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WANTED: Economic Development…Director, too…

From Left, Kevin Kennedy, Mayor Sarno, Cong. Neal

Today was a busy day for Springfield political news.  The Springfield City Council held its last meeting of 2011 and with that the last meeting of the 2010-2011 council.  However in the morning Mayor Domenic Sarno and Congressman Richard Neal held a press conference to make an economic development announcement.

Since the departure of John Judge earlier this year, the city had been without a director for Economic Development.  Chris Moskal had been serving in that role on an interim basis.  However, today a permanent replacement was named.

Longtime Neal staffer, Kevin Kennedy, was selected to head Springfield’s Economic Development team.  Sarno, in making the appointment, also announced that Moskal would be named the executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.  He praised  Kennedy as somebody who will “get the deal done” in terms of economic development in the city whether the project is large or small.

Cong. Neal w/ Mayor Sarno (WMassP&I)

Neal spoke very highly of Kennedy noting that the Springfield resident had been a staffer of his for 26 years.  Kennedy has worked with Neal since the congressman had been the city’s mayor and played roles in development projects of the 1980’s like Monarch Place.  Neal mentioned a letter from Springfield-based US District Court Judge Michael Ponsor praising Kennedy for his efforts in making the new courthouse on State Street a reality.  Kennedy has in recent years been Neal’s Scheduler and a key district aide.

Kennedy’s own remarks reflected a desire to pursue economic development in the city on all levels.  His top two large scale priorities were the implementation of Rebuild Springfield, the city’s post-tornado redevelopment effort and Union Station, a project that has eluded city planners for decades.  However, Kennedy also expressed an interest in smaller projects like CVS’s redevelopment of its Forest Park store and the UniFirst land swap enacted last week.

Speaking to reporters after the formal announcement, Kennedy spoke about the need to building “capacity” at the economic development office.  By capacity, Kennedy explained, the city needs to develop a team that can handle the myriad economic development opportunities across the city.  He is somewhat optimistic about the city’s outlook given the pent-up demand and unique opportunity rebuilding after the tornado offers.  More  bluntly, he described the city as having only one direction to go, impliedly up.

Kevin Kennedy at center (WMassP&I)

Asked about the prospect of a casino in Springfield, Kennedy offered perhaps the most cautious words of any city official so far.  While he said the city should pursue a casino project, he warned that it should not become a citadel.  If it became that, “it won’t be a long-term benefit.”  He offered Towersquare as a parallel, which, when built in 1973 as Bay State West, “sucked all the businesses” out of downtown, only to collapse as a retail venue itself.  The proposed casino on Page Boulevard could become such a “citadel.”  He suggested downtown as a better location for a casino where it could be integrated with the MassMutual Center and other downtown amenities.

Because Union Station has been an elusive goal of Neal’s both as mayor and a member of the House of Representatives, Kennedy was also asked about that project.  Construction is set to begin within the year, but it has been a torturous path.  Kennedy emphasized that projects like Union Station have to be practical.  The current plan calls for office space principally for the transit agencies set to serve it along with traveler oriented retail.  Prior plans were far more ambitious, perhaps unrealistic.

However, many of the projects Kennedy has worked on and will work on were public endeavors.  For Springfield to succeed, Kennedy explained, private business will need to step up to the plate.