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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Walter L. Smith Jr.: Mayoral Candidate

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mayoral challenger Walter L. Smith Jr.•SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW
•SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW


North Adams - Walter L. Smith Jr., 54, of 225 East Main St., said that he considers himself “an average Joe.”

“I’m in the working class like everybody else,” Smith said during an Oct. 21 interview. “I work an hourly job. I live paycheck to paycheck like probably 90 percent of the voters of North Adams do.”

Smith is an employee of the Curran Highway-based Wal-mart store and is challenging incumbent Mayor John Barrett III for election to the city’s Corner Office. A city election is scheduled for Nov. 8.
He decided to seek election so that city voters would have a choice, Smith said.

“That way, the current incumbent wouldn’t have a free ride into office,” Smith said. “I think there’s been enough underlying grumblings of the current administration. That made me take note that people are really disgruntled, despite the fact that [Barrett] has done an excellent job over the past 21 years and I don’t fault him for that. I just wanted people to have a choice this time.”

Very Pleased With The City

He moved to the city from Chicopee about two-and-a-half years ago with a desire to make a “fresh start,” Smith said. Prior to coming to the city, Smith worked at a Facemate Inc. mill. Smith has said that the North American Free Trade Agreement opened the gates for the factory jobs to be sent out of the country, and the mill ultimately ceased operations. Smith said that he came to the city at the suggestion of a friend and the friend subsequently introduced Smith to his current landlord Charles “Rusty” Ransford.

Smith endured a period of local unemployment before securing a job at Wal-mart. He is separated from his wife.

Smith said that he believes the decision to come to the city was a good one.

“Looking back over the past two-and-a-half years, I don’t think I could have made a better choice,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased with the city.”

Mohawk Theater

Revitalizing the downtown is integral to the city’s economic growth, Smith said.

“My idea of the revitalization is probably a little different than Mayor Barrett’s,” Smith said. “I’m looking not only at it economically but also in trying to get downtown retail space as a draw to get people into the downtown.”

The K-mart plaza would benefit from a “good retail store” or as a sub-divided site, Smith said, and added that activity would generate more businesses.

“I’m sure that once other companies saw the influx of people, the empty storefronts we have on Main Street now wouldn’t be empty very long,” Smith said. “And I agree with Mayor Barrett the theater project is a major key on two-fold. It would be a major draw and attraction to the city but if we put plays in there, some decent first-run movies, it would give the youth a place to go other than Curran Highway or the Berkshire Mall to see a movie or something like that.”

Smith cited the Pleasant Theater in Northampton as an example of the economic contribution theaters can generate.

Housing and Property Owners

Housing and city/landlord relations are a top issue for Smith, he said.

The city’s housing situation needs improvement, he said.

“I don’t think [housing] is fine at the moment,” Smith said. It’s a big concern of mine, not only in North Adams but in the area as well. Affordable housing is key, I think, to any community, whether it’s the size of North Adams, Pittsfield, or Springfield. In order to rectify that, I think the city has to work hard with the landlords.”

He’s not certain how many residential rental property owners exist in the city, Smith said, but he said that he believes those property owners with five or more rental properties should form a coalition, meet with city officials, “and see how the city and the landlords can work hand-in-hand improving their properties.”

City officials should work with private property owners whose rental units don’t meet municipal and state public safety and habitability codes and investigate what public funds might be available to help the property owners improve their properties, Smith said. Smith said that development and housing grant monies may be available to the private sector landlords.

“I’m sure there must be some type of funds the city could try to get to help these landlords provide affordable and available housing,” he said.

Rising heating fuel costs have prompted at least one city landlord to terminate “utilities included” tenancies, Smith said, and when asked if the landlord was reducing the rent because utilities are no longer being included, Smith said he did not know but hoped that a rent decrease was part of the new arrangement.

Rising fuel costs are expected to wreak havoc on household budgets and those on fixed incomes will be especially hard hit, Smith said.

