12 from `12: the Top Stories from Chelsea in 2012

A major difference between cities and towns is the level of activity found within their borders.  Generally, cities are the busier, with the hustle and bustle of millions of people making their way to and through, the hum of business engines engaging in commerce and employing people, the arrival of new waves of immigrants from near and far, and the influence that more active local governments exert on them all – making it seem like there is always something happening in cities. Like it or not, Chelsea is a busy city that generates plenty of news to cover. As the page turns on another year, a review of the top 12 stories from ’12 certainly reveals that Chelsea continues to be a city in transition. Here’s a look at what people were talking about locally over the last 12 months.

12.  Chelsea Street Bridge reopens

Background:  A new $125 million bridge on Chelsea Street replaced the aging and, at times, unreliable former bridge that was built in the 1930s. Closed for more than a year and with lane restrictions prior to that, the construction activity disrupted commutes and commerce. Eighty-percent of the project was paid for by federal grants, with the State ponying up the other 20 percent and undertaking the project.

Result:  The new bridge is now open and has restored order to local traffic patterns. At more than 200 feet tall, the bridge has become a landmark that can be seen from office buildings and other higher elevation points for miles around. The new bridge also spans a wider channel, both horizontally and in depth, making it easier and safer for today’s larger shipping vessels to carry their products in and out of the Chelsea River.

What’s next:  The reliability of the old bridge, which once was stuck up in the open position for several years during the 1970s, created a major psychological barrier that had inhibited development along Eastern Avenue and Marginal Street. City development officials believe the elimination of that barrier will help unlock the fullest potential for the conversion of the heavy industrial uses to higher and better development along that portion of the city’s waterfront.

What you may not have known:  The Chelsea Street Bridge is the largest lift bridge of its kind in Massachusetts. Control of the bridge has been transferred from the City of Boston to the State Department of Transportation. A companion project, undertaken jointly by Massport and MassDOT, has opened up a haul road on the East Boston side of the bridge. The Marty Coughlin Haul Road will make it more convenient for commercial activity, including heavy trucking, to get directly in and out of Logan Airport.

11.  Gary Martel Embezzlement

Background:  Gary Martel was a relatively new resident who had become entrenched in civic activities. He was a central figure in the Governor Bellingham Cary House Association, a founding member of the Washington Avenue Gateway Association, a member of the City’s Planning Board and a frequent host of meetings and a widely attended holiday party at his beautiful Victorian home that was under painstaking renovation on Washington Avenue. All of that came crashing down on Martel, as he was arrested on securities fraud, accused of bilking clients of his various financial businesses out of more than $3 million dollars.

Result:  Martel pled guilty and faces up to five years in prison and a $250 million fine.

What’s next: Sentencing is still pending, so this story will likely leak into 2013.

What you may not have known:  Martel’s Victorian has been divided into condominiums, with at least one unit being sold already. That asset, like the others formerly in his possession, were seized by the SEC and presumably will be used to repay a portion of that which he stole from his investors, including several local residents.

10.  Chelsea community-based organization shine.

Background:  Local residents are well-served by quality community-based organizations (CBOs) that strive to meet their needs. Several of those organizations have development statewide, national and even international followings, and are striving to become more effective and influential in greater public policy and service delivery arenas.

Result:  A collaboration led by The Neighborhood Developers and including Centro Latino, Bunker Hill Community College, Career Source, Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership and Metropolitan Credit Union launched CONNECT, a co-located bundling of programs aimed at improving skills and financial security of local residents. The Chelsea Collaborative made headlines outside of the city for returning financial support from a funder who may have sought to restrict the grassroots advocacy group’s efforts to support gay rights. Roca, a youth development organization that focuses on proven risk young men, was one of three selected by the State to lead a groundbreaking “pay for success” initiative. Instead of funding an agency and hoping for performance, the initiative rewards agencies for success by using a portion of the money otherwise saved through averting incarceration or other negative outcomes.

What’s next:  Numerous CBOs will be working with the City on an expanded initiative to address drugs in the community from a public health perspective.

What you may not have known:  The City provides little in the way of financial support to CBOs. What dollars that are granted go to direct programming, like summer jobs and community cleaning services.

9.  Top feds visit Chelsea

Background:  US Senator John Kerry brought US Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske to Chelsea for a drug discussion with City Manager Jay Ash, Police Chief Brian Kyes and their peers from surrounding communities.  U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was at The Neighborhood Developers to learn more about CONNECT and to address national labor issues. U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women Acting Director Bea Hanson visited HarborCOV to share information on federal and local efforts to combat domestic violence.

Result:  The visits strengthened the connection between local government and CBO officials with federal leaders.

What’s next:  The City’s emerging community drug strategy is expected to get a boost from involvement by the U.S. Drug Czar.

What you may not have known:  The City receives little direct federal funding, as Chelsea does not have a big enough population to qualify for such funding. Thus, the City must apply for grant programs from the federal government or funds passed through state government for local programmatic needs.

