Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Fohlin pushing for parking structure to replace B&G as part of Spring Street redevelopment

Here is a summary of a telephone interview on July 4 with Williamstown Town Manager Peter H. Folin, 59, concerning a vote by the Middleborough, Mass., selectmen choosing Fohlin as their No. 1 choice to take over as town manager in that city of 20,000 in southeastern Massachusetts. Fohlin is vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard until July 16 and was reached by phone at his second home there.

FOHLIN: “The chairman of the board of selectmen, Marcia Brunelle, called me yesterday and essentially told me what you just told me and I thanked her for that and she asked me to fax her a proposed contract tomorrow, on Thursday, which I will do so I would say that we are in the very, very early stages of discussions and I really don't know much more about this than you do in some respects. There is really no way to predict how it will work out.

“When I was interviewed, I described Middleborough as the hardest doable job in Massachusetts. There are lots of communities in Massachusetts that are harder than Middleborough, but they are just not doable. The communities are just basket cases. Middleborough would be a challenging job if they are successful in attracting the Wompanaug Iindians to build a casino complex and it will be equally challenging if they don't because they have had severe financial pressures in the last few years. The situation is going to be complex in either way. They have a charter and a town government structure that disburses and diffuses responsibility in every direction and makes for a certain level of disorganization. So I don't know how this is going to work out.”

Fohlin said it was not a foregone conclusion that he would either get hired or go to Middleborough. “I never work in foregone conclusions and to try to avoid getting too emotionally involved in the situation,” he said. Fohlin said he carefully crafted and communicated to the Middleborough selectmen conditions under which he would accept an offer. He said he would not disclose those conditions publicly. “I have been studying Middleborough for about three months and I think I have a clear and coherent picture about what they need to be successful and I hope that will be part of the discussion I will have with the selectmen.”

GREYLOCK NEWS: Are you ready for a change?

FOHLIN: “As I have explained to the selectmen and other people close to me, the issues that are ahead for Williamstown include building a new police station, the rebuilding of the college athletic center in the center of town and the redevelopment of the west side of Spring Street with Mark Paresky. I say that because as far as I am concerned PhoTech and Cable Mills are done. And those three projects have very long development times so even if I achieve significant involvement in all three projects, the chances of my being present at the ribbon cuttong are pretty small, because they are going to take so long to evolve.

“Whereas what's going on in Middleborough is both momentus in terms of the whole state of Massachusetts and it is happening right now, at this minute. As I one time said to a selectman, I can get in more trouble in Middleborough in a week than I can get in Williamstown in the next three years.

“On the other hand, if I stay in Williamstown, I am really looking forward to building a new police station -- which ought to have been done by previous town managers -- and I have been having some really exciting and encouraging discussions with the college about how to reconfigure the athletic complex downtown. And Mark Pareksy, who I have just met, is very exicited about reconfiguring Spring Street in a very positive and exciting way.”

Mark Paresky, who lives on Fishers Island, Fla., is the son of Crimson Travel founder and Williams College alumnus David Paresky, whose major gift allowed Williams College to build the just-opened Pareksy Student Center. The Paresky family, through trusts, now owns most of the buildings on the west side of Spring Street, while Williams College owns most of the buildings on the east side. Fohlin disclosed that Pareksy interests have just purchased the former Hopkins Furniture and Hopkins Funeral Home buildings.

Other owners of property on the west side of the street are believed to be the Goff family and a trust whose principals are likely partners in the Grinnell, Dubendorf & Smith law firm. Williams College owns the land under the end-of-street public parking lot, and a Williams alumnus, Peter S. Willmott, a former FedEx senior executive, owns an empty lot at the corner of Spring and Walden streets. Several months ago, a fire gutted the Pareksy building occupied by a coffee shop, the Purple Pub and a Subway franchise; Fohlin says “Pareksy has to do something with that building,” and has plans which include changes as well for the building housing the Zanna clothing store. His family also owns that building. “Mark is very committed to having a conversation with Williamstown,” says Fohlin.
Fohlin says the purchase by Williams College last month of the former Ivy Gardens parcel on North Hoosac Road (Route 7 north) for short-term book storage as the Sawyer Library is razed and replaced, has added new options to long-term thinking about the end of Spring Street and Water Stret. He said “one of the options which comes to mind and is very discussable,” is the idea of razing the college’s facilities complex (known as “B&G” or “buildings and grounds”) and replacing it with a parking structure.

"I am encouraging them to move B&G in the direction of the the Ivy Gardens property because I think that there's better uses for the limted amount of land that we have in our downtown,” said Fohlin. He said the college some years ago had approached him with a suggestion that it construct a book-storage facility on the 59 Water Street parcel, owned by the town, which was formerly the town’s municipal equipment garage, and which is now a gravel parking lot. Fohlin said he discouraged that use.

Fohlin says the major “alleged flaw” in Spring Street is that it has inadequate parking to make it welcoming. He said it has been his approach to try and make sure that does not become a problem for Water Street as the CableMills condominium project is completed. “We would be nuts if we recreated spring street on Water Street,” Fohlin said.

