Looking Ahead: Mascot, police chief controversies roiled Montague in 2017

  • A supporter of the Indian mascot enters a Turners Falls Football game. Sept 15, 2017. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Friday, December 29, 2017

MONTAGUE — The year 2017 was marked by controversies that at times threatened to tear neighborhoods apart. Looking to 2018, perhaps the new year will bring about resolutions.

Following months of debate, the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee voted in February to eliminate its traditional “Indians” mascot and select a new mascot nickname to represent Turners Falls High School.

Then in May, town voters overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding referendum, which had no bearing on the School Committee’s decision-making process, saying they wanted the Turners Falls High School Indian restored as the school’s mascot.

As it stands now, while it’s been determined that the current branding must go, no alternative has been selected.

Police chief

News broke in October that Police Chief Charles “Chip” Dodge was in recovery and treatment for a prescription painkiller addiction while an officer and then as chief overseeing the department. A Recorder investigation uncovered that Dodge was the subject of a state police probe into alleged tampering with the local department’s prescription drug drop box in 2016. The investigation came to an end with no findings or charges filed.

In the story’s wake, while many in town stood behind Dodge, others called for his resignation.

Within weeks, town officials placed Dodge on administrative leave, a decision apparently influenced by two letters mailed in response to the article about Dodge being in recovery.

The first was written by the Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, who initially voiced public support for Dodge’s recovery, but said the Montague Police Department would not be allowed back into the regional anti-crime task force, from which it was suspended during the 2016 tampering probe, under Dodge as chief.

The second letter was signed by the officers in Montague’s Police union expressing displeasure about comments Dodge made to The Recorder, which they say suggested one of them may have stolen drugs from the town’s drug drop-off box.

The town is wrapping up an internal investigation, with the results slated to become public early next month. Meanwhile, the acting chief is Chris Bonnett, a veteran lieutenant and the department’s second-in-command.

Thriving economy

In other respects, 2017 has been a banner year for Montague, particularly in Turners Falls’ tight-knit village center, where businesses and town officials foresee a rosy 2018.

“2017 saw the completion of substantial projects that will enrich the lives of town residents and guests in the years to come,” said Town Administrator Steve Ellis.

“These include completion of the Greenfield Road pedestrian and cycling bridge, illumination of Peskeomskut Park in Turners Falls, restoration of the Lake Pleasant Bell Tower, improvements to our Council on Aging building, and ongoing renovations that have made the Shea Theater one of the premier entertainment venues in New England,” Ellis continued.

“The downtown has gotten some really big changes,” said Suzanne LoManto, director of Turners Falls RiverCulture, a nonprofit partnership of community leaders. LoManto highlighted a large building on Avenue A that’s been renovated “which has given us four new retail stores.”

“Most people who haven’t been here in a year, when they go downtown, will hardly recognize it,” LoManto said. “The Shea continues to bring people into Turners Falls, and we’ve had some incredible events,” including the Great Falls Festival, Pocumtuck Homelands Festival, Franklin County Cider Days, and It’s A Wonderful Night in Turners Falls, a holiday event.

While there has been a lot of new development in town, there have been a few substantial losses to the local economy. On Aug. 30, Turners Falls Paper Company, a Canal Street mainstay that traced its history back to 1839, abruptly closed. Employees were alerted to the company’s collapse that morning, leaving many facing an uncertain 2018.

Significant arts projects

This year has also brought with it “the creation of an amazing public art project in the form of a mural honoring the legacy of Douglass Smith, a son of Millers Falls who gained historical significance as a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, whose career fell victim to racial prejudice in 1912,” Ellis continued, noting the project “was an initiative of the Millers Falls Arts Bridge, in collaboration with RiverCulture.”

Elsewhere in town this year, Montague “enjoyed a strange sense of celebrity” in serving as the primary location for the multi-million-dollar production, “The Man who Killed Hitler and then the Bigfoot,” a film by Robert Krzykowski that stars Sam Elliott and Aidan Turner. Ellis said scenes were shot throughout town.

What’s on the radar

Looking ahead, LoManto said “we’re trying to renovate our mill district, and it’s a huge project with lots of difficulties.” And town leaders have “secured funding to develop plans for renovation of Rutter’s Park in Lake Pleasant, Spinner Park in Turners Falls, and for ongoing Streetscape improvements in Turners Falls,” Ellis said.

“The former Railroad Salvage building is now under redevelopment by Obear Construction, with artist live-work and studio space the vision,” he said. “Further up the river is the long-vacant Strathmore Mill complex. The town has a preliminary agreement with a developer for one of those buildings, and has secured funding to assess and plan for demolition of the most distressed sections of the complex with the goal of creating a more viable redevelopment project.”

Artisinal cidery

One substantial new business that 2018 could bring, Ellis said, is an artisanal cidery, Wild Child Cellars, in the mill district. The owners are laying groundwork to open in the historic Mill No. 2.

“This initiative provided part of the impetus to host elements of the annual Franklin County Cider Days event in Montague in 2017,” Ellis noted.

You can reach Andy Castillo

at: acastillo@recorder.com

or 413-772-0261, ext. 263

On Twitter: @AndyCCastillo