Top News Stories of 2019: Part  2

  • The deaths of Kathleen Grady and Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler Jr. in a tent behind McDonald’s in January left a lasting impact on Greenfield. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

  • Roxann Wedegartner, Sheila Gilmour and Brickett Allis, then candidates for mayor, participate in a televised debate at Greenfield Community Television studios. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Community members line the streets of South Deerfield as police escort fallen Navy corpsman Meaghan Burns to Wrisley Funeral Home in May. Staff File Photo/Dan Little

  • State Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Michael Kennealy announces aid in the form of a new pedestrian bridge and sewer service for the former Southworth paper mill in Turners Falls. STAFF File PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/27/2019 7:02:05 AM

Editor’s note: Many media outlets write about the year’s top national and international news stories and newsmakers. As a community newspaper, the Greenfield Recorder chose to focus on local news. The editorial team started with 10 stories but that number grew to 13 — a baker’s dozen. This series began Thursday. Look for one more day of the top news stories of 2019, which are presented in no particular order.

Two people die in a tent during winter

GREENFIELD — The deaths of two people in a tent behind McDonald’s in January left an impact on the city — one that’s relevant once again with winter weather and low temperatures.

Kathleen Grady, 50, died of carbon monoxide poisoning and possible hypothermia and Clayton “Aaron” Wheeler Jr., 51, died of carbon monoxide poisoning on Jan. 21, a night when temperatures hovered in the single digits.

The death of the two individuals ushered in a community outpouring of support for people in need of a place to sleep and how the affordable housing crisis, with high rents and low wages, has heightened concerns over how people can live in the community. Emergency meetings were held, and donations of pillows and blankets to ServiceNet’s shelter and other volunteer initiatives kicked off.

In August, the state Department of Housing and Community Development committed $150,000 to pay for a warming center at Chapman Street’s Salvation Army.

The Wells Street shelter also opened its doors to anyone in need, resulting in the modest, one-floor facility becoming overcrowded with people. To help house the homeless in the aftermath, The Interfaith Council spent $5,000 to place people in local hotels, Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams said.

“We’ll be able to get plenty of people a place to go,” said Jay Sacchetti, ServiceNet’s senior vice president of shelter and housing, vocational and addiction services. He added that the center would ensure the “unsafe” level of crowding at the Wells Street shelter last winter does not happen again.

In October, Greenfield’s Home Depot staff voted to take on the local shelters as the focus of their own community engagement. They have since constructed wall-to-wall shelves in the barn behind the Greenfield Family Inn, adding much-needed storage capacity at the shelter for families.

“People really rallied in the community after the couple died,” said Amy Timmins, vice president of community relations for ServiceNet. “They were aware at a new level of the need for services in town.”

The Home Depot team assembled to paint the Wells Street Shelter and Franklin County Resource Center. They also helped turn over an alcove into a freshly painted, fully shelved closet for more storage space.

Election brings changes to city government

GREENFIELD — The local general election on Nov. 5 was newsworthy for the city in many ways — the third mayor in the city’s history was elected, two binding ballot questions were passed by voters and there was a 47 percent voter turn out.

City Clerk Kathy Scott said the event was newsworthy because of the contested races.

“There were options for voters to choose from, in varying levels of the city’s government,” she said. “There are other municipalities where that is not the case. I think in part that’s what drew voters to the polls, the choice of who they want to represent them.”

A total of 5,557 votes were cast, which is about a 47 percent turnout for the general election. The city has a total of 11,880 registered voters.

By comparison, the Nov. 7, 2017 biennial election saw a 27 percent voter turnout, and the Nov. 3, 2015 biennial election had 40.6 percent, according to the city clerk’s office.

Scott said she was happy to see such a high voter turnout at a local election this year.

“There are a lot of local elections that don’t get that high percentage of voter turnout,” she said. “I know of towns in Western Massachusetts that didn’t get 10 percent.”

Mayoral candidates included Roxann Wedegartner and Sheila Gilmour, and Brickett Allis ran as a write-in candidate for a four-year term as mayor. Wedegartner won the position with 2,068 votes or 37.2 percent of the vote.

The City Council seats in Precincts 1, 2, 3, 4 and 9, as well as two at-large councilors, will bring both new faces and familiar faces to the legislative branch.

“We have people who are coming back to serving the city with municipal experience in other areas, such as serving on other boards, committees or commissions, and other people who are going to be serving as a public official for the first time,” Scott said.

She added that the two binding ballot questions — one determining whether Greenfield would be a safe city and the other to fund a new library with $19.5 million — were another draw to the polls.

“In the last mayoral election, in 2015, there were four non-binding ballot questions,” Scott said. “This past year, there were two binding questions and many passionate people on both sides of each of the ballot questions.”

Community mourns death of young sailor

SOUTH DEERFIELD — The town was left reeling in May when Meaghan Elizabeth Burns, a U.S. Navy corpsman and 2013 graduate of Frontier Regional School, was shot to death at a 7-Eleven convenience store in Portsmouth, Va.

Burns, 23, was one of three active-duty Navy corpsmen killed on May 4 in what police said was a double homicide and suicide. Her father, Matthew Burns, said she was trying to help a friend.

According to her obituary, Burns was born on Aug. 25, 1995, in Springfield. Her family moved to South Deerfield in 2004. She enlisted in the Navy in 2015, and was stationed at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth at the time of her death.

On May 14, Deerfield and Greenfield Police escorted a hearse with Burns’ body and other vehicles from Bradley International Airport to Wrisley Funeral Home on Sugarloaf Street. Hundreds of people holding American flags stood quietly on the town common as the hearse made its way through.

Matthew Burns said his daughter was cremated and her ashes were scattered in several of her favorite places, including Cape Cod. The elder Burns also carries with him a small sample of the ashes in a cremation necklace.

Changes in the canal district

TURNERS FALLS — New economic activity is likely to soon follow two major changes in the canal district this year.

This summer, word got out that a real estate developer was interested in buying the former Southworth paper mill, the largest and most prominent building on the power canal. The building had been empty since August 2017, when Southworth went out of business. The company left with nearly half a million dollars in unpaid town bills. The possibility that the building would languish and fall into disrepair has been obvious.

The developer is Tom Cusano, who lives in New Hampshire. In 2004, he bought and rehabilitated a mill building in New Hampshire, and is now in the process of rehabilitating a more recently purchased mill in Holyoke.

Last week Cusano said he is ironing out the final details of the purchase, and is in conversations with potential tenants. He expects to rent the whole building to a single tenant, but is unsure what kind. Marijuana growers have expressed interest in the building, he said, and he has pursued paper companies and other manufacturers that could take advantage of some of the building’s equipment.

The viability of the building is boosted by last week’s announcement that the 5th Street pedestrian bridge, which crosses the power canal, will be rebuilt with a $2.2 million state grant. The bridge was found to be structurally unsound shortly after Southworth shut down, and has been closed ever since.

The new bridge will allow employees of the mill buildings to easily access parking on the opposite side of the canal. Easy pedestrian access will also benefit existing business, like the Local Yoga Joint and Buckingham Rabbits Vintage, which are both at 42 Canal St., next to the Southworth building.


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