Athol Selectboard votes to endorse CDBG application

By GREG VINE

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 02-10-2023 4:59 PM

ATHOL – Residents appear satisfied with initial plans for improvements to the neighborhood bordered by Main and South streets to the north and south, and Canal and Freedom streets on the east and west.

No one from the public attended a public hearing held on Feb. 7 during the Selectboard’s meeting to comment on the application being submitted by the town for a $1.35 million grant to fund the project.

Andrew Loew, project manager for the Central Massachusetts Regional Planning Commission (CMRPC), joined Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith to discuss the application. The CMRPC will oversee administration of the grant, having assumed oversight from Linda Overing of Breezeway Farm Consulting. Overing has been Athol’s block grant administrator for several years and announced her retirement in 2022.

“I’ve been working with Town Manager (Shaun) Suhoski, Eric, and Dick (Kilhart) in Public Works over the last couple of months to try to get up to speed with where Athol community development efforts have been going and where they’re coming from,” Loew told the board. “I think we have good line on this year’s application.”

Despite the absence of anyone wishing to comment on the plans, Loew explained that the holding of a public hearing is one of the requirements of the application process. Community Development Block Grants are funded from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Projects must typically serve low to moderate-income beneficiaries or eliminate what used to be called “blight.” It’s administered for communities with a population below or around 50,000 through the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development.

“This year’s application is capped at $1.35 million,” Loew continued. “Typically, there had been a cap of that amount over a two-year period, but this year they’ve actually combined two grant rounds into one, so we’re able to apply for more in this round. In the past, this has been an 18-month grant program, but it’s a 24-month grant program for this current cycle.”

Plan for the grant

Loew explained that the full amount sought for Athol will be used for a single project—improvements to Canal and Lumber streets. This is the first phase of the South and Canal streets neighborhood improvement plan designed over the last few months by Wright-Pierce Engineers in coordination with town staff.

“The first phase of the project – the Canal and Lumber phase – will replace or rehabilitate aging public works infrastructure in this neighborhood on the southwest side of downtown Athol,” Lowe said.

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He added that the project would take place along 755 feet of Lumber Street, as well as 700 feet of Canal Street south of Main Street and near abutting intersections and Johnson Street, described as a “paper street or alleyway.”

Improvements, according to Loew, will be made to roadways, sidewalks, water mains, the sewer system and stormwater drainage. Lighting could also be upgraded if there is money available for it in the $1.23 million dollar budget, he added. That figure could change as the grant application and project design are finalized. Grant administration will cost approximately $122,000.

“This project follows some community planning and engagement over several years,” he said. “Folks in town who follow this stuff will recognize that this is probably the third, fourth, fifth grant cycle in a row that the town has worked to make infrastructure improvements around the downtown with CDBG funding.

“A lot of this was spurred by the Downtown Athol Revitalization Plan back in 2014 that included two public charrettes. The town has had a community development strategy that also prioritized these kinds of projects.”

Lowe said that a CDBG Citizens Advisory Council had voted last March to endorse this latest project. A guided site walk of the proposed project area last fall was open to the public and a public survey was conducted.

The application must be submitted by March 3. Some residual delays resulting from the COVID pandemic could slow the process, but an award announcement is expected this summer.

Loew added a cautionary note for the board, explaining, “These are competitive grants. I know Athol has great success, and I hope we do going forward, but there is no guarantee that anything will be funded in this particular round.”

Following Loew’s presentation, Chair Rebecca Bialecki opened the hearing to comments from the public, but no one came forward to opine on the proposed project. The three members of the board in attendance then voted unanimously to endorse submission of the application, including authorization for Town Manager Shaun Suhoski and Town Accountant Amy Craven to sign all documents required for both the application and the grant.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com.

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