Amherst Council commits to major building projects

  • Fort River School is part of one of four major building projects Amherst’s Town Council is committing to. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2019 4:04:02 PM

AMHERST — For the first time, the Town Council is expressing its commitment to moving forward with four major building projects, even as there are questions about what the town can afford and the extent of new construction versus renovation of existing municipal buildings.

The council Monday voted 12-1, with District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont casting the lone negative vote, to move forward with a plan that will include replacing or renovating Fort River and Wildwood elementary schools, building a new fire station in South Amherst on the current site of the Department of Public Works headquarters and a new DPW constructed elsewhere, and renovating and expanding the Jones Library.

In an identical vote, with DuMont again in the minority, the council agreed to schedule a series of community listening sessions as outlined by Council President Lynn Griesemer.

Griesemer said the building projects pose a complex set of issues and that outreach shouldn’t be limited to one night or one listening session.

“Our responsibility is to help this conversation move forward and to make very wise and very tough decisions,” Griesemer said.

This plan calls for between three to six facilitated meetings in November and December, with the Nov. 18 council meeting likely the first in which it will unveil a strategy of informing the public of the building projects. A steering committee that will feature a councilor, representatives from the School Committee and trustees for the Jones Library will further develop the scope of the listening sessions.

Though Griesemer said it’s likely that the town won’t be able to do all four projects during the council’s first term, which runs through 2021, the approach is similar to what Town Manager Paul Bockelman has called the “one town, one plan,” which aims to establish a workable plan and an appropriate funding strategy to bring the projects to fruition.

The four projects in the pipeline could cost in excess of $150 million to complete, with the town in line to receive substantial state support for a school project through the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will notify the town Dec. 11 about whether it is accepted into the program, and for the library through a grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners that could be awarded in July.

District 3 Councilor George Ryan said not moving in a unified direction would require starting the process over.

“My sense is the need is real,” Ryan said. “Whether we can afford, that’s obviously a question we have to wrestle with.”

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said her goal at the listening sessions is to find out what the community’s needs are and what people are willing to pay for.

DuMont said her concern is about the long-term nature of the projects and the challenge of having people provide feedback about buildings that may not be built or renovated immediately.

District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis said her hope is to make sure everyone who lives in Amherst gets a chance to weigh in. “I need us to lead by opening up our sessions,” DeAngelis said.

Griesemer said it is uncertain whether the Town Council will be able to reach out to everyone, no matter the extent of the efforts, and that councilors will need to listen carefully to those willing to speak or comment.

Though District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam supported the plan, she said she remains worried that the council won’t get buy-in from the community if roads and sidewalks are not included alongside the building projects.

But District 4 Councilor Evan Ross said that sort of infrastructure should not be part of the listening sessions, which need to stay focused on the buildings to be renovated or constructed.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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