Berkshire Housing's Elton Ogden listens to Mollye Wolahan of the Women's Institute for Housing and Community Development at an event to celebrate the progress of the Highland Woods project.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — There still is no date to start digging the actual foundation of Williamstown's new senior housing complex.
But the metaphorical foundation gathered in town's senior center on Friday to celebrate the project's progress.
"I spent 35 years in state government, and I can never recall an undertaking that was as collaborative as this one has been," Selectman Thomas Sheldon said at the afternoon gathering in the Harper Center.
"Think of it. The federal government. The state government, under the leadership of Gov. Deval Patrick. Town government with [Town Manager] Peter Fohlin's invaluable leadership. But also a college, a charitable organization — Higher Ground, private not-for-profit organizations like Berkshire Housing and Women's Institute.
"Even the private, for-profit sector. When you think of it, Morgan Management, the owner of the Spruces [Mobile Home Park] played a role that was necessary in this whole unfolding of events. So it was a true collaboration, cooperation, partnership. The entire community of Williamstown, I believe, has pitched in in a variety of ways. And I have never been more proud to be involved with the community than in its response to [Tropical Storm] Irene."
Many of the collaborators were on hand to mark the occasion.
The governor was not available, but Undersecretary for Housing and Community Development Aaron Gornstein was there, along with Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, and Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, D-North Adams.
Fohlin was there along with former Selectwoman Jane Allen, former Affordable Housing Committee Chairwoman Catherine Yamamoto, current housing Chairman Van Ellet, Fohlin and Council on Aging Director Brian O'Grady and various former and current members of town boards.
Williams College was represented by Assistant to the President for Public Affairs James Kolesar. Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development was represented by Mollye Wolahan. And the president and CEO of Highland Woods' owner/developer set the tone for the event.
"This event came about when we found out Undersecretary Gornstein was going to be in town," Elton Ogden of Berkshire Housing Development Corp. said. "It seemed like a good reason for a party.
"That said, it's not a ribbon cutting, and there are no shovels in the ground. There are still some hurdles to overcome. But we're definitely on the downslope."
Highland Woods, which was initiated by the Higher Ground nonprofit that was founded immediately after Irene devastated the Spruces, was envisioned as replacement housing for some of the hundreds of residents who lost their homes when the park was wiped out.
Developers are planning to bring the 40-unit apartment complex beside Proprietor's Field online by early 2016, in time to coincide with the final closure of the mobile home park.
That ambitious timetable required the program be fast-tracked through the state funding process. Ogden and others lined up to thank Gornstein for making that happen; Gornstein credited the local partners for creating a compelling case to put before state funders.
He also issued a challenge.
"I also know you're not going to stop there," Gornstein said. "We want to see more proposals from Williamstown for affordable housing.
"The need is not going to go away with this one project. We're going to do everything we can to meet that need."
Gornstein praised the efforts of the Berkshire legislative delegation in pushing the region's interests in Boston.
Cariddi noted the power of the events of Aug. 28, 2011.
"I'm actually a neighbor of the Spruces," she said. "I remember that day very well — coming over and seeing the destruction and neighborhood in pieces.
"I was so thankful that Gov. Patrick came up within a couple of days to take a look at it. He saw early on what had happened and how a neighborhood had been destroyed and set his team to work."
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