Editor’s note: Mayor Roxann Wedegartner delivered this State of the City address at the John Zon Community Center on Thursday, Jan. 27. The Recorder is making this speech available free for readers.
Good evening, fellow citizens,
INTRODUCTION AND REFLECTIONS
It is my sincere pleasure to be delivering the 2022 State of the City address here tonight to those who are in attendance and those who are tuning in through GCTV. Thank you, GCTV, for making that possible. I don’t know if this is the first ever City of Greenfield State of the City address, but I’m fairly certain that it’s the first one to be delivered while entering the third year of a global pandemic.
Yes, we continue to contend with the pandemic. While I do not intend to dwell on the pandemic tonight, we cannot deny that it has had a significant impact on the city and my term as Mayor. On January 20, 2020, 18 days after my swearing in, the first known case of the Coronavirus 2019 was diagnosed in Washington State. It quickly spread throughout the United States and arrived here in Greenfield in late February of that year. Just as I was ready to kick-off 2020 with a robust plan for making great progress in the City, everything in Greenfield and in America began to change. We hit the pause button on our plans for progress, and instead quickly pivoted to doing what was needed to protect the health, safety and economy of our City. Circumstances around managing the pandemic were — and to a great extent still are — constantly evolving.
MANAGING COVID-19 AND ITS VARIANTS
As I reflected back on 2020 and 2021 in preparation for this address, I realized it has been a time of great challenge, hardship, and heartbreak. Since the beginning, we’ve had 3,002 cases of COVID-19 and its variants, and 118 individuals have died. I want us to take a moment of silence to recognize those families who have lost their loved ones and to honor the memories of those who have died.
I can also honestly say, however, that this City — and that includes you my fellow citizens–managed the response to COVID-19 with expertise, resilience, and many successes. From day one, Greenfield’s response to COVID has been based on science, data, and the best practices of public health and emergency management. We prioritized the health and safety of our residents and our employees. As the hub of Franklin County we recognized that we would have to take the lead in fighting the pandemic and that many of our resources would need to be focused also on our neighboring communities who depend on Greenfield for services to meet their daily needs. On March 13, 2020, we opened the Emergency Operations Center at the John Zon Senior and Community Center and partnered in many instances with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments to carry out our response. We established the COVID-19 Information and Resource Hotline. Two days later on March 15 we established our Contact Tracing Program, and were among the first in Western Massachusetts to do so. That program continues today through the hard work of our Health Department and helps us better fight this pandemic. In January of 2021, as soon as COVID-19 vaccinations were available, we set up a vaccination clinic at the John Zon Center and began with vaccinating our First Responders, then our seniors and then everyone else who was eligible. That clinic — staffed by hundreds of volunteers, including health care professionals — remained open until June 9, 2021.
We were willing to make the hard calls — based on the evidence we had — when it came to deciding when and how to close down and to reopen our local economy and our daily routines. To adjust to the fast-changing situation we found ourselves in, we as a city came together in extraordinary ways. The City’s technology department was able to work quickly to get our City Council, our Boards and Commissions, our schools, and many of our employees ready for remote work despite having nearly no infrastructure to do so before then. Doing so enabled most of our city offices to continue to do their work every day, even though it could not serve people in person. We were also the first city hall to reopen in Western Massachusetts. The City established a comprehensive economic program to support small businesses. In April 2020, for those homeowners who we knew were likely struggling either because they lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic or had reduced hours or faced other dire circumstances, the City waived the penalties and fees for the 4th Quarter taxes, if paid by June 29. Our non-profits and some of our restaurants came together to provide easy access to food at low or no-cost to those increasing numbers of citizens in need. The City and the school department supplied additional Chromebooks to our students after our schools were closed; GCET made sure that those families with students learning remotely could get internet, if they were in a GCET service area, at no cost, and our school food-service staff worked tirelessly to see that all those families in need with school-age children had daily meals. As the weather became warmer and people could be outdoors more often, in a program we called “Shared Streets” and that was funded by grant money from the state, the city, under Economic and Community Development Director, MJ Adams; Chief of Staff DaniLetourneau; and Licensing Clerk, Lori Krikorian, came to the aid of our local restaurants to make it easier for them to do outdoor dining and take out, extend their liquor licenses to outdoor service, and to serve “to-go mixed drinks”. To assist our smallest businesses, especially those owner-operated entrepreneurs who are the backbone of our retail, hospitality, and service businesses, we created in May 2020, the COVID Recovery Micro-Enterprise Assistance Program and gave many Greenfield-based businesses low interest, forgivable loans totaling $203,299. Today those businesses — whether they are restaurants, dance studios, or personal services providers, report that they “were able to stay open, pay the rent, prevent going deeper in debt” in order to keep their businesses open for their customers — even if on a limited basis. The strength, compassion, and commitment of our small business owners, our non-profit partners, and our City and school employees continue to pull us through as we work together to begin our recovery and renewal.
