Let’s Not Lose the Prize

We’re not sure how plans to locate a back-up data center for the Commonwealth in Springfield turned into such a heated controversy, but we suggest that the parties end the hostilities — before the city loses the facility and its 50-odd jobs to another community.

The conflict over the data center, which would store records of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, Medicaid, and other state agencies and programs, has escalated over the past few months. It boils down to two sites, the merits of which are being debated in the local papers and over the airwaves.

One site is the former Technical High School — or what’s left of it — on Spring Street, a proposal being strongly pushed by U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal and a collection of supporters that includes the bishops of the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian dioceses, Mayor Charles Ryan, leaders at MassMutual and, the most recent addition, the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield. The other site is the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College, an office/technology park created largely through a $4.5 million state appropriation and now home to several technology-related businesses and a few state agencies. The tech park site is being backed by state Rep. Thomas Petrolati.

Neal and others want the Tech High site because it would complete a larger neighborhood revitalization effort that includes the $67 million federal courthouse now being constructed on State Street and a $13 million State Street corridor improvement project. Tech High has been abandoned for two decades, and most of it was torn down to make way for the courthouse. What remains, the original building built more than 100 years ago, is an eyesore that Neal and many Springfield leaders have been desperate to rehabilitate.

The tech park is being touted as a potentially lower-cost alternative, one that would help ensure the long-term viability of the park by absorbing a portion of currently vacant space.

There are a lot of numbers on cost being tossed around on the project — serving to add confusion to the controversy, perhaps intentionally — and some heated words. Neal, at a hastily called press conference after the revised tech park estimate was announced, said of the park and its management team: “they are proposing a Bermuda tax haven at the tech park. They are absorbing state agencies into the park, and asking the government to rent from the government.”

And a few days later, while addressing a meeting of the assistance corporation, Ryan, who was mayor when STCC was created 39 years ago and helped with that process, said, “Little did I dream STCC would be an instrument to hurt the city. It’s ironic and disappointing that the leadership at STCC would continue on the path that they’ve embarked on.”

Such comments could leave scars long after the Legislature ultimately decides where to put the data center, and that’s what concerns us. In many respects, the facility is a charitable gift to Springfield from the state, much like the original data center, built in Chelsea, which was battling its own fiscal crisis at the time it was chosen. This gift should help build some momentum for Springfield, not create division.

We suggest that the city and its leaders find some way to present a unified front and get behind one plan, before all this friction prompts legislators to conclude that Springfield doesn’t have its act together. And by unified front, we don’t mean making the tech park supporters simply go away and fall in line with the belief that the high school is the only plan that should be considered — or the best plan.

We’re not sure that saving what will amount to one wall of Tech High and putting the data center on Spring Street is really the best way to use this gift from the Commonwealth; the tech park, the soon-to-be-vacated federal building downtown, or some other site may make more sense and cost less. And we suggest that city leaders take that approach — determine the best, most cost-effective site, perhaps by issuing a request for proposals — and not the ‘this is the last hope for Tech High so it should go there’ philosophy that currently prevails.

Otherwise, the city may lose its gift.