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Springfield plan provides hope for future after tornado

Posted by T.J. Houpes  June 1, 2012 06:00 AM

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One year after a tornado devasted much of Springfield, recovery in the city has been slow – thanks mainly to a City Hall that seems continually understaffed and to a slow response by the federal government.

Today, homeowners and renters in the city continue to struggle with insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) claims. The city itself continues to struggle with financial afflictions that plagued it for years before the tornado even hit. Its economic situation has complicated rebuilding efforts, leading city officials to lobby for funds -- both state and federal -- to restore the city not only to its pre-tornado state, but to where it found itself 70 years ago when it was recognized as the heart of Western New England.

In hopes of accomplishing this restoration, the Springfield Redevelopment Authority and the non-profit DevelopSpringfield teamed up to create ‘Rebuild Springfield’, a public and private sector initiative to rebuild the city in the wake of the tornado. ’Rebuild Springfield’ began putting together a “master plan” for revitalizing the city in October 2011. The plan was finalized in February 2012 and officially released to the public April 26. It is more than 900 pages long.

Kevin Kennedy, who sits on DevelopSpringfield’s board and is also Springfield’s chief development officer, said efforts to revitalize the city were in motion before the tornado struck, but said that the tornado “compiled on top of issues that were already there.”

Kennedy believed that the June 1 tornado “brought the city together” as a whole and that giving residents a chance to voice their opinions on the plan was “something that really energized the citizens.”

“There is a bit of a silver lining here in the sense that [the tornado] brought the community together,” he said.

The report provides recommendations for serious procedural overhauls and the creation of an array of citywide programs and initiatives to address the culmination of years of troubling housing and fiscal issues that have been exacerbated as a result of last June’s tornado.

Among other things, the plan highlights a myriad of issues regarding the city’s struggles to track vacancies, foreclosed homes, city-owned properties, and address overall blight, all things that have been further complicated by last June’s tornado. It recommends the creation of “an electronic inventory of vacant land and derelict structures” that can be accessed by the public and the development of a system for “permanently redeveloping vacant land and derelict structures” that at present the city does not have in place.

In a city once referred to as the ‘City of Homes’ because of its abundance of elegant, Victorian-style houses, Census data shows that nine percent of Springfield’s housing units are now vacant. Non-census estimates in the plan have this number varying from 11 to 12.5 percent.

The plan calls for the creation of a “comprehensive structure” in the city to document and track landlords and hold them accountable for decrepit buildings or poor living conditions, which at present the city does not have in place. Census data in the plan indicates 45.2 percent of all housing units in Springfield are renter-occupied, and in the city’s South End neighborhood -- one of the areas hardest hit by the tornado -- this number is as high as 90%.

The plan recognizes that “Springfield’s rebuilding needs exceed the availability of current funding opportunities” and that “a dedicated Federal appropriation will be necessary to close various financing gaps presented in or as a result of the Plan.”

“The idea is to raise as much funds as possible from any source possible, private or public,” he said. “The way the process works on the tornado rebuild is that you can’t do much until you have maximized your FEMA reimbursement.”


Kevin Sweeney, executive director of DevelopSpringfield, said the organization and the city will continue seeking funds for the ‘Rebuild Springfield’ plan moving forward.

“Our role is to help the city evaluate where projects fit from a priority perspective and resource perspective, and look where holes need to be filled,” he said. “Even when you have FEMA and private money, there are going to be whole areas that are under-resourced.”

The full 'Rebuild Springfield' plan can be viewed here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the authors

Students in Steve Fox's Investigative Journalism & the Web class at UMass-Amherst have teamed up with the Globe to take a close-up look at the painful process of rebuilding from the June 2011 tornadoes that killed four and devastated communities in the Springfield area. Their work will also appear in the Boston Globe. Steve joined the journalism faculty at UMass-Amherst in 2007 and has 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at The Washington Post's award-winning website.

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