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Putting the Spring in Springfield

Domenic Sarno Wants to Change the Perception of a Beleaguered City
Domenic Sarno

Domenic Sarno’s goals for economic development in Springfield include the fostering of what he called a “new Armory.”

Domenic Sarno is certainly no stranger to the mayor’s office in Springfield.

Nearly two decades ago he served as an assistant to Mary Hurley when she occupied the corner office, and handled a wide variety of administrative and public relations-oriented duties. “I sat right out there,” he said, motioning with his hand to the outer office complex, as he sat where Hurley once did — the reward for pulling off what most (but not Sarno) would consider an upset in last fall’s contest against incumbent Charles Ryan.

His former and current desks are only about 30 feet and a wall apart, but there is of course a world of difference in terms of responsibility. “The buck stops with me, and I mean that,” said Sarno, who used that well-worn phrase despite the presence of the Finance Control Board, which, for all intents and purposes, is still running the city. And he used it for a reason.

Indeed, Sarno told BusinessWest that he views his triumph over Ryan, who was elected to two terms and served all but his first six months in the large shadow of the Control Board, as a mandate of sorts, or a call to action, despite the presence of the board, which will be in place for at least another year.

“While I was out talking to people last year, I sensed that people appreciated what Mayor Ryan did … many thought he was the right person at the right time,” said Sarno, referring to the early days of the Control Board. “But I also sensed that people were looking at the next horizon for Springfield, and looking for the attitude, the vision, and the drive to make things happen.”

Sarno will take what he called a “Springfield first” attitude with him as he goes to work on a laundry list of issues and problems, from public safety, which he has identified as priority one because of its influence on so many constituencies, including the business community, to economic stability — gaining an extension on the loan given to the city by the state is a top priority there — to the broad subject of economic development and his goal to create “a new Armory.”

By that he meant not only a new and large source of high-paying jobs — the Springfield Armory, which closed four decades ago, traditionally employed thousands, and about 14,000 at peak production during World War II — but also something that will provide the city with an identity, again, as the Armory did with the Springfield Rifle and a precision machining base that emerged from that complex.

Sarno says this new identity and job source may well come in the form of a blend of ‘green’ businesses, meaning those involved with renewable energy and other environmentally friendly pursuits, and the broad category known as ‘the arts.’

“When you look across the nation, the first sign of revitalization, or renaissance, in a downtrodden area has an artistic flair to it,” he said, noting that there is much involved with accomplishing this melding of ‘green’ and the arts, everything from funding to get startups off the ground, to an infrastructure and workforce that will enable them to grow. But he believes Springfield has the potential to put the pieces in place.

Meanwhile, as for the Control Board, Sarno, who served on that body as president of the City Council, says the transition back to self-governance in Springfield is already underway, starting with work on the fiscal 2008 budget, and his administration is focused on making that transition go as smoothly, but also as quickly, as possible.

“I want to get this city back to self-governance,” he said. “But in the meantime, I have an agenda I want to drive.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Sarno talked about why he wants to be mayor of Springfield, and why now. He called this a critical juncture for the city, a time when it can — if people work together toward common goals — regain fiscal autonomy, a sense of civic pride, and perhaps a new economic identity.

No Pane, No Gain

Sarno calls it the “broken-window strategy,” a philosophy of municipal management that he loosely attributes to former New York Mayor Rudy Gulianni.

“When you see a broken window, that’s usually the first sign of trouble,” he said, referring to an abandoned building and the further deterioration that can and usually does follow. “So when you see that broken window, you do something, you get on top of it; if you don’t, things are only going to get worse.”

There are many of those figurative broken windows in Springfield, he said, listing everything from public safety to education; poverty to jobless rates; troubled neighborhoods to the Springfield Falcons, the AHL franchise that needs some support, in the form of season ticket sales, if it’s going to remain in the City of Homes.

He plans to address them with the outlook of an optimist — at least as defined by Winston Churchill — who said such individuals see opportunity in every difficulty.

Sarno borrowed that line for his inauguration speech two months ago, at which time he said he is “energized by the numerous opportunities before us.”

At the top of that list, he said, is the chance to radically change the perception of Springfield — the one held by both its citizens and people across the Commonwealth and beyond — of a city long past its prime and in a hole from which it can’t recover.

“People say things like, ‘what do you expect? It’s Springfield,’” said Sarno. “I want to hear, ‘why not Springfield?’”

The new mayor acknowledges that changing current perception — or, more to the point, doing all that will be necessary to affect such a change — constitutes a very tall order.

