MONSON — About 25 residents gathered at the Monson town offices to share their ideas for how to use the former Monson Developmental Center property. Among the ideas proposed to Select Board member Peter Warren and Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz, who hosted the discussion, housing for older people had the most support.

The site at 200 State Ave. was first acquired by the state in 1854 as an almshouse to care for indigent and unhoused people. It later became a school for children in the state’s care, and at the turn of the 20th century, was turned into a hospital for people with epilepsy and those with physical and cognitive disabilities. Since its closure in 2012, the state-owned property has “been sitting dormant,” and continuing to deteriorate, Wolowicz said. In 2022, a resident fell into a cistern on the site, which Wolowicz attributed to the property being improperly fenced and protected by the state.

Wolowicz began the discussion by assuring residents that the state would not be housing migrants at the site. Rumors spread on social media in recent weeks had claimed that the state had decided to house migrants there and that Wolowicz and the Select Board were hiding that information from residents.

Instead, Wolowicz said, town officials had met with state Rep. Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow) and state Sen. Ryan Fattman (R-Sutton) and representatives from the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance on Jan. 24. The state will be seeking to redevelop 100 acres of the 671-acre campus. Input regarding the town’s preferences for the site will be included in the request for proposals that will go out in late spring or early summer, Wolowicz explained.

Using a map that had been handed out, Warren said a large portion of the property to the west of Upper Palmer Road will be used by the Department of Fish and Game. Sections of the main campus have been set aside for agriculture. The remaining acreage is open to development.

“In a picture-perfect world, what would you see there?” Wolowicz asked the group. She noted that at least a portion of the redevelopment should bring in tax revenue. She reminded people that the process would be long and to envision a purpose for the land that would benefit the town for generations to come.

Rob Fairfield, who worked at Monson Developmental Center, and his son asked about the asbestos contaminating the site. Fairfield said the buildings are “covered” in the carcinogen. Wolowicz said $14 million of state funding has been appropriated to clean up the property and mitigate the toxic substance. She explained that it would not be enough to fully address the scope of the issue and said the state would need to allocate more funding in the future to finish the cleanup, which will likely include the demolition of some buildings and renovation of others.

Several people expressed a distrust of the state government, but Wolowicz said, “We have to be open to the process.”

Fairfield said housing for older people is needed and the wait time for the Housing Authority’s Colonial Village is years long. Several other residents agreed that there was a need for such housing. Warren suggested the northernmost part of the site, with direct access to Upper Palmer Road and State Avenue.

“It’s imperative for communities to invest in their seniors, and that includes housing,” Wolowicz said.
Other ideas for redevelopment included an accessible community center, a dog park, a hotel and a shopping center. Erin Wallace suggested a satellite campus for a university to develop green energy solutions. Fire Chief Brian Harris said that with the development of a Palmer stop for Compass Rail, formerly known as East-West Passenger Rail, the Monson Developmental Center site could serve as a Park and Ride lot.

Residents also wanted to remember the history of those who lived and died there. One person asked about New Hope Cemetery, which is currently overseen by the Department of Developmental Services, under whose authority the Monson Developmental Center operated. Cemetery Commission Foreman Mat Wawrzyk said the cemetery would become the property of Monson and would be maintained in the same manner as the town’s other cemeteries. He said no remediation is needed there and “it would be a perfect area to start with. Everybody needs to learn what this place was.”

One person in the group said the campus’s former superintendent’s house, known as “Pine Ridge,” which still houses three people, could be reused as a museum. Wolowicz acknowledged, “maintaining history” is an “important part of moving forward.”

Wolowicz also said that she would like the town to reclaim some of the materials in buildings that will be demolished, such as beams made from the now-endangered American Chestnut tree and Monson granite.

Wolowicz said there will be obstacles to the redevelopment of the site, but they were the DCAMM’s responsibility to address. The town’s job is to keep pressure on the state to continue the redevelopment process.

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