We will soon host the Massachusetts Department of Public Health VAX Bus here at the John Zon Center Feb. 16 from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. We encourage all of you who are not vaccinated or vaccinated but not boosted to take advantage of the VAX BUS to get your vaccines and your boosters. Additional details from the Health Department will be forthcoming soon. Vaccination, including boosters, remain one of our best hopes of getting to the eventual end of the pandemic.
I can tell you emphatically that although we are still in this fight against COVID, I firmly believe that we have the wherewithal and commitment to build a stronger city. As you can see, we may have faced unprecedented challenges, but we are not without HOPE. We still have an obligation to remain focused on those issues that existed before COVID and likely will continue to face us after the virus is gone. And the City of Greenfield has a team of dedicated, experienced professionals — from our Department Heads to our employees — who are truly committed to the work they do and to this city. They show up every day ready to make tough decisions, do hard work, and deliver what’s needed to serve the people of Greenfield. So, I say to you, let’s put aside the petty political games we see on the national scene, and make 2022 the year we all work together in meaningful ways to address our economic recovery and myriad other issues.
ADVANCING BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT
In 2022, we have several key items on our business development agenda. Here’s some of what you can expect to see this year. We continue to work with Mass Development on the expansion of the I-91 Greenfield Industrial Park, making two pad sites available to sell for expansion of existing businesses in the park or acquisition by a new business coming to Greenfield. We will concentrate our marketing efforts for that expansion on the advanced manufacturing sector that already populates the I-91 Greenfield Industrial Park, looking for more businesses like Valley Steel Stamp, Bete Fog Nozzle, and SWM. This sector has proven to be one that provides excellent paying jobs and benefits for employees in our area.
The cannabis industry is a burgeoning business sector here in Greenfield in all of its categories: Recreational and medical retail primarily located in our downtown area and urban core; Cultivation which is primarily located in more rural North Greenfield although not exclusively; and Manufacturing/Distribution/Delivery both in downtown and outlying areas of the city. This fast-growing business sector is primarily made up of younger entrepreneurs with significant financial backing. We currently have 10 Host Community Agreements in place that are making their way through the painfully slow various stages of state licensing getting ready to operate in the City. Patriot Care, the city’s first medical/recreational business, is the only retail marijuana business operating at this time and has provided the city with significant revenue since 2019 of $1,070,331 in total from the 3% impact assessment under our Host Community Agreement, the state tax reimbursement, and the original host fees. This revenue has been a highlight— so to speak — amid the economic challenges of the pandemic, making up for areas where other revenues went down. The City has a good reputation within this sector for being business friendly versus surrounding communities. We even had one person say he and his partners abandoned plans to locate in the eastern part of the state in order to come to Greenfield because their start-up costs were so much more affordable here, including property acquisition.
Among the other business sectors that are growing in Greenfield are the food and beverage manufacturing and distribution (the Four Phantoms Brewing Company and tasting room on Wells Street for one) and retail development on the Mohawk Trail (Phase 1 of the hotel and retail development, starting with the retail development). This development is green-lit and citizens will see site development there in the next few months.
