Stern Challenges Await Area’s New Mayors

Stern Challenges Await Area’s New Mayors

This fall’s elections brought changes at the top for many area communities. Indeed, there will be many new mayors settling into office in January, and many will face immediate — and stern — challenges.

We wish them the best because, while Springfield is the unofficial capital of the Pioneer Valley and the focus of much attention in light of its recent struggles, the continued health and well-being of other large communities is a key factor in the overall success of this region.

The challenges facing the new mayors vary, but the common denominator is that the communities need strong leadership, and they need it now.

Let’s start in Agawam, where the survivor (that’s the best word for it) in this fall’s election is Richard Cohen, the former mayor and now mayor-elect. His immediate challenge is to restore a sense of honor and pride in this community. The off-duty exploits of outgoing Mayor Susan Dawson and the recent mayoral election — which included no less than seven candidates, more than half of whom had absolutely no business seeking this seat — has made Agawam the butt of seemingly unending jokes.

The embarrassing election is over, and it’s now incumbent upon Cohen to make people sit up and take notice of Agawam for other reasons, particularly economic development. There hasn’t been much of this lately, due largely to a lack of a clear vision about what this community wants to be and how it needs to get there.

Cohen’s first priority is to assemble some land on which businesses can locate, and then drive new development. All eyes have been focused on the so-called FoodMart Plaza, now known as Agawan Town Center, which was vacant for years and is now vacant again after the Steve & Barry’s fiasco, but there are other problems as well. There is no retail, and a crippling lack of commercially zoned property. Cohen can start with the town’s PR crisis, but his bigger assignment is growing the tax base.

Westfield has done well in that regard in recent years, and it is incumbent upon incoming Mayor Dan Knapik to continue to create opportunities for growth. While Agawam is land-poor, Westfield has plenty, and it has a turnpike exit and a municipal airport as attractive assets.

The biggest challenge for Knapik and his community is downtown, which has struggled for decades now. Outgoing Mayor Michael Boulanger and Westfield State College President Evan Dobelle have made some significant strides over the past few years in taking an overlooked and underappreciated asset (the college) and making it into a force for economic development.

Knapik has a lot on his plate, but building on the momentum gained with regard to WSC is priority one. Westfield will never be a true college town, like Amherst or Northampton, but it can be more of a college town, and it must become one.

While Agawam and Westfield confront challenge and opportunity, perhaps no city in the region is at more of a critical crossroad than Holyoke, and this is the situation facing Mayor-elect Elaine Pluta.

For starters, the city will soon be hiring a new police chief and a new school superintendent, meaning that there will be key leadership changes across the board, which are always daunting. But the elephant in the room is the planned high-performance computing center being developed by UMass, MIT, Harvard, and a host of other players.

The center will almost certainly become reality, though the facility itself will not generate tax revenue and will only create a few dozen jobs to start. What isn’t known is what kind of economic development can follow in the wake of such a facility. There is speculation (see story, page 6) that such a center can eventually attract government agencies conducting specific research initiatives, institutions of higher learning, private businesses that want or need to be near such a facility, and support businesses ranging from restaurants to copying centers.

Holyoke should strive for all of the above, and to do this, it must be bold and imaginative in the creation of incentives that will bring businesses and institutions to the city. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this former mill city to reinvent itself as a city defined by innovation.

Politics has a way of getting in the way of progress in Holyoke. Pluta, a veteran city councilor, can’t let that happen. She must forge the partnerships needed to enable this once-proud city to take full advantage of the opportunity that is presenting itself.

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