An Interview with Gardner MA Mayor Michael Nicholson 4-28-22

Gardner Magazine Publisher Werner Poegel asked Mayor Nicholson about various topics, including the recent issuance of the Executive Summary of the Police Report.   Those questions and answers appear in a separate article entitled: “Gardner PD – Next Chapter”  CLICK HERE.

Gardner Mayor Nicholson spent a considerable amount of time thoughtfully answering questions about various topics affecting the citizens of Gardner Massachusetts including recent meetings, Downtown trash receptacles, paving projects, pothole reporting, MART bus stops, attracting business to Gardner, the City Centennial, Arts, Music, Recreation, Gardner Academics, bringing furniture manufacturers to Gardner, Gardner attracting business, the Mill Street Corridor, lawsuits against Gardner, Open Meeting Law, Package gate, The Mayor’s personal goals and future, evolving as Mayor, and partners in the community.

James Boone and the Monty Tech School Committee Appointment

Poegel: What do you think went wrong that contributed to the recent confusion over James Boone and the Monty Tech School Committee appointment?

Nicholson: “I think a lot of it is just a breakdown in communication. The email that was sent by the clerks office at Monty Tech… the question that was asked was –do you know when the next Monty Tech appointment is – we have one every even year.  The question that was related was, do you know when Jim Boone’s seat is up?  Just a breakdown of when the next joint convention is versus this specific individual…It was honest to God just a breakdown in communication.”

City Councilors and Meetings

Poegel: Sometimes Mayor there is criticism of City Councilors remaining quiet during the discussion allowed on various items which come before the Council.  Do you think it would increase public viewing of meetings if there was more discussion, questions, and sometimes even more disagreement among the Councilors?

Nicholson: “I feel like I need to start by saying that they’re a different branch of the government.  I think each individual councilor has a responsibility to review materials and ask questions when they feel needed, when things come up if they feel something needs to be said. I think that’s up to each individual councilor to contemplate for themselves – you’re put in this  position, kinda defines your time there, why you wanted to be in office to begin with.”

Downtown Trash Receptacles

Poegel: Recently an extra 10 grand was approved for Downtown trash receptables due to a price increase.    In the end, how many trash containers is Gardner getting and what will be the final cost per each of them?

Nicholson: “Let me pull up the cost.  I actually have that information right in front of me.  We currently have about 30 trash containers out in the Downtown now.  In speaking with the Health Department, the DPW – were some places getting used?  In that little area where the benches are, there are 2 different trash containers within feet of each other. .. We’re going with one individual trash can there instead of having the two there.  So places like that where they were in close proximity to each other, but we know places like Bullnose Park and by different pizza places in the City, those were not reduced.  There were a couple on Connors Street that were probably never emptied because that had 1 or 2 things, like a plastic bag or something in them.  So it was just places like that were they weren’t being used that got us cut down to 21.   The total cost…let me just get that…I have that from the City Auditor’s Department, ….it’ll be around $70,000.”

Paving Projects

Poegel:  So recently about 2 million bucks was approved due to unforeseen price increases on paving projects. Now, that doesn’t cover it all, so will there be more requests for funds to complete more needed paving around the City and where will those monies come from?

Nicholson: “So that increase was put it because that were was directly linked and tied in to the water main infrastructure improvement project. That was all related to the water enterprise account.   So we are going to be receiving an additional $597,000 through the Chapter 90 program.  That’s something we receive every year. …That formula is the number of miles of road over the population of each city or town.  We’ve got just around 100 miles of roadway…so that’s something we can rely on every year…inflation has increased about 30 percent between 2012 and now.   Purchasing power with that 600 thousand dollars has decreased severely. ….The legislature did approve winter recovery funds…now that is an additional 300 thousand dollars that we’ll be receiving to go back and basically fix roads that are negatively impacted due to things in the winter, potholes, lines being faded due to plowing and salt…roads that are in disrepair from winter. So really right now we’re getting another 900 thousand dollars from the state. We always put in about $100,000 per year in our budget and then once free cash is certified every October, we put in 5% of free cash towards supplementing our paving fund.   There’s general sources that we receive paving funds from that we plan on going forward with as well.”

