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Springfield City Councilors want advance briefings on economic development projects

Springfield City Hall
Paul Tuthill
A resolution passed by the City Council urges the administration to provide information about economic development projects at least 30 days before a vote by the Council is needed.

Councilors say they are too often under the gun to okay projects quickly.

City Councilors in Springfield, Massachusetts are demanding to be kept in the loop about major development projects that might require city financial support.

The City Council unanimously approved a resolution calling on the city administration to alert them at least 30 days in advance of any votes that might need to be taken to facilitate a major economic development project.

It is fallout from last month’s hurried vote to bail out the project to redevelop the former Court Square Hotel building into apartments with $6.5 million from the city’s free cash account. The marque downtown urban renewal project, which had been a goal for decades, was endangered by skyrocketing costs for construction materials. The city administration knew about it in January, but only came to the Council in March when the developers threatened to stop construction and walk away.

City Council President Marcus Williams said the funding request came across as an ultimatum with the fate of the project and hundreds of union construction jobs hanging on the Council’s approval.

“I would appreciate more respect as it relates to turning these kind of significant projects around and I think my colleagues would as well,” Williams said after the vote at the March 25th special meeting.

The dean of the Council, Kateri Walsh, said she was so upset with how the administration handled the information and the notification to the Council that she drafted the resolution calling for the 30-day advance notice.

“To me, that was an enough-is-enough moment,” Walsh said.

She said the Council was forced to act “with a gun to its head” with no time for independent research or to search out alternative funding sources. Adding to her frustration, Walsh said, it is not the first time the Council has been told it needs to rush something through.

“So, I think it is time for the City Council to be treated as a partner,” Walsh said

Mayor Domenic Sarno told WAMC he will try to honor the Council’s request.

“Things have been hectic with COVID-19,” Sarno said. “We always try to brief the Council. I’ll try to do that to the best of my abilities, but sometimes things happen on a dime and you have to move quickly.”

A resolution is no more than a statement of opinion by the Council, or in this case an informal request. City Councilor Justin Hurst said he will work with Walsh to codify into law a 30-day notice requirement.

“I hope this is just a start,” Hurst said. He said it was disappointing the Council needed to act to require something that should occur as “a matter of courtesy.”

Hurst and City Councilor Trayce Whitfield were the only Councilors to vote against the $6.5 million request for the Court Square project. They called it a “money grab” for millionaires.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.