HATS OFF TO SOUTHBRIDGE

Lease Signed for Defense Department Training Center

By John Ryan

Evening News Staff

Taken from The Southbridge Evening News dated Monday, April 3, 2000:

SOUTHBRIDGE - Ted Kennedy knew he had to talk to Bill Clinton right away, if the American Optical Co. Defense Department project was to be saved.It was late in the evening on March 12, 1993.that morning, then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin had pulled the plug on plans for a 4,000-job DOD accounting center recently awarded to Southbridge.Only the president could reverse Aspin’s decision.Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy was one of the few people who could call the President of the United States at 11 p.m. and get him to listen to a plea to change what the Secretary of Defense had done.

 

The story had begun 11 months earlier, in April 1992, when Southbridge town officials and the Tri-Community Area Chamber of Commerce entered Southbridge in the national DOD competition.Dubbed “the little town that could,” it won.On this night, however, it was about to lose.

 

It came down to a late-night Washington phone call.

 

Kennedy told the story of that call to the crowd during public ceremonies on Friday, March 31, moments before the lease was signed for the Southbridge Defense Department Executive Management Training Center.The area behind the former American Optical Co. Main Plant held 400 people there to see the documents signed.

 

“I got on the phone and told the president just how important this center was to Southbridge, to Massachusetts and to the nation,“ Kennedy said.“I said that we needed a Defense Department facility, and the Southbridge proposal had won the nationwide competition (for a DOD accounting center).I told him that he had the authority to site a center in Southbridge.”

 

Apparently, Clinton was impressed.

 

“The president ordered the decision to be reviewed the next morning at 8:30 a.m.,” the senator said.

 

When Kennedy finished talking to the president, he called Congressman Richard Neal.The Springfield Democrat had worked almost as hard as Kennedy on the DOD project for the last eight years.Neal was also on hand in Southbridge on Friday.

 

“I got a phone call at my Washington apartment from Senator Kennedy at 1:30 in the morning.He told me that he’d just spoken to the president and that we were still alive,” Neal said.

 

The review ordered by the president led to the DOD deciding in May 1994 to site a management training facility at the former American Optical campus, now known as the Southbridge Business Center.

 

The proposed 4,000-job center was never built anywhere in the country.

 

Kennedy and Neal were the keynote speakers Friday morning, when the 20-year lease was signed by the government and AO for the $84 million project.

 

Southbridge Town Council Chairman Laurent McDonald called Friday “the greatest day of my life.This town will grow again because of this center.”

 

General contractor John Moriarty & Associates of Winchester will oversee the construction of the 315,000-square-foot center, which will include a 204-room hotel, conference center and secure government offices and training facilities.

The center is scheduled to open Nov. 1, 2001, said John Soursourian, vice president of Franklin Realty Associates, of Boston, the company that manages the business center for the owners, AO Capital Corp., of Greenwich, Conn.

Under the terms of the lease, the government will pay AO $10.2 million the first year, with a 3.5 percent annual increase for the next 19 years thereafter.

 

The hotel will employ up to 200 people, while the government will employ 150 or so.

The Defense Department will use the hotel and conference center 38 weeks a year, with an average of 180 senior DOD managers staying at the hotel and receiving training in two-week segments.Any public facilities not being used by the government will be available for rent by the public.

Demolition is just days away.

“We’ll start asbestos removal on Wednesday,” Soursourian said.“We assume it will take about five weeks to take out the asbestos.About half way through that process, we’ll start demolition of the old building.”

The 420,000-square-foot former AO Main Plant has been largely vacant for more than 20 years.Soursourian said they will keep the building’s 650 foot Mechanic Street facade, with its five stair towers, and the circa 1903 clock tower building, with the former AO executive offices.

The towers and the offices will be made into hotel rooms.

 

“I have mixed feelings about the demolition of a historic old building like this,” he said, “but the building was designed for the single industrial use by the AO and that just isn’t what we need it for.The thing that finally led to us deciding to tear it down was the state’s revision in 1995 and ‘96 of the seismic code, dealing with earthquakes.The changes we would have had to make to the old brick structure would have been just too costly.”


 

‘A Model for the World’

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Civilian Personnel Policy Dianne Disney was on hand as well, to explain what the training center will do.

“When we won the Cold War, defense spending declined.We’ve had to deal with billions of dollars in cuts.that means that the people who remain will have to be able to do more things at more levels,” she said.

“Over time we’ll be sending 3,000 of the department’s top managers here, to Southbridge, for training in the top jobs.These will be the important leaders, taking 10 to 20 graduate courses taught right here by the best teachers.This will be a model educational center for the country and for emerging democracies throughout the world.”

Kennedy touched upon the same theme.

“This is really the best, here in Southbridge,” he said.“There won’t be a finer program like it anywhere in the country.This will be an extremely vital and important center for our national defense.”

 

‘Long, Complicate and Difficult’

When the lobbying effort started eight years ago, nobody expected it would take this long.Lease negotiations dragged on for years.

“The process was long, complicated and difficult and it shouldn’t have been,” Kennedy said, “but the people of this community responded, and the spirit of Southbridge won the day.This is really your day and your nation’s day.This center will make a great difference in your lives and in your grandchildrens’ lives and for the United States of America.”
 

Neal reached back into Greek mythology to describe the lobbying effort that took the better part of a decade.

“I’m reminded of the story of Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a bolder up a hill over and over again.Ted Kennedy and I were honored to roll that boulder up the hill for Southbridge,” he said.

Neal praised the people of the community, who sent literally tens of thousands of letters, postcards and petition signatures to Washington, keeping up the pressure.

 

“None of you ever backed away,” he told the crowd.“I don’t know what you think of me, but I have never felt closer to all of you.”

People at the gathering were pleased to see the lobbying process finally at an end.

Southbridge Town Manager Michael Coughlin called the lease signing “a promise made and a promise kept.This is about two public servants, Neal and Kennedy.”

Coughlin, who was appointed town manager March 27, worked closely with the chamber from the beginning, lobbying, traveling to Washington, getting anyone with influence to listen.

 

Chamber President Robert Chartier said he “always knew deep down that the DOD center would come.It will increase morale, revitalize Southbridge and help the downtown.”

Despite his optimism, he admitted to being dismayed that everything took so long.

“I guess I learned how cumbersome lobbying is,” he said.“Civic classes in school never talk about lobbying.”

The chamber’s Edward Galonek, Sr., another veteran of years of lobbying, said “this is the day the town comes back.We expected a triple and we hit a home run.We went from being a little town to being a model for the whole world.”

 
 
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