Friday, August 31, 2012

$aving a Camperdown? Yes!

 The stately Camperdown Elm on Amherst College Campus released from Death Row

Amherst College has wisely decided that you can't really put a price on a majestic historic treasure like their almost one of kind (in Amherst anyway) Camperdown elm.

Yes, Amherst's largest landowner and second best liberal arts college in America will pay the $100,000 cost to safely relocate the Camperdown to a new spot on Pratt Field rather than simply cut it down and chalk it up to collateral damage in the $12.5 million renovation project.

 Trees on both sides of the Camperdown will not survive realignment of track

Amherst College Director of Facilities Jim Brassord announced the stunning news last night to a group of concerned neighbors (concerned about the Camperdown, noise, traffic, etc) while giving them an update on plans for the major construction project impacting their neighborhood. The project starts after the football season finishes this fall. 

 Camperdown Elm will provide shade for generations of Amherst College students to come

Nobody knows for sure when the tree was planted, but just over a 120 years ago, when Pratt Field was first constructed is a pretty good bet.  And yes they can easily live to be 200 or more years old.

Sure $100K is a lot of money, but less than 1% of the overall budget for the project.
 Amherst Shade Tree Committee wrote to College President Biddy Martin pleading for  Camperdown's salvation

All the Camperdowns in existence today emanate from a single tree created by grafting a mutant alien branch found on the forest floor to a Wych elm on the estate of the Earl of Camperdown in Dundee, Scotland circa 1835.

Combine that unique pedigree with the weeping nature of Camperdown canopy and it's no wonder it attracts an almost religious like following among tree lovers.

Historical preservation at its finest

Amherst Flies Commemorative Flags

 Commemorative flags went up this morning, but will come down on Tuesday

Yeah, for Labor Day.

Labor Day is not really a festive party-hardy kind of care free holiday, it is supposed to "commemorate" the struggle -- punctuated by violence -- to bring about safer working conditions for the tired, huddled masses of workers via unions.   Strength in numbers.

How many employees trudged to work on that stunningly beautiful  morning almost eleven years ago, reporting for duty to the Twin Towers or police and fire houses in New York City, or the Pentagon, or Logan International Airport, never to return?

How does it make them feel?!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Schools In

A good crowd under perfect blue skies on the Amherst town common tonight

Amherst Regional Public Schools start tomorrow -- except, alas, kinder garden and preschool -- so tonight school officials threw a party for kids and their happy parents on the Amherst town common. Vehicular traffic was heavy as seemingly all roads lead to Amherst, the education capital of the Happy Valley.

State Representative Ellen Story was hard to miss in red skirt

Umass dorms open tomorrow and 4,560 freshmen -- er, I mean -- "first-year class",  will descend on Amherst just in time for the Blue Moon on Friday night. The 46th Annual Community Breakfast was also held this morning with new Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy doing the staged schmooze routine.

Let's hope his act plays better than his predecessor, and he can bring some long-term stability as captain of the state's flagship of higher education.

Mourning Overload?

 Amherst Town Center, this morning

Yes the town flag is once again at half staff by Governor's orders, this time for U.S. Army Major Steven Brothers of Arlington, Massachusetts who died on May 30 from leukemia .  This now makes the 5th time in a week, all for military personnel, 80% of whom died by non-military related causes.

Makes you wonder if folks by now are starting to get desensitized to Old Glory in that position of mourning?

The federal government only recognizes four annual occasions for the flag to fly at half staff:  Pearl Harbor Day (December 7 for you young'uns), Peace Officers Day (5/15), Memorial Day and most recently 9/11.  Of course special occasions do occur like the death of a former high ranking political figure, or to mourn mass murders like Virginia Tech and the most recent Colorado theatre shootings.

A timely example is President Obama noting the passing of astronaut Neil Armstrong with just such a well deserved honor this coming Friday.

On Monday night the Amherst Select Board mentioned a number of times as their predecessors have done over the past ten years, that the town does recognize and mourn 9/11 by flying the town flag (that does fly 24/7 all year) at half staff.

I particularly remember Selectman Robie Hubley (secretly married to SB chair Anne Awad at the time) seven years ago saying he brought the flag down to half staff in town center "with my own bare hands".  Of course once the photo op was finished Mr. Hubley forgot to return the next day to bring the flag back up to full staff and it stayed down for the next two or three days.

