Healey gets backing in trip to Paper City

HOLYOKE — The woman many expect to be the state’s next governor was in the Paper City on Wednesday to see several key projects and pick up a handful of endorsements.

Attorney General Maura Healey swung through the region on a campaign visit, where she picked up the endorsements of several Holyoke politicians: Mayor Joshua Garcia, City Council President Todd McGee, At-large Councilor Tessa Murphy-Romboletti and At-large School Committee member Erin Brunelle. Garcia praised Healey for what he described as her commitment to equity and inclusion.

“She gets it, she gets the challenges in Black and Brown communities and Gateway Cities,” Garcia said.

Healey’s visit came a day before her only challenger for the Democratic nomination for governor, progressive state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, dropped out of the race, leaving Healey alone to secure the party’s nomination.

Healey chose two projects to tour during her quick visit to the city: the Holyoke Housing Authority’s South Holyoke Homes project, which will eventually bring 66 affordable rental units and eight rowhouse-style, owner-occupied properties to vacant lots surrounding Carlos Vega Park; and the Victory Theatre. Rainy weather, however, caused Healey to cancel her visit to the housing project at the last minute.

Speaking ahead of Healey’s arrival at the theater, Matthew Mainville, the housing authority’s executive director, said Phase 1 of the project is on track to be completed later this year, bringing a 12-unit rental building to the corner of Hamilton and South East streets . Early this year, the project received $1.3 million from the city in federal coronavirus relief funds to begin work on Phase 2, which will see eight affordable homes built on the corner of Clemente and Sargeant streets.

“It’s really exciting,” Mainville said. He described the Phase 1 parcel as a “kind of ‘statement building’” that lets local residents know: “change is coming.”

Housing, receivership

Housing challenges were a primary focus of Wednesday’s gathering. Garcia described affordable housing for everybody as one of the three pillars of the work that needs to be done in the city, together with economic development and education. A recent study published by the UMass Donahue Institute’s Economic & Public Policy Research Group found that the region needs at least 17,000 more rental units at or below $500 a month.

Asked what policies she would support to ease the housing crunch in Massachusetts, Healey was short on specifics. She said she would have conversations with “experts on the ground” to see what the state can do to encourage the construction of affordable housing.

“I’ve said for a long time we need a whole host of housing options, large and small,” Healey said “We need a range to also cover a range of socioeconomic levels in the state because people are really struggling.”

Healey said some communities will have to deal with restrictive zoning that prevents affordable housing from being built.

Healey also addressed the frustration that Holyokers have felt about the state’s takeover of city schools in 2015, with no end yet in sight.

“Day one, I want a plan to end receivership,” she said. The state’s interest and role, she said, should be to support communities. “This has persisted for far too long.”

Victory Theatre

Following her press conference, Healey — like nearly every politician who has come to the city before her — toured the Victory Theater. The 100-year-old theater, which closed in 1979, received its latest bit of funding in December, when it got $250,000 from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act.

Garcia described the theater as an “anchor organization” for the revitalization of downtown, hopefully bringing in other development to the area once it opens.

“This place, when it is finally up and running, will be for everyone,” McGee said.

Healey commended Donald Sanders, artistic director of the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts, the Holyoke organization that owns the Victory Theatre, for his persistence in pushing the project forward ever since MIFA bought the run-down property in 2009.

“I believe deeply that it is efforts like this that have an ability to transform community,” she said, describing the arts as essential to the community and an economic engine. “I want to be a governor who strongly supports an arts and tourism agenda.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazetteet.com.

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