Page 42 - BusinessWest August 3, 2020
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“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success pro- gram what would work best for our community.”
Forward Thinking
Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.
But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.
“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humil- ity with which they do their work,”
he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for chil- dren and families in the region.
“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,”
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to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.
“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keep- ing people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not some- thing I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”
Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.
For example, $150,000 in Community Develop- ment Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.
Holding Patterns
One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress reg- istered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents respond- ed by turning out in large numbers.
The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.
“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylin- ders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events
he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will con- sistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspec- tives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”
Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of non- profit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.
“Many nonprofits are in a vulner- able state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacer- bated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Com- munity Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to
provide the services they need. “Even from the start of my inter-
view process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its reper- cussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and pri- orities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”
What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.
And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listen- ing to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.
“I’m a believer that, when you pull
people together, there’s usually a solu- tion that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.
‘Meeting’ the Challenge
Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual meth- ods for meeting and getting to know people.
It’s not as he would want it, but it
is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified
or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.
Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.
He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring. u
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
  on Friday nights and had food trucks ... all these fun things were happening, and ... COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”
The hope is that businesses downtown can weath- er what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stron- ger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.
These building blocks include the Mass Develop- ment-funded Transformational Development Initia- tive (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.
One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.
These projects, which the mayor expects to pro- ceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.
“We’re looking at young professionals and empty- nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”
As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were fun- neled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.
“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he con- tinued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re
excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”
While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recog- nizable landmark, City Hall.
Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, add- ing that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the struc- ture, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”
Managing the Situation
As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get week- ends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.
But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.
This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.
After all, he has made public service a second career. u
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]
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