after’ to be found for former Florence Grammar School

Thursday, July 10, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — The Florence Community Center was built around 1930 as the Florence Grammar School at the junction of Pine and Corticelli streets. Situated on a 2.2-acre site at 140 Pine St., the two-story building is not to be confused with the smaller Florence Civic Center in Florence center. The property served as an elementary school until enrollment dropped in … 0

When will the city of Northampton stop giving away our community owned land ? Why does the the Center for the Arts have no home today? Is it because Old School Commons was given to private developers? When will elected officials who are in the real estate business recuse themselves from these public property give aways? After the financial debacle of the abbutters to the landfill on Glendale Road ,haven't we the public had enough? This extensive article with a paragraph titled "MUST SELL" doesn't tell us anything about the WHY , except to state that a realtor who is an elected official thinks it is a good idea. The next time our town feels like we need more public space ,with this leadership, we are likely to pay through the nose for it .Meanwhile the Florence building "breaks even" and it isn't clear, from the article, that this is true currently for the Community Music School property . A quick look at your own tax bill suggests that the land alone that these properties occupy has considerable value that we ,as the town, will give away forever . Finally ,the Florence Grammar School did not close because of a lack of enrollment in Florence, but a politically popular ,but there had been a really not needed expansion of the Leeds school building. It was then necessary to close Florence and bus children to Leeds to fill up that school.. Fortunately the leadership that has preserved Look Park and Childs Park for public use does not have the short sightedness of our elected officials. Ironically these are private self perpetuating boards.

Post a Comment

You must be registered to comment on stories. Click here to register.