8.  Chelsea highlighted on television

Background:  Not all of Chelsea’s coverage on local television was negative. Channel 5’s “Chronicle” and Fox 25’s “Zip Trips” made their ways to Chelsea to highlight many of the positives Chelsea has to offer.

Result:  The favorable features helped to improve the city’s overall image, while showcasing local organizations, businesses, officials and residents.

What’s next:  The City is considering a follow-up public relations campaign to build upon the positive coverage by those two highly regarded programs.

What you may not have known:  Chelsea was once the feature of a less than flattering “60 Minutes” segment the dealt with the City going into State receivership in 1991. One can still catch that segment on the Internet’s YouTube website. The Chelsea Record and its editor Joshua Resnek is also featured in that segment as well.

7.  Labor unrest

Background:  The Chelsea Police Patrolman’s Union took its contract battle with the City public, writing letters to the editor, testifying before City Council meetings, dropping informational “tickets” on car windshields and even holding protest signs at the Zip Trip airing. The union, which is separate from the Police Superior Officer’s Union, even went as far as to issue a report that Chelsea was among, if not the most crime-riddled community in the country.

Result:  No contract has been agreed upon and the sides are not believed to be engaged in negotiations at this time. The City is close to agreements with several other bargaining units, though.

What’s next:  Stalled contract talks could restart as a result of other unions signing contracts or through a mediation or arbitration process.

What you may not have known:  It is not unusual for public sector collective bargaining contracts to expire without successor agreements in place, especially during difficult financial times when resources to fund raises are scarce. In Chelsea, each of the eight non-school bargaining units has been working without a contract for more than two years.

6.  Ethanol trains

Background:  Global Oil proposed to deliver ethanol to its Revere facility via train. To do so, train cars, as many as 60 at a time, would travel through numerous communities, including Chelsea. The Chelsea Collaborative and City officials partnered to fight the proposal, citing safety concerns about the extremely volatile, alcohol-based product travelling through densely populated areas.

Result:  Local leaders lobbied and were able to generate support from other communities to fight the proposal. What may have otherwise been a routine public hearing before the State on the proposal was met with a packed auditorium of opposition at Revere City Hall. The Chelsea legislative delegation won a legislative amendment that now requires that a public safety study be undertaken before the State can issue the necessary permits for the ethanol shipments, dubbed “train bombs” by local advocates, to be authorized.

What’s next:  The State is coordinating an advisory group to review submissions on the safety of ethanol shipped by train. That advisory group will convene next week and will take a month to reach its findings.

What you may not have known:  There was another ethanol train derailment and spill this past Sunday, that one in southern Illinois.

5. Suffolk Downs officially enters the casino derby

Background:  Although just outside the municipal borders, the official filing by Suffolk Downs for a full casino license could have a dramatic impact on Chelsea. That is, if Suffolk secures the license. One license can be issued in the eastern region of the state. While Suffolk has long been known to be interested in securing the license from the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to build a $1 billion resort-style casino at the race track that has hosted legalized gambling on Route 1A for the last 75 years, others are looking elsewhere in Eastern Massachusetts for rival locations. Most recently, such a site was identified in Everett, although the potential proponent of that location, casino-mogul Steve Wynn, has yet to formally file a pre-application.

Result:  Both the Suffolk Downs and Everett locations put Chelsea into a position to negotiate a “surrounding community” agreement to mitigate any impacts and maximize any benefits that may be associated with a casino so close to the city’s boundaries. City Manager Jay Ash convened numerous meetings with local stakeholders to discuss what their concerns and hopes might be if a casino was to locate near Chelsea.

What’s next:  The Gaming Commission still must issue the procedures for a full application to be submitted, judged and approved. In the meantime, Ash and City Councillor Matt Frank have begun formal negotiations with Suffolk Downs on the surrounding community agreement.

What you may not have known:  There were at least two proposals to locate riverboat casino operations in Chelsea over the last 30 years. Those proposals were never advanced beyond concepts. Most recently, there have been several interested casino operators who have scoured Chelsea for potential casino venues to compete with the Suffolk Downs proposal. None of those searches has resulted in a bona fide site being identified.

4.  Immigration news

Background:  Federal policy both comforted and concerned local immigration advocates this past year. In a move that was roundly criticized by advocates, the Secure Communities initiative was enacted here in Massachusetts. Under Secure Communities, the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Department (ICE) utilizes local arrest reports to prioritize the removal of criminal aliens, those who pose a threat to public safety and repeat immigration violators. Advocates are concerned that the policy will lead local law enforcement officials to seek out the undocumented and, together with ICE, deport otherwise law abiding residents. The good news for immigration advocates was the announcement of a program to allow undocumented young persons who have been living in the country for years without any criminal violations to qualify for legal status and work permits.

Result:  The Chelsea Police Department has complied with state and federal mandates and begun reporting all arrests to the federal system. ICE then decides if undocumented arrestees meet the standard for federal detention and deportation. No violations of that standard have been raised so far about arrests in Chelsea, indicating that advocate concerns may have been unwarranted. Numerous meetings were held for young persons wishing to take advantage of the Obama Administration policy to allow them to gain status. The School Department, for example, was inundated with records requests by present and former students wishing to establish the necessary residency longevity to qualify for the program.

