By Stephen Dravis iBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The spirit of co-operation that helped produce a 40-unit affordable housing complex in at least half the usual time was celebrated at Thursday’s dedication of Highland Woods.
Elton Ogden, the president and CEO of developer Berkshire Housing Development Corp., said the efforts of community volunteers, state and local officials and non-profit and for-profit businesses helped his group meet an ambitious timeline that saw Highland Woods’ opening coincide earlier this year with the final closure of the former Spruces mobile home park.
“Let’s think about how quickly we were able to get the approvals, get the property zoned, get it designed and get it funded,” Ogden said. “What is normally a very long, challenging process was just about cut in half or even less than that.
“I really feel this is a prime example of what a group of people and organizations can do when they get behind a common purpose that they really believe in. I think it’s particularly noteworthy in this day and age when there is so much cynicism about our ability to work together as people. This is a great example that we really can do this and we can do it for things that are important to us.”
The chairwoman of the Williamstown Board of Selectmen echoed Ogden’s comments.
“This is an extraordinary example of everybody, the folks involved in this, attacking this problem with the notion of, ‘Let’s get to yes,’ ” Jane Patton said. “I love ‘yes.’ ‘Yes’ is my favorite word in the whole world. I love to say it, and I love to hear it.
“And everybody involved in this process came to it with, ‘Let’s get to yes.’ ‘Yes, we can get the funds.’ ‘Yes, we can donate the land.’ ‘Yes, we can get help from the folks in Boston.’ ‘Yes, [Rep. Gailanne Cariddi] is going to help us.’ And when everybody is all about ‘yes’ … now we’re standing here in the middle of a whole bunch of ‘yes’ — so much positivity, so many good things.
“Williamstown should be very proud. Everyone here should be very proud.”
Many of the key people who helped make the Highland Woods vision a reality were at Thursday’s ceremony, where the project was dedicated with a stone marker recognizing “community support” and the “fondly remembered home and neighborhood” that was the Spruces.
Speakers included Cariddi, Williams College President Adam Falk, MountainOne Financial President Robert Fraser, Kathy Quinn of Boston Capital Partners and Susan Puddester of the local non-profit Higher Ground.
Falk said the college was thrilled to be able to be part of the town’s solution when Tropical Storm Irene devastated the Spruces five years ago.
“It was clear that we at Williams were going to want to participate in making the situation better,” Falk said. “I am deeply grateful that we were given the opportunity to do something that was relatively simple compared to all of the other extraordinary work.”
Ogden took time to thank as many of the partners as he could, from the college, which donated the land to Pittsfield-based Allegrone Construction, which “worked very, very long days and long weeks because they understood our need to get this open in time, and they did it,” he said.
Two former public officials who were instrumental in obtaining the financing for the project also were recognized. Aaron Gornstein, the undersecretary for housing and community development in Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration, attended Thursday’s ceremony. Retired Williamstown Town Manager Peter Fohlin, who negotiated the federal Hazard Mitigation Grant that funded the Spruces’ closure and helped fund Highland Woods, did not attend.
“I’m sorry he’s not here to receive the credit,” Ogden said of Fohlin. “He’s going to get credit whether he wants it or not.”
Nearly $3 million in town money — mostly proceeds from the FEMA grant but also some Community Preservation Act funds — went toward Highland Woods.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say this project never could happen without the support of the town,” Ogden said. “Williamstown has contributed $2.85 million. That doesn’t happen, especially in a small town like Williamstown.”
Thursday’s ceremony was attended by several members of town boards and committees as well as town employees like Debra Turnbull, who managed the Spruces during the closure period, and Brian O’Grady, the director of the Council on Aging.
Earlier Thursday morning, the board of directors of Higher Ground, the Williamstown non-profit formed in Irene’s wake whose name is echoed in the name of the 40-unit Highland Woods project, voted to dissolve the organization now that its last project has been completed.
Ogden recalled Higher Ground’s efforts in the immediate aftermath of Irene to help Spruces residents find safe housing, its advocacy for the Highland Woods project and its grant of $125,000 to pay for furniture in the common areas at Highland Woods and landscape improvements.
Ogden called Higher Ground the conscience of the project.
“It’s been a long process, and it says so much about Williamstown that we, as a community, made this happen,” Higher Ground President Susan Puddester said. “Every individual who has been a part of making this a success should give your self a pat on the back. You are part of making Highland Woods a reality.”
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