Pothole Reporting

Poegel:  I notice something unique that Gardner has,… in that  you actively solicit people in the community to report potholes.  I was just curious how many potholes get reported on any annual basis?

Nicholson: “You know I wish more people used it to be honest.  …I think we get probably 30, a  year.  But we’ll get a lot more people who go to Facebook and say, ‘hey I saw a pothole over here, how come the city hasn’t done anything about this’ …and if we’ll reach out to them, 9 out of 10 times did you report it, no I posted about it on Facebook.  Facebook is an excellent tool for getting information out to the public and I’m very happy about that, ….but we’re not able to monitor social media on a 24/7 basis..  We’ve posted the link to report potholes…please do continue to fill out that report, if you submit it, we 100 percent will see it.

Let Us know What Needs Fixing

Poegel: “ Is what you’re saying in a simple fashion, if you want us to fix something, maybe you need to let  us know it needs fixing?”

Nicholson: “Yeah, yeah.  We patrol what we can…and if we miss something, we want to make sure we get to it.”

MART Bus Stops

Poegel: “Recently you announced that a new MART bus stop will be available soon in front of the old Prospect Street School in South Gardner.   Assuming for a moment, you had unlimited grant funds available, …you could have as many as you wanted, which were earmarked only for new MART bus stops, where would you put more stops?”

Nicholson: “I’d like to see more, right now we’re really concentrated in the Downtown area.   We have the one stop that goes to Walmart as well. I really think South Gardner does have a lot more people in it in ward 5…it stops at Mount Wachusett Community College, it stops downtown. Everything that’s happening in the Timpany Boulevard area with Timpany Crossroads and Timpany Plaza… I think rear Main Street could use one.  I don’t think it’s just adding new stops.  It’s also re-evaluating where our stops currently are to see which are used more often than others and are they in the spots they should be in.  With a bunch of new housing developments happening, with the 56  units which are gonna be built, do we need to look at adding another one over there too?   We just look at if there is a quick enough pace in between buses.  That’s something I look forward looking at over the next year.  The MART Advisory Board is made up of the elected officials from the towns that are members of the MART community and the Mayors of Gardner, Fitchburg, and Leominster are the 3 officers of MART’s board on a rotating basic and my year as its chairperson is coming up, so that’ s something I do plan to look at through that position. “

Attracting Business in Gardner

Poegel:  You spoke recently on Gardner’s ability to attract business even during the pandemic of the past couple of years.    Do you have a feel for what types of businesses would be best received in Gardner and can you tell me what methods are currently used to identify potential prospects and pursue those leads?

Nicholson: “I can tell you the message we’re using is that the City is willing to invest in you so it’s OK to invest in us.  People are looking at places right now, at least from the conversations that we’ve had, that I’m willing to go somewhere, but is it worth my time? Is it worth my effort?  Am I going to be successful there because I’m not just shooting something into the dark….if we can show that we are willing to work with people, and invest in ourselves like we’ve done with putting in the new water lines and paving more roads that we have before, reaching out to partners at the state to see if we can get direct partnerships with these developers to come in and bring new people in to the area to increase the demand that’s there.  That’s how we work forward.”

The Mayor continued: “We’re in conversations right now with a bakery, a coffee shop, a couple different boutiques and clothing stores, 3 or 4 new restaurants are looking for locations to open up in the Chair City. So it’s really what can we get back into these locations that’ll meet the need of an increased population.  And really make Downtown Gardner a walking downtown, and getting away from, this is what we’ve always done.  What didn’t we have before that we can use now.”

Gardner’s City Centennial

Poegel:  Now, Gardner’s been around since 1785.  It’s coming up on 100 years as a City on January 1, 2023.  Any plans to put together some sort of a shindig or celebration?”

