Awards given at chamber's annual dinner 

Along with the presentation of awards to area businesses for service to their communities, the more than 300 people who attended last week's Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce annual dinner were updated on gas restoration work, following the recent explosions in Lawrence, Andover and North Andover.

They also learned about a massive contract that Raytheon secured with the country of Poland for Patriot missiles.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, featured speaker at the event at DiBurro's function hall in Bradford, talked about the Sept. 13 gas disaster that rocked sections of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover, with fires and explosions, killing one man, injuring dozens, and leaving thousands without heat and hot water.

Polito said that she and Gov. Charlie Baker witnessed first-hand "the enormous capacity to give in this community."

Speaking about the gas restoration efforts, Polito said, "by mid-October, hundreds of units, hundreds of homes will be relighted with the goal of getting it all completed by Nov. 19, which is right before Thanksgiving.''

Polito said a successful restoration project requires collaboration.

"In politics it doesn't always happen that way, but we believe in bi-partisanship," Polito said to a round of applause.

This year's Wilkinson Good Citizenship Award went to Dianne Anderson, president and CEO of Lawrence General Hospital. Anderson recalled her hospital's response to the gas explosions and how her staff responded to those who were seriously injured.

"Thanks to the heroic efforts of our emergency trauma and critical care teams, lives were saved," she said.

Cal Williams, senior development director community relations for United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, received the Community Spirit Award on behalf of his agency.

"This is huge," Williams said about the award given to the United Way. "Thank you for your flexibility and support and making some great things happen around the Merrimack Valley."

James Carnevale of Raytheon’s Integrated Defense Systems unit, who accepted the Chamber's Leadership & Valor Award on behalf of his company, announced that Raytheon has secured a $1.5 billion contract to supply the Patriot missile system to Poland.

He said Poland is the 16th country to depend on the Patriot system for their safety and security.

"At the end the day, it's our people that make us strong," he said.

This year's Emerging Leader Award was presented to Loubna Garozzo, area director for SNI Companies, a professional staffing business in Andover.

At the conclusion of the awards program, Michael Smolak Jr., owner of Smolak Farms in North Andover, presented Polito with a bag of apple cider doughnuts and a first aid kit. Smolak said that first aid kit was for Polito's son, who he said recently suffered a broken ankle.

Smolak also presented the Merrimack Valley Chamber's Foundation with a check for $4,260, which he said came from the sale of bags of pick-your-own apples.

Joseph Bevilacqua, the chamber's president and CEO, said that on the night of the gas explosions, he announced his chamber's foundation was accepting donations of money, clothing and non-perishable food to help victims of the disaster.

"We have already coordinated the delivery of clothing and food and we are still accepting donations to the foundation's account, which will go to aid workers who were impacted by the disaster," Bevilacqua said.

To donate to the chamber's foundation, visit online at merrimackvalleychamber.com and click on the link for "Events," then "Lawrence, Andover, North Andover Disaster Relief Fund."

— Mike LaBella

 

Affordable homes to replace old church

The site of the old St. George Catholic Church in Mount Washington, which has sat vacant for 20 years, is slated to be demolished and replaced by 10 affordable, owner-occupied town houses.

Bread & Roses Housing, a nonprofit based in Lawrence, received a special permit to proceed with the project with the unanimous City Council vote last week. The homes, which will cost a total of about $2.5 million to $3 million to build, will be in two buildings — one with four units and one with six. Each home will have 1,500 square feet of living space, three bedrooms, a fenced-in yard, off-street parking and energy star performance standards, according to the plans.

The project earned enthusiastic support from the council, the mayor, the planning director and community groups including the Mount Washington Alliance and Urban Kindness for both removing the abandoned church, which has become a neighborhood eyesore, and bringing home ownership to the area, which has struggled with absentee landlords and crime in recent years.

"We’re excited about what we see downtown. We use the word transformative a lot. … This project is transformative for the Mount Washington neighborhood," said Andrew Herlihy, division director of the city's Community Development Office.

The church on Washington Street was left vacant 20 years ago when four Catholic churches in the city consolidated. Mayor James Fiorentini said he originally hoped to see St. George's — the church his own grandparents attended — preserved, but "after years of it sitting there inactive ... I became all for this project."