One challenge for business development in Greenfield is the lack of available land or existing real estate on which to develop. That’s a problem we can’t solve easily as they aren’t making more land…we have what we have. One thing we do have, however, are some large underutilized industrial or commercial buildings mostly in our urban core. So, that is why through the efforts of the Economic and Community Development department and in some cases, our state partners like Mass Development, we are preparing requests for proposals for the long-abandoned First National Bank building and our existing Greenfield Public Library building. We also work to identify and connect potential interested developers to the owners of the Wilson’s building and the Armory building. What is very important – and sometimes hard for people to understand — is that the City does not control the Wilson’s Building. It’s privately owned; therefore, we cannot control who ultimately purchases the building or how it’s used. Similarly, the subject of the property on French King Highway where the Planning Board, in 2011, permitted a 135-thousand square foot retail store come up in economic development discussions. That, too, is privately owned, and development was held up in the courts for nine years. In 2019 when the courts ruled that the Planning Board Special Permit would stand, we were hopeful for a new commercial project. However, at this time, the land is leased to Stop & Shop, who has a history of holding on to property in order to prevent competition. Also, the development company has let its special permit lapse. The future of that last remaining large parcel of developable land, which could be used for mixed use commercial, industrial, or residential use, is uncertain. However, rest assured, I will pursue answers on why it sits undeveloped. Stay tuned.
When it comes to downtown Greenfield, we continue to invest. Keeping Downtown Greenfield and our Main Street a workable, viable and attractive place to do business, access services, and have a little fun are fundamental to our recovery and renewal. On Feb. 7, we will announce the Downtown Revitalization Plan, a reboot of the Deliberate Downtown plans we announced just a little over two months before we had to shut down and limit social gathering because of the Coronavirus. In it we’ll update you on how we are working to create an exciting recovery plan using stat funding, including Rapid Recovery grant money. We are working on this effort with many of our local business owners, the Greenfield Business Association, relevant city boards and commissions and our state partners the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the Office of Housing, Economic and Community Development. We’ll focus on four projects in the pipeline: Main Street infrastructure repairs and improvements to traffic flow and safety, utilizing over $5 million dollars in direct funding from Massachusetts Department of Transportation; modifications to Court Square based on this past summer’s pilot and the feedback that we received from many of you: what worked; what didn’t; the previously mentioned First National Bank redevelopment, and a marketing plan for Greenfield showcasing the City as a great place to live, work, and play. People all over New England and the country rethink the value of living in the big city, and are choosing a more rural, less hectic place to live. We have seen that interest manifest in our residential real estate market with a rise in house sales and how quickly homes for sale are being bought when they come on the market. That seems counter-intuitive — that real estate sales in Greenfield, and really in Franklin County, would not slow down, but rather pick up — during a global health crisis. But that is what has happened and it’s largely been to the city’s benefit.
Literally underlying the success of our growth and development is our infrastructure, not just making improvements to our water and sewer infrastructure, but making the important investments in our facilities, like our new library, our new fire station, our parks. Infrastructure projects, because of the large dollars needed, are primarily funded as capital projects based on our carefully planned Capital Budget, and utilizing borrowing. However, we can augment that funding with grants. So, we are pivoting the use of some of our Community Development Block Grant money to assisting with our infrastructure. It was utilized to complete a major replacement of water and sewer mains on West Street at the end of last year. And, it will be utilized to contract with engineering firms to provide “shovel ready” plans for making some future infrastructure projects more eligible for funding from the American Recovery Plan money available from the state and federal governments.
Utilizing funding authorized in the city’s capital budget, the long-awaited Sanderson Street replacement of 100-year old water and sewer mains will begin this year as will the much-needed safety repairs to Wisdom Way. So while getting around Greenfield may be a bit more challenging in some areas this year, know that your tax dollars are being put to good use for the long-term good of our community’s roadways.
THE CITY’S FINANCIAL HEALTH
We are able to provide the services we provide to the residents of Greenfield because the City runs on revenue from a variety of sources, among them real estate taxes and other fees, state aid, grants, and general revenue from things like Excise Tax and the local Meals & Entertainment tax. Given that the City has been through an extremely challenging revenue generating time during these two years of the pandemic, we’re in better shape financially than we expected. Maintaining the city’s financial stability through these challenges has required a great deal of sacrifice on the part of city departments and employees while at the same time we adhered closely to our strong municipal financial management policies.
We were able to bring down the tax rate for this year, achieving the largest decrease in taxes in ten years. How did we do it? In the last three years, we professionalized how our city operates: by continuously seeking grants, by adhering to a strict policy limit on capital borrowing, and by better using technology to receive and manage money coming into the city. But, frankly, we also had help from a strong real estate market over the last two years, which led to higher real estate values, and we completed the state mandated revaluation of residential and commercial property. We also saw modest but steady commercial growth.
