In ‘state of the city’ address, mayor says Easthampton hits its stride amid COVID struggles

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle gave her “state of the city” address on Thursday. “Community has been the saving grace during the pandemic,” the mayor said in the prerecorded video released on the city’s website, Facebook page and Easthampton Media’s YouTube channel. “Easthampton has seen growth and stability in the face of challenge, driven by a shared commitment to lifting the most disenfranchised.” SCREENSHOT/CITY OF EASTHAMPTON

Staff Writer
Published: 2/24/2022 6:29:53 PM
Modified: 2/24/2022 6:29:31 PM

EASTHAMPTON — With public meeting spaces still closed until April 1, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle reflected on the past year in her annual “state of the city” address on Thursday, acknowledging the struggles and strides over the last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Community has been the saving grace during the pandemic,” the mayor said in the prerecorded video released on the city’s website, Facebook page and Easthampton Media’s YouTube channel. “Easthampton has seen growth and stability in the face of challenge, driven by a shared commitment to lifting the most disenfranchised.”

In her speech, LaChapelle detailed the city’s numerous responses to the pandemic, including hosting a regional drive-thru for testing, distributing high-quality masks and home tests; expanding the city’s Health Department with the addition of a public health nurse and community social worker; and adding a trauma-informed clinician through the Police Department’s pilot of a co-response model.

In other achievements, LaChapelle said the city has expanded online services and community notices through email and text services, and consolidated all information technology operations into one department to build technical infrastructure and protect against cyber threats.

Using Community Preservation Act funds, LaChapelle spoke of how Easthampton proactively created a rent relief program before state programs were widely available.

She also offered gratitude to city employees for working long hours and stepping up fill in for colleagues as needed.

“Racing — or trudging — forward, we left 2021 behind, hoping we could also move beyond the stifling challenges of the years before,” she said. “Winter arrived with another COVID-19 infection surge, but spring is near with expanded services throughout our municipal government. Though better positioned for whatever is next, the impact of the last 23 months is real and compounding.”

LaChapelle highlighted the city’s financial position, its attention to would-be entrepreneurs and the fact that all major infrastructure projects under way were running on schedule, including construction of the new Mountain View School.

Business growth

Since being selected in 2020 as part of the City Innovation Ecosystem program by the National League of Cities, Easthampton has established a more inclusive procurement path than is available throughout the Pioneer Valley. The program has helped the city adopt policies, programs and practices to give underrepresented entrepreneurs more opportunities for economic advancement.

The city’s efforts have been praised by Philip Berkaw, program director for the Center for City Solutions, according to LaChapelle.

“If you are a small entrepreneur or a small business owner in Easthampton or wanting to move to Easthampton, you know where you can find resources to get access to capital, to develop a network, to find mentorship all in one place,” Berkaw said. “It is one more city access [point] that will make Easthampton a really attractive place to start a business.”

The city launched the Business Blueprint Easthampton program to support entrepreneurs professionally and personally. This program is unique because it combines the granting of capital with coaching to teach the human side of entrepreneurship. The second group of Business Blueprint Easthampton begins this summer.

The city also joined a coalition of local and state organizations as a means to grow local businesses and lift innovators. The coalition includes the LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Black Economic Council of Massachusetts, Black and Pink Massachusetts, and Lawyers for Civil Rights as well as the Hampshire County Sheriff Department to build authentic connections and trust. As promised, this coalition has opened an office in Easthampton’s Pleasant Street Mill District.

“This coalition realizes a much-needed 413 to 617 collaboration along Route 90 instead of the Boston-centric Route 128 loop. Tele- work and health opens our city and western Mass for housing, transportation, jobs, and economic investment in ways not known before the pandemic,” she said. “The MassPike corridor has never seemed more within reach, particularly as innovators seek communities defined less by geography and more by like-minded missions.”

As for infrastructure, the city has several long-term projects coming to fruition, including the full opening of Mountain View School, the physical transformation of Union Street, request for proposals on the city’s three elementary schools, the physical mapping of municipal broadband, and a new IT data center and police incident command software.

Employing a continuous “plan-prepare-execute” strategy, LaChapelle said that city departments are working together, with the help of public input, to create ready-to-go projects.

“Social, infrastructure, and economic challenges abound, but Easthampton has and is working to fill our municipal toolbox,” she said. “We have built networks in our city and across the state, leveraging resources and expertise for our community. COVID-19 and its continued impacts have taken so much away from us, but we refuse to let it stop growth in Easthampton now and going forward. We have a lot to be proud of and look forward to — together.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.

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