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Northfield 2033: Residents weigh in on town’s future

Recorder file photo/Paul Franz
The Northfield Food Mart in downtown Northfield.

Recorder file photo/Paul Franz The Northfield Food Mart in downtown Northfield.

NORTHFIELD — A gas station, more jobs, a broader tax base, a restored Schell Bridge, a pub, and a different form of government.

What do all of these things have in common?

They were all things Northfielders said they’d like to see in their town, at a community forum that kicked their master plan process into high gear.

The plan, spearheaded by the Master Plan Steering Committee and consultant Martha Lyon, will craft a 20-year vision for Northfield, set goals, and give recommendations for achieving them. The plan is expected to be complete by October.

But they won’t be doing it alone. Wednesday’s was the first of three townwide forums on the plan, and Steering Committee Chairman Richard Fitzgerald said several smaller forums will be convened to gather the opinions of cross-sections of Northfield’s population.

About 60 residents came out Wednesday to talk about their town’s future. They were broken into several small groups, which put their heads together to answer four questions:

∎ What about Northfield would you like to preserve?

∎ What would you like to change?

∎ What are your concerns and perceived benefits for renewed use of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus?

∎ What would you change to improve the town?

Each group brainstormed, then ranked their answers on all but the campus question. After an hour, organizers broke up the huddles, and asked the groups for their findings.

Many of the groups said they’d like to see a gas station, a town common or park, and features that would make Northfield a destination for out-of-towners.

Several groups also said they’d like to see more townwide events, as a way to meet their neighbors and foster community. One group suggested that a local pub, the kind that served as the hub of communities in colonial America, could help achieve that goal.

Just about everyone said they’d like to see the 217-acre campus used again. However, they want to make sure it’s occupied by something that fits into the town.

The benefits of an active campus, they said, included jobs, economic stimulus, cultural and recreational opportunities, and, if it goes to a for-profit organization, tax revenue to the tune of $420,000 per year.

However, the prospect of a new owner for the old school also comes with concerns.

Among those were traffic, poor stewardship, and a loss of the campus’ rural, peaceful nature, should a new owner decide to further develop the campus, or worse — raze its buildings and start anew.

Some were also worried that an influx of employees on the campus could strain the cash-strapped school district.

Speaking of which, the quality of education provided by the Pioneer Valley Regional School District was one of several things residents said they’d like to preserve.

“Our schools have a quiet, safe environment. They bring in about 170 kids through School Choice, while only 30 choice out to other districts,” said Jed Proujansky of Winchester Road. “It’s one of the things that attracts people to live here.”

“I want to preserve our downtown thoroughfare, and the classic beauty of Main Street,” said Stephen Roberto, of Gulf Road. He also wanted to hang onto the town’s open spaces, forests, and other natural resources. The rest of his group echoed those sentiments.

So, what would they like to see change?

“Politics,” said Lois Stearns of Millers Falls Road. “Also, the lack of participatory people in town government.”

Though many Northfielders take an active role in town business, it’s mostly a cast of recurring characters, and sometimes clashing egos and viewpoints.

Perhaps that’s one of the reasons nearly every group said they’d like to change the town’s government. A Feb. 25 special town meeting approved the formation of a committee to look into the matter.

Others said they’d like to see changes to the town’s rigid special permit zoning process, to make Northfield more attractive to businesses.

The Master Plan Steering Committee seeks to appoint several more members to the Master Plan Roundtable.

Anyone who would like to serve on the roundtable, as a regular member or alternate, should stop at Town Hall and pick up a citizens’ interest form.

The roundtable will meet again at 7 p.m. March 20 in Town Hall. Though it’s not a public forum like Wednesday’s meeting, the public is welcome to stop by, especially those who’d like to join the roundtable.

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