Bread & Roses Housing acquired the property last year, said attorney Michael Migliori, and is in the process of obtaining the necessary approvals to demolish the building.

"We feel that the property itself, while it may have some emotional sentiment for those who may have attended the church … that the best use of it is to tear it down just because of its current state," said Yesenia Gil, executive director of Bread & Roses Housing. "I feel that by tearing it down, we’re taking the history of that corner, that neighborhood, into the future. And the future is constructing 10 units of townhouse-style affordable home ownership for those who are already living there (in that area)."

The homes will be the first Bread & Roses has built in Haverhill. Currently, Bread & Roses has affordable homes in Lawrence, where the owners pay an average of $650 for a three-bedroom home, and North Andover, where tenants pay an average of $1,200.

The nonprofit aims to get low-income families into homeownership by providing newly renovated or newly built homes to very low-income, first-time homebuyers at a reduced rate. The goal is to offer those families with the benefits that come with being a homeowner and to help them become financially stable.

Bread & Roses maintains ownership of the land through a community land trust, so that more low-income families can take over the home if the residents decide to move. It's also stipulated that the houses must remain owner-occupied and cannot be rented.

Gil said Bread & Roses targets residents who earn 30 to 60 percent of the median household income in the area, and that 60 percent of the homebuyers in the program are single female heads of household. The program targets first-time homebuyers.

"We do serve those who are most in need," Gil said. "A family of four earning $28,500 a year to $57,000 a year can afford our home."

Gil and Herlihy said public support for the project has been "overwhelmingly positive." Herlihy said residents have actually come to City Hall to ask about how to purchase one of the homes.

"To have a project where people come out of their homes ... and they're actually saying 'please do this,' it's the complete opposite of what you usually get," Herlihy said. "People can't wait for this project to occur in that neighborhood."

He added that the project is "really unique" and "represents a ticket to the middle class for a lot of people."

— Kiera Blessing

 

Construction begins on downtown Heights project

Work began at the site of the planned Haverhil Heights project last week, marking the next milestone in the city's endeavor to revitalize its downtown.

With the final obstacles overcome Tuesday of last week — parking easements that needed to be rearranged to allow for the project — restaurateur Sal Lupoli's venture began rolling early the next day, with teams of contractors setting up shop at project headquarters and construction vehicles moved onto the lot at 160 Merrimack St.

The start of construction was a pivotal development for the $30 million project, which nearly fell through this summer when the city fell $1.12 million short in funding its portion of the project — a parking garage and the extension of the boardwalk. After many last-minute meetings between city officials, Mayor James Fiorentini and Lupoli, the city was able to lower the cost of the project by scrapping plans for a second story of parking and borrowed the remaining necessary funds — $500,000 — from the city's stabilization fund.

"Every project, there's always little bumps and hurdles and roadblocks you have to overcome ... but it looks like we overcame the last ones yesterday and today — some parking easements we had to work around," Fiorentini said. "Sal has all of his permits. He started assembling (construction) equipment there today."

When completed, The Heights will be a mixed-use development with restaurants, office space and residences at the opposite end of Merrimack Street from the recently completed Harbor Place. The Heights will house a culinary program run by Northern Essex Community College that is expected to occupy two floors of the 10-story waterfront building.

"Work began this morning," said Shaw Rosen, project executive. "They put up construction fencing and they are over there with a digger and they're pulling out the granite where the parking stops."

Rosen said the crew will be using 133 Merrimack St., another Lupoli-owned building, as a sort of construction headquarters for all of the project subcontractors.

"They're going to be located right across the street, coordinating and working together to solve problems," Rosen said. "This is the process that will help us avoid delays."

Rosen shied away from sharing a completion date, noting that the crew is currently "revising and updating the schedule," but said NECC's culinary program is scheduled to move in to the building in September 2019. An official groundbreaking is slated for the coming weeks.

"People are going to love this building when it's up," Fiorentini said. "It's five stories taller than Harbor Place. People will notice this from miles and miles around."

