By Erica Plouffe
Evening News Staff


Photos by Dick Whitney - taken at June 16 Dedication ceremonies (White canopy in front of planned home)

Article Taken from Evening News, Thursday, June 1, 2000:

SOUTHBRIDGE - People used to go to the former Vet's Cab building on Main Street if they wanted to leave town, but thanks to the efforts of local officials, one of Southbridge's oldest buildings could soon become a destination.

The future Optical Museum of America and tourist center will soon call the former Vet's Cab building at 300-308 Main St., its home, according to Town Manager Michael Coughlin. The town purchased the dilapidated building in 1998, but many people were upset that the estimate to renovate the 1826 brick structure could run as high as $500,000. Coughlin gave the Town Council the news during its May 31 meeting.

"The optical museum and visitor's center was originally planned down at the AO complex," said Coughlin, who, along with Southbridge Community Development Director Charlene Gravel, came up with the idea late last month, after attending a state Department of Housing and Community Development seminar on downtown revitalization. Coughlin and Gravel wanted a focus to be placed on the downtown area, so people would have a reason to go there.

"We wanted to bring people beyond the DOD," said Coughlin, referring to students expected to attend classes at the Department of Defense training facility being built at the former American Optical complex on Mechanic Street. "We wanted to have something to bring them downtown."

Coughlin mentioned other developments happening at the future training site on Mechanic Street, saying there was an exploration of an "entertainment-hospitality facility" possibly in the works. He declined to elaborate, saying it was too early in the negotiations to discuss it publicly.

The plan, which is at least two years away from completion, calls for students at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School to perform the construction work on the old building.

Coughlin added that Congressman Richard Neal, D-Springfield, will come to town for a ribbon-cutting ceremony on June 16 to kick off the project, along with others involved.

Coughlin hopes the town will receive federal money to get the museum and tourist center started. UMass Professor John Mullen will be touring the town on Wednesday, June 7, to provide recommendations on how the downtown could be improved, he said.

"It's very much like what UMass Professor Jack Ahern did with the Quinebaug River, only Mullen will help grow our downtown revitalization efforts," he said.

The location of the proposed site is historically relevant as well, said Coughlin. The building is next to the site of William Beecher's Old Spec Shop, at the corner of Main and Central streets, where he began to make silver eyeglass frames in 1833. The shop was the forerunner of the former American Optical Co., started in 1869.

"The block is where the AO originally started," said Coughlin. "That's where William Beecher had his first shop, where it all began. And now we'll have an optical museum married with a tourist center in the same area." Coughlin said he's noticed people in town are proud of their local heritage.

"There was a lot of interest in the bricks from the AO demolition, we got a lot of calls from people," he said. "People's history is so important to them. It would be great to see residents come just to check it out. They can bring their grandchildren to the museum and explain where they worked and what they used to do."

Construction crews began the renovations at the former Vet's Cab last month, through a state grant secured by Gravel.

"Thanks to Charlene, we have the building. She spearheaded the effort, getting the stabilization grants," he said. "The AO will donate its collection, the Quinebaug-Shetucket National Heritage Corridor will provide the seed money and John Lafleche, the business manager at Bay Path, arranged for students to provide labor to build the museum and visitor's center, and a catalyst to provide a revitalized downtown."


Two universities will be setting up educational learning centers in town in the near future. The arrival of a UMass-Southbridge Campus is also on its way, Coughlin said. The University of Massachusetts will lease 3,000 square feet above the Department of Defense project.

"It will provide two classrooms at the AO for what we're beginning to call UMass-Southbridge Campus," he said. "That's in addition to the staff they've committed to the Department of Defense."

Quinsigamond Community College is also expected to also establish its own facility in the downtown area, said Coughlin, in what's now called the Edwards Block Strand offices.

"It will be a downtown job training area. They want to get 10 computers in there, and train people on them, as well as train people in the fiber optics industry," he said. He said that training for those who might be employed in the new hotel is also in the works.

"It's one-stop shopping for job training, education and another interest for the downtown and building upon the community," he said. Coughlin said the effort to bring a facility such as this to Southbridge began with State Rep. Mark Carron, who toured area companies to see what types of employees they need, and what skills they would have to know to be a successful employee.

Coughlin said that those who have worked hard to improve the economic state of downtown Southbridge, such as Town Councilor Dale Johonnett, will see their hard work come to fruition.

"For a number of years we've been working with the downtown, trying to do revitalization work. This shows that hard work done by people in the past will soon pay off," he said.

An additional $10,000 to produce a marketing videotape and brochure of Southbridge to attract new business is expected to be placed in Gravel's 2001 budget.

"We're giving her the tools to launch the marketing of Southbridge to companies in a professional manner. It's easy to see what's happening in town if you drive through it, but how do you convince a board of directors in California that Southbridge is the place to do business in?" said Coughlin. "We've seen great interest in Southbridge since the DOD lease-signing. It's what we predicted."


Preserve Memory of AO

The old (very old, in fact) Vet's Cab building at 300-308 Main St. may become an optical history museum, the Optical Museum of America. It sounds like a great idea. Don't laugh just yet. Consider that within two years literally thousands of professional, adult students with money in their pockets will be trekking through Southbridge when they're here taking classes at the new DOD center. It will give them a place to relax for an afternoon - and get them closer to spending some of their money downtown.

Sure, an optical history museum isn't Disney World, but it will be one of those small, interesting attractions that southern Worcester County could be flavored with over the next few years, as part of the Quinebaug-Shetucket National Heritage Corridor. The idea is to have a number of attractions in the region, so tourists will want to come here for a few days and see the sights. Why not try to keep Old Sturbridge Village visitors here, spending money, for even a day or two longer than before? Everybody's a winner.

Besides, we owe it to ourselves, our grandparents and our grandchildren to preserve our unique optical industrial heritage. Literally tens of thousands of people spent decades making lenses and related products, right here in Southbridge. Our young people might not know that American Optical Co. was the largest eyeglass and lens maker on earth for more than a century.

The world looked to Southbridge for glasses and lenses. We owe it to the workers who made that true to preserve what they created. Losing their memories would be far worse than the demolition of the AO Main Plant.

Pretty much every day, including today, you'll find at least one obituary in The News for a retired AO employee. If we don't preserve their histories now, we'll wake up one morning and find it's gone forever.

Consider a parallel phenomenon: did anyone stop and think 20 or 30 years ago that our nation's World War II veterans would be dying at the rate of 1,500 a day by the year 2000?

The Optical Museum of America will be dedicated to what the workers did, how they contributed. It's not going to be a place with dusty pictures of long-dead captains of industry hung on the walls. Many historians today have foregone the old "great man" approach to history, that studied only the generals and the presidents, never the privates and the street sweepers. The people planning the Optical Museum of America know that it was the people on the production lines that made the real difference. This place will house their memories.

And, even better, the building itself has a history. The first wooden frame was erected there in 1826, with brick being built around it later.

Next door, at the corner of Main and Central streets, William Beecher began making silver eyeglass frames in his Old Spec Shop, in 1833. The Spec Shop building is long gone, but it's fitting the museum should sit alongside where it used to be.

We'll be standing in line the day the place opens. We hope to see you there as well.

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