Springfield Takes On Urban Decay One Building At A Time

Jul 20, 2017

Neighborhood activists, who are trying to clean up one of Springfield's toughest neighborhoods, say they'll only be able to tackle the problem one building at a time.

In November, voters in Springfield agreed to use $45,000 to buy out a dilapidated property in town. Crews tore down the building last week.

Lori Claffee is a member of the Union/Park Neighborhood Association and the group has been working to help revitalize this Springfield neighborhood for about four years.

"Union Street is a street that's been plagued with the hard times that have hit Springfield," Claffee says. "I think we're starting to have enough forces coming together to begin to change that. It's pretty exciting."

Crews are still hauling away the final piles of debris from in front of the Union Street School in Springfield.

The now-demolished property has been a particular thorn in Springfield's side. Positioned right in front of the elementary school, the town tried to get approval to tear the building down a few years ago but the deal fell through.

When the building went on the market again there was a community push to find the money to buy it, to keep it out of the hands of an absentee landlord.

Springfield is dealing with the same opioid crisis that's hit the rest of Vermont, while also trying to reinvent itself following the collapse of the machine tool industry that shut down so many factories in the region.

Claffee says this one project won't take care of all of Springfield's challenges, but it's a sign of progress.

"It does make sense to deal with some of these buildings," says Claffee. "While it's true that there are social issues, I think that when people don't have a decent place to live it just breeds even more of it. This is a good place to start."

A special election was held in November and voters gave the school district money to buy out the property.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

This is a tough neighborhood where a woman was stabbed to death earlier this year.

Tom Yennerell, Springfield town manager, stands above the demolition site and points out across the street at two other buildings the town wants to clean up.

Yennerell says the police are trying to do their part to clean it up and taking care of the run down properties can be an important piece in fighting the drug problem.

"This is just one step in many that we have started to work on," Yennerell says. "We know where there's problem houses and issues and the police have upped their patrol in those areas. But, again, it's like putting ointment on a sore that you know is going to continue to fester."

Late last year, Springfield voters adopted a new town ordinance which requires property owners to maintain their parcels. Yennerell says about 25 landowners have already been contacted and are cooperating with the town.

And the town is working  with state partners to renovate a major downtown property that Yennerell says that's a multi-million dollar project.

"It does make sense to deal with some of these buildings. While it's true that there are social issues, I think that when people don't have a decent place to live it just breeds even more of it. This is a good place to start." — Lori Claffee, Springfield neighborhood activist

Still, he says, tearing down an eyesore in a neighborhood that's trying to improve itself helps move all of their work forward.

"Having a neighborhood association like this really helps us do our work," he says. "These people are the boots on the ground. They live here. They see all the details. They know what's going on. They relay this information to town officials and then we can react."

Yennerell says a project like this gives everyone who's working on Springfield's urban blight problem the extra incentive to push on.