Nicholson: “ That is in the works actually.  We’re going to put out an all call soon asking for people who would be interested in getting involved in planning our City Centennial.   So it’s something, probably June, around Gardner’s 1785 birthday that will launch our 100th anniversary to see what we can plan for next year.”

Arts, Music, Recreation, Sports

Poegel: Mayor you’ve been a proponent in Gardner for the Arts and for Music.  What changes would you like to see if any in the Gardner Recreation realm.

Nicholson. “So arts and music I’ve always been a big proponent of as someone who used to be in the music programs in our schools.  Being in band made it so I picked UMass.  When I was picking colleges, I was torn between Assumption College Worcester and UMass Amherst.   I had until 4 o’clock on May 1st to make my decision and I made my decision at 4 o’clock and I’ll never forget that.  And one of the things that pulled me to UMass instead of Assumption is they had a band program.  Assumption had what I was looking for, but UMass had what I was looking for and then some. But it’s also where I made my closest friends.  I was just at my best friend’s wedding as his best man last  year who I met by being in Band.  That’s something that was for me, because I was never a big athletic kid…That wasn’t my realm there, but that’s someone else’s realm.”

Elementary Band Program, Drama, Choral

The Mayor continued: “I’m hoping that we can continue to grow our Elementary band program.  But if someone doesn’t stick with Band because playing an instrument isn’t for them, I hope they just stay involved in some type of music., you know our outreach programs in our drama clubs, our choral programs.”

  Art Department

The Mayor continued: “And if music just isn’t for you, seeing we’ve done a lot with our Art department through the Williams Rockwell. We’ve purchased a new kiln and new display cases so our children can have their own art shows and really show off their work that way. The new classrooms, for the art classrooms at the new Elementary School have built-in display case windows so that every time students at the Elementary School do art projects those can be immediately displayed for every student at the school as well.” 

Creating a Sense of Pride

The Mayor continued: “It’s something that…creates a sense of pride, to express myself this way and it turned in to this nice thing.   We were able to play this sonnet together for this recording of the concert.  I was able to put my mind to it and I was able to mold this sculpture out of clay or paint this picture.  It’s ways for some students to express themselves just like our athletic students do on the sports field and just get themselves out there and  break way from the reading, writing, arithmetic mind and get in to your creative side of things.”

Growing Recreational and Athletic FacilitiesBuild Back Feeder Programs

The Mayor continued: “I do want to grow our recreational facilities and athletic facilities. That’s why we’re undergoing the $650,000 project at the field program so that the Athletic Department can get more students in and increase the clinics that they’re offering to students during the summer, but also draw those students in so if they liked the clinic they attended during the recreation program they can continue that when they get to Middle School and High School and grow those programs there.  We weren’t able to field enough kids to do a baseball team last year. It’s because we don’t have the feeder programs to it….My goal is to help build back the feeder programs that we had.  Students can have the option so when they get to Middle School and High School they can find themselves in what they want to do no matter what they did because they had that chance to try new things as  younger kids.”

Gardner MA Academic Progress

Poegel:  The School Committee in Gardner recently documented that Gardner has made substantial academic progress.  The winter reading program was quite a standout.  How do you feel about how this has affected students who opt in to Gardner instead of opting out through the School Choice program to other towns?

Nicholson: “I think it directly correlates to the fact that we’ve seen a big decrease in the number of students who are leaving Gardner.  …There’s always going to be people that we have to have School Choice out, and anyone in my position who says any location’s not going to have people looking elsewhere just isn’t being realistic. But our goal is to try to minimize that as much as possible.  There’s been approximately a 15 percent decrease in the number of students who are choicing out than we had 10 years ago to now.  …It just shows that we have a strong academic curriculum in which students can be successful after they graduate.”

Bringing Furniture Manufacturing Back – Realistic or Pipe Dream?

Poegel:  Now speaking of things that we’d like to keep in Gardner.  Is it realtistic to think of getting more furniture manufacturers back in Gardner, would  you support those efforts, and how would we do it?

