Belchertown lands $3M grant to advance redevelopment of state school

  • Belchertown Town Administrator Gary L. Brougham, center, accepts a $3 million state grant Thursday from Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, right, and MassDevelopment Project Coordinator Claire O’Neill. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

Thursday, October 19, 2017

BELCHERTOWN — Town officials believe a $3 million state grant awarded Oct. 12 will pave the way for more redevelopment of the former Belchertown State School property along Route 202.

“This is probably one of the biggest days we’ve had to date in terms of funding and opportunity,” said Steve Williams, director of the Belchertown Department of Public Works. “Once this campus opens up it’s going to allow a lot more to happen. This grant is going to allow us to provide key infrastructure in an area that is definitely ready for it.”

The money, awarded through the state’s MassWorks Infrastructure Program, will help build a stretch of road — and associated water, sewer and electrical lines — connecting Front Street and Jackson Street where the Christopher Heights Belchertown assisted living center is currently under construction.

The road will open up over 25 of the 800 acres available for development on the former campus.

Town Administrator Gary L. Brougham accepted the grant from Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and MassDevelopment Project Coordinator Claire O’Neill during a presentation at the site.

“What today’s message is all about is one of partnership,” Polito said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult to find further private investment to come here and build the kind of housing this community needs and wants to see.”

The $3 million will supplement $10 million already provided by the state to assist with the demolition of old buildings, and $1.2 million from Belchertown taxpayers.

“There’s really two more pieces of the puzzle,” Williams said. “It’s getting continued support from our legislators to get the funding to take down the remaining buildings and demolition costs and the corridor improvements out here to complement the campus and access in and out of it.”

Projects already underway at the state school include a new building for the Belchertown Day School child-care program and the 83-unit Christopher Heights project that is expected to open next spring.

The school and senior housing are the cornerstones of what Belchertown officials hope becomes a mix of residential, commercial, recreational and cultural development on the property.

This year MassDevelopment will award 47 grants totaling nearly $85 million through the MassWorks program. During her remarks, Polito noted that the Baker administration reserves 10 percent of the $500 million devoted to MassWorks for communities with less than 7,000 residents.

“While much attention is given to Boston, it’s my job and the governor’s to make sure we are distributing those dollars to all parts of the commonwealth,” Polito said.

Belchertown Selectmen Archie Archible has high hopes for the location, and says a Ludlow restaurateur is looking to open a location in the new development.

“They closed the school in ‘92. They said here, it’s yours. But what they left us with was a mess. Asbestos, PCBs, you name it,” Archible said. “This means a lot for Belchertown. I’m willing to bet in 10 years this will be full.”

Bill Terry, chairman of the Massachusetts Economic Development Industrial Corporations, says there has been a growing interest from developers in the area.

“This road, we’re hoping, will have a domino effect, especially with the new assisted living center opening here,” Terry said.

The MassWorks Infrastructure Program is a quasi-public agency that helps municipalities pay for public infrastructure projects.

“It’s a good example of the state municipalities working together to develop the economy and housing, everything Belchertown is looking for right now,” said state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol.

According to O’Neill, infrastructure investments help bring jobs to an area, grow its tax base, and foster a stronger sense of community. Two recent examples of successful MassDevelopment projects are the commercial center in Fort Devens and the Village Hill residential and commercial spaces in Northampton.

“We want to make sure we translate the success we see in these other projects around the state and work hard to be with you and make this happen,” O’Neill said.

The state school closed in 1992 after 70 years of warehousing up to 1,300 people behind barred windows in locked wards. Many had severe disabilities, while other were misdiagnosed, orphaned or simply unwanted.

During the past 25 years, proposals by several potential developers died on the vine, and the decaying buildings suffered vandalism, including suspicious fires in recent years.