Berkshire Communities Among Top Federal Grant Recipients

Jul 21, 2014

Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick announced the federal grants in Housatonic Village Friday afternoon.
Credit Jim Levulis / WAMC

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and U.S. Congressman Richard Neal recently joined local officials in Housatonic Village, part of Great Barrington, to announce statewide community improvement funding.

Governor Patrick recognized the 54 communities awarded more than $27 million in federal Community Development Block Grants.

“Those federal resources and that federal partnership over the last eight years have enabled us in Massachusetts to award over a quarter billion dollars to cities and towns all across the commonwealth,” Patrick said during the announcement Friday afternoon. “Those are funds that are used to revitalize communities, from the creation of affordable housing to construction and reconstruction of community facilities to the revitalization of downtown areas. They make all of our communities more attractive places to live, work and raise a family.”

Through a joint effort, Great Barrington and Sheffield received more than $800,000. The grant comes as Great Barrington and Housatonic Village are undergoing separate main street reconstruction projects. Great Barrington Town Planner Christopher Rembold.

“This grant award was for storm water engineering on Front Street in Housatonic Village,” Rembold said. “Particularly on Front Street and then there’s a drain line that runs under the Monument Mills. We hope to correct that problem because it’s been one of the impediments to the revitalization of the historic mills.”

The majority of the towns’ joint grant will go toward housing rehabilitation. Rembold says the two communities hope to make about 15 housing awards.

“The housing need is great,” Rembold said. “Housing prices are sky-rocketing. Incomes are flat. We did a study just a couple years with Berkshire Regional Planning [Commission’s] help and we identified these critical needs. People who were maybe house-rich and cash-poor. They just couldn’t afford to fix their boiler or tighten up their windows. If you’re living with drafty windows in the Berkshires with oil heat, that’s an expensive proposition. So we hope that this might help folks like that.”

Of the 54 communities awarded money, few are large population centers. Massachusetts Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein says the grants, which can total nearly $1 million, allow for small communities to give significant facelifts to their town centers. Gornstein says it also addresses an often-forgotten population when talking about housing needs.

“When it comes to senior citizens, they’re living in their homes, but they’re living in precarious situations,” Gornstein said. “They also may need modifications [and] wheelchair ramps, things like that because many of them face disabilities as they get older. In order for them to stay in their house, they have to retrofit their home, they have to get the roll-in shower or it could be a wheelchair ramp. This kind of funding at the local level allows them to assist those kind of homeowners.”

North Adams, Greenfield and West Springfield were each awarded $900,000. North Adams Mayor Richard Alcombright says the money will be used for housing demolition and improvements to a community center at the city’s old armory.

“We see everything from elders coming in the morning, because it’s close to our senior center, for exercise classes or just to walk the gym in bad weather,” Alcombright said. “We’d love to have a space for our veterans. Maybe an 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday our veterans can just in that community room and crash…the camaraderie of that. Youth sports, youth basketball, indoor soccer and all those types of things. Community theater, community dance or people leasing space in the community center to run programming. We’re looking at the possibility of a community kitchen.”

Alcombright hopes to find an organization to run the center as early as January. U.S. Congressman Richard Neal says the genius of the federal program is that local officials decide how the money is used. 

“If you want to increase efficiency you talk about road improvements and street improvements,” Neal said. “And you talk about sewer improvements and waterway improvements. That’s what it’s for.”

Click here for the full list of grant recipients.