Nicholson: “I 100 percent support it.  I think we do it like any other business.  We’re willing to work with whoever is willing to come here.   And I think there’s an extra selling point associated with it.  Everything we have here says Chair City on it.   So it you can play off of that, I think you can make your business grow.  That said, do I think we’re going to have as many chair factories as we did back in the day?  I think that’s an unrealistic view there.  I think we can certainly try to attract new furniture companies, but whether we can rely on them coming back is a completely different story.  Relying on a pipe dream that we’re going to have all these chair factories come back just isn’t realistic, but we certainly can try to attract some with our regular economic development.”

Poegel:  But we could start with one.

Nicholson: “We can always start with one.  It just seems for a while people would say, we have to have everyone come back.  If we could get one back, I think it would be more than successful here.   It’s definitely something worth looking in to.”

Gardner’s Track Record of Business Success

Poegel: What do you think in general makes Gardner stand out as being more attractive to business than other communities of similar size in the state of Massachusetts?

Nicholson: “I think just looking at the different projects that we’ve had going here.  We’ve shown that we’re willing to invest in people, and that not only makes it so that there is an idea of growth, but we’ve got actual concrete examples of it.  We’ve got 7 new businesses that have opened in the Downtown in the past 6 months.  Added together with the other businesses that have opened in the past two years we’re closer to 20 or 30.  We can show concrete examples of:  We worked with this business and now here they are 2  years later and they’ve grown and succeeded.  On top of that we have our larger companies who been here almost a decade or more, Advanced Cable Ties and Mac Prototype, these businesses have expanded, we’ve got Muscleworks that was here for a decade and then ran out of room so they needed more space.  If you come here, we can show  you that  us willing to work with you to be successful isn’t just a pipe dream, we’ve got concrete examples of what’s proven to be successful. “

The Mill Street Corridor

Poegel: So what’s happening in the Mill Street Corridor?

Nicholson: “ We are currently actively speaking to someone who is interested in the Garbose lot for an athletic facility kind of similar to what you see in Fitchburg with the Game On location.  We ran into some issues with the lease that was happening on the old TetraMed site,… the company had a change in ownership, financial concerns since the pandemic that really pushed that back. 

Lawsuits Against Gardner

Poegel: So regarding lawsuits against Gardner.  Do you think there is a way to reduce them? And has Gardner had more or less over the  years compared to cities of comparable size?  In other words, is it abnormal to have these lawsuits or is it just simply a normal part of being a City and it’s par for the course?

Nicholson: “I’m going to preface this by saying we’ve reached out to other communities because I got curious about that topic too, to be like, how many do you deal with normally? This is really something that every City that  I’ve spoken to and we’ve talked about this at different Mayor’s association meetings too because all the mayors in the state do meet on a monthly basis.  They all have the same amount that we’re dealing with here on very similar subjects.  And I hate to say it like that because we should be doing everything we can to provide services in a way that the City is protected, working to reduce the things that the City becomes liable for, making sure we’re getting rid of that gray area.  But, sometimes it just becomes unavoidable.  So while we’re doing everything we can to reduce legal issues, sometimes they just come up on their own.  So we are on track with comparable cities, a comparable amount that we’re working with.”

The Water Litigation

Poegel: So a question that comes up often that I see  on Social Media is a probably a difficult one for you to answer due to ongoing litigation, but I’ll ask it anyway.  They ask why is it that the Gardner water and the burner coil issue can’t be discussed. Would you agree or disagree that a proactive approach showing that Gardner is open with and handling the issue with its residents would be let’s say , positive evidence for the City in any upcoming litigation and that any transparency  regarding it could only help it. In other words, doesn’t saying nothing sometimes give the lawsuit more traction rather than less traction?