— Kiera Blessing 

 

Long-vacant downtown building gets new life

A long-vacant, four-story brick building in the heart of the otherwise thriving downtown is about to come back to life.

The building at 87 Washington St., which more than a decade ago housed Trattoria Al Forno restaurant, is about to become mixed-use development with a new eatery or retail store on the ground floor and upper level loft-style apartments.

A groundbreaking ceremony recently happened inside the building, where developer David Traggorth of Traggorth Companies of Boston recalled his first big project in Haverhill.

Traggorth was joined by Mayor James Fiorentini, Economic Development Director William Pillsbury, representatives from Healthy Neighborhood Equity Fund and local and state officials including state Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill, and City Councilor Joseph Bevilacqua.

In 2016, Traggorth transformed the former Surplus Office Supply building at 37 Washington St. into JM Lofts, which features market-rate housing on upper floors and businesses on the ground-floor.

Traggorth said his latest project will feature 24 market-rate loft apartments and 3,500 square feet of retail space. Preliminary construction has begun and the expected completion date is toward the end of 2019, he said.

He said it is important to create housing in gateway cities such as Haverhill, and that the housing be close to a transportation hub such as the downtown train station, and also in areas where residents are close to dining and shopping.

"People want the ability to hop on a train to Boston," he said.

During the groundbreaking, Traggorth talked about the success of the JM Lofts building, which in addition to apartments, also houses three businesses: Battle Grounds Coffee Company; the Switchboard, an art-focused business; and Quinn's Canine Cafe, where dogs and their owners can socialize.

"Creating an environment where an art gallery, a dog biscuit company and a coffee shop can open and collaborate ... that to me is by far the most rewarding part of this," Traggorth said.

Pillsbury said Traggorth had a good experience with the city during the JM Lofts project and that he liked the way the city and mayor's office worked with him.

"We're glad he came back for this project," Pillsbury said.

Bevilacqua said he remembers when the building housed a restaurant — the last business that occupied it more than a decade ago.

"It's good to see it coming back to life,'' he said.

Fiorentini said the building, which is across the street from the Garibaldi Club, is the last major vacant downtown building available for redevelopment.

"We're excited to celebrate this important milestone with Mayor Fiorentini and our other partners building on a successful collaboration that started with JM Lofts and continues to bring these beautiful landmark historic buildings back to life in downtown Haverhill," Traggorth said.

The project took advantage of state historic tax credits to restore many of the historic characteristics of the original 87 Washington St. building -- one of dozens of brick structures built downtown following the Great Fire of 1882 that destroyed many wooden buildings in the area, Fiorentini said.

"They used old photos and other research to make the new building look as much like the original building as possible," the mayor said. "This new housing will offer an urban life style for people who want that, while at the same time providing customers for the many great restaurants on Washington Street."

The alleys behind and on both sides of the 87 Washington St. building will also be renovated, and an accessibility ramp with a protective canopy will be installed, officials said.

The organizations providing money for this project include MassDevelopment and the Healthy Neighborhoods Equity Fund, which is a joint venture between the Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation and Conservation Law Foundation, officials said.

— Mike LaBella

 

City  to add temporary handicap parking spots

City officials say they are prepared to replace handicap parking spaces inside the Washington Street entrance to the Wingate parking lot that are temporarily being taken up by an aerial lift being used to create a giant mural on the side of a building.

Although the lift will occupy two of the four designated spaces along the west side of the J.M. Lofts building for a week or so, in the event all four handicap spaces are needed for the mural project, they city will replace those lost spaces with temporary handicap parking, officials said. Those temporary spaces would be on the opposite side of the Wingate lot entrance.

Downtown resident Jim Mamonas, 71, who lives in the Finney building on Washington Street, across from the Wingate lot entrance, said he uses one of the four designated handicap spots daily.

"It's not easy finding a handicap spot downtown," Mamonas said. "Ever since they posted signs for no parking, I've had to drive around to find a spot."

Mamonas said that recently an aerial lift being used by the mural artist took up two of the four handicap parking spaces there.

"I had just returned from a four-day vacation and had to drive around for a half-hour before I found a spot," he said.