“When you are paying your own utilities, that’s going to make it extremely rough on many fixed income people and people like me that are hourly,” Smith said.

Smith said that he’s never owned rental property but believes that some property owner problems are caused by the tenants occupying their units.

“You can’t always control who you rent to,” Smith said. “You have a screening process that every landlord goes through, but you really don’t know what kind of tenant you’re going to have until they are in your building or in your unit. You’ve got to sympathize with landlords, at least I do. They never know who they are going to rent to.”

City Services

City services are vital to the city, Smith said. Police and fire departments are “number 1,” he said.

“Your other city services are vital, too, they are the ones who plow the roads and go out to fix broken pipes in the middle of the night.”

Smith said that he has concerns about the city fire department’s ability to communicate using portable radios in some parts of the city. He is an amateur ham radio operator, he said.

“I know the importance of being able to communicate in all areas of the city,” Smith said.

Police communications seem to be “excellent,” Smith said.

Smith said that he owns a home-based scanner and monitors the scanner frequently.

“I’ve never heard a situation where they didn’t respond quickly and admirably,” he said.

He believes that the fire department’s ability to communicate with officials from an emergency scene is compromised.

“The fire department, because of the equipment that they have, is lacking,” Smith said.

According to Smith, the fire department equipment is old and he said that he’s been told that when firefighters are dispatched to certain areas, the portable radios do not function and all communications must be funneled through fire truck radios.

“That’s a time delay and when you’re talking fires, it may not seem like a 5, 10, or 15 second delay in communications is much, but when it comes to concern of a fire, seconds mean lives in communications,” Smith said. “Seconds mean whether you save a building from burning down to the ground or not. That, to me, is vital, communication needs for any emergency services.”

Smith would like to develop a regional emergency operations center that would utilize area ham radio operator services and provide a “coordinated communications center.” A ham radio communications center would provide services during major fires, wide-scale power outages and weather situations such as blizzards, he said.

He noted that cellular telephone service can fail, and cited cell phone failures during Hurricane Katrina as an example of the unreliable nature of cell phone communications.

Benches and K-mart Plaza

Smith said that if elected, he would meet with various constituent groups and hear their concerns.

“If I’m elected and the voters of North Adams seem that they want change, I want to work with all these people to see what their concerns are about the City of North Adams, what ideas they would like to have,” Smith said. “I do know that we have quite a large elderly population and quite a large fixed income population. I know that they have some concerns, too.”

Smith said that he is aware of a “bench controversy” surrounding the downtown, and also said that he understands why city-owned benches were removed from Main Street some years ago. His understanding is that Main Street merchants who had businesses on the street during that time asked that the benches be removed, Smith said.

“Between now and the election, what I’m planning is stopping in at the businesses and seeing what they would like on Main Street, get their ideas on what the city could do to enhance their businesses,” he said.

Smith said that he believes another motel is needed to accommodate tourists.

He would also support “well-run” K-mart plaza development, he said.
Smith said that the First Hartford Realty Corp. is responsible for development at a West Springfield shopping area. The project included bringing a Price Chopper supermarket and a Big Lots store to the property, he said.

Smith said that he has confidence in the company’s ability to develop profitable sites.

“[First Hartford] officials listen,” he said. “They want to be welcomed into this community.”

“Indescribable Uniqueness”

He is confident that he is capable of serving as mayor and would rely on the knowledge of city employees already on the job, Smith said.

“There’s not going to be a broom sweep when I come into office,” he said, and added that one of his first actions would be to meet with department heads and learn about city needs.

“This will be as much of an experience for me as I think it would be for anybody that would choose to run for office,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge. I’m looking forward to it if I am elected to office.”

The city, especially the Main and Eagle street areas, are beautiful, Smith said, and added that an “indescribable uniqueness” is what keeps people living in the city.

Smith said that as a political novice who’s never sought elected office, he will need to learn the job if elected as mayor.

“The only thing I can promise the City of North Adams is that if I am elected as your mayor, I will give it 100 percent,” he said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.
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