He’ll approach it through his broken-window theory of the universe, an intense focus on quality-of-life issues, and, in general, work toward bringing back the far better times he remembers — “that was back when politicians were revered because they helped people and helped families” — while hanging around his father’s barber shop on Dickinson Street, which is still there, with the elder Sarno still cutting hair and dispensing advice.

Sarno told BusinessWest that his working-class upbringing — his mother opened and still operates a seamstress shop — helps him relate to the challenges facing many in the city, and also understand the importance of small businesses to families and neighborhoods. “They’re the backbone of any community.”

He also draws on his previous work experiences, most of which fall under the category of public service. In addition to his work for the Hurley administration, Sarno also worked in the office of Hampden County District Attorney William Bennett, and later as executive director of the South End Community Center.

While Sarno intends to wage his fight to revitalize Springfield on several fronts, he’ll put heavy emphasis on public safety, education, and economic development, which are all intertwined. And on the subject of crime, he plans what he called a “frontal assault.”

Flexing His Imagination

Such an initiative is needed, he said, because reducing crime and fear are prerequisites to successfully achieving other goals — everything from attracting new businesses to creating a stronger residential component in the city’s downtown.

“Let’s face it … perception plus attitude equals reality,” he told BusinessWest. “We can spend thousands, or even millions, of dollars marketing Springfield, but if you don’t have that grassroots feeling among residents that this city is clean, safe, and worth investing in, then we’re not going to get anywhere.”

The frontal assault on crime and public safety will take a number of forms, he continued, from the difficult work on the root causes of crime, including poverty and high dropout rates at city high schools, to a new focus by the Sarno administration of so-called quality-of-life issues.

This is a broad category that includes everything from barking dogs to zoning code violations; speeding cars on residential streets to derelect property, and it will fall under the auspices of something Sarno is calling the Quality of Life Flex Squad. It will involve both the mayor’s office, where aide Tom Walsh will head up activities, and the Police Department, which will respond when and if needed, said the mayor, adding that the word ‘flex’ is used to indicate that this unit will be working at all hours of the day. “Crime doesn’t happen only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.”

As for education, Sarno said the city’s first priority is a superintendent search that he hopes and expects will produce an individual who can “revolutionize the system.”

Both public safety and education have obvious connections to economic development, said Sarno, who noted that the city needs a safe environment and an attractive workforce to attract new businesses and retain current ones. But it also needs a spark or two to trigger job growth and a needed dose of vitality.

Which brings him back to ‘green’ development and the arts.

He told BusinessWest that there is certainly need worldwide for renewable energy sources, and the potential exists for Springfield and the Pioneer Valley to be a center for such ventures.

“The stars are aligned for growth of such businesses,” he said, referring to both need and a commitment from Gov. Deval Patrick and the Legislature to prime the pump. “Why can’t Springfield be a hub for ‘green’ companies?”

As for the arts, they could represent a way to breathe some life into the downtown area, he said, noting that artists can spark both residential and commercial growth. And, overall, they could contribute to an enhanced quality of life that might draw empty-nesters and Baby Boomers looking to downsize into Springfield’s downtown and properties like the complex of buildings in Court Square.

A request for qualifications was recently issued for the site, dominated by the long-vacant, six-story building at 13-31 Elm St., and several came in, including proposals to convert the property into market-rate housing or a boutique hotel.

The Elm Street complex is part of what Sarno called the “spine” of the city, referring to the stretch from the riverfront up State Street. There are signs of progress at several points, including the new federal courthouse, which, said the mayor, has potential to inspire other improvements and developments, and several possible sparks, including an expansion of basketball-themed development seen on the riverfront.

Referencing Cooperstown, N.Y., the Baseball Hall of Fame there, and the adjacent baseball diamonds that have been called the ‘Field of Dreams,’ Sarno said he envisions something similar in the City of Homes, with families and teams traveling here to play on courts and in tournaments near the Hall.

“We could have the Court of Dreams here,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s the kind of thing the city needs to bring people here and inject some pride in our community.”

First Things First

As he talked about his plans moving forward, Sarno mentioned some of things he doesn’t need.

‘Yes people’ are on that list — “I want constructive criticism, I want to hear the pros and cons; yes people just move on the next person,” he explained — as are studies, specifically those related to economic development. “We’ve had enough of those — now we need to get going.”

What he does need is a little optimism — well, more than a little — and a broad ‘Springfield-first’ focus that might help him make some inroads toward progress.

The buck might stop at his desk, he said, but the work to restore pride and stability to Springfield starts with everyone moving in the same direction.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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