And my fear this year is that the Governor will have the flag down on 9/8, 9/9, 9/10 for state reasons, and by 9/11 it will be a little less noticeable. Combine that with the recent decision of the Select Board not to fly the 29 commemorative flags in town center on 9/11, and you are heading down a dangerous path:

 "Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it."

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Town Manager gets a raise

Okay so for those of you who say I never admit a mistake, pay attention.  Last week I predicted Town Manager John Musante, previously tied for highest paid town employee, would get a 5% raise in order to keep up with School Superintendent Maria Geryk, who recently received a 5% bump from her then $140,000 salary.

The town just announced Musante will receive a 1.5% raise, about what all the lower echelon employees have received recently.   Bully for him!

Take teachers for example: According to the Daily Hampshire Gazette they are currently in the second year of a two-year contract, with each year providing 1.5% COLAs. The contract covering the previous three years had annual COLAs of 2.5, 3.5 and 3%. About half the teachers also get step increases of about 4% a year

Monday, August 27, 2012

9/11 Déjà vu

Select Board pocket vetoes flying flags on 9/11. Did not even take a vote. No commemorative flags in the downtown this 9/11.

Party House of the Weekend

179 Heatherstone Road, Amherst

Amherst police responded to 179 Heatherstone Road twice within a half-hour late Friday night into early Saturday morning, the first time for a loud out-of-control party that generated a "nuisance house" ticket, and the second time for a report of a "missing laptop."

Thus, making for an expensive party.  A $300 civil infraction fine for violating the town's bylaw crafted to protect the peace and quiet of residential neighborhoods, and a laptop computer that is l-o-n-g gone.

I guess it's fortunate the semester has not yet started so no valuable school work was lost with the laptop ... Yeah, sarcasm. 
Welcome Students! Well the vast majority of you anyway

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Preserve and Protect (self interest)

North Amherst Congregational Church (now under new management).

After narrow back-to-back victories sabotaging the attempted rezoning of North Amherst Village Center to encourage denser, smart growth through Form Based Zoning, the local NIMBYs -- who only need  one third plus one of antiquated Town Meeting to agree with them to block such proposals -- have come up with a new scheme, yet another hurdle for town officials and local developers: Declare the area a "historic district."

A recent article in Preservation Nation portrays the merry band as selfless neighbors fighting valiantly to protect their heritage against "future threats," presumably the evils of corporate greed.

But they fail to mention the lead architect of this gambit, Louis Greenbaum, is a major rental property owner of less-than-upscale housing, who stands to benefit by preventing any mixed-use development that increases the supply of Amherst rental housing.

Oldest saying in capitalism:  "When products compete, they get better."  And God knows, with the squeaky tight housing market in our little college town, home to a very large flagship University, we could use new housing developments to compete with the current supply of aging, expensive units.

Historical preservation, when used correctly, is an admirable, worthy endeavor.  Using it as a weapon against badly needed development is a travesty.

Gambling on a Casino

Let the advertising begin ...

So my friends at the Springfield Sunday Republican have already benefited by the (gold) rush to place a gambling casino somewhere in Western Massachusetts, as evidenced by today's full page, multi- color, full press run ad prominently placed -- usually at a 20% premium placement charge -- on page three.

My guess is around $15,000 ... or pocket change compared to the non-refundable $400,000 MGM recently paid the state in order to be a player.

Thus, even if MGM does get the coveted license and Peter Picknelly does not buy the newspaper's land for many, many millions of dollars, The Republican will still benefit by a resort casino in downtown Springfield via advertising revenue.

Providing of course MGM lavishly continues to put their advertising dollars into print as opposed to the Internet, radio, TV, direct mail, billboards, etc.  Hey, maybe they will hire the homeless to hand out leaflets. 

Of course you also have to also factor in the print ad revenue lost from local mom-and-pops driven out of business by the gambling Juggernaut.  Bowling anyone?

The Republican, 1860 Main Street, Springfield

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sultry Saturday

War Memorial Pool, 2:15 PM, 92 degrees hot
After being abandoned for four years and then missing two opening deadlines this summer, the War Memorial Pool finally did open on July 8.

But, as scheduled, a couple weeks before Labor Day, it closed ... with no signage now to indicate that (other than a lack of people).

What A Gas

 Hess Express, West Street, South Amherst

It took almost exactly a month -- but probably their least profitable month of the year anyway -- to switch out the gas tanks and add diesel to the Hess Express, the busiest little convenience store in South Amherst and probably in the top two for all of little old Amherst.

No doubt they will be serving a slew of students and their parents over the next few weeks, only they will have to stick to gas, bread, milk, coffee and lottery tickets as our Select Board recently turned them down unanimously for a beer/wine permit.  

