WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A next step in the long road toward developing affordable housing at the former Photech mill was taken Friday with the presentation of a $200,000 federal brownfields grant.
U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, D-Springfield, was on hand for the announcement of the Environmental Protection Agency funds, one of several stops he made in Berkshire County on Friday. He was at Great Barrington in the morning and North Adams later in the afternoon for $300,000 brownfields communitywide assessement grants for both communities.
"With your help and the federal government's help we will be able to clean up the property and reuse that space that otherwise we would have had to bring down," Selectman Chairman Hugh Daley said. "So this is a great reuse and a great use of EPA money so we are really excited about it."
Neal congratulated the town for receiving the grant
"Congratulations to the board and the grant writers who put together a stellar application and one of the best things with the EPA is that it acknowledges a phenomenon in American life," he said. "We began this discussion in the 1960s about protecting the environment and I think largely we got it right."
All that's left of the mill on Cole Avenue is what's been dubbed "the cube," a square section that survived a collapse and a demolition of the rest of the century-old structure about a decade ago. The property's had a few different options for development that fell through but the most recent, as a site for affordable housing, is being undertaken by the town, which now owns the property.
Berkshire Housing Development Corp. of Pittsfield and Boston's Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development were chosen to develop 46 units of affordable housing.
"None of this can be done without federal resources and it is so important that that message be repeated," President and CEO Elton Ogden said. "This money lays the first brick in the wall and it helps us put together other financing that comes with the nearly $15 million project."
Ogden said they plan to renovate the cube and build new townhouses. He said the apartments will be for individuals and families but, most importantly, affordable.
"It will be available to seniors, families, couples without kids and with kids. It's really housing for all and it is sorely needed," he said. "Tropical Storm Irene destroyed far more housing stock than we have been able to replace and the town is committed to replace it."
Spruces Mobile Home Park was flooded when the Hoosic River crested during the storm and was later closed and demolished as part of a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant. The private park for senior citizens had for years offered affordable housing options for that section of the population and its closure reduced the town's already limited affordable housing stock significantly.
Neal touched on America's withdrawing from the multinational Paris Climate Agreement and said even in a polarized political environment, the environment is something that should be and has been agreed upon.
"There is always room to bicker about the degree but not the mission and the mission remains cleaner air, cleaner water and the reminder that one of the reasons life expectancy on Earth has increased is because of clean water," he said.
"I try to remind people because I know there are a lot of people out there with good will that might not share the same political affiliation," he said. "Many of the environmental concerns years ago were championed by Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and that seems to have fallen by the wayside today."
Neal also fielded question about the atmosphere in Washington, especially with the recent shooting at a baseball field that seriously injured Republican U.S. Rep. Stephen Scalise of Louisiana.
He said he wished him and others injured in the shooting a speedy recovery and noted that Americans should be outraged by the attack.
The congressman added that beyond the shooting, and past six months, there has been a slow decline in civil engagement in Congress and throughout the country. It's a polarization has been amplified by social media and cable shows, he said.
"There has been a significant change in tone in Congress and the use of a microphone to make a point," Neal said. "You can disagree with people on policy, and the person at the top usually sets the tone of what we say and what we do, and I think if we aren't careful, it can quickly move downhill."
Before moving on to his next stop in North Adams, Neal was given a bag of local produce and products and town officials asked him to return soon.
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