Nicholson:  “Yeah,I think it’s a double-edged sword.  First of all, we’re working with our insurance company.  So the insurance company’s attorney is the one that is overseeing that lawsuit.  But with that said, with different lawsuits that we have ongoing, there’s always the City with an adverse party. However, our job here at City Hall is still to make sure that we’re doing what’s best and most responsible for the taxpayers, rate payers, everyone.  Individuals who are adverse to any lawsuit against the City , us being open about our strategies and giving away our hand  and showing our hand at the table too early … up front about things before they need to come up in court, are we hurting the taxpayers and rate payers of the City involved in the lawsuit…So every lawsuit that the City, we have to weigh out, it’s not just the people who are in this lawsuit, it’s the 21 thousand people who live in this City.  Our fiduciary responsibility to them as well as the other people who are involved in the lawsuit adverse to us in well.”

Poegel:  So it sounds like an ongoing balancing act.

Nicholson: “It is”

Open Meeting Law and Transparency

Poegel: So with that in mind, there’s all these allegations that Scott Graves makes, right.  Could you address in layman’s terms why in general the Open Meeting Law has not been violated with respect to some of the stuff he’s alleged over time?

Nicholson, “I think a lot of his Open Meeting Law complaints, and I should say Attorney Graves has every right an Open Meeting Law complaint just like any other citizen in the City does, but the basis for some of the complaints that a draft response was made available when the packet got published, that’s being transparent, that’s not a violation of the Open Meeting Law,  just like every other item that goes before the City Council in the packet, …I’m putting up a free cash proposal at the next City Council meeting, our snow and ice deficit…with a letter from me as to why this is being put forward so they can make an educated decision…Everything that the council votes on gets released to the Council and the  public two days before the meeting.  If any councilor has any issues with anything that’s in the packet, they can certainly raise those concerns at the meeting, change language on items, vote to amend and change amounts.  I don’t think that’s a violation of the Open Meeting Law because it’s in the spirit of the Open Meeting Law.  That said, with some other Open Meeting Law complaints that he’s alleged, they seem to not have any backing to them. …The spirit of the Open Meeting Law is that you don’t deliberate behind closed doors.  The information gets released to the public and the councilors are also members of the public.”

Package Gate

Poegel:  Mayor Nicholson,Recently we investigated what we have called package gate, we saw a lot of posting on social media,  involving a particular shipping vendor in Gardner and citizen complaints that packages were simply being left at random locations.  And I’m curious, to your knowledge, has the City of Gardner been a victim of this as well?

Nicholson: “The only time we were a victim of it was when one of our packages got delivered to the Post Office, through that same shipping vendor there. But that’s all been resolved.   The manager of the location that oversees that shipping company did return to us and apologize and said that they were working on correcting all of that.

On a Personal Note

Poegel: On a personal note: Obviously, the Mayor’s job takes a considerable amount of time, but sometimes the public wonders about anyone in political office, does the Mayor have a significant other in his life and do you feel fulfilled on a personal level?

Nicholson:  “I do feel fulfilled.  I love the jobAnd no I don’t currently.”

Future Political Aspirations

Poegel: Given the success you have had as Mayor and some obviously positive communication skills, how long do you think you’d to stay in your role as  Mayor before pursuing other political roles such as running for U.S. Congress, U.S. Senate, or other positions?

Nicholson: “I’ll be here as long as the voters will keep me here.  I love Gardner.  It’s my home.  It’s my community that made me who I am.  I’ll be here as long as the voters are willing to keep me here.”

Evolving as Mayor and Fostering Community Partnerships

Poegel: How do you feel you have evolved since becoming Mayor?

Nicholson: “There’s a lot more going on in the City than I thought when I first ran for office.  I see things more in a larger collaborative picture.  And what I mean by that is, It’s good that the City wants to get involved in certain projects.  But there’s also private sector partners who are wanting to do the same thing.  So rather than having us reinvent the wheel like has been done a couple of times beforehand in previous administrations, reaching out to different community partners to see if it’s worth just supporting their initiatives rather than having us reinvent the wheel here. ….it’s not just can we replicate it, but who can we partner with on this.  The partners we have in the community is something that has grown in the past two years.”