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Williamstown's DIRE Committee Looks to Address Elders' Concerns
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:02PM / Friday, December 03, 2021
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Residents of Proprietors Field and users of the nearby Harper Center say this sidewalk on Church Street presents challenges to people with walkers or mobility scooters.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's diversity committee Monday called on Town Hall to address accessibility and mobility issues on the sidewalk in front of the senior center.
 
Specifically, the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee suggested the town seek funding through the commonwealth's Shared Streets and Spaces Program to modify the sidewalk on the north side of Church Street, in front of the Harper Center and the Proprietors Fields elder housing complex.
 
The initiative grew out of a recent listening session several DIRE Committee members conducted at the Harper Center. They heard a number of concerns, including issues with parking, interpersonal conflicts in the apartment complex and the need for cooling station access during extreme weather.
 
But one of the key takeaways was the need to make the sidewalk accessible, according to committee members Andrew Art, Andrea Bryant and Shana Dixon.
 
"The issue of the sidewalk was mentioned by a few different people," Art said. "There are some areas that are difficult transitions. ... Right in front of the bus stop, there's an area where there's big lip. There's not much of a transition down to the actual street surface level. There's a 2- or 3-inch area where it's not really a curb and it's not really a ramp but an abrupt transition to the street.
 
"I have to say there are worse in Williamstown, by far, then the ones in front of the Harper Center. And, yet, I think these sidewalks really deserve to be [Americans with Disability Act] compliant with curb cuts that connect to a bus stop. They connect across the street to a school. They're used by kids who walk to school as well as a path to navigate the transportation for folks who are living at both Proprietors Fields and Highland Woods behind there."
 
Jeff Johnson, who fills the Select Board's seat on the DIRE Committee, said he would check with the town to see whether that stretch of sidewalk was scheduled for any capital improvements aside from what might be funded by the Safe Shared Streets and Spaces program, which helps municipalities improve public spaces "in support of public health, safe mobility and renewed commerce," according to the state's website.
 
Johnson also noted that the recommendation passed unanimously at Monday's meeting is the kind of "actionable recommendation" that has been sought of the DIRE Committee by members of the Select Board.
 
Dixon stressed that there were less tangible issues confronting older residents of town that came out in the listening session.
 
"I noticed more so the people who didn't feel included about going to the Harper Center," she said. "There were a few people there who didn't feel welcome. ... What I'm trying to do is fix the problem of getting everyone wanting to walk in the same direction on that sidewalk.
 
"I think we need to focus more on the reason why we're here. I understand the sidewalks are a safety issue, and we need to fix that. I want to make sure everyone feels welcome no matter where they want to go."
 
DIRE Committee members noted there was some hesitancy among elder residents to attend one of its events. But, after hearing about the issues that came up in the listening session, nearly a dozen have reached out to say they wished they had attended.
 
The panel Monday discussed a strategy for sending its members back to the Harper Center for more conversations, and Johnson said the committee also should target populations at Highland Woods next door and Sweetwood in South Williamstown.
 
Monday's meeting began with more discussion of issues at the Police Department as members of the committee raised concerns about whether Town Manager Charlie Blanchard would hire a permanent police chief on his own rather than wait until the Select Board find a permanent replacement for Blanchard.
 
Johnson said that while the town charter does give Blanchard that authority, he does not expect Blanchard to "bring forth somebody."
 
The DIRE Committee has in the past recommended the town gather input from community members before hiring either a permanent town manager or a police chief.
 
The former town manager did create an advisory panel to help find an interim police chief earlier this year with the expectation that an interim chief would be brought on board to fill in until a permanent town manager — who presumably would want to hire a permanent chief — could be found.
 
That interim chief search process ended in some controversy when Blanchard last spring elevated then-acting chief Mike Ziemba to the interim position ahead of the first choice identified by the advisory group.
 
Blanchard had come on in the spring with the anticipation that a permanent town manager would be hired by this fall. But the Select Board's initial search process failed to identify a successful candidate.
 
Johnson said Monday that the Select Board's new goal is to hire a permanent town manager by April.
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