Archive for September, 2009

A community together

By Taryn Plumb
Turley Publications Reporter

STURBRIDGE – These days, divisiveness seems to be the status quo.
Politicians, local officials, coworkers, neighbors, friends – even family members – are very often split down political, social and economic lines.
But that’s exactly the accepted norm that the Merchants of Sturbridge organization (or MOS) is trying to combat.
Beginning this spring, the group of local retailers, officials and residents – whose political differences have been, at times, as discordant as an un-tuned symphony – have unified as a cohesive force to promote and celebrate Sturbridge, and, ultimately, drum up commerce by drawing attention to its multitude of businesses from both inside and outside town borders.
“It’s community, really,” said Karin Rokicki, a committee member who represents town residents. “Everything that you can think of that would define a community is what we’re trying to establish.”
And in just a few months, they’ve been quite busy.
Headed by Selectman Thomas Creamer, the group collects membership dues and gathers monthly, and is now awaiting word on its application for non-profit status.
Since April, it has established an ambassador committee with members welcoming and greeting large tours and conference attendees while dressed in traditional 19th century garb, furnishing them with packets, booklets and coupons (which at times have been specially tailored to conference visitors). A Web site, http://www.merchantsofsturbridge.com, has also been launched; it provides an event calendar and a listing of dozens of town businesses, restaurants and services.
Smaller efforts have included hanging flags along Route 20 during patriotic events and holidays; incorporating food stations from area restaurants – such as The Copper Stallion, Sturbridge Coffee House, Enrico’s Brick Oven Pizzeria and Rovezzi’s Restaurant – into concerts on the common events to draw more families and promote local eateries; and unifying and beautifying area business fronts by offering volunteer weeding, gardening and planting.
But the organization’s largest effort thus far will come with its Feast and Fire event on Oct. 10, an evening of music, local cuisine and a blazing bonfire at Turner’s Field.
“From the littlest guy to the biggest guy, (we’re) working together to make this town a success,” said committee member Alexandra Pifer of The Seraph, which has had a presence in town for 28 years.
Because there’s no reason it shouldn’t be, she said. Consider the asset of Old Sturbridge Village, the hundreds of acres of open space, the location between Route 84 and the Massachusetts Turnpike at the “intersection of all New England.”
“It isn’t all about being a merchant, it’s about belonging, a sense of community,” she said. And the hope is this will be “contagious” and “reciprocal.”
“People think we’re out here selling our wares and they’re back there paying taxes,” she said. “But it’s all together. We all have to stand together if we want to make this town what it should be. People should support local businesses. The support of the community just has to be there.”
But therein lies the conundrum, the ultimate quandary that Merchants of Sturbridge has committed itself to solving.
Sometimes, as much as town residents want to support local businesses, there are deterrents – sometimes big hurdles.
For starters, because there isn’t always advertising, townspeople sometimes can’t tell from the names of new stores that crop up what they sell or what services they offer, she said. Also, because many shops and restaurants are in older buildings and homes, there are logistical issues – such as just finding the front door. She suggested businesses make a better effort to advertise what they sell and put up clearer signage.
Access is another issue.
Working moms and dads looking to make quick stops on their way home or on weekend mornings before practices and games often find shuttered shops, because some retailers close at 5 p.m. and hold limited hours on Saturday and Sunday, she said.
“It’s important that they at least have a couple of days where they’re extending their hours or shifting things around,” explained Rokicki, who has informal discussions with friends and neighbors to provide input to the committee. “We’re not asking for a change so they can work 17 hours a day, we’re just telling them why a big part of the population isn’t there.”
Another population that could be better served: Youth, according to Maryann Thorpe, another resident representative on the committee. “There really isn’t much for our children to do in town,” she said.
She’d also like to see merchants utilize Sturbridge’s open space by catering to eco-tourism.
Thirteen years ago, when she moved to town, she remembers it as “bustling.” But now, she’s “concerned by all the empty storefronts on Main Street,” she said.
Pifer, a longtime merchant, agreed that commerce in town is a “very complex problem.” Retailers have “lost focus” as to what people are looking for, she acknowledged. “Obviously the town is in dire need of something to make it cohesive,” she said. “It seems a little disjointed.”
And in some cases, people have given up. “A lot of people are fed up with trying to do anything,” said Rokicki.
But there’s no one particular person or thing to blame: It’s the combined fault of the town, the residents, the business owners themselves, Pifer said. There’s also a geographic challenge, she noted, with there being no “town center” that pulls everyone together.
Yet at the same time, “It’s not a big mystery that the economy is really, really bad,” she said. And in such instances, small, independent shops “are the first to fall.”
Rokicki agreed that, in casual conversation, people will sometimes refer to locations around town as “the so and so, that used to be the such and such, which was the blah-blah-blah.”
In the end, the goal is to keep businesses around for a long time, she said, so they can establish firm identities.
In some cases, it’s simply about starting with a unified look.
For instance, through MOS efforts, many businesses honored Pan-Mass Challenge participants this year with painted bicycles decorating their storefronts. Also, during the upcoming Sturbridge Harvest Festival, many retailers will place decorated scarecrows out front. And for Christmas, the hope is to get as many residents as possible to band together and place luminaries on their doorsteps to create a “town of candles,” as Pifer put it.
The group similarly hopes to put at least three Christmas trees along Route 20 this holiday season.
All told, Rokicki noted, “We’re really trying to wrap our arms around each other.”
Because in the end, that can foster what so many have been seeking for so long: Community. The goal is to make Sturbridge “as prosperous as we once were, for our many generations to come,” Thorpe said.
For more information, visit http://www.merchantsofsturbridge.com.