What’s next:  Local immigration advocates are gearing up to join what is anticipated to be a national coalition to support a potential Obama Administration initiative to address the country’s long-time immigration debate. It is believed that the Obama Administration will push for an amnesty law that would benefit thousands of local residents.

What you may not have known:  Chelsea has been home to illegal aliens for more than a century. Waves of immigration as far back as the late 1800s resulted in Chelsea developing the reputation as a sanctuary for persons entering America, beginning with European immigrants who fueled the Industrial Revolution at the turn of 19th to 20th Centuries.

3.  Development continues

Background:  Chelsea’s reputation for economic development was enhanced with the completion of one project, the start of another and the announcement that a third had been finally approved. All those projects are in the City’s urban renewal district; a fact that further indicates how critical the City’s aggressive efforts have been to promote Chelsea’s development potential.

Result:  The Residence Inn by Marriott has replaced what was once a heavy truck repair yard. One North of Boston, a 230-unit, market-rate, rental development has broken ground on what were once parcels occupied by marginal industrial uses and blighting buildings. And perhaps the biggest development to ever be proposed in the city and what City Manager Jay Ash has called a “game changer” cleared numerous hurdles and was announced as officially coming to Chelsea. That project, the regional FBI headquarters, is slated for parcels that once hosted junk cars, used motor warehouses and buildings whose sidings were literally blowing off in high winds. The three combined projects could increase the local tax base by as much as 5 percent, translating into $1.5 million in new annual revenues on properties that were contributing about $200,000 a year under their former uses.

What’s next:  The City is still awaiting word on the FBI groundbreaking. In the meantime, the City is working on two new hotel projects. The combination of property tax, room excise tax, meals tax, good jobs, national investment that upgrades the city’s reputation and relatively few municipal service requirements are reasons why the City favors hotel development.

What you may not have known:  Under City Manager Jay Ash, more than 20 major projects have resulted in more than $700 million of investment to flow to Chelsea. No community north of Boston has a comparable record.

2.  Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) fallout and stability

Background:  The investigation continued into the various allegations revealed in late 2011 about then CHA Director Michael McLaughlin’s stewardship of the local agency. Those allegations include financial misappropriation, false reporting, record deletion and political cronyism. A grand jury was convened and may be continuing to review the information collected by several investigating agencies.

Result:  A new board of directors was appointed in early January, which led to the expiration of the receivership order that was put in place to start the transition of the housing authority into responsible management. New Director Al Ewing has both fought with the new board over his own contract and worked with that very same board to do a good job stabilizing CHA operations. McLaughlin’s request for a pension has been held up by State pension officials pending the results of the various investigations and any indictments that may follow.

What’s next:  Indictments are expected to be handed down on McLaughlin’s actions, although a timetable for those indictments and any other persons who may be indicted for their roles in the scandal are only known by prosecutors at this time.

What you may not have known:  A review by the Obama Administration found that numerous housing authority directors were receiving excessive pay, including $400,000 and 600,000 for the heads of the Philadelphia and Los Angeles Housing Authorities, respectively. New federal and state regulations have been put into place to curb such excesses and improve upon reporting requirements by independent public housing authorities.

1.  Starbucks opens!

Background:  At the Starbucks opening in June, City Manager Jay Ash said that not a public discussion about development would go by without at least one person asking when a Starbucks was coming to Chelsea.

Result:  While not the biggest building, largest employer or greatest taxpayer to come upon the scene in 2012, the Seattle-based chain’s Mystic Mall opening signified to many that a new era had arrived in Chelsea. Hundreds of daily customers do gladly agree. More so, Ash says the chain’s appearance in Chelsea has raised some eyebrows among those who were overlooking Chelsea’s development potential and evolution as a community.

What’s next:  The Mystic Mall is fully occupied and is a strong draw for shoppers and diners. Look for the City and the property owner, the DeMoula’s family, to announce plans for an even more impressive third phase of development in the future.

What you may not have known:  There are eight Dunkin’ Donuts shops in Chelsea.

Certainly, there were other big news stories in Chelsea during the year, some which may be more compelling to individual readers than the dozen referenced above.

Two homicides impacted families and disrupted neighborhoods. Other notable deaths included former City Clerk John Dalis, former City Councillor Marilyn Portnoy and former BU President and Chelsea/BU Partnership champion John Silber.

A go ahead by the State to study the replacement of the Clark Avenue School caught the attention of many. State grants allowed for a new park to open in the Box District and another to begin design in Cary Square, while an existing park, Washington Park in Prattville, went under construction.

President Barrack Obama and Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren garnered a larger share of votes here than they did in the totals, and Representative Eugene O’Flaherty easily won re-election. Most recently, a toughest in the nation ban on trans fats has stirred up a controversy and will not be initially implemented in 2013.

As 2012 turns into 2013, many are hopeful that the signs of progress will lead to a safer, healthier and more prosperous community. While that still remains to be seen, one thing is for sure: there is unlikely to be a shortage of news to cover in a busy city like Chelsea.

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