When City Manager Jay Ash was a student at Chelsea High School (CHS), he said he would often think about the All-American City Award.
He said he had read about Somerville winning the award and thought it would be a great morale boost for his hometown were it also to win such an award.
Fast forward “x number” of years ahead, and Chelsea has won two All-American City Awards under Ash’s leadership and has five hotels either built or in the planning stages.
However, the former Planning Director and current City Manager – who will be leaving for a state cabinet post by the end of the year – said none of what has happened here was ever in the plan.
“I really did start thinking about the All-American City Award when I was in high school because Somerville had won it,” he said. “I though about how great it would be for Chelsea to win it because of how down everyone was on the City. I thought about it, but did I ever think it could happen? No. I also used to live on Central Avenue and if you’d have told me back then there would be a hotel going up at the end of the street, I’d have thought you were crazy. When one hotel was built, I would have never thought four more would come behind it. When we designated Everett Avenue as an Urban Renewal District, I would have never thought we’d have gotten an FBI Headquarters there. In all of this, I’d be lying if I said this was the plan.”
Perhaps what was in Ash’s plan was the believe that Chelsea could change and the motivation to prove wrong everyone who believed otherwise.
He recalled a Letter to the Editor in the Chelsea Record shortly after the City began courting hotels for Everett Avenue. The letter writer was very critical of Ash’s plan, and he said he will never forget the words.
“I always remember that,” he said. “I was repulsed by the idea and it motivated me to prove that letter writer wrong.”
That said, when Ash first settled into his Planning Director’s office at City Hall, the odds were long and there were probably more people betting on the side of that letter writer than on the side of Ash.
There was, quite literally, nothing going on and no interest at all in Chelsea. The only interest, he said, was a plan to turn the old Mystic Mall on Everett Avenue into a giant self-storage facility. One of Ash’s first decisions was to turn away that developer, saying the City could do better; and in those times, it was extremely hard for anyone but Ash to believe that Chelsea could do better.
“The opportunities here were so few that the first major proposal I had was to turn Mystic Mall into a giant self-storage facility and I said ‘no,'” he recalled. “We have developed 33 projects here and had $1 billion of investment since that day that I turned away the former owners of the Mystic Mall. I think about how different Everett Avenue might look had I said yes to that. That decision sent a message to the administration that we were going to be better than what the acceptable actions of the past were. Sometimes it’s what you don’t do that is the defining moment and that was as big a moment as any other.”
Following that, Ash designated Everett Avenue as an Urban Renewal Area and that began to turn some heads. In 1999, the Wyndham Hotel showed interest and committed to build on what had been a long-vacant lot with a dumped car on it – a car that has grown infamous in local lore because it had been there so long that it actually had a tree growing through it.
It was the momentum that began the wheels turning on what is today’s Chelsea.
“Once the Wyndham was built, it was easier to have my rhetoric about Chelsea being a great place and to also have evidence of that,” he said. “I’ll never forget the groundbreaking. The rain just would not stop, and we put up a tent and some 200 people came out to see it in the rain. It was like we had lifted this huge burden off our backs.”
As one looks around Chelsea today, they can find a Holiday Inn being built across from Chelsea High and another hotel nearly completed across from the Chelsea Street Bridge. Other hotels are in the works.
Two have been completed and are up and running.
There are residential developments and scores of businesses – particularly in the food industry – that have located here.
All of it points to a change that no one – aside from one homer in the basement of City Hall in the late 1990s – could ever believe would happen.
“In terms of economic development, people look to Chelsea for investment now,” he said. “There’s every reason to believe the things we started here will continue to grow.”