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By Matthew Bernat
Turley Publications Staff Writer

STURBRIDGE – Four members of the Town Administrator Search Committee have resigned, citing a lack of direction from selectmen and saying their reputations – in the community’s eyes – would be tarnished if they continued.
“We don’t feel we have the confidence of the Board of Selectmen,” Reed Hillman, former search committee chairman, said.
“If perception is what guides you, if you don’t have the spines to stand up and say we have faith in these five people to do the right thing,” Hillman told the board. “For me, my integrity’s in play – I’m out.”
Barbara Barry, town finance director, Anthony Celuzza, resident representative, and Kevin Smith, chairman of the finance committee, also resigned at the selectmen’s Sept. 8 meeting.
The surprise announcement came after a debate between board and committee members. It was sparked by the committee members’ decision to tweak the language of the advertisement for the town administrator position.
Committee members had originally planned to release the names of three finalists, but instead told the board two of the applicants had since withdrawn. Hillman said no viable candidates were left from a field of 49.
Creamer said he was concerned it appeared the committee abandoned the original criteria, which might lead residents to believe, “the hometown candidate was given a significant edge.”
The “hometown candidate” referred to being Charles Blanchard, the town administrator for Paxton and husband of Board of Selectmen Chairwoman Mary Blanchard. Creamer said he discovered Mr. Blanchard’s interest through an e-mail correspondence.
“I feel, potentially, that the entire process has been compromised because I would have to wonder how many candidates did not submit their name based upon the established criteria,” Creamer said.
Committee members sought someone with seven years of experience as a town administrator, or assistant, and a master’s degree.
Mr. Blanchard has served as a town administrator for four years, and lacks a master’s degree.
“It concerns me that there are folks out there who are looking at this criteria and coming to the conclusion that a candidate was sent forward that did not meet that criteria,” Creamer said.
He went on to say Mrs. Blanchard should resign from the board if her husband were to apply for the position.
“It’s a thought,” she said. “But where not anywhere near being in that situation yet.”
She said there would not be a conflict of interest and had checked with the state’s Ethics Commission regarding the situation.
Regardless of Mrs. Blanchard’s inquiry to the Ethics Commission, Selectman Harold White said should Mr. Blanchard apply, it would create a “fundamental problem” for the board. He said the perception of impropriety would be enough to cause concern among residents.
Selectman Ted Goodwin also asked the “legality” of such a move be studied.
Hillman took issue with Creamer’s comments about the committee’s search procedure. He said at no time did any suspicious action take place.
“We have never taken any effort to favor any candidate,” Hillman said, and noted the extended search, “had nothing to do with any candidate, local or otherwise. This is an effort by the five of us to send to you three candidates, any one of whom we would be proud to see as our next town administrator.”
After about 40 minutes, the discussion ended and Barry, Celuzza, Hillman and Smith met outside of the main meeting room briefly. When they returned it was to resign.
“I feel that my integrity has been questioned and will be questioned by not only members of the board, but by the public,” Barry said.
She came to the committee with an open mind and a willingness to contribute, she said.
“I feel it’s unfortunate that from the very beginning of the process the search committee was not given any direction,” Barry said.
Hillman suggested the board hire an outside firm to conduct the search. Doing so would remove local politics from the equation, he said.
White said the Town Charter stipulates that a search committee be “appointed” and the board would not be able to hire a firm.
After learning of the resignations, board members discussed placing an advertisement to attract residents in order to rebuild the Search Committee. The fifth committee member, Selectman Scott Garieri, did not resign.
Garieri said the earliest date Sturbridge could expect to see a new town administrator installed – under the best circumstances – would be Jan. 1.

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