FOHLIN: “By a strict reading of the zoning bylaw, we are over 100 parking spaces short for the permitted uses on Water Street. It requires more than 100 spaces beyond those presently available. The same thing is true on Spring Street. The solution zoning bylaw came up with was to do a parking study on Sring Street, assume those parking spaces exist, and assign them to each of the parcels on Spring Street. Papa Charlies may have five virtual parking places assigned to them. That may not be the right number, but that’s the concept.”

"Now I asked Mark Paresky when we were talking about Purple Pub, etc., I said Mark, can you meet the requirement of our zoning bylaw to do this. He looked at me and said, ‘I have plenty of virtual parking places, but I have no place for my customers to put their cars.’ We have this elegant, academic solution to a real-world problem."

GREYLOCK NEWS: What specifically is your personal vision for redeveloping the Spring and Water street areas, and the former 59 Water Street town garage site, given that Williams has said it wants to upgrade its athletic facilities in that area?

FOHLIN: "At this point in my thinking, I believe that the present location of the buildings and grounds offices needs to be a parking structure and it would serve Weston Field activities, and it would be within convenient walking distances for Spring Street and Water Street. No other location, including 59 Water Street, meets that need as well. And I have told the college as far as I am concerned, 59 Water Street is in play, that we have a truly unique moment in time right now: We have a college administration, Bart Mitchell at Cable Mills, Park Paresky on the west side of Spring Street, and a town administration that is eager and willing for all those entitles to work together for the future of downtown Williamstown for the next 50 or 100 years. We're looking at an opportunity here with Bart Mitchell, Mark Paresky, and the town, to really do this right."

GREYLOCK NEWS: Let me post a hypothetical question. And I’ll make sure it is reported in that context. Let’s suppose you are offered the job in Middleborough, and you accept it, what is Williamstown going to be looking for in a new town manager to keep all this moving?

FOHLIN: "I think it needs to be someone who builds relationships. You have to be able to build relationships with the college, with Bart Mitchell, with Mark Paresky and not everyone does that particularly well. The one other thing that I think is critical -- and I have I think successfully ingrained this in my managers at town hall -- is what I call ‘Think Act Two.’ And the way I describe that is everybody knows what to do first. but that’s not really what makes the decision. You have to think abuot what comes next, about Act Two. For example, it would be easy to say we need parking, let's build a parking garage at 59 Water Street. But you have to think about what comes after that. Think Act Two is the opposite of being a master of the obvious.”

GREYLOCKNEWS: What fiscal challenges does the town face going forward, particular with the schools?

FOHLIN: “Williamstown is on very sound financial footing and we are not, as far as I'm concerned, facing the fiscal crisis that many other communities either are or claim to be. That is largely the result of managing realistic expectations within Proposition 2-1/2. And the biggest disconnect in that challenge is between labor contracts and Proposition 2-1/2. There are labor contracts in the schools that are not financially supportable long term and expectations have to get more adjusted. That means that either employees have to learn to live within the contraints of our revenue or the taxpayers have to decided that they are willing to contribute more than they have.”

“On other things, energy costs and those sorts of things -- we are pretty adaptable and innovative. We have worked with National Grid, for example, to dramatically reduce our energy costs. You do that when you are under pressure.”

GREYLOCKNEWS: What do you see as the town’s biggest challenge in attracting a new town manager if you move on to Middleborough?

FOHLIN: “I think that perhaps the biggest difficulty that Williamstown would face in hiring a next town manager -- notice the hypothethetical -- is the residency requirement in the town charter. While Williamstown pays relative well, it could be difficult finding qualified candidates who could afford to buy a home in Williamstown given what has happened to real-estate prices over the years. If a guy could be town manager in Williamstown and live in north Adams, that would be simple. Having to buy a house in Williamstown and have it be attractive to a candidate could be interesting. I always felt as if I got in under the deadline.



Blogger Bruce said...

If we really want to improve the quality of life here in Williamstown maybe we could put a memoritorium on all nonessential building projects for ten years.

No more more excavators, dumptrucks, or cement mixers. Parking and Libraries are overrated. Peace and quiet is what we really need.

3:52 PM  
Blogger dan said...

Unfortunately Bruce we live in a dynamic world, let alone a dynamic town and what you desire is in actuality a modified and somewhat diluted form of entropy. The very nature of Williams College’s endowment, its employment power, and its usefulness to the town and to the entire world make for this dynamism. I would love to see Williamstown stay the same, but it would certainly decay.

Now, as for being one of the 5 people that hired, and then worked with Peter, I can say that whatever path Peter takes it will change people for the better. He is the essence of professionalism, superb management, and I think most of all the master of balance. He has looked over our community knowing full well that change is inevitable, and that given that tenet he has demonstrated the skill to manage it. He would never allow said change to manage the town or himself and so his stewardship here will be difficult to replace if he leaves. He also knows that he’s going to leave us in much better shape than when he came, and the next shepherd will still find challenges – but good solid earth has been put down under his or her feet. We’ve been lucky to have Peter. I hope that the current Board of Selectmen choose wisely, avoid politics, special interests, and use good metrics along with a little old fashioned commonsense. Daniel N. Gendron, former selectman.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

Thanks for this interview. I think it was well done and I learned quite a lot about Williamstown.

12:00 PM  

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