Meanwhile the Snell Street Bridge replacement, the state project  two miles up the road, seems to be moving along.  The new replacement steel superstructure is now on site and certainly fits the motif of Amherst as a "green community."

Snell Street replacement bridge

And what would late August in Amherst be without turkeys?
Family of turkeys in South Amherst

Friday, August 24, 2012

On The Money

 Town Manager John Musante, Stephanie O'Keeffe Select Board Chair

Although I still think only God should receive a 100% score when being evaluated by mere mortals, figures released today by Comptroller Sonia Aldrich and Finance Director Sandy Pooler indicate why Town Manager John Musante earned a 100% score from his bosses, the elected Select Board, for all things budgetary.

For the fifth straight year the town has shown, on average, an end of the year budget surplus of just over $1 million; and in this year's case in particular, $1,110,254. On a total FY12 budget of $65.6 million coming within 1.7% of projections (to the good side).

In addition two large chunks of money were appropriated and never used for its intended purpose: $426,026 for storm clean up (October 29 Treemageddon) not needed because the state came through with emergency aid to cover that amount, and another $370,000 appropriated to repair Puffer's Pond but only if additional matching state aid came through, and it did not.

Thus an additional $796,026 reverted to Free Cash, bringing the grand total to almost $2 million.

Give that man a cigar.

Man Down ... Way Down!

 AFD and Amherst College PD attend to fallen worker trapped in a manhole

Late this morning a contractor performing work at Amherst College fell down a manhole bringing a swift coordinated response from Amherst Fire Department, APD, Amherst College Police --including Chief John Carter and Director of Facilities Jim Brassord -- as well as a bevy of concerned fellow workers.

AFD called in their "technical team" (climbers who usually go in an upward direction) and the rescue took less than an hour.  The rescuers were talking to the trapped man the entire time and it appeared at no time was the situation life threatening.

 He's out!

Still, a tremendous effort by first responders.

A Tale of Two Modulars

The hulk of a building that would have dominated this frame is gone

The big ugly modular building that cramped the side approach to Amherst Regional Middle School,  "temporary" classrooms that were plunked down in 1994 to help absorb some of the displaced students due to the $22 million Amherst Regional High School renovation, is now absent (with permission).

After the High School renovation/expansion was completed circa 1996, the classrooms transformed into administrative office space, but they lacked basic amenities -- like bathrooms -- and required expensive overhead: $10,000 annually, mostly for electricity.

Employees have now retreated back into the main building.

Meanwhile our pristine never-actually-used-as-classrooms modular unit near the decommissioned Mark's Meadow Elementary School (now returned to UMass) sits unwanted behind the School of Education.

UMass always owned the Mark's Meadow building, but the town --at the exuberant urging of a pre Catherine Sanderson School Committee --  added the stand alone modular classrooms in 2007 at a cost of $220,000.

Mark's Meadow modular "classrooms" now abandoned but still owned by Amherst

The building consists of two class rooms, two rest rooms, two closets, a data closet and custodial closet and an independent heating and cooling systems allowing it to be a stand alone building. But unfortunately,  as such,  would require a whopping investment to properly move and reassemble it elsewhere: A cost approaching what the town originally paid for it. 

Maybe UMass would allow the building to stay where it is and become a homeless shelter?  The current shelter at the Baptist Church, located at the edge of campus, is too small and needs separate facilities for women.  The cost to renovate the modular where it is would be far cheaper than trying to move it. 
 "Homeless and Hungry" woman Amherst town center

The Amherst Community Development Block Grant committee just happens to have a spare $200,000 leftover from last year's appropriation they need to put to good use. And the CDBG advisory committee unanimously voted to address "Homeless and Sheltering" as their number one priority for this upcoming year.
Left: Nancy Gregg, Housing and Shelter Com Rep, Claude Tellier, Co-Chair CDBG Advisory Com

Plus it could be a good learning experience for UMass students to interact with those less fortunate souls down on their luck, who struggle with substance abuse.  Unlike our weekend party hardy types, who think they have it all under control.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Spruced Up

 Ground level planters now adorn all four corners of downtown Amherst

Remember when you were a kid, and company was coming over, and Mom or Dad suddenly became frantic about tidying up the entire house?

Well, Amherst is in that final phase of preparation for a sudden tsunami of students descending on our fair town to patronize three institutes of higher education.  One in particular will attract over 4,600 new recruits unfamiliar with the culture of Amherst (the town, not the College). 