I fully understand that higher real estate values on your homes and businesses can have a double-edged sword effect: higher values can mean increases in your tax bills, which for many of our residents can create hardship. However, our overall long-term financial stability depends on the city increasing the market value of its real property. All of this goes into the mix of how we’ve been able to increase our stabilization funds, hold the line for now on taxes, and maintain our excellent AA- bond rating. Because of this, we’re able to take advantage of very low interest rates to invest in those projects that make a strong community: public safety, libraries, and infrastructure, all of it within our debt limit for the next several years. We can’t know right now how this year will shake out financially but we do know that we will operate with this one tenant: fiscal responsibility and accountability to the residents of Greenfield.
HIGHLIGHTS AND WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON
Before closing, I want to mention a few other highlights of the past two years.
Our Energy Department, under Director Carole Collins, is ground zero for how we fight climate change in our city. It is highly effective in envisioning, designing, funding, and implementing projects that reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and save the city money.
Our greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced throughout the city by 67.7% since 2008. The Police Department grant-funded heating system was replaced in 2021 with higher efficiency unit expected to save approximately $9,000 per year in energy costs. A 1.5MW solar array is now in operation on the City’s wellfield that will save approximately $63,000 annually on energy consumption. We reduced energy consumption across all municipal operations by over 25% in fiscal year 2021. The city has maintained more than 20% reduction in energy consumption across the municipality for the past five years, which is a very challenging, impressive accomplishment. Energy costs saved equals money that we did not have to spend.
More than $4.5M has been saved since 2010 through renewable energy generation and energy reduction work made possible in large part by grants and utility incentives. Each year, this number grows by roughly $500,000 in savings including: $2.18M over the past nine years from the solar farm on the City’s capped landfill. That’s approximately $242,000 per year. In eleven city buildings, LED lighting upgrades are saving over $43,500 per year in electricity costs. The Police department grant-funded heating system was replaced in 2021 with higher efficiency unity expected to save approximately $9,000 per year in energy costs.
Speaking of the Police Department, the city will meet its obligations under the Police Reform act passed by the legislature in 2021. It will be costly, but, in addition to funding through our operating budget, we will seek as much grant money as possible to help cover and offset those costs. However, even before the Police Reform act was passed, through the persistent efforts of Police Chief Robert Haigh, the city now has two trained social workers — our Community Resource officers –—working alongside our police officers on those emergency calls that have a mental health component and can result in better outcomes when connecting the individuals involved with services versus arresting them, when an arrest is not warranted.
On housing, one of the most important issues we face, but also one of the more difficult and costly ones to make headway on, is consistently on our radar screen whether it’s finding shelter or permanent homes for our unhoused population or creating more market-rate housing to satisfy the needs of those who want to live here but find it harder and harder to find affordable rentals and homes for sale. The city has a seat at the table for all the strategy sessions that surround this issue. But it’s important to note that we, as a municipal government, don’t own the properties that these initiatives impact. Frankly, we don’t build housing. But we can help shape what private owners and developers are able to accomplish. We are here to facilitate conversations and, when appropriate, join with those organizations that work more directly on the issues surrounding housing. Just this year, from some of our $5.1 million dollars in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funding, I’ve given out $24,000 to the Greenfield Housing Authority to make necessary improvements to the Winslow House at Main and Wells streets which serves some of our most vulnerable homeless residents and I’ve given $25,000 to the Interfaith Council to be used to provide direct assistance to those who have been evicted and need a short term rental or hotel accommodations and to those who may have found housing but need move-in expenses.
Right before our very eyes, our new library is rising up out of the ground on Main Street. And, further down Main Street, an open parcel of land awaits the construction this spring of our new Fire Station, which is currently being designed. Meanwhile, our firefighters operate out of their new temporary station. And, design work will begin soon a new skate park.
In closing, what I hope you have taken away from this State of the City address is that I go to work every day, along with the rest of your neighbors who work for the city, with the intention of making Greenfield a stronger, better, more livable community. The challenges are great, but work gets done despite them. This year and those that follow, let us all be strengthened in our tenacity and resolve to get this important work done.
As your Mayor, it is my honor and a privilege to serve you. Thank you!