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"Bad Energy"

A discrepancy between statements made by city officials raises questions about the principles that have been guiding them.

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Thursday, July 03, 2008

"It is the function of marketing to deal with the identity of a place. We have had potential clients that turned away because of the bad energy of the mental hospital association. This name change reflects the sensible concept of integrating clients into the community, away from the institution."

—Teri Anderson, Economic Development Coordinator for Northampton, in answer to a committee member who asked why "Hospital" had been removed from the name of a new development on the former site of Northampton State Hospital. Recorded in the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting minutes for November, 2007

 

"It's not this group's purview. That's the only thing I'm going to say. The developer gets to make that decision about what it's called. You can have a conversation with them, but it's not the CAC's purview."

—Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins, responding to a similar question from a member of the public two CAC meetings later on June 18, 2008

These responses were quoted in a story published in the Advocate last week ("What's In a Name?", June 26, 2008) as one detail in a wider-ranging discussion. The two very different replies from city officials to what was in effect the same question deserve closer attention. The discrepancies raise questions about Northampton's recent past and imminent future, far beyond what's happening up on Hospital Hill.

Let's rewind the tape and play it again in slow mo.

Though the responses were from two different people, seven months apart, in both instances a very similar cast of characters was present. The majority of the CAC, two city officials, and representatives from the two developers, MassDevelopment and Community Builders, all met in the same room they have been meeting in for nearly a decade, up on Hospital Hill in the Haskell Building.

The big difference was that Teri Anderson's more candid reply in November was made when the meeting room was free of press and public. In June, she was present during the mayor's response, but remained silent even though, by having taken ownership of the decision and having defended it, her previous statement called into question the mayor's assertion that only the developers have a say in the site's name.

Also present at both meetings was the city's planning director, Wayne Feiden. While not a member of the CAC, he regularly attends these meetings, and with a mind for facts and figures, he frequently interjects corrections and comments. But he didn't clarify here.

The reason for the mayor's defensiveness and the room's silence is because until Anderson's remark had been caught in the meeting minutes, city officials and developers had always said they were doing everything possible to sell the site and its history. It was a central condition of the developers taking ownership of the land. Now it appears they may have taken a different course.

By demonstrating that city hall and the developers have been working with two agendas, one public and one private, the city's economic developer invites speculation over what other ulterior motives lurk behind past stated goals, and whom the city has really been trying to please.

In 1998, before a developer had been chosen, or any analysis of structural or financial viability had been done on the hospital that was eventually torn down, Feiden went on record in the Daily Hampshire Gazette saying that "most of the buildings on the hospital grounds will have to be torn down." Without the data to support fact-based reasons for demolition, perhaps it was the more emotional concern about "bad energy" that guided him.

Anderson's comment about prospective clients being turned off by Hospital Hill's history also raises serious questions about who those clients might have been, and whom the city is trying to attract to Northampton. She has repeatedly spoken to the press about potential clients for the site over the years, but until contracts are signed, she is not able to talk about them.

In view of major developments that are underway or planned elsewhere in the city, her comment opens the possibility that Smith College, the Hilton Hotel chain, and the developers looking to build a conference center on the Northampton fairgrounds all rejected the hill because of its ghosts. Maybe that's why Smith tore down affordable housing on Green Street for its new education building instead of building on the adjacent, available lot on the hill.

 

Many of the CAC members who voted unanimously in favor of a plan for defense contractor Kollmorgen to move from its facility on King Street to Hospital Hill agreed that the company is not an ideal fit for the new project. Kollmorgen's move, they say, is necessary in order to keep the company in Northampton. The key questions are, if Kollmorgen is not ideal, whom had the city envisioned as the dream tenant for that location, why did they fail to attract that client over the past 10 years, and what are they doing differently to attract those clients now?

The fact is that the majority of businesses who have stepped forward to invest in the site are the ones for whom no marketing has been necessary. Whatever the city has said they've done to cultivate new business on Hospital Hill to increase the tax base has mostly failed.

We do know the names of the very few businesses that have been lured to Hospital Hill (Kollmorgen and VCA, Inc.) as well as the names of those who have profited from selling property and building there (Goggins Real Estate and Wright Builders). Was it these businesses that needed Old Main demolished before they could take advantage of the hill?

In the 10 years I've lived in Northampton, I've worked for two businesses in transit. One had recently moved to a new location; the other moved while I worked there. The first, a nonprofit, had been open to relocating to Hospital Hill, but got tired of waiting for a way to move forward. They built elsewhere in town. The second company searched all over Northampton and considered several places that needed serious rehab, but according to the best information available, Hospital Hill was never offered as an option.

The Advocate invites readers to post a comment to this story online about what your experiences have been trying to set up shop in the Paradise City and how (whether) Hospital Hill was presented to you.

 

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