Large colorful pots of flowers just recently appeared on all four corners of the main intersection of the downtown, courtesy of Mina Lussier, owner of  Zanna.  

And since her iconic business is located on the outskirts of the downtown, out of sight of these artful additions, it's not like she's doing it to spruce up her own front yard.  

Let's hope they survive the onslaught over the next few weeks.

Northampton figured out how to protect plants from meddling

Bad Things come in 3's

 Amherst College Chapel Hill

Our b-i-g flag in town center is in a position of mourning today, as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow to honor three Massachusetts men serving in the armed forces who perished this month, all of them in country.

Yesterday Governor Patrick wished to honor Marine Cpl. Kevin Dabrowski of Webster and tomorrow U.S. Army SPC David A. Mulno of Tewksbury.  Both of whom succumbed in vehicular accidents.

Although U.S. Army MSG Gregory R. Trent, age 38, of Norton, who we honor today, died at Bethesda Naval Hospital a week after being wounded by small arms fire in Afghanistan.

That certainly demonstrates how swiftly the military recovers their wounded and gets them to highly skilled help. Unfortunately, in this case, not in time to preserve life.  So far this year we have lost 308 troops in Afghanistan, 245 of them to hostile action.

On 9/11 we lost 2,997 souls to hostile action, 98% of them civilians.  Or as Mayor Giuliani so eloquently stated, "more than we can bear."

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Amherst Calling

Wi-Fi emitters dangle from a streetlight in Amherst town center

Work has commenced replacing the downtown WiFi emitters on our still somewhat rare free public Internet access, a joint project with two UMass professors six years ago who were doing a doomsday project for the Department of Defense.

All 14 or the original emitters will be replaced and another 8 access points will be added, bringing the total to 22. According to Information Technology Director Kris Pacunas the refreshed grid will be "faster, more reliable and will be able to handle many more simultaneous users."

Since the emitters are being replaced one at a time, at no point will the entire system be down and the work, costing $20,000, should be completed by mid-October.

The town also appropriated $85,000 to outfit Town Hall with a generator to allow the seat of government to become an Emergency Operation Center in the event of a major incident like the freak snowstorm last October 29, which knocked out all modes of communication including the public WiFi.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

A Glowing Review ... But

Amherst Town Manager John Musante

So it comes as no surprise the Select Board gave Town Manager John Musante high marks (don't get any higher than 100%!) for fiscal management, working with the Select Board itself, and slightly lower but still very good marks at 83% for dealing with our tax exempt institutes of higher education.

What is troubling, however, is the lowest mark (75%) for dealing with staff.

Particularly troubling because this mirrors the low (er) marks his disgraced predecessor Larry Shaffer received a few years ago. Interestingly, yesterday the Michigan newspaper that covers Jackson where Shaffer briefly reigned as city manager published an expose on the "inside story" of Shaffer's sudden departure -- with $64K in tax money -- from that community that mirrored his sudden departure from ours, with $62K in tax money.

Another safe bet is the Select Board will give the town manager a 5% raise based on this performance evaluation.  And not because it brings his salary into line with surrounding communities, but simply because School Superintendent Maria Geryk -- who was also making exactly the same $140K last year -- recently received a 5% raise.

And we must have parity ... at least at the very top rungs of municipal employment.

But when your staff and lower on the totem pole employees only receive a 2 or 3% raise, that legitimately creates, umm, discontent. 


Grade inflation?  If the Select Board had rewarded the town manager's above average fiscal management and communication with them with an 80% or a B, which most people consider a good solid score, then reducing that by the same 25% they did with his interaction with staff would have resulted in a 60% score ... or a D.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Party Houses of the Weekend

41 Hobart Lane, Amherst 

Yeah, already I can use the pleural of Party House.  Not a good sign.

According to the above-the-fold front page story in today's venerable Gazette, UMass is taking a "lighter approach" to controlling student party behavior, using cartoon characters to enlighten them to the pitfalls of over consumption of alcohol.

Umm yeah, almost as good as handing out oatmeal cookies.

My favorite nugget of wisdom they are passing down to freshman from more senior students who presumably learned from their bad experiences is this one:  "Just because you suddenly have access to alcohol doesn't mean you have to consume it all at once."

Take for instance a young woman at 41 Hobart Lane, who was taken into Protective Custody for being ETOH (beyond drunk).

According to APD logs:

"RP reports loud music, partying and drunken shouting 1:33 AM (early Saturday)"

"Young woman observed attempting to urinate in front of residence.  Unable to state which town she was in.  Was observed to have bloodshot, glassy eyes, slurred speech."

The tenant of record at 41 Hobart was cited for violation of the town's noise bylaw ($300 fine).

285 Main Street, Amherst (directly across from Emily Dickinson Homestead/Museum

 10:50 PM Friday night

"Large loud party with many individuals identified as being minors in possession of alcohol. One tenant was identified on scene. Approximately 60-100 guests cleared from apartment."

Arrested for TBL noise violation:
Nicholas Abraham, 285 Main St #2, Amherst, MA, age 19
One other cited for marijuana, $100 fine

Atkins Corner: Getting There

First roundabout 

First Roundabout 11/20/11
West Street in front of Hampshire College now paved

Parking lot in front of Atkins graded

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Matter of Respect

Law would not apply to private flags, but Big Y and Amherst College usually follow state protocol

It only takes but a moment to bring an American flag down to half staff ... the solemn respect it demonstrates lasts an eternity.  And since it would be honoring and remembering someone who gave up their life in the performance of their sworn duty to protect and serve the general public, is that really too much to ask?

Massachusetts Senate bill 1573 would require American flags in the Commonwealth (under state control) fly at half staff to commemorate a police officer or firefighter killed in the line of duty.  Hardly controversial -- and sure to pass -- since Governor Patrick has been especially attentive over his tenure with ordering our flags to half staff to honor those brave first responders and military personnel. 

So could we just please fast track the bill to get it passed by 9/11?  No other event in our entire history better symbolizes the dedication, determination and self-sacrifice of first responders quite like that morning.

That awful, awful morning.

AFD 9/11/08


Fox out hunting in a South Amherst backyard, near Crocker Farm Elementary School

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Another Miss Emily?

 A mature Emily Dickinson?

Perhaps having only one known daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson has added to her mystery and allure over the years.  Not that she needed that, mind you.  Her poems speak for themselves. As loudly now as ever, even 126 years after she was called back.

Miss Emily, coffee at Rao's 

If my great, great grandfather Tom Kelley, Miss Emily's loyal "domestic", was still around he could give a positive ID one way or the other.   Of course he would also report that there was never anything especially notable about Emily Dickinson's physical wrappings, at least not nearly so compared to what emanated from her core.

Dickinson Homestead Museum, pride of Amherst  (College and the town). Miss Emily's room 2nd floor corner windows facing west&south

Missing In Action

Snell Street no bridge

Former Snell Street Bridge
The state made good progress on the Snell Street Bridge replacement this week, managing to remove the entire historic old RR bridge in just five days and only closing the road off from 7:00 AM till 3:00 PM.

Since state Department of Conservation Recreation is about as communicative as a hunk of metal, we do not know if the new bridge will be dropped into place starting next week or not.

First warning/blockade/detour for users is about 100 yards away
Blockade at bridge is formidable enough to stop a bike going full speed

Friday, August 17, 2012

And Another One Gone

 35 South Pleasant Street, heart of downtown Amherst

If only a business could run on heart, good intentions and enthusiasm, the enormous failure rate in the start up year would be -- like the bubonic plague -- all but eradicated.

35 South Cycle, an aerobic spin class business, opened in town center in January, peak month for the health fitness industry, and closed in late July, the worst month for the industry--especially one located in a college town.

I bumped into owner Jeff Brown during my brief photo shoot and asked him about prospective tenants -- as in what kind of business was he now seeking to occupy his former law office?  "Probably not a restaurant," he laughed.  Or fitness business.  Restaurants are  #1 for failing in the startup year and health fitness businesses are in the top five.
 Beautiful ornate brick walls, windows looking out onto Main Street USA

With a rent of $3,000 per month the age old wisdom of parents counseling their child about to leave the nest still applies:  Rent should not be more than 25% of your income.  So if you are going to open a business here, make sure your annual revenues exceed $150,000.

Yes, $3,000 per month sounds like a lot for 1,000 square feet of space, probably a little more than Barry Roberts charges but less than the Grandonico family, downtown landlords who own a significant portion of the downtown.

And this location, location, location does benefit by fairly significant foot traffic generated by adjacent icon AJ Hastings and less-than-iconic Bank Of America (unless of course Occupy Amherst comes a calling).

Opening your own business is like a being a member of the The Flying Wallendas:  It takes skill, courage and know how, where the rewards are great and the downside ... well ... death

Three-out-of-four of these prime downtown storefronts are now empty