Then two days later, Mamonas found that police had posted signs for no parking for all four of the designated handicap spots.

Sarah LoVasco, co-owner of the Switchboard art gallery and artists meeting center at 43 Washington St., which is located on the street level of the J.M. Lofts building, said artist Sarah C. Rutherford of Rochester, New York, is creating a large mural on the west side of the J.M. Lofts building as part of a national mural project called "Her Voice Carries," which spotlights women who work to lift up the voices of others.

LoVasco said all four handicap spots were needed for several days while the wall was being primed so that Rutherford could begin painting her mural beginning Oct. 1.

City officials said the mural project should be completed by Oct. 15 and that two of the four spots will continue to be taken up by the lift.

Shawn Regan, spokesman for Mayor James Fiorentini, said that if all four spots should be needed by the artist before she completes her work, the city will install signs indicating temporary handicap parking on the opposite side of the Wingate lot entrance

"If need be, it can be done pretty quickly," Regan said. "We hope the artist won't need to take up all four spots, but if the artist does, they will let the Highway Department know and they can put up handicap signs as needed.

Mamonas said he was able to park in one of the two handicap spots recently, but that he is now concerned about paint that might drop onto his car while the mural is being worker on.

"I think it would have been better had the city created temporary handicap parking on the other side of the entrance, just like City Councilor William Macek had suggested last week," Mamonas said. "Sarah (LoVasco), who owns the Switchboard, also thought it was a good idea to create temporary parking."

Mamonas said he expects downtown parking to be an even greater issue as more and more downtown housing units are being created.

"Where are these new people going to park?" he said. "And some of them will probably need handicap spots as well."

— Mike LaBella

 

Hospital merger delayed; AG to review proposal

A major merger involving several hospitals in the region has been put on hold over concerns it will raise prices for patients.

A state watchdog agency Thursday referred the proposed deal between Beth Israel Deaconness Medical Center and Lahey Health to the state Attorney General’s Office, which has the authority to impose price controls.

“Is this transaction good for the commonwealth?” asked Donald Berwick, a member of the state’s Health Policy Commission. “The answer is, ‘No, not yet.’”

The commission voted recently to send the proposed merger to Attorney General Maura Healey’s office and also back to the Department of Public Health, which previously approved the deal.

The merger, first proposed in January 2017, would include Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, Beverly Hospital, Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester and Lahey Hospital in Peabody.

Hospital officials say the newly created organization, to be called Beth Israel Lahey, would be able to compete with Partners HealthCare, the state’s largest health care organization led by Massachusetts General and Brigham & Women’s hospitals.

But opponents and members of the Health Policy Commission expressed concern the merger would create a second entity that could use its clout with insurance companies to raise prices for patients. Opponents also say the merger will hurt poorer patients. Earlier in the week, Anna Jaques CEO Mark Goldstein said assisting under-served patients has always been a priority for the hospital.

“We don’t turn our back on patients regardless of their ability to pay,” he said. “There’s no question in my mind the investments we’re going to make will allow people to be closer to home, and that includes under-served patients.”

Dr. Howard Grant, the CEO of Lahey Health, said after the meeting Thursday that whatever restrictions are placed on the merger must be reasonable to allow Beth Israel Lahey Health to compete with Partners and keep prices down.

“It’s got to be so that the organization has an opportunity to thrive and not be unreasonable,” he said. “But I’m confident that people will be able to get together to make that a reality.”

A study by the commission concluded the merger could raise costs by as much as $200 million per year. Some commission members expressed disappointment that hospital officials have not said how they plan to control costs.

“Right now, they have not reassured us that they will protect and serve the neediest people,” Berwick said. “It is not in their financial interest. You will lose money. The parties have not yet shown that they are willing to take that hit.”

More than 100 people attended the Health Policy Commission meeting in Boston, including hospital officials and opponents.

An organization opposing the merger released a statement saying the deal would hurt communities of color and thanked the commission for referring the matter to the attorney general and Department of Public Health.

Hanoi Reyes, spokeswoman for the Make Healthcare Affordable Coalition, called on the agencies to “stand up for these communities and take immediate action to stop this merger.”

 

